That was a nice little speech. Courtesy, I’m sure, of Frog Lips. The man wrote almost every single word that Alban forced out between his smiling teeth. I didn’t even need to close my eyes to see the old man’s bald head bent over his handwritten cue cards, the lights from the cameras giving his tissue-thin skin a blue glow.
“—when asked for a comment, the press secretary replied, ‘Every word out of a terrorist’s mouth is designed to sharpen the fear and uncertainty that still exists today. John Alban is speaking out now because he’s afraid Americans will no longer tolerate his violent acts and unpatriotic behavior when peace and order are restored.’”
“He’s not scared,” Vida hissed. “They’re the ones who should be terrified.”
Jude shushed her, waving his hands. “Can you turn it up?”
“I have Bob Newport, senior political adviser to Senator Joanne Freedmont of Oregon, on the line to discuss how the Federal Coalition will be approaching the Unity Summit—Bob, are you there?”
The line crackled with static, and for several seconds, only the low hum of the SUV’s wheels against the highway filled my ears.
“Hi, yes—Mary? Sorry about that. Our signal strength in California hasn’t—” His voice cut off, only to switch back in, sounding louder than before. “For the last few months.”
“The cell towers and satellites in California haven’t been all that reliable lately,” I explained to the boys in the front seat. “Alban thinks Gray is tampering with them.”
“Bob, before we lose you, can you tell us about the FC’s plans to approach this meeting? Can you give us a preview of the talking points Senator Freedmont and the others are hoping to bring to the table?”
“Sure. I can’t go into great detail”—the line wavered again but then bounced back—“definitely will be discussing the recognition of the Federal Coalition as a national party, and of course, we’ll be pushing for a series of elections next spring.”
Mary the newscaster let out a light laugh. “And how do you think the president will respond to your requests he cut his third term short?”
Bob had a fake laugh of his own. “We’ll have to see. The draft, of course, will also be a major discussion. We’d like to hear if the president has any plans in place to phase it out, specifically the Psi Special Forces program, which, I know, has been a major point of contention across the country—”
At that, all five of us shifted toward the glowing green radio display. Jude clutched at my arm. “Do you think…?” he whispered.
“Will you also be discussing the rehabilitation programs?” Mary smelled the slightest hint of blood, and now she had her nose to the ground, looking to follow the trail. “Recently there’s been a lack of information released about the status of the programs and the children who were entered into them. For instance, the government is no longer issuing letters updating registered parents on their child’s progress. Do you think this is a sign the program is about to undergo some kind of transformation?”
“They actually sent letters?” I asked. This was the first I’d heard of it.
“At the very beginning—just a short, your kid is making good progress, not causing problems printout,” Liam said. “Everyone got the same one.”
“Right now our focus is on discussing what plans we’d like to see President Gray enact to stimulate the economy and reopen talks with our former international partners.”
“But back to the issue of the Psi—” Mary’s voice was starting to waver now, crackling with an unnatural metallic whine.
“Pull over,” Vida said, “otherwise we’ll lose the signal!”
“—will you ask him to come clean about what research programs are in place and whether or not they’ve made any progress analyzing the source of IAAN? I know, as a mother of an infant, I’m particularly interested in finding out whether or not my son, who already goes in for weekly tests and monitoring sessions, will have to be taken in to a specialized program per the IAAN Registry’s instructions. Surely enough politicians on both sides are in a similar enough position to sympathize with the thousands of parents who have been left without answers—sometimes for years. I think I speak for everyone when I say that this is unacceptable.”
“That’s right,” Jude said, “you get him, Mary. Don’t let him change the subject!”
“I believe the FC would like to modify…the program—” Static again. It couldn’t begin to disguise how uncomfortable Bob sounded on this subject. “We would like to continue to have five-year-olds monitored for a year’s time in one of the facilities, but if they show no…dangerous side effects of IAAN, we would like to see them sent home, rather than automatically graduated to one of these rehabilitation camps—”
The line went silent with a harsh click. The newscaster was repeating his name, “Bob? Bob? Bob?” over and over again, like she could somehow draw his voice back through the dead air.
THE SIGNS HAD BEEN PAINFULLY HONEST in calling that part of the country NO MAN’S LAND. It would have felt like a bigger relief when we finally passed out of Oklahoma’s panhandle and into Kansas if we could actually tell the two apart. For hours, it was nothing but once-green tall grass beaten down by ice and snow. Small towns that had had the life and people slowly strangled from them. Rusting cars and bikes left along the highway. Open, empty sky.
I had seen desert in Southern California, but this…this stretch seemed endless and achingly open; even the sky seemed to bow lower to meet the highway. We stopped only twice, both times to search the abandoned cars lining the road for gas. There were functioning stations along the way, but at nearly twenty dollars for a gallon, it somehow didn’t seem all that pressing for us to fill our tank the legal way.
For the most part, traffic came in slow drizzles. The lone highway patrol car blew past us, in an awful hurry to get wherever it was going. Still, Chubs drove the entire first five hours with his hands clenched on the wheel. The next time we stopped for a bathroom break, Vida stole the driver’s seat and locked the door, forcing him into the front passenger seat and Liam into the back, next to me.
We left the flat plains, heading toward mountains blanketed by darkness. That was the only warning we had that we were coming up on Colorado. It would be hours more before we actually hit Pueblo, but the knots in my stomach didn’t seem to care. Ahead, lines of lights gave shape to distant cities that only grew larger and brighter as we descended into the valley. I was too anxious to sleep like Jude and Vida. I kept one hand clenched around the Chatter and flash drive in my coat pocket, trying to keep my thoughts focused on what was ahead, visualizing all of the different scenarios and how we would play them through.