Feedback (Variant #2)


by Robison Wells

CHAPTER ONE

Jane stared back at me, motionless. She was older than I remembered—older than the Jane I knew. Her skin, which had always been smooth and perfect, was now freckled, and her cheeks and nose were red from the cold.

“I thought you died,” she said again.

I shook my head, too startled to speak.

She stepped forward, and I flinched. I knew what she was. She may not have been Jane 117C, but she was something like that. An older version, another experiment. An enemy.

Becky was out in the forest, alone and dying, and I’d walked right into a trap.

“They’re going to be looking for you,” she said. “It won’t take them long.”

I paused, staring back at her. She was just like Mason, or Carrie, or Mouse, or any of the others from the school—she didn’t know what she was. She thought she was helping me.

I took a step back.

“Don’t go,” she said. “We can hide you.”

“No.” I picked up the tarp that lay at my feet, the one I’d come into this barn to steal—something to keep Becky warm. I backed away from Jane, toward the door.

“Wait,” she said, pleading.

“It’s not true,” I said, grasping the old wooden handle. “Everything you think you know. It’s a lie.”

I didn’t know what else to say. How could you tell a person she wasn’t real?

“Wait,” Jane said again. “I know. I know about the robots.” She unzipped her thin cotton coat and pulled it off. She held up her forearm.

From the pocket of her dress she pulled out a box cutter and held the blade in the flame of the lantern.

The ridge of her arm, where the bone met the skin, was speckled with dozens of thin scars—some smooth and healed and pink but others scabbed and new.

I couldn’t speak.

“I’m human,” Jane said. “We all are.”

She pulled the blade from the fire and touched it to her skin.

CHAPTER TWO

You can do this,” I said, my arm around Becky’s trembling body, trying to keep her on her feet. “Just over the next hill and we’ll rest again.”

“I don’t understand,” she repeated, her words starting to slur. As cold as it was outside, she was hot with fever. I could only guess that infection was setting into the vicious wound in her arm.

“We have to keep going,” I said.

She nodded, but even that seemed half-conscious, like she was losing the strength to hold her head up.

“Fifty miles?” she breathed.

“We don’t know that,” I said. “That’s just what we’ve always guessed. For all we know, we’ll hit a highway in two or three miles.”

Her eyes were closing while we walked. She was drifting away. She’d lost too much blood.

“Where did you get the tarp?” Becky asked. She’d already asked that, twice now, and I’d tried to explain.

“There’s a town,” I answered.

“Why don’t we go there?”

“We can’t.”

“You talked to them? The people at the town?”

“Yes. We can’t go there.”

She was slowing, and I tried to help her walk faster.

“Do they know about the school?”

She slipped on a patch of loose leaves. I caught her, but she cried out when I grabbed her tight. The T-shirt that was wrapped around her wound was soaked dark with blood.

“I’m not going to make it,” she mumbled.

“Yes, you are.”

“Leave me here.” Becky slid to her knees. Her eyes opened, wide and exhausted, and she tried to focus on my face. “Leave me with some supplies—the tarp, some food. Go get help.”

“The school is looking for us,” I said. “They’ll find you.”

“Then go fast.”

“It could take days. I’m not leaving you.”

“What about the town?”

I paused, not knowing how to answer.

Jane had cut her own flesh, the blackened tip of the sterilized razor blade splitting the skin and exposing the pink, bloody bone underneath. She’d winced, but hadn’t hesitated. She’d done it before, dozens of times. Maybe hundreds.

Becky’s eyes closed again, and I knelt next to her, taking her dirty face in my hands to keep her awake.

“What about the town?” she asked again. “Did you tell the police?”

“They don’t have police there.”

I could feel her body shuddering against mine as she fought for air. “Why not?”

“We have to keep moving.” I helped her to her feet, tried to force her to walk. Her weak legs stumbled forward, but she fought back.

“Tell me what’s there.” Becky was staring at me now, her face almost as white as the clumps of snow covering her hair. She didn’t look scared. She didn’t look worried or fierce or confident or anything. She simply stared. She was half-conscious. Half-alive.

“Jane is there,” I said. “And others.”

She blinked. “Jane is dead.”

“This Jane isn’t. She’s real. Human. Everyone who was a robot at the school—they’re a human here.”

“It can’t be Jane. It’s more robots,” Becky said. “It’s a trap.” The shock of what I was saying seemed to bring her back to her senses for a moment.

“She’s human,” I said. “She cut her arm. I saw the bone.”

Becky looked at me, eyes wide.

“They’re human,” I repeated. “She didn’t explain it all—there wasn’t time. But they have something in their heads. They’re connected to the robots.”

“If they’re connected to the robots, then we don’t want to be there.”

“No, that’s not it.” I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have good enough answers. “She said they don’t control the robots. They just—I don’t know—they’re just connected.”

“It’s a trap. We can’t do it.”

“I know. We’ll keep going.”

“They won’t find me,” she said, almost pleading. “It’s snowing. I can wait here.”

“If we don’t keep going, you’ll die.”

Her body shook as she cried. We both knew it was true. She’d lost too much blood. I’d bandaged her arm, but the gash was deep and open—I doubted it could even be stitched closed, with all the exposed muscle and ripped skin.

I pulled away from her and looked into her eyes. Our faces were almost touching as she stared back, her tears clinging to her eyelashes. She was pale and gray.

“You’re going to be okay.”

She didn’t say anything.

“I’m going to take care of you. I know that this sounds crazy, but—”

Becky’s face turned to confusion, and she cocked her head. “Shh.”

I listened, straining to hear whatever she heard. Her eyes weren’t on me anymore—they were darting around the forest, wild and terrified.

“What?”

“Isaiah,” she whispered. “He’s coming.” Her body tensed, and her hand gripped my arm. “We have to get back to the dorms. Before they lock the doors.”