With the release of ORACLE only a week away, it seems like time to give folks a small taste of what to expect in this duology. Unlike most of my previous work, this story is told in multiple third-person points-of-view. There's no magic, but there is the magic of science and scientific theory, as well as some pretty nifty psi-abilities. Action, adventure, breaking-and-entering, sarcasm, and an android--what more could you want?
I hope you enjoy!
The straining engine of the approaching Ames moving van sputtered and hissed, barely making forty miles an hour on the winding mountain roads, and announcing its arrival long before white metal flashed in the trees below. Olivia Gellar braced her feet on the asphalt, adrenaline already spiking as the van drew closer, trundling its way up the mountain.
This job will be child’s play.
“Sixty seconds, Olivia.” Nick’s voice crackled in her ear. She’d left her partner higher up the west side of the mountain with binoculars and an excellent vantage point.
“Check,” she said. “Come on down.”
She took the earbud out, snapped it into an insulated case, and then tossed the case toward the side of the road. It hit the shoulder and bounced into a patch of grass, out of harm’s way.
Time to work her magic.
Olivia stretched her arms out to either side, palms forward, fingers splayed. She closed her eyes and concentrated. The orange behind-the-eyelid sun glare disappeared, replaced by a gray mist. She harnessed it to use with her unique talent.
The short hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood to attention, teased by the static field coalescing around her body. A sharp, familiar pain struck, as if a hypodermic needle had been shoved between her eyes. She pushed the pain and the gray mist forward, out in front of her like a negatively charged brick wall waiting for its opposing force on four wheels.
An engine roared and a horn blared. Scorching air blasted the bare skin on her neck, face and hands.
Olivia opened her eyes and saw the front end of the Ames van crumple as it hit the invisible wall, absorbing the brunt of its own kinetic energy. The van had barreled around the bend faster than Olivia expected and the remaining kinetic force slammed into her.. She flew backward several feet and struck the pavement ass first. The impact drove a shock up her spine, the air from her lungs, and the static field collapsed.
The world tilted and looped, and she coughed until she could breathe again.
She forced her body to roll over so she could observe her handiwork. The wounded van stood sideways across the middle of the road, smoke rising from its mangled front end. The windshield had spider webbed, but not shattered. Acrid odors of burned rubber and motor oil tingled her nostrils and amplified the throbbing headache that only time would dispel.
Nick sprinted out of the woods with a handful of broken twigs stuck comically in his wavy brown hair. He paused briefly to snag her earbud case out of the grass as he dashed toward her, barely sparing a careless glance at the van.
“I’m fine,” she said. Sort of. “Check the driver.”
He jerked left and slowed as he approached the van. Olivia kept her eyes on him as she struggled first to her knees, then feet, blindly picking a piece of gravel out of her throbbing elbow. Her stomach lurched, and she willed it away. An impact like that deserved a little upchucking, but she had a job to complete.
Work now, side effects later.
Nick peered inside of the open passenger window. “Driver’s unconscious. His mind is pretty deep inside. He won’t be bothering us.”
“Good.” Olivia approached slowly, a bit unsteady, as if she was walking underwater. She crouched and peered beneath the van. “No gas leaks, so just leave him there. He’ll be fine. Until Mitchell gets his hands on him, anyway.”
They met at the back of the van. Olivia wrapped her hand around the padlock securing the rear door. Nick’s hand drifted to her lower back, the simple touch centering her addled mind. Through the haze of pain, she pulled from the mist and her own inner reserves. The metal lock heated. Hotter, hotter, until it snapped and hit the pavement with a soft clatter. Nick tugged the lever. The door scrolled up.
Unventilated air wafted out and sunlight poured in, illuminating the interior. Reinforced with aluminum sheeting the walls resembled a Jiffy Pop popcorn pan. A hospital gurney stood bolted to the floor in the center of the storage space.
Olivia climbed inside, pulse racing. McGreary’s information had been correct about the time and place of transport. She just wished that his knowledge of the cargo had been wrong.
A teenage girl was strapped to the gurney, her narrow body covered by a thin, white sheet. Shorn close, her hair color was impossible to discern. Cheekbones protruded sharply beneath translucent skin, an awkward contrast to her thick, overdeveloped brow ridge, giving her youthful face a hawk-like appearance. Her chest rose and fell in a steady, sleep-induced rhythm.
“Is she drugged?” Olivia asked. Her voice echoed painfully in the metal cocoon.
Nick stepped to the opposite side of the gurney. He touched her cheek, concentrating with his own unique talent. “Yes. She’s deeply unconscious, O, I can’t reach her.”
“God damn them.” Olivia unsnapped the buckles on the gurney. “Drugging her up and stuffing her into the back of a van for disposal. I guess Wilderness got tired of storing their mistakes and decided to start getting rid of them.”
“We don’t know that.” He tucked the sheet around the girl’s supine form, and then picked her up with little more effort than in years past. They both struggled a bit more these days. “McGreary knew she’d be here, but he didn’t know why. Maybe she was being delivered to a satellite lab.”
Olivia followed him out of the van. “Please. If this were a secured transport, there would have been at least one agent. They didn’t even have someone in the back guarding her.”
“Can we table the argument for now? Like after we’ve given McGreary his sister back and he’s paid us for our work?”
She followed him into the woods, to the short trail that would lead them up to their waiting SUV. Agents would be on the scene in a few hours. They likely already knew the van was compromised. No agents in the van did not mean there was no security measures in place. Olivia knew Wilderness, and she knew their tactics. If the girl, Brooke McGreary, was still an Active Project, they would put Mitchell on the case.
Gary Mitchell specialized in retrieving lost Projects. After all, he had been trying to retrieve Olivia and Nick for eighteen years.
Brooke remained unconscious for the two-hour drive to the rendezvous spot, a rest stop along I-77, just over the Ohio state line. She showed signs of waking during the last five minutes of the trip, so Olivia kept close watch. She didn’t know if the girl’s powers were dormant or active, and she didn’t want to find out the hard way.
Been there, done that, with no intention of going there again.
Nick steered the SUV toward a wooded area a few hundred feet from the brick restrooms and information building. A blue pickup truck was parked in front of a cluster of picnic tables, and a figure emerged as Nick pulled into a neighboring space.
Olivia climbed out of the passenger side, her stiff back resisting movement after being still for so long. The ungraceful landing on her ass had definitely left its mark, and she wouldn’t be surprised to find some black and blue down there later.
She joined Nick on the other side of the vehicle. Patrick McGreary approached them, hands at his sides, deep-set eyes wide with silent questions. His thick frame and sunburned appearance bore little resemblance to the girl in the back of their vehicle—not surprising given how Wilderness tended to treat their Projects.
“Did you find her?” McGreary asked.
“Yes,” Olivia replied. “She’s still asleep, but we found her. Exactly as you said we would.”
McGreary expelled a deep breath. “Thank you both. You don’t know what this means to me. When they took her, I didn’t think I’d ever see her again.”
Nick opened the rear door. McGreary leaned inside and stroked Brooke’s bald head. His shoulders started to shake, and Olivia looked away. Gave him some privacy with his emotions.
“You’re lucky,” Nick said. “Most of the time, when Wilderness takes something, you don’t get it back. I just hope we weren’t too late to make a difference.”
“Look what they did to her,” McGreary whispered. “My pretty little sister.”
Olivia busied herself watching the small rest stop crowd, his genuine gratitude both overwhelming and embarrassing. This was why she hated meeting clients face to face. It made the jobs personal when she wanted them to remain professional. Getting emotional led to thinking about the past, and she couldn’t do that and remain objective.
Do the job and reap the rewards.
Watching Wilderness occasionally take one up the ass was purely a bonus.
Once McGreary regained his composure, they gently transferred Brooke to his truck and buckled her into the passenger seat. She stirred, but didn’t wake, and thank God for that. Olivia didn’t need to see their joyous reunion.
“I have a doctor friend who’s waiting for us,” McGreary said as he closed the truck door.
“You should get going,” Olivia said. “Disappear before they start hunting for her.”
“If they hunt for her. But even if they try, being a precognitive has its advantages. I never have to ask who’s at the door, and I always know if the train’s running late.”
“Just keep her away from Wilderness. Get out of the country, move to Istanbul, I don’t care. Keep her safe. And yourself, too.”
“I appreciate the concern, but it’s not necessary. You did what I paid you to do, and I thank you for that.”
Olivia shrugged. They would take on any job that insulted or damaged Wilderness. A tenuous truce prevented her and Nick from attacking the scientific research organization outright, and they abided by those unspoken rules. But these sorts of odd jobs were fun. Something she would have done for free if the interested party couldn’t pay. Fortunately for them, McGreary had created his independent wealth betting on football games.
Precognition definitely had its financial advantages.
“Our concern is free,” Nick said. “We’ve been dealing with Wilderness most of our lives. We know what they’re capable of, and we don’t take unnecessary risks when they’re involved.”
McGreary nodded. “I understand. At least let me read you. A sneak peek at your future.”
“I know my future, thanks.”
“How about this week then? What can it hurt?”
Olivia stole a glance Nick, whose gaze had shifted to the ground. She had a good idea of their future, as well, thanks to their biology, but that future was in three to five years. Not the events of the upcoming week. Moreover, McGreary seemed eager to provide them with some sort of parting gift.
“What the hell?” she said. “Give it your best shot.”
McGreary took her right hand in his and held it loosely. She expected him to close his eyes or start to hum or something equally cliché. Like television psychics who only pretend to have the kind of talent that truly existed in people like him. Instead, he stared at her. His dark brown eyes dilated and seemed to look right through her head. She visualized a hamster running on its wheel and couldn’t imagine what he saw in there. Seconds passed. He blinked and released her hand. His eyebrows furrowed into a knot.
“What?” she asked.
He tilted his head to the left, seeming to debate his reply, and that made her kind of nervous. “I saw two strangers coming into your life. I’m not sure who they are, but one is mundane and the other powerful. Unique. They’ll help unlock a secret.”
Olivia bit back a sharp retort. Two strangers had already come into her life this week, and she was staring at one of them. He’d tried, but perhaps his power went on the fritz occasionally.
Then again, he’d said one was mundane, and both McGreary and his sister had talents.
“Well, that was enlightening,” Nick said. “But seriously, you should get going.”
Patrick nodded, seeming distracted.
They waited for him to drive away, hopefully taking Brooke as far from Wilderness and West Virginia as possible, before they climbed back into their borrowed SUV.
Olivia pulled the safety belt across her lap. “Well, whoever this mystery pair is, I hope one of them’s cute.”
“What if they’re both girls?” Nick turned the key and the engine roared to life.
“Still hope one of them’s cute, because Nicolas, my friend, you have no sex life.”
He put the gear into reverse. “And you do?”
“Well, not at this very moment, but I hope to have one tonight. After a hot shower, some ibuprofen, and a long nap.” She settled against the seat, shifting until she found a comfortable position for the long ride home.
“Dr. Frey! Open the door!”
The urgent, muffled voice spurred Dean Frey away from his chaotic desk. The computer’s hard drive lay smashed into dozens of pieces, the hardware inside completely exposed. He’d tossed in a handful of refrigerator magnets for good measure. His few remaining paper files and two thumb drives were secured in the pack strapped onto his back.
His life’s work reduced to an old backpack.
He darted to the lone sixth floor window. His already rolling stomach bottomed out at the sight of it. He rarely looked out the window; he never used the rusty fire escape. Living on the top story had never bothered his agoraphobia until the moment that three-by-five hole in the wall became his only escape route.
He would not go willingly with the men shouting outside his door. Doing so signed his own death warrant.
Dean pulled, the window’s swollen frame squealing in protest. He managed a space of maybe nine or ten inches before it refused to rise further. He shoved the pack out first, and then squeezed through the tight space. It occurred to him in a mad panic that all of his middle school suffering, of being called “bean pole” and “arrow man” wasn’t so bad. His tall, skinny build had probably just saved his life.
His hard landing on the iron fire escape rattled its entire frame. A wave of vertigo swept over him. The ground blurred and his head spun wildly. He gripped the rail, inhaled deeply, and then blinked hard.
I can do this. I have to do this.
He shouldered the pack, swung around and descended the ladder. Hand over hand, foot over foot, down the rusted rungs. One level at a time. Not thinking about how far down to the ground it was.
Wood crashed above, probably the front door being smashed in. Men were talking, some shouting, and the loudest of whom Dean recognized. He had a very distinctive voice. Gary Mitchell, head of security at Wilderness.
The man had left the office just for him.
Guess that makes me special.
Dean hurried his descent, dropping floors as quickly as he could without looking down. Above him, the fire escape clattered with sharp squeals and clangs. Someone was following him, but Dean concentrated on going down and nothing else. Third story to the second. Almost there.
He hit the ground and bolted toward the street. Men shouted his name. The building wall spat brick and mortar as he ran past. He registered that he was being shot at, but did not stop or slow down. If he did, he would be killed. Even running toward daytime traffic, he couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t be caught. He would not go gently. Not by a long shot.
Dean emerged from the alley and melted into the bustling lunchtime crowd. Pedestrians carried briefcases and takeout bags, rushing to meetings in their business suits and silk ties. Dean had thrown on a pair of blue jeans and an old sweater, and he carried a faded backpack on one shoulder. He was certainly the only one in the crowd running from the people he worked for.
Used to work for.
He looked straight ahead, always searching. Public phone booths were insanely hard to find nowadays, but they still existed. His cell was in the apartment, as smashed to bits as his computer, useless even if he’d kept it. Wilderness could have traced the phone.
A block down, he spotted the Holy Grail attached to the side of a gas station. He clamped his hand down over the pack strap and made a beeline for the payphone. No one noticed him. Here he was anonymous for a while.
“For a good time, call Alice” was scrawled in black marker across the top of the pay phone, right above a number. Dean grabbed the grimy handset, then took a moment to look around, searching the faces of the passersby for anyone he recognized.
No one. Not yet, anyway.
He fished into his pocket for change and tossed a few coins into the phone. His fingers flew over the keypad; punching in the number he’d burned into his memory last night. Probably the only person who could help him out of this mess.
“The number you have dialed is not available,” a mechanical operator voice said. “If you require assistance—.”
Dean slammed the handset back into the receiver. His money clinked. He turned and looked back down the street toward his apartment building. Less than twenty feet away, he spotted a familiar face. Daryl Yates, a tall, thin man with a hooked nose who always reminded Dean of a younger, uglier Jimmy Stewart, was Mitchell’s second-in-command.
Yates met his gaze. Both men froze. Dean’s heart slammed against his ribs. Yates’s hand slid toward the front of his jacket.
Dean bolted, intent on running until he was hit by a car or was shot in the back. He raced toward the street, bolted through the nearest lane, and almost slammed right into a sheriff’s cruiser, paused in traffic in the far lane. Dean wasn’t sure if he wanted to cheer or weep.
The deputy rolled down the window. Sunlight glinted off his nametag: Porter.
“Problem, son?” Deputy Porter asked.
“Um, yeah.” Dean glanced behind him. Yates stood stiffly near the abandoned payphone. Mitchell approached, his eyes glued on Dean. Dean turned back to the officer. “Yes, sir. I really need to get to the bus station. You see, my wife is in Wheeling and she’s about to give birth to our first son, but I don’t have a car and—”
“Hop on in, son,” Deputy Porter said. “I’ll give you a lift. You’ll have to ride in the back, though. Rules and such.”
“Thank you so much. You have no idea.” He opened the door behind the deputy and slid inside, slamming it shut.
“You mind the siren? It’ll get us there faster.”
“The siren is fine,” Dean replied.
Porter flipped a switch on his dashboard and the cruiser’s siren wailed to life. Dean looked out the window at the street. Mitchell and Yates were gone.
He leaned into the seat, shifting his pack around to rest in his lap, and tried to get his heart rate back under control. This was simply a diversion. A quick rest before the next sprint. They were being followed for sure, but there was no way to turn around and check without being obvious. A suspicious deputy was the last thing Dean needed.
“First kid, eh?” Porter asked. He adjusted his rearview for a better look, and Dean glanced up into curious eyes.
“Yeah.” Dean fidgeted a little. Lying was not something he did well. “It’s been hard, a lot of miscarriages. I had to come out here for business, and left poor Sally home alone. She isn’t due for two more weeks, but I guess you can’t plan these things.”
Sally? Of all the names he could have picked, he came up with Sally? He didn’t even know a Sally, except for the blond girl in the Peanuts comics.
“I’ve got three kids myself,” Porter said, smiling broadly. “All girls and every one of them looks like their mama.”
That was probably a good thing. The deputy was chubby and balding, with mud-brown hair and a pointed chin. Not ugly, but not someone you’d want a girl to take after.
“Wouldn’t have minded a son,” Porter went on. “But my wife decided three was enough and had that operation. Wouldn’t trade my girls for anything, though. You’ll know what I mean pretty soon, I think.”
Dean nodded along, content to let Porter do all the talking. Then he wouldn’t ask questions Dean didn’t want to answer. Thankfully, it wasn’t far to the bus station. He was half-afraid that the chatty deputy would start telling him stories about potty training and diaper rash, all subjects Dean had no interest in. Not today, and not anytime in the near future.
Assuming he had a future. He’d heard stories about the security team at Wilderness, and the things that those men were willing and able to do.
If Dean didn’t get real help soon, he would be dead.
Dean talked fast to prevent Deputy Porter from following him to the ticket window. The aged man seemed to take it upon himself to see to Dean’s welfare, concern that may have touched Dean if he wasn’t running for his life. The longer Porter was around him, the stronger the likelihood of him getting hurt. Or his family getting hurt. Either way, not something Dean wanted on his conscience.
The bus station bustled with life. Young couples searching for their buses, families juggling luggage of all sizes, single men off on business trips, one or two poorly dressed kids that might have been runaways. If Dean hadn’t been looking so hard for familiar faces, he probably wouldn’t have noticed any of them. They would have been as anonymous to him as he was to them.
Anonymity was a good thing.
He was also in luck for a change. A direct route to Wheeling was scheduled to leave in less than ten minutes. Dean paid for a ticket, relieved he had enough cash in his wallet to cover the bill. Security tapes or not, he didn’t need his credit cards traced or attached to his destination. If they even worked. Wilderness knew people. It was likely that they were wiping out his entire life as he stood there, waiting for a young woman with blue-streaked hair to print out his bus ticket.
She slid the ticket under the glass partition and offered him a half-assed smile. “Have a nice trip,” she said with the enthusiasm of someone resigned to saying that ten thousand times a day for the rest of her life.
Dean mumbled a hurried thank you, grabbed the precious slip of paper and turned. He almost crashed into the man in line behind him. He muttered an apology and moved to the left, studying the station lobby, automatically searching for black suits. Anyone in a black suit was immediately suspicious, whether they were a lawyer, a tax attorney or one of Wilderness’s security agents. Spotting no one who seemed overtly interested in him, Dean walked toward the outer doors.
Once he exited the depot, he felt a fraction better. He inhaled the semi-fresh air, almost choking on the strong odors of oil and exhaust fumes. Six buses were lined up, in various states of readiness. Four had their sides raised, and uniformed men tossed luggage into the underside compartments with all the care of circus jugglers. The first two buses in line were loading passengers. Dean checked the numbers. His bus was first.
No way is this good luck going to keep up forever.
He glanced back at the depot, and his hand jerked. Yates and Mitchell stood at the ticket booth, only their profiles visible. The blue-haired girl snapped her gum, but didn’t seem terribly interested in answering their questions. Mitchell flashed a badge at her. Dean had seen those badges, identifying the wearer as part of a private security firm. They worked well as an intimidation tactic.
In most cases. The ticket girl just shrugged.
Yates turned. His dark eyes met Dean’s, and Dean’s stomach churned. Yates nudged Mitchell. Dean didn’t wait to see how Mitchell reacted. He walked toward the row of buses, moving quickly without drawing too much attention. He went around the front of the fourth bus and back down along the other side. A chain link fence topped with razor wire prevented him from abandoning the bus station altogether. If more agents showed up, he was completely screwed.
Dean dropped to his knees and peered under the bus. Two sets of shiny leather shoes walked quickly in his direction. They paused, and then split up. One went left, the other right. Dean swallowed. They were going to trap him from either end of the bus.
His feet moved on their own, instinct carrying Dean to the luggage carriers. He looked inside, expecting it to be stuffed full. A clear path cut through to the other side of the bus. Only half loaded. He offered a silent thank you to whoever was looking out for him today and climbed inside. His hands slid on the surface of a leather suitcase, and he was certain he heard something crack. Strong cologne bit his nostrils. His left eye twitched, but he prevented the sneeze from escaping.
He peeked out of the other side of the compartment in time to see Mitchell disappear around the back of the bus. Dean slid out, landed on his hands and pulled himself out the rest of the way, uncaring who saw or what they thought. His feet hit the pavement with a soft thump, and he ran toward his own bus. He didn’t stop until he was inside and up the three steps to where the driver waited to punch his ticket. Dean handed it over, amazed that his hand didn’t shake. The driver glanced at it, punched it absently and handed it back.
Dean found an empty seat halfway down the aisle, glad the bus was only half-full. He imagined he looked pale and scared, and he didn’t need a lot of people staring at him. He slouched low in his seat, hugging the pack to his chest, afraid everyone around him could hear his pounding heartbeat. The bus rumbled around him, that familiar, soothing engine sound. He vaguely registered the driver making an announcement, or the hiss of the closing doors.
I did it.
It wasn’t until the bus jerked forward that Dean dared sit up and glance out the window. As they pulled away from the station, he spotted a cluster of black-suited men standing amid the waiting buses. Dean flopped back into his seat, relief hitting him like a sledgehammer and leaving him boneless. His head lolled side to side in time with the lurching of the bus. The trip should take about three hours.
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