“What do you mean?” When he didn’t respond, I pressed: “Who are you that you could even do that? You’re not just a student, are you? Why were you really at the speech?”
“It’s not like that,” he said quickly. “Suzume, listen—”
There was a labored groan of metal somewhere behind me. Daylight washed in, blanketing us in late-afternoon gold. My eyes watered the longer I stared at the opening, at the silhouetted figures there.
“I don’t know who the hell you are—” I called out to them.
I was cut off by the clang of metal striking metal, and a sinister hiss. Gas billowed around us, choking the small space. The door slammed shut again, a heavy lock rammed into place. The air turned sour, chemical.
“Shit,” the boy said, his words slurring. “Don’t breathe. Try not to—”
My thoughts slowed as the sensation of spinning returned. The darkness was a whirlpool that came on too quickly for me to feel afraid, or wonder if I’d ever wake up again.
“Your name,” I gasped out. “What’s your name?”
I fought against the pull of unconsciousness, bucking up against the restraints. It wasn’t right, none of this was right—I couldn’t go without knowing—
A single word reached me before the world dissolved into darkness: “Roman.”
THE NEXT TIME I SURFACED, it was to the sound of wheels against highway, muffled voices, and the loud, wet breathing of a man hovering above me.
I was flat on my back again, the thick heat baking me from all sides. The stench of hot rubber was everywhere. I was being steamed alive in my own sweat.
“Shit,” came a grumbling voice. “Fucking light…”
A joint cracked as the man rose, stepping on my shin as he moved away.
I fought to stay awake. To take in what was around me before unconsciousness crept up and pulled me back under.
The space was pitch-black, save for the narrow light attached to the top of the man’s helmet. He wore the same black uniform as the ones who had grabbed us, but his skin was as white as a ghost’s in the dark. His form took on an unnatural sheen—it was like searching the shadows of a lucid dream. The haziness of my vision made me uncertain if he was really hanging a bag of yellow liquid up beside me, or if it was a hallucination.
The light on his helmet sputtered. He knocked a fist hard against it, letting its full glow sweep down over Roman’s sleeping form. He used his boot to roll him off his back and onto his right side, facing away from me. Save for his shallow breathing, Roman didn’t move, not even as the man knelt behind him, fussing with the bag…the…
My mind struggled for the word.
Roman’s hands were bound together behind his back with a black zip tie. I couldn’t see them, but I assumed his feet were secured with a few more. My own ankles rubbed together uncomfortably, and there was a bite from something hard digging into my skin there.
As the man looked up and shone the light on it, I could see liquid drip down from the bag and glide through the thin tube that connected it to Roman. The needle in his forearm was secured with a heavy bandage of tape.
But…I squinted, waiting for the splotches of black to clear from my vision again. His and Priyanka’s IV bags were hung awkwardly from the straps on the ceiling, ones probably meant to secure shipments.
My own arm began to hurt in the same spot. There was a new, unrelenting pressure where a needle had been slipped beneath the thin layer of skin. A clear tube connected it to an IV bag on a metal stand. The first few drips of the same yellow liquid slid down the line toward my arm.
Spots of every color floated in front of my eyes, but the fresh surge of dread pushed back against the coaxing of whatever drug this was. My hands filled with hot sand as I tried to move them.
I couldn’t. My wrists were locked together. Not with zip ties, but actual handcuffs, lined with rubber. Sweat poured down over my forehead, my throat, my chest.
The drug left a rancid taste in my mouth as it seeped into my body. Within the space of two heartbeats, it became harder to focus on the sight of the man hovering over Roman. But when his back was finally to me, I turned my head toward the IV line, taking it between my teeth and yanking—hard.
The long needle pulled partway out of the vein. The tape hissed as the edge lifted off my skin.
I tensed, my hands curling into claws. Watching the man’s back. Waiting.
He didn’t turn around. He coughed without covering his mouth, smearing sweat and snot against the sleeve of his black shirt. My ears filled with static as I took the plastic tube between my teeth again. I didn’t look away from him, even as my heart began to bang in warning.
The tape gave way, lifting enough for the needle to slip out. The drug spilled over my wrist and the back of my hand, dripping onto the rubber mat beneath me.
The man rose again, pulling a cell phone from his pocket. He tapped out a message. Its screen cast a faint blue light on his face. That, combined with the glow from his helmet, was enough to confirm what I already suspected.
It was a semitruck of some kind. Every inch of it, from the inside of the door, to the ground, to the walls, was covered in old tires, cut open and melted together again in a tarry black quilt.
Thoughts were sharpening in my mind again, fragments piecing themselves together. I looked to the IV stand over me, then toward the haphazard way the others had been strung up.
Our suspicions had been right. They were only after me.
The boy was a Yellow, too, wasn’t he? I’d seen his button, and I assumed the kidnappers had as well. But I was the only one in proper handcuffs, lined with rubber. The girl was a Green, considered relatively harmless by most of the population, but her hands had been bound in front of her, and her ankles were locked together with zip ties of her own. If they were only ever after me, why hadn’t they just killed the others—witnesses—outright?
One possible answer was leverage. What was better than one hostage? Three of them. They could kill one or both of the others as a sign to show how serious they were about doing the same to me.
But there was this instinctive feeling I had about Roman and Priyanka that I just couldn’t shake. It had seared through me like an electric current from the second I saw Roman fire that first shot, and it hadn’t disappeared since.
I hated feeling suspicious of Psi who needed help; it made me more nauseous than the sedatives. If I questioned the motives of every stranger in a terrifying situation, I would never have opened the van door for Ruby all those years ago.
But the attackers, these two Psi, the men who had us now…Everyone in this situation was too well trained. No one shot like Roman did without hours of practice and instruction. No one fought with the confidence of Priyanka without having done it before.
Maybe they were part of this after all. I wanted to believe that all Psi were on each other’s sides, but I wasn’t stupid. There was the rumored nihilistic Psion Ring group, for one thing, constantly floating threats that undermined the work the Psi Council was doing. Or, the kidnappers could have hired these two to act as bait, knowing I’d be more likely to accept another kid’s help. If that was the case, they’d done their job well.
But…they were tied up and drugged, too.
As Vida always said, the best way through bullshit was to wade in, hold your nose with one hand and a grenade in the other, and cut straight through it. Right now, I needed to eliminate the immediate threat and then wake up the others for answers. As the only one of us currently conscious, it fell on me to figure out exactly how to do that.
“Changing the Op—” The man stuffed his phone back into a leather pouch on his belt and took two swaying steps toward the wall that aligned with the truck’s cab. He pounded on it. “You see that shit? Why the fuck should we take them there? The zone crossing is going to be a goddamn nightmare as it is.”
I couldn’t make out the muffled reply, only that there were two distinct male voices.
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered. His helmet light flickered as he swept it over us again, this time pivoting toward Priyanka, to my left. The IV bag above her was empty, sucking into itself as if wanting more.
The truck vibrated beneath me. I closed my eyes as he passed by. Priyanka’s right leg shifted against my left as the man reached down and took her chin between his gloved hand, squeezing the soft skin of her cheeks. He stared into her face, bringing it close to his masked lips. He tsked at her, giving a mocking little coo.
Every inch of me went cold with fury. My fingers curled against the cuffs as I tried to slide my right hand free without making a big enough movement for him to notice. There was a gun at his hip and a knife in a holster at the other—but there was also the White Noise device on his utility belt and a smartphone in his pocket. And, if my senses were correct, a comm in his ear.
With a hiss, he shoved Priyanka’s face away, letting her head slam back against the rubber mat on the ground. My top lip pulled back in a sneer as his gaze lingered a second too long at the spot where her dress had ridden up to her thighs.
Oh, so it was like that, was it? He was that brand of bastard.
I felt wild with the thoughts careening through my head. They urged me forward, cutting through to a part of me I didn’t recognize. Here in the dark, I could be someone else. Someone who didn’t stand in front of audiences, perfectly coifed, smiling, smiling, smiling no matter what the world threw in her face. There were no cameras. There were no protocols.
There was only escape. Survival.
The man turned, kicking Priyanka’s leg aside to go for a small cooler near the door.
“You’re lucky he didn’t tell us to break your legs to keep you from running,” he told her casually, the way someone would report the weather. Cloudy, with a chance of agony. “I argued for it, of course.” He flipped the lid open, letting the flickering light on his helmet illuminate the bag of yellow liquid he pulled from the cooler. The light shifted, exposing her again to his gaze. “I would have taken special pleasure in smashing one bone at a time, starting with your hips.”