For as long as I lived, I would never forget the expression on Priyanka’s face when she saw me running toward them, alone. Her look of relief faded, twisting into anguish, and the wound became a lasting scar.
“No!” she said, jumping down off the ladder and running toward me. “No! Where are they?”
I grabbed her, and even with all of her height on me, with all of her wild panic, I still managed to drag her back toward the water tanker. “We have to go. They’re going to be on us in a few minutes—”
Vida tried to help me wrangle Priyanka’s lanky form, getting a fist to the jaw in thanks.
“Don’t make me knock you out,” Vida warned.
“They’re still in there!” Priyanka said. “Roman went back to find her! Where are they?”
“Blue Star,” was all I could say.
Vida looked at me. The pain in my throat radiated through my whole body. She reached out, stroking my hair back.
“You did the right thing,” she told me fiercely. “You did the only thing.”
“Please,” the driver was begging Max, “we have to go. They’re still patrolling the streets. I want to help you, I do, but I’ve got a family. If they catch me doing this, they’re the ones who are going to pay.”
“I’m not going to leave,” Priyanka said.
“You clearly thought I was kidding about knocking you out,” Vida said, pushing up one of her sleeves.
“We can’t help them right now,” I said, refusing to consider the likelihood they hadn’t been taken alive. “He wanted us to go. Priya, he told me to go.”
“They’re together?” she asked. “The two of them…they’re together?”
All I could manage was a nod.
She turned back toward the ladder, refusing to look at me as she climbed. My whole body felt like it was being crushed when she pulled out of my grip as I reached up to steady her.
I followed her over the top of the tanker, accepting Chubs’s help down through the tight hatch. Water splashed onto my feet, surprising me. It stank of chlorine and the coppery chemical they added to all water to neutralize Agent Ambrosia.
I felt along the edges of the dark space until my eyes adjusted enough to see the kids huddled together along one wall, and Liam holding Ruby at the very back of the tank.
They’d wrapped her in layers of coarse blankets, covering her weak form from her neck to her feet. Liam supported her shoulders with his arm, pressing her head to his chest. The lower halves of their bodies were soaked in the water. I knelt down in front of them, reaching out to touch Ruby’s face. She looked no better than the last time I’d seen her. The shadows deepened the hollows of her face.
“Come on, darlin’,” Liam was murmuring. “Don’t keep us waiting. You know how impatient I get.”
Priyanka watched us from where she crouched against the wall opposite the kids. There was just enough light coming from the hatch to see the tears as they streamed down her face and dripped into the water beneath her.
Finally, Max and Vida climbed in, and Chubs dropped down, closing the hatch door over us. The kids gasped at the darkness, and I wanted to tell them to wait, that they would adjust to it like everything else. But, somehow, I didn’t think they needed that lesson.
The tanker truck’s engine roared, sending us flying forward, as the driver moved the vehicle up the dip in the loading dock and then swung us out onto the street.
“Where did you find her?” I heard Vida ask Max.
“She caught me trying to take the truck and told me she’d help us,” Max said.
“You believed someone wearing a government-issue uniform?” Priyanka asked.
“She drove over to Leda, didn’t she?” he asked.
“Fuck, kid,” Vida said, letting her head fall back against the tank’s wall.
The vehicle swayed as the driver took another corner.
“She’s not going to turn us in,” Max said. “We’re going to make the meet you arranged. She promised.”
“If I’m right, I’m going to carve those words into your fucking tombstone.” Vida scoffed. “‘She promised.’”
Chubs put a calming hand on her shoulder as he moved past her, coming back to check on Ruby.
“Any change?” he whispered.
Liam shook his head. “The kids say they aren’t sure what happened, either. They just said she’s been—” He swallowed, hard. “She’s been like this for days.”
“Did they give her the cure procedure?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Liam said. “They told me that the Leda people were just running tests and taking samples from them, but who knows what they were doing to her.”
The image of the surgeon, the drill in his hand, flashed through my mind. But as I reached out to run my hand back over Ruby’s buzzed hair, the sight of her burned away with a glare of white light. That same strange sensation threaded through me, weaker than before. This time I knew not to pull back from it.
The memory assembled itself in my mind like drops of ink falling through water. Trees in full spring glory. A trail between them. A playground flanked by a graffitied, boarded-up building.
I recognized this place.
The broken swing set seemed to materialize out of dust and air. The former school’s sign had been smashed in, but the edge of the logo was still there. Blackstone Elementary.
Why was she showing me this?
I walked—Ruby walked—past the swings toward the rusted jungle gym, dropping to her knees and crawling beneath a long plastic slide that had buckled.
Her hands dug into the wet sand, tossing mounds of it to the side. After a few minutes, she—I—reached into the pocket of her jacket. A small black box, the kind you’d use to gift jewelry, appeared in my hands. I opened it. Inside, there was a small flash drive. A slip of paper with only two words written on it: FINISH IT.
The cover snapped down over it, and the box was placed into the hole. My right hand ached strangely as I covered it with sand. Only, I hadn’t felt
anything the last time Ruby had planted a memory. This pain was real.
It was Priyanka. I latched onto the feeling of her hand crushing mine, using it like a tether to pull myself out of Ruby’s fading memory. I looked to her one last time, but her face was just as impassive as before.
“Something’s happening,” Priyanka whispered. “There’s a ton of tech nearby.”
I felt it now, too.
Max should have been grateful for the darkness. It was the only thing sparing him from the look I was sure was on Vida’s face.
“Here it comes,” Vida said, her voice low. “Try to stay still.”
The truck’s brakes groaned. Water rippled around us, sloshing up the side of the tank. I pressed my ear against the damp wall, straining to listen.
“Why are we stopping?” Chubs whispered.
I could think of a few reasons: a blocked road, being pulled over by the police or any one of the military patrols, hitting one of the barricades leading out of the city.
“—told you, I made my delivery and now I need to move on before things get any worse,” the driver was saying.
Barricade. I set my jaw and held Priyanka’s hand tighter.
“We have orders to inspect every vehicle, even military transports,” a man said.
“No—don’t open it,” the driver said quickly. “You’ll contaminate the purified water with all this smoke, then it’s useless and I have to fill out a thousand pages of paperwork.”
“We have to inspect the contents of every vehicle,” the man insisted. There was a thump at the back of the tank, where the ladder was. The kids pressed closer together, staring up toward the hatch.
“Here, then,” the woman said. “Hold out your hand.”
There was some sort of faucet beside my left shoulder. My body jolted at the metallic creak of a handle being turned on the outside of the truck.
The water line in the tank was too low to reach the depression in the wall. I scooped water into my hands, thinking I could pour it in. Before I could, one of the kids, clearly a Kin, raised his hand and guided a steady stream of water up through that faucet. He didn’t stop until the handle creaked again. The excess water poured back over my shoulder, soaking my front.