The ocean churned with a fury that would have sunken the nearby battle ships if they had not retreated from the epicenter. Small geysers became huge columns of water jetting hundreds of feet into the frigid artic air as if each battled to be first to escape the monster lurking in the depths below. I watched from the deck of a cargo vessel, hands gripping binoculars, my breath caught in my throat.
Reduce speed by eight point two three percent. I took the thought from an Avowed scientist in his special nearby sub and relayed it to Keene McIntyre, who obeyed instantly. Levitators, scientists, shielders, chemical manipulators, and more, all worked together to raise Sinalta and its four million residents from beneath the South Ocean in Antarctica where it had hidden from the rest of humanity for thousands of years. One mistake would be one too many.
Sinaltans had long ago lost the knowledge of how to raise their city, and it was only Keene who now made it possible. With his ability of synergism, he could identify the patterns in anything, not to see how they worked but in order to change and increase the efforts of others. His was a force similar to an atomic reaction and with every bit as much potential power.
This meant he was possibly the most dangerous man in the world. One slip, one variation from what the scientists directed, and all would be lost. Yet without his help, Sinalta would have remained underneath the water and become a vast, frigid, watery grave.
So far we’d been lucky. Though Sinaltans could not raise their failing city alone, their Avowed scientists, like our Unbounded ones, understood the patterns of how things worked, and they had agreed that Keene’s ability tipped the scales toward success. Sinaltan’s ruling families knew this was their only chance to save their people and retain a national identity, so they had agreed to our terms of aid.
For our part, we Unbounded—along with the rest of the world leaders—understood that helping Sinaltans raise the city, despite their grave crimes against humanity, was the only way of avoiding nuclear war with an enemy we couldn’t reach or outgun.
Keene had been on a Sinaltan sub—or transport as they called them—for most of the last week, helping them directly, but he currently stood at the railing of our massive cargo vessel a short distance from me. I was his only connection to the Sinaltan scientists now as he received much-needed physical support from one of the Unbounded healers we’d brought in from Emporium Headquarters in New York, who constantly repaired and eased the aches in his body.
Despite the help, Keene’s face was worn, his brown hair lank, and sweat poured from his lean figure. His skin had roughened and burned from exposure, as his extreme efforts impeded his normally rapid healing. All of him screamed exhaustion but this was most apparent in the way his hands jutted out rigidly in front of him, palms up and fingers curled, as he enhanced the power of the twenty-one Sinaltan levitators who were on other transports and ships. He claimed his hand contortions helped him maintain control, but from the stage of his mind, it felt painful to me. In the past day, his hands had begun shaking.
With my ability to channel others, I’d helped Keene over the past weeks with both raising the city and easing his pain, But I couldn’t keep up with his constant effort because I had another, more important life to worry about.
“We need additional support in quadrant sixteen,” an Avowed scientist said aloud—unnecessarily, as I could see all the details from his mind. He and his friends had unwillingly given me permission to be inside their thoughts for the duration of the lift. As if they could stop me.
Using my sensing ability to channel both the Avowed scientist and Keene, I found the exact spot where the scientist calculated that we needed more support. Got it, I put in his mind as he finished detailing his order. I usually tried to let them finish so they would feel I really understood. They couldn’t know how much words actually got in the way.
I directed my borrowed synergism that way, sending Keene the pattern of what I was doing. One tiny boost in the wrong direction meant we’d lose the control we barely maintained. My fingers tightened on the binoculars until they were probably as rigid as Keene’s.
Behind me, Ritter Langton stepped close, his body meeting mine with a familiarity that made all my senses sing. “Erin,” he murmured, his voice like a caress. I leaned against him, wishing I could stop long enough to absorb his anxiety, but this was the moment of truth, and I needed to pay close attention. His arms wrapped around my body, and through our mate connection it was my anxiety, not his, that ratcheted down a notch.
“Almost there,” I assured him, and also the other members of our original Renegade cell: my younger brother Jace Radkey, our cell leader Ava O’Hare, and Mari Jorgensen, who was Keene’s girlfriend and who stood at his side.
No one responded, but without trying I felt their nervousness. I also felt Mari preparing to shift all of us away if the worst happened. Gathering power, calculating numbers. When I channeled Keene this way, everything around me was clearer.
At last, the shooting column in the middle disappeared and a small half circle began to emerge amidst the roiling mass of water, almost invisible even through the binoculars. Then, gradually, other water columns fell and didn’t rise again as Sinalta’s dome grew above the surface. Four long weeks, it had taken to get this far, plus two weeks before that to prepare for movement. The preparation wasn’t all that we’d wished for, of course, but with the clock ticking for the four million people in Sinalta’s ten square miles of engineered city, it was the best choice.
Water sluiced off the sides of the dome, slamming into the columns of water on the circular edge like a huge mystical sword chopping through ice. Spray shot forcefully in every direction.
Three seconds more thrust. I put the words into Keene’s mind, as calculated by the scientists. Two. One. Stop.
The vertical water spray cut off instantly as the rest of the dome settled above the surface, leaving only huge swells crashing violently back and forth with a force that would have sent tremendous walls of water throughout the city if the dome and electronic shield hadn’t been in place. The tension around me released like a verbal sigh, and a small cheer went up from the crew of our cargo boat.
“Well, it didn’t blow up,” said Jace, his voice mocking.
I lowered the binoculars and gave my younger brother a glare of disapproval. His short white-blond hair spiked with the wind coming off the ocean, but his eyes, the color of the clear sky overhead, were triumphant.
He was right. Not one or two, but three of the city’s nuclear generators had overheated during the past weeks, but they hadn’t exploded, then or now, so we were definitely ahead. Keene also hadn’t collapsed, and no one had miscalculated. Even with the extra week we’d tacked on with the angled rise to avoid icebergs and certain underwater formations, we’d still made it. Sinalta was well on its way northwest toward Australia with the intention of continuing on to the southeast coast of Madagascar where it would come to a rest, at least temporarily. Negotiations regarding a final resting place were ongoing as the world’s major political powers wrestled with the advantages or disadvantages of having the city in or near its jurisdiction. I secretly suspected that the Sinaltans still expected the world to hand over an entire country and its mortal population for their use. We’d already let them know that South Africa or the continent of Australia, rumored to have been promised to them by the ousted and imprisoned former leader of the Emporium Triad, were off limits.
“Nicely done,” Ritter murmured, giving me a brief hug before offering Keene a congratulatory slap on the back—a light one, I noticed thankfully as Keene looked ready to collapse.
“Whoa there,” Ritter said as Keene did choose that moment to stagger back from the railing. Ritter put a hand on his arm and guided him to a lounge chair Mari had set up for him earlier. With a groan, Keene stretched out, his eyes closing instantly as the gray-haired healer placed his hands on his forehead.
Ritter moved away to talk to Ava and the ship’s captain, a former Emporium employee, but now ours since the merge, like the cargo vessel which Ava officially commanded. There were no longer Renegades or Emporium factions, only Unboundaried, or Unbounded for short, who ran the massive Emporium conglomerate. And now there were also Avowed, who like the Unbounded lived two thousand years and could only be killed in the same manner—by severing the body’s three focus points. They claimed that all Unbounded and Avowed originated in Sinalta before its submersion, and they were probably right. Unfortunately, they placed next to no value on mortal lives, and with each day that passed, I grew more worried that the Avowed would be a worse enemy to the world than the Emporium Triad had ever been.
Turning back to the water, I studied Sinalta’s semi-transparent dome, arching high into the air above the tall buildings that crowded the outer third ring. I hadn’t visited that part of the city yet, but even from this distance, the overcrowding among the poorer Sinaltans was clear.
“I’m going over there to look for Dimitri,” I muttered to Jace, gripping the railing to steady myself now that larger waves had reached our position, literally rocking our boat. “I need to know he’s okay.” Dimitri Sidorov was more than a friend and Ava’s second-in-command. He was my biological father.
Six weeks had passed since we’d left Dimitri in Sinalta and three since we’d heard anything from him. Three long weeks of silence. It was our punishment for Ava’s refusal to conduct more electronic interviews with the former kidnapped Unbounded descendants—called embryos by the Avowed. These embryos had been taken from topside and assimilated into Sinaltan society in an effort to expand their gene pool that was suffering from insanity. Thirty-six hundred years—give or take a century—of interbreeding and killing all those who didn’t Change hadn’t occurred without consequence.
Our deal to help raise Sinalta had included freedom for the kidnapped, if they wanted it, yet not a single one interviewed expressed a wish to return home or to leave Sinalta, even when we promised their children would be part of the deal. One hundred percent refusal among former street children or throwaways might be possible, but there were several hundred people still alive who had been taken from loving homes, some as recently as earlier this year. Something stank, and only a sensing Unbounded like myself or Ava could determine who was lying and why. But only in person. After Ava had announced that she would not accept the electronic interview results, Dimitri had suddenly been too busy to report to us.
“You sure Ritter is going to allow you back into the city?” Jace asked. “I mean as op leader, of course.”
I shifted my gaze to where Ritter stood talking, his legs apart, his bulk perfectly balanced on the deck despite the rocking ocean. His black hair tangled in the wind, and his sleeveless shirt made him resemble some kind of pirate—hard, unmovable, and mean. But the link we shared since our marriage showed me the man underneath, and I softened my usual smirk as he glanced my way. I knew how much I meant to him—no, how much we meant to him. Our daughter and I, the former being only three months along inside me. He’d waited most of his two hundred and seventy-four years to have a family, and he’d give anything to keep us safe.
I looked back at Jace. “As long as Mari comes with us, we can shift out at any moment.” Ritter still might object, but he wouldn’t stand in my way. No one would, not even Ava. I wouldn’t let them. “I have to interview the former embryos anyway,” I reminded my brother.
Ritter strode toward us, and I raised the binoculars toward the dome again, steeling myself for the pending confrontation with the Avowed. Would they lower the dome and the electric shield that protected it?
The dome, which contained lighting, air conduits, a false sky, and whatever else the ancient Avowed had determined necessary for life under the water, was unnecessary now that the city had surfaced, but there had been arguments in favor of keeping the dome up while Keene and the others continued to move the city to its eventual destination. With the imminent electronic shield failure, most agreed that doing so wasn’t a good idea because once the electric shield failed, the weakened dome itself would be a danger to the entire city. Of course, I wanted the electric shield down for other reasons. With it activated, I couldn’t mentally search the city for Dimitri.
“We need to find him,” I said in a low voice to Ritter after he returned to my side. I glanced over to see him staring out over the still-undulating ocean, his jaw tight, his black eyes filled with emotion he normally kept well hidden. For a long moment, he didn’t speak, and I could sense his fury—not directed toward me, thankfully, though it wouldn’t be the first time I had angered him. I was plenty willing to push back when I had to, though I was softer now since our marriage because I knew how much he’d already suffered and how it still affected him.
“They’ll have to bring down the dome and the shield,” he said finally. “Mari can take us then.” He locked gazes with Jace. “You come too. Because we still don’t know where Scala and Tsaousiss are, and they might cause trouble.”
Jace gave a sharp nod. “It’s why I came back from New York. I’ve been wanting to find Scala and that other douche bag since they imprisoned us and ordered our deaths.” He rubbed his left arm where he’d been shot while imprisoned, though even the scar had long since disappeared.
I knew it wasn’t the only reason he was here. Without Keene there to help him run the corporation and solidify our takeover, he was drowning in paperwork and physical inactivity at Emporium headquarters. Jace and Keene were the biological sons of former Triad members, so it fell to them to provide continuity, and at least one of them had to remain in New York at any given time. Pure torture for Jace, who was gifted in combat like Ritter—and like his imprisoned biological father.
“We shouldn’t have let the Avowed keep Dimitri,” Jace added, his brow furrowing.
Ritter frowned. “We didn’t have a choice.”
I wasn’t so sure, but it had certainly been the peaceful way out. The Sinaltans had wanted leverage to make sure we didn’t blow the hidden explosives I’d asked two discontented Avowed to place on the electric shield to prevent the ruling families from executing my team. Thus far, neither the explosives nor my contacts had been located.
“What if he’s not okay?” It was Mari who voiced the concern, leaving her vigil at Keene’s sprawled form to join us. “Maybe his silence is because he’s hurt and not because they’re punishing us for accusing them of threatening the embryos into staying.”
I frowned and my next words came out as a growl. “Oh, it’s a punishment, all right, but they’ve reached the end. Dimitri is coming home tonight, or their seer will come back as my prisoner.” I lifted my chin in challenge, but I should have known better. Mari’s dark eyes glowed with excitement, and Jace’s eager expression told me he was all in. Like me, they were recently Changed, and I was the first to admit that we sometimes acted before we considered all options.
“Really?” Ritter said, lifting a brow at me. “You had to encourage them?”
“Yes, Your Deathliness.” I smirked as I used the nickname I knew both irritated and pleased him. “Let’s get ready now so we can shift the instant the shield is down. They won’t expect us that soon.”
“Maybe not, but they will be vigilant,” Ava said, stepping away from the railing where she’d been standing after finishing her conversation with the captain. Obviously, she’d kept tabs on the conversation like a good leader always did. Her steel-gray eyes bore into me, strong and unyielding. As her fourth great-granddaughter, I’d inherited those eyes, along with her blond hair, which meant we could pass as sisters. She might look thirty-three, but she was over three hundred years old. Maybe because of our relationship, I pushed the boundaries, or maybe it was simply that my recently activated Unbounded genes wouldn’t allow passivity. Either way, I was doing this, but it would be easier with her approval.
“Before you say no,” I hurried to say, “remember it’s because of Mikyn Zenos and his foretellings that they are able to justify their murders. Of babies.” My hand went instinctively to the swelling below my abdomen. My mind also touched the presence there, and I felt a distinct contented acknowledgment.
“Oh, I’m very aware of that.” Ava’s tone stopped just short of rebuke. “And now that we have other healers who can trade off, Dimitri is no longer needed there. We will get him out.”
Her words reminded me that no one wanted Dimitri back more than Ava, and I was perhaps the only one who knew why, including Ava herself, and it wasn’t because she’d suggested the compromise that left him behind in the first place.
“Now that they’re above water,” Mari said, “we can get past the electronic shield underneath the city. It’s not like the shield over the dome itself since Keene and their Avowed are no longer enhancing it. After all, they always have ships coming and going, right? So they can work and communicate with us. They have to open their subgates periodically to do that.” She bounced a little on her toes, like a prize fighter awaiting her next bout. With her hair drawn back into a single braid, her quarter Japanese blood was more apparent.
“It’s still too reinforced from the lift,” I said. “And their scientists are trying to keep the bottom shield on until they get to the Indian Ocean or wherever they end up. There’s no danger of a crumpling dome to deal with down there.” Then another thought occurred to me. “Even if they take down the dome, they might try to leave the top electronic shield up for as long as it holds. From my understanding the dome itself was never designed to keep the water out. That’s accomplished by its electronic shield and its generators.” I learned that there was more than one electric shield generator. In fact, after the past six weeks of being inside the Avowed scientists' minds, I knew more than I’d ever cared to about their infamous shield.
“No.” Ava folded her arms. “With the imminent shield failure, it would be ludicrous to keep it up. Especially since they can simply shoot any ship that approaches the city and have nuclear options to retaliate if any country tries that route. They’ll feel safe, which is why I insisted we keep Mari’s ability a secret, so we can enter the city at any time without their knowledge. Otherwise, they might have scrambled to create a lesser electronic shield like the kind we use. Those may not keep out tons of water or reflect a nuclear attack, but they’ll still block Mari.” She leveled a stare at Ritter. “Enough talk. We’ve kept our bargain and brought them up. It’s time they keep theirs. Choose your team and gear up. I’ll make sure they get that shield down.”
“Will do.” Ritter’s voice sounded like a salute.
Ava turned on her heel and strode away, walking every bit as easily on the ship as Ritter. Was I the only one ready to lose my lunch over the railing? And I couldn’t contribute all of it to morning sickness, though without Dimitri around to ease my symptoms, it was far worse than I’d ever expected as a semi-immortal.
“Do we need to use a ship to get closer?” Jace asked Mari.
Mari rolled her eyes. “No. I don’t need to get closer. Didn’t I just shift you here from New York?” She turned and started back to where Keene lay, saying over her shoulder, “Let me know when it’s time. My gear’s ready.” She patted the hilt of a knife sticking out of her black bodysuit, which was not only bulletproof but had custom pockets containing emergency equipment and various weapons. Most of her bulges were of the steel varity and testified of her unique fondness for knives.
“Since when can’t she take a joke?” Jace scowled after her.
I grinned. “Did you bring your gear?” I asked, eyeing his white button-down shirt and black dress pants—clothes he’d always avoided before his forced leadership role at the Emporium.
He snorted. “Left it here. Not much going on at headquarters.”
“You think that’s a good idea?” Though things appeared calm at the moment, I didn’t trust Stefan Carrington, the soulless Triad leader whose genes Jace unfortunately shared, even though I’d seen for myself that he was locked up in our prison compound in Mexico. “You saw how determined Stefan was when we visited. We have no idea what backups he has in place. And that Avowed woman who escaped in Mexico knows where we’re holding him. If he somehow gets free, we are all in big trouble.”
The amusement drained from my brother’s face. “It’s been months since the takeover. He needs to stand trial.”
“I agree, but until Keene officially takes his father’s place in the Triad, it can’t happen.” And until Stefan was officially convicted, Jace’s appointment in the Triad couldn’t be made permanent either. “Besides, we’ve all been a little busy with this Avowed thing.” The boat rolled and I bit back nausea.
Jace put a hand on my shoulder. “You look green.”
“I’m okay,” I said, all too aware that Ritter was with us. I wasn’t about to give him a reason to take Ava to Sinalta in my place. My sensing abilities were stronger than Ava’s, and she couldn’t channel others’ abilities the way I could. In fact, I hadn’t yet met another sensing Unbounded who could, though I believed Mikyn Zenos, the Avowed seer and top leader of one of Sinalta’s ruling families, might be the exception. He had somehow inherited both his parents’ abilities which was unheard of in either of our races. This dual ability was the only reason he held so much power among the Sinaltans. Foretelling if an infant would one day Change had completely altered their society and drastically lowered the value they gave mortal life.
“I’m going to suit up,” I said, taking a step away from them. I might fight to release Dimitri, if that’s what it took, but I would also protect my child. The body armor I’d borrowed from Stella, another member of our cell who was also expecting, was like a bodysuit on steroids. It was nearly impenetrable, which was the peace of mind I needed. While the Avowed were strangely reverent of all expectant women and their babies, at least until after the birth when Mikyn predicted the baby’s future, I wasn’t about to trust that goodwill. Any race who murdered their own babies just because they were mortal couldn’t be trusted.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” Ritter said, grabbing my hand and squeezing it. “There’s something I need to do.”
“Okay.” I waved a general goodbye and hurried off to my quarters below deck before I embarrassed myself and threw up everywhere. A stop at the galley for some crackers and a special Sinaltan tea made from a certain seaweed would also go a long way to setting me to rights. Apparently, even though I was constantly absorbing, my body still wanted a reserve sitting in my stomach. I’d learned the tip from my Avowed informant, who sadly was still missing, along with his wife. Their young daughter, currently my ward, was with my older brother, Chris and his two children back at our Fortress in San Diego, but every time we talked, I had to break her heart yet again. For all I knew, her parents had been found and arrested by the Sinaltan Senate. It was one more reason to go to Sinalta.
Mouth full of crackers, I sipped my warm tea on the way back to my quarters. Ritter was probably already there, waiting for me.
A slight noise ahead made me reach out mentally, but my ability didn’t show me any life force besides those in other areas of the ship. Which meant it had either been the groan and creaking of the ship, unless it was an Unbounded who could block me completely—not an easy feat these days, even for the most skilled.
Even so, caution drew me to a stop in the narrow hallway. I listened, poised for action, though there could be no danger on this boat, not with Sinalta’s shield still up and considering that we were smack dab in the middle of the South Ocean. The only near thing I could sense was an unshielded mortal life force somewhere to my right in the next corridor. Probably one of the sailors.
Shaking my head at my overactive imagination, I took another long sip before stuffing several more crackers into my mouth—completely unhealthy white crackers, which were already working an uncanny miracle in my body, easing the nausea. It was almost embarrassing.
I’d taken only three steps when something fell onto the floor in front of me. The glint of black metal barely registered before I kicked out instinctively. The gun went flying. At once, the slender, black-dressed figure was on me. A woman. I could see her life force now, faint but still there.
I tossed my cup at her, liquid and all, but it wasn’t hot enough to do damage. Dodging a jab, I sent a punch to my attacker’s face. She grunted as her head snapped backward with the blow.
That was when I recognized Brenna Dabney. I nearly laughed. The Avowed might be able to form an impressive mental shield, but she was no match for me. I had half a foot and twenty pounds on her. And better training. I slammed my fist into her face again, stepping back to avoid her kick. Blood dripped from her cheek.
The life force from the nearby corridor was coming up behind me now, the glowing so mentally bright I didn’t need to look to see the person coming. It might be a sailor who belonged on board, alerted to the fight, but I didn’t believe in coincidence.
I sent a twisting roundhouse kick to the woman’s stomach, and she stumbled back, slamming into the side of the wall as I’d intended. Then, whirling, I faced the second opponent. He was big and mean-looking, but he was mortal, and all my genes begged me to fight him. To toy with him and show him that all his power was no match for my superior training. Even if it meant I broke a bone or two in the process. Jace would do it. Ritter would not. That siren of confidence was one of the main reason Ritter forced us all to train as hard as we did. I couldn’t let that confidence take over. Not with the baby at risk. I had to be absolutely careful.
Cursing under my breath, I reached into the man’s mind. He had no mental barrier, not even the flimsy one mortals learn to use. It wouldn’t have mattered. I sent a flash of light into the sand stream of his mind, brighter and with more force than I intended because the woman was on me again. He collapsed with a huge crash.
I spun away from the woman, realizing she’d taken out another weapon that looked suspiciously like a spring-based ballistic knife. “I’m pregnant!” I yelled, though the knives were notoriously hard to aim, and I was confident I would dive the right way before she hit me.
Just in case, I pushed out a mental barrier to protect my torso. It wouldn’t withstand much more than a bullet or two before breaking, but I could make another one so powerful around the baby that not even Dimitri could trace a healing path there. It was habit now to put it in place whenever I was threatened or worked out with the others. However, it wouldn’t remain if I died—even temporarily died—so I needed to protect myself.
“You’re with embryo?” Brenna blinked. “Then stop moving, so I won’t hurt you.” Her voice was strong, honeyed with hypnosuggestion.
I gave a mocking snort and feinted at her, pulling away at the last moment. “That doesn’t work on me.”
Her face flushed a deep crimson. Like most Sinaltans she had blond hair and blue eyes, though her skin wasn’t nearly as pale as those who had lived all their lives under the sea. “I will kill you then,” she growled. “I don’t care about your baby.”
She was lying. She’d been raised in Sinalta, and though leaders might give lip service to their reverence for potential embryos, Brenna did not. I could feel her turmoil on her surface thoughts, her upbringing battling with her more recent selfishness. This was a woman who’d spent fifty years tracking down and kidnapping descendants of Unbounded, sending them to Sinalta, where they would breed if they Changed, or if they didn’t to work and die in their underwater mines.
I faked to the right and then lunged left, grabbing her knife hand. With a final yank, I sent the knife to the ground and snapped her wrist.
She howled and began retreating, but I grabbed her shoulders and hit her against the wall.
“Who sent you?”
“I just want to get to Sinalta now that it’s topside!” Her face crumpled with the words.
A lie. “Do I have to get it from your mind?” I could hear footsteps now, pounding toward us. My people coming to my rescue. “I broke through it last time, so it will be easier now. Or you can just tell me.” I pushed on her broken wrist.
She sucked in a noisy, high-pitched breath. “Okay, okay,” she panted. “Stefan Carrington sent me. I helped him escape.”
My world tilted. If she was telling the truth, my worst nightmare—and the entire world’s—had just come true. Stefan Carrington, former leader of the Emporium Triad and Jace’s biological father was loose again.