Seeing my reaction, he stood slowly, a rogue smile fighting past his grimace of pain. He struggled up to his feet and staggered toward me, looking torn, I thought, between relief and urgency. But the Southern lilt of his accent was as warm as ever, even if his voice was deeper, rougher, when he finally spoke.
“Do I…look as pretty as I feel?”
And I swear—I swear—I felt time slide out from under me.
HERE IS HOW YOU FIND the Children’s League: you don’t.
You don’t ask around, because no soul alive in Los Angeles would ever admit to the organization being there and give President Gray an itch to scratch. Having the Federal Coalition was already bad enough for business. The people who could tell you the way would only cough it up for a price that was too big for most to pay. There was no open door policy, no walk-ins. There were standing orders to dispose of anyone who so much as gave an agent a sidelong look.
The League found you. They brought you in, if you were valuable enough. If you’d fight. It was the first thing I learned sitting next to Cate on my way in—or at least the first real thought to solidify in my mind as our SUV zipped down the stretch of freeway, heading straight into the heart of the city.
Their primary base of operations—HQ, as everyone called it—was buried two stories beneath a functioning plastic bottle factory that kept limping along, doing its part to add to the congestion of the brown haze clinging to downtown Los Angeles’s warehouse district. Many of the League agents and senior officials “worked” for P & C Bottling, Inc. on paper.
I kept my hands clenched in my lap. At least at Thurmond we’d been able to see the sky. I’d seen the trees through the electric fence. Now I didn’t even get that—not until the League decided I was allowed to go aboveground and look.
“It’s owned by Peter Hinderson. You’ll probably meet him at some point. He’s been a staunch supporter of the League’s efforts from the beginning.” Cate smoothed her hair back into a ponytail as the car turned into what looked like yet another parking garage. That was this city—fading paint in sunset colors and cement.
“They built HQ with his help. The structure is located directly under his factory, so if satellites were to try searching for us, the heat signatures they’d pick up from our ventilation system can easily be explained away.”
She sounded so incredibly proud of this, and I honestly could not have cared less. The plane flight from Maryland had fought it out with the carsickness from the ride over from the airport and the city’s unrelenting stench of gasoline for what was going to give me the biggest blinding headache. Every part of me was aching for the sweet, clean air of Virginia.
The other agents piled out of their car, their chatter and laughter dying off the second they spotted us. I had felt them staring the whole plane ride; they hadn’t needed any other entertainment, apparently, than trying to figure out why I was important enough for Cate to have launched such a search for me. They were floating words over to me like little toy sailboats on a pond—spy, runaway, Red. All of them wrong.
We hung back while the other agents walked toward the silver elevator on the other end of the parking garage, their footsteps echoing on the painted cement. Cate made a big show of needing time to get our things from the trunk, each movement achingly slow, perfectly choreographed to give them a head start on us. I hugged Liam’s leather coat to my chest until it was our turn.
Cate pressed some kind of ID card against the black access pad next to the elevator doors. It rumbled back up to us. I stepped through, keeping my eyes on its ceiling until the doors rushed open again and we were hit with a wall of heavy, damp air.
It must have been a sewer once—well, no, judging by the rats, and the acrid smell, and the weak ventilation, it almost definitely had been a storm drain or sewer. We set off some sort of motion detector as we stepped out and the dismal string of tiny lightbulbs they’d hung up along both walls flared to life, illuminating bright bursts of graffiti and the puddles of condensation collecting on the cement ground in long, loud drips.
I stared at Cate, waiting for the punch line of what was obviously a terrible joke. But she only shrugged. “I know it’s not…beautiful, but you’ll come to…well, no one loves it. You’ll get used to it after a few trips in and out.”
Great. What an awesome thing to look forward to.
Walking the length of one block, breathing in the Tube’s damp, moldy air, was enough to turn a person’s stomach; four blocks was pushing the limits of human endurance. It was just tall enough for most of us to walk upright, though a number of the taller agents—Rob included—had to duck below each of the metal support beams as they passed under them. The walls curved around us like laugh lines around a mouth, cupping us in darkness. The Tube had about zero luxury associated with it, but it was wide enough that two of us could walk side by side. There was breathing room.
Cate looked up and waved at one of the black cameras as we passed beneath it, heading toward the silver doors at the other end of the Tube.
I don’t know what it was about that sight that made me rear back. The finality of it, maybe. The full realization of how hard I’d have to work, how careful and patient I’d need to be to give Liam time to get to a place where they couldn’t touch him, until I could break myself out of here.
The access pad beeped three times before it flashed green. Cate clipped her ID back to her belt loop, the sound of her relieved sigh half lost to the whoosh of treated air that came billowing out of the doors.
I pulled away before she could take my arm, cringing at her kind smile. “Welcome to HQ, Ruby. Before you get the full tour, I’d like you to meet a few people.”
“Fine,” I mumbled. My eyes fixed on the long hallway wall, where hundreds of yellowing papers had been tacked up. There was nothing else to see; the tile was a gleaming black, the lights nothing more than long fluorescent tubes fixed over our heads.
“Those are all of the agents’ draft notices,” Cate said as we walked. Gray’s mandatory conscription in the wake of the crisis meant that everyone forty and under would eventually be called upon to serve the country, whether it be as peacekeepers with the National Guard, border patrol, or babysitting freak kids in the camps as PSFs. The first wave of unwilling recruits had mostly been those in their twenties—too old to have been affected by IAAN and too young to have lost children.