But stealing one out of the parking lot, or one nearby…I hated feeling this desperate again. They might have already labeled me a criminal, but that wasn’t any justification to commit an actual crime.
“You need a car,” Priyanka began, arching a brow, “or we need a car?”
I turned toward them again, pressing a hand against my collarbone. My fingers traced the jagged edge of a new scab there. Maybe this was the reason I hadn’t let myself consider my options fully, and why I hadn’t gone straight there—from the moment everything had exploded, there hadn’t been a second I’d been without the two of them. This place was secret for a reason, even from most Psi.
“You aren’t involved,” I said. “They don’t have your faces or your names.”
“Yeah, but for how long?” Priyanka towered over me in height, and part of me envied how forceful and confident it made her seem, even when her boisterous voice gentled to something like a whisper. Even when she looked like she’d been dragged beneath a truck.
I grimaced. She basically had.
“These people—whoever did this—clearly know what they’re doing. You need our help.” Priyanka gestured toward the television, and, with a look, I overloaded its circuits, flooding the device with power. The bloodied images flashed off with a biting snap.
“Okay, yes, that was very dramatic and a waste of a perfectly good TV that we could have sold for gas money, but you do you,” Priyanka said. “The problem is, I didn’t hear any kind of counterargument.”
The fact that she thought I had to argue anything with her was the problem.
“I’ll be fine,” I insisted. “You’re free to get the hell out of here.”
Roman frowned. He raised one hand toward me. It fell away before it could touch my shoulder. “Think it through. Just from a reasoning standpoint. You don’t know us well, and you might not trust us, and that’s fine—”
“That’s not fine,” Priyanka said. “We’re awesome and we haven’t tried to kill you once. What more do you want from us?”
The truth, I thought angrily. I couldn’t keep up this charade of believing them much longer.
“—but I know you’ve realized it, too. Priya and I escaped with you. They’re going to assume we’re together no matter what, at least initially, because there’s safety in numbers.”
I’m not getting away from them, I thought, pushing back against the nausea that realization brought with it. Unless I fight them and escape. They wanted to help me, but only because they wanted something else from me. Whatever their endgame was, they’d snapped a leash on me. Every time I tried to escape it, the lead only shortened.
“Isn’t that all the more reason to scatter?” I pushed back. “To throw them off and force them to split up as well?”
“You may have a point,” Roman said. “But there are benefits to staying together, at least until we figure out what actually happened. Two more sets of eyes to keep watch. Two more sets of hands to find food.”
“Two more mouths to feed,” I continued. “Two more opportunities to be spotted.”
“As if you know the first thing about roughing it.” Priyanka rolled her eyes. “Did you read about it once in your special reports? Have a kid come up onstage during one of your fancy little speeches and tell their sob story? Did you cry a few crocodile tears in front of the cameras to sell it?”
Every muscle in my body tensed to the point of pain. I could barely get the words out. “I don’t need anyone to tell me a damn thing about it. I know what it feels like to be—”
“I wasn’t aware government robots could be programmed to have feelings,” she cut in.
I sucked in a sharp breath, a pure, unflinching anger gathering at the center of my chest. It was a fire that fed itself. It rose through me, until I was sure I could breathe it out and incinerate the motel room faster than any Red.
“Priya.” Roman’s voice was soft, but like the edge of the sharpest sort of blade, it didn’t need power or anger behind it for the words to cut deep. “Enough.”
The mocking twist of her mouth fell away. Her eyes slid to the side.
I turned to look the other way, letting that same anger and pain turn to steam. Letting it drift out of me with my next long breath.
“You don’t know the first thing about me,” I told her, fighting to keep the words even.
The girl took a deep breath of her own, pushing her long hair back over her shoulders. She struggled a bit to say, “Sorry. You’re right.”
Roman looked back and forth between us. “We need to wrap this up and head out. Preferably in the next thirty seconds.”
I blew out a loud breath through my nose, trying to quickly piece together an argument. The trouble was, they weren’t wrong. When you were being hunted, it was better to stay within the protection of a group, have extra eyes to keep watch, than to try to navigate through danger alone. I’d learned that the hard way.
Just like I’d learned that sometimes the real danger came from the people inside your car, not the world outside it.
I can’t take them there, I thought. I can’t risk it.
If I kept pushing back, they’d know I was onto them and they’d do everything in their power to prevent me from slipping away. Priyanka had the evidence I needed to prove my innocence, and she knew it. As long as she kept it out of my reach, I’d have to stay with them, or risk pitting my word against video and eyewitness evidence.
I wanted to know who was responsible for this. The need burned like a snarling charge, blistering me as it collected more and more energy to it. It was a risk taking them with me to that safe place. It meant putting more than just my life at stake. But something was happening here, something bigger than I could have ever imagined. I would have to accept the risk and control it, if I wanted answers.
Here was another thing I’d been made to learn all those years ago: the world was never as simple as it wanted you to believe it was. Hard exteriors could hide soft hearts, a chosen family could be more important than a blood one…and even the safest of places could be made into a trap.
“All right,” I told them. “We need a car. But I’m driving.”
Besides, where we were headed there was someone who could take care of any unwanted memories they might make—and guarantee they’d never remember the way back.
Three Days Ago
THE WHEELS DIDN’T STOP TURNING on the road. Not for gas, not at signs or signals.
A glare of sunlight burst through the window beside me, washing out the words I was pretending to read on my cell phone’s screen. A deep grumble from the engine and the renewed stench of gasoline signaled we were slowly picking up speed. The grind of the highway beneath us still wasn’t loud enough to drown out the police escorts’ sirens or the chanting from the sign-wavers lined up along the highway.
I refused to turn and look at them. The tinted windows cast them all in shadow, one dark blur of hatred in my peripheral vision: the older men with their guns, the women clutching hateful messages between their hands, the clusters of families with bullhorns, and their cleverly awful slogans.
The police cars’ lights flashed in time with their chants.