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The Child Thief 5: Ghost Towns by Bella Forrest (1)

1

I barely felt the airship touch down when we got back to Edgewood. I watched the Smally holding center executives stand wearily and be guided off the ship, never thinking to ask about where they were going or what was going to be done to them. And when Jace turned and spoke to me as we began disembarking, I realized that I wasn’t comprehending what he was saying. A heavy fog had settled over me, keeping me from thinking clearly about what had just happened or what we were going to do next.

All I could think about was the last thing Nelson had told me, back at Smally. She had the names of my parents. And, even more importantly, she had an address for Hope.

Hope. Just the thought of knowing more about her, about the life she had led since she had been ripped from my arms, was bringing tears to my eyes. I was feeling a jumble of intense emotions and struggling to consider each of them individually. I was furious at the injustice of losing her for two years, but overjoyed at the prospect of bringing her home.

Most of all, I was anxious to learn more—and to get started on my mission to reclaim her.

I wanted to scream and cry and laugh simultaneously. All this time, all of the Operation Hood missions, all of the time spent getting our friends out of custody and finding Edgewood, and finally, I had made progress in finding her and bringing her home. It was taking everything in me to continue walking rather than turn on my heel, grab the airship controls myself, and demand to begin my personal mission to bring Hope home.

“I asked if you’re feeling all right,” Jace’s voice interjected.

I snapped back to reality. Jace’s face was etched with concern, his brow furrowed and his lips taut, and I realized how detached I had been for the trip home from Smally. Jace didn’t really have any insight into how I was feeling, and whether I was excited or shell-shocked with fear. He didn’t know why I had been acting so vacant.

I smiled in response, feeling more optimistic than I had in years.

“Better than all right,” I replied.

Jace’s smile returned to his face, his honey-colored eyes afire again with the thrill of a successful mission. We stepped down off the airship ramp together and moved to the side to allow the rest of the team room to disembark. Within moments, the rest of our team came streaming out of the airship, and the empty hangar was filling with an electric excitement. People high-fived and hugged each other as they left the plane. Alexy disembarked with her fist held up in the air, as if she’d accomplished the entire thing all by herself. But I was holding in my celebration for the next step in our mission.

I waited patiently outside the airship hatch for Nelson, Jace standing by my side, and watched the mini-celebration occur around me, without taking part in it. I had one thing on my mind, and for that, I needed Nelson.

She had been preoccupied with new responsibilities on our flight back—hard at work on a new responsibility of checking and maintaining the stealth tech of the ship during our escape—and I’d had to sit anxiously by, unable to ask the questions that were dancing in my head. Where was Hope? How could I get to her? I knew the address in the archives might not be her current address, but anything would be a start. Next question: Where were my parents? Where were Nelson’s daughter, and Jackie’s sister, and Ant and Abe’s parents?

Now that we were on land again, I couldn’t wait to start getting some answers.

But my fervor dampened as the stretchers began to roll out of the airship hatch.

Lux came first. She was pale, turning her head slowly from side to side, and I knew she was suffering. Zion and Rio got her safely down to the hangar floor and then quickened their pace, a path clearing for the trio as they sped toward the hospital.

Savannah and Ajax were next.

I didn’t know who was who. White sheets were draped over both bodies, allowing only the outline of their forms to show through. Gabby and Nelson had taken up the grim responsibility of transporting their bodies, and unlike with Lux, there was no hurry as Savannah and Ajax were rolled through the hatch on their stretchers and into the hangar. There was nothing that could be done.

Nelson gave me a quick nod as she passed, her expression speaking volumes. What we had to discuss was important, but it would have to wait. I nodded back.

Nathan was the last to disembark. He exited somberly, following the solemn parade of stretchers, but as he passed he managed to give Jace and me a muted smile.

“Well done,” he said. “Now the really hard part begins.” And then he was off, back to Corona and the rest of his close circle to transmit the news of our success and, if I understood his parting shot correctly, plan for the next step.

My body tensed in anticipation as I watched him walk away. I wanted to chase after him. Even if I hadn’t received the details about Hope’s location yet, I was itching to grab him and tell him that we needed to begin planning for that mission as soon as possible. Because with this mission, I had finally found the thing I’d been looking for since before I had even joined Operation Hood. It felt like we all had. Nelson, Jackie, Alexy, Ant, Abe. We would all have access to information on our lost family members.

And I knew we would all want to get out and find them. Immediately.

But I thought better of it. As much as it pained me, I knew this wasn’t the right time to have that discussion. It was late, we were all tired, and Lux was gravely injured. And worse, Ajax and Savannah had just lost their lives. There were more pressing matters at hand. So it would have to wait. But I promised myself it wouldn’t wait a second longer than it had to. I was going to find Hope… and I was going to bring her home.

I spent the next few hours tossing and turning in my new bed.

At some point during our mission, our things had been collected and moved into our new residence: a brownstone down the main street from the guest housing. It was a three-story home that fit two to a room, with a pleasant façade and large windows. We were no longer initiates at Edgewood, it seemed, so the new digs were supposed to be a team base to reflect our official Little John member status.

But instead I felt anxious and unnerved to come home with so many new questions and new surroundings.

Nelson took forever to return to the room. I knew she had assisted in getting a badly injured Lux, and the bodies of Savannah and Ajax, to the hospital—an incidental medic—but now I was wondering what was taking her so long. Had she gotten caught up somewhere else afterward? Had she taken the time to speak to Nathan about our new mission already? Or had she been called back to the tech room already to work with the Artemis Protocol?

The door opened at that moment, revealing an exhausted-looking Nelson, and I sat up immediately.

She put her hand up and smiled weakly. “I know. You have questions. And I have answers. But I need a moment to decompress.”

I nodded. I could give her a moment if that meant a few seconds. Maybe a few minutes. As long as she didn’t mean she needed the whole night. I had already waited over two years! I needed to know more about Hope now.

Nelson sat down heavily onto her bed and began to pull off her boots. She let them drop to the floor with a thud, swung her legs up onto the bed with a groan, and lay back onto her pillow. For a few moments, no one spoke.

“It’s going to be hard to relax with you drilling those holes into me with your eyes,” she finally said, turning to me with the shadow of a grin.

“I’m sorry,” I managed. “I’m just anxious. I tried to fall asleep, but it just wasn’t happening.”

She turned away and stared up at the ceiling.

“I know that feeling,” she responded. “I feel like I might never sleep again, as much as I need to.”

“How is Lux?” I asked, bracing myself for the response. She had looked terrible when she came off the airship, and I suddenly pictured a nurse sympathetically pulling the white sheet up over her face, as our team members had for Savannah and Ajax… but pushed the thought out of my head.

“She’ll survive,” Nelson answered. “She was shot at close range. The bullet didn’t penetrate her second-skin suit, but the force still caused a pretty nasty laceration. She got stitches, and they’re monitoring her for internal bleeding. I’m more concerned about her emotional state.” At this point, she paused. “She lost half of her team tonight. That’ll take a lot longer to heal than some cuts and bruises.”

We were both quiet for a while longer, unsure of how to proceed. We had barely known Rio, Lux, Savannah, and Ajax before the mission, aside from seeing them occasionally in the dining hall or in the background in our meetings. We hadn’t taken much time to speak to them on our flight to Asus.

And now it was too late to ever get to know Savannah and Ajax better.

They had been a team, just like we were. And now only Rio and Lux were left. I couldn’t imagine losing half of our team so suddenly.

Nelson must have been thinking the same thing. “I saw it all hit Rio at once in the hospital,” she said softly.

Then it was silent again in the room. I knew Nelson was exhausted, physically and emotionally, but I couldn’t help my next question.

“Where is Hope?” I asked.

But the only response I received was the soft purr of a snore. I looked over, saw that she was fast asleep, and chuckled to myself. She hadn’t thought she’d be able to sleep, but it looked like sleep had taken her anyhow.

I turned over in bed and pulled the covers up to my chin. Now if only it would be so easy for me.

It wasn’t. I tried to clear my mind, but thoughts were bouncing around my head wildly. I couldn’t stop thinking about Hope. I thought back to when I had first found out I was expecting. I had felt so much fear and worry when I held that test in my hand, thinking about what I was giving up—my autonomy, my youth, and maybe even my career prospects. And I wasn’t just abandoned by the “parents” who I thought loved and supported me; I was also abandoned by the government. It was perfectly legal for my adoptive father to kick me out and stop supporting me entirely. Since I was still technically a minor, I had the option of going back into a detention center and trying to get adopted again, but who was going to adopt a pregnant seventeen-year-old? So I took the emancipation route and went to live with Henry and his parents, feeling lost and afraid.

But I also remembered feeling excitement. I was losing things, sure, but I was also gaining something. I was gaining a daughter; a blood relative that I might be able to see parts of myself in. I’d never had that before. Being around my Team Hood friends helped me feel more whole, but I still ached for real family. I wanted to know what it felt like to look at someone and be able to see parts of myself in them.

But when the Sylvones kicked me out and I moved into Henry’s social class, the loss I felt was almost insurmountable. I knew the regime’s rules; I knew that I’d lose Hope. There was no hiding the pregnancy from the CRAS. Prenatal care alerted the government to my pregnancy and my social class. And even if I had managed to avoid the doctor, Henry’s parents had been adamant that we report the pregnancy and comply with the government. Concealing pregnancies carried serious punishments for parents and “accessories” to the crime. Henry and I could have been imprisoned for trying to hide Hope. And since we lived with his parents, they would’ve faced the same awful fate. I spent the last few months of my pregnancy praying that she would stay inside my tummy, so I could keep her with me forever. I had begged Henry to run away with me. I had begged his parents to help us hide. But the risk to our lives was too great, and eventually they convinced me that it was “selfish” to try to keep her when she could go to a better home and be given better opportunities.

And so we’d just… let her go. I was allowed to hold her directly after the pain and trauma of delivery. I gave her a name. But then the nurse told me it was time to say goodbye, and they took her from my arms. My heart had split in half then. And there was only one thing that could make it whole again.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight in my bed. I had to try to sleep. I had to try to quell these thoughts.

But then I thought of my parents. I had been so intent on finding Hope that I had given my birth parents shamefully little thought since joining Operation Hood—and then OH+, and now Little John. Maybe they felt about me how I felt about Hope. Maybe, somewhere, my parents were looking for me as well.

Sleep eluded me most of the night. But finally, I felt myself slip away.

I slept fitfully enough that I was awake at the first sound of rustling coming from Nelson’s bed.

“I’m sorry I fell asleep on you,” she said with a yawn. “I’d love to shower, but I’m guessing you’ll barricade the door at this point if you don’t get what you want first.”

Soon I was sitting cross-legged beside Nelson on her bed, watching her fire up her tablet and begin to wirelessly sync the information from the external drive. My eyes were wide and my heart was racing as the files loaded. But to my dismay, it wasn’t an instantaneous download. Thousands of files had been loaded onto Nelson’s external drive.

“Were all of these files necessary?” I asked, trying to hide my impatience. The loading bar crept by agonizingly slowly as the files synced. Couldn’t she have started this process last night?

Nelson replied affirmatively. “I had to download everything I could get. I didn’t really have the time to pick and choose.”

The file load time continued to tick by, and though I wished desperately that it would go more quickly, I understood why she’d downloaded as much as she had. It would’ve been selfish to save only the files that concerned our immediate team members. After all, Little John needed everything, and if the Ministry ever got word of our subterfuge, the archives could be buried even further in the future. Nelson still had a hard drive somewhere with detailed instructions on how to get into the archives that were almost complete. Maybe the coding within these files would be the last piece in that puzzle, giving her the key to accessing the archives remotely. Then we’d have all of the archives in our possession.

And even if it was incomplete, the information that Nelson had already managed to download was a step toward reuniting hundreds of families, if not thousands, if they were willing to go into hiding or if Little John could ever effectively change how the government operated. But for the moment I was going to allow myself to be selfish. I cared only about Hope, and the other family members of the people I was close to.

“Done,” Nelson said.

She didn’t have to say it. My eyes had been glued to the screen. This was it.

Nelson opened a file with many additional files inside it. None of them were named. They were all labeled with long, complicated strands of letters and numbers. I wasn’t much of a techie, admittedly, and suddenly I felt silly for assuming the information would be cleanly organized into files with our names on them. Of course it was more complicated than that. This was stolen information, not a clean public database.

Nelson pulled up a coding window and typed something out in a language that I couldn’t understand—complete with symbols and numbers—though it included a few words that I did recognize: “Robin Sylvone.”

The computer froze up momentarily, searching, and then all of the other files fell away. Just one file was left on the screen. I caught my breath.

“You ready for this?” Nelson asked nervously.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

There was another set of files inside this folder. Some of them looked like random bits of code, and Nelson scrolled past them and then landed on pay dirt: document files. She pulled one up, blew it up to full-screen, and then began to zoom in on the text. The file definitely necessitated zooming in; it was filled with information, all of it in a font tiny enough to barely be legible. There were coordinates, department codes, and even bar codes. It looked like a file that wasn’t even meant for human eyes, like a document that had been issued and circulated only between computers. Code was used throughout, as if it was an easily readable language. Most of it looked like gibberish, and almost none of it made any sense to me.

Nelson seemed to know right where to go, though. And then all of the information was right in front of me.

Redistributive Name: Sylvone, Robin

Place of Birth: Millville

Birth Name: None

Birth Parents: Juno Jones, Culver Wright

Age at Redistribution: 00Y02M

Redistributive Parents: Luke and Layla Sylvone

Redistributive Address: Silver Town

That was all, or at least all that looked relevant to human eyes.

The moment was anticlimactic. What about—

“Hope?” I asked aloud.

“Oh,” Nelson sputtered. “She has her own file.” She hesitated, as if waiting for me to say something about the information we had found in my file. But I had nothing to say. I needed to process that information, and before that could happen, I needed to know about Hope.

Nelson turned back to the tablet, pulled up another coding box, and searched again. Soon we were in a new file.

Redistributive Name: Preston, Genevieve

Place of Birth: Trenton

Birth Name: Hope Stone

Birth Parents: Robin Sylvone, Henry Stone

Age at Redistribution: 00Y00M

Redistributive Parents: Michael and Mavis Preston

Redistributive Address: Chanley

“Genevieve,” I said.

It was more of a reflex, the word tumbling out of my mouth in my disbelief. It made sense that they would have renamed her, just as I’d assumed my adoptive parents had renamed me. But seeing the name made me feel strangely ill. They had stolen my child and then discarded the only gift I was able to give her. They had done away with the name that was a summation of my dreams and optimism, no matter how childish they had been. They had done away with a name that described how I felt when I looked into my baby girl’s eyes. The renaming caused a fresh pang of anger and sadness.

Her name was Hope. And that would always be her name.

Nelson, as it turned out, felt similarly.

“Genevieve, huh? Definitely a rich people name. Just like Rylo’s adoptive parents. They renamed my daughter Ann-Marie.”

Rylo. It was the first time I had heard Nelson refer to her daughter by name. Looking at her, the burn marks from her time in Authority hands still pink on her face and neck, I felt a rush of gratitude and kinship. She had a daughter who had been ripped away, too. She had joined Operation Hood to get her back and to change the system, just like I had. She had been working for years to find this information. And now we had it. We were together in this, and now we were one step closer to finding our children.

I threw my arms around her in gratitude. The emotion of the past day and a half began to pour out of me, and with it came a flood of happy tears. Nelson seemed taken aback at first, but it didn’t take long for the emotion to overwhelm her as well. I felt her hug tighten. And then we were both blubbering like madwomen.

After a few minutes, we pulled away from each other and composed ourselves, laughing at our outburst. Neither of us was much for public displays of emotion. But if there was ever a time, it was now.

“I’m surprised they even recorded Hope’s birth name,” I wondered aloud, “since we were just poor people who were about to lose her. Why bother taking down her name at all?”

“Maybe they wanted a name to refer to her by while she was in custody,” Nelson replied.

“Where’s the other archives drive?” I asked, remembering what Nelson had said after the mission. “Didn’t you make two back in Smally?”

“Nathan already has it,” she said. “I took it to him after I left the hospital last night. I was hoping to talk to him, but…”

“But what?” I queried after she trailed off.

“But,” she responded, “he seemed busy. Piper and Corona were in his office, and I assumed they were discussing the mission. I wanted to get permission for us to go reclaim our girls, but Nathan was obviously busy.”

Nathan was always being pulled in a dozen or so different directions, and as much as he felt like a member of our team, I had to remember that he was involved in something much bigger than just our little team of renegades. It made sense that he was busy.

But this was important. Edgewood was a safe haven. It had a school, a dining hall, and dorms for us to sleep in. Families were happy and thriving here. Now we needed to bring our children here to live with us, too. Our children deserved this type of happiness and freedom as well. And we deserved to have them with us.

At the very least, we needed to ask Nathan when he would be available.

“Well,” I started, standing quickly and with determination, “we need to find a way to speak with him. We have a lot to talk about.”

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