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Excerpt for Fractured Skies by
& , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the product of the authors’ imaginations or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2018 by Stephanie Flint and Isaac Flint


Formatting and cover design by Stephanie Flint

Cover art stock images from Depositphotos


All rights reserved. Published by Infinitas Publishing.


Smashwords Edition



infinitaspublishing.com


distanthorizonbooks.wordpress.com

Back Cover Blurb


Not all monsters are beasts.


The government’s secret transformation of beasts—subhuman creatures made from humans with powers—means that the Community’s utopian ideals of safety and security are lies.


Thanks to a high-ranking telepath, nineteen-year-old Jenna Nickleson knows what it’s like to go through one of those transformations. During a mission for the rebellion, the telepath cursed her with false “memory seeds” that attack her mind with horrifying visions of being turned into a beast.


If Jenna ever wants to see the Community be secure, she needs to figure out how to end the transformations, remove the government making her cherished Community a front for a nightmare, and get those memory seeds out of her head before she loses herself.

Table of Contents

Back Cover Blurb

Table of Contents

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

CHAPTER FORTY

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

CHAPTER FIFTY

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX

CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT

Newsletter

Acknowledgements

About the Authors

Connect with the Authors

More from the Authors

CHAPTER ONE


Snow dusted the Community’s long, paved roads. It swirled past two-story buildings and pelted my bare face. I wished I’d brought a heavier coat. Lance, my best friend and current partner in crime, tucked his hands under his armpits and grumbled about the wind. Though everything we wore was gray or white, same as the heavy parkas and thick hoods of the people hurrying to work, we had only the lighter coats we’d left the Community with three months ago. We could have borrowed something from the other rebels, but everything they had was too colorful or not the right size—a clear sign we weren’t supposed to be here. At least I’d found a hat to keep my too-short hair from being noticeable.

My grandfather, on the other hand, was bundled in a knee-length coat and scarf with fitted gloves. He kept his back straight and his chin high. A passing security guard tipped his hat and said, “The Community is safe.”

Pops inclined his head, lips twisted in a smile. “It is our duty.”

I shuddered and pulled my arms closer, careful not to squish the plant vines underneath my coat. They wrapped around my arms, ready to protect me if I needed them.

We stopped in front of a diner, where blue efficiency lights illuminated the snow outside the window and gave the gray world a bit of color. Pops rested his hands across the top of his cane. “Ready, Jenna?” His breath exhaled in short puffs.

I shuffled my feet nervously through the snow. “Might as well be.” We’d found our destination. A blast of warm air whooshed past me, along with the smell of coffee, toast, and freshly scrambled eggs. The diner hadn’t changed much. Same pale colors, swept floors and mended chairs. Pops chose a seat at a round table next to the door, uncomfortably close to the security guards at the table in front of us. We were in the middle of the St. Petersburg Community, which meant getting out would be difficult if the guards recognized us. Still, if they mentioned anything about where my parents might be, then coming here was worth the risk.

I sighed, listening to the laughter and general morning chatter of the diner’s patrons. Too bad I was a wanted criminal. I could pretend I was safe here. I’d been to this diner when I was a kid, back before I joined my grandfather’s rebellion. Back before I learned superpowers were real and so were monsters—some of them human. This place was only a cold reminder of the lies our government told us, of how much we needed to fix in the Community before it would truly be safe, secure, and efficient.

A waitress came. Lance smiled politely and nudged his jacket over the hilt of his sword. A gun would have been easier to hide, but his power enhanced his swordsmanship, not his aim. He hadn’t trained much with a gun. Besides, the sword was technically legal; it just did nothing to help us blend in—unless he claimed he was a personal bodyguard. But if that was the case, he should have been in uniform.

“Good morning,” the waitress said, her voice pleasant. “Can I take your orders?”

Pops smiled. “Good morning. Orange juice, please.”

The waitress tapped her tablet and turned to Lance. “Morning,” he said absently. “Milk and toast?”

“Yes, sir.” She took note. “For the miss?”

My mouth watered at the thought of non-powdered eggs. “Breakfast burrito,” I stammered. “Um… and ‘good morning,’ too.” I forced a smile.

The waitress chuckled. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with your orders.” She disappeared behind the counter.

Pops raised a bushy gray eyebrow. “Forget the respects part?”

I shrugged, fiddling with a salt shaker. We were supposed to be polite to each other. Supposed to acknowledge when someone else was being pleasant. But it was hard to remain pleasant when my parents’ lives—and their humanity—was in danger.

Near us, the guards’ bitter coffee stung my nose, but their conversation was minimal. None of them mentioned a thing about my dad. I twisted my fingers and kept my eyes downcast. The Camaraderie leaders—the council members who secretly controlled the Community—wanted to use my dad to capture Pops, but he wasn’t particularly dangerous. That was why regular guards were keeping an eye out for him, not Special Forces. Special Forces had elite gunners and specialized power users. If they got involved, our attempt to rescue him would become a lot more difficult.

Minutes later, the waitress brought our food. Despite the burrito’s plain toppings, it was better than the powdered stuff Crush regularly made. He wasn’t a bad cook, but his ingredients were limited. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be making any more breakfast burritos, with or without powdered eggs.

My heart sank. He died during our last mission. I sat the burrito back on my plate. Pops rested his firm hand on mine. “Are you all right?”

The warmth of the diner seized, evaporating, and shifted around me into a cold, sterile room. My breath caught in my throat at the onslaught of the memory attack—

A young woman swung her legs from the edge of a hospital bed. She tilted her head, watching me with a cautious expression. “Is the Health Scan safe?”

I jerked away from her and found myself back in the warmth of the diner, jerking instead from Pops’ touch. I stared at him, my heart pounding. Somewhere, coffee dribbled into its pot.

Pops frowned, and Lance gave me a worried smile. “You okay?”

“Fine,” I murmured.

Lance quirked an eyebrow, unconvinced, but he went back to spreading grape jam on his toast. Just as well. Though he knew I’d been dealing with memory seeds—telepathic attacks meant to disorient and weaken their targets—he didn’t know the extent of the latest attacks, and now wasn’t the time to tell him. If someone overheard me, they would either think I had theophrenia—a plague that caused hallucinations—and they would alert security, or they would know I didn’t belong in the Community.

I felt for the enchanted flower charm on my chest, and let out a sigh of relief when I felt the lump under my jacket. That charm was yet another oddity that I hadn’t known existed before I left the Community—and neither did most of the diners’ patrons. But it was a reminder that I needed to fix the damage Lady Winters had caused, never mind that I didn’t plan to use its power.

By the time I finished my burrito, the guards and most of the morning customers had left for work, save for a short young woman standing in the corner beside an odd assortment of men. Her lips were twisted into a frown. She looked about my age, but it was hard to tell. A long black braid trailed behind her back, which should have been a sign that she was part of the Community’s E-Leadership—the governing body that ruled the Community at various local and national levels—except that her clothes were relatively inconspicuous, almost plain. She wore a light brown tunic sewn with thick black trim around the edges… a subtle kind of efficiency. She looked to be of East Asian descent. She pressed her hands to her hips, her brown eyes glaring at a man with similar features. Now that the other customers had left, her voice carried through the empty diner. “He can’t be that hard to find.”

“He’s evaded security for the past two months.” The man raised his chin, considerably calmer than the woman or the two disgruntled men beside him. He could’ve easily been from the Community, especially next to the other guys’ forest green jackets and medium-length hair. He had standard, short black hair, dark eyes, and a tunic a bit shorter than the woman’s. “Considering the bounty, he’s not going to be easy to find.”

I bit my lip. Dad had a bounty on his head; they might’ve been looking for him.

The woman crossed her arms. “After not finding the pendants, you’d think I’d be in for some luck.” She stormed out the side entrance, leaving the man still sitting. He sighed and shook his head. One of his outer pockets sagged, but I couldn’t tell what he was carrying.

The man sporting a beard next to him grinned. “Hothead, ain’t she?” He rubbed his fingers together. A miniature flame flickered in his hand. He didn’t have a lighter, so that was a dead giveaway for powers.

The first guy shot him a warning glare and pressed the man’s hand to the table. “Not here.”

The man scoffed. “Come on, Quin. What are they going to do? Arrest us?” He chuckled. “The Community’s safe.”

I bristled at his tone, and the first man, Quin, narrowed his eyes.

“We aren’t paid to use powers in public,” Quin said quietly, “and we’re supposed to use our aliases. Come on.”

He stood and exited through the back door. The bearded guy scoffed, flicking a small puff of flame into the air. It vanished as quickly as it appeared. He nudged his buddy, an older man with blond hair, and they followed.

I elbowed Lance. He stole a glance over his shoulder and nodded, reaffirming my suspicions. “Fire elemental,” I whispered. If one of them had powers, chances were, they all did.

Pops scribbled something on a napkin, tucked it into his pocket, and then fished out credits for the food. “I believe I have a bank account here I’ve been missing the password for. Should be reason enough to talk to the manager. Let’s see if I can get a lead before they do.” He nudged his head toward the empty table.

I nodded. Since Dad used to work at the bank, they might have information the guards hadn’t thought to ask for. Once we were outside, Pops interlaced his fingers over his cane and examined Lance and me. “Why don’t you two shop around?” His lips twisted into a slight smile. “Let’s not make the manager suspicious.”

I stuck my hands in my pockets as Pops shuffled down the sidewalk. Lance leaned in close to me, away from the frosty wind of the open street. “Want to check out the grocery store?” he suggested, nudging my shoulder with his. “They might have candy bars.”

I couldn’t help but smile. We hadn’t been to a grocery store in months. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Lance grabbed my hand and pulled me across the street, grinning as if we were regular college students visiting from out of town.

Inside the frosty doors, he gestured to the candy aisle. It was a lovely middle row of boxes, each lined with various sweets and chocolates in white packaging with simple black letters that detailed the cookies within. There wasn’t much in the way of new innovations—something I hoped to change once we got back on track with fixing the Community—but Lance snatched up a crunchy chocolate bar on the lower shelf. Blue light from the LEDs above us reflected off the wrapper—

Blue light illuminated a long, endless corridor. A low wail reverberated through the hall, horrible screams and cries for help. Fear pressed against me from all sides. I couldn’t be here. Not again! I couldn’t help them. Too many voices. Too much pain, and the corridor stretched out forever with no escape—

“Want one?” Lance offered me his candy bar and reached for another.

I shuddered involuntarily, the flower charm I’d stolen pressing against my collarbone. I really, really needed to talk to Gwen, the team’s telepath, about removing the memory seeds now that her powers were back. “Actually, I think I’d rather have one of the—”

A shadow fell over me. I turned slowly and stared too long at the gray uniform of a security guard. “Yes, sir?” I asked, attempting Inese’s English accent. Lance ducked down the other side of the aisle, vanishing with the candy.

Some friend he was.

“Excuse me, miss,” the guard said warily. “Is your name Jenna Nickleson?”

I gaped at him, a rush of cold flashing through me. I quickly shook my head. “I’m sorry; you must have the wrong person.”

He narrowed his eyes. “You look very much like Miss Nickleson.”

“You must have me mistaken for someone else,” I lied. My heart pounded in my ears. “I get that a lot, though. People thinking I look like someone else. I don’t know why.” I shrugged, though my vines trembled underneath my coat. The guard frowned and I kept smiling, hoping he believed me. If he recognized me, I wasn’t sure how fast I could get back to the car. Sure, I had an enhanced speed power, but he had a gun.

He looked me over before nodding. “Sorry about that, miss. The Community is safe.”

“The Community is secure,” I said too fast, trying to remember the formalities I’d so quickly forgotten. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I sincerely hoped that my nervousness wouldn’t incriminate me.

The Community was not safe, and it was not secure. Crush’s recent death, the existence of beasties—subhuman monsters—and Lady Winters’ cruelty—she was now dead, thanks to Tim—all proved that we had believed a lie… a lie that the Camaraderie told E-Leadership, which they in turn passed to us.

A lie I intended to address as soon as we got my parents to safety. Our previous mission might have ended badly, but Pops had to have something in mind. Some way to keep the Camaraderie off balance.

The guard finished the mantra and moved along. A moment later, an older man with blond hair passed the end of the row, glanced at me and raised his eyebrow, and then disappeared out the front door.

I could’ve sworn I’d seen him with the mercenaries earlier. I swallowed hard. Was he a telepath? Was that why the guard had gone away so quickly?

The flower charm continued to irritate my sternum, a reminder that I could use its telepathy enchantment to see what he wanted. It wouldn’t be that hard to try to sense what the merc felt and to find out why he was here—

“Sorry,” Lance said, returning to my side. I yanked my hand away from my neck and shoved the charm back under my coat. I hadn’t even realized I was fiddling with the thing. “Figured it’d be harder to get away if he recognized both of us. Same high school and all.” He paused, his eyes falling to where the charm hid under my coat. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I nodded quickly and mentally tightened the vines underneath my sleeves. They pressed against my arms, offering their comfort. “I’ll explain later. Good thinking about the guard. But we should get going. I know we’re trying to stay undercover, but if Pops needs us, I want to be close.”

“Sure.” Lance fidgeted, and then linked his arm in mine. I bit my lip, remembering what Val—the spy who kidnapped Tim—had said about Lance liking me. I had a hard time thinking of him as a partner, though. We had only gotten so close because of the past few missions. “Let’s stop by the cereal aisle first, if you don’t mind.” He flashed me a grin.

I sighed. One guard evaded, one mercenary avoided, and two minutes later—with Lance grumbling about the store not having any of that icky marshmallow cereal he was so fond of from the airship—my pocket vibrated. I dug out my phone.

Lance tilted his head, curious.

Pops’ voice crackled with static. “I got what I need. Meet me by the bank.”

“Sure.” I closed the phone, which was more of a radio in disguise than an actual phone since we couldn’t safely use EYEnet towers without alerting security, and I let out a breath of relief.

“Pops is done,” I said, motioning to the doors. “Let’s go.”

CHAPTER TWO


After paying the cashier, Lance smiled as he handed me one of the candy bars. We walked several blocks over to the bank where my Dad used to work. I kept my head low, hoping no one would notice the ragged, platinum blond hair sticking out from under my hat, or ask me why the ends of my hair were burnt. No wonder the guard had questioned me. We stood out worse than Lady Black in a snowstorm.

I frowned. “Lance…” He glanced over at me, his cheeks rosy from the cold. “Why do you think that guard was so quick to believe I wasn’t who he thought I was? I mean… shouldn’t he have asked for ID?”

Lance frowned. “He didn’t?”

I shook my head, cold seeping through my coat.

“That’s odd. I just figured you used the fake card.”

“No. I never even pulled it out.”

Before Lance had a chance to respond, Pops raised his hand to acknowledge us. He stood at the corner of the bank and made a sweeping gesture with his cane as we joined him. “About time. I was beginning to think you were lost.” He smiled, a positive radiance surrounding him. Thanks to his persuasion power, he was far too convincing with the leader act.

I stashed the candy bar in my coat. “Where to now?”

“A pub. According to the manager, that’s our best chance of hearing about your father.”

A few minutes later, we found the pub crowded with third shift workers relaxing after their night’s work. Pops got us a cramped spot in the corner, and once I was tucked between him and Lance, I buried my nose in the menu. Lance’s hand brushed my elbow. I flinched. Too many people—

Too much noise. Too many beasties—people, too—merging into a giant monstrosity. Blood and flesh knitted to metal in a living airship and Lady Winters laughed as I curled on the floor, trying to shut it all out. A legion of minds, merging in pain—

I pressed my hands to my head and gritted my teeth from the beginnings of a throbbing headache. Pops and Lance were ordering, and when the waiter asked what I wanted…

“Water,” I gasped. “Just water—”

Lady Winters knelt beside me, her manicured fingers lifting my chin so she could look me in the eyes. Her white hair pooled around her shoulders, and a single stream of blood dripped from the bullet wound in her forehead, spilling down the side of her nose and onto her chin. Her voice burned in my mind. I’ve already won, Nickleson.

“Jenna!” Lance hissed.

I jumped, and then gratefully gulped the water he sat in front of me. He stared at me, his pale green eyes a strange, concerned shade of olive. My menu still lay on the table, a single sheet of laminated paper. My heart thrashed against my ribs. Lady Winters’ flower charm felt hot against my skin, and I fought the urge to remove it from my neck.

It was a reminder. An unnecessary reminder at this point, but I’d eventually be rid of these inefficient memory seeds, and then I’d look at the thing as a point of pride that I had defeated Lady Winters. That I won.

“Jen,” Lance said softly. Perspiration dampened the short hair behind my ears. He reached for my hand, but withdrew his fingers quickly the moment his fingers met mine. “Your hand’s cold. What’s wrong? Can you at least give me some hint?”

I couldn’t answer. Not without sounding crazy if someone overheard us. Besides, it felt too personal, like I’d done something wrong and telling him would push him away. “I’m just stressed.”

“Be careful regarding names,” Pops whispered, glancing to the booth beside us.

“Right.” Lance returned his attention to me, his lips pursed. “We’ll talk later, okay?”

I nodded, dazed. I wanted to tell him about the new seeds, but at the same time, I didn’t. Better to keep quiet and let Gwen help me in private. Then I wouldn’t have to worry Lance more than necessary.

The waiter brought Lance his soft drink and a glass of tea for Pops, and gave me another glass of water with a chunk of lemon. I stared at the fruit, my head pounding.

The lemon, sliced through its tender skin… I tentatively withdrew my plant power and the pounding subsided.

Great. Not only could I sense plant life when it was “wounded,” but I had the uncomfortable feeling that eating a salad would be impossible unless I was shielded.

I sipped the water, savoring the tartness while being careful not to extend my powers, and listened to a conversation between third shift workers who were finishing dinner. They agreed the Community was safe, and that they shouldn’t worry about the “dangerous” man security was after. But there was one guy, a banker—judging by his pale blue uniform—who fidgeted at the mention of my dad’s name.

Pops tapped the edge of his seat and gave a slight nod of his head. He laid a handful of credits on the table. “In a moment, we will casually leave.”

The banker glanced over his shoulder nervously before hurrying out the door and down the sidewalk. Once he was sufficiently past the floor-to-ceiling, snow-encrusted window of the pub, Pops urged us from our booth. Outside, the crisp, cold air stung my nose. Though the banker was a good distance away, his eyes widened when he stumbled over the slick sidewalk and caught us following.

He hurried onward.

“Don’t change pace,” Pops warned. Lance tried to slip his hand in mine, but I shoved my hand into my pocket. People would notice a paired couple faster than two friends walking together.

Several streets later, I heard voices. The mercenaries from the diner trailed behind us, though the woman paused at the street corner. She rested her bare hand on the side of a building. Her dark braid flopped out of her jacket before she frowned and pushed her hair aside. They continued on the same path, stopping to touch a variety of objects: a light post, a door, the concrete sidewalk.

I took a quick step after Pops. Though we had already checked for trackers on the tablet Tim gave me, the uncomfortable possibility remained that the Camaraderie knew we were here.

What if the mercenaries were after me and my grandfather?

I shook off the thought. I’d read about a power that required touch in Pops’ dissertation: psychic tracking. Whoever that woman was, she was looking for somebody or something, but given that we were right in front of them, it wouldn’t make sense that she was looking for us.

Unless she was trying to throw us off.

Again, the flower charm pricked my chest, but I dismissed its presence.

I wasn’t going to use it.

The banker approached a bleary apartment complex in a residential area and rushed inside. Once we reached the building, Lance pushed the door open. The entrance hall had a clean carpet smell, a little musty, but it was the same smell of the dorms before I’d left. Like all the buildings in the Community, pale efficiency lights lined the ceiling. I hesitated. The closed space, the blue lights… My heart skipped a beat. I half expected Special Forces to waltz around the corner and start shooting.

Lance nudged me forward. The narrow entrance opened to a neatly organized, spotless cafeteria. Four hallways led to private apartments. Though several people sat in the cafeteria, working from tablets or laptops, none had the banker’s uniform.

Pops motioned for us to have a seat. “Wait here and act natural. I’ll return in a moment.” He stroked his salt-and-pepper mustache before disappearing down a corridor.

I gaped after him. How were we supposed to act natural when I jumped at the drop of a pen, and staying calm was a matter of pretending no one noticed us? Considering Lance’s sword, everyone noticed us, though most of them went right back to work.

The Community really was efficient.

Very efficient, Miss Nickleson. Lady Winters’ taunting voice echoed in my head. You could train with me. You are intrigued by how powers work, aren’t you? I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I didn’t want to become like her or any leader. Not that she would have taught me to be a leader. She wanted a puppet.

“Excuse me—” My heart leapt to my throat as yet another confounded guard touched my elbow. I spun around, my nose centimeters from his chest.

“You two look familiar.” The pungent odor of rubbing alcohol surrounded him. He must have shaved recently. “Jenna Nickleson? Lance Mechnikov?” He spoke carefully, as if testing our names on his tongue.

“Of course not!” I blurted in an English accent. A woman glowered at us from the nearby laptop station, and two little kids stopped working on their project to stare.

“No, sorry.” Lance shook his head. “They were the ones who were infected, right?” Lance did considerably better imitating Jack’s American accent than I did with the English one, but it might have been helpful if we’d chosen similar accents.

Would have been helpful if we’d thought about that before now.

The guard narrowed his eyes as if our reactions had already given him the answer he needed, and another guard stepped up behind him. “Your identification, please.”

I reached into my pocket, fumbling for the fake ID. The smooth plastic and raised bumps caught in my fingers. I handed him the card. The guard flipped it over, double-checking the security measures before offering the card to his partner. He frowned and did a double-take. “Huh. Looks clean.”

The other guard nodded in agreement.

I let out a breath. Where did Pops get these things? The guard handed my ID back. I nervously pocketed the card, waiting for them to confirm Lance.

“Thank you, Kate, Christopher.” The guard tapped Lance’s sword. “The Community is safe.”

Lance raised his chin proudly, his eyes darting from me to the guards as they walked away. “The Community is secure,” Lance called enthusiastically. He beamed, some remnant of his old desire to be Special Forces clinging to him.

The guard turned and raised a suspicious eyebrow. “It is our duty.”

I cringed, hoping they didn’t reconsider letting us go, but they moved on, unconcerned, thank the Community. I scanned the room for any sign of the older merc I’d spotted in the general store, but if he was manipulating anyone’s thoughts here, he stayed hidden. “We should find a better way to stay out of sight,” I whispered.

Lance rubbed his temples. “No kidding. But how else are we going to find your parents?”

I propped my elbows on the table, trying to relax. “We aren’t. I’m just worried someone is going to recognize us.” I hadn’t spotted anybody I knew yet, but I could imagine Lance’s father checking on security here. As an official, he wouldn’t hesitate to arrest us. “Do you think your dad ever wonders about you?”

Lance lowered his eyes. “If he saw the recordings at the prison, he’s disowned me. If he hasn’t, he probably thinks I was sent somewhere ‘safe—’ ”

The room warped, shifting around me until I stared at myself in a mirror. My reflection revealed a young man with dark hair and a five-o’clock shadow. Solemn face, circles under my eyes from long days of work. We had been working harder than usual, and the extra training sessions for Miss Black had been taxing.

I sighed, closing the medicine cabinet as I picked up the scanner. I needed to make sure the equipment was calibrated before the next patient came in—

As quickly as the memory came, I was back in the quiet cafeteria.

Odd. The memory had been of a younger version of Pops, one I didn’t remember from Lady Winters’ previous attacks.

Could the memories change?

Pops returned a few minutes later and leaned his cane against the table’s edge. “The banker is staying here, but it will take time to persuade him to come out. You’ll need—”

A deep, arrogant voice broke through the quiet murmur of the cafeteria. “Are you sure he’s been here? Your sister hasn’t been the most exact as of late.” The bearded guy—the fire elemental—twisted his lips in a snarl as he confronted Quin in the doorway.

Quin raised his hands. “Calm yourself. You’re going to draw attention.” The man crossed his arms. “Yes, he’s been here.” Quin glanced over the room. He frowned when he saw Pops. His mouth formed words I couldn’t read, and his eyes widened in recognition.

I spun around in my seat. Sure, the mercenaries might not have been intentionally following us earlier, but maybe they hadn’t actually recognized us until now. My chest tightened its firm, unrelenting grip. I’d thought they were after my dad, but Pops would have an even higher bounty.

Now that they had recognized us, we needed a new plan.

CHAPTER THREE


Thankfully, Pops was thinking along the same lines. “Waitress?” He tipped his hand in the air. The young woman walking past him jerked around, sloshing a cup of water over her shirt. She squawked, but did her best to regain her composure.

“Yes?”

He clasped his hands together, putting on a pleasant smile. I automatically relaxed, then cringed. His persuasion powers were working on me, too. “We are visiting from out of town and wanted to pay our friend, Bob Kuzmin, a visit. Could you direct us to him?”

Behind us, Quin motioned for his grouchy friend to follow him into a corner. They sat.

“Certainly.” The waitress hastily wiped water from the tray. “Would you like me to tell him you’re here?”

“No-no, this is meant to be a surprise.” Pops tilted his head as if he were embarrassed. He leaned forward and, like a magnet, the waitress did the same. “Do you think you could alert security to those two in the corner? The ones who are improperly dressed? They seem to be following us, and that certainly isn’t safe for a man of my position.”

The waitress drew back. Her blond curls bobbed as she nodded. “Of course, sir. I’ll get right on it.” She bit her nails, and then quickly stopped herself.

“Thank you.” Pops’ lips tightened in a satisfied grimace. “The Community is safe.”

The waitress dashed off, not even remembering to finish her part of the mantra. I scooted toward Lance, unnerved by the whole exchange.

“That should take care of that problem,” Pops noted. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an old friend to visit.” He patted me on the back before disappearing down yet another hall—

A sad thing, how easily people could be convinced to sign their lives away. The treatment for theophrenia almost always resulted in a loss of personality. But if Miss Black’s training went well, I might be able to convince her grandfather that my powers were better used elsewhere—

I was back in the cafeteria.

I groaned. These flashbacks were getting worse. Back and forth between memories I’d seen and memories I hadn’t. There was something shady about that particular memory, rippling on the surface like an oil slick in the airship’s hangar bay.

Lance leaned over the table, watching a couple converse with their waiter. “I wonder how many times we’re going to hear, ‘The Community is safe,’ today.”

“No idea,” I muttered.

“Hey, look.” Lance jerked his head at the two men who’d been following us. Three guards stood around them. Quin looked embarrassed, rapidly trying to talk his way out of the situation while the other guy sulked.

Served them right for coming after me and my family.

One of the guards looked toward us—the one who had examined our IDs earlier, but before he could question us again, a young woman our age plopped into a seat across from me. She had shoulder length brown hair pulled into one of the few “stylized” cuts the Community allowed, and she wore a pale blue shirt and pale gray pants, nothing that stood out.

I blinked. “Uh… hello?”

“I can’t believe you’re back! Chris… Kate…” She propped her chin on her knuckles. “So good to see you again.”

I stared at her, dumbstruck. How did she know what our fake IDs said? Was she a Special Forces agent in disguise? A telepath?

Lance chuckled nervously. “I’m sorry. Do we know you?”

“Of course!” She laughed. “It’s me, Anna. Don’t you remember? We shared chemistry in high school.”

I tried picturing my classmates from chemistry, but honestly, I couldn’t remember more than a few of their faces. I certainly didn’t remember this “Anna.”

Lance and I exchanged glances. Quin seemed to be fast-talking the guards toward the exit, both groups too busy to worry about us. Was Anna a merc? If so, she fit in way better than the others.

She gave us a mischievous grin. “Now that you’re back, there’s a question everyone wants to know—are you two dating?”

I blinked. Why would anyone care about that?

Lance shrugged. “Sort of.”

I froze. What was he doing?

Anna’s eyes popped open. “Seriously? Oooo… just wait until I tell everyone! I told them it was bound to happen.”

“Yeah…” I shuffled uneasily in my seat, suddenly wishing we were dealing with the mercs. At least it was clear what they wanted.

“That’s so exciting!” Anna clapped her hands together and glanced over our shoulders. She quickly diverted her eyes back to us. “You should totally see my room here. It’s great. I’ve been living on my own ever since I moved from my parents’ house.”

“I’m not sure—”

“Sounds cool,” Lance said smoothly. “Why don’t we go check it out?”

I glared at him. What if this is a trap?

Lance flinched. “It’ll be fun,” he murmured, his voice forced.

Dear Community—

This flower charm was obnoxious. Technically, it was a telepathy artifact—artifacts were objects enchanted to mimic certain powers—and I’d accidently used it to project my thoughts. At least I had directed the thought rather than broadcasted it across the room. That would have been terrible. What if everyone thought they had theophrenia? I shoved the charm between my shirt and my coat, where I wouldn’t have to worry about accidently using it.

“Come on!” Anna grabbed us both by the wrists and yanked us from our chairs. Since I didn’t want to cause a scene and attract more guards, I didn’t resist. She dragged us through the hall and into an apartment room a bit bigger than our old dorm rooms combined. Her walls were covered in pictures of similar people with similar hairstyles—all smiling like cheerful leaders on cheesy self-help brochures, except these were beauticians’ posters.

If I took off my hat, it would be painfully clear I did not fit in.

“How’s college going?” Anna closed the door behind her and plopped on her bed. She motioned to the chairs against the wall. We sat. Lance put his hand on my shoulder. He smiled, his eyes glancing over me, and I nearly jumped. His confidence gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that tickled my ribs, and it had been over a month since I’d seen the kind of smile he’d had when he got his first sword.

Was Val right? Did he actually like me?

Heat rose to my cheeks. I pressed my lips together to keep from saying anything. We weren’t dating, never mind that Lance had been hinting at it for the last month. I’d been focused on recovering from extensive burns and getting the Coalition’s stolen car back from the Camaraderie. I didn’t have time to worry about dating.

“It’s… going,” I told her. I couldn’t very well say I’d dropped out of college to join a band of freedom fighters. Especially when I had no idea who this person was. Granted, if I used the flower charm I could try to get a sense for who she was and what she wanted—

No. I wasn’t going to use the charm.

Lance squeezed my shoulder. “History is as bland as usual.”

“Naturally.” Anna flipped her hair and tapped her finger against her lip, examining us. She grinned. “You guys are actually dating? I knew I should’ve seen it coming. I mean… what’s more romantic than a couple of students from St. Petersburg failing the scan and then fleeing together for safety?”

My heart skipped a beat. Lance’s hand went to his sword. “We didn’t fail—”

Anna held up her hands. A sly smile crossed her lips. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone. If I really wanted you caught, I would have let the guards get you.”

Lance didn’t move his hand from the hilt of his sword. “What are you talking about?”

“Why don’t you take a look at each other?” she suggested.

I frowned and hesitantly did what she said. I blinked. Lance looked… different. His jaw was a little rounder, his eyes blue instead of green. And his hair was less shaggy—

I stood abruptly. “Get out of my head!” My vines twitched beneath my coat sleeves. It was like being in one of Lady Winters’ memory attacks, except it felt far too real.

Anna shrugged. “I’m not in your heads. But, given your reaction, I take it you know the truth behind theophrenia?”

I scowled at her. Of course we knew the truth. Theophrenia—the hallucinogenic “plague”—was a lie, a cover-up for the existence of superpowers. “Who are you?”

Anna leaned back in her chair. “I’m a radiation elemental.” The lights above us dimmed, then cracked, fracturing into a rainbow of colors that drizzled around us. I let out a breath. It was pretty. Not realistic, by any means, but definitely not something a normal Community citizen would dream of. “I haven’t been taking the pill, and I figured out that I could control light. I’m supposed to take the Health Scan soon, which unfortunately means my time here” —she gestured to the room around us— “is limited.”

I cringed. If security found out she had powers, she wouldn’t be studying beauty very long. Quite the opposite, really.

She raised an eyebrow. “You know what happens, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled. Thanks to Lady Winters’ memory seeds, I had a mind’s-eye view of innocent students being transformed into hideous, mindless beasts. Of me going through those terrible transformations, of the stinging green liquid and the helpless sensation of being trapped inside a glass tube—

“Do you know where they go?” she pressed, dispelling the image before it became a full-blown attack. “The people who fail?”

A knock sounded at the door. We all froze, but when the door pushed open, Pops stood in the doorway, his fingers interlaced over his cane. “If you three have caught up, we have errands to run.”

Anna stared at him, her eyes wide. “You’re… you’re him.

Pops quirked his head before quietly stepping inside and closing the door behind him. “You would do well to lock the door before having private conversations.”

Anna shifted in her seat, chastised. “It’s not often I find someone with outside information. If you know where the students who fail the scan are taken—”

“They’re not taken anywhere near here,” Pops said flatly. Anna winced. “But we are on an important mission that may eventually help them. Do you know anything about Pete Sokolov? I need to speak with him. I have a location, but no way to convince him of who we are.”

Anna blinked. “I can help.” She hopped from her chair and grabbed a piece of paper from her desk. She scribbled something in blue ink and handed it to Pops. “Give him this passphrase. That should let him know you’re safe.”

Pops eyed the paper before folding it neatly and slipping it into his coat’s breast pocket. “Thank you.”

She nodded. “Good luck, Dr. Nickleson.”

His whiskers twitched and I flinched at her using his title. Thankfully, the memories didn’t surface. “Thank you. Stay out of trouble.”

Anna grinned, then turned to me and Lance. “Keep in contact, okay? I want to hear all about you two once you become official.”

I gnawed at the inside of my lip, wishing everyone would forget about this whole dating thing. One, we wouldn’t be contacting her anytime soon. Two? We had bigger things to worry about. Like my parents. And those mercenaries. And making the Community truly safe, with no Health Scans and students being turned into beasties when they failed.

Students like Anna, if she didn’t get out in time.

“Nice meeting you.” Lance smiled and squeezed my hand. I stiffened.

“Stay safe,” I told her. She gave me a puzzled look, but I pretended not to notice as I followed Lance into the hall. I didn’t want to think about what would happen to her if she went through with the scan.

Back outside, Pops kept his eyes on the sidewalk, his cane tapping the concrete and leaving little circles in the dusting of snow. I glanced around for any sign of the mercs, but the streets were empty. “Where are we going?”

“The slums.”

“Slums?” I asked, puzzled.

“The poorer part of town,” Pops explained, his voice quieter than usual as he led us to the edge of the city.

CHAPTER FOUR


Fifteen minutes later, unkempt lawns stretched opposite the street, punctuated by uneven driveways with snow seeping through the ruts. Cracks ran along the discolored siding of a couple houses, and one house had a rip marring the window screen. An evergreen wreath hung from a chain-link fence. They would get fined for the yard decorations if they weren’t careful. The whole idea of keeping the yards and houses the same was to prevent jealousy, thus making the Community a safer place to live.

Even more out of place was the fire hydrant with black words sprayed over it in Russian: Where’s our children? Blatant graffiti, a reference to the students who vanished upon failing the Health Scan.

“They’re rebelling,” Lance whispered.

“I see that.” The fact that they used Russian instead of the Community’s preferred English made that clear. But Community citizens couldn’t stop the scans.

Maybe that was why Anna signaled us out.

Tall buildings obscured the overhead sunlight and dropped the temperature between a row of tenements. I stepped closer to Lance. His height blocked the whistling wind. On the corner of the street, a door slammed shut and the lock clicked loud in the crisp air. Pops’ cane tapped faster as he pressed forward. He stepped onto the doorstep, dusted himself of snow, and then rapped his knuckles on the gray door.

“I’ve already told security all I know!” a voice snapped from inside the house.

Pops closed his hands around his cane. “We’re not with security. We’re with the Community’s Efficiency Loss Prevention Program. You are familiar with CELPP, aren’t you?”

I frowned. Why wasn’t Pops using the code Anna gave us?

“Of course I’m familiar with CELPP,” the man said, “but what do you want with me?”

Pops cleared his throat. “With the onset of winter, we’ve noticed a few houses on the outside of town are drawing more electricity than necessary. As part of the program, we need to examine possible causes so they can be fixed.”

I stepped onto the single concrete step. “We just want to have a look around.”

A pause. Then… “I don’t want to be any trouble. I’ll open the door.”

“Do so then.” Pops’ voice betrayed irritation. He tapped his fingers along the handle of his cane, and I urged my armband’s vines to slither to my wrists. I didn’t want to be left in the snow if guards were waiting inside.

The lock clicked. The door creaked open. A short man with thinning hair—Mr. Pete Sokolov—peered out. “Come in,” he croaked, and we entered a small room with only a simple table and two chairs. He looked us over. “You don’t look Community.”

“Where the mind wanders, another child dies,” Pops said solemnly. I shuddered. The passphrase was all too clear in its reference to theophrenia.

The man’s eyes widened. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you’re here to check the thermostat—”

“Are you sure the mind doesn’t wander?” Pops repeated. The man shook his head vigorously, but from the way his eyes darted across the room, he must have known something.

Pops sighed. “We don’t have time to wait. There is a man in danger, and we need information to save him. Do you know someone who can help us?”

Lance closed his fingers around the hilt of his sword. The poor guy backed against the bare dining table. I bit my lip. What if we had the wrong man? What if that was why he didn’t answer the passphrase? I turned to him and raised my wrists, allowing the vines to grow out from under my coat sleeves. They twisted once and flowered. “We aren’t Community,” I explained, “but we’re not here to hurt you. We’re trying to find a man named Ron Nickleson. We have to. If he gets captured, he’ll probably be killed, or worse, turned into a beast.”

Dad was shielded, and I didn’t know what powers he had, but I inherited my powers from his side of the family. That made him a prime candidate for beastie transformation.

The man stared at me as if I’d grown two heads. Well… two vines.

“I don’t know anything!”

Lance revealed a few centimeters of his metal blade.

The man swallowed hard. “I’m not telling you! You’re—you’re not Community.”

“But you do know,” I insisted. “Anna—”

He sprinted for a phone on the table. I leapt after him using my enhanced speed power to propel myself and I grabbed the phone before he could call for help.

Mr. Sokolov closed his eyes, breathing hard. “Please don’t kill me.”

I flinched. This was not helping us look like good guys. I took a deep breath. “If you know Ron Nickleson, I should look familiar.” I raised my chin. If nothing else, he might have heard that I’d caught theophrenia. “Do you know where my father is?”

His lips moved as if he couldn’t figure out what to say, and he gazed hopelessly at my grandfather. The door shuddered with incessant pounding. “Security! Drop your weapons and come outside!”

Pops cursed. I stared at the door, nerves buzzing. How had we been discovered now, after all those times the guards almost caught us but didn’t?

“I’m sorry,” the man whispered. “I’m bugged.”

For the love of efficiency…

That explained why he refused to acknowledge the code. My blood drained to my feet. Security now had the first part of the passphrase. I shoved Mr. Sokolov into Lance’s grasp and tossed the man his phone. “Pretend he’s a hostage?” I asked, glancing to Pops for confirmation. Pops nodded once and backed into a corner. Lance dug his fingers into the man’s shoulders.

“Don’t actually hurt the poor guy!” I scrambled to the door, growing my vines out with long thorns and—

The room was huge and metal. I stood over a slender agility beast as I wrapped my vines around its feet and lashed it to the metal grid below. The beastie struggled, terrified.

“Stay!” I commanded, bringing the vine across its back. A blistering whelp raised on its skin and the beast cowered—

“Drop your weapons!” a guard shouted. I blinked, glancing between the front door of the sparse house and our hostage.

“Is there another exit?” Lance asked.

Our “hostage” shook his head.

Great.

“You are under arrest for violation of International Community law,” the guard continued from outside.

“Give us a minute!” I turned to Pops. “Any ideas?”

He removed a long-range radio from his pocket. Lance had the dull edge of his curved sword to the man’s throat. The man paled. My stomach twisted. “Lance…”

He fidgeted, squaring his stance and holding the man tighter. “I’ve got to be convincing.”

Pops trained his eyes on the door, the radio to his lips. “Inese, what’s going on out there?”

The radio crackled. “Trouble already?”

Inese’s current job was to keep tabs on the situation from the flying “car.” Technically, it was a prototype anti-gravity vehicle with an invisibility generator, but we called it the car for short. “I’m almost there— What the bloody hell did you guys do?”

“Walked into a trap,” I grumbled.

“Never mind that.” Pops removed the gun from his hip with his free hand. “What are we facing?”

The radio crackled. “Seven security guards with weapons drawn.”

A chill ran down my spine. Lance looked dazed, and Pops didn’t say anything for a long moment.

“This is your final warning. We will fire if necessary. Now come out!”

They would shoot at us even with a civilian hostage. I took a deep breath. Of course it would be more efficient to kill three rebels and one civilian than risk the town’s safety.

But that logic didn’t protect individual citizens.

A gun fired and our hostage scrabbled against Lance. I ducked from the door. A bullet shattered the window. Someone screamed outside, offset by the cackling of flames.

Pops clicked the radio. “Report!”

“Someone threw a fireball. Four guards checking that.”

The door splintered open and a guard stepped inside. She started toward me, rifle raised, her finger on the trigger, ready to fire, but she cried out as Lance swept a large gash through her torso. She crumpled, blood pooling around her.

“Don’t kill them!” I protested. Our hostage fainted. Lance shot me a “what-do-you-want-me-to-do?” glare. Two more guards aimed rifles at us from the door. I whipped out my vines and curled them around the guards’ calves. They grimaced at the thorns. I yanked the vines toward me. The guards lost their balance. Their heads cracked sickeningly against the edge of the concrete step outside the door, their bodies straddling the entrance.

My blood ran cold. I stared at the bright red liquid—stark against the white, powdery snow.

“Jenna, come on!” Pops hurried through the door, staggering to avoid the bodies. Lance roughly shook the hostage awake.

I didn’t move. The guards hadn’t known about the beasties or the Camaraderie. I’d only wanted to incapacitate them, not kill them.

“Jenna!” Pops snapped, louder.

I plucked two flowers from my vines—cringing as their cell walls separated—and placed the flowers on the guards’ bodies. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, and then chased after Pops and Lance.

Before I reached them, a short woman—the mercenary from earlier—barreled from the alley, her long braid trailing behind her. I skidded on the slick pavement, but we collided in a tangled mess. The woman grunted. I struggled to push myself up. She hopped to her feet, drew her pistol, then looked me over, her dark eyes skeptical. She frowned, but when she caught sight of Lance and Mr. Sokolov, her eyes widened.

“That’s my guy!” She took off running toward them. I cast my vine around her leg, holding her ankle in place as she sprawled to the pavement. I was not letting her find my father before I did. She caught herself on her hands and knees and then spun around, trying to pull my vine free.

Her pistol was just a meter away. I scrambled for the gun and snatched it before she had my vine untangled. “Hey!” She tumbled over her feet in her haste. Her hand brushed my shoulder. I pushed it aside, only to be pinned to the ground with her knee in my back. “Give me the gun,” she demanded, forcing me down. The ice felt painfully cold to my knees where my pants had torn. “Now.”

“What do you want with him?” I tried to use her weight against her like Jack taught me, but she lightly evaded me and pushed my cheek against the pavement. Ice stung my bare skin.

“Bounty, duh.

I glanced at her from the corner of my eye, trying to see if there was anything about her that I could use to my advantage. She couldn’t be much older than me. No make-up, no nail polish, and her hand had a light pink scar running from the knuckles to the wrist. Except for her tunic and the braid, which was longer than Community standard, she could have easily been Community.

Too bad she was a merc.

My vines were still free, and I doubted she could see their ends. One vine crawled toward her neck. With a burst of speed, the vine latched around her throat and yanked her backward. She shrieked, grasping at the rope-like plant. I stood again and aimed her pistol at her chest.

I still wasn’t sure if I was aiming correctly, but hopefully she wouldn’t know that.

“Who do you work for?” I demanded. My hands were freezing. Snow had snuck beneath my wrists and my gloves and was starting to melt into icy water.

“That’s a dumb question,” she muttered, coughing. I loosened the vines a bit, not wanting to accidently strangle her before I got my answers.

“Humor me.”

“Santa’s elves,” she said, but her tone made me suspect that whoever Santa was, she wasn’t one of them.

“I thought elves were fantasy,” I snapped back.

The woman eyed me, and then the gun, suspiciously. “Let me guess, you’re with Saint Nick over there?”

“His name is Nickolai, not Saint. And for your information, I’m with the Coalition.”

“Oh.” She rolled her eyes. “That explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Why the safety’s still on.”

I glanced down at the pistol, suddenly remembering what Inese said about turning off the safety, and then hit the ground, my feet knocked out from under me. I stared at the gray sky, dazed.

Had she really just done that?

Yep. And now she had her gun back.

“Move!” She shrieked. She grabbed my arm and yanked.

Crack!

Shards of ice splintered against my face and the woman cursed, shielding her eyes. A security guard raised his rifle, checked the scope, and took aim.

I sprang to my feet, using my speed to push me toward a stack of boxes in front of a rundown catering business. Normally the boxes would have been carted away within an hour of being set out, but the slums must’ve been different. Not that I was complaining; the boxes acted as a nice impromptu shelter.

The woman took a shot at the guard before ducking behind the other side of the boxes. She glared at me. “Thanks. Now Special Forces will probably find my target before I do.”

I curled my vines around myself. She didn’t need to be trying to capture my dad, but right now, avoiding being shot was more important than arguing. Here, the boxes were tall enough to provide cover and made from sturdy plastic. Sturdy for hauling food items. Not so sturdy for keeping bullets out. I peeked above the box in time to see Lance and Pops disappear around the corner of a building with our hostage. The guard moved closer, followed by another guard in black. They were close enough to reveal the red COE—Camaraderie of Evil—letters on the second guard’s shoulders, the one with the rising sun cog.

He wasn’t a security guard—he was a Special Forces agent.

“There!” the guard pointed at me with his gun. I ducked as the rifle cracked, stone chipping from the building behind us. Another shot, and the box in front of the woman rocked with a newly formed hole.

“What are they shooting at me for?” she protested, prepping her pistol and taking aim over the box. “I’m on their side!”

I snorted. “You shot at them… duh.”

She scowled at me, then ducked again at the sound of splintering plastic. “Before now. The guard shot first.”

“He was probably aiming for me.” I scooted closer to the wall. The security forces were too far away for me to use my vines, and the nearby grass was dead from winter. Speed might get me around the corner to Lance and Pops, but that power wasn’t the most reliable of options with ice on the sidewalk.

“Figures,” she muttered, glancing back at me. She blinked, her eyes growing wide. “Wait a minute. You’re that Jenna kid. You killed Brainmaster.”


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