The others had obviously been here for a long time. Long before Moore’s company had supposedly broken ground and started building. Long before the supposed community’s model had sat on the table beside me as I spoke to reporters about the government’s tentative investment in the project.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been given the truth—I should have known to ask. To push. Instead, I’d bought into the lie out of hope, and I’d actively helped them spread it.
I needed to question everything. Even myself.
Maybe I wasn’t as guilty as the people who had conceptualized this place and now ran it, but I was still complicit—and that made me responsible for setting things right. I’d been so focused on finding Ruby and Liam, never mind clearing my name and getting justice for the people who’d been killed in the Penn State attack, but what about these kids? Why was it more important to prove my innocence than it was to get justice for victims of the same system I’d been trying to preserve my place in?
The system wasn’t broken. It was working at full steam—against us. I understood everything so clearly then. We were never going to be given reparations for what they did to us, unless we reached out and took them for ourselves. And we’d never have that opportunity if we hid in the woods, or tried in vain to work with the people who were slowly, steadily, quietly trying to erase us.
I didn’t know where that left us, but I was sure as hell going to figure it out. And when I did, someone was going to answer for all of this.
One of the older kids stepped forward, pacing in front of the others. She gave us the once-over, smirking. Roman tried to step out in front of both Priyanka and me, but I eased him back with my arm.
“You can try it,” I warned them. “But you’ll regret it.”
Places like this were ruled by a pack hierarchy. The strong rose to the top through will and viciousness, and those who recognized their own weakness surrendered control of their lives to the big dogs. Even with Caledonia’s rigidly controlled schedule and monitoring system, it had still taken root in smaller ways.
“That so?” the girl out front drawled. Under the splatter of black mud, her skin seemed naturally tan. She’d tied her long hair back into a mess of a bun. By her height and stature, I would have put her at sixteen, maybe seventeen.
A long strip of wood slid down into her hand from inside the sleeve of her uniform shirt. A tent stake, judging by the sharpened end. But my attention was on her hand, which was missing its ring and middle fingers. The knot-like scars over the bottom knuckles were evidence enough that she’d been born with them.
Once I’d recognized her old hurt, it was impossible to miss it in the other kids. They were covered in their own scars—nicks of skin missing from an earlobe, knocked-out teeth, an empty eyelid barely covered by a strip of cloth.
Priyanka did not look impressed.
“Would you prefer I ran this through your throat or spleen?” the girl asked, tapping on her stake.
Roman looked even less impressed.
“What do you think, Doc?” the first one asked, looking to another girl, her hair buzzed and her surgical scar still a vivid red. Doc stepped up beside her and tilted her head to the side, studying us.
“Break the little one first.” Her voice was sleepy, almost bored. “The others like her and protect her. They will do whatever you ask them to do if you threaten her, but she will only listen to you if you hurt her.”
“Um,” Priyanka began, “I don’t know what school of evil you graduated from, but everyone knows you wait to give the overly long explanation of your genius after your plan is in play.”
The first girl snorted, but when she opened her mouth, the words were drowned out by the clanging of bells.
The Psi circling around us broke ranks, sprinting in the direction of the tents behind them. Other kids swarmed out, joining the flow of bodies as they rushed toward something we couldn’t see.
“Come on, Cubby,” the sleepy-voiced girl said, hanging back. “Deal with them later. You know how the others get when they don’t see you there. Let the rooks live with the fear for now.”
“No one’s going to be afraid if you give them advance notice!” Priyanka said.
The girl—Cubby—resisted for a beat longer, then slid the stake back up her sleeve. As the fabric shifted, I saw how she had tied strips of cloth up her forearm to keep the weapon in place.
“Better listen to your babysitter,” I said.
The bell shut off as abruptly as it had started. Just before Cubby turned to follow Doc, she pointed at me, as if in warning.
I pointed at myself. “What? You want me to be your babysitter now?”
“You two are distressingly good at making enemies,” Roman said as we watched the two of them follow the same path through the tents.
“We’ve got to keep you entertained somehow,” Priyanka said. “So what are we missing here?”
The question was tossed to me, as the resident—and only—expert on the workings of Psi camps.
“No clue. The only time we had alarms at camp, it was to wake up and—”
“What?” Roman prompted.
At Caledonia, blocks of rooms rotated through the commissary. We’d walk in a straight, silent line up to the kitchen window and receive a Styrofoam plate of mushy food. Even if we finished early, we’d remain seated until the bell rang to dismiss us, then we’d walk our plates and plastic cups to the trash cans positioned at the exit. The rooms on clean-up duty for that week would stay behind to mop and disinfect the table under the watchful eyes of PSFs. It was as neat and orderly as a military operation.
Mealtime in this hellhole was…not like that.
“What is happening?” Priyanka managed to get out. “Am I hallucinating this? Is this a rage dream?”
Near the center of the main cluster of tents, there were four large trapdoors in the ground. We arrived just in time to see those doors bang open, sending a spray of mud into the faces of the kids eagerly gathered alongside them. Elevator platforms cranked up, bringing crates of what looked like the UN’s prepackaged rations. The same ones they had distributed in cities right after they took control of the country.
Cubby pushed forward to the front of the crowd. Before she could reach the closest crate, a small girl darted forward and snatched a ration, bolting through the legs of the Psi clustered nearby. A few more tried it, but all were blocked by the same kids we’d seen at the entrance.
All those assumptions that they were somehow trying to help us flew away.
“Now, who do I hate least today?” Cubby said, climbing up onto one of the crates. She bent to pick up a ration kit. They reminded me of the old-school lunch sets you could buy in the grocery store: mystery meat that didn’t need to stay refrigerated, stale bread, freeze-dried fruit, and packets of instant soup and oatmeal I doubted were very popular.
She tossed one ration to her nearest friend, who laughed, shoving back a boy who looked thin enough to be carried off by a strong breeze. One by one, Cubby’s friends received their share—multiple shares, in some cases.
The others seemed to be wilting in front of our eyes. It was their blank faces that worried me—the apathy that had somehow overpowered any humiliation and anger at being placed in this situation. They looked like they barely had enough strength to keep their bodies upright, never mind the energy it would take to fight back.
The camps and places like this relied on that resignation. That final surrender of your dignity in exchange for routine. Survival in these places often meant accepting the path of least resistance to food, water, safety.
Meanwhile, the hired guns up on the rafters watched, doing nothing to stop it. If anything, they were entertained. Laughing, pointing out the smaller kids who stood at the edges of the crowd.
“This is disgusting,” Priyanka said. “Everything about it. It’s appropriate that they’re feeding them like caged animals, because they’re watching them l
ike this is a goddamn zoo.”
I swallowed hard. The dryness in my throat reminded me of how long it had been since I’d had any sort of water. There seemed to be faucets of some kind along the right wall. Three girls had taken the opportunity to quickly wash themselves while everyone else was occupied. With their uniforms clinging to them, I could count their ribs.
Next to them was a line of bathroom stalls that looked and smelled like they were little more than holes in the ground. While there was some measure of privacy from the ground, there was no ceiling over them. The patrolling soldiers could easily watch everything happening inside. In fact, there were a number of men up there now, leering down into the stalls.
That silver thread uncoiled in my mind, searching for something to connect to, some way to transform my anger into the explosion it demanded.
I wanted out of here. I wanted everyone out of here.
“Should we split up to try to find him?” I asked. “There’s got to be a hundred Psi here, maybe fewer. It shouldn’t take too long.”
Roman shook his head. “I don’t think that’s going to be necessary….”
He pointed to a black teenager weaving through the crowd of kids on the other side of the crates. Blood vessels had burst in the whites of his eyes and mud splatter partially disguised the worst of the bruises on his jaw. There were open sores on his arms, a patch of rough skin on one of his cheeks, and he seemed to be limping.
“Oh boy…” Priyanka said. “He looks like hell.”
Almost as soon as I’d spotted him, Max Wendall had approached the second of the four crates and reached down into it.
The anxious chatter fell eerily silent. So silent, I could hear the crinkle of the plastic wrap on the containers in his hand from a good hundred feet away.