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Desolation Sample Chapter

Paige

After another brutal day of simulations and testing, the team gathers in the debriefing room, waiting for Camden to pick us apart. I rub the exhaustion from my eyes.


I spent last night hanging out with Mom at the house, watching ancient romance films as we made fun of the plots. The tradition began years ago when I would wake in the night and couldn’t fall back asleep for hours. Dad and Gavin were out working on some project together. The two came in the door just after midnight, their voices excited. It was just another painful reminder of just how much Gavin is like Dad. And how much I’m not. I couldn’t catch much of their conversation before they stopped talking. Something about the solar trucks and adding audio to drones.


Instead of asking questions, I said goodnight to all three of them and turned in. Gavin came into my room shortly after. We laid together talking about all the reasons my team hates me as he tried to reassure me it wasn’t true. Eventually, the two of us fell asleep.


As the sun came up, I woke in a sweat from a strange dream about Camden promoting our team. Then Tudor had insisted I join them for drinks this time. And we kissed. In front of everyone.


Why does that dream still give me chills so late into the day? It makes me all too aware of how close Tudor currently sits to me in the debriefing room after another training session. Maybe I should have left more space between us.


Camden finishes his usual assessment. I reach down for my water, expecting to be dismissed as usual.


“I am proud of your progress, team,” Camden says.


The words freeze me. I raise my gaze to see him standing at the head of the room, exactly as he had in my dream. It can’t be real, though. It was just a dream. Or maybe this is déjà vu.


“Colonel Pond, the floor is yours,” Camden says.


My heart stops as Aunt B marches up the aisle between our chairs to the head of the room and stops beside Camden. She pivots on her heel and her copper eyes sweep the room.


“You okay?” Tudor whispers to me.


I swallow the lump in my throat and sit up, water forgotten. I can only nod in response.


“Thank you, First Sergeant. You can take a seat with the team,” Bianca says. The moment Camden is settled beside Carlos in the front row, Bianca folds her hands together behind her back. Her stance is firm. A tank couldn’t push her over. “X-Team, I have been monitoring your progress for the past few weeks, and I can’t help but agree with your trainer. You have all been progressing quickly and are one of our most adaptable teams when it comes to receiving and correcting criticism.”


I mutter the next words along with Aunt B.


“His recommendation to promote X-Team for field work has been unanimously approved,” she says in perfect rhythm with my muttering.


Tudor casts me a curious glance out of the corner of his eye but says nothing.


“Congratulations,” Bianca continues, “Specialists.”


The room explodes into cheers and celebration. Bianca watches me and the corner of her mouth twitches up ever so slightly.


But I’m too dumbfounded to react. Not as the others chatter on about our success. Not as Tudor throws an arm around my shoulder and hugs me tight to his side. How did I dream this just last night, exactly as it happened? Like a premonition. I shake the thought from my head. I’m too old to start developing new Powers.


Bianca raises a hand. The room falls silent. With a few quick touches on the holoscreen at the front of the room, she pulls up a map. It looks like something my brother would pour over for work.


“Last night, analysts at the Department of Science and Technology discovered a radio signal at the far edge of our trackable drone range,” she says.


Gavin is an analyst at the DS&T. Was this why he and Dad were out so late? Did Gavin discover this? I watch the pulsing wave pattern curiously, and the truth sinks into my gut.

This means Dad was right. Something else is out there.


“Over the next few days, the Council of Representatives will work with the heads of various government departments to put together a team to investigate this signal,” Bianca continues. “They will send us their list of requirements and we will find the best individuals to fulfill those requirements. We don’t know what that will be. But your promotion is not by accident. There is a chance that they could select one or more of you for this team. I will give you the evening off to celebrate your promotion.”


A smile lights up Aunt B’s face. “You are dismissed, Specialists.”


The second she dismisses us, I snatch my water and jacket from the floor and surge to my feet. I need to talk to Dad.


Tudor steps in front of me, grinning from ear to ear. “I have to be on that team,” he says, mirroring my own thoughts.


It occurs to me that all the DS Specialists probably feel the same way. This isn’t just a quick resource mission. This is a real fact-finding quest that could change everything. It’s my chance to move out of Dad’s long shadow.


I step to the side to move around Tudor. “I think we all agree.”


Tudor shifts into my path once more. “Drinks. No excuses this time, Paige.”


I huff. “I need to talk to Dad.”


“Why?” Easton asks as he strolls over. “So you can convince him to put you on the team instead of one of us?”


“No.” That hadn’t been my plan at all. Mostly because I already know what Dad would say. If anything, he would ban me from going and pull strings to keep me in the city. I just want to know what he knows about this, and what it could mean for Elpis.


“Then come get drinks with us,” Easton says in an obvious challenge.


“No excuses,” Tudor repeats.


And I realize he is right. There aren’t any excuses that will get me out of it this time. Because if I don’t go, they will all assume I circumvented the council selection to pull strings.

***

I had expected an evening of drinks in a quiet bar downtown. Instead, Tudor, Carlos, and Sam share a hover taxi with me that takes us to a rather questionable-looking building in Pax. The moment we open the door of the taxi, I can hear the muffled thumping of the rhythmic music inside. The windows are boarded over and someone—or several someones—has sprayed graffiti on the side of the building. It takes a moment for me to recognize the massive image. A crow’s nest.


Elly is already there with the others, near the head of the line. Tudor guides me along with him to join as Elly speaks to the bouncer at the door. I can’t hear anything they say, but the massive Somatic sweeps his gaze over our party of ten. Then he nods and waves us in.


I glance anxiously back at the people in line who protest as we head through the door.


“How did you manage that?” I ask Elly, leaning close so she can hear me over the noise.


“You aren’t the only one with connections,” she replies, grinning.


The muffled sounds from outside are nothing compared to the noise in the club. I want to plug my ears against the noise, but everyone already thinks I don’t have a fun bone in my body. That won’t help matters.


The club lights are brightly colored, flashing in beat to the music. Bodies gyrate on the dancefloor or brush close to one another near the tables. Along the wall to our left, a bar stretches the entire length of the club. It’s just as packed as the rest of the place. All these bodies so close together makes my claustrophobia kick in.


Easton turns to me, a drink in his hand. I glance at it. He hates me. Would he slip something in my drink? He must sense my hesitation because he rolls his eyes to show me his annoyance and hands it to Carlos. He distributes a drink to each of us from the bar, where he has wedged his hip and shoulder into the mass crowded around.


Tudor elbows my side and raises his eyebrows at the next drink Easton offers me.


I swallow the growing anxiety swelling in my chest and take the drink from him.


“To the X-Team!” Easton shouts over the music, raising his shot glass.


The rest of us follow his lead, raising our glasses. As he drinks, his gaze locks on me.


I watch the others all take a drink. Easton’s mouth curls up in the corner. I notice the subtle twitch of his hand and realize he is about to take my drink away. Before he can move, I down the whole thing in a gulp. It blazes all the way down, burning some of my anxiety away as it courses through me.


“Powers! Who knew?” Easton slaps me on the back, then turns back to the bar.


“Let’s dance,” Elly says, taking my hand and drawing me away from the familiar comfort of Tudor’s presence.


By the time the song ends and the next starts, other members of the team have joined us on the dancefloor with more drinks. The intoxication mingling with the distracting rhythm of the lights and music sweep me away from the cloying anxiety. I let down my guard around the team for the first time, losing myself in the music and movements. Each member of the team joins me at one point or another, but it’s Easton at my back that makes me most uncomfortable.


His body is close enough that the heat overpowers my own. He takes one of my hands as I reach toward the ceiling, then spins me around and pulls me against him. I want to pull away, but don’t know how to reject him without making a scene. Instead, I continue dancing, seeking some means of escape.


Whether Tudor senses I need rescuing, or he’s just plain jealous, I don’t care. He nudges his way in, spinning me toward him and pulling my back against his chest. Our hips sway together.


“I should have known you could dance,” he says into my ear, and his breath sends heat through me.


I pull back and turn to face him. His hands immediately find my hips.


“Muscle Memory,” I say, grinning at him. “You never asked. But I was a champion dancer in high school.”


Tudor responds with something I can’t hear over the music. His dark eyes shimmer in the strange lighting. We inch closer to one another as we continue moving. I’m drawn to him, unable to resist. Tudor’s lips brush against mine playfully, then more firmly. I return the kiss eagerly, lost in this moment with him.


Then I remember the dream and jerk back.


Reality crashes against my euphoria.


The anxiety claws its way back into my chest. I glance around us and note several members of the team staring at the two of us.


Relationships on the team are not allowed. They can hinder our reactions, cloud our judgment.


Tudor seems to realize the mistake a moment after I do. Both of us stop dancing and stand as if frozen in time in the middle of the dancefloor as the world continues spinning around us.


“Paige…” he says, realizing what just happened, what this means.


It wasn’t his fault.


It wasn’t my fault.


We are both guilty.


I shake my head, breaking from my trance. It all happens in just a moment.


Before I can step back, Tudor grabs my waist firmly and holds me against him. “Don’t react. Just keep dancing. We will switch in a minute.”


My heart is racing. Terror grips me. But I comply.


“We can pass this off later,” he says. “Heat of the moment drinking mistake. Nothing more.”

I don’t respond. I don’t know how. Panic tightens around me, suffocating me as I continue dancing, passed off to Carlos.


I’ve just made a terrible mistake.


We were just promoted. If Tudor is wrong and we can’t convince the others that it wasn’t a big deal, that it meant nothing, then Tudor and I will not both be selected for the council’s upcoming mission. Except I didn’t want it to be a mistake. Is that what he really thinks? Or is it just part of his plan?


The terrible truth intensifies my anxiety. His hearing will be useful on the mission. My Power will not.


They will choose him.

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