After the Kreon pillaged our planet, they gave us two choices: Join the academies, to be brainwashed into submission, or work the mines for the Kreon. To resist is death. To love is treason. Falling for the enemy is illegal… but it might just save the planet. When I find the one thing the invaders want most – a lost artifact from a dying princess – I must marry an alien prince or watch everyone I love die.
wake to a deep thrumming sound. My hand reaches for the knife under my pillow as I pull the threadbare quilt off. I step toward the door, avoiding the creakiest floorboards and taking deep breaths to calm my racing heart. There’s enough morning light filtering in through the small window to see my little brother, still asleep on his mat.
I whisper a prayer as I open the door slowly, lifting it up so its normal grating doesn’t betray me. I hear the large drone overhead again and slip outside to follow, barefoot on the cool grass. Our valley is still half-shrouded in mist. I keep to the shadows of the forest as I scan the early morning sky, trying to sniff out the smell of engine oil over the strong scent of pine and damp earth.
Just when I think I’ve lost it, the drone whizzes above me, a few feet over the tree line. I hold my breath as I watch it zoom toward our cabin. But then it wobbles and changes direction. Downward. I take a deep breath and start running. As I close in on where the drone is dropping rapidly into the forest, I slow my pace so I don’t trigger any of my own traps.
I hear the instant the battery in the drone gives out, then its rotors go silent. I wait behind a large tree until the metallic beast hits the forest floor, but peek around to see it flailing in a small clearing. Thin legs slide out of its main body and reach toward the ground. It crawls eastward like a giant black spider, trying to head back to the Kreon base.
Electricity flows through me as I sprint toward the machine and drive my knife into its center. It makes a loud metallic screech before going silent again. I crouch over it, listening to the surrounding forest. I don’t like being this exposed. I hold my breath until finally I hear the birds start their chirping again, then quickly disable the cameras by sawing through the wires with the tip of my knife. Once its dead, I take a deep breath and grab the machine in both arms, pulling it tightly to my chest and risking a rare smile. This one weighs a lot. Which means more parts to sell.
I take a while to make it back to the cabin; the weight of the machine keeps me from moving too quickly. My chest tightens as I listen for anyone following me who might have heard the death of the drone. Although well into the harvest months, I shiver only slightly in my thin nightclothes. My blood is still warm with adrenaline, and the winters are fairly mild in our valley anyway. This makes hunting easier since the game doesn’t head for warmer climates like up north. My father chose it well. Almost like he knew what was coming.
I bump open the door of the cabin with my shoulder and use a foot to kick it shut again. Jamie is standing in the middle of the room glaring at me.
“I didn’t have time to wake you.” It’s the only thing I can think of to say. I’m tired of apologizing to him for the things I have to do to keep us fed and safe.
I cross the room and heave the drone onto the sturdy workbench. It used to be our family dinner table, back when our parents were here and we were an actual family.
I turn back toward my little brother. Although his brown hair is mussed with sleep, the serious expression he’s giving me makes him look just like our father. I swallow the bile rising in my throat as I remember the last day we saw our him, almost a year ago. It’s his fault Jamie is afraid every time I leave the cabin without him. He thinks I’ll disappear too, and he’ll be all alone.
“Fine, I’m sorry, Jamie. How about I let you work on this one, instead of parting it out? It’s one of the biggest we’ve caught.” I tilt my head as I watch Jamie’s expression soften. His curiosity has always been his weakness. A weakness we both share. My stomach clenches as the bribe seems to work. Although this will appease him for now, I know Jamie won’t stop bugging me to go out beyond the woods. And I can’t keep him confined to our little valley forever.
I look back at the large drone. The excitement of finding it drains and leaves my body feeling weak again. This hunk of Kreon metal would’ve gotten us almost a month of supplies in trade. But keeping Jamie safe and happy was more important.
I’ll just have to find another way to get food this week.
As Jamie looks over the drone and pulls out our stash of tools from under a floorboard, I go outside to get breakfast. Underneath thick rosehip bushes I pull up a wooden hatch covering our cache of foodstuffs. Lying on my belly on the cool morning grass I look down into the hole. My heart sinks as I pull out my small flashlight. Our only flashlight. It flickers but finally illuminates the near empty box at the bottom of the dirt-chilled hole. I reach down and grab the last chunk of cheese and a bag of dried meat.
I’ll have to go to the trading camp soon. Dread burns in the pit of my stomach as I turn off the flashlight and tuck it into my waistband. I close the makeshift cellar and stand up. Back inside I slice the meat and cheese thinly with my knife. Jamie and I sit on the edges of our sleeping mats and eat in silence.
“We’ll need to sell this drone, won’t we?” Jamie asks as he wipes his mouth with his sleeve. He gazes at the worn floorboards in front of him.
“No way, this one’s yours. I promised you the next drone. I’ll show you how to take this one apart and fix it.” I force a smile. “It seems different from the others, so it should be an interesting one.” I used to be able to lure smaller drones out of the sky with a mirror and then disable them quickly, but that trick stopped working, and it had been nearly two months since my last catch. The truth is, this larger model worried me. What was it doing here?
Jamie looks up at me, his deep brown eyes showing a maturity well beyond his eight years. “But we need the food.”
I nod. “I’ll figure something else out.” I reach over and his hair. He pulls back growling. I laugh. “Don’t I always figure it out? We haven’t starved yet, and we’re still living free.”
Jamie gets up and stomps over to the drone. “Yes, I know you will, Rya. You always have.” He holds up one of the drone’s broken rotors. “But I’ve learned all you can teach me about fixing and repairing drones, comms, and generators. There’s nothing else to do out here, in the middle of nowhere, and you still won’t let me go hunting with you.” He pouts as he unscrews one of the drone’s emergency legs.
I stand up and lean against the wall next to the workbench. “I know you’re getting bored, but it’s dangerous out there and we need to be careful. You’ll get to go hunting with me soon.”
“You’ve been saying that for years,” he grumbles.
I lean over and pop out the brain chip out of the drone with my knife and hold up the gleaming silver square. “And besides, even though you think you know everything about machines, you still haven’t learned hacking.” I wink at him and place the chip with others in a wooden box I keep high on a shelf.
“What’s the use of learning all that if I’m hungry all the time?” Jamie slams the tools and the drone leg onto the bench and storms out of the cabin.
I sigh and rub my temple. His dark moods are getting worse, and I have no idea what to do about it. I look over at the faded picture on the shelf of my brother and I standing in front of our smiling parents. It’s the only picture we have of our former life. Mom was angry when Dad came home with the polaroid camera, she said it was a wasted trade. I’m glad he insisted. Without this photograph, I’m afraid Jamie will forget them. At night, in the dark, I try to picture their faces from memory, but I feel them slipping away from me as well.
Anger wells up inside me as Jamie’s dark mood spreads. It feels like a physical presence in the cabin, thinning the air and making it hard to breathe. Why did they have to abandon us? I want to grab the frame and smash it on the ground, but I slam my fist onto the workbench instead, sending tools scattering across its surface.
I shake my head at myself as I rub my hand. Jamie is right, we’re barely living as it is. Our small cabin consists of one room with two thin mats, a workbench, and a shelf of books. I walk over and drag my finger over the worn spines. Almost all the books are Earth history, from ancient times up until the first invasion thirty years ago. If I were found with these, the Kreon wouldn’t hesitate to put me to death. But these books were my dad’s hobby and I can’t part with them. He said the history and stories in them would be important to us one day. I flip through the pages, letting the musty smell and the feel of the leather bindings calm me down.
I can’t let myself think too much, so I quickly put my day clothes on and sheath my knife into the leather holster around my waist. I grab my backpack and head out to look for Jamie. It doesn’t take me long to find him. Although he complains all the time about not going hunting or scavenging with me, he’s also afraid to go too far from our cabin. Instead, he goes up. I blink against the brightness of the blue sky, scanning the treeline surrounding the valley. I find him in one of his favorite tall pine trees. Securing my pack around my shoulders, I climb up after him.
I sit on a thick branch across from him and look out at the little valley we live in. “You can almost see past the ship today,” I say, nodding towards the horizon.
Across the valley, a gleaming alien leg rises from the trees like a metal serpent and continues up through the haze created by the refineries. It ends where it attaches to one of the city-sized Kreon ships. Below it lie the remains of a sprawling human city, now abandoned except for the refineries, and darkly shadowed by the hovering space craft.
“Yeah, the smoke isn’t as bad,” Jamie grumbles under his breath.
“Why don’t you come down and get your chores done. I’ll check only the closest traps today and wait until tomorrow to go to the traders. That way we can work on that drone together tonight.” I bump his foot with mine. “What do you say?”
He frowns but looks over at me. “All right. But before it gets dark, I want to show you how much my aim has improved.”
I narrow my eyes. “Agreed. But you still can’t go with me tomorrow. I know you’re getting good with your bow, but there’s more to hunting than just the actual shooting part.”
He starts to climb down the tree. “Like what? I know how to avoid the drones and watch for human and Kreon traps.”
I close my eyes for a second before heading down after him. “Yes, and you’re getting fantastic at those things. But knowing isn’t the same as doing. It takes practice, and we need to start nearby first.” Especially if the Kreon are getting more active in our section, I think, remembering the large drone. “I’ll take you soon, Jamie. I promise.”
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I’ve been working on Taste for a few years, and the story keeps growing.
It’s a vampire dystopia, and one review called it “Hunger Games meets Shade of Vampire.”
However it’s an interesting mix of fantasy and science-fiction, where the “vampires” are genetically modified super-humans who keep humans in captivity: each “Elite” must choose a human bride to honor the peace between the races, and the protagonist’s adventure begins when she is chosen. So there’s also the “choosing ceremony” motif – I actually began this book probably around 2013 when “choosing ceremony” books were popular, but I’ve seen a few similar stories recently that I loved, like the 100th Queen, so maybe it’s making a comeback.
I’ve tried multiple covers for this book, and actually it was the one on the far right that helped make some interesting story changes:
But ultimately I went with this beautiful art from Consuelo Parra.
Even though I have a pretty clean outline and know exactly how it ends (I usually start from my endings), the middle is developing and a few new characters have emerged. I’m confident there are some EPIC scenes in this book, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be my best book yet, but it’s also developing more slowly than I’d like (plus, like usual, my stories keep growing and I have a difficult time knowing exactly where to cut off book one and where to start book two).
I HOPE to have it done in April 2018, because I have so many other projects to work on.
Read the excerpt below, and if you like it, download the first six chapters.
I covered my mouth and nose with my mother’s shawl and cut through the poisonous ash, ignoring the battered warnings signs. Going past the wall is death. Inhale too much ash and it will kill you. But this wasn’t my first time skirting the laws. I headed further away from the purification engines, whose motors filled our town with a constant hum, and climbed the oak tree that had grown too close to the perimeter fence ringing our compound.
As I shuffled out to the tip of a gnarled branch, the buzz of electricity radiating from the fence made the hair on my arm stand up. We didn’t have much electricity in Algrave, but I knew it was dangerous. I gripped the rough bark between my fingers, wobbling slightly as I blinked away a chunk of ash that had gotten stuck in my eyelashes. It wouldn’t harm me in small doses, as long as I didn’t breathe it in. But the ash wasn’t the only thing beyond the fence that could kill me.
My father used to tell me stories about the beasts outside the gates. Rancid breath. Claws as long as my arm. Teeth that could pierce the hardest stone. Their beady red eyes—the last thing you’d see before they ripped you open. Slagpaw, we called them. His stories terrified me when I was young, but it had been years since the last attack. Maybe the elite hunted them to extinction, or maybe they were just a story to scare the village kids from wandering too far into the ash. But I wasn’t a child any longer, and my father was gone. Besides, it was Festival tonight, and I didn’t want to be late.
I lowered myself down from the branch and dropped into the pile of leaves I’d left on my last trip. I’d nearly broken my ankle the first time I made the drop. This time I rolled, tucking my bow to the side. I brushed myself off and took a deep breath through my shawl. It filtered out the ash while letting in the fresh scent of pine sap. Nocking an arrow, I walked forward silently, my bow ready. My father had taught me how to walk without snapping any twigs when I was younger. He said it might save my life someday. I’d never really understood what he meant, and he’d died before I could ask him.
He left behind a bow he made himself, a hunting knife, and a few basic traps. When I realized my mother planned to sell them, I begged her to let me use them instead. She gave me a month to learn how to hunt. Twenty-eight days later, I came home with my first rabbit. Since then, she’s pretty much given me free reign, as long as I helped put food on the table.
Of course, she didn’t know how far I really needed to go to get meat these days. She thought I stayed within the compound and waited for a really stupid bird or squirrel to wander in. That hadn’t happened in months. I was sick of hearing my little brother complain that he was hungry. He was too young to understand rationing, or why we could never buy the sweet pastries in the market.
My mom did what work she could, but there was only so much she could do. At night, she soaked her feet in hot water with herbs, and rubbed the back of her neck. Sometimes I’d catch her staring at the walls and smiling to herself. I think she was secretly looking forward to the Choosing ceremony. Not that anybody in our family had ever been chosen, but she could hope. For my part, I was determined to make myself useful in any way that I could. And this could be my last Festival at home with my family. I wanted to make it special.
Twigs snapped behind me and I whirled around, pulling the taut string of my bow to my ear. A buck with magnificient antlers moved slowly through the trees. I’d never killed anything so large before. At least it was an easy target. I held my breath as it turned its three eyes towards me. Radioactive, my father would have said. Whatever that meant. Meat was meat. I steadied my breath, aiming for the front of its body, hoping to hit one of the vital organs.
I was just about to release my arrow when I heard the voices. My eyes widened in surprise and my heart pounded like a drum in my chest. There shouldn’t be anybody else beyond the wall, unless…
I ducked just in time to see a group of elites wander into the meadow, laughing and shoving each other. They looked like us, mostly—but I knew they were faster and stronger than any human. And far more dangeous than the creatures in my father’s bedtime stories. Apart from the handful of guards posted around the compound, who wore a standard black uniform, and a small team of engineers that came through our village every few months to check the machines, I hadn’t had much interaction with the elite. They all looked young, healthy, and clean in a way the people of my village could never hope to look, as if they took a bath every night and every morning. These ones were wearing richer materials and clothing than I’d ever seen.
One of the Elites held a finger up to his mouth. He ran a thin-fingered hand over the long, dark hair slicked back over his ears, then signalled the others to loop around to the other side of a small meadow. I was so sure they smelled me, my heart nearly stopped. I crouched on my toes, preparing to run, but then one of them hollered and chased a buck into the clearing. My buck. The rest of them ran around the animal in circles, terrifying the poor beast. They let it dart around and think it could escape into the woods, before appearing just in front of it again. They moved so fast my eyes could scarcely keep track of them.
The one with dark hair straightened his purple velvet jacket and approached the animal, keeping his arms out to both sides until he was right in front of it. Without warning, he grabbed the buck by the antlers and snapped them both off with a firm twist. As the animal stood there, stunned, he plunged the antlers into either side of the buck, skewering it and sending a spray of blood up over his white shirt and pale face. Then he smiled, licking the blood from the corners of his mouth.
My stomach turned sour as the other elites crowded around the animal. They raised silver chalices to the still-quivering animal, filling their cups with warm blood. One of them found a vein, and latched his teeth around the creature’s neck. He bit down hard, and blood streamed over his lips and chin. I shuddered and took a step backwards.
The leader’s head snapped up, and he looked straight at me with hungry eyes. Before I could even think about running, he was at my side. A cruel smile played on his lips as he glared down at me. Very slowly, he took an embroidered handkerchief out of his dark jacket and wiped the deer’s blood off his face.
“Ready for a new game, boys?” he called.
Cover art: Consuelo Parra
Cover art: Consuelo Parra
-When the soul dies:
Cover art: Consuelo Parra
VAMPIRE Books GIVEAWAY
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A year ago I started working on my first novel, a time-travel dystopian thriller, with elements of Greek mythology based on the Oracle of Delphi. I published part one, and am now – a year later – putting the final touches on the last scene. The time travel element made plotting more challenging, but it’s finally ready and I’m updating the book with the second half of the story. To celebrate, I redesigned the cover to make it more obviously action/adventure.
Even though it’s young adult, and has some basic tropes of the genre (bullies, boyfriends, high school dances) there’s also a fair bit of kickass action, violence and thrills that will keep most adult readers engaged in the story.
It’s on sale this week for $0.99, and you can buy it now if you’d like to support me.
However, if you bought part one earlier, it’s possible you won’t be able to re-purchase or download the full, completed novel and the final-final scenes… if that’s the case just email me and I’ll send you a link where you can download the whole book for free.
I have big plans for the rest of this series, but I’ll only keep working on it if my readers enjoy the characters and narrative – so make sure you like comments, and share and review the book so I know you want to read what happens next!
I’m going to paste the last few scenes here, below, but omit the FINAL scene.
I strongly recommend not reading this until you’ve read the full book – it’s a long story and you’ll ruin the experience if you skip to the last couple chapters. It won’t make sense unless you’ve read everything that happens before this.
EXCERPT (final chapter)
I cried at Eric’s funeral. Not polite sniffling either. Shoulder-racking sobs that burst out of me. I was so loud it was embarrassing. Even worse, the curious eyes felt like hot brands, scorching my skin with accusations. After the tears dried up, the guilt settled deep into my bones. I crossed my arms and wrapped the black shawl around my shoulders. I’d found it in my mother’s closet. Somehow I thought wrapping myself up in it would protect me. I wished it was raining, like it always was in the movies, so I could hide under a black umbrella. But the sky was almost cheerfully blue, like it was mocking our grief.
The preacher’s words hummed in my mind but I couldn’t pull meaning from the sounds—my own thoughts were too loud. This is what it felt like to be a murderer. This is what it feels like to save the world. If no Kyle Peters, there will be no mods. But I never imagined it would happen this way, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’d missed something. If I killed Kyle Peters earlier, would Eric still be alive?
I looked up and locked eyes with Eric’s mother, Mrs. Patton. She was glaring at me with a look that felt like a punch in the gut. It was like she knew – but that was impossible. After what happened with Mr. Peters, I snuck out of Zamonta. I hated leaving Eric’s body behind, but I didn’t know what else to do. I was trespassing, and how could I ever explain what happened to Mr. Peters? I had no idea how I’d even done that; that I was even capable of something like that. It wasn’t until I was home, scrubbing the blood off my hands, that I realized I’d been seen—that security guard, Roger, knew I’d been there. Had he seen Eric as well? Even if he hadn’t, the complex must be riddled with security cameras.
For days, I watched the street through the living room windows, waiting for the sirens. They’d arrest me. They’d lock me up forever, or run tests on me like a lab rat until they figured out all of my secrets. And then, it was on the news. A mentally instable high school student killed Kyle Peters, and was shot and killed in the process. Zamonta issued a press release calling it a terrible tragedy. Without naming Tamara directly, they implied that Eric had been motivated by unfounded apocalyptic rumors he’d seen on TV. The next day, the cameras were back, but this time they swarmed our house like red ants around a piece of meat, shouting questions through the walls.
I put my headphones on and tried to tune them out with music. My brain felt frozen, sluggish. I had trouble staying focused on one thing at a time. I had the feeling I was stuck in a cycle, like a hamster in a wheel, running as fast as it could but still stuck in a cage.
Then it died down. I went to school a few times, but I don’t remember anything. Chrys peppered me with questions but I brushed her off. I didn’t see Brett, which wasn’t a big surprise. His father had just died, after all. I was a stone, a piece of wood, until I saw Eric’s body at the funeral, and then I fell apart completely. I remembered playing legos in his backyard, and seeing who could spit watermelon seeds the farthest. Sometimes my mom would walk us to the park so we could climb the jungle gym. Now they were both dead.
The news cycle attacked Tamara for inciting violence, replaying her TV appearance along with a grim photo of Eric, frowning and wearing a dark hoodie. “Civilization will be decimated. Billions of people will die. The man behind it is Kyle Peters, and he must be stopped, at all costs. Stop Kyle Peters, save the world.”
Everyone believed that Eric got his hands on some powerful acid, snuck into Zamonta on his own, and killed Peters in the misguided belief that he was protecting humanity. Tamara’s reputation, meanwhile, was shattered. She was spending less time at home, sorting through her own problems. At least we still had the lottery money. We hadn’t heard anything about a lawsuit since Kyle’s death. When things died down, Tamara could try and appease her conscience with more donations. I didn’t care what she did with it. It didn’t matter now.
The day of winter formal arrived with a halo of uncertainty. I’d left my gray dress hanging out all week—a reminder of what could have been. Sometimes I ran my fingers over the smooth fabric, imagining a gorgeous boy with a heart-melting smile, holding me in his arms as we danced around a finely decorated room with our closest friends. It would be nice to feel beautiful. Not for Brett or anyone else, but for me. Someone to be admired, even loved. But that was a fairy tale. I’d have to get used to being ordinary again.
I sighed and tucked the dress into my closet. Even if Brett didn’t blame me directly, he knew the truth about Tamara’s prophecies. He knew that I was the villain behind his father’s death, even if he didn’t know I killed him personally. That vision I had of us ending up together—that was before. In the alternate future, the one with mods and the destruction of the human race. It was gone now. I’d given up my own happiness and saved everybody. I hadn’t done it on purpose, but it had to count for something.
I’d just nuked a TV dinner when I heard the honking. It started down the street but sounded like it was getting closer. A lot closer. I went to the window just in time to see Brett’s jeep pull up to the curb. Cody was driving, and Chrys beamed at me from the backseat, wearing the princess blue dress she’d bought. Cody looked sharp in a suit and tie. But I barely registered the two of them, next to Brett. He was standing up on the passenger seat like it was a chariot, in a black tux, holding a dozen roses. Before the wheels had even stopped rolling, he jumped off and bowed with a flourish. I opened the door and was halfway across the yard when I realized I was still wearing sweats.
“What’s all this?” I asked, suddenly self-conscious. I crossed my arms.
“A grand romantic gesture,” Brett said, rubbing the back of his neck. “At least I hope it is.”
“I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Clearly,” Brett grinned, nodding towards my sweats.
“I mean, I didn’t think you’d still want to go. With me.”
Brett sighed and took a few steps closer.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He offered me the roses but I didn’t reach for them.
“I’ll admit, I was angry at first. Angry at everything. Eric, Tamara, but you most of all. I always felt like you were asking me to choose, between you and my dad. I felt torn. I’ve been miserable since my dad died, but I realized something funny this morning, I didn’t just miss my dad. I missed you. And when I thought about you and me, together, at the dance—I felt better. Hopeful, almost happy. I don’t have all the answers, but I can’t help the way I feel about you. Plus, what kind of guy would I be if I asked a girl to a dance and then stood her up? There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior.”
“You couldn’t have said all that in a text?” I asked, the tiniest of smirks playing on my lips.
Brett read the humor in my eyes and leaned forward even more, whispering in my ear.
“Some things are better said in person.”
He took my hand and this time I accepted the bouquet of roses from him, lifting them to my lips to hide the smile I was afraid would tear me apart.
“So are we doing this or what?” Cody yelled from the jeep.
Chrys jumped out of the back seat and ran towards us. Her hug was so fierce we almost fell over together. Then she grabbed my arm and tugged me inside.
“Back in ten minutes gentlemen,” she shouted over her shoulder.
“Ten minutes?” I repeated under my breath. “How are you going to pull off that miracle?”
Chrys grinned and shoved me inside. I changed into the dress and let Chrys guide me into the bathroom so she could fix my hair and makeup. I hadn’t talked to her for days, and now she was pretending everything was fine. The silence felt so heavy, like a balloon that was filling up all the space and forcing us apart.
“Chrys,” I started.
“Not now,” she said. The bobby pins she was holding between her lips danced when she spoke. “We’ll have plenty of time to catch up after the dance. Tonight let’s just be the fabulous sophomore girls who’ve been invited to the dance by the hot seniors. Deal?”
“Deal,” I smiled back, linking my pinky finger in hers. I sat still while she fluttered around me with brushes and pencils.
“Perfect!” Chrys exclaimed, putting down the mascara and examining her canvas. “You’re ready.”
She spun me around to face the mirror and my eyes widened. The glass revealed an almost unrecognizable version of me. The strapless gray dress hugged my figure, brushing the floor slightly. It sparkled in the light like silver. My lips were dark red and stood out against my light hair. Chrys smiled and put her hands on my shoulders.
“Who knew you could look this good,” she said, admiring her work.
I turned at an angle and blinked at my reflection. “I look…”
Chrys rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah,” she said, waving away my words. “You look great. Hurry up and put on your shoes.”
Chrys fastened the straps of my heels and ran downstairs. She said she wanted me to descend the staircase like “in those cheesy teen movies.” I laughed, but she was serious. I walked as elegantly as possible down the staircase, trying not to fall. My dad beamed up at me with a proud expression, and pulled me into a hug when I reached the bottom.
“You look beautiful, Sweetheart.”
Tears welled up in my eyes, but I took a deep breath to hold them in. I had to stop getting emotional about everything. Chrys pulled us apart and slapped dad on the arm.
“You’re going to make her ruin her makeup.”
I was about to thank her when I heard Brett’s voice call from the front door.
“Are you two ready yet—” his voice cut out when he saw me, like someone knocked the wind out of him. His eyes traveled down my body and back up to my face, as if he were seeing me for the first time. My cheeks reddened under his gaze. I fidgeted with my dress and rubbed my arm, feeling exposed for some reason.
Brett walked up to me and smiled. “You look…” He shook his head, struggling to find words.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him. “You don’t look too bad yourself.”
That was a lie. He looked incredible. His hair was slicked back and his fitted suit flattered his form. Our moment was interrupted when Cody started honking the horn. We moved towards the jeep and piled in. Brett and I sat in the back, our hands painfully close together. He took my hand and squeezed it when we arrived at school, then got out to open the door for me.
As we walked together through the entrance, I almost couldn’t believe that this was real. Maybe fairy tales could come true after all. Brett held out his arm for me to take, but I was distracted by Crys. “You look insanely beautiful!” I said.
“Finally noticed, did you?” She twirled and bowed with a flourish, then she laughed and tossed her hair. “By the way, who are you and what have you done with my best friend?”
I rolled my eyes. “Stop, you’re embarrassing me.”
“I’m sorry, but you look freaking amazing. If I were a guy, I’d take you home with me tonight.”
We both burst out laughing. Cody and Brett stood a few feet away from us, shaking their heads. I noticed the stares once we’d made it outside. Narrowed eyes followed us around the room. Some people were trying to be discreet. Others not so much. I was the girl whose sister made a guy kill Brett’s father. We didn’t belong together, and everybody knew it. I hesitated in the doorway, but Brett grabbed my hand, giving it a gentle squeeze before pulling me inside.
The hall was decorated in silver and blue. Snowflakes lined the walls and lights shaped like moons orbited the floor. There was a fake snow machine in one corner, spitting out flakes of white confetti in front of a dark blue backdrop. A professional photographer was taking pictures of couples. My eyes lit up when I saw it. Crys noticed and clapped her hands.
“We need pictures!” she shouted, pulling Cody along with her. She motioned for Brett and me to follow and the four of us stood side by side for the photo. Cody kissed Chrys on the cheek right before the photographer snapped the photo. He looked at the camera, slightly unimpressed, and pointed towards me and Brett.
“You two,” he said. “Get a little closer.”
Brett put his arm around my waist and held me close. My skin burned with the touch. I focused on breathing steadily as we smiled for the picture. The camera flashed twice and the photographer held a thumb up. Then Crys grabbed my arm without a warning and dragged me to the punchbowl.
She poured two cups and sniffed the punch.
“Lame,” she said, with a pout. I raised an eyebrow and she pointed at the cup.
“No alcohol,” she sighed.
“Don’t worry,” Cody said behind us. “I’ve got rations.”
He pulled a silver flask out of his jacket pocket and poured a foul-smelling, clear liquid into her cup. He offered me some, but I shook my head. I already felt like I was swimming, with the cool air and soft fabric against my skin. Everything was perfect, just the way it was. Chrys closed her eyes and swayed to a pop song that was playing. She danced slowly, while Cody circled her in jerky movements. Crys opened her eyes and shimmied toward me. I laughed and darted away from her. Just as she bumped me with her hip, the song changed abruptly. A slow melody replaced the fast-paced rhythm. Cody swept Crys away to the middle of the dance floor where they clung to each other like magnets.
“Do you want to dance?” Brett asked.
I nodded a bit too enthusiastically and he took my hand, sending a jolt of electricity through my body. On the dance floor, he put his arms around me and I linked my fingers around his neck. We moved to the music, but I was too hyperaware of our surroundings to relax. I looked over his shoulder and caught Courtney staring at us viciously. Brett held my chin and brought my eyes back to his.
“Ignore them,” he whispered. “We’re the only ones here tonight.”
His green eyes sparkled like emeralds in the lights. They were usually such a mystery, but tonight there was no mistaking the fiery look of desire in them. He looked directly at me, like he didn’t care who saw us together. I was so busy admiring him I didn’t notice the small box in his hand until he opened it and held it up to the light. Inside was a silver bracelet with a heart pendant.
“I’ve been holding onto this for a few days,” he said. “I was waiting for the right time to give it to you.”
I stared at the bracelet. “It’s beautiful,” I said. “But I can’t accept that.”
He smiled and took my hand. “Yes, you can,” he said. “It’s my way of showing my appreciation for you.” He looked down slightly. “And my way of apologizing.”
Guilt twisted in my stomach. If he knew what really happened to his father, he wouldn’t be looking at me like this. And he certainly wouldn’t be apologizing to me. I had to tell him the truth, or I’d be lying to him forever. But could I really tell him here, in front of all of these people?
He held the bracelet up questioningly, looking at me through his lashes. His shy smile sent me over the edge. I finally nodded my approval and he put the bracelet on my wrist.
“Thank you,” I said quietly.
His hand lingered on my wrist. He looked at me so intensely, I nearly forgot how to breathe.
My heart skipped a beat as I matched his gaze. He leaned in, eyes still locked with mine, and before I could prepare my brain for what was about to happen, his lips touched mine. He kissed me in a way I had never been kissed before. His lips were soft pillows caressing mine. I wanted to slow this down and make it last forever. I wondered if I actually could.
As our lips familiarized themselves with each other, a strange sensation washed over me. A soft, almost unnoticeable pink glow appeared at the corners of my vision. I started to wonder if it was because of the kiss, but almost immediately after it appeared, an image cut through my mind, sharp like glass. I tried to block it out—to focus on Brett’s lips—but when Jake’s face flashed in front of me, I broke away from Brett and gasped.
Jake. At Zamonta. Surrounded by mods and mercs. I squeezed my eyes shut, then cried out when I heard gunfire. But that was impossible. That future didn’t exist anymore. It couldn’t.
My mind scrambled to make sense of the images I’d seen. The vision seemed different this time. Fragmented, like I was everywhere at once, looking down from different angles. I thought back to the quote I’d read in Mr. Peters’ office. I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea. Did that mean I could see more than what was right in front of me? If it was the same future as before, Jake must have tried to break into Zamonta on his own. And from what I saw, there was no way he’d make it out alive. I jumped when Brett grabbed my shoulder, staring at me with wide eyes.
“What is it, what’s wrong?” he asked. His face was so serious, he reminded me of his father, just before I’d melted his face off. And now I was at a dance with him, letting him kiss me. What kind of monster did that make me? I pushed away from him and ran towards the exit, gasping for breath. I darted between the dancing couples, careening around the floor like I was stuck in a pinball machine. Finally I made it to the door. I ran towards the steps, but didn’t see the foot that kicked out from the shadows. My new dress ripped up to my knees as I tumbled down the steps. I landed hard in the frosted soil, and lay there, stunned. I rolled my head and caught a glimpse of Courtney’s smirk, just before she vanished back inside. I crawled a few steps forward, pulling myself forward with my fingers, then stumbled onto my feet. Brett and Cody caught my arms and led me to the side of the building, near the bike racks. Brett wrapped me in his coat and rubbed my shoulders for warmth. That’s when I realized Chrys was talking.
“Alicia, are you okay? How many fingers am I holding up?”
“One,” I said, narrowing my eyes at her middle finger.
She breathed a sigh of relief and hugged me.
“What the hell happened, you didn’t even drink anything, did you?”
“You saw something, right?” Brett asked, frowning. “Something from the future.”
I felt the stickiness of mascara on my cheek and bit my lip to stop the tears. I don’t know when I’d started crying.
“It can’t be real,” I said. “It was the same as before. Mods, Zamonta, all of it.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Chrys said. “Eric killed Mr. Peters. You said he was behind it all.”
“I don’t know. I can’t explain it. Somehow, it happens anyway. Maybe someone else took over the project. Maybe it’s too late.”
Brett squeezed his fists together. I couldn’t imagine how he was feeling—did that mean his father died for nothing? Cody looked nervous, like he didn’t know whether to comfort me or Brett.
“There’s only one way to know for sure,” Brett said.
“I have to go back,” I whispered, locking eyes with him.
“What, right now?” Chrys cut in. “Absolutely not. You just fell down a flight of stairs, and you’re not exactly dressed for the occasion.”
“It can’t wait,” I said firmly. “Defiance was attacking Zamonta, probably to rescue the missing girls. Maybe to blow it up. But they were losing, badly. If I don’t help them, they’ll die.”
“I’ve got some phylia in my jeep,” Brett said. “I’ve been keeping it nearby, just in case.”
“You need to go home first and get changed,” Chrys said. “Maybe find some weapons or something? You can’t just show up in a formal dress and ask them nicely.”
“Jump from my house,” a voice said nearby. I turned to see Tracy. He was only half formal, wearing jeans and sneakers with a white shirt and bowtie. He must have seen the commotion and followed us outside. “You’ll need clothes, weapons, whatever. Say the word and I’ll get it for you. I can get it later, but it should be there when you show up. Right?”
“Right,” I smiled gratefully.
The others helped me towards Brett’s car and I climbed into the backseat. Tracy’s house was only five minutes away. On the drive over I gave him a quick shopping list. Brett parked in the driveway, and I made sure it was inside the boundaries of Tracy’s future house. Then Brett passed me Cody’s pipe with a tiny bit of phylia in it.
“Find out what’s going on. Find out who is behind it, if you can. But don’t do anything risky. Remember, nothing in the future is as important as you coming back safely.”
I nodded and took the pipe, then grabbed the lighter from Cody.
“This is so weird,” Tracy whispered.
Cody nodded. “You learn to just go with it.”
With two quick inhales, my body sank into the backseat upholstery. The familiar pink haze wrapped me up like a cocoon. For a moment, I relaxed into the euphoric sensation and dared to think that maybe everything would be fine.
“Come back safely,” Brett said, squeezing my hand.
“I promise,” I said. Then he was gone—his face blinked out of my vision like a candle being snuffed. I watched as Tracy’s house was torn down and cleared away by bulldozers. In its place, the much larger, modern architecture of Tracy’s gleaming glass cube grew like a plant, then reflected thousands of sunrises. Seconds later, the pink haze cleared and I was alone in the dark. I raced up the stairs and pounded on Tracy’s door, shouting his name until he opened. His eyes widened at my silvery dress, but I pushed past him.
“You got the supplies?” I asked. He gave me a deer-in-headlights look for a moment, but then snapped into action and ran upstairs. He came back holding a bundle of dark clothes and a pair of black boots.
“Sorry,” he said, handing them to me. “I haven’t seen you in that dress since high school. Twenty years ago. You can change in the bathroom.”
The clothes fit so perfectly, I wondered if I’d tried them on myself. The form-fitting, dark material was easy to move in. I checked myself in the mirror and froze when I saw my reflection. The smudged lines of mascara beneath my eyes, the red lipstick. I scrubbed off the makeup with a damp rag, then I joined Tracy in the garage. He pulled out his rack of weapons and handed me a briefcase. I put it out the counter and clicked it open. Inside were a pair of pistols, with short tubes around the barrel of each gun.
“Rapid fire pistols with custom silencers,” Tracy said, strapping dual holsters around my waist and fastening the belt. “Each mag holds thirty bullets. Ultra-light, low-recoil.” He showed me how to change the mags from the backups on my belt. I held the guns loosely in my palms, getting used to the weight.
“Sixty bullets is a lot of ammo,” Tracy said. “If you get in a tight spot, just keep firing until you find a place to hide, then reload. Got it?”
I gulped, but nodded my head with determination. Jake needed me. I couldn’t wimp out now.
“Don’t worry,” Tracy said. “I’ve seen you practicing with these, you’re a natural. Just trust your instincts. Oh, one last thing.”
He pulled out a pair of goggles with green lenses. He tapped a button and there was a small whirring noise.
“Night vision,” he said. “It’ll give you an advantage, against the mods at least.”
“What about the fence?” I asked.
“Leave that to me.”
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