A woman raged in the video on Max’s holoscreen, thrashing at everyone who came within ten feet of her in the crowded subway. Max had watched with the sound on the first few times, but she had the vid muted now.
The shelter she sat in, filled with the stench of too many unwashed bodies and the loud hum of so many of them talking at once, was plenty of an assault on her senses without the added horror of screaming.
The woman in the vid could be anyone. Hell, she could be Max—another twenty-something girl, trying to survive. She’d been reduced to a recording. A three-dimensional representation of a person.
Max caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and paused her handheld. The image vanished into nothing, as she turned to Taylor. His haunted blue eyes stared past her, at something she wouldn’t see if she turned around. Guilt joined the dark swirl inside her. She shouldn’t be watching this clip with him around.
If they didn’t get out of here, out of this country and away from the insanity, what was recorded in that train station was his future. For all she’d willingly surrendered in her life, losing her best friend to the P-72 virus wasn’t an option.
Max couldn’t let her thoughts wander down that path. Taylor would be fine. A few more jobs, and they could get out of the United States. Go somewhere on the opposite side of the globe, where the virus didn’t exist. A place where Ees—like Taylor—and Psys weren’t required to register. Where they weren’t locked away and studied if they broke the law.
Once upon a time, the goal of making it to a new continent filled her with hope. Now it was a necessity that gnawed at her with the reminder their chance would be ripped from them if they didn’t do it soon.
While the distant look in Taylor’s eyes worried her, it was better than screaming madness. She covered his hand with hers. “You okay?”
“I’m good.” He looked at her, but it took a second for his gaze to focus on her.
He was lying. She didn’t need his gift—curse… whatever—for reading emotions. Ten years of running and even more of friendship had taught her how to read him. Any other answer would be a rehash of a thousand conversations they’d had before. “All right,” she said.
He pulled his gaze from hers and scrolled his thumb over the volume slider on his handheld. “I’m not infected. That qualifies as good, right?”
“Touché.” She turned, leaned against him, and pulled his arms around her. To anyone watching, they were a displaced couple, like so many around them. They were as far from romantically involved as friends could be, but everything they did in public was part of the act that helped them blend in.
The rise and fall of his chest against her back and the caress of his breath on her neck reminded her she wasn’t in this alone and chased away the pit inside.
If the comfort didn’t flow both ways, she’d feel like she was taking advantage of him. Using him as her stability. As a Class Four Empath, Taylor had to focus, to keep himself from feeling any strong emotion the people around him experienced. Max was a Null—her thoughts and feelings couldn’t be read by Psys or Ees. That meant, for Taylor, the blankness her mind radiated helped him block out everyone around him.
A warning beep sounded from the wireless piece nestled in her ear. The muscles in her body coiled like a spring.
Taylor went rigid like a board. His frantic breath brushed her ear, and they spoke at the same time. “Raid.”
She wanted to warn every person in the room. Give them time to compose themselves. But doing so would reveal she’d hacked local surveillance cameras and patched her handheld into their transmission.
Officially, the shelter wasn’t being raided. The inspectors were here to make sure no one was infected with P-72. The fact that they had an entourage of synthetic Psys and Ees—Synths—in military-grade body armor made the inspection look less than benign.
They weren’t looking for people with the disease. They hoped to sniff out unregistered Psys and Ees, and Taylor was definitely of the unregistered variety.
There was no infection here. The Church would never send one of their own Psys—synth or organic—unprotected to an area where they could contract the disease. Synths were immune to the disease, but could still be harmed or read by an unpredictable Organic stealing or assaulting their thoughts.
P-72 made it impossible for the person infected to filter out the thoughts and emotions of anyone around them. According to rumors, it was the equivalent of sticking a Normal in a room with hundreds of TVs, all turned up to full volume.
“Trees, monkeys, merry-go-rounds.” The random words slipped from Max’s mouth out of habit.
Taylor needed to keep nonsensical thoughts close to the surface of his mind. A string of chatter, to mask any hint they were running. Hiding. Illegal. Her words helped him focus on nothingness. His projected fear and trepidation came naturally, which helped the illusion. In return for the distraction, he gathered some of his excess terror and threw his emotional voice to mask the psychic blank slate where a Synth would be looking for her mind.
It didn’t matter how many years they’d been doing this. Max hated that he had to extend the emotions to hide her identity. The moment they were out of here and the threat was gone, she’d do the thinking, and he could rest.
“Movie tonight?” The meaningless conversation left her free to grasp the whispers that permeated her thoughts and squeezed like a fist around her chest. Would this be their last night together? What if they were discovered? She didn’t know how Taylor hid any similar reaction, but she was grateful he could.
“Something funny.” He pulled her closer, his words vibrating against her. “Old, cheesy, and so awkward we have to laugh.”
She smiled at the description. “I’ve got a couple of those clouded. They’re not converted. You sure you can handle 2-D?”
“Excuse me.” A doctor, escorted by two Synths, stopped in front of Max and Taylor. The way Synths held themselves gave them away. They made looking down their noses a literal thing.
Unlike his Synth companions, who looked confident and unyielding, the doctor shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We’re sorry to bother you this evening. Can I get your names?”
His nervousness chipped away more of Max’s composure. The Church representatives were always calm and collected. Was this guy new? He looked about their age. Maybe a little older. Thirty?
“Taylor Bachner.” Taylor was honest. Lies were harder to hide from someone scanning his mind.
She’d digitally tucked away their real pasts so well, no one would uncover the lives they vanished from a decade ago.
One of the guards scanned Taylor’s handheld, then his face.
The doctor turned to Max. “Your name, miss?”
“Max Knopp.” She paused and furrowed her brow—a rehearsed and refined reaction. “Sorry. Lillian Knopp. Everyone calls me Max.” She gave a nervous laugh, to make it look like she hadn’t repeated the same lines more times than she could count.
Silence settled between the Synths and the doctor, while they ran her info. Where they exchanging thoughts? Was the doctor Psy, or did he simply project for the Synths to read?
The doctor knelt in front of Taylor and Max. “Blood test next.”
Taylor held out his left hand, and the doctor pricked his index finger. A dark-red drop welled up and seeped into the tester.
The doctor asked standard raid questions, disguised as small talk. Lived here long or just passing through? How do you like the area? I bet it was great growing up in Idaho Falls. That last one was meant to trip them up, since their records said they came from Utah.
As long as he didn’t think Max and Taylor were as well versed in that blatant tactic as him, they’d be fine. Most people didn’t move from city to city with such frequency they were caught in more than a few raids. She erased their participation in all raids from The Church’s databases.
The doctor processed Taylor’s results, then jabbed Max’s finger and moved to the next string of random questions. How long have you been together? Do you have kids? Family? Any relatives nearby?
One of these days, Max or Taylor would get an answer wrong. Get caught in a lie. It didn’t look like it would be tonight. Her pulse was slowing to less than a gallop, and Taylor’s arm—the one hugging her to his chest—hung more loosely than when the raid started.
One of the Synths nudged the doctor and shared the display of his handheld. The doctor looked it over and stopped his fidgeting. He raised an eyebrow and glanced at the guard, who shrugged.
Max’s heart hammered against her ribs, echoing in her ears until it was all she heard. At least most Synths never learned to read body language. Why watch body movements that could be misinterpreted, when thoughts never lied?
Whatever happened in Taylor’s head could still get him and Max busted.
Please let him be calmer than me.
The doctor knelt again and locked his gaze on Max. “I hope I’m not the one breaking the news, but I guess congratulations are in order?”
“For?” This was a new script. Max swallowed past a dry throat.
A confident smirk replaced doctor’s nervous smile. “You’re pregnant.”
Taylor’s arm bit into her collarbone. The pressure gave her a place to focus. What were they up to? When in doubt, she went with the truth, as long as it wasn’t damning. “I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.”
The doctor winked. “How can you be so certain? Cute young couple like you have to be getting up to something, whenever you have a moment.”
In several countries, sterilization or birth control were mandatory; the planet struggled to support the population of eleven billion. Breeding was encouraged here, however. The Psy gene was recessive in most people, and The Church believed the genetic mutation was His will.
There was no way she’d bring a child into this world. She kept that answer to herself and glanced around the room. “Have you seen our living quarters? Not exactly private.” She leaned closer, hiding her wince when Taylor resisted her movement. “Besides, he’s sterile.” She’d never been so grateful for the pre-packaged answer.
The doctor shrugged. “These tests are more than ninety-nine percent accurate.”
Where had his nervousness gone, and why was he pushing this? Calling him a liar seemed like a supremely bad idea.
“Then she’s the less-than-one percent exception.” A current of anger and possession lined Taylor’s response. “Are we both clean?”
A look of pity crossed the doctor’s face. “You are. Enjoy your evening.”
He stood, and the Synths followed him to the next family.
Max and Taylor kept their voices low, swapping random words to keep Taylor distracted, as the raiding party canvased the shelter. Unless someone dove deep into Taylor’s head, he and Max looked like everyone else. Max had no illusions that the Synths cared about Taylor’s sanity, but prying into thoughts that lay below the surface was risky. Even a trained Synth could get lost in the maze of someone else’s subconscious.
The shrill cry of a child filled the heavy air—a girl, shrieking for her mother, as two Synths pulled her away. Max’s gut clenched. This region of the country was supposed to be clean. If the child tested positive, they’d quarantine everyone.
Max strained to hear the conversation on the other side of the room. The mother pleaded with them to not take her baby girl. Swore she didn’t know. That there was no way her daughter could be Psy.
Max and Taylor had played with the girl before. He would have said something, if the child was Psy. It was a safety measure, to ensure they avoided scenarios like this one.
The yelling and sobbing grew louder, mother and daughter drawing the attention of everyone in the shelter.
A Synth bundled the child in his arms and turned toward the exit.
Someone stepped in his path. “Give her back.” The would-be hero’s command was distinct in the now-still room.
The Synth stepped aside for one of his colleagues, who drove the butt of a rifle into the would-be-hero’s gut. Max gasped in sympathy when he doubled over. They handcuffed him and jerked him toward the door.
Max had seen this happen before, but never to someone as young as the girl. Fury and fear tore through her, stinging her eyes with tears. She didn’t realize she stood until Taylor yanked her to sit. He rested his mouth against her ear and whispered random gibberish.
Max’s muscles burned with unspent adrenaline. She had to do something. She couldn’t let them do this, but she couldn’t go after them either. It was the girl or Taylor. Frustration joined the chaos inside her, and she strained against Taylor’s grip.
His gibberish spilled out faster.
Max couldn’t get rid of the bile burning her throat.
Within moments, the doctors and Synths headed toward the exit. The raid was over.
Max and Taylor’s doctor detoured, to pause in front of them. He dropped a small orange bottle in her lap. “You look a little pale. For the nausea. The morning sickness.”
She bit the inside of her cheek until the tang of copper stung her tongue, and shoved the pills in her backpack. Someone else might need them. At least then she’d be able to do something, instead of sitting by powerlessly.
One corner of the doctor’s mouth pulled up, and he spun on his toe.
Quiet tears of frustration spilled down her cheeks, as the last of The Church testers left. They didn’t take the somber mood in the room with them. Max leaned more weight into Taylor and forced herself to dive into his babbling. Each uttered syllable tore at her throat. She feared if she stopped, she’d drown in the darkness flooding her thoughts.
A child—a fucking five-year-old—dragged away from her mother, and Max’s only choice was to sit and watch.
The overhead lights blinked off. It was after eight. One by one, individual lanterns and flashlights switched off, until the only illumination spilled in through the windows. She didn’t know how many hours passed, as she sat wrapped in Taylor’s arms and they muttered false reassurances.
It was probably well after midnight. Only a few other people remained awake, voices so low, they didn’t carry into the small space Max and Taylor occupied.
“Ice cream.” Taylor’s voice hardened.
The clouds of helplessness skittered to the edges of her mind. She sat up straighter at the familiar phrase. “I’d rather have cookies.”
“Compromise?” He shoved any loose belongings into their bags. “Ice cream sandwiches?”
“I guess.” Her disappointment was as phony as the rest of the conversation. They were running. Usually a raided shelter was the safest place to stay at. The Church sated its curiosity and moved on. Tonight must be sitting as poorly with Taylor as it was with Max, though. Something about the encounter was wrong.
The sentence for being unregistered was community service. Not the kind where Taylor would don an orange jacket and pick up trash. He’d be required to donate his time and DNA to clinical research around P-72 and the genes that made his mind different from a Normal. From everything she read online, he wouldn’t survive the experience with his sanity intact.
Using the focused light of their handhelds to avoid slumbering bodies, they tiptoed through the maze of sleeping bags and cots. Taylor slipped the car keys into her hand and gave her a final squeeze, before opening the driver door for her and holding it until she was inside.
The moment he was situated as well, she maneuvered the vehicle onto the packed street. Fear welled inside again. If she was driving, he didn’t think they were clear yet. No one could scan her thoughts for a destination.
“Vegas?” They had no intention of going to Nevada. She navigated the lunch-hour mob of the third shift. Endless rows of headlights crowded the city street.
“Sure.” He intertwined his fingers with hers. If he needed her nothingness to find his center, he didn’t feel safe dropping his guard. “I have a couple of nickels burning a hole in my pocket,” he said.
She pointed the car west. They’d detour long before they hit the Nevada border.
As they wove through traffic and eventually left the city behind, her tension ebbed. Self-disgust and lingering images of the night’s raid—the girl’s screams and her tangible terror—rolled in.
Why hadn’t Max done anything?
What could she have done? Object and be taken away like the would-be hero?
The Church would detain and question the man, and probably release him once they confirmed was sure he wasn’t Psy. But if they arrested Max, they’d know seconds after pulling Taylor from her side that she was Null and he was Ee.
Recognizing that didn’t ease her guilt.
Max needed to squelch that need for heroism, for Taylor’s sake. She couldn’t risk him being caught. Couldn’t betray his trust like that.
Doubt and questions churned inside, until her lungs felt tight. She clenched the steering wheel so hard her knuckles ached. She jerked the car to the side of the road and pushed the door open.
Taylor’s concern was lost in the rush of traffic behind her, as she bolted from the car. She dropped to her knees in the dry roadside grass. Her dinner burned up her throat, and she emptied the contents of her stomach on the ground.