I pressed my hand against my forehead, closing my eyes, trying to control the rise of bile in my throat. You had him right there, and you couldn’t stop him. Liam is going to die, and you couldn’t do anything. After everything, Liam is going to die, and it’s on you.
“Jude,” I said. I slipped a hand through one of the warped sections of woven metal, reaching for his shirt to bring him close again. He had a few inches on me, but I had a few years on him and a fair bit more experience when it came to slipping in and out of places unnoticed. “I know you can do this. I trust you. But if you think you’re about to get caught, ditch the Op, you hear me? We can figure out another way.”
“I got this, Roo,” he said, his voice thick with promise. “I won’t let you down.”
He backed away, flashing us a thumbs-up that all but proved to me he had no grasp on how serious the situation actually was. I let out a long breath, watching the evening steal him away in a cloud of white, the swirling paths of the snow altering their course to follow. He was moving fast, with so much unchecked energy, even the wind seemed to shift direction to catch his heel.
I knew he could do it; in training, a break-in was one of the very first simulations they put us through. And, honestly, the awful truth of it was that while the kid was about as sneaky as a pair of cymbals crashing to the ground, he was also the kind of person you wouldn’t necessarily notice was missing. Not from a crowd, at least not right away.
“Five minutes, max,” Vida said, leaning against the fence beside me. “That’s how long I give it before he gets his skinny ass caught and handed to him.”
“Then we’d better put on a good show,” I said, closing my eyes against the snow, “and give him a fighting chance.”
They came for us silently, emerging from the night’s cold, clammy hands like ghosts.
“Stop,” I muttered to Vida. The kids shoving us forward, six in all, evenly divided between girls and boys in their very best white, didn’t speak a word. The old linen sack slipped easily over my head, but Vida wasn’t about to let them dull a single one of her senses.
“It’s okay,” I coaxed, “stay with me here.”
Every limb and joint felt heavy and stiff; just walking sent a spike of pain through my shoulders and hips. We made a sharp turn back in the direction of the warehouse. I felt the water from the parking lot splash up over the tops of my heavy boots and grimaced. We’d be inside soon enough. At least it’d be dry.
But the metal door never groaned. It never opened.
Vida’s mind must have been guiding her along a similar line of thinking, because I heard her say, “Ruby?” once, a mumble as it rolled past her lips.
“Stay with me,” I said again, because what else could I say? It’ll be okay?
I remembered, when I was little, my dad used to take me to some of the high school sports games. Football mostly, sometimes baseball. He loved a good game—any game—but what I liked best was just watching him. Seeing his whole body turn to follow the path of an incredible pass, the grin that broke out when the baseball blew over the far fence. Dad knew the cheers for each team by heart.
So I recognized the tone when I heard it, the growls of a hungry crowd. The pulsing beat of clapping hands as they finally found the same rhythm. It set my teeth on edge, long before the fire smoke curled in my nostrils.
I stumbled again and again as the kids pushed me forward, dragging me over the crumbling edges of pavement onto the soft, sinking earth, back again onto ground that was harder. Solid. A wave of scorching air brushed my arms as they led me past what felt like a wall of fire.
I couldn’t hear my own thoughts over everyone else’s voices. I thought, just for a second, I heard Chubs bellow out my name and a softer girl’s voice echo it back. Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby—and something else, too.
They herded us right into a small crush of bodies, and it felt like every single one was trying to push back, to keep us from getting in.
The minute my face was clear of the mask, I sucked in a lungful of warm air, trying to shake off the feeling I had a thousand pins pumping through my veins. There were too many faces around me—too many big eyes, cracked lips, scarred faces. The sight of them, the smell of their unwashed clothes and bodies combined with the earthiness of the smoke, until it became something else entirely. I craned my neck around, searching for Chubs’s face through the hands that were stretched out toward us. Firelight flickered in the dark.
I found him eventually, Olivia by his side. Jude, thank God, was nowhere in sight or earshot, but the wave of relief that washed over me at the thought only lasted until the terror came spilling over their faces, their lips, their entire bodies as they tried to push their way forward. The panic buzzing at the back of my mind drowned my ears with something that sounded almost like white noise.
Olivia had her hands around her mouth, shouting something to us. Dead, I thought.
We were in another building, likely the one I’d seen set off to the side of the warehouse. Part of the roof and eastern-facing wall had collapsed in on itself, forcing us to drag our numb, exhausted bodies over the piles of downed cement and twisted metal. It was another, smaller version of the warehouse, nearly burned out by the look of it. The walls and cement floors were bare, with the exception of the black shadows the kids were projecting onto them. At the very center of the room was a large ring of metal trash cans, golden flames leaping up past their lips, stretching toward the kids in white watching from overhead.
In Thurmond, the Factory had been set up in a very particular way to ensure that all of the PSFs would be able to watch a building full of freaks do their work. The floor plan there had been open, much like this, and stacked in the very same way. Hanging overhead were the two remaining metal pathways—low-hanging rafters, really.
It was a sea of white up there, Knox positioned comfortably in the middle of them, sitting at the edge of the rafter. Michael sat at his right, leering down at us with a can of something at his side. At the sight of their grinning faces, my hand pulsed in pain. I pressed it flat against my pants, my mind racing as they pushed Vida and me through to the center of the circle of fire.
Dammit. We really were going to have to fight each other.
I glanced over, watching as Vida ripped the old sack off her head and threw it into the nearest flaming trash can. The veins in her neck were bulging with anger, and she looked as close to tears as I had ever seen her. That was the first moment I actually felt fear. I needed Vida now—I needed her sharp intuition and her refusal to back down, even for a second, from a losing fight.