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The Darkest Minds (The Darkest Minds #1)
Author:Alexandra Bracken

The Darkest Minds (The Darkest Minds #1)

Alexandra Bracken




For Stephanie and Daniel,

who were in every minivan with me





PROLOGUE


WHEN THE WHITE NOISE WENT OFF, we were in the Garden, pulling weeds.

I always reacted badly to it. It didn’t matter if I was outside, eating in the Mess Hall, or locked in my cabin. When it came, the shrieking tones blew up like a pipe bomb between my ears. Other girls at Thurmond could pick themselves up after a few minutes, shaking off the nausea and disorientation like the loose grass clinging to their camp uniforms. But me? Hours would pass before I was able to piece myself back together.

This time should have been no different.

But it was.

I didn’t see what had happened to provoke the punishment. We were working so close to the camp’s electric fence that I could smell the singed air and feel the voltage it shed vibrating in my teeth. Maybe someone got brave and decided to step out of the Garden’s bounds. Or maybe, dreaming big, someone fulfilled all our fantasies and threw a rock at the head of the nearest Psi Special Forces soldier. That would have been worth it.

The only thing I knew for certain was that the overhead speakers spurted out two warning blares: one short, one long. The skin on my neck crawled as I leaned forward into the damp dirt, hands pressed tightly against my ears, shoulders tensed to take the hit.

The sound that came over the speakers wasn’t really white noise. It wasn’t that weird buzz that the air sometimes takes on when you’re sitting alone in silence, or the faint hum of a computer monitor. To the United States government and its Department of Psi Youth, it was the lovechild of a car alarm and a dental drill, turned up high enough to make your ears bleed.

Literally.

The sound ripped out of the speakers and shredded every nerve in my body. It forced its way past my hands, roaring over the screams of a hundred teenage freaks, and settled at the center of my brain, where I couldn’t reach in and rip it out.

My eyes flooded with tears. I tried to ram my face into the ground—all I could taste in my mouth was blood and dirt. A girl fell forward next to me, her mouth open in a cry I couldn’t hear. Everything else faded out of focus.

My body shook in time with the bursts of static, curling in on itself like an old, yellowing piece of paper. Someone’s hands were shaking my shoulders; I heard someone say my name—Ruby—but I was too far gone to respond. Gone, gone, gone, sinking until there was nothing, like the earth had swallowed me up in a single, deep breath. Then darkness.

And silence.





ONE


GRACE SOMERFIELD WAS THE FIRST TO DIE.

The first in my fourth grade class, at least. I’m sure that by then, thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of kids had already up and gone the same way she had. People were slow to piece it all together—or, at least, they had figured out the right way to keep us in the dark long after kids started dying.

When the deaths finally came to light, my elementary school put a strict ban on teachers and staff talking to us about what was then called Everhart’s Disease, after Michael Everhart, the first kid known to have died of it. Soon, someone somewhere decided to give it a proper name: Idiopathic Adolescent Acute Neurodegeneration—IAAN for short. And then it wasn’t just Michael’s disease. It was all of ours.

All the adults I knew buried the knowledge beneath lying smiles and hugs. I was still stuck in my own world of sunshine, ponies, and my race car collection. Looking back, I couldn’t believe how naive I was, just how many clues I missed. Even big things like when my dad, a cop, started working longer hours and could barely stand to look at me when he finally did come home. My mom started me on a strict vitamin regimen and refused to let me be alone, even for a few minutes.

On the other hand, my parents were both only children. I didn’t have any dead cousins to send up red flags, and my mom’s refusal to let my dad install a “soul-sucking vortex of trash and mindless entertainment”—that thing commonly known as a television—meant that no scary news broadcasts rocked my world. This, combined with the CIA-grade parental controls set up on our Internet access, pretty much ensured I’d be far more concerned with how my stuffed animals were arranged on my bed than the possibility of dying before my tenth birthday.

I was also completely unprepared for what happened on the fifteenth of September.

It had rained the night before, so my parents sent me to school wearing red galoshes. In class, we talked about dinosaurs and practiced cursive before Mrs. Port dismissed us for lunch with her usual look of relief.

I remember every detail of lunch that day clearly, not because I was sitting across from Grace at the table, but because she was the first, and because it wasn’t supposed to happen. She wasn’t old like Grandpops had been. She didn’t have cancer like Mom’s friend Sara. No allergies, no cough, no head injury—nothing. When she died, it came completely out of the blue, and none of us understood what it meant until it was too late.

Grace was locked in deep debate about whether a fly was trapped inside her Jell-O cup. The red mass shivered as she waved it around, inching out over the edge of the container when she squeezed it a bit too tight. Naturally, everyone wanted to give their opinion on whether it was a fly or a piece of candy Grace had pushed in there. Including me.

“I’m not a liar,” Grace said. “I just—”

She stopped. The plastic cup slipped from her fingers, hitting the table. Her mouth was open, eyes fixed on something just beyond my head. Grace’s brow was furrowed, almost as if she was listening to someone explain something very difficult.

“Grace?” I remember saying. “Are you okay?”

Her eyes rolled back, flashing white in the second it took for her eyelids to droop down. Grace let out a small sigh, not even strong enough to blow away the strands of brown hair stuck to her lips.

All of us sitting nearby froze, though we must have had the same exact thought: she’s fainted. A week or two before, Josh Preston had passed out on the playground because, as Mrs. Port explained, he didn’t have enough sugar in his system—something stupid like that.

A noon aide rushed over to the table. She was one of four old ladies with white visors and whistles who rotated lunch and playground duty during the week. I have no idea if she had any medical certifications beyond a vague notion of CPR, but she pulled Grace’s sagging body to the ground all the same.

She had a rapt audience as she pressed her ear to Grace’s hot pink T-shirt, listening for a heartbeat that wasn’t there. I don’t know what the old lady thought, but she started yelling, and suddenly white visors and curious faces circled in on us. It wasn’t until Ben Cho nudged Grace’s limp hand with his sneaker that any of us realized she was dead.

The other kids started screaming. One girl, Tess, was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe. Small feet stampeded toward the cafeteria door.

I just sat, surrounded by abandoned lunches, staring at the cup of Jell-O and letting terror crawl through me until my arms and legs felt like they would be frozen to the table forever. If the school’s security officer hadn’t come and carried me outside, I don’t know how long I would’ve stayed there.

Grace is dead, I was thinking. Grace is dead? Grace is dead.

And it got worse.

A month later, after the first big waves of deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a five-step list of symptoms to help parents identify whether their kid was at risk for IAAN. By then half my class was dead.