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DOMINION

J. Kowallis 

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblances to actual events, places, or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.

Copyright ©2017 by Jernae Kowallis.

Published by J. Kowallis

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

Cover design by Hayden Halvorsen.


ISBN (Paperback): 9781619846883

ISBN (Hardback): 9781619846876

ISBN (eBook): 9781619846890


To me.


(Because, let’s be honest. No one is ever going to

dedicate a book to me and

I’ve worked too hard for this.

I deserve a book dedication.)

―TABLE OF CONTENTS―


PROLOGUE

RANSLEY

NATE

RANSLEY

REGGIE

RANSLEY

ROYDON

REGGIE

NATE

REGGIE

LONDON

REGGIE

ROYDON

NATE

REGGIE

NATE

KORA

NATE

REGGIE

JIAN

REGGIE

NATE

LONDON

RANSLEY

NATE

REGGIE

LONDON

REGGIE

CARMEN

REGGIE

LONDON

RANSLEY

REGGIE

RANSLEY

REGGIE

CARMEN

RANSLEY

ROYDON

RANSLEY

REGGIE

ROYDON

RANSLEY

ROMAN

NATE

REGGIE

RANSLEY

REGGIE

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

BIOGRAPHY


No longer do we have to accept the terrene and reject

the empyrean. We trust in the arm of how

far the human race has come.

The time is now—to rise above and

seize the role mankind is intended for: God.”



-Dr. Martin G. Lobb, Modern Mankind

―PROLOGUE―

There’s so much more to life than breathing in and out. It’s not the beat of a heart, or the brainwave pattern in a thought that classifies someone as being alive. Not even the sensation of warmth or the ability to move.

I know first hand.

Even as my body remained behind, empty, and without pulse or warmth.

I still lived.

Something dragged me back.

___


I try to open my eyes, but . . . nothing. No light. Just darkness pressing into me. I feel like I’ve been chewed up, swallowed, and digested. My whole body sinks with a dull pain that’s pressing me between contracting walls. Each breath I take is muffled and lifeless.

A groan escapes my tight jaw and the sound echoes back into my mouth. Each breath becomes more labored, and a sharp pain juts into my ribs. My chest feels weighted down like I’m sinking at the bottom of an ocean—the dense water crushing my body. Why is it so hard to breathe?

I try to lift my arm and touch my face—brush my hair back. My elbow thumps against something and I moan. What is that?

I reach up to feel the surface. Rough wood scours my dry fingertips. My feet stretch out, hitting a wall. I kick hard and hear a muffled snap. Wood breaking.

Where am I?

I reach up again, trying to see where the wood above me ends. It doesn’t. The walls are made of the same wood.

I’m not in a room.

I’ve been buried.

―RANSLEY―

I have to go back.”

You can’t. You have to move on. You’re dead!

No!” Reggie screams inside my head. It detonates like an exploding bomb. “I will not leave! I am not dead!”

I’m not dead!” she screams again.

I jerk awake. A sharp pain splits down my neck and into my shoulders.

It’s so dark in here. The only light I see is the old plug-in bulb in the outlet down on the wall. The short ceiling above feels like it’s going to fall in on me.

I roll over and come face to face with Roydon, who’s deep in a speechless sleep. His eyes aren’t even rolling around behind his eyelids.

I look to the clock. Take a deep breath.

My dry and swollen tongue attempts to wet my lips and I let my eyes close. Control my thoughts. Relax. I need to sleep. My eyeballs sink inside my skull from the weight of exhaustion and once again, my dreams take over.

His eyes. Dark brown like coffee. Drooping to the floor like a defenseless puppy. Estevan’s hands tied behind his back. He can’t even protect himself.

Deep breath, Ransley,” he says. “This is only the start.”

I frown before reaching out. Fire bursts from my palms and I watch the flames consume him all over again.

I panic and pull my hands back. The tips of my fingers are black.

You did this.”

I look around the bare tile floor of The Public compound where we found Reggie. Behind me, on the floor, sitting cross-legged she watches me. Her skin is papery and dry. Her eyes are a cloudy gray.

You did this,” she says again.

Did what?”

Killed us,” Estevan’s voice rumbles behind me and I spin around.

My eyes fly open. I grab at the sheet on top of me and sit up. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. I reach up and brush my sticky wet hair off my forehead and slick it back.

I can’t do this. Pulling my legs up, I squeeze my face in between my knees and try to regain control my respiration again.

I’m not sleeping tonight.

Just like last night. And the night before.

It’s only been twenty minutes since the last time I woke up. Each time I try to sleep, the nightmares get worse. But they’re not nightmares are they? Not entirely. They’re all real. Because when my eyes open, Estevan is still dead. Reggie is buried beneath the ground. That never changes. They’re both dead.

Twelve hours ago, we buried her. Ten hours in the air transport, jetting southeast while Nate avoided talking with anyone. Mierda. I’ve never been so glad to get away from him.

About six . . . six? I look at the clock on the wall. It’s three in the morning. Yeah, six hours back, we arrived in a place Nate called Islamabad. It looks worse than Argentina’s armpits. The moment we pulled into the city, I thought Nate had to be (just like London kept saying) “ragging” us. There was nothing here. Not a single standing building. Not even the smell of decomposition and illness because . . . no one dares live here. Barren land, sand, ruin, and no water. He’d brought us here to stock up?

I thought we were dead where we stood.

That is, until Nate drove the transport down into a tunnel in the center of town. About three miles in, down under the ground, I saw a blockade. Four men, two women. Both women wore cloths on their heads. If I remember correctly, and from where I remember it, I’m not sure, but I think they’re called hijab. Aside from that, every single one of them had a patch on their left shoulder. It took me a while to figure out what it was, but when I did, I motioned to Roy. A straight horizontal bar with a half circle joined to the top. Wide angular lines, six in all, radiated from the curve of the circle. It was a rising sun.

Each of them held black vintage guns. Not Public power guns. Artillery like Estevan had once. AR-15s. Just like his.

“I’m here to see Red Houghton,” Nate said.

The man he addressed just looked at him while the others sized up the Public Transport we rode in.

“Tell him Captain Naylor wants to talk.” Nate gripped the controls of the transport with both hands.

One of the other guards radioed the request in. Within minutes, a gruff voice replied, “Get his ass in here.”

The barricade was lifted and Nate drove the large transport through the tunnel. That’s how we found a place to sleep. Actual beds. Fresh clothing. All from a group known as “The Rising.” That’s when the patch design on their clothing made sense. As in, “the rising sun.” That’s what they call themselves. Apparently, there are two branches. The one here, and one beneath the streets of Public Two.

It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me, but I was too tired to argue or even bother to find out more, a fact which Roy was a little shocked at. I just wanted to sleep. I thought it’d be easier if I had an actual bed.

It’s not.

I reach up and massage the stiffness in my neck. The bed creaks beneath me and I look over at Roy. His arm dangles off the side of the bed, his head turned away from me. Deep quiet breaths inhale and exhale.

My eyes close and I drop my head low. Sleep is never going to come. Not tonight.

Carefully, I push the blanket off and crawl over Roy. He doesn’t even flinch. My feet pad across the cold dirt floor until I get to the other side of the room. Sitting in the cold plastic folding chair I put my boots on, and dress in a black racer top and a pair of tattered jean cutoffs from the clothes offered to us. I make my way out of the room, silently swinging the old wood door closed. It quietly latches and I set off down the hall.

Shaggy chunks of hair fall into my eyes and I push it back. It’s getting too long, I think to myself. I need to cut it again.

With each step on the ground, I swear I can hear rumbles. The same rumbles that came from behind the steel door. Roman and Reggie.

I block the sound out and walk faster. I need to get out of my head. Out of my thoughts.

The hallways are dark and deserted, which is why the crash in the dining hall ahead surprises me. When I hear the first crash, followed by a bellowing roar and another boom, I break into a run. Just then, a chant begins.

What the hell?

I push open the swinging doors into the dining hall to find all the tables pushed to the outer walls. A ring of men is packed closely together, chanting and jeering. I’d know this scene anywhere. There’s a fight.

If anything, I feel more relaxed now. Not only that, I kind of want in.

I push myself through the men and try to get a better look at the fighters in the center, but the crowd is too dense and I can’t see through them.

“Excuse me.” I shove another couple of men aside. A set of fingers reaches out and pinches my culo from behind. I whirl around to see a pale man, Slavic, grinning at me. I smile back, and let my fist swing through the air. He falls back into the men behind him. Behind me, the crowd topples backward and I’m pushed toward him. The weight of two or three men fall back onto me.

I shove back, steady myself, and turn around to see what happened. One of the fighters from the middle has crashed into the spectators.

Rambo?

Nate’s eyes are swollen purple, and a smear of blood trails his chin. He chuckles before righting himself and turning on his opponent—an older man with gray at his temples. It’s hard to see what he looks like because he’s in worse shape than Nate. The man’s teeth are stained red, his gums swollen. Broken nose, shattered cheekbone, bruised throat. Nate’s been using him as a living punching bag.

The man eggs Nate on. Even so, he’s nervous. I can tell because he pulls away at the same time his ego asks for more.

Sweat glistens on Nate’s bare, pale back, accentuating each ripple of muscle in his lats, his triceps, and shoulders. Maldito, the man is built. I’d never actually noticed before. Rambo spits on the ground and lunges forward, driving his fist into the other man’s face again.

The man falls to the ground and struggles to pull himself up. Finally, he takes a deep breath and holds up two fingers. He’s done. He quits.

Someone on the sidelines hands a large glass liquor bottle to Nate and he takes it, putting it to his lips and drinking deep and long. When he finishes, he leans forward and helps his opponent off the ground. The two men put their arms around each other and Nate leads him to a bench. All around me, the crowd exchanges bets and starts to disperse. With the thinning viewers, I’m able to push through to Nate.

“I’m glad to see you’re getting the rest you need,” I mumble, folding my arms.

Nate turns on me, staggering on his feet, and smiles. “You too.” He lifts the bottle and takes another long swig. With a hard thump, he falls into one of the chairs near his opponent and runs a hand over his sweaty blood-stained face.

“You interested in going a round, Harpy?”

“Harpy?” the other man’s voice is higher in pitch than I would have guessed. “That’s your name?”

“Only to those who have a death wish.”

The man’s face disfigures, and I realize he’s trying to smile.

“Ransley,” Nate’s voice slurs, pointing to the bloody man next to him, “this is him.”

“Him, who?” I ask.

The man holds out his hand. “Red Houghton, ma’am. Major Red Houghton.”

“So, you’re the one Nate brought us out to meet?”

“Sure,” Red nods slowly, gingerly touching his cheek. He’s got to feel like hell after the beating Nate gave him. “I suppose Spud knew he’d have to come to me for a proper birthday celebration.”

Birthday? I frown. “What’s he talking about about?”

“Shut up, Red,” Nate grunts.

“The 11th was this brother’s birthday.”

March 11th.

Yesterday. The day Roy and I arrived at The Public complex. The day I listened behind a door while Roman—the fourth subject of the trials, the verga who took everything from us—drilled into Reggie’s mind. The day he broke her.

Yesterday was the day we buried the one person in the world Nate would dive into hell for.

It was his birthday.

Oh, mierda.

“I said shut up.” Nate’s face hardens. “Unless you’re ready to go another round.”

“Do you frequently get into fights with your friends?” I turn to Nate, trying to divert his anger. “While you’re completely borracho?”

He lifts an eyebrow before gulping down another mouthful of liquor. The glass clinks against his teeth. When he finishes, he sighs. “You’re one to talk.”

“It was my idea,” the man breathes heavily. “It’s been a while since Spud was able to kick my ass. Wanted to see if he could still do it.”

“I had a good reason to, brother.” Nate drinks again. Although, I can tell by the way he says “brother” it’s more a term of resentment than respect.

“Are you talking about my AWOL status?”

“I’ll tell you what. Next time you’re in danger, I’m just gonna take off. Then we’ll be even.”

“You still haven’t forgiven me?”

“Why should I?” Nate frowns.

“Because it was almost fifteen years ago. Let it go, man.”

Nate takes another large gulp, a second, a third, finishing off the bottle and throws it across the room. It narrowly misses another man’s head and shatters against the wall. Setting his hands on his knees, he pushes himself up and nearly falls over.

“Well, I wish I could forget my friends as easy as you forgot yours.”

Red’s eyes darken, although I can barely see them through the swollen tissue around his sockets. “You mean like the girl you just left behind?”

Nate stiffens. My own throat closes off.

With the focus of a hawk, Nate whirls around and slams his fist into Red’s face once more. The man topples to the floor, and though I can see he’s still conscious, the pain must be too much for him to stand up again.

With a hefty breath, Nate kicks at Red’s foot. “You can’t save the dead.”

Two men with caramel skin move to Red and help him sit up. A pocket of blood has ruptured around his eye, pouring down his face. He attempts to look back up at Nate. “My point, exactly. Sometimes,” he struggles to pull himself up, “you have to know . . . when it’s over.”

Nate whirls again. I step in between the two men, acting as both wall to Nate and tower to Red. Feeling the fire kindling in my chest, my voice growls. “It’s not over, cabrón. You know, I may not be a huge fan of this shithead,” I nod at Nate. “He might be a depressing, annoying, infuriating verga. But you’ll never be half the man he is.”

I squat down and look Red directly in the eye. “It’s not over until we finish it. If you’re too afraid, you can stay here. Bury your head in the sand, stay hidden, whatever you cowards do. And when the firestorm comes, make sure you run. Sounds like you know how to do that well.”

Nate glances over before I walk out. Instead of a look of appreciation or solidarity, he rolls his eyes, his head wobbling on his shoulders before turning and shoving his way out of the room.


―NATE―

What was it now? Four weeks? Three? Guess it didn’t really matter. Nate had spent the entire time providing a steady flow of alcohol down his throat. It was the only thing that stopped the hallucinations. Her voice. Even when Red sent them packing that morning with fresh supplies and information, he knew his former brother could smell the liquor.

He didn’t say a word about it.

They left. Ground travel this time. They couldn’t risk The Public registering an air transport headed for the city. One they weren’t expecting. After a quick air trip to Kunming, he unloaded the single Jeep from the bay door of the air transport and started driving with London in the front seat and the other two sitting in the back, hanging on to the roll bars while he jerked the off-roader over the demolished terrain. Two days on dusty roads.

Wary, cautious.

They made it. Somehow, they’d gotten into Public Two with the cloakers still packed in Nate’s bag.

The fish they’d had for breakfast lingered on Nate’s clothing. The smell was more overwhelming when he pulled the hood of his jacket up further over his face. He remembered London had unknowingly rested the morning’s wet fish on Nate’s jacket after he’d cleaned out the guts.

People passed him by on every side—faces that would only take note of him for a moment before regaining their focus again and moving on. He glanced up at an oncoming figure and narrowed his eyes. The man was almost as tall as Nate. Possibly six-three. Of Asiatic decent, most likely Chinese, considering where they were. The man had a perfectly straight nose from bridge to tip. None of the men looked different from one another except for their nationalities. Perfectly polished, almost plastic skin. Dark eyes that glittered like oil. Every single one.

Nate’s scopic eyes zoomed through the hoards; looking for the building Red had directed him to. White steel exterior, green glass. The sewer access was right in front of it.

Then he saw her—her body lying in the street, flung across a gutter. Her eyes clouded over, crying with crimson teardrops. Reggie’s blue veins looked nearly black.

He closed his eyes, shutting it out. Not again. Not now.

He opened them again. The body was gone. Just a damp street. Nate reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a glass bottle.

Don’t, Nate. Not now, he heard her voice clearly.

“Shove it, Reg.”

Being as inconspicuous as he could, he lifted the bottle to his lips and took a swig. The liquor no longer burned. Just a dull warmth. He needed it. It was the only thing that sedated his thoughts. He needed to drown her out, wipe out the vision of her face, and the memory of her voice that relentlessly haunted him.

A man reached out and grabbed at Nate’s wrist before bellowing a resounding, “RISING!”

“Shit,” he whispered under his breath. Pulling a G43 Glock with silencer out of his jacket, he aimed and fired. The man fell to his knees and collapsed. That had done it. Every person on the street zeroed in on Nate and he swore again.

I told you.

“We’re made!” he yelled, ignoring Reggie’s taunt.

Tucked away in a dark alley, three figures appeared. The sound of their beating feet reverberated against the tight walls, as the three sprinted toward him. The flash of movement, the alarm from the man on the ground, and his own gunshot forced the crowd, nearly fifty Public citizens, to split their focus equally. All four of them, Nate, London, Ransley, and Roy now had twelve to thirteen citizen drones zeroed in on them.

“Follow me!” Nate yelled. The alcohol in his system had no impact on his eyes. That said, his balance shifted unnaturally to the right. Using the Glock, he killed six Public Two citizens who rushed him from the right. Then he slipped down the next corner. His eyes zoomed ahead. White building. Green glass. There it was. They only had two more blocks to go. If they could just make it, she’d be waiting for them. At least, he hoped she’d be waiting.

He turned around to make sure that the other three were following. London pulled his gun out of his own Kimber and fired just as Ransley lit another man on fire. Roy sprinted ahead of Nate. At least, one of the Roys did. The others engaged sixty new citizens, holding them off.

“Nate, I found it!” Roy yelled.

Nate raced to catch up with him. Roy kicked hard at the sewer grate and motioned for them to move faster. When Nate reached him, Roy turned around and growled. “Damn thing won’t open!”

Just then, the hatch slid back quickly. “Look at that . . .” Roy mused.

Nate grunted and let London climb down first, Ransley second.

“Go ahead. I got it.” Roy nodded.

An explosion resonated behind them. Large chunks of shrapnel beat against his back. He looked to see what had happened. An enormous pillar of fire billowed from a stranded streetcar, the gasoline source of the fire trailing between Roy’s legs as he waited at the sewer grate. Ransley leaned out of the manhole, fire pouring from her fingertips. A single Roy replica burst from behind the firewall, shielding himself from the blast, then hit the ground running toward them.

“I’m coming! Get down, now!” he yelled.

Ransley ducked below once more and Nate followed her. Only moments later, the real Roy dropped down and his duplicate remained above to hold off the other citizens.

Nate bent over, panting and trying to catch his breath again.

“What the hell was that, Nate?!” Ransley bellowed. “How did they make you out? Mierda! It was like watching zombies come to life out there!”

Nate, it’s getting out of control.

“Shut it, both of you!” Nate’s gruff voice broke. “I’m not gonna explain anything to you. We made it. That’s that.”

Ransley looked at him, confused, and made sure she got the last word in. “Like hell, it is.” She flipped around and torched up a ball of fire in her hand so they could see where they were. It was more than just a sewer. The walls were bare concrete, continuing down into an industrialized constructed tunnel. Old mining lights decorated the ceiling, though they weren’t lit. The floor was clean, and the air, though stuffy, didn’t smell like sewage.

“Come on,” Nate coughed and started down the south bend. Just then, fluorescent lights flashed on, flooding the tunnel.

Ransley doused the fire in her hand and they all looked around. Standing at the end of the tunnel was a woman. She was extremely tall—maybe six-two, Nate guessed—slender, and her golden blonde hair fell in sleek loose waves to her waist. Her eyes, narrow and indicative of Chinese ancestry, narrowed right on the group.

“You must be the American team,” she said, her voice breathy and light.

Nate stepped forward. “I’m Nate. Are you Kora?”

The woman studied him and then shook her head. “No. Red informed us you’d be coming. Could you have possibly made more of a scene before leading an entire street of Public Two citizens to our doorway?” She tilted her head.

Nate glared at her. “We did what we had to do.” He examined the hole they’d dropped through. “They’re not getting in, are they?”

Ransley let out an exasperated sigh behind him. He ignored it.

The woman smirked. “No. The only way they could get through that grate is if they had a nuclear bomb. Besides, after they perceive the threat is gone, they return to normal. The explosion will be hard for us to clean up before the guards arrive. Still, our team is on top of it. Don’t worry.”

“Great. So, if you’re not Kora, you must be Suhong.” He coughed.

“Call me Su. Follow me, I’ll show you our little . . . establishment.” She beckoned with her finger and her thin heels clicked down the concrete floor through another tunnel.

Nate took wide, and slightly diagonal, steps in order to catch up with her. Once he was out of visible eyesight of the others, he quickly took another swallow from the liquor bottle and tucked it away in his jacket. The fire raced through his stomach, calming him down again, numbing his mind.

He took in Su’s body from behind. Long strong legs with smooth definition, small waist, healthy pallor to her skin, proportioned curves. She might look graceful and soft to most, but he saw the exactness in her design. The strength in her build. Not a single imperfection. Red had told him she was a former Public Two citizen. Altered and manipulated into what someone else thought was perfect. How she’d come to be a part of the underground organization, he still didn’t know.

“In here, Captain Naylor.” She turned into a side room, brightly lit and containing an entire buffet of food and drink. His jaw nearly dropped. Roasted pig, fruits and vegetables, nuts, noodles and deep fried dumplings, fish, chicken. His stomach growled.

“So, uh, Red told you about that, did he?”

“What?”

“You called me ‘Captain.’” Obviously, she was aware of his military days.

“Yes. He spoke very respectfully of you.” Her crystal blue eyes peered up at him underneath her genetically altered golden waves. Nate’s mind, though fuzzier than usual, studied her body language, expressions, and intonations. Usually, he relied on his gut when sizing up people. Most were a quick read. Two minutes in and he still couldn’t tell how he felt about her.

Roy, Ransley, and London brought up the rear and entered the large commissary. When they saw the spread of food, each stopped, frozen to their spot.

“Is this for us?” London asked.

“Well, we most definitely did not bring you hear to brag and then send you on your way.” Su smiled at him. “Please, eat. When you’ve eaten, had a chance to wash up, and slept for the night, we’ll show you around the compound tomorrow afternoon and talk.”

With that, she excused herself and left the room. London immediately dove into the pig, filling a plate with mostly meat and noodles and a large succulent peach. Roy followed him, and Ransley as well. Nate stood in the doorway long enough for them to lose interest in him and then slipped into the hallway. When he was far enough away, he pulled the bottle from his jacket again and brought it to his lips. The rich taste of the cheap whiskey Red had gifted him poured over his tongue, warming his throat, his esophagus, and down into his stomach. It numbed everything. The hunger, the exhaustion, the pain.

He breathed deep, trying not to think about her. He couldn’t do it. Again, he drank. He drank it all. When it was emptied, he put the bottle back inside his jacket and leaned against the wall, letting the alcohol eat away at him. It was better than letting the memories do it for him. He stared down at the ground, his vision more blurred than before. Three people walked by, nodding politely at him. Each one had a tattoo on their upper left cheek. Three dots lined up horizontally. Nate nodded in return and wiped at his mouth.

“Captain Naylor, aren’t you hungry?” Su’s voice floated over the air. He turned to see her coming at him from the right.

“I am. I just needed some space.”

“And a pick-me-up?” She smiled, eyeing his jacket.

If it were only that. Come on, Nate. You’ve had enough.

He grimaced, ignoring Reggie’s haunting voice in his head and placed a hand to the bottle in his jacket. With a sigh he said, “Yeah. Something like that.”

“Would you like more?”

His eyebrow lifted. “You’ve got more?”

She smiled again. Brilliant white teeth shone in the low glow of the lights. “Yes.”

“I’m preferential to whiskey.”

“We have a cellar further below. We distill our own. I’ll have a bottle brought up.”

He nodded and leaned against the wall. This woman might end up on his list of allies after all. “Good.”

She tilted her head. “Perhaps you should have some food first.”

Again, he nodded, and without another word, he headed back to the commissary. After filling up a plate of chicken and pork, he heaped it with noodles and more fish. Then he topped it with some sautéed vegetables and sat down next to London. Ransley eyed him carefully, but didn’t say anything.

“Oh, aleluya,” she moaned. “I’ve never eaten this well in my life. Are those real peppers?”

“Say, Roy, do you think they’ve got real working toilets here?” London managed to say in between bites of food.

“Shit, I hope so. I haven’t used one since I was in Public Four, and man . . . it was just tempting enough to stay Nexis-ized just to take a dump in one of them again.”

London chuckled, a long white noodle hanging from his mouth and down his chin. He slurped it up, and then dove back into his mound of conglomerated meat, noodles, and vegetables.

Nate picked at his plate mindlessly, letting the alcohol seep deeper into his blood stream. He didn’t want to sop it up with food yet. He liked the detachment. Feeling was too costly. Feeling slowed him down, even more than his inebriated mind. Feeling weakened him.

London caught his eye, silently asking him what was up. Nate shook his head and shoveled a small strip of meat in his mouth just as Su entered the dining hall again, a dark bottle in her hands.

This time another woman and a man joined her. Both of them looked to be in their early forties. The woman had a long oval face, startling smooth skin for a woman of her age, and high cheekbones. Her hair was long and gray—smooth, and neatly tied back into a thick ponytail at the base of her head. There was something about her, though. Something that made Nate flinch. It was her eyes; a silver tone so intense and vibrant they were almost blue, enhanced by the gleaming silver-white strands of her long hair.

The man had chunky bright orange and red dreadlocks that were haphazardly tied away from his face. His thick dark facial hair was trimmed neatly, and he looked at them with dark eyes. Both people differed from Su in their dress. Their collars were high and large, partly covering their shoulders; whereas their slender greeter was . . . as Nate noticed for the first time . . . provocatively dressed in a small silver dress that hugged each of her thin curves all the way to her knees. A slit traveled up her thigh to her hip.

Su walked behind the group, still holding the bottle.

“Welcome underground, Yanks,” the older woman spoke.

“Um, I’m not one of them,” Ransley lifted her finger, speaking in Spanish instead of English.

The woman’s intonation was clearly North American. Nate hadn’t expected it, and his face must have communicated that. She folded her arms underneath the light gray poncho that draped her torso. “You look surprised, Captain Naylor.”

“You’re American?”

“I suppose you could say that. I moved to Vienna before the war started. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. My name’s Kora Teedie.”

“So, you’re Kora. Red told us he knew you from college.” Red, one of the remaining members of Nate’s squadron, was actually an AWOL Major. Since Nate had refused to return to Public Three after . . ..

Nate pushed it down. He didn’t want to go there.

You can think it, Nate. Reggie’s voice returned. After I died. That’s what you were thinking. After I died, you refused to go back to Public Three. So you took everyone to see Red. I’m gone, you don’t have to pretend it didn’t happen.

Nate took a deep shaking breath.

Red had become part of a resistance with two different factions. One was in Islamabad and the other grew larger within the belly of Public Three, located miles away from the ancient tombs where Roman had held Reggie.

Nate cleared his throat, dying for another swig. Not because the taste was something he enjoyed, but for the mind-numbing self-medicated relief it brought him—the ability to shut her up and shut her memory out. Whether he was going insane or not, he wasn’t sure. All he knew was that it was impossible to keep moving when everywhere he looked, all he could see was her face. Her blood-streaked eyes and pale skin. The alcohol blocked it out. Everything.

And Red had been his savior. Not only had he supplied him with enough liquor, but it was Red who told them of Kora and the organization. He told them her branch needed them.

Kora smiled, her smooth wrinkles dipping with two dimples in her cheeks. “Red said that? Shocking, considering he dropped out after our first semester. I didn’t even really get to know him ‘til two years after that.”

Ransley spun around in her seat, leaning back. “And you’re a part of this organization, how?”

Kora took a deep breath and focused on Ransley. “Believe it or not, I started gathering support underground back in 2030.”

The date pricked the nerves at the nape of his neck and Nate leaned over his plate. “The war didn’t even start until thirty-six.”

“There were signs, Captain Naylor. The world was falling apart.” She looked down at the ground. “I’d lost a lot. Most of it, I didn’t think I’d miss. I didn’t think at all, and when I finally did, I couldn’t let the world transform into the place I saw it becoming.”

“You must have been only, what? Twenty?”

“Twenty-three. I was in the middle of my Master’s program at ASU. At the time, I only garnered a lot of skepticism and fanatics. Most people thought I was nuts, and those who joined me mostly were. Your typical bug-out zombie apocalyptic hacks. Anyway, I never did finish my program. I left, and I came overseas. Five years later I reconnected with Red. He seemed to be the first rational person who agreed with me. Fresh out of the military.”

“Abandoning,” Nate corrected her. “He went AWOL. In the military, that literally means he abandoned his command. Left his men to die.”

Kora paused and nodded. “Yes, abandoning his military duties. Nate, you have to understand he only did it because he realized the war was a lost cause. He actually wanted to do good.”

“Whatever helps him sleep at night,” he grunted.

“So, we quietly began building all this.” She ignored him and looked around the room. “Protection from what was coming.”

“’What was coming’?” London asked, looking from face to face.

“The Public. Red’s father was an associate of Lobb’s in the CIA, and he heard his fair share of stories. When Lobb started commissioning Public One in thirty-seven, our fears were confirmed. I read enough of his piece-of-shit book to know he was a crackpot. It was called—”

Modern Mankind,” Nate cut her off. “We’re aware of it.”

Kora snorted. “The man was calling for the mass deportation of people with ‘non-American DNA.’ God only knows what that means. I think he would have killed them had Congress approved it. He was a serious threat. Not just to the U.S., but to the world. However, the war made more and more people filter down below—joining with us. In our small way, we’re making an impact on The Public. Disabling communications, learning from them, taking out some guards, rescuing others. But, that’s nothing close to what you’ve all accomplished.” Her gaze swept over each of them, and Nate felt his soul chill when she looked at him. Those eyes. They gripped him, gutted him.

Clear muted blue with sharp flecks of silver like a sunburst around the pupil. Roydon had similar eyes. It was why he could never look the man in the eye these days. Roy’s were just like Reggie’s. There was something different about Kora’s. Nate shook his head. No, they were entirely different. Her irises had too much blue. Too much color and not enough clarity.

“Two publics gone. In such a short period, you’ve done more than we’ve been able to accomplish in over twenty years. However, Red mentioned you’ve run into a hang up. Now you need us.”

“And what makes you think that?” Ransley folded her arms. Nate felt his gut churn. Whether it was the liquor or his distrust, he wasn't sure. He looked back and forth between the two women.

“You came to us, didn’t you?” Su spoke up, moving to the front with Kora. Her soft face gazed at them with calmness. Nate realized the bottle was no longer in her hands. She looked at him and then at the floor. The bottle was at his feet.

“What Suhong means is that I think we can help each other. Red told us you have some new information about Lobb. But before you get to that,” she glared at Nate, “I want to know why you came to us. Tell me about Reggie.”

―RANSLEY―

“Wait just a second.” I raise a hand, skeptical of Kora. “How do you know about Reggie?”

“Red mentioned her. Is she the only member of the team you’ve lost?”

“No, stop.” I lean forward. “We’re not telling you anymore. You’ve only told us a little about yourself, and from what I can understand, you know more about us than you should. What about these two?” I waggle a finger between the girl we’re supposed to call “Su” and the man with the increíble dreads.

Kora motions to the man, who hasn’t moved a muscle since he walked in. It unnerves me the way his dark eyes stare me down—all of us down, the fact that he hasn’t said a word since he walked in, the fact that he’s more than three inches taller than Nate and Roy, the mere fact that there’s something . . . off about him. Not right. Then again, most things unnerve me these days, and I’m sure as hell going to trust those nerves.

“This is Vladimir Sharov,” Kora nods toward him.

“Vlad,” his rolling voice booms, even though I could have sworn he whispered it.

“Vlad is my on-site second. He fought with the Russian military during the war. His expertise about The Public is indispensable.”

“How?” Roy shoves three grapes into his mouth.

“Both Vlad and Suhong are former Public Two citizens.”

I feel my mouth drop open. It’s not possible. The people we ran into up there are insane. More than that, how? How could anyone tap into their minds and bring them back from the edge of hysteria? I was the first to be able to do it, as far as I know. That first time, bringing Roy back, almost didn’t work. We’d been rushed and he’d had to fight his way back on his own.

“I don’t understand. Red told Nate that Public Two citizens were irreversible. Right?” I look at Nate.

He licks the inside of his lip, turning toward me with a guilt-ridden glare.

Mierda de toro,” I hiss. “You hiding things from us now? What else don’t we know? Because, I’m sorry, from what I saw up there, I can’t see how they can be reversed! They don’t even think straight. They’re like drones. Heat-seeking, abnormality-abolishing drones. Not to mention the fact that regular Nexis clones are difficult to restore even if you have the right abilities.”

“I know it may seem that way. Only in the wrong conditions are their minds impermeable. Through long hours, sleepless nights, and applying our own knowledge we were finally able to penetrate them.”

London and Roy both chuckle. “Penetrate?” he whispers to Roy.

“Yeah,” the idiotic love of my life nods with a grin. I roll my eyes at their stupidity.

“You see,” Kora continues, “Red left us before we found Su and Vlad. Started his own branch of the Rising in Islamabad, as you know. It took some time, some taming . . .”

“Torture?” Roy interrupts, gaining his composure.

“No,” Kora shakes her head, but her eyes lock on Roy, and she swallows deep. “No, we didn’t torture them. We synthesized a chemical that had the ability to break through the cloud of obedience. At that point, we could talk to them, rationally.”

Cloud of obedience? More chemicals. Talk them out of it? I roll my eyes, shaking my head. That’s some pile of mierda she’s shoveling.

Su speaks up. “Miss Kora helped bring us back. Back to the people we once were.”

“So, you just set out some coffee cake and espressos and . . . told them to stop being crazy?” Roy folds his arms.

“No,” Vlad shakes his head. “It vas difficult.”

“Not unlike the process Ransley went through to bring you back, Roy,” Kora dips her head.

I frown and my body goes tense. Not at the memory of allowing myself to be surrounded by gel-like water, a probe drilling into my skull and latching onto my brain, and the painful sensation of digging into Roy’s deep subconscious to coax him back—but at the mere fact that none of us have mentioned that to her.

“How the hell did you know about that?” I ask.

Kora looks away from Roy towards me. Her eyes are so clear, they’re like water . . . and it hurts. I force myself to look away for a moment in order to keep my feelings in check.

“Red told us.”

“Yeah,” Nate’s voice is husky and he clears his throat, “about that. How much did he tell you?” His voice is light. His words, garbled.

“That he was your supervising officer in Korea. You hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in almost eight years. I also happen to know about Roy and Ransley, what you two can do.” She stops, the next set of words catching in her throat.

I shake my head. It’s the only thing I can do, aside from reaching over and driving my fist into Nate’s eye socket. That drunk bastard told Red everything.

“Red also . . . told us about your friend. The woman, Reggie, and that she’d been killed. I’m very sorry. To lose someone so close so recently must be difficult for you.”

Nate shoves his seat away from the table and I jerk around at the sound of the chair screeching on the concrete floor. For the first time in weeks, he looks like he might actually exhibit some feeling after hearing her name. Instead, he repositions his legs, crossing his right ankle over his left knee and leans back in his chair.

“That being said,” Kora continues, “he didn’t give much detail.”

“Yeah, except for the fact that you know about our skills, how I brought Roy back.” I shake my head. “It was you, wasn’t it? You told him everything.” I look at Nate. He avoids my gaze and I fall back into my chair. Unbelievable. What else did he blab while he was drunk off his culo?

Perfecto,” I mutter. “Eres un borracho estúpido. What else did you tell him?”

Nate’s eyes lazily drift to me. “I didn’t say a damn thing, Harpy.”

“Listen,” Kora interjects, “We want to help. We need to end this.” Her blue eyes leap around each of our faces. “But . . . before we go any further, I need to know what happened. With the woman, Reggie.”

Nate takes a deep breath, looking at the floor and grabbing the table. “Her other half killed her.”

Kora squints. “What do you mean?”

“That’s what we came to tell you. Lobb isn’t in charge anymore,” I pipe up, leaning back in my chair and putting a foot up on the table. “I’m not actually sure how much he ever was in charge. You see, when he made us, he also created a fourth. Actually, he was the first.”

“Roman.” Kora nodded taking a deep breath in. Her knowledge of Roman’s existence freaks me out. My foot drops back down again and I lean forward.

“You know about Roman too?”

Kora glances at the floor, evidently nervous. “I know my fair share about the Enertia project. Red didn’t have to tell me anything about that. I doubt he even knows. I am, however, aware of the children, the experiments. When Red told me about you, it confirmed what I’d learned. So, Roman killed her?”

“Yeah,” Nate grumbles, his voice drawn out. I glance at him and he looks so bored he might fall asleep. “So, now you know. What’s next?”

What? That’s it? Seeing him brush off the fact that these people know more about us than they should irritates me. This isn’t Nate, and this place gives me the creeps—even on top of the fact that I haven’t been able to keep my eyes shut for more than an hour at a time at night, because each time I slip into burning cold nightmares. The shrieking painful images. Estevan’s burning body. Reggie’s tortured wails.

My mistake. The murder of my own father.

All of it. The images, the smells. I grip the tabletop to swallow it all and attempt to focus on my distrust of Kora, just so I can block out the images of their dead bodies.

It’s impossible. It just keeps coming back. I can feel the hair on my arms standing to attention, prickling the air.

“I’m sorry,” I interrupt, glaring at the Rising leader. Kora stops talking and Nate’s eyes narrow at me. “I can’t do this right now. Excuse me.”

I stand up from the table and start toward the door. I allow it to close, and the stillness of the hallway swallows me. Deep into the pits of the compound, I keep walking. I need to get away.

With a loud growl, I stop and kick at the wall.

“Stop it!” I hiss to myself, leaning against the concrete, resting my forehead on it. “Why? ¡Maldito sea! Why are we here?”

Heavy footsteps echo behind me and I slowly turn around. Nate looks back at me, his arms crossed. His mechanical hazel eyes, shadowed and empty, are sunken with dark circles underneath, and his clothing speaks volumes about our cleanliness. Wet with sweat and permeated with the smell of fish and salt water from our breakfast this morning.

“What was that?” he asks, reprimanding me like I’m a toddler.

I try to warn him with my eyes.

“Seriously, Ransley,” his speech slurs. “We’re in the middle of a war. I don’t know if you get that, but now is not the time to break down. We can’t have it and I won’t put up with it.”

“Seriously? You want me to be serious with you?” After Reggie died, London and Roy told me to back off. Made me promise I wouldn’t egg him on or force him to face reality. I don’t care anymore. Maybe this will get him to show some emotion. Some real damn emotion.

“Yes.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? Huh? You want to talk breaking down? Well, guess what? I’m standing in a hallway with the best of them!”

Nate’s eyes darken. “What are you talking about?”

“What am I talking about? ¿Me estás tomando el pelo? Kora just spouted a bunch of mierda she shouldn’t even know and you don’t even flinch!” I drive my finger into his chest. “You’re okay with being here? I doubt that! The Rambo I know, the annoying asno who makes me want to rip your face off with every stupid word you say, the man who travelled across the world for Reggie, would be asking all sorts of questions!”

I catch the gaze of a small group of Rising members walking down an adjoining hallway. Nate sees where I’m looking and grabs my arm, pulling me into a large storage room. Boxes and crates line the walls.

He shuts the door behind him and turns on me. “You don’t trust them? You haven’t even heard them out, yet.”

“I don’t have to!” I spit. “They shouldn’t know anything about our powers, or how I brought Roy back! And Kora? How in the hell does she know about Roman? Or The Enertia tests we were subjected to! Nate, it’s not right!”

Nate goes quiet and he lazily shakes his head. “I don’t know. What do you want me to say?”

He’s kidding, right? “Are you, or are you not taking the lead here? Oh, wait. I’m sorry. You’re too wrapped up in being a miserable lying drunkard to concern yourself with anything or anyone else.”

Nate gruffly cleared his throat, seeming to be irritated that I poked at the giant elephant in the room. “You want to take over? Be my guest.” He turns to leave and I rush forward, shoving him back.

“That’s what I’m talking about! Reggie dies and you just shut down? Dammit, Nate! You buried her without an ounce of concern. Hell, I don’t even know why we buried her! We could have left her body strewn naked in that hole of a place y todavía no le daría un pequeño culo de rata!”

Even through the blur of water building in my eyes, I swear I see him flinch. If I did, it doesn’t happen again. I’ve had enough. He needs to do something. Anything. I don’t care if he beats the mierda out of me; I want to see him react.

Nate looks at me with a murkiness. I want it to be hate. I want it to be anger. He looks down at the floor, his head shaking with darkness. “Get some . . . sleep, Ransley. I don’t have t-time for this.”

My face burns; sweat and tears trickle down my face. “You better have time for this!” I rush forward and shove him against the wall.

Nate’s feet trip over each other, more than they should—more than I expected from him, especially considering the fight between him and Red—and he grips the wall. He stumbles until he falls into the nearest stack of crates. A few of them bust open and cans of green beans roll out. Nate pulls himself up . . . laughing. He’s laughing?

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I yell. I dig the tip of my foot into his ribcage and he bellows, grabbing his side. His face looks red in the dim light. “You’re so maldito borracho you can’t even think straight?”

Nate glowers at me, a chuckle in his throat. “Go screw yourself, Ransley.”

“Answer my question, Rambo. What is it? Tequila? Rum? Vodka?”

He swats at my leg and I step back. “What do you care?”

Sonofa— “Is that how those psychos up there made us out? You were drinking up there too?”

“I told you to go screw yourself,” he growls, the laughter gone. Nate pushes himself up, using the wall to brace himself.

“Come on, Nate!” I growl. “You know, I’m beginning to wonder if you ever loved her. Why did you go after her if you didn’t care! Was it just an opportunity for you to pretend you were back in the military? Huh?” I want to shove him again, but I hold myself back. “Fulfilling some mission? Was it even about her at all? Maybe you are still so damn hurt about what Lobb did to your first whore that the only thing you cared about was getting to him! Reggie would be disgusted with you!”

Nate instantly whirls on me. His fist connects with my cheek. The impact feels like a sledgehammer. Everything spins around me before I slam into the back wall.

“Yeah, well she’ll never know, will she?” He spits on the ground. “I was too damn weak to deal with Roman! You and your precious,” the word slurs on his lips, “Roy were too late! We lost her because we failed! Now, we have to deal with it!” He holds his chest and backs up. Without looking at me again, he shuffles to the door, opens it up, and leaves me behind, my fingernails clawing into the wall.

I sink to the ground, dropping my head and brushing away the drop of blood slithering down my chin.

Maldito, that busted me pretty hard. It’s been a while since I was hit with that much force. It’s still nothing compared to the ache I’ve boxed up inside. Worse yet, it’s nothing compared to the avalanche ready to burst out of Nate.

London was right. He’s hurting.

Too much.

He’s going to get himself killed. Either himself—or one of us.

―REGGIE―

Fear locks my body.

Moments are hours.

Then. The panic. The utter terror suffocates. More than the darkness crushing against my face and body. More than the pressure on my chest, the absolute lack of oxygen. Using what strength I have still lingering in my stiff legs, I kick again. The impact isn’t enough to get the end of the box to break. Just a creaking split that travels up the wall of the box. Against my outstretched fingertips, I feel a small crack. Somehow the box was damaged on the end.

Behind my eyes, a picture begins to pull at my consciousness like a thread, drawing me back into the deep recesses of my mind.

I stand at the edge of a deep hole. A long hole. At my back I can hear a grunt and I swivel around to see. London and Nate carry a long wooden box. Directly behind them I see Ransley and Roy solemnly following. Slowly, they set the box on the ground near me and Nate slides into one end of the hole.

None of them speak. None of them can even look at the others.

Nate,” I whisper, bending down to touch his shoulder. He can’t feel it.

London pushes the end of the box in Nate’s direction and it crashes loudly into the opposite end of the hole the moment London loses his grip. A crack radiates through the wood at the end.

I take a deep breath and pull myself back. That box.

I look around.

It’s this box.

Panic sets in again, and I refuse to let it take over. I look to the end of the box and see the long deep split in the wood. If the soil doesn’t crash in and press me to death, I’ve found my way out.

Compressing weight, the air lighter and void of oxygen, squeezes against the side of my head. Deaf to the world above, and mute to those who might hear me.

I refuse to come back to life only to die again.

Fingers splayed wide, I brace the ceiling of the box before I kick at the distant end of the box again. I hope I have the strength for this. I hope I can stay conscious long enough. I hope . . . I make it. I take a deep breath. My ribs. They feel like they’re caving in. Sore and broken.

No, I scream to myself. Silently. You can do this.

Gathering all the power and strength I have, I ram both feet into the end of the box. The earth isn’t compacted too much. Although the wood doesn’t collapse, I hear a giant pop. I kick again.

It’s harder to breathe.

Kick again.

Crack.

The wooden lid of the box drops down on top of my ankles. I scream, holding my arms out to brace the lid. Sharp piercing pain digs into my leg bones. Not just the weight of the wood. Nails. Small nails pierce my skin.

Pull your feet back, Reggie. Or else you’ll stay pinned here.

Gritted teeth. Shaking arms. Dirt rains down on my face lightly. My ankles throb. I bend my knees.

“Gah!” My voice breaks at the pain radiating down my feet and up my shins. The nails hook into my skin. My muscles flinch and spasm.

I can do this. I have to.

Using all my strength, I bend my knees and push up on the lid. Hundreds of pounds I push against. Maybe more. The nails dig. I scream.

My head spins. It’s harder to breathe.

The ground above me shifts less than a quarter inch it seems. It’s enough. I jerk my feet back and push again at the same time. Nails dig deeper into my skin.

Scream, my mind tells me. I can’t. I can’t waste the oxygen.

The sting. The lancing pain.

I lower my head slowly, biting into my lip, hoping my lungs will hold out. Flecks of soil fall back on my face.

Keep going.

The urge to hyperventilate drives through my body. I hold it back. I can’t lose control.

I’m getting dizzy, like my head is floating off my shoulders, but it can’t go anywhere. Brilliant colors of green, blue, and white swirl in the dark. I clench my eyes to block them out.

Keep going. Bracing with my bleeding feet, I push against the lid again. It hardly moves. The earth above shifts maybe an eighth of an inch and I lower myself back down.

Now, if I can just—

I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

I just . . . need to push with my back. Use my legs. I rotate, continually bracing the lid. My feet pulse and bite. With my back against the lid, I pull my feet underneath me. There isn’t enough room. Use my arms. I grunt under the weight.

The soil above me crumbles and trickles back onto my neck, falling into my ears and in my hair.

I feel around with my quivering fingers. There’s a three-inch gap between the lid and the box now. More soil falls in.


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