Roman gave a tentative poke at the buttons, but the second the host’s voice came back on he switched it off entirely.
I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths until the sound of my heartbeat faded from my ears.
“I know we need to keep monitoring the situation,” I began.
“That wasn’t monitoring the situation so much as listening to a man pet himself for being so smart and so pretty,” Priyanka said. “But why didn’t Cruz say one word in your defense? They’re not even pretending to investigate what’s happening.”
It was as if Mel’s voice jumped to my lips. I saw the strategy so clearly laid out in front of me, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me before now. “I’m political poison at the moment. It’s better that she doesn’t go out of her way to remind people she’s associated with me.”
But…the first time I’d heard her voice coming through the radio, days ago, she hadn’t tried to defend me or say there had to be another explanation, and that had cut me deep. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how to keep that small wound from festering.
“Like hell it’s better,” Roman said.
“Strong fighting words from Roman Volkov,” Priyanka said. “If you won’t be mad, then we’ll be mad on your behalf. How’s that?”
“Volkov,” I said. “Is that Russian? Ukrainian?”
“Russian,” he said. “That’s where my family comes from.”
I nodded. “But you grew up here? You and Lana?”
“Yep,” Priyanka confirmed, but didn’t elaborate. Fair. I didn’t want to talk about my family, either, and I already knew they’d been in a bad foster situation.
“For the most part,” Roman said. As if he felt my frustration, he added, “It’s complicated. I wasn’t born here.”
There were a few international cases of IAAN, usually when the mother had recently traveled to the United States and drank the water for a time before returning home, but there were a number of other possibilities, too, including that his mother had been born here, or lived here, and simply had him in another country.
I would have asked, but Roman turned, gazing out the window, his knuckles pressed to his lips. Here, but far away.
“I still can’t believe it,” Priyanka said after a while. “That move of dismissing the cases against the camp controllers is the most cold-blooded thing I’ve heard of in a long time. That woman was never our friend.”
No. Back then, in the beginning, we’d all known that, but it had been a kind of partnership. She had been someone who had been willing to work with us. She’d even been someone I’d respected.
“You know, the ironic thing about Cruz is—”
I stopped myself.
“Is what?” Priyanka prompted.
You don’t have to watch your words, I reminded myself. But I’d spent so long trying my hardest to represent the interim president in the best light, talking about her this way felt deeply unnatural to me.
“The only reason Cruz is in power is because of us. The Children’s League rescued her from Los Angeles after the bombing. They got her through Gray’s heavy military patrols that would have arrested her for treason like all the other California politicians. Instead, she worked with us. She positioned herself with the UN when they were ready to intervene,” I explained. “So, no, she’s probably not our friend, but her daughter is one of us, so she has a major stake in our welfare.”
“It makes sense,” Priyanka said. “But if she truly wants to stay in power, won’t she have to move with the tide?”
“Once the election’s over, things will settle down,” I said. “And once I clear my name, she’ll pull back on these executive orders. Right now, we need her to do whatever it takes to get votes and beat the hell out of Moore.”
“I sincerely hope you’re right about her long game,” Priyanka said, “but right now it feels like we’re the chess piece on the board that’s going to be sacrificed first.”
“You don’t even play chess,” Roman cut in.
“True,” Priyanka said, “but I’m fluent in grand analogies.”
I shook my head. “It’s just politics.”
One of the checkpoints where Zone 1 met Zone 2 was in Bristol, Virginia—or, at least, it had been.
“You’re sure about this?” Roman asked.
“The checkpoint got light enough traffic that they decommissioned it two months ago as a test run for winding down the other zone-crossing spots,” I explained. “Unless they have people stationed there to look for me, we should be able to pass through it with only camera eyes on us.” I met Priyanka’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “And you can handle that, right? Do we need to charge the phone’s battery before we go?”
“No, we’re good,” Priyanka said, holding up her device. “Only one camera? We meet at last, Luck.”
“Luck isn’t anthropomorphic,” Roman told her.
Priyanka shot him an indignant look. “Everyone knows luck is a lady.”
As it turned out, luck might have been a lady, but she was also an absolute bastard.
Ten miles later, the glare of searchlights from the fully operational zone checkpoint in Bristol swept back and forth over the highway ahead of us. I stared at them in disbelief.
The checkpoint looked like all the others. It hadn’t been hastily reassembled in the search for me—it had never been broken down to begin with. Massive electrified fences framed the stark concrete booths and adjacent administrative buildings. Armored vehicles of all sizes were parked along the highway, narrowing it to two lanes: one that ran in through the two booths, and one that ran out of them.
Most of the checkpoints had started with simple trailers, but over time those structures were cemented to the ground, planted like knives in the otherwise beautiful countryside.
These buildings were meant to be imposing. Even now, having passed through so many of them, my whole body felt weighted down by every wrong thing I’d done in my life.
“Maybe you had the date wrong?” Priyanka suggested softly.
“I gave a whole speech about it,” I said, looking up toward the highway lights and the cameras built into their eyes. They were all so modern—slick and silver, without any hard angles. Completely at odds with the natural green landscape surrounding them.
“Someone either asked me to tell a lie, or they changed their mind and hoped no one would notice.”
Both options were equally infuriating to me.
“Next idea?” Priyanka asked.
“Only idea: we go on foot,” I said, waiting for an approaching drone to pass over us and head the opposite direction. “Find a car on the other side and continue on to the address we have. There’s still at least one more can of gas in the back, right?”
We opened our doors as one, stepping out into the night. Roman dutifully collected the supplies out of the back, including the bolt cutters Liam had stashed there.
I was about to shut the driver’s side door when Roman tossed me a small rag.
“Better wipe it down,” he said.
I stared back, not understanding.
“Fingerprints.” He said the word with such care, wrapping it in an apology, as if he could soften its implications.
“Oh. Right.” He’d wiped the last two cars we’d used himself.
“Don’t worry,” Priyanka said, leaning against the side of the car. “It gets easier.”
I briskly rubbed the towel over the steering wheel and dash, then turned my attention to the prints on the doors and trunk. “What does?”
“Doing what feels like the wrong thing for the right reasons.” Priyanka stared off toward the checkpoint’s distant lights. “Eventually you realize the only way to live is by the rules you set for yourself.”
“These are extenuating circumstances. Life can’t always work that way,” I said. “People have to be held accountable. There has to be some kind of system. We take care of it, and it takes care of us.”
“Maybe,” she sa
id, without any bite in her voice. “I really don’t know. Lately accountability feels like obediently putting a collar around our own necks and trusting people who hate us not to tighten it. If a system is broken, how do you fix it when you’re trapped inside of it?”
“Isn’t it better to try to fix something with potential than to smash it into a thousand pieces and hope whatever comes next is better?” I asked. “I’d rather work within a flawed system to carve out my place than shut myself out by not participating at all.”
Roman came to stand beside me, glancing between us with a look of faint worry. It was less an argument than a discussion, though. Priyanka confirmed as much when she draped an arm over my shoulder.
“What do you think?” I asked him, genuinely curious. As always, he considered his words before saying them.
“Breaking a bad cycle can sometimes break a system,” Roman said. “But breaking a system will always break the cycle. It’s only a difference in the degree of certainty.”