At the edge of the truck’s trailer, I watched as she slammed into the road, curling in on herself just enough to miss the monstrous wheels as they sped forward. She rolled, over and over, her body limp as it took the beating. When she finally came to a stop, I couldn’t even tell if she was breathing.
Get up, my mind screamed. Get up!
She didn’t. She wasn’t moving—she—
“Suzume!” Roman shouted. He crawled toward me, keeping his head down. Whoever was up front had stopped firing, giving him just enough time to reach out and take my arm. “We have to do it again!”
The sound of my name, combined with his touch, shocked me back into action. I nodded, following him back over to the opening I’d cut in the mats. His hand returned to my shoulder, steadying me as the truck swayed.
Roman looked to me, and when I nodded, we both reached down. My awareness of him exploded as his power brushed mine the instant before our hands touched the metal of the trailer.
This time we didn’t just stall the engine—we melted it into liquid steel.
The truck stopped so violently, its joints folded into themselves. The back wheels of the trailer lifted off the ground, tossing Roman against one wall and me against the other. The burning power of the connection between us went out with one last shock to my system.
Finally, the truck jerked to a full stop. Roman pushed himself upright. I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my vision, before taking off on shaky legs. I jumped down onto the road.
I stumbled toward the dot of color that was Priyanka, only to realize it was growing bigger, brighter, as she half ran, half limped toward me. Scrapes and road rash covered her arms, shoulders, and legs.
“Are you o—?” I began to shout.
“You left him?” she yelled back. As soon as I was within reach, she grabbed my elbow and turned us back toward the truck.
The only sight that greeted us was a man in the black tactical gear climbing out of the driver’s side of the cab, his handgun trained on us. The white of his skin had turned bloodred with fury.
Priyanka charged forward a step, her fist raised, apparently unbothered by the fact that the knife was a silver glint on the road a mile back. One cut on her head was bleeding profusely, leaving a trail of crimson down her front. Her palms and knuckles were raw from the road; I was in agony just looking at her.
“Don’t you fucking dare,” the man said. He tossed a glance up toward the truck’s trailer. “Anders? Anders, report!”
Anders’s body rolled out, falling bonelessly into the road. Roman stepped out of the shadows, gun drawn.
“You want to risk it? Really, kid?” the man snarled, looking at him. “I don’t need all of you. Which death do you want to live with? Hers?” He swung his gun from Priyanka to me. “This one will make more of a statement.”
“Shoot him!” Priyanka snarled as the man came closer, shifting from foot to foot, like she might burst out of her own skin. As he passed behind me, one hand came up to clasp the back of my neck. Heat rose off his body armor, and spittle flew out of his mouth each time he breathed.
Roman’s aim didn’t waver, even as I saw him shift his weight to his back foot. His eyes darted from the man behind me, to my face, then back again. A muscle in his jaw rippled; I couldn’t tear my own gaze away from the line of sweat that trickled down his temple, over the high planes of his cheek, off his chin.
The barrel of the gun kissed my spine.
Drop, I thought, trying to remember the move Vida had shown me years ago. Startle him.
And potentially get myself shot in the process. The soldier was vibrating with fury behind me—fury, or fear.
“Let them both go,” Roman said, his voice calm. “One chance. You don’t have to die.”
I narrowed in on his face, the world blurring behind him. The strained lines around his mouth. The naked pleading in his eyes. Don’t do this. Don’t make me do this….
“Just kidding,” the man said, aiming the gun back at Priyanka. “Boss told me I could shoot—”
The bullet caught him just beneath the rim of his helmet, passing through his right eye. The blood spatter whipped across the side of my head, momentarily stunning me.
There was a single beat in which Roman stared at me in horror. Then he pitched forward, falling off the trailer into the road.
“Oh my God!” I said, running toward him. “What happened?”
“Roman!” Priyanka gripped him by the shoulders, lifting his upper body off the ground. “Roman, can you hear me?”
“Was he shot?” I forced myself to stop just short of them.
“He’s okay,” she said quickly, her own voice strained. “Just fainted. He gets…he gets these stress migraines. They knock him out.”
Sunlight glinted off the truck’s passenger-side mirror. I spun on my heel, cutting a straight path toward the cab before my mind had even made the decision to try.
“What the hell are you doing?” Priyanka called.
I climbed up onto the running board, yanking the heavy door open. The body of one of the soldiers slumped against my chest, knocking the air out of me. My arms shook with the effort it took to shove the soldier back inside the cab. Roman’s bullet had caught him from behind, exploding through his neck.
Finally, with his hot blood painting my palms, I managed to push the man’s immense weight off me. The body slid toward the one in the middle seat; the soldier there had simply slumped forward against the dash, as if he’d fallen asleep.
The hot stink of death overwhelmed my senses. My breath came in shorter, harder bursts as I searched the floor and dashboard for some kind of paperwork or identification.
Phone, I thought. The man in the back had had one, before I’d fried it. Even a burner could provide some kind of information about who they’d been in contact with. The pressure building at the back of my mind finally released when I found a slim smartphone tucked inside the closest soldier’s bulletproof vest.
Password locked. Of course. No service, either. My fingers fumbled with it, smearing the man’s blood on the screen. But I didn’t need a password to use it to take a picture. I slid my finger left across its cracked surface and brought up the camera.
As quickly as I could, I snapped a photo of each soldier. The UN had facial recognition databases they could search for any match to these people. The pictures would be more than enough to ID them. The real question was if I could break away from the others long enough to send the evidence back to the government.
“Again, I ask: What the hell are you doing?”
I spun toward the voice, pulse throbbing in my veins.
Priyanka watched me from below, a gun in her hand. She must have taken it off the soldier Roman had shot. Its barrel was pointed somewhere between the ground and me.
“I…evidence,” I said, showing her the phone. “Listen, I think we should split up. Scatter, so they can’t easily track us—”
“I need your help,” Priyanka cut me off, her voice tight. “I can’t carry him alone, at least not far enough to matter. I can’t. I’m not—I’m not enough. I need help.”
I fought to keep my eyes off the gun in her hand.
I can’t say no, I realized. If I stopped pretending everything was fine, so would they. And without knowing what their endgame was, I couldn’t predict how she would respond or how she’d try to keep me here.
I just had to make it back to DC with the phone. If she got desperate to keep me here…
“Do you know what it takes for me to ask for help?” Priyanka said, her voice ragged. Whatever adrenaline surge she’d experienced, it had played itself out. Her legs, covered in darkening bruises and gashes, were trembling with the effort of staying vertical. “Do you think I would ask if I didn’t absolutely have to?”
I swallowed and made the decision. I just
had to stay alive for now. There would be another chance to get away from them. I’d make sure of it.
“Here,” Priyanka said, holding out a hand covered in road rash and blood. “I’ll hang on to that phone for you.”
My grip on it tightened. “I’m good.”
“I have pockets,” she said, her voice as direct as her gaze. “I would hate for you to lose it.”
The gun was still in her other hand. Every instinct I had was screaming at me as I slowly placed the phone in her palm and watched as it was tucked into her ripped jean jacket.
Feeling trickled out of my limbs as I climbed down out of the cab. We hurried back toward where she’d left Roman stretched out and prone in the shadow of the semitruck.
“Let’s get out of here before the cavalry comes galloping over the horizon,” Priyanka said, kneeling to get one of Roman’s arms over her shoulder. I did the same.
“And go where?” I asked, scanning the open fields on either side of the road.
In response, the long grass waved back at us, combed through by the faint breeze. Miles to the west, to the east, to the north, to the south, there was nothing but prairie and open sky.
Nothing but us.
NIGHT HAD TURNED THE EMPTY highway into a dark ribbon of asphalt, one that stretched on endlessly to the distant horizon. It felt like I was chasing the moon, only to have it remain just beyond the reach of the headlights.
The thought was jostled out of my head as the wheels hit a pothole. The worn-out shocks on the truck launched the three of us off the bench seat. Priyanka’s forehead smacked into the window she’d been resting it against. I glanced over at her quiet grumbling, but, within seconds, she’d once again given in to the exhaustion tugging at her mind.
My eyes slid down to the small lump in her jacket pocket, back to the road, then back to that same pocket. Biting my bottom lip, I reached across Roman’s body, careful not to brush the slight rise and fall of his chest, fingers straining toward her jacket.
Get the phone, stop the car without waking them up, run like hell away from them.