But I found no machine waiting for me. Just a man dressed in administrator robes sitting behind a large white desk with an empty chair in front of it. Then I noticed another door on the far side of the room. Behind that door, I had no doubt, was the machine.
Connor waved me towards the administrator, before stepping away to take up a position against the wall at my back. I sensed his watchful gaze upon me as I moved forwards, obviously ready to intervene if I took it into my head to make some futile escape attempt. I ignored him, focusing instead on the elderly man behind the desk. He had a nice face – brown eyes that twinkled out from behind wire-rimmed glasses, a long, inquisitive nose and a mouth that seemed to curve up at the corners, as if he smiled a lot. I felt ever-so-slightly reassured. Until I reached the chair, and he said, “Hello, Ashala. My name is Neville Rose. You can call me Neville, if you like.”
I sat down heavily. It’s him. I should have realized. Not that I’d ever met the man before, but I’d heard the stories that had circulated about Neville Rose during the six years he’d run Detention Centre 1; tales that he and a doctor named Miriam Grey had secretly experimented on Illegals and developed some kind of interrogation machine. I’d known too that he’d been put in charge of this place, the government’s brand- new detention centre for Illegal orphans. So it made perfect sense that he’d be waiting here to ask me questions. I just hadn’t expected him to seem so ... sweet. Grandfatherly. Harmless.
He wasn’t harmless. Not at all.
I swallowed nervously. Neville continued speaking, in that same pleasant tone. “I’m the Chief Admin- istrator here at Detention Centre 3, and I would like it if the two of us could be friends. I almost feel like I know you already.” He reached down to open one of the drawers of the desk and pulled out a thin file. There wasn’t a name on it, just a number, but I knew this had to be my file, my very own entry in the detailed records the government kept on all Illegals and runaways.
It hadn’t taken them long to figure out who I was, or rather, who I’d been, before I ran. Then again, I guessed Connor had been feeding them information about me for weeks now. I comforted myself that I knew a little about Neville too, and he wouldn’t even realize it. I’d never told Connor that some of the Tribe made runs into the towns and Gull City, picking up gossip where they could. It was surprising how much could be learned by hanging around a Friends of Detainees rally.
Neville tapped the cover with one long finger, and said cheerfully, “According to this, Ashala Jane Ambrose, you’re sixteen years old, and were born in Gull City. Although you call yourself Ashala Wolf now, don’t you? Why wolf, can I ask?”
He peered at me over the top of his glasses. I stared back, wondering if he truly expected to lure me into handing over information about myself with the friendly grandpa routine.
Finally, he spoke again. “All right, Ashala. If you don’t want to talk about your name, let me ask you something else. How do you think you ended up here?”
What is that, some kind of trick question? “I was captured in Cambergull, and this is the closest detention centre. Where else would they bring me?”
“That’s not quite what I meant. It’s your choices that brought you here, Ashala. You see that, don’t you?”
“No,” I said flatly. “I don’t.”
“Let me put it this way. You could have entered this place like any other detainee and lived peacefully among others of your kind. Instead, you’ve come here as a law-breaker, no longer entitled to the same privileges as the others.” He shook his head at me. “You were twelve when you ran away from Gull City. Old enough to know you were required to undergo a Citizenship Assessment after you reached the age of fourteen. And that you should have asked for an assessment earlier if you suspected you had an ability. You did suspect, didn’t you?”
Oh yes. Ever since I was eight, when I’d had an intense, vivid dream that I was flying over the city, and I’d woken up on the roof. After a couple more incidents like that, it hadn’t taken a genius to figure out I had some kind of power that occasionally let me do the things I was dreaming about. “Yeah, I suspected. That’s why I ran away.”
“So you chose to ignore the Citizenship Accords. What’s more, by living in the Firstwood, you encourage others to do the same, and it’s not even adults you’re influencing. It’s innocent children.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that the kids I knew could think for themselves better than most adults could, and then decided against it. I didn’t want to confirm there were no adults in the Tribe, although there weren’t. Most Illegals ran away before they were assessed at age fourteen, and anyone who didn’t was either put in detention, or given an Exempt tattoo. Or even a Citizenship tattoo, if they were able to fool an assessor. It wasn’t like the whole system was completely foolproof – I knew that some adult Illegals must escape detention, or get tired of living as an Exempt, because I’d heard there were other groups of Illegals hiding out in the countryside that had people of all ages in them. But no adult had ever tried to join the Tribe, yet.
I had no reason to share any of that with Neville, though, so I shrugged and said, “I don’t make anyone do anything. If people choose to run, it’s because they want to live free.”
The Chief Administrator spread his hands outwards in a pleading gesture, giving me a good view of the Gull City seagull on the inside of his wrist. “Can’t you see how irresponsible you’re being? Detention is necessary, Ashala.” He quoted softly, “‘There is an inherent Balance between all life, and the only way to preserve it is to live in harmony with ourselves, with each other, and with the earth.’ Do you know who wrote those words?”
“Alexander Hoffman. It’s from Letter to Those Who Survive.”
He was obviously surprised that I knew that. “Ah ... yes. Do you know why he wrote the Letter?”
“He was trying to tell anyone who lived through the Reckoning how to make sure it never happened again. But he never said anything about people with abilities being a threat to the Balance. Not in the Letter, not in the Histories, and not anywhere else.”
I could see he hadn’t expected me to know that, either. A lot of people didn’t. Ember said it was a common misconception that it was Hoffman who’d come up with the idea for the Citizenship Accords, when really it was the government, or more specifically, the Council of Primes. I considered telling that to Neville in a superior tone of voice, but he started speaking again before I could get a word in.
“Hoffman was writing during the Reckoning. People didn’t begin to manifest abilities until the end of it, and there were very few who had them. He could not have known what a danger you Illegals would become. We know now, though, don’t we? How many cities are there, Ashala?”
I frowned, realizing where he was going with this. “Seven.”
“That’s right. Seven great cities, as sophisticated as anything in the old world, except without the pollution, the overcrowding and the terrible disparity between rich and poor. But in the beginning, there weren’t seven cities. There were eight.”
It always annoyed me when people tried to use a two- hundred-and-fifty-eight-year-old tragedy to justify the Citizenship Accords. “All that Skychanger was trying to do was make rain. She couldn’t have known what would happen!”
“One young girl threw the world so far out of Balance that Vale City now lies beneath the waters of Lake Remembrance. Was the Council of Primes wrong to be afraid?”
I’d been taught all about this back in school, and I hadn’t found it a very convincing argument for the detention of Illegals then either. “The reason there was such torrential rain was because it happened about forty years after the Reckoning ended, when the weather was still a bit wild. But the ecosystem stabilized two hundred and thirty years ago. A Skychanger couldn’t cause a flood that big any more.”
“And are you going to tell me that a Rumbler couldn’t cause an earthquake? Or that a Firestarter couldn’t start an inferno?” He leaned towards me, his brown eyes drilling into mine. “After what happened to your own family, Ashala?” Reaching into the file, he drew out a photograph and tossed it across the desk.
I gasped at the sight of the familiar faces, snatching up the image and scanning it greedily. I can’t believe they found this! I thought all the photos burned. My gaze skimmed over the freckled, red-haired woman; the tall, brown-skinned man; and a younger version of myself, to focus on the fourth person in the picture – a plump, happy child with brown curls. Cassie. She must have been about five years old. She hadn’t grown much older.
“Your parents were the ones who called in the assessor,” Neville said gently. “For your sister, though, not for you. They never knew you had an ability too, did they?”
“No,” I whispered. “They didn’t.” I hadn’t even said goodbye to Cassie when I’d left for school that morning, and I should have known, somehow I should have known that Mum and Dad had guessed she was a Firestarter.
Neville pulled out another photograph – a picture of the scorched earth that was all that had remained of my house – and laid it flat on the desk. “We can never be sure what happened. Clearly, though, your sister’s assessment was badly handled.”
“Badly handled?” I hissed. “Cassie was murdered.”
He sighed. “I think you know that her death must have been an accident. I realize you have some mis- guided notions about the government, but I can assure you we do not set out to slay children. Besides, you must know that no one would ever deliberately kill a Firestarter.”
I gazed down at Cassie’s picture, acknowledging sourly that he did have a point with that last bit. A person would have to be insane or suicidal to murder a Firestarter, because when they died, their bodies released an inferno. It was just such a blaze that had killed my parents, the assessor and his two enforcer guards. But not Cassie. She had to have been dead before then. Firestarters didn’t burn, not while they were alive.
I’d learned over the years that it did me no good to wonder exactly how Cassie had died. It wasn’t like there was any way I could ever find out for certain. Except now I couldn’t seem to prevent my mind from crowding with all the questions I’d tried to shut out. Did she run away from them, and fall and hit her head? Did she do something that made one of the enforcers panic and strike out at her? Was she afraid? Was it quick? And the one that really tormented me: Did she call out for her big sister?
Something splashed on the photograph; to my deep embarrassment, it was a teardrop. I had a sudden, odd awareness of Connor, almost as if he’d moved closer, but a quick glance backwards told me he was standing exactly where he had been before. I rubbed at my eyes angrily, furious with myself for showing weakness. Get a grip, Ashala! Neville pushed a handkerchief across the desk, and I picked it up, wiping at my face. I’m tougher than this. I am. Only I didn’t feel tough. I felt vulnerable and raw, as if someone had gone digging around inside me and left all my old wounds exposed.
“I can see,” Neville told me sympathetically, “why you ran, Ashala. You were grief-stricken and confused. But you’re not twelve years old any more. You can understand now that our entire society is built on the need to preserve the Balance. That’s why we have Accords in the first place. The Necessities-of-Life Accords, that require the governments of the seven cities to provide food, clothing, medicine and shelter for all. The Benign Technology Accords, to ensure that we never develop the harmful technology that had such disastrous consequences for the old world, like nuclear power, or genetically modified crops. And the Citizenship Accords, to prevent Illegals from upsetting the Balance.”
I wanted to argue, only I still felt teary. So I settled for scowling at him as he continued. “Our society strives to ensure that human existence never again puts the earth in jeopardy. Don’t you think a world like that is worth protecting?”
“Of course I do!” I answered huskily. “I have no problem with the Benign Technology Accords and the Necessities-of-Life Accords. Or the Advanced Weaponry Accords or the Collective Transportation Accords or any of the others. But the Citizenship Accords are wrong. People with abilities are not a threat to the Balance.”
“I’m afraid you are. You bring forces into being that are too powerful and unstable to be allowed to exist unchecked. It isn’t your fault, and I don’t blame you for it. I genuinely care about you, Ashala.” Nodding at Cassie’s picture, he added, “I know you miss your sister. Perhaps you’d like to keep that photo?”
I was so muddled with grief that for a brief second I almost said yes, without even thinking about why he’d made the offer. Then I realized what he was doing, and I felt cold all over. He wants to trade for the picture. Despite everything I knew about Neville Rose, I’d almost let myself be taken in by his act. Only I was starting to think that the reason he was so convincing was because it wasn’t an act, not to him. Inside his mind, where Neville kept the story of himself, I was certain he believed he was a good man, who’d been forced to do a few bad things for the sake of the Balance.
And it was horrifying how tempted I was to make a deal.
I quashed the wounded and exhausted part of myself that was desperate enough to trade a scrap of information for a scrap of kindness, and said, “You say that you care, but you don’t. You don’t care enough, and you don’t care the same.”
“The same as what, Ashala?”
“The same as you would about one of your own.” The smiling face of my lost little sister beamed up at me from the photo, and I rubbed my thumb across her cheek. “If some ordinary kid had died the way Cassie did, there would’ve been an outcry and an investigation. There wasn’t, though, not for a girl killed during an assessment. You set us apart, and you tell yourself it’s for the good of the Balance.”
“It is for the good of the Balance.”
“How can it be,” I demanded, “when Illegals are part of the Balance?”
He stiffened, recognizing where those words came from. “You shouldn’t let yourself be taken in by the ravings of a few dissidents. I know you’d like to believe otherwise, but I’m afraid the answer to the Question is no.”
He seemed a bit nettled, and it occurred to me that the growing strength of the reform movement must get to people like Neville Rose. When I’d left Gull City, there’d been barely a handful of people at each Friends of Detainees rally. Now there were hundreds.
“What makes you so sure Illegals aren’t part of the Balance? A two-hundred-and-fifty-eight-year-old f lood?”
“That flood was a warning. It was a demonstration of the unnatural effect abilities can have on the harmony of the world—”
“That flood,” I interrupted, “was an accident, and one that could never even happen again.” I looked away from him to gaze at Cassie one last time. Then, gathering up every ounce of willpower I possessed, I tossed the photo casually onto the desk, and the handkerchief after it. “The answer to the Question is yes. Which means it isn’t going to be people like me that will cause the end of the world, Neville. It’ll be people like you.”
His lips tightened in the first hostile reaction I’d seen from him. Anger. It wasn’t my words or my actions he was responding to – it was the fact that I was smiling. He probably thought I was laughing at him. In truth, I wasn’t thinking about him at all. In my mind, I was in another place entirely.
About a year ago, Ember and I had sat together on a hillside on a sunny day. We’d just heard that Neville Rose had been appointed as the Chief Administrator of the new detention centre that was being built far too close to the Firstwood for my liking. Ember had been running over everything we’d ever heard about Neville – or at least, she’d started out that way, but had rapidly detoured into imparting deep thoughts about the nature of humanity. I guess it was hard to stay on track when you had an ability that effectively made you a walking library. Finally, though, she’d come back to Neville again. “There’s a word,” she told me, her pale face serious, “to describe people who believe so fervently that Illegals are a threat to the Balance that they can do the kinds of appalling things to us Neville is supposed to have done.”
“There’re two words,” I said. “Nasty. Bastards.”
She smiled and shook her head. “No. Mad.” Her strange eyes – one brown and one blue – grew shadowed. “It’s even a necessary insanity, for a society like ours. They couldn’t keep the detention system going with- out it.”
I shrugged, wiping clean a patch of ground and drawing on it with a stick. “Here, tell me what you think of this.” It was my latest idea for how we could attack the new centre.
Ember groaned. “Not this again! Firstly, we don’t have enough Illegals with the right kinds of abilities for something like this. Secondly, even if we did, you know as well as I do that very few of them could control their abilities enough to pull this off. Thirdly, even if you did have your imaginary army, I can still see a dozen problems that you haven’t thought of.”
“So tell me what they are, and I’ll solve them.”
She rubbed out the drawing with her foot, her expression a familiar mixture of affection and exasperation. “It wouldn’t matter if you did solve them, Ash. What do you think would happen to the Tribe if we attacked a detention centre? The government would throw every enforcer it had at us. When will you understand? We can’t change the world with violence. Only with ideas.”
I lifted my face up to the sun. “I can’t see how ideas are much use against armed enforcers. Tell you what, though – if Neville Rose ever gets hold of me, I’ll talk your philosophy to him.”
And Ember had laughed, the pleasant, silvery sound echoing down the hill and through the trees of our forest home.
Neville’s voice brought me back to the present. “Take her through.” For a second, I couldn’t make sense of his words, until I realized he was speaking to Connor.
Rising to my feet, I looked down at the grey-haired man behind the desk, and said, “I’ll tell you, if you still want to know.”
He glanced up, his pleasant expression firmly back in place. “Tell me what, Ashala?”
“Why I chose the name Wolf.” I smiled a wide, joyful smile left over from that sunny day on the hillside. “It’s because I always travel in a pack.”
I could feel his puzzled stare following me as Connor escorted me towards the door on the far wall. It was highly unlikely that I was ever going to leave Detention Centre 3. So Ember would never know that I’d done what I’d told her I would. But the thought of her and the Tribe filled me with a sense of warmth and love and family that I knew Neville Rose could never understand or touch.
I walk among my enemies. But I carry my friends with me.