I shook my head. I didn’t know half of the words in my own language.
“It’s more…there’s no perfect definition. It’s more of an expression of feeling—of terrible sadness. It’s the feeling you get when you realize something you once lost is lost forever, and you can never get it back again.” Cate took a deep breath. “I thought of that word often at Thurmond. Because the lives you had before—that we all had before—we can never get them back. But there’s a beginning in an end, you know? It’s true that you can’t reclaim what you had, but you can lock it up behind you. Start fresh.”
I did understand what she was saying, and I understood that her words were coming from a true, caring place, but after having my life broken down into rotations for so long, the thought of dividing it up even further was unimaginable.
“Here,” she said, reaching inside the collar of her shirt. She pulled a long silver chain up over her head, and the last thing to reveal itself was the black circular pendant, a little bigger than the size of my thumb, hanging from it.
I held out my hand and she dropped the necklace into it. The chain was still warm from where it had been kept against her skin, but I was surprised to find that the pendant wasn’t anything more than plastic.
“We call that a panic button,” she said. “If you squeeze it for twenty seconds, it activates, and any agents nearby will respond. I don’t imagine you’ll ever need to use it, but I’d like you to keep it. If you ever feel scared, or if we get separated, I want you to press it.”
“It’ll track me?” Something about that idea made me vaguely uncomfortable, but I slipped the chain on anyway.
“Not unless you activate it,” Cate promised. “We designed them that way so that the PSFs wouldn’t be able to accidentally pick up on a signal being transmitted from them. I promise, you’re in control here, Ruby.”
I plucked the pendant up and held it between my thumb and index finger. When I realized how dirty my fingers were, and how much dirt was still packed under my nails, I dropped it. Me and nice things didn’t go well together.
“Can I ask you another question?” I waited until she had finally nudged the car back onto the road, and even then it had taken me a few tries to get the words out. “If the Children’s League was formed to end the camps, why did you even bother getting me and Martin? Why didn’t you just blow up the Control Tower while you were there?”
Cate ran a hand over her lips. “I’m not interested in those kinds of operations,” she said. “I’d much rather be focused on the real issue, which is helping you kids. You can destroy a factory, and they’ll just build another. But once you destroy a life, that’s it. You never get that person back.”
“Do people have any idea?” I squeezed out. “Do the people know that they’re not reforming us at all?”
“I’m not sure,” Cate said. “Some will always live in denial about the camps, and they’ll believe what they want to believe about them. I think most people know there’s something off, but they’re in too deep with their own problems to call into question how the government is handling things at the camps. I think they want to trust that you’re all being treated well. Honestly, there are…there are so few of you left now.”
I sat straight up again. “What?”
This time, Cate couldn’t look at me. “I didn’t want to have to be the one to tell you this, but things are much worse now than they were before. The last estimate the League put together said that two percent of the country’s population of ten- to seventeen-year-olds were in reform camps.”
“What about the rest?” I said, but I already knew the answer. “The ninety-eight percent?”
“Most of them fell victim to IAAN.”
“They died,” I corrected. “All the kids? Everywhere?”
“No, not everywhere. There have been a few cases of it reported in other countries, but here in America…” Cate took a deep breath. “I don’t know how much to tell you now, because I don’t want to overwhelm you, but it seems like the onset of IAAN or Psi powers is linked to puberty—”
“How many?” They really hadn’t learned anything new in all the years I was trapped in Thurmond? “How many of us are left?”
“According to the government, there are approximately a quarter of a million children under the age of eighteen, but our estimate is closer to a tenth of that.”
I was going to be sick. I unbuckled my seat belt and leaned forward, putting my head between my legs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cate’s hand come down, as if she was going to rest it on my back, but I twisted away again. For a long time, the only sound between us was the tires turning against the old road.
I kept my face down and eyes shut long enough for Cate to worry. “Are you still feeling queasy? We had to give you a high enough dosage of penicillin to induce seizurelike symptoms. Trust me, if we could have done it any other way we would have, but we needed something serious enough for the PSFs to actually bring you back to the Infirmary.”
Martin snored behind us until eventually even that faded into the sound of the tires rolling down the old road. My stomach twisted at the thought of asking exactly how many miles we were from Thurmond, how far away the past really was.
“I know,” I said after a while. “Thank you—I mean it.”
Cate reached over, and before I could think to stop her, her hand ran a smooth path from my shoulder down my arm. I felt something warm tickle at the back of my mind, and recognized its warning trill. The first white-hot flash from her mind came and went so fast, I saw the scene like a photo negative. A young girl with white-blond hair in a high chair, her mouth frozen in a toothless grin. The next image stayed, lingered long enough for me to recognize I was seeing fire. Fire—everywhere, climbing the walls of the room, burning with all the intensity of the sun. This…memory? It trembled, shuddered hard enough that I had to clench my teeth to keep from getting nauseated. Inside Cate’s memory, a silver door with 456B stamped over it in black lettering slid into view. A hand flashed out, reaching for the handle—Cate’s pale, slender fingers, outstretched—only to pull away at its molten hot touch. A hand lashed out against the wood, then a foot. The image wavered, curling at the edges as the door disappeared behind the dark smoke that spewed through its cracks and joints.