THE IN BETWEEN WAS NEITHER warm nor cold, and I didn’t experience the confusion or discomfort shifters had reported in past centuries. If anything, I felt hyperaware and secure. I was supposedly nowhere, but I had to be somewhere. Or perhaps I ceased to exist in the nanosecond it took me to shift from one place to the next.
There was no color in the in between, but numbers spun through my head, logical and safe. Numbers didn’t lie. They didn’t pretend to love you and then give you up to be murdered.
Finishing the shift, I appeared in the conference room located on the main floor of our San Diego Fortress. Those already in the conference room looked in my direction as I appeared, and I knew it was because of the soft pop and slight suction of air that accompanied my shifts. Ava O’Hare, the leader of our Renegade cell, was seated in her usual place at the head of the conference table. Dimitri Sidorov, our healer and second-in-command, was also present and seated on Ava’s right. My fifth great-aunt Stella sat next to him. No one else had yet arrived.
Stella smiled and glanced my way, her neural headset blinking like an electric crown as she continued to work. She was half Japanese and half Irish, the most beautiful woman I’d ever met, even if that was partly because of the nanites she, as a technopath, controlled in her body.
Despite her smile, I saw the worry in her eyes, and something inside me stirred. When Stella looked at me that way, excitement lurked in my immediate future. And excitement in our line of business always meant trouble.
My gaze returned to Ava O’Hare. Since yesterday, she’d been holed up in this conference room with some of the others, namely Dimitri and Stella, and also Ritter, who was our ops leader. Now it appeared that whatever plans they’d been hatching involved me. I was more than ready. The past months of doing nothing here in this mansion-turned-Fortress while the world clamored for our blood had me on edge.
I started toward my customary seat beside Stella, but Ava indicated the chair to her left. I glanced at Stella again, for the first time experiencing a bit of unease. Perhaps we weren’t waiting for the rest of our cell. Maybe I was the only one invited.
“Thank you for coming, Mari,” Ava began, almost formally.
I could read nothing in her gray eyes, unyielding as steel. She looked as calm as ever, from her smooth blond hair to the crisp black suit. “Did something happen to the president?” I asked. “Or his son?”
Two months had passed since the president had announced the existence of the Unbounded to the world, a declaration forced upon him by our near-fatal prevention of an Emporium plan to embroil the world in nuclear warfare. Since then, we Unbounded Renegades had waited to see which way public opinion would swing and if the president would be able to enact laws to safeguard humanity. Not from Renegades, sworn to protect all humans, but from the Emporium Unbounded, our enemy, who believed they should rule over mortals as they would cattle.
“A situation is threatening our future,” Ava said, “and we’re hoping you can help.”
“Hunters?” I plastered on a smile to hide the helpless rage that came with my question. Hunters were a group of people originally descended from Emporium Unbounded, and their sole purpose was to eliminate all Unbounded, regardless of their loyalties. But I had a better reason to hate them.
“Yes and no,” Ava said.
As she spoke, Keene McIntyre and Cort Bagley came into the room, their gait hurried. Relief waved through me that I wasn’t the only one on today’s agenda. The half brothers were an integral part of our Renegade cell and apparently part of this upcoming op—whatever it was. Keene sat next to me, and I purposely didn’t meet his eyes. He’d been different since the fire in Venezuela when we’d been sent to gather intel, and I didn’t know him well enough to pinpoint why. We’d survived, and he joked around with me like before, but it wasn’t the same between us. Maybe because as one of the few mortal Renegades he’d been in real danger there, no matter how good he was in combat. I knew too well that facing death could change you. But he’d been fighting this battle for years, so what was different about Venezuela?
Cort nodded at me as he passed my chair and settled next to Keene. He would have been nerdy if he hadn’t been Unbounded; instead, he was arresting in a scientific sort of way, with startling blue eyes that radiated intelligence. He’d lived half a millennium, but his physical age was closer to forty. I was too old for crushes, but if I hadn’t been, he would be a good choice.
“I’m sure it can’t help our situation that Hunters are spreading rumors about Unbounded having abilities,” I said. “Makes it harder for everyone to accept us.”
“Rumors?” Keene’s eyes riveted on my face as he settled further into his high-backed leather chair, their disquieting green capturing mine against my will. His brown hair had grown several inches and added carelessness to his narrow face, currently shadowed by several days’ beard growth. His long-sleeved T-shirt did nothing to hide his leanness or the corded muscles running along his arms. “Mortals are going to find out the truth about the abilities eventually.” He spat the word mortal as if mocking the rest of us.
“Great. Then they’ll be at our throats just like the Hunters.” I matched his mocking tone.
Cort peered around his brother to address me. “Maybe things have to get worse before they get better, but we’ll need to tell the mortals everything if we’re going to work with them and plan a future together.”
“I agree.” Keene shifted his gaze to include Ava and the others. “We need everyone working together to beat the Emporium—and all those greedy politicians lining up to court them. It’s time humanity contributed to their own protection.”
He was right, of course, but I also wanted the Hunters to pay. To pay for what they’d done to our Renegade Unbounded, for how they were influencing the other mortals.
For what Trevor had done to me.
Swallowing hard, I pushed the thoughts away, especially the memories of Trevor staring up with vacant, unseeing eyes. My hand went instinctively to the knife strapped to my inner forearm under my sleeve. I wore a matching one on the other side, the knives an extension of me now. The Hunters would never see me coming.
Keene grinned, his eyes tracking my movements knowingly, and I couldn’t help but grin back. The moment made me feel close to him like in Venezuela when we’d hidden from the Emporium. If those agents hadn’t started the fire, maybe things would be different between us now. But the fire had happened, had raged quickly, almost unnaturally, out of control. I could have shifted out, of course, but I hadn’t wanted to leave Keene. Together we’d managed to hide and finally escape.
I’d wanted to talk to Keene about what happened that day, but whenever he’d been here at the Fortress during the past two months, we were either with others or he’d shut himself inside Cort’s office. I had no idea what the brothers were working on.
“We’ll have time to deal with rumors later,” Dimitri said, speaking for the first time. His words slid over me like a balm to my nerves. That was Dimitri, the calmest, most reasonable, and wisest member of our cell, perhaps because he’d lived a thousand years. The healer was also able to kill or heal with a touch. The short, broad man had once saved my life, and I loved him like the father I’d never known.
As Dimitri said, time was on our side. Unbounded aged two years for every hundred they lived. Most of us underwent the Change around thirty or thirty-one, but a few Changed at twenty-eight, like Stella, and others as late as thirty-five. As Unbounded, our life span was about two thousand years—if the Emporium or the Hunters didn’t kill us first. Even with that happy little cloud hanging over me, I was amazed that I, Mari Jorgenson, former boring accountant, was now a semi-immortal Unbounded shifter. No way would I ever choose to go back.
Not to remove the target from my back.
Not even for Trevor.
“The Emporium is our real enemy. Don’t ever forget that,” Ava said almost absently. “Now, as you may have surmised, we have a mission for you, and it’s of the utmost importance. President Mann has had his hands full dealing with the announcement he was forced to make regarding our existence. It’s been rather ugly, helped along, as Mari mentioned, by our old friends the Hunters.” She nodded at Stella, and a holographic image appeared over the table, the increased blinking on Stella’s headset the only sign that she was controlling it. As a technopath, Stella could use her headset to connect with multiple computers at once, internalizing and processing more information in a few minutes than a roomful of pencil pushers on a computer network.
I stared, fascinated at the scene that appeared more realistic than looking out a window. Stella had recently installed the new technology, and this was my first real look at it. This holo presented a public rally featuring Hunters, who were once again preaching their gospel of hate and racism. Sound came through the conference room speakers as a man yelled, spittle flying from his mouth with his zeal. He claimed Unbounded were evil and had to be stopped before their progeny contaminated the entire world. The crowd cheered. When he proceeded to detail how to dismember Unbounded so they would remain dead, the roar of approval grew to a wild crescendo.
Abruptly, the sound died, disappearing with the image. “Hunters publicizing how to permanently kill Unbounded complicates things on many levels,” Ava said, “especially where the president’s Unbounded son is concerned.” She nodded again at Stella, and a new hologram appeared.
More shouting and confusion resounded through the speakers embedded in the walls. Women, young and old, clogged the sidewalks and streets for miles outside the White House chanting, “Give us babies! We want Unbounded babies!” They carried signs that read I Will Carry Your Unbounded Baby and My Ancestors Were Unbounded, My Child Might Be Too—Choose Me. And, Willing to Sleep with Any Unbounded. The variations went on, each more bizarre than the last.
“Wait,” I said. “Are they out there for Patrick Mann?” Patrick was the president’s grown son. Or, more aptly, the president’s adopted son, who the Emporium had planted as a baby and tried to turn against the president. Patrick’s refusal to succumb, even after a year in a squalid prison, ranked him way up there on my list of people to admire.
Ava gestured for Stella to kill the sound. “That’s right. They’re all volunteering to bear his child.”
Keene laughed. “Who would have guessed that would be a problem when he became the face of the Unbounded.”
“It’s every man’s dream, isn’t it?” I said, laughing with Keene. “A horde of adoring women. But I bet Patrick’s not happy about it. My impression of him was that he’s rather conservative.”
A smile teased Ava’s face. “Whatever his feelings on the matter, it’s making his security rather difficult. There have been two serious attempts on his life. The first was a shot from a crowd outside the White House that killed a Secret Service agent. A man with Hunter affiliation was arrested. The attempt last week was by an eighteen-year-old woman, and it resulted in her death.” Before Ava finished speaking, a picture of a young blonde took the place of the chanting women.
“Her name was Annabella Fredricks,” Ava continued, “Somehow she got into the White House where she was found naked in Patrick’s bed. He wasn’t home, but Secret Service found her while doing their regular rounds, and she jumped off a balcony trying to get away. They’ve kept it from the media so far, but she had a knife on her.”
I decided not to ask where she’d kept it.
“Someone on the staff had to let her in,” Stella said, making the image disappear, “but they really don’t know who.”
Ava nodded. “Patrick has moved to a different location in DC with a smaller, handpicked staff, but there are no guarantees that it won’t happen again. Or something like it.”
Cort cleared his throat, a habit he often used before saying something unpleasant. “He can’t go back into hiding in Europe. We need him out there talking to people. He’s the only way we’ll get the support of the people and restore sanity to the government. We need him to show that we’re normal.” Catching Keene’s stare, he added, “I mean, normal in every way that counts.”
Keene usually took the bait on something like that, especially from his brother, but this time he didn’t respond. When I cocked a teasing brow at him, he only gave me a wistful smile. My stomach did an odd little flop, and for no reason at all, I recalled that closet in Venezuela when we’d been crammed in so tightly that his heart had beat out a pattern with mine.
It was a relief when Ava began speaking again. “We do need Patrick, and that’s where this op comes in. Patrick needs a fiancée.”
I couldn’t help laughing at that. “You mean to get rid of all those women?” I motioned to where the holographs had been.
“I thought we’d advised him not to reconnect with the woman he was dating before he was abducted,” Cort said. “I distinctly remember someone explaining the danger he’d be to her.”
Ava shrugged. “Since when do the young ever listen?”
A chuckle ran through the conference room, all except for Keene and me, who were, of course, babies compared to the other three. He caught my gaze again and winked. I knew he was thinking that Unbounded sometimes took themselves far too seriously. I thought that all the time, and I was Unbounded.
“Well, the world is changing,” Ava said. “We hope that soon we’ll no longer have to abandon our families for their own safety. But, yes, Patrick did hook back up with his girlfriend, and things are going well enough between them that if he had his way, he’d be announcing his real engagement.” Her gravestone eyes rested on me. “However, his girlfriend isn’t going to work for us, and that’s where you come in, Mari. We want you to pose as Patrick’s fiancée until the threat is over.”
“Why me if he practically has a fiancée already? We could just go in as bodyguards.”
“First, the girlfriend won’t agree to her engagement, at least not publicly.” Stella adjusted her neural headset with one hand, giving me a brief glimpse of the tiny metal wires that nestled against her scalp and provided the connection between her brain and her computer network. “Lucinda Ririe puts a whole new spin on the word shy. Truthfully, it might have been every bit as much for her as for himself that Patrick gave up politics when he Changed. Being a technopath just gave him a way to leave successfully. But Lucinda—Luce for short—isn’t ready for that kind of attention. At least not yet.”
I understood only too well. In my old life any kind of attention that didn’t involve numbers made me blush and shy away from people. But I wasn’t like that anymore, and those days mostly seemed foggy and unreal. Now I felt strong and alive. Awake. Changed.
“Besides,” Keene drawled, “I bet she doesn’t have your fascination with knives.”
“Exactly,” Ava said. “Lucinda can’t defend him the way you can. At any rate, the Secret Service wouldn’t be pleased to have us send in bodyguards—that’s the job they’re supposed to be doing. As Patrick’s fiancée, you can accompany him everywhere and keep an eye out for any threat, especially internal ones. Your unique ability gives you the advantage in just about every encounter Stella has simulated.”
She had a point there. Short of a special, electrically-generated containment field, nothing could keep me from shifting.
“Since we know you’re in the Hunter database as an Unbounded descendent,” Ava continued, “and we can’t be sure we’ve eliminated or altered every photograph there might be of you online, you’ll have to go in disguise and use a fake name. Stella has already created your new identity and begun posting photographs of you in various places where Patrick has been. The media will soon find them. You’ll become an overnight sensation.”
I grinned. “New identity, cameras flashing, cute guy to romance. Sounds great! When do I start? But can I drive a Jaguar? Gotta keep up appearances if I’m dating the president’s son, don’t I?”
“Oh, really?” Keene rolled his eyes. “Is that all it takes? A new identity and a car? What about a Ferrari? Would you go out with a guy just because he had a Ferrari?”
I leaned over and elbowed him. “Only if he’s really hot. Otherwise, I’ll save up and buy my own.” We received good pay for our ops, aside from our regular stipend allotted us at our Change, so I wasn’t just talking.
Ava’s next words wiped the smile from my face. “I want you to understand that your life will be in danger every minute. We know the Emporium has plans to take over the country despite everything we are doing to stop them, and Patrick may be a part of their long term goals. If we don’t learn what they’re up to, this war to save humanity may be lost before it’s truly begun.”