“Everything all right?” Roman asked.
“Much better,” I said, breathing out and hitting the ignition button. A powerful thrust of electricity blazed through the body of the car. A faint pop song I didn’t recognize came on the radio, but before I could change it, Liam opened the front passenger door.
Where Roman was already sitting.
Liam clucked his tongue, jerking his thumb toward the backseat.
After a long look at me, Roman unbuckled his seat belt and moved.
“What?” Liam asked when he saw my look. “I’m wounded. I need more room.”
I shook my head, putting the car in drive. The car lurched ungracefully as I got used to the looser steering. Liam pressed a hand to his chest.
“Settle down, old man,” I told him, picking up speed as we turned off the long driveway and onto the dirt road. Vida was already leaving a blazing trail of dust behind her. The longer I drove, ten minutes, twenty minutes, the harder it became to ignore the way Liam was practically vibrating.
“You’re starting to offend me,” I warned him. “Not to mention annoy me.”
“No—no, you’re a great driver,” he said quickly. “It’s just…why would you listen to this when you could listen to literally anything else?”
I’d just tuned out the pop music, focused on keeping pace with Vida. “Change it, then.”
He looked almost horrified at the suggestion. “Driver chooses, always.”
“It is amazing no one has ever tried to push you out of a moving car,” Priyanka noted.
He turned in his seat. “You were my favorite of Zu’s new friends. Now it’s him, because he at least respects his elders.”
“Since when are you an elder?” I asked him.
“It’s a fair statement,” Roman said, staring out his window. “The brain supposedly hits peak performance at age twenty-five, and after that it’s all downhill.”
“Nice,” Liam said, facing forward again. “This is the guy you’re choosing to make out with on fences?”
“Whaaaaaaat?” Priyanka sang out, a false note of surprise in her tone.
“You were watching!” I said, reaching over to smack his shoulder. I glanced up at Priyanka in the rearview mirror, her eyes on the roof of the car. “You were all watching?”
Roman seemed completely unbothered by this revelation, and instead focused on drawing out alternate routes on the maps.
“Okay, yes,” Priyanka said. “But it’s not really our fault. Charlie went out to yell at you to come inside before you got hit by lightning, and he saw it, and then he ran back inside and got very flustered and embarrassed and told us it was nothing, which seemed deeply suspicious, all things considered, so of course we all had to go see, just to make sure you were all right and not a pile of charred remains.”
I glared at her in the rearview mirror, then jabbed the scanner button to search for another station. Mercifully, it landed on the zone’s official channel, not Truth Talk Radio’s garbage of the day.
But, unfortunately, it wasn’t good news.
“—catch up those who are just tuning in. We interrupt our usual broadcast to bring you this breaking report from your local Zone Three station—”
“Why did I just shudder at the words breaking report?” Priyanka asked.
Roman let the map drift down to rest on his legs. “Can you turn it up?”
“Following last night’s attempted attack on Interim President Cruz’s motorcade as she returned to the White House, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has issued the following statement….”
The blood seemed to swell inside my veins, the pressure driving my pulse up to the point of pain. Secretary-General Chung never issued public statements on behalf of America unless…
“After a meeting with delegates from each nation of the coalition overseeing the restoration of the United States government, we have reached a unanimous decision to extend the United Nation’s oversight for the next two years. These tensions, all of which have arisen over what would have been the first independent election since the removal of former president Gray’s administration, have demonstrated a dangerous volatility that still exists in the country. For the sake of domestic and international stability, we will maintain the status quo as it exists today, and increase our support to both the Defender and peacekeeping forces. Thank you.”
“They actually did it,” I said. “They actually called off the election like Moore predicted. He couldn’t have wanted this….”
He couldn’t have wanted anything that kept him away from power.
“Residents of Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, and other major cities are advised to remain inside and keep roads clear for emergency services as they manage spontaneous demonstrations.”
Spontaneous demonstrations. Classic PR-speak for what were likely raging protests.
“Did he overplay it?” Priyanka asked. “Isn’t this what they’ve been fear-mongering all along? Churning out all that propaganda that the United Nations was too controlling, that they would never let this country go, even as they forced the UN into this position. This is exactly what he wants: open rebellion.”
For weeks—for months—Moore and others like him had been launching dangerous sparks of dissension into the air. And now they were about to rain down over us. In the chaos, the public would turn to him for guidance, even the ones who hadn’t necessarily believed him before. He’d manufactured the proof he’d needed that he was both a prophet and a savior.
“Well,” Liam said, turning to gaze out his window. “Shit.”
BY THE TIME WE REACHED Philadelphia, almost a full day of driving later, the city was on fire.
The smoke was visible for miles beyond the police blockades set up at every major access point to the city. I’d followed Vida as she navigated through the town of Lansdowne, pulling into the parking lot of a boarded-up grocery store. The words FAMILY OWNED PLEASE LEAVE US ALONE were spray-painted over the panels that covered the chained front doors. Garbage, glass, and tear-gas canisters littered the street, but there didn’t seem to be a soul around us. The homes we had passed looked like they’d been abandoned and ransacked.
My back was killing me, even after trading off driving with the others. Standing outside the car, I tried to stretch out my cramped muscles and let adrenaline eat away at my lingering exhaustion. Vida stepped out of the car, her ear pressed against the cheap burner she’d picked up when we’d stopped for gas. “I will. Thanks. You’ll be the first one I call, I promise.”
“What’s up?” Liam asked, stretching.
“Cate,” she said. “She’s been monitoring the situation in the city for us. Based on what she’s heard on the FBI’s channel, we might be able to get into the city by going on foot and cutting through something called Mount Moriah Cemetery. She overheard the coordinating agents talking about pulling security coverage of that area and relying on aerial patrols.”
There was never any doubt that Vida was going to be the de facto leader of this rescue operation. Aside from Ruby, she was the only one of us who had real, proven experience. Still, taking the backseat now after days of leading my own charge left me feeling like I was crawling with static. The only thing that gave me some small sense of control was watching Vida, studying what she was doing to prepare us. As much as Vida preferred to go it alone on missions, she never backed down from stepping up in a group. There was something to learn from everything she did.
Roman went to retrieve the map from the glove compartment, then spread it over the hood of our SUV. “Here. It looks like we’re about two miles away.”
The location of Leda’s lab in Philadelphia wasn’t a secret. It was the same building that had been shuttered years ago in an attempt to hide the fact that Agent Ambrosia was responsible for the Psi mutation. It had been a shock when, rather than being scorched out of existen
ce, the company had been given permission by Cruz to reopen it. The funding Leda had received from the United Nations—to continue their research into the mutation and the development of new, unrelated drugs—had been incredibly unpopular. Even I’d been able to recognize the unfairness of rewarding the people who had, however unintentionally, destroyed so many lives.
“And then how many more miles to Center City?” Liam asked, his hands on his hips. “This is going to take hours. Isn’t there any way to drive?”
“Not unless you’re dying to remember what it feels like to be thrown into the back of an unmarked police van,” Vida said. “If you’ve missed White Noise that much, I’m sure someone will be more than fucking happy to oblige.”
He waved her off, glancing toward Chubs, who was leaning against their sedan, a pensive expression on his face.
“If the city is in this kind of condition,” Chubs said, “would they have already moved her out?”
“I can do another reading,” Max offered, coming toward us.
Vida shook her head. “Cate said they’ve locked down the office buildings in Center City, the lab included. The bigger thing is going to be circumventing the increased security, but we’re going to have to assess the extent of it when we get there. They have a curfew in place, but they’re still struggling to control the situation.”
Frustration bled into Liam’s expression, but he nodded. We all knew a little something about having to make the best out of a terrible situation.
“The lab building is about seven miles from here,” Roman noted. “A little under two hours of walking at a good pace, but still a long way to walk for someone with a gunshot wound.”
“Kid,” Liam muttered. “Quit busting my chops. I’m fine.”
Vida checked the cartridge of her gun before tucking it into the pocket of her leather jacket. I knew Roman had a weapon on him, but I was still surprised to see Priyanka take the extra pistol Vida offered.
“I don’t need to tell you this, but don’t let anyone catch you with it, especially not anyone in a uniform,” Vida told her. “They might hesitate to shoot the white boy, especially if they don’t think he’s a Psi, but not the brown girl.”