“I know,” Priyanka said. “But they won’t catch me to begin with.”
“Good. I can’t take another dead kid on my watch.”
Priyanka saluted her sarcastically.
“I also don’t need that attitude,” Vida said sharply. “Are you capable of taking orders?”
“You have no idea what I’m capable of,” Priyanka told her, her voice hard.
Vida’s steely expression relaxed as her lips curled into one of her patented, unnerving smiles of approval.
We made our way through the town, carrying our water and the weapons. We didn’t encounter the first helicopter until we were nearly to the cemetery’s perimeter. Priyanka and I were the first to feel it, before the others even heard it. She grabbed Max and I grabbed Roman, dragging them under the cover of the nearby trees.
Up ahead, the others followed, diving for the heavy shade. Liam crouched a short distance away from me, resting his head against a tree trunk. He was red in the face, sweat streaking over his cheeks. A twinge of concern moved through me at his labored breathing. Then he clenched his jaw, and a fierce look of determination set in. He pushed himself up onto his feet the instant the noise of the chopper’s propellers faded beneath the distant car alarms and the wailing of emergency services sirens.
“Cut across the cemetery two by two,” Vida instructed as we climbed over the fence. “Except you, Stewart—you’re coming with me and Charlie.”
Each pair waited until the one ahead was through the maze of headstones and paths before running after them. By the time the helicopter came back to make another pass, the city had already ushered us into the cover of its smoky arms. We disappeared into its chaos.
At the edge of the city, buildings and shops were still glowing with flames, coaxed on by the wind. Looters smashed the windows of convenience stores and clothing shops. A white guy stumbled out through the smashed glass of a storefront, clutching a computer in his arms and running toward a group of friends wearing bandanas over the lower halves of their faces. A police car flew by us as we hurried along the sidewalk.
By the time we’d reached the river and found an unmonitored path over it, we’d wasted an hour just dodging the patrols and hiding behind dumpsters. I seethed with frustration; every minute we lost mattered. A life could be taken in seconds. Ruby might already be…
I saw Liam’s face, steeled with grit, as he pulled himself up from behind the garbage containers and led the group forward. Roman and I brought up the rear, his gaze sharply assessing each individual threat as we passed it. While Priyanka had lengthened her strides to keep up with Vida and the others, Max had slowly drifted back to us, his face troubled.
“Are you all right?” I asked him. “You can turn back if this is getting to be too much.”
I didn’t mean it in a cold way; I was surprised that Max had decided to come with us at all. When Liam had called to update them, Sam and Lucas had invited him to stay with them until he felt ready to face the world. But Max insisted on coming, saying that he might need to do another reading after we got to the city.
“I’m managing,” he said. “I didn’t expect to find a path through violence again, though.”
“You don’t have to do any fighting,” I told him. “I’m just glad you’re here with us.”
He nodded, turning his gaze back out to the street. I was beginning to see the pattern of the wreckage. Burning buildings gave way to still-smoldering ones as the fire department worked its way from the heart of the city out to its fringes. By the time we reached the blackened remains of a fleet of row houses, there were no actual flames in sight, just air that was thick with ash and clogging smoke. I lifted the collar of my shirt over my mouth and nose, trying to get a clean breath of air.
The only problem was, we were finding more and more people as we moved toward Center City. We stepped off the streets to let a roving crowd pass by. They were all different ages, all different ethnicities, but all of their eyes were rimmed with the same painful-looking red. As if they’d tried to scratch them out.
“Tear gas,” Roman said, nodding toward them.
A middle-aged man supported another, younger man as they hobbled forward. The younger one had a gushing head wound that left his expression unfocused. They maneuvered through the burned-out shells of cars and fields of broken glass. As they passed by us, the older man looked at me, then looked again.
I cleared my throat, turning my face away.
“Don’t go to Independence Mall,” he said, his voice hoarse. “That’s where they’re rounding everyone up and checking IDs. You won’t get to leave.”
I risked a glance back. Even if the man didn’t recognize me, he had to recognize how young we were. What that likely meant, even without buttons.
“The cemetery is the best way out,” Roman told him, his hand closing gently on my elbow to guide us both forward. “Keep an eye out for helicopters, though.”
“Thanks,” the wounded man said, slurring. “Be careful. They don’t have rubber bullets.”
“Oh God,” Max whispered as soon as they were out of earshot.
“Still okay?” I asked him. He swallowed, nodding.
We had to run to catch up with the others. Along the way, Roman fell back, bending to retrieve something that had been washed into the gutter by a sputtering fire hydrant. A Phillies baseball cap. Wordlessly, he offered it to me.
“Thanks,” I whispered, pulling it down as low as I could over my face. The last thing we needed was to be recognized before we could even see the Leda building.
“Isn’t Leda’s building near Independence Mall?” I asked when we’d finally caught up to the others in the shadow of a boarded-up pizzeria.
“I think it’s a good ten blocks away,” Vida said. “Why?”
“It’s closer than that,” Liam said, the words strained. “About four.”
“You’re sure?” I asked.
“This is where my brother was in deep cover for the League,” Liam said, his voice flat. “I waited to see if I could spot him from that park. I’m sure.”
He was right. It was on the corner of Locust and Tenth Street, a nondescript white building with no logo or signage. The lab was an open secret for anyone who worked in the government and, likely, anyone who lived and worked in Philadelphia. The public had only been told that they’d closed this lab down and donated it to a nearby university, and that Leda’s UN-commissioned research was being done under the watchful eye of the government in a building in Washington. If anyone didn’t know what the low rectangular building was before the riots broke out, they had to know now by the heavy military presence that surrounded it. I couldn’t even see the front doors past the armored vans they’d parked there.
We stayed a block back, slipping into the narrow alley space between what remained of a sushi restaurant and a dry cleaner. The combined smell mingling with the smoke made my eyes water.
“Don’t make those pitiful-ass faces,” Vida told us. “We were never going to be able to get in through the front doors.”
“Won’t all the entrances be monitored?” I asked. When we’d left Kansas we’d known to expect security in the building, but not assault rifles.
“Come on, we’re not fucking idiots,” Vida said. “Someone throw out a suggestion.”
“I have an amazingly bad one,” Priyanka said slowly.
“Now we’re talking,” Liam said. “Go for it.”
“We’re near a ton of rowdy protestors who are trapped in the park by people they’re bound to outnumber, right?” Priyanka glanced to me. “It’s a play on the Pit strategy. We get them to swarm Leda, floating the idea to them there’s…I don’t know, supplies? Remind them that Leda is the reason we’re all here? If they surround the building, that’ll draw the focus of the soldiers and security to the front while we find some shady back entrance to sneak into.”
“That’ll also probably get a number of people killed,” Chubs said. “Even if we can use the chaos to slip inside, they mig
ht be prompted to evacuate the building because of it.”
“U! N! No! More! U! N! No! More!” Until now the voices of the people who were packed onto the grounds of Independence Mall, the ones I’d seen with signs near Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, had been a dull roar. But the chants were growing louder the longer we stood there, moving closer.
“We could steal peacekeeper or police uniforms,” Roman suggested.
“That’s the right line of thinking, but not exactly realistic,” Liam said. “Even if we could come up with a brilliant reason for all of us to need to be in that building, we’re never going to be able to find seven uniforms, let alone an eighth to get Ruby out. Our best bet is to hope things get a little bit rowdy outside to pull the security force’s attention while we sneak in through a side entrance.”
“I don’t know about any side entrances, but there’s the overflow parking garage.”
We all pivoted toward Max.
“Your father used to work for Leda,” I said, suddenly remembering what he’d told me in the Pit. “In this lab.”
“So, that’s the kind of information that would have been useful five fucking minutes ago,” Vida said. “Anything else you want to add?”
“The main garage for staff is right under the lab, on the back side of the building. This one is a few blocks north, but there’s an underground walkway that connects it,” Max explained.
“You’re sure about that?” Chubs asked. “One thousand percent sure?”
“The researchers used it when they didn’t want anyone to know they were late or for corporate meetings when more employees were on hand,” Max explained. “My dad used it with me when he brought me in for testing so I wouldn’t have to face the stares in the lobby. There’s still a security presence, cameras and at least one person in the booth, but getting in shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve never known a lock to keep Priyanka out.”
“Aw, Maximo,” she said. “Now I am sorry I changed the password on your phone all those times to torment you.”