HAVEN KINCAID is seventeen. After moving away from her friends before the start of her senior year, she struggles to fit in at her new school. When the boy of her dreams shows interest, she finally has a chance to be normal—but Haven is more different than she realizes. After a tragic loss and a deep betrayal, she is kidnapped by a sinister group that will do anything to extract a deadly ability she can barely control—even if they kill her in the process.
COLTON ROSS is fresh out of high school. Driven by a desire to escape his abusive father and haunted by the memory of an absent mother, he moves to New York City to start over. When a favor for his friend backfires and he ends up in jail, Colton is bailed out by a mysterious businessman who offers him the chance to strengthen his new-found power and discover the truth about his past—a truth that will set him on a quest for insatiable vengeance.
BLOOM is an action-packed fantasy adventure that tells the story of two young people surviving in a dangerous world. As their journeys unfold and collide, they must risk their lives to defeat an evil that threatens to destroy everything they hold dear.
Cover by TJ Wright
BLOOM Copyright © 2012 by Sam Best
For every person who can tell the difference
between reality and imagination
and still prefers the latter.
Blood rushed to Haven’s face as she ran toward the cafeteria exit, pushing past schoolmates holding full lunch trays. She planned to keep running as soon as she was outside, driven by embarrassment and rage and the terrible memories of the night she lost everything. She wouldn’t stop until she was far away from that place—from those people. She wanted answers. No more waiting, no more uncertainty. She would make the police find out who was responsible for ruining her life.
Haven was halfway to the cafeteria door when a powerful heat blossomed on the back of her neck and ran down her spine. It spread outward, stretching to every part of her body. The blushing warmth in her face paled in comparison to the boiling heat that coursed beneath her skin. Arms, legs, torso, and head—every part of her felt like it was burning. She stopped walking and looked down at herself to make sure she was not actually on fire.
“Hey, what’s wrong with her?” someone said from a nearby table.
Haven tried to run, but her legs wouldn’t move. She tried to call for help but her voice caught in her throat.
She looked down in horror as a bright blue ball of light formed around her right hand.
Not here, she thought. Not now.
Another sphere of light grew from the palm of her other hand until it completely encompassed her wrist and fingers. It looked as if she had stuck her hands into two large balls of blue light. Haven tried to run again, then realized that her feet weren’t touching the ground. She floated into the air and hovered next to a table, still rising toward the ceiling.
The students in the cafeteria screamed and backed away. Several of them held up food trays for protection.
The blue light from Haven’s hands turned to flames and spread to cover her entire body, like fire crawling over gasoline-soaked wood. She felt a tingling sensation on each of her shoulder blades and looked behind her as two huge wings of blue energy unfolded from her back. The tips of the wings touched the ceiling and burned black holes into its smooth surface.
In the shiny plastic reflection on the bottom of the food trays that were being held up for protection, Haven saw a blue angel hovering above the tables of the cafeteria. Her hair floated around her head as if she were submerged in calm water.
Her vision filled with light and she reached up to feel the energy pulsing from her eyes. The flames covering her body cracked like lightning and whipped back and forth violently—a thousand dancing snakes made of blue fire.
Haven’s back arched and she screamed.
…Two Weeks Earlier.
Haven Kincaid won a spelling bee when she was seven, a math tournament when she was twelve, and nothing else until the day she turned sixteen. Her parents thought their daughter would be happy to learn she had “won” the right to stay out until ten o’clock on a school night. It was a sign of trust, they said, since they were both so knowledgeable about what teenagers did and they were certain their little Haven never got into anything that would make them blush in front of a crowd.
Now, just after turning seventeen, Haven spent most of her days wishing she had an apartment of her own so she could make the rules. Ever since her dad got his new job a year ago and moved the whole family from Flagstaff to Scottsdale, Arizona, she felt like she didn’t belong at home, at school, or anywhere else.
Haven left behind a handful of friends that she had known ever since grade school—girls she was planning on graduating with and rooming with at college. Moving across the state was bad enough, but to do it right before her last year in high school was the absolute worst.
Her family’s new home in Scottsdale was nice enough. It had two stories, which Haven always wanted, and was on a quiet street not too far from the downtown area. There was a small movie theater next to a smelly bowling alley not too far away, and she heard rumors that someone was building a miniature golf course.
Haven was at least thankful that she no longer had to share a room with her little brother, Noah, and that the new yard was a lot bigger than the old one—but she was still more than two hours away from her friends in Flagstaff. Those two hours could just as easily have been two weeks since Haven didn’t have a car and there was no way her friends were going to drive all the way down to Scottsdale just to hang out at a smelly bowling alley.
If she had more than one close friend at her new school, she probably would have been happy. But Kayla Robertson, her closest, could only stay out until eight-thirty. Haven wouldn’t have her own car until her eighteenth birthday (when she was expecting to inherit her mom’s old junker once her dad “surprised” her mom with a new luxury model on their twentieth wedding anniversary), so her curfew may as well have been eight-thirty, too. Haven suspected her parents knew all of those things already and that extending her curfew to ten o’clock had been more of an attempt to distract her than anything else.
Things hadn’t exactly been rosy around the Kincaid house for the past week. Haven was disrupting her classes at school out of boredom—nothing serious, but she had been sent to the principal’s office several times for making rude comments in the middle of lessons—and she was caught drawing a lopsided heart on the gymnasium wall with a permanent marker. She was trying to write a name inside of the heart before Coach Lawford saw what she was doing and took away the marker, but she only managed to spell out J-A-S.
Up until then, Principal Rivera had only given her warnings for disrupting class, but said Haven was on a “slippery slope” and called her parents after the incident in the gym. They scheduled a meeting for later in the week—a face-to-face meeting—that Haven would be forced to attend.
Haven’s room was small but had two windows since it was in a corner of the house. She and Noah had the two bedrooms on the second floor of their two-story home, and her parents had the largest bedroom—downstairs next to the den. The stairs were well-carpeted—enough so that when she was very careful, Haven could sneak up and down in the middle of the night without making a sound. She did that often to raid the fridge for ice cream whenever she couldn’t fall asleep. Opening the silverware drawer was another story. It squeaked loudly unless it was opened at a snail’s pace. Haven meant to stash a spoon away in her room for those sleepless nights, but she had forgotten yet again, and would be forced to use stealth to obtain her late-night snack.
She walked quietly down the stairs, her feet padding into the carpet with each step, then crept into the kitchen, pausing briefly by her parents’ closed bedroom door to make sure they weren’t moving around. Hearing nothing, Haven stepped softly to the silverware drawer next to the sink, her bare feet making slight sticking noises as they peeled off the hard linoleum floor.
She grabbed the metal handle on the drawer and started to pull it out as quietly as she could. When the drawer was halfway open, a small bubble of blue light formed just below the first knuckle of her index finger—it looked as if she was wearing one of her mother’s gaudy costume rings. The back of her hand glowed pale blue and small flames flickered across her skin.
Well that’s new, she thought.
It didn’t burn, whatever it was. There was no heat at all.
The bubble on her index finger expanded as the thin fire on the back of her hand fed into it. After the growing bubble had absorbed all of the flame, it moved slowly from her knuckle down to her fingernail. She let go of the silverware drawer handle and the small sphere of light exploded like a tiny firework. The drawer slammed back into place and the metal utensils inside jumped and clattered loudly in the plastic drawer organizer.
Haven covered her mouth with both hands to stifle a small scream.
She held her breath and listened for the all-too-familiar sound of her parents getting up to see what she was doing out of bed so late at night. In the absolute silence, she heard soft footsteps in the grass outside, moving quickly away from the kitchen window. A quick shadow darted across the kitchen window and Haven gasped.
Someone had been watching.
Colton Ross awoke late—the glowing red numbers on the cheap alarm clock next to his mattress read eleven o’clock. He lay there smiling, knowing that he felt better in that moment than he would feel for the rest of the week. He pulled aside his thin sheet and stood on the cold wooden floor.
The uncurtained window next to his mattress showed him a view of the busy street below his apartment building. Businessmen and women walked briskly down the sidewalks, bumping into each other and generally ignoring the world around them.
Colton rescued a dirty skillet from the bottom of a pile of filthy dishes and, after a thorough scrub, cooked three scrambled eggs for breakfast. He then took a quick shower and pulled on the cleanest t-shirt and pair of jeans he could find. Normally Colton rode his bike to the homeless shelter for lunch on his days off, but he decided to walk instead.
He liked New York City because it was big enough to get lost in yet personal enough when he needed it to be. His new job at the shipping depot kept him busy for fifty hours a week or more and his spare time was steadily shrinking as the weeks passed, so he tried to make the most out of his occasional day off.
After graduating high school six months ago, he had kicked around his hometown of Pittsburgh for a while before his friend Reece convinced him to move up to New York. After he settled in to the spare room in Reece’s apartment, Colton ditched his pickup truck for a bicycle and had barely thought about Pennsylvania since.
When he emerged from the front door of his apartment building, the street was even busier than it had been just thirty minutes earlier. No matter what day of the week it was, Colton always seemed to have to travel against the flow of foot-traffic. Pittsburgh had been moderately better, but Colton had lived in the suburbs instead of downtown.
His favorite produce stand in The Bronx was near the corners of Westchester and Castle Hill. The owner was busy topping off a heaping carton of bananas when Colton approached the stand.
“Morning, Mr. Laretti.”
“Mr. Ross! Good to see you, as always. Yet it is few and far between, yes? You must have the day off.” Antonio Laretti had bushy black eyebrows and a receding hairline. Standing on his toes, he was probably only five feet tall. He squinted up at Colton through thick reading glasses.
“My first in two weeks.” Colton picked up two apples and inspected them for bruises.
“Ah, yes, they work you too hard. I am also working too hard. But! People are needing their fruits and vegetables, yes? Where else they gonna get them if not from old Antonio!”
“Thanks a lot, Mr. Laretti.” Colton handed him a dollar and took the two apples.
“Of course, of course. Come back soon, I’ll have better apples.”
Colton turned to walk away when movement in the cart of bananas caught his eye. He stopped to watch as the entire bunch slowly turned from bright yellow to dull brown, as if they were being coated with some kind of acid that burnt their peels.
“Hey,” said Antonio, “what is this?”
The bananas curled in on themselves as they darkened and shrank. Colton took a step toward the produce stand and the crate of oranges next to the bananas began to change as well. The round fruit withered like they were being drained of all their moisture, shriveling into dried husks right before Colton’s eyes.
If it hadn’t been for a similar accident two months ago, Colton would have thought he was imagining the whole thing. It had only been a lizard back then, though—one small, barely-alive lizard he had been trying to carry from his bedroom to his backyard when it dried up in his hand and turned to dust.
“You!” said Antonio loudly. He pointed right at Colton, his mouth moving up and down as he tried to form words. “You!” was all he could say. He pointed at Colton’s hands.
The apples he purchased were rapidly shrinking, turning brown as if some invisible flame were cooking them in his palm. He dropped them like hot coals and quickly brushed his hands against his shirt.
Colton knew what came next. Warmth gathered around his spine between his shoulder blades as heat bloomed within his body. It first spread up to the base of his neck, then back down his spine before flowing out to his arms and legs. Finally, it settled in his hands. His palms radiated with heat.
“Mr. Laretti, I-I-I’m sorry,” he stuttered.
“Get out of here, whatever you are!” hissed Antonio. “You ruin my whole business so you don’t come back, you hear me?! I call the cops if you come back!”
Colton turned and hurried away as Antonio shouted curses at his back.
Haven went quickly to the kitchen window and looked outside. A harsh yellow glow from a nearby street lamp painted the wet grass in her backyard. A tall white fence bordered the yard, too high for someone to climb over (or so she thought), so if someone were back there, they would have had to walk all the way around from the front.
There was a crunching noise from a large bush at the base of the fence. Haven strained her eyes to look into the shadows. A black cat shot out from the bush and hissed as it clawed up the fence, its fur raised and its teeth bared. It ran across the top of the fence, its body casting a quick shadow over Haven’s kitchen window as it passed in front of the street lamp.
Haven watched a moment longer, still uneasy. Finally she sighed and tried to relax. She slowly pulled out the silverware drawer again, waiting for the blue light to burst from her hand. It didn’t. She grabbed a spoon, then pushed the drawer back in with her hip and got a bowl out of the cupboard. Haven filled it to the brim with strawberry ice cream.
She jumped at her father’s voice and turned around quickly.
“Hi,” he said, smiling. He wore his white robe and what remained of his greying hair stuck out in every direction.
“Hi.” She put the tub of ice cream back in the freezer and closed the door. “No, couldn’t sleep. Was I being too loud?”
“Nah, I couldn’t sleep, either. I heard a noise and figured you were on one of your late-night ice cream runs.”
“You know about that, huh?”
“Your mother used to do the same thing right after—”
“What? I was going to say ‘right after she finished working the late shift at the hospital’.”
“So, why the midnight snack? Something happen at school?”
He walked toward the kitchen and pulled out one of the tall stools below the bar. The counter that ran along the back of the kitchen turned out from the wall and separated it from the dining room. Haven’s mother liked to keep that surface clear so someone could sit on a stool and use it like a bar.
Haven’s father sat on his stool and smiled at her.
“Dad, it’s late.”
“So? You’re not going to sleep any time soon. Not with all that sugar, anyway. Come on, sit down. I’m a good listener.”
She sighed and reluctantly pulled out the stool next to him, then placed her bowl on the counter and sat down. She ran her spoon around the inside edge of the bowl, scooping up the softer ice cream on the sides.
“Is it boy trouble?” he asked.
She made a sour face. “I am not talking to you about that.”
He nodded. “I guess that’s your mother’s department, anyway.” He pretended to wipe sweat from his forehead in relief. Haven smiled and took a bite of ice cream. “To tell you the truth, kiddo,” he continued, “you have us a little confused. This is the first time we’ve ever heard anything other than high praise from your school. I know you’re still upset because of the move and I hated to take you away from your friends, but my new job is going to give this family a lot of freedom.”
“It’s just a little healthy rebellion, Dad. That’s all. Didn’t you and Mom ever start trouble for no good reason?”
“Of course not!” he said, feigning insult. “We were model students in every way. Why? What did you hear about us?”
She laughed and shook her head. “You’re so corny.”
“That wasn’t corn. And for the record, I’m a very cool dude.”
“Riiiight. You just said ‘cool dude’.”
“Yeah, well, I’m still learning.” He looked at her. “So, everything’s really okay? No drugs, no dropping out, nothing like that?”
“Everything’s fine, Dad. I promise. I don’t even know why I was acting up. It’s not really me.”
“Maybe you were testing your limits,” he said.
“Which is perfectly normal,” he said. “You need to know how much you can handle. But you also need to do it respectfully. You’re an extremely bright girl, Haven. You surprise me every day, but we can’t handle getting phone calls from the principal like that. Especially your mother. She’s a little scared.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
He ruffled her hair until she pulled away, smiling.
“So,” he said. “Tell me about the boy you like so much that you wrote his name on the gym wall.”
She hopped off her stool and hurried upstairs with her bowl of ice cream.
Haven stopped by the door to Noah’s room. He hugged his favorite blue blanket close to his chest while he slept. He was still young enough to need a night-light and the soft glow cast long shadows over the toys scattered across his cluttered floor.
Haven stood there watching her brother’s small chest rise up and down with his breathing. She wondered if he was going to have to suffer through all of the same things she was suffering through—confusion about the future, especially. All of the adults at school continuously stressed how important it was for her to know what she wanted to do for the rest of her life before she graduated high school—that she should have known even earlier if possible. How else would she decide what college she wanted to attend or the field of study she wanted to pursue? Haven knew she didn’t want to live in Arizona forever, but she also had no clue where she might want to go.
It made her head hurt to think of all those things at once. Haven closed her eyes when she felt pressure building behind her forehead and thought of a green meadow bathed in warm sunlight. It was an imaginary place she would envision whenever she felt a migraine fast approaching.
The meadow was surrounded by a ring of tall trees. Small lights floated around the branches; they moved in different directions and at varying speeds as if each one had a mind of its own. Haven was never able to figure out what the lights were, so after a while she stopped trying. They made her smile, which, in the meadow, was the only thing that mattered.
She imagined herself lying down in the soft grass and looking up at the blue sky, her reddish brown hair fanned out on the ground above her head. The clouds were light pink and formed funny shapes as they drifted high above. One of them shifted into the shape of a bird and floated gently down to the meadow. Haven smiled and the cloud dropped lower until it hovered right above her. She reached up and ran her hand through the pink fluff. It moved between her fingers and trailed after them when she pulled her hand back.
In the field, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
When she opened them again, she was standing in front of the door to Noah’s room, holding her bowl of melting ice cream. He still slept soundly in his bed. She had only asked once why her parents chose to have another child so long after having her, but they simply said it felt like the right thing to do at the time.
Haven closed her door as gently as she could and turned off the light before climbing into bed. She ate her strawberry ice cream while looking out of her window at the countless stars scattered across the night sky.
A feeling of exposure crept over her, stronger than what she had experienced in the kitchen when she saw the shadow outside. It was as if everyone in the world was suddenly aware of the strange blue light she had produced and had all turned to look at her at the exact same time. For a moment, she thought she saw dark figures standing in the shadows next to her house, watching through her bedroom window and waiting for her to fall asleep. She rubbed her eyes and the shadows melted away into the night—it was just her vision straining against the darkness. Yet the feeling that she was being watched grew stronger.
Haven shivered and turned away from the window. She set the empty bowl on her nightstand next to a clock that told her it was far too late to still be awake (as it often did), then pulled the bedcovers up under her chin and waited to fall asleep.
The afternoon that he accidentally killed the lizard had been a particularly hard one for Colton. His mother had abandoned him—and her husband—nine years earlier to the day. Neither of them had heard from her since. Most of the time Colton was able to push thoughts of her out of his mind, but for some reason, on the “anniversary” of her departure, he couldn’t help but dwell on how happy he used to be when she was around.
Colton shuddered as he walked the streets, remembering the day he discovered his unique ability.
His father came home drunk from work and continued drinking until he passed out on the couch, shouting insults to Colton and his long-absent, unfaithful mother the entire time. Shortly after his father’s final rant and subsequent blackout, Colton decided to go out onto the back porch to get some fresh air.
He found the lizard as he slid open the sliding glass door. It didn’t try to escape when Colton reached out and gently scooped it off the glass. It sat there in his palm, staring up at him sideways with one eye. Colton stepped out of the house and walked over to the nearest bush to set down the lizard, but before he got there, the reptile twitched and rolled over onto its back. He watched as the lizard’s skin shrank until it was nothing more than a thin brown layer stretched over a tiny skeleton. It looked as if it had been baking in the sun for weeks.
Colton shuddered with disgust and threw the dead lizard into the bushes before he went back inside to wash his hands.
It happened only two or three times over the following few months, and usually with something small, like a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit. Until the incident with Mr. Laretti’s produce stand, Colton had found that he was able to somewhat control the ability. It didn’t always work, but over the past weeks he had failed less and less often.
He only used fresh produce—no more lizards. The freshness of the object mattered, Colton had discovered. A can of sliced peaches was useless, but a fresh peach from Mr. Laretti worked just as well as the apple.
Colton didn’t understand the process, but he was getting used to it. The warmth he felt afterward calmed him down, even after the most stressful of days.
There was already a long line of homeless men and women wrapped around the edge of the shelter when Colton arrived. He squeezed inside and hurried over to the long row of tables at the back of the room.
A strong odor of cooked vegetables and unwashed clothes hung thick in the air. He grabbed an apron hanging off a hook on the wall and put it on. The latex gloves from the “large” box barely fit his hands, but every volunteer had to wear them. He struggled to pull them down over his fingers as he walked over to the end of the long line of tables.
The volunteers dipped big ladles into huge pots of steaming soup. On the other side of the table, the unceasing line of homeless shuffled past with bowls in hand. Every other volunteer would drop a chunk of stale bread into the soup.
Colton took his spot at the end of the line and started handing out bread. The volunteer next to him was Sue Wallace, who ran the kitchen.
“Nice to see you again, Mr. Ross. New haircut?”
“Yes. Thanks. Sorry I’m late.”
The elderly woman smiled and the skin at the outside corner of each eye bunched up into a hundred tiny lines. “Honey, the phrase ‘better late than never’ means more at this place than anywhere else I can think of.” She winked at him as she poured some soup into a bowl. “Your haircut looks good, by the way. A little short, but still. You get those nice, dark curls when it’s longer. You really need to let it grow.”
Colton felt as if he was being lectured by an aging family member. He smiled and added a chunk of bread to another outstretched soup bowl. He nodded politely at each person who came through the line. Most of them seemed surprisingly healthy—Colton had noticed that the men and women who frequented that kitchen were either healthy or sickly in cycles. After a short period of declining health, old faces would never return and new faces would appear in the crowd.
Maybe he wouldn’t have to use his talent that day, after all. He was starting to think he had destroyed the apple for nothing.
The front door to the building was closed a few minutes later, signifying the end of lunch. The people still in line within the building would be allowed to stay, but everyone outside had to start looking elsewhere for food.
“Sweetie,” said Sue. She tapped Colton’s arm and pointed to the old man standing on the other side of the table. He had dark circles under his eyes and his skin clung tightly to his bones.
“Oh, sorry,” said Colton. He placed a piece of bread into the man’s bowl, then watched as he walked away and sat at a table, alone. The man coughed loudly into his sleeve and had to catch his breath before he could start eating. His breath wheezed as if his throat had all but closed. He ate slowly, raising the soup spoon to his lips with a shaking hand and spilling most of its contents on the way to his mouth.
“That’s Henry,” whispered Sue. “I don’t think he’ll be around much longer.”
Colton waited until the last person in line received their bread, then he took off his apron and threw away his gloves. He walked over and sat at the table next to Henry.
“Hello,” said Colton.
Henry looked up at him over his empty soup spoon right before he put it in his mouth. He pulled it out slowly and returned it to the bowl, starting the pointless process all over again.
“My name’s Colton.” He extended his open hand. The homeless man looked at him suspiciously. “It’s okay, Henry. Shake my hand.”
Henry slowly set his spoon down in the soup bowl and reached out his shaking arm. Colton grasped his hand firmly.
Ever since he had first discovered what he could do with his ability, Colton had been searching for a way to put it to good use. His desire to make even the smallest difference in the world had originally led him to the homeless shelter, where he spent his time trying to help as many of the helpless as he could. The happiness he felt afterward briefly muted the sadness from his own past.
Colton felt the warmth in his own palm move to the tips of his fingers and flow outward, toward Henry. He let the energy he had taken from the fruit at the produce stand move into the homeless man—it felt like someone was pulling a strand of yarn from the tip of each finger. There was far more inside of him than Colton was used to transferring, and the results were immediate. The dark circles on Henry’s face lightened and his arm stopped shaking. His breathing cleared and deepened. A tear rolled down his cheek.
When Colton had no more to give, he stood up from the table.
“Very nice to meet you,” he said.
“She is an excellent student, Mrs. Kincaid. We just don’t understand why she continues to act out in such a manner. This is Scottsdale, after all—not Mesa or Casa Grande, for goodness sake! Children here just don’t act this way.”
Principal Rivera sat behind her desk, hands clasped together atop a manila folder that contained Haven’s school file. She looked at Haven’s mother as if she expected a simple, all-encompassing answer.
“I don’t understand it either, nor does my husband. Up until we received your call, we never knew that Haven was causing any kind of trouble whatsoever.”
“Well,” said Principal Rivera with a sigh, “her grades are still exemplary, and if there had been any kind of drop in her performance, I would think there was more to worry about…”
Haven let the voices drone away into the background. She turned in her chair and looked just past the office door to where her little brother Noah sat playing with a small toy car. He was pretending his legs were ramps and launching the car off one thigh and making it land with a screeching sound effect from his mouth on the other. Their mother had taken half a day off of work at the hospital to come to school for the meeting and picked up Noah from daycare on the way.
Haven turned back to Principal Rivera.
“…don’t think we have anything to worry about, really. Haven has indicated to me how bored she is in her current classes, which might be a reason for her recent impulsive behavior.”
“Well,” said her mother, “she does have a short attention span when it comes to things she isn’t interested in.”
No kidding, thought Haven.
Principal Rivera smiled. “Which is why I’ve starting looking into our Advanced Placement courses. I know we are already a few months into the school year and it goes against protocol to change a student’s schedule, but I’m sure the teachers would be more than willing to make an exception in Haven’s case. I think she would do quite well with the added challenge offered by college-level classes.”
“That sounds like just the thing!” said Haven’s mother. She turned and addressed Haven for the first time during the entire meeting. “I know we talked about this and you wanted to take it easy at your new school, but what do you say to a little extra challenge?”
Haven barely tried to hide her sarcasm. “Sounds like just the thing.”
“Excellent,” said Principal Rivera. “I’ll speak with the teachers and get the ball rolling. Unless you have any other questions, I say we let Haven get back to lunch so you can go enjoy the rest of your day.”
They shook hands and Haven followed her mother and Noah out of the office building.
“There, now,” said her mother, “that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Haven had already started to pull away for fear one of her friends would see her talking to a strange lady. “Yeah, it was great, Mom. I’ll see you when I get home.”
“Bye, Haven!” said Noah. He waved his toy car in the air in farewell. Haven’s mother held his hand and steered him toward the parking lot.
“Bye, Noah,” said Haven quietly.
She smiled as he continued to wave his car in the air long after he said goodbye. Her smile quickly faded when she thought about the meeting and how it made her feel like everyone was talking about her as if she barely existed. A lot of times it seemed like her parents regarded her more as a way to gauge their own progress than as someone who might actually have a problem with the way everything was going in her life.
Haven walked around the corner of the administration building and headed toward the cafeteria.
George Walker High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, had no interior hallways. The buildings stood separated by plots of green grass and long concrete sidewalks. Students milled about the commons area; some eating, most simply socializing. They formed loose clusters in the bright midday sunshine, sitting or lying on the grass; laughing, kissing, playing.
Haven followed a sidewalk past the library and walked into the cafeteria. She smelled fried food and disinfectant. The room rumbled with the sound of a hundred students talking, laughing, shouting, and moving all at the same time.
Haven felt a tug on the back of her hair and spun around.
“How’d the meeting go, troublemaker?” Kayla put her hands on her hips and shook her head as if she were ashamed. Her short black hair bounced lightly against her cheeks.
“Shoot me now,” said Haven.
“That bad, huh?”
They each grabbed a food tray and walked over to the lunch line to see what was available.
“Probably. I sort of zoned out in the middle. They want me to take Advanced Placement classes.”
“Ew!” said Kayla. “You can’t switch now, we’re almost out of this dump! Besides, only nerds take college classes in high school.” She spooned a huge portion of white macaroni and cheese onto her tray.
“And people who want to actually succeed a little bit in life, maybe?” Haven dropped a much smaller helping onto her own tray. She took two pieces of cornbread from a plate at the next window.
“Well, you know my plan: marry quick and marry rich. I don’t even care what either of ‘em looks like!” Kayla slapped her thigh and fake-laughed at her own joke, which she had told more times than Haven could count.
The girls had met while working at an ice cream shop downtown during the summer right after Haven first moved to Scottsdale. Her parents told her that it was okay for her to focus on school and worry about getting a job later, but Haven enjoyed the small amount of money—and freedom—that working at the ice cream shop provided. The job also helped to take her mind off the fact that she would probably never see any of her friends again.
Having her choice of forty ice cream flavors didn’t hurt, either.
She and Kayla hit it off quickly and soon they were carpooling to work and hanging out whenever they had free time. They didn’t have any of the same classes at school but still saw each other during lunch.
Kayla plopped a piece of chocolate cake onto her tray as she moved down the line to the cashier.
“You sure you don’t want more mac and cheese?” asked Haven. “Right now you only have enough for your next three lunches.”
“Speak for yourself, Cornbread Queen. Tell your hips to watch out.”
“Your kid’s kids are gonna be fat if you finish everything on your tray,” said Haven.
“That’s where ‘marry rich’ comes in. Money fixes everything, don’t you know that?”
They paid the cashier and turned around to find a table.
“Oh my god!” said Kayla. She stopped walking and stared ahead.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“There’s your boyfriend!” She nodded to a table a few feet away.
Jason Turner sat at one of the round cafeteria tables, surrounded by a group of his friends. He smiled and laughed easily, and always seemed to be in a good mood whenever Haven saw him.
“Shut your mouth, Kayla!” she hissed between her teeth. Haven sidestepped around her friend and walked quickly to the other side of the room, looking away from Jason’s table as she passed. She took a seat at the first empty table and faced the wall.
“Geez, you’d think you’d never seen a hot guy before,” said Kayla. She placed her tray on the table and sat next to Haven.
“I just don’t appreciate you announcing it to everyone around, that’s all.”
“Nobody heard me, you nutcase,” said Kayla. “And besides, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if somebody—oh my God!” She stopped talking and looked behind her.
“Would you stop saying that?”
“He’s coming over here!”
“What? Who?” Haven turned and saw Jason walking over toward their table. She spun back around and stared at her tray. “What’s he doing?!” she whispered.
“He’s still headed straight for us!” said Kayla.
“He’s not turning away?”
“Is he looking at you?”
Jason sat on the empty seat next to Haven. “Afternoon, ladies.”
“Hi!” said Kayla. “Oops! Forgot a napkin. Be right back.” She stood up to leave but Haven had a tight grip on her leg. Kayla lightly slapped her hand and smiled sweetly at Jason before walking away.
“So,” said Jason. “How’s it going?”
“Uh, fine,” said Haven. She mentally slapped her own forehead. Uh, fine. Uh, fine.
“Look, I’m not trying to embarrass you or anything, but I heard you wrote my name on the gym wall.”
Her face flushed with heat and her eyes felt like they grew to the size of saucers. He left out the part about the giant heart, so maybe he was trying to break it to her easy. “You sure have a funny way of not embarrassing someone,” she said. She kept staring at her food tray. “Who told you it was me, anyway?” Haven could tell she was getting defensive, even though she wanted nothing more than to be as casual toward Jason as he was being toward her.
“Yeah, hey, it could have been anybody, right? I didn’t mean to say that you would draw my name instead of another guy’s, it’s just that if it were my name, I think it would be, I dunno, kinda cool.”
Haven blinked. “Did you say ‘cool’?”
“Don’t you mean creepy or pathetic or something?”
“Nope. We should hang out sometime. If it was me, I mean.”
“If what was you?”
“The name you were writing on the wall,” said Jason.
“I’m not asking you to marry me or anything, I just thought it would be nice to get to know you.”
“Oh.” She thought for a moment. “It wasn’t you, but yeah, let’s hang out.” She looked at him. “It wasn’t you.”
He smiled. “Fair enough. Listen, I’m having a party at my house tonight. You and your friend—Kayla, is it?—you guys should go.”
Haven heard herself speak before she even thought about an answer. “Okay, sure. We’ll be there.”
“Great!” Jason stood up. “Everyone’s showing up around nine.” He walked away and Haven heard his friends teasing him about the visit.
“Oh my God!” said Kayla as she came back to the table and sat down next to Haven.
“Seriously, Kayla! Broken record!”
“What did he say?”
Haven shrugged in an attempt to hide her excitement. “He just wants us to go to some party tonight at his house.”
“Oh my G—I mean, wow, neat. So we’re going, right?”
“I said yes before I really thought it out. My curfew’s still ten, but what about you? You have to be home before the party even starts.”
“Haven’t you ever snuck out of the house before?” asked Kayla. “My parents go to bed early, so I can leave whenever I want as long as I’m quiet. Just tell your parents you’re not going out, then wait until they’re asleep and then boom, you’re at a party with the hottest guy that’s ever talked to you.”
Haven thought about it for a moment. “They usually go to bed around nine if I’m not out of the house.”
“So we’ll be a few minutes late. Big deal. It won’t really get started until we show up anyway.”
“Oh, yeah, we’re real party animals,” said Haven.
Kayla hugged her. “That’s the spirit.”
Colton started the long walk back to his apartment from the homeless shelter. The path he always took wasn’t the quickest, but he thought it was the most scenic. He passed three parks along the way, their wide, grassy fields providing a calm, momentary escape from the concrete jungle everywhere else in the city.
The apartment building where he was staying was just on the edge of Parkchester in an area that barely clung to the image of wealth and power that had been slowly receding for decades. Even with the steady decline in real estate value, apartments in the building where Colton lived still cost a small fortune to rent. He tried to convince Reece to move someplace more affordable, but Reece needed what he called “the flash”. He didn’t seem to care that they could be paying half of what they shelled out every month and still live in a decent part of town.
Reece’s family had money.
His father was a partner at a major law firm in Manhattan and his mother was a well-known news anchor in the city. It was impossible to walk downtown without turning a corner and seeing a bench or a billboard plastered with one of their smiling faces. His father’s picture was on the benches, and as such suffered the wrath of marker-wielding teenagers who never stopped inventing new ways to draw a mustache on his face.
Colton looked up at a huge banner hanging on the side of a tall building as he walked past. “Channel 8 News: Your Source For Truth”. Reece’s mother smiled down at him, beaming with confidence, sympathy, and wisdom all at once. If Colton actually watched the news, or any television for that matter, he would probably watch her show. Reece hated his parents’ success—even though it allowed him to live comfortably—and quickly changed the channel every time one of their advertisements aired.
“Lousy phonies,” he would say, shaking his head. “If people only knew!”
Colton had met them at a dinner party months ago when he first moved to New York. They seemed genuine enough to him, and as he watched their interactions with Reece over the course of the evening, he figured out that they were embarrassed by their son. Reece resented them for thinking they were better than everyone else—just not enough to stop taking the checks they sent him every month.
Eventually, the small divide between Reece and his parents turned into a chasm. His father told him that they would pay for him to go to any college or trade school, but Reece sneered at the offer and told his father outright that it would never happen. He continued to accept the sizable checks they sent him every month, but beyond that he had no contact with his parents whatsoever.
Reece’s biggest problem—as Colton saw it—was that he had never really had any true ambition. When he became old enough to realize that he could get away with not working a day in his entire life—thanks to the copious sums his parents raked in every year—he decided to become a “student of life”, casting aside all responsibility and doing his best to live every day as if it were his last. Usually, that meant throwing as many parties as possible and drinking himself into unconsciousness, but every once in a great while he did something really stupid just to mix things up.
Colton had barely been able to tolerate that crazy lifestyle before he got his new job at the shipping depot and was even less tolerant afterward. The long hours left him exhausted and the only thing he wanted to do when he got home from work was sleep. Reece had done his best to be respectful, which for him meant one or two halfhearted attempts to keep the noise level to a minimum, followed by willful ignorance that there was ever a problem in the first place.
It was getting to the point where Colton was seriously considering moving out and finding his own apartment. There was no way he would find a place anywhere remotely as nice as where they were staying now, but he could see himself in a mid-grade studio apartment with a decent view of the city sometime in the very near future.
He probably would have moved out a lot sooner, but he and Reece had been friends for almost five years and Colton felt like he owed him a little more time to get his act together. In high school, Reece had jumped on the back of a bully that was standing over Colton and kicking him repeatedly in the stomach. The bully—Kyle Hanoway, the biggest linebacker on the school football team—easily plucked Reece off his back and threw him to the ground. Reece shouted insults at Kyle the whole time the gorilla of a football player was kicking the two skinny kids lying on the ground. Eventually a teacher saw what was happening and ran over to separate the flailing mass of arms and legs.
Colton and Reece became quick friends and stayed close throughout high school. They had their fights, as all friends do, and when Reece moved to New York City right after graduation, he left an open invitation for Colton to come join him. After things with his own father had deteriorated past the point of repair, Colton took Reece up on his offer and moved to Parkchester, bearing witness to his slow but steady decline into alcoholism and self-loathing.
Colton was just opening the front door to his apartment building when Reece walked out of the lobby elevator. He was wearing tennis shoes—a rarity, since he almost always wore sandals—and runner’s shorts.
“Uh-oh,” said Colton as he walked into the building.
Reece smiled and spread out his arms so Colton could admire his new clothes. His blond, messy hair hung down over his eyes and stuck out in random clumps. “Uh-oh?” he said. “I don’t think that’s what you meant.”
“You don’t exercise.”
“It’s never too late to start.” He walked past Colton and slapped him on the back. “Come on, I need your help with something.”
“Man, I’m tired and I need to eat. I just want to go upstairs and relax.” He tried to keep walking toward the elevator but Reece grabbed his arm and steered him back to the front door.
“Plenty of time for that later, amigo. This is important. You only live once, right?”
“The last time you said that you went missing for three days,” said Colton.
“And I have one of the best stories in the world because of that experience. No regrets!” He pushed Colton through the doorway. “Come on, this way,” he said. He made a laughable attempt to stretch his arms and legs before walking away at a brisk pace.
Colton sighed and jogged to catch up. “I hope we’re going to get food,” he said.
“In a bit. First there’s a little project I’ve been working on.”
“Can you at least tell me what it is?”
“If I did, you wouldn’t help me.”
“Probably not,” said Colton. He sniffed the air. “Are you wearing cologne?”
“Half a bottle. Nice, right?”
“You smell like gasoline. And your hair looks ridiculous.”
“It’s called ‘bedhead’, genius. It’s a real thing and chicks love it.”
They turned onto Third Avenue toward Melrose. Colton had only been to that area once or twice, and he looked around at all the buildings as Reece hurried down the sidewalk.
“What’s the big rush?” asked Colton, jogging to keep up.
Reece looked at his watch. “It’s almost shift change and we might miss her.”
“This is about a girl?”
“Of course it’s about a girl! You think I would buy all of these crappy clothes for no good reason? Give me a little credit.”
“Gee, I just thought maybe you wanted to, you know, exercise?”
“We both know that’s not gonna happen. Wait! There it is.” He stopped and pointed to a building across the street. Independent Records sold used albums and the latest indie releases, and attracted a wide variety of clientele, from business executives who had never expected to grow up and become nine-to-five office workers to young, tattooed, pale-skinned teenagers who laughed at the thought of one day wearing a suit and conforming to an establishment.
“She works in there?” asked Colton.
“Maybe say it with a little less disgust next time.”
“Oh, give me a break. Can we just get this over with so I can go home? I’m starving.”
“Okay,” said Reece, turning to face him. “Her name’s Jenna. I have it on good authority that she likes guys who exercise, but also guys with a little bit of a bad streak.”
“‘Good authority’? You just described every girl, ever.”
“So you’re my wing-man. Whatever I say to her, just agree, even if it’s a huge lie. And try not to act like a nerd. And don’t hit on her. I got dibs.”
“What are you going to say?”
“I dunno yet, but I’ll think of something.” He waited for a break in traffic and jogged across the street.
Colton imagined Reece getting clipped by a passing car—not enough to seriously injure him, but enough to make him want to abandon his scheme. It didn’t happen, so Colton hurried over to the other side of the street and stood next to the front door of the record store.
He looked at Reece and gestured inside. “After you.”
Reece winked at him and held two fingers up to his neck, pretending to check his own pulse as he walked into the store. Colton shook his head and followed him.
Haven lay in her bed fully dressed, blankets pulled up under her chin. She stared at the glowing red numbers on her alarm clock: 9:17 p.m. Her parents were still awake; still walking around downstairs, opening and closing cabinet doors and turning the kitchen sink on and off. Haven groaned in frustration and sat up to look out the window. Kayla was sitting in her car—a rusty, twenty-year-old Volvo—in the shadows near the end of the street, waiting for Haven to sneak out of the house.
The party of the century had already been raging for nearly twenty minutes. Haven tried not to think about all of the girls throwing themselves at Jason, begging him to pick them instead of some girl who didn’t care enough about him to show up on time.
She smiled when she remembered their conversation during lunch. The embarrassment of her blushing face and stupid comments (“Uh, fine”) dissolved into the background when she focused on the fact that he had asked her to go to the party.
Haven fell back onto her pillow and wriggled her head impatiently.
Then she heard it: the unmistakable sound of her parents’ bedroom door closing. The latch clacked into place loudly and was followed by nothing but sweet silence. She quickly threw off her covers and picked up a pile of dirty clothes. She laid them on her bed in the shape of her own sleeping body. Haven covered the clothes with the sheets and fluffed up the shape to make it look a little more realistic. She looked at it and shrugged—good enough.
Three soft knocks sounded from her bedroom door.
Haven froze and was about to throw off the clothes on her bed and climb under the sheets before she realized that she hadn’t yet done anything wrong. She could always just say she was having trouble sleeping and was organizing her room.
She smoothed down the front of her shirt as she walked over and opened the door. Noah stood in the hallway rubbing his eyes sleepily. His dinosaur pajamas were twisted sideways on his small frame.
“I had a scary dream,” he said.
Haven knelt down next to him and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Aw, Noah,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s over now.” She pulled him close and hugged him, then twisted his pajama shirt back into place. “Do you want me to sit with you for a little while?”
He nodded and walked back to his room. Haven quietly closed her door and followed him. Every once in a while he would get woken up by a nightmare, and the only way to calm him down was to stay by his side until he drifted off to sleep.
Haven said a mental apology to Kayla as she sat down on the edge of Noah’s bed and pulled his covers up to his chest. His chore that day had been to clean up the floor of his room by moving all of his toys into the dedicated toy chest sitting in the corner next to the closet. He had managed to get most of them into the container, but a few of his favorites were still scattered around the floor.
Small glow-in-the-dark stars were stuck to the ceiling directly over his bed. Noah looked up at them while Haven patted down his wild hair.
“I don’t think you’ll ever have to worry about going bald,” she said.
“You mean like Daddy?”
She laughed. “Right, like him.”
“His head’s shiny.”
“Like a cue ball.”
He chuckled. “Yeah!”
“Just don’t tell him that,” she said.
He held up his right pinky finger and waited. Whenever one of them asked the other to keep a secret, they made a solemn oath of silence by sealing the promise with a pinky swear.
Haven wrapped her own little finger around Noah’s and shook once, then bent down and kissed his forehead.
“You going to be okay, squirt?”
He nodded and turned away, yawning as he settled into the bed. Haven stood and walked to the door. She stepped into the hallway and left the door to Noah’s bedroom open a few inches so he would have a little light if he woke up again. Before she even reached the end of the hallway, she heard him quietly snoring.
She padded down the stairs quickly and tiptoed to the front door. Before her father got home from work earlier that day and while her mother was upstairs trying to get Noah to clean his room, Haven found a small can of WD-40 in the kitchen cupboard and sprayed the sliding deadbolt, thumb latch, and hinges on the front door. There was no sound as she slowly unlocked the deadbolt and pressed down on the thumb latch to open the door. She smiled as it swung open silently.
After she closed the door behind her, Haven carefully inserted her key into the lock and turned it until she felt the click of metal hitting metal. She stuffed the key in her jeans pocket and hurried across the lawn, looking back over her shoulder at her parents’ bedroom window to make sure they weren’t peeking out at her from behind the curtain.
“About friggin’ time,” said Kayla as Haven hopped into the passenger seat and gently closed the car door.
“Sorry! They stayed up late and then Noah had a nightmare.”
Kayla fired up the engine and winced at the loud, metallic squeal as it warmed up. “That’s why it pays to be an only child, like me.” She put the car into gear and turned around in the middle of the street.
“Because you turned out perfect.” Haven rolled her window down a couple inches and closed her eyes as the cool night air blew through her hair.
“That’s what you’re wearing?” said Kayla. Haven opened her eyes to see that her friend was sneering at her simple t-shirt and faded blue jeans.
“What’s the matter with this? It’s a classic combo.”
“If you don’t want to get laid, you mean.”
“Hey! Gimme a break. This is only our first date. And excuse me for not showing the whole world what my body looks like underneath my clothes.” She pointed at Kayla’s low-cut blouse. The hem around the bottom of the thin garment went down only as far as her belly button. Haven didn’t want to give her friend the satisfaction of knowing she looked great in what she was wearing.
“Maybe that’s why you’ve only had one real boyfriend,” said Kayla.
“Like that’s a bad thing.”
“Isn’t it?” She turned a corner sharply, tires squealing on the pavement.
Haven sighed and looked out the window. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Well, at least find out how many kids Jason wants before you give in. If it’s more than two, I say don’t do it. You should see what having three did to my Aunt Charlotte’s body. Whoo, man!” She puffed out her cheeks and crossed her eyes.
Haven laughed. “I just want to have a little fun tonight, you know? I just want to relax.”
“Hey, now! Miss Perfect Grades wants to have a little fun! Everybody watch out!”
It took another ten minutes before Kayla turned away from downtown Scottsdale and drove slowly through the wealthiest neighborhood in the city. Haven thought that her own house was nice, but it was a shack compared to the mansions lining both sides of the street.
They passed a sprawling two-story home on the left. Cars were parked on the perfect lawn at angles that would make them nearly impossible to move later.
Kayla drove by the house with her mouth open, staring through the huge glass windows at all of the people inside. “Oops,” she said. “We’re here.” She pulled her car into an empty spot on the side of the street a block away, then opened her door and started to get out.
“Wait!” said Haven. “What if my parents wake up and find out I’m not there? What if Noah has another nightmare?”
“Oh, come on. It’s a little late to be thinking about that now, isn’t it? You’re just nervous about Jason. Forget about it and relax.”
Kayla got out of the car, and before Haven could say anything else, she disappeared into the house.
“There she is,” said Reece, nodding to the counter.
Colton saw a petite young woman with short, dark hair and heavy eyeliner. She was reading a magazine that must have been extremely boring because she looked like she was about to fall asleep standing up.
“Not bad, actually,” said Colton.
“Not bad?!” said Reece. “What an insult! Like I’d do all this for anything less than ‘amazing’.”
“Okay, fine, she’s amazing. Now what do we do?”
Reece stretched his arms. “Follow my lead.”
He walked over to the counter and waited until the girl looked up from her magazine. “Yeah?” she said.
“Hey,” said Reece.
She waited for him to say something else.
“I just got done working out,” he said. “Now I’m gonna go work out some more.” He turned around and looked at Colton, who was hanging back out of embarrassment. “Right, Colton?”
“Hm? Oh yeah, he works out all the time.”
Reece seemed happy with his response and he turned back to the girl. “So, I was wondering if you have any music that’s good for that.”
“Good for what?” she said.
Reece scratched his neck nervously.
“You know, exercising,” he said. “Keeping the old heart rate up. My parents are rich, by the way.”
“Nothing.” He turned around and whispered to Colton. “Plan A is a dud. Move to Plan B.”
“Plan B?” whispered Colton.
“I can still hear you guys,” said the girl.
“Grab and go!” said Reece. He snatched a handful of CDs from a stack next to the register and ran toward the exit.
“Hey!” said Colton.
“Hey!” said the girl.
“Be my wingmaaaaaan!” shouted Reece as he ran out of the building.
The girl dropped her magazine and picked up the phone next to the register. “I’m callin’ the cops,” she said, raising her eyebrows at Colton as if she were daring him to try and stop her.
“Aw, man,” said Colton. He ran out of the store and followed after Reece.
Riding his bike around the city every day gave Colton the endurance to catch up with him easily. Reece was huffing loudly as he ran down the street, CD cases in hand.
“What is the matter with you?!” shouted Colton.
“She likes bad boys, remember?” Reece smiled and held up the CDs. “Look what I got!”
They split apart to pass a slow-moving elderly man on the sidewalk.
“Are you insane? You can’t get arrested again!”
Reece had been arrested twice since turning eighteen; once for being drunk and disorderly underage (he drank half a bottle of whiskey and stumbled out onto the street in the middle of the night to scream the wrong lyrics of his favorite songs to the entire neighborhood) and once for grand theft auto (the Porsche belonged to Reece’s father, who didn’t think it was as funny as Reece assured him it was). The local police knew Reece’s father well, as he represented a lot of the city cops in civil defense cases. The boys in blue could only protect his delinquent son for so long, however, and threatened to let Reece sit it out in jail with a permanent mark on his record if he ever pulled something stupid again.
Stupid like stealing a bunch of CDs in a moronic attempt to impress a girl.
They ran past a street that would have taken them directly to their apartment building. Colton slowed down but Reece kept running.
“Where are you going?!”
Reece stopped and looked around the street. He was breathing heavily and people were staring at him. His eyes lit up and he smiled when he saw a police car turn a corner two blocks down and drive toward them.
“There!” he shouted, pointing at the car. He turned around and ran back toward the record store.
Colton looked down the road which led to their apartment and wished he was asleep in his bed, then watched in disbelief as Reece almost knocked over the old man they had passed earlier on the sidewalk. The police car’s lights flashed and a loud squawk echoed from their loudspeaker.
Colton sighed and ran after his friend.
He caught up a couple blocks down.
“Hey!” he said. He reached out and grabbed Reece’s shirt. “We need to get off the road!”
Reece shook off his grip and kept running. “We’re almost there!” he said. “She has to see them chasing me or it was all for nothing.”
“You’re going to end up in jail, Reece!”
“Not today!” he said.
He knocked on the big glass window on the front of the record store as he ran past. He waved at the girl inside and pointed to the police car. Colton was surprised and infuriated when she genuinely smiled and tried to hide a giggle.
“I don’t believe it,” he said.
“That’s why I always get the girl!” Reece called over his shoulder. “Come on, let’s ditch these creeps!”
He rounded the next corner and ran down an alley. Colton followed, looking back as the police cruiser screeched to a halt on the sidewalk. Two police officers scrambled out of the car.
“This way,” said Reece.
They turned left at the end of the alley and kept running. Colton didn’t recognize the area and had no idea how to get back to their apartment. Reece turned a sharp corner and ran across the next street.
“Are they gone?” he shouted.
Colton looked back. “One of them is.”
They ran into the narrow alley on the other side of the road. At the end, the missing cop reappeared, breathing hard.
“Uh-oh,” said Reece.
That’s what I said, thought Colton. He and Reece both stopped in the middle of the alley, fighting to catch their breath. The two cops were running toward them, one from each side.
“Now what, Einstein?” said Colton. He knew there was no way to get out of the alley. Not both of them, anyway. He thought about Reece’s police record and the time he would spend in jail if he got arrested. He thought about the time in eighth grade when Reece, who had barely known Colton, jumped on the back of a bully to try and stop him from breaking Colton’s ribs.
“Now…” said Reece, “…I dunno.”
“I do. Follow me and don’t stop.”
Colton quickly sized up the running policemen and picked the smaller of the two. He ran down the alley as fast as he could, gaining distance between himself and the police officer behind him. Reece was doing his best to keep up.
“You’re crazy!” he said with a smile.
The cop in front of them looked surprised that they weren’t giving up.
“Don’t move!” he yelled as he reached for the taser holstered to his belt.
Colton was too fast. He turned around at the last second and fell backwards into the officer. His momentum was strong enough to knock the cop to the ground. Colton fell with him and pushed his elbow into the cop’s stomach as they hit the asphalt.
“Keep going!” he shouted to Reece.
Colton tried to scramble away but the police officer wrapped one arm around his neck and kept him pinned down.
Reece looked down as he ran past, then turned the corner and disappeared. The second cop ran up and side-stepped around his partner, but Colton stuck his leg out and hooked his foot around the man’s ankle. The cop stumbled forward and fell against an aluminum trashcan face-first, crushing in the middle. He rolled away from the can, groaning and holding his head.
The cop who had the iron grip around Colton’s neck squeezed it even harder.
“This is gonna be the worst day of your life, pal,” he said.
Colton didn’t doubt it for a second.
Haven walked across the lawn, navigating around teenagers she recognized from school. Everyone had a red cup in hand and seemed to be having a great time.
She caught up with Kayla just inside the door, who had thankfully decided to wait.
“What are they drinking?” asked Haven as they walked farther into the house.
“Shh! Don’t be a dork! Did you think they’d be serving fruit punch?” Kayla looked up and spun around to take in the view. “Wow, this place is great!”
Haven saw a massive chandelier hanging down from the ceiling thirty feet above. A spiral staircase ascended around it and led to the second floor.
“That probably cost more than my whole house,” she said.
The place was packed. Haven saw a few people she knew from her classes, but there were just as many that she had never seen before. Most of them moved to the constant, steady thumping of loud music. Small spotlights swiveled and flashed from their mounts atop bookcases and cabinets to paint the crowd in a rainbow of bright colors.
“Come on, let’s get a drink.” Kayla grabbed Haven’s hand and pulled her through the mass of people.
“But we don’t drink!”
“Keep your voice down! Just soda or something.”
Kayla waved to friends she knew from school as she moved toward the kitchen. There was an opening at the drink table and Haven waited while Kayla filled two red cups with soda. She turned back and handed one of them over.
“There!” she said. “No one will know the difference.”
“I’ll know!” boomed a loud voice behind them.
Haven turned around. Jason stood on the other side of the table, smiling at her. He had a cup in his hand and his cheeks were flushed red.
“You made it!” he said. “I thought you were gonna stand me up!”
Haven leaned closer to shout over the music. “I just had to wait until my parents—”
Kayla reached out and quickly pulled her back. “We had to ditch another party!” she said loudly, squeezing Haven’s arm.
“Oh, right,” said Haven, finally getting the hint. “This one is way better!”
“Yeah it is!” said Jason. He walked around the table and stood between them, turning his back to Haven. The smell of alcohol filled the air around him as he took the cup out of Kayla’s hand and leaned toward her. “Let’s get you something a little more apopriate—perpropriate—a little more tasty!”
The group of teenagers around the table shouted their approval as Jason tipped a bottle of clear brown liquid over Kayla’s cup and filled it to the brim. He passed it back to her and took a long chug from his own cup. Kayla smelled her drink and wrinkled her nose.
“Drink it!” he said happily. “Drink it, drink it, drink it!” He started a chant and everyone standing by the table joined in.
Kayla shrugged and started to lift the cup to her lips.
“Kayla!” said Haven.
“Oh, come on,” said Kayla, leaning forward and speaking just loud enough to be heard. “I thought we were going to have fun?”
Haven crossed her arms. “You remember the car crash two months ago?”
Kayla sighed and her shoulders drooped. “Yeah,” she said.
“Haley Jones and the other kids? All five of them died because they were drunk.”
“Yeah, I know. You’re right.” She sighed again. “Alright, fine.” Kayla put down the cup and looked at Jason. “No thanks,” she said over the music. “We’re good without it.”
Jason shrugged. “Okay.” He put one arm around her shoulder and steered her away from the table.
“Hey!” said Haven.
Jason turned back, looking surprised. “Haven! How rude of me. Please, make a drink and mingle. There’s a ton of guys here, so don’t be shy.” He took a sip from his cup.
“He’s drunk,” said Kayla. She pushed his arm off her shoulder and stood next to Haven.
“So what?” said Jason. “It’s my party.”
The people around them fell silent but music continued to thump loudly from the den. Colored lights swooped over the still crowd.
“I thought you asked me to come here,” said Haven. “Me.”
“Psssh, what?” said Jason. “You drew my name on the wall so I knew you and your friend would show up if I asked you.” He burped and pointed at Kayla. “But she’s really hot.”
Haven opened her mouth to say something but the words caught in her throat. Everyone was staring at her. Blood rushed to her cheeks as she reached out and slapped Jason’s face.
“Whoa!” he said. He blinked and shook his head, then he laughed. “She’s feisty!”
Everyone standing near the table laughed and suddenly the party was back on.
Haven knew she would cry if she stayed in that room a moment longer, but her feet felt like they were frozen to the ground.
Jason shrugged and finished the rest of his drink while Kayla put her arm around Haven’s shoulders and turned her toward the front door. She looked back and made a face at all the people staring at Haven. “Yeah, real great party!” she shouted sarcastically, giving the crowd a crooked thumbs-up as she and Haven walked out of the house.
“Thank you,” said Haven softly as Kayla opened the passenger door to the car and guided her into the seat. She sat unmoving, staring straight ahead.
Kayla walked around the car and got into the driver’s seat. The engine squealed to life and she pulled out onto the street. “Forget him,” she said. “You can do way better.”
“Yeah, right!” said Haven. She sniffed and looked out the window. “Why did he have to do it like that? He should have just asked you during lunch, and I could have tagged along like the pathetic loser I am.”
“Don’t say that. He’s the loser, Haven. Not you.”
“Yeah, but I’m still single.”
“Not for long,” said Kayla. “Do you know how many sympathy dates you’re gonna get after what happened back there?”
Haven smiled and punched her in the leg.
“I’m serious! The boys will be lining up around the block to try and make you feel better. You’re beautiful, even if you don’t think you are. Maybe just put on a little lipstick every once in a while, you know? I’m kidding.”
Haven sighed. “We’ll see.”
It was just past ten o’clock and the streets were mostly empty. Kayla turned onto the road which led to Haven’s house and leaned forward over the steering wheel.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing toward the horizon.
A red glow lit the night sky a mile away. As they drove closer, the glow intensified and flickered like a giant, red candle.
“It looks like a fire,” said Kayla.
“Drive faster,” said Haven.
Kayla sped up and drove down the middle of the street. A black car with tinted windows and no headlights appeared under a streetlight, moving toward them fast. Kayla screamed and jerked the steering wheel to the side. The black car zoomed past, barely missing them.
“Did you see that?!” she said, breathing hard. “That guy almost killed us!”
Haven was barely listening. She stared at the fire ahead and swallowed hard as her throat slowly tightened.
Through the car’s windshield, Haven watched her house burn.
Bright red flames licked up the sides of her two-story home and crawled onto the roof. One of the front windows shattered into a thousand shards of glass as fire burst out of the family room. Wood groaned and popped as beams split from the heat. Neighbors walked out of their own houses in pajamas and bathrobes, squinting bleary-eyed at the bright light.
“No!” screamed Haven. She kicked open the car door and ran into the yard. Tears streamed down her face as she stared up into the dancing flames. Even standing thirty feet away, the heat made her sweat. Her eyes wanted to close against the smoke but Haven forced them to stay open as she watched the raging fire.
“Haven!” shouted Kayla. She got out of the car and ran over to her. Haven started toward the house but Kayla grabbed her arms and held her back. “You’ll die!”
A burning support beam snapped on one corner of the house and the roof sagged down with a slow crunch.
Haven tried to push Kayla away so she could run inside, but she wasn’t strong enough. She pulled as hard as she could but grew weaker as the flames spread across the entire surface of her home. Kayla guided Haven to the ground so she could sit down.
The front door to the house fell off its hinges and broke against the porch. Parts of the second story collapsed into the first, crashing down and sending a flurry of burning embers into the air. Haven screamed and sobbed as the roof caved in and half of the house crumbled to the ground.
“Noooo…” she said softly, her voice tapering to a whimper. She sat with her knees tucked up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs while she rocked back and forth. Her tears glinted with the refection of red flame.
Kayla sat next to her and placed a hand on her back. In the distance, the piercing wail of police sirens grew louder.
Colton stood in one corner of the holding cell and crossed his arms. He tried to look tougher than he felt in the company of the other men who had been tossed into jail that night. There was only one long bench lining the wall opposite the cell door, and it was fully occupied by a row of mean-looking, tattooed brutes. Smaller men sat around the edge of the large cell and leaned their heads back against the concrete walls.
After being pushed into the room a couple of hours earlier, Colton had taken the only open spot on the bench. A little while later, three more criminals arrived, each one bigger than the last. The largest of the three walked over and stood before the bench, looking down over his enormous gut. Colton needed no further motivation; he got up and walked over to the corner, where he could see everything going on in the cell.
Most of the men kept to themselves, but a couple of them seemed to know each other and talked at length about what was going on in their lives. Colton was surprised that they never mentioned the crimes for which they had just been arrested, and instead spoke of family life and other things he would not usually expect career criminals to discuss.
Colton had never been in as much trouble as he was at that moment. There was no need to worry about the police calling his father; even if they were lucky enough to catch him awake and not in one of his alcohol-induced stupors, he would probably laugh and say that his son was getting what he deserved.
Colton made a strong point of not thinking about his father as much as possible—there were too many emotions that flooded his mind. Love mixed with hate; regret at the happy childhood he was denied; sadness and loneliness rolled into one. It was easier just to push it all far away where the confusing mass of feelings became fuzzy and blended into the background of everyday life.
It was simple enough for him to blame his mother for abandoning the both of them, but as he grew older, he realized that as much, if not more, of the fault rested with his father—there was a lot he could have done to make their lives easier. Instead he chose alcohol and anger.
To Colton, the gulf between them seemed impossible to bridge.
An hour passed, then two. Half of the men in the holding cell were either asleep or passed out drunk. Colton shifted on his aching feet. He wanted to sit down but the floor was filthy and the benches were still full. Cigarette butts and clumps of wet paper were scattered everywhere, and discolored puddles of unidentified liquid pooled in several spots around the room.
He never expected them to hold him such a long time. Reece had been the one to steal the CDs—Colton merely helped him get away from the police. He supposed the police officer he “fell” against in the alley could have upgraded Colton’s criminal charge to assault, in which case he was utterly doomed. Still, Reece could have been locked up for a year or more if he had been caught.
As a first-time offender, Colton hoped the judge would go easy on him and give him a small amount of community service with no actual jail time. There was always the possibility that they would try to make an example of him to prevent other potential screw-ups from assaulting police officers.
The rattle of keys and the sharp clicking of hard shoe soles in the hallway outside the holding cell grew louder as someone approached. All of the men in the room sat up eagerly and watched the door, hoping one of their friends or loved ones had come to pay their bail.
The same officer Colton ran into in the alley looked at him through a small viewing window as he unlocked the door.
“Great,” said Colton quietly.
The officer stepped into the cell and pointed at Colton. “You,” he said. “Let’s go. Now.”
The other men in the room grumbled and sank back into their seats. A few of them stared at Colton with malice as he walked past them and out into the hallway. He wondered if Reece had called his lawyer father and talked him into getting Colton released from the police station. In the morning he would have been processed and likely transferred to an actual jail, where he would spend the next few weeks waiting to go to trial for striking a peace officer.
He didn’t know how much money it would have cost to avoid all of that unpleasantness, but he imagined it was a great deal more than Reece could afford on his own.
After he was out of the room, the officer—whose name tag read “Sanders”—shoved Colton in the back, pushing him toward the end of the hall.
“Spoiled little rich boys like you really get on my nerves,” he said, then shoved Colton again.
“Where are we going?”
“You ruin my day, then you’re out by midnight when you should be rotting in that cell.” He pushed him harder.
Colton fought the urge to turn around and punch the cop in the face. He realized that was exactly what the man wanted: an excuse to keep him in the cell even longer.
“And you must be someone extra special, because they don’t let anybody out if they hit a cop. Especially if that cop is me. I got pull around here, let me tell you.”
They reached the end of the hallway and Sanders knocked on the door. There was a loud buzz and an officer in the next room pulled open the door to let them through.
They were in the main lobby of the building. An officer sat behind the counter reading a magazine and looked up over his glasses.
Sanders pushed Colton toward the exit. “Next time you hit a cop,” he said, “you won’t even make it to the station.” He walked back into the hallway that led to the holding cell and slammed the door behind him.
Colton looked at the officer sitting behind the counter, who dropped his eyes to his magazine and whistled softly to himself.
The waiting area was empty. Colton looked outside through the large glass windows on the front of the building and out at the street beyond. The exterior of the police station was well-lit at night, but he still couldn’t see the person who supposedly paid his bail and got him out of the holding cell.
The street outside the station was empty except for a few pedestrians hurrying along the sidewalk. The air was cold and Colton still wore the dirty jeans and t-shirt he had been wearing all day. He waited for a few moments with his arms crossed against the cold night air, thinking someone was going to appear and explain what was going on. He eventually gave up and started the long walk back to his apartment.
Colton turned the corner at the end of the street and saw Reece ahead, leaning against the brick wall of a building with his hands in his pockets, staring across the street at a pair of scantily-clad women who were hanging out in front of an adult video store. He didn’t notice as Colton walked up next to him and slapped him on the back of the head.
“Hey!” said Reece, pushing off the wall. He clenched his fists as if he were about to start throwing punches, then relaxed when he saw that it was Colton. “You scared me half to death.”
“Making new friends?” said Colton, nodding at the women across the street. The women giggled and waved when Colton looked their way.
“They wish,” said Reece. “But I should remember this spot for later.” He fell into step next to Colton when he started walking again. “So, how did it go?”
Colton shrugged. “Just a bunch of waiting around, really.”
Reece nodded. “Look, I need to say thank you before my ego takes over and won’t let me.”
“You would have done the same for me if I was in your situation. I should say thank you as well for getting me out, even though it was your idiotic idea that landed me in jail in the first place.”
“I got her phone number,” said Reece, smiling.
“If you didn’t, they would be dragging me back to the police station right now for murdering my best friend.”
“Aw, come on. It’s not that bad, right? You’re out, at least.”
“Did you have to call your dad and ask for the money?”
“Yeah, about that. It’s funny, but I actually didn’t have anything to do with your release.”
Colton stopped. “What do you mean?”
Reece walked a couple steps ahead, then stopped and turned back hesitantly. “I meant to tell you a couple weeks ago, but it just never came up.” He scratched the back of his neck and looked away. “My dad kind of cut me off. He’s not gonna send any more rent checks until I ‘get my act together’, or so he says, anyway.”
“So who got me out of jail?” asked Colton.
“That’s the funny part. After the cops hauled you away and I went back to the apartment to change so I could go ask the record store girl out on a date—her name’s Chloe and not Jenna, by the way—this guy knocked on the door right as I was about to leave. Real creepy dude. Tall with black hair and a grey suit. I thought he was from the funeral home and he was gonna tell me you died in jail or something.”
“Right, sorry. So this guy hands me this briefcase and tells me that if I give it to this other guy at the District Attorney’s Office, they would let you out! I can’t believe it worked!”
They started walking.
“Who was the guy you gave the briefcase to?”
“No idea. Never seen him before in my life. Looked very political, though,” said Reece.
“So you dropped off the briefcase, then went and got Chloe’s phone number?”
“Wellll…” said Reece.
“You went to the record store first.”
“I knew you would be okay, and look at you!” said Reece. He slapped Colton on the shoulder. “Like nothing ever happened.”
Colton shook his head and sighed. “So what’s the catch?”
“This guy gave you a briefcase—probably full of money—and told you to use it to get me out of jail. So what’s the catch?”
“That’s the best part of the whole thing! He didn’t want anything except to meet you after you were released.”
Colton frowned. “What do you mean, ‘meet me’?”
“Exactly what I said. He wants to talk to you, in person. He said I could go, too. I think he might have some sort of business offer for us. Great timing, right?” Reece turned left at the next street but Colton kept walking toward the apartment building. “It’s this way,” said Reece.
“He wants to meet now?” said Colton.
“That’s what he said. I had to agree before he handed over the briefcase.”
Colton looked down the unfamiliar street.
“This doesn’t feel right,” he said. “How does he even know who I am, or who you are?” Colton shook his head. “How did he know I was in jail in the first place?”
Reece raised his eyebrows. “For a guy who just survived a few hours in the lion’s den with cutthroats and thieves, I would think you’d be a little less of a chicken.”
“It doesn’t seem weird to you?” asked Colton.
“It seems like this guy wants to talk to us, hopefully about how we can both make tons of money with minimal effort. Of course it doesn’t seem weird to me.” He pulled a wrinkled piece of paper out if his jeans pocket and squinted at a written address, then looked up at the street signs next to the road. “I was right. Not much farther,” he said, and started walking.
Colton thought about it for a moment, then followed Reece down the dark street.
“I’m not going to bail you out of trouble again,” said Colton. “That was a one-time thing.”
Reece held up his hands. “Totally understandable. And again—thank you.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence. Reece led them down quiet streets to a tall, unmarked building in University Heights. All of the windows were dark and the brick face was crumbling from age.
“This is it,” said Reece.
“He told you to come here?”
“Yeah. Spooky, right?”
They walked up the small set of stairs that led to the front door.
“I feel like I’m about to have my organs harvested,” said Colton.
“Look, if you want, you can just say ‘thank you’ and then we’ll leave. We owe the guy that much at least. But there’s still the matter of all that potential cash…”
Colton sighed. “Let’s just get it over with.”
“Atta boy,” said Reece with a grin. He pushed open the old, wooden door and walked inside.
Colton followed Reece into the old building. They stepped into a single large, dark room. The entire first floor of the building had been gutted except for a few structural pillars which propped up the ceiling. Debris from interior walls that had been torn down years ago was piled into small mounds throughout the room.
A single, naked light bulb shined in the middle of the huge, cavernous space, hanging from a wire that ran up to the ceiling and over to an outlet on the wall. A man stood beneath the light, alone. He waited with his arms at his sides, feet planted on the ground in a wide stance. The man wore a long, dark coat over black clothes. His face was hidden by the shadows cast from the overhead light, but Colton could tell he was staring at them.
“This guy really knows how to make an impression,” whispered Reece.
“Is that him?” asked Colton.
“Yeah. Come on.”
They walked over to the edge of the light, their footsteps crunching on small chunks of debris and echoing loudly across the concrete floor. The man tilted up his head slightly and looked at them. His face was long and thin, with sunken cheek bones and deep-set eyes. His black, slicked-back hair glistened wetly in the light.
Reece cleared his throat. “So, you already know me. This is Colton.”
Colton took a step forward and looked into the shadow covering the man’s face. “Thank you for your help.”
The man tilted his head down. “I am Alistair,” he said in a slight English accent. “You have a good friend here, to do such a thing without knowing who I am or what I really want.”
Colton looked over at Reece. “If you say so.”
Alistair squinted at him. “Perhaps you are wondering why it was done at all.”
“It crossed my mind.”
“I have been looking for you a long time, Colton Ross. You were not easy to find. But now…here you are.” He smiled to reveal a mouth full of perfectly white, straight teeth.
“Right,” said Colton. “Look, I just came to say thank you, so thank you. Reece, let’s go.”
They started to walk away.
“Colton,” said Alistair.
Colton turned just as Alistair threw a small, round object directly at his face. Colton ducked to the side and reached up his hand. It hit his palm with a loud SMACK. He turned it over—it was an apple.
“What is that supposed to be?” asked Reece. “He wants you to have a snack?”
Alistair smirked and walked toward them. “He knows what it means. Don’t you, Colton?”
Colton stared at the red piece of fruit. He had always been so careful after buying the apples from the produce stand. He made sure that no one was watching before the fruit withered and died in his palm.
“Like I said,” continued Alistair. “It took me a long time to find you. Searching for you in the world was like throwing a rock into a big pond to try and hit an invisible fish.” He frowned. “I threw many rocks. It took far too long, and for that I am truly sorry.”
“Who are you?” asked Colton.
“Me? I am just one small gear in a giant machine. But you are a big gear. Bigger than me, bigger than almost everyone I know. At least you will be, someday.” He laughed. “You are very important, Colton Ross.”
“What is this psycho talking about?” asked Reece. “Can we please leave now?”
He tried to pull Colton toward the front door, but Colton took a step closer to Alistair.
“What are you?” he asked.
Alistair smiled and wagged his index finger at him. “Now we are getting somewhere.” He walked back to the hanging light bulb and reached up to touch it. The light dimmed and Alistair’s skin seemed to glow ever so slightly in the darkness. He lowered his arm and light flooded back into the bulb.
Alistair nodded toward the apple. Colton held it up and concentrated on its red skin. He watched the apple slowly wither and die in his palm, shrinking into nothing more than a blackened core. He felt the warmth grow between his shoulder blades and spread down to his hands.
“Good,” said Alistair, laughing. “Good! You have discovered the first part. But do you know the second?”
Colton dropped the shrunken apple and set his hand on Reece’s shoulder.
“Colt, what are you—” said Reece, then stopped. “Hey, that’s really warm. How are you doing that?” He looked down at his shoulder in amazement.
Alistair clapped his hands and smiled. “Excellent. Almost a year with no training and you can do all of that on your own. I am very pleased.”
“What is it?” asked Colton. “The thing we do, I mean. What are we?”
Alistair looked at him. “I was born in England,” he said, “but I am not English. You were born in America, but you are not American. We are something different. Something very special.”
“Enough with the mystery, already!” said Reece. “My shoulder feels amazing, by the way.”
Colton waited eagerly for an answer.
“You need special teaching,” said Alistair. “This is a very powerful gift you have—one that has gone to waste until now. Someone must show you the true path. I will tell you everything, but not here. You must come with me.”
“I can’t leave. I have a job and an apartment…and a life,” said Colton.
“Your job will be waiting for you when you get back, if you still want it. Your apartment, well…your friend here has no more money, so maybe it’s time to find something else, yes? And he can come along as well. I insist that he does, actually. As for your old life, I can assure you it won’t be missed.”
“I’d listen to the guy, Colt. This could be really big.”
Colton crossed his arms and kicked at a small piece of broken concrete on the floor. “Where do we have to go?” he asked.
Alistair grinned and showed his perfect teeth. “Montana.”
“Wait, what?” said Reece. “That might sound good to you, being from overseas or whatever, but Montana? I thought you were going to say Egypt or Switzerland or someplace fun and, you know, exotic.”
“You don’t like Montana? I must admit, it wasn’t my first choice, either. But it grows on you after a time. We go where we’re needed, so to speak,” said Alistair. “And I am paying for everything.”
“Oh,” said Reece. “In that case, where’s the plane?”
Colton couldn’t force himself to completely let go of caution long enough to take the chance that the man was telling him the full truth.
“Colton, listen,” said Alistair. “You have a wonderful gift, and you have the potential to help a lot of people. I know you’ve been doing it already, haven’t you? At the homeless shelter. Don’t be modest! Your instincts led you there because those people needed help. I can show you how to do so much more.”
Colton stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged—the choice was made. “So, what’s in Montana?” he asked.
Alistair smiled. “More people who are just like you.”
Two weeks after her house had burned down into nothing more than a pile of charred wood and debris, Haven went back to try and find anything that had survived the flames. It took her a few minutes to work up the courage to step over the blackened wooden plank that was the only remaining piece of what used to be the front door.
As she walked through the grey and black ruin, her feet kicked up small clouds of fine powder, which floated into the air and clung to her clothes. She had barely taken ten steps and it looked as if she had been crawling around in dirty air vents all afternoon.
Yellow police tape still encircled the yard to keep out anyone with more than a passing curiosity about the unusual fire that had so quickly consumed the Kincaid home. She had been told that she was allowed to come back anytime she wanted, as long as she called the local police and informed them of her visit.
The fire was classified as “unusual” because the Fire Scene Investigator could not yet determine what started the blaze. The authorities suspected arson due to the strange red color of the flames, so they had been searching for an accelerant—some type of chemical that started and fed the powerful fire.
Haven’s parents had both been in bed at the time—presumably asleep—and had suffocated on the poisonous fumes.
The police could find no sign of Noah. Haven overheard one of the firemen explaining to a news reporter that the remains of those who died in a fire were usually very easy to identify. Sometimes only a bone was left, but it was enough to run a DNA test and identify the victim. Haven was still unclear as to whether or not the police intended to classify the fire as an accident—they told her they couldn’t be sure until they ran more tests. No one seemed to want to talk to her about the devastating incident. Whenever she managed to pull someone aside, they simply said that they were working on it and would have an answer for her soon.
Haven felt utterly helpless.
Noah’s room—which had collapsed down through the first floor and fallen into the kitchen—was covered with pieces of his burned bed. A few blackened toys lay scattered across the broken floor. The police had briefly mentioned that it could have been a kidnapping, but Haven could tell by the look on their faces that they thought it was only a matter of time before they found his remains in the ashes. They had no leads to follow besides the black car that Haven had seen driving away from her home when the fire started. Since she hadn’t seen the license plate or the driver, the chances of the police finding the car were practically zero.
Haven hugged herself and shivered as she walked through the ruins of her home. Most of the second floor had completely fallen through to the first, leaving the burnt, skeletal frame around the outside of the house open to the air. The sky above was grey with rain clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance; it was supposed to rain later that afternoon.
She brushed the tears from her eyes and stopped at the threshold to her parents’ room, hesitant to go any farther. What was left of their bed mattress covered the broken pieces of the bed frame in the middle of the room. A huge hole was burned right through the center of the mattress in a long oval that was exactly where her parents had been sleeping when—
Haven quickly turned and walked away to search other parts of the house.
Her closest relatives were her Aunt and Uncle in San Diego. They couldn’t make it out for the funeral service and had wired her some money so she could stay in a hotel just down the street until she got her plans figured out. They said she could even stay with them if she wanted. Everyone kept telling her that the best thing she could do after something traumatic was to be around other people, but she didn’t care. Haven wanted to be alone so she didn’t have to listen to anyone telling her how sorry they were for her loss.
The service for her parents had been two days earlier at the funeral home across town. Extended family flew in from all over the country; people she hadn’t seen in years and barely remembered. They were all nice to her, mumbling their apologies and offering to do anything if they were able, just to let them know. She thanked them all and tried to be as sweet as possible but couldn’t say much more than that because she would start crying again. It took her at least half an hour to stop once the tears started.
Everything she did reminded her of her family. She needed a dress for the funeral, and that made her think of all the times she went shopping with her mother. The first time she ate a bowl of cereal after the fire, she couldn’t help but think about trying not to wake her parents whenever she crept downstairs at night to eat ice cream.
She felt absolutely awful about not being nicer to them in the weeks leading up to the fire.
Haven stopped next to the collapsed frame of the couch in the family room and kicked at a small pile of rubble. The tip of her shoe caught on something small and pushed it under the couch. She knelt down and pulled it from the ashes.
It was a glow-in-the-dark star from the ceiling in Noah’s room. One of the five points had burned off. She wiped a fresh tear from her cheek and rubbed her wet finger against the star to wash away the black soot covering the plastic.
Haven had been unable to get past the crippling guilt that consumed her in the first week after she lost her parents. She did little more than spend every day in her hotel room, yelling at herself and pounding the walls because she had gone to that party and hadn’t stayed home with her family.
The guilt gradually lessened after the first week, but she knew it would never fully go away.
Haven squeezed Noah’s star in her fist before putting it into her jeans pocket.
She walked over the debris in the family room and onto the front yard. The grass was burned twenty feet out from the house in all directions. The fire department had been able to stop the flames from spreading to the neighboring houses, but there was nothing they could do to save Haven’s home; it was already too far gone by the time they arrived.
The speed at which the house was consumed gave more credibility to the theory that an accelerant had been used, and meant that—if anyone had kidnapped her brother—they had also murdered her parents by purposely starting the fire to cover their tracks. As Haven walked toward the street and the waiting police car, she couldn’t help but feel hatred toward the officer inside along with every other person who was supposed to be helping to find her missing brother and the people who had killed her parents.
She didn’t say anything as she got into the passenger seat and closed the door. All she did was cross her arms and watch the ruins of her home drift away as the officer pulled the car out onto the street and drove toward her hotel.
Haven’s first day back at George Walker High School started terribly.
She was given a police escort a few days earlier when the “experts” were supposedly getting ready to declare Noah’s absence a kidnapping. A police officer trailed after her wherever she walked—which was hardly anywhere—and drove her to the few places she was forced to visit.
When her escort dropped her off in front of school that morning, reporters were already waiting for her, microphones in hand. They pushed forward as she got out of the car, leaning to the side so their cameramen could get that all-important close-up of a girl who had lost everything. The reporters shouted questions about how it made her feel to know that her parents’ killers were still on the loose, and could she please tell everyone how scared and worried she was about her kidnapped brother.
Even though the arson and kidnapping was still a solidifying theory, the local press picked up the story and ran with it. Haven had to change hotels twice because of the sea of reporters that waited outside her room after they found out where she was staying. The more days that passed without any sign of Noah in the ashes, the more certain everyone became that it was kidnapping and murder.
Haven kept her mouth shut as she shoved her way through the crowd and into the school. The reporters weren’t allowed past the front gates, and she was at least thankful for that much.
The day went downhill from there.
She didn’t understand why she even had to go back in the first place. There was no reason she couldn’t have done all of her work from her hotel room. The stay at the hotel was only temporary, though, since she found out the state wouldn’t allow her to live anywhere without an adult guardian for too much longer. She may have been able to get away with it if her life hadn’t turned into such a media circus.
Principal Rivera had dropped the idea of Haven switching to Advanced Placement courses in light of the tragedy, which suited Haven just fine. She doubted she would be completing her school work anyway.
What’s the point? she thought.
Life had turned into endless days of sitting at the police station, answering the same questions about her family over and over again. No, she didn’t know of anyone who may have wanted to hurt her parents and kidnap her brother. No, she was absolutely certain she loved them and never wanted anything bad to happen to them. The line of questioning that led to that last statement disturbed Haven more than anything else. The implication was that she had something to do with the horrible fire. The first time one of the policemen had even remotely hinted at that possibility, Haven screamed at him and ran out of the room.
Now that she was back at school, Haven hoped that some small degree of normalcy would creep back into her life and that she could put the events of the past several weeks behind her.
If only it were that easy.
Everywhere she went in the school, students looked at her suspiciously and whispered to each other, laughing or staring wide-eyed in potential fear. It wasn’t until she finally caught up with Kayla in between classes that she learned the reason why.
“Hey,” said Haven as she walked up to Kayla’s locker. Kayla put a book inside and pulled out a folder that she dropped into her backpack.
“Oh, hey!” She zipped up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder, then started walking down the hallway.
“I called you, like, a hundred times last week,” said Haven. “Why didn’t you ever pick up?”
Kayla wouldn’t make eye contact with her. “I thought you needed your space, you know? I didn’t want to bother you.”
“I needed someone to talk to, Kayla.” said Haven. She had to swallow to stop her throat from tightening. “You’re supposed to be my friend. I thought I could count on you.”
“Look, I’m sorry, alright? I don’t do well with…with situations like that.”
“Yeah, me either. But you could have answered your phone.”
They passed a group of students who stopped talking and stared at Haven.
“Why does everyone keep doing that?” she asked. “They stare at me like I’m some kind of freak.”
“You mean you don’t know?” said Kayla.
Kayla stopped and sighed. “They all think you did it.”
“‘Did it’? What do you mean? Did what?”
Kayla still wouldn’t look at her. “You know…”
Haven’s eyes opened in shock. “They think I burned my own house down?!”
Every student within earshot stopped what they were doing and turned to look at her.
“Shhh!” said Kayla. “Keep your voice down.”
“But you were there! You saw it yourself!”
“I already told them,” said Kayla. “Over and over again, but they didn’t care. Ever since one of the reporters said they hadn’t ruled you out as a suspect, it’s the only thing they believe. You know how rumors work. The worst one is always the favorite.”
“Well, that’s just great!” said Haven, throwing up her hands in frustration. “Everyone at school thinks I’m some kind of psycho!”
“I don’t,” said Kayla. “You know the truth, and that’s all that matters. Look, my class is right over there. I gotta go.”
Kayla walked away and ducked into her classroom. Haven stood on the sidewalk in front of the building, too stunned to move.
The bell rang. Students hurried past, trying to get to class before the teacher marked them tardy and sentenced them to detention. Haven watched them scurry inside, and she was both envious and furious that the biggest thing most of them had to worry about was punctuality.
She walked slowly to her next class—history, her least favorite. The teacher didn’t say anything when Haven walked in five minutes late, he just paused and waited. All the students stared at her as she walked to the back of the room and sat at her desk. The teacher cleared his throat to get the students’ attention, then resumed his lesson.
Haven wasn’t hungry at lunchtime, but she wanted to catch up with Kayla and reclaim a sense of what her life was like before the fire—even if it was only a fraction of what it used to be. She was still mad at her for not picking up her stupid phone when Haven needed her most, but they could talk about that later.
She walked into the cafeteria and looked for her friend. It was the very beginning of lunch, so most of the tables were full. Kayla sat on the other side of the room and Haven started to make her way across the cafeteria.
As she got closer, she noticed that Kayla was sitting with someone—a boy. The boy said something and Kayla laughed. She flipped her hair back playfully and touched the boy’s arm. Haven couldn’t see who it was since he had his back to her, but as far as she knew Kayla didn’t have a boyfriend. Maybe she had picked one up while Haven was away.
Haven smiled as she walked up to the table, happy to meet Kayla’s new guy. Kayla noticed her when she was still a couple steps away and stopped laughing immediately. She stared at Haven like a deer caught in headlights. Her mouth was slightly open as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t force out the words. She just sat there, dumbfounded, while Haven walked up, smiling.
The boy turned around in his seat. It was Jason. “Oh, man…” he said. He turned back to his food and stabbed at some french fries with his fork.
“Haven, I—I’m sorry,” said Kayla. “I know I should have told you…”
Haven walked past the table quickly.
“Wait!” said Kayla.
“Let her go,” said Jason. “If she can’t grow up, then that’s her problem.”
Haven felt blood rush to her face. She ran toward the exit and planned to keep running as soon as she was outside. She wouldn’t stop until she was far away from that place—from those people. She wanted answers. No more waiting, no more uncertainty. She would make the police find out who killed her parents and kidnapped Noah.
Haven was halfway to the cafeteria door when a powerful heat blossomed on the back of her neck and ran down her spine. It spread outward, stretching to every part of her body. The blushing warmth in her face paled in comparison to the boiling heat that coursed beneath her skin. Arms, legs, torso, and head—every part of her felt like it was burning. She stopped walking and looked down at herself to make sure she was not actually on fire.
“Hey, what’s wrong with her?” someone said from a nearby table.
Haven tried to run, but her legs wouldn’t move. She tried to call for help but her voice caught in her throat.
She looked down in horror as a bright blue ball of light formed around her right hand.
Not here, she thought. Not now.
Another sphere of light grew from the palm of her other hand until it completely encompassed her wrist and fingers. It looked as if she had stuck her hands into two large balls of blue light. Haven tried to run again, then realized that her feet weren’t touching the ground. She floated into the air and hovered next to a table, still rising toward the ceiling.
The students in the cafeteria screamed and backed away. Several of them held up food trays for protection.
The blue light from Haven’s hands turned to flames and spread to cover her entire body, like fire crawling over gasoline-soaked wood. She felt a tingling sensation on each of her shoulder blades and looked behind her as two huge wings of blue energy unfolded from her back. The tips of the wings touched the ceiling and burned black holes into its smooth surface.
In the shiny plastic reflection on the bottom of the food trays that were being held up for protection, Haven saw a blue angel hovering above the tables of the cafeteria. Her hair floated around her head as if she were submerged in calm water.
Her vision filled with light and she reached up to feel the energy pulsing from her eyes. The flames covering her body cracked like lightning and whipped back and forth violently—a thousand dancing snakes made of blue fire.
Haven’s back arched and she screamed. A flat circle of blue energy shot out from the middle of her body. Nearby students dove to the ground as the ring expanded and passed overhead. It shattered every window in the room and burned into the walls, leaving behind a black strip that ran completely around the inside walls of the cafeteria.
By that point the students no longer cared to see what happened next. They pushed each other out of the way in a mad scramble to leave the cafeteria.
The blue energy faded from Haven’s vision. Darkness clouded her sight and she felt weak. Her body dropped from the air and fell to the hard ground. She looked up at the ceiling until the world around her faded to black.
Colton sat with Reece in the back of a dark SUV and fidgeted nervously with the window controls.
“I still don’t get why they won’t let us roll the windows down,” he said.
“Who cares?” said Reece. He settled into his plush leather seat and leaned it as far back as it would go, then folded his arms behind his head and kicked off his shoes. “Stop worrying. I trust the man completely.”
Alistair was with the driver in the front of the SUV behind a partition of black glass that separated the cab from the rest of the vehicle. Colton hadn’t been introduced to the driver; he and Reece were ushered into the SUV as soon as they walked out of the abandoned building.
He had no clue where they were at that moment, and Alistair hadn’t spoken to them in over an hour. Colton flicked the window switch and sank back into his seat.
The rear section of the SUV had been made up to look more like a limousine than an off-road vehicle. A bench lined the very back and two swiveling leather recliners took up the remaining space. There were two LCD screens mounted into the paneling, one on each side of the driver’s glass partition, but neither Colton nor Reece had been able to figure out how to turn them on.
Reece fell asleep shortly after that, leaving Colton to wonder if he had made the right choice in leaving everything behind. He owned a dresser full of clothes and a few odds and ends, but nothing that he felt genuinely distressed about walking away from. He would have liked to tell his boss he was going away, but figured that he might be back in only a day or two if Alistair’s little adventure turned out to be a bust.
An hour later, the SUV slowed to a stop. Colton reached over and punched Reece in the shoulder until he woke up. The front passenger door opened, then closed. Footsteps crunched on loose gravel toward the back of the SUV, then one of the side doors opened and blinding morning sunlight poured into the vehicle.
Alistair smiled at them. “We’re here.”
Colton got out of the car with shaky legs. He stretched to loosen his muscles and cracked his back. They had parked in the middle of a huge empty lot that was paved with black concrete and painted with bright yellow lines.
Reece hopped down out of the SUV and whistled. “Is that yours?” he asked.
Colton turned around and shielded his eyes from the sun. A small two-engine jet was waiting a hundred feet away. Heat fog drifted out from its still-running engines, distorting the grassy field behind it that stretched away into the distance. The runway was in the middle of nowhere, from what Colton could tell. There were no buildings nor any other signs of civilization.
“Not mine,” said Alistair. “A little too flashy for my taste. But the owner would very much like to meet you, Mr. Ross, and he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” He gestured them toward the plane.
“Listen,” said Colton as they walked across the pavement. “I’m gonna need some clothes, or something, and a shower. And sleep, eventually.”
“Understandable,” said Alistair, nodding sincerely. “Very soon, Mr. Ross. I promise. First you must meet the man behind the money which severed your chains and set you free.”
Colton looked at him hesitantly.
Alistair smiled. “A little dramatic, I know. Forgive me. Old habits, you know.” He gestured up the stairs that led into the plane. “Please.”
Reece hurried past and disappeared into the plane. Colton followed after him.
“Wow,” said Reece.
If the inside of the SUV was a limo, then the inside of the jet was a palace. White leather lined all of the walls, seats, inlays, and cup holders. White pinpoints of lights traced the aisle to the back of the plane, where they climbed up onto the back wall and were fashioned into a complex geometric pattern.
There was only one seat per row on either side of the aisle, and they were so luxuriant that they put the impressive chairs in the SUV to shame. A small black table with a sleek LCD screen set into its surface was bolted to the floor next to each chair.
Only one seat on the entire plane was occupied. Halfway down, a clean-cut man sat staring at them. Colton thought he was around fifty years old, but as Alistair ushered him closer, he saw that the man could not have been much more than thirty-five at the oldest. Colton couldn’t tell where he was from; the man’s face seemed to contain elements from three or four different ethnicities, depending on how the light was hitting him.
“Please, have a seat,” said the man. His voice also belied his origins; it flowed easily with the fused inflections of many different languages. The chair in front of him was already turned around to face backward, so Colton sat down.
Reece sat in the chair across the aisle.
The door closed and the engines whined powerfully as the jet coasted across the pavement.
“You must be thirsty,” said the man, turning to Reece. “Alistair, something to drink for Mr. Ross’s friend.”
“Thank you,” said Reece. “This is a great plane you have here.”
The man smiled. Alistair returned promptly and handed Reece a clear glass with clear liquid within. Ice cubes clinked against the glass as Reece raised it up.
“Cheers,” he said, and drank. “Hey, that’s pretty good. What is it? I’m not sure I—I—”
His eyes rolled back into his head and his body slumped down. Alistair took the drink from Reece’s hand before he could drop it and eased him into the chair. He pulled the seat belt across Reece’s lap and snapped it into the buckle on the other side, then spun the chair around to face away from Colton and the other man.
“Hey!” said Colton, standing up.
“It’s alright, Mr. Ross,” said the man in the chair. “He is simply resting. He will wake up in several hours, feeling much better than he was before. I promise.”
Colton looked down the plane toward the door. The ground outside was already moving too quickly for him to jump. He would also have to leave Reece behind, and that wasn’t going to happen.
The man in the chair cleared his throat. “I need to speak with you about some things that are best not discussed with…well, with those who might not fully understand.”
“You friend does talk an awful lot,” said Alistair.
“Thank you, Alistair,” said the man in the chair.
Alistair smiled and nodded at Colton, then walked to the front of the plane and closed a partition behind him.
“My name is Bernam,” said the man. “Alistair and the driver—even the pilot—work for me.”
“Where are we going?” asked Colton. He slowly sat down in his chair but did not fully relax.
Bernam smiled to show a row of perfect white teeth, just like Alistair’s. “Montana, as my associate told you earlier.”
The nose of the plane rose in the air and Colton leaned back into his seat to keep from falling forward. He looked outside through one of the round windows lining the cabin and watched the ground drop away quickly.
“We are persecuted for our abilities, Colton, just like everyone else who is branded as ‘different’ by conventional society.”
Colton looked at him. “So you have it, too?”
Bernam pressed a black button set into the panel next to his seat. “Charles, no need to panic.”
He released the button and a moment later the voice of the pilot spoke from speakers embedded in every headrest of each chair in the plane: “Yes, sir.”
Bernam placed his palm against a strip of lights running along the wall next to his seat. Colton looked around, but nothing happened. Bernam smiled.
A low hum built throughout the cabin, seeming to come from every surface in the plane. All of the lights dimmed and almost blinked out. The plane’s jet engines whined and struggled to operate. The cabin shook as the plane dropped a few feet in the air.
Bernam removed his hand from the wall and all of the lights instantly brightened. The engines powered up to full capacity and the plane leveled itself and continued on its way as if nothing had ever happened.
“What…” said Colton, staring dumbfounded. “I can’t do anything like that.”
Bernam chuckled. “Not yet, no. But we are the same, Colton. Our ‘gift’—for lack of a better word—is what makes us special, what sets us apart from the rest of the world. Would you like something to eat?”
“What?” Colton was thrown off by the sudden change in subject.
“Are you hungry?”
“No. I mean yes, but I’m fine.”
“Very well. I’ll keep going then, shall I?”
“You are a Conduit. A channeler, as I am. You take the energy around you and harness it to your whim, focusing it onto a target of your choosing.”
“Like the apple.”
“Nothing. It’s not important.”
“You can store this energy inside of you without unleashing it, but not for long. With training, the strongest of us can contain it for half a minute at the most.”
Colton didn’t want to tell Bernam that he could hold on to the energy from an apple for half an hour, if not longer.
“What happens if you don’t release it?”
“It has to go somewhere,” said Bernam. “It’s like lightning in that sense, you see. If the energy is not redistributed in time, it will take the easiest way out—through your nervous system, internal organs, and anything else blocking its way to freedom.”
Colton swallowed hard.
“But don’t worry about that,” said Bernam. “That’s what the training is for. Your limits will be tested and you will know exactly how much you can handle at one time.”
Colton nodded. “So, are you some kind of a leader?”
Bernam laughed. “Not at all. I am a businessman with a vested interest in your future. Yours and everyone who is like you.”
“How many are there? Like us, I mean,” said Colton.
“Not nearly enough. And with the constant fighting it’s a wonder there are any left at all.”
“Who are you fighting?”
“Ourselves. Every Conduit needs a Source—someone to supply the energy that will be used. A Source has the ability to create their own energy. The most powerful Source can harness something called Phoenix energy—a label whose meaning will be made obvious to you in time. There are far fewer Sources than there Conduits, making them somewhat of a rare breed among rare breeds. The main issue is that there are those who would rather keep their abilities to themselves and use them to hurt the innocent.”
“Is that why you’re fighting them?”
Bernam scoffed. “One of many reasons. They have joined together to kidnap unprotected Sources and Cons for cruel experimentation. You are lucky that I found you before they did.”
Haven opened her eyes and blinked against the harsh white light coming from the ceiling. It flooded her vision and stabbed into her brain like a dull knife. She tried to hold up her arm to block the light but was unable to lift it from the hard surface on which she lay.
She squinted down at her body as the room started to come into focus. She was on her back atop a hard metal table and her arms and legs were pinned down with thick plastic straps wrapped around her wrists and ankles. She wore a loose, blue cotton shirt and matching pants, much like the scrubs her mother would wear to work at the hospital. Thin wires ran out of a hole in the floor and up to the table. The multicolored wires burrowed into the backs of her hands and the skin of her arms all the way up to her shoulders.
Haven tried to scream for help, but a thick plastic strip ran over her mouth, sealing it closed. She struggled violently to break free from her bindings, thrashing back and forth on the table and pounding her arms and legs against the metal.
Her vision started to go black as the pain in her head worsened. She closed her eyes and stopped moving as she fought a wave of dizziness that swirled inside her head as if she were on a violent rollercoaster. Haven tilted her head to let her wild hair fall to the side, then slowly opened her eyes and looked around the room.
The glaring light in the ceiling emanated from a single, round fixture which hung down like some bizarre chandelier. It had a square outline but a domed top and the element was covered with a thin metal mesh, like a cage.
The table upon which Haven lay was the only piece of furniture in the room. It was a single metal slab supported by four square metal legs that were bolted into the hard polished floor. The walls were dull white—the same as the ceiling—with no decoration of any kind. The only window was a small square of tinted glass set into the tall metal door in the wall past her feet.
She waited for what seemed like hours, drifting in and out of consciousness between fits of struggling. Every time she tried to escape, her body became weaker and weaker, until eventually the only thing she could do was lay on the table, breathing in quick gasps like a caged, frightened animal.
Later that day—or that week, or month; she had no way of knowing—they came for her.
The door opened slowly, hissing loudly on pneumatic pistons. She strained against her bindings to raise her head and look. The wires in her arms pulled painfully at her skin when she tried to sit up. As the door swung farther on its hinges, she saw that it was incredibly thick—at least a foot of solid metal from front to back, with two massive, rectangular sliding bolts in the center.
The door hit the inside wall with a deep, ominous thoooommmm, and two men wearing full-body protective suits walked into the room. The suits were made of white, flimsy plastic and encased their bodies from head to toe. Tinted face shields kept Haven from seeing who they were.
One of the men walked over to the table and knelt down by the wires that ran up from the floor. The other stood next to Haven and pulled the wires out of her arms, one at a time. Each time he pulled one out, he left behind a tiny bead of rising blood. The man under the table was feeding the wires into the floor as his partner removed them from Haven’s skin.
When all the wires had been yanked from her arms and hands, the men left the room. The door remained open, and Haven would have tried once more to escape her bindings if only she weren’t so weak. She rested her head back on the table as tears ran from the outside corners of her eyes.
The sound of wheels rolling across the floor echoed through the open doorway. It grew louder until the men reappeared, pushing a cart that looked like a smaller version of the table in the room.
They worked quickly, unstrapping her left leg and securing it to the moveable table before unstrapping her right leg. They freed both of her arms and shifted her body onto the cart. She made muffled noises through the plastic strip covering her mouth as she tried to ask them what they were going to do to her. Her eyes blinked slowly as she fought to stay awake. The dizziness returned and her eyelids fluttered rapidly.
After they got her settled onto the cart, the men slipped her hands through the new plastic bindings and tightened them around her wrists. Haven lifted her head, but one of the men placed his hand on it and gently pushed it back down to the table.
They wheeled the cart out through the doorway and down a long, bright hallway. Tall metal doors—just like the one leading to her room—lined both sides of the hall. Haven couldn’t see past the tinted windows to find out what was inside.
The men pushed her cart through two large swinging doors at the end of the hallway and into a large, dark room. At the back of that room was a smaller door which led to an even smaller room; barely big enough for her cart and the two men to move around it.
They stopped the cart in the middle of the small room and clicked the wheels into four locking grips on the floor. One of the men wheeled over a small cart loaded with all kinds of monitoring equipment while the other swabbed her forearm with a wet cotton ball. He set aside the cotton and picked up a needle attached to a long, clear tube. The tube ran up to a bag of clear liquid hanging over Haven’s cart.
He held her arm down firmly while he inserted the needle into her arm. A burst of bright red blood shot up into the clear tube, then flowed back into her skin. She wanted to reach for the needle with her other arm as soon as the man let go but was too weak to do anything more than twitch her wrist.
The men stared down at her through their black face shields for a long time. Haven could hear them breathing through some kind of filtration system built into their suits.
Help, she wanted to say. Please help me.
The men turned and left the room. Next to her on a long table were all sorts of shiny, stainless steel tools: scissors, bone saws, pliers, a small hammer.
Haven found new energy and shouted into the thick plastic over her mouth.
The door burst open and another man in a protective suit hurried in. The suit looked as if it had been put on in a hurry; the helmet sat crookedly and the material on the man’s arms and legs was all bunched up and wrinkled.
It reminded Haven of Noah in his pajamas.
The man moved quickly to her cart and looked down at her. His head was moving and she could hear him trying to say something from inside his floppy face covering, but she couldn’t make out the words. After a few more syllables, he shook his head in frustration and lifted the face mask up over his head.
“I am Marius,” he said with a heavy Russian accent. He had a thick brow that stuck out over his dark eyes. “They kidnapped you from the hospital after what happened at school. You are safe now. Well, you will be. In a few minutes, probably.” He let the mask fall back over his eyes while he yanked the needle out of her arm. “Sorry,” he said loudly from behind his mask.
She lifted her restrained arms and he picked up a serrated blade from the table of tools. He cut through the thin strips of plastic that connected her bindings to the table but left the thick cuffs on her forearms with several inches of the straps attached. He pulled up his mask again when he saw her glaring at him.
“Best to leave them on, for now. In case they see us. Please, there is no time.”
He pulled the mask down over his face and continued cutting. Soon her legs were free from the table. She pointed to the plastic covering over her mouth but he shook his head, no. He bent down and unlocked each of the wheels, then pushed the cart out of the room, whistling softly inside his helmet.
They went out through the large room and back into the hallway, down to the other end and through another set of swinging doors. Marius nodded his bulky head ponderously at the few people he passed along the way. Not everyone wore a protective suit; most of them looked like normal doctors or nurses, roaming the halls of the vast complex and making notations on small electronic pads. Whenever someone looked at Marius and his strange cargo for more than a few seconds, he would pick up a clipboard from the cart and flip through a couple pages until the nosy observer was out of sight.
Marius stopped in the middle of a four-way intersection of hallways and pulled back the left sleeve of his white suit to reveal a crude drawing on his arm. Thick black lines drawn in permanent marker traced a map over his hairy skin. His finger followed a long line and stopped at the four-way intersection on the map. He mumbled to himself and pointed down each hallway in turn while checking the map on his arm. He finally settled on a direction and pushed Haven’s cart quickly down another long, bright corridor.
“Ah-ha!” he said. He stopped the cart next to a plain white door and looked down at the chunky metal keypad next to the handle. Marius pulled off his left glove and stuck his hand on the keypad. A ball of orange light burst from his palm and burned through the wall, completely melting the keypad and everything else in a five-inch radius.
Marius laughed and lightly tapped the door. It swung open easily.
He pulled off his mask and tossed it aside. “Okay,” he said. “Now for hard part.”
He lifted Haven from the cart. He set her down on the floor and draped one of her arms over the back of his neck to support her as they walked.
The lights in the hallway changed from bright white to a deep, flashing red. In the distance, an alarm blared.
“Well,” said Marius grimly, “now we are in real hurry. They are coming.”
The plane shuddered as it hit a small patch of turbulence.
Colton gripped the armrests of his seat. “How did you find me, anyway?” he asked.
Bernam grinned coldly. “Not all of my abilities will be revealed to you, Mr. Ross. As I was saying, long before these cruel individuals started their mad crusade, we fought for the same reason everyone fights: difference of opinion. But I digress from my main goal, which is to enlighten you about the state of the dangerous world in which you have been so mercilessly thrown.” His dark eyes glinted with devotion. “Each one of us is powerful on our own, Colton, even without a true counterpart. Some are stronger than others. Some can do no more than sap the energy from a fresh leaf and use it to keep their own fingernails from turning yellow. The strongest can drain the life from every person in a room and use that energy to add ten years to their own existence.
“We are made this way for a reason. Unfortunately, nature has only given each of us one half of a grand equation. It is only when we work together that we can achieve our full potential. This pairing of Source and Conduit is called Unity. Together we become something more powerful than we could ever hope to be on our own.”
“I’m not quite sure I understand.”
“Of course not!” Bernam chuckled. “You’re still thinking about your job, and your apartment, and all those other things you left behind. Eventually all of that will drift into the background, then disappear entirely. That’s perfectly normal. Consider this more of an introduction than anything else.”
Colton looked over at the back of Reece’s chair.
“Occasionally,” said Bernam, noticing Colton’s hesitation, “a Source is so powerful that they will literally burn themselves up from the inside out unless they have a Conduit capable of harnessing and redirecting the energy. It is like a wellspring inside of them, and without the proper outlet…boom. That is why it is so important to work together. It is the way things were meant to be. And that’s what I want to change. All of this fighting is pointless. It keeps us from finding true Unity with our counterparts. We need to weed out the bad elements and start over.”
“But,” he continued, “things are never that easy, are they? It would be too convenient if any Source could pair with any Conduit. Not only does the Conduit have to have the proper capacity for storage and redistribution, but there seems to be another factor at work whose machinations I have as of yet been unable to pinpoint.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“In short, Mr. Ross, it appears as if each Source has only one specific Conduit with which they can pair. A second half which, for all intents and purposes, they were destined to be with. These two individuals are always less than one year apart in age. Beyond that, it could be anyone.”
“And you haven’t found yours yet?” asked Colton.
Bernam stared at him coldly. “We deviate too far from our discussion, Mr. Ross. As I was going to say, there are those who would rather cut us into little pieces to try and figure out what makes us tick than help us make our own way in this vast and lonely world. I want to undo all the years of pain that our kind has endured, Colton. I want to make it safe for people like you and I to live in peace.”
“No offense,” said Colton, “but I was doing just fine until you guys found me.”
“Ah, but how long would it have lasted, I wonder? All it takes is one little mistake before someone sees you and the walls come crashing down. Trust me—no one can hide forever.”
“But what happens if I’m never matched with the right Source?”
Bernam held up his hands in mock defeat. “Then you will suffer the same fate as many of those who came before you,” he said. “Without true Unity, you will be stuck as you are now, relegated to a life of mediocre ability, never fully reaching your true potential.” He flashed a thin smile. “No offense, of course. Still—there is another path. You can let me to teach you how to better yourself.”
Colton crossed his arms and sat back in his seat. “That’s a lot to think about. To be honest, it sounds crazy.”
“Indeed it is.”
“You say there are others like us?”
“And another group is out there, hunting them down and killing them.”
“Through experiments of a most vicious nature.”
Colton looked through the window and into the distance. The sun was just rising above the clouds. With half his heart he wished he were back in Pennsylvania as a boy nine years ago, before his mother left and his father became a man that no one would miss if he passed away. Life had seemed less like a chore and more like an adventure.
With the other half of his heart he grasped at the future, and at the possibility of finding new meaning on a new path; a beacon in the darkness.
Colton looked at Bernam. “What’s the next step?”
Bernam smiled and clapped his hands together. “Excellent! A choice you will not regret.” He leaned over in his chair to look through the window and down at the ground several miles below. “The next step is a little test of your abilities. Time is of the essence.” He stood and walked toward the front of the plane. “Please, follow me.”
Colton looked out the window but saw only clouds. He stood and walked toward the cockpit.
Bernam knocked on the sliding partition and Alistair appeared almost instantly.
“It’s time,” said Bernam.
Alistair nodded and beckoned for Colton.
“Good luck,” said Bernam, and patted Colton on the back before going to the other side of the partition and sliding it shut behind him.
“Why do I need luck?” asked Colton, looking around warily.
“You know what kinetic energy is?” asked Alistair. He started unscrewing four silver bolts on the corners of a plastic panel in the middle of the airplane door.
“Uh…it’s moving energy? The energy something has when it’s moving.”
“Exactly,” said Alistair. “And here I was thinking the American education system was bunk.” He pulled off the plastic panel to reveal a red handle. “I want you to imagine a small battery falling toward the ground.”
“Now imagine that, as the battery drops, the kinetic energy increases. The battery charges itself with the energy that builds up during the fall.”
“So, if the battery hits the ground fully charged, what happens?” Alistair casually rested his hand on a handhold next to the door and gripped it tightly.
“It splats, just like anything else.”
“Precisely. Only, the more charge the battery has stored within itself at the point of impact—the longer it has been falling—the bigger the splat. But what would happen if, somehow, at the last second before impact, the battery could discharge all of its kinetic energy, thereby completely negating its momentum?”
Colton frowned. “I guess it would cancel out the fall and the battery would land safely on the ground.”
“Excellent!” said Alistair. “I want you to think really hard about that in the next few minutes.”
“Why?” asked Colton.
“Because you’re the battery.”
Alistair turned the handle on the door and flung it open. Wind ripped into the cabin and the jet shuddered violently. Colton was thrown off-balance and managed to get both feet back on the floor just as Alistair placed his hand firmly in the middle of Colton’s back and shoved him out of the plane.
He tumbled through the air, spinning rapidly as he dropped toward the Earth. His vision was a lightning-fast slide show—plane getting smaller, ground getting closer, plane getting smaller, ground getting closer.
The wind tore at his clothes, whipping his shirt up over his face every time he flipped in the air.
Colton closed his eyes and screamed.
Haven’s head swam with dizziness and pain, and she had a hard time focusing on her surroundings. She dedicated all of her energy on putting one foot in front of the other as Marius led the way out of the facility.
He rushed her through a door and into a tall stairwell. He climbed the steps two at a time, carrying Haven most of the way and counting the doors they passed along the way.
“…three…four…five! Here it is.”
He let Haven rest against the wall while he peered through the small rectangular window in the door. Haven leaned over to look and saw a receptionist’s area beyond, with several men and women seated behind a long desk next to a big glass door which led to the outside world.
“Oh!” said Marius. “I forgot, I’m so sorry.”
He reached behind her head with both hands and touched the face covering. There was a small flash of orange light and the straps loosened. He pulled it away gently and threw it aside.
“Thank you,” whispered Haven.
Marius smiled. “Thank me if we get out in one piece.”
He held up a finger to be quiet and cocked his head. Footsteps pounded up the hallway from below. Marius ran to the railing and looked down the stairwell.
“They move quickly. Many more than I was hoping.”
He walked back to the door and kicked it open. A woman on the other side screamed and jumped up from her chair. All of the receptionists reached for the nearest phone as Marius strolled into the room supporting Haven.
“Just making withdrawal!” he said, laughing.
He lifted Haven off the ground and ran to the door. The receptionists were shouting for them to stop, but Marius pushed open the large glass door and ran out into the bright sunlight.
“Almost there,” he told her. “Almost safe.”
A black four-door car with darkly tinted windows screeched to a halt in the parking lot in front of the building. Marius hurried over to it and set Haven in the back seat after the door popped open from the inside. He quickly shut her door and climbed into the passenger seat, shouting, “Go go go!”
The driver—a short woman with shock-white hair—slammed down on the gas pedal and peeled out of the parking lot.
Haven managed to sit up and look out through the back window. Only a small concrete dome with a single glass door and several windows sat in the middle of a vast desert—the entire complex must have been underground. A paved parking lot surrounded the dome but was mostly empty except for a few large, black pickup trucks with modified bodies and large tires. As Haven watched, the glass door opened and a group of men wielding large guns ran outside. They split up and got into two of the black trucks. Their tires kicked up dirt and gravel as they sped out of the parking lot and followed after the sedan.
“Well,” said Marius as he looked back, “I guess they wanted to keep you after all.”
Haven closed her eyes as a heavy wave of nausea passed through her body. She felt as if she were in an elevator that was dropping too quickly.
She took a deep breath and sat up in the back seat of the car to try and focus on what was happening around her.
Marius stood up in the passenger seat and faced backward, the top half of his body sticking out through the open sunroof of the car. He had some kind of machine gun and fired short bursts at the two trucks. Haven looked back and saw that all of the bullets were hitting the road near the tires of the pursuing vehicles, but none made contact with the spinning wheels.
Marius uttered foreign curses under his breath and tossed the gun into the back seat next to Haven. He dropped down into his seat, scowling.
“Time for big gun,” he said.
The white-haired woman behind the wheel nodded and pushed a button on the side of her seat. She slid back as far as she could go, then turned on the car’s cruise control. Marius reached over and held the wheel as the woman nimbly climbed over the center console and into the passenger’s seat. Marius grinned when she sat in his lap.
“Don’t get any ideas,” she said playfully.
“Ha!” said Marius. He clumsily made his way into the driver’s seat and sat down. “By the way,” he shouted into the back seat, “this is Corva.”
Haven brushed the hair out of her eyes and tried to smile, but all she could manage was a weak little smirk.
Corva stood up through the sunroof and straddled the center console, one foot in the middle of each seat.
“Careful!” said Marius as he looked down between his legs at the shiny black boot digging into the seat. “This real leather!”
Corva stuck her right arm down into the car impatiently and waved in front of Marius’s face. He grabbed her forearm just above the wrist and she held onto his arm tightly.
A pale orange glow wavered across Marius’s skin. It grew intensely until it became a sheath of flame that covered his entire body. Some of the flames licked out like snapping whips before being pulled back into his body. Haven reached toward him and felt heat, but nothing around him was melting. He looked at her in the rearview mirror and his eyes burst into orange flame. The fire moved quickly up to his hair and soon that, too, was ablaze, dancing wildly against the inside roof of the car. The cloth, the seat—everything touched by the flames remained unburned.
The orange flame danced up Marius’s arm and onto Corva’s skin. It flowed upward, spiraling around her arm and engulfing her torso. Haven looked up through the sunroof as Corva raised her other arm and held up a flat palm toward the pursuing trucks.
The orange flames that flowed from Marius traveled even faster over to Corva and pooled in a bright sphere around the hand of her outstretched arm. The light intensified and looked to Haven like a miniature version of the sun. It grew until it was the size of a basketball.
Corva glanced down to smile at Marius. He looked up at her with a goofy grin on his face, steering the car with one hand while he held firmly onto her arm with the other.
One of the trucks had almost caught up and was getting close enough to tap their bumper. Corva closed one eye and formed her hand into the shape of a gun.
“Pichow,” she said, and pulled her thumb-trigger. A brilliant stream of orange plasma shot out of the sphere of light surrounding her hand and hit the closest truck. It smacked into the windshield and shattered it instantly. Glass shards burst inward, raining down on the truck’s occupants like a hailstorm of tiny knives.
Flames continued to dance up Marius’s arm and flow across Corva’s skin to her outstretched hand. The flames melted into the ball of light and turned into a beam of energy that shot toward the nearest truck.
Corva swept the constant stream of orange plasma over the truck’s hood until the metal melted into the engine. The ball of light surrounding her hand slowly shrank as the stream of energy flowed away from her.
She moved the stream down to the front tires and melted them one at a time. Metal rims sparked against the hot pavement as rubber tread flew off in molten chunks. The truck veered off the road, hit an embankment, and launched into the air.
Marius whistled as the truck soared higher, spinning end over end until it landed on its roof with a violent crash.
The second truck accelerated toward the car as the light on Corva’s hand faded completely. She ducked back into the car and sat heavily in the passenger’s seat.
“That’s it,” she said. “I’m done for now.”
“It was beautiful,” said Marius.
“We’re not safe yet.” She turned and looked at Haven. “She’s pale. We need to get her to The Dome as soon as we can.”
Haven blinked slowly. Cold sweat clung to her skin. All of the sounds around her had a deep, resonating echo that made her feel like a fish in a fishbowl.
The car lurched forward as the truck behind them slammed into their rear bumper. Marius sped up to get away, but the truck quickly caught up and nudged them again.
“Nyet!” he said. “Enough! Take wheel.”
He set the cruise control and leaned back in his seat so Corva could steer. Marius stood quickly and pulled himself up out of the car through the sunroof. He slid down onto the trunk of the car and stood up, facing the black truck that was still trailing them.
When the truck sped forward to try and knock him off, Marius jumped into the air. The truck slammed into the back of the car just as Marius landed on the truck’s hood. He scrambled up to the windshield before the driver could shake him off.
“I saved a little something for you!” he shouted. The truck swerved on the road, trying to knock Marius from the hood, but he stood firm. He leaned down over the side of the truck as orange flames burst from his hands. It was a different kind of energy than when he had been connected with Corva. Less transparent somehow, and brighter. Haven thought it was more like the energy Marius had used to burn through the lock back at the facility where she had been held captive.
He bent down and held his hand an inch away from the spinning tread of the driver-side tire. A moment later, the rubber burst into flames. Marius scrambled back onto the hood as the tire exploded, sending strips of rubber flying into the air. The truck jerked to the side as the driver overcompensated for the flat tire. The vehicle spun sideways and flipped up into the air, still traveling toward the black sedan.
Marius was thrown to the side of the road as the truck slammed down into the asphalt and kept on spinning. Chunks of metal ripped off the body and spun away in all directions, peppering the embankments on both sides of the road and spitting up tiny bursts of sand.
The truck stopped spinning and slid on its side with a loud squeal of metal and a burst of sparks. It scraped to a stop on the side of the road.
In the sedan, Corva jumped into the driver’s seat, slammed on the brakes, and shifted the car into reverse. Haven looked back eagerly at where Marius had disappeared. Corva stopped the car next to the wrecked truck and waited.
Someone coughed loudly. Marius stumbled into view over a small rise just off the side of the road, brushing a layer of sand from his arms. His forehead was cut and bleeding, but other than the cut and a slight limp, he appeared to be okay.
Metal scraped against the road and Haven turned to see the crashed truck sway a little on its side. One of the men inside was trying to open the door that wasn’t pinned under the truck. He kicked against it loudly, wrenching it open a few more inches each time.
“Hurry up, Marius!” shouted Corva.
He grumbled to himself but hobbled over to the car and got inside. As soon as his door was closed, Corva slammed on the gas pedal and sped down the road.
“I think it went really well,” he said.
Corva punched him in the shoulder and he laughed loudly. He turned back and looked at Haven. “You doing okay, little one?”
She reached up weakly and pointed at his bleeding forehead. Marius touched the deep cut and frowned as he rubbed the blood between his fingers. “This?” he said. “Is nothing. It takes a lot more to hurt Marius. Don’t you worry.”
Her eyelids fluttered and her vision dimmed.
Marius’s voice drifted far away. “Hurry, Corva, she is not doing well.”
Haven’s head fell back onto the seat and the last thing she saw before passing out was the clear blue sky through the sunroof.
Colton stopped screaming when he realized it wasn’t going to save his life.
He had been falling through the sky for what seemed like an eternity. The ground below was quickly rushing up to meet him. He didn’t know if it was Montana or somewhere else. He saw mountains in the distance and the ground directly beneath him was brownish tan—maybe a desert. Colton could barely keep his eyes open against the wind. He flattened out and looked down at the ground, then spread out his arms and legs to try and slow his fall. It worked a little, but there was no way it was enough to make the difference between life and death.
He imagined the battery that Alistair described. It spun through the air, plummeting toward the Earth, just as he was. Only as the battery fell, the small meter on its side slowly filled to the top with kinetic energy—the energy of its own descent. Colton closed his eyes and forced himself to focus.
The wind was too powerful to ignore, but eventually he was able to push it into the background until it lessened to a dull but constant pressure. The fact that he was going to die soon was also too powerful, so he did his best to keep it from getting in the way of the battery.
Colton imagined it inside of his own chest, filling up like a fuel cell. He felt warmth—the same warmth he had felt when he took life from the apple.
The warmth grew around his spine, between his shoulder blades. It spread much faster than ever before, traveling throughout his body and making him feel as if he was glowing from the inside. Heat radiated from his skin and Colton began to sweat, even with the frigid air surging past him. In his chest, the imaginary battery swelled to capacity with the collected energy from his fall.
Colton had forgotten to open his eyes.
When he did so, the ground was right in front of him. His mind screamed No! and every muscle in his body tightened. The built-up energy exploded from the center of his chest like a jet fighter breaking the sound barrier.
The sand beneath his body shot up into the air as if a meteor had struck the earth, leaving behind a deep crater that extended twenty feet in all directions. Colton hung in the air for less than a second and had time to register all of those things right before he fell ten feet to the bottom of the sand crater and landed on his stomach.
He rolled onto his back, coughing for air. The sand that had been thrown into the sky drifted down to the ground, sprinkling over him like gritty snow.
Colton heard footsteps approaching. A young woman’s face appeared over the edge of the crater above. A pair of dirty goggles hung loosely around her neck.
“Nice landing,” she said. She looked to be about the same age as Colton.
He spit to get some sand out of his mouth. “Who are you?”
“The girl evaluating your test.” She waved her hand in front of her face to clear away the falling sand. “Congratulations, you passed.”
Colton stood up slowly, testing his limbs for injury. His left wrist hurt to the touch from the impact, but he felt okay otherwise. His vision was a little blurry, and dark shapes swam around in front of him. “What happens if I would have failed?”
The girl held up a plastic bag and smiled.
“Ha,” said Colton. He scrambled up over the edge of the crater—the hole in the ground he was responsible for creating—and sat down. “How many people usually pass and how many, you know…” He made a squishing noise with his mouth.
“Everyone is tested differently.” She sat next to him and stuck her legs out toward the bottom of the crater. She wore tight cargo shorts and a dirty white tank-top. “Bernam must have thought you could do it or he would have tried something else.”
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” he said, still smiling. “I feel really good for some reason. Hey,” he said, “there was a guy that got on the plane with me—”
“Your friend is perfectly safe.”
“Good. Why is my vision all fuzzy?”
“Residual energy takes a while to dissipate. A tiny bit of it is still floating around in there.”
She had bright green eyes and short auburn hair that bobbed over her neck when she talked. Colton stopped himself more than once from staring at her slim figure and tanned legs while she sat next to him. She looked into the crater and banged the heels of her bulky shoes. Sand fell out from the openings near her ankles. The shoes looked like men’s construction boots.
“So,” said Colton, “you’re a…a Conduit?”
“Ha! Bernam and his ridiculous labels. Call me Shelly.” She offered her hand, which Colton shook.
He felt warmth flow through her hand into his, then up his arm. It spread over his body and he instantly felt better. He flexed his wrist; the pain was completely gone.
Shelly winked at him. “It’s from the sun,” she said, glancing up into the sky. “We’re solar-powered. How cool is that?”
“So what now?” asked Colton.
“You ready for something that moves a little bit slower?” Shelly stood and brushed sand from the back of her shorts.
“Gladly.” He stood up next to her slowly since all of the blood in his body seemed to want to be in his head at the same time. “Where to?”
“My car is over there,” she said. She stuck her thumb over her shoulder toward a beat-up Jeep with big off-road tires.
“There’s no roof,” said Colton. “Or doors.”
“Hmm,” she said. “That’s pretty much the most obvious thing you could point out. Maybe the fall affected your brain.”
Colton started walking toward the Jeep. His feet sank down into the hot sand which poured over into his shoes. “So you’re the local comedian.”
“Somebody’s gotta be. It’s a grim bunch, for the most part. Sounds like you’ll be good for a little fun, though, once you get balanced out again.”
“No promises.” He grabbed the roll bar over his seat and lifted himself into the Jeep. Shelly hopped lightly into the driver’s seat and fired up the engine.
“Might want to buckle up,” she said. She grabbed the goggles hanging around her neck and pulled them up over her eyes, then shifted the Jeep into gear.
The car jerked to the left and Colton nearly fell out the side. He used both hands to hold onto the roll cage, then quickly buckled his seat belt as soon as the Jeep leveled out.
“Told you!” she said over the roar of the engine.
“I thought you said this was slower!” he shouted.
Shelly laughed as the Jeep crested a sandy hill and flew into the air. It bounced down hard and the back wheels slid across the ground, losing traction. She gently turned the steering wheel to compensate and after a few feet of skidding, the tires caught hold and spit up two streams of sand. Shelly jammed her foot down on the accelerator and picked up speed on a long stretch of flat ground.
Colton wanted to ask her more about where they were going and how she fit into the picture with Bernam, but he had a hard enough time staying in his seat as the Jeep bounced into small holes and veered around jutting boulders. Shelly was enjoying herself immensely, and Colton was soon laughing with her every time the Jeep went up onto two wheels as they took a sharp corner.
They drove over a large hill and a glimmering square structure appeared in the distance. Sunlight glinted off its black mirrored exterior and hurt Colton’s eyes. He squinted and turned to Shelly.
“What’s that?” he shouted.
“Home base! Hang on!”
“Hang on more?!”
As they rapidly approached the building, Colton saw that it was constructed in the shape of a giant black cube. Its outside walls were covered with hundreds of tinted black windows, from the ground floor to the roof.
The Jeep shot between two large, clay-colored boulders and bounced over a small rise in the sand.
Shelly reached forward and pressed a small button built into the dashboard. The ground instantly fell away beneath them, dropping down sharply to become a descending ramp. The Jeep shot underground, instantly passing from sunlight to darkness.
Colton yelled and Shelly squealed with laughter as she flicked on the headlights to illuminate a long, concrete tunnel leading straight toward the base of the black building.
“You should have seen your face!” she shouted. Her voice echoed in the narrow tunnel.
There was an opening ahead. A second later, the Jeep popped out of the tunnel and into a massive underground parking structure. Bright floodlights a hundred feet above illuminated the vast space. There were only a few other vehicles in the entire parking lot, most of them retrofitted with raised chassis and big tires to handle the rough terrain surrounding the building.
Cavernous tunnels lined the walls of the parking structure, cutting straight, concrete-lined tubes of empty space in all directions.
“Where do those go?” shouted Colton.
Shelly screeched the Jeep to a stop across two parking spaces and cut the engine. She pulled her goggles down over her neck to reveal two white circles around her green eyes. The rest of her skin was covered with a fine layer of light brown dust.
“Welp,” she said, “we’re here.”
Haven awoke when bright sunlight crept over the bottom edge of her bedroom window and spilled onto her bed. She pulled off the sheets and saw that she was already fully dressed, but could not remember the reason. She walked out into the hallway and looked into Noah’s room, but he wasn’t there. His sheets were on the floor in a pile and his favorite toy car lay broken in pieces on the ground. She heard a noise like crinkling paper coming from the family room and walked to the stairwell that led to the first floor.
Blinding sunlight shot directly into the house through every window she passed, which should have been impossible since the windows were on all four sides of the home and there was no way the sun could be everywhere.
Haven realized she was dreaming.
She walked down the stairs to the family room and saw her parents huddled together on the couch. The crinkling noise Haven heard was fire burning all around the room. Flames crawled up to the ceiling and burned down toward the floor.
Her parents cried and screamed, and somehow Haven knew that Noah was gone. Someone had taken him far away. They were hurting him. For a brief moment, she saw him in a small, dark room. His shirt was covered in blood and he was crying—just like his parents. Long arms reached out of the shadows at the back of the room and pulled him away.
Haven was suddenly back in her home, watching helplessly as flames covered every surface. She walked forward and reached out for her mother and father, but fire burst from the ground near the couch and consumed their bodies. The couch sank into the floor and vanished into a black hole.
She turned to run away, but a dozen burning crossbeams inside the roof collapsed around her. Haven put up her arms to protect her head. She could not feel any pain, only the heavy pressure as one of the crossbeams hit her on the neck and pushed her to the ground.
Her vision filled with fire as she struggled to get out from under the burning piece of wood. She put both hands flat on the ground and was about to push up as hard as she could when the crossbeam was lifted away. Two strong hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her to her feet.
Haven tried to see who it was, but the shape of the person standing next to her in the fire was a shadow. It grabbed her hand and pulled her through the collapsing house. The shadow jumped over mountains of embers and lifted her effortlessly off the ground with every leap.
The front door was right in front of them. Flames crawled over its surface. The black spots in the fire were eyes that watched her as she ran. The shadow that led her through the house picked her up and tossed her toward the door. She screamed as it rushed to meet her face.
Bright light exploded around her as she crashed through the door, splintering it into a thousand pieces. The splinters spun gently away as time slowed. Haven hung in the air, suspended. She thought her eyes were open, but all she could see was piercing white light.
“Can you hear me?” said a distant voice.
Haven floated in a vast white nothingness; an infinite space of uniform light. The voice echoed throughout the empty space.
“Is she breathing?” said another voice, a lot closer than the first.
“Ah, there she is. Good girl, open your eyes now.”
Haven’s eyelids slowly opened. She blinked against the blinding white light that burrowed painfully into her skull.
She was lying on a table in the middle of a room filled with huge, metal tanks. Thick pipes ran between the containers and into the floor. Four people loomed above her, silhouetted by the light in the ceiling.
She recognized Marius and Corva, her alleged rescuers from the medical facility where she had been held captive. An old woman stood near Haven’s head, looking down into her eyes. A boy who wore thick glasses stood back from the table nervously.
The old woman turned to him. “We can’t do it here. Go and fetch Dormer. Tell him to meet us at the Grove.”
The boy nodded eagerly and ran off.
Haven’s eyelids fluttered and closed.
“The drugs will kill her,” said the old woman. “Quickly. Take her before it’s too late.”
Haven was lifted off the table. She managed to open her eyes enough to see that she was being carried on a stretcher that was simply a half-inch thick plastic rectangle with holes cut along the sides for handles.
Marius held one side and Corva the other. They walked out of the room full of tanks and into a larger room with a dome-shaped ceiling. At the apex of the dome was a massive metal fan that spun slowly in its circular setting. Sunlight blinked between the blades as they turned. The light was caught and reflected by mirrors all around the top of the dome, which bounced the light down onto other mirrors that lined the curved walls.
Haven was carried past shelves full of machine parts; she saw things that looked like pieces of a car engine mixed in with countless other objects she didn’t recognize. Thin lamps were bolted to sturdy metal tables, illuminating architectural blueprints and a myriad of electronic equipment.
She tried to ask where they had brought her, but she couldn’t open her mouth to get out the words. Her lips parted slightly and she moaned.
“Almost there,” said Corva.
The stretcher rocked up and down as she and Marius pushed open two swinging doors and carried Haven into a bright room. She didn’t notice how stale the air had been in the last room until passing through the doors. She smelled trees and fresh dirt. It might have been her imagination, but Haven was sure she heard a bird singing from somewhere high above. For an instant she was in the meadow of her mind—the place she went to find peace when the world around her didn’t make sense.
She had forgotten about the meadow after the fire.
Haven lifted her head to try and look around but she immediately became dizzy and closed her eyes again. Her head bounced against the stretcher as Marius and Corva set her on the ground.
Haven opened her eyes. She was lying next to a tall tree. The sky above was white, but brighter in some places than in others. She realized it wasn’t the sky at all, but rather a series of intense lights hanging from the ceiling.
One of her hands slipped off the edge of the stretcher and fell onto soft grass. A dead leaf brushed against her pinky finger; she pressed down on its surface and heard the sharp crackle as it broke into smaller flakes. Small blue lights floated through the air, pulsing and swirling like tiny fairies. Occasionally one of them would land on a tree branch and flicker quickly before once again floating into the air.
The old woman appeared above Haven and looked down. She shook her head worriedly.
“Poor girl. Poor, poor girl,” she said. She looked up quickly as a man ran over to the stretcher. “Ah, Dormer. Good.”
The man called Dormer was tall and thin. He reminded Haven of her science teacher at school, on whom she had always had a little bit of a crush. Dormer’s movements were quick, almost bird-like. He sniffed once and looked down at Haven.
“Who’s this?” he asked.
“The girl that Marius and Corva saved from the facility.”
“Ah,” said Dormer. “So you found one worth saving. Was it hard to ignore the screams from the others, Marius, as you ran out with this one tucked under your arm?”
Marius scowled at Dormer.
“We haven’t much time,” said the old woman. “Please, Dormer. Save your judgments for later.”
He sighed and knelt down next to the stretcher. “Fine,” he said, “but we will talk.”
Dormer rested his hand on Haven’s neck, just beneath her throat. He pressed his other hand against the trunk of the tree next to her and closed his eyes. His head drooped down slowly and Haven thought he had fallen asleep.
She heard a rustling in the branches above. The leaves shook as if blown by a gentle breeze, except there was no movement in the air. The leaves shriveled and fell from the branches, spinning slowly down to the ground around the stretcher. Dark stains spread across the tree bark as if the tree were bleeding from the inside.
Warmth flowed into Haven’s body from Dormer’s hand.
The heat moved down through her chest as if she had just taken her first sip of hot tea after waking. It spread to her limbs and finally moved up to her head, bringing with it a wave of rejuvenating energy that took away all of her pain.
She watched as the trunk of the tree shrank in diameter until it was no more than half the width it had been. The bark cracked and peeled. All of the leaves fell from the branches, leaving behind a blackened skeleton that reached up toward the ceiling with bony fingers.
Dormer removed his hand from Haven and stood up. He pressed his palms against both sides of his skull and held his head as if it were about to roll off his neck.
“Thank you, Dormer,” said the old woman.
“I guess we’ll see if it makes any difference in the end,” he said, then walked away.
Haven sat up and was able to fully see her surroundings for the first time.
The tree next to her was only one of at least a hundred more. They were planted in a huge, square grid pattern. Haven was sitting somewhere in the very middle of the grid. On one side of the room, closer to the entrance, all of the trees were dead just like the one next to her. The trees on the other side of the room were still alive.
The old woman noticed where Haven was looking.
“This is the Grove,” she said. “And you are not the first person to be healed beneath the branches of these trees.”
Haven coughed. Her throat felt as if it were lined with sandpaper. She pushed herself up and tried to stand, but her vision flipped over and she felt like she was going to throw up. She dropped back down to the ground.
“Easy,” said the old woman.
Marius reached out and held Haven’s shoulders as she laid on the stretcher. As soon as her head touched the plastic, a small line of blue flames ran up Haven’s body, starting at her feet and skittering across her skin to her head before vanishing. Marius quickly pulled his hands away.
The old woman took a step closer and frowned. “Marius, who is this?”
“The one you told me to take from hospital,” he said.
The woman shook her head. “No,” she said. “The one I told you to take is too young to show any signs.”
“She is young,” insisted Marius, his thick accent heavier with his conviction. “Look! Maybe this is first time!”
Corva stood next to Marius and looked at the old woman. “Can’t you tell if it’s her? I thought you could sense the one you wanted. Isn’t that the whole reason you sent us to the facility in the first place?”
“Of course it is,” said the old woman. “But the presence faded away shortly after you left. I assumed they had drugged the young one and were suppressing the energy output.”
“I grabbed newest patient,” said Marius. “I read charts, I asked nurse.” He pointed at Haven. “She was newest! Only one day she was there before I saved her.”
Corva placed her hand on Marius’s shoulder and squeezed it gently.
“My brother,” said Haven weakly. “My brother was kidnapped two weeks before they took me…took me to that place.”
The old woman knelt down and laid her hand on Haven’s forehead. “Shhh. You need to rest, now. We wouldn’t want to undo all of Dormer’s hard work. Corva, would you and Marius please take our guest to the dormitories and give her a room? I’m sure she could use some sleep.”
Corva and Marius picked up the stretcher and carried it toward the swinging double doors. Haven looked up at the fake sky and dead trees until exhaustion took over and she passed out.
Colton followed Shelly to a large elevator on one side of the parking garage. She swiped a small black card over an electronic panel on the wall. A second later, there was a ding and the elevator doors slid open.
Colton stepped inside and cold air swept over him. He closed his eyes to savor the feeling; the parking garage had been a furnace in comparison. A row of buttons were set into the brushed metal next to the elevator doors, and Shelly pressed the one for the top floor—level twelve. The doors closed silently and the elevator began to ascend.
“What is this place?” asked Colton.
“Mr. Bernam’s main office,” said Shelly. “He runs most of his business from here.”
“What’s he do?”
“He manufactures all sorts of machines for private investors. He talks a lot about optics and generators but nobody really understands any of it. I don’t know how the machines work, but one time I got a quick look at the labs on the seventh level—no one’s supposed to go anywhere near that floor, by the way—and I saw some pretty neat stuff.”
“‘Neat’?” Colton teased. “People still use that word?”
Shelly crossed her arms. “I use it.”
Colton shrugged. “I guess that’s good enough, then.”
She dropped her arms to her side and winked at him. The elevator slowed to a stop and the doors opened. Shelly grabbed Colton’s hand and pulled him down a long hallway lined with several doors. The hall opened onto a large room. The walls were made up of large, black, tinted windows and dimmed the burning midday sun to a tolerable level.
Leather couches, plush recliners, and sleek tables were placed throughout the room. Shelly squeezed Colton’s hand and let go, then skipped over to a smaller room next to the hallway. It was a kitchen, fully equipped with a microwave, sink, oven, and refrigerator. Shelly grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge and tossed one to Colton, who didn’t realize she was throwing something at him until it hit him in the shoulder and rolled under the nearest couch.
Shelly laughed and jumped over the back of the couch, sinking down into the cushions before unscrewing her water bottle and taking a long drink. Colton knelt down and felt around under the couch. His fingers touched cold plastic and he pulled out the water bottle.
He stood up and walked over to one of the glass walls. Yellow sand and hard-packed dirt covered the ground as far as he could see. Colton drank the entire bottle of water, only just realizing how thirsty he had been. He walked over to Shelly and sat on a recliner next to her.
“We’re in Montana?” he asked.
“That’s what I’m told.” She pulled her goggles up and over her head, then tossed them onto the couch. She tapped her shoes together as she drank more water.
Colton looked around the huge room. A ping-pong table sat in one corner next to a large TV screen with a huge crack in the middle.
“Where is everyone?” he asked.
“Not sure. They’ll be back later.” She looked at him and lightly bit the top of her bottle.
“So…what do we do until they get back?”
One of the corners of Shelly’s mouth raised up in a small grin.
Colton stood up to move to the couch when the elevator doors opened. Reece jogged out of the hallway with a huge smile on his face.
“Colt!” he said. “There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you. Well, not really all over, since they won’t let me wander off.” He nodded over his shoulder as Alistair walked into the room. Alistair rolled his eyes and went into the kitchen.
Colton walked over to Reece. “How do you feel?”
“You mean physically? Pretty good, considering. Emotionally, though, I’m absolutely wrecked. They poisoned me, Colt!”
“Yeah, I saw that.”
“Well, did you at least try to stick up for me after I passed out?”
Colton smiled because he knew Reece was being overly dramatic to try and get the attention of the cute girl in the room. “I told them very sternly that if anything bad happened to you I would do everything in my power to crash the plane into a mountain.”
Reece slapped him on the shoulder. “A true friend.” He sidestepped around Colton and sat next to Shelly on the couch.
Colton sighed and sat back down on the recliner. “I’m so glad you’re back,” he said.
Reece ignored him. He crept closer to Shelly on the couch. “Reece Michael Frasier—the third, esquire, Ph.D., every fancy initial you can think of. And you are…?”
One of her eyebrows raised slightly. “Just Shelly.”
“‘Just’ Shelly? Just? I hardly think ‘just’ is any kind of word to use when describing a girl as beautiful as you.” He picked up her hand and bent forward to kiss it. Shelly pulled away and Reece’s lips landed on his own palm.
She stood up from the couch and walked toward the hallway. “I think I’ll go get cleaned up.” She winked at Colton right before she disappeared behind one of the hallway doors.
“She keeps doing that,” said Colton.
“Doing what?” said Reece.
“Hm? Oh, nothing. So what have you been doing since you got off the plane?”
Reece sank back into the couch and propped his legs up on the black polished coffee table in front of him. “Nothing, really. I only just woke up about twenty minutes ago. That Alistair guy was slapping my face and telling me we needed to get inside so the other dude could take off.”
“I guess so. Alistair said he never stays on the ground for very long. Sounds a little paranoid to me, but when you have as much money as he does I guess you can afford to be eccentric.” Reece looked around the room. “Man, how ‘bout this place, huh? What a chick magnet.”
“Reece, you don’t really know what’s going on, do you?” It was more of a statement than an actual question.
“Alistair gave me the short version in the elevator. Some bad people are doing bad things to people like you, and these guys want to stop it, blah blah blah. You can shrink apples and for some reason—I can’t figure out why—‘Just’ Shelly likes you more than she likes me. Does that about cover everything?”
Colton smiled. “That about does it, yeah. But you don’t have to stick around if you don’t want to. I’m sure one of these guys will take you home.”
“And leave all this?” said Reece, gesturing to the building around him. “I thought you knew me better than that. I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Colt.”
Alistair walked out of the kitchen and popped the last bite of a sandwich into his mouth. He sat in a recliner a few feet away from Colton and picked up a magazine from the coffee table. He flipped it open to the middle and scanned the page.
“Whatcha reading?” asked Reece.
Alistair held up the magazine to show the cover: Us Weekly.
“Really?” said Reece. “Really?”
Alistair sighed and stood up, then walked to the other side of the room and stretched out on a couch near the window.
“Give him a break,” said Colton.
“What did I say? You gotta admit it’s a little weird. That guy looks like he should be reading ‘Guns & Ammo’ or something.”
“It’s how I relax,” said Alistair from across the room.
“I’m not judging,” said Reece, holding up his hands. He shifted loudly on the leather couch. A few seconds later, he shifted again, the leather creaking as if he were rubbing his hands on the outside of a wet, inflated balloon. “Sorry about all the noise,” he said.
Alistair closed the magazine and slapped it against the couch. “You really don’t know how to shut up, do you?”
“My mother always told me I had such a beautiful voice, I should use it as much as possible.”
Colton smiled. Alistair rubbed his eyes with his hands.
“How about a tour, then? Will you promise to be quiet if I show you the building?”
“Definitely!” said Reece.
Alistair looked over. “How about you, Colton? Fancy a tour?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Excellent,” said Alistair. He stood and walked past them toward the elevator. “Maybe afterward I’ll be able to hear myself think.”
As they waited for the elevator doors to open, Colton cleared his throat. “Alistair, there’s something I’ve been wondering.”
“Ask me anything.”
“I’m not saying I wish Reece weren’t here, but why did you bring him in the first place?”
“Hey!” said Reece.
“The way Mr. Bernam was talking,” Colton continued, “it sounds like things might get a little bumpy down the road.”
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. They stepped inside and Alistair pressed a button near the bottom of the panel.
“An excellent question,” he said as the elevator doors closed and they descended. “Mr. Bernam discovered long ago that the revelation of so much knowledge—who we are and what we can do—was usually met with bewilderment or outright denial by the person he was trying to, ah, recruit. He found that inserting an element of familiarity into the equation greatly reduced the possibility that the potential candidate would deny his offer.”
“So I’m just here to make sure he feels comfortable?” said Reece, jabbing his finger into Colton’s shoulder.
“Precisely. Also, Mr. Bernam seems to like you. I can’t imagine why.”
“Because I have a great personality, that’s why.”
“Right,” said Alistair.
The elevator stopped and the doors opened.
“Holy geez!” said Reece.
“This is the fifth floor,” said Alistair. “The gymnasium.”
Colton followed Alistair out of the elevator and into a big room filled with nothing but exercise equipment. Weight benches, treadmills, bench presses, free weights—there was even a rock-climbing wall in the middle of the room and a one-lane swimming pool running next to the far wall. Thick flat panels that doubled as structural supports separated the various types of equipment, visually segmenting the entire floor into smaller rooms without physically crowding the space. The panels were placed far apart and each was about twenty feet long, giving the room an open quality that Colton found very inviting. He could see outside through the windows on all four sides of the building.
“No wonder Shelly’s in such good shape,” said Reece as he lifted a small dumbbell from a nearby bench and strained to curl it up to his chin.
“That’s mostly due to her genetics,” said Alistair. “I haven’t seen her in here once since she arrived. She spends most of her free time in the recreation room, playing games with whoever is interested.”
“I’m interested,” said Reece.
Colton shook his head.
“This room is open to you—to both of you—twenty-four hours a day. Exercise is heavily encouraged around here, and you will find that only a few of us do not make use of this facility regularly.”
Alistair led them back to the elevator and brought them to another room a few levels higher.
“A word of warning,” he said, stopping Colton and Reece before they stepped out of the elevator. “Consider any floor that I am not showing you to be strictly off-limits. Is that understood?”
“Absolutely,” said Colton.
“One-hundred percent,” said Reece.
Alistair nodded. “Very good. Reece, you probably won’t be too interested in this part of the building, but it is where you, Colton, will be spending most of your time. Welcome to level nine—the training room.”
There were no windows on that level. The walls of the room were gridded with steel bars which crossed over steel plates that had been secured in place with massive bolts.
Alistair pressed one of the many buttons in a black wall panel as soon as they stepped out of the elevator. With a soft mechanical hum, a large metal sphere lowered slowly from the ceiling and hung suspended over the floor in the middle of the room.
Colton stepped forward hesitantly.
Alistair waited behind him. “Think of it as breathing,” he said. “Except that you are the lung and the energy around you is air. The goal is to see how long you can hold it in before releasing it. Your ability is a muscle, in a sense, and exercise will only make it stronger.”
“Hey Colton, you’re a lung!” said Reece. He leaned against the wall near the elevator and crossed his arms. “How long are you guys going to be doing this stuff?”
“As long as it takes,” said Alistair.
Reece clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “In that case, you kids have fun. I’m gonna go find Shelly.” He gave Colton a thumbs-up as the elevator doors closed.
“Your friend is a little…different,” said Alistair.
Colton frowned thoughtfully. “I can’t really argue with that.”
He turned back to the sphere.
Alistair explained that the sphere he chose was one of many, each one designed to produce a different kind of energy. The one he lowered from the ceiling emitted what Alistair called one of the simpler energies: heat.
Colton wiped sweat from his forehead as he stepped closer to the sphere. It was about ten feet in diameter and the surface was brushed instead of polished. His reflection appeared as if he were looking at himself through a dirty window and was distorted from the heat fog being generated from within.
A large pipe made from the same material as the sphere ran out of its top and into the panel in the ceiling from which the sphere had lowered.
“Concentrate,” said Alistair. “Let’s keep it simple and try something you already know. When you feel like you can’t hold in the energy, release it as you did when you fell from the plane.”
“When I was pushed, you mean?”
Alistair smiled. “Exactly.”
Colton closed his eyes and imagined the battery inside his chest. It filled quickly, shaking with the energy he was absorbing. The warmth surged through his body until it filled him completely. He could feel it putting pressure on the inside of his skin, searching for a way to escape. He clenched his fists tightly and tried to force the energy back toward his core.
It was too much.
Colton released the energy as a pressure blast, just as he did right before he hit the ground in the desert. Alistair was pushed back a step from the force of the impact and the sphere rocked gently in the air.
“Not bad,” said Alistair. “A little shorter than I was expecting, but you’re still new.”
“Will I get better?” Colton was disappointed—he had been able to contain the life energy of an apple for half an hour.
“Oh, yes,” said Alistair. “You can already contain more energy than most of the other people here. If we can get you to hold that energy, you will be very powerful.”
“But I still need a Source, right? The other half of the equation.”
Alistair sighed. “Yes. But Colton, I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Most of us never find our Source.”
“Do you have one?” asked Colton.
Alistair nodded. “Long ago.” He looked over to the wall as he remembered. “The power we felt together…indescribable. This…” he said, waving at the sphere and the building, “…all of this pales in comparison.”
Colton saw regret and anger in his eyes.
The anger faded as Alistair looked at him and smiled. “If you are ever so lucky, Colton, don’t squander your time together. If your Source is anywhere near as strong as you, the two of you could flatten mountains and drain oceans.”
He turned around and walked toward the elevator.
“What now?” asked Colton.
“Practice!” said Alistair without looking back. He stepped into the elevator. “It makes perfect, after all.”
The doors closed and Colton turned back to the sphere.
“Alright,” he said. “Here we go.”
Haven awoke to the sound of a loud metal CLANG. Her eyelids snapped open and she sat up quickly. She was on an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room.
The noise came from the other side of the only door in her small room. The bed she had been sleeping on was more of a flimsy cot; springs creaked loudly as Haven slowly stood from the stained, inch-thick mattress. As soon as she was on her feet, her stomach growled with hunger.
She looked down.
Her clothes were not her own, yet they fit just as well—if not better—than many of the pieces in her own wardrobe. She plucked at the soft fabric of her faded black t-shirt and brushed a piece of fuzz from her white-washed jeans. She looked down over her back and raised her eyebrows appreciatively at how she looked. Someone had even put socks and shoes on her feet—low-rise canvas kicks with white soles that barely made a noise when she tapped them against the floor. The image of a hospital flashed through her memory and she thought she had been wearing loose blue clothing, as if she were about to have an operation. The thought of someone changing her while she slept made her shudder.
Haven suddenly remembered the glow-in-the-dark star she had pulled from the ruins of her home. She checked both of her pockets—it was gone. She had carried that star with her every day since she found it in the ashes. It must have been left behind with her clothes at the medical facility. Deep sadness poured over her when she realized that all she had left of Noah was the hope that she would see him again.
From somewhere in the room came the sound of dripping water.
A bowl of dirty water and a folded cloth sat atop a small table next to the cot. On the floor near the table was a heavy woolen blanket. Haven picked up the blanket and held it for a moment as she tried to remember what had happened to her.
Another memory—she had been taken from a medical center by a man with a thick Russian accent. No, not taken—rescued. She remembered the row of vicious tools on a tray next to her at the center and the way the men in the masks seemed to regard her with a cruel sense of detachment, as if she were no more than an animal they were preparing to euthanize.
Wherever she was—wherever she had been taken after the medical center—she had the distinct feeling she was safe.
Haven dropped the blanket on the cot and walked to the closed door. The floor of the room was gritty concrete and several old water stains spread in moldy green half-circles from the base of the walls. The walls themselves were rusted red metal—Haven felt as if she were in a big metal lung.
Hanging on the wall next to the door was a cracked mirror. Haven knew she shouldn’t look but couldn’t help herself.
She shouldn’t have looked.
Her hair was frizzy in some places and stuck out wildly everywhere else, as if she had put her finger in a light socket. She grimaced and tried to pat down some of the more unruly clumps. Her skin was streaked with something that she hoped was dirt. Dark circles below her eyes made her look ten years older than her actual age.
Her eyes were clear, though, as was her mind.
With a little bit of makeup and a hair straightener, she would be as good as new. Well, almost as good.
Haven twisted the rusty metal handle and pulled open the heavy door. After she started it swinging, it moved smoothly on big hinges and bumped into the wall, sending a hollow metal GONG reverberating throughout the room.
She stepped over the small lip at the bottom of the doorway and walked down a narrow hallway. The hallway brought her out into a huge, domed room. The walls were grey concrete cut into curved sections that gently sloped inward as the ceiling rose higher to the apex far above. A fan turned slowly at the peak. There were no windows—just large, square mirrors attached to the walls of the dome. A series of metal rungs had been bolted to the concrete on one side of the curved wall and formed a ladder that led up to the fan. Haven shuddered to think about someone climbing up the inside of the wall. The room was dark except for several bright work lamps that were aimed at a black car nearby. The car was parked between two long tool benches lined with greasy equipment and dirty rags.
A tall, thin man in dirty clothes picked up a small fastener from one of the benches and held it to a thin metal plate that covered a small portion of a hole in the side paneling of the car. He swung a long hammer over his head and down onto the fastener.
He reached over to the bench and grabbed another fastener.
“I woke you,” he said to Haven without turning.
She took a few steps toward the car. “It’s alright,” she said. His face looked vaguely familiar.
“I wasn’t apologizing.”
She remembered that his name was Dormer. He swung the hammer down.
“Corva wants to talk to you,” he said with a slight nod of his head toward the other side of the room. He dropped the hammer on the nearest bench and brushed his hands against his dirty pants as he walked away.
Haven hugged herself, suddenly cold in the big, open room. She squinted into the shadows on the other side of the vast dome and saw the dim, green glow of a computer screen. The screen barely lit the face of a woman as she typed rapidly on a keyboard.
Haven walked past table after table full of mechanical parts and electrical components. Reams of paper sat piled haphazardly on the floor, some as tall as her. When Haven was still a good distance away, the woman at the computer turned and smiled. Haven walked closer and stood next to the computer. It was an old model—the screen was large and boxy, and the wire running out of the keyboard was thick and spiraled.
“Don’t mind him,” she said, nodding toward Dormer. “He’s always grumpy.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“His brother was taken by Bernam’s thugs a few months ago. He was a Conduit as well.”
The woman smiled. She had shoulder-length, bright white hair and soft features. Even without makeup, Haven thought she was really pretty.
“All in good time,” said the woman. “My name’s Corva. Do you remember me?”
“Sort of,” said Haven. “Everything is still a little fuzzy.”
“That would be the narcotics you were given.”
“You drugged me?”
Corva laughed easily and Haven had a hard time not smiling as soon as she realized it was a stupid thing to say. “No, of course not. The doctors at the center were preparing to operate on you when Marius barged in.”
“I remember Marius.”
“Yeah, well, he’s kind of hard to forget.”
“Where was I? What is this place?”
“I know you have questions, Haven, but they’re not for me to answer. You’ll get them soon, I promise. For now we need to make sure that you’re doing okay.”
Haven was about to ask what Corva meant by “doing okay” when the events of the past few weeks flooded her mind and the knife that was the memory of her deceased parents slammed into her chest. She lost the strength in her legs and sat down heavily in an empty chair next to the computer.
“Easy there,” said Corva. She leaned over and put her hands on Haven’s shoulders to steady her in the chair.
“I’m sorry,” said Haven. “I just—my parents—”
She could feel the pressure of tears behind her eyes.
“It’s alright,” said Corva. “A lot has happened in the past few weeks.” She pushed aside a strand of frizzy hair from Haven’s face and smiled.
Haven took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. “Where am I?” she said at last.
Corva clapped her hands together. “Well!” she said. “That’s a question I can answer. How about a tour? Might help you take your mind off things for a while.”
Haven brushed away the one tear she hadn’t been able to stop from rolling down her cheek and nodded. “That sounds great.”
She stood up and followed Corva toward the center of the room. Ambient light from the distant work lamps next to the car provided just enough illumination by which to navigate the cluttered space.
“We call this entire facility The Dome,” said Corva, “for obvious reasons. When it’s a little lighter you’ll be able to see that it’s sort of divided into sections. Dormer has his repair station, and there’s also a sorry excuse for a dining room, along with a meeting area where we can all get together and either relax or prepare for an excursion. You can’t tell right now because it’s almost midnight, but this whole complex is actually underground. Besides the exit and that vent up there,” she said, pointing up to the big fan at the top of the dome, “everything else is buried.”
“I remember trees,” said Haven.
“That would be the Grove. We’ll get to that in a bit. There are also some smaller rooms we use for living quarters—like the one you were resting in.”
“These aren’t my clothes,” said Haven, suddenly remembering that someone else must have changed her while she slept.
Corva smiled. “That was Elena, the elderly woman you may remember from before you slipped into your coma.”
Haven looked up. “Coma?”
“You were out for eight days. Stone cold unconscious.”
“From the drugs?”
“Nope. You fought those pretty well.”
Corva shifted on her feet uncomfortably. “Has no one told you?”
“Told me what?” said Haven, a faint sound of fear creeping into her voice.
“Have you noticed anything recently? About yourself, I mean. Anything out of the ordinary?”
“I lit up my school cafeteria like a 4th of July celebration.”
Corva laughed—at ease once again. “You’re changing. It happens to all of us when we’re close to your age. Our bodies and minds undergo radical internal shifts so we can handle our new abilities. Most of the time it knocks us out for days or even weeks.”
Haven looked down at the palms of her hands. She remembered the blue fire that consumed her vision when she was in the cafeteria at her school.
“What am I?” she asked.
Corva opened her mouth to speak but another voice cut in from the shadows behind her.
The old woman—Elena—stepped out of the darkness and into the dim light surrounding Haven and Corva. Her long grey hair was pulled back tightly and secured in a bun on the back of her head. The tension elongated the weathered lines on her face. She smiled at Haven as she slowly approached—her back slightly bent and her legs wobbling.
“It’s a question we all ask,” said Elena, “at one time or another. Even when we think we know the answer, we never stop asking.”
A muffled scream echoed throughout the dome.
Haven turned to the source of the sound and saw a large door set deep into the concrete wall on one side of the huge room.
“So, what’s in there?” asked Haven warily.
Corva and Elena exchanged a quick look.
Another scream ripped through the complex, and Haven’s blood went cold.
Colton sat in a large conference room on the eleventh floor. Several rows of chairs faced a polished black podium, behind which stood Bernam. He wore a thin suit and sipped water from a faceted glass. His private jet had landed on the pavement outside the building earlier that morning and was being refueled during his long speech.
Shelly sat next to Colton, leaning in and resting her shoulder against his. Reece sat on the other side of Shelly with his arms crossed, leaning away from her.
Bernam set down his glass of water and repositioned the podium microphone directly in front of his mouth.
“As I was saying,” he said, “it doesn’t matter where you came from. It doesn’t matter what you were before you got here. What matters is the future. You’re all here, now, because you want something more—more from life, more from each other—”
Shelly reached over and quickly squeezed Colton’s leg. Reece saw her do it and leaned farther away from both of them.
“—more from yourselves.”
Colton looked around the room.
He, Shelly, and Reece sat in the last of three rows of chairs. Alistair sat in the front row, relaxing comfortably in his seat while he listened to Bernam’s speech. In the second row, two identical twins that Colton did not know sat side by side—young men with tan skin and short, spiky blond hair. They both wore identical jeans, t-shirts, and black leather jackets. They sat low in their seats and seemed bored with the speech.
“As you know,” continued Bernam, “this morning I returned from Japan. Dane and Lee—the only ones among us who have achieved Unity—were there for several weeks taking care of some personal business for me.” He gestured to the twins, who grinned broadly. One of them turned around and winked at Shelly. She stuck her tongue out.
“You’ve all been training very intensely during my absence,” said Bernam. “I’m very happy to hear that the newest member of our group is doing far better than we originally expected.” He smiled sharply at Colton. “No offense meant.”
“None taken,” said Colton.
The truth was that the past week had been unbelievable. He had spent several hours every day in the training room, testing out his capacity for containing different forms of energy. He could keep himself fully charged for just over two minutes before being forced to release, and that time was slowly climbing every day. According to Alistair, most Cons peaked between a minute-thirty and two minutes.
The time not spent in the training room was divided between the gymnasium and Shelly. She barely let him have a moment alone after his rigorous daily routine. Colton couldn’t find anything to complain about—she was beautiful, smart, and had a great sense of humor.
She was teaching him things that Alistair hadn’t bothered to mention, like how to use sunlight to nourish his skin and how to manipulate objects with small bursts of stored energy. Colton was especially fond of not making contact with doors when he closed them. With a wave of his hand he could push the door from several feet away. He was getting good enough so that he didn’t slam them shut as he always did when he first started.
The only thing bothering Colton about the entire experience was Reece. He had been growing quieter and more withdrawn over the past week, spending all of his time in his living quarters and rarely showing up when everyone got together to relax. During the last two days he had barely said a word, and every time he saw Shelly giving Colton the smallest form of affection, he scowled with disgust.
Bernam took a sip of water before continuing his speech.
“I think we can all agree that this is the strongest team we’ve ever had—”
Reece stood up quickly and pushed his chair back until it fell over. He stepped over it and stomped out of the room, slamming the door closed behind him.
Bernam looked after him for a moment, then tightened the knot in his tie. “Well, as I was saying: I’m very proud of your hard work. It looks like it’s finally going to pay off. Everything I have promised you is just over the horizon.”
Colton leaned over to Shelly. “What did he promise you?” he whispered.
“Shh,” she said gently. “Tell you later.”
Bernam walked around to the front of the podium.
“There is only one more step to complete. Before we can start our heavy recruiting phase, there is one last mission—a very important mission—to find the final piece of the equation.”
“What equation?” whispered Colton.
Shelly didn’t answer him.
Bernam smiled. “And I’m going to be with you every step of the way.”
Alistair sat up in his seat and the twins clapped loudly. Colton had only been with the group a short time, but from what he knew, Bernam never accompanied them when they went out into the world.
Bernam glanced at his expensive watch.
“The plane leaves in five hours, at nightfall. I’ll see you all on-board.” He walked past the chairs and left the room.
The twins turned around in their seats to face Shelly and Colton.
“I’m Lee,” said the one on the left.
“I’m Dane,” said the other.
They had matching Australian accents. Colton shook each of their hands in turn. “Colton.”
“We know,” said Lee.
“That’s Shelly,” said Dane, pointing at her and smiling.
“I think she likes you,” Lee said to Colton.
“Who wouldn’t?” said Dane. “Just look at how his skin glows.”
“Did she show you how to do that?” said Lee. “I bet she did. Shelly’s got a thing for all the new arrivals.”
“Grow up,” she said.
“Wish we could,” said Lee.
“But we’re stuck this way,” said Dane.
He snapped his fingers and a red flame sprouted from his fingertips. Lee quickly grabbed it as if he were snatching a fly from the air and brought his closed fist to his mouth, then pretended to swallow the flame. He wiggled his eyebrows and the flames shot from both of his ears.
“Ugh,” said Shelly. She stood and left the room.
Colton leaned in toward the twins. “What do you mean you’re stuck that way?”
“Perpetual youth,” said Lee.
“Ageless,” said Dane. He shrugged. “Twenty years old forever. It happens.”
“At least it wasn’t at sixty,” said Lee.
Colton looked between them, confused. “But how does that happen?”
Lee sighed. “Didn’t Alistair tell you all of this?”
Colton shook his head.
Lee sighed even harder. “Fine. Sometimes when a Source and Con are linked, it halts the aging process. It’s a side effect of the shared connection. It puts them in a sort of stasis. No one knows why.”
“But that hasn’t stopped them from trying to figure it out,” said Dane.
Lee nodded. “Billion-dollar question, that one.”
“So it doesn’t always happen?” asked Colton.
“Weren’t you listening? I already said it didn’t. It’s exceedingly rare.”
“We’re just lucky, I guess.”
“So how old are you guys?”
They both grinned mischievously.
“We’ll never tell, mate,” said Lee.
“Adds to our aura of mystery.”
“I hear it’s what girls go for these days, anyway,” said Lee.
“That and money.”
Dane looked at Colton. “Speaking of girls, how are you and Shelly getting along?”
“What’s it to you?” said Colton. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rising.
“Easy, mate,” said Lee. “We just want to make sure she’s happy, that’s all. Shelly’s a good girl.”
Colton relaxed. “I barely know her,” he said, realizing his words were true.
“Give it time,” said Lee. He stood and slapped Colton on the shoulder.
Dane stood and slapped the other one. “Yeah, give it time.”
After the twins left the room, Colton stood and walked to the window. Bernam’s plane was parked next to the building on the pavement below. Two men in blue coveralls stood on the wings, inspecting the jet engines on either side of the plane’s body.
The yellow-orange desert stretched out from the building in every direction. The landscape was dotted with dead cacti and small, branchy bushes. Ruddy mountains lined the horizon.
Colton thought about leaving.
He had considered it more and more as the days passed, and there were only two things keeping him around: Shelly, and the promise of doing something useful with his ability. Bernam had told him that they were going to help people who had been taken and held captive—people like Colton who, until recently, had just wanted to be left alone to lead a normal life.
As if it were a voice in his own head, someone spoke behind him.
“You’re hesitant about tonight.”
Colton turned to find Bernam standing next to the podium. He had entered and crossed the room silently and stood inspecting Colton with a steady gaze.
“I am, yes.”
Bernam studied him a moment longer and then walked to the window to look down at his plane. “That’s understandable. You have only just begun the process of defining yourself through your abilities. Ideally I would never ask anyone so—pardon the term—fresh to accompany me on such a dangerous mission. But I can see in your eyes that you want to be tested—that you long to know the true depths of your power.”
“I’m worried about Reece. He’s acting really strange.”
Bernam nodded. “Jealousy toward our kind is a very real problem. It is the reason we usually do not tolerate outsiders. They invariably feel confusion and eventually rage at their lack of abilities. They wonder why someone else was chosen instead of them. It is a futile line of thought that can sometimes have deadly consequences.”
“So why is he still here?”
“We all have a part to play, Colton. Even those without abilities can be useful.”
“What should I do about him?”
“I have already spoken to Reece. I assured him that he is welcome to stay even if you do not. He seemed much relieved.”
Colton frowned as he thought about the situation. He watched one of the workers on the plane jump down off the wing and walk into the building.
Bernam sighed. “You are still not convinced. Alright, then. I will give you another reason to go with us tonight.” He paused until Colton looked at him. “They have your mother.”
The world sank away around Colton and he was suddenly a small boy in his childhood home on the morning his mother abandoned him. His father stood in the kitchen, clutching her note in his hand until his chewed fingernails pierced his palm and blood dripped over the paper and splatted onto the tile floor.
His father had never let him read the note.
“Colton?” said Bernam.
Reality snapped back and Colton was standing in the conference room on the eleventh floor of a building in the middle of the Montana desert.
“My mother?” he said weakly.
“She was taken years ago, when you were a boy. They promised her a cure for her ability—an ability she was hoping that you did not inherit. They ran tests on her, Colton. Painful tests. She is still alive, but she is locked away deep within their secret facility under heavy guard.”
“Why won’t they let her go?”
“Because that’s what they do, Colton. They take what they want and hurt whoever stands in their way. We must draw them out into the open and follow them back to their headquarters. Only then can we save your mother and whoever else they are holding prisoner.”
Colton looked at Bernam. “Okay,” he said. “I’m in.”
Haven watched as the man named Dormer dropped a wrench he had been holding and ran to the large door as yet another scream echoed through the dome.
Next to the door was a metal box as big as a refrigerator. Dormer pushed down a handle on the front of the box and the side panels slid down to reveal a compact block of machinery. He flipped a switch on the box and it fired up like a car engine, shaking quickly on its base. Dormer put his hands into the machinery and grabbed onto a thick metal pipe. The machine’s loud rumbling turned to a slow, intermittent chugging until finally the engine died and the box went silent. Dormer let go of the pipe and walked over to the large door. He pressed a sequence of buttons on a black wall panel and the door unlocked with a loud, pneumatic phoomp and swung open.
“I’m going to check on them,” said Corva.
Elena nodded and rested her hand on Haven’s shoulder. She gently guided her toward the opposite side of the dome.
“Not all of us are lucky enough to have full control of our abilities,” she said.
Haven looked behind her as Corva went through the doorway.
Elena sighed. “Sometimes we have to take extra care of some of our own. It’s very sad.”
“Are we really underground?” asked Haven.
“Oh, yes. We built this facility decades ago as a safe-house for our kind. We saved a bundle by not renting any equipment to dig the hole. It helps when your friends work better than dynamite!” She giggled at her own joke and her clear eyes twinkled as she relived an old memory. “We have been safe here for a long time.”
She guided Haven around tables, chairs, piles of machine parts, and stacks of paper, and steadily toward a set of swinging double-doors that were cut into the wall of the dome. As they walked, Elena explained the existence of Sources and Conduits. She told Haven how one needs the other if they are to fully realize their own potential—Unity—and how rarely that synergy is achieved.
Elena pushed open the doors and led Haven into the Grove.
It was like stepping out of a warehouse and into a forest. Lush, green grass rolled over small hills to the distant corners of the room. Haven vaguely remembered it from when she had first arrived at the facility. A grid of trees had been planted in the middle of the vast space, half of them dead, half still blooming with green leaves and small, colorful flowers. Blue pinpoints of light floated lazily amongst the branches.
“Do you play football?” asked Elena.
“I’m an all-star quarterback,” said Haven, smiling weakly. Something about the trees and the grass made her feel lighter and happier than she had felt in a long time.
Elena laughed. “Very good. You still have a sense of humor. Sometimes we lose that.” She pointed to the far side of the room. “This space is roughly the size of a football field, give or take a few yards. We come here to relax, to think, and to heal.” She walked over to the nearest dead tree and rested her hand on the blackened trunk. “This was mine,” she said. “Not long after I first moved here, I was injured quite badly in a car accident. A car accident, of all things! I thought I was going to die—and I would have, if not for this tree.”
Haven stepped closer to the trunk and looked up at the bare branches above.
“A Conduit can take life from the tree and give it to someone else,” she said.
Elena nodded. “Not all Conduits—some are more gifted than others.”
“There is an enormous amount of energy in living things,” said Elena. “This life essence can be tapped and redirected to heal injuries. A Conduit can absorb and redirect any kind of energy—but for healing, they must use something that is, or was very recently, alive. Ancient trees harbor vast amounts of this life energy, and it is why we use them to cure the most severe injuries.”
“But when you brought me here I wasn’t dying.”
“Oh, but you were. The men at the medical center don’t like to operate on living specimens. They keep a certain amount of prisoners alive for long-term studies, but they much prefer a subject that won’t wake up in the middle of the procedure and cause trouble. The drugs they injected into your system would have killed you shortly after you arrived here.”
“What did they want from me?”
“To find out what makes you the way you are. They believe that if they can uncover the root of our abilities, they can dig it out and alter it to fit their dark needs.”
Haven flipped over a fallen leaf with the toe of her shoe. “In that case, thank you.”
Elena smiled. “You are very welcome.” She walked past Haven and slowly sat in the grass at the top of a small hill. The bones in her knees popped loudly as she stretched out her legs in front of her. A small blue light floated to her, touched the top of her head, then floated away.
Haven walked over and sat in the grass beside her.
“Do you like the lights?” asked Elena. “I made them myself.”
A cluster of blue lights formed directly over Haven’s head. They swarmed together and spun in the air like a pinwheel before flying off in every direction. “They’re beautiful,” she said. “What are they?”
“Just a distraction. They make me happy.”
Elena raised her arm and extended her pointer finger toward the ceiling. A small ball of blue light formed between the first two knuckles of her finger—exactly like the blue light that Haven had seen on her own hand in her kitchen—and slowly moved to the tip of her fingernail.
Elena watched the light, turning her finger to the side as it hovered at the edge of her fingernail. With a gentle blow from her mouth, the light floated up into the air and joined the others in the trees.
“Is my brother still alive?” asked Haven.
Elena’s smile faded and her arm slowly lowered to her lap. “Yes. He is at the medical center where we found you.”
Haven felt the threat of tears well behind her eyes, but forced them back with anger. “Why didn’t you save him? Why did you take me?”
“We thought you were your brother. We lack the resources to save everyone that is taken by Bernam and his followers, so we must bide our time and strike when it is most important.” She sighed. “Our numbers have been decreasing over the past months. Some go out into the world and never return. I believe they were either killed or captured by Bernam and taken to his medical facility for testing. He’s searching for something—something that he thinks he can only find in us.”
“Why take Noah? He’s just a little boy.”
Elena hesitated for a moment. “Your brother—” she said, then stopped. She seemed to be searching for the right words. “I explained to you that there are Sources and Conduits, and that some are more powerful than others. On each side, there is one who is the most powerful. Others may be more capable than these two individuals in only one area, such as storage capacity for a Conduit or burst capabilities for a Source, but the most powerful individuals on both sides more than make up for these shortcomings by being masters of their remaining abilities. More than any other of his or her kind, this person wields a power so profoundly versatile, yet so completely dangerous, that it eclipses all others in existence. If this person is a Source, they are known as a Phoenix. The strongest Conduit is called a Void.”
“Which one is my brother?”
“Neither,” said Elena.
Haven looked up as a blue light floated over her head. It glowed brighter and split into two lights, which swirled around each other as they quickly rose higher in the air.
“You’re a Phoenix,” she said suddenly.
Elena nodded. She looked as if admitting it caused her great pain.
“I have never been able to sense the existence of any of our kind,” she said, “until very recently. It was an aspect of my ability that I was told would manifest itself when the time came. I must admit that I had my doubts. Now I know that those doubts were wrong.” She looked over at Haven hesitantly. “Your brother is a hybrid. He possesses—or rather, he will possess—the characteristics of both a Source and a Conduit. He will be able to create his own energy and also to unleash it without the need for a counterpart. This hybridization of our abilities has only happened once before, and that person died because they did not know how to control their unlimited potential. It is the holy grail for Bernam, and it is why he has taken your brother. If I, as a Phoenix, could sense the existence and location of your brother, then it stands to reason that Bernam, as a Void, could sense it as well. He wants to be a hybrid, and he will stop at nothing until he achieves his goal.”
“Oh, Noah,” whispered Haven. A warm tear rolled down her cheek.
Elena reached over and wiped away the tear. “There is still time,” she said. “Now that you are awake, you can come with us to the medical center and help us rescue your brother.”
Haven shook her head slowly in defeat. “I don’t even know what’s happening to me.”
“You will,” said Elena. “In time.”
“How much time is there?” said Haven hotly. “What if he’s already dead?”
“They still need him, Haven, and as long as they still need him, he is safe. You must hold on to that hope for as long as possible.”
Haven sniffed and rubbed her nose. “Were my parents like me?”
“You mean did they have their own abilities?”
“I don’t know.”
Haven closed her eyes as the sharp pain of a migraine suddenly flared behind her eyes. It hit her much faster than it ever had before, driving deep into her skull.
“What’s wrong?” asked Elena.
“Just a headache,” she said with a groan. “I get them occasionally.” Haven rubbed her temples to try and dull the pain.
“Those will pass. They are quite common for Sources before they fully adjust to their new abilities.”
Haven opened her eyes as the pain slowly faded. She thought about everything Elena had said. “I thought everyone’s fire was supposed to be a different color. Every Source, I mean.”
“Their energy, yes.”
“But my fire is blue, like yours.”
“I noticed. Not quite the same, but close enough.”
“What does that mean?”
Elena smiled. “I’m not sure. But I bet we’re going to find out.”
The engines were already warming up when Colton stepped into the plane, their high-pitched whine slowly building to a loud roar. The twins were seated in the very back, their heads leaning in opposite directions as they slept.
Alistair sat in the chair closest to the door and nodded at Colton when he entered. He settled back into his seat and closed his eyes. Shelly was halfway down the plane, sitting in one of the oversized leather chairs that lined both sides of the cabin. She smiled at Colton and motioned for him to join her. He smiled back and walked down the aisle, then stopped when he passed Reece, who was slouched down in his seat with his face close to the window.
“Hey,” said Colton.
Reece shifted in his seat to twist farther away from the aisle.
“Come on, Reece.” Colton didn’t like the tension between the two of them and he wanted to clear the air so things could go back to the way they were before they left New York.
“Go sit with your girlfriend,” said Reece without looking over.
“Don’t be like this, man. What’s going on with you?”
“Pffff,” Reece sneered.
“Fine,” said Colton, shaking his head. He walked down the aisle and sat next to Shelly, sighing in frustration as the leather chair formed around his back.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“He’s being stupid, that’s what’s wrong.”
Shelly looked at Reece, who had propped one of his feet on the seat in front of him and still sat staring out the window.
“It’s a lot to get used to,” she said. “Especially if he feels like he isn’t, you know, one of us.”
“Why doesn’t he just leave, then? Bernam said he could stay, but why stick around if he’s miserable?”
“He’s your friend, Colton. Maybe he wants to stay here with you.”
Colton sighed again. “He should get over it. I’m doing just fine.”
“Well,” said Shelly with a smile, “you’re special, aren’t you?”
She leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
The door to the cabin closed loudly, sealing them inside. Bernam stepped from behind a partition at the front of the plane and looked around.
“Everyone here? Excellent. We should be at our destination in a little less than an hour. If you need to rest, I suggest you start now.” He paused when he saw Alistair and the twins. “Ah, good. I see some of you beat me to it. Very well, then.” He turned and went back through the partition.
The jet engines whirred to full power and the small plane rolled across the hot pavement next to the black-windowed building.
Shelly rested her hand on Colton’s leg as the plane picked up speed and the wheels lifted off the ground.
“You don’t like flying?” asked Colton.
“I love it, actually. Why do you ask?”
Colton looked down at her hand on his leg, then into her eyes. She looked back, her gaze steady and inviting.
“No reason,” he said. “Do you want to tell me now, or later?”
“Tell you what?”
“The thing you wouldn’t tell me in the meeting. What did Bernam promise everyone?”
“Oh, that,” she said. She pulled her hand off his leg and leaned back in her seat. “He said he could turn all of us into hybrids.”
“Hybrids,” repeated Colton. “Those exist?”
“One that we know about, but he died a long time ago. There’s a rumor that Bernam has found another one who is willing to help him figure out how to replicate the ability.”
“Why is it so hard to replicate?”
“Because someone born with only one ability—either Source or Con—can’t hold the opposite energy within their bodies for very long. A lot of people have tried. If they get the foreign energy out in time, they only go insane. If they hold on to it…well, let’s just say it isn’t pretty.”
“So Bernam thinks he can turn everyone into hybrids,” said Colton.
“Yeah,” said Shelly. “Pretty rad, huh?”
“But why? What’s the point?”
Shelly laughed and her short auburn hair bounced across her face. She tucked it back behind her ears and turned in her seat to face Colton. “Look what we can do now, with just one half of the equation. Imagine what it would be like if we didn’t spend our lives searching for the missing key—that one other person that holds the potential to unlock all of our power. Most of us never find that person. We spend our whole lives searching. I’m tired of waiting for it to happen on its own.”
“I don’t get why any Source isn’t compatible with just any Conduit.”
“I don’t get it either, but that’s just the way it is. A Source can burn themselves up trying to make it work, and they usually take the Con with them. It’s called feedback, and it’s a nasty thing to watch.”
“How do you know when you’ve found the right person?” asked Colton.
Shelly shrugged. “According to those that are lucky enough to find their counterpart, they just know.”
Colton sat silently for a long time, then said, “I thought we were going to be helping people.”
“We are! But just think how much more we can do once we’re hybrids! It’s the first step in the process.” She stuck her legs out and rested them across Colton’s lap. “After that,” she said, “we can save all the people you want, Mr. Boy Scout.” She raised her eyebrows and looked at him playfully. “You know, there’s a special term for a hybrid. If a person has both abilities, they don’t call them a Source or a Conduit any more. I always hated that term, ‘Conduit’. Bleh! Like a piece of tubing or something.”
“What do they call them?”
“A Nova. As in supernova. As in the power of an exploding star.” Shelly spun in her seat and looked up at the ceiling. Strands of her hair fell out from behind her ears and bobbed over her face as she turned. “Shelly isn’t my real name,” she said.
“My full name is Michelle. My parents named me after my Aunt.”
“It’s very pretty,” said Colton.
Sadness filled her eyes as she looked at him.
“Do you know what they did when I told them about my ability?”
Colton shook his head.
“They kicked me out. They wouldn’t even let me take a suitcase. That’s the kind of ignorance that being different reveals in people. Nothing about me had changed. I was still their daughter—still the same little girl I had always been. They were scared of me.”
She turned in her seat to look out the window, lost in her own thoughts.
Colton wanted to say he was sorry but thought she had probably heard it too many times before.
He looked over her shoulder and out through the small, circular window. The sky gradated dark to light as it dropped toward the horizon. The first colors of evening streaked across the sky; deep orange mixed with faint purple. Soon the sun would dip below the mountains and the temperature would plummet.
The ground below was a brown desert that stretched out in all directions. As the plane banked slightly in the air, Colton saw the distant lights of a city. Small pinpoints of white, yellow, and red shined like small stars in the desert.
He thought of what Shelly had said about becoming a hybrid. Colton didn’t know if he wanted more power than he already had. After he found his mother, he wanted to take her as far away from the people that hurt her as he could. He didn’t care what happened after that. If Bernam was serious about helping people who couldn’t help themselves, then maybe Colton would stick around a little while longer. Shelly was enough of a reason to stay, but he needed to get his mother to safety before he started thinking about himself.
Colton remembered the daydreams he had as a child—fantasies where he was a superhero with incredible powers that saved children from burning buildings. He watched all the cartoons and read all the comic books. He played with stiff-armed action figures that wore brightly-colored costumes and promised justice with their square jaws and obscene muscles.
Is that what I am now? he wondered. Is this what being a hero feels like?
Colton hadn’t saved anybody. He was no hero. Maybe he could be, later, but right then he could not ignore the foolish hope to bring his mother back home to his father, to put her hand in his and say, “There. Everything’s all better. Now we’re a family again.”
Marius sat in front of Haven, squinting at her. They were in a large rectangular room that extended away from the dome like a big shoebox. The walls and floor were bare except for a few exercise mats and a wooden rack bolted to the wall that held a few broken broomsticks.
“Hmm,” said Marius. “Hmmmm.”
Haven’s shoulders dropped and she raised her eyebrows. “Well?!”
“I’m thinking,” he said. He scratched at the black and grey stubble on his chin, then his hand drifted up to the top of his head and he scratched his closely-shaven scalp. “Hmmmmm. You know martial arts?”
“No!” she said.
“Hand-to-hand? Disarming methods?
“How to use gun?”
“Of course not.”
“Why ‘of course not’? In Russia I knew by age of seven.”
“We’re not in Russia.”
He chuckled. “Yes, I know this. Maybe we start with what you know, okay?” He looked at her, waiting. “So…what do you know?”
He sighed, then stood. “Okay, we start small. I teach you defense, yes? Come.” He motioned for Haven to follow him as he stepped back from the door toward the center of the room. He glanced up at the ceiling twenty feet above their heads. “This will work,” he said.
“Work for what?” asked Haven. She stepped forward hesitantly, looking around as if she expected an attacker to materialize out of thin air.
Marius had been adamant about training her as much as possible before the group left for the medical center early the next morning. Haven said that she would have been useless if she tried to save her brother and Marius had immediately insisted that she follow him to what he called the “exercise room”.
“Okay,” he said, holding up his palms for her to stop walking. “Put hands up, like this.” He pulled his right hand close to his face and held it a few inches in front of his mouth, his palm open but his fingers firmly together as if he was about to slap someone. He moved his left arm away from him until his hand hovered about a foot in front of his face. Haven thought that if Marius closed his fists it would look like he was holding an invisible blowgun.
She imitated his motions as best she could.
“Good,” he said. “Now.” He stepped toward her and brought his left hand down to her face in slow motion. She stepped away and swatted his hand to the side. “Okay, good,” he said. “Except opponent moves much faster in real life, yes? You want to keep one arm close to your body, always, in case they get near you with knife or something else. Always push away from your body, like this…”
Marius swung at her again in slow motion, a wide swing that Haven easily deflected away from her body. She turned as his arm swept past her.
“Ah-ah,” he scolded.
She looked down to see the fingers of his other hand barely touching the side of her ribcage.
“Bye-bye lung,” he said, grinning.
Haven pushed his hand away and replanted her feet. Marius looked down at them and frowned.
“Wider stance,” he said.
She spread her feet farther apart.
“No pigeon-toe,” he said. “Line them up the same way. Good. Now move that one back a few inches. Very good. This way you don’t lose balance when I do this.”
He kicked out his leg and hooked his foot behind one of her ankles. He yanked back, taking her leg with him, but Haven hopped forward on her other foot and managed to stay standing.
Marius laughed. “Very good! Still much to learn, but I think you will be good student, yes? It will be many weeks before you are ready to fight a real opponent, but a few hours a day and you will be better than Marius, I think.”
She sighed and crossed her arms.
“Oh, don’t look so sad,” he said. “Tomorrow, we get back your brother and everything is okay again.”
“It won’t ever be okay again,” she said with more venom than she had intended. “My parents are dead. They’re not ever coming back!”
Haven turned and wiped away the tears running down her cheeks—tears that had fallen more often as the hours wore on.
“Oh, my,” said Marius. He walked over and rested a hand on her shoulder. “I did not mean that you should forget them. I did not mean that at all.”
She sniffed. “My home is gone. Burned to the ground. Even if I get Noah back, there’s nowhere to go.”
“You stay here!” he said quickly. “You both stay here. We have food, water, gymnasium.” He gestured grandly to the empty room in which they stood and Haven smiled. “All the things growing girl and boy need. Okay?”
Haven could think of a hundred other places she would rather stay than a damp underground shelter, but until she knew that Noah was one-hundred percent safe, she didn’t see any other option.
She nodded and Marius clapped his hands together loudly.
“Excellent!” he said. “But training not over yet. Best to teach you something you will definitely use tomorrow. Now is time for the fun stuff.”
He twirled his finger to indicate that she should turn to face him. She did so and moved one foot in front of the other as he had shown her.
“More of that later,” said Marius. “For now, relax. Hands by side. Good. Close your eyes.”
She raised one eyebrow and looked at him.
“Trust me,” he said.
She closed her eyes and waited for his instructions.
“Listen carefully,” he said. “There is a light inside of you. It burns brighter than anything else in this world.” He spoke softly and his voice circled around her. “It is your soul—it is everything you are and also much more. It is life, it is energy, and you feel it growing stronger within you.”
In her mind’s eye, Haven saw a vast nothingness. A dim blue light sparked to life in the distance and grew stronger as it approached.
“You can hold this energy inside of you,” said Marius, “but not forever. You must guide it as it grows. You must shape it for its true purpose. Otherwise it will fade, and you will lose it forever. Control it, keep it close. Once it is strong enough, release it slowly…carefully.”
The blue light in the darkness expanded until it was a small star in Haven’s imagination. It turned slowly and its surface shifted like blue lava—swirling and bubbling with immense power. Strands like solar flares arced from the expanding ball and snapped in half, sending strings of blue plasma spinning into the blackness.
Heat traveled down her spine and spread across her entire body. It pushed through her blood and muscle tissue until it ran along the surface of her skin as if she stood under a waterfall of boiling water. It didn’t hurt her—even when the heat intensified—but she could still feel its presence.
Haven heard Marius step away and she opened her eyes.
Electric blue light cascaded over her vision like the flicking flames of a violent fire. Marius stood twenty feet away, on the other side of the room.
“Close your eyes!” he shouted.
She did, but something was wrong. The energy that had been building within her shifted to the side like a heavy weight and slipped off her body. She opened her eyes as a blue stream of burning plasma shot from her left arm and hit the wall just above Marius’s head. He shouted and dove out of the way as the stream seared into the wall.
Haven screamed and stepped backward. She raised her left arm and the blue stream scraped up the wall to the ceiling, leaving behind a blackened streak on the metal.
“What do I do?!” she shouted.
The energy was already dissipating. The stream shooting out of her arm faded like a dying flashlight beam until it disappeared. Haven dropped to her knees, sweaty and exhausted. She gulped down air as if she had almost drowned.
Marius ran over and knelt beside her. He gripped her shoulders firmly and supported her when she started to shake all over.
“It’s okay,” he said. He lowered her to a sitting position and smoothed down her hair, which was sticking out in every direction. He looked up at the long strip of blackened metal on the wall and ceiling. “That was…that was good, for first time. Practice makes perfect, yes?”
“I lost it,” said Haven, still breathing heavily. “I felt it but then I lost it.”
“Happens to everyone,” said Marius. “Still happens to me if I am distracted. What did you see?”
She thought for a moment. “A blue light in the darkness, like a star. It grew brighter and brighter and came close enough that I could see every detail.”
Marius was nodding. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Good. For me, I imagine it building up in my hands until I can no longer keep it inside. It is different for everyone, but the important thing is that you find something that works. Eventually you will be able to skip the seeing and jump right to the zapping.” He looked back at the black scar on the wall, then down at his own hands. “Maybe next time I try your method. Maybe I get something a little stronger! But listen to me. The goal is to control the energy—to not let go all at once. This way it is not all gone in five seconds and then the bad guys get you.”
Haven sat up straighter and took a deep breath. “Why are you fighting?” she asked. “With Bernam and the others.”
Marius frowned. “There is always fighting. There is always someone who wants more power, and who will take it from others. And always there are people willing to help that person. It is a terrible truth, but one that we all must face.” He shook his head sadly.
Haven smiled and pushed his shoulder. “I think I need some water.”
He slapped his forehead. “Of course you do! How stupid of me.” He stood and helped her to her feet. “Very thirsty work. But don’t worry, is worth it. Everybody has limits, but with more training you will not believe what you can do.”
Haven followed Marius to the door. She looked down at her hands, then gently rubbed her forearms. Her skin was cool, and there was no sign that fire or any other kind of destructive energy had been flowing over her body. A shiver ran down her spine when she thought about the power that had been available to her a few moments earlier.
It felt like she had tapped into a nuclear generator and was pulling unlimited power from its core, weaving it together into a giant sphere of energy. Up until the moment she had lost control, Haven felt as if she could have blown up a building.
As she followed Marius out of the training room and into the dome, she had a hard time convincing herself that having that kind of power was a good thing.
Elena was waiting for them just outside the room.
“How did she do?” she asked Marius.
“Very good,” he said. “One day she will be stronger than you, I think.”
Marius’s praise made Haven blush. “I lost control,” she admitted.
“We all do, from time to time,” said Elena. She glanced over at Marius, who was trying to make a motion with his hands without Haven seeing him. He pointed to his own shoulder-blades and then fanned out his fingers and traced the outline of invisible wings. Then he nodded at Haven and Elena looked at her, one eyebrow rising higher on her wrinkled forehead. “Is that right?” she said.
“What?” said Haven.
“You have wings.”
“No, I—” Haven stopped and thought for a moment. “Well, in the cafeteria, yeah…sort of. Not really wings, though, just shaped like wings.”
“Oh my,” said Elena softly.
“What are you talking about?” said Haven, hesitant accusation in her voice.
Marius coughed politely. “Time for food,” he said. “Marius is hungry.” He smiled at Haven and hurried away, disappearing down the hallway that led to the dormitories.
“Let’s sit down, Haven,” said Elena.
The older woman led her to the center of the massive domed room. A ring of short chairs surrounded a small, circular rock pit that Haven had not seen before. Softball-sized grey rocks were piled in a small mound in the center of the pit. Haven chose a seat. Elena sat next to her and waved an open palm in the direction of the rock pit. Blue flames ignited on the stones and danced brilliantly in the darkness. Light flickered across their faces and warmed Haven’s skin.
“It’s an issue of balance,” said Elena at last. She stared into the flames, unblinking.
“What kind of balance?” asked Haven.
“The Balance. Nature. The world. Everything. It is my belief that our kind came into existence to repair an imbalance in the fabric of reality. Something shifted too far in the wrong direction and we represent nature’s attempt to solve the problem.”
“The Sources and Conduits, you mean.”
Elena nodded. “You already know that I’m called a Phoenix. The man named Bernam is a Void—the strongest of his kind. We are here to balance the forces that have been given to us, to guide the others down the proper path so that the power does not shift too far to one side. However, one cannot exist without the other. Bernam and myself—we are linked in that way, but in that way alone.”
“He’s not your counterpart?”
Elena shook her head. “He lost his true partner long ago, as did I.” Her eyes glossed over as she remembered. She shook her head again and sighed.
“What happens if one of you dies?” asked Haven.
“That is what we need to talk about. My power is fading, Haven. It has been weakening gradually over the last several months. My guess would be that it started around the same time that you first noticed you were different.”
Haven looked into the blue flames that danced over the rocks. A long strand of fire flicked out from the pit and snapped in the air like a whip.
“You think I’m a Phoenix,” she said.
“I think so, yes. But nothing is certain. There could be others like you in the world—ones with other shades of blue fire that have the potential to become a Phoenix. You and I manifest our excess energy in a very specific way—a way that, until now, I thought was completely unique to myself.”
“The wings,” said Haven.
“What are they?”
“I can’t say for sure,” said Elena. “They don’t always appear when I am expending energy. I have only noticed their presence on rare occasions when I was attempting to channel more power than I should have—perhaps half-a-dozen times in my entire life. They are beautiful, but I think they might not serve much purpose beyond that.”
“Have you ever seen them on anyone else?”
Elena shook her head.
“So wait,” said Haven. “If you’re getting weaker, does that mean that I’m killing you?”
Elena laughed—an old, slow laugh full of humor and wisdom. “No, Haven. This would be happening with or without you. It is the way of things.”
Haven sat back in her seat. “How did it happen with you?” she asked.
“When I received my ability, you mean?”
“I never met the person who came before me. I like to think that they were able to live a quiet life, far from the worries that plague our kind these days. It was no slow process for me, as I am noticing with you. The energy was practically slapped into me not long after my seventeenth birthday. I always assumed that the one who came before me died suddenly, without the time for a gradual transference like the kind I believe I am experiencing. I was working in a shoe factory at the time, lacing work boots—just one of many girls on a long factory line.” She giggled. “Oh, you should have seen their faces! I lit that place up like a five-story Christmas tree. I had to leave town after that, of course.” She sighed happily. “Those days were just full of adventure.”
“If I’m getting my power from you,” said Haven, “then where do the others get their abilities?”
“You aren’t getting your power from me at all!” said Elena, laughing softly with amusement. “At least, not yet. Besides the few people who were given their powers by other Conduits, each one of us is born already possessing an ability. But those like me and Bernam—and every other Phoenix and Void that came before us—are given something extra.”
“What is it?”
Elena smiled. “There are many theories, and of course I have my own. I think it’s different for each of us. Only you can know for sure.” Her smile faded and a look of worry deepened the shadows on her face.
“What’s wrong?” asked Haven.
Elena shook her head. She smiled but it was a smile intended to hide a truth. “It’s nothing.”
“Tell her,” someone said behind Haven. She turned to see Dormer standing a few feet away, just at the edge of the blue firelight. “Tell her about the process—about what really happened to you in the shoe factory. Tell her there’s a chance she could burn up just like a—”
“Don’t!” shouted Elena. She stood and held up a warning finger at Dormer. “Don’t you say anything. She doesn’t need to worry about that for a long time.”
“Maybe not so long,” he said.
“Tell me what?” said Haven. She stood slowly, looking between the two of them.
“It’s nothing,” said Elena.
“You may as well,” said Dormer, clearly enjoying Elena’s frustration. “She needs to know.”
Elena sighed and sat down in her seat wearily.
“I didn’t want to add to your burden,” she said.
“Tell me,” said Haven. She stood next to the fire, her mind in a suspended state of expectation.
After a long minute, Elena spoke at last. “There is a chance that your body will be incapable of holding the Phoenix energy and that it will instead go to someone else.”
“So…what? I don’t even have it yet, from what you’re telling me. I’ll still keep what I already have, right? Nothing would change.”
Elena shook her head.
“This is the good part,” said Dormer.
“The energy does not simply pass over you like a disembodied spirit looking for a different body,” said Elena. “The process of change—the process that determines whether or not you are capable of wielding such power—could destroy you completely if you are not the right person.”
Haven stumbled over her words as her brain struggled to process the information. “Well—what if—how do I know if I’m the right person?”
“You don’t,” said Dormer. “Not until it’s too late.” He turned and walked away, toward the black sedan near the entrance to the dormitories.
“Well, screw that!” said Haven, shaking her head. “I pass. I forfeit. Whatever you do to make it go to the next person and not me, do that, because I don’t want it.”
“I wish it worked like that, Haven,” said Elena. “I really do. It is a cycle. There will be a brief time where you experience increased power, but afterward it will fade until the moment comes when it abandons you completely. Once that happens—if it happens at all—you will either receive the Phoenix energy or it will destroy you and go to another.”
“But how do you even know if that’s true?” said Haven quickly, getting defensive. “You don’t even know where you got your own ability!”
“There are others in this world who have shared such things with me,” said Elena. “I was going to wait to tell you until the pain from the loss of your parents had passed.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” said Haven, instantly regretting her words. Her sadness wasn’t Elena’s fault, but she was still angry at the world for letting her parents die. She turned to look at the fire. “When will it happen?”
“It is impossible to say. Maybe never.”
“Great,” said Haven flatly. “At least I have something to look forward to.”
Across the room, a metal cup hit the floor and bounced loudly on the concrete. A small boy wearing glasses stood on a chair next to Corva’s computer, waving his arms and bouncing up and down excitedly.
“Who’s that?” asked Haven. “I didn’t even know he was in here.”
“That’s Micah,” said Elena. She stood up and hurried toward the boy.
Haven followed her over to the dark area of the dome floor that was scattered with all sorts of electronic equipment. There were several work stations. The table next to Corva’s computer was topped with a bulky radio receiver and what looked to Haven like monitoring equipment. Large knobs and small switches covered the rectangular units stacked on both sides of the table.
Micah plopped down into his seat when Elena and Haven approached and pulled on an oversized set of earphones. A long, spiraled cable ran from the headset to one of the monitoring boxes on the table. When Dormer walked up, Micah pulled the cable plug out of the monitor and turned up a volume dial.
The monitor was tuned in to a police scanner. A conversation between an officer and his dispatcher was just wrapping up.
“Copy, four-one-seven,” said the dispatcher. “Fire department on the way. We’ll send some backup for you just in case. Confirmed two identical suspects, multiple red fires in the Four Corners area at Shepherd Trail. Unit on-scene unresponsive. Advise extreme caution. Over.”
“Copy that, dispatch. Unit four-one-seven out.”
The line went silent, replaced with soft, clicking static.
“Red fire?” said Haven. She couldn’t believe she heard those exact words.
“That’s just outside Bozeman,” said Dormer. “Less than thirty minutes away.”
Marius and Corva ran to the table, breathing heavily. Marius held a chunk of bread in one hand and chewed loudly. “What happened?” he said.
“The twins are out starting fires,” said Dormer. He turned and went back to his work station.
“Who are the twins?” asked Haven. She remembered her own house burning to the ground, consumed by rising, bright red flames. She swallowed thickly as her stomach tightened.
“Some of Bernam’s henchmen,” said Corva. She squeezed Micah’s shoulder and he smiled up at her.
Haven thought the boy could be no older than twelve or thirteen at the most. He had light brown skin and pale eyes that were comically large behind his thick glasses. His baggy clothes hung loosely on his thin frame, and his heavy shoes clomped loudly on the floor as his feet bounced up and down energetically.
“Good work, Micah,” said Elena.
“So what we do?” said Marius.
Elena didn’t answer him. She turned and looked up at the roof of the dome. Haven followed her eye-line, tracing an antenna wire that ran out of the back of the radio equipment and straight up the wall of the dome to the slow-spinning fan at the very top.
“We have to stop them,” said Corva.
“Don’t bother,” said Dormer loudly from across the room. “You know something isn’t right. Multiple fires in the same neighborhood? It’s too flashy, even for Bernam.”
“There could be families inside,” said Haven suddenly. Everyone turned to look at her, surprised at the conviction in her voice. “We have to go! What if they were the ones who killed my parents?”
Elena nodded. “We will go. Haven, it is too dangerous. You will remain here with Micah. Monitor the police scanner—”
“I’m going with you!” shouted Haven. “There’s no way I’m staying! Red fire, didn’t you hear? My parents…” Her voice trailed off until all she could do was stand there with her mouth half-open, ready to form another argument but unable to find the words.
“It’s not safe,” said Elena. “Marius, Corva, Dormer, and I will—”
“I’m staying,” said Dormer. His eyes met with Elena’s for a long moment, shining with defiance.
She looked away sadly. “Very well. Dormer will stay with Micah. Haven…” She sighed and shook her head.
“Elena, she needs answers,” said Corva.
Elena hesitated a moment longer, then said, “Haven, you come with us. But you are to remain by the vehicles as a lookout, do you understand?”
“I understand.” She would have agreed to anything if it meant knowing more about those who killed her parents.
“Everybody ready?” asked Elena. “Let’s go topside.”
Marius stood before a section of plain concrete wall. A few feet away was the entrance to the room full of metal tanks that Haven had been taken to when she first arrived at the dome—a miniature water recycling plant for the entire underground complex.
She waited as Marius ran his palm over the gritty concrete wall until the tip of his index finger dipped into a shallow depression. He pushed in lightly and the faint depression became a deep hole. There was a soft click and a small square of concrete next to Marius’s finger swung out to reveal a black LED panel. He tapped a series of hieroglyphic symbols on the screen and a long sequence of encrypted numbers rapidly cycled across the bottom until a small red light on the panel turned green.
The faint outline of a wide door appeared in the wall next to the panel and darkened as the large, thick piece of metal swung silently inward, sweeping in a wide arc to reveal a long hallway that stretched away from the dome. The heavy door was about as wide as a car and Haven realized that was how the black sedan had been brought into the facility.
She walked down the long hallway after Marius and Elena; Corva followed close behind. Caged light bulbs protruded from the ceiling every twenty feet, casting bright circles of light onto the dull grey floor and walls. Haven turned to look back and Corva gave a slight nod and a comforting smile.
The hallway led to a single, massive elevator with a heavy black door that Marius slid to the side with a grunt. After they were all inside, he pulled the door back into place and pressed the only button on the small panel set into the wall.
The elevator rattled softly as it ascended.
Haven looked down at her clothes and couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. Corva had tossed her a beige jacket that fit well enough, but could have gone down an inch farther at the waist. She felt naked somehow, and she realized it was because her hands were empty.
Corva held the same strange machine gun that Marius had used in the car during Haven’s rescue from the medical center. The body of the weapon was chromed metal; the two pistol-grips—one at the back of the gun and the other halfway down the sleek, elongated barrel—were covered with a black rubberized material. The gun hung from a worn green strap looped over Corva’s shoulder.
Neither Marius nor Elena carried any kind of weapon that Haven could see. She assumed that they didn’t need one since they could make their own energy, but from what Marius had told her in the training room, it sounded like even a Source could not maintain constant output. Any conflict would need to be resolved quickly or they would have to resort to regular weapons.
Haven opened and closed her hands, knowing that having some kind of weapon would have made her feel more confident. She was only supposed to stay by the car, but she forced herself to believe that if she got the chance to hurt the people who killed her parents, then—
What would I do? thought Haven. She remembered the red flames that consumed her house and the cracking and crunching of wood as it exploded and collapsed. The fire danced in her eyes and she felt Kayla’s arms around her, holding her back from the fire.
A wave of sadness swept over Haven and she felt like a small child curled up in a ball in the corner of a massive, empty room. She longed to be back in school—a desire which surprised her more than she would have expected—and for things to be like they were before the night of the fire. She had felt betrayed by Kayla after her parents’ funeral. The truth was that thinking of Kayla and Jason being together hurt deeply, even though Haven knew he was a worthless jerk.
She tried to think what she would have done if their roles were reversed and she had been in Kayla’s position. Haven hoped she would have put their friendship before anything else and told Jason to take a hike.
As the elevator slowly ascended, Haven wondered how anything in her life could ever be like it was before the night of that stupid party.
Was going back to school still an option after all she had learned? Could she go back to math class and pretend that blue fire didn’t occasionally burst from her skin? After the event in the cafeteria, she definitely couldn’t go back to George Walker High School. She would have to move to a new state or even a new country to get away from the memory of that freak show.
There was also the dark thought that the people who took Noah wouldn’t let her live a normal life ever again. They would find her wherever she went, no matter how far away she ran and no matter how careful she was to cover her tracks.
None of it mattered if she couldn’t save Noah. She focused all of her thoughts on him and pushed everything else into the background.
The elevator stopped with a bounce and Marius pulled open the heavy door.
“Top floor,” he said. “Housewares, lady’s shoes, and dune buggies. Ha!” He slapped his belly and smiled at his own joke as he walked out of the elevator.
Two black dune buggies with fat black tires and welded roll cages sat parked in the middle of a wide garage. The ceiling was only a couple feet above Haven’s head and she reached up to touch it as she stepped out of the elevator. A wide, roll-up door was the only other exit to the room.
Marius hopped into the closest dune buggy and pulled on a dusty pair of goggles. Elena grabbed one of the roll cage bars on the passenger’s side and slowly climbed into the vehicle.
Corva touched Haven’s shoulder as she walked to the second buggy. “You’re with me,” she said.
Haven followed her to the other buggy and pulled herself up and over the fused passenger door. A thin cloud of dust plumed up from the cracked vinyl seat when she sat down. She coughed and waved a hand in front of her face.
Corva sat in the driver’s seat and handed Haven a pair of goggles. “Get used to it,” she said. “It only gets worse.”
Marius fired up his buggy’s engine and idled toward the roll-up door. Corva turned a rusted key in the ignition and the second buggy shook to life with an ear-piercing growl. Haven pulled on her goggles as Corva followed the other buggy across the garage.
The wide door rolled up slowly to reveal a rectangle of night. Haven saw nothing but a dark desert reaching far into the distance and a dusty, half-paved road curving off to the side.
Marius gained speed—Corva right behind—and drove out of the garage onto the sand, ignoring the road. Haven turned back as the buggies sped away from the garage—the door was a wide slit in the bottom of a small mountain. Bright moonlight from above revealed smooth, jutting rocks all the way to the mountain’s bald, jagged peak. The entire dome must have been under the mountain or just off to the side; Haven looked around on the ground for the opening at the top of the dome but saw nothing but small bushes and an occasional cactus.
The cold desert wind whipped her hair in all directions. She grabbed a fistful of locks and stuffed them down into the collar of her jacket. The buggies bounced and slid over small dunes as they moved quickly across the desert. In the distance, Haven saw a bright pinpoint of red fire glowing amidst a sea of yellow and white city lights.
“There it is!” she said over the noise of the buggy.
A small walkie-talkie clipped to the dashboard crackled loudly.
Marius’s voice squawked at them. “You see it?”
Corva picked up the walkie-talkie and depressed the transmit button. “We see it.”
The buggy drifted to the side to avoid a large rock. Haven kept one hand firmly on a bar of the roll cage above her head and the other on a handle next to her seat. “Why don’t you guys use cell phones?” she asked over the noise of the buggy.
“Too easy to track,” said Corva. “They’ve found us before.”
Corva hesitated. “And others.”
“Why didn’t Dormer come with us?” asked Haven.
“He’s still mad at Elena.”
“For not saving his brother?”
Corva nodded. “She knew that we only had one chance to get inside the medical center. After that, security would be so tight that going back in would be a suicide mission. We needed to wait in case Bernam found your brother before we could. Elena knew there was a hybrid out there somewhere, and she also knew that we couldn’t afford to let Bernam…well, to let Bernam do what he does to our kind.”
“But Marius took me by mistake.”
The buggy in front of them crested a large dune and its wheels left the ground. Marius whooped loudly from the first buggy as the vehicle slammed down and regained traction. The small figure in the passenger’s seat bounced violently from the impact.
“I know Elena just loved that,” said Corva. She drove safely over the side of the dune and accelerated to catch up to the other buggy.
“How are we going to get Noah back?” said Haven. “If security is so tight, how are we going to get inside?”
Corva shook her head. “I don’t know. But we’ll figure it out. I promise.”
Ahead, the pinpoints of white and yellow light turned into street lamps and porch lights. The heart of the city of Bozeman, Montana, was still several miles away—a grid of bright lights in the middle of a wide expanse of moonlit desert. Outlying suburbs stretched away from the main hub to form a massive field of varied construction projects.
An unfinished road reached out from a new housing development and stopped at a lone street lamp. The steady, churning crunch of wheels on sand turned to a low-pitched drone as the buggies left the desert and drove onto pavement.
The housing development was laid out on a network of wide streets. The buggies passed several houses in different states of construction—from hollow skeletons with flapping insulation to unpainted shells with all of the doors and windows installed. More and more houses were placed closer and closer together until the buggies eventually drove past occupied homes. Dusty cars sat parked on dirty driveways next to unmowed lawns. Bikes rested on their sides in front of dark, open garages.
A large, two-story home sat on the corner of two intersecting streets. A police car had cut a black line of soil into the grass of the yard and flipped over. It lay upside-down, abandoned, the red and blue lights flashing across the yard onto the face of the large home.
Corva followed Marius closely as he took sharp corners and steadily approached the red fire.
“Keep eyes peeled,” he said over the walkie-talkie.
The dune buggies pulled to a slow stop in front of the first burning house. It had been a flat, one-story home with a tall wooden door which had blown outward during the fire. Huge chunks of roofing lay in smoldering piles in the yard. Haven sat mesmerized as brilliant red flames danced over the collapsed walls of the house. A few streets away, more fires lit the night sky.
“Where is everyone?” said Corva.
Haven finally looked away from the burning house. All of the houses that lined the street were dark and silent. “Maybe they left because of the fire,” she said.
Farther down the road, a fire truck had run into a concrete lamp post and sat empty, the front of the vehicle caved in from the impact. Behind it, two more police cars were parked with their doors open wide, the lights on top of their roofs flicking red, blue, red, blue.
Marius got out of his dune buggy and slowly approached the house. Elena stood up in her seat and leaned against the roll cage as she watched the flames.
“There’s no one here,” said Corva. “Marius, we should go.”
He looked at the red fire, studying it with a furrowed brow. “Yes,” he said. “This is not good.”
Haven got out of the buggy and stepped closer to the house, once more drawn in by the repulsive beauty of the flames.
“Let’s go, Haven!” said Corva.
“It’s the same color,” said Haven, talking to herself.
A supporting beam within the house popped loudly and the last remaining section of the roof collapsed. Half-burned, half-charred, the house looked exactly like her own home as it burned to the ground.
The red flames shone brightly in her falling tears.
“It’s the same color,” she whispered.
A distant scream tore through the night air.
“Over there,” said Elena. She pointed a bony finger at the glow of the next fire a few streets away.
“Haven, come on!” shouted Corva. “Marius!”
“Okay,” he said.
He turned from the house and walked over to Haven. As he reached for her, an electric streak of red energy shot through the air and hit the ground at his feet. Soil and burning grass erupted upward as if Marius had stepped on a landmine. The impact launched Haven into the air, spinning her away from Marius. She slammed into the ground and rolled to a stop in the yard, groaning.
Corva screamed, “Marius!” as Haven turned on her side. A smoking crater took up what used to be most of the front yard. Marius lay on the far side of the pit, face down and unmoving.
Elena got out of the buggy and hurried over to Haven. She knelt down and pulled her up by her shoulders.
“Come quickly,” she said.
Someone started whistling.
It was quiet at first—a melodic song that Haven found disturbingly peaceful—then became louder and was joined by another whistle playing harmony to the first.
The whistling stopped.
A pair of identical twins with spiky blond hair stepped out of the shadows next to the burning house, wild grins on their flame-lit faces.
Elena supported Haven as they hurried back to the buggies. Haven closed her eyes and tried to imagine the blue star in the vast nothingness that she had seen in the training room with Marius. In her mind, the light was a small spark that fluttered and died. She squeezed her eyes closed even harder and tried to force the light to appear—to grow into a powerful energy that she could harness and expel.
There was nothing.
She opened her eyes. On the other side of the pit, Corva hoisted Marius to his feet. He groaned in pain as he stared over at the twins menacingly.
They were young men, perhaps in their early twenties. One of them clapped his hands together and started rubbing them as if he were cold. He put them to his mouth and blew between his palms.
A beam of thin red light shot out from his hands and hit Corva in the shoulder. She yelled in pain as the impact spun her around and pushed her to the ground.
Marius bellowed and puffed out his chest. Orange spheres of light snapped out from each of his clenched fists and grew to the size of bowling balls. He slammed his fists together and the spheres merged and exploded toward the twins. They jumped apart as the ball of light tore between them and ripped off the back corner of the next house, sending splinters of wood and side paneling spinning into the air.
Elena leaned Haven against the side of the nearest dune buggy. Next to the crater, Marius knelt down to help Corva to her feet. She held one of her arms close to her body and a thick sheen of blood covered her shoulder.
There was movement in the shadows on the other side of the crater.
“Get inside,” said Elena, pushing Haven to climb into the dune buggy.
“Look!” said Haven after she sat in the passenger seat. She pointed over at the twins, who were back on their feet and standing side-by-side in front of the burning house. “Marius!” she shouted.
Marius looked up and saw the twins. With a single motion he scooped up Corva and carried her toward the dune buggies, his thick legs stomping heavily as he ran.
One of the twins—the Source—rested his hand on the other’s shoulder and closed his eyes. Red light covered his entire body and disappeared into the skin of the Conduit, his brother. The Conduit stood there without urgency and watched Marius run. His skin glowed with a shifting radiance that looked like sunlight reflecting into the surface of a red pond.
The Con held out one of his arms and opened his palm toward Marius, who had just made it back to the empty dune buggy and lowered Corva so she could stand up.
Red light formed around the Conduit’s hand and pooled over his palm. The energy seemed on the verge of releasing when a blue spear of light cut through his body and ripped him off his feet. He spun backward into the darkness behind the house and disappeared.
Elena lowered her arm and breathed out heavily. A thin layer of blue light shimmered across her skin.
“Lee!” shouted the remaining twin. His face twisted in rage and he raised his fists toward Elena. Red light sputtered weakly from his hands and he screamed in anger. He turned and ran behind the house.
“Time to go!” shouted Marius.
He hopped into the driver’s seat of his buggy and Corva lowered herself down next to him with a grimace. Marius cranked the wheel and sped out onto the road, back in the direction of The Dome.
Elena moved faster than Haven was expecting as she nimbly climbed into the second buggy and sat behind the wheel. She twisted the key in the ignition and slammed her foot down on the gas pedal, the back tires squealing as the buggy tore down the street.
Haven turned back to look at the burning house. The twins stepped out of the shadows next to the flames, one of them leaning heavily against the other. They watched the dune buggies drive away and Haven was certain that they were smiling.
She turned to face forward just as all of the street lamps on both sides of the long street dimmed and went out.
Marius’s buggy on the road ahead turned into a dim silhouette in the moonlight.
“Oh no,” said Elena.
There came the sound of a chest-compressing WHUMP and the first buggy launched sideways into the air, spinning side over side until it slammed upside-down onto the grass just off the street.
Elena stomped down on the brake pedal and the buggy screeched to a halt in the middle of the road.
“Get out get out get out!” she said quickly, scrambling to get over her door.
Haven grabbed onto the roll cage and pulled herself up, then jumped out of the buggy as another deep, muted noise blasted the street. The air around her was sucked away, pulling the breath from her chest. A pressure blast smacked her body as if she were a swatted fly and she was thrown into the air.
She had a split-second to see her dune buggy drop from the sky and disappear behind a house before she slammed into the grass next to the road. She crawled onto her hands and knees as she fought to breathe—it felt like her chest was in a vise and a plastic bag covered her mouth. Hair clung to the sides of her face and her vision was blurred. Across the dark street, a silhouetted figure stepped away from a lamp post and walked toward her. Behind the silhouette, two other figures appeared, shorter than the first.
Haven felt something lurch inside her when she looked at the two figures in the background. The sensation that consumed her body as she trembled on the grass and struggled to breathe was something much more intense than anything she had experienced. The sensation was complete in every way—symmetrical gravitation that pulled every thread of her soul in one direction.
The tall figure stood next to her, looking down. Haven looked up blearily. She was unable to see a face in the silhouette, but could tell it was a man. He turned his head to one side, then the other, as if inspecting her like a lab specimen. He walked over to Elena, who lay on her back on a small embankment next to the road, bleeding from deep cuts all over her body.
The figure knelt down in the grass next to her.
Elena breathed raggedly and a small line of blood trickled out from the corner of her mouth. She looked up into the face of the figure with unblinking eyes, totally unafraid.
“Hello, Elena,” said the figure. The dark corners of his mouth raised in a grin. “And goodbye.”
Colton waited in the shadows next to one of the houses on the long street. Shelly stood beside him, the sleeve of her jacket brushing his arm as she nervously shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
Reece leaned against the house a few feet away, hands in his pockets, watching with a small smile on his face as Bernam and Alistair flipped over the first dune buggy. It twisted through the air and smashed down into the grass alongside the road.
Reece whistled appreciatively. “Those boys sure know how to get things done,” he said.
The second buggy launched into the air just as the old woman and a young girl jumped to the ground. Both of them were caught in Alistair’s blast and were sent flying. The girl hit the grass and rolled to a stop. The old woman landed on her back with a loud crack of broken bones. Shelly squeezed her eyes shut and grabbed Colton’s arm.
Bernam’s dark silhouette knelt down next to the old woman and he said something to her. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.
Alistair appeared between two houses on the other side of the street and walked over to the first buggy. Within the overturned vehicle, a stocky man and a woman with white hair lay next to each other against the top of the roll cage.
Bernam stood and turned around. His eyes were not visible in the shadows that covered his face, yet Colton felt his piercing glare. “Shelly,” he said. “Go back and collect the twins. Prep the plane for departure.”
She looked at him, then at Colton.
“Now,” said Bernam.
She squeezed Colton’s arm and ran down the street, away from the wrecked buggies.
“Colton,” said Bernam. He raised his arm and beckoned Colton to him.
“That’s you,” whispered Reece.
He grabbed Colton’s sleeve and pulled him toward the street. Colton shrugged him off and walked slowly, unable to take his eyes from the girl on the grass. The street was dark and he couldn’t really see what she looked like, but something about her drew him in—it felt as if his vision had collapsed into a narrow tunnel between them both. A kaleidoscope blur surrounded everything but the small area around this girl he had never met before.
The stocky man in the overturned dune buggy groaned loudly and tried to stand.
“Alistair,” said Bernam quietly.
Alistair knelt down and smiled into the buggy.
“Now, now, Marius. You know better than that.”
Marius’s face twisted in rage and he spat a string of Russian words that Colton assumed were the darkest curses imaginable.
Alistair’s smile broadened as he stood and took a step back from the buggy. He rested his palms on the edge of the chassis and closed his eyes. The vehicle rattled slowly at first, and then faster until, from bumper to bumper, it vibrated like a plucked guitar string. Alistair walked away and the dune buggy exploded.
Chunks of debris shot in every direction. The roll cage flipped up into the air. The two people trapped inside bounced violently against the bars of the cage as it crashed through the roof of a nearby home. It landed with a loud crunch and a plume of dust clouded up from the hole in the roof.
Alistair brushed off his hands. “I’m done,” he said. “Need to charge.”
Bernam nodded and Alistair walked away, following after Shelly.
“Colton,” said Bernam. “It’s time.”
Colton stood in the middle of the street. He looked at the girl in the grass, who stared back at him in anger. The old woman lay before Bernam, broken and shaking.
“This doesn’t feel right,” said Colton.
Bernam tilted his head to the side as if to say how dare you?, then his shoulders relaxed with a sigh and he walked over to Colton. He nodded sympathetically and rested a hand on Colton’s shoulder.
“This is what we’ve been talking about ever since we first met,” said Bernam. “This is how you get to help countless others who are just like you. This woman holds the key to the future, Colton, and we need that key!”
His conviction was moving, but as Colton looked at the old woman lying helpless on the ground, he knew he could do nothing to harm her. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself,” he said at last. “I mean, look at her—”
“I’ll do it,” interrupted Reece. He looked at the woman and swallowed hard, as if he was struggling to convince himself. “Yeah, sure. I’ll do it. Just like you said, Bernam. Give me the power.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Colton. “What power?”
Bernam shook his head. “This is Colton’s decision.”
“Why do I have to be the one?”
“Because you are the only one strong enough to contain her energy,” said Bernam. “Even I would only be able to hold it a few minutes, after which it would burn me from the inside-out. It must be you.”
Bernam’s hand slipped off his shoulder as Colton walked over and stood above the old woman. She looked up at him without anger or resentment; it almost seemed as if she was already forgiving Colton for what he was supposed to do.
“I won’t do it,” said Colton, shaking his head.
Bernam sighed. His head dropped and he nodded deeply. “Very well,” he said.
He moved so quickly that Colton was staring at empty space when something hit the middle of his ribcage. He looked down to see Bernam’s right hand on his chest. His fingers disappeared into five black holes in Colton’s ribcage. The edges of the holes flowed around Bernam’s fingers like liquid.
Colton tried to speak but he could not. He tried to breathe but his throat was clenched shut.
“Reece, if you would…” said Bernam calmly. He beckoned him over and Reece obeyed, a look of confused horror on his face.
“Don’t hurt him, man,” said Reece.
“It’s a little late for that.”
Bernam reached out and grabbed Reece’s shirt. He pulled him close and gripped him firmly by the throat. Reece struggled to take a breath but his flailing arms bounced harmlessly off Bernam’s skin. He was lifted into the air, his legs kicking uselessly against Bernam’s shins.
Colton felt warmth drain from his limbs. It gathered in his chest and flowed out through the holes made by Bernam’s fingers. His vision dimmed as if it were light fueled by a dying generator.
Bernam stared at Colton. His eyes were solid black, ringed with sparking black fire.
“Your power is wasted on you,” he said.
Colton grit his teeth, certain that they would shatter long before the pain ended. It felt like a hundred clawed fingers were scraping against the inside of his body, peeling away his insides and pulling them out through his chest.
Bernam looked at him with those black eyes, and Colton was more scared in that moment than he had ever been in his entire life. There was no reasoning with the person who had those eyes. They regarded everything with a cold distance, completely devoid of emotion. No amount of pleading and no logical argument could be made to save a person trapped in the stare of eyes so dead.
The last ounce of warmth left Colton’s body and Bernam threw him aside. He fell to the street and he heard his skull crack loudly against the asphalt, but there was no pain. Colton’s entire body was numb.
Paralyzed, he watched Bernam lower Reece to the ground and release his neck. Reece stood there, mouth slack, staring into the distance.
Bernam slapped his shoulder and Reece blinked.
“How do you feel?”
Reece looked down at his hands. “Weird,” he said.
Bernam guided him over to the old woman, who watched everything with wide eyes. She tried to speak but little more than a soft gurgle escaped her lips.
The young girl lying in the grass coughed. “Stop,” she said weakly. Her eyelids fluttered to stay open as she pulled herself toward the old woman. “Stop.”
Bernam held up his hand and flicked the air. The girl tumbled across the grass and rolled to a stop on her stomach twenty feet away. She remained there, unmoving.
“I will start,” said Bernam. “And you will finish.”
Reece looked at Colton as he lay on the ground. “I thought you said that Colton was the only one who could hold her power.”
“Don’t be afraid,” said Bernam, growling with impatience.
Reece opened his mouth to say something else but Bernam pulled him down to kneel in front of the old woman.
“Put your hand here,” said Bernam. He placed Reece’s open palm at the top of the woman’s ribcage. He rested his own hand on top of Reece’s. “You will feel it moving into your hand and into your body. Don’t fight it. As soon as you sense the movement, you will be able to control the flow.”
Blue light shimmered over the woman’s skin and her back arched up violently.
“Don’t let go,” said Bernam loudly.
The old woman twisted under their combined grip. The blue light pooled on her chest and flowed visibly over Reece’s skin. Bernam pulled his hand away and shook it as if he had just touched a hot stove.
“Good,” he said. The blue light flowed faster up Reece’s arm and sank down into his skin. “Very good.”
The woman screamed loudly and her body went limp. Her head rested back against the grass and she lay still.
Reece pulled his hand away and looked at it, rubbing his fingers together thoughtfully. “Wow,” he said.
Bernam smiled and stood. “Well done, Reece. You have secured your rightful place among us. We need to get you back to the center right away.”
A thin trail of blue light ran up Reece’s body from his feet to the top of his head, then exploded like a small firecracker in the air.
“What was that?!” he said.
Bernam put his hand on Reece’s back and guided him away from the old woman. “We’ll talk about it on the way,” he said.
Colton turned his head as they walked away. At an intersection two streets away, the plane idled to a stop and the door opened downward to become a set of stairs.
Reece turned back to look at Colton as he stepped into the plane, but Bernam firmly turned him around and ushered him inside.
Shelly appeared in the doorway. She hugged herself as she looked at Colton lying in the middle of the street. Even at that distance, Colton thought he saw tears on her cheeks. Alistair reached down and grabbed the railing on the stairs. With a smug grin in Colton’s direction, he pulled the door closed.
The plane rolled down the street and the engines whined loudly until the wheels lifted off the ground. Colton watched, still unable to move, as the plane banked in the air and flew back in the direction of the black building.
The deep emptiness inside of him was a constant pressure; a weight on every one of his bones that pressed down and stopped just short of snapping them in half. He was reminded of the weeks after his mother abandoned him and his father; it was a pain he had hoped to never feel again.
He reached out with his mind for the energy in the world around him. Shelly had taught him how to absorb ambient energy and he had gotten so proficient at it that he did it without thinking. He groped for anything—starlight or even the faint heat in the asphalt on which he lay—but he was powerless.
There was nothing.
Colton rolled onto his side, fighting to keep his eyes open as a wave of darkness covered his vision.
The old woman lay at the edge of the road, eyes closed. Her chest rose ever-so-slightly with the shallow breaths of one who was nearly dead. The young girl in the grass had not moved once since Bernam had pushed her there.
A loud crash came from the house with the hole in its roof. A man yelled from within as something heavy scraped against the floor. Wood creaked slowly just before another loud crash.
The front door exploded outward and chunks of wood peppered the grass in front of the house. The man Alistair had called Marius stood in the doorway supporting the white-haired woman. She was awake, but barely. Blood from a deep cut on her head ran down one side of her face and covered her shirt.
Colton rested his head against the street as his vision dimmed to black and he lost consciousness.
The biggest hill in the Grove was on the far side of the grid of trees. Haven hadn’t walked past the last line of trees when she first visited the large, grassy field and so she hadn’t noticed that the other side of the hill sloped down to a small pond.
The pond was shaped like a teardrop, with one end large and bulbous and the other tapering at an angle to a rounded point.
At the bottom of the teardrop, at the edge of the still water, rested a lone willow tree.
Its knurled roots twisted out from the base of its crooked trunk and dipped into the water. Whip-like branches sprouted from the top of the trunk like a sad crown, cascading outward and down to brush the ground like a hundred gentle fingertips. Light green leaves covered the branches and stood in pleasing contrast to the light brown of the bark.
The trunk angled out over the pond so that one-half of the branches lightly brushed the surface of the water. Small blue lights floated over the pond, perfectly reflected in its mirrored surface like brilliant fireflies.
Haven stood atop the hill, looking down at the tree.
Elena rested against its trunk, propped up by Marius after he carried her in from the dome. He sat next to her, head cast down, eyes closed, a heavy frown on his sooty face.
Behind Haven, in the grid of trees, Dormer took his hand from Corva’s shoulder and helped her to sit up. The tree from which he had been drawing energy shed a third of its leaves and a small dark spot spread over its bark.
Part of Corva’s face was still covered in blood. She rotated her arm and pressed down on her shoulder, grimacing as she moved. She nodded at Dormer and he helped her to stand. He looked over at Haven.
Marius had nearly killed Dormer when everyone had returned to The Dome. They had been standing down by the small pond and Dormer had said something—Haven couldn’t hear him because she had just walked to the top of the hill—and Marius had turned on him in a blind rage. Part of Dormer’s shirt was burned away from where Marius had lifted him from the ground and lit him on fire. Dormer had quickly reached his maximum storage limit and his body was shedding heat faster than he could absorb it after only a few seconds of contact.
If Elena’s soft voice had not stopped Marius, there would have been nothing left of Dormer but a smoking pile of ashes.
He dropped his gaze and turned to walk away, pushing through the swinging doors that led back to the dome and disappearing around the corner.
Corva walked slowly to the top of the hill and looked down at the pond.
“Are you okay?” asked Haven.
Corva nodded. “Been better. Been worse. Broke my collarbone and dislocated my shoulder. Dormer patched me up enough to get moving. What about you?”
“I’m alright,” said Haven.
Corva raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Well, I’m a little dizzy and every other minute I feel like I have to puke.”
“How’s your head?”
Haven touched the bump behind her right ear where her head hit the ground. It stung but it would be fine. The biggest problem was the emptiness she felt inside. After the man called Bernam had dug into that one boy’s chest and then cast him aside, Haven felt numb all the way to her core. It was an alien feeling, as if her soul had been pulled out of her body.
She was still herself, but she felt distant—unattached.
“I guess Marius is really mad at Dormer,” said Haven.
“That’s an understatement.”
“Does he think Elena would be okay if Dormer had come with us?”
“Probably—but it wasn’t just any old Con out there, it was Bernam.”
Corva nodded. “And Alistair is no slouch, either. Add the twins into the mix and I doubt having Dormer with us would have made any difference.”
The doors to the Grove swung open and the young boy, Micah, hurried inside. It was obvious he had been asleep—his short hair was matted on one side and his clothes were wrinkled and twisted. He pulled on a pair of reading glasses as he ran up the hill, passed Haven and Corva, and ran down the other side.
He fell to his knees at Elena’s side. She smiled at him weakly as he picked up one of her hands and held it between both of his.
“They seem very close,” said Haven.
“He’s an orphan. His adoptive parents were…” She paused as she struggled to find the right words. “They were not kind. Shortly after they remanded him back into state custody, another child in his orphanage started a fire and the building burned to the ground. Micah was the only survivor.”
“So he’s not a Source or a Con?”
“Not that we know. Elena was never able to have children of her own, so she took him in.”
“He’s very quiet,” said Haven. She watched as Micah held Elena’s hand to his cheek. He closed his eyes and his tears fell onto her skin.
“He was born mute,” said Corva.
Down by the pond, Micah gently laid Elena’s hand in her lap and walked away. He sat in the grass on the other side of the pond with his back to the tree and his shoulders shuddered as he cried. Elena closed her eyes and rested her head against the trunk of the tree.
“What did Bernam do to her?” asked Haven.
“He took her power,” said Corva.
“You can do that?”
“Voids can. They are strong enough to tap into the deepest recesses of one’s very existence, if they so desire. They can scrape out abilities and give them to others.”
“Why did he take Elena’s?”
Corva shook her head. “I don’t know. You can’t have more than one power inside you for long or else you go crazy.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it drives you insane. Taking in another power does not make you stronger. The abilities are separate from each other—individual entities that cannot mix, like oil and water. You can store another’s essence—their ability—for a very short period of time, but you must quickly release the energy to avoid any lasting damage.”
“So, Bernam can’t become a hybrid just by taking a Source’s ability?”
“Exactly,” said Corva. “Even he must know that, which makes it harder to understand why he would drain her power in the first place.”
“But Elena will get better, right? Dormer can heal her.”
“No. We can’t live without our abilities. They are a part of us, and without them we wither. If you are young and strong, you might be able to last a short while, but if you are sick, or weak, or…”
“Or old,” said Haven.
Corva nodded. “Yes.” She gently squeezed Haven’s shoulder and smiled. “I think she would want to speak with you.”
Haven swallowed nervously and nodded. “Okay,” she whispered.
They walked down the hill to the tree. Haven pushed aside several ropey branches and sat on the grass next to Elena. Corva sat next to Marius and put her arm over his shoulders as he leaned against her and closed his eyes.
Haven looked into the pond. The smooth surface of the water reflected the distant lights on the ceiling and would have been as flat as a mirror if not for the protruding ends of several large, algae-covered stones that dotted the length of the pond. The water was uniformly shallow and crystal clear. Small, translucent fish darted between long blades of rooted grass. The green, bladed stalks stood suspended in the water as if they had been drifting back and forth in a strong current and had suddenly been frozen in mid-wave.
One of the small blue lights in the air drifted over to Haven and floated a few inches in front of her face. At first it moved in a slow circle, a thin line of wispy blue light trailing behind. The little light moved faster and faster until the trailing light became a glowing ring floating in the air. Suddenly the light stopped moving and, with a small pop, exploded like a tiny firework that shot little sparks into the middle of the fading ring.
Haven smiled and Elena opened her eyes.
“I thought you might like that,” she said weakly.
“It was beautiful,” said Haven.
“What do you think of our little pond?”
“This tree is over five hundred years old. It was moved here after the Old Home was destroyed. That’s where our kind lived long ago. That’s what we called it.” She closed her eyes and a faint smile crossed her lips. “Yes, I remember. There were so many of us! Hundreds and hundreds. So many…”
“Most were killed.”
“Is that why there aren’t more of you—of us—here?”
Elena nodded. “They are afraid. Those we manage to find rarely agree to join. They want to live simple, happy lives, and I don’t blame them. I often wished to live such a life.” She smiled and the wrinkles on her face bunched up in the corners of her eyes. “But that was not my job. My job was to keep the others safe.” She took a quick breath and coughed sharply, her throat thick and raspy. “Haven,” she said quietly. “It’s you. You must do this after I am gone.”
“Do what?” asked Haven.
“You must find more, like us, and bring them here. Keep them safe. You and Marius and Corva—even Dormer—all of you must keep them safe.”
“But why? What’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know,” said Elena, shaking her head. “I don’t know. But if Bernam succeeds at becoming a hybrid, there is no hope for any of us.” She took a deep breath. “I understand if you want to leave. You can try to live a normal life—but I hope you will stay. You could make such a difference here.”
“I—I’ll do it.” Haven felt as if she were making a promise she didn’t know she could fulfill.
Elena smiled and leaned her head back against the trunk of the tree. She looked up through the branches and at the distant lights on the ceiling. The light filled her eyes and sparkled like tiny stars. She let out a deep sigh, her body relaxed, and she was still.
Haven reached out and gently squeezed Elena’s hand.
The blue lights floating over the pond drifted across the water and circled the trunk of the tree. They landed on Elena’s body, covering her in a shroud of light. The lights pulsed slowly, like a heartbeat, until one by one, they blinked out and disappeared.
Colton sat on the edge of a rickety old cot in a small room with rounded corners and poor ventilation. The walls were rusted red. He felt like he was in some sort of sewage tank that had been drained and furnished just for him.
He gently rested the heels of his palms against his temples and pushed until the sharp pain in his head lessened to a dull, continuous pressure. The high-pitched scream that had echoed in his ears ever since he awoke quieted to a distant but constant drone.
White lights danced across his vision—big white blobs chased smaller blobs, absorbed them, and split into a dozen tiny dots, only to join with bigger dots and begin the process all over again.
The headache, the noise, and the white lights were bad enough that Colton wished he were dead or asleep, but the worst part was the emptiness.
In the pit of his stomach, twisting up his spine, was the distinctive feeling of nothingness. Colton felt like he was missing a part of his soul, as if a deep hollow had been carved into his very being.
Even his bones were cold.
He pinched his forearm hard enough to leave a bright red mark but felt nothing. Colton bit the inside of his cheek and tasted blood, but there was no pain.
He pushed himself up from the squeaking cot and waited until the fireworks display of a thousand new white lights slowly drifted out of his vision.
A single light bulb was screwed into the short ceiling of the room and cast down a sad, yellow glow. Colton reached up and touched it, focusing every bit of himself into the tips of his fingers so that he could draw even a fraction of the light’s heat.
He lowered his hand and stood in the middle of the room, lost.
The last thing he remembered was watching Bernam and Reece kneeling next to the old woman—the woman that Bernam had asked Colton to hurt. The way she looked up—the life in her eyes—had made it impossible for Colton to go through with it. Bernam promised that it was the only way to help the others that were being persecuted, but that wasn’t enough for Colton to agree to take the old woman’s ability.
Does that make me weak? he wondered. Colton knew that some people believed that hard decisions had to be made in order to prevent great atrocities—that sometimes a few must be sacrificed in order to save many—but could he be the kind of person to make those decisions?
He had turned away from Bernam’s plan, and it seemed that his punishment was to be stripped of his powers—to be like he had been before he first realized he was different.
Colton hoped the old woman was okay.
The image of a girl lying in the grass next to a house flashed across his memory and Colton suddenly remembered that someone else had been with the old woman—someone that had made him feel stronger and more confident in every way, even if it the feeling had only lasted a brief moment.
He tried to picture the person in his mind, but all he could remember was brown hair and—
A sharp pain in his stomach made him double over. He dropped to his knees and clenched his teeth as an imaginary knife blade twisted deep into his torso, all the way to his spine.
The pain slowly faded but left behind a lingering ache. Colton’s breaths came quickly, as if he had just ran a mile uphill. His chest shuddered violently with the heavy pounding of his heart.
He stood slowly and walked to the only door in the room. The door had rounded corners and had been set into the wall a foot off the ground, furthering the feeling that Colton was stuck inside some sort of metal lung. He expected the door to be locked and to find himself a prisoner, but the rusted handle turned loudly and the heavy slab of metal swung open with a soft groan. Stepping over the foot-high doorjamb was like going through a submarine portal.
There were several doors along the dark hallway that led away from his room. Each looked exactly like his, and Colton assumed they were the entrances to equally dismal lodgings. The hallway turned a corner and a room opened on his left that had no door—a kitchen.
The cluttered room was packed with short stacks of cast-iron skillets, racks of utensils, and two refrigerators. Shelves loaded with jars of spices and boxes of cleaning supplies lined the walls. An old, wide stove rested on one side of the room, lines of ancient rust running down its broad door. The window in the door was foggy with grime. A forgotten microwave had been banished to the darkest corner of the kitchen; it sat crookedly atop a pile of dirty dishrags, its plug cut off halfway down its length, exposing the wires.
A pot of stew sat bubbling gently on one of the stove’s burners, steam slowly rising from the thick concoction. Colton sniffed deeply but could only smell the slight metallic tinge that had been present since he had first awoken.
He wanted to taste the stew—to find out if all of his senses were completely muted—but he was eager for answers and instead walked on, farther down the hallway.
He wanted to find his mother.
Bernam hadn’t told him the whole truth about what they were doing in that neighborhood—hadn’t mentioned that the twins were going to set all those houses on fire—so Colton was unsure if the man was lying when he said that another group of Sources and Cons were holding his mother captive.
He had to be sure.
The hallway led to a huge, domed room. Morning light poured in around a giant fan at the top of the ceiling and bounced off mirrors bolted all around the dome, illuminating the entire floor.
Many doors lined the bottom edge of the concrete dome, some larger than others. The entire space was littered with tables, machinery, books, papers, and other odds and ends. Colton was alone; the cluttered floor was silent.
A pair of swinging double doors nearby flew open and a small boy ran into the dome. He held a pair of glasses in one hand and wiped streaming tears from his face with another. The boy pushed Colton aside and disappeared down the hallway that led past the kitchen.
The double doors from which the boy had emerged swung slowly back and forth until they came to a rest.
Colton walked toward the doors, moving slower than he would have liked. Every time he walked too fast, the knife in his belly would return, twisting painfully as it burrowed toward his spine.
He passed tables full of obsolete electronic equipment—boxy computer screens and big circuit boards. Colton wondered if he had not only been taken to a different place, but also to a different time.
There was a small window in each of the swinging doors, but the glass was so dirty that Colton could only see a vast, bright smudge of white.
He pushed open one of the doors and stood in the entrance to a long, grassy field. Rows of trees had been planted in a grid pattern on the half of the field closest to the swinging doors. Some of the trees were rich with brilliant green leaves, but others were dead, their black trunks crooked and twisted.
Walking through the rows of trees fifty feet away, her head cast downward to watch her own feet kick through the grass, was a girl with brown hair. In the bright light cast down from the ceiling, Colton saw that her hair was shot through with light streaks of red.
He recognized her immediately and waited for the strong connection to return—the feeling that he was being drawn closer to her even though he was standing still. Colton felt nothing. When he had seen the girl lying in the grass near the old woman, the world around him had dimmed so that all he could see was her eyes, looking back at him. All of that was gone.
Colton looked down at the ground and realized that he couldn’t even smell the fresh grass beneath his feet.
I’m dead inside, he thought.
As if she heard him, the girl’s head snapped up and her eyes narrowed as she glared at him with cold malice.
Colton could tell she recognized him, and the anger on her face made him wish they were only seeing each other for the first time.
Blue light ignited in her eyes and they burned like tiny stars. Without a moment’s hesitation, she ran toward Colton. He stepped back in confusion, unable to decide if he should try and defend himself or turn and run.
Thinking about it made him feel even weaker, so he just stood there, frozen, until she jumped into the air and slammed into him with her shoulder, tackling him to the ground.
She grunted as she fell on him and pinned his arms down with her legs. She straddled his chest and pressed her open palms to his temples. The light in her eyes was too bright and Colton tried to turn his head to the side, but she forced him to remain still.
She was strong.
Concentrated blue energy trailed out from the corner of her eyes and drifted up into the air in long, wispy lines, dissipating above her head.
“What did you do to my brother?!” she said between clenched teeth.
Colton screamed as she pressed against his skull. He had thought he could not feel anything but the dull ache in his skull and the knife in his belly—that the rest of his senses were numb—but he was wrong. The pain coursing through his entire body was immeasurable. Every inch of his skin burned as if he were being showered with acid.
The girl’s hands exploded with blue light and Colton screamed louder.
“Is he alive?!” she shouted.
Colton writhed under her grip but she kept him firmly pinned down. He couldn’t help but look into her eyes and was blinded by the piercing blaze.
“I don’t know!” he said between screams.
“Haven!” someone shouted.
The girl kicked Colton’s stomach as she was pulled away by two silhouettes. Colton blinked his eyes until the blurriness cleared. A stocky man with stubble on his shiny head held one of the girl’s arms and a pretty woman with shock-white hair held the other.
Colton coughed and rolled onto his side, clenching his stomach.
“This is not a good idea,” said the man. His Russian accent was thick. “You said yourself that he did not hurt Elena.”
“But she’s dead!” said the girl—Haven—finding new strength and nearly breaking free.
“She’s dead,” agreed the woman with white hair. “And this helps nothing.”
Haven glared at Colton until the blue light in her eyes faded and blinked out. She relaxed and closed her eyes. The man and the woman that were holding her slowly let go but didn’t move away.
Colton pushed himself up to a sitting position. He looked at the skin on his arms and felt the back of his neck—the girl’s energy hadn’t physically burned him at all. A slight tingling sensation still danced over his entire body, just beneath his skin, as if a million tiny needles were jabbing down just hard enough to draw blood.
“I never saw your brother,” he said to Haven. “Or anyone else besides the people that attacked you near Bozeman.”
Haven looked down at him, her expression a mix of fear, rage, and sadness. Her eyes glassed over with tears and she hurried past Colton, through the swinging doors, and into the dome.
“I—I’m sorry,” said Colton.
The man and woman looked down at him carefully, as if deciding what should be done with their prisoner.
“The old woman was Elena?” asked Colton. “Is she here? Could I see her?”
“No,” said the woman with white hair. “No, you cannot ‘see her’.” She clenched her fists and followed after Haven into the dome.
The Russian man sighed and shook his head.
“They don’t like you very much,” he said.
“I can’t say that I blame them,” said Colton. “I made a mistake when I joined Bernam. He promised me that—” Colton stopped and sighed. “It doesn’t matter. I still should have known it was wrong.”
The Russian grunted. “Did you know about us, here in dome?”
Colton shook his head.
“Then don’t blame yourself. It was like winning the lottery ticket, yes? You didn’t know there was a choice, so you went with the bad man. He makes things look very nice. All new toys and cars. Sometimes Marius wishes he had those things.”
“Your name is Marius?”
The man nodded.
The stocky Russian hesitated a moment longer, then offered his hand. Colton gripped it and allowed himself to be pulled up to his feet.
“Look at me,” said Marius.
Colton looked. The man was tired. Dark circles drooped under his eyes, but it wasn’t just sleep that was weighing heavily on his serious face—there was also sadness, anger, and a small amount of fear.
“We are not friends,” continued Marius. “No one here is your friend, and they probably won’t be for long time—if you stick around. Elena had rule that we allow anyone like us to stay here, no questions asked. But that doesn’t mean we are always happy about it. You have to earn our trust, understand?”
“Look,” said Colton, “not that I don’t appreciate the offer—if that’s what it is—but I don’t want to stay here. Bernam told me that you guys were keeping my mother as a hostage, which I realize now was just a lie to get me to follow him. When I wouldn’t do what he wanted, he took away my ability. I’m empty. I’m not like you anymore. I don’t belong here.” He thought about his father in Pittsburgh. “I don’t belong anywhere.”
Marius frowned. “Young people,” he said. “So serious. Always jumping to wrong conclusions.” He gestured for Colton to follow him away from the entrance. “Come.”
They walked between the trees and ascended a large hill. At the base of the hill that sloped away from the trees was a small pond and an old willow tree, its branches tickling the surface of the water.
The old woman sat against the trunk of the tree, her eyes closed peacefully and a faint smile on her face, as if she were in the middle of a pleasant dream.
“Elena,” said Marius, nodding toward the woman.
“I’m sorry,” said Colton quietly.
“She was very nice woman. Strong and stubborn, but nice.”
“Did Bernam kill her?”
“He took her power. We cannot live without it. Yes, he killed her.”
Colton looked down at his body. His skin was ashen and his knees shook with the strain to keep him upright.
Marius must have seen the look of fear on his face.
“You are strong, too,” he said. “Don’t give up hope.”
“What are you going to with…with…” Colton swallowed thickly and tried to force himself to finish the sentence, but could not.
“We will bury her next to the tree, the way she would have wanted.”
“This place is beautiful,” said Colton.
“What does your mother look like?”
Colton turned to Marius, surprised by the abrupt question.
“She left when I was nine.” He tried to remember her face, but was ashamed to realize that the memory of her appearance was blurry—she existed in his mind as a grouping of emotions and sensations, the strongest of which was happiness that he felt when he spent time with her. “In the few pictures I kept that my father didn’t burn, she had light brown hair, shoulder-length, and light brown eyes. She was thin. There was a small mole on her left temple, like a beauty mark.”
Marius’s frown deepened.
“What is it?” asked Colton.
“Bernam was right and wrong about your mother,” said Marius.
“What do you mean?”
“She is here, with us, but she is not a prisoner. She stays with us because that is what she wants—because it is too dangerous for her to be anywhere else.”
Colton stood atop the hill, speechless, his mind a torrent of different thoughts. He took a deep breath and tried to think clearly.
“Do you want to see her?” asked Marius.
Colton expected to answer immediately, but instead the word yes caught in his throat. What if she’s different? he thought. What if she doesn’t remember me?
“You don’t have to if you don’t want.”
Marius turned and walked down the hill, toward the doors.
“Yes,” said Colton suddenly.
My power is gone, and I’m going to die, he thought. His body shuddered and he tried to force himself to accept that inevitable outcome. I’m going to die.
He took a deep breath. “Yes, I want to see her.”
“Very well,” said Marius. “But it’s too dangerous to go alone.”
Colton and Marius met a tall, thin man near a large metal box that looked like a sealed refrigerator. In the wall next to the box was a weathered steel door with heavy hinges and a chrome steering-wheel for a handle.
Marius scowled at the tall man and orange light flared briefly in his eyes, then faded. He sighed. “Okay,” he said, turning to Colton. “Dormer go inside with you. I’ll help Corva with the body—nyet!” He slapped his forehead. “I mean, I’ll help her with Elena.” He walked away, shaking his head and whispering curses at himself in Russian.
Dormer watched him go and blinked quickly. His movements were jerky and erratic, like a bird’s. He sniffed quickly and wiped his nose, and his hands shook slightly as he reached for the box. He twisted a handle on the front and the side panels slid down to reveal a compact cube of machinery. He flipped a small switch next to a thick pipe and the box shook to life like a car engine.
“What are you doing?” asked Colton.
Dormer reached into the machine and grabbed the pipe firmly with both hands. The machine’s quick, powerful chugging instantly slowed to a struggling wum…wum…wum as the motor fought to stay alive.
“Since your ability was taken,” said Dormer, “I have to go in with you.” His tense shoulders visibly relaxed as he let go of the pipe and switched off the machine.
“I want to see her alone.”
“That would be unwise.”
“I don’t care.”
Dormer smiled without humor and punched a sequence of numbers into an electronic wall panel next to the large door. With a loud, metal CLUNK, something in the wall released and the door swung inward on oversized hinges.
Dormer gestured dramatically at the doorway, offering a small bow as his hand swept through the air. “After you.”
The next room was shaped like a shoebox, its longer end stretching away from the dome. The space was empty except for an old aluminum table and chair that were pushed to one side. A dim fluorescent light in the ceiling cast a sickly green glow over the room. It buzzed loudly and flickered as Colton entered the room.
There were no windows or any other kind of decoration in the room. On the far wall was a single, ordinary wooden door with a dull brass handle.
A pneumatic PHOOMP came from behind and Colton turned quickly. Dormer spun the polished handle on the closed door and tapped another sequence of numbers on the interior wall panel.
“Why did you do that?” asked Colton.
“House rules,” said Dormer. “Hope you’re not claustrophobic.”
Colton looked at the wooden door at the far end of the room and sensed it was moving farther away from him. His stomach lurched and his legs shook.
“Do you feel it?” asked Dormer.
Colton stumbled to the wall and leaned against it heavily. “What—what’s happening?” The small amount of energy he had in his body was slowly being drained away.
“It’s your mother. She no longer has control of her abilities. She is a living black hole, pulling in everything around her, unable to stop her body’s energy accumulation.”
“She’s a Conduit?” asked Colton. His chest tightened and his breaths were quick and shallow. “Is that why you keep her locked up?”
“She is here because she asked me to help,” said Dormer. “She came to us three years ago, after she—”
“After she what?” said Colton.
Dormer shook his head. “She will tell you, if that is what she wants.” He walked over to Colton and rested a hand on his shoulder.
Colton immediately felt warmth flow over his skin and sink down to his bones. His legs stopped shaking and his breathing slowly returned to normal. He stood up straight as Dormer removed his hand.
“That should last you a few minutes,” said Dormer. “I’ll be out here if something happens.”
Colton looked down at his hands. “Thank you,” he said.
Dormer gave a slight nod, then pulled the aluminum chair away from the table and sat down. He crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
Colton approached the wooden door hesitantly. He reached for the handle, and just before his palm touched the brass knob, Dormer spoke.
“If it gets to the point where you can’t shout for help,” he said, “try to pound on the door. I’ll assume that means things went poorly.”
Colton swallowed thickly and grabbed the doorknob. He pulled open the door and stepped into a small room.
His mother sat on a bed to one side, reading a book. She looked up at him and smiled. Her skin glowed with soft white light that lit the room evenly—there were no lamps or flashlights; no machines in the room of any kind.
Thick pipes ran along the ceiling and hummed softly. It was a cozy room, filled with books and quilts. A wooden writing desk stood next to the bed, piled high with loose, hand-scribbled pages.
Colton’s mother closed the book she was reading and set it next to her on the bed.
She looks too old, thought Colton. His father was forty-five years old, and Colton knew that his mother was a couple of years younger. The woman sitting on the bed looked to be at least sixty. Small wrinkles lined the skin of her once-pretty face. Her hair was grey and pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her body was smaller than Colton remembered—she looked to be no more than five feet tall, but in some of her older pictures she was nearly the same height as Colton’s father, who was almost six feet tall.
“Colton,” she said quietly, her eyes glowing brighter with soft white light.
He walked farther into the room and the door closed behind him. She scooted to the edge of the bed, her feet dangling a foot off the floor, and patted the mattress next to her.
Colton walked over and sat, never once taking his eyes from her. Despite the changes, she was the same woman he remembered seeing for the last time nine years ago. He reached up to touch her cheek but she leaned away.
“No,” she said.
“Mom, what happened?” asked Colton, his eyes searching her face. “Why did you leave?”
“Oh, Colton,” she said, looking away.
“I missed you. Dad missed you!” Colton felt anger building within him—the desire to unload years of blame on the woman who was supposed to have loved him and raised him for his entire childhood and not just a small portion of it. “You don’t know what he’s like now—how he treated me after you left—how he treated himself…”
Tears formed in her eyes and floated into the air as tiny bubbles. They broke apart and dissolved like powder in water.
“I had to leave,” she said. “They would have killed all of us.”
She sighed. “Colton, can’t we talk about something else? I want to know about you—about your life.”
“No, Mom, we can’t! Who did this to you?”
“I did it to myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nine years ago, a man named Bernam came to our house and asked me to join him and his group. He was trying to get as many of our kind together as he could. I told him I wanted to live a normal life and that I didn’t want to be involved with anything other than you and your father. Bernam said there was a huge battle coming and that he needed all the soldiers he could get. That was the word that made up my mind. Soldiers. He meant to start a war. When I tried to force him to leave, he said he would kill everyone in my family unless I agreed to join him.”
“Dad thinks you left because you fell in love with someone else.”
“I knew he would think so,” she said, shaking her head, “but it isn’t true. I love your father, and I love you. I left so both of you could be safe.”
“It ruined his life,” said Colton. “And mine.”
“What should I have done, let them kill all of us?”
Colton stood and turned away from her. “No, just—I don’t know.” He looked around the small room and read the titles of some of the books piled high against the wall. “So you went with Bernam.”
“For a time. He only wanted to use me—and the rest of the men and women he had threatened into joining him—to help him wipe out his enemies. He was the bad guy. At that time, I had only just started to learn the true potential of my own ability after ignoring it for so long. He helped me to become stronger. But, in the end, I wasn’t strong enough to defeat him.”
Colton felt the warmth in his body draining quickly. He turned and looked at his mother. The soft light glowing from her skin shimmered and grew brighter.
“What happened?” asked Colton.
“I joined with a few others to try and take him down. I was the strongest Conduit, so one of the others offered me their ability in addition to my own. This was before most of us knew that two abilities were not compatible in one person. They are separate entities that cannot mix.”
“So you took your friend’s power.”
She shook her head. “Only a Void can take away, as well as help another to do it. But Cons can give their power to another, even if they were born without a power of their own.”
Colton thought of Reece.
“My friend gave me his ability,” she continued, “and I went to confront Bernam. I was already starting to feel it going wrong inside me, but I mistook it for new power.” She reached out and touched a pipe that ran down along the wall from the ceiling. The light emanating from her body grew brighter. “Bernam nearly killed me.”
“Why didn’t he?” asked Colton.
“Because he thought it would be more fun to watch me suffer. He didn’t know why I was in so much pain, but he could tell that something was very wrong. He thought it was something he had done to me on his own. I was helpless. By the time Bernam left and one of my friends arrived and told me how to get rid of my extra ability, it was too late. From that point on, I had no control over my power. I can’t turn it off, Colton. That is why I came here instead of going back home to you and your father. Dormer built this room for me,” she said. “Electricity runs through those pipes constantly. The only thing I have been able to do successfully is to give off excess energy in the form of light.”
She held up one of her hands and the light surrounding it intensified.
“But that’s not all,” she said quietly. “My mind isn’t the same. There are moments when I think I’m back home in Pittsburgh. I’ll see myself standing in your bedroom, looking down at you while you sleep. Then, suddenly, I am back in this room, screaming because I can’t do anything else. It gets worse every day.” She shook her head. “Soon there will be nothing left of me.”
Colton sat down next to her. “Come home with me, Mom,” he said. “I can make a room like this for you. You don’t have to stay here anymore.” A tear rolled down his cheek.
“My darling boy,” she said, smiling. “I’m afraid it’s too late. I’m so tired, Colton. I’ve only held on this long because I hoped against hope that I would be able to see you again. And here you are. Look how strong you are.”
“I’m not strong at all,” said Colton. He didn’t want to tell her his life was slowly fading.
“You can do something to help me,” she said, sitting up straight. “Dormer told me that Bernam took away your ability.”
Colton nodded. “What do you want me to do?”
“Don’t fight,” she said.
She reached for him and pulled him close, hugging him fiercely. Colton closed his eyes as the light on her skin grew painfully bright.
“I love you, Colton,” she whispered.
Like an explosion in a vacuum, energy flared within his chest and quickly disappeared. He felt it disperse throughout his body and settle in his bones as a light vibration.
The light in the room blinked out and his mother collapsed onto the bed.
“Mom!” he shouted. Colton lifted her up and held her in his arms.
The door burst open and Dormer stood silhouetted by the green light beyond. “What happened?!”
“I don’t know!” said Colton. “Help her!”
Dormer hurried to the bed and Colton leaned his mother slowly into Dormer’s arms. Her skin no longer glowed with soft white light. Dormer rested his palm on her forehead, then checked her pulse.
“No,” he said quietly.
“How do I give it back?” demanded Colton.
“She gave me her ability! How do I give it back?”
“I—I don’t know how to explain it,” said Dormer. “It’s something you learn on your own.”
“There has to be a way,” said Colton. “She said someone told her how to get rid of it!”
Dormer shook his head, stunned into silence.
“I just got her back,” said Colton. He reached out and pulled her back to him, cradling her body gently.
Dormer stood and walked slowly from the room, one hand covering his mouth.
Colton rested his palm against his mother’s cheek and tried to force the power she had given him back into her body. He clenched his teeth and imagined the energy flowing from his hand and onto her skin. He felt it moving within him, tracing along his bones like crawling snakes, but he could not command it to leave.
He brushed a loose strand of white hair from her face and kissed her forehead. One of his tears fell onto her cheek and followed a shallow wrinkle.
“I just got you back,” he whispered.
Colton closed his eyes and wept.
Haven stood in the center of the training room and closed her eyes.
Her target was a crater the size of a dinner plate in the concrete wall at the other end of the long room. She pictured it in her mind and held it there, suspended in space. Slowly, the image of the blue ball of energy grew in the darkness. The plate faded as the ball of swirling plasma consumed it and continued to increase in size.
With great effort, Haven imagined herself reaching into the core of the ball, past the molten outer layers that parted around her arms as she moved closer to the smooth, spherical center. She rested her palms against the cool surface of the core and commanded the energy to flow into her body.
It swirled over her arms and around her shoulders, sinking into her skin and gathering along her spine. The energy nested there, moving up and down her body like water shifting in a moving container.
Haven opened her eyes and saw blue light.
Through the ropes of brilliant energy that crossed her vision, the crater in the far wall looked like a psychedelic spiderweb. She held both of her arms straight out in front of her, palms open toward the wall, and pushed.
A huge bubble of blue plasma swelled out from her palms and exploded with a fat BLIP. The room was temporarily illuminated as if by a high-powered camera flash. The bubble sent small glops of molten energy spinning into the air all around her. Most of it dissipated before it hit the floor but some of the pieces burned small, smoking holes into the concrete by her feet.
What good am I if I can’t control my ability? she thought. How can I save Noah? I’m useless.
Haven grit her teeth in anger and closed her eyes again.
“You’re trying too hard,” someone said behind her.
She opened her eyes and turned quickly. It was the boy they had brought back from the fight in Bozeman. His eyes were red and puffy—he’d been crying.
“How would you know, anyway?” asked Haven.
“I know it’s easier for me when I don’t try to force it.”
Haven tried hard to find something in his eyes to make her stay angry. She turned away, forcing the sympathy that suddenly rose within her back down into the dark part of her soul—the empty place where she tried to hide all of the thoughts and emotions that she believed would slow her down on the way to saving her little brother.
Regardless of what the others wanted to do, she needed to act. No matter how dangerous it would be, Haven knew she had to go after Noah.
“I have to try hard,” she said with irritation. “Otherwise I’m just a…” She paused, realizing that she had just identified something that had been bothering her since the moment she arrived at The Dome.
“Otherwise you’re just a kid playing a game for grown-ups,” said the boy.
She eyed him warily, unwilling to concede that he was right.
“Well, we’re not kids anymore,” he continued.
She shook her head. “You can say that all you want, but that doesn’t make it true. I was in high school a few weeks ago, living a normal life. I was happy.”
“And now you’re here,” said Colton.
He walked toward her slowly, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his dirty jeans. With each step, Haven felt a small tingle at the base of her spine—a much less powerful version of the sensation that she had felt while lying in the grass in Bozeman, but it carried with it the same feeling of connection that she experienced before.
“There’s no going back to the way things used to be,” he said. “Wherever you came from—school, work, wherever—this is it now.” He gestured to the room around them. “We have to fight back,” he said, more to himself than to Haven. “We have to fight back before they take everything away.”
“Corva told me about your mother,” said Haven, adopting a softer tone. “I’m very sorry.”
He stepped closer and stopped a few feet away, staring at the crater in the wall at the other end of the room.
“She gave me her ability,” he said. “It doesn’t feel the way it did before. It’s shifting inside of me, like it’s trying to find a comfortable place to settle down. Dormer says it will get better in a couple of weeks and I’ll be back to normal.” He laughed sharply, without humor. “‘Normal’,” he said. “Whatever that means.” He turned to her. “I’m Colton.”
Her hesitation faded more quickly than she wanted. “Haven,” she said.
“Look,” said Colton. “I know you don’t trust me, but there’s something you need to know. On the way to Bozeman—”
“Where your friends killed Elena,” interrupted Haven quickly.
“They’re not my friends! Well, Reece was my friend, but I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know what to think. Bernam lied to me and everyone else. He—” Colton stopped and took a quick breath. “I made a mistake. I believed in someone I shouldn’t have, and now more people are dead. I’m trying to tell you that on the way to Bozeman, I overheard Bernam and Alistair talking about a little boy they were holding at the medical center. Alistair asked Bernam what he wanted to do with the boy now that they had the machine working properly, and Bernam gave this little smile and waved his hand in the air as if he were swatting an annoying little bug. Alistair had this grin on his face like…like he had been given permission to do something terrible.”
“Noah,” Haven whispered. She looked at Colton. “What machine?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I never saw it. But Bernam talked a lot about becoming a hybrid, so my guess is that he figured out how to do it.”
Haven studied him carefully. “Why are you telling me this?” she asked.
“I need you to believe me when I say that I’m not like Bernam and the others. I didn’t hurt your brother. I wasn’t there when they took him.” Colton sighed. “My mother left my father and I because Bernam threatened to kill us if she didn’t join up with him. He tore my family apart. And now my mother is dead.”
“So you want revenge. You want to kill Bernam.”
His eyes flashed with anger. “I want to burn his world to the ground, like he did mine.”
Haven stared into his eyes for a long moment, and she could feel that connective pull growing stronger with each passing second.
She looked away when she heard the door to the training room close loudly behind her.
Micah stood just inside the entrance, sniffing and wiping away a tear. He looked alone and afraid. He shifted on his feet and looked at Haven with sad eyes. She didn’t realize how young he was until right then.
He walked to her with his head lowered and she wrapped her arms around him, hugging him close. He sniffed quietly into her shoulder and she rubbed his short hair.
“It will be okay,” said Haven. She couldn’t help but think of Noah and all the times she comforted him after he had a nightmare. Micah had to be at least twelve, but he looked so much younger. “He and Elena were very close,” she said to Colton.
At the mention of the old woman’s name, Micah closed his eyes and sobbed. Haven squeezed him harder. She looked at Colton and nodded. “Let’s burn it down,” she said. “All of it.”
The fire pit in the center of the dome room was cold and dark.
Marius and Corva sat next to each other, staring into the shadows between the grey stones. Dormer was not far off; he pretended to be deeply involved with repairing a small chunk of machinery and was ineffectively hiding his melancholy.
Haven stood just outside the ring of short chairs that encircled the pit with her hand on Micah’s shoulder. Colton stood farther away from the pit as if he was uncertain whether or not he was fully welcome.
“So, that’s the deal,” said Haven. She squeezed Micah’s shoulder as he stepped away to sit in one of the chairs nearby.
Marius sniffed loudly and wiped his nose. His eyes were red from crying but he had calmed down once Haven started to explain her desire to rescue her brother along with all the other prisoners at Bernam’s medical center. Dormer had noticeably stood a little straighter when she mentioned a rescue and had been inching closer to the conversation ever since.
“It’s too sad a time for nonsense,” said Marius. He stared at the rocks.
Corva put her hand on his back and rubbed it comfortingly. “Besides that,” she said, shaking her head, “you two are in no shape to fight anyone. Haven, you can barely focus your energy more than a few feet in front of you. And you,” she said, pointing at Colton, “you just had your ability swapped out. It will be weeks before you’re able to use it properly again.”
“You have guns,” said Colton. “Haven told me.”
Marius shook his head, his heavy brow drooping low over his eyes. “It is suicide. This is why we never go to this place before. Only one chance,” he said, raising his finger. “One chance to get inside before place is overrun with big men with bigger guns.”
Haven took a step forward. “Colton says that Bernam built a machine…”
“We know all about that,” said Corva.
“…and that he made it work using my brother—” She stopped to take a breath. “—using him as some sort of lab rat. He’ll die if we don’t do something.”
“What makes him so important?” said Dormer, no longer bothering to hide his interest. “My brother has been Bernam’s ‘guest’ for months, and this group never lifted a finger.”
“Then why did you stick around?” said Colton. “Why not try to save him on your own?”
Dormer glared at him but said nothing.
“Well,” said Haven, “we’re lifting a finger now. No one gets left behind.”
Dormer squinted at her suspiciously and went back to tinkering with the machinery in his hands.
“You,” said Corva, pointing at Colton again. “Why are you still here?”
“Marius said that Elena had a rule that anyone like you—like me—could stay, if they wanted.”
“Elena may have been the one to bring you back here even though we should have left you out in the cold, but now she’s dead,” said Corva. “She had a lot more faith in human nature than I do. Why are you so adamant about helping us?”
Colton looked at Haven, then quickly away. “Bernam has to be stopped before anyone else is hurt. If there’s even a chance that he can make himself stronger than he already is, we have to stop him before it’s too late.”
“We know about your mother. Revenge can be lethal for both sides,” said Corva. “It makes you reckless and puts everyone else in danger.”
“We’re going,” said Haven, looking around the circle. “With or without you.”
“I’m going, too,” said Dormer. He set down the chunk of machinery and crossed his arms. He looked from Marius to Corva, daring them to argue.
“No more waiting,” said Haven. “No more hiding.”
“Hiding is the only thing that has kept us alive for so long,” said Corva.
Marius squeezed her hand and stood up. “I will go. Otherwise you will all die, and Marius would be sadder than he is now.” He puffed out his chest and nodded.
Corva looked up at him, shocked. She sighed, then shook her head and stood up slowly. “I still say it’s a bad idea, but if my husband is going along to keep you alive, I have to go to keep him alive.”
“You two are married?!” said Colton.
“Why look so surprised?” asked Marius, genuinely hurt. “Marius not good enough for beautiful, athletic woman?” He looked Corva up and down, then glanced at his slightly-protruding gut and ran a hand over his receding hairline. He grinned. “Point taken. Marius is very lucky man!”
Despite his body losing the constant battle with age, Haven could tell that at one point—probably long ago, when he and Corva first met—Marius could have been considered handsome.
He stepped over to lift Corva from the ground but she held her hands up and stopped him.
“Listen to me, all of you,” she said. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. One little mistake and we’re all dead.”
Micah, who had been listening intently to the whole conversation, stood up next to Haven and gave Corva a thumb’s up. He smiled broadly and pushed his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose.
“Oh, no,” said Corva. “Absolutely not. You’re staying here. We need someone to get the rooms ready for visitors in case any of us make it back from this suicide mission alive.”
His shoulders sagged and he slumped back down into his chair. He crossed his arms and pouted.
“That police cruiser we drove back from Bozeman should get us there,” said Dormer. “And I finished repairing the sedan.”
“Okay, so we have transportation,” said Corva. “But that still doesn’t get us into the medical center. The entrance will be heavily guarded.”
Colton stepped forward.
“There’s another way,” he said. “When Shelly took me—I mean, when one of them took me to the black building, they pressed a button that had been installed in their car. A ramp dropped down from the ground and led to a huge underground parking structure. There were these tunnels that led off in every direction. I bet you anything that one of them goes to the medical center.”
“That’s great,” said Dormer, “but how do we get our hands on one of those buttons?”
“We draw them outside,” said Haven.
Marius snapped his fingers. “Last time they come swarming like bees for honey when we were there. They do same thing this time, only we try not to crash all of the trucks, yes?”
Haven nodded. “We save one to get us into the parking structure.”
“It makes sense that there will be fewer guards underground,” said Dormer.
Corva looked at Colton. “How long until Bernam uses his machine?”
Colton shrugged. “I’m not sure. I just know that it’s ready.”
“And it’s in the black building?”
“They just told me that most of the place was off-limits. I was only allowed on a few levels.”
Corva sighed. “It’s either there or at Bernam’s medical facility. My bet is on the black building. I hate to even think this, but we should split up after we’re in the parking structure.”
“I’m going for Bernam,” said Colton quickly.
Corva nodded. “Marius and I will go as well. Dormer, I know you want to find your brother. Can you watch out for Haven?”
“I can handle it, yes.”
“Good,” said Corva. “After we clear out the entrance to the medical facility and grab one of their trucks, I would be surprised if you had to deal with anything more dangerous than a scalpel—but don’t get lazy.”
“All those years in the police force made you bossy,” said Dormer. He walked away from the fire pit and opened the hood of the black sedan. Haven heard the oil cap pop free.
“Right,” said Marius with a grin. “Now we get the gun.”
Colton stood atop a small sand dune, the wind whipping grainy particles into his eyes. He blinked and rubbed at a piece of sand stuck under an eyelid for the tenth time.
“How long is this going to take?” he asked.
“Let Marius check,” said Marius. He shifted the bulky automatic rifle slung over his shoulder and looked at his wrist, pretending to read the time from a nonexistent watch. “No idea.”
Corva smiled. She stood next to Marius, anxiously watching the above-ground entrance to the medical facility. Four heavily-modified black pickup trucks with extended cabs were parked next to the small building.
Colton looked behind him. At the base of the dune, Haven sat in the parked sedan with Dormer. The empty police cruiser was a few feet away, pointed toward the faint dirt road that had led them to the facility.
“Let’s give another ‘hello’,” said Marius. He rested his open palm against the back of Corva’s neck.
“Just don’t waste it all before we get inside,” she said.
“Don’t worry. Marius has plenty.”
Orange light flamed up from his shoulder and cascaded down his arm like liquid. It flowed around Corva’s neck like a thick necklace and moved over her arms to her outstretched hands. The energy formed into a sphere the size of a softball on each hand, then rocketed away, toward the building.
Colton saw the two black streaks of charred concrete on the roof of the facility from where Corva had hit it the first time. Her second attempt hit the glass of the front door dead center, shattering the panel into thousands of tiny shards.
“Bullseye!” said Marius. He took his hand from Corva’s neck and the orange flames flickered and died. “Now they will swarm.”
A minute later, a dozen men in black military uniforms ran out of the building, each one carrying a rifle. They hurried to the trucks and climbed inside, some of them pushing the others out of the way for a chance to drive.
“It’s like watching dogs fight over the last chicken bone,” said Corva.
Marius barked laughter and Colton couldn’t help but smile.
He had been feeling sick ever since his mother had given him her ability. It still moved inside him like a foreign presence, never quite settling down into that comfortable spot he had known before Bernam had taken it from him in the first place.
His stomach growled loudly—in the excitement of leaving The Dome, he had also forgotten to eat.
Colton felt a slight pull in the direction of the police cruiser—it was like a giant, invisible hand that tugged him toward the car. He looked down at Haven and saw that she was staring up at him. She turned away quickly and the pulling sensation disappeared.
The feeling was nowhere near as strong as it had been in Bozeman, but there was no longer any denying who was causing it. Colton had first noticed its return in the training room at The Dome, then again when they were all getting into the cars to drive to the medical facility. He wanted to say something to Haven about it, but didn’t know how to begin without sounding ridiculous.
“Here we go,” said Marius.
The tires of the black trucks squealed as the vehicles shot out of the parking lot and veered onto the dirt road that led to the sand dune where Colton and the others stood.
“Back to the car,” said Corva.
Colton followed her and Marius down the side of the dune and stood next to the police cruiser—hopefully the car was out of sight of the approaching trucks.
Dormer had already pulled the sedan out from behind the dune and sped down the road, away from the medical facility.
“Get the last one,” said Marius as the first of the trucks passed the dune, chasing after the sedan. “And don’t miss.”
He put his hands on Corva’s shoulders and squeezed tightly. Orange flame—brighter than before—shot over her body from head to toe, then pooled at her hands. She held out a pointer finger and closed one eye to aim.
When the last of the four trucks sped past the dune, she tracked its movement with her arm. A thin orange laser shot from the tip of her finger and shattered the truck’s driver-side window. It burned straight through the cabin and exploded out the other side, ripping off the passenger-side door and sending it flying up into the air.
The truck veered off the road and decelerated quickly before stopping roughly against the base of a large sand dune.
“Nice shot!” said Colton.
Marius hurried to the truck and opened the driver’s door. The driver was dead—Corva’s energy beam had burned into his temple and come out the other side. Marius pulled him out of the truck and sat him against the dune. The passenger groaned and started to lift his head, but Marius knocked him out with a heavy right cross to the jaw and pulled him outside. The third security guard in the back seat of the extended cab hadn’t been wearing his seat belt and lay unconscious against one of the back doors, blood trickling down his forehead. Marius pulled him out and set him on the ground next the others.
“Would have been nice to have both doors,” said Marius as he sat in the driver’s seat. He looked at the empty space where the passenger door had been before Corva’s energy blast ripped it off the truck.
“Would it be nice to spend the rest of your life single?” said Corva.
She sat next to him as Colton climbed into the back.
“On second thought,” said Marius. “Is sort of like convertible now, only different. Marius changed his mind. He likes it.”
“I thought so,” said Corva. She winked at him.
Marius backed the truck away from the dune and drove onto the dirt road, a fog of dust pluming up from the tires.
“What about the other trucks?” asked Colton.
“Dormer can handle them,” said Corva.
“Are you sure?”
“Trust me. He’s tougher than he looks.”
Colton sat back in his seat and squinted against the air that blasted into the cabin from the missing door.
Marius gave his automatic rifle to Corva, who popped out the long ammunition clip, checked the rounds, and slapped the clip back into the gun.
“And if he can’t,” said Marius, “maybe we get to have a little more fun.”
“You know where the black building is?” shouted Colton from the back seat.
Corva nodded. “We found it last year. We knew about the medical facility long before—that’s the reason we set up camp so close.”
“Right next to the hornet’s nest,” said Colton.
“Best place to be if you need to act quickly. It makes sense that the two sites are linked. We were never able to figure out how they were moving around without being seen.”
The truck rode smoothly down the dirt road. The oversized, off-road tires had been specifically designed to absorb the heaviest bumps, and Colton barely felt anything when one of the wheels dipped down into a large pothole and bounced out the other side.
Marius skirted the base of a huge, rocky hill, and on the other side, in the distance, was the gleam of a black, glass-covered building.
“That’s it!” said Colton.
“Where’s the entrance?” asked Corva.
Colton looked around the huge, open space surrounding the building. He tried to remember a specific landmark that Shelly drove past right before the Jeep rolled down into the tunnel.
A few hundred yards to the right he saw the two large boulders that she had driven between right before she opened the ramp.
“There!” he shouted, pointing at the giant stones. “On the other side.”
Marius accelerated and drove toward the boulders. Just as he cleared the base of a mountain of jagged rocks, the black sedan careened around the other side and caught up with the truck.
Dormer sat behind the wheel of the black car, pointing back over his shoulder. He held up three fingers, then lowered two of them until only his index finger remained.
Marius nodded at Dormer and took his foot off the gas pedal.
One of the black trucks sped around the side of the mountain, kicking up rocks and dirt in its wake. It barreled toward Colton and the others.
“Don’t wait too long,” said Marius.
Corva leaned out the side of the truck and grabbed the edge of the roof. She stood up and faced backward. Marius reached over and grabbed her leather belt to keep her from falling out. She rested the stock of the rifle in the crook of her shoulder and aimed down the long barrel.
With a loud CRACK of gunfire, the hood on the pursuing truck exploded up into the air and flipped end over end until it smacked into the ground.
Two armed security guards leaned out of their truck and raised their guns.
“Corva…” said Marius, looking into the rearview mirror.
She pulled the trigger. The driver-side front tire on the pursuing truck burst like a popped balloon and the truck veered to one side. It crashed into a small boulder—its tail end rose up into the air slammed back down to the ground. Steam spouted from the exposed engine. Two spiderwebbed circles cracked the windshield where the guards’ heads hit the glass.
Marius pulled Corva back inside.
“That was fun,” she said, a faint smile on her lips.
“Lots more where that came from,” said Marius.
He sped up and drove next to Dormer in the sedan, pointing to the two boulders they were rapidly approaching.
“Find button,” he said.
Colton looked up at the ceiling of the truck but only saw an overhead light. The doors on either side of the back of the cabin only had window controls and handles.
“Here,” said Corva.
She flipped up a small plastic covering in the center console between the two front seats and pushed a round, red button. On the other side of the two boulders, a plume of sand rose into the air, shot upward by the descending ramp.
“Bingo,” said Marius.
He turned the truck slightly to align the wheels with the ramp. The vehicle dropped quickly, plunging from daylight to darkness and bouncing harshly against the bottom of the tunnel as the wheels hit concrete.
“Woo!” said Marius.
Colton turned back as the black sedan descended the ramp. The car’s headlights flicked on automatically as soon as it was out of the bright sunlight. The silhouettes of Dormer and Haven were briefly outlined by the light pouring down into the tunnel behind them.
“Where do we go?” said Marius. The constant whine from the large tread of the tires on concrete grew louder as he sped through the tunnel.
“This leads to a big parking garage,” shouted Colton. “There’s an elevator that will take us up into the black building.” He turned back again and looked at the sedan. “Are you sure they’ll be okay?”
“They’ll be fine,” said Corva.
The tunnel disappeared around the truck as they drove out into an enormous underground parking structure. The foundations of a large building were mixed with bedrock on the far end and dark tunnel entrances lined the rough concrete walls on all sides. Powerful halogen lights in the ceiling high above shined down on the parking lot, illuminating most of it but casting other parts into deep shadow.
Several more black trucks were parked by an elevator at the base of the building. There were a few other cars parked on the lot, the most impressive of which was a sleek black sports car that looked more like a spy vehicle than a practical automobile. Its windswept curves melded into the frame so that there were no sharp edges. The headlights were covered with black glass and the windows were tinted so dark that they practically blended in with the paint job, giving the impression that the entire car was shaped from a single piece of polished metal.
“That’s the elevator?” shouted Marius.
He steered toward the foundation of the building and came to a squealing halt next to the other parked trucks. Colton hopped down out of the back seat and dusted off his jeans—a thick layer of fine powder coated his clothing. The truck was also more orange than black from all the dirt and stood out conspicuously from the other vehicles, all of which had been perfectly washed and waxed.
Marius took a step back and shrugged.
“Too late to be sneaky anyway,” he said.
Corva tossed him the rifle as she walked to the elevator. Marius caught the gun easily and slipped the thick strap over one shoulder. He held it in both hands, ready to fire, while Corva inspected a small black panel in the wall.
“How do we get in?” she asked.
“There’s a key,” said Colton. His face turned red from embarrassment when he realized he had forgotten about the access cards.
“You’re just telling us now?” said Corva.
Marius looked around the parking structure with a scowl, seemingly expecting to be attacked at any moment.
Colton watched as the black sedan drove in a large loop around the edge of the parking structure. Dormer slowed down at the entrance to each tunnel, then sped up to get to the next one. When he had almost completed a full circle, he approached a tunnel close to the one they had first come from. The sedan’s headlights swept over a large red plus sign attached to the wall—he had found the way to the medical center.
Colton felt a tugging from within as the car disappeared down the shadowy corridor. The red tail lights blinked out and he felt alone once more.
“We’re going to have to force it open,” said Corva, taking a step back from the elevator.
A burst of gunfire erupted from somewhere nearby and bullets hit the rocky wall next to Colton.
“Down!” shouted Marius.
He grabbed Colton’s shirt collar and pushed him to the ground behind a truck as chunks of rocks fell around them. Bullets sank into the opposite side of the truck with a sharp metallic TINK-TINK-TINK.
Corva crouched near the rear of the truck. She peeked out and more gunfire thunked into the tailgate near her head. She quickly reeled back around and looked over at Marius.
“Six or seven,” she said.
Marius growled. He patted the top of his rifle and spoke to it softly in Russian as if it were a favorite pet, then kissed the cold steel of the barrel.
“Okay,” he said, looking at Corva. “How many bullets can you stop?”
Corva shook her head. “A concentrated burst, maybe. After that they’ll go right through me.”
Colton remembered Alistair telling him how the most powerful Conduits could absorb the kinetic energy of a hailstorm of bullets. The shells would essentially hit an invisible wall as the impacts were negated and the energy was transferred into the Con.
He ducked as another round of bullets hit the wall behind him. Metallic PINGs echoed throughout the parking structure as the rounds ricocheted off parked cars.
Marius nodded at Corva. “Do it fast, my little sparrow. I will handle the rest.”
She inched to the rear of the truck and waited until she heard the security guards reloading. With a quick push, she was up and running, sprinting across the open ground of the parking structure toward a cluster of cars a hundred yards away.
A couple of the guards had finished reloading and tracked her movement with gunfire. The bullets tore small chunks of asphalt out of the ground near her feet as she ran. One of the guards drew a bead on her head and took his time as he aimed. He pulled the trigger and the bullet hit a wall of air next to Corva’s head. It stopped an inch from her temple and fell harmlessly to the ground.
Marius turned to Colton. “You stay down.”
Colton nodded. He had been trying to summon an iota of his former ability by concentrating on the lights in the ceiling high above, willing his body to absorb some of their faint energy, but it was useless. He felt cold inside, and every time he thought he would be able to do something, the power shifted within him and lurched just out of reach.
With all of the guards’ attention on Corva, Marius carefully and quietly moved to the front of the truck, and then off into the nearby shadows.
Colton watched as if the whole event was playing in slow motion.
One of the guards breathed out slowly and tightened his grip on his rifle. His shoulders dropped ever-so-slightly as he closed one eye to aim down the barrel of his gun. Corva’s feet pounded the ground like dull, heavy drumbeats.
With a fluid click-BOOM, the guard pulled the trigger and a round erupted from the chamber. The bullet hit Corva in the shoulder and stuck halfway into her skin. She glanced down at it in surprise and ran faster—she was losing her ability to completely stop the bullets.
The other guards stood up and opened fire.
Colton saw several more rounds stop in mid-air a fraction of an inch away from Corva’s skin. She was nearly to the first car—and to safety—when one of the bullets clipped the back of her right leg and sent her spinning. A thin line of blood twirled through the air behind her.
She hit the ground hard and kept on rolling, coming to a stop next to a green car between her and the guards. They continued shooting until one side of the car was almost completely black from bullet holes. Shattered glass tinkled lightly to the ground as they ejected magazines and reloaded.
“Comrades!” shouted Marius from the shadows behind the guards.
They turned quickly, searching the darkness for the new threat. Marius stepped into the light, his rifle raised.
He winked and said, “Hello,” then opened fire.
He swept the barrel of his gun over the guards and half of them collapsed to the ground.
“Armor piercing!” shouted Marius over the noise. “Who knew?!”
With the guards distracted, Colton crouched low to the ground and ran over to Corva. She sat against the side of the green car, tightly gripping a bleeding wound on her right thigh. Her dark pants were soaked with blood.
“How is it?” asked Colton.
“Missed the artery,” said Corva. She gasped quickly as she tried to turn and look at Marius. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s fine,” said Colton.
The room was briefly illuminated by a brilliant orange burst and one of the guards screamed. Marius laughed loudly.
“Sounds like it,” said Corva.
“Can’t you fix it?” asked Colton.
Corva shook her head. Her white hair was messy and some of it was streaked with blood. “Dormer’s the healer. Besides, there’s nothing to draw from.”
“Use me,” said Colton.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Don’t be stupid. You can’t wait down here while Marius and I go in alone.”
She grit her teeth and groaned as she sat up straighter. Colton took her hand and pressed it between both of his.
She hesitated a moment longer, then closed her eyes.
Like thin strands of long rope being pulled from his skin, Colton felt what little warmth he had flow through the tips of his fingers. The bullet hole in Corva’s thigh sealed over with fresh skin, leaving behind a raw, ragged—but closed—patch of flesh.
“You did it,” he said.
She let go of his hand and her body relaxed completely. She stuck her finger through the hole in her pants and gently touched the wound.
“Not as good as Dormer, but it will get me there.” She looked into Colton’s eyes. “Thank you.”
Marius coughed loudly and appeared around the side of the car. “What are you two doing?” he said. “Secret meetings while Marius is taking care of all the problems?”
Corva smiled. “How did you do?”
Marius bent down and helped her to her feet.
“Look around,” he said. “Marius made speed bumps.”
The ground was littered with the bodies of the security guards. Marius smiled with pride.
“Let’s get moving,” said Corva.
Marius wrapped his arm around her for support and helped her limp to the wall next to the elevator.
“Check the guards,” she said. “There will be a badge or an access card.”
Colton knelt next to the nearest security guard and unclipped a black plastic card from one of his vest pockets. He waved it in front of the panel next to the elevator and the doors slid open silently.
“Which floor is the machine on?” asked Corva. She hopped into the elevator and studied the metal panel lined with buttons next to the door.
“I don’t know,” said Colton as he stood next to her. “First floor is offices, the gym is on five, training on nine—”
“Right,” interrupted Corva. She reached out and pressed the button for the second floor. “We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up.”
“This is usually my plan,” said Marius. “Especially with peanut butter and ice cream.”
“Stop, man,” said Colton. “I haven’t had anything to eat all day.”
“We find you something,” said Marius. “After we find Marius something.”
“You two knock it off,” said Corva. “Focus.”
As the elevator doors slid shut, Colton closed his eyes and tried once again to capture anything he could from the world around him—but he failed. He would be useless if the others needed to rely on him for help.
“Corva,” he said. “I don’t know if I can—”
“You’ll be fine,” she interrupted. She fixed him with a calm, confident stare. “Trust me.”
Colton nodded and took a deep breath.
The elevator slowed to a stop and the doors opened. A long hallway extended away from the elevator, each side lined with open doors. In every doorway stood a security guard, fully dressed in thick Kevlar body armor. Each guard carried a heavy rifle and had it trained on the elevator.
“Oh, goody,” said Marius. “More toys.” He reached out for Corva. “Take Marius’ hand, my love. And cover your eyes.”
She grabbed his hand tightly.
Colton closed his eyes as the world around him turned to orange flame. He crouched in the back of the elevator as the light grew so bright through his closed eyelids that it was like staring directly into the sun.
The elevator shook on its cable and the entire building seemed to quake. The sound of gunfire quickly faded into the background as a steady roar of churning energy filled the air.
Colton covered his face with his arms and waited.
Haven rode in silence as Dormer sped down the dark tunnel.
The black sedan’s headlights cast two bright circles of white light on the concrete walls. Every few hundred feet, they passed a hand-painted sign with a number—some kind of distance marker that started at ten and steadily counted down.
When they passed a sign with the number one on it, Dormer slowed the car and stopped. He turned in his seat to face Haven.
“Tell me the truth. How much control do you have over your abilities?”
Haven shifted in her seat uncomfortably.
“Look,” said Dormer. “It’s okay. You’re young and this is all new to you. I get that. It’s just better for me to know before we walk in there and I rely on you for something that you can’t do.”
“I can’t project it more than a few feet,” Haven conceded. “Or focus it to a beam, or whatever.” She looked away.
“Don’t be ashamed,” said Dormer. “Never be ashamed of your talents.”
“But the others are so much stronger.”
“Don’t compare yourself to them. You are different, and that is not a bad thing. We all have our strengths, Haven. Do you understand me?”
She looked at him and nodded slightly.
“Good,” he said. “We’ll play to those strengths, but we have to be smart about it. Do you know how to drive?”
“Can you drive?”
“Yeah, but I’m not very good.”
“That’s fine, you can go slow. Take the car and go on ahead. If there are any guards, I don’t think they’ll realize who you are until you walk right up to them. Light them up if you can, then find some cover.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll be right behind you,” said Dormer.
He shifted the car into park, got out of the car, and walked down the tunnel toward the medical facility. Haven climbed over the center console and sat in the driver’s seat. She shifted the car into gear and rolled slowly behind him.
He motioned for her to go on ahead, so she pressed down on the accelerator and the rumble of the engine grew louder as she drove past him.
A short while later, the tunnel ended in a small, cavernous space that had been cut out of solid rock. Lights bolted to the jagged ceiling dimly lit the area. The glowing fluorescent lights inside the entrance to the medical center shone through glass windows off to one side of the parking lot. A few cars were parked in front of the entrance next to an ambulance with the words “Bozeman Regional Hospital” printed on the side.
Clever, thought Haven. A perfect way to transport abductees without being noticed.
On either side of the main door, two uniformed security guards stood up from their chairs and warily gripped their rifles as Haven pulled the sedan to a stop in one of the empty parking spaces.
She got out of the car and wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans as she walked toward the guards. She looked behind her at the entrance to the tunnel but could not see Dormer.
“Identify yourself,” said one of the guards. He stepped forward and raised his rifle a little higher. He wasn’t fully aiming at Haven yet, but she bet he could snap it up and pull the trigger faster than she could run for cover.
She swallowed nervously.
“Bernam said that he’s all done with the boy—the patient. He wants to see him personally.”
The guards exchanged a glance.
“We weren’t told about any transfer,” said one of the guards. He reached up to touch an earpiece. He opened his mouth to speak and all of the lights on the ceiling dimmed and went out.
The guards snapped up their rifles and spun in place, searching the room.
“It’s okay,” said Haven. She stepped forward and grabbed the closest guard by the shoulders. Blue light flooded her eyes. “You can take a break.”
Blue energy erupted from her hands and burst like a bubble of lava. The guard screamed and slammed backward into his partner. Both men tumbled across the parking lot like ragdolls until they crashed into the far wall and slumped to the ground, unconscious.
The lights in the ceiling slowly flickered back on. Dormer stepped out of the shadows and walked over to Haven.
“Not bad,” he said.
“It was sloppy,” she admitted.
“It did the job. Did you use it all up?”
Haven shook her head. “There’s still some left.”
She didn’t know why she hesitated to tell him the truth—that it felt like she had barely scratched the surface of the energy that was welling up inside of her. She wasn’t sure if it was sorrow from missing her parents or anger at the fact that Bernam had taken her little brother, but the blue sphere of molten energy that she pictured in her mind’s eye was growing larger with each passing moment. It was getting so strong that it felt as if it would burn her up from the inside if she didn’t release it soon.
Dormer nodded. “Good,” he said. “I’ll go first this time.”
He strode to the facility entrance and walked inside. A woman wearing nurse’s scrubs cowered behind a desk, her face lit with the soft green glow of a computer monitor.
“Excuse me,” said Dormer. “I’m here to visit my brother.”
The woman opened her mouth to speak but Dormer moved in quickly and squeezed her forehead. There was a slight concussive whumph sound and the woman’s eyes rolled up into the back of her head as she collapsed to the ground.
“Is she dead?” asked Haven.
“No, but she should be,” said Dormer. “Everyone here knows what they are doing—the harm they have caused. There are no selfless members of the medical profession in this building. These people don’t help anyone but themselves.”
He moved quickly past the unconscious woman and down a long hallway that led away from the receptionist’s area. The ceiling lights dimmed considerably as Dormer passed below them, then glowed to full brightness in his wake.
Haven checked the side rooms of the hallway. All of them were empty—examination rooms with shiny new monitoring equipment on rolling tables that rested next to reclining leather exam chairs. The whole place smelled like lemons.
Dormer held up a warning finger and pressed it to his lips, then nodded toward the end of the hallway.
Haven stepped forward as quietly as she could and stood next to him, peeking around his arm.
A large room was lined with metal tables. On each table lay a patient—some were very young, others extremely old. Thick plastic tubes ran into the unconscious patients’ arms and legs. The tubes were attached to clear bags of white liquid that fed slow drips into their pale bodies.
Haven started forward but Dormer pulled her back. She was about to argue with him when she heard laughter from the room.
One of the twins with short, spiky blond hair walked into view and clapped his hands happily. He spoke to someone out of sight as he pulled himself up and sat down on a long table that was lined with all sorts of medical instruments, from scalpels to bone saws. He picked up a malicious-looking silver tool and admired it with an impressed grin.
The other twin walked over and picked up a bone saw. He twirled it in the air and red flame danced over its chrome blade. The first twin laughed and grabbed up the flame, then blew it out of his open palm and into the air as if he were blowing away dust. Then he walked over to the nearest patient and rattled the bed violently, screaming into the patient’s face as the table screeched across the floor. He shrugged and walked back to his brother.
“Well,” said Dormer. “I’ve seen all I need to see.” He turned to Haven. “Get ready to act, because I’ll likely be finished after this one.”
He cleared his throat and stepped out of the hallway.
The twins laughed when they saw him and clapped their hands.
“Dane,” said Dormer, nodding to the Source twin. “Lee,” he said to the other.
“What are you doing here?” said Dane. The arrogance in his tone was unmistakable. “You gotta be the dumbest person alive.”
“Are you alone?” said Lee. He hopped down off the table and peered down the hallway.
Haven ducked farther from view.
“Of course I am,” said Dormer. “I’m here for my brother.”
“Oh yeah,” said Dane. “I heard about him. Pretty high up there on the scale, according to Bernam.”
“Stronger than me,” said Dormer.
“Not anymore,” said Lee. He stood next to Dane. “Bernam drained him just enough to keep him from dying. Pathetic to watch, really.”
“Disgusting,” said Dane. His face scrunched up as if he smelled a foul odor.
Haven was growing impatient. Her skin burned with heat and sweat dripped down her back. She shook with anger as she thought about the red flames licking up the sides of her home—of her parents lying in bed together as they died.
She was about to step out of the hallway when all of the lights in the room dimmed to half-brightness and Dormer spoke again.
The twins backed up warily. Dane’s eyes glowed with red flame and he quickly put his hand on Lee’s shoulder.
“Don’t even try it, old man!” he shouted.
“Oh,” said Dormer, “I think I will.”
All of the lights went completely dark just as Lee raised his fists and a thick beam of red energy cut the air. Dormer held his arms out to the side and the beam hit him in the center of his chest. The energy swirled around him but he was untouched by the fire. Black smoke flowed out of his hands and mixed with the red flames. The smoke swirled quickly through the energy, consuming it and drawing it into Dormer’s body. His eyes flooded with black shadow; tiny sparks of red glowed like burning embers in his pupils.
The beam of energy from the twins died and they breathed out in unison, exhausted.
The last of the red flames spiraled around Dormer like a tornado and quickly disappeared into his chest. His entire body seemed to vibrate so quickly that his silhouette became a blur. He raised his arm toward Dane and opened his fist.
“No…” Lee whispered.
Black and red energy burst from Dormer’s palm—a giant tube of swirling, crackling plasma that melted everything around it in a five-foot radius.
Lee dove out of the path but Dane stood there with his mouth open as the tunnel of chaotic energy consumed him from head to toe. He didn’t have time to scream.
The energy faded and Dormer collapsed to the ground. All that remained of Dane were two black, charred marks where his feet had been.
Haven ran into the room and helped Dormer sit up.
A few feet away, Lee stared at the empty spot where his brother had been, his shock turning into rage.
He shook with anger and his face twisted into a scream as he ran at Dormer. Haven held up her hand and blue fire exploded from her palm. The bubble burst against Lee’s chest and sent him crashing backward into the table full of medical instruments. He lay on the ground, unconscious, a smoking hole in his shirt over a ring of sizzling flesh.
Dormer’s outburst had burned a tunnel straight across the room. A cylinder ringed with melted plastic and burnt wood extended down the hallway that continued away from the entrance.
“Are you okay?” asked Haven.
A thin sheen of sweat covered Dormer’s body. His eyes rolled in their sockets as he tried to focus.
“I’ll be—I’ll be fine,” he said weakly. “Need to lie down. You go on.”
Haven helped him down to the floor. She wondered how much more powerful he could be if he ever found his Source. Looking at the melted walls of the hallway, Haven found it hard to believe that he was capable of doing even more damage. She grabbed a pillow from a nearby table and placed it under his head.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“How do I wake them up?” asked Haven.
Dormer tried to lift his arms but barely moved. “The white tubes,” he said. “Pull the tubes.”
Haven nodded and stood. She walked quickly around the room, pulling out all of the intravenous feeds that were running into the patients’ arms and legs. When she finished, she went back to Dormer.
“I’m going to find our brothers,” she said.
Dormer nodded weakly. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said, “but mine can be a royal pain.”
Haven smiled. “Why am I not surprised?”
She rested her palm on his forehead and he closed his eyes.
All of the rooms that lined the burnt hallway were empty. Haven jogged down the corridor, looking ahead to a set of large, steel doors that blocked her path. She pushed against them but they were firmly locked. A small black panel on the wall blinked with red numbers. Haven put her palm to the panel and melted it with blue plasma, but the doors did not open.
She had just turned to try and find another way deeper into the complex when the doors swung open with a pneumatic hiss and a security guard in a black uniform stepped through the doorway. He was just finishing a yawn when he saw Haven.
He stopped, looked behind him, then back at her.
“Hi,” said Haven.
“Umm, hello?” said the guard.
He reacted too slowly. Haven grabbed both sides of his head as he reached for a pistol holstered to his belt. Blue light sparked from her fingertips and scorched black lines over his face. His hair stood up on end as if he had been struck by lightning and he fell to the floor.
Haven kicked him to make sure he was unconscious. She ran past him, through the doorway, and immediately stopped.
The large room before her was empty except for a tall metal chair in the center. Strapped to the chair, every inch of his skin lined with small plastic tubes that fed down into the floor, was Noah. His head had been shaved and his scalp was punctured with a hundred thin wires that led into the floor at the base of the chair.
The walls of the rooms were lined with giant monitors, each displaying a different piece of information. Noah’s vital signs were on one, his brain functions on another—multicolored wire-thin lines traced paths on a scale, recording every impulse in his brain.
Haven ran to him and looked down at his small, frail body. He wore light blue scrubs; his hands and bare feet were filthy. She pulled aside a loose flap of fabric over his chest and recoiled in horror. Her eyes filled with tears when she saw the fresh, jagged scar that ran from the base of Noah’s throat down to the bottom of his ribcage.
He shifted in the chair and groaned softly.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” whispered Haven.
Her hands shook as she gently pulled the tubes from his skin. Small drops of blood beaded up from the tiny holes.
“I’m sorry, Noah,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”
She pulled out the last of the tubes and lifted him from the chair. He moaned as she held him in her arms like she used to when he was a toddler, allowing his head to rest on her shoulder and draping his arms around her neck.
Haven hurried across the room and down the hallway.
Dormer was still lying in the spot where she left him. His eyes were open and he was staring at the ceiling.
He smiled when he saw Noah. “You found him.”
Haven looked around the room. All of the patients were still unconscious in their beds.
“Why aren’t they awake?” she asked. The sudden urge to get out after she found Noah was growing too strong to ignore.
“It will take time,” said Dormer.
“I didn’t see anyone else,” said Haven. “I’m sorry.”
Dormer smiled again. “He’s here. I can feel it. Leave him with me,” he said, gesturing to Noah. “You go and help the others. They will need it.”
“I can’t lose him again,” she said, hugging Noah close.
“You won’t. I promise.”
Dormer pushed himself to his feet and stood up straight. Haven reluctantly passed Noah into his arms.
“Better hurry,” said Dormer. “I think the black sports car would be a good choice.”
Haven rubbed her hand over Noah’s shaved scalp and shuddered when she felt the tiny bumps left behind by the wires that had dug into his skin.
The ball of light that had been slowly shrinking inside of her since she found Noah found new life and grew stronger. She allowed it to fill her body and her mind as she turned and ran down the hallway, toward the facility entrance.
Colton stood up slowly in the elevator.
Corva leaned against the wall as the last of the orange light faded from her skin. The air in the hallway was thick with smoke. Lights flickered in the ceiling and from the open doorways on either side of the hall. The security guards had been pushed back into the rooms from the initial blast; their black-booted feet stuck out into the hallway.
“A little overkill,” said Corva, “but effective.”
Someone down the hall coughed.
Marius frowned. “Missed one,” he said.
He walked out of the elevator and into the dark cloud of smoke. It parted for him and curled around behind his back as he disappeared down the hall.
A moment later, Colton heard him speaking. A voice answered him, then coughed. Marius said something in Russian and there was a crack of knuckles against bone, followed by a heavy thud. Marius appeared out of the smoke in front of the elevator, brushing off the sleeves of his thick jacket.
“Sixth floor,” he said. “A little farther.”
“Nice work,” said Corva. “Faster than going level by level.” She pushed the button for the sixth floor and the doors closed silently.
“Sometimes Marius has good ideas,” he said.
The elevator ascended smoothly. Colton tried to keep his anger fresh in his mind—his rage toward Bernam for what he allowed to happen to his mother—but felt it wane in the presence of fear. Marius and Corva both looked so sure of themselves—so confident. Colton was sure he would feel a lot more so if only he could access part of his ability.
He tried again, reaching out with his mind into the space around him.
Colton didn’t stand a chance against Bernam nor anyone else that had even the slightest bit of power.
He was opening his mouth to tell the others that he should wait downstairs or go and help Haven and Dormer when the elevator stopped and the doors slid open amidst a hail of gunfire.
Marius shoved Corva to the side of the elevator as bullets sparked off the metal walls. She hit Colton and pulled him with her to the small area of safety at the front of the elevator next to the open door.
A bullet shot clean through Marius’s chest and he made a small noise, as if someone had just pinched him a little too hard. Another bullet hit his right leg and he dropped to the floor of the elevator.
Corva reached out and pulled him to the side as more bullets thunked into the back of the elevator.
“No…” she said. She moved her shaking hands over his body, afraid to touch his wounds.
“I’ll take him,” said Colton.
Corva gently leaned Marius against Colton’s shoulder. He was breathing slowly and his eyes were closed. Blood soaked through his shirt and spread from a dark hole below his collarbone.
She stood up and hugged the wall. Bullets continued to spray into the elevator.
“What are you doing?” shouted Colton.
Corva didn’t answer. She clenched her fists and stepped out into the open doorway.
The bullets stopped for a fraction of a second, as if the gunmen were surprised that one of their targets had so easily presented herself. Corva took a step forward and the gunfire resumed.
Colton risked peeking out of the doorway and saw orange light flooding the room—Corva must have saved some energy from Marius. It quickly faded and the sound of the gunfire grew louder.
Colton knew he had to do something.
He leaned Marius against the side of the elevator and hit the button for it to descend to the parking structure. Hopefully somebody would find him before it was too late.
Colton stepped out of the elevator as the doors closed and ran for cover.
The sixth floor was a single, open room with no windows. Dim lights lined the ceiling, casting a dull, bluish glow on the polished black floor. Tall structural pillars were spaced out evenly from wall to wall, and Colton dove behind one as bullets sank into the floor at his feet.
Corva was standing behind another pillar, pressing hard on a fresh gunshot wound in her left shoulder. Colton looked around the side of his pillar and saw three gunmen crouching near a huge machine on the far side of the room. Each of the men wore the same heavy armor and carried the same black automatic rifles as the guards Colton had seen on the second floor.
The machine was attached to the floor and the ceiling. Bulbous tubes connected to blocky metal containers, all of which led to a small, raised platform in the middle of the machine.
Standing on the platform, suspended in mid-air by massive restraints that engulfed his hands and feet, was Reece. He was either dead or unconscious, hanging lifelessly from his bindings. A pulse of light flowed over the tubes in the machine and fed down through the restraints. The light coursed over Reece’s skin and for a brief moment his eyes opened and he screamed. His body went rigid as the light passed over his legs and dissipated into the platform below his feet.
A quick burst of gunfire sprayed against the other side of Colton’s pillar and he pulled his head back.
After that, silence.
Someone started clapping, slowly and steadily.
“Well done,” said a voice.
It was Bernam.
Reece screamed again and Colton looked at the machine. Blue light slowly brightened within his ribcage and grew strong enough to outline the bones in his chest. Colton saw a dark, pulsing spot in Reece’s ribcage—his heart.
The light was pulled out from his torso, down his arms and legs, and into the restraints that bound him. The machine hummed loudly as lights flashed across every tube and metal container.
Bernam stood next to the machine, surrounded by the three guards. He admired it with the glossy eyes of a man who was watching his child use a fork to eat food for the first time. He clasped his hands in front of his mouth and smiled.
Shelly stood next to one of the nearby pillars. She looked frightened when she glanced over her shoulder at Alistair, who was standing in the shadows next to the machine. His face was shrouded in darkness, but Colton could tell that he was staring directly at him.
“Well done indeed,” said Bernam. He smoothed down the front of his slim, black suit and turned to face the elevator. “You can come out now. I won’t hurt you.”
Corva shook her head when Colton looked over.
“Okay, fine,” said Bernam, sounding bored. “I will hurt you. No reason to lie about it.” He waved at the guards. “Go and get them.” He turned his back and approached the machine.
The guards fanned out and moved quickly across the room, the barrels of their rifles trained on the pillars near the elevator.
One guard hugged the wall on either side of the room and the third walked right down the middle, sweeping his gun barrel back and forth around each pillar he passed.
The one walking toward Corva stepped around her pillar just as she shoved the heel of her palm into his throat. He coughed out all of his air and dropped his rifle, stumbling backward as he choked to take a breath. She moved forward to finish him off.
The guard in the middle raised his gun.
“Look out!” shouted Colton.
Corva turned around just as the guard fired two rounds. The first bullet hit the pillar next to Corva’s arm and tore off a chunk of material that went flying up into the air. The second bullet hit her in the shoulder and spun her down to the ground. The guard she hit in the throat stood over her and smacked her across the cheek with the back of his hand.
“Alive, if you please,” Bernam called loudly from across the room.
Colton stepped out from behind his pillar just as the last guard approached. The guard had let his rifle hang around its strap and instead held up his fists in a defensive stance. Brass knuckles glinted over the fingers of his dark gloves.
Colton kicked out, aiming for the guard’s knee, but a brass-knuckled fist shot down and knocked the leg aside. The guard took a step back, waiting. Colton lunged again—sloppy, he could feel it—and the guard deftly moved to the side as Colton’s momentum carried him forward.
The guard grabbed Colton’s outstretched arm and punched him twice in the side of his ribcage. He kicked the back of Colton’s knees to send him to the ground, then grabbed him by the hair and dragged him toward the machine. Colton tried to twist the guard’s wrist as he slid across the floor but the man was too strong.
The guard pulled Colton to his feet by his hair and shoved him forward, then pushed him down to his knees.
The other two guards dragged Corva’s body next to Colton and dropped her on the ground.
Bernam looked down at her for a long moment.
“I said alive.”
“She’s still breathing,” said one of the guards.
Bernam’s gaze moved to Colton. He frowned.
“I thought you would be dead by now,” he said. “You must be remarkably strong to survive so long without your ability.” Realization dawned on his face and he smiled. “Unless someone else gave you theirs.” He stood looking down at Colton. “Pity it takes so long to get used to a transfusion, or else you may have been able to help your friends.”
He walked over to Corva and used the tip of his shoe to tilt her face to the side.
“Pretty,” he said. “Am I to understand that she has actually found her counterpart?” He looked over at Alistair, who nodded. “The Russian, correct?”
Colton clenched his teeth and looked over at Reece, who still hung suspended from the machine.
“Oh!” said Bernam, following Colton’s gaze. “I almost forgot. Alistair, help him down, would you?”
Alistair stepped up to the platform and unstrapped the heavy bindings. Reece slumped down to the ground and groaned softly as Alistair dragged him to the floor.
Shelly ran over and knelt next to Reece, resting his head in her lap. She looked at Colton helplessly.
“Some friend,” said Bernam thoughtfully. “It took hardly any convincing to betray you, Colton. Ask him about it if he ever wakes up. He still hates your guts. Jealousy is an ugly, ugly thing. I tried to warn you.”
“What did you do to him?” asked Colton.
“I did what I always do with fools,” said Bernam. “I let him take the risk so that I can take the reward. You were supposed to transport the Phoenix energy back to the machine, and I daresay you would have been able to do it without any of the long-term effects from which your friend Reece here will suffer. Yet you denied your ability and chose instead to side with the weak. That reminds me—did you get a chance to say hello to your dear mother during your time with the outcasts?”
Colton lunged forward but the guard standing behind him cracked him in the skull with the butt of his rifle. Colton fell to the floor on his stomach, his jaw bouncing off the hard tile. He sat up and spat blood at Bernam’s feet.
“Why did you take her away from me? Why couldn’t you just leave her alone?”
Bernam laughed. “The mouse does not ask the lion ‘why’—he either runs away or he is eaten. Stupid boy,” he said. “I’d like to kill you right now, but I need some guinea pigs on which to test my new abilities. Still, there’s no reason to deny others a little enjoyment. Shelly?”
He turned to Shelly and beckoned her forward.
She rested Reece’s head on the floor and stood up, wiping her palms nervously on the pockets of her jeans.
“Come now, girl,” said Bernam. “This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Shelly looked at Colton, then at Bernam, and shook her head, no.
Bernam sighed. “Young love,” he said. “You just can’t compete with it. Alistair…”
Alistair pushed Shelly to the floor next to Corva. Her hands slipped in a small pool of blood by Corva’s shoulder and she pushed herself back into one of the guards, who kicked her forward and pressed the barrel of his rifle to the back of her head.
“You—you promised,” she said.
“I did, promise, yes,” said Bernam. “And you believed me. You think I would let anyone else have this power? The strength of both a Source and a Conduit, without the need to rely on another to achieve it! Let it be a lesson to you, young lady. You can’t rely on anyone but yourself in this world.”
Bernam unbuttoned his suit jacket and slid it off, draping it neatly over a chrome rail next to the machine. He walked up onto the platform and turned back to face Colton. He smiled as he reached up and grabbed the outsides of the hanging restraints.
Alistair opened a small control panel on the side of the machine and flipped three small switches.
At first, nothing happened. Bernam stood with his eyes closed, waiting. A moment later, his body jerked forward as if he been kicked in the back.
Alistair stepped back from the machine as it pulled black energy out of Bernam’s body. Thin wisps of black smoke slithered out of his chest and spiraled up his arms and down his legs, into the platform. The machine chugged harder as the black matter moved across the tubes and disappeared into the metal boxes.
“What’s happening to him?” shouted Colton over the noise.
Alistair ignored him and watched Bernam intently. When the last of the black energy had been pulled from Bernam’s body, he sank down onto the small platform and breathed out heavily.
Alistair moved quickly to his side and helped him to his feet.
“It worked,” said Bernam weakly. “My ability is mixing with the Phoenix power in the machine.” His skin sagged loosely on his bones and for the first time Colton got an impression of how old he truly was. “Quickly,” he said. “Help me into the bindings so I may finish the process.”
Alistair put his hands on Bernam’s shoulders and smiled.
“Alistair, what are you doing?” said Bernam. He groaned in pain as Alistair squeezed his shoulders. “Guards!” he croaked. “Shoot him!”
The guards didn’t move.
“I paid them off, Bernam. You should have watched the world around you, but instead all you could see was the machine. Tunnel vision,” he said, shaking his head. “Sad to watch. It’s time to step down, my old friend. You were right. You can’t rely on anyone but yourself.”
Bernam dropped to his knees and screamed. The skin on his face shriveled and clung tightly to his skull. Dark pockets sank into his cheeks and his hair fell out in chunks.
“What was that you said about the mouse and the lion?” asked Alistair. His eyes flashed brighter as Bernam withered in his grip.
“Alistair,” hissed Bernam softly as his entire body shook. His eyes rolled back into their sockets and he stopped breathing.
Alistair released Bernam and his wasted husk hit the floor like a light plank of wood.
“Now then,” said Alistair, brushing his hands together. “Same plan as before. Don’t you three go anywhere.” He pointed at Colton, Shelly, and Corva. “I want to have some fun once this is all over. You there,” he said to the nearest guard. “Come here.”
The guard lowered his rifle and obeyed.
“What’s your name? Never mind,” said Alistair holding up his hand to stop the guard from talking. “I don’t care. Just…stand still, would you?”
Alistair grabbed the guard by the throat and lifted him off his feet. The guard’s rifle clattered to the floor and his legs kicked helplessly in the air as he strained to breathe. The other two guards stepped back warily but still kept their rifles trained on Colton and the others.
Black smoke flowed over Alistair’s hand and into the guard’s neck. When the last bit of smoke disappeared, Alistair released the guard and collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily.
“Shoot him,” he said quietly.
The other two guards exchanged glances. The one who had just been given Alistair’s Conduit power took a step back and turned to run.
“I said shoot him!”
Colton closed his eyes as two shots rang out. Behind him, he heard a body hit the hard floor.
Alistair straightened his back and grinned at Colton when he opened his eyes. “If I can’t have it, no one can.” His skin was pale but he still looked a lot stronger than Bernam did after he gave up his ability.
He whistled softly as he walked to the machine, then stopped when he saw Bernam’s suit jacket hanging over the railing. Alistair picked it up as if it were a dead rat, inspected it, then tossed it on top of Bernam’s corpse and brushed off his hands once again as he stepped onto the platform.
He reached up and grabbed the restraints.
“To a new era,” he said, and waited. “Oh, right.” He snapped his fingers and hopped off the platform. He went to the small control panel and flipped three more switches, then pressed a series of buttons. “So hard to remember all of these things on your own,” he said. “There we are.” He closed the lid on the panel and walked back to the platform. “Right, then. Where were we?”
He grabbed the restraints as the machine’s hum grew louder. Blinding white light flowed along the tubes, into metal boxes, and then up to the top of the machine.
Alistair closed his eyes as the energy crawled down the bindings and glided over his skin.
On the floor next to Shelly, Reece coughed and opened his eyes. She bent down over him and brushed his hair back from his eyes.
“Reece?” said Colton.
Reece saw Colton and his jaw tightened. He closed his eyes and turned away.
Colton slowly looked at the remaining two security guards. They stood watching the machine as it fed energy into Alistair’s body. Colton shifted a little closer to the guard behind him, hoping he could grab the rifle while he was distracted.
The guard saw him and brought his fist down hard on Colton’s cheek.
“Don’t try it,” said the guard.
Colton spit blood onto the floor.
“How about this?” someone said from behind.
A bright blue ball of light exploded next to the guard’s head. His neck snapped back and he collapsed. The other guard turned and raised his rifle.
Colton jumped forward and shoved his shoulder into the guard’s stomach. He picked him up off the floor and slammed him onto his back. The rifle clattered out of reach and Colton brought his fists down on the guard’s face, over and over again. The guard grabbed a handful of Colton’s shirt and pulled him to the side, then stood and kicked him in the stomach.
Colton gasped for air and tried to crawl away.
The guard grabbed his ankle and pulled him back.
There was a flash of blue light and the guard screamed as he flew through the air. He smashed into the middle of a pillar, cracking it in half. His body stuck into the crooked pillar and hung there, suspended ten feet off the ground.
Haven appeared next to Colton and helped him to his feet.
“Was wondering where you were,” he said, coughing to catch his breath.
“We have to get out of here,” said Haven. “Right now.”
The white light in the machine intensified and Alistair screamed as if he were being burned alive. His body ignited with white flame and his skeleton was visible inside his skin.
Colton bent down and picked up Corva, draping her arm over his shoulder and holding her up by her belt. He started the long walk to the elevator at the far end of the room.
Behind him, Haven knelt down to help the others.
“Don’t touch me,” said Shelly.
Haven stepped back as Shelly helped Reece to his feet. He groaned in pain and clenched his chest. His breaths were wet and shallow. Shelly supported him as they hurried away from the machine, toward the elevator.
With a quick flash of light, the machine powered down.
Alistair fell forward onto his hands and knees. His black hair hung loosely over his face as he lifted his hands from the floor and looked at his palms.
“Let’s go!” shouted Colton.
Shelly and Reece were closest to the machine; Haven ran past them, moving quickly toward the elevator.
Alistair stood up and brushed his hair back. He held his right arm in front of him and turned his palm outward, studying it as if it were an unknown weapon.
A beam of white-hot light shot out of his hand and hit the elevator. The metal doors turned to molten liquid that sloshed out into the room and burned through the floor.
“Get down!” shouted Haven.
Colton turned around just as the elevator exploded.
Chunks of metal burst out in all directions amidst a huge fireball that consumed half the room. The impact from the explosion picked Colton off his feet and slammed him onto his back. He did his best to keep Corva close but she was ripped from his arms. A piece of burning metal smacked against his ankle and he kicked it away.
Fire licked over the ceiling, crawling like lava pouring from a volcano.
Behind him, Alistair was laughing.
“Children,” he said loudly. “Idiots. Do you know how easy it’s going to be to kill all of you? You’ll find out soon enough.”
Colton flipped onto his stomach.
Haven was crouched behind a nearby pillar, staring at him. She pointed to a section of wall on one side of the room and made an exploding motion with her hands.
Colton didn’t understand until she pointed to herself, then to Alistair.
He shook his head, no.
She nodded calmly, as if it was something she had been planning to do all along. Haven pointed to Corva, Reece, and Shelly, then firmly back at the wall.
Colton fought to find a way that they could all escape without someone staying behind. He sighed and looked back at Haven.
As soon as he nodded, she stood up and stepped away from the pillar.
“Over here,” she said.
Instantly, a ball of white light tore through the pillar, splitting it in half and ripping it out of the floor and the ceiling. Haven ran away from the falling pillar, toward the machine.
Alistair tracked her, firing thin beams of white energy as she moved. The beams cut black canyons in the walls. She paused in front of the section of wall that she had pointed out to Colton. She ducked as a thick tube of energy slammed into the wall above her head and shattered the black tile. Sunlight poured in from the cracks.
Haven quickly stood and placed her palms on the wall. Blue light burst from her hands and a large section of the wall crumbled down the outside of the building.
She turned and ran toward the machine.
Colton picked up Corva and looked over at Shelly. “Come on!” he said.
Reece leaned against her as they hurried to the hole in the side of the building.
Colton peered down over the edge—six stories straight down to the asphalt parking lot.
“This isn’t a good idea,” said Shelly.
“It’s all we have.”
“Just like jumping from the plane?” she asked. “I thought you were broken.”
“Maybe this will fix me,” said Colton.
He hugged Corva close and jumped.
Fear seized him as he fell through the air—the same fear that threatened to paralyze him when Alistair had thrown him from the plane over the desert. It was different, though, because the first time he truly believed he could rely on his ability.
He pressed Corva close to his body and turned slowly in the air so that his back was toward the rapidly-approaching ground—it was the only chance Corva had of surviving if he failed.
Colton focused on the air flowing around his body. He imagined the battery in his chest. He tried to imagine it filling up, even though he barely felt anything.
He screamed within his mind and reached out for energy—a light tingle at the small of his back; a brief flash of heat in his hands.
Colton closed his eyes and let it out.
He slammed into the concrete on a thin cushion of air that barely managed to keep his bones from shattering. The back of his head bounced off the ground and his vision went black.
Corva fell on top of him and one of his ribs snapped. He yelled in pain as he guided her onto the ground next to him.
Colton lay there panting, feeling the sun’s heat on his face but unable to see anything but a soft glow. He heard footsteps approaching and two figures dissolved out of the blackness, silhouetted by the faint light of the sun.
“Haven?” he said.
The closest figure stopped. Colton’s vision changed from dark to blurry and he could tell that it was Shelly who stood over him. She reached up and wiped a tear from her eye.
Reece stood next to her and guided her away.
“Let’s go,” he said. He cried out in pain and clutched at his chest. His breath came out in quick, ragged gasps as Shelly helped him to stay on his feet. “We don’t belong with them.”
“Wait,” said Colton weakly. “Don’t go.” He reached out but their blurry figures faded away into the brightening sunlight.
Colton closed his eyes and tried not to think about the pain that covered his entire body. Far above, through the hole in the side of the building, Haven screamed.
A section of the floor fell away beneath Haven’s feet as she jumped to the side. The edges of the hole glowed with white plasma.
Alistair cackled from across the room.
Haven was trying to keep the pillars between them as she moved closer to the machine. Her only hope was that Alistair would bring the whole place to the ground before he realized what was happening.
“You’re alone!” he shouted. “What a noble sacrifice you’ve made! Pointless, but noble. Even if your friends survived the fall, I’ll find them.”
Haven ran from one pillar to the next and caught a quick glimpse of Alistair. His eyes glowed solid white. Wavy, ghost-like strands of energy floated up from his body like the tentacles of an upside-down jellyfish.
“Your little brother was the key,” he said. “Did you know that?”
Haven pictured Noah in the chair at the medical center. She remembered the scar on his small chest.
“Very strong, your brother,” continued Alistair. “At least he will be some day. Normally Bernam couldn’t find anyone until they were at least your age, but little Noah was different. If only Bernam could have sensed you as well, we could’ve gotten two for one!”
He laughed and shot a beam of energy through the pillar behind Haven. It crumbled to the floor as she ran to the next one.
The ceiling above her head groaned and cracked. A small piece of black tile fell to the floor and shattered.
“Ah, I see,” said Alistair. “Very clever. It was Bernam’s stupid idea to leave these floors open like this. I much prefer a smaller, cozier place.”
Haven looked at the machine.
Most of the metal boxes that fed the tubes were similar—polished chrome with no decoration. There was one piece of equipment in the back that was different. Small wires ran out of the wall and connected to the outside of that particular piece. It was a lot less polished than the rest of the machine—more utilitarian in nature.
Haven made that her target and hoped she could project her energy more than a few feet.
She forced herself to picture the blue sphere of plasma in the vast field of nothing. She channeled the energy to her core and down to her hands. Warmth flowed over her entire body and silent blue flames skittered across her arms. Floating in the air on either side of her were the tips of her energy wings—they fanned out from her back and lit up the entire room.
Haven stepped out from behind the pillar and held up her hand toward the piece of machinery near the wall. Blue plasma spiraled from her hand and smacked into the wall, above her mark. She dropped her aim and hit the target, moving the stream of energy over the machine until the blue light faded from her vision and she breathed out, exhausted. Her energy wings slowly receded into her back and disappeared.
The machine groaned and one of the tubes burst, sending a steady stream of gas into the air.
Alistair looked at Haven and whistled in appreciation.
“Now that was impressive,” he said. “You don’t see wings like that every day.” He walked to the middle of the room and inspected the machine thoughtfully. Then he shrugged. “Well, you tried. Mind if I help?” Thick streams of white plasma shot from his palms and melted a piece machinery next to the one Haven had targeted. The tubes connecting that piece to the rest of the machine exploded in a chain reaction that consumed half the room. Fire licked up the walls and crawled across the ceiling. “There we are,” said Alistair. “Can’t have just anybody popping in to use it, now can we?” He walked forward slowly, with his hands slightly raised to show that he meant no harm. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in joining me?” he asked. “I’m really going places.”
The blue energy flared up around her.
He cocked his head to the side and the ghost-like tendrils floating up from his body shot across the room and burrowed into Haven’s skin.
“No,” he said. “I thought not. Pity.”
The tendrils lifted her from the ground and spun her in the air slowly. She screamed as the burning strands moved over her skin.
Alistair walked in a wide circle around her, tapping on his chin thoughtfully. More strands of energy grew from his skin and extended toward Haven and burrowed into her body.
“You know,” he said, “I might be able to make you obey me. There’s really no way to know my limits until I test them. The brain is controlled by electrical impulses, after all. That’s what makes it so easy to shut off. Who knows? Maybe mind control isn’t so far-fetched. You can be my first test subject.” He grinned. “What do you say?”
The piece of equipment at the back of the machine squealed and split down the side. Blue and white light flowed over the tubes and crackled against the outsides of the metal boxes. One of the boxes exploded, sending jagged pieces of thin metal in all directions.
The explosion rocked the entire building and the tendrils of white energy coming out of Alistair quickly pulled back into his skin. Haven smacked into the floor and rolled behind a fallen pillar just as another box exploded.
A piece of metal shaped like a saw blade spun through the air and slammed into Alistair’s chest.
He looked down at the protruding blade in confusion and stumbled backward on his feet.
Haven ran for the big hole in the wall, and for the sunlight beyond.
His body was consumed in white energy. It exploded outward like a series of pulsing underwater detonations—spheres of burning light shot out from his core and stopped, only to be overtaken by a larger, more powerful barrier of white plasma.
The roof collapsed behind Haven as she ran toward the wall. Chunks of concrete crashed all around her as she passed crumbling pillars.
She felt the heat on her back—felt it burning into her skin.
She looked behind her as she ran. Alistair stood in front of the machine, arms outstretched, head cast upward in a perpetual scream. His body was a black silhouette in a piercing center of white light.
The machine exploded.
Fire blossomed out from the base of the platform and swallowed Alistair’s body. Before he disappeared into the flames, he lowered his head and looked directly at Haven, his eyes burning pools of white light.
Haven reached the hole in the wall and jumped.
The barrier of white plasma slammed into her back and pushed her far out over the parking lot. She spun head over heels, catching glimpses of the orange sky, the black asphalt, and the collapsing building.
Soon all she saw was the desert rushing up to her face.
At the last second, someone dove to the ground beneath her.
It was Dormer.
She stopped falling an inch away from his body and hung in the air. He moved to the side and she fell lightly into his outstretched arms.
Dormer helped her up and dusted off her shoulders. He smiled.
“We were just coming up to get you,” he said. “You made it.”
“So did you.” She coughed again. Her throat was bone dry—it felt like she could drink a gallon of water.
An explosion of flame belched out of the building through the hole in the sixth floor. The fire crawled up toward the roof, shattering every window along its path.
“You found your brother?” asked Haven.
Dormer nodded. “He’ll be fine after a while. He’s with the other patients at the medical facility. Most of them are still asleep.”
“What will happen to them?”
“Hopefully Micah cleared some space at The Dome. They can stay with us as long as they’d like, but I expect most will want to get back to their lives. We can talk more about that later. Right now someone wants to see you.”
He led Haven to the parking lot, where a group of people were gathered. Colton stood a few feet away, watching the black building collapse on itself. He winced in pain and touched the side of his ribcage. Marius and Corva sat on the ground next to each other, smiling up at the setting sun. Their wounds were healed over but dark bruises still covered much of their arms and faces.
“I’ll get them fixed up properly back at the Grove,” said Dormer. “Ah, here we are.”
Haven turned as her little brother jumped into her arms.
“Noah!” she said. She closed her eyes and hugged him harder than she ever had before.
He leaned back and kissed her on the nose, then rested his head on her shoulder. Haven smiled as tears rolled down her cheeks.
“He’s strong,” said Dormer. “But it will take a while to fully heal.”
“Thank you,” whispered Haven. “Thank you for keeping him safe.”
Dormer smiled and walked away. He knelt down next to Marius and tried to inspect his healed wounds, but Marius half-heartedly swatted him away.
Haven stood next to Colton as a big piece of the roof collapsed down through the top few floors of the building. It slipped over the wall and fell onto the parking lot with a loud crunch. The ground shook as a huge explosion blew out every remaining window, sending a million shards of glass spinning into the air. Bright rays from the setting sun glinted off the glass, turning it into a falling sheet of glimmering light.
A bigger burst of orange flames erupted through the hole in the sixth floor and consumed the top half of the building.
“What happened to your friend?” asked Haven. She rubbed Noah’s back as the building burned.
“He’s gone,” said Colton.
“With the girl?”
He nodded. “He never really had a chance. He just…he just grabbed at the first thing that he thought would make him special.”
“We all do that in our own way.”
Colton shook his head. “We lost so much.”
Haven looked into his eyes and smiled. “We’ll get it back.”
She kissed Noah’s forehead and turned away from the building to join the others.
Night fell on the desert, bringing with it a sudden chill that cooled the hissing ruins of the black building. The structure had completely collapsed into itself and sunk partially into the ground. Smoke rose from a shallow crater lined with the protruding edges of blackened steel crossbeams.
The parking lot surrounding the building was charred all the way to its edges. The fire had burned so hot that the sand near the asphalt turned to glass.
With a loud scrape of steel on steel, one of the crossbeams jutting up from the ruins shifted to the side. The chunk of roofing it had been supporting fell deeper into the crater and cracked in half over a giant chrome sphere—one of many from the training room that dotted the remains of the building.
From a shadowed spot next to the base of the shifting crossbeam, a burnt hand reached up toward the sky. Cloth had melted into the skin of the arm and fused with crisp, red-black flesh.
Alistair’s hand gripped the crossbeam and he pulled himself up from the ruins.
He screamed to the night sky, his breath fogging out in a slow cloud. He reached up to touch his face—the skin over his cheeks felt like thin paper and sizzled under his fingertips.
His hair was gone—his scalp peeled away to reveal his blackened skull. He let out a small whimper as he stood next to the fallen building and looked down at his charred body.
Alistair’s whimper turned to quiet sobbing as he nurtured the violent thoughts in his mind—he turned them over and over again until they gave him strength. White light flickered in the cracks of his burnt skin and his eyes glowed brighter until they became two brilliant white stars in a sea of night.
His sobbing made the slow turn to insane laughter—it started as a weak cough, then became a mischievous chuckle that shook his body with every sound, and at last built to a deep, cackling rumble of laughter that echoed across the desert.
Alistair moved away into the night to become one more shadow in a world filled with darkness. His mind was consumed by a single desire.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
From The Author
This book and parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarities to actual persons, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental.
This book was originally published under the name A.P. Kensey.
Chosen individuals have been gifted with extraordinary abilities in order to restore balance to the world. HAVEN KINCAID is seventeen. After moving away from her friends before the start of her senior year, she struggles to fit in at her new school. When the boy of her dreams shows interest, she finally has a chance to be normal—but Haven is more different than she realizes. After a tragic loss and a deep betrayal, she is kidnapped by a sinister group that will do anything to extract a deadly ability she can barely control—even if they kill her in the process. COLTON ROSS is fresh out of high school. Driven by a desire to escape his abusive father and haunted by the memory of an absent mother, he moves to New York City to start over. When a favor for his friend backfires and he ends up in jail, Colton is bailed out by a mysterious businessman who offers him the chance to strengthen his new-found power and discover the truth about his past—a truth that will set him on a deadly quest. BLOOM is an action-packed fantasy adventure similar to X-MEN and JUMPER that tells the story of two young people surviving in a dangerous world. As their journeys unfold and collide, they must risk their lives to defeat an evil that threatens to destroy everything they hold dear.