“What the hell is the matter with her?” one of the men asked.
“She finally realizes they’re in a deep pile of shit,” the one hauling me forward said. “Did you radio into processing we have more coming?”
I felt the walkie-talkies. The charge from their batteries buzzed inside their plastic shells. I felt the White Noise machines hanging from their belts. I felt everything and nothing at all. The only voice in my head was the one telling me to seize that charge, to hurt them the way they’d hurt us.
I swallowed the knot in my throat, chanting the word inside my head: Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.
We were here for a reason. I couldn’t attack, couldn’t give them a reason to hurt or accidentally kill us.
I remembered this. I remembered how this worked.
Another soldier opened the elevator door for us. As we stepped inside, I was finally able to get a look at Priyanka, the barely leashed rage on her face. There were fresh scratches on her cheek and swelling on the right side of her jaw. But she was here. She was with me.
And Roman wasn’t.
The elevator car shook to life, knocking me back against the wall. We didn’t go up into the building, like I’d expected. Down. Down and down, the machinery creaking, its power wrapping around me in sputtering ribbons of electricity.
You are not a little girl anymore.
I could protect myself and Priyanka. I knew that. Rationally, I knew that. But it was like I could feel myself disconnecting the farther we descended, leaving some part of me behind. Dizziness crashed over my head in waves.
You’re fine. You have to be fine.
My vision was going in and out in bursts. A gloved hand gripped my chin, forcibly turning my head. The soldier was a blur of black. His face came into focus as he leaned down to peer into mine. His hazel eyes narrowed.
He sees it. He knows who I am.
With whatever last grip I had on self-control, I remembered what Roman had told me about seeing someone out of context. So I did the only thing I knew that government-trained Suzume would never do.
I spat in his face.
He shoved me away, into the female soldier holding Priyanka in place. Wiping his face against his arm, he reached for his baton again.
The elevator door opened with a cheerful ding. Three more armed figures stood there, waiting.
“Waterson,” one woman said in a flat Midwestern accent, moving aside so the five of us could step out. She was older than all the other soldiers present, her hair turned silver with age. The wrinkles at her eyes and forehead were pronounced, made more so by her humorless smile. Her camo was darker than the others’, and she wore it head-to-toe like someone in the service would.
I recoiled at the sight of her. My pulse stamped out a new panic, one that twisted through me too hot and fast to understand.
“Ma’am?” the man said.
“Are you having difficulty securing this inmate?” she asked.
Inmate. My stomach roiled. At least they were honest about what we were here. No pretenses now.
“No, ma’am,” he said, straightening as he stepped back into the elevator. “Just assisting with the transfer to processing.” The woman nodded curtly and took position on my right.
This hallway was exactly like the one we had left aboveground, only shorter—and not empty.
Two girls, caked with dust and what looked like soot, tugged at where they’d been handcuffed to the metal bench. One was visibly older than the other by a number of years, and by the matching shade of their dirty blond hair, and the set of their jaws, I guessed they were sisters. That suspicion was only heightened when the smaller girl cowered back at our approach and the other leaned forward as if to shield her.
What little control I’d wrangled in the last few seconds disappeared.
Where is Roman?
“You can’t keep us here,” the older girl snarled. “We didn’t do anything wrong! It was an accident!” She lashed out a foot at the soldier who had knelt to remove the restraints at their ankles and wrists.
“Actions matter,” the woman said. “And your actions have brought you here for your reeducation. Line up.”
I glanced back at Priyanka. She’d lowered her head, glaring out from under the loose curls that had fallen from her bun. One eyebrow rose in question. I shook my head.
The smaller girl swallowed, a fat tear rolling down her cheek, silently taking her place in front of me. Doing as she was told. Listening, like school, her parents, and society had taught her to.
Like I had done nine years ago, when they’d lined us up outside the bus that had driven us to Caledonia, confused and scared, begging to know when we could go home again. I hadn’t been any bigger than this twig of a kid, with scraped knees and a handful of baby teeth still left. Neither was the girl who had been standing in front of me in that line. Nor the girl standing behind me.
It’s happening again.
Nothing had changed. In all the years we worked to reclaim our place in the world, we’d only scraped at the surface of the problem. The old system had slid back in, like a recurring nightmare.
Or it had never truly changed at all.
The older girl lunged at the soldier. Priyanka gasped as one of the other uniformed women reached for the Taser at her side and calmly fired at the girl. She fell to the tile, writhing in pain. The weapon’s charge seared through the spiral of my thoughts, leaving only one word behind: Stop.
“No! She’s sorry! She’s sorry!” the little one cried.
I don’t know who actually killed the Taser, me or Priyanka. Its power snapped and died, but, by then, it was already too late. The girl lay motionless, facedown on the gray tile.
“Turn her over so that I can scan her,” the older woman said. One of the soldiers did as she asked, struggling with the moaning girl’s dead weight. She blinked up at the woman, her eyes so white in the darkness of the hall, as a tablet-like device was unhooked from its perch on the wall and handed to the commanding officer.
She lined up the girl’s face in the software and snapped a picture. “Ah, this is easier. Government’s good for something after all.”
Every inch of my spine straightened. That wasn’t possible. Cruz had refused to send supplies to Moore’s training facility until he accepted inspectors on the
property. Either someone had seen this place and checked all the appropriate boxes or…they’d just stopped caring.
Standing behind her, I could just see the screen—the flurry of faces the government Psi tracking program flipped through before finally bringing up an image of a scowling, clean-faced girl.
“Isabella Jenner,” the woman read aloud, scrolling down through the data listed beneath it. “Of Black Rock camp. Blue. All you had to do was be good and you wouldn’t find yourself back in a place like this.” She clicked her tongue three times.
That small sound—one, two, three, with not even a breath between. That sound.
Now I remembered her.
This woman—this woman had been at Caledonia. She’d worked in the control tower, then did night rounds past each of the rooms, knocking against the doors at all hours of the night to startle us awake. Just because.
One, two, three clicks of the tongue. Shut your stupid little mouths. One, two, three clicks of the tongue. What? Are you going to cry now? One, two, three. It doesn’t matter who you tell, because you don’t matter.
What was her name? All I could think of was the nickname the kids had given her: Knocker.
Static growled in my ears, growing louder as she said, “And not cured, just like I suspected.”
The Knocker clicked her tongue again, once, to get the attention of the woman holding on to me. “Take her to surgery. I’ll send the little one after her.”
The girl still had some fight left in her. As the younger girl screamed, one of the armed women seized Isabella by the collar and hauled her down the hallway, disappearing through a set of double doors.
I whipped my head around. Priyanka’s gaze met mine, eyes as wide as I’d ever seen them as the realization struck her, too.
They didn’t just imprison Psi here against their will. No, that only came after they were stripped of every bit of power they had. Which meant…we’d come all this way to ask for help from a Psi who no longer had his ability.