“Well,” Mel said. “No one could ever accuse them of being original.”
“Sorry, ladies,” Agent Cooper called back from the driver’s seat. “It’ll just be another ten minutes. I can turn up the music if you want?”
“That’s okay,” I said, setting my phone down on my lap and folding my hands on top of it. “Really. It’s fine.”
The machine-gun-fire typing coming from the seat beside me suddenly stopped. Mel looked up from the laptop balanced on her knees, a deep frown on her face. “Don’t these people have anything better to do with their lives? Actually, on second thought, maybe I should send a job recruiter down here and see if we can’t get them on
our side—that would be quite the narrative, wouldn’t it? From hater to…humbled. No, that’s not right. It’ll come to me eventually.” She reached for where she had left her phone on the seat between us and spoke into it. “Make a note: protestor reform program.”
As I’d learned—and apparently Agents Cooper and Martinez had, too—it was best just to let Mel talk herself through to a solution rather than try to offer suggestions.
The car snarled and shuddered as it hit a bad patch of highway. The chanting grew louder, and I fought its tug at my attention.
Don’t be a coward, I told myself. There was nothing any of them could do to me now, not while I was surrounded on all sides by bulletproof glass, FBI agents, and police. If we kept looking away, they would never think we were strong enough to meet them head-on.
With a hard swallow, I turned to gaze out my window again. The day’s breeze tugged at the construction flags across the divide between the northbound and southbound lanes. They were the same shade of orange as the barriers protecting the workers as they went about the business of pouring new asphalt.
A few of the men and women stopped mid-task and leaned against the concrete median to watch our motorcade pass; some gave big, cheerful waves. Instinctively, my hand rose to return the gesture, a small smile on my lips. A heartbeat later, just long enough to be embarrassed by it, I remembered they couldn’t see me.
Behind the thin barrier of dark glass, I was invisible.
The window was warm as I pressed the tips of my fingers to it, hoping the workers could see them through the tint like five small stars. Eventually, though, just like everyone else, the workers disappeared with distance.
Setting America Back on the Right Route! had been one of Mel’s first publicity projects for the interim government established and monitored by the United Nations, back when she was still fairly junior in the White House communications office. It was a way to advertise new infrastructure jobs while also promising that roads would stop buckling under people’s wheels, that the gas ration would, eventually, be coming to an end, and that deadly bridge collapses like the one in Wisconsin wouldn’t happen anymore—not with reinforcements from new American steel. The proof of its success ran on newscasts every night: the unemployment rate was falling as steadily as the birth rate was beginning to rise.
Numbers were simple, real symbols that people could latch onto, holding them up like trophies. But there was no way they could capture the feeling of the last few years, that all-encompassing sensation that life was rolling out in front of us again, swelling to fill those empty spaces the lost children had left behind.
The same populations that had shifted to the big cities in desperate search of work were now slowly making their way back to the small towns and suburbs they had abandoned. Restaurants opened. Cars pulled in and out of gas stations on their assigned days. Trucks cruised down the highways that had been patched and knitted together again. People walked through newly landscaped parks. Movie theaters began to shift away from showing old films to showing new ones.
They arrived tentatively, slowly—like the first few people on an otherwise empty dance floor, waiting to see if anyone else would rejoin them in search of fun.
Almost five years ago, when we’d driven these same highways, the towns and cities we’d slipped in and out of had practically ached with their emptiness. Parks, homes, businesses, schools: everything had been hollowed out and recast in miserable, dirt-stained gray. Neglected or abandoned like memories left to fade into nothing.
Somehow, the government had managed to shock a pulse back into the country. It fluttered and raced in moments of darkness and frustration, but mostly held steady. Mostly.
The truth was, it had less to do with me than it did the others working day in and day out. I hadn’t been allowed to do much of anything until I finished the new mandatory school requirements. President Cruz had said it was important for other Psi to see me do it, to demonstrate there were no exceptions. But it had been agonizing to wait and wait and wait, doing the homework of simple math problems Chubs had taught me years ago in the back of a beat-up minivan, studying history that felt like it had happened to a completely different country, and memorizing the new Psi laws.
And the whole time, Chubs and Vida had been allowed to do real, meaningful work. They’d moved from one closed door to the next, disappearing into meetings and missions, until I was sure I’d lose track of them completely, or be locked out forever.
But it was only a matter of time before I caught up to them. As long as I kept pulling my weight and proving myself useful, going wherever the government sent me, saying the words they wanted me to say, I’d keep moving forward, too. And someone had clearly seen my potential, because Mel had been reassigned to me, and we’d been traveling together ever since.
“How did I know they’d be back out in full force now that the reparations package has been announced?” Agent Martinez said. “I swear, people are never happy.”
After four years of trying, Chubs and the Psi Council finally got a plan for reparations and Psi memorials through the interim Congress. All families affected by IAAN could apply to reclaim their homes and receive debt forgiveness. Banks had foreclosed upon most of them during the financial crisis sparked by a bombing at the old Capitol in DC, which had only worsened with the deaths of millions of children and the loss of jobs as businesses closed.
Watching the final deal go up for vote, seeing it pass, had filled me with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. I’d cried at the final yea vote. There’d been this pressure locked around my chest for years, so long that I’d gotten used to its ache. In that moment, though, it had finally released. It felt like taking my first deep breath in years.
Justice demanded time, and, in some cases, sacrifice, but with hard work and persistence, it was achievable. The kids who’d died, those of us who’d been made to live in the cruel camp system, none of us would be forgotten or brushed aside. Even the old camp controllers were finally being brought to court, with the hope of criminal prosecutions later.
They’d finally know what it meant to be imprisoned. It was what they deserved.
We still had so much work to do, but this was a start. A springboard to asking for—and getting—more. With this victory under his belt, Chubs was already at work trying to shift government research funding away from Leda Corp, which Psi and their families all agreed hadn’t deserved to survive the purge of the Gray administration, given their starring role in developing the chemical agent that had caused the mutation.
“The real problem is that we have to announce road closures days ahead of time,” Agent Cooper said. “They want us to alert the cities to secure the routes, but it’s like a signal fire to these folks. It doesn’t matter if it’s you or someone else from the government.”
There was a gap in the unbroken line of protestors as we moved along the highway. Farther from the rowdier ones, clustered in a small, tight group, were a few men and women, all holding signs of their own. They were silent, their faces grim. The SUV flew past them, forcing me to turn back in my seat to read them.
WHO HAS OUR CHILDREN? A chill curled down my spine as another one of the men angled his sign more fully toward me. It read, GONE—AND FORGOTTEN BY UN. Beneath the angry words were old school photos of children.
I sat forward again. “What was that about?”
The government had worked hard to identify unclaimed Psi and find new homes for them—as far as the reports I saw were concerned, all of them were now accounted for. I knew that after the camps had been closed a handful of Psi had run away, choosing that life over returning to the families who had abandoned them. But it seemed a little hard to believe that the kind of parents who were abusive or fearful of their children would stand out on a highway with homemade signs begging for answers.
“It’s those damn conspiracy theorists,” Agent Martinez said, shaking his head.
Of course. I should have put that together. A number of recent news c
lips had centered on the latest fearmongering line the Liberty Watch people were testing out—that vast numbers of Psi had been taken by our enemies to use against America.
Unfortunately, the rumors didn’t seem likely to die off anytime soon. Joseph Moore, the businessman running against Interim President Cruz in the election, had recklessly parroted one of Liberty Watch’s well-loved demands for mandatory military service for Psi and had watched his popularity numbers spike overnight. Now he repeated whatever script Liberty Watch gave him. If I had to guess, his people were floating the stories as a kind of trial balloon, to test future messaging for his next speech.
“But those pictures…” I began.
Mel shook her head in disgust. “This is a new thing that Liberty Watch is doing. They’re taking photos like that off the internet and hiring people to stir up doubt and fear that the government isn’t doing their job. But we, at least, know that they are.”
Frowning, I nodded. “Sorry. They just caught me off guard.”
I leaned my temple back against the window just as we approached another huddle of protestors.
“Oh God,” Agent Cooper said, leaning forward to look up through the windshield. “What now?”
The banner dropped over the pedestrian bridge ahead of us, unfurling like an old flag. The two grown men holding it, both wearing an all-too-familiar stripe of white stars on a blue bandana tied to their upper arms, sent a chill curling down my spine.
LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF FREAKS FOREVER IT’S ONLY MURDER IF THEY’RE HUMAN
“Charming,” Mel said, rolling her dark eyes as we passed under the bridge.
I rubbed a finger over my top lip, then picked up my phone, tapping through to the most recent text thread. ARE YOU STILL COMING TODAY? I typed.
I didn’t take my gaze away from my phone’s screen, waiting for the chat bubble to appear with a response. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the reflection of Agent Cooper’s mirrored sunglasses as he looked up into the rearview mirror, watching me. His already white skin looked a little bloodless as the sign’s message sank in.