“They must be trading him for something,” Nico said, gripping the Chatter. “For information? To get another agent back? That’s not so crazy, right? There are so many Greens here already. They hate having so many of us. They hate us.”
I tried not to roll my eyes. “Did the Op involve tech?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, but,” Jude said, “when have they ever sent out a Team One kid? They’re supposed to be for HQ use only.”
He wasn’t wrong. Vida called them the Squeakers, and the name had stuck with everyone. All Greens with supercharged logic and reasoning skills that the League put to use in deciphering codes and building computer viruses, creating these insane devices. They all had the same stumbling walk; Nico too. A weird half step where they dragged their feet against the tile, causing their sneakers to make these little squeaking noises. I’m sure they had picked it up from one another subconsciously; they were always moving in sync, just like the parts of a working machine should.
“He’s of age and he has the right skill set to help them,” I said. “I know for a fact the other Green teams are occupied this week. He might have been a last resort.”
“No,” Jude said. “We think they picked him on purpose. They wanted him.”
It was a while before Jude built up the nerve to look at me again. When he did, his expression was so obviously ashamed and terrified that I felt myself soften just enough to ask, “Is there something you’re not telling me? What am I missing here?”
Jude twisted the stretched-out hem of his shirt into a knot. Nico only stared straight ahead, eyes unblinking as they fixed on the Chatter.
“Me, Nico, and…Blake,” Jude began, “the three of us were messing around a few days ago down here. We’ve been trying to build one of those remote-control cars from leftover computer parts.”
“Nico had to go up and talk to Cate, but me and Blake took the car on a test drive around this floor. It was around two in the afternoon, and no one was down here. So we thought it would be fine and that we wouldn’t bother anyone. But…you know those rooms that we use to store things for Ops? Like, the vests, extra ammo, that stuff?”
“We heard voices coming from one of them. I thought maybe the guys were just playing a card game or something—sometimes they do it down here so they can bad-mouth Alban or one of the advisers,” Jude said, visibly shaking now. “But when I heard them, what they were actually saying—they weren’t playing a game, Roo, they were talking about us. It was Rob, and Jarvin, and a couple of their friends. They kept saying things like Reducing the freak population and Getting Alban back on track and how they were going to prove what a waste of time and—and resources we were.”
It was a chill that sank straight to the bone. I pulled out the nearest chair and dragged it closer to Nico. Jude did the same, his hands twisting around each other.
“And they caught you listening?”
“I know it’s stupid, but when I heard that, I freaked out—I didn’t mean to, but I dropped the car. We ran before the door opened, but I’m positive they saw us. I heard Rob call my name.”
“Then what?” I pressed. My mind was making connections now, dangerous ones.
“Then Blake got assigned to that Op even though he’s on Team One. Jarvin said that they needed a Green to hack into the company’s server room, and he didn’t have a choice.”
I leaned back slowly. Reduce the freak population. My ear, the one that had taken the brunt of the grenade’s blast, seemed to have a pulse of its own.
That was an accident, I told myself. Rob was just being reckless. But the second lie sounded less convincing than the first. Reduce the freak population. How? By putting them in deadly situations on Ops that could be waved off as accidents? Rob had killed kids before—I only knew of those two I’d glimpsed in his memory, but what’s to say there weren’t more?
Jesus. A blinding wave of nausea blasted up from my stomach. Did he kill them to keep the number of kids here down?
No—no, I needed to stop. My thoughts were spiraling and getting out of hand. This was Nico and Jude—two boys with too much free time to sit around and trade nightmares. They were constantly poking at trouble, then acted all shocked when it turned around and bit them in their asses.
“It’s just a coincidence,” I said. I had another point to make, I’m sure, but it unhooked from my chain of thoughts when I heard someone call my name from across the room. One of Alban’s advisers, good old Raccoon Face, stood in the atrium’s doorway.
“He’d like to speak to you in his office an hour from now.”
Then he turned on his heel and was gone, clearly angry he’d been tasked to play messenger.
“What does he want?” Jude asked, visibly confused.
You almost never saw the walking suits more than a few feet away from Alban; I wouldn’t have been surprised if they broke into his quarters every night and took turns whispering plans and sweet nothings in his ear while he slept.
There were ten men total, all over the age of fifty, who had divided up the areas of Alban’s focus and assumed control over each. They coordinated and approved Ops, brought in supplies and new contacts, recruited new trainers, managed the League’s finances. All so Alban could focus on “big picture” goals and targets.
Jude claimed they were only there because Gray wanted them dead for one reason or another and they had no choice but to go underground. I still didn’t know half of their names, since most made it a point to never directly engage with the Psi freaks. It was easier just to fixate on their features and nickname from there. Raccoon Face, Monkey Ears, Horse Teeth, and Frog Lips were the ones I saw most.
What the names lacked in creativity, they made up for in accuracy.
“A debrief? Already?” Jude asked, glancing to the TV again.
I reached over and manually flipped the machine off.
“You’re late,” I said, pointing to the clock on the wall. “Another two minutes and Instructor Johnson will hit you with a demerit.”
“So?” Jude shot back. “This is more important!”
“More important than eventually being activated?” I said. “Because the last time I checked, you were two demerits away from being stuck on HQ support forever.”