I swallowed back a cry of pain. The taste of blood was in my mouth again, bitter and metallic, like a bullet casing. I tried to force my eyes open despite the gritty crust on them, but I couldn’t get my left one open more than a crack. It pulsated with each small movement. Static-laced voices drifted by me.
“—suspect is on foot—”
The seat back I’d been leaning against suddenly moved. A zip tie dug into my wrists as I tried to bring my hands forward to shove whatever—whoever—it was away.
He stared at me, his eyes hooded, as he made a soft hushing sound. Next to him, Priyanka kept her gaze on the window, on the landscape racing back. Their hands were also secured behind their backs, forcing them to awkwardly lean to the side to find a comfortable position. I cleared my throat, my skull ringing with a pain that radiated out from my cheekbone.
The grate separating us from the front of the police car rattled as one of the officers knocked against it with a familiar yellow device.
“What did I say about being quiet and still?” she asked. “You want me to use this on you again? I’m all for reminding folks the meaning of cooperation.”
Priyanka opened her mouth, the corners of it tilting up into a smirk, but Roman knocked his shoulder into her.
The officer shook her head. “Sorry to say this, Sleeping Beauty, but you’re going to wish you were still unconscious in about five minutes. See those distant lights?” We were on a dirt road surrounded by desert on all sides. The only thing to see was the smear of lights on the lone mountain ahead. “Enjoy the view while it lasts.”
I sincerely worried that Priyanka was going to explode if she didn’t snap something back at him. Instead, she took several steadying breaths, then slid her eyes over to me. She must have seen my question reflected there, because she swallowed hard, then nodded.
A cloud of dust appeared, heading toward us from the opposite direction. Another police car, leaving as we were coming. Both officers waved as we passed them.
“Looks like you won’t be their only drop-off tonight,” the driver said. “It’s like y’all are coming out of the goddamn woodwork all of a sudden.”
A tremor of rage worked through me, and I had to bite my lip to keep from saying anything. Everything I had done in the government had been with the goal of bringing us out of the shadows, letting us bloom in what sunlight society was willing to give us. I’d thought—I’d hoped—that we could slowly change their minds. But the truth was that they didn’t want to think about us at all.
The road became rougher the closer we got to the structure; the faint nausea that had crept up on me over the last few minutes became more pronounced with each hard bump and jolt. I realized then we weren’t looking at a mountain. We were looking at high concrete walls lined with floodlights and barbed wire.
I squeezed my eyes shut, but all I found there was another fence, more barbed wire. My skin was too hot one moment, too cold the next, trapped between summer heat and the distant memory of snow. Feeling drained from the tips of my fingers, from my feet inside my too-big black boots. Saliva flooded my mouth.
Stop, I told myself. Stop it. You’re not there. You’re here.
I was here now. I was here with the others. Roman’s shoulder pressed against mine as he shifted, straining his arms so his fingers could find mine behind our backs. I hooked my thumb and index finger on his, and it was only then that some of the numbness eased up.
As we came upon the ornate sign, I understood why Wheeler, Texas, had sounded familiar.
PERSONALIZED INDEPENDENT TRAINING FACILITY
AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT
Priyanka inhaled sharply, but I couldn’t breathe at all.
Photos and video of the completed facility had indicated it would be half the size of this structure, lavishly landscaped, and painted soft, welcoming colors. Like a school. What the hell had Joseph Moore’s team sent footage of when he’d won the bid to build his training facility?
The building’s cement walls had to be at least sixty feet high, and they sloped inward like cupped hands. Electricity radiated from the place like a molten star. Power lines connected to it from all four directions, thumping and moaning as they worked furiously.
He made another camp.
Congress…Cruz…they had to have no idea. They never would have approved this.
The road curved and came to an abrupt stop at one end of the massive structure, this one standing straight up into the sky, with too many floors and windows to count. It had been built for function and intimidation only—there had been no time wasted or dollars spent on design embellishments that might have lessened its bleak look.
I leaned forward, trying to see through the front windshield. There was a passage, almost like a tunnel, that ran through the building at the ground level.
The car sped toward a security booth; it sat a good hundred yards from the actual structure, and served as a point of connection between the building and the webbing of security fencing that came into sharp focus as we neared. Not just one chain-link fence, but layers and layers of them. Between each was a series of connecting chambers for a vehicle to pass through. A ripple of pure, undiluted dread slipped down my spine.
If one gate failed, there would always be another, and another, to stand in the prisoner’s way.
I licked the sweat off my top lip, tasting salt and whatever chemical was in the hair gel. The police cruiser finally slowed as we approached a soldier. No—it wasn’t a soldier, at least not US military or part of the UN’s forces. He wasn’t in any kind of uniform, beyond a camo shirt and a heavy black Kevlar vest.
The man stood in the middle of the road, waving until the officer slowed down. He came to the driver’s side, his face like thunder.
“Oh, this should be good,” the officer driving muttered. “Hi there. Good evening to you. We’ve got three Psi in the back. These idiots were picked up trying to rob—”
“You can’t keep dumping kids here like they’re your garbage,” the man snapped, interrupting him. “The boss wants us to crack down. We’ve got a new system now. Did you even scan them before dragging them all the way out here?”
“You think the government gives us that kind of equipment?” the female officer asked, leaning over her partner to get a better look at the guard. “You know how this bureaucratic shit works. Look…I’ll pass the word on to the department if you’ll take these last three.”
The man guarding the entrance let out a noise of disgust, pulling back into the security booth. Another one stepped out, shining a flashlight into the backseat. All three of us turned our faces away.
“Fine,” the first one growled. “Next time call ahead and flag it in PTS.”
“You’ve got it,” the male police officer said. He rolled up his window, adding, “Asshole.”
Up ahead, the first of the gates buzzed and dragged itself open. As we rolled forward through the first section, then the next, my fingers tightened around Roman’s. At the third gate, the female officer turned to watch us through the grate. “Enjoy being someone else’s problem.”
The gates slammed shut behind us, the chain-link rattling with the force of it. Each layer of fence was electrified, singing out its cautions, its warnings.
We came to a stop at the base of the fortresslike building. As the last gate closed behind us, the lights posted on the low ceiling of the tunnel went off, flashing red in time with the alarm.
There were black metal doors on either side of the police car. Both opened, and six heavily armed men poured out. All of them were wearing different shirts, some long, others sleeveless, beneath the same black vests.
They’re not an organized military force, I realized. Roman was fixated on them as well, clearly drawing his own conclusions. This group was a hired force, most likely mercenaries.
The officer behind the wheel unlocked the back doors. He quickly stepped away, an
d before I could even take in another breath, an armed man had reached in and clamped down on my shoulders and arms.
Don’t make a sound, don’t give them that—
The thought was knocked out of me as I fell to the ground, hitting my head against the door.
“Hey!” I heard Roman snarl, but I couldn’t see him, not with the splotches of black floating in my vision. My muscles locked up as the armed men hauled me back onto my feet, shoving me through the door to my left and into a pitch-dark hallway.
PANIC TURNED MY THOUGHTS TO ash. There was no way to see past the soldiers congregating in the hall, but I tried, pulling hard against the grip one of them had on my arm. I couldn’t see the others—I couldn’t tell if they were still behind me, and the thought made me feel like my chest was collapsing into itself.
The soldier on my right reached up with his rifle and smashed the hilt down into the tender spot where my shoulder met my neck. I gasped more from shock than pain, staggering forward. The man let me fall onto my knees, then used his free hand to grip my hair and wrench me back up.
“Hit her again and I’ll kick your ass so hard you’ll be eating my foot!”
I turned just in time to see a female soldier slam her elbow into her stomach. She gagged on the pain, but managed to stay vertical, even as her knees buckled.
Where is Roman?
The empty hall was bookended with shadow. Cold air blew hard from the overhead vents, hissing and spitting moisture down at us like a crowd of spectators.
The tile, I thought, watching the gray stone pass underfoot. It’s the same.
Memory swept over me like a dark wave.