Champion (Legend #3)

by Marie Lu

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA

REPUBLIC OF AMERICA

POPULATION: 24,646,320

OUT OF ALL THE DISGUISES I’VE WORN, THIS ONE might be my favorite.

Dark red hair, different enough from my usual white-blond, cut to just past my shoulders and pulled back into a tail. Green contacts that look natural when layered over my blue eyes. A crumpled, half-tucked collar shirt, its tiny silver buttons shining in the dark, a thin military jacket, black pants and steel-toed boots, a thick gray scarf wrapped around my neck, chin, and mouth. A dark soldier cap is pulled low over my forehead, and a crimson, painted tattoo stretches all over the left half of my face, changing me into someone unfamiliar. Aside from this, I wear an ever-present earpiece and mike. The Republic insists on it.

In most other cities, I’d probably get even more stares than I usually do because of that giant goddy tattoo—not exactly a subtle marker, I gotta admit. But here in San Francisco, I blend right in with the others. The first thing I noticed when Eden and I moved to Frisco eight months ago was the local trend: young people painting black or red patterns on their faces, some small and delicate, like Republic seals on their temples or something similar, others huge and sprawling, like giant patterns of the Republic’s land shape. I chose a pretty generic tattoo tonight, because I’m not loyal enough to the Republic to stamp that loyalty right on my face. Leave that to June. Instead, I have stylized flames. Good enough.

My insomnia’s acting up tonight, so instead of sleeping, I’m walking alone through a sector called Marina, which as far as I can tell is the hillier, Frisco equivalent of LA’s Lake sector. The night’s cool and pretty quiet, and a light drizzle is blowing in from the city’s bay. The streets are narrow, glistening wet, and riddled with potholes, and the buildings that rise up on both sides—most of them tall enough to vanish into tonight’s low-lying clouds—are eclectic, painted with fading red and gold and black, their sides fortified with enormous steel beams to counter the earthquakes that roll through every couple of months. JumboTrons five or six stories high sit on every other block, blaring the usual barrage of Republic news. The air smells salty and bitter, like smoke and industrial waste mixed with seawater, and somewhere in there, a faint whiff of fried fish. Sometimes, when I turn down a corner, I’ll suddenly end up close enough to the water’s edge to get my boots wet. Here the land slopes right into the bay and hundreds of buildings poke out half submerged along the horizon. Whenever I get a view of the bay, I can also see the Golden Gate Ruins, the twisted remnants of some old bridge all piled up along the other side of the shore. A handful of people jostle past me now and then, but for the most part the city is asleep. Scattered bonfires light alleyways, gathering spots for the sector’s street folks. It’s not that different from Lake.

Well—I guess there are some differences now. The San Francisco Trial Stadium, for one, which sits empty and unlit off in the distance. Fewer street police in the poor sectors. The city’s graffiti. You can always get an idea of how the people are feeling by looking at the recent graffiti. A lot of the messages I’ve seen lately actually support the Republic’s new Elector. He is our hope, says one message scrawled on the side of a building. Another painted on the street reads: The Elector will guide us out of the darkness. A little too optimistic, if you ask me, but I guess they’re good signs. Anden must be doing something right. And yet. Every now and then, I’ll also see messages that say, The Elector’s a hoax, or Brainwashed, or The Day we knew is dead.

I don’t know. Sometimes this new trust between Anden and the people feels like a string . . . and I am that string. Besides, maybe the happy graffiti’s fake, painted by propaganda officers. Why not?

You never know with the Republic.

Eden and I, of course, have a Frisco apartment in a rich sector called Pacifica, where we stay with our caretaker, Lucy. The Republic’s gotta take care of its sixteen-year-old most-wanted-criminal-turned-national-hero, doesn’t it? I remember how much I distrusted Lucy—a stern, stout, fifty-two-year-old lady dressed in classic Republic colors—when she first showed up at our door in Denver. “The Republic has assigned me to assist you boys,” she told me as she bustled in to our apartment. Her eyes had settled immediately on Eden. “Especially the little one.”

Yeah. That didn’t sit well with me. First of all, it’d taken me two months before I could even let Eden out of my sight. We ate side by side; we slept side by side; he was never alone. I’d gone as far as standing outside his bathroom door, as if Republic soldiers would somehow suck him out through a vent, take him back to a lab, and hook him up to a bunch of machines.