In The Afterlight (The Darkest Minds #3)
by Alexandra Bracken
BLACK IS THE COLOR THAT is no color at all.
Black is the color of a child’s still, empty bedroom. The heaviest hour of night—the one that traps you in your bunk, suffocating in another nightmare. It is a uniform stretched over the broad shoulders of an angry young man. Black is the mud, the lidless eye watching your every breath, the low vibrations of the fence that stretches up to tear at the sky.
It is a road. A forgotten night sky broken up by faded stars.
It is the barrel of a new gun, leveled at your heart.
The color of Chubs’s hair, Liam’s bruises, Zu’s eyes.
Black is a promise of tomorrow, bled dry from lies and hate.
I see it in the face of a broken compass, feel it in the numbing grip of grief.
I run, but it is my shadow. Chasing, devouring, polluting. It is the button that should never have been pushed, the door that shouldn’t have opened, the dried blood that couldn’t be washed away. It is the charred remains of buildings. The car hidden in the forest, waiting. It is the smoke.
It is the fire.
Black is the color of memory.
It is our color.
The only one they’ll use to tell our story.
THE SHADOWS GREW LONGER THE farther I walked from the center of the city. I headed west, toward the sinking sun that set the remainder of the day on fire. I hated that about winter—night seemed to reach earlier and earlier into the afternoon. Los Angeles’s smog-stained sky was painted with dark strokes of violet and ash.
Under normal circumstances, I would have been grateful for the additional cover as I navigated the easy grid of surface streets back to our current base. But with the debris from the attack, the installation of military stations and detainment camps, and the congestion of now-useless, abandoned cars fried by the electromagnetic pulse, the face of the city had been altered so dramatically that to go even a half mile through the wreckage was enough to become completely lost. Without the city’s light pollution casting its usual foggy glow, if any of us scouted at night, we had to rely on distant lights from military convoys.
I cast a quick glance around, pressing a hand against my jacket pocket to make sure the flashlight and service pistol were still there; both were courtesy of one Private Morales, and would only be used in absolute emergency. I wasn’t letting anyone pick me up, spot me running through the dark. I had to get back to base.
An hour ago, Private Morales had had the unfortunate luck to cross into my path, coming off her patrol of the freeway alone. I’d been there since before sunrise, positioned behind an overturned car, watching the elevated roadway shimmering like an electric current under a constant flood of artificial light. Every hour, I’d counted the number of tiny uniformed figures moving along the section nearest to me, weaving in and out of the trucks and Humvees lined up bumper to bumper like a secondary barrier. My muscles cramped, but I fought the urge to wait it out somewhere else.
It had been more than worth it. One soldier had been enough to arm me not only with the tools I needed to return to base safely, but also with the knowledge of how we could finally—finally—get the hell out of this damn city.
I looked back and forth twice before climbing over the fallen heap of brick that had once been the face of a bankbranch, and let out a hiss of pain between my teeth as the side of my hand scraped on something jagged. I kicked the object—a metal C that had fallen from its logo—in irritation, and immediately regretted it. The clattering and grating noise bounced off the nearby buildings, almost masking the faint voices and shuffling steps.
I threw myself into what was left of the building’s interior, dropping down into a crouch behind the nearest stable wall.
Twisting around, I watched the progress of the soldiers moving along the other side of the street. I counted helmets—twelve—as they broke off to investigate the different smashed-glass entryways of office buildings and stores. Cover? I looked around, quickly taking stock of the overturned, singed furniture, my body moving toward one of the dark wood desks and sliding beneath it. The scrape of loose debris against the outside sidewalk overpowered the sound of my own ragged breathing.
I stayed where I was, nose burning with the smell of smoke and ash and gasoline, tracking the voices until they faded. Anxiety kept a grip on my stomach as I edged my way out from under the desk and along the floor toward the entrance. I could still see the patrol unit weaving through the wreckage halfway down the avenue, but I couldn’t wait, not even a few minutes longer.
When I’d dug through the soldier’s memories, stitched together the information I needed, it felt like a block of cement had finally rolled off my chest. She’d shown me the gaps in the freeway’s defenses as surely as if she’d handed me a map and marked them in thick, black strokes. After that, it had just been a matter of washing myself out of her memory.
I knew the former Children’s League agents would be pissed that this had actually worked. Nothing they tried themselves had succeeded, and in the meantime, the hauls from their food scouting had dwindled. Cole had pushed and pushed them to let me try, but the other agents only agreed on the condition that I go alone—to avoid any additional “risks” of capture. We’d already lost two agents who’d been careless while walking out in the city.
I wasn’t careless, but I was getting desperate. It was time to make a move now, or the military would starve us out of hiding.
The U.S. Army and National Guard had created a virtual barrier around downtown Los Angeles using the elaborate freeway system. The snaking cement monsters formed a tight circle around the inner city, choking us off from the outside world. The 101 was to the north and east, the I-10 to the south, and the 110 to the west. We might have had a chance of escaping if we’d left immediately after climbing back up to the surface from the wreckage of HQ, but...there was that word that Chubs always used: shell-shocked. He said it was amazing any of us were capable of movement at all.
I should have. I should have forced us to go, instead of falling apart at the seams. I should have—if I hadn’t been thinking about his face trapped down in the dark. I pressed the back of my hand against my eyes, steeling myself against the nausea and stabbing pain in my skull. Think about anything else. Anything. These headaches were unbearable; so much worse than the ones I used to have after trying to control my abilities.
I couldn’t stop. I pushed through the hollow feeling in my legs to a steady jog. I felt the ache of exhaustion at the back of my throat, the heaviness of my eyelids, but adrenaline kept me moving, even as parts of me felt like they were on the verge of shutting down. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d fallen into a deep enough sleep to escape the waking nightmare around us.
The roads were blistered with peeling asphalt, strewn with piles of cement the army had yet to clear. Here and there I passed bright dots of color—a red high heel, a purse, someone’s bike, all dropped and forgotten. Some objects had blown out of nearby windows; the heat from the nearby blasts had charred them black. The wastefulness of the destruction was sickening.
As I ran across the next intersection, I stole a look up Olive Street, my eyes drawn to the glowing field of light that was Pershing Square three avenues over. The former park had been transformed into an internment camp; hastily thrown together, while the rubble of the city still smoldered. The poor people inside its fences had been working in the nearby buildings when President Gray launched his attack against the Children’s League and the Federal Coalition, the small band of former politicians united against him. He’d supposedly retaliated because one or both parties had played a role in his most recent assassination attempt. We’d kept watch on each of these camps, searching for Cate and the others, watching as the numbers inside swelled as more and more civilians were picked up and held against their will.