Rochelle shook Cassie’s shoulder. When she didn’t respond fast enough, she did it again. “Wake up!”
Cassie sat up with a frown. In the gray light of early morning, she could make out other members of her guard unit still asleep in the dusty schoolroom. There was nothing alarming to see, nor were there any sounds to suggest danger.
Rochelle jerked on her arm with surprising strength. “Hurry.”
Concerned that something might be happening after all, Cassie scrambled to her feet. But when she reached for a weapon, Rochelle shook her head.
Curious and a little frightened, she followed Rochelle out of the kindergarten room with its faded finger paintings and construction paper flowers, down the hall to the nurse’s office. At the sight of Alex lying on one of the vinyl beds, her heart sank. He was pale and sweating, his lips cracked and eyes bloodshot. Faint bruises were spreading beneath his skin. Telo.
Julilla sat at his side, listening while he mumbled of tactics and weaponry. In another room Cassie could make out the sound of arguing.
“Don’t be stupid.” Elissa’s haughty tones carried through the walls. “You’ve done it before. Where were your ethics then?”
“I’m trying to do better now,” Doc said.
Mundo’s calmer tones followed. “This is the ethical choice. Lives are at stake. Maybe even the future of the human race.”
“You think the Obits are worried about a few dead kids?” Elissa said. “We can’t be, either.”
“I’ll get David or some other ex-Kevork to handle the killing part. Then you—”
“It’s an order.”
“Take my pituitary, then,” Doc said. “I volunteer it.”
“That’s ridiculous and you know it.”
The conversation shifted to lower tones that Cassie couldn’t make out, and she looked at Julilla. “Doc does have a point.”
“If he can get a volunteer, sure. But no one’s going to offer up their brain,” Julilla said. “Not really.”
“I don’t want somebody’s brain juice,” Alex said, clutching at Julilla’s hand. “You promised me.”
“They won’t do it,” she assured him.
“They did it to Zach.”
“They won’t do it to you. I’ll kill them first.”
Rochelle had been standing with her ear pressed against the door, but now she moved away. “He’s still saying no. And he’s the only one besides May who knows how.”
Alex was reassured, but only for a moment. “Kill me,” he told Julilla. “That way we can be sure.”
“But we are sure. No one’s going to inject you with brain hormone.”
“Then do it so I won’t be left behind.”
All three girls stared, not comprehending.
“Our army has to make the next camp tomorrow. We’ve got allied units skirmishing to keep the road clear, but they can’t hold off the Pharms forever, and you can’t hole up here and wait for me die. Shoot me like you promised you would.”
Julilla’s lips turned ashen, as if she might faint. “No. We’ll keep you here under guard while the rest of us move forward. That way if we find a cure in the Obit bunker—”
Cassie counted on her fingers. “If we get there tomorrow and the battle is the next day, and if they do have a cure—”
“Three days at the outside,” Julilla agreed. “You can hold on that long.”
“If you get there tomorrow and if you’re ready to engage the enemy the following day, and if the battle doesn’t turn into a siege, and if you win, and then if they even have a cure…” Alex frowned and a rivulet of blood escaped a tear duct. “That’s too many ifs. Meanwhile I’m back here behind enemy lines.”
“They might capture and torture him,” Cassie reminded Julilla.
“It’s a chance we have to take. We might have a cure in a few days.” She gave Alex a stern look. “You’re a fighter. Fight.”
The door of the other room opened and Mundo and Elissa sullenly filed out, with Doc following in an attitude of self-righteous victory. While Elissa stormed out the door of the clinic, Mundo approached Alex’s bedside. “I’m trying to get you some help. Doc won’t do it, but we’ll find someone else, and then after we get the cure—”
Alex sank deeper into his pillow. “I don’t want some dead person’s brain bits in me. Can’t you respect that?”
“Not when the future of humanity is at stake.”
“Julilla can command the troops.”
“Ours, yes. They know and respect her.” Mundo looked Julilla up and down. “But the whole allied army? It would have to be put to a vote and no way would they elect a girl.”
While Julilla bristled, Alex shook his head, more blood running out of his eyes, which Rochelle dabbed with a clean piece of gauze. “They’ll vote for her because I trained her.”
“The Thespians would vote for me,” Julilla agreed. “Who do you think kept those chickenshits from running away when we went after the Christian Soldiers?”
“Elissa wants her man Jason in charge, if we can’t have Alex,” Mundo said. “He’s got a totally different plan for this fight.”
“And it’s a dumb one.”
“Exactly.” Mundo looked down at Alex. “So we’re going to get you well for the battle and that’s the end of it. If you want to off yourself afterwards, that’s your business.”
Mundo stomped out of the room, leaving Cassie, Julilla and Doc staring at each other while Rochelle took advantage of the clinic’s ample supplies to start giving Alex an alcohol rub-down for his fever.
“We can’t let him do it,” Julilla said. “It’s not what he wants.”
“I doubt he’ll find anyone else in the alliance who can perform the procedure.” Doc assured her.
“I wonder if we should take that chance.” Cassie darted a glance toward Alex who appeared worn out by the conversation.
“There’s only one thing he wants,” Julilla said, staring at her hands in resignation. “Growth hormone treatment doesn’t work once you’re dead.”
“I could ask David to do it,” Doc offered. “It wouldn’t be a big deal to a Kevork.”
“No,” Julilla sighed. “We had an agreement. If you could just keep everyone out of the area so Mundo won’t know for sure who did it….”
Cassie and Doc made their goodbyes to Alex, and Rochelle capped the bottle of alcohol and put it away. As the three walked into the hall looking for places to station themselves, Doc wondered aloud why Julilla had insisted on performing the execution herself.
“Didn’t you hear?” Rochelle said. “He called her ‘love.’”
“You don’t think—?” Cassie began.
The sound of the gunshot silenced her.
EXCERPT FROM CASSIE’S JOURNAL:
Julilla is our new commander, but it wasn’t without a fight. The alliance leaders and senior officers gathered in the school cafeteria and argued for hours. Mundo supported Julilla, but I suspect it was only because he had no one else trained for the job and naturally we want one of our own in the top position. He didn’t dare offer his own services because of all the infighting. There are some tribal leaders who think he has too much personal influence.
Other candidates for the command were Jason from the Thespians, whose only qualification is his status as an Eagle Scout, and Neal from the City Hall group, who was even worse. He cited having read One Hundred Years of Sea Power as a qualification. Julilla suggested he be put in charge of the navy, and got a lot of laughs.
In the end, Julilla was given the supreme command and her first act was to announce that all plans would move forward as previously agreed, with one exception. She put me in charge of the flank she would’ve led under Alex. Mundo was pissed but kept a neutral attitude while we were all together. Meanwhile, I was in a panic. What do I know about leading people? Will they even listen to me?
Mundo said as much after we went to our rooms. “Just say the word and I’ll make sure someone else gets put in charge of the back lines,” Mundo said. “There’s no shame in refusing the command. It’s your first battle.”
“And she’ll do fine,” Julilla snapped. She looked at me. “Do you want it or not?”
With both of them staring at me, I couldn’t make my thoughts quit spinning. Back at the hotel I had longed to fight. I was angry and wanted to prove myself. But out here, facing the real threat of pain, death, and failure, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to fight at all, let alone hold the back lines where it would be my job to keep people from running. I understood my duties, but would I be able to keep my head in a fight and not run off, myself?
“We haven’t got all night,” Julilla reminded me.
In a voice I hardly recognized as my own, I told her I would do it.