The water shut off, drizzling to a stop. Priyanka shivered with the blast of cold air, but I wouldn’t give Gilbert the pleasure of seeing me suffer, not again. The other soldier shoved two identical sets of tan scrubs at us, as well as slip-on sneakers. No towels. My scrubs were drenched by the time I had them on and was in the process of rolling up my sleeves and pant legs. Priyanka looked like she was wearing child-size clothing.
“These shoes don’t fit,” she complained.
“Doesn’t matter,” Gilbert said. “You’ll be lucky if the ferals outside let you keep them.”
Priyanka and I exchanged a look.
The woman only laughed.
Gilbert walked us to the double doors on the other side of the room, kicking one open and nodding her head toward it. She never re-holstered her gun. I felt the end of its barrel graze my damp shoulder as I passed her and stepped into another dim hallway. My mouth twisted at the vile smell that greeted me—manure and something rotten.
At the last second, she threw out an arm, blocking Priyanka’s path. “We may have orders not to kill you, but it doesn’t mean we have to stop your kind from trying to do the same. Remember that.”
“Lady, you have your whole life to be an asshole,” Priyanka said. “Don’t be afraid to take a day off now and then.”
I dragged her through the door before Gilbert could whip the gun across her face. Both of us startled when, instead of following us, the soldier slammed it shut and locked it.
The cameras on the ceiling sputtered with intermittent power. Priyanka must have sensed them, too, because she kept her face turned down and her mouth shut. I looked her over, checking for any fresh cuts or bruises, but aside from the burning anger still radiating off her, she looked unharmed.
“Okay?” I whispered.
“In control,” she whispered back. “Still feel like I could punch a hole in the cement, though.”
With the door shut behind us, there was only one way to go. We followed the corridor as it began to slant up. I searched for any kind of door or window—any place where Roman might appear.
The walkway ended abruptly at the start of what looked like a field of gummy black mud, a cage of chain-link fencing separating us from the hell beyond. With the walls stretching high above us, it gave the false impression that we were in a stadium of some kind. But there were no seats, and only two levels: the mud-ridden ground and a series of interconnected metal walkways a few hundred feet off it. Armed men and women patrolled the upper level. A few had taken up stationary watch positions, tracking the comings and goings of the imprisoned Psi through the sights of automatic rifles.
There was hardly anything to watch. There were no permanent structures, only filthy white tents—the kind the UN had distributed to homeless families before they transitioned back into “traditional” living situations. There were groupings of them here and there, including a sizable one that looked as if it had mutated and absorbed all the others nearby.
Psi stood on the other side of the cage, most still sporting a fresh buzz-cut and new surgical scars. Whoever had done these clearly didn’t have the time or didn’t care about making the small incisions most surgeons used to insert the cure device. These scars were long and jagged, following the curves of their skulls.
One of them began to rattle the fence. The others quickly joined in, until the metal sounded like the chattering of wolves excited for their next meal.
I ignored them, reaching out to grip Priyanka’s arm. “Roman—”
“I know,” she said.
“Did you change his record?” I breathed out.
“I did, but I don’t know if I was fast enough. They took him in through the other door when we came in, so they must have a separate processing section for boys, but I don’t know if they moved him through it faster, or if there was anyone else there to slow the process up. I just…I don’t know.”
“Inmates,” a soldier shouted down through a bullhorn, “stand back from the gate!”
The kids at the gate were small, just on the cusp of being teenagers. Their thin uniforms had been ripped and reworked; the sleeves were torn off, or the pants had been cut into shorts. Others had woven strips of the faded uniform fabric through their hair, or used it to tie their hair back. The older kids stood a few dozen feet behind them, laughing up at the soldiers. For one wild second, I wondered if they were trying to intimidate us or just prevent the people controlling the fence from sending us in.
Where is Roman?
The teens and smaller kids at the gate bought us a minute, maybe two, to look for him before we were ushered inside. I turned quickly, mud sucking at the soles of my shoes as I surveyed the rest of the cage, then the back of the building we’d been brought in through. And there—rising out of its foundation, was another tunnellike opening, identical to ours.
“Look,” I said, trying to subtly angle my head toward it.
Here was the lesson you learned quickly in places like this: if the people in charge saw that you wanted something, they would use all their power to make sure you never, ever got it. Even now, I felt the weight of those eyes looking down at us as surely as if they had dropped something onto my shoulders.
No one stepped out of the tunnel. I strained my ears, trying to catch the sound of approaching footsteps, but it was impossible to hear anything over the hooting and screaming of the kids at the gate.
The rattling of the fence grew frenetic. The older Psi whistled and jeered up at the hired soldiers perched on the rafter-like walkway over the gate, and it only grew louder as they pointed their rifles down at the kids. A silver-haired soldier muttered something into the ear of the one with the bullhorn.
“Step away from the gate!” he bellowed again. There was a new confidence in his tone, but the other Psi didn’t seem to recognize the danger in that.
I turned back toward the other opening, waiting. I forced air in through my nose, out through my mouth.
He wasn’t coming.
The thought of him down there, being dragged into surgery like the girls had been—I squeezed my eyes shut, tasting bile and blood in my mouth.
“Come on,” Priyanka breathed out. “Come on…Jesus…I know I don’t pray to you, but Roman does, and he’s one of your good ones…and okay, yes, I shouldn’t have made that joke about the sandals one of your reenactors was wearing, sorry about that….Who knew Birkenstocks would come back into style? Well, you probably did…but I mean…why? Why did they have to?”
A sudden surge of electricity flared behind us, firing through the fence—through the hands of the kids still hanging on to it.
“Holy shit!” Priyanka said, whirling around. The kids screamed as they fell back, convulsing as the shock continued to move through their systems. The silver thread in my mind lashed out, spreading over them one at a time, redirecting the flow of electricity racing across their bones—away from them, away from the damp mud.
The other Psi scattered, bounding toward the tents like spo
“What’s going on?” a deep voice asked from behind us.
“They electrified—” My brain caught on a second later.
Roman’s brow was creased with worry, his arms crossed over his chest. A new swollen knot was forming at his right temple. The small cut was trickling blood down the high planes of his cheek and onto his uniform.
Priyanka looked like she wanted nothing more than to collapse into a puddle of relief. “I thought I was too late.”
“You probably were,” he said. “I heard one of the guards mention the procedure testing on the way down and head-butted the tablet out of his hands. We had to wait for them to find another one.”
“I’m so proud of you and all your baffling first instincts,” Priyanka said.
“Are you all right?” I asked him, reaching up to dab at his cut. I caught myself at the last moment, dropping my arm back to my side.
“Inmates!” the same soldier called down, this time to us. “Stand at the gate and wait to be admitted. Any show of resistance will be met with force.”
“I’ll live,” he said as we made our way over to the entrance and lined up in front of it. The lights posted at its two corners flashed red. Just as the gate began to drag itself open, Roman turned toward Priyanka. “But if we make it out of here, I am going to kill you.”
ALMOST AS SOON AS WE stepped through the gate, the same horde of older kids drifted back toward it. A dozen kids. Two dozen. They came in waves, encircling us.
“Personalized Independent Training, eh?” Priyanka said, glancing at me.
“He’s not going to get away with this,” I muttered.
I let out a hard breath through my nose, studying the kids as they studied us. Most had been reduced to rail-thin states; a bite of hunger moved through me just looking at them. But it was the expressions on their faces that told their story. Suspicion. Curiosity. Resentment. The heat and dire conditions had baked those raw feelings into them. Here and there, I saw a nervous or worried shift of eyes. Those must have been the newer arrivals.