Ice prickled down the length of my spine.
“You Psi?” I don’t know how I managed to get the words out. I don’t know how I managed to smile when panic’s numbing fingers were stroking my face. “How hard was that hit you took?”
A heartbeat of silence passed between us before Priyanka reached up and pressed a hand to her face. “Yeah. Wow. My mind is a mess right now…I’m—” She sucked in a breath through her nose, glancing down at Roman. “I’m…I’m one of those…a prodigy.”
“Oh…a Green? Whatever the government has decided the ‘correct’ label is,” she said.
None of this felt right. None of this. Were they not even Psi? I hadn’t seen them use their abilities—they looked young, but so did plenty of adults who weren’t affected by IAAN.
Do something, I thought, feeling my handcuffs’ lock again. Don’t let them get free before you do.
I leaned forward, bracing the bottoms of my palms against the ground, crawling forward, toward the dead man. Priyanka’s gaze was almost suffocating as she watched me. My breath caught with the effort it took not to turn and meet it head-on.
Keys—I needed the keys to the handcuffs. I felt across the man’s charred chest for anything that might have once been a pocket. The smell of burned hair and skin made me gag until I finally had to hold my breath. The utility belt around his waist was in better shape, but the few pouches attached to it either had cigarettes stashed inside, or were empty.
What I was doing was horrifying, but my mind had switched back into survival mode. The only thing I could really focus on right now was getting out of this truck and staying alive.
If the handcuff keys had been on him, they’d either melted or had been thrown off him as the man had tried to save himself. The better bet was that they were with one of the soldiers up front.
“It’s bad enough that we have to announce our abilities with those hideous buttons, but why do we have to use the labels they gave us?” Priyanka asked. “Why did you government-Psi types keep that?”
My fingers trembled as they brushed the hilt of the small knife attached to the man’s utility belt. This could work. I just needed to wedge the blade between the small links and use enough force to break one of them.
My eyes fell upon the gun at his side, and when I finally glanced back at Priyanka, she was looking at it, too.
Then her dark eyes shifted, meeting mine.
Shit, I thought, my fingers tightening around the hilt of the knife as I pulled it from his belt. Say something, say anything…
But it was Priyanka who broke the silence. She clucked her tongue, her smile too easy to be completely natural. “What a shock, no response. Did your speechwriter not give you any canned one-liners to use?”
I knew a lot of Psi didn’t necessarily see the point of the work we were doing with Cruz and the interim Congress—but they also didn’t see half of what we were up against. It was always easier to be cynical than actually roll up your sleeves to help.
“Well, you’re clearly not a fan of my work,” I said, keeping my voice neutral. “But I guess that makes sense. Roman already told me you weren’t really there for the speech.”
That was a lie, but her lips parted in surprise all the same.
Dread braided with disappointment, until I could no longer tell one feeling apart from the other.
I wanted to be wrong.
I wanted to believe them.
It was like I could see the flurry of thoughts and excuses moving behind her dark eyes as she flicked away each option, searching for a best one. She finally settled on the one I expected: outright denial. “Clearly his brain was fogged by whatever drug they pumped into his system. We were there because we had to be, as members of the new class.”
It was tempting to keep digging, especially as the lies began stacking up like a house of cards. But one wrong move on my part, however slight, could send everything crashing down on me, escalating an already dangerous situation. A little suspicion would read as normal, but if Roman and Priyanka did have something else planned for me, pushing them too hard for answers would only make them close ranks and shut down.
I had exactly one guaranteed way of making it out of here and contacting DC: alone.
“Good point. He could have just misheard me, too,” I said. “Your families must be worried sick about you. Did you see if they were hurt? As soon as we’re out of here, we’ll find a phone for you to call them.”
Or we’d see if they made an excuse not to. Or pretended to put a call through.
“Ouch with that assumption,” Priyanka said. “Roman is my only family, and vice versa.”
Shit. The forced lightness of those words pinged against my mind as truth. Shame burned in my throat. I shouldn’t have brought families into this. God knew I didn’t ever want to talk about mine.
“Sorry,” I said with weak smile. “I’m a bit on edge. To answer your earlier question, though, I have no idea what group they could be. Antigovernment, anti-Psi, the Psion Ring…”
Priyanka held out her hands for me to cut the zip ties there, the rigid lines of her posture finally relaxing. I cut the ties binding my ankles together before taking care of hers. By the time her hands fell back into her lap, her expression was no longer shuttered; she lost that defensive glint in her eye, and, for a fraction of a second, her lips traced out a faint smile. There and gone.
But I saw it.
Who are you? I fought to keep my face blank, even as the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Who the hell are you?
“Well, you can cross the Psion Ring off that list,” Priyanka said. “It wasn’t them.”
“How can you be sure?” I asked.
The group was like a ghost; they had countless agencies trying to track them and reports of violence done in their name, but they’d never stepped out of the shadows. Many people assumed that they were some remnant from the Children’s League, but everyone affiliated with the League was accounted for, and most had moved directly into government work.
“Because,” Priyanka said, “we used to work with them.”
The truck swayed as it hit a bad patch of road. I stared at her.
“Oh, come on. I saw the expression on your face when you watched Roman take those guys out,” she said, looking down at him. “You’re not stupid, and you have a working set of eyes. It’s obvious we’ve had some kind of tactical training. I’m surprised you didn’t put it together yourself.”
Her tone was so baiting, I felt my temper rise and had to take a breath.
“I didn’t think the Psion Ring actually existed,” I told her. And where’s your proof?
“Well, that would be because the whole point is to operate under the radar and covertly push for the things no one in the government is willing to give us,” Priyanka said, swaying with the movement of the truck. “More importantly, it’s Psi-only.”
Clever. I pushed back the strands of hair glued to my face, considering it. She’d picked the one group the government, myself included, knew next to nothing about. I’d hated the idea of the Psion Ring from the moment I’d heard about it. The last thing the Psi needed was a rogue element causing chaos.
“So you were there to do…what? Report back on what I said?”
“We were there for a fresh start,” she said, her voice taking on an edge. “To try to get our lives straight again after leaving an organization that got to be too much. Too violent. They were broadcasting your speech, remember? What information would I be gathering that I couldn’t get by sitting in my dorm room and turning on the TV?”
I could think of any number of things, actually. Security protocols, identifying the car we’d used, studying Mel or the agents and analyzing potential threats.
“At least then I could have been lying on my bed, eating Pop-Tarts,” she said. “Do you think we wanted to be there listening to you tell us what the government was going to take away from us next? It was a mandatory event. They all but d
ragged us out of the dorms.”
If there was one thing I’d learned about liars, it was this: they gave you way too many details. The Pop-Tarts were a nice touch, but she wasn’t the only one who could spin a detailed cover story out of nothing.
“Well, sorry to disturb your busy day,” I said. “Those dorm rooms were nice. Southgate, right? I got a tour from the dean right before my speech. That’s where they finally found the missing mascot head, right?”
Lie, lie, lie. Southgate wasn’t the one dorm they’d reopened—it wasn’t even a dorm at all. As far as I knew, the mascot’s head had never gone missing, either.
There was a silence that stretched a second too long before Priyanka looked me in the eye and said, smoothly, “Yeah. They found it in the oven of the third-floor kitchen.”
It should have filled me with some small feeling of victory, but it only set my nerves ablaze. My skin felt like it was slowly being cut away the longer she stared back at me, as if daring me to call her out. To see what would happen when I did.
My grip on the knife was slick with sweat. I tightened my grip on it again, drawing it closer to my body.
“I’m glad you got out. Of the Psion Ring, I mean,” I said. “I’m a little surprised that a group that basically sounds like a terrorist organization simply let you go, considering the secrecy surrounding it.”
“We had to fake our own deaths to get out,” she said sharply. “And go ahead, call them what you want. At least they’re trying to do work on behalf of the Psi.”
“No, they’re ruining our work,” I said. “You can’t burn a house down when we’re all still inside it. You have to come in and sit down at the table if you’re going to create lasting change. The Psion Ring has only succeeded in scaring people, which makes the job of the good guys that much harder.”
“You really believe that, don’t you?” Priyanka said.
I didn’t want to fight with her about this, and I didn’t have to justify myself, either. I worked with the government because even with its flaws, it was still our best bet for protection and security.