Sample Chapter


Colony Six #1


Location: Welfare Colony 6, Dallastar
Year: 2258, 60 years after Breakdown

Jaxon came through the doorway of Reese’s house without knocking, his steps dragging, his body hunched as if coming from a beating, though there wasn’t a mark on him. One glance at the slump of her best friend’s shoulders and the tightness in his face told her that his mother had a visitor next door.

Her fingers froze on the pencil poised over her sketchbook. “Hey, Jaxon.”

“Hey,” came the strangled reply.

She arose from the small table in her living room, clutching her notebook to her chest. He’d almost reached her when the flash came, a mental image of the visitor’s face. For that single, bright instant, Reese could see the man as Jaxon had seen him inside his house only moments before. The vision was like a sketch in her mind, but burning vivid and real and in full color. Then it was gone, leaving her hands itching to draw the face of the stranger, to record him in her sketchbook.

Even at only ten years old, Reese wasn’t too young to understand what the visitor meant. Everyone living in Welfare Colony 6, or the Coop as its residents referred to it, knew the facts of life and what people were willing to do for money. Or what they had to do if they wanted to do more than barely survive in this place that was as jam-packed with human life as any chicken coop.

“Forget him,” she said.

Jaxon nodded, the tension in his face receding slightly.

Reese knew it bothered him that the man was with his mother, probably because he was still hoping his father would show up one day to claim him. As if that would ever happen. Jaxon’s father was long gone like all the other visitors, leaving only his son as the lone signal of his passing.

“I’ll just put this away.” As she walked to her tiny room, she hastily outlined the visitor’s face on a blank page in her sketchbook, hoping the quick drawing might be enough to stop the compulsion she always felt after seeing a “sketch.” She could fill more in later.

After carefully storing her sketchbook under her thin, CORE-issued mattress, Reese led Jaxon outside. The two children hurried past the fancy car that filled the entire narrow street in front of Jaxon’s house. The unmarked vehicle was a clear sign of the visitor’s wealth. Only people from outside the Coop had cars and the money to come here. Regular people used the public sky train and walked from the closest station.

Sweat trickled down the back of Reese’s neck under her long hair, but she increased her speed as they wound through the maze of houses. Despite their slightly different shapes and styles, the buildings were really all the same. Laminate exteriors bleached by the sun, miniscule yards largely untended, trash everywhere, and each house wedged so tightly against the others you could almost hear your neighbor snoring at night. Reese didn’t mind the crush of humanity, but lately the smell seemed to be getting worse.

The cement wall ahead signaled their arrival at the transfer station. Pipes from the station ran throughout the Coop, supplying the rows of houses with water according to the whim of those in control of the main station located outside the colony. Reese still remembered the year the water had turned to sludge and people had died by the hundreds. If she was ever lucky enough to get one of her dad’s empty sauce skins, she always filled it with water and stored it under her bed. She had eight stashed there now.

Angling around to the back, they climbed over the wall using the knotted rope they’d managed to loop over one of the intermittent posts. The wall was twice her father’s height, but short in comparison with the outer wall that encircled the entire colony. Reese was glad she’d worn her one pair of jeans instead of cutoffs because she invariably scraped her knees against the rough cement. The other kids from their crew were nowhere in sight, but they’d arrive soon.

Reese and Jaxon sprinted across the short open space, passed the huge metal grate that covered the opening between the entombed canal and the transfer station, and began scaling to the top of the station using the metal rungs embedded in the cement.

Anticipation rolled through Reese. Unless they were standing directly on top of the grate, the roof of the transfer station was the only place they could glimpse the water as it rushed into the cement structure.

Settling on the hot roof, Jaxon tossed a small pebble down, and it pinged off the grate, bouncing once before falling through into the swirling water. Reese imagined the hard, heat-soaked pebble diving into blissful coolness and longed to do the same, but the metal grate was a barrier they hadn’t yet been able to breach.

Jaxon tossed another pebble, then lay back suddenly despite the heat of the cement rooftop. He put his hands under his head, not quite touching the ground, bare elbows curled up so they didn’t graze the blistering rooftop. “I just want to get out of here. I need to get out of here.”

“And leave your mom?” Reese really meant “And leave me?” but she couldn’t say it aloud. Overhead, the blue sky was clear and painfully beautiful, a perfection that somehow made her insides ache. Her legs dangled over the edge of the roof, but now she pulled them up and hugged her knees tightly to her chest.

Jaxon turned burning blue eyes in her direction, the color brighter than the overhead sky. They always startled her with their brightness, a glaring contrast to his dark coloring that was common in the Coop. Three generations of being confined to this colony had resulted in a blending of the races. The few pale faces, or those much darker than the norm, always stood out. “We’ll both get out of here, Reese. You have to believe it. Anything is possible.”

Obviously, her casual statement hadn’t fooled him for a second. She wasn’t surprised. They’d been friends long before they started school. He knew about her father and his addictions, her obsession with drawing, and her ability to glimpse people she’d never seen. He understood about the water under her bed and her fear of dying. And most of all, how she longed for the mother she’d never known.

She smiled, relieved that he wasn’t planning anything drastic because there was really no place to go. If they leveled out of school, they could get jobs at eighteen and work hard to prove they were valuable enough to leave the Coop. That meant a real life outside in society with the support and protection of the CORE. If they didn’t graduate, they’d work jobs here until they died in the same houses they’d lived in all their lives.

She’d only been outside the Coop twice to visit her great-aunt, who was an art teacher for kids whose parents cared about that sort of thing. The woman was brusque and outspoken, and it was apparent she didn’t hold much love for her nephew, Reese’s father. But those brief visits, and her gift of the sketchbooks, were what kept Reese going to school month after month, and year after year. She hated the rigidness and confinement, and most of all the noise, but the only way out of the Coop was school. They were told daily how most of them would fail, that they would end up working all their lives in one of the Coop’s factories. But Reese didn’t intend to be one of those failures, and she didn’t plan for Jaxon to become one either.

As if reading her mind, Jaxon threw off his gloom and sat up. “They’re coming. Just wait till you see what Eagle and I have to show you.” Now his eyes sparkled.

Reese jumped to her feet, spurred by the excitement in his voice. “There you go again with that super hearing.”

He always knew when the others were arriving. He also guessed when their teachers were going to be absent, or the times Reese’s father would be coming home so sauced that it was safer to sleep outside.

Jaxon laughed. “Just a hunch.”

Sure enough, Eagle Jensen’s head poked over the concrete wall, and he began scrabbling over. More heads appeared after him. By the time she and Jaxon half fell, half slid down the metal rungs to the ground, good old Eagle Eyes was already across the open space, his brown eyes hidden behind thick glasses that still left him almost blind. He did odd jobs all around the colony to save up for surgery, but the price tag on his dream seemed impossible to Reese. Kids from the Coop never had surgery, or at least she’d never known anyone who had.

Lyssa and Lyra Sloan were with Eagle, and Dani Balak brought up the rear. All six crew members were present and accounted for. Lyssa and Lyra were an oddity in the Coop, not just for their obvious Asian heritage, but because they were identical twins. Dani was equally odd, with nearly black skin and her short, stiff hair a strange off-white, as if someone had dumped bleach over it.

Reese’s green eyes and pale skin made her almost as unusual as the others. At school in level ten, the six of them were considered the smart oddballs, and their very peculiarities were the reason they’d banded together after leaving the nursery levels when they were barely five.

Only Jaxon was mostly normal—at least in Reese’s estimation—but their longtime friendship meant he belonged in their crew all the same. Together they were strong enough to ward off other kids who tried to take advantage of them. There was safety in numbers, especially when one of those numbers was Dani, who could outfight anyone, even those twice her size.

Jaxon sat on the thick, two-foot-high cement base that held the huge grate. The water wasn’t visible from where they stood now, but Reese could hear it gurgling below. Beckoning, taunting in the summer heat.

“You got it?” Jaxon asked Eagle.

Eagle hefted a battered cloth backpack in his hands. “You know it.”

Jaxon’s grin grew wide. “Yeah, but you think it’s going to work?”

Eagle shrugged unevenly, his right shoulder lifting slightly before the other. “Don’t see why not. You should have thought of this at the beginning of summer.”

“Will someone tell me what’s going on?” Reese looked at the other girls, but they shook their heads.

Dani put her hands on her hips. “Someone better start talking. It’s hot as Breakdown out here, and my show’s on the Teev.”

Jaxon turned eyes on her. “Oh, it’s so gonna be worth it. I promise. Took us long enough to gather the parts. But this is something you can’t share with anyone outside the crew, or we’ll lose it.”

Lyssa and Lyra both rolled their eyes as if they were an extension of one another rather than separate people. Reese shuddered internally, slightly spooked by it, though she’d known them since nursery school and liked them almost as much as she did Jaxon.

“Like we’d ever say anything to those jukeheads,” Lyssa said. Lyra nodded, her sister’s words apparently enough for her.

“Come on, then.” Jaxon took a step onto the cement ring and looked over the grate.

“I think we ought to do it over there.” Eagle pointed to the middle. “Less noticeable if someone comes.”

Jaxon frowned. “Yeah, but kids could fall in if we do it there. Some still sneak in even though they know we’ve claimed it. Let’s do it closer to the edge, near the building. At least they’d have a chance to grab that slanted cement edge under the grate if they fell.”

Eagle rolled his eyes, and Dani smirked. Only Jaxon would think about other kids, and it made Reese proud of him. He was like their conscience or something.

“Anyway, it’d be less tricky for us to get down,” he added.

“Right.” Apparently convinced, Eagle jumped up on the grate and started across it, staggering slightly under the weight of his backpack. Reese followed with the others, curious now. The rush of the water grew louder.

The grate was significantly larger than the opening it covered. Underneath the grate, a layer of cement angled down on all sides until it formed a small, open rectangle where they could glimpse the water. The rectangle was small only in comparison to the grate, however, because the opening had about the same footprint as a house in the Coop. Every now and then white pipes poked up a few inches on the angled cement, like the roof vents on the Coop houses. Reese didn’t know why whoever built the transfer station had installed the grate instead of covering the entire thing with cement, but she was glad they had. Even if they couldn’t get to it, the water was entertaining.

She stopped and peered down at the water, wondering at the sheer volume. So much liquid, all moving forward at a clipped pace, though not so fast as to be frightening. She’d heard about oceans and people swimming in them, and lakes in the mountains, but no one she ever knew had personally seen them. The only water she’d seen that even came close was the chemical-filled pool at school where they did endless laps under a teacher’s watchful eye.

Reese pulled her attention from the water and hurried across the grate, her toes slipping off her too-small sandals, the hot metal searing the skin slightly. By the time she reached the others, Eagle was cutting into the grate a few feet from the station.

“I thought this had an alarm.” Reese glanced around, feeling strangely exposed, though she’d been on the grate a thousand times.

Eagle grinned up at her. “That’s what this is for.” He gestured to a heap of wiring that he’d apparently attached to the grate on each side of the parts they were cutting. “They have detectors in the metal, but this’ll fool them. Got the laser cutter from the lab. The science teacher’s out at a funeral, but I gotta have it back by tomorrow.”

With a few swift cuts, the piece of grate was free, and Eagle carefully pulled it away from the rest. “It’ll never seal like before, but I got some magglue to make it look right,” he said. “It should hold if no one walks on it. Mr. Day will never miss the glue, and there’s enough to reseal it a bunch of times before we’ll have to steal more.”

“Okay, now what?” Dani asked.

Jaxon began pulling out what looked like coils of clothing from Eagle’s backpack. A small, battered sack of pretzels came out with the clothes, and Eagle opened it to share. They were his favorite treat, and he’d been known to scour the school garbage bins in search of them whenever they were served in the lunchtime readymeals.

Reese took a pretzel as she eyed the mishmash of clothing. “Wait, is that my old sweater?”

Jaxon laughed. “Oh, yeah. Eagle and I’ve been working on this for a while.” He shook out the coils to reveal a makeshift ladder. “Ladies, we’re going swimming.” No wonder the backpack had looked so heavy.

Jaxon threw the ladder down the hole, the metal hooks on the end clipping easily to a part of the grate. “I’ll go first.”

“Let me.” Dani had already stripped to her underwear and tank top. “I’m tougher than you.” Without waiting for a response, she grabbed hold of the rope and started her descent.

Six feet down, she reached the place where the cement angled steeply from the side. From there she stepped off the ladder and walked down, using only her hands on the ladder to slow her progress. Finally, she reached the edge of the cement.

“Punk bucket,” she called. “Way more water than I thought. At least five times as big as the pool. Maybe more.” Grabbing onto one of the strange white pipes, she knelt on the sloped cement and peered over. “It’s hardly moving on the sides, though, so I think we’re good.”

She balanced again on the ladder where it dropped over the water, and Reese backtracked to the middle of the grate to keep Dani in view for a few more seconds as her body sank below the slanted cement. If there wasn’t enough ladder to reach the water, they were all going to be disappointed.

A loud splash sent terror through Reese’s chest, but a second later, Dani’s voice echoed up to them from the deep. “It’s great! Come on down! The ladder almost reaches the water. No worries about getting back up.”

The rest of the crew needed no further invitation. Jaxon was next, and Reese followed, first shucking off her jeans and sandals, her heart pounding with equal parts fear and anticipation. The lower she climbed the cooler it was. She could almost forget that seconds before she’d been melting under the hot sun.

As Reese stepped off the ladder and onto the sloping cement, she brushed one of the protruding white pipes. Air was coming out of it, emitting a smell she couldn’t identify, and the aroma intensified as she climbed over the last bit of cement, stepped back onto the ladder, and swung unsteadily into the air.

Below her, Jaxon jumped the rest of the way, landing with a splash into the water. He was immediately caught up in the current, but with a few strong strokes he made it to the calmer water at the edges where Dani was swimming lazily on her back.

The sloping cement was open underneath, where huge iron bars jutted from the walls, supporting it. It puzzled Reese that the builders had included the extra cement at all. What was its purpose? Going down the rest of the ladder felt like entering a huge cavern that she’d once seen on the Teev.

She was getting ready to jump into the water when she noticed the cylinders—dozens of them, each a foot long with the circumference of a dinner plate. The cylinders were secured to the underside of the cement, directly under the pipes that jutted out on top. What is that about?

Above Reese, Lyssa was already climbing down, her bare feet approaching quickly, so Reese jumped, careful to angle her fall toward the calmer outer edges of the water. She hit and went under, her body tingling all over at the sudden change of temperature. The water was cool, but not icy, and for a moment of pure bliss, she floated on her back, moving her arms lazily to keep in place.

No one had ever done this before. No one but them.

Eagle was the last one down, and he paused for longer than Reese had on the ladder, studying the cylinders. He reached over and put a hand on one. “These things are some kind of membrane,” he called down. He sniffed his hand and then shrugged before carefully climbing down to the end of the rope and sliding into the water. Even then, he held onto his glasses with one hand as he swam awkwardly in Reese’s direction.

“Anything dripping from those canisters?” he asked. “I can’t see well enough to tell.”

Reese studied them for a moment before nodding. “Yeah. Clear stuff. Just every now and then. A drop or two. Must be chemicals. They have to treat the water to make it safe to drink.” Now the sloping cement seemed to make more sense.

Jaxon closed the few feet separating him from Reese. “But they treat the water inside the station before it goes into the pumps. This must be something else.”

“Maybe.” Reese glanced over at Dani, who had swum to the far wall, peering into what they could see of the opening where the rush of water entered the transfer station. “Anyway, I always wondered why they put in a grate at all.”

“Leaving it open to the air helps the flavor.” Eagle accidently splashed a little water on his glasses and scowled in frustration. “Least that’s what they said in science class when we studied water filtration.”

Reese didn’t remember that, but she trusted Eagle to have been paying attention. She glanced back up at the green canisters. “You think the chemicals will hurt us?”

Eagle considered her question. “I doubt it. They’re very tiny drops. It’s probably just something else to make it taste better.”

“Hey, come look at this!” Dani shouted at them.

Reese let herself drift partially into the main current, gliding along toward Dani. Jaxon reached out and pushed her to the side of the opening as they neared. “Careful,” he warned. “The current’s stronger here.”

Reese pointed her feet forward, landing against the cement wall with a jolt.

A fine wire mesh covered the six-meter hole where the water entered the transfer station. Reese vaguely remembered hearing something in school about a series of filtration grates as the water came down the manmade canal from the closest river. Even so, slippery bits of debris had gathered along the mesh.

“Fish, here?” Jaxon said.

Sure enough, small fish about the length of Reese’s longest finger lay pinned against the wire mesh by the rush of water. She peered closer to see them nibbling at the debris.

“Look at this one!” Dani exclaimed, pointing. Just below the water level, a fish had broken away from the mesh. It was almost transparent but glowing with some kind of light.

Apparently even Eagle could see it. “Weird,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought it was big enough to fight the current.”

“What do you mean? It shouldn’t be here at all.” Dani reached toward the glowing fish, which didn’t seem in the least bothered by their presence.

“Could have been tiny eggs when they came down the canal,” Jaxon said. “Then they grew here.”

“They’re not like any fish I ever seen on the Teev.” Eagle stared so intently that the bottom rims of his glasses skimmed the water.

“You even seeing them?” Dani teased. She touched the fish and immediately pulled back. “Saca!” she cursed.

“It bite you?” Reese asked.

“No. It tingles all over like some kind of smeg flush.”

Reese had never tried smeg, but her dad used the drug every time his new girlfriend came over. The way he zoned out before hustling Cecelia into his bedroom frightened her.

Lyssa started to touch the fish, but Jaxon grabbed her hand. “Better not,” he said, jerking his head at Dani. “We should wait to make sure there aren’t any side effects.”

He glanced up at the cylinders as he spoke, and goosebumps rippled across Reese’s shoulders.

“Gee, thanks,” Dani muttered.

Suddenly, Reese wanted more than anything to climb out of the water and get away from the transfer station completely. But Lyra started a water fight, and in the ensuing fun, Reese forgot the feeling. They swam the length of the cavern, reveling in their secret and the accomplishment of being there.

All too soon, Eagle was telling them it was time to go, and Reese climbed up the ladder first. She was glad Dani volunteered to be the last one out.

The heat of the sun felt good after being in the cool water. The grate was warm against Reese’s skin now instead of searing as it had been earlier, which meant the sun would soon set and she’d need to get home in case her father wanted her. She spread out over the grate to soak in the warmth as Eagle and Jaxon used the magglue to temporarily secure the cut piece of metal. By the time the boys finished with the glue, she was dry enough to pull on her jeans.

Thankfully, the car that had been parked outside Jaxon’s house was gone when they arrived on their street. Jaxon waved at her and headed inside, walking tall and grinning wide, as if there hadn’t been a visitor at all. Reese opened the door to her own house, and the smell of nuked food—a sure sign she wouldn’t be home alone tonight—made her stomach growl.

As she walked into the room that served as both living room and kitchen, her dad’s girlfriend, Cecelia, looked away from the three-dimensional Teev figures moving above the table. “Hey, Reese, where you been? Why’s your hair wet?”

Reese shrugged. “We were playing a game. Is my dad home?”

“In the shower. You hungry? I got some chicken. Your favorite.”

“Thanks.” Reese grabbed one of the flat readymeal containers from the sack on the counter, slid it into the narrow opening of the microwave, and punched start. As she waited for the food, she turned her eyes to the holographic Teev projection. From her vantage point, she could only see the sides of the characters, but they looked real. The only apparent difference between the Teev feed and real life was the smaller size. At school they had Teevs that projected life-sized characters, and teachers constantly used these to present their lessons. She’d grown used to seeing the teacher talking at the front of the class while simultaneously working on grades in the back of the room.

Cecelia loved to watch romances, and two characters were kissing passionately on the screen. Reese couldn’t understand why that was interesting, but she couldn’t help thinking about Jaxon and wondering if some day they might want to kiss like that.

Leaving the meal to cook, Reese grabbed her sketchbook and pencils from her room, returning as the readymeal glided out of its slot. It wasn’t really chicken, according to her science teacher, but Reese had never tasted real chicken, so it made no difference to her. She cleared a spot in the weeks of discarded food wrappers on the table and sat in the chair opposite Cecelia. Her eyes avoided the Teev as she ate with one hand and drew with the other. First, she wanted to capture the underside of the grate and the strange canisters. She was glad she’d “borrowed” the colored pencils from school because they made her drawings much more realistic. She was about to fill in the water when she felt her dad enter the room.

“Hey,” he said. “You guys better not have eaten everything. I’m starved.”

The knot Reese hadn’t even realized existed in her stomach relaxed. He hadn’t been drinking. Not yet. As Cecilia jumped up to cook his food, he paused at Reese’s shoulder. For a moment, she was terrified he would recognize the transfer station and forbid her to go there, but his attention locked on the kissing couple. With a scowl, he barked a command, and the Teev feed changed from romance to the news, which was almost as bad, but not quite. Grownups were so boring.

Carefully, Reese turned the page of her sketchbook, hiding the transfer station. She concentrated on eating for a while, but before she could finish, the drawing she’d begun earlier that afternoon beckoned like a promise she had to keep. Before she could help herself, her fork lay discarded as she turned the pages to the quick sketch of the man who’d visited Jaxon’s house.

She frowned at it. No, it wasn’t quite right. The face had been wider and more square. She erased the old lines and new ones began to form under her pencil. That was better—just as she had “sketched” him in her mind. She shaded in the too-smooth forehead that hinted at Nuface therapy. Next, she enhanced the deep-set blue eyes under the thick brows, followed by thinning the lips slightly and adding an oddly pointed chin that made him seem cruel. The nose wasn’t right either, but flattening it added the distinct toughness she remembered. To finish, she shaded in the shock of medium gray hair with a prominent widow’s peak.

Perfect. The most telling thing about the man was the fleshy cheeks, rounded with rich foods, which meant he didn’t belong in the Coop. He was slumming. He wasn’t ugly, but something about him made her feel upset. Maybe it was because she knew how much his visit had bothered Jaxon.

Cecelia brought her father’s meal and squeezed in between them at the table, cuddling up to her father as he began forking down his food. Feeling crowded, Reese arose to go to the other side, and as she did, her eyes were drawn by what was streaming on the Teev.

She gasped. It was him! The man she was drawing. No mistaking those eyes.

Both her dad and Cecelia looked in her direction. “What?” barked her dad, his tone annoyed.

Reese tried to clasp the sketchbook to her chest, but he was already reaching for it. His strong fingers pulled the book from her. He stared at the picture and then back up at the Teev. “Where did you see him?”

“I-I didn’t.” She pointed to the man on the Teev. “I mean, just now.”

Her father’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Reese.”

She shrugged. “It’s just a picture.” Even as she spoke, the man disappeared from the Teev.

“Tell me. Now.” Her father’s voice was slow but sharp, reminding her of nails and broken glass. “Where did you see that clud-faced pus bag?”

Pus bag? That meant he was an Elite who held an important job in the CORE, and that Reese was right about him slumming. She’d have to answer her father or spend the night regretting it. And what harm could there be in telling him anyway? “He was at Jaxon’s today.”

“Did you actually see him?”

Reese shook her head.

“But he was there.” His words weren’t a question but demanded confirmation.

“Jaxon saw him.”

A smile curving his lips, her father tore the drawing from her precious sketchbook, and Reese almost felt that he tore out a piece of her soul. She had three other books, but they were crammed full of drawings already.

“Will someone please tell me what’s going on?” Cecelia looked from Reese to her father. She didn’t know about Reese’s flashes or sketches or whatever they were, and Reese had hoped she’d never know. She wanted Cecelia to like her, not consider her a freak.

“Later.” Her dad went back to eating, his eyes no longer on the Teev but fixed on her drawing. The intensity of his stare made Reese uncomfortable.

Abandoning the rest of her dinner, she slipped away to her bedroom, the door barely clearing the bed as she pushed it open. Sinking to her mattress, she waited until her heartbeat slowed before carefully redrawing the man, this time adding better shading.

Once it was finished, she relaxed. Good. Now she could rest and forget him. Eventually, the drawing would fade from her mind. She hoped it was the last time he’d visit the Coop.

Reese’s relief was short-lived. Barely a week later, she and Jaxon were swimming at the transfer station when he abruptly insisted that he had to go home. He’d done the same thing for the past two days, and Reese was a little annoyed, but she left the other kids and went with him because he was acting strange, and it worried her. Arriving on their street, they discovered a silver enforcer shuttle and an ambulance jammed into the space in front of his house. Two EMTs carried a sheet-covered form on a stretcher to the ambulance.

“What’s going on?” Jaxon asked the nearest enforcer. Panic made his voice rise at the end, sending needles of fear into Reese’s gut.

“Beat it, kid. Take your nose somewhere else.”

Outrage filled Reese, overcoming her fear of the clipper. “He lives here.” She wanted to add some of her dad’s more colorful adjectives, but enforcers—or clippers as most disrespectfully called them—on the Coop beat were known to tag kids with their mood-altering temper lasers just for fun.

“Not anymore, you don’t.” The man gave them an unpleasant smirk.

“Leave him alone.” This from another enforcer, a wide-shouldered man with red hair, a freckled complexion, and a slight accent Reese couldn’t place. Obviously, he wasn’t from around here. He thumbed toward the shuttle, and the other cop left.

“I’m Enforcer Tennant,” he said to Jaxon. “Look, I’m really sorry, kid, but your mom’s dead.”

Jaxon’s mouth opened. “No, no . . . she can’t . . .” He looked as if someone had punched him in the gut, the color bleeding from his tanned face.

“We think it was a robbery.” The clipper laid a comforting hand on Jaxon’s shoulder. “We’ll find the guy who did this. For now, you need to come with me. We’ll get you fixed up with a place to stay.”

As the man led him away, tears ran unchecked down Jaxon’s face. Reese wanted to run after him, to put her arms around him and tell him it was going to be okay. But it wasn’t okay. Not for him or for her. His mom was gone. That meant he’d be taken away, and Reese would lose Jaxon. Kids whose parents died always left and never came back.

Reese couldn’t find her breath. She couldn’t call out. She couldn’t even cry. She couldn’t do anything but watch as the enforcer closed the door of his shuttle with Jaxon inside and drove down the street.

Blindly, Reese headed for home. Jaxon is gone, gone, gone. He promised we’d leave together, but now I’ll never see him again. She wept for him and for herself. Now that they’d finally come, she couldn’t stop the flood of tears. Why hadn’t she at least told Jaxon how sorry she was that his mom was dead?

No one was home at her house. She sank onto a chair next to the table, staring at nothing. Her wet hair dried, but not her eyes. She was still sitting there in the dark when her father stumbled into the room and flipped on a light. She could smell the stench of sauce on his breath.

He took one look at her, sneering a little as he said, “What’s wrong with you?”

Inwardly, she cringed. “Jaxon,” she whispered. “They took him away. His mom’s dead.”

For a full three seconds her father didn’t speak, but his eyes seemed to grow two sizes. “When?” he choked out.

“A few hours ago. She was okay before we went to play. I think someone killed her.”

“Get your stuff. We’re leaving.” Just that fast, her dad wasn’t drunk anymore. He grabbed a large duffel from the closet and began shoving in food.

Reese jumped to her feet. “What? No! Jaxon might come back. I have to wait for him.”

“Now!” He slammed a cupboard just as Cecelia walked into the kitchen.

“Gerry,” she said, running to him, “what’s wrong?”

For a moment Reese saw panic in her father’s face, but it was followed quickly with a hardening of his jaw. “Bethany’s dead. They killed her. We’ll be next.”

Cecelia gasped. “I told you to leave it alone. You should have ripped up that picture!”

Reese’s stomach dropped. Her picture? It had to be. She was the only one who drew around here. And the picture of the man at Jaxon’s house was the only one her father had shown interest in. What had her father done?

“Leave the stuff.” Cecelia’s high, breathy voice sounded nothing like her usual self. “Let’s go.”

Her father gave a curt nod. “Just gotta get something from the bedroom. We’ll need all the cash I’ve saved. Yours too.”

“When are we coming back?” Reese hated the wobbling in her voice. She’d meant to sound determined.

“Never.” His finger stabbed at her. “With or without you, I’m leaving. Your choice.”

“Of course she’s coming! It won’t be safe here.” Cecelia gave her a sympathetic glance. “Get whatever you can carry, honey. Hurry!”

This was insane. Where did they plan to go? There was no place but the Coop, not for people like them. Leaving a colony, even temporarily, was impossible without preapproval. And if they managed to sneak out using one of the breaches in the outer wall, how would they survive? They’d be picked up before long without the right kind of ID.

Reese ran to her bedroom and shoved her three used sketchbooks into a bag, followed by her current one and a few clothes. The bag was only half full when she remembered the water skins under the bed. Those went in next, followed by her two spare pairs of underwear and a pair of sneakers that were missing parts of the soles.

Had the world gone crazy?

Jaxon! She wished she could talk to him, explain to him how much she wanted to take back her picture. To unsketch the man. Somehow she knew her picture had caused his mother’s death, that she was responsible for the devastation in his face.

Before Reese realized she was making a decision, she was out the front door and running over the square of dying lawn to Jaxon’s house. But his door was locked, and all the enforcers were gone. No answers here—and of course no Jaxon.

She heard a door slam and Cecelia calling her name. Then her dad, his voice loud and angry. She crouched by the edge of Jaxon’s house where an overgrown bush somehow thrived in a foot of dirt. Her father was cursing now, and Cecelia pleaded with him to wait, but their voices faded, floating down the street in the direction of the sky train.

They’d really left her. Reese didn’t care. She had to see Jaxon. To make him understand that she hadn’t meant to hurt him.

But Jaxon didn’t return, and neither did her father. After two days of hiding out at the transfer station, spying on her house and Jaxon’s, the endless hunger in her stomach forced her to break in and raid both houses for food. Packing all she could carry, she left the colony through the breach in the outer wall that she and the other kids had found during their explorations.

Outside, barren land stretched as far as she could see, broken only by an occasional plant and a ribbon of road that cut like a scar across the terrain. She’d have to wait until dark to start down the road or the cameras mounted on the wall would catch her. At night, there were patches of darkness between the flood lights that might be enough to hide her escape. If she ran fast, she’d only be visible to the guards for a few seconds before she was beyond the reach of the brightest beams—if they were even paying attention.

Her plan succeeded maybe too well. Days of walking and hitching several rides from kind strangers followed, bringing Reese into first one CORE city and then another. She moved on the edges, avoiding cameras and enforcers—or anyone who looked official. Finally driven to desperation and the hunger in her stomach, she dared use her CivID to ride the sky train, which miraculously didn’t bring enforcers down on her. By dusk of the seventh day, she arrived at her great-aunt’s place in Big Horn, where she collapsed on the beautifully manicured lawn. The gardener found her the next morning, chilled despite the heat of August, and brought her inside, where her great-aunt fed her mounds of the most delicious food in a kitchen so large that Reese felt she was still outside.

It was then she learned her father and Cecelia were dead. A fall from a sky train platform—an accident, the report said. But Reese knew better. Her picture had killed them too.

 Chapter 1

Location: Amarillo City, Dallastar
Year: 2278, 80 years after Breakdown

Reese Parker walked into the Amarillo Enforcement Division in Amarillo City, Dallastar, hoping her hurried step didn’t betray her nervousness. When she’d originally left Dallastar for the enforcer academy, she believed the move would be permanent, but here she was back in the territory where she’d grown up. The minute she’d stepped from the sky train, the memories had returned. Not the happy memories from the second half of her childhood, but the sad and terrifying ones she wanted to forget from her time in the Coop.

I can do this, she thought, hefting the bag that carried her standard-issue Enforce weapons, remnants from pre-Breakdown days, programmed to function only with her fingerprints. The rest of her belongings, she’d sent on ahead to her new apartment.

It wasn’t as if she’d accepted this job with any real desire; there hadn’t been any other choice, and no way to remain in New York, capital city of the Estlantic territory. The Kordell Corp, or the KC, hadn’t taken kindly to her linking one of their partners to a drug ring, or the medical enhancing that he was forced to undergo to make him more submissive. They’d taken action in the form of a physical attack one night as she parked her scrambler. She’d survived—barely—and when she was finally recovered enough to return to work, her supervisor had informed her of this transfer that was for her “protection.” Apparently, no one at the New York Enforcer Division wanted to worry about her being ambushed again, or about being with her when it happened.

At least here in Amarillo City, she’d be drawing, which was unusual. New surveillance feeds meant there weren’t many divisions needing a full-time sketch artist. When identifications or a postmortem reconstruction were needed, most divisions simply called in the CORE Identification Unit, or CIU, that served all of Estlantic.

Reese had never wanted to work for CIU, despite continuous pressure to do so, which was why she had trained to become an enforcer after finishing her art certificate. She’d wanted to be closer to the action while using her drawing ability. But if forced to admit the truth, her job in Estlantic had so many rules and mundane arrests, she’d felt the life leaking out of her a little more each day, making her question her career path altogether.

Before the KC attack and this sudden offer in Amarillo City, she’d been ready to call it quits. Returning to the border they shared with the fringers was considered a step down in enforcement, but she was trying to look at it positively. This was where the real action was these days, and it could be one last chance to do what she’d been trained to do. CORE authorities had long suspected that fringers, who were unable to expand their domain into the Desolation Zones because of lingering radiation, wanted to overrun Dallastar and were causing trouble in the area. Here, she had a chance to do some good, to help push the CORE’s borders and reclaim territory lost during the decades after the total economic collapse and ensuing nuclear war that they now called Breakdown.

But being back here, so close to the Coop and those early memories . . . already she wasn’t handling it very well.

Inside Amarillo Division, Reese gave her name to the receptionist at the desk, and a few minutes later, the door behind the woman opened. Reese hadn’t expected Captain Vic Brogan, the man directly over all the enforcers in this division, to come himself to escort her inside, but here he was striding toward her with his hand extended.

Brogan looked like a boxer—compact frame, broad shoulders, dark hair almost a tad too long for regulations, and brown eyes that were deep enough to lose several ex-wives in. He moved with a gait that wasted no movement. She bet he was good in a fight.

Though she’d talked to him through the Teev, the warmth in his smile was unexpected. “Thank you so much for coming,” he said, grasping her hand in his. The muscles under his shirt rippled with the effort. He wasn’t wearing a ring, and she told herself that noticing only meant she was a good cop.

“I’m glad to be here,” she responded, somewhat automatically. “Though I was a little surprised you requested me. I’m sure there are many talented people who would have been excited to come.”

Belatedly, she realized that maybe he had asked other enforcers—and had been turned down.

Brogan shook his head. “None so good that they have a ninety-nine percent identification rate from their drawings. That’s unheard of, even with our technology.”

He’d done his research, and that was to be expected, but something in the way one of his eyes quirked upward made her feel uneasy. Probably, he’d also heard rumors of her strangeness, rumors she’d have to work hard to squelch.

“Well, it helps to have such a comprehensive database of our residents,” she said. “Makes finding matches easy once I finish the sketch. But sometimes technology is the problem, so I should warn you now that I do all my initial drawings by hand.”

“So I heard.” He grinned again. “I know paper is at a premium these days, but we have the budget, so it doesn’t make a difference to me. You can draw in mud with your toes if it gets us what we need. Can’t wait to see you in action. I suppose you’ve heard about the six scientists and Teev engineers who’ve gone missing in the past six months? We can use any help we can get to solve those cases.”

Her unease dissipated. She was here to get results and she would do so. Brogan or anyone else didn’t have to know how she did it.

“Come on. Let’s go meet everyone.”

He led her into the bowels of the division. Everywhere she looked, she saw the same white walls with silver trim that they had back in New York. There would be private offices with holo emitters embedded in the walls, more pre-Breakdown tech, that connected people so they wouldn’t need to leave their offices for meetings if they didn’t want to. Some things never changed.

Sure enough, Brogan directed her into a large meeting room where the walls shimmered with Teev holo feeds. At least the large table showed they did meet physically at times. He made a few signs in the air, and the Teev feeds came alive, making it look as if a dozen slices of rooms had appeared all around them.

“Listen up, folks,” Brogan said. “I’d like to introduce you to our newest enforcer. Meet Detective Reese Parker. She’s our new sketch artist, and she’s the best in all of CORE Territories. We’re lucky to have her.”

Reese pasted on a smile and looked around at the people she’d be working with, nodding and making eye contact, burning their faces into memory. She’d know them all soon, once these first awkward days were behind them. And while her co-workers in Estlantic hadn’t exactly been like family, she’d enjoyed working with them. Or at least some of them.

“She’s assigned to the Violent Crimes Investigation Unit, but her artistic skills will be available to all departments. Please make her feel welcome. That’ll be all.” Brogan looked at her as the feeds vanished, leaving shimmering white walls behind. “Ready to meet your new partners?”

“Partners?” Reese felt momentarily off balance. “I understood that I was being hired for identifications only.”

Brogan’s smile was comforting. “Yes, that’s true, but those don’t always take place at the station, so you’ll need a partner. Two detectives, in fact, so that they can continue working while you’re occupied with identification. Plus, it’ll be more interesting for you to see hands-on what we do here.”

Reese nodded. “I see.” In New York, she’d had one partner, and their primary job had been to track down juke users—mostly unsatisfied kids who were studying for their required certificates—who ranted about the CORE, held protests in the empty zones, and threatened to overthrow the government. A week in psychological reconditioning or a tour of a welfare colony, and they usually repented of their ways. She’d made detective last year, but in large part those skills had moldered. Brogan was right that partnering with two detectives in Violent Crimes should be a lot more interesting than arresting young dissidents. And more dangerous.

Maybe dangerous was exactly what she needed to feel alive. Because as hard as the KC attack had been, she had felt more alive during that investigation than she had since leaving the Coop.

Brogan gestured behind her. “Here they are now. Or at least one of them. This is Senior Detective Garrett Cosgrove.”

Cosgrove had dark hair and eyes, and he stood a few inches taller than she did. His skin was slightly darker than the usual, and though he didn’t otherwise look Asian, his eyes had a slightly mysterious slant. “Call me Garrett,” he said, shaking her hand. His grip threatened to crush her. He was strong then, and despite his large stomach, he moved like a martial artist she’d once drawn. To be a senior detective meant he was at least forty, but he looked older, closer to fifty, so it probably wasn’t a new appointment for him.

“Reese,” she returned, firming her hand and squeezing tightly.

Garrett’s eyes danced as he released her. “Nice to meet you, Reese.”

“Where’s Tennant?” Brogan asked, a crease appearing on his forehead between his eyes.

Garrett’s expression sobered. “We got a report of a dead body outside the Fountain, so he’s gone on ahead.”

The nervous pounding of Reese’s heart took on a different note. A dead body on her first day, and at Freedom Fountain, no less. Maybe coming home wouldn’t be all bad. The Fountain, built outside local CORE city offices to celebrate their victory against the fringers during the battle for Amarillo City, was famous everywhere, and almost revered in Dallastar itself. No wonder her second partner had hurried to the scene.

Who would dare commit murder so close to Dallastar CORE city offices? Had to be fringers. There would be cameras, of course, but she might be needed to draw something if the camera didn’t have a good angle. Even if she wasn’t needed, it was still much more interesting than chasing jukeheads or being attacked by a vengeful corporation who considered themselves above the law.

“You want to ride along,” Garrett asked, “or settle in here first?”

“Oh, I’m coming,” she said.

Garrett grinned. “I thought you might be. I’ve let shuttle bay know we’re coming. Let’s get you your blues.”

Brogan turned his smile back on. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

The dispensing machine in outfitting had already been alerted to her arrival, and two sets of enforcer blues emerged promptly on Reese’s request. She then selected the ankle-length synthetic boots and the larger of the regulation bags for her sketchbooks and pencils. Arms full, she made her way to her assigned dressing cubical where she would store her civilian clothing and the extra uniform she was required to take home with her in case she was called to work during off hours. Unlocking the cubical by placing her hand on the pad by the door, she stepped inside and began undressing.

All Enforcer “blues” were black, not the color implied by the name, and this uniform was only slightly different from the one she’d worn in Estlantic—primarily because of the Dallastar patch on the shoulder, which sported a solid letter D. The material was bulletproof, and surprisingly light and cool, though there was a short-sleeve version for summer. Shiny strips of vinyl ran up the sides on both the pants and the jacket, and there was a small, built-in connector for her iTeev on her left sleeve.

Reese pulled on the uniform, pushing the sides shut with impatience and holding it until a solid click told her it was secure. Then she tucked all her weapons into the appropriate pockets and built-in holsters: an Enforce nine mil, a backup .380, a temper laser, a stunner, and extra cartridges. Only her assault rifle would remain here for the moment. She also carried a knife—not standard issue or approved—but authorities tended to look the other way with things like that, and Reese had learned in the Coop that sometimes a knife could turn a fight quicker than a gun.

On her way out of the locker room, she passed two enforcers who’d obviously been on patrol because she didn’t recognize them from the meeting—and in the past ten years she’d developed a memory for faces. They nodded as she passed, and she returned the greeting, feeling their stares as she left.

She wouldn’t have minded doing a little staring herself. Maybe here she could start over, perhaps have a relationship. She’d learned a lot about control over the past year, and most of the time when she didn’t have a sketchbook in hand, she didn’t glimpse her colleagues’ secrets.

Garrett was waiting in the hallway outside, and his pleased glance made her happy she’d hurried, though one of the snug legs on her uniform was twisted uncomfortably. She followed him to the shuttle bay and slipped into the passenger seat of their waiting silver shuttle, tugging on the material covering her leg as she settled.

Her partner’s hands ran over the controls, bypassing the autopilot. “You ever drive one of these?”

An enforcer shuttle was little more than a large, tetrahedron-shaped car with a hyped-up engine and automatic controls, so driving one wasn’t too different from a regular car, except for the speed capability. “I’ve driven them enough. But we’re more used to scramblers in New York.” She would miss the aerodynamic motorcycle more than just about anything else, and she’d been hoping for the option of using one here.

“Lot of traffic there, I guess.”

“More than here, but most civilians use the sky trains. Much faster. And cheaper.”

He laughed. “Yeah, but squeezed in the middle of all those people.” He shuddered. “Guess I’ve been spoiled working for enforcement.”

Reese didn’t share his reservation about sky trains, but he was right about the crush of humanity. Two million people crammed into the CORE’s two territories, Estlantic and Dallastar, with most of them on the East Coast. When it came right down to it, she’d chosen to drive her enforcer scrambler to her apartment on all but the coldest of days, and even then she’d only resorted to the sky train if all the enforcer shuttles were in use or were needed for upcoming shifts.

Garrett was an enthusiastic driver, ignoring the warning beeps of the onboard Teev as he peeled out of the shuttle bay and into the streets. There was enough traffic that he felt the need to turn on the siren, though she probably wouldn’t have. The victim was already dead, after all, and their partner would have secured the scene and any main witnesses by now. They couldn’t change anything by hurrying.

“Mind if I put down the top?” Garrett asked.

“Not at all.” She’d pulled her thick, dark hair back into a tight braid for her first day. Something about impressions. She believed her hair was her one great beauty, and securing it made sure people were paying attention to her as an enforcer and not her as a woman.

The top slid back and folded into a narrow opening on the rear of the shuttle. The wind whipped her face, and she was glad for the long sleeves of her blues.

The Fountain was less than two city blocks away, maybe fifteen minutes on foot but mere minutes with Garrett driving. When he pulled to a sudden stop, Reese jumped out of the shuttle. A crowd was gathered near the Fountain. That was new. In New York, people tended to split fast if they knew enforcers were coming because of their tendency to scoop up everyone for questioning. She was glad to see the difference in attitude here because witnesses who weren’t worried about being detained overly long by irritated enforcers were better witnesses.

The crowd opened up for them with ease, as if no one wanted to touch their uniforms, which made Reese reassess her initial conclusion. Maybe the people here weren’t as at ease with enforcers as she’d first thought. Reese studied their faces, watching for signs of guilt: mocking stare, averted eyes, flushed face, or open hostility. But she saw nothing out of the ordinary.

They passed yellow enforcer tape and three enforcers holding back the crowd. Two figures bent over the body. Both arose as they approached, the man with light brown hair stepping toward them purposefully, his hand outstretched. “You must be the new girl,” he said with a welcoming smile. “I’m Alex Andres, the medical examiner.”

“Reese Parker.” She returned his smile and shook his hand, but her eyes quickly skidded past him to the man at his side.

It was Jaxon. Her Jaxon.

He had dark hair, a tanned face with a couple days’ worth of beard growth, and blue eyes that were as intense as when they were children. He was taller and his shoulders much broader than she’d imagined he’d be whenever she’d thought of him over the years, and the sharp angles of his body had filled out with muscle that did wonders for his enforcer blues.

All at once, her movements felt sluggish, as if she were stuck in a bad Teev feed. The captain had called him Tennant, but never in a million years would she have connected the name to Jaxon, whose last name had been Crawley when she’d known him. How could he possibly be here?

“Reese?” he said so softly she almost had to read his lips.

In that instant, the years peeled away, and the gangly boy stood again before her. Her best friend, the person she’d gone to with her fears, the one who’d encouraged her in school, the one who’d understood about her mother. She saw him as he’d been then: appearing in her doorway, roaming the narrow paths of the Coop, swimming at the transfer station. Most of all, she remembered his face the day he’d left her. The day his mother had been murdered.

Because of her.

“Jaxon? I can’t believe you’re here.” She took a tentative step toward him, unsure how this should play out. He was Jaxon, and yet too many years had passed for anything to be the same between them. He was a stranger now—a very attractive stranger—and she didn’t know him. The obvious stares of Garrett and the medical examiner, whose name she’d already forgotten, made the situation even more awkward.

Jaxon seemed to feel no such reserve. He stepped forward, whisking her up into a full-body hug as though she still weighed as much as the ten-year-old she’d been. He felt warm and solid and safe. He smelled like a spring rain, like new ideas and determination. Definitely her Jaxon. She clung to him for a long minute, her toes barely touching the ground, words of apology threatening to spill from her lips.

“You’re really here,” he said. “I mean, when the captain said your name was Reese, for a moment I thought . . . but the last name wasn’t the same, and your Teev image didn’t look like you, so I wasn’t sure.”

“I take it you two already know each other,” Garrett deadpanned.

Jaxon ignored him, giving her another breath-stealing squeeze before releasing her. “You look amazing—all grown up. You’re so different, but your smile, the way you looked at me just now. It’s like twenty years fell away.”

“I know. You too.” She blinked back threatening tears. “How long have you worked at this division?”

“Two years. Before that I was down the coast, closer to our old stomping grounds.”

“The Coop?” She’d never been back since the night she’d run away.

“Nearly. I was a detective in a similar settlement.” He grinned. “So, you became an enforcer and a sketch artist.”

“That’s right. Now I get paid to draw. But I get to shoot people too.”

He laughed as she’d intended.

Did he remember about her ability to sketch what others saw, or did he chalk it up to childhood imagination? She hoped the latter. The last thing she needed was for her new colleagues to be wary of her. Or to end up in some Estlantic lab undergoing experiments.

“What happened after that day you left the Coop?” she asked. “I never heard.” She had so many questions for him. She’d searched his name on the population database several times and come up empty. Each failure made her want to find him more. Yet at the same time she’d dreaded this day because he would have just as many questions for her. Questions she’d have to answer. Almost, it was better not knowing what had happened to him.

Yet here he was, working as a detective and not drinking himself into oblivion or strung out on juke, so something had gone right in his life. He’d made it out of Colony 6 just like she had.

Jaxon opened his mouth to answer, but instead, he glanced at the other two men and said with a smile, “We’ll have to catch up later. But I’m glad you’re here. I know that . . .” He stopped without finishing, but Reese had the feeling it was important. Probably just her imagination—she didn’t know him anymore.

As they turned back to the body, a sketch crashed across Reese’s consciousness. A woman. A pretty, petite woman with ebony hair. Reese clutched her bag tightly, trying to keep her expression blank. Who was the woman? Without a doubt the mental sketch had come from Jaxon and was of someone he knew.

A second image followed the first. Same woman, different clothes. Obviously, she was someone important to Jaxon. Wife? Lover? Girlfriend? She pushed the images away, but it was too late; they’d burned into her mind. She’d have to record both sketches on paper before the compulsion to draw them faded.

Just when she thought her “gift” was under control. Apparently, it was as unsettled as she was at seeing Jaxon again.

“Time of death is at least two hours ago, possibly three,” the medical examiner was saying. His voice was serious, but his face, with his large brown eyes and dimpled cheeks, seemed meant for laughing. Reese hoped her interested expression made up for the lackluster greeting she’d given him, but paying attention was difficult with so many emotions rocketing around inside her brain.

The dead man looked like any other resident of the CORE Territories. Brown hair and light brown skin that reflected an influx of different races, ordinary synthetic khaki pants, a casual, fitted blue shirt with buttons extending under the right arm to the hem. Even his loafers looked no different than a million others. Nothing about him stood out—except that he was dead. The angle of his body, the way one hand twisted under his back with the other arm flung up and out as if trying to catch his fall, unsettled her.

Jaxon’s hand brushed hers momentarily as they stared down at the deceased. His touch was strangely comforting, as though they were still two little kids trying to survive in the Coop.

His presence was also disturbing. How likely was it that they would both end up here in Amarillo City at the same time? And partners? With five main enforcer divisions in Dallastar, another ten in Estlantic, and numerous subdivisions, this “coincidence” might be a little too coincidental. Presumably, he’d trained in Estlantic as she had, and he would have had a similar career arc, but in all this time their paths hadn’t crossed.

Her eyes lifted to find Jaxon staring at her. She replayed their meeting in her mind, the way he’d greeted her—enthusiastically but without surprise. He knew I was coming, she realized. Not that she’d be here today, maybe, but he’d expected to see her soon. He might have even been lying about not recognizing her Teev image. But to what purpose?

All of her instincts screamed out that Jaxon was hiding something.

He gave her a slow smile that brought back that first day they’d gone swimming at the transfer station when she trusted him more than anyone in the world. When she’d worried about him leaving her. Back then the smile had made her feel safe and loved. Now it made her pulse race and her mind question his motives. Her heart ached for their lost innocence.

She filed her thoughts away for future reflection. For now, she’d take Jaxon at face value and wait for what their catching up might reveal. Sooner or later she’d learn his secrets.

And she’d have to tell him the truth about his mother’s murder—or, rather, her part in the murder. If she couldn’t make it right, it wouldn’t matter what he was hiding because any chance of a meaningful relationship between them would be lost.