You can get up.
You have to get back up.
I could get back up. I could do it myself. Again, and again, and again. As long as there was breath in my body, I could get back up.
I slid my palms out from where they’d been trapped under me until they were in line with my shoulders. I spread my fingers, steadying myself as I pushed up off the ground. The figure beside me ran a hand down my back and along my shoulders—Roman.
His mask had slipped in the darkness, and there was only terror there.
“Are you hurt?” he shouted.
I shook my head, still unable to speak. I pressed my right hand to my left shoulder. I’m okay. Roman nodded, returning the gesture. It’s okay.
I could stand up. I could do it on my own.
A sheen of sweat had broken out over Roman’s face, and the telltale tremors were already starting to work through his body. We’d only have minutes before the pain overtook him.
I grabbed his free hand, relishing the hard clasp of his fingers around mine. Needing to make sure he didn’t somehow fall behind. Still here, still standing.
Priyanka was waiting for us at the gate, her body thrumming with power, her expression wild. Seeing that we were okay, she turned and started after the others, running for the building. I pushed Roman toward her.
“Go!” I said. “I’ll make sure the others are all right.”
“Five minutes,” he said, pressing his hand to his shoulder again.
I returned the gesture, feeling lighter. We are okay.
He navigated through the crowd of kids, disappearing into the building. One of Cubby’s crew was at the fence, rifle in hand, waving everyone in. At the sight of me, she stopped. I turned, trying to catch a glimpse of whoever was behind me.
Only soldiers. Mud-splattered and charging, yelling out their rage. Even without their guns, they still had Tasers. Batons.
“Was that really everyone?” I asked.
“You’re the last one,” the girl said, dragging the gate shut and throwing its lock in place. “Do it.”
I nodded. Priyanka hadn’t completely shut down the electricity in the Pit, she’d only temporarily turned it off. It took only three heartbeats to coax the electricity back into the fence. We turned to go just as the soldiers reached it and began screaming.
Someone, likely a Kin, had ripped off the decontamination room’s door, easing our path back into the building. The storage tubs had been ransacked, but I didn’t bother to stop long enough to see if my clothes were still there. We’d left our actual belongings in the car we’d parked a good fifty miles north of here, at the border between Texas and Oklahoma.
There was no sign of Priyanka and Roman as the remainder of us followed the trail of destruction down a set of stairs I hadn’t seen before, when we’d first come in.
Give them time, I thought, trying to ignore the sharp twist of worry in my gut.
“Where are we going?” the same girl called up to one of the others, just as we turned the last corner of the stairwell and saw for ourselves.
It was a massive garage.
The size of it must have encompassed the whole length of the Pit. There weren’t just the soldiers’ personal vehicles, but military-style trucks and vans they almost certainly used to haul kids in here.
Along the back wall were a series of lockers and a bulletin board filled with keys on hooks. The lockers had already been pried open and their contents—purses, backpacks, clothing—ransacked. Cubby was there, tossing set after set out to the kids waiting in a surprisingly orderly line for them.
“Don’t keep the cars for longer than a few hours,” I shouted over the roar of engines revving and the excited, terrified chatter of the kids. “And don’t stop for anything!”
A few shouted back, acknowledging the instructions. I spotted Max helping another teenage girl load some of the smaller kids into an SUV. He waved to them as the girl climbed into the front seat, and a boy climbed up into the passenger side.
Most of them were traveling together, it seemed. Good. But seeing them pair off and cluster in groups made me stop and look back toward the entrance, waiting.
Come on, I thought. Where are you guys?
Cubby made quick work with the rest of the keys, leaving two smaller sets for us. She tossed both at me as she passed by, grinning. “See ya in the next shit hole, Rook.”
The keys weren’t for an actual car, but two of the motorcycles parked in their own section along the far eastern wall. Max ran to my side, dodging out of the way of a green Jeep as it roared by.
“Do you see them?” he shouted.
Seconds passed. Minutes. More.
“Maybe I should go look for them—?”
“No, there they are!” Max took off like a shot, weaving through the remaining vehicles. I saw them a second later, Priyanka all but carrying Roman on her back. The veins and tendons in her arms stuck out, and she vibrated like a kettle on the stove.
“I got it,” she said, seeing my face. “I got it, I got it, I got it!”
“Are we riding these? I love these, oh my God, I love it—”
I clapped my hands in her face. Priyanka turned to me, her pupils dilated and her face bright with eagerness. She had Roman’s full weight across her shoulders and hadn’t so much as broken a sweat.
“Are we going? Are we doing this?” she asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
I felt Roman’s neck for a pulse. His eyes opened to slits, and, as Priyanka set him back down, he pressed his right hand to his shoulder. In it was a syringe.
“Raided their med bay, it’s all good,” Priyanka said. “I’ll take it once we get the hell out of here, I’ll come down, I promise, I’m in control, I’m fine, just let me fly—let me fly.”
“If you can handle it,” I told her, squeezing her wrist, “then that’s the plan.”
Roman took one look at the bikes and managed to get out, “Can’t.” His brow wrinkled in obvious agony.
“Can.” Max held up one of the soldier’s belts. “You remember how to ride?”
That last question had been directed at Priyanka.
“I remember beating you in every, every, every single race,” she said, taking the belt from him. “Load him up behind me, and let’s blow this joint.”
Priyanka sat down on the first bike, leaving Max and me to maneuver Roman’s unconscious form behind her. I looped the belt over their chests, securing it with a little prayer.
She kicked off and headed toward the door before Max and I had even climbed onto ours.
“This is…” he began.
“Don’t think,” I told him. “Just go.”
The words were drowned out by the roar of the garage’s door as the others finally got it all the way open. The kids honked as they drove out, smashing through the chain-link gates that had seemed so formidable when we first drove in. The fencing splintered and snapped, tossed out into the dirt as the first trucks and SUVs mowed through it. A cry went up from the cars behind them as they flew forward. The sound rippled back through the mass of us, feeding an electric sense of hope.
After the last car was out, Max hit the gas, bringing the motorcycle alongside Priyanka’s. We sped up, and the world suddenly opened for us. With the exterior lights out, all I could see was an infinite sky, studded with stars.
If they wouldn’t see us as human, I thought, we’d make sure they understood we were something more.
The car was waiting for us right where we’d left it behind a rundown, deserted strip mall at the edge of Oklahoma. I’d lost track of how many we’d had to steal at this point; it had taken two just to put this plan into play. We’d stashed a car here and then taken a second one back into Texas to leave at the gas station where we’d been taken into custody.
We took turns changing out of the uniforms, leaving them and the bikes for someone else to deal with. At some point, Max had wandered away from us, walking toward the cheerful sign tha
t had greeted us as we crossed state lines.
“Are you accepting Oklahoma’s invitation to ‘Discover the Excellence’?” I asked him, watching as he paced back and forth, his head tilted back. In the distance, I could have sworn I heard helicopters. “We should get going.”
Or maybe that was just the sound of the wind turbines. We’d passed by hundreds of them, all sticking out of the ground like petal-stripped flowers. They’d felt appropriately skeletal, for a part of the country that seemed as dusty as old, disintegrating bones.
Roman had woken up just before we’d reached the car, but he still didn’t look well to me. His skin had a chalky quality to it, and he swayed slightly as he came toward me. Instinctively, I reached out to steady him. He shot me a slightly rueful look, but accepted the help.
Now that I’d burned through the heat of anger and fear, what I’d found inside me again was quiet. The kind of quiet that didn’t keep you at its mercy, but clarified everything. The comfortable kind of quiet you’d find walking next to someone who no longer needed words to know your heart.