Irritation curled through me as I watched her mouth fall slightly open, and her breathing even out.
Oh, am I wasting your time?
Beside her was a boy, also about my age, more or less. He was such a study in contrasts that my gaze naturally held on him a second longer. His chestnut-colored hair had a hint of wild curl and was barely tamed, glowing with a faint red sheen in the harsh sunlight. His face was lean, but his features were so strong, the lines so distinct, that I would have believed anyone who told me they had carefully designed his face on the pages of a sketchbook. Even the tan on his white skin only seemed to make his pale eyes burn brighter in comparison. He met my gaze directly, his unreadable expression never wavering, not until the corners of his mouth tipped down.
I straightened, glancing away. “I realize that much has been asked of my fellow Psi, but we must establish limits on those perceived to be limitless. Society can only function with boundaries and rules, and we must continue to work to find a way back into it—to not press so hard against those markers as to disturb the peace.”
The girl could get right up and leave if she was so bored with a talk about her future—but I let myself glance back toward them for a moment. She wore a green button, and he wore a yellow one.
I shifted my full attention back to the speech as I entered the homestretch. It was my least-favorite part: I’d plead with the Psi for patience with those who feared us, and plead with those who feared us to acknowledge the terror that we had lived in every day since IAAN was first recognized. It didn’t feel like a fair comparison, but this had come directly from professionals. What did I know, when it really came down to it?
I stumbled, just a tiny bit, as unfamiliar words loaded on the screen. “And as we enter this new beginning, I think it has become all the more important to acknowledge the past. We must honor the traditional American way.”
It was the new language that Mel had mentioned in the car. The teleprompter slowed, accommodating my unfamiliarity.
“That includes,” I read, “honoring our original Constitution, the core foundation of faith, and the requirements of citizenship in our democracy….”
The words rolled forward on the screen, even as they halted in my throat.
TODAY, THE INTERIM GOVERNMENT HAS VOTED ON AND APPROVED A BILL THAT TEMPORARILY REMOVES PSI-BORN, INCLUDING THOSE OF LEGAL AGE, FROM CURRENT VOTER ROLLS. THIS IS TO ALLOW THEM MORE TIME TO HEAL FROM THEIR TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES BEFORE MAKING POTENTIALLY LIFE-ALTERING DECISIONS ON THEIR BALLOTS, AND SO THAT THEY MAY BETTER UNDERSTAND THE FULL WEIGHT AND IMPACT OF THIS SACRED CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY.
THIS IS ONLY A PROVISIONAL MEASURE, AND THE MATTER WILL BE REVISITED FOLLOWING THE ELECTION THIS NOVEMBER, AFTER THE NEW FULL CONGRESS IS SWORN IN.
A tremor worked its way up through my arms, even as my hands clenched the podium’s glossy wood. The silence stretched on, punctuated only by the muffled sigh of the breeze catching the microphone. The audience began to shift in their seats. A woman in the second row finally stopped using her program as a fan, leaning forward to give me a curious look.
That couldn’t be right. I wanted to look back at Mel, to signal that the wrong text had been loaded in. Whoever thought this was a funny joke deserved a fist to the throat.
The words scrolled back up, repeating. Insistent.
No—this was…The Psi already had stricter ID requirements. We had to wait until we were twenty-one before we could get legal driver’s licenses. I’d given a whole speech about how it would be worth the delay, and how exciting it would be to finally be able to turn in a voter registration form with it. I filled mine out years ago, when Chubs and Vida were doing theirs. I hadn’t wanted to be left out.
This must have…This had to have slipped by him and the other Psi on Interim President Cruz’s council. They were probably already pushing back against it.
Except hadn’t Mel said the language had come directly from President Cruz’s chief of staff? Why spring it on me like this without any explanation or warning?
Because they know you’ll say it no matter what, a small voice whispered in my mind, like you’ve said everything else they’ve given you.
Or…because the Psi Council had already refused to announce it themselves.
This time I did glance back over my shoulder. The crowd began to quietly murmur, clearly wondering what was going on. Mel didn’t rise out of her chair, didn’t take off her sunglasses. She motioned with her hands, pushing them forward, urging me to turn back to the audience. To keep going.
The boy in the front row, the one I’d noticed before, narrowed his eyes, cocking his head to the side slightly. The way his whole body tensed made me wonder if he’d somehow managed to read the words on the teleprompter, or if he could hear my heart hammering inside my chest.
Just say it, I thought, watching as the words rewound again, then paused. I’d promised them my voice, for whatever they’d need me to do. This was what I had agreed to, the whole point of coming here.
Just say it.
It would only be temporary. They promised. One election. We could sit out one election. Justice took time and sacrifice, but like the reparations had proven, it was best won through cooperation. We were working toward a better forever for the Psi, not just one year.
My throat burned. The podium trembled under my hands, and I couldn’t understand why. Why now—why this announcement, and not any of the others?
Just say it.
The girl, the ghost from the past, was back, her gloved hands wrapping around my neck.
I can’t. Not this time. Not this.
“Thank you for your time,” I choked out, “it was an honor to speak to you today, and I wish you the best as you begin a new chapter of your lives—”
The teleprompter’s screen blanked out. A second later, a single line of text appeared.
SOMEONE IS HERE TO KILL YOU.
It was a jarring end to an unfinished thought, momentarily drowning out the persistent hum of the speakers and electronics surrounding me. The shocked sound somehow seemed to multiply as it ricocheted off the pillars of Old Main—like a single bullet summoning a hail of them.
Confusion spread through the crowd; I saw it in their faces, heard it in their murmurs. Bands of anger and resentment locked me in place, and the longer I stood there, useless and silent, the deeper I sank into the humiliation.
Someone with an ax to grind had clearly loaded fake text into the teleprompter instead of the new material Mel had given them.
Say something. Do something.
I should have realized it the second the language about the provisional voting measure had appeared on the screen and wrapped things up as naturally as I could. Instead, I’d frozen like a total novice and left myself open to the worst kind of speculation from the nightly newscasts. I could practically hear them now, dissecting the pause, replaying the moment over and over again, asking, Is the girl well?
I leaned forward and managed to squeeze out, “Thank you again. Enjoy your day.”
Rather than settle the crowd, the words only seemed to stir them. Even the sleeping girl suddenly sat up, curling her legs back under her, glancing at the dark-haired boy beside her.
The dean stepped up to the microphone again, casting a nervous look my way. “Well…thank you, everyone. Please enjoy the refreshments and sunshine.”
The last thirty seconds had felt like thirty minutes. Fake threat or real threat, it didn’t matter: the wheels of the emergency protocol were now turning. Agent Cooper walked straight to me, his tie fluttering with each quick, clipped step. The words on the teleprompter were reflected in the silver lenses of his sunglasses before someone cut the power and blacked out the screen.
He wrapped an arm around my shoulders. To anyone looking on, it probably seemed like he was just escorting me off the stage. They might not have noticed that Agent Cooper was pressing me hard into his side, that his other hand was just a few centimeters away from the gun
in his holster. The sun had baked heat into the sleeve of his dark suit and it burned everywhere it touched me.
“It’s all right. It’s all right.” He repeated the words over and over again as the police officers turned to the university staff and began to wave them off the steps of Old Main. Most of the students and their families had risen to their feet and were milling around, talking to one another or moving toward the nearby table of food and drinks.
“I know,” I said pointedly. My heel caught on a crack in the old stone, sinking into it. Instead of giving me a moment to ease it free, Agent Cooper yanked me forward, shredding the leather off it and leaving me stumbling toward Mel.
“Wait here,” he said. “Martinez will come get you. I’ll get the car.”
That was the extent of our security protocol: shelter in place until safe transport could be secured. I nodded and Agent Cooper was off, heading toward where the car was under joint custody of the newly reinstated Pennsylvania State Police and the United Nations’ new federal police force, the Defenders.
I spotted Martinez a short distance away, not heading in my direction, but interrogating the shrugging woman in the tech booth.