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Ordinary Sample Chapter

Ugene

Processing.


That sign above the door runs chills down my spine. Hilde holds open the door to a sterile room with institutional white walls and cold metal tables and chairs. Industrial-strength cleaner permeates every surface of the space, invading my senses as I step over the threshold. I’ve never been in a room that felt so … clean.


On the table, a set of plain gray scrubs is folded in a neat pile. Beside it is a pair of matching loafers.


“We will give you a moment to change,” Hilde says.


I turn, but Hilde is already gone, and the door clicks softly shut. Chewing my lips, I move toward the clothes, inspecting them, picking at the surprisingly soft fibers of the top. They just need to make sure I’m not bringing contaminants on my clothes, I suppose. It makes sense, though why they wouldn’t make me relinquish my messenger bag doesn’t fit the logic.

Oh well. This is what I signed up for.


I set the messenger bag on the table, then strip down and slide into the scrubs. The material is smoother than I expect. Possibly enhanced for sensitive skin by Naturalists. I slip my feet into the loafers and find the insides have a nice cushioned comfort my sneakers didn’t provide—like walking on a cloud.


Soon after I finish, two men in white coats and rubber hair caps enter. Both wear goggles and blue rubber gloves. One of them motions toward a chair. I ease into it, hoping they can’t see me shaking. The other collects my clothes and discards them in a bag marked with my name. He reaches for my messenger bag.


“No!” I rush over, putting a hand on the bag. “I need the stuff in there.” All my research—the last pieces of my life—are in that bag.


“It will be returned to you once it’s gone through processing,” he says, sliding the bag away.

I wrap the strap around my hand and yank back. “No. It isn’t like the bag will contaminate me, and if you send it through processing, it could ruin some contents. You can’t have the bag.”


Something jabs in my neck. My limbs weaken. I stumble back a step, caught by the second lab tech who eases me back into the chair. The metal is so cold it instantly soaks through my clothes. It’s hard to tell if the shivering in my bones is from the chill or the uncertainty gripping me. The bag slips from my weak grip.


“It’s easier if you cooperate,” the second tech says.


I try to protest, but my tongue feels too heavy to talk. I make one last, feeble attempt at getting up but hardly do more than slip awkward hands over the chair’s armrests.


The room sways, forcing me to sit back in the seat. The rattle of the metal cart’s wheels over the smooth floor echoes loudly in the room. I blink slowly, and my head lolls to the side as the tech wipes my arm with something cold. He slides a device shaped like a giant tube over my right hand. It reaches almost all the way to my elbow. Blue UV light emits from inside the tube, warming my skin.


Sharp pain radiates along the inside of my forearm, burning hot. A scream rises up my throat and comes out as more of a guttural choking than a scream.


What’s going on? But the words don’t come from my mouth. They only echo in my head.


Something burns red hot through my blood and into my brain, then a shock hits me. My eyes shoot wide, and I grip the chair with my free hand, then my entire body tenses. A moment later it passes, but the heat of the pain remains. Still, I can’t keep my eyes open. I blink. Struggle to stay alert. But darkness descends.

***

Bianca

“I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way,” Taylor says as we stand in the queue for graduation.


I blink at her like she grew a new head before my eyes. For the last ten minutes, I ranted to her about the fight with Jimmy last night. Why is she brushing his actions off? “I’m sure he did.”


Taylor sighs and sweeps her dark dreads over her shoulder. “Bianca, he loves you. I’m sure he was just trying to protect you. And admit it, you do defend that kid more than any rational person.”


I grit my teeth. “It’s called kindness, Tay.”


“Don’t get salty with me,” she says sweetly. “Right now you’re either looking for Jimmy or Ugene.”


She’s right. I hadn’t even noticed how my eyes were scanning the line of our classmates waiting to register their final selections for graduation. But my concern doesn’t stem from any deep affection for Ugene. I just can’t shake the feeling that something was wrong last night. And I haven’t seen him at school today.


“He was sneaking out of his house last night, Tay,” I say, exasperated that she doesn’t understand.


“And you haven’t done that a hundred times before?” She huffs and crosses her arms, turning toward the front of the queue to peer over heads. “Please. Maybe Jimmy is on to something.”


Instead of arguing further about this, I drop it. Jimmy hasn’t said a word to me yet today. And if he tries, the first thing out of his mouth had better be an apology.

***

Ugene

Whippoorwills croon. The smell of sarsaparilla subtly fills the room as my eyes drift open. Everything is blurry for a moment as I blink to get my bearings. It was all a bad dream. I’m at home, listening to the birds outside my window and smelling the plants that line the street. A warm comfort fills me.


As I sit up on the bed, my feet hit a cold floor. I frown, looking down and wiggling my toes. My room at home has carpet, not tiles.


I smooth my hands over my thighs and raise them, blinking at the lingering smooth, soft sensation on my palms. Grogginess clears as reality sets in.


This isn’t home.


These aren’t my clothes.


It was all real.


I’m on my feet, turning to take in the room around me. It’s boxy with simple furniture—a twin bed and nightstand, desk and chair, and tall narrow bookshelf. My messenger bag is neatly hooked over the back of the chair, and the notebooks are stacked precisely on the bookshelf. The walls of the room… They look like the walls of my bedroom. Tan paint, but barren without any of the traces of my personal touch.


Remembering the pain in my arm earlier, I lift it in front of me, running my left hand over smooth, untouched skin. Not even a trace of a needle mark lingers.


“What happened?” I mutter to myself. And how long was I out?


A chime from the desk makes me jump, and I spin around as the wall behind the desk changes from tan to white. Dr. Cass’s hologram appears, visible from the waist up. There’s no background, so I can’t tell where she is.


“Ugene,” she says, her voice coming from above. “Thank you for your patience. We understand that processing can be difficult for some and appreciate your cooperation.”

Is that what she calls sticking me with a needle to make me limp as a noodle?


“We pair new subjects with mentors, selected from among our more experienced subjects, to help ease the transition into this new life. Your mentor will arrive soon to show you to the cafeteria, showers, and other facilities available to you. For the integrity of the research, I ask that you stay on your floor and follow the rules your mentor will lay out for you. Your personal researcher will monitor your brain waves, muscular changes, and genes at all times using the nanomonitors injected during processing.”


Nanomonitors. So, that’s what happened during processing. I knew it had to be something, but I didn’t fully understand.


“When necessary, he will escort you to a lab for samples. All your personal belongings have been returned, with the exception of your cellular phone. The signals can interfere with studies some of our other participants are working on, particularly the Naturalists.”


That’s convenient. Without my phone, I don’t have a way to contact my parents. I’m cut off from the rest of the world.


“Testing will begin tomorrow. I hope you are comfortable in your new living space and thank you for joining Paragon Diagnostics.”


Dr. Cass disappears, and the wall reverts to its previous tan-painted color.


So, I have to stay on this floor, and my only known means of communication with the outside world is gone. I glance around the room, which feels much smaller now.

***

Bianca

The auditorium buzzes with excitement as my classmates talk about their new jobs and what comes after today. Only a few of them are silent, and if I remember correctly, they are the ones whose Powers are minimal. Their future isn’t looking too promising. Everyone is called across the stage for graduation in alphabetical order. Their names, Branch of Power, and new jobs are read as they approach. Most are met with thunderous applause.


I peer down my row at the empty seat two chairs over. Where is Ugene? No one misses graduation. I can’t shake the worry clinging to my bones.


A couple of guys in the row behind me mutter to each other about his absence, claiming he didn’t have the guts to face today in front of them all, that he knew he couldn’t hack it so he jumped ship before he could embarrass himself further. Their words fill me with sadness because it’s true. Or at least partly true. And what Jimmy said last night is partly true as well. Ugene is doomed without a Power.


My gaze meets Jimmy’s a row back. He just raises his brows like he noticed where I was looking before and I’ve just proven his point. But caring about someone doesn’t have to mean I have some deeply buried love for them. It just means I care.


I straighten in my chair and refuse to glance at Ugene’s space again and further prove Jimmy right.


When my name is called, I march toward the stage.


“Bianca Pond,” the principal reads. “Somatic Muscle Memory. Undeclared.”


A murmur ripples through the crowd. No one else is undeclared. When I reached the head of the registration queue, I had to prove that I have offers but just haven’t made a final decision yet.


I cross the stage with my head held high. It isn’t that I’m going nowhere. I just don’t know where to go yet, and I’ll be damned if I let my classmates judge me for taking the time to make the right choice.


As I make my way back to my seat, Ugene’s name is called, and there’s a moment of charged energy that runs through the room as everyone realizes he isn’t there. Not that they are surprised. I sink back into my seat as things move on without further comment on Ugene’s absence from the principal.


“James Richmond. Naturalist Hematology. Paragon Diagnostics Research Division.”


My heart leaps into my throat. Jimmy is going to work for Paragon’s research department? Great! He will be working with my brother. That can’t possibly end well for me.


When the announcements end we all filter out onto the school green for a “social” where students, families, and teachers can all mingle together. My parents find me quickly and drag me around the green simultaneously introducing me to important people while subtly casting disapproval at my “undeclared” announcement. The smooth efficiency with which they can do both at the same time astounds and disgusts me.


“Jimmy,” Dad says as he glances past me. “Congratulations are in order.”


I stiffen as Jimmy stops beside me and shakes my dad’s hand as if everything is completely normal. As if we didn’t just break up last night. As if he honestly believes I might change my mind.


“Thank you, Mr. Pond,” Jimmy says in his perfectly manicured tone of respect. “It was an offer anyone would be a fool to refuse, to work for Paragon.”


Great. Even Jimmy is offering his backhanded opinions on my lack of accepting their offer. He must be salty about me breaking up with him.


“Can we go, now?” I ask my parents, not bothering to glance in Jimmy’s direction.


My parents both frown, but they nod. I know I’m in for a lecture all the way home, and probably for the rest of the day, about my lack of declaring a job. But I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong with Ugene. And I don’t want to stand beside Jimmy a second more.

As I step away after my parents, Jimmy grabs my arm gently and pulls me back.


“Can we talk, B?”


I glance at his hand on my arm, then lift my gaze to glare at him. But the regret in his eyes makes me hesitate. Is Taylor right? Did I judge him too quickly? I relax a little and nod. As long as his first words are an apology, I’ll listen.


My parents wander off to give us at least a little privacy.


Jimmy releases my arm and steps closer. I cross my arms over my chest and raise a brow at him impatiently.


“I’m sorry about how I acted last night,” he says. And the way he looks at me with so much regret and fear and hope in his eyes, I believe he means it.


I relax a little.


“I don’t really have a good explanation for it,” he admits. “Your reaction to the idea of living together hurt me and I wanted to hurt you. Which isn’t right or fair.” He takes my hand, pulling my arm away from my defensive position, and his warm thumb slides over my palm. “Is there any chance you can forgive me?”


We’ll see.


That’s what he texted back to me last night, like he was already planning this. Anger burns in my veins, but I can’t stay angry with him. The irritation fizzles out and I sag, dropping my other arm at my side.


“You didn’t trust me,” I say, hating how timid I sound.


“I didn’t mean it. I shouldn’t have said it, and I will spend forever proving that to you.” Jimmy edges closer. “I’ll beg, right here, in front of everyone, if that’s what you want.” The corner of his mouth tilts up slightly in a devilishly charming smirk. Then he drops to a knee, holding my hand.


I laugh as a few people around us watch, then pull him to his feet. “Stop it. Don’t make a scene. It isn’t necessary.”


His smirk widens into a hopeful grin. “No?”


“No.” Why can I never stay angry with him for long?


Jimmy sweeps me into his arms and kisses my temple. I instinctively wrap my arms around him.


And just like that, all is forgiven but nothing is forgotten.

***

Ugene

An alarm resonates loudly overhead, and the door to the room opens, revealing a brightly lit hallway. Eager to see more, I slip on the provided loafers.


Before I step into the hallway, a guy in identical gray scrubs to my own steps into the doorway, blocking me in. Shaggy blond hair hangs around his face. His gray-blue eyes appear bored as he looks me over critically.


“Ugene?” he asks.


“Yes,” I say, taking a step back. “And you are?”


“Miller, your mentor,” he grumbles, rubbing his eyes. “And I’m tired, so let’s get this over with.”


It takes that statement for me to notice the dark rings around his eyes. His face is drawn, and his lids are heavy. In fact, he looks almost like my dad when he’s hungover. I offer my best smile, but he only grimaces. My stomach twists in knots. I hate feeling like an intruder.


“Come on. I’ll show you around.” Without waiting for me, Miller heads along the hallway. I rush to catch up, glancing back at the open door of my room and making a note of the number.


The floor is a maze of hallways. Others roughly our age pass along the halls with intent destinations. Everyone wears the same gray scrubs and loafers. I cannot keep track of where we’re heading, forget exactly where we turned left or right, but Miller seems to know exactly where he’s going. Part of me can’t help wondering if he’s messing with me, walking in circles to confuse me or something, so I watch the room numbers.


“How many people are on this floor?” I ask as we pass room 1177.


“Don’t know.” Clearly, Miller isn’t much for conversation. “Testing doesn’t exactly allow for much socializing. I only know about fifteen or twenty others. But there are more.” He points at a door as we pass it. “Bathroom. Showers are in there.”


I grimace. What an excellent guide he’s turning out to be. Like I’ll ever find the bathroom when I need it.


We turn another corner and Miller waves absently at a large room with glass-panel walls, revealing rows of round white tables with matching chairs. The cafeteria. Before I know it, he’s taken me full circle back to my room.


“Welcome home.” He waves into the room. “Looks like you get the night off. Have a nice life.”


Night? I thought it was morning. No windows along the tour revealed the truth.


Miller steps away to leave.


“Wait a minute!” I grab his arm before he can slip away, then immediately realize my mistake as his eyes flash narrowly at me. I quickly let go. “I just—You’re supposed to be my mentor, teach me the rules and stuff. And is there anyone else on the floor you can introduce me to?”

Miller laughs. Not a funny, ha-ha sort of laugh, but more like you’re-an-idiot sort of laugh. What have I done to him?


“Look, kid.”


Kid! He can’t be more than two or three years older than me! My best guess is twenty.


Miller crosses his arms. “You wanna know the rules? Here they are. Participating in tests is compulsory. Be in your room by testing time and nightly lockdown. No fighting with other test subjects. Obey the commands from Overwatch.” He points at the ceiling. “And finally,” Miller steps closer, “and this is the most important rule, so remember it. Everyone likes their privacy. No one is looking for friends. We all have a job to do, and we do it. That’s it.”


“But we are all in this together. Why—?”


“Privacy. If a door is closed, don’t knock. If a door’s open, don’t knock. Just… don’t knock.”


Miller turns and starts up the hallway.


“Hey, is there a key for my room or something?” I call.


“Why would you need a key?” He laughs before disappearing around the corner.


The response bothers me. Experience tells me that people with Powers—like all the other test subjects in here—like to pick on guys like me. And I can’t even lock them out.


Anxious, I inspect my door for a lock and find the thick rods inside the door, but there isn’t a knob or anything on the door to engage the bolts into the frame. Experimentally, I close the door and tell it to lock, but nothing happens.


No key, and no way to lock the door. How can anyone expect to have privacy at all?

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