The 100 (The Hundred #1)(2) by Kass Morgan

“No, sir,” Wells said, biting back his indignation. His father had apparently spent the past six weeks trying to recast Wells as some kind of rebel, reprogramming his memories to help him understand why his son, formerly a star student and now the highest-ranked cadet, had committed the most public infraction in history. But even the truth would do little to mitigate his father’s confusion. For the Chancellor, nothing could justify setting fire to the Eden Tree, the sapling that had been carried onto Phoenix right before the Exodus. Yet for Wells, it hadn’t been a choice. Once he’d discovered that Clarke was one of the hundred being sent to Earth, he’d had to do something to join them. And as the Chancellor’s son, only the most public of infractions would land him in Confinement.

Wells remembered moving through the crowd at the Remembrance Ceremony, feeling the weight of hundreds of eyes on him, his hand shaking as he removed the lighter from his pocket and produced a spark that glowed brightly in the gloom. For a moment, everyone had stared in silence as the flames wrapped around the tree. And even as the guards rushed forward in sudden chaos, no one had been able to miss whom they were dragging away.

“What the hell were you thinking?” the Chancellor asked, staring at him in disbelief. “You could’ve burned down the whole hall and killed everyone in it.”

It would be better to lie. His father would have an easier time believing that Wells had been carrying out a dare. Or perhaps he could try to pretend he had been on drugs. Either of those scenarios would be more palatable to the Chancellor than the truth—that he’d risked everything for a girl.

The hospital door closed behind him but Wells’s smile stayed frozen in place, as if the force it had taken to lift the corners of his mouth had permanently damaged the muscles in his face. Through the haze of drugs, his mother had probably thought his grin looked real, which was all that mattered. She’d held Wells’s hand as the lies poured out of him, bitter but harmless. Yes, Dad and I are doing fine. She didn’t need to know that they’d barely exchanged more than a few words in weeks. When you’re better, we’ll finish Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They both knew that she’d never make it to the final volume.

Wells slipped out of the hospital and started walking across B deck, which was mercifully empty. At this hour, most people were either at tutorials, work, or at the Exchange. He was supposed to be at a history lecture, normally his favorite subject. He’d always loved stories about ancient cities like Rome and New York, whose dazzling triumphs were matched only by the magnitude of their downfalls. But he couldn’t spend two hours surrounded by the same tutorial mates who had filled his message queue with vague, uncomfortable condolences. The only person he could talk to about his mother was Glass, but she’d been strangely distant lately.

Wells wasn’t sure how long he’d been standing outside the door before he realized he’d arrived at the library. He allowed the scanner to pass over his eyes, waited for the prompt, and then pressed his thumb against the pad. The door slid open just long enough for Wells to slip inside and then closed behind him with a huffy thud, as if it had done Wells a great favor by admitting him in the first place.

Wells exhaled as the stillness and shadows washed over him. The books that been evacuated onto Phoenix before the Cataclysm were kept in tall, oxygen-free cases that significantly slowed the deterioration process, which is why they had to be read in the library, and only then for a few hours at a time. The enormous room was hidden away from the circadian lights, in a state of perpetual twilight.

For as long as he could remember, Wells and his mother had spent Sunday evenings here, his mother reading aloud to him when he was little, then reading side by side as he got older. But as her illness progressed and her headaches grew worse, Wells had started reading to her. They’d just started volume two of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the evening before she was admitted to the hospital.

He wove through the narrow aisles toward the English Language section and then over to History, which was tucked into a dark back corner. The collection was smaller than it should’ve been. The first colonial government had arranged for digital text to be loaded onto Phoenix, but fewer than a hundred years later, a virus wiped out most of the digital archives, and the only books left were those in private collections—heirlooms handed down from the original colonists to their descendants. Over the past century, most of the relics had been donated to the library.

Wells crouched down until he was eye level with the Gs. He pressed his thumb against the lock and the glass slid open with a hiss, breaking the vacuum seal. He reached inside to grab Decline and Fall but then paused. He wanted to read on so he’d be able to tell his mother about it, but that would be tantamount to arriving in her hospital room with her memorial plaque and asking for her input on the wording.

“You’re not supposed to leave the case open,” a voice said from behind him.

“Yes, thank you,” Wells said, more sharply than he’d meant. He rose to his feet and turned to see a familiar-looking girl staring at him. It was the apprentice medic from the hospital. Wells felt a flash of anger at this blending of worlds. The library was where he went to forget about the sickening smell of antiseptic, the beep of the heart monitor that, far from a sign of life, seemed like a countdown to death.

The girl took a step back and cocked her head, her light hair falling to one side. “Oh. It’s you.” Wells braced for the first swoon of recognition, and the rapid eye movements that meant she was already messaging her friends on her cornea slip. But this girl’s eyes focused directly on him, as if she were looking straight into his brain, peeling back the layers to reveal all the thoughts Wells had purposefully hidden.

“Didn’t you want that book?” She nodded toward the shelf where Decline and Fall was stored.

Wells shook his head. “I’ll read it another time.”

She was silent for a moment. “I think you should take it now.” Wells’s jaw tightened, but when he said nothing, she continued. “I used to see you here with your mother. You should bring it to her.”

“Just because my father’s in charge ofd, in char the Council doesn’t mean I get to break a three-hundred-year rule,” he said, allowing just a shade of condescension to darken his tone.

“The book will be fine for a few hours. They exaggerate the effects of the air.”

Wells raised an eyebrow. “And do they exaggerate the power of the exit scanner?” There were scanners over most public doors on Phoenix that could be programmed to any specifications. In the library, it monitored the molecular composition of every person who exited, to make sure no one left with a book in their hands or hidden under their clothes.

A smile flickered across her face. “I figured that out a long time ago.” She glanced over her shoulder down the shadowy aisle between the bookcases, reached into her pocket, and extracted a piece of gray cloth. “It keeps the scanner from recognizing the cellulose in the paper.” She held it out to him. “Here. Take it.”

Wells took a step back. The chances of this girl trying to embarrass him were far greater than the odds of her having a piece of magical fabric hidden in her pocket. “Why do you have this?”

She shrugged. “I like reading other places.” When he didn’t say anything, she smiled and extended her other hand. “Just give me the book. I’ll sneak it out for you and bring it to the hospital.”

Wells surprised himself by handing her the book. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“So you know to whom you’ll be eternally indebted?”

“So I know who to blame when I’m arrested.”

The girl tucked the book under her arm and then extended her hand. “Clarke.”

“Wells,” he said, reaching forward to shake it. He smiled, and this time it didn’t hurt.

“They barely managed to save the tree.” The Chancellor stared at Wells, as if looking for a sign of remorse or glee—anything to help him understand why his son had tried to set fire to the only tree evacuated from their ravaged planet. “Some of the council members wanted to execute you on the spot, juvenile or not, you know. I was only able to spare your life by getting them to agree to send you to Earth.”

Wells exhaled with relief. There were fewer than 150 kids in Confinement, so he had assumed they’d take all the older teens, but until this moment he hadn’t been sure he would be sent on the mission.

His father’s eyes widened with surprise and understanding as he stared at Wells. “That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

Wells nodded.

The Chancellor grimaced. “Had I known you were this desperate to see Earth, I could have easily arranged for you to join the second expedition. Once we determined it was safe.”

“I didn’t want to wait. I want to go with the first hundred.”

The Chancellor narrowed his eyes slightly as he assessed Wells’s impassive face. “Why? You of all people know the risks.”

“With all due respect, you’re the one who convinced tto convinhe Council that nuclear winter was over. You said it was safe.”

“Yes. Safe enough for the hundred convicted criminals who were going to die anyway,” the Chancellor said, his voice a mix of condescension and disbelief. “I didn’t mean safe for my son.”

The anger Wells had been trying to smother flared up, reducing his guilt to ashes. He shook his hands so the cuffs rattled against the chair. “I guess I’m one of them now.”

“Your mother wouldn’t want you to do this, Wells. Just because she enjoyed dreaming about Earth doesn’t mean she’d want you to put yourself in harm’s way.”

Wells leaned forward, ignoring the bite of the metal digging into his flesh. “She’s not who I’m doing this for,” he said, looking his father straight in the eye for the first time since he’d sat down. “Though I do think she’d be proud of me.” It was partially true. She’d had a romantic streak and would have commended her son’s desire to protect the girl he loved. But his stomach writhed at the thought of his mom knowing what he’d really done to save Clarke. The truth would make setting the Eden Tree on fire seem like a harmless prank.

His father stared at him. “Are you telling me this whole debacle is because of that girl?”

Wells nodded slowly. “It’s my fault she’s being sent down there like some lab rat. I’m going to make sure she has the best chance of making it out alive.”

The Chancellor was silent for a moment. But when he spoke again, his voice was calm. “That won’t be necessary.” The Chancellor removed something from his desk drawer and placed it in front of Wells. It was a metal ring affixed with a chip about the size of Wells’s thumb. “Every member of the expedition is currently being fitted with one of these bracelets,” his father explained. “They’ll send data back up to the ship so we can track your location and monitor your vitals. As soon as we have proof that the environment is hospitable, we’ll begin recolonization.” He forced a grim smile. “If everything goes according to plan, it won’t be long before the rest of us come down to join you, and all this”—he gestured toward Wells’s bound hands—“will be forgotten.”

The door opened and a guard stepped over the threshold. “It’s time, sir.”

The Chancellor nodded, and the guard strode across the room to pull Wells to his feet.

“Good luck, son,” Wells’s father said, assuming his trademark brusqueness.

“If anyone can make this mission a success, it’s you.”

He extended his arm to shake Wells’s hand, but then let it fall to his side when he realized his mistake. His only child’s arms were still shackled behind him.