Soren’s eyes met Glass’s, but this time, Glass didn’t look away. She couldn’t wrap her mind around the disconnect between Soren’s warmth and the Protectors’ violence. She’d seen them attack her camp. She’d watched them almost kill Luke. Yet standing here, listening to Soren’s calm words, she felt her anger begin to melt away.

“What I want you to take away, as you get to know our little enclave here and the things we’re hoping to accomplish, is that we women must be mothers to our people.” Soren grinned. “Especially the men. They’re children, really! All humans are. They’re innocent, but dangerously reckless in that innocence. They’re takers. We need to show them the way. What has been done to Earth—the greatest mother of all—is nothing short of heartbreaking. Even before the Shattering, this world was overrun with spoiled children and their toys, poisoning the air and the waters, building and harvesting and chopping to suit their own needs. There were gods, religions, but the highest power of all was selfishness.”

Soren’s brow furrowed, and she took a deep breath. “We’ve been given another chance. To do better. To be better. And I’ll need your help to make it happen. You, the women among us.”

Soren pressed her hands to her heart, and to her surprise, Glass felt something stirring inside her own chest. She’d tried so hard to make herself useful these last few weeks, but there never seemed to be a place for her back at camp. She didn’t know how to heal the sick or design buildings. She couldn’t carry heavy loads of firewood. She could never come up with fun games to amuse the children. But maybe Soren was right. Perhaps there was a role for Glass on Earth, one that she could do well, without letting people down.

“We all serve Earth, and if you serve Her well, one day you may stand where I do, as the highest Protector of all… if Earth wills it.” Soren beamed. “That’s a little custom of ours. When one of us says, ‘If Earth wills it,’ we all repeat it, to sort of encourage it along. Shall we give it a try? If Earth wills it…”

And everyone hesitantly repeated, “If Earth wills it.”

“A good start,” Soren said, clapping. “Welcome to our family.”






Wells took another step into the river, the cold water stinging his bare stomach. He gritted his teeth, dug his toes into the slippery mud, and kept going.

Next to him, Eric shivered, teeth chattering. On the other side, Kit, the Earthborn who’d been taken with them, walked into the water with a placid expression. Maybe he was more used to the frigid temperatures than the climate-controlled Colonists were. Down the line, Graham clenched his jaw as the river water splashed over his torso.

“You may stop there.” A musical voice rang out from the riverbank, and all the prisoners turned to face the compound. A row of armed, white-uniformed Protectors waited on the bank to ensure the prisoners’ cooperation in this “voluntary” ceremony. Behind them, the High Protector, Soren, stood on a stacked pile of rubble, gazing out like a benevolent goddess.

Soren had visited the barracks this morning, and Wells had been a little surprised to see a woman leading these brutal, violent people. It turned out all the key decision-makers here were female. The men were just the muscle who carried out their orders. When Soren had spoken to the “newest of our flock,” as she’d called the prisoners, she’d told them all about a ceremony they would participate in to cleanse them of their past transgressions. She’d seemed so reasonable, and the way she’d described this ceremony had sounded more benign than the reality of it; all the boys were shuddering in the frigid water, struggling to stay upright in the river’s rushing current.

Wells waited for Soren to issue the next set of instructions, but instead, maddeningly, she turned and motioned behind her, ushering another group of prisoners to the water’s edge.

This group was all female. Wells inhaled sharply, frantically scanning them. He remembered what the Protectors had said on the wagon about keeping “the best of your women,” but since he hadn’t yet laid eyes on them, he hadn’t dared picture who might have been taken.

There they were, shivering in identical sleeveless white shifts. Eight of the girls from the camp. His heart sank when he saw Lina and Octavia, and pain jolted through his chest when his eyes landed on Glass. His childhood friend had endured so much suffering already, and now here she was, facing what could be the most dangerous challenge yet. Luke must’ve been out of his mind with worry right now. Bellamy too. The girls looked unharmed, thank god. But knowing they were here, among these monsters, sent waves of pain through his chest.

Wells took a deep breath and willed his rage to subside. He would make sure his friends made it home. And if it turned out the Protectors had hurt anyone back at the camp, then Wells would make them suffer for it. But this was not the moment.

Glass caught Wells’s eye and stared at him in astonishment. He could read her face like a book. She was dismayed that he’d also been captured, but relieved that he was there with her. Afraid that it would all go terribly wrong.

The girls waded into the water with sharp intakes of breath. Wells tried to catch Octavia’s eye, but she didn’t turn, just stared ahead, her mouth set in a defiant grimace as she swished her arms in the river’s waves.

“You may stop there,” Soren said again, spreading her arms wide while the girls stopped a few yards ahead of Wells and turned to face her. “Welcome, new friends. It is such a blessing to have you all with us.”

Her voice was warm, and her expression kind. But Wells refused to let those details distract him from the fact that there was something seriously wrong with these people.

“Earth has wrought Her incredible work and brought you into our fold. You were raised in different communities than ours, under different customs.” She cast her eyes upward as if amused. “Some of you, as I understand it, have even come to us from the sky. We honor your backgrounds. But now it is time to wash them away and start again, as clean as the moment of your birth. When I release my arms,” Soren said, still holding them wide, “I would like you to submerge your heads under the water and rise again, anew.”

Her arms dropped. As commanded, Wells ducked under the icy shock of water. He opened his eyes, surprised by the sight of a fluorescent fish swimming by, then stood straight with a gasp, letting the river slough back off him.

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