Only a single pane of glass separates us. It’s so clear that if my breath didn’t fog it, I could almost forget it was there. But I can’t, just as I can’t look away from the girl on the other side. As still as a corpse, she rests on a metal medical exam table. Fitting, I suppose, given the outcome of this heinous act. After a few seconds, her hands start to tremble, and she takes a deep breath. She wanted this, Will; remember that. She chose to give her life so Socrates might live and help free our people.
Dressed in varying shades of green, orderlies and doctors buzz around the room like flies on a carcass. Despite all the people, Mira lies unattended. Alone and so, so fragile, wearing a paper-thin hospital gown and a freshly shaved head. Where is that fiery-eyed fighter who swore she loved me? A painfully stark vision of Mira swims before me, so calm and courageous as she told me that this was the right thing to do, but I refuse to let it take root. Right now, she’s more like a terrified gnat of a girl, too innocent to understand this enormous sacrifice. An agonizing chasm rips my chest in two. I should have figured out some way to save her.
Socrates, the old man who came in with Mira, settles himself on the hospital bed across from her and closes his eyes. His head is shaved too, but he still wears a long, white, scraggly beard. His hands are liver-spotted and frail. His skin is so transparent that it might tear in two even with a gentle touch. He says something to Mira, but the speakers aren’t turned on, so I can’t hear his words.
Mira jerks her head up and down in response to Socrates’s statement. A curly-haired orderly approaches, and she jumps. He whispers into her ear, possibly giving her some direction, because she tries to relax and places her hands at her sides. Her eyes widen in terror as he fastens fabric cuffs to her wrists and ankles.
I turn away, unable to bear the fear in her eyes any longer. Why am I here? I know what happens next. I turn away, but the audience of other Firsts, former presidents, and dignitaries arranged in red velvet chairs, sipping champagne out of thin, long-stemmed glasses, sickens me almost as much as what’s going on beyond the glass. As their laughter fills the room, bile rises in my throat.
They disgust me. How would they like it if it were their son or daughter lying there on a table, petrified and alone? Would they still swirl bubbly drinks and smile at jokes that were never funny in the first place? Or would they be like me, staring through a thick pane of glass, angry and breaking in two?
My gaze travels back to the scene before me. A fine sheen of nervous sweat glistens on Mira’s brow. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
The same orderly that tied her down presses a small injector to the back of her hand, and she winces as the needle finds her vein. It’s not a sedative. That’s illegal because it jeopardizes the success of the procedure, but it will help keep her calm. She opens and closes her other hand, searching for comfort where there is none. I flex my own hands in response.
The man whispers a few words to Mira. Is he telling her everything is going to be all right? Liar.
Mira gulps and tries to relax her muscles. Once he secures the IV patch, he covers her up to her chest with a thin white blanket before leaving. A doctor attaches little pink pads around the top of her skull. After he finishes his macabre preparations, he leaves her alone and turns his focus to Socrates.
Unlike Mira, the old First is not tied down. I guess you don’t have to worry about a corpse falling off the table. They attach the same pink pads and IV patches they did to Mira. Socrates wrinkles his face in merriment at something one of the doctors says. He replies, and they both smile. A fiery rage kindles deep within me.
Laughter behind me ricochets off the walls in the small room. How can they make jokes or laugh while a teenage girl dies in front of them so an old man can live another lifetime?
Mira bites her lip as the orderly who inserted her IV patch returns with a shiny metal helmet. As he settles the cold steel frame on her head, Mira’s gaze searches the glass. Is she looking for me?
I place a hand on the barrier. No one notices, and the clamor of the audience’s voices and the tinkling of their glasses continue behind me without faltering.
The doctor who put the pink patches on her skull pushes one of the red buttons dotting the helmet, the one positioned over her left temple. I steel myself for what comes next.
Mira jumps as a long needle drives into her skull, piercing flesh and bone. Her mouth opens in a silent shriek, and she jerks against the restraints. Even though I can’t hear her cry out, I can feel it. A deep red rivulet streams from the wound, and the orderly carefully wipes it away.
The audience behind me quiets. The show’s about to start.
Pain lances through my head as the doctor pushes the rest of the red buttons one by one. Mira jolts again, but after the orderly says something, she does her best to remain still.
I bunch my hand into a fist. From the corner of my eye, I see a white-haired man’s gaze dart to mine as though surprised by my reaction. What are you staring at? Are you afraid of me, a Texan? He must be a former president or politician, or someone who flaunts his power so fully that no one can get a sliver of freedom without his approval. He should be on that table, not Mira.
Unable to watch what they’re doing to her any longer, I focus on the man who wants her dead. If I didn’t know what was happening, I might think the old man’s merely taking a nap. The doctors rouse him long enough to fit him with his own metal helmet. When they push the first button, Socrates flinches, but it’s just the barest of movements. He forces his face into a sea of calm. I hate him. He deserves to have the same thing happen to him that he’s doing to Mira.
At the thought of her name, my gaze finds its way to her. Mira, much quieter than before, rests on the bed. Faint pink smudges dot her skull around the wounds from the needle probes. A tear trails down the side of her face. I lift my other hand as if to wipe it away but stop when my fingers graze the glass. My gut clenches in a tight knot. She may have chosen this fate, but she doesn’t deserve to die on this table.
Mira’s orderly connects thin wires from her helmet to the computer in the center of the room. Similar metal threads wind their way from Socrates as well. One of the doctors stands at the machine in the middle and presses a seemingly random array of buttons until it blinks red then yellow then green. Fury rises in my throat with the sick, acidic taste of bile. I can’t believe they’re actually going through with this.
Another person enters the room. He has white-blond hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail. He can’t be a doctor; he’s probably only a couple of years older than I am, even though he’s wearing one of their uniforms and the others treat him like their peer.
He strides across the room to Socrates’s side and murmurs something to the old man before squeezing his hand. My anger expands to him, too. That monster doesn’t deserve comfort and kind words while Mira lies there alone on that table.
Mira’s frightened gaze meets this new doctor’s, and he gives her the slightest smile. An orderly hands him a syringe that he pockets. His hands hover over Socrates’s helmet, checking that the probes and connections are fastened correctly.
When the doctor monitoring the computer gives him a command a moment later, he pulls the syringe out and injects it into the clear line leading to Socrates’s arm. Another one does the same to Mira. As the drug seeps into her system, she starts to shake. The wounds on her head leak dark red blood, a stark contrast to her pale skin and frightened eyes.
An orderly rushes over and holds down her shoulders while another wipes at the blood. It doesn’t help; it just keeps flowing despite their frantic attempts to stop it. Are they trying to sanitize the horror? Clean it up so the audience doesn’t notice?
I shove my fists into the pockets of my tunic to keep from punching something or someone. Rage blinds me, yet I can’t look away. I feel so helpless, but there’s nothing I can do. I hate this. I should never have let this happen. I should have done something to save her even though she probably would’ve hated me for it.
Mira stops struggling, and she relaxes. Her eyes drift shut, and her chest rises then falls and doesn’t rise again. No! I imagine crashing my fist through the glass, breaking it. No! Come on, Mira! Breathe! Fight them! Live, dammit!
The doctor monitoring her says something to the one in the center, who nods in response. That was it. That’s all she gets for her bravery, her loyalty, her will to live.
My shoulders sag as the doctor in the center pushes a button. At the same time, the one standing next to Mira injects something into her IV line.
Across the room, an orderly pulls a light blanket over Socrates’s head. Is that it for him, too? The oldest of the Firsts is also dead, and they do nothing for him other than cover his head. Oh, that’s right; he’s not actually dead. His mind will now take root inside the body of a seventeen-year-old girl.
Mira’s body lies still on the table. If only her chest would rise just once, I could almost believe she was asleep. But she’s not. I study her face for the barest signs of life. Is she in there somewhere? It’s happened before, and I can’t imagine anything worse, except death, of course.
The longhaired doctor approaches Mira’s body. Her fingers twitch, and I glue my gaze to that barest of movements. Please let it be her. We’ll make it work somehow. We’ll figure something out.
One by one, the orderlies remove the needle probes from Mira’s skull. As they lift the helmet away, they press healing patches to the wounds. After the patches fully adhere to her skull, they lay her head back down and wait. A high-pitched electronic sound beeps in the theater, and the audience zeroes in on the speaker.
“We will now commence with the first test. Although other, more accurate, tests will be performed in the recovery room, this first assessment must be passed to determine the initial success of the procedure. As the audience, you are all privileged to bear witness to this historic occasion.”
The young doctor leans over Mira’s bed and scrutinizes her face. “Sir, wake up. Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”
After what feels like years, Mira blinks once, then twice, and then touches her head and winces.
“There you are.” The young doctor smiles. “Open your eyes again, please.”
Mira makes a noise, more like an animalistic grunt of pain than anything else, and tries to move, but she’s still strapped down. An orderly dabs at her forehead with a folded piece of white cloth.
“Is everything all right?”
Mira struggles to sit up. The color drains from her face.
“Slowly, please; we don’t want you to black out.” The doctor wraps his arm around her shoulders and helps her to a sitting position.
She swings her bare legs over the side and shivers. She looks so young, so innocent, that anger and injustice bubbles up in me all over again.
“My name is Dr. James Scoffield. I’m here to help you.”
The doctor standing at the computer glances over at them. “Everything checks out, Dr. Scoffield.”
“Good,” the man says. “Okay, sir, this is important. Do you remember what your name is?”
Mira doesn’t respond.
My empty laugh echoes through the silent auditorium. A couple of the rich patrons glare at me, and one man who weighs close to five hundred pounds harrumphs at my insolence.
“My name is Socrates.” Mira’s words are so quiet that I almost miss them.
No, she couldn’t have said that monster’s name. It can’t be him. It’s her voice, dammit. Her words coming out of her mouth. It’s Mira; I know it. Why would she say her name is Socrates? If the Exchange hasn’t been successful and he… No. It can’t be. But something cold and hollow forms in the pit of my stomach.
I spin around on my heel and blindly rush for the door. It’s over. The monster won. Mira’s dead.