I’m going to think of this as a trial run for the real thing. Practice.
My gamble pays off. I find a gas station, though I’m out almost two hundred dollars with still almost half a tank left to fill. I’ll get the rest on the way back, I tell myself, waving to the station attendant. I keep my eye on the highway and the evergreen forest cupping the station in its earthy palm as I make my way back over to the truck. I’ve heard stories about people getting mugged for gas. It sets me on edge every time I have to stop.
I open the passenger-side door, angling my body to block the view of the kid sitting knees-to-chest on the floor. I don’t let her protest; I don’t let her move. I was banking on her false sense of security by leaving her in the car and expecting her not to tamper with it or run, but I won’t do it anymore.
The handbook recommends employing the use of rubber gloves to restrict Yellow freaks’ abilities; if they can’t form a connection with the electricity, they can’t control it. The best I could find in the station were the gloves my mom used to use when she still washed dishes. I know they’re not thick enough, but I’m going to double up and hope that’s enough.
I use the knife to cut the zip ties off, and she slumps forward, rubbing her wrists with a faint, grateful smile. For someone who says nothing, her face is incredibly expressive. It’s how I know she’s so repulsed when I pull the gloves out of my back pocket and try to jam them over her hands. It’s the first time she fights me on anything, really fights—hitting and kicking until I have bruises up and down both arms. For once she’s acting like a real kid having a meltdown, and it throws me that much further off my game. I don’t even bother aligning them on each finger; she can wear them like mittens for all I care. Another zip tie over her wrists will be more than enough to hold them in place.
The kid never once loses the defiant set of her shoulders, but her dark eyes practically burn with the betrayal. I can see the plan forming behind them, and I cut it off before it can take root. “You scream or run or try to draw attention to yourself, I’ll knock you out. I have a Taser, and since you seem to like electricity so much, I’m more than happy to introduce you to it.”
Then I slam the door in her face. But each step I take around the truck has me feeling a foot smaller, until I finally reach the nozzle and get to pumping the gas. I think, Maybe this is what Hutch meant when he said the ones who like doing this are the real monsters. You have to be a bully. You have to teach them to behave, or they’ll walk all over you.
I keep trying to tell myself none of us would be in this situation if it weren’t for them. If they hadn’t gone freak on us, if those other ones hadn’t died, things would have gone on as usual. Mom would be at home taking care of her garden, and Dad would be alive, working himself to the bone keeping his restaurant running and his customers happy. I just wonder, you know, what kind of person the Gabe in that world would have been.
According to the handbook, all PSF recruitment centers and bases are forced to take in Psi refugees when you have them in your custody and honor their bounty. This is only a recruitment center and administrative offices; the real base is down in Phoenix, with most of the state’s population.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it just seems a little cruel they had to set up shop in the old elementary school.
No one’s coming in or leaving, though the parking lot is filled with cars ranging from old junkers like mine to military Humvees and vans. I loop a pair of handcuffs through the girl’s zip tie and lock them on the metal bar beneath the passenger front seat. She doesn’t beg or plead or cry—not that I expect her to. But she doesn’t look resigned to her fate, either, which—given her Houdini act this morning—makes me feel a little nervous as I lock the door behind me.
I want to scope things out myself before I take her inside. Take things slow. It seems like the smart thing to do. They need to be able to register me in the network and outfit me with all the tech I’ll need. Hutch says sometimes they’ll try giving you the runaround in the hope that you’ll just give up on ever being treated fairly. Make things as frustrating and difficult as possible. That’s why he gave up after his first score, at least.
Ten thousand dollars, I remind myself. A future. Or at least the start of one.
Lincoln Elementary is a stately kind of brick building. Classic in a way that a lot of the newer buildings from the second half of the twentieth century aren’t. A fully uniformed PSF meets me at the door with his rifle resting against one shoulder. I’ve seen pictures and shots on TV, but man, in person, it’s a whole new level of intimidation. Whoever decided to jack Darth Vader’s red-and-black color scheme knew what they were doing.
“What’s your business?”
Not getting my ass shot.
“I’m here about…” The words trail off. The school’s entry hallway has been converted to look a great deal like a police station. There are desks with uniformed PSFs behind them around the perimeter, and a rainbow of men and women hanging around the waiting area in hunter camo and caps, biding their time until it’s their turn to be seen.
I don’t see any kids, but maybe they have us bring them in through the back?
“How many times do we have to tell you to check your damn applications?” a man shouts from the far end of the hall. The man sitting next to him stands and slams his hands down on the desk, prompting the PSF next to him to stir. “We already searched the plate numbers in the system! He’s not registered—yet!”
The hall carries exactly two words from the man sitting next to him. “Stolen” and “score.” And even before they start to turn to go, I know I’m standing less than a hundred feet away from the beards.
I back through the door, but I have no idea what excuses I’m mumbling to the soldier. I burst back out into the parking lot at a full run.
Because this isn’t suspicious at all! Good job, Gabe!
Shit, shit, shitshitshit—even if I were to wait for them to leave, the officers in this station will recognize the plate number when I give it to them on my application. Not to mention they probably have me on camera acting like a sketchball at the door.
Phoenix. I can do Phoenix. I’ll change my clothes, wear a hat and sunglasses, swap out my license plate with one from one of the abandoned cars I find along the I-17. It’s less than a two-hour drive. If the gas situation starts to get touchy, well, I’ll figure it out.