I awoke from a deep, dreamless sleep to the voice of the robot by my bed. My jaw ached like someone had tried to rip it from my skull and when I put my fingers to my face I could feel how swollen it was. Then it all came flooding back, the Hive, the Salon, the gas. They had implanted something in my jaw and as I ran my tongue along my teeth I felt something that was definitely out of place.
At the very back of my mouth, the very last tooth, I could feel little ridges on it with my tongue. I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but something told me it was the shape of a bee. I thought I’d seen the outline before they slipped the gas on me, but I couldn’t be sure.
I laid in bed, running my tongue along my teeth, unwilling to get up when in came Gwyneth, our eternally pleasant nanny. I pulled the covers back over my head and mumbled for her to go away, but with my swollen jaw it came out garbled and weak.
“Good morning, Mattie!” she sang at me. “Time to get up and rinse!” She pulled the covers off me and handed me a small glass with a foggy looking liquid in it. “Up, up, up.”
I did as I was told and took the glass into the bathroom to rinse my mouth. I took one sip and spit the salty liquid right back out. “Whad id dis?” I cried out.
“It’s highly concentrated salt water. It will stop any bacteria from growing while your tooth heals,” she said from the doorway, watching me. “You better do it, we lost a few girls who refused to do so.”
“Losd?” I mumbled as I went to take a sip.
“Yes, if the bacteria grows unchecked it can spread quickly and because it’s so close to the brain any sort of staph infection can be deadly quite quickly.” I looked at her in horror and immediately started swishing the salty brine around in my mouth. “You get use to it, don’t worry,” she said and once she was properly convinced that I was too scared not to rinse she let me be.
Showering was worse. Trying to get clean while trying to keep the spray away from the swollen part of my face was almost impossible. Every time I miss stepped and the water hit my jaw I cried out in pain. I was just glad Gwyneth had left to get the other girls, I didn’t want her to hear me when I yelped.
Once I was fully dressed I met the other girls in the hall. We all looked a bit of a mess, cheeks swollen, eyes red. Raina went to speak to me but it all came out a mess. If they were expecting us to do much in the way of training today they were in for disappointment.
Gwyneth led us to the dining area for breakfast where we were each served a plate of square, squishy cubes. “It’s a protein gelatine,” Gwyneth said as she grab a plate of eggs and toast for herself. “It’s soft to chew and no bits will get stuck in your teeth. It’ll give you all the nutrition you need for the next few days.”
I watched as Raina took a bit and just about spit it back out. “Oh, and it tastes terrible,” Gwyneth added as she buttered her toast. I waited until Raina swallowed before I took a mouthful for myself. The texture was soft and squishy, but the flavour was a bland mix of pork and salt. I almost spit it back out, but forced it down. I didn’t want to look like I couldn’t handle it.
“Today we’re going to go a little easy on you,” Gwyneth said while we ate. “No physical training but we’re going to do conversational training and then you can spend some time reading. I take it you saw the books in your rooms?” We all nodded so she continued. “The novels are some of the most popular that have ever been in circulation. We want you to read them so you’ll have things to talk about.”
“All of them?” Fateema asked very slowly, choosing and forming her words very carefully so they came out correctly.
“Not today, but yes eventually. Your conversational instructor will test you on each one and how well you can discuss it in a casual setting.”
“Well hopefully they are ready for some real spy training within the next few days, Gwyneth,” a familiar man’s voice came from behind me. “None of this wimpy ‘my mouth hurts, let’s read books’ stuff, right girls?”
It couldn’t be. I refused to believe it. As I turned around there was no denying it. That same square jaw, those soft brown eyes, that mischievous grin. This had been the teaching assignment Gabe had taken, and now here I was, back under his instruction. I couldn’t handle it, too much had happened in less than two days. I pushed the last of my breakfast away and marched right out of the dining area, refusing to acknowledge anything around me.
“Mattie?” I heard Gabe’s voice call from behind me, his footsteps following close behind me. I’d almost made it back to my room when he caught up to me and spun me around by my shoulders. I couldn’t help it, training took over and I blocked his hands away and went for a strike against his collarbone. In my still slightly drugged state I was slow and weak and he easily blocked me, grabbing my arm and dragging me into an open doorway.
“Mattie, it’s me! Stop it!” he said as I tried to fight back. My mind wouldn’t let me believe it, and for moments when it did I couldn’t stop myself from being furious with him. Grabbing me by the shoulders he gave me a shake and hollered “enough!” right in my face. That shocked me back to reality and after a moment I took a step back and attempted to form my words as carefully as possible so they came out right.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“I couldn’t. Getting those letters to you was hard enough,” he told me, his tone calming down as he spoke. “I didn’t even know you’d be coming here.”
“But,” I started, and then slowed down again. “But you said when I turned sixteen we would,” I stopped, unsure how to finish that sentence. I had wanted to see him, but it had meant telling him things I didn’t want to tell anyone.
“I know,” he said, going to sit in one of the chairs. “I was trying to take some leave time, but it kept getting denied.”
I nodded, trying to process everything that had just happened. I couldn’t think of anything more to say, my brain was a mess and still slightly clouded. “So what do you do here?” I finally asked.
“I train students in hand to hand combat, as well other some other things.”
“But how did you end up here?” I asked. It didn’t make sense.
“Mattie, I want you to trust me so I’m going to be honest with you,” I nodded and he continued. “I never trained as a cop. I was part of the covert Filter that specialises in keeping an eye on our own members of government. Your father came onto our radar and I was assigned to your family.”
I knew my dad was a bad person, but hearing that Gabe was there for that reason made my stomach turn. I told him to continue and he thought for a moment, obviously trying to find a way to phrase things that wouldn’t hurt me.
“At first I was assigned to the family, but after your issues with school I was told to work with you, get close to you and see if you knew anything.” Before I could protest he put up a hand and said, “let me finish. I was assigned to get information from you, but it was obvious that even if you knew anything you wouldn’t say anything. Your mind is like a steel trap, Mattie. I kept working with you because I saw talent, and honestly you are a good person who I enjoy being around, I can’t say that for too many people. I guess W.A.S.P. saw something in both of us.”
I stood in silence, absorbing everything Gabe had just told me. I tried to hold back everything I was feeling, tried not to let my face betray me. I couldn’t though, I could tell by the apologetic look on Gabe’s face that there were cracks in my mask.
“I missed you,” I whispered, and before I could move away Gabe was out of the chair and by my side, pulling me in close against him, his strong arms around me.
“I am so sorry, I didn’t want to hurt you.” He brushed a tear from my cheek and said “I won’t do it again. I don’t want to lose your friendship.” I nodded and he put his hand on my head, mussing up my hair. “Because I’m a jerk I’ll give you time to tell me what you promised, okay?”
I smiled and gave him a small shove. “Okay,” I said.
“Are we good?” he asked and I nodded. I still felt hurt, but it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t write and the memories of our friendship were resurfacing and I couldn’t help but feel some happiness in the situation. Gabe had been a great instructor, and under him I knew I could excel.
“You’re lucky Frost had to take off this morning, if he saw this you’d be in it for sure,” Gwyneth’s voice said from the hall. “Especially since you’ve managed this little catch up in my bedroom.”
“Gwyn!” Gabe said, so light and casual. “Didn’t want to join us in a group hug?” She snorted a laugh and gave him a playful hit on the shoulder.
“Well I wish you would have told me you knew one of our new recruits,” she said with a little pout.
“You didn’t tell me!” he said in a mocking accusation. “You’re supposed to be the recon expert anyway.”
“Well I didn’t think this Ritter was the same Ritter you were tailing before. There is more than one!” They laughed and joked back and forth for a moment, and I quietly excused myself. I didn’t really feel like joking around, and my stomach grumbled for more food. I heard Gabe call after me as I found my way back down the hall, but this time he didn’t follow.
I found my chair and barely touched gelatine in the dining area and quickly forced the rubbery squares down my throat.
“What was that about?” Raina said, but it kind of came out garbled and I had her repeat it a few times before I realized what she meant. I tried to play it off as nothing but she pushed and I tried to say in as few words as possible that I knew him before we went to 31-109.
“Oh,” she said in a hushed tone. “Oh, do you like him? You know, like him like that?”
I shook my head as hard as I could and felt pain shoot through my jaw. “No,” I said as I rubbed the side of my face. “He was more like a big brother.” She looked disappointed and turned to Fateema to ask her about boys in her life.
“No,” Fateema said with a shake of her head. “I’m a little too focused on my studies I guess.”
“Good,” Gabe’s voice said from the doorway. I felt my muscles stiffen, I hoped he hadn’t heard too much of our conversation. “Speaking of studies, Frost is away and I don’t think you girls thought ‘top spy initiative’ meant sitting around reading books and talking. We’re going to get to work.” He walked out the door and Raina was immediately out of her seat and following him with Fateema hot on her heels. I choked down the last bit of my breakfast and followed the trio down the north-east corridor and into the first room to our right.
The ceiling was as high as the one in the Hive, if not a little higher, and ropes and ladders hung right from the top of the room down to the floor. The floor was covered in bright blue mats that squished under my feet.
“Simple exercise you will need in the field,” Gabe said in a commanding voice. “I want each of you up the ladders, and then we’re going to see how you do on the ropes.” I looked at Fateema and Raina and then went for the closest of the ladders.
It sounded simple enough in theory, but climbing the ladder made entirely out of thick rope was harder than I expected. It wasn’t tethered to the ground in any way so every motion I made to climb had me swinging wildly.
“Mattie,” Gabe called as I was swinging twenty feet in the air. “Be quick but smooth. You’re in control, not the ropes.” I tried to slow my movements and stop the rope from swinging, shifting my weight to counteract the swing. Eventually I got the hang of it and while I was making slower movements I was climbing notably higher.
I had caught up to Raina about five feet from the top when she whispered to me. “Mattie!”
“Yeah?” I whispered back, unsure why we were whispering.
“Is Mr. Sanders the one who wrote you those letters?” For a moment I was shocked, I’d forgotten I’d told Raina about that. For a split second my fingers almost slipped on the ropes and I had to struggle to regain my grip.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “Why?”
“You think if I wrote something he could send it for me?”
“You’re talking about Plante, aren’t you?” I asked and Raina immediately blushed a bright red and nodded. “It’s cool if you like him, I mean it was pretty obvious.”
To my right a soft voice asked “Who’s plant?” I looked over at Fateema’s puzzled face and told her “it’s Plante, the guy Raina likes.”
“His name is Sam,” Mattie said as she leaned towards us. “And he’s just a friend.” I rolled my eyes at her and laughed.
“Girls!” Gabe yelled from below. “This is work, not gossip time. Keep moving!” Great, now I looked like I was slacking because Raina had a crush.
For the rest of the morning Gabe had us up and down the ropes and ladders until we felt like our shoulders were going to snap. He ordered us up again and again until I couldn’t even put my arms over my head.
“No more?” Gabe asked as he patted me on the back. The three of us shook our heads and mercifully he informed us we could head for lunch. Fateema and I headed out the door, but Raina stayed behind. There was no doubt in my mind that she was asking about her letter and when she joined us for lunch with a half crooked smile on her swollen face I knew she had gotten the answer she wanted.
The climbing exercises had been even more intense than we had realized at the time. For the next three days the three of us could barely move and when we saw that Director Frost had returned I was expecting the worst, I didn’t want him thinking we were slacking off while he was away. Instead he told us “Good work!” with that sinister smile while we soaked in baths of ice water to sooth our muscles while instructors went over dialogue and accents.
“Have you started your French lessons yet?” he asked as he kneeled down beside Fateema.
“No, sir,” she responded, covering herself with her arm. “What’s French?”
“What’s French?” Frost said in a shocked tone. “It’s only one of the most beautiful languages in the world. Pity it’s all but lost here.”
“So why do we need to learn it?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Do they not teach you anything in those middle schools they pass off as basic training?” Frost asked. “History lesson, ladies. When our fair nation was attacked, before we were joined as one in the Free States, there was a large country across the world known as the USSR. A Communist country that wanted to spread their Marxist agenda throughout the world. We almost went to war with them once, but won out.”
“Yes,” I said. “We know this. And how they reformed and attacked over the Arctic.” Raina and Fateema nodded in agreement, this was something we’d all been taught as children.
“Well at least you know something,” he sneered. “Do you know why they attacked?” The answer to this was a little muddled, foggy even. They wanted our resources, they were trying to take our free markets, trying to take away what made out country great. Raina went to respond, but he shot her down with a shake of his head. “What they don’t teach in school is the purpose of the Northern Guard. After we pushed back the enemy they retreated further into Europe, into France. The Northern Guard is just a show of numbers, which is why we send most of the, how should I put this, dumb members of our armed forces there.” Fateema laughed a bit, surprising Frost.
“If I may continue?” he asked. “We don’t want the enemy returning, so we put on a show of the Northern Guard and keep their focus there. The real work is done but units like ours, dismantling the threat from the inside, making sure we know their movements. And to do that you need to talk the talk, which is French. You’ll start today, get dressed and I’ll have an instructor assigned.”
“Um, excuse me?” Fateema’s soft voice asked.
“Yes?” Frost asked with a slight rolling of his eyes.
“I know they attacked, and know they are trying to take over our system of free markets as you say, but no one has ever said why.” She had a point, it was never discussed.
“It’s simple. Their government wants total control over the people, to keep them from succeeding. Here you have a choice. You ladies are welcome to leave any time and find a path in a non-military field wherever you want. Outside our great land others do not have that choice. That’s what we’re fighting to defend.”
“So I could just up and leave right now?” Raina asked in a very sceptical tone.
“You are more than welcome to, that is your choice.” There was that smile again, every time I saw it, it gave me shivers down my spine. “Of course, you’d be leaving behind all the benefits that come with your roll here, but that’s your choice. You ladies get cleaned up and head to room twenty-three B. I’ll have someone there to begin your language training.”
After he left we all took a moment before we got dressed. “You really think we could leave?” Raina asked.
“I doubt it,” I shrugged. “But why would you? We have a nice place to live, good training, three square meals a day. So Frost is a bit creepy, we can handle that.”
Fateema nodded in agreement. “He gives me the willies, but I am learning a lot and there aren’t a lot of options in Detroit. I don’t want to leave. Are you really thinking about leaving, Raina?”
“No!” Raina said immediately. “No, it’s fine here. You guys are right about Frost, but I’m okay here. I just like knowing it’s an option.” She had a point, knowing I could leave if I so chose was a good feeling, but I had no desire to do so. Looking at Raina though, she didn’t look as sure.
“So have you given Gabe your letter?” I asked as I got out of the tub. That seemed to lift what was dragging her down and she smiled.
“Yeah,” she said with a smile. “But I don’t know if he sent it yet.”
“What’s so special about this guy?” Fateema asked as she got dressed. “Is he your boyfriend?”
Raina shook her head fiercely. “No, he’s just a good friend.” Her blush made it easy for Fateema to tell she was lying, at least somewhat. “Seriously! He’s just a friend, but I don’t know. There’s just something special about him. He makes me feel like I mean something to him.”
“He was kind of weird,” I couldn’t help but say. Raina looked less than impressed. “I mean, he was attractive in a kind of awkward way, but he didn’t seem very professional.”
“He has his reasons,” Raina hissed back. “Being a Guide isn’t exactly what he wanted to do.”
“No one wants to be a Guide. It’s where they stick the flunkies. If you can’t do, Guide.” I think I went too far, Raina’s eyes brimmed with tears and she refused to respond. “Look, I’m sorry. He’s just not my taste, I was just teasing.” She just shook her head and went to leave the Salon. “I‘ll ask Gabe if he sent the letter!” I shouted after her, but she was gone. I looked at Fateema, but she was busy gathering her things and raced off down the hall. Great, less than a week in and I was the odd man out.
I followed the others down the hall, kicking myself for how I just blurted out those things about Sam. Now Raina was mad at me and I could only imagine what Fateema thought. Hopefully making sure Gabe sent that letter would repair things enough that Raina would forgive me.