I cleared my throat. “What happened?”
“A couple guys grabbed me. I tried to yell, but they had me by the head. They dragged me to an alley so . . .” He frowned at me. “So they could all get a hit in, I guess? They really hate us, huh?”
I hesitated, then nodded, because it was the truth. He lowered his eyes in disappointment.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “It’s my fault. I’ve worked this area a long time. They despise me. They probably wanted me.”
He shrugged. “It’s not your fault.” He reached up, rubbing his hand against his head. “But they took my helmet.”
I hadn’t even realized it; I was so distracted by my ridiculous feelings. There was no point in disguising my horror.
“Yeah, it’s not good,” he said with a sigh.
It was definitely not good. The officers would aim for his head and there would be nothing to block their bullets.
“Do you know where they took it off?” I asked.
“When we got to the center of town, I think.”
I glanced back, like I might actually be able to see it from here.
“You can’t go back,” he protested.
The alarm sounded, proving him right. The roaring of shuttles approaching filled the air and I shoved the gun in my pocket, and pressed myself against the side of the building with Callum.
“What should we do?” he asked, looking up at the sky.
The shushing noise came from inside the building, followed by a sniffle, and Callum and I spun around. The wood was old, the white paint peeling everywhere, and I caught movement inside through the cracks. I leaned closer and someone gasped.
The door next to me swung open and I jumped away from the little girl who appeared. She blinked at me with tired eyes, squinting in the sunlight.
“Grace!” a terrified voice called, but the little girl just stood there, looking up at me.
A messy-haired teenager ran to the door and scooped Grace up in her arms. “We didn’t do anything,” she said, backing away as she hugged the girl to her chest.
“We’re not here for you,” Callum said, his voice edging on annoyed.
Her eyes lifted to the shuttles in the sky, then dropped back to us. “You can’t stay here.”
I looked out at the open space in front of us. The patchy grass led to a small clump of trees several yards away, but they were skinny and missing half their leaves. They wouldn’t provide any cover, and we were sure to be spotted if we spent too much time out in the open.
“Did you escape?” she asked.
Neither of us responded and I felt a twinge of pride that Callum didn’t trust this human.
“You can’t stay here,” she repeated. “I’m sorry. I know you . . . can’t help it”—she gestured to us—“but you have to go.” She pointed to the left. “There’s a ditch over there. It’s kind of covered by some trees. You could try hiding there.”
I looked at her in surprise as Callum tugged on my arm. “Come on,” he said, studying the sky. “We have an opening.”
I let him pull me, glancing back at the teenager. “Thank you.”
“Yeah. Good luck.”
I took off in a slow run behind Callum, one eye on the shuttles. They were scattered in other areas, but one was facing partly in our direction.
I sprinted across the grass to the patch of trees, praying they hadn’t spotted us. The small hole looked like someone had started digging a grave and changed their mind about halfway through. It wasn’t very deep, but it might do.
Callum jumped in and I followed, sliding down the dirt. The ditch wasn’t big enough to stretch out so I pulled my legs to my chest.
I pressed my face into my knees as a shuttle whirred closer, willing them to keep going. If they saw us we were dead. One helmet, wide-open space, and a gun with only a few bullets left.
The shuttle landed with a thunk and I tried to fight back the rising sense of dread.
“Did I say thank you?” Callum whispered. “For getting me out? If we die I just want to say thank you.”
I pressed my lips together and stared at the ground. You’re welcome seemed a stupid thing to say since we might be seconds from death. I’m sorry might be more appropriate.
Boots crunched on the grass, saving me from having to speak at all.
“That building’s deserted,” a HARC officer said. “Check it out in case they’re hiding inside.”
I let out a long sigh as I realized they hadn’t seen us run to the ditch.
“There’s just some kids in there,” another voice answered. “They said they hadn’t seen anything.”
“What are they doing in there?”
“Living there, from the looks of it.”
“All right, pack ’em up. We’ll drop them at the orphanage on the way back.”
I closed my eyes, a weight settling on my chest. There were few places worse in the slums than the orphanage. I had made elaborate plans as a kid to avoid it at all costs in the event of my parents’ death.
“No!” I heard the shrill scream. “We’re fine! You can’t!”
I clenched my hand around a fistful of dirt, pushing back the odd urge to jump out of the hole and help them.
The yelling continued for a long time, while the officers combed the area. I wanted to press my hands against my ears like I did when I was little, but I was afraid it would look weird and pathetic to Callum.
When they piled into the shuttle and took off I breathed a sigh of relief more for the end of the screaming than for my own safety.
Callum leaned his head back against the dirt, giving me a tentative smile. “You all right? You looked really intense there for a while.”
“I’m fine.” I stood up and peeked out of the hole. It was quiet and deserted, the door to the medical building swinging open in the wind. Only one shuttle remained in the air, about half a mile away. The others must have landed around Rosa.
“I need to get you a helmet,” I said.
“What? No. We should stay here. We’re probably safe here until tonight.”
“And then we have to get over the fence at the city line, where there will be armed guards. The chances of us making it across are pretty slim with helmets. Without . . .”
“What are you going to do? Go back into town and look for it?” he asked.
“I think I have a better shot at taking one of the officers’.”
He moaned. “That plan sounds worse.”