“A lot of the agents here are ex-military, like Rob,” she said as we walked. “Even more of us are civilians who joined because we believed in Alban’s mission for truth, or to try to gain a little more information on what was happening to our kids or siblings. There are more than three hundred active agents, with a hundred or so in HQ monitoring Ops, training, or working on our tech.”
“How many kids?”
“Twenty-six, if you include yourself and Martin. Six teams of four, each assigned to an agent—a Minder, Alban calls us. You’ll train with the rest of my team and, eventually, be sent out on tactical operations.”
“And the League pulled all of them out of camps?” I asked.
She had to flash her ID again at the next door. “Maybe four at the most in the five years the League has existed. You’ll find that these kids come from all over the country. Some, like Vida and Jude—you’ll meet them in just a bit—were brought in when the Collections began. Some were lucky enough to be spotted during transports to camp or as the PSFs came to pick them up. Then we have a few oddballs like Nico, the other member of my team. He…has an interesting story.”
I couldn’t tell if that was supposed to be bait. “Interesting?”
“You remember what I told you about Leda Corp, right? About how the government gave them the research grant to study the origin of IAAN? Nico was…” She cleared her throat twice. “He was one of their subjects. He came in a few weeks ago, so the two of you will be able to learn the ropes together. I’d just warn you that he’s still a little delicate.”
Right away, I could see that the hallway hadn’t been an accurate predictor of what the rest of the building’s structure would look like. It was as though they had finished the entry and either ran out of funds or decided it was pointless to keep going. The general look of the place was what you’d expect walking through a half-finished construction site. The walls were exposed gray cement blocks, braced by metal supports. The floor was painted cement. Everything was cement, everywhere, all the time. I might as well have been back in Thurmond for how welcoming the place looked.
The ceilings hung low overhead, crowded with pipes and brightly wrapped electrical lines. And while HQ was nowhere near as dark as the Tube had been, without any kind of natural sunlight flooding in, the flickering fluorescent lights cast everything in a sickly, anemic glow.
The most interesting thing about HQ was its shape; the door from the entry opened up directly in front of a large, circular center room that was enclosed by curving glass walls. The hallway we stood in formed a ring around that room, though I could see at least four different hallways that branched out from it in straight lines.
“What is he?” My eyes kept darting to the right as we walked, watching the figures milling around the big room. Inside was a handful of TVs mounted to the walls; below them were what looked like round cafeteria tables and an assortment of League agents playing cards, eating, or reading at them.
The curving hall wasn’t tight, but it wasn’t enormous, either. Anytime more than one person tried to pass by us, heading in the opposite direction, one of us had to fall back to allow the other person room.
The first two agents we encountered, young women in army fatigues, confirmed another suspicion: my story had beaten me here. They were all friendly smiles as their eyes met Cate’s, but when their eyes shifted down to me, they stepped around us and continued at a brisk pace.
“What is he?” I repeated. Seeing confusion cloud Cate’s pale blue eyes, I clarified. “What color?”
“Oh. Nico’s Green—incredible with tech. It’s like he processes everything as a program. Vida’s Blue. Jude is Yellow. This is the only team that has a mix of abilities. The others are strictly all one color each, and they serve different support functions on Ops.” The overhead lights turned her blond hair a pearly white. “You’re the only Orange here now.”
Great. We were the goddamn Rainbow Connection. All we needed was a Red to complete the deck. “So you got stuck with all the leftovers when the other teams filled up?”
Cate smiled. “No. I just chose carefully.”
We finally exited the outer ring, ducking down one of the straight hallways. She didn’t say a thing, not even to the clusters of agents that squeezed by us as they passed. Their eyes followed us all the way to a door marked with Cate’s name, and every single time it felt like jagged fingernails down my spine.
“Ready?” she asked. Like I had a choice.
There’s something really personal about seeing someone’s bedroom, and at the time—even now—it made me uncomfortable to see the little knickknacks she had smuggled in. The room was cramped but livable—compact but, surprisingly, not claustrophobic. A cot had been tucked into one corner, and behind it, Cate had tacked up a dirty patchwork quilt. The pattern of bright red and yellow daisies punched through even the worst of the fabric’s stains. There was a computer on the card table serving as her desk, a purse, a lamp, and two books.
And everywhere, there were pictures.
Finger-paint drawings, shapes of people smeared into life by little fingers. Pencil portraits of faces I didn’t recognize. Charcoal landscapes looking just as stark as life below ground. Photographs of warm faces and snowy mountains were taped up in neat rows, too far for me to see each beautiful, glossy detail. Not to mention the three bodies in the way.
A tall, whip-thin kid was somehow pacing the two feet of space between the desk and the cot, but he jerked to a stop at our entrance, swinging his head of reddish-brown curls our way. His whole face beamed as he threw himself at Cate, locking his pencil-thin arms around her shoulders.
“I’m so glad you’re back!” His voice broke in relief.
“Me too,” she said. “Jude, this is Ruby.”
Jude was all bones and skin, and it looked like he had grown something like five inches in five days. He wasn’t a bad-looking kid by any means; it was just readily apparent that he hadn’t finished baking. There’d be time for him to grow into his long, straight nose, but the big brown eyes—those were like something out of a cartoon.
By the look of him, he was thirteen, maybe fourteen, but he moved like he was still mystified by how to control his newly long limbs.
“Nice to meet you!” he said. “Did you just get back? Were you in Virginia this whole time? Cate said that you guys got separated and she was so worried that something had—”