Never Fade (The Darkest Minds #2)
by Alexandra Bracken
THE DREAM FIRST MADE AN APPEARANCE my second week at Thurmond, and it came to visit at least twice a month. I guess it made sense that it was born there, behind the camp’s humming electric fence. Everything about that place withered you down to your worst, and it didn’t matter how many years passed—two, three, six. In that green uniform, locked in the same monotonous routine, time stopped and sputtered like a dying car. I knew I was getting older, caught glimpses of my changing face in the metallic surfaces of the Mess Hall tables, but it didn’t feel that way. Who I was and who I had been disconnected, leaving me stranded somewhere in the middle. I used to wonder if I was even Ruby anymore. At camp, I didn’t have a name outside of my cabin. I was a number: 3285. I was a file on a server or locked away in a gunmetal gray filing cabinet. The people who had known me before camp no longer did.
It always started with the same thunder, the same explosion of noise. I’d be old—twisted and hunched and aching—standing in the middle of a busy street. It might have been somewhere in Virginia, where I was from, but it had been so long since I’d been home I couldn’t tell for sure.
Cars passed on either side, heading in opposite directions down a stretch of dark road. Sometimes I heard the thunder of an approaching storm, other times the blare of car horns louder, louder, louder as they approached. Sometimes I heard nothing at all.
But aside from that, the dream was always the same.
An identical set of black cars would screech to a stop as they reached me, and then, as soon as I looked up, they would reverse direction. Everything would. The rain would peel itself up from the gummy black asphalt, floating back up into the air in perfect sparkling drops. The sun would glide backward across the sky, chasing the moon. And as each cycle passed, I could feel my ancient, hunched back uncurl bone by bone until I was standing up straight again. When I held my hands up to my eyes, the wrinkles and blue-purple veins would smooth themselves out, like old age was melting clean off me.
And then those hands would get smaller, and smaller, and smaller. My view of the road changed; my clothes seemed to swallow me whole. Sounds were deafening and harsher and more confusing. Time would only race back harder, blowing me off my feet, crashing through my head.
I used to dream about turning back time, about reclaiming the things I’d lost and the person I used to be.
But not anymore.
THE CROOK OF MY ARM LOCKED over the man’s throat, tightening as his boots’ rubber soles batted against the ground. His fingernails bit into the black fabric of my shirt and gloves, clawing at them in desperation. The oxygen was being cut off from his brain, but it didn’t keep the flashes of his thoughts at bay. I saw everything. His memories and thoughts burned white-hot behind my eyes, but I didn’t let up, not even when the security guard’s terrified mind brought an image of himself to the surface, staring open-eyed up at the dark hallway’s ceiling. Dead, maybe?
I wasn’t going to kill him, though. The soldier stood head and shoulders over me, and one of his arms was the size of one of my legs. The only reason I had gotten the jump on him at all was because he had been standing with his back to me.
Instructor Johnson called this move the Neck Lock, and he had taught me a whole collection of others. The Can Opener, the Crucifix, the Neck Crank, the Nelson, the Twister, the Wristlock, and the Spine Crack, just to name a few. All ways that I, a five-foot-five girl, could get a good grip on someone who outmatched me physically. Enough for me to draw out the real weapon.
The man was half hallucinating now. Slipping into his mind was painless and easy; all of the memories and thoughts that rose to the surface of his consciousness were stained black. The color bled through them like a blot of ink on wet paper. And it was then, only after I had my hooks in him, that I released my grip from his neck.
This probably hadn’t been what he had been expecting when he came out of the shop’s hidden side entrance for a smoke break.
The bite in Pennsylvania’s air had turned the man’s cheeks bright red beneath his pale stubble. I let out a single hot breath from behind the ski mask and cleared my throat, fully aware of the ten sets of eyes trained on me. My fingers shook as they slipped across the man’s skin; he smelled like stale smoke and the spearmint gum he used to try to cover his nasty habit. I leaned forward, pressing two fingers against his neck.
“Wake up,” I whispered. The man forced his eyes open, wide and childlike. Something in my stomach clenched.
I glanced over my shoulder to the tactical team behind me, who were watching all of this silently, faces unseen behind their masks.
“Where is Prisoner 27?” I asked. We were out of the line of sight of the security cameras—the reason, I guess, this soldier felt safe enough to slip out for a few unscheduled breaks—but I was beyond anxious to have this part over.
“Hurry the hell up!” Vida said through gritted teeth, next to me.
My hands shook at the wave of heat at my back as the tact team leader stepped up behind me. Doing this didn’t hurt the way it used to. It didn’t wring me out, twisting my mind into knots of pain. But it did make me sensitive to the strong feelings of anyone near me—including the man’s disgust. His black, black hatred.
Rob’s dark hair was in the corner of my sight. The order to move forward without me was ready to spill out over his lips. Of the three Ops I’d gone on with him as Leader, I’d only ever been able to finish one.
“Where is Prisoner 27?” I repeated, giving the soldier’s mind a nudge with my own.
“Prisoner 27.” As he repeated the words, his heavy mustache twitched. The hint of gray there made him look a lot older than he actually was. The assignment file we’d been given at HQ had included blurbs on all of the soldiers assigned to this bunker, including this one—Max Brommel. Age forty-one, originally from Cody, Wyoming. Moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a programming job, lost it when the economy tanked. A nice wife, currently out of work. Two kids.
A storm of murky images flooded every dark corner and crevice of his mind. I saw a dozen more men, all wearing the same light camo uniforms jumping out of the back of a van, and several more from the Humvees that had bookended the bigger vehicle—full of criminals, suspected terrorists, and, if the intel the Children’s League had received was correct, one of our top agents.
I watched, suddenly calm, as these same soldiers led one…two…no, three men off the back of the truck. They weren’t Psi Special Forces officers, or FBI, or CIA, and definitely not a SWAT or SEAL team, all of which probably could have crushed our small force in one swift blow. No, they were National Guard servicemen, drawn back into active duty by the terrible times; our intel had been right about that, at least.
The soldiers had pulled hoods down tight over the prisoners’ heads, then forced them down the stairs of the abandoned shop to the sliding silver door of the bunker hidden below.
After much of Washington, DC, had been destroyed by what President Gray claimed was a group of warped Psi kids, he had taken special care to build these so-called mini-fortresses across the east coast in case another emergency of that magnitude was to arise. Some were built beneath hotels, others into the sides of mountains, and some, like this one, were hidden in plain sight in small towns, under shops or government buildings. They were for Gray’s protection, the protection of his cabinet and important military officials, and, it appeared, to imprison “high-risk threats to national security.”