Authors: K.M. Ruiz
To my father, Michael Ruiz, for everything. And my mother, Barbara Ruiz, for showing me what real strength is.
It takes a lot of time and effort to bring a book to life. A good chunk of that effort belongs to other people. First and foremost, I want to thank my dad, who told me to go play outside as a kid, but never told me to stop writing. Thanks in a huge, huge part goes to my fabulously awesome agent, Jason Yarn, for loving this story as much as I do and taking a chance on me. Big shout-out and thanks to my editor, Brendan Deneen, for wanting this story and helping me to make it so much better.
Thanks to Kelly Weingart for being so patient and supportive. I promised you this story for years and I finally got it right. Thanks to Trudy North for being the best first-reader one could ask for and a really awesome friend. All your help got me here and I couldn't have made it without your lovely and brutal honesty throughout this entire process. Thanks to David Eccles and Tawnie Thiessen for humoring me and answering all my questions. Writing feels like its own different world and sometimes that really is the case. Thanks in large part to Cathy Yu, Demi Ruiz, NoÃ«l Sakievich, Melissa Taylor-Salvador, J. P. Salvador, and Daniel Martinez for putting up with my insane habits over the years. I love you guys! If there are any mistakes left in this book, they are (rightfully) my own.
: Institute of Psionics Research
: Dr. Amy Bennett
“Lucas wants to know if they're worth it,” the girl says as she colors outside the lines. “If what's left of humanity is worth the future I can see.”
“And are they?” the woman who sits across the table from her asks, both of them centered in the camera. The room they are in is sterile and white, no color anywhere except on the yellow dress the child wears and the crayons she wields so carelessly.
“He wants the truth, but I don't even really know what that means anymore.” The girl looks up and smiles at the doctor, the charm in her tiny child's face an almost alien expression beneath the faint exhaustion. “I'm not lying, Doctor.”
The doctor marks something on her notes, shoulders tense. The girl, hooked to half a dozen machines by way of wires and electrodes attached to her skull, spine, arms, and hands, only hums. She is young, four years old, and seems content to stay where she is.
exactly, is this Lucas you are talking about, Aisling?”
“You don't know him,” she says, discarding one crayon for another. “He's not born yet.”
The EEG and supporting machines spike almost off the grid, the readings nothing like the human baseline they are layered over. The doctor's expression becomes strained.
“Aisling, can you tell me when the war will end?”
“If I tell you, it'll only make things worse.” She bites her lip, brow furrowed in concentration as she turns her head, bleached-out violet eyes staring right into the camera. “We're psions. You have to remember that, okay? We can't survive a human lifetime when we die so young. I don't really want to anyway.”
SLUMS OF THE ANGELS, USA
“All passengers, please remain seated. For your safety, the protective shutters will be coming down as we pass through Las Vegas. Vidfeed will be available on the train's public stream. All passengers, please remain seated.”
The computer repeated its modulated tones over a static-filled comm system. Threnody Corwin cracked open one blue eye and watched as the thick protective shutters slid down the graffiti-covered windows on the outside of the maglev train, locking into place with the soft squeal of hydraulics. The heavy seal blocked out sunlight, her view of the dry, dead land beyond the windows, and the lingering radiation that still covered most of the country.
“Don't even think about opening that vidfeed,” her partner said from the seat beside her. “If you've seen one deadzone, you've seen them all, and I want to sleep.”
“Then sleep,” Threnody said around a yawn. She stretched in the thinly padded seat and shoved straight black hair out of her eyes. In her mid to late twenties, she was built long-legged and lean, which made contorting herself to fit inside the limited travel space difficult. “We've got time before we reach California.”
Quinton Martinez merely grunted, brown eyes narrowed down to slits as he scratched at the stubble on his chin. He wore the same type of outfit as Threnody, a black-on-black battle dress uniform, and boots that had walked across three continents. Taller than Threnody, with muscles corded thickly against his bones, Quinton's skin was a deep brown, scarred lightly over the knuckles and the back of his hands from the fire he could control as a Class III pyrokinetic.
Fire wasn't something he could create, not without external help. That's what the thin, malleable biotubes containing compressed natural gas were for. The biotubes were grafted along the metacarpal bones in his hands, radiating up his forearms where skin and muscle biomodifications held them in place. The skin at the tip of each middle finger and thumb had been replaced with razor-thin pieces of metal. Quinton had given up on keeping track of how many times he'd lost his hands and arms to fire. He'd seen the inside of a biotank for regeneration too many times over the years for it to matter anymore.
“The Rockies, then down to the Slums of the Angels,” Quinton said, thinking of all that was really left of civilization on the West Coast since the bombs fell, a mirror for the rest of the world. “Chasing a blip on the grid into a goddamn warzone.”
Threnody rubbed at her forehead with careful fingers, wishing her skin didn't feel so new. “You didn't have to come, Quin. You're salvageable, according to the psi surgeons. They would have transferred you if you asked.”
“And like a good dog I should have asked, right?” The smile Quinton gave her was thin and hard with anger. “You're my partner, Thren. The only family I've got. I go where you go. End of story.”
Two failed missions back-to-back: Madrid, and then later Johannesburg, where she had opted to let unregistered humans and potential psions live instead of killing them in the face of threats from higher-Classed enemy psions. Their current mission was simply punishment for past failures.
The Strykers Syndicate contracted out enslaved psion soldiers for high-risk jobs. Death was a known and accepted by-product of those contracts, and the dead needed to be replaced for the company to turn a profit. Those children with psion potential she let go were resources she had no right to touch or lose. Insubordination had only gotten them a stint in medical and a black mark on their records. Quinton could have argued his way out of it. She was the one in charge, after all; it had been her decision, not his. Except they were partners, now and always, and he'd opted to come with her once again. One last mission to prove her loyalty. One last mission to prove she deserved to live.
The government owned her, as they owned every psion. Her independence, according to the ruling World Court, had become a problem.
Never could learn to come to fucking heel,
Threnody thought bitterly as she reached over and touched a sensor on the side panel of her seat.
A hologrid snapped into existence before her, projected through the air from overhead, the logo for TransAmerica MagLev Inc. spinning slowly before blending seamlessly into the welcome menu. She dragged her finger over the public-stream option and was treated to a view of the stark, polluted ruins of a lost American city. Just a skeleton of a time abandoned generations ago, of a world no one even remembered. The ruins were similar to all the ones in the many deadzones they had been pushing through since departing from what was left of Buffalo, New York.
She reached out to shift the feed to something different. Only this time, when her fingers touched the hologrid, the data flickered, wavered into colored lines, then sizzled into sparks that shocked her. Whatever pain or irritation Threnody experienced, it was drowned out by the frustration she felt at her lack of control. It wasn't something she could afford.
Quinton yanked her hand away before anyone noticed, reaching over to press the control screen on her seat's arm panel that would shut down the hologrid.
“Don't,” he said, mouth pressed close to her ear. “You're not ready. Johannesburg was a mistake and you're still recovering. They shouldn't have discharged you from medical.”
Threnody rubbed her fingers against her knee, the shock of the charge nothing more than a tingle beneath her nails when it shouldn't have been even that, not for a Class III electrokinetic. Her power, like that of all electrokinetics, was limited to conduits that she could touch and feed. An involuntary reaction to a machine simply meant Quinton was right. That didn't change a damn thing.
“Can't fight orders, Quin.”
“Then we do what we can to work around them. Why do you think I registered our route via train instead of an air shuttle?”
She gave him a sharp look. “Did you even look at shuttles to get us out here?”
“I looked. They didn't interest me.” Quinton settled back in his seat, closing his eyes against the dim interior lights of the train. “Go to sleep, Thren. We won't get much of it once we hit the West Coast.”
She knew that. She knew the details of this mission better than he did. That didn't make working through it any easier, not when they had to travel across radiation-tainted land to a state that was still being fought over by the government and drug cartels beneath the glitz of seedy glamour. The tension wasn't over the gold California had once been known forâmost of the Sierra Nevada had been strip-mined bare decades before the first bomb droppedâbut over the government-owned and government-protected towers of SkyFarms Inc. that filled the southern part of the Central Valley. The farming and agricultural company that kept the world fed with its heavily shielded towers of limited produce and animal pens would always be worth dying for.
The world was a different place ever since the first bomb fell in 2124 somewhere in the old Middle East, beginning the worldwide nuclear genocide known as the Border Wars. Five years of bombing hell across nearly all the continents had practically annihilated the human race. The fallout from that time still lingered in a toxic environment, still showed up too many generations later as genetic mutations that caused physical deformities and incurable disease. Since 2129 when the Border Wars finally ended, people hadn't been living, they'd only been surviving.