“Depends on how difficult it is to hit the switch,” Priyanka said. “I can’t imagine I’ll be in trouble, but someone should keep an eye on me after the fact. I might actually try to burn this place down.”
“I will,” Roman said. “I’ll stay with you the whole time.”
“I’m thinking more than just deactivating the implants,” I said with an apologetic look.
“Have no fear, Sparky, I’ll keep it together. You don’t get to have fun without me,” Priyanka said.
“Well, we won’t have that much time to convince everyone,” Max said. “There’s got to be close to a hundred kids here now, and one of them might rat us out for better treatment.”
“What are you thinking?” Roman asked me. “Run surveillance on the soldiers to get their watch schedule down and then head out with a team?”
This would be a risk, there was no avoiding that. The assault on Thurmond had taken weeks of planning and involved coordination on the inside and out. We’d be dependent on surprise and chaos, not careful timing and strategy.
“I’m thinking we leave no one behind,” I said. “Anyway, I don’t need to convince everyone. I just need to convince one person.”
“Well, well, well. Looks like the ladies have come to pay their dues.”
Unsurprisingly, Cubby was in the biggest tent, and even more unsurprisingly, she was surrounded by all of her best meathead types. Two of them rose as Priyanka and I stepped inside. I eyed what looked like tent stakes in their hands.
“Chill,” Priyanka said. “Unless you’re going out vampire hunting, those aren’t going to be necessary. We come in peace, or whatever.”
The tent was really four or five of them tied together, and it was immediately obvious that most of the camp’s allocation of rough wool blankets was here. They were used as everything from padding to create more comfortable sleeping arrangements to curtains dividing off the area where Cubby and a few others were gathered, surrounded by empty ration boxes and water bottles.
I glanced up, checking again to make sure that we were hidden from the sight of the soldiers above us. I couldn’t sense any microphones or cameras, either. Priyanka confirmed it, touching my arm and giving a quick shake of the head.
I almost laughed. At least the hired hands weren’t pretending they cared if we lived or died. The camp controllers at Caledonia had spun the lie about the cameras and PSFs being there for our protection for far too long. In reality, they’d only ever been there to make sure we behaved, and to punish us when we didn’t. The soldiers here didn’t have to work nearly as hard to keep everyone in line, not with everyone’s abilities smothered out like flames. They seemed perfectly content to sit back and watch as we killed each other.
These were the unwanteds, after all. The unclaimed and the misbehaving.
So…my kind of people.
“Where’s the boyfriend?” she asked.
Max had taken Roman on a walkabout to familiarize him with the Pit’s layout and try to plot the escape route. “Which of these kids do you not trust with your life?” I asked instead of answering.
Cubby’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your game?”
“I have an offer for you,” I told her. “But I’ll only deliver it with the assurance no one is going to go slip the information to one of the hired guns, looking for special favors.”
“Anyone who rats to the grays gets spiked,” she told me, picking up her own tent stake to demonstrate.
“What about you?” I asked.
The kids clustered around her began to whisper, exchanging looks that ranged from nervous to curious. Cubby’s face flushed scarlet, all her bluster and bravado gone.
The sleepy-voiced girl, the one she’d called Doc, was sitting to Cubby’s left. She leaned back on her hands, narrowing her gaze on me. “She’s trying to test—”
Cubby jerked up her hand, silencing her. The flustered look turned to one of fury as she pointed the tip of the stake at herself, thrusting it toward her to emphasize each word. “I got here same as everyone, I got treated same as everyone—you think I’m going to lower myself to working with the shits keeping us here? You think that helped any of us at Black Rock? No way in hell. The kids respect me, is all.”
Black Rock? I took a step closer.
I’d assumed she wasn’t more than sixteen, but to have been at Black Rock, a camp second in size and ruthlessness to Thurmond, she had to be my age at the youngest. Chances were, she was actually older and had survived a life full of want that had nearly starved her down to her bones.
I stared at her, and she stared back, unflinching. Priyanka pressed her arm against mine.
“You were in a camp, yeah?” Cubby said, lowering her stake. “I see it in your eyes. You’ve got that dark that just won’t quit.”
The others drifted back into silence. No wonder Cubby had handily taken this place over; she’d known how places like this worked. Which was why I knew exactly what to say to her—what to say to all of them. Because the government hadn’t just relied on my voice, they’d taught me how to use it to persuade minds and move hearts. And now I was going to use that tool.
“I know you’re wondering what I can do for you,” I said, relaxing my posture. “We’re new to the game here, and we don’t understand how things really are. Not yet. But you’re right, I do know something about being locked up, and I know what it feels like to believe the key is a thousand miles outside of your reach. It’s not.”
Priyanka’s eyes shifted toward me, clearly wondering where this was going.
“Places like this exist to strip us of any dignity, to make us submit. They know the power we have, and all they want to do is smother it. When they’re not telling us we’re too young to understand, or we need to wait or listen, they’re doing everything they can to contain our potential to do something incredible. These people,” I said, gesturing overhead, “literally think they deserve to walk above us. They don’t care if we just lie down and die. It’s less work for them. If anything, it’s probably what they’re hoping for.”
A murmur of agreement rippled through the kids. Cubby leaned forward, pressing her hands against her knees.
“The soldiers call you ferals. Not kids, not Psi, not even freaks. Ferals, like wild animals people hunt for sport. It makes me sick. It makes me want to scream, and I know you all feel the same. I let people like this hurt me in the past. They tried to break me and they came pretty damn close, but I won’t let them keep hurting you. If it’s the last thing—if it’s the only thing—I ever really do in my life, it’s going to be to help you get out of here. We deserve to be free. We deserve more than this. We’ve inherited the darkest legacy, but they don’t know that we’ve learned how to thrive in shadows and create our own light.”
Repetition, hyperbole, dialogismus, expeditio—all those little rhetorical devices Mel and the speechwriters had taught me, bullets for driving my point home. But nothing came close to actually speaking from the heart.
I met Cubby’s gaze again. “Do you know what happened at Thurmond, on that last day?”
Her answer was a smile.
I returned it with one of my own.
THE HARD PART, AS IT turned out, wasn’t getting everyone on board with the plan. It was coming up with a reason for us to all be gathered in one place without drawing suspicion—one that would also ensure we’d have the soldiers’ full attention.
“I cannot change the world, I can only change myself….”
I looked over to where Max stood a short distance away. The others were flowing by him like he was a rock in their stream, but he never opened his eyes to return their curious looks. He just kept repeating that phrase, over and over.
I didn’t know how to tell him it wasn’t actually true. One person, for better or worse, could have enough power to impact many lives. It just depended on their platform, on that rare chemistry of being the right person
in the right moment. But I understood the sentiment, probably better than most. I could not control the world, so I controlled my voice. When things were overwhelming and moving forward felt impossible, small steps were easier to take than big strides.
“Are you sure you’re up for this?” I asked Max.
All of us had held our breaths as Priyanka switched off his implant. Nothing had happened beyond what registered as a hard snap of static passing through his system, but he hadn’t stopped trembling since. Two members of Cubby’s crew had gone from tent to tent, bringing them back to Cubby’s in groups of five to ten, spreading it out over a good two hours. A few of the kids had elected to keep their device active, but the ones who underwent Priyanka’s reverse treatment were roaming the Pit like they had fire in their veins.
The bulk of them were Blue and Yellow, with a few rejected Greens mixed in—Kin and Sparks and Prodigies. Priyanka’s names had come in handy for identifying members of each group without any soldiers potentially overhearing. The kids took to them immediately; the names we gave ourselves would always have more meaning than the labels others forced on us.
Watching each of them have their ability restored reminded me of the way electricity flowed through a string of lights. Alone, each had their own glow, but together, their excitement was dazzling. It was like the parts of them they’d hardened into armor had fallen away, and they’d let themselves feel again.
At the first spark of power flooding their minds, half the group’s instinct had been to immediately test them, only to be shut down by Cubby.
“Any of you pull a stunt before you get the signal,” Cubby repeated to each group of kids, “I kill you myself. You hear me? You can wait an hour. You’ve gotta wait, otherwise you get us all gutted.”
“Max?” I said, a little louder this time. The chatter in the tent was carefully restrained, with the whispered plans happening in corners under its cover. Max was watching Roman and Priyanka discuss the timing with a few of the older Kin.
It was Roman who had suggested keeping the smaller kids out of harm’s way, until the first phase of the breakout was through. After Max finished here, he’d go join them in the crowded tent to wait out the worst of the fighting.