THE CLICK OF MY RED stilettos echoed faintly in the long hallway. The ridiculous shoes were completely unnecessary, in my opinion, but Stella was in charge of disguises, and she’d insisted.
“We want the guards looking at you, Erin, not at your credentials,” she’d said, grinning as I tried to balance on what felt like stilts. I comforted myself with the very real possibility of using the pointed heels as a weapon.
Stella was right. The guards’ eyes had been too busy with the curves of my legs under my tight skirt to do more than barely glance at my Homeland Security ID. A good thing, since the identification wasn’t real. They should have called to verify, even though the main office had advised them of our upcoming arrival. Just in case they did check, Stella had tapped into their communications network and was ready to give them the fake approval code she’d provided when she’d set up the meeting yesterday.
I was more worried about running into an Emporium hit team than dealing with Homeland Security. Compared to the Emporium, getting the best of the US government was child’s play.
We’d known we would have to pass through a full-body scanner when we’d entered this secret facility outside Dallas, so the weapons and communication devices we carried were disguised as ordinary items.
Not to mention my shoes.
If the Emporium showed up, Ritter, Dimitri, and I might need everything we’d brought to break Shadrach Azima out of here. He was a traitor to us, but leaving him in captivity any longer, now that he was finally out of Islamic hands, wasn’t an option. He was still a Renegade, and we wouldn’t leave him for the Emporium or the American government to experiment on.
Dimitri, our healer, was dressed as an aging, gray-haired doctor, complete with a white lab coat, a stethoscope, and a medical bag in hand. I didn’t personally know any medical employees who wore white coats into a facility, rather than donning them there, but again Stella had insisted. The broad, normally dark-haired man fit easily into the role, and the guards had given even less attention to his forged credentials as a world-renowned geneticist than mine. At over a thousand years old, Dimitri had forgotten more about medicine than mortal doctors had time to learn.
Only Ritter, unconvincing in his nerdy, Clark Kent glasses and his long-sleeved, white dress shirt buttoned far too high, caused the Homeland Security agents nervousness. He towered over everyone, moving with an animal-like stealth. His longish dark hair was hidden under a light brown wig that slicked back behind his ears, and his black eyes were now blue with special contacts, all of which was supposed to hide his real identity but still couldn’t mask the killer inside. This was probably why the guard accompanying us down the hallway tracked Ritter with an alert expression and his hand close to his weapon.
“Their ability to heal is miraculous,” said our guide, Dr. Tina Hartley, a middle-aged woman in a white lab coat similar to Dimitri’s. Her rich, brown hair was pulled into a thick bun at the base of her neck and was her one great beauty. Nothing else about her stood out—except her thoughts. In the mass of whirling emotions that filled her brain, she wondered if our visit would set her schedule back far enough that she would be allowed to work overtime. If so, she’d use the extra money to put toward her dream trip to Paris, where she’d meet a sexy man who wouldn’t scorn her three college degrees and would write her poetry and run his fingers through her hair. The man in her thoughts looked a lot like Ritter, minus the shirt and glasses. Her imagination of him shirtless didn’t begin to approach reality.
“I’ve read the reports,” I said, though I hadn’t—not the real ones. Despite Stella’s technopathic abilities, we hadn’t been able to hack into the reports, which weren’t kept on any network connecting to the outside. Our Renegade cell’s alliance with the US president had allowed us access to the official reports he’d received, but a note smuggled out of this facility had proven our suspicions that the president wasn’t being told the entire story.
Either that or we were being set up—which could very well be the case. Our enemy, the Emporium, was as eager to get their hands on us as they would be to retrieve the so-called “patients” who were detained at this facility. Three months ago in mid-January, the president’s announcement of Unbounded existence rocked the world, and things had been heating up ever since. We’d need to work harder to make sure the Emporium didn’t end up on top when the dust finally settled. Succeeding was the only way Renegades could save mortals and humanity.
The doctor arched a brow, nothing of her scattered thoughts showing in her face. “The reports are not exaggerated. In the two weeks they’ve been here, they’ve pretty much decimated everything any of us know about medicine.” Her voice took on a note of excitement. “They might even be the key to the problem of aging.”
I glanced at Dimitri, whose only reaction was a slight pursing of his lips. His centuries-long study of the Unbounded gene had yielded no result in making mortals Unbounded. Theoretically, mortals who were direct descendants of Unbounded and had enough of the unique code in their genes could Change with scientific manipulation. But the theory had thus far remained unrealized, and other Unbounded researchers, also gifted in healing, agreed that mortals would remain just that—mortal.
“Good thing they live so long,” I said, making my voice cold. “Plenty of time to figure it out.”
“Yes. Two thousand years, and they age only two years for every century. It really is amazing.” Hartley paused before a set of double doors in the hallway, swiping a card through a reader. “We have you scheduled with the Iranian, as requested. We’ve turned off the sound recordings, but we will, of course, leave video on during your interrogation.” She pushed open one of the doors and motioned us into yet another generic corridor.
“Of course.” I didn’t for a minute believe they weren’t recording, not after faking the reports to the president. At least Stella’s faked request from Homeland Security to interview the Iranian could not be ignored. This facility was maintained by Homeland Security, and Homeland supposedly had oversight of the work these doctors had conducted this past month since retrieving the Unbounded detainees from the Moroccan government.
“Iranian, American, Russian,” Dimitri said with indifference. “Doesn’t matter to me. I’m just interested in examining any of them.”
Hartley’s eyes strayed to Dimitri. “With all your research into human mutation, I expect you are especially interested in their limb regrowth and how we might transfer that ability to the general population.”
Dimitri nodded and smiled. “Yes, indeed. I understand that all of them fully regenerated after the explosion in Morocco.”
“They did regenerate beautifully. However, we have seen the need to experiment further.”
A rush of silent emotion from Ritter caught me by surprise. His control was generally tight, even with our usual mental connection, but I understood the lapse because I shared his anger. We were accustomed to the Emporium Unbounded experimenting on other Unbounded, but this was the first time mortals were involved. Previously, Hunters, castoff descendants of the Emporium, were the only mortals aware of us, and they tended toward brief torture followed by hasty execution rather than experimentation and prolonged agony.
“Oh?” Dimitri’s excitement sounded real. “Do you have a regrowth in progress now?”
Dr. Hartley shook her head. “Not at present. However, while you interview the Iranian for whatever information you feel he is withholding, I will talk to my supervisor. He might be able to arrange something for today.” She gave him a smile that made her face slightly more attractive, but her mind registered guilt. Hartley may believe experimentation was necessary, but the morality behind it was another story.
“I don’t believe I read about any regeneration experiments,” I said.
“Some of our regenerations may not have been adequately detailed in the current reports,” Hartley explained. “We have to be sure what we’re seeing isn’t just a fluke. So, naturally, we’re repeating some experiments before we report our findings.”
Someone was obviously keeping secrets about what was going on in this facility. No wonder Shadrach had been desperate enough to contact us. I only hoped the additional information he’d hinted about in his message was real and not a lie he’d concocted to make us come for him faster.
The doctor regarded me with expectant eyes, so I said, “I’m sure our superiors at Homeland Security would be grateful for a firsthand account of regeneration.” Our superiors, meaning hers and mine. “That’s why we employed Dr. Jude”—I dipped my head toward Dimitri—“to conduct his own brief examination of the patient and to give his opinion on the progress here. Anything you can do to facilitate that will be appreciated. Even if it takes us all evening.”
Hartley’s smile widened, and I didn’t have to push to see the dollar signs in her mind. She thought her trip to Paris was almost a done deal, but after today, I could at least guarantee that she wouldn’t be fantasizing about Ritter. She might even lose her job.
Pausing before the single door, Hartley swiped her key card again and pushed down on the handle, this time preceding us but stopping just inside the room, blocking our entry and our view of the occupant. “Hello, Mr. Azima,” she called. “I hope now is a good time for the interview. The visitors I told you about yesterday have arrived.”
Interview not interrogation—apparently the doctor knew how to spin a story.
“Would it matter if I said no?” Shadrach’s English held more than a hint of accent, which told me he was under great stress. After four hundred years, he spoke many languages flawlessly.
My mind reached out to Shadrach’s, but his barriers were in place, and much stronger than any I’d seen in a non-sensing Unbounded except for Ritter and Dimitri. No use expending energy to get through it—not yet.
“Now, now, Mr. Azima.” Dr. Hartley gave an amused chuckle, and I felt irritated more by her patronizing tone than I had by her fantasies of Ritter. “You know what we’re doing here is for the good of all.”
“The same has been said throughout history by all those who use human suffering to their advantage,” Shadrach replied without emotion.
Hartley stiffened and more guilt filled her mind, but Shadrach’s tone became conciliatory. “Never mind, dear. Of course I’ll see them. I know you are just doing your job.”
Dr. Hartley turned to us, her smile now fake, her eyes narrowed and upset. “Please, come in.” She stepped farther into the room, holding the door open with one hand as we filed inside. The guard waited in the hallway. Ritter placed his hand next to Hartley’s, giving her a smile to indicate that he’d hold the door. Hartley was so entranced, she didn’t glance twice at his hand or see what looked like a piece of gray eraser that he pressed under the control pad outside the door.
Shadrach stood in front of a new-looking leather couch, his feet shoulder length apart, his arms hanging loosely at his sides. I’d expected to find him abused and underweight. But he was much as we’d seen him last—physically in his late thirties, more beautiful than handsome, and elegant with straight dark hair, deep brown eyes, and a sensuous mouth. His dark skin had a healthy glow that stood out clearly from the drab green scrubs he was wearing. Only in his eyes did I see a hardness that hadn’t existed before, a hardness that four centuries hadn’t succeeded in placing there before now. How much of his suffering came from witnessing his mortal son’s murder by the Emporium in Morocco and how much derived from his internment here, I might never know.
He showed no signs of recognition, except for meeting Dimitri’s eyes a fraction of a second longer than a stranger might. Shadrach was also a healer, and the two men had worked together in Africa years ago. Shadrach was one of the best, Dimitri had told me. Being a guinea pig for procedures that were far behind Unbounded advancements must have been particularly trying for the Iranian.
“Hello, Mr. Azima,” I said for Dr. Hartley’s benefit. “Thank you for meeting with us. I hope this won’t take long, but the government does have a few questions about your involvement with the events in Morocco.”
He sighed without meeting my gaze. “I don’t suppose they’ll ever get tired of asking, but my answers won’t change. I had nothing to do with the attempt to sell plutonium to insurgents in my country.”
That wasn’t exactly true because Shadrach had tried to trade the recovered plutonium to the Emporium for his son’s life. In true Emporium fashion, they’d murdered the son anyway. No thanks to Shadrach, we’d still managed to retrieve the package and save millions of lives.
“Well, enjoy your visit,” Hartley chirped. “I’ll come back when you give the signal to the camera.” She indicated the guard. “Let Murphy know if you need any help. He’ll be waiting in the corridor.” She nodded at us, her eyes lingering too long on Ritter before escaping into the hallway.
For a brief moment, as the door closed between us, I felt a surge of unease, knowing that we were locked inside that room every bit as much as Shadrach had been for the past month.
Ritter went right to work, opening the laptop he carried. The device was supposed to record our interrogation but would actually connect wirelessly to the camera in the corner of the room. This would allow Stella, who was at our safe house in San Diego, to remotely follow the wires back to the computer and access not only that camera but the entire security system located on their internal network. Fortunately, this was the US government we were infiltrating, not the more advanced Emporium, so we’d been able to ascertain what technology they were using and didn’t need to plug one of Stella’s devices physically into their network. The laptop would suffice, but it would take some time.
Dimitri had already approached Shadrach, and both men were now seated on the couch, Dimitri listening to Shadrach’s heart with his stethoscope. In reality, it was the hand on Shadrach’s back that was doing the real work. Dimitri would be using his ability to see into Shadrach’s body, to trace every vein and feel every organ.
I allowed my gaze to wander over the room, or suite, actually. On the wall was a flat screen television, and past this a bed sat next to a set of weights. A small kitchenette nestled in the far back corner, and the single door there must lead to a bathroom. Everything appeared clean and new.
Shadrach followed my gaze. “They let us into a common area twice a day to interact with each other.”
“You mean the other patients?” I wanted to say Emporium agents, but I was sure the doctors were still recording.
“Prisoners,” Shadrach corrected, distaste radiating from the word. He didn’t say more, yet as he met my gaze, I saw recognition there. He knew me underneath the putty, the brunette wig, and the shiny red lipstick. He’d helped me once, healing my exhaustion when I’d needed rest, and despite his betrayal, I cared for Shadrach Azima. Trying to save his mortal son was a goal I understood, even if he’d let his desperation endanger us all. He should have known the Emporium better, that they wouldn’t reward him as promised. Then there was the whole argument of whether or not the life of his son balanced out eight million lives being targeted in Israel. Or far, far more lives. Because the Emporium would not rest until they had complete control, no matter how many mortals died. Like Shadrach’s son, mortals were only a subspecies to them. Expendable.
“Okay.” Ritter stepped closer to the couch, placing the laptop on the coffee table. “It’s working. You can talk freely now. Stella has control over the cameras and the sound.”
Apparently satisfied with his examination of Shadrach, Dimitri shook out earbuds from a container in his medical bag and handed one to each of us. They looked like replacement tips for his stethoscope but in reality would connect us to Oliver, who was outside waiting for us in the van. I didn’t actually need the earbud because I could use my ability to communicate directly to his mind, but Oliver hated me in his head, and I had to admit that his self-centered mental world was not one I had the least interest in visiting. Besides, if the Emporium happened to be near, it paid to keep our mental shields in place.
“This is the plan,” Ritter continued for Shadrach’s benefit. “There’s a ventilation shaft in the hallway off the kitchen here, so we just have to make it there and follow the path to the roof. We’ve already dropped equipment there that will allow us to rappel down the building. Then it’s only a matter of making it to the breach in the fence that we prepared last night. With Stella controlling the cameras, it should be easy to avoid being spotted. Your door lock is completely self-contained, but we have plans for that.”
There was a touch of frustration in Ritter’s manner at the simplicity of the plan, though he’d been responsible for the details. The Unbounded gene in our bodies made it so we preferred a head-on confrontation, and for someone with the combat ability like Ritter, skulking around in ventilation shafts went against all instinct. But he’d stick to the plan. Because getting Shadrach to safety and finding out what he knew was the most important thing. We might still run into problems, even with Ritter’s close attention to detail, and that’s why there were three of us—in case something went wrong.
“No,” Shadrach said, his sharp tone stopping Ritter in mid-stride to the locked door. “We can’t. Not yet.”
I arched a brow. “Hey, you’re the one who contacted us. Remember that cryptic email sent to our bogus chat group?”
“I meant we can’t leave without the others,” he said, coming to his feet.
We all stared. “You mean the Emporium agents? The people who tried to kill us in Morocco?” The people who murdered your son. But I didn’t say that last part aloud.
“We can’t leave them.” Shadrach shook his head, his face looking suddenly ill. “You don’t know what it’s like here. They cut off my arm last week just to see how long it took to grow back. They put out one guy’s eye. Oh, they’re kind enough to give us morphine. Except for the guy they electrocuted to death. Yes, electrocuted. The guy they froze also didn’t have any painkillers. They wanted to test his tolerance for cold.” Shadrach swallowed noisily in the abrupt silence. “Those are only the highlights. They’re far worse than the Moroccans—and they were nasty enough.”
“Their people will come for them.” Ritter’s jaw clenched and unclenched like his fists.
“That’s right. They will—and they’ll murder every mortal here. But the doctors and staff are only under orders, for the most part, and they don’t deserve that.” Shadrach’s dark eyes went to Dimitri in appeal. “In the past three months since the explosion on that rooftop, I’ve done what I can to help the Emporium agents heal, to ease their pain. They trust me, and since the announcement, they’re different. They want to live in peace. They don’t want to return to the Emporium.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Ritter said. “Maybe you have some other reason to want us to help them.”
Shadrach grimaced. “I know what you think of me, and maybe I was wrong in Morocco—”
“You almost got us killed!” Ritter didn’t take a step toward him, but the fury in his face made Shadrach step back until his calves hit the couch.
“I know,” Shadrach said, his voice strangled. “But you’re going to have to trust me on this one. Because you’re not going to leave me here, so either you drag me kicking and screaming or you take them too.”
The veins in Ritter’s neck bulged. “Believe me, I won’t have to take you screaming.” For an instant, I thought Ritter was going to punch the healer out and throw him over his shoulder. I’d probably help him.
Dimitri stepped in. “Let’s hear him out.”
“Okay,” I answered for Ritter, giving him time to calm down. “We’ll listen. But we’re going to make the final decision, Shadrach. Not you.”
“Agreed,” he said.
Ritter’s fists relaxed. “This could be a plan on their part. Did you think of that?”
Shadrach scrubbed a hand over his face and into his black hair, causing it to fall out of place. “If so, it’s an elaborate plan that started back in Morocco. Two of these agents hate the Emporium as much as I do, and the other has listened to us. I won’t pretend that their courage doesn’t come mostly from knowing Delia Vesey is dead. The fact that she can’t hurt them or their families anymore if they don’t do what she orders was a huge factor in their decision.” He paused before adding, “Vesey caused some damages—perhaps permanent—in one man’s mind, the one who took convincing. I fixed what I could, but he’s not all there in the logic department. Reality is hard for him to understand. But the others, I’m sure of.”
Now he made a direct appeal to Ritter. “They know where the Emporium strongholds are, at least five of them. The major ones. They’re willing to share that information with us.”
Ritter’s head swung toward Dimitri and they shared a long, silent stare. I knew what it would mean to locate Emporium headquarters. They’d recently relocated many of their safe houses after we’d obtained intel on the locations from a thumb drive recovered in Mexico, and since then we’d made little headway on tracking their whereabouts. This intel could prove invaluable.
Shadrach’s eyes fixed on me. “Erin can see that I’m telling the truth.” The shield around his mind dropped—an invitation I immediately accepted. In the representation I created of his conscious mind, I stood on a sort of stage, and his thoughts fell from the darkness above me in a stream of what looked like sand, curving downward and disappearing again into the darkness at hip level. Each grain of sand represented a thought or memory, past or present. I would only see thoughts he was currently pondering or memories he recalled as I studied him, but it would be enough to get a feel about his truthfulness.
I stared deeper, more interested in searching for Emporium traps—the mental constructs Delia Vesey, a former Emporium Triad leader, had been so good at placing in people’s minds. Mental traps could be fatal for the person carrying them and for any sensing Unbounded attempting to repair the damage. Delia’s assistant had survived the encounter in Morocco, so he could have planted something in Shadrach’s mind, and the Emporium had at least a few other sensing Unbounded, if the rumors were true. But Shadrach’s mind was clean. Not a hint of Emporium meddling—or prefabrication on Shadrach’s part. He believed what he was saying.
“He’s telling the truth,” I said, “and I don’t see any Emporium constructs in his mind.”
Ritter nodded once, his face grim. “Then we’ll do it.” His surface emotions radiated determination, but his mental shield was otherwise strong.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Oliver said in my earbud. “Are you guys sure about this? Because that’s going to take longer, and I kind of feel like a sitting duck all alone out here in the van.”
“Aren’t you masking it?” I asked. His ability of illusion was the reason we’d let him come with us at all. Because while Oliver was a genius, his arrogance made us all pretty much want to kill him.
“Well, it was a fruit stand for a while, but people stopped and tried to buy some.” He groaned. “I had to make the fruit appear moldy to get them to leave.”
I bit my lip “So put up a closed sign!”
Trust Oliver to take such pride in his illusions that his fake fruits looked and smelled great enough to make people stop to buy them even in this manufacturing area.
I caught a glimpse of irritation on Ritter’s face before he said to Oliver, “We may need a distraction at the front of the building. Something with a lot of fireworks. Be prepared. And have Stella extend her satellite surveillance to a radius of three streets in case the Emporium decides to join our party. I want to know if there’s anything unusual.”
“Will do,” Oliver said, sounding chastised. He didn’t have a lot of respect for the rest of us, but his admiration of Ritter was almost as irritating as his know-it-all attitude. “The satellite we tasked here did go down for a few minutes. Could have been someone hacking our feed, but it’s back up and running perfectly now, and we’ve detected no unusual activity so far.”
“No other fruit stands?” Dimitri asked, a hint of a smile in his voice.
Oliver took offense at his gentle jibe. “As a matter of fact, there is a defunct one. That’s what gave me the idea. There’s an orchard only two miles from here, so it’s completely logical for a fruit stand to be in this area.”
“I was sure you had a reason, but that’s good to know.” Dimitri had more patience with Oliver than the rest of us. Probably because he considered himself the father of our cell.
Biologically speaking, Dimitri was my father, but I’d only known him since my Change just over seven months ago. I’d come to terms with my uncertain beginning, and while I still considered the man who raised me to be my real father, Dimitri and I were closer in many ways.
Shadrach shifted nervously, his eyes going to the door. “So what now?”
Ritter’s eyes narrowed at the healer. “Now we try not to get killed.”