After escaping from two very different prisons, Toby and Epsilon 17 finally have a chance to live for themselves. Helping to build a new city in the wake of the destruction of the Institute should be all they’re worrying about, but Epsilon 17 has a horrific secret that’s getting harder and harder to hide. Cassandra isn’t dead, she’s locked up in the deepest, darkest corner of E17’s mind. Pushing E17 to the brink of madness, Cassandra is determined to take over E17 entirely and destroy the rebellion.
Can Epsilon 17 overcome their hidden enemy and learn to trust the people around them? Unwilling to wait for Cassandra to force their hand, Epsilon 17 decides to take control: to go to a city where the Institute still holds sway, and try to destroy them once and for all. Toby, forbidden from joining the mission, has to find his own path forward. Their connection is as strong as ever, but the distance between them keeps growing.
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Sometimes I think all I have ever done is hide.
I hid in the Institute, shielding my memories, my soul from those who wanted to take it from me. Now I hide here, from those who want to help me. They want to help me, but they're also afraid of me. I had a reputation before I was "saved." Their thoughts call me "the Hunter." Even though they try to cover them, I catch their fear and distrust echoing in the air all around me, and in the slant-eyed gazes they throw at me. They don't know I can still hear them. I've always been stronger than people predict. I understand why they feel this way, but it burns me still. So, I avoid them as best I can.
I'm sitting alone in the lush garden that circles the new ARC headquarters. It's beautiful here, a swathe of luscious green studded with vivid color, trees and flowers in carefully designed paths that lead around a low-slung, glittering white building. The whole area is sheltered with cunningly joined transparent sheets that filter out the worst of the dangerous sun. If you squint, you can see the shape of them, hexagon upon hexagon, tessellated together. Last week they were tinted dark for the brutal summer months, now they're clear and nigh-on invisible. This used to be the Governor's house, but he fled during the fall of the Institute and took a lot of the military police with him, leaving the city reeling. ARC stepped in, stepped up, tried to retain normalcy, but the shiny surface of city life has worn thin. The power vacuum caused by the disappearance of most of the higher-ups is exacerbated by the growing discontent of the township peoples. Without the Institute dampening them down, hunting for the worst of the malcontents, the slums are rumbling, and the people of the city are frightened and confused.
Several of the factories that produce luxury items for the Citizens have gone on strike, the poor workers no longer numbed to the imbalances in their lives. ARC has worked in secrecy for so long they don't know how to take charge like this. There's no direction, and that is frightening. Shivering, I turn my thoughts away from such darkness, and I look up into the bright-blue sky.
I can't get enough of being outside. Simply sitting in the air is still incredible to me. Several nights I've been woken by Toby or Darcy shaking me gently, urging me to go inside to escape the heavy chill of the night. I don't have nightmares when I'm outdoors. I seem to have developed a sort of claustrophobia that makes me edgy and jumpy when in a closed environment. Strange, when I lived below ground for years, to think that now I'm free, the walls press on me.
It's been two months since I tried to kill Cassandra. Looked her in the eye and stopped her heart inside her chest but failed to end her. My thought-blind brother carried me out of the wreckage of the Institute, not knowing what he couldn't see. That she didn't die, not really. I bear her with me, a nebulous tumor nestling in the secret place that was once my salvation. The bunker I built to save my memories from the Tank, from the wipes that would remove my personality and feelings. She hides in there; I know it. For two months I've fought her for possession of my mind, control of my body. The fear is with me, always, but it lessens when I'm outside. I like to sit under the apple trees most of all. The fresh, sharp smell permeates the air, and I fill my lungs until it feels like they must burst from the strain. The filtered sunlight bathes me, trickles honey warm down my spine and soothes my troubles until I can almost forget them.
But no one here wants to forget what I've done. The few people who I don't feel the need to hide from are Toby's personal group of close friends. They accept me as he did, unquestioningly. Their shields are strong enough that I don't get inundated with their private thoughts against my wishes, and their open faces tell me they trust me not to pry. That trust is an incredible thing. It feels tangible. I treasure it, as though I can cup it in my palms and feel a tiny heartbeat. The smallest act could snuff it out. I keep the tightest lock on my powers possible. Awareness of that trust helps me control myself and win the fight that always tears at the back of my mind.
Darcy is my favorite. There's something about her that soothes me. She's so calm and accepting. In a strange way I feel mothered by her. She always checks in on me, makes sure I'm managing but never makes me feel like I'm not enough, not trying hard enough or being normal enough. She doesn't mind that I'm quiet. Sometimes she'll come to sit with me and draw while I think. I love watching her draw, watching a thick black line roll over a blank screen and seeing pictures come alive.
I've tried to draw. I'm able to produce accurate technical sketches, one of the many skills the Institute has written through the core of me — regardless of any innate ability — but I don't know how to take what I see of beauty and translate it into an image. My drawings are dead. And really, it's the stillness of Darcy's consciousness when she draws that I envy. I want to find the thing that stills me, settles my heaving insides. There must be something. My brother doesn't rage inside as I do. Which is a blessing, I suppose. If he did, with his power, everyone would feel it. We'd probably die from it.
Toby is ... Toby is Toby. His naiveté often dazzles me. His shields are firm for the most part, having pinned them down, knowing how dangerous it is to be open, but he still projects this aura of hope, of trust. He believes that people are good, and pure, and they all deserve to be safe and happy. He's been so untouched by loss, disregarding the past year of his life, that he's still untarnished by the harshness of existence. As well, being unable to read protects him from the more bitter realities of what lies below the surface. It's a beautiful thing, and I know I'll do anything to protect that in him. Not a day goes by when I don't regret my choice. Not Cassandra's death itself; the woman was, and is, a poison. Now one that seeps inside me, which I believe is better for the world. I regret the innocence I took from my brother, and the price I pay is for that.
My penance is clear; carry Cassandra inside me and never, ever set her free from the prison she is trapped in. Never allow her to take hold of me, or find a way out. I'm her jailer as she once was mine. It seems like a fair trade.
The soft material of my shirt scratches the short hair at the nape of my neck, tickling, and I rub it for a moment, allowing my thoughts to drift across to the training rooms where I know most people will be at this hour. Toby and his friends. I like them well enough, but I find Serena too loud and abrasive to spend long periods of time with; she grates on me, although I know she means well. She's an explosion of energy and sound, too wild to contain. I'm happy for her swift recovery, and grateful she's around, but she sets my teeth on edge. Too much, too friendly, too loud. As for Jake, who seems to think himself my honorary brother, he has more energy than I know what to do with. He's fascinated by the Institute, and asks me questions all the time, which wears me down. He's become good friends with Damon, Gamma 26, the little boy I pulled back from a coma.
In a strange twist of events, Damon turned out to be Serena's half brother. I get the story in bits and pieces, coded thoughts and sentences. Damon was taken when he was just five years old. They had him for five years, and he'll never get those memories back. Not that he'd want them. I know Serena is working with India and Oman to reconstruct his memories of the time before he was taken. I can't help but feel a little jealous that for him there was a before. For me, my everything has been the Institute. Sharing Toby's life may have saved my mind, but it's not the same as a real past.
Damon still seeks me out, preferring my quietness over the edgy energy of ARC, but less and less as he settles in. I like spending time with him, when he wants to be silent together. I think that alone cemented me on Serena's "team" as she describes it. There is a level of "debt" that ties me to this strange family, but the harnesses don't sit comfortably on my thin shoulders.
At least I can go where I want to. I'm sure I could even leave, if I chose. For now, here, I've taken to spending a lot of time with Kion, one of ARC's operatives, a quiet, accented man in his midtwenties or thereabouts. He was born in the deadlands and recruited to ARC after an Institute team tried to take him in from the townships, not realizing that — as well as being a powerful telepath — he made his income by street fighting, or that he had a loyal gang of friends who weren't going to stand by as he was dragged into a hovering elec-car. He's an interesting guy, the sort who doesn't say a lot, but when he does, it's worth putting credit on. He's been teaching me self-defense and helping me put together a training regime. It's working pretty well. Regular exercise combined with endless amounts of food have made me unrecognizable as the birdlike human who once lived underground. I have curves and swells of muscle where before only nubs of bone and stringy tendons were visible. My skin has darkened, no longer looking gray and thin, and my hair has grown in, to the extent that my Institute tattoos are hidden. I like to run my fingers through it, but I can't deal with hair longer than an inch or so yet. It makes me feel panicky and off balance, but I'm working on it.
As I sit, comfortable on an ancient and worn marble bench, I swing my feet and contemplate my outfit. I've taken to wearing smooth and slinky UV proof cloth, it's a little shiny and feels luxurious against my skin. My shirt is blue with a raised collar snug around my throat and long sleeves that I can tuck my hands inside. I have a nanofiber-reinforced vest over it, white, to reject the heat from the sun. It's stab proof, and quite expensive. A present from Serena. She left it on my bed without a message, but the days I spent tracking her essence have tuned me to her. I knew who it was from as soon as I touched the ridged material, and she didn't go to great lengths to conceal it. My trousers are standard issue combat style, meaning they have dozens of pockets to keep things secreted away. I like to keep my possessions on me. Having things that belong to me is so unreal I hate leaving them anywhere. In my left hip pocket, my datapad is snug against my thigh, my Ident and credit card are tucked into the side of my waistband. A heavy-duty combat knife with a sharp blade and a ridged section for sawing through things is locked into its sheath on my right thigh. The blade is impossible to remove from the black aluminum casing without my thumbprint on the hilt, making it a secure weapon to carry without fear of it being lost or stolen. I trail my fingers down its spine.
Toby hates that I carry a knife, but he has no idea what it's like to be helpless. It's ironic that he feels that way, as he himself is a weapon more powerful than any I could carry. I'm getting stronger, faster, better at squirming away from Kion's tight grips and locks, but I'll never be powerful. And I would rather die than be captured again. Cassandra whispers that if only I would take Toby's power, stream it out of him and fill myself to the brim, then I'd never have to be afraid of anything again, not even her. I could use that power to expel her into the nothing space, she murmurs happily, tormenting me. I crush her down as best I can, distracting myself with the rebellion and training.
According to Sander, ARC's computer tech, there are descriptions and files on all of us floating around the other Cities. We're wanted terrorists. They've yet to mount a full-on assault, but we've been dealing with attempted infiltrations and several stealth attacks. My file says I should be brought in at all costs. No harm to come to me. The knife on my hip will stop that from happening, if ever it comes to it.
The sharp scuff of leaves crunching on my left breaks me out of my idle thoughts, and I turn to see who's approaching. Jake is hovering off the ground, running and flipping over in random directions; he looks like a floating gymnast. Damon tries to evade him, scurrying backward on his hands and feet with a wide grin on his face. Jake whoops and waves at me before diving toward Damon and for a moment they're just a blur of ridiculousness and laughter. A smile creeps over my face watching them. Damon seems to have recovered well from the ordeal of the Institute. Oman and India have been working themselves into the ground with all the sheep they pulled out, and most of them are doing okay. They've lost the empty, vacant look completely, and they squeal and run and act much like the kids who grew up the normal way. They'll never get their memories back, but who would want them? Now they can build new ones, start fresh. They don't need to know what a bone saw drilling into their temple feels like. No one does.
I'm an exception, I suppose. My memories haven't been blotted from me, so I can't just move on from them. If I didn't remember, though, who knows if Toby and I would have connected the way we did? We could have both died down there, with all of the others. Trapped. I give a mental shrug and lean against the cool stone of the bench, pulling my legs up underneath me and enjoying watching the children messing around. Totally worth it. I'm managing, after all.
As I watch, the distinctive, stocky figure of Kion appears from around the side of the building. He zeroes in on me and raises a hand; he has a large bag slung across his broad shoulders and I know what that means. I slide off my bench and pad across the grass to meet him.
"Hey, Thea. How's it?" My new name sits awkwardly in my ears, still. I chose it myself, after reading a book of ancient myths. I haven't told anyone the origin, but sometimes I whisper it to myself. Prometheus, eternally punished for stealing fire from the Gods. In some myths Hercules saves him. Someone could still save me. Taking a mythological name, in the style of the Institute, might feel odd to the others, but it makes sense to me.
Kion watches me with a gentle expression. His gravelly voice always makes me laugh. He's two inches taller than I am and has an open boyish face, teeth flashing white against his dark skin. He's about three times as wide as me, though, and he speaks calmly and sparsely. He reminds me of the images I've seen of bears, soft-looking but with immense amounts of power and an aura of danger. He rakes his banded dreadlocks out of his face and grins at me.
"Hey, Kion. Can't complain. Just watching the monsters." I jerk my chin at Jake and Damon who are sprawled in the grass poking each other in the face for no reason other than that they're young.
He grunts, squinting at the wriggling forms, and gestures toward the low outbuilding that has been turned into a training area, and I nod in agreement.
We try to train every other day at least, but Kion often has to go out on missions, and I work with Marty or Serena instead. Marty is still raw with grief over his partner's death, his face so stark sometimes I can't stand to look at him. He doesn't say much, but he's a good trainer, patient and skilled. Serena and I don't click so well; she likes to banter and chat while I prefer to focus and stay quiet, which makes her uncomfortable, and in turn she talks more, making me shut down even further. She knows a lot about fighting, though, even if the way she uses her power will never be something I can do.
Kion's the best. I don't know why he's training me — he has much better things to do as he's the head of the ARC operations branch — but I don't ask him 'cause he'd just grunt in response. I never realized how expressive a grunt could be until I met him. I've started counting them and giving them numbers. I might print a translation guide for people.
We amble in companionable silence over toward the training rooms, and I once again marvel at the efficiency of the ARC personnel. They train people to shield in a different way than the Institute does. For a start, there's no punishment if you lose concentration and drop your shield, so the fear factor is absent. The minds here are ordered and closed down, as a general rule. I still pick up a lot of stray thoughts and feelings, but when I lock myself down, which is nearly all the time now, I get to relax in the privacy of my own mind, without others intruding. A lot of the people here don't seem to believe that I'm not sifting them, but that's fine. I don't need a lot of friends, or any, maybe. I'm happy to just be left alone. I prefer the still quiet.
We slide the heavy door open, Kion with telekinesis, me with my bare hands, new calluses scraping on the metal, and head into the large room. There are changing areas at either end, but Kion insists we train in whatever we're wearing and change into clean clothes after. He's told me time and again it's no good learning to fight in tight-fitting operative clothes if you're not going to be wearing them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "They Are the Tide"
Copyright © 2019 Tash McAdam.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
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