He clenched his right hand. Roman looked crushed, absolutely obliterated.
“You saved my life,” I said softly.
“She wasn’t going to stop,” he croaked out. “I saw it in her eyes. She wasn’t going to stop.”
My hand reached for one of his, closing around the warm, calloused skin. “She’ll understand when she’s herself again.”
“All I can do is hope,” he said. “That’s all I have left.”
“That’s not all,” I assured him.
Roman looked up at me, his fingers squeezing mine. “The reason we didn’t tell you about ourselves, about Mercer, is because he is still experimenting on kids.” I opened my mouth but he pressed on. “And I know what you’re thinking, but we can’t report it to the government. Can you honestly tell me that they wouldn’t do even more experimentation on them? That they wouldn’t send them to live with foster families, or in one of those privatized training institutes that Moore keeps talking about? They would never be allowed to return to their families.”
“You didn’t trust me,” I said, letting my hand slip out of his.
He shook his head. “No. I didn’t want to put you in the position of feeling you had to withhold information from the government. And the truth is, you’re exposed to a real risk now that Mercer knows you’re with us. He keeps such a tight lid on his business dealings, he will do just about anything to keep you from talking to someone with enough power to stop him. You wouldn’t even see him coming.”
A little shudder worked through me. After a moment Roman added, “But I am sorry. I’m sorry about the lies and the partial truths. I can’t say it enough.”
I tilted my head back to look at the sky. The headlights didn’t dim the blanket of stars. “Limit, Hacker, Mirror…I can’t believe I thought you were part of the Psion Ring.”
“That’s another thing,” he said. “The Psion Ring doesn’t exist.”
My gaze shot back over to him.
He shook his head. “There’s no proof of them anywhere. Logic dictates two options: they are incredibly good at covering their trail, or they don’t exist. Believe me, Mercer investigated. He sent me out on a thousand dead ends looking for them. He put real resources behind it, and each time, he came up with nothing.”
“I saw reports, though,” I said. “The Psi Council reviewed information about them at their monthly meetings.”
“Who were those reports created and compiled by?” Roman asked.
“A lot of agencies,” I said. “The UN, the FBI, intelligence services…they all have people who could have been monitoring them and feeding the information back to someone in Cruz’s administration.”
“Even if a ring managed to form in the months since Priya and I left Mercer, there’s no way they could pull off a job like the airplane bombing. The planning alone would take months. The way they’re using your name has me more convinced than ever that it’s a cover for something else.”
“How do I fit in? You were going to approach me at the speech, weren’t you?”
“Yes. The plan was to separate you and force you to take us to Daly, where we’d plead our case.”
“Kidnap me, you mean?” I clarified, almost amused.
He looked a little sheepish. “Kidnapping is a strong word for it. We were hoping you’d just agree to help us. All of my research made it seem like—”
“Like what?” I asked. I raised a brow.
“The reports I accessed, the newspaper stories, the documentaries, it all made you seem so…docile. Vulnerable. Compliant,” he said. “Within moments after the explosion, I knew that wasn’t who you are at all. They had crafted an image of you that erased all of your strength and capabilities.”
My stomach churned.
“I couldn’t appear dangerous,” I said softly. “I couldn’t be a threat to anyone. Mel used to say that people would use me as a token to represent all Psi kids. My actions, the way I conducted myself, would shape the public’s opinion of us.”
So I’d nodded, accepting the things they’d told me were important. I subdued the parts of me that focus groups felt were “too bubbly.” Too “erratic.” I molded myself to be calm and composed. Reasonable.
“I was stupid enough to underestimate you because of all that I’d read and seen. But, to be honest, I think the men who took us did as well. You were able to save our lives because of it.”
“It was Priyanka who sent the message on the teleprompter, wasn’t it?” I asked, slowly putting it together.
“To try to disturb your usual procedure,” he said. “We studied your security protocols for a full month, and thought that an emergency would be the best time to try to get you alone.”
“That would have been the best time to get yourselves killed,” I corrected. “I don’t know that I would have helped you find Haven, even if you’d been up front at the start. It’s not just about protecting Ruby’s location. After what she went through, I feel the need to protect her. She will always help others. But her ability hurts her more than she lets on. Not physically. She sees the trauma, the pain, the ugliness everyone keeps locked away.”
Putting it that way, it reminded me of Roman. Someone who said yes, who never failed to help, and suffered all the inward consequences of it.
“Is that why you believed she willingly left Haven?” Roman asked.
“That’s part of it,” I said. “Everyone has a breaking point, and she’s been storing up so much pain over the years, it wouldn’t surprise me if she’d finally reached hers. But now I’m sure she didn’t leave—that she didn’t walk away from this of her own volition. Something happened.”
“I agree,” he said. “Blue Star set the explosion at Penn State. It might have been so that they could take in me and Priya, and they only framed you to take any suspicion off themselves. But you said one of the Defenders was going to fire on you, right?”
“Right,” I said. “It had to be a setup from the jump. Blue Star causes the explosion…frames me to avoid suspicion…and someone else decides to pile on with the attack on Moore’s campaign plane?”
“Just say it.”
“You’re not going to like this theory, but it could be someone in the government who has a grudge against you, the Council, or Cruz—or all of you. If that Defender uniform was real, it points to some greater conspiracy.”
“No.” I shook my head. “Is it…is it possible that Mercer’s the reason Ruby’s vanished? That he has her?”
“I think it’s more likely that she caught on to his interest and went into hiding,” Roman said.
“She would have found a way to communicate with us,” I told him. “We have a few different systems she could have used. I think someone has her. And it has to be Mercer.”
“I really don’t know,” he said, running a hand back over his hair. “I hope like hell he doesn’t.”
I pressed my hands to my face, drawing in a deep breath. “Where is Ruby?” I whispered. “Where is she?”
There was a knock on the windshield. Priyanka stared back at us. When she spoke, her voice was muffled. “I think I know.”
THE CAR ROCKED AS I climbed back into the driver’s seat and shut the door. A moment later, Roman moved to the passenger side and did the same. The only sound that came from him was the hard click of his seat belt as he strapped himself in.
I glanced back at Priyanka as she stretched her long legs across the backseat, but she didn’t, or couldn’t, meet my gaze.
“You tell her?” Priyanka asked. Without the usual warmth in her voice, the lightness of her tone felt artificial. Put on for our benefit.
Roman nodded, not looking at her.
My hand hovered over the ignition, not sure if I should be driving, or if we needed a moment to find whatever little center we’d had before.
“Man, you missed out,” Priyanka told me, in that same painfully airy tone. “I tell the tragic tale with a lot more flour
ish—or, at least, a lot more sound effects and shadow puppets.”
“Priya…” I began, taking in the sight of her. Her whole body was covered in a sheen of sweat. It turned her thick head of hair into a tight cap on her skull, black curls sticking to her collarbone and shoulders like vines. She slipped her hands beneath her legs, but I could see the rest of her was trembling. “Maybe not right now.”
She cleared her throat, sitting up a little straighter. “There was an address. On the server. It matched one of the address searches on Ruby’s phone, but they—Blue Star—deleted the archive before I could get a good look at it.”