“We do need to discuss a plan,” Roman said, almost apologetically, “if only to get through the zone crossing. Did your friend give you any sort of way to get…wherever we’re going?”
“Yeah, and by the way, what friend was that?” Priyanka asked. “The one who is on the Psi Council, or…who were the others? Stewart and…Ruby? Was that her name?”
I shut that down quickly. “It was Charles.”
Priyanka knew Ruby’s name. After the media storm following the camp closures and, later, her disappearance, everyone knew Ruby’s name and that she was wanted by the government. This wasn’t an innocent question.
I bit the inside of my mouth to keep from saying anything else. After everything, the lies stacking on lies, it couldn’t be that simple. That obvious. My personal history was out there, along with the knowledge I’d been close to Ruby and Liam. It wasn’t totally unreasonable for them to assume that I was secretly in contact with my friends and might turn to them in a time of need.
Still, the thought was like cold fingers closing over the back of my neck. That would mean, what? That they’d set everything up to get the wheels moving in this direction? That they were just taking advantage of the situation we were in now?
Shit. And here I am taking them right where they want to go.
There were two options in front of me. The first one was to get the cell phone with the evidence on the kidnappers back from Priyanka, and then, once we were in Virginia, make a run for it. It would avoid exposing the existence of the safe place, along with everyone in it, to harm.
As for the second…There was a way I could use Haven to trap Roman and Priyanka without ever bringing them to the house’s secure location.
When I’d pieced together my plan in the motel, the second option had seemed like a fallback—the thought of even bringing them near Haven made my skin crawl—but now I wasn’t so sure. If Roman and Priyanka were interested in finding Ruby and Liam, my friends wouldn’t just want to know about it, they’d need to.
Playing the situation out like that was tricky, but I could control and limit those risks as long as I was careful.
I could do this. I could. They’d backed me into a corner, but they didn’t realize I’d already walked them into another one.
A mile up the road, the electronic billboard flashed on. Static swept over it as it received its transmission. When the image finally snapped into place, it wasn’t an ad or traffic alert.
It was my face. Fourteen feet high and glowing. The headshot slid across the screen, allowing red flashing text to appear alongside it.
IF YOU SEE THIS PSI, DIAL 9-1-1
DO NOT ENGAGE
My foot slipped onto the brake, jerking us forward in our seats. A car speeding up behind me honked, swerving to pass.
“Um,” Priyanka said mildly. “I can’t say that’s your best photo. You look like you want to punch someone.”
They’d used my Psi ID photo. The one they’d specifically told me not to smile for. The result was a mean mug shot that Vida had found so funny she’d printed and framed it.
Not so funny now.
One mile down the road, the next billboard flickered on. IF YOU SEE THIS PSI…
With the flashing distraction of the billboards, the new power sources registered in my mind slowly, quickly growing like a swarm of bees. The vibration of their electricity was muted compared to the nearby car engines, but harmonized with them in a way that set my hair on end.
“Suzume—” Roman began.
“I see it,” I choked out.
The cars a few miles up were slowing, bottlenecking as the highway narrowed down to one lane. Just beyond them, red and blue lights flashed. Several uniformed police officers and Defenders walked from car to car, opening trunks. Overhead, making slow passes with their cameras and scanners, were drones. All state-of-the-art technology commissioned by the United Nations, as one of their parting gifts.
I sucked in a hard breath, holding it as I cut off the car in the next lane and blindly took the nearest exit.
“Definitely not going to raise any red flags with that move,” Priyanka said, hanging on to one of the car’s grab handles.
I accelerated onto the surface street, making a hard right on red without looking. Someone honked, but the sound faded under the sensation of something electronic tailing us in the sky.
Shit, I thought, picking up speed with another turn, narrowly missing a cyclist about to enter the crosswalk. I cringed, but the drone was still in the rearview mirror.
“Priyanka, can you just—?” Roman began.
“Already on it,” she said. I’d thought she’d tossed the burner she’d broken apart, but she’d only stuffed the pieces into her jacket. She quickly reassembled it, leaving out the SIM card, then reached into her pocket, to retrieve the other phone. The one with the photos.
“What are you doing with that?” I asked sharply.
“Relax,” she said. “I’m taking a small part from this one to modify the other one. The phone’s storage and your pictures won’t be impacted.”
I wanted to lunge back between the seats and pry the phone out of her hand, but she’d already flicked out one piece and inserted it into the other.
“I swear to God, if you mess up that phone…” I began, gripping the wheel.
“I’m not messing anything up except that drone,” Priyanka said, her voice calm. “The phone is going to emit a low-grade signal that’ll scramble the drone’s feed before it can transmit its footage. We’re now a permanent blind spot, as long as I can keep this phone charged. Same with any highway cameras—it’ll make them blink as we drive underneath.” She turned in her seat, giving the hovering black device a wave. “See? Farewell, drone.”
I swung the car into the first deserted strip mall I found, watching in no small amazement as the drone peeled off, turning back in the direction of the highway. We jerked to a hard stop behind a shuttered dry cleaner. I yanked on the parking brake and turned off the engine.
I hadn’t even thought of the newly installed highway cameras we’d find along the way to Virginia. They were a new security measure, meant to help prevent smuggling and crime. They were also programmed to flag any car where the passengers seemed to be intentionally altering or masking their faces. A very useful thing…when you were not the one being tracked.
“You’re sure we’re okay?” I’d seen other Greens pull miracle tech results from a few wires and an empty tuna can, but this was wild, even to me.
Priyanka pretended to look offended, pressing a hand to her chest.
I don’t know why I looked at Roman for confirmation when he had been just as dishonest as her. Maybe because if there was one single thing I believed about them, it was that they would never risk each other’s lives or safety if they didn’t have to. They had every reason to want to escape the camera’s eyes, too.
“It works,” he assured me. “The drones will just signal that they’re experiencing a routine error, and the highway cameras won’t know to switch on to take the photo or video to begin with.”
Breath fired in and out of me, cranking up my pulse. I leaned forward to rest my forehead against the wheel. I shut my eyes, trying to bury the memory of the billboard in that darkness. When I opened them again, Priyanka was holding a plastic grocery bag in front of me. “Please don’t throw up on the upholstery. We have to share this space.”
“Priyanka!” Roman said.
“Don’t pretend like you weren’t thinking it, too,” she said.
I pushed her hand away.
“I’m—” Angry. Confused. Scared. So many different terrible things
at once. But I didn’t want to give any of those feelings power by acknowledging them, so I changed the subject. “I’m fine. How did they know to look for me out here?”
“It is an enormous search field…” Roman said, smoothing a hand back over his mussed hair. “They’ve likely been expanding it out from Pennsylvania each day.”
I forced myself to sit up, even as feeling was slow to return to my body.
“Can you tell us where we’re going?” he asked. “If they’re checking the highways, we can just make it a point to avoid them.”
No we couldn’t. Not the whole way. “Virginia. I’m taking us to a safe place there. Somewhere off the grid.”
A place where I’d be able to send the photos of the kidnappers to Vida and Chubs, and start piecing together the connection between them and the bomb.
Priyanka leaned forward between the seats. “I like the sound of that.”
I hated to give them even that much information up front, but sharing some small bit of information might make them think I was starting to trust them. Besides, even if I did get the chance to run from them, Virginia was a big state. They could spend years driving around, searching aimlessly.
“So we are going to have to pass through a zone crossing,” Roman said. “How do you want to do this?”
It didn’t matter how we approached, we’d have to cross at least one zone checkpoint. We were currently in Zone 3. The boundary for Zone 1 ran along the western edge of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia, with Virginia also serving as the southern boundary for Zone 2, which began at North Carolina and stretched down to Texas.
The zones had been important in the early days after the United Nations’ intervention, mostly for administrative purposes. They dictated how supplies were divided and organized, and allowed for smaller, more manageable areas for the peacekeepers to monitor. Now we were only months off from our first real election in more than five years, and the dismantling of the zones would probably be one of the first items the newly elected Congress voted on.