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Heartbroken, grief-stricken, and wracked with guilt, seventeen-year-old Evan Taylor returned to the Union, leaving behind the boy she loved. Now, she and her friends must find a way to do the impossible – warn the citizens of the Union about an impending rebel attack without alerting the government and risking retaliation against her friends in The Ruins. When every move Evan makes is thwarted, it soon becomes clear she's being watched. Faced with a daily fight to stay one step ahead of her pursuers, she returns to The Ruins. But life in The Ruins has its own dangers, and soon she’s fighting a different battle – to stay alive long enough to discover the truth.
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To Mattea, Noah, and Grayson for inspiring me every singleday.
Book 1 - The Union
2. Playing a Part
3. Broken Hearts
4. Damn Good Plan
6. Making Mistakes
7. What They Know
8. Worthless Plans
10. Bad Feelings
11. Means to an End
12. Doing Something
13. Off the Grid
14. The Governor
15. Next Move
16. Two Steps Back
17. Far Too Brief
18. My Way
Book 2 - The Ruins
19. The Ruins
21. The Uprising
22. Gathering Places
24. Fixing Things
Book 3 - The Uprising
27. Day One
28. Mazes & Traps
29. My True Potential
30. Trained for War
31. Feeling Good
33. The Boy I Love
34. Searing Pain
35. Rebound Effect
36. Old Friends
38. Forging Paths
Chapter 1 - Gloominess
Chapter 2 - Doubts
About the Author
Other Books by T.H. Hernandez
Sadness flies away on the wings oftime.
―Jean de La Fontaine
Grief, guilt, heartbreak, fear, loss, and abandonment all swirl in my head, creating a vortex of pain and confusion keeping me awake.
Three days ago I was planning a future with the boy I love. Cyrus was going to come back to the Union with me. We were going to figure out a way to warn the citizens here or stop the attack. Together. Now his brother is dead and Cyrus stayed behind, unwilling to abandon the rest of his family.
The scents of honeysuckle and fresh-cut grass float on a late summer night breeze. I stare up at the clouds from the chaise lounge on the balcony. A thick marine layer inched its way in from the coast hours ago, blanketing the sky and obscuring the stars I was hoping to see. With the moon hidden and the Union lights off for the night, darkness envelopesme.
Over the soft murmuring of desalinated ocean water burbling through the aqueduct, I hear the door slide open behind me and sit up. My bio-dad, Eddie, walks out and takes the spot besideme.
I shift to my right, giving him more room. “No. You?”
He shakes his head, his cinnamon-colored wavy hair sweeping across his shoulders. “My grandmother used to say if you can’t sleep, it means you’re awake in someone else’s dreams.”
That’s a comforting sentiment. Is Cyrus dreaming about me right now? Or is he like me, too afraid of the nightmares to close hiseyes?
Eddie presses his lips together and studies me for several long seconds. “Are you ready to tell me where you’ve really been all summer?”
His question catches me off guard. I thought he bought my story, the one I told him when I came back. The one Lisa fed him while I was in the Ruins. Posing as me, she texted my mom and Eddie from my tablet with regular updates on our fake adventures sailing off the southeastern coast. When I first showed up here yesterday afternoon, he didn’t seem to care where I’d been or what I’d been up to, only that I was here at all. I’m definitely not ready to have this conversation withhim.
“I don’t know, are you ready to tell me where you were for the first twelve years of mylife?”
He shifts his weight on the chaise next to me and sighs. “I don’t know how many times I can apologize.”
“You think another ‘I’m sorry’ is going to fix everything?”
He rubs his palms on his thighs and stands. “You’re welcome to stay here as long as you’d like, but you might want to ratchet the anger down a few notches.” He moves toward the door before turning back. “You’re going to have to forgive me someday.”
I raise my head and turn toward his dark silhouette. “Why? You think sending me a ticket and letting me hang out with your new kids makes up for everything?”
“No,” he says quietly, “because hanging on to all that anger and resentment isn’t healthy.” He walks back into the house, sliding the door closed behindhim.
With a heavy sigh, I fall on my back and stare back up into the blackness. Seriously? After being nothing to me for three-quarters of my life, where does he get off being all parental rightnow?
My breaths come short and raspy, my arms pumping as my feet pound the earth. Lungs burning, I glance over my shoulder to make sure I’m out of arm’s reach and trip over a tree root, falling to the ground. Lucien stares up at me with unseeing eyes, a bright red stain spreading across his midsection. I push myself up, spinning into Dantel’s chest. He lurches back, blood pouring from his mouth as I shoot him over andover.
My own scream wakes me, my heart racing as fast as it was in my dream. A thin layer of moisture coats the lounge chair, as if it’s broken out into a cold sweat, too. The chill is enough to send me back inside to burrow under the blankets. It still feels wrong to sleep in a bed while my friends in the Ruins are roughing it on hard ground. But sleeping on the floor out of guilt is something I’m not prepared to explain to Eddie.
The remnants of my nightmare continue to haunt my waking thoughts. It might’ve only been a dream, but it’s wrapped in truth, tied with a bow of reality. Rolling to my side, I force my thoughts to something else, to a way to stop a group of unknown rebels in the Ruins from attacking the Union. Without any information on who’s behind the plot, what their plans are, or when it’ll happen, I’m second-guessing my decision to come home. Why did I think I could do this? I am no one. A spoiled Union princess who’s had everything she’s ever needed handed toher.
I punch my pillow and turn to my back, staring up at the ceiling and willing my mind to shut up. But it refuses. Crawling out of bed, I pad over to the window and slide it open before burrowing back under the blankets. Through the opening, I can hear the water gurgling past and finally drift off, lulled by the sweet song of fake nature.
A steady knocking pulls me from sleep, but I refuse to go without a fight. I burrow deeper under the comforter, trying to escape the relentless assault. When it’s clear I can’t win, I sit up and rub my eyes. “Come in,” I croak, my voice adjusting to being used for the first time today.
Eddie pokes his head in. “You have acall.”
With a sigh, I get up, shuffling down the stairs to the great room and pick up the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey, Bryce. What’sup?”
“We’re meeting at Lisa’s this morning. Want me to come getyou?”
“No, that’s okay. I need to shower and eat breakfast.”
“Do you know where she lives?”
“I’ll be by to get you in an hour,” he says, a smile evident in his voice.
I take a quick shower and dress and startle at the stranger staring back at me from the mirror. My features are the same — wide-spaced hazel eyes that appear brown or green, depending on my mood or what I’m wearing, small nose, full lips — but the short blond hair is still foreign after seventeen years as a redhead. So are the muscles and tanned skin from spending my days working outside in the Ruins all summer.
I apply some product to my hair, trying to get my curls to behave and slip my feet into flip flops before bounding downstairs. It’s too quiet in here, Eddie and the kids must have gone out. A plate of muffins sits next to a fresh pot of coffee. I pour myself a cup and grab a muffin. When I slide my finger along the edge of the counter, it lights up, displaying the central controls. I swipe a few times, selecting a music channel.
The front door opens, and two giggling children spill into the apartment, followed by Eddie.
“Eban!” Quinn, my almost two-year-old half-sister yells, running into the kitchen and shoving a fist full of crushed flowers into my hand. “For you.” A smile splits her face, her pale blue eyeswide.
“Thank you.” I say, scooping her up for akiss.
Eddie reaches into the cabinet above the refrigerator and hands me a small glass vase. The tension hanging between us is heavy and ugly, but I don’t know what to say or do to diffuse it. Our problems are not going to be fixed with a word or simple gesture. I put the flowers in the vase and add water, setting it on the counter for Quinn tosee.
“Pwetty.” She nods her head with enthusiasm, her red curls bouncing, which makes her nod harder until she giggles.
A knock at the door indicates my escort is here. I kiss the top of her head and high-five my half-brother, Liam, before heading to the door. “Be back later,” I call over my shoulder, slipping out the door before Eddie can ask any questions.
Bryce and I walk down the path from Eddie’s apartment to the commuter station. The Western Province is so different from where I grew up in the East. Everything here is so pristine, new, white, clean, the only color coming from the flowers and plants. By contrast, the Eastern Province is dark and rich, like an old city with a storiedpast.
We cover the distance in silence. I’m still pissed at him for lying to me about everything from his name to his career. The fact that the smugglers he was investigating kidnapped me isn’t something easily forgiven.
We hop a northbound train, grabbing seats in an enclosed area, giving us some privacy. Bryce stares out the window and I stare at his profile, trying to decide exactly how I feel about him today. I settle on still royally pissed off but no longer homicidal.
“How’d things go last night?” he asks with a lift of his brow after he catches me staring athim.
“Not well.” I shift and twirl a piece of stitching that’s pulled loose from the seat. “Eddie asked me where I’d been the past couple of months, and I lashed out, basically telling him he didn’t even have the right to ask the question.”
“He can’t just show up when I’m nearly grown and decide it’s time to be a father.”
Bryce grins, and I realize he was just teasingme.
“Lying doesn’t come naturally to me.” I shrug. “So, I lapsed into doing what I do best, antagonizing him. How do you doit?”
“Lie to people so easily. About…everything?”
The grin slides off his face, and he becomes suddenly fascinated by his knuckles. “It’s like playing a role. Were you ever in a schoolplay?”
“Yeah, once. I played a toothbrush in an oral hygiene production.”
He laughs. “Well, it’s sort of like that. You become this other person and play apart.”
“It’s not easy, but you find ways to be as truthful as possible. Like embellishing or half-truths. Instead of telling your dad, I mean Eddie, you were kidnapped and taken into the Ruins, say you were exploring. It’s both plausible and mostlytrue.”
“It’s okay to call him my dad, you know. I call him Eddie, but technically, he is my father.”
The train slows, pulling into the station, and I stand to follow Bryce through the crowd as he guides us to the stairs. He leads me down a couple levels and out onto the main sidewalk. The structures here are concrete and glass, providing more of an urban grunge feel in stark contrast to the pristine white stucco where Eddie lives.
Bryce navigates an alley between rows of buildings, stopping at Lisa’s place, which resembles a box with windows. She’s in a bustling area of the borough with everything she could possibly want located within a few short blocks of her apartment.
Bryce knocks, and Lisa flings the door open seconds later, her blond hair tumbling past her shoulders. She squeals when she sees us and wraps her arm around my neck in a hug, her other hand gripping an oversized magenta coffeemug.
Still in pink flowered pajama pants and gray tank, she kicks the door open wider with her foot so we can enter. Her apartment is a cube of space with rustic wood floors and narrow windows set up high in bare concrete walls. A Japanese shoji screen sits in one corner hiding what I assume is her bed. A red fuzzy couch sits in the center of the space flanked by a pair of saffron colored armchairs with a cobalt acrylic coffee table in the middle. Along the side wall is a galley-style kitchen, and four teal padded barstools are pressed up against a narrow island, forming an eatingarea.
“This place is great, Lis,” I say, looking around. “Like a box of crayons threw up inhere.”
“I know.” Her dark eyes shine with obvious delight. “My parents surprised me with this as a graduation present. It’s small, but it’smine.”
Part of me is envious. I’d love to have a place of my own like this. And I guess I could’ve, if I’d figured out what to do with my life and applied for an internship somewhere. Instead, I’m stuck living with a man I barely know who just happens to have spawnedme.
Colin saunters into the room from what must be the bathroom — the only door in the entire apartment other than the front door. He plops onto the couch and stretches out his lanky legs, propping his feet up on the coffee table. His dark messy hair is even wilder this morning, spilling into chocolate-colored eyes, tangling with bushy eyebrows.
I take a seat beside Colin and rest my head on his shoulder. He kisses the top of my head. “Morning, EvTay.”
Bryce sits in one of the armchairs, which have bizarrely long seats, meaning either his legs will stick out straight in front of him, like Quinn when she sits on the couch, or he needs to slouch back so his feet can reach the floor. He chooses the latter.
“Hey,” Lisa calls from the kitchen area. “How’d it go with Eddie last night?”
“I got into a fight with him,” I mumble. She lifts an eyebrow, and I blow out a steady breath. “Yeah. He asked where I’d been over the summer and I asked where he’d been for most of my life. Not one of our better father-daughter bonding moments.”
She studies me for a long moment before smoothly changing the subject. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Always,” I say, taking the plum-colored ceramicmug.
The front door opens, and Jack sweeps in, carrying a bag of what I assume are baked goods based on their heavenly yeasty aroma. He gives Lisa a light kiss, but it’s enough that Colin’s jaw clenches in response. We swarm the island to find fresh bagels and cream cheese. Colin, Bryce, and I take ours back to the living area toeat.
“So, what’s the plan?” Lisa asks around a mouthful of bagel.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” Jack says. “We need more information. There are still too many unknowns to come up with any kind of a planyet.”
I set my mug down and glance around the room at my friends. “So then what dowedo?”
Jack runs a hand along his jaw. “Investigate. Find out everything wecan.”
“I might have anidea—”
“Give us a chance to sort through what we’ve already learned before you go off and do anything, okay?” Jack cuts me off. “These are dangerous people.”
I narrow my eyes, pissed he didn’t even let me finish. “How much time are we talking about?”
“Only a few days,” Bryce says. “Just long enough to see what we can dig up. Then we’ll regroup. The more information we have, the better plan we’ll be able to develop.”
Jack glances at Bryce. “We should get going. They’ll send someone out to look for us if we don’t show up for our debrief.” He leans over to kiss Lisa before walking to thedoor.
Bryce pushes his plate across the coffee table and sets down his cup. He starts to follow Jack to the door but turns back to me, as if he’s going to say something. Instead, he gives his head a slight shake and follows Jack outside without aword.
Once the door closes behind them, Lisa eyes me. “What’s going on with you two anyway?”
I let out a long sigh. “Absolutely nothing.”
After Lisa and Colin take turns showering and getting ready, we decide to kill time by exploring the neighborhood. Shopping isn’t going to stop an attack on the Union, but it beats sitting around doing nothing while Jack and Bryce do their thing.
Outside, the early September morning is warm, promising to be hot by afternoon, but nowhere near as hot as it was out in the Ruins. Back-to-school shoppers swarm the sidewalks along with others who are trying to eke out the most of their last few days of summer vacation. Unfortunately, fresh air and mild exercise does nothing to ease my edginess at not doing anything productive.
“Why the scowl?” Lisa asksme.
I didn’t even realize I was and work to relax my facial muscles. But rather than blow her off and give her some lame excuse for my mood, I go with the truth. “The reason I came back was to make something happen. Hell, if I knew we’d just be sitting around, I’d have stayed with Cyrus.” Her jaw clenches and I realize how snarky that sounded.
“Jack and Bryce are cops, Evan. These guys…they’re reallydangerous.”
“No shit. I know that better than anyone. They kidnapped me,” I slap my chest with my hand. “They killed Lucien. You think I don’t know what they’re capableof?”
I’ve never yelled at Lisa before, and her stunned expression tells me maybe I’ve gone too far. She did come out to the Ruins to rescue me, even though I didn’t actually need rescuing.
“I’m not saying that,” she says. “But, well, it’s…don’t hate me for saying this, but you have a habit of acting first and thinking second. Jack deals with information, and he makes plans based on that information.”
Colin shifts his feet, looking like he’d rather be anywhere buthere.
“He didn’t even listen to my idea,” I mumble, but I let it drop because arguing with her isn’t going to accomplish anything. She won’t really get it anyway. This is personal to me, it’s my mission, or fate, or whatever, and I feel like it’s being hijacked fromme.
We walk in silence, a cloud of tension hanging over us until Lisa drags us into a clothing store. I pick up a few things then get an idea. “Let’s find a salon. I want to color myhair.”
“Your roots aren’t showing yet,” Lisasays.
“I’m gonna go back tored.”
“I’ve never seen anyone with your color hair,” she says. “Good luck finding it in a bottle.”
“I know, but I want to at least try. For Quinn’ssake.”
She lifts an eyebrow.
“Quinn said I can’t be her sister because her sister has redhair.”
She nods as if she understands, and with two younger siblings who look like carbon copies of her, she probablydoes.
We stumble upon a salon a few blocks down with a sign saying they take walk-ins. I meet the colorist and explain what I want. Her eyebrows disappear into her bangs, but I pull up a picture on my tablet of me, Lisa, and Colin from last year to show her. She glances at the screen and excuses herself, returning with a stash of supplies. After checking the picture a couple more times as she mixes, she sits me down and applies the color to my hair. When she’s done, even though it’s still wet, I can tell it’s close. As long as I’m here, I see a stylist who fixes the hatchet job Cyrus did on my hair. Glancing at my reflection with fresh eyes, the way I think Quinn will look at me, I decide I’m pleased with the results.
“I’m starving,” Colin announces before we’ve taken more than a few steps outside the salon.
“Wow, it’s been two whole hours since you ate something. I’m surprised you’re still conscious,” Lisasays.
Colin shoots her a look, then shrugs and leads the way to a bistro. We sit on the patio and people-watch while Colin inhales three sandwiches, Lisa picks at a salad, and I eat the first burger I’ve had in months. A boy about Quinn’s age squats nearby and carries on an animated conversation with the pigeons camped out next to our table.
“So, do you want to talk more about what happened out there?” Lisaasks.
I glance up from the boy and meet Lisa’s anxious gaze. I shake my head, and her shoulders drop. I know she’s hurt, we used to talk about everything. “I’m sorry Lis, I’m just not ready.”
She reaches out her hand, resting it on my arm and gives me a nod of understanding. Or at least I think that’s what it is. I finish my burger and wad up the paper, tossing it onto my tray. Lisa abandons her salad, and we clear our table before heading out to do a little more shopping.
Lisa gets a few things for her apartment, and I pick out a pair of purple sparkly barrettes for Quinn and a T-shirt for Liam that says, “Don’t blame me, I’m the middle child.” Our last stop is the music store. When we walk in, my eyes are drawn to an enormous screen suspended from the ceiling, rotating through images of various performers. It’s currently displaying a promotional image of Epic Vinyl with none other than Eddie McIntyre front and center. It’s probably from ten years ago, he looks so young, definitely before I knew him. The picture must have been taken at the peak of their career.
I was such a huge fan before I knew Eddie was my dad. Their music was all about growing up, fitting in, finding your place in the world, and I could relate to the lyrics. But now I just see a hypocrite. All the time he was making his fortune off songs about finding himself, he walked away from his most important responsibility.
Lisa tugs on my arm. “Come on, we cango.”
“No, it’s okay. I mean it’s not like I don’t live in the guy’s house. An image on a display is no big deal, just…reallysurreal.”
Quinn and Liam snuggle on the couch next to me while we watch a movie. Their mom will be here any minute to pick them up for the weekend, leaving me alone with Eddie. I’m trying not to stress about that, but I can’t help thinking how awful the next two days are going tobe.
A knock on the door only amps up my anxiety as I brace for a confrontation. Ashlynn, Eddie’s soon to be ex-wife, blames me for the end of her marriage, and she’ll be less than thrilled to see me bonding with her offspring. I’m not sure how a grown woman can blame a twelve-year-old girl for the fact that her husband kept a big secret from her, but that’s my step-mommy. She’s an even bigger piece of work than Eddie.
When I open the door, instead of Ashlynn, I find Jack and Bryce. Jack puts a finger to his lips and shoves a scrap of paper into my hand. We’re going to tell you we’re going camping. Don’t ask too many questions. Try to sound excited.
I tear my eyes away from the note and glance at Jack. His eyes are pleading with me to go along with the instructions, and Bryce is nodding like a deranged bobble-head in encouragement. I swallow hard andnod.
“Hey, Evansville,” Bryce says. “We’re going camping this weekend. Want tocome?”
“Sure…I mean yeah, sounds likefun.”
Bryce gives me a small smile. “Good. Why don’t you pack a bag? We have a few things to do, but we’ll be back to pick you up in anhour.”
Bryce reaches out and squeezes my hand before following Jack down the sidewalk. My gaze drops back to the note, searching it for a clue to what the hell that was all about. The click-clacking of Ashlynn’s stilettos draws my attention. She pauses, tilting her head to the side and studies me with icy blueeyes.
“Evan. Nice to see you.” Her voice is as cool as an arctic blast. She pushes into the house, waving a manicured hand in dismissal. Her willowy form sashays into the living room, her blond bob swinging across her shoulders. There’s no denying the woman is beautiful, but so is a poison dartfrog.
Eddie makes his way down the stairs with the kids’ bags and hands them to Ashlynn without a word. Quinn and Liam finally notice their mother and fly off the couch.
“Mommy!” Liam yells, launching himself ather.
Ashlynn bends down and pulls both children into her arms, a serene smile crossing her painted lips. Okay, so she loves them. I guess it’s good to know she’s capable of loving someone other than herself. She rises with stiff movements and turns to Eddie. “I’ll have them back by bedtime on Sunday.” She spins, breezing past me on her way out. “Evan,” she says with a curt nod, not bothering to close the door behindher.
“What on earth possessed you to marry that woman?”
Eddie sighs and retreats to the kitchen. What is it with rock stars and vapid, narcissistic models? Suddenly I remember I need to pack, and better yet, I don’t have to spend the weekend with Eddie.
I follow him into the kitchen. “Eddie?”
He glances up from the counter he’s been staring at, and I almost feel sorry for him. Lines crease his forehead, and his face is drawn. For the first time I can recall, he appears older than his thirty-eight years.
“I, uh…I’m going camping with my friends this weekend.”
“Have fun,” he says, his voice flat, emotionless. “When will you beback?”
“Sunday.” At least I thinkso.
“Do you need anything? There’s some camping gear up in the closet. You’re welcome to borrow whatever youneed.”
“Thanks.” I feel like I should say something else, although I don’t know what. What do you say to the man who abandoned you and is now being abandoned by his wife? “Hey, I know how it feels”? “Join the club”? But the weird thing is, I do feel kind of bad for him. Before I can come up with anything more to say though, he heads back upstairs.
I slide the zipper of my duffel bag closed just as a knock comes on the front door. Eddie answers it, and I see my friends on the porch over his shoulder. Eddie greets them with a nod and pulls the door open to let them in. He met Lisa and Colin years ago in the Eastern Province when he was attempting to connect with his long lost daughter. Recognition replaces the indifference on Eddie’s face, and he smiles, shaking their hands.
“Eddie, you remember Bryce. This is Jack. Jack, this is my…my Eddie. Eddie McIntyre.”
Jack shakes Eddie’s hand with genuine enthusiasm. “It’s nice to meet you, sir. I’m a bigfan.”
Eddie’s smile grows wide. This is his world, the one he knows how to live in — the one with adoring fans. “Good to meet you, Jack.”
Great, he can turn it on for a complete stranger, a fan, but his own daughter? I get stony silence.
Bryce reaches out and takes my bag, slinging it over his shoulder. I stand next to Eddie, not sure if I should hug him goodbye. He makes the decision for me, reaching an arm around and giving me an awkward pat on theback.
“Have fun,” he says, closing the door behindus.
We make our way to the express elevators in silence, no one finding it necessary to clue me in. Gliding down one hundred levels without a word spoken only increases the already building tension spiraling inside me, but asking questions when everyone else is quietly clenching their jaw, won’t get me anywhere.
Once on the ground, we take a commuter train the twenty-five miles out to the coast, emerging from the dark station into bright late morning sun. It’s a perfect Western Province day, all blue cloudless skies and yellow sunshine. We walk out to the boardwalk, a cool ocean breeze skating across my skin, fluttering strands of hair. The crashing surf is interspersed with screeching seagulls and children’s laughter. This is the most I’ve felt at home since getting back to the Union. Cleanliness aside, this is as close to being in the Ruins as I’ll gethere.
A four-wheel-drive sand cruiser shuttles us to the check-in tent. We step out onto a path of groomed sand lined with solar luminaries that will light up at dusk, creating a glowing walkway. A campground employee leads us to a grouping of three white canvas tents adorned with strands of solar lights. Each tent has two cots, a small table with a vase of fresh honeysuckle and gardenias, and two folding chairs. Lisa and Jack dump their bags in one tent, and I follow Colin into another, setting my bag down. I suppose I could have let Colin and Bryce bunk together, but I don’t want to be alone.
The flap from the tent falls into place, and I spin around. “Colin, what thehell—”
He cuts me off, putting a finger to his lips. I’m trying hard not to freak out, but he’s making it difficult. His eyes roam over my face, his mouth pressed in a tight line. “I’ve got my ticket for the Northwest. I leave in aweek.”
“Oh.” I drop into one of the chairs. Over the past couple of days, I haven’t thought much about him leaving. We both lapse back into silence. After a few minutes, I get up and go peek outside, looking for the others. Jack, Bryce, and Lisa head toward us with grave expressions. Turning back to Colin, I realize it’s the same expression he’s had the whole time we’ve been in here. Something really bad is goingon.
They file into our tent, and Jack pulls a palm-sized electronic device from his pocket, moving it over the seams of the tent, the cots, the table. After glancing at a display on the front of the device, he motions for me to approach and sweeps it over me from head to toe. His shoulders relax and his jaw loosens for the first time since he arrived at my door this morning.
I raise both eyebrows, waiting for someone to clue me in, not sure if I’m allowed to speakyet.
Jack glances at Bryce before turning to me. “Someone bugged Lisa’s apartment.”
“What do you mean ‘bugged’?”
“I was helping her put up some speakers when I found a tiny Union-issue listening device. I swept her place with this and discovered twelve in total.”
“We checked our place, too, and found another dozen there,” Jack says. “We need to check your dad’s place.”
“Why would anyone dothat?
“You were gone a long time and so were we,” Bryce says, hands stuffed in the front pockets of his jeans. “Apparently someone noticed. We checked everyone’s clothing because we don’t know who planted the bugs, what all they had access to, or how long ago. We figured we’d be safest outhere.”
A sliver of fear pierces me. “What did we say in Lisa’s apartment?”
Bryce shifts, pulling his hands from his pockets. “I don’t think it was anything specific. What about you at your dad’s?”
I shake my head. “Nothing. What about you guys at Lisa’s place before I got there?”
“Nothing much I can remember,” Jack says, dropping the device into his shirt pocket.
“What’s going on?” I ask, sinking onto my cot, my voice barely above a whisper.
“I don’t know,” Jack says. “But we’ve stumbled onto something even bigger than we realized.”
Even though our tent is bug free, I feel dirty, like I need a shower. I wander down to the water and stare out at the waves. They crash ashore, spraying me, inching forward, reaching up to tease my toes. The surf rushes back out, pulling some of the sand with it, my feet sinkingdeep.
I startle at Lisa’s voice. She moves to stand besideme.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Sometimes I think maybe I am, but a few minutes later, I’m notsure.”
She puts her arm around me, and I lay my head on her shoulder, feeling fortunate to have friends who care. We watch the raw power of nature in silence, and a sense of calm begins to edge out some of the unease. Not a lot, but enough for me to at least get through the rest of this day, and maybe that’s all I can ask for rightnow.
“Hey, there you are,” Colin says, making his way like a sloppy drunk through the loose, dry sand. “I’m hungry.”
“Of course you are,” I say under my breath, but Lisa and I follow him to the messtent.
Bryce and Jack find us while we’re still in line and sneak in between us. Dinner conversation is reserved, stilted, and afterward, we make our way back down to the water for the sunset. There’s something lonely about the sun disappearing behind the horizon, leaving us abandoned in thedark.
We return to our tents, and I grab a sweatshirt before joining the others at the fire ring outside our tents. The guys gather wood, while Lisa and I make a coffee run. We drag our chairs out and sit around the fire, sipping coffee, and finally talking.
“What are we going to do?” Lisa asks, a slight quiver in her voice.
“First we need to find out who bugged our places,” Jacksays.
“And then what?” Iask.
“After that…I don’t know.” Jack blows out a breath. “We’ll have to figure it outthen.”
Great, more waiting. We’re spinning our wheels. Every day we don’t do something is one day closer to an impending attack.
“So, should I show up at work Monday morning like nothing’s wrong?” Lisaasks.
“For now,” Jack says. “I think we all need to go about life as if everything is normal for as long as possible.”
“What should I do?” Colinasks.
“You need to stick with your plans,” Jack says, taking a sip of his coffee. “Any deviation will raise a redflag.”
“And what about me?” I still haven’t declared a vocation even though I was supposed to have done so bynow.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Bryce says. “I want to keep you close, and I have an idea.” He gives me a small smile. “What if you went into journalism?”
“Journalism? What do I know about journalism?”
“Probably a lot more than you think. And I canhelp.”
Jack glances from me to Bryce. “What are you thinking?”
“I have some samples I wrote a couple of years ago. She can take them down to Western Provincial and offer them up as her own. They should be good enough to get her an internship at the crime desk. We’ll give her a few weeks to get settled, then we can send a request over for an embedded reporter for an investigation we’re working.”
It’s not uncommon for reporters and detectives to work together. It helps create the kind of sensational journalism Unionites crave. Because the Union has a low crime rate compared to other countries, journalists have resorted to a tabloid style of reporting that looks nothing at all like overseas news sources or the pre-war stuff we studied in school. It wouldn’t be horrible to be a writer. Plus, working with Bryce and Jack beats sitting around and waiting for them to do their thing.
“What makes you think they’ll let me do it?” I ask. “I don’t have any experience.”
“No one does when they start an internship,” Lisa says, settling back in her chair. “That’s the whole purpose of your first year. On-the-job training.”
“No, I mean why would they let a brand new intern, with no experience, work as an embedded reporter?”
“We can request a young female because we’re undercover and need her to be able to pose as the girlfriend of one of us,” Bryce says, rubbing his jaw. “If it works like it does for other teams in our precinct, they’ll send us over four or five candidates, and we’ll chooseyou.”
“But what if they don’t give you myname?”
“We’ll say none of the ones they offered are what we’re looking for and ask if they have anyone else. A friend of mine works over there, if I have to, I’ll call in a favor.”
I stuff my hands into my sweatshirt pockets as the chilly air starts to burrow deeper beneath my skin. “Okay, so let’s say by some small miracle this does work, aren’t they going to expect me to submit stories from time to time? I can’t just go off and not report, canI?”
“I’ll help you, but I know you can write. I was in your class, remember? We’ll say we need to hold off on some stuff because of the sensitive nature of our investigation with the promise of a big story when it’s over. Trust me, they’d rather send a green intern than give up one of their seasoned reporters. That way if something happens to you, they won’t be out one of their valued writers. Or worse, if a decent story doesn’t materialize, they won’t have wasted a prized talent on a badlead.”
“It’s brilliant,” Jack says, smiling broadly.
“Yeah,” Bryce says with a smug grin. “It solves two of our immediate problems. Evan will have a vocation, and we’ll be able to keep her safe. Plus she’ll have access to the investigative resources of the news site, which could come in handy.”
I try not to get too confident about it working, but I have to admit, if it does, it’s a pretty damn goodplan.
Colin and I arrange our cots so the ends meet at a right angle in the corner of the tent. Lying on our backs with our heads together, wetalk.
“What’s going on with you and Bryce?” Colinasks.
“Nothing. That was over before it even began.”
“He cares aboutyou.”
I twist around, but it’s too dark to make out Colin’s expression. “I never thought you were afan.”
“I wasn’t before, but he was really broken up when you were missing. After Jack was ready to throw in the towel, Bryce refused to give up. Even after Lisa and I began to wonder if we’d ever see you again.”
“Wait, I thought Lisa said she always knew you’d findme.”
“That’s what she said, but I know her, and there were times she wasn’t sure about any of it. Not Bryce, though. He just kept going. You don’t do that for someone you only sort oflike.”
I push up on my elbow and study him for a few moments before dropping to my back, trying to process this new information along with the events of the past week. At first, we only needed to find a way to stop an attack on the Union, but now we have to figure out who’s monitoring us and why. Because as long as someone is listening to everything we say, doing anything meaningful to stop the attack is impossible. So trying to make sense of what Colin said about Bryce isn’t even on the to-do list. Although I’ll admit it was easier for me to be around Bryce when I thought he was the badguy.
“All I’m saying,” Colin continues, “is hear him out. I saw the look on his face when you were with that guy from the Ruins. I know thatlook.”
Of course he does. It’s the same one he gets whenever he sees Lisa and Jack together. I reach out to take his hand, squeezing it. He squeezes back and I don’t let go until his hand falls from mine. Sleep doesn’t come for me though, and I give up trying after tossing and turning for an hour. Grabbing my sweatshirt, I step outside into the chilly air. My feet take me down to the water without any prodding from my brain. The tide is low, providing a large swath of hard-packed sand that’s easier to walk on than the loose stuff.
I stroll along the shore, eyes down, deep in my own thoughts. Colin’s words from earlier and Sonia’s that day out in the Ruins about life being too short for regrets mix together in my head like thoughtsoup.
“Whoa,” a voice startles me and I glance up seconds before crashing into Bryce.
“Sorry, I didn’t seeyou.”
“Yeah.” I pause. “But I’m glad I ran into you — literally.”
He turns and falls in step beside me. “Why’sthat?”
With a deep breath, I launch into an unrehearsed apology before I chicken out. “I never meant to hurt you. Well, maybe I did…ornot.”
He laughs. “What are you talking about?”
“Cyrus. The guy in the Ruins.”
“Oh.” All humor is gone from his voicenow.
“I guess there was a part of me that wanted to hurt the guy I thought you were — the smuggler more interested in business than my safety. That guy doesn’t exist, so I’m sorry I hurt you, but the guy I fell for on the train doesn’t exist either. Not really.”
A slow breath of air escapes his lips. “Let’s start over.” He stops and reaches out his hand to mine. “Hi, I’m Michael Bryce Cooper…but you can call me Bryce. I like the way it sounds when you sayit.”
I shake his hand, smiling. “Nice to meet you. I’m Evan Delilah Taylor. But you can call me Evansville because it makes me laugh.”
He gives me a full-dimpled smile, white teeth gleaming against dark skin in the moonlight. We turn and start back toward camp, walking in silence for several minutes, the gentle sound of the waves pushing ashore the only thing I can hear beyond my own thoughts.
“I like your hair betterred.”
I glance at him out of the corner of my eye. “It took me nearly eighteen years, but I think I do, too.”
“What made you change yourmind?”
“Quinn.” I shrug. “What she said about how I’m supposed to have red hair. It also made me think about other stuff, about how things are supposed to be. Everything that happened led me to where I am now. Maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“That’s a huge burden, Evan. You don’t have to do it alone. We’re all in this together, all set in motion by the same chain of events.”
I turn toward him, searching his face. Maybe he’s right. Just because this is my destiny, doesn’t mean it’s mine alone.
“I don’t even want you involved in this,” he continues. “Jack and I are trained detectives. This is what we do. I could lose my job, or worse, by involvingyou.”
“I’m already involved, Bryce.”
“I know.” He glances down at the sand for a moment. “But you wouldn’t be if it hadn’t been forme.”
This is where I should tell him I forgive him, but I don’t. We’ve reached where we need to turn to head back into our camp, but I’m still too keyed up to sleep. “I’m going to walk a little longer.”
He hesitates for a couple of beats. “I can walk with you, unless you’d rather be alone.”
“No, I’d like the company.”
While we stroll, we talk about things long left unsaid. He tells me more about his childhood and growing up, this time not skirting around topics to protect his cover. His words flow freely as he talks about how hard it was in the days after his father disappeared. Pain laces his voice, but I also detect a tinge of hope, as if he believes his father might still be alive.
I share more about what happened in the Ruins, not glossing over my feelings for Cyrus. I don’t want to hurt Bryce, but I need him to understand what I was feeling when I was out there, why his deception and dishonesty hurt me somuch.
When I’m done, he’s quiet for a long time before stopping and turning to face me. He reaches out and take my hands in his. I want to pull them back, but Colin asked me to hear Bryce out, so I leave my hands in his fornow.
“I won’t lie to you again,” he says. “About anything. Even if the truth is difficult.”
“Thank you,” I say, meaning it. This feels like a moment, the beginning of a genuine friendship based on shared goals if nothingelse.
Scuffling sounds drag me out of a dreamless sleep. I lift my head to see Colin moving around. “What time isit?”
“Seven-thirty, I think. I’m hungry.”
I roll my eyes. “Okay, hang on. I’ll go withyou.”
Throwing on a sweatshirt, I stumble after him, heading over to the mess tent. We grab food and coffee and join Lisa and Jack at their table.
“Why do they call it a mess tent? There’s nothing messy about this,” I say, taking a bite of crepes Suzette, nestled between fresh asparagus with hollandaise sauce and a biscuit.
“Hey, Lis,” Colin says. “If your gig at the restaurant doesn’t work out, you can always come and do your chef thinghere.”
She smiles between bites. “I know, right?”
Bryce wanders over as I shove the last of my biscuit into my mouth, looking as bleary-eyed as I feel. He gets breakfast and joins us, taking the spot next to me. The campground has close to a hundred tents, and there’s a decent crowd here for the final weekend before school starts. A group of teenage girls sits a few tables over, checking out Colin. I nudge him and he smiles at them, which sends them into fits of giggles. His smile dissolves into a frown when he glances at Jack and Lisa. I know what it’s like not being able to be with the person you love, but when I peek at Bryce, I know a small part of me still has feelings for him, I’m just not sure exactly what those feelingsare.
We convene in Bryce’s tent after breakfast, dragging our folding chairs with us. Bryce pushes both cots over to the side so we can arrange the chairs in a circle. Jack closes and ties the tent flaps, giving us privacy. “We need a plan for the next week,” he says, turning to face us. “Then we’ll schedule a time and place to get back together.”
“Colin’s leaving before then,” Isay.
“That’s an issue,” Jack says. “And we have to be careful what we say over the phone or by text. But, I think we can use it to our advantage.”
“What do you mean?” Lisaasks.
“If we remove any of the bugs, they’ll know we’re on to them. By leaving them in place, they’ll think they have the upper hand. We’ll feed them the information we want them to have, use that to help us figure out who theyare.”
I trace my finger along the arm of the chair, studying the wood grain while Jack talks. “So, we have to go about our lives being careful of what we say?” Iask.
“We have to act as if the bugs aren’t there or it’ll become obvious to whoever’s listening. But we can’t talk about the Ruins or the invasion when we’re in any of our apartments. And Colin,” Jack turns to him, “you have to assume your place up in the Northwest Province is also bugged.”
“Jack, you said we don’t know who planted the bugs,” I say. “But, it has to be someone who knows where we were, otherwise, why would they have bothered?”
“Not necessarily,” Bryce says. “It doesn’t mean they know where we were. Only that we were off the grid for a long time, and that raised suspicions somewhere.”
“Who would have been paying that much attention to a group of teens?” I ask. Then it hits me this might not be about me, Lisa, and Colin. “Or, a couple of undercover detectives… What did you tell them at your debriefing?”
Jack lets out an exaggerated sigh. “We told them about the weapons smuggling and even went so far as to say we believe the weapons might be going into the Ruins. We had to tell them something.”
“But if they go out into the Ruins, if they send people out there—”
“Hold on,” Jack says. “They’re not going to do that. Not yet, anyway. This is still our investigation. We have to report back to our lieutenant on a regular basis, but they aren’t going to send anyone out there to investigate until we do a lot more work on ourend.”
“How do you know someone in the police department didn’t plant thebugs?”
“It’s a possibility,” Jack says, “and one we’ll explore. It could also be someone close to you who was concerned about your delay in getting to your destination — someone with enough clout to get into several residences in the Western Province.”
“No way.” I push out of my chair and whirl around to face him. “I know what you’re insinuating, but my uncle wouldn’t do that. What about your dad? Maybe he noticed his son and partner weren’t checking in as required, figured out who were the last people he was seen with and bugged everyone’s apartments.”
“I’m not ruling that out either, Evan, but we have to consider everything. For now, let’s assume no one except the five of us can be completely trusted.”
With an exaggerated sigh, I stop pacing and plop down in my chair, staring glumly at the ground. “Okay, so what’s theplan?”
After spending a day walking up and down the shore, throwing out ideas, the plan we’ve come up with is that we don’t have a plan. We return to our tents after dinner to continue our discussions. I grab some blankets while the boys make another fire. Most of the day was spent arguing, so the mood of our little group is as dark as the nightsky.
“Look,” Jack says, leaning back in his chair. “I get it. You hate not doing anything.”
“It’s not only that,” I say. “But the reason I came home was to do something, and now you’re telling me I have to just sit around.”
“What do you want to do?” heasks.
“Finally. I’ve been trying to tell you, but you keep cutting me off.” He presses his mouth in a tight line, as if he’s forcing himself to remain quiet. “I came up with an idea out in the Ruins, a way to warn the Union citizens without threatening the Ruins. I was thinking about the Peace Patrols from the late 2000s that brokered the cease-fire to end the war. What if we went down to the lower levels and blended in, started spreading the word of what we saw out there?”
“How does that protect the Ruins?” Colinasks.
“Well, most of the people who live down below are the ones who like their privacy. They’re not big on government to begin, barely use any services, and only contribute as much as they have to. So the chance they’d talk to the government is pretty low. If we tell them what we saw, that people live out there, people without anything, word would spread. You know how it’ll go. Demonstrations, people demanding change. If the people in the Ruins get what they need from us, there won’t be any reason for them to attack.”
Everyone is quiet for a few minutes. Jack shifts in his chair and glances at Bryce before turning to me. “It’s not a bad idea, but, Evan, you know serious changes like you’re talking about will take years. What if the attack happens beforethen?”
“Yeah, I don’t have it all figured outyet.”
“If what we suspect is true, about the smuggling and arming the rebels, what if they planted the bugs to make sure we don’t do exactly what you’re suggesting?” Jackasks.
“I don’t know, but all you’ve said is we need to find out who bugged us, and that’s going to take time, too. Especially if your plan is to feed them information and wait to see what happens.”
“That’s not exactly what I said, it’s more complicated thanthat.”
I lift an eyebrow.
He sighs, “Okay, so that’s basically it. But knowing who’s behind it is key to finding out more about their operation.”
“Assuming the two are connected.”
“I think for now we need to assume they are,” Bryce says, finally deciding to join the conversation. “At least until we find out they’re not. There are too many coincidences, and I don’t believe in coincidence. There’s a decent chance government officials are involved, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter Benton’s one ofthem.”
“Do you think our own government is funding an attack against us?” Lisaasks.
“I don’t think the entire government is,” Bryce says. “But I’d bet money certain members are involved.”
“Well then we’re screwed,” Colinsays.
“If you think there’s some cooperation between the two, figuring out who bugged us may point to the connection,” Jack says to Bryce. “Think about it. If anyone knew we were out in the Ruins, they have a vested interest in discovering how much weknow.”
“I’m not saying the bugging isn’t connected,” Bryce says. “But Benton could be useful in finding out who’s moving freely between both worlds. When I was in his place, there was a steady stream of people coming and going. People who didn’t come across as legitimate visitors to the Mayor.”
“Bryce is right,” I say. “If Benton’s connected to the rebels in the Ruins, we could infiltrate them, learn more about their plans.” That was Lucien and Draya’s plan before Lucien died. I almost feel like I owe it to him to see it through.
Bryce turns to me, his eyes dark and intense. “That’s by far the most dangerous option.”
“Which means it’s also the most promising. It could be our best chance to learn what they’re up to. How else can we get that information?” I ask, fighting to keep the frustration out of my voice.
“By doing good detective work,” Bryce says. His voice is calm but there’s an edge to it not usually present. “I think Benton is the key to all ofthis.”
If Alivia’s dad is involved, he might know more about the rebels’ plans. It might be easier to get information through him than to join up out in the Ruins. Based on what I saw and heard out there, they seemed like a bunch of drunk idealists, anyway.
Silence settles over our group, the tension building. Jack and Bryce stare each other down until Lisa breaks the stalemate. “Why do we need to be limited to only oneplan?”
“We’ve been over this, Lis,” I say. “There aren’t enough of us to do everything.”
“Everyone keeps saying that, but I think you’re trying to make this more complicated than it needs to be. You and Bryce can go back east and check out Benton as part of your embedded reporter undercover thing. Jack and I can use the bugs to see if we can flush out the buggers, or whatever it is you call people who plantbugs.”
“That could work,” Jack says, smiling atLisa.
I roll my eyes. If I’d suggested it, he’d have immediately shot me down. Colin crosses his arms over his chest, staring into the fire, a frown pulling at his lips. “What about Colin? How are we going to keep him in the loop?” Iask.
Bryce, Jack, and Lisa exchange glances, but no one offers up any ideas.
“I don’t see why I can’t stay here,” Colin says. “Maybe I can talk Eddie into letting me shadow him or something. I mean what aspiring musician would turn down a chance to hang with a member of Epic Vinyl?”
“That’s not a bad idea—” I start.
“There’s no way to do that without tipping Eddie off,” Jack says. “You and Lisa both need to go ahead with your plans. The Northwestern Province is only a few hours by A-Train. We’ll plan on getting together every couple of weeks.”
If I thought Jack was oblivious to how Colin felt about Lisa, he pretty much just shot that theory to hell. He knows, and he wants Colin and his feelings as far away as possible. Colin glares at Jack but doesn’t argue. I’m not sure what Colin will be able to contribute once he’s up there. This feels like the beginning of the end of his involvement.
Colin is quiet as we lie on our cots. I know he’s frustrated. “As much as I hate to admit it, Jack’s right. You can’t stay here, at least not right now,” I say. “Besides, it’ll be good for you to get a little distance from Lisa for a while. You’ve been together in one way or another almost every day since we were in Grade5.”
“Jack’s trying to get rid ofme.”
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