Location: Amarillo City, Dallastar
Year: 2278, 80 years after Breakdown
The man's larger than life face on the holo screen was ordinary, typical of most of the two million CORE residents, whose features had blended together over hundreds of years. Brown eyes, medium brown skin, narrow face, and average weight. Brown hair long enough to cover most of his ears but short enough to be professional. Only the position of his eyes was notable, rolled upward as if searching the ceiling for answers.
“This is Dr. Sam Kentley,” said Vic Brogan, captain of the Amarillo City Enforcer Division, commonly known as the AED. “He is your next assignment.” His heavy-lidded eyes scanned those gathered in the Underground conference room where they met instead of at division where their conversation might be monitored. His body was all chest and arms like a boxer.
Enforcer Jaxon Tennant was still uncomfortable being part of the underground. He’d trained for so many years to serve and protect the CORE he’d once believed in—and now knew to be a lie. How deep the lie, he didn’t yet know, but like Captain Brogan and the others, he was determined to find out.
And not only because someone had murdered his mother.
“You are to travel to Santoni,” Brogan continued, “and accompany the doctor back here.”
“I’m assuming he’s like us?” Across the table, Reese Parker, Jaxon’s partner in the Violent Crimes Unit and also the division’s sketch artist, looked up from her drawing pad, her pencil poised in the air.
“Like us” meant people from Colony 6 who had developed unusual abilities after generations of imprisonment and experimentation by the people who had pretended to save them—and who now wanted them dead.
Jaxon and Reese had grown up in the colony with most of the others in the room: Eagle Jensen, Dani Balak, and the twins, Lyssa and Lyra Sloan. As children they had fought to survive in the harsh environment and had been among the miraculous few who had been released from its confines. They had been a crew as children at Colony 6, and now on the outside, each had been found and hired by Captain Brogan to work at AED. Reuniting them as a team was an action meant both to protect and to use them.
Jaxon could never let himself forget that last part. They were here willingly, but if they chose not to be, they would conveniently disappear. They as individuals didn’t matter in the long run—not when many thousands of lives weighed in the balance. They mattered only by how they could help free the citizens of the CORE.
“Yes,” Brogan said. “He’s like the six of you. If my intelligence is correct, Dr. Kentley is a healer unlike the CORE has ever seen. He has a near perfect record with his patients that can’t be explained even by any pre-Breakdown medicines he might have rediscovered. None of his patients die while in his care, even those with severe radiation damage caused by exposure in the desolation zones.”
“Unless he somehow has access to an alias, he’s not anyone we knew,” Jaxon said.
Brogan shook his head. “He’s not from your same district in Colony 6, but he did grow up in the colony. Kentley brings our total to twenty people we’ve identified all together. Of all those allowed to leave the colony, we’re nearly certain they’re the only ones left alive. At least those still living in the CORE Territories.”
“That’s more than I hoped for,” Reese said. She hadn’t gone back to drawing, and her face looked haunted. Jaxon understood why. His mother wasn’t the only victim. At least fifteen hundred children had leveled out of Colony 6 schools and left the colony over the ten years of limited integration with society, and Brogan had found only these twenty besides the six of them. That was a miniscule number when compared with the ten thousand children who grew up, remained in Welfare Colony 6, and were now registered as dead or completely missing from the population database.
“There may be more living under assumed identities, but these twenty who are still out in the open need to be our priority. Like Sam Kentley.” Brogan waved two fingers in the air and the holo image of Kentley was replaced by the front of a short building. “This is where he works in Santoni. We are still tracing a home address. I’m not sure how much time we have left or why Special Forces hasn’t detained him yet, but we’ve picked up increased enforcer activity in the area, which indicates impending action.”
“No!” Dani Balak slapped her hand on the table, speaking for the first time at the meeting. “We don’t have time for this. What about Tauri?” Controlled anger threatened behind the measured words. Her unusual black skin masked any telltale emotion and her wiry blond hair jutted from her head at all angles as it normally did, but her splayed hand on the table trembled. Dani wasn’t beautiful by any standard, but her features were well-formed, and the way she carried herself, exuding strength and confidence, made her a person who demanded attention.
Unlike the rest of the crew, Dani hadn’t left Colony 6 to live in Estlantic or Dallastar, the two main territories of the CORE. Instead, she’d become a fringer, those who lived outside the CORE’s influence and protection. Common belief taught that fringers were radiation-crazed killers, but like so many things, Jaxon had learned it wasn’t true. While working with fringers in a territory they had named Newcali, Dani had saved people targeted for extermination by Special Forces, and her entire life’s goal was to free all the colonies. She’d only recently agreed to take an undercover job at the division as Brogan’s assistant in exchange for a promise, a promise Brogan hadn’t yet fulfilled.
“You said you’d help me rescue my brother,” she added, her words sharp and staccato. “That’s the only reason I’m here.”
Brogan let her words hang in the air for a moment without responding. Did he hear the threat? Jaxon wondered.
“I know this isn’t what you hoped for,” Brogan said finally, “but Sam Kentley is in immediate danger of being killed or taken by Special Forces. We can’t stand by and allow that to happen. We need a healer in the underground, especially if what you tell us—and what others have confirmed—is true about those having abilities going insane. You are all at risk until we figure out why that’s happening. The last thing we want is to be putting down our own people. Special Forces has done quite enough of that.”
“Just so you remember that my priority and the only reason I’m here is to free my brother.” Dani’s hand was no longer trembling. Had Jaxon imagined it?
Brogan’s eyes narrowed. “I am very aware of your priorities. But you also agreed to help us in our joint mission to save the colonies, starting with the gifted who were permitted to leave. We’re well into preparations to free Tauri, but a general location isn’t good enough. We need more intel, and I won’t risk the team—or you—going in early. You are all too valuable. The minute I think we can be successful, we’ll go for him. Until then, we’ll save as many others as we can. We’ll need all of them if we are to beat the Elite.” He held Dani’s stare, the tension in the room thick enough that no one dared speak.
Finally, Dani gave a curt nod and lowered her gaze. Jaxon knew her well enough—from growing up together in Colony 6 and these past six weeks after the crew’s reunion—to understand that she wasn’t beaten. Dani was never beaten. She’d push them to Breakdown and back to get her brother out of Estlantic and the hands of Special Forces. If they didn’t do it soon, they’d all better watch their backs. He rubbed the side of his temples to ease the building pressure there.
“And if Sam Kentley won’t come with us?” Reese asked. She was drawing again, but with her right hand now instead of her left.
Brogan’s heavy stare transferred in her direction. “Then you don’t give him a choice.”
“Of course,” Reese said.
Jaxon felt her scrutiny, and when he met her gaze, a thousand words stared back at him from her green eyes. She knew every bit as much as he did that they skirted the law now, and there was no going back, not if they didn’t want to end up dead. They probably would anyway. Watching her like this and wanting so much more for them both was an ache that never went away.
“We’ll need to communicate,” Brogan continued. “Off Teev feed, of course. Any communication there will be monitored. We’ll have to use the hardware Dani provided from her people.”
Jaxon wanted to protest his wording. He and Reese and the others were supposed to be Dani’s people, her crew, but Brogan was right that the fringers came first with Dani now. And her brother.
The CORE controlled access to the Teev and monitored all its feeds continuously, but the fringers had created their own separate version of the Teev, called the T-link, which also contained back doors into the CORE Teev system. Their mobile unit was nearly indistinguishable from the CORE’s iTeev, except the companion earbud was unconnected to the T-link itself by any wire. Dani had intended her contribution to aid in the rescuing of her brother, but the tech would also be useful to extract Kentley.
Brogan glanced at Eagle Jensen. “That means you’re sitting this one out unless you’ve been able to refit your alternate pair of glasses with the fringer tech.”
Eagle looked up from a piece of tech he was examining, his face as impassive as the dark glasses covering his eyes. Without them he was blind, or nearly so. “Needs more tweaks to be perfect, but it’ll work well enough for this.” He unfolded his tall frame and arose, taking the device in his hands to the tech-filled table that sat against the far wall of the conference room. “We leave in the morning?”
“Tonight.” Brogan killed the holo screen with a downward sweep of a hand. “Santoni is over five hundred and fifty kilometers away, so the sky train will have you there in about three hours. Santoni’s not much of a town, though, and you’ll be noticed if you aren’t careful. That means I want you to take civilian clothing and go incognito. By the time you arrive, Hammer will have sent Jaxon and Reese an encrypted file with everything you’ll need, including the location of where you’ll be staying. He suggests you leave on the seven o’clock train.”
Eagle began packing items from the table into his bag.
“What about Lyra and me?” Lyssa asked. She glanced at her sister as she spoke.
Twin births were not permitted, at least outside the colonies, and the likeness in their thin faces was unsettling for most people. The women’s familial features had blended over generations in the CORE melting pot, leaving only a tilt to their eyes and their ebony hair to firmly mark their Asian heritage.
“If this will involve our ability, we’ll have to go,” Lyssa added.
Brogan considered a moment. “How far is your projecting range?”
“Not five hundred and fifty kilometers,” Lyra answered.
“Then I think the others can handle this one alone.”
Lyssa looked disappointed. “Just when I finally learn to hit something when I shoot.” She patted the gun on her hip. Working in dispatch, neither she nor Lyra wore enforcer blues, but she still worked for a division, and enforcement was the only CORE profession that allowed weapon privileges.
“This should not involve shooting.” A slight smile tugged on one corner of Brogan’s mouth. “We hope. But they’ll need some tools.” He opened a metal box and withdrew a short stack of thin cards. “With the Teev codes Dani has provided from the fringers, we’ve managed to hack into the CORE citizen database and omit the fact that any of you came from Colony 6, though it won’t stand up to more than a cursory search, especially if, as we assume, they have a real database that lists everyone, including those they’ve made disappear altogether. Someone was responsible for sending that pus bag Bensell Summers after you six weeks ago, and that someone knows he failed. So you will need to use these identities during this operation.” He pushed the box to Jaxon.
Jaxon removed a short bundle with his name written on the band holding the cards together. The false IDs looked like cash credits, but when activated, the IDs would override their implanted CivIDs and broadcast another identity. Placing the pad of a finger on the back would activate or deactivate them.
“You each have three to begin with,” Brogan went on. “Make sure you take the stack meant for you and read the information we’ve programmed into them. Jaxon, I have included an alternate identity for Dr. Kentley with your cards. We’ve also included real cash credits for each of you, in case you need to make a purchase we don’t want the CORE to track.”
Jaxon passed the box to Dani, who took hers without comment. She’d had her CivID removed years ago by the fringers, of course, and the fake ID she used now was on a similar card that Brogan had also provided. She wasn’t in the population database. For all the CORE knew, the real Dani Balak had never existed. Unless she was on some secret database.
“What about the cameras?” Jaxon asked.
Brogan chuckled. “I believe Dani can help us there.”
She removed a small package from the pocket of her gray blouse, setting it on the table. From this she extracted a circular patch of indeterminate color and held it up so they could see. “My friends in Newcali have created these. We call them skin tags.” She peeled something from the back of hers and slapped it slightly off-centered onto her throat. Within a few seconds, Jaxon couldn’t see where she’d put it.
“They will immediately take on your skin color,” Dani continued, “and once activated will distort your face on any electronic recording. Activate with one long press of your finger. Use a two-fingered long press to both distort your appearance and to mask any of your CivIDs, including your implanted one. Turn it off with three short taps with one finger. You will experience a tingle on your skin as it changes. Drones won’t pick up the emissions because its function is to depress all emissions. Only detailed prison scanners might pick up their presence, at least ours do. Each tag will last up to two months and is nearly imperceptible to the naked eye.”
“Nice,” Eagle murmured. Jaxon was equally impressed, and he put his on immediately.
“Well, let’s get to it.” Brogan stood, signaling the end of the meeting.
Jaxon glanced at his iTeev secured to the sleeve of his enforcer uniform. The time on it read after five already. They needed to hurry.
Eagle shouldered his bag. “We should grab a little more firepower at division. Just in case.” As the weapons expert, he had access to everything, including weapons Jaxon didn’t want to know about. Eagle didn’t much like guns, but he loved explosions.
“Good idea,” Brogan said. “But first, I need a private word with Detective Tennant.”
Jaxon hung back as the others left the room, where he knew they’d wait for him out in the old subway tunnels. He closed the space between him and the captain.
“I know I said that we omitted the Colony 6 origin reference in everyone’s file, but Hammer had a problem with yours,” Brogan said as the door shut. “Bottom line is he hasn’t been able to do it, even with the codes from the fringers. There seems to be an extra layer of protocol attached to your file.”
An eerie sense of unease teased at Jaxon’s consciousness. That was often the sense he had before one of his premonitions, but when no vision came, he asked, “Any idea what it means?”
“I can’t say, except that you’re still a target for Special Forces. As long as you’re from Colony 6, they’ll suspect you have an ability. I can protect you here in Amarillo City, but you need to watch yourself in Santoni.”
“You think it has something to do with Bensell Summers?” Summers was the man Jaxon suspected of murdering his mother, but in the end when Jaxon had killed him, he wasn’t quite sure.
“It crossed my mind. But if it was that important to someone in the CORE Elite, it might also mean that they don’t want you dead. Yet.”
Small comfort, especially if there was any substance to the odd hints Summers had made about Jaxon’s parentage. All his life Jaxon had wanted to know who his father was, but not if it meant being the son of a lying whore wrangler. Even if the whore had been his mother. He didn’t blame her. She’d survived in the colony anyway she could, and that was more than many had done.
“I’ll be careful,” he said.
“Good.” Brogan picked up a skin-like substance lying in a mass on the table and pulled it over his head. In the few seconds it took for him to settle the mask, he changed from the well-respected AED captain to El Cerebro, feared leader of the underground in Amarillo City. The thin, faintly reddish mask concealed his identity with success, but the smoothness of the fake skin made him resemble a Nuface addict. The evenness of his guise was marred only by the C-shaped tattoo on his fake cheek, easily recognizable, even by CORE residents who didn’t deal with the black market. Fake brown hair followed the mask, covering his normal black. The whole ensemble was topped by a black knit cap, pulled low over Brogan’s brow, that flattened the hair against his neck. The transformation was eerie. Only El Cerebro’s top people knew his real identity, and he had to keep it that way if they had any chance of changing what was happening in the CORE.
“Keep me in the loop,” Brogan said to Jaxon as they walked to the door together. “And keep an eye on Dani. We still need her.”
So the captain—or was it the El Cerebro part of him?—had picked up on Dani’s threat. Somehow Jaxon needed to hold it together for all their sakes.
Outside the door, two of El Cerebro’s soldiers stood guard with assault rifles at the ready. The conference room was deep in the heart of an ancient, pre-Breakdown underground train system and also close to the undergrounders’ main lair. Every time Jaxon had been below, at least two guards were standing watch.
The rest of Jaxon’s crew waited with the guards, but they weren’t alone. Nova, El Cerebro’s niece, also stood outside, her eyes eager. “I volunteer to help, whatever it is you’re doing.” The child looked dirty as usual, her dark curls matted down her back, and she was so thin she looked younger than fourteen. Jaxon knew both the dirt and the innocence were fake. This was a child who’d once used pre-Breakdown tech to break into Reese’s apartment and who tripped through the streets after curfew like she owned them.
“Not this time, Nova,” El Cerebro said, his voice altered by a nearly invisible box on his throat.
“But it’s been over a month since we did anything, except that one bitty raid on that electronics warehouse.”
El Cerebro snorted. “The sales from that bitty raid are going to keep us in food down here for a year.”
Nova was about to say more, but a look from her uncle froze the protest on her lips. Giving Jaxon an evil stare as if her exclusion were all his doing, she started down the dark tunnel, her heavy pack swaying and appearing close to toppling her over.
Jaxon shrugged toward Reese, and she hid a smile as they left El Cerebro with his guards and followed the others in the opposite direction from the one Nova had taken. “Looks like she’s no longer pining after you,” Reese said.
Jaxon snorted. “That’s a good thing. I was beginning to worry she’d lock me in some abandoned room down here until I gave into her demands. Whatever those might be.”
Reese laughed and engaged the projection light on her iTeev. “Sounds about her style.”
The maze of tunnels was tricky, and they’d both gotten lost in them before, but Eagle could retrace his steps now even without his glasses, so they were in no danger of misdirection with him around. Jaxon could feel his suit’s heat volume kicking up to account for the colder temperature in the tunnels.
They walked for a few minutes, and then Reese said, “This doctor, how far do you think his ability goes?”
“Grow back limbs? Raise the dead? Who knows?” He laughed as she snorted. For that moment, the conversation between them was easy, like in the old days, but it wasn’t always that way now.
“Anyway, Brogan’s right that we need him.”
“You’re having more symptoms?” he asked her.
She hesitated. “Alex gave me a neural suppressant and it did make the sketches come less frequently, but it’s a little like seeing through a cloud, so I stopped taking them.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it wasn’t necessary.” She sounded angry, but he knew it wasn’t directed toward him. “I just want to be able to control this thing like the others can.”
On that he agreed. The rest of the crew could control their abilities far better than he or Reese, even the twins who sometimes “traveled” unintentionally in their sleep. Reese had no choice but to sketch images she saw from people’s minds, including those she didn’t want to see, and he had equally little control over the frequency or subject of his premonitions.
“It’ll come.” He hadn’t told her everything either, and he didn’t plan on it. Besides, the premonition he’d had of them together was so far off that he was beginning to wonder if it had stemmed more from his desire than from an actual vision.
The darkness in the tunnels seemed heavy and ominous. It was dangerous business, living this secret life. If they were discovered down here, working with El Cerebro, the punishment would be psychological reconditioning at the least and more likely surgical enhancement and permanent banishment to one of the welfare colonies.
Ahead, the twins were talking with Eagle, their lights moving as they walked, but Dani fell back with them. “We can use more healers in Newcali,” she said.
Why was she so one-sighted? “You can’t have him,” Jaxon told her. “They need him here.”
More than one undergrounder had died from a disease they were ineligible to obtain help for as long as they weren’t valid citizens of the CORE. Others died from infection after digging out their implanted CivIDs or while giving birth to a non-authorized baby.
“I know.” Dani didn’t sound convinced. “Let’s just get this done. I need to get to my brother.”
The moment “brother” came from her lips, the pressure that had been building in Jaxon’s head exploded in a flash of blinding light.
A man in enforcer blues stands over Dani, who is sprawled on the ground, an assault rifle aimed at her heart. “You can’t dodge this many bullets,” he says with a smirk. To his comrades, he adds, “She’s from Colony 6, guys. No doubt about it. Cuff her and toss her into the shuttle. The Controller is going to enjoy this extra little gift.”
Jaxon jerked from the vision, finding himself on the rocky ground and everyone staring at him, their lights shining in his direction. His arm went up to cover his eyes. If Reese thought her ability was out of control, his was impossible. Lately, even the mildest premonition caused that pressure at his temples and sent him scrambling to the ground. The more he tried to resist, the worse it became, but when he didn’t fight them, he’d sometimes lose hours where he remembered nothing but the premonition. Only the hunches, gut feelings really, didn’t cause a physical reaction, and those came less often now as the full-blown visions had taken over.
“Lights,” Reese said, lowering her beam to the ground in front of him. The others did the same.
“Was it the doctor?” Lyssa asked. “Do we get him?”
Jaxon shook his head and gazed at Dani, finding her staring back at him, her black face blending in with the darkness around her, making the whites of her eyes that much more prominent. “You’re going to be captured by Special Forces. They’re going to take you to the controller.”
“No,” Reese said, her voice hard as she offered him a hand up. “We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
But they all knew his visions came true. Always.