If I die here, how long will it take my dad to notice I’m missing if the school doesn’t notify him?
Months. And Gabby considered that generous on her part.
One school hadn’t noticed when she’d missed classes for two weeks.
She followed along behind Jaxxson, ignoring him since he ignored her. Outside the Isolation Unit, everything in the village was cast in intense reddish-purples from that jacked up sky. Moving around had given her a small burst of energy, or an adrenaline spike over facing a new unknown. She kept forcing one foot in front of the other, struggling to catch her breath in the humidity that wrapped around her and squeezed, reminding her of childhood summers in Saigon, Bangkok and Singapore. Mostly Singapore. Surviving that had been hard enough after her mom cashed out, but then her dad buried himself so deep in his work he’d forgotten he had a daughter.
A burden he’d pawned off on one private school after another since then.
She coughed and stumbled, catching her balance. Must not lag behind the grouchy healer from this weird world.
“Drink more of the water I gave you unless you enjoy coughing,” Jaxxson said without turning around. The only words he’d spoken to her since leaving the neon-green hut this group used for a jail. “And keep up. You’re not the only one who needs my attention.”
She caught what his terse words hadn’t said, that she imposed on his valuable time. Especially since he considered her an enemy, some freaky whatever they kept calling her, Tony and Rayen–techno-somethings. As if.
She had the brain power to be a techno-whiz, but lacked the passion for anything mechanical or electronic. Numbers she loved, the rest? Bleh.
Jaxxson crossed into a less dense area. Not wide open like the grassy space where the metal pod had spit them out, more like trails wrapped in between trees where the underbrush had been cleared. Lots of trails, tons of big trees but no people, except for the sound of children, but she couldn’t see any. The trees weren’t brown or gray-skinned and the leaves weren’t green. They were every color but. If not for working so hard to stay upright, she’d pause to admire the wicked colors, but not right now.
With Rayen dragged along on a hunting expedition that might involve killing croggles and Tony stuck in that prison unit, Gabby had to find out as much as she could while she was semi-free. Getting Jaxxson to talk at all would be tough, but he might if she started with a subject that interested him.
She asked in a scratchy voice, “How many kids are here in Camp Croggle?”
“Water,” he ordered again.
Not a lively conversationalist.
She made a face at his back, or tried to but her face muscles weren’t cooperating. Why should she be surprised at Jaxxson? He was just another self-consumed brainiac healer, like her father, right down to the bedside manners of a turnip. Only her dad was a physician, not some wannabe doc like Jaxxson.
A real doctor would have realized the reason she hadn’t kept drinking was because she couldn’t. Getting the lip of the water bag he’d hung around her neck up to her mouth became more impossible as her condition deteriorated.
Her swollen arms were so tight they didn’t want to bend and neither did her puffed-up fingers that felt as though the skin would split any minute. But her throat ached with a dry, burning heat so she fumbled with the bag made of strange, aqua-colored leather hanging from a woven grass lanyard. She managed to lift the opening to her lips.
And pour some water in her mouth.
The rest ran down her chin and chest, dribbling over the front of her dress that was dirty from being dragged through the jungle. The multi-colored cloth would hide most of the wet stains. Dropping the water sack to lay against her chest again, she swiped a fat hand at her face and missed half the water still trickling down. Sort of like getting a shot of Novocain in her arms, hands and face...but without the pain relief.
She focused on Jaxxson’s back walking ahead of her and asked, “Where’s this healing hut?”
“Where did Rayen, Mathias and Callan go?”
Not a word. The old silent treatment?
Being the new kid at a new school every six to eight months when her nanosurgeon-dad-turned-consultant accepted new contracts with different national and international medical programs meant a lot of stares and silence from her peers. You’d think after that, and being ignored by her dad for the past six years, she’d have gotten used to being treated as an inanimate object. A useless dead weight.
But she hadn’t.
On the other hand, she should be glad Jaxxson hadn’t looked back at her the whole time she’d followed him since she could probably beat out the Creature Of The Deep for a scary-looking award. Her filthy arms and face were swollen and streaked with red lines, hair stuck out unintentionally all over the place and sweat glued her clothes to her body.
Not that she should care, but grouchy up ahead looked like he’d stepped out of a television ad for sexy shaving cream with that sarong wrapped around his waist, his nicely-defined chest, smooth, olive-tone skin over an appealing masculine face and taut muscles that flexed across his back.
Wait. Back muscles?
That had nothing to do with shaving cream ads.
The infection must be frying her brain. Had to be the only reason she’d consider anyone who was even remotely related to medicine attractive. Underneath all that prime packaging lived the cold heart of an arrogant male with a God complex.
She’d met plenty over the years.
Sons of a few of her father’s associates had taken an interest in her, until they clued into the fact she wasn’t her mother, the classic trophy wife.
Gabby had set her sights on being anything but. The more anti-trophy-worthy she could make herself, the better.
Jaxxson came to a sudden halt in front of a massive tree that reminded her of giant California redwoods you could drive a car through. Except this one’s striped bark had a tiger-skin look to it and, way up high, polka-dotted yellow leaves flickered beneath that crimson-red daytime moon. But the moon had trekked some from one side of the sky to the other since she’d first seen it, like the arc of a sun going from horizon to horizon.
She kept plodding along to close the distance between her and Jaxxson. Why had he stopped here?
He turned with his arms crossed, as if waiting on an errant child. His dark-brown eyes swept up and down her, pausing on her face before he looked away.
I look that gross, huh?
Like she cared what he thought? But to be honest, the boys usually found her attractive, so on some what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you level his action did sting.
When she finally reached him, he said, “Ready?”
“To enter the healing hut.”
He was joking, right?
“I hate to point out the obvious, you being a medical professional and all,” she said in a perky sarcastic voice she managed to dredge up in spite of the pain. “But it’s a tree and I can’t climb. I know, I’m self-diagnosing, and you doctors hate that, but I’m just saving you from a possible malpractice suit.” In case he needed a demonstration, she raised her sausage fingers and unbendable arms as high as she could, grimacing. The pain had increased as her heart rate picked up from walking, and worrying.
He shook his head as if she were particularly slow or clueless. “Come on.” He reached for her arm.
She flinched and stepped back, her voice coming out brisk, to make sure he understood. “Don’t touch me.”
“Don’t give me orders,” he warned. “I have enough to do without having to deal with someone like you.”
“What do you mean ‘someone like me’?”
“Think I haven’t noticed you’re a Hy’bridt?”
Did he mean hybrid? Like a mixed breed? A mongrel. “A what?”
“Mismatched eyes. Sign of a Hy’bridt.”
Yeah, right. Everyone saw her different eyes before they saw her and marked her a freak without a single word of getting to know her. That’s why she made a point of being the first one to put some distance between herself and strangers before someone had the opportunity to snub her. “I’ve been slammed by better than you, buster.”
He jerked at her words. “I didn’t touch you and I harm no one.”
This whole conversation had gotten weirder than she could deal with until she found relief from this infection.
A battle of emotions warred through his gaze until he settled on irritated, his default emotion from what she could tell. He ground out his next words. “You wanted my help. If you don’t go into the hut soon, that infection could reach your brain and, if it does, I won’t be able to stop it from killing you.”
Could reach her brain?
Was he telling her the truth or just trying to scare her? Either way, he was doing a damn good job of rattling her.
In fact, swallowing was becoming more difficult, especially getting past the lump of panic jamming her throat. “What do you want me to do? If your hut is inside this tree, show me the door.”
She lifted her eyebrows. Was she speaking another language all of a sudden? “Yes. How else do you get in and out?”
“You have two different eye colors and claim to not be tek-nah-tee, yet you must be one or the other.”
“One or the other what?”
“You waste my time!”
And you’re making me crazy! She bared her clenched teeth. “I get it. You’re important, but I’m not fluent in idiot and you’re not making any sense. What does any of this one-kind-or-another thing have to do with getting inside this tree?”
“Tek-nah-tees can’t enter this tree.” His eyes flickered with a thought, something he battled about within himself until he looked up, whispering something silently that reminded her of her father when his patience ran out. Then he glanced back at her. “You have mixed eyes yet you don’t see the passage?”
One more snipe about her screwy colored eyes and he was going to end up seeing stars circling his head.
She took in the bark on the tree trunk, searching for a line or something that would indicate a doorway. Something that would prove she was not a tek-nah-tee. “Give me a hint.”
“Put both hands up on the tree,” he said, enunciating each word slowly.
She started to tell him she wasn’t the moron here who thought she could walk through a tree. Giving him a we’ll-play-your-little-game glare, she gritted her teeth and moved right up against the bark so she didn’t have to reach far to touch it. She pushed her aching hands forward, past her hips, and then she paused, anticipating the pain of her over-sensitive palms hitting the striped bark.
But her hands touched nothing, kept moving as they disappeared into the tree that gave no more resistance than a cloud.
The unexpected lack of solidity startled her and she fell forward with no chance of getting her arms up to block her fall.
She squeezed her eyes closed and hunched her shoulders, preparing to hit face first.
And stopped in mid-air.
An arm scooped around her waist right before her face should have smashed into the ground.
She opened her eyes.
Yep, that smooth flat surface she stared at had to be the floor, because the two feet in odd sandals also in view matched the ones Jaxxson wore.
He hoisted her up to stand on her own and released her, stepping back with a strange expression. A mix of confusion and surprise.
Yeah, she was freaky, but this guy had no idea just how weird.
Want to talk freaky? Take a look at this place.
Awe stretched through her voice when she said, “This has got to be the most rockin’ tree house I’ve ever seen.” The room looked about fifteen feet across and more like an apartment than a doctor’s office. Nothing cold and sterile here.
She sniffed. Eucalyptus? Sort of. And something else just as soothing. Sage? Or maybe lavender? It could be from the rough-hewn wood of the tree walls, toned down from the outside stripes. How cool was this to be inside the heart of a living, breathing tree?
Or were they? “Is this tree still alive?”
“Of course it is.” He strolled away.
She scrunched up her face and silently mimicked his words Of course it is, but he didn’t see her.
Jaxxson stopped at a wall where an odd assortment of dried plants hung from a vine line. He pulled a wooden bowl off a crude shelf and sat it on a large slab table that was covered with a soft-looking gray skin of some kind. Reaching for several dried plants, he used a polished rock to crush the leaves into the bowl.
Definitely not like any kind of hospital or clinic that she’d ever seen.
Glancing up higher, there appeared to be another room accessed by a hand-hewn ladder, like a loft. She asked, “You live here?”
Putting down the bowl, he turned to her, a furrow between his brows as if he still tried to figure out something about her. “This is my temporary quarters until we find a way home.”
So he wasn’t from here either.
“Where’s home?” she asked, trying to figure out the emotion beneath his words. He’d gone from adversarial to quiet since she’d stepped inside this place. Maybe the scents in here had a calming effect on him, too.
He took his time answering. “Back through the transender.”
“You mean that–” Just then she noticed something new about the table in front of him. No table legs. Nothing between the slab and the floor. “Is that, uh, floating on its own?”
He looked down at the space beneath the slab then back at her. “Of course it is. I need you to sit on the surface so I can treat you.”
She started to tell him the thing was too high when the slab suddenly levitated down low enough for her to easily slide onto it.
But she didn’t move. Had that really happened or was this guy some kind of magician, which could mean he was fooling her about everything, even being a healer.
He ordered, “Sit.”
Considering all the bizarre things she’d encountered since Rayen’s hand had been sucked into that computer screen, Gabby decided to just roll with this for now. She inched herself onto the slab, waiting for it to slam to the floor at any second, Jaxxson reached for his bowl of ground-up leaf mixture. He grasped a handful that he let sift through his fingers as if checking to see if the texture suited him. Then he added some liquid from another bowl.
Was he a healer...or a witchdoctor?
What if that evil-eyed tile girl had convinced Mathias to do this as a set up?
Scary second thoughts bombarded Gabby. Her heart rate increased like a sprinter going for a record and her breathing shortened until it came in pants.
What exactly was that stuff Jaxxson held? Would it do more harm than the red vines? What if he’d brought her here to interrogate then kill? She knew nothing about tek-nah-tees. Would he believe her?
He paused, cocking his head to one side. “Why are you becoming more distressed?”
Had he read her thoughts? Without touching her? To hide her surprise at his question, she asked him one. “What kind of doctor are you?”
“Heal-er,” he said in an exaggerated voice of impatience. “Understand?”
She buried her worry under her temper. “Oh, I understand. Doc-tor A-hole. Got it.”
If not for the dire circumstances, she’d get a laugh at the dumbfounded look on his face that said he had no idea what she’d just called him. And male ego, being what it was, meant he’d never admit to not knowing.
Instead he frowned even more and reached for a basket on the floor. He pulled two puce-looking dried flowers out, tossed those in his bowl then continued crushing that with the leaves. He eyed her again, trying to decide something. When he finally made up his mind, he said, “I’m from the healing house. But I’m not called whatever you are calling me.”
He paused in thought. “There are many names for what I do, but I have not studied them all.”
Odd answer. Who were these people? But no matter how much effort it took, she had to keep the conversation going, hoping to find out something useful. “I was born in China. Hong Kong, but we moved around a lot.”
Digesting that for a moment, he asked, “Your home?”
“No.” Her neck muscles ached, getting tight like her arms, but she didn’t want to stop the tentative truce. That much she’d learned from her dad. The number of real discussions with him could be measured on the fingers of one hand, but if she did get him to talk, she made darn sure she kept him talking.
Jaxxson pondered a few seconds then asked, “If you’re not tek-nah-tee, where are you from?”
Her heart did a double bounce at the word “if.” Here was a chance to convince him she wasn’t tek-nah-tee and open the door for his friends to consider that Tony and Rayen might not be either.
She carefully explained, “I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico for now, but my dad consults all over the world so I’ve lived everywhere–Berlin, Dubai, Singapore. What about you?”
The silence that met her words raised hairs along her neck. The intensity of his stillness sent her pulse skyrocketing and with each hard pump of her heart she could swear she felt the infection spread.
She started breathing in shorter, rougher gasps.
Jaxxson grabbed a handful of his mixture again, sandwiching it between his palms. He shook his head as if grappling with something he couldn’t comprehend. “I live in City Four.”
She shook her head. A city called by a number? “Four?”
As if reading her mind again he explained, “Yes, YEG/4.”
What was he talking about? Had she heard him right? Her eyes blurred then cleared. She wheezed a breath in and out.
He squatted down in front of her, real concern showing on his face for the first time. “I have to rub this on your wrists at the infection origin. Right now.”
That meant touching her. She swallowed past her dry lips, and her fear. “No. Give me the bowl. I’ll do it.”
“How will you do that with fingers that refuse to work?”
She didn’t have an answer for him. Her head was splitting and it was getting harder and harder to swallow.
“This will not work without my touch,” he added.
“You’re serious? Were you born of this millennium?”
Pain blazed through her. She snapped at him. “Of course not, I was born in...” Her chest wouldn’t expand. She forced out, “1997.”
His eyes widened as he whispered, “Not possible.”
“Oh, really? When were you born...uhggg...” She flailed her arms at her neck, unable to reach her throat.
Jaxxson reached for her, his face ripped with anxiety and anger. “You lie. Who are you? Don’t close your eyes!”
His fingers latched tight onto one of her wrists.
She tried to protest, but couldn’t. Words snagged in her closing throat. Her vision blurred. Pain raged through her wrist, her whole body. She jerked her arm, but couldn’t pull away and started falling back, back, back into a bottomless void.
Jaxxson’s bewildered thoughts burst into her mind.
1997 is impossible.
I was born in 2162.