You are the generation that will change the world.
Sixteen-year-olds Demarcus Bartlett and Lily Beausoliel are among a select group of youth invited to an exclusive, all-expenses-paid conference at social media giant Alturas’ California headquarters. Led by charismatic founder Simon Mazor, the world’s youngest billionaire, this isn’t the typical honor society. It seems that everyone here has some secret, untapped potential, some power that may not be entirely of this world.
An age-old prophecy suggests that if these teens combine their abilities, they could change the course of history. The only question is: Will it be for better or for worse?
Ancient past meets technological present in award-winning author Jason C. Joyner’s masterful and timely debut, exploring the influence of the media, what we make of our talents, and the way our choices shape our future—and that of the whole world.
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This might not be a great idea, but Demarcus Bartlett had to see if he could outrace a sports car.
He crouched behind a bush next to the on-ramp for the highway. His blue hoodie concealed his shoulder-length dreads, so it should be hard for any cars passing by on Santa Clara Street to see him. No Toyotas or Hondas would do. His prize would have some horses under the hood. He'd have to be patient. Not many cars out at 5 A.M. would fit his needs.
He checked his shoelaces again, his fingers fumbling over the knots. Didn't want to trip at highway speeds. That could get ugly. He glanced at his phone again. He had a job to go to, but the drive to see what he was capable of overwhelmed him.
Even with the risk of being discovered.
The light for the on-ramp turned red. In the soft rosy glow, a growling beast stopped at the white line. Its shiny black paint reflected the traffic light off of the hood. A rev of the Camaro's engine. The owner was ready to try out his toy as well. The blinker flicked on, signaling a turn onto Highway 101.
This guy was the one.
Demarcus wiped his palms on his hoodie again and shook them out like a runner at the starter's gate. His heart leapt at the thought of going through with this.
Mr. Camaro would blow right by his hiding place. A smile stretched across Demarcus's face. Here's hoping this guy knows how to use the accelerator.
Green light cut through the darkness, and the black car jumped forward, turning onto the ramp and surging by him. Demarcus gave him a few seconds' head start to make it fair as he noted the time to track his speed.
Three. Two. One.
He took off from his sprinter's stance and pumped his arms and legs. Up the concrete ramp he raced. The spring California air chilled him as he took after his target. His hood slipped off, dreads trailing in his wake.
The roar of the muscle car carried through the early morning silence. That guy wanted to open it up, and in minimal traffic, this was the perfect place to do it. Demarcus thanked the man while he puffed air in and out to fuel his muscles.
The taillights grew closer.
The Camaro blew by a semi. Demarcus passed the same truck a couple of seconds later. How fast was he going? If only his cell phone had a speedometer app.
His senses heightened as well: he spied an obstacle approaching fast, and he dodged a fallen muffler on the side of the road. His eyes watered from the wind whipping by. Maybe I need some shades when I do this.
The Camaro seemed to slow, but Demarcus knew it was only an illusion.
He'd caught it.
He ran alongside the streaking vehicle and let up for a moment to keep pace, glancing over to see the driver's face. The guy didn't realize that a teenager was zipping alongside him.
A laugh broke through Demarcus's breaths as he gave an extra surge.
Now the Camaro tasted his dust.
He ran for another couple of minutes until he found an exit. A black kid walking along a highway would probably attract attention, so he needed to stop in a reasonable area. He followed the curve around to a suburb he didn't recognize. His trip had taken him north past Fremont. Not his usual stomping grounds.
His shoes skidded to a stop. As the sensation of wind blowing by him subsided, he pulled his phone out and checked the timer. Ten minutes had passed. The sign said Union City. He'd traveled twenty miles in that time. What did that work out to for speed?
One hundred twenty miles per hour.
Demarcus pumped his fist in the air as adrenaline rushed through his body. He'd run faster than a cheetah. Faster than a Camaro. His lungs didn't complain at all.
The most insane part? He couldn't quite access it yet, but he could feel more within him.
Exercise. He'd work out and build things up even more. Wind sprints back and forth at the old abandoned warehouse where no one would wonder about a sixteen-year-old dashing around at impossible speeds.
A scent wafted into his nostrils. The pungent odor of burnt rubber irritated his nose. Where was that coming from?
He lifted a foot and gawked at the worn tread on his new sneakers. Apparently running shoes weren't made for triple-digit speed. This made it three pairs in two months. Highway speeds must wear them out faster. He poked the tread. They'd last a little longer.
Shoot, what time is it? He hadn't checked that when he stopped his timer. The screen read 5:15.
Time to get to work. He'd gotten up this early to deliver newspapers. It had taken a lot of arguing to get his mom to agree to it. She didn't want her special boy in harm's way, yet she also appreciated his motivation to earn some bank on his own.
He clenched a fist, thinking of how challenging things had been before the move to Silicon Valley. Until Mama had finished school and gotten her job, they had struggled to keep up with the rent and the basics. Finances were improving, but the cost of starting over had been a big deal. He had to help out somehow. Besides, how else would he keep up with his new need of quality footwear?
Delivering the papers didn't take long. Making sure they didn't break patio decorations was the challenge. His boss couldn't believe it when Demarcus asked for another two routes. Hey, what were another few minutes?
He stretched his legs a couple of times to keep the machine loose. His grin wouldn't subside at his thoughts of dashing about so fast. He didn't know why God let him do this, but he was thankful for every blessing. If only he could share this with someone!
Eh, that probably wasn't the best idea right now. Visions of men in bubble suits probing him with needles freaked him out.
On the return trip to Santa Clara County there was more traffic. The early birds had begun their commutes, but it wasn't too bad for California standards. Again, no one seemed to notice him as he skimmed the edge of the road.
It took him fifteen minutes to backtrack due to his slower pace — just a leisurely jog past all the normal people in their Corollas.
What did this mean? The last several weeks weren't dreams or hallucinations. His impromptu race this morning proved it. He looked to the sky.
"God, I'm so grateful, but I'd also like a hint of what I'm supposed to do now."
Demarcus knew the source of his gift had to be divine. Why him? What did the Lord have in mind for a kid just scraping by?
The exit for his city had a windier road. It felt like his personal roller coaster. He couldn't help releasing a whoop gliding into south San Jose.
Now, off to Parkland Avenue and his routes. He'd finish in ten minutes and head home to get ready for another day at school. If he was lucky, Mama would have a plate of her cinnamon apple French toast ready for him.
Skirting the park, he almost tripped over a branch sticking out from behind a bush near the sidewalk. He hopped to the side and hit the brakes. Even if most people wouldn't hit the branch at high speed, he didn't want them to trip over it.
Of course, it took him twenty yards to stop. He jogged back over. And recoiled.
It wasn't a stick. A pair of legs lay sprawled out on the cement.CHAPTER 2
"Lily? Come on. You're going to be late."
Lily Beausoliel groaned as she put the last touches on her hair. Here we go again.
Her stepmom, Kelly, thought people were late if they weren't ten minutes early. What did it matter? Lily didn't care about getting to class on time anymore. If the universe intended to treat her like it had over the last year, nothing really mattered.
Her thrift store boots sat by her closet door. She grabbed them and her backpack and trudged down the stairs. She tossed the pack next to the table and it landed with a thud. All the stupid books from her elite private school echoed against the hardwood floor.
Kelly jerked around at the sound and dropped a butter knife.
At least that brought a smile to Lily's face.
"You can't scare me like that. You know I jump easy. Now hurry up and get those ... things on. You'll have to eat on the way to Everett. If only you —"
The stepmonster must have noticed Lily's hair.
"What did you do? Your beautiful blonde hair! You dyed it black!"
Lily plopped into the kitchen chair and started lacing up her boots. The dress code called for a white blouse and a plaid skirt down to her knees, but her worn leather army boots would be an expression of her mood. Along with the midnight color of her hair.
Kelly fingered a long dark strand of Lily's hair, clucking her tongue. "Your father is going to have a fit when he returns from his trip. What am I supposed to tell him?" Her face crinkled up like a Shar Pei's.
It probably wouldn't matter, honestly. Lily doubted if he would even notice. She shrugged. "He'll have to get used to it."
"Ugh. What am I going to do with you? Just ... hurry to the car. We've got to go. Do you want some bran toast?" Lily grabbed a S'mores-flavored Pop-Tart. "Nah, I'm good. Thanks for taking me."
She couldn't identify much good in her life right now, and while spending more time with her stepmom didn't thrill her, it beat the carpool with the catty Hot Tops — the main clique at Everett Academy. She'd given up that privilege a few months ago.
Silence filled the car on the way to school. Kelly opened her mouth to say something a couple of times, but Lily wielded her cold shoulder to devastating effect. Once when she caught Kelly glancing her way, a twang of guilt hit. Kelly wasn't the source of her trials. Just a symptom.
Lily was done bleeding for everyone. Extending a peace offering wasn't going to happen today.
They pulled into the half-circle drive to the posh campus, and Lily hopped out, muttering goodbye as she exited Kelly's BMW. She ducked through a spring drizzle into the main doors. At least the weather agreed with her mood.
After pushing through the hallway logjam, she slipped into theater class with a sigh. At the start of the school year she'd been excited to take it. Now the class just served as a cruel reminder of how fast things could change.
A smile illuminated Clara Casper's scarred face as she pat the open seat in the back of the room, next to the window. Lily cringed at how well her friend had dealt with an awful situation, especially compared to Lily's brooding. The ugliness of her own attitude bubbled up like bile in her throat.
"I think we get to do our first walk-through on the stage today. I can't wait." Clara bounced in her chair like an excited puppy. "Hey, I like what you did with your hair. Did you do it for the play?"
That would make a good cover story. "Yeah. I wanted to really get myself into the part."
Missy Austin, the queen of the Hot Tops, walked by them. If there was one person Lily couldn't stand, it was her former friend. Missy looked down on the two of them with her nose wrinkled. "Wow, Lily. With that hair you almost match Clara for the freak section."
Betrayal stabbed her heart again. The insults made each day in this class torture. Lily usually weathered the storm, but she couldn't let Missy get away with hurting her friend.
She stood in Missy's way, only coming to her chin. "Look, cupcake. You might think you're all sweet on the outside. Let me tell you, you're rotten on the inside. Go sit down with the rest of your garbage."
Missy's eyes bulged and she fumbled for a response. Before she could wield her tongue, Mr. Barton called for everyone to sit down.
Missy moved up front. Lily waited a moment then sat down by Clara, who took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "Thanks for being there for me. No one sees me through my scar, except you."
Clara had survived a house fire years ago. As a consequence, she'd sustained burns on the left side of her face. The corner of her lip permanently turned up in a smile, still, Clara had such a joy that the other side usually matched. Lily didn't care about much right now, but she'd fight for Clara — a friend who gave Lily hope in her own darkness.
She watched Missy glance back and whisper to her group of crones. Missy was the first person to welcome Lily at this school, after her father's impulse move from Washington. And now, just a few months later, Missy couldn't stand the sight of Lily. And vice versa.
Mr. Barton slid in front of his desk in his old Birkenstock sandals. Lily always wondered if they were relics from Woodstock. He smiled and patiently stroked his curly beard while waiting for the chatter to subside.
"This week we're going to begin walk-throughs on the spring play. Let's go into the auditorium and start doing our blocking."
Lily followed at the end of the line as everyone filed through the door that led to backstage. Clusters of kids congregated on the stage. The Hot Tops in the class occupied center stage. So fitting.
Lily and Clara nestled into a spot near the curtain, next to a stand with a large spotlight on it. Lily wanted to stay away from Missy before Lily did something she'd regret.
Mr. Barton waved his arms in the air and whistled to get their attention. "Okay, ladies and gentlemen. Our performance of You Can't Take It With You opens in two weeks. We've been working on our lines and characterization. Now it's time to put everything together. Clear the middle of the stage, and we'll set up how it will be for real."
Mr. Barton directed traffic and motioned for Missy's crew to move. They shuffled over toward Lily's spot, and she narrowed her eyes, trying to give off her best back-off vibe. Clara twirled past Lily in a bout of her endless enthusiasm.
"I've been working on my ballet twirls for my character. How does it look?"
Clara spun right in front of Missy and stepped on her foot. Missy jerked away even though the contact was mild.
"Get off me, you clumsy troll." Missy shoved Clara into the light stand, knocking her to the ground.
That was it.
Lily cocked her fist ready to pound Missy's prissy nose when her eye caught movement in her peripheral vision. The spotlight was tipping, and Clara lay right under it. The huge metal canister plummeted toward her.
Lily thrust her hands toward it, and brilliant light flashed. "No!"CHAPTER 3
Demarcus bent down and stared at the body in front of him — a man with a scraggly beard and wild tufts of grey hair sticking out of his head. Splotches of dirt stained the front of his tropical-print shirt, and grime lined each nail of the one hand Demarcus could see.
Was the dude dead? Demarcus recovered from his initial shock enough to lean in. What was the way to check? Look, listen, feel. Something like that.
He pressed his ear to the man's chest and looked at his face. He felt the man's ribs rise, and at the same time, a blast of alcohol-laced breath hit his nose. Okay, the guy was alive. Stinky, but alive.
A homeless guy, maybe? The man lay on his side, one arm askew above his head. Demarcus rolled the man onto his back, thinking it might make him more comfortable. That's when he noticed a trail of dried blood from the man's scalp running down the other side of his face.
The man wasn't breathing very fast. Demarcus's fingers searched for a pulse on the man's neck. Very faint, from what he could tell.
He'd better call 911. He pulled his phone out to dial. Before Demarcus could swipe the screen, the man started convulsing. His body shook and a frothy substance spilled from his mouth.
Demarcus recoiled. This dude was going to die right in front of him. No way would an ambulance make it in time.
He glanced around. The street was deserted in the early morning hour.
But he could.
He stooped down and pulled the man to a sitting position. With one knee down, Demarcus managed to wrestle him up and sling him over his shoulder, despite the man's quaking.
Okay, where was the hospital? He was a block from Parkland, so St. Matthew's would be a couple of miles away. Now the test was how fast could he go carrying an adult.
His legs churned like pistons against the sidewalk, propelling him forward. The extra weight challenged him, and even using the fireman technique, the body threw off his balance. He struggled to keep steady, and it affected his momentum.
The homeless man gurgled and twitched.
Push it, Demarcus. He's not going to last much longer. He leaned in, willing his legs to move faster. His mouth dried out with the stress.
A crosswalk signal changed to red, and a truck turned right in front of him. Demarcus grabbed onto the man tighter. He planted a foot to spin. The truck veered by a few inches away as Demarcus finished his turn and squirted past the bumper toward his destination. His eyes stung from the exhaust hanging in the air.
The lights of the hospital windows rose in the skyline in front of him. A couple more blocks. A surge of power emanated from deep within Demarcus. Reserves he didn't know he had flooded over his skin and soaked to his bones. He flew forward, a new gear unlocked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Launch"
Copyright © 2018 Jason C. Joyner.
Excerpted by permission of Little Lamb Book.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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