It was impossible to cross zone lines off-the-books, so to speak. All the access roads were blockaded. Everyone crossed using one of many checkpoints along the major highways and interstates. License plates were photographed and cars were scanned and put into the system to keep track of who was coming and going.
The thought made me turn toward the others.
“How did the kidnappers do it?” I asked, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel. “How did the truck get from Zone One to Zone Three without raising any red flags? Even if it didn’t go through a scanner, there should have been a visual cargo search.”
“I wish I could tell you that everyone loves rules as much as you do,” Priyanka said. “Except more people seem to love bribes.”
Bribing wasn’t an option for us. Even with the cash, I couldn’t risk being ID’d. They’d just installed facial-recognition cameras at all the checkpoints, and I had no doubt that the UN peacekeepers who monitored the flow of traffic were stopping people for more thorough checks as they looked for me. The fugitive.
Roman glanced at me. “We could try going on foot?”
“No,” I said, bracing my elbow against the door. “I know another way.”
I didn’t want to do this—it was selfish, not to mention criminal, to reveal this to people without a security clearance—but we didn’t have the time to wander and look for a gap in their fencing or security monitoring. I’d only found out about this loophole by accident, when we’d been forced to change our travel plans from Zone 1 to 3 because a group of Liberty Watch supporters had barricaded the main checkpoint. Agent Cooper had let it slip.
“There’s an unmonitored side route,” I admitted. “The government sometimes uses it to bypass traffic or backups at the checkpoints.”
A state route that ran along Lake Erie in New York and Pennsylvania. The government’s transportation team had planned to reopen it to the public for lake access and to ease some of the traffic from the main checkpoint. They set up smart visual-ID cameras and everything to monitor the flow of traffic during phase one of Setting America Back on the Right Route! But, at the last minute, the Canadian government had lodged a formal complaint—they’d said the cameras, which faced the lake, could be used to monitor Canadian ships in Canadian waters, and violated their citizens’ right to privacy. They claimed that it could be considered domestic espionage, given their role in the United Nations.
The government had left the cameras up for later use, but they weren’t turned on. The interstate wasn’t monitored.
“Quelle surprise,” Priyanka said.
“How frequently is it used?” Roman asked. “Would anyone think you’d try to use it?”
Those were all good questions that I had no real answers to. “I don’t know. I think we should try it and see.”
It wasn’t a good option, no. But it was the only halfway-decent one I could come up with, and if it was a choice between that and nothing it would have to be enough.
IT TOOK ABOUT A HUNDRED miles for me to trust that Priyanka’s device was working, and a hundred more to feel confident I could keep us away from the major cities and towns that would have aerial-drone crime-monitoring support. The drug weasel’s cash dwindled down as fast as Priyanka had predicted, just buying enough gas ration cards to keep the tank half-full.
Priyanka napped on and off during the twelve hours it took to get to Ohio, snoring faintly in the backseat, her long legs bent up toward the roof of the car, but Roman never let himself drift off. Not even for a second.
Neither did I.
At midnight, we finally stopped for a break. I parked the car across the street from a little diner, far enough from it to remain unnoticed but close enough to keep watch of everyone on the other side of its glowing windows. A man in a little white hat was wiping down the counter, chatting with two tipsy-looking patrons who were happily sharing a plate of pancakes. Behind them, a TV flashed a news report about Europe.
“She’s really taking her time…” Roman said, looking slightly on edge. His eyes darted between the diner and its bathroom, which was situated on the right side of the building, outside like a gas station’s would be. That setup was the only reason we’d deemed it safe enough to stop and use.
“It’s all right,” I said. “She should take her time. She didn’t get a chance to wash up at the motel.”
Thanks to me.
Roman reached forward, nudging the POWER button on the radio.
I really did not have the emotional bandwidth to listen to news reports about the incident and my supposed involvement. I reached to turn it right back off, but Roman’s quiet words stopped me.
“I know it might be painful to hear what they’re saying, but we should stay on top of the news and monitor their investigation.”
I pulled my hand back onto the wheel.
He was right, but the memory of the explosion, of what had happened to Mel and the others, was still so close to the surface. I was already replaying it in my head on a near-constant loop, trying to figure out what I could have done differently to save them; the thought of hearing someone else discuss those last, horrible seconds made me want to bolt from the car.
“All right,” I managed to get out.
Roman hit the scanner and let the stations fly by, counting up and down as they searched for this zone’s primary radio channel.
The static poured in and out of my ears, broken up by weak channels and fragments of half-forgotten songs. When Roman finally found the right station, it was so strong that the broadcaster all but screamed at us. He flinched, fumbling with the knob to turn the volume down.
“—don’t disagree with Mr. Moore, and, in fact, we’ve tentatively agreed to work with him in a more meaningful way on his Personalized Independent Training Facility program. The reports that his company has sent on the results at the pilot facility have been very encouraging. It’s no secret that I’m not entirely sold on PPS, but I remain open to it so long as his pilot facility passes government inspection next month. As you know, we have not had access to it—Yes, next question—”
I had recognized President Cruz’s voice at her first word, but I’d also recognized her tone. It was an exhausted reluctance, the kind that came with finally being trapped in a corner after years of narrow escapes.
“What’s PPS?” he asked.
“Privatized Psi Schooling,” I said, trying to focus on what President Cruz was saying. She must have gone in front of the press pool that morning. Brave, considering the news. “Sort of like a boarding school for Psi, with the focus on getting them better reintegrated into society by giving them skill sets they can use in the workforce.”
“I thought there was supposed to be…independent living communities? Didn’t you do a presentation on them?”
Irritation buzzed through me—not at Roman, but at what had happened to squash those plans. “That was voted down because they were deemed too expensive for the recovering economy. A few companies, including Moore’s, put in bids to finance different school and living projects, and his got picked.”
If kids were being taught valuable skills in a safe, clean environment, then I couldn’t really complain. Especially when the original idea—one still startlingly popular with a number of Americans—had been setting aside remote stretches of land, building a few structures, and trapping the Psi inside its electrified borders.
“No, George, I agree, both with you and him,” Cruz continued. “These programs could be a great option, especially for the unclaimed Psi. Twelve volunteered to make up the pilot facility’s first class, and we’re hoping to be able to move another fifty out of foster situations and group homes into the school. But, again, it’s only after Mr. Moore finishes his initial testing and submits the program to more thorough inspection.”
“How many kids are…unclaimed?” Roman asked, hesitating on the ugly word.
“One thousand, one hundred and twelve,” I said. “Most are in foster homes, but a lot of the older Psi live toget
her in group homes. The government monitors all of them, and they have special caseworkers checking in constantly.”
He turned back to the road, his expression troubled.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just…I’m surprised you aren’t more against them. You were in a camp.”
I glanced over, startled. “What does that have to do with anything?”
After the interview I’d given years ago that went out to the world, and the talks I’d participated in since then, it had seemed like there wasn’t a person on earth who hadn’t heard the story. So many people knew the details, it had stopped feeling wholly mine.
“I thought you’d hate him because what he’s proposed could be seen as similar to them,” he clarified. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up—”