While the Stone looked as if it had once been a massive, enclosed complex, nature had reclaimed much of it. Hallways ended in patches of dense trees, and staircases stood on their own, leading to nowhere. There was a well-worn path around the perimeter, and that’s where Wells, Eric, Graham, and the Earthborn prisoners were running now. Whether it was a game, or a punishment, or a test, Wells wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he had to keep moving.

“You are running on Earth,” the bearded Protector jogging beside him shouted, spraying spittle at Wells’s shoes. “You are striking Her with your feet. Apologize!”

“I’m sorry,” Wells huffed between strides. The Protectors were carrying short, blunt sticks, and he’d seen what they did with them to prisoners who didn’t answer.

“You space scum abandoned Her to die. Beg Her forgiveness!”

“Please… forgive me…”

“Pledge yourself to Her service!”

Wells’s legs were burning. His lungs were burning. He could barely move, let alone speak.

“I pledge—”

The Protector’s fist shot out, connecting with Wells’s jaw and sending him careening off to the side. His ankles threatened to give out, his whole face throbbing with hot pain, but he kept running. He had to keep running.

The Protector kept pace beside him, but finally turned his eyes away. “You’re not fit for Her service. Not yet. Keep running.”


A flash of movement to the left drew Wells’s attention away for a moment—Graham, stumbling off the track, gripping his jaw. The Protector next to him was opening and closing his fist, so Wells was guessing they’d just gotten to the “pledge yourself” section of the script too.

A vein in Graham’s neck was pulsing, his whole face turning splotchy red. Wells watched Graham’s fists balling up and rising; then Wells let one of his feet catch on the other, sending him staggering straight into Graham, knocking him onto the ground.

Graham looked like he was going to pummel Wells for a second, his eyes practically rabid. Wells had just enough time to lean close, as though he was collapsing onto Graham’s ear, and hiss, “Not like this. Not without a plan,” before the Protectors swooped, dragging both of them up by the armpits.

At the next bend, the path opened up onto a large, rocky clearing. Unlike the rest of the fortress, which was filled with scattered clusters of trees, this section was empty except for a wide asphalt road that led to the largest, most intact part of the enormous building.

A line of Protectors was waiting in front of the entrance with guns. Wells felt the blood rush out of his face and chest as he wondered whether he’d made a terrible mistake sending a message to Graham. He may have just gambled with his own life.

“Line up,” the bearded Protector barked as they slowed to a halt.

“Where are they taking us?” Wells asked, trying to make his voice as firm and steady as possible while he watched the others ahead of him lining up to be led away.

“To eat,” the Protector said, coughing up the word as if disgusted by it. Wells nearly sighed with relief. “And then straight back here for more. You have a problem with that?”

Wells shook his head and saluted like he was back in guard training. The Protector started to walk away, grumbling something inaudible, and Wells decided to press his luck.

“What do I call you?” he asked. The Protector turned, nothing but menace on his face, but Wells didn’t flinch. “Do you have a name?”

“You don’t get to hear my name,” the Protector said, his nose suddenly an inch from Wells’s. “If you have to call me anything, you call me Oak.”

“Yes, sir,” Wells said, but his eyes were darting to the man’s collar, so close now that he could read the name written on it in crude ink: O’Malley. Was that this Protector’s name, or that of someone who came before?

A bowl of cold oats and another grueling jog later—this one over obstacles obscured in the dark of night—Wells found himself staggering into a hole cut into the dark, endless wall of the fortress, barely in control of his legs anymore, his head lolling forward while two raiders kept him walking.

By the time he could look up, he was at the last destination of the evening: a long room lined with cages. In his current exhausted state, it took him a few shocked seconds to realize the cages weren’t for animals—they were for them. In each cage, there was only enough room for a small bedroll and a bowl that Wells was pretty sure was meant to be used as a chamber pot. In addition to the guys captured from their camp—eleven total, including Wells—there were about a dozen other “recruits,” people who hadn’t arrived with them.

Shock reverberated through Wells. Who were these other prisoners moaning and muttering in the other cages? And where did they come from? He knew about Max’s village, and the Earthborn faction who’d broken away. But clearly the Protectors had found—and raided—other societies on this planet.

“You’ll bunk here until you’re officially one of us,” one of the Protectors shouted as the two holding Wells up shoved him inside and clanked the door shut. “Rest up. Tomorrow won’t be so easy.”

The lights turned off, leaving them in impenetrable darkness. Wells listened, hearing anxious breathing, someone coughing down the line, no conversation at all in that weird, flat Protector accent.

In the silence, Wells thought of the people he’d left behind. Bellamy, his brother; Clarke, not his girlfriend anymore, but still his rock; Max, as close to a father as he’d ever get again. He wondered whether they were safe, but his mind swam with possibilities, all of them too painful to contemplate, and then landed on one fundamental truth.

He would do anything to see their faces again.

He’d do anything to get up at dawn and walk through the silent clearing to find Molly waiting for him. Listening to her chatter as she perched on a rock, watching him chop firewood. He needed to help Luke rebuild the cabins. He had to plant flowers by Sasha’s grave and watch them grow. He might not have been the leader they thought he was, but he would do better. Be better. He would atone for the mistakes that’d led to so much suffering.

“Wells?” came a whisper no more than six inches away. Wells jumped, making his cage clang. “Are you still awake?”

It was Eric. Wells exhaled. This was the one benefit of being stored in here like cheap cargo: close proximity to the people he needed.

Most Popular