Cold. Her teeth chattered.
Gabby hated the cold. She wanted out of here. But where was here? She fought, clawing her way out of this frigid hole.
“Can you hear me?” a deep male voice asked.
Sure, I can hear you, which means there are two of us stuck in here. Got any idea how to get out?
No one answered her.
Too bad. He had a nice voice. She’d like to see the body and face attached to it. But like everyone else in her world, he seemed to have walked away from her.
As usual, she’d have to find her own way out of hell.
First she had to figure out what kind of place her father had dumped her into this time. Her teeth chattered more.
Something heavy covered her, taking the edge off her chill, but not by much.
Why couldn’t her dad find a private school near a beach? She might actually apply herself and stick around if she had sand, water and tanned guys in board shorts.
Had she been sent to Antarctica?
I’ve gotten out of worse places. I think.
Drawing on all the energy she could muster, she ordered her eyes to open. Her lids weren’t cooperating. Like they were glued shut.
The weight over her body increased, the new layer tucked against her. Which helped. A lot. The shivering slowed. Her arms and legs felt heavier.
Fine. She could sleep now that she was warm again.
“Come on, wake up,” the male voice ordered.
She really would like to see who she had as a hell-mate. Giving it one more try, she pried open her eyes and stared up at a guy with a naked chest. A really nice naked chest and beautiful dark, sinfully delicious eyes. “Aren’t you cold?”
He chuckled. Had a nice smile on his oh-so-nice face. “No, I’m not the one fighting off a fever.”
Fever? She stared at him, trying to decide if she was truly awake then turned her head, taking in her surroundings. Dried weeds hung from vines. Ladder over there that went up to a loft. Odd shaped walls of wood.
A deep breath of lavender eucalyptus snapped her jumbled thoughts into order.
I get it. She was still in this freaky world with...her eyes shifted back to hot, bare-chest guy...medicine man. Jaxxson, aka the healer, and not naked, unless he’d ditched the sarong.
He must have levitated the slab table she was stretched out on because she could only see from the middle of his abs up. He didn’t have a body all cut with muscle like that guy Callan, but she found she liked Jaxxson’s lean physique. More her style. Her gaze kept climbing higher up his tanned skin, up to the stern chin, up to the sharp cheeks and... smack, back to the dark brown eyes observing her with wary caution.
What had she done or said to get that look? Had the mixture he’d crushed in that bowl caused her to babble something about her ability to hear other people’s thoughts? “What happened to me?”
“The infection accelerated when you got upset. It spiked sharply, cutting off your air supply. You started suffocating. I treated you, then checked on the new child brought into our village.”
Infection. From the vines. Right.
But he wasn’t telling her something. She’d been burning up and in pain. He’d mixed a poultice of some type in a bowl then she started getting worse to the point that...
Glaring at him with unveiled accusation, she asked, “Did you touch me?”
“I told you not to.” She dug those last moments of lucidity up from the dregs of her mind, recalled him grabbing her wrist. She’d heard a thought just as she’d lost consciousness.
What had he been thinking?
What had they been talking about?
Irritation migrated back into Jaxxson’s face. “If I hadn’t touched you, you wouldn’t be here to berate me for executing the duty I’m sworn to perform, which is saving a life if I can. Even one who lacks appreciation.”
She thumped her fingers against the table slab, accepting that she owed him and was behaving like a wounded animal. “Thank you.”
They stared at each other, a visual stand off until he lifted two fingers to graze his chin as he speculated on something. “About touching you.”
Here it comes. What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you let anyone touch you? That’s not normal. “Go ahead. Ask.”
“Why do you fear touch? How have you survived to this age without allowing any physical contact?”
She hadn’t expected that second question.
No one had cared that she hadn’t been embraced in years, not after she’d convinced her father and the staffs at multiple schools that she had very sensitive skin and touching caused her actual pain. It hadn’t taken long for word to get around that she was the weird kid to be avoided. She’d never so much as held hands with a boy much less kissed one.
If a brief touch opened the path to another person’s mind, the idea of an intimate contact such as kissing terrified her.
She didn’t want inside anyone else’s mind again.
She never wanted to cause another death.
Jaxxson waited quietly for her answer, showing patience she hadn’t thought he possessed when she’d first followed him from the Isolation Unit. People never believed the truth. So she gave him the same patent answer she handed to everyone who asked about her phobia.
“No big deal. My skin is sensitive so I don’t like to be manhandled. That’s it.” With her reaction to the vine, that should be an easy sale this time.
“Why are you lying?”
How had he known that? “Are you a mind reader?”
He studied her with narrowed eyes. “Mind reader?” Then he stared straight ahead, thinking. “An outdated term, but that would make sense.”
Awestruck at what he was admitting, she whispered, “You did hear my thoughts didn’t you?”
“No. That would be inappropriate to enter your mind without an invitation.” His shoulders lifted in dismissal. “It was simple to see that you lied. I used my empathic ability to read the changes in your body.”
Good grief. Someone weirder than me.
He reminded her, “You still haven’t answered my question. Why did you lie when you are clearly disturbed by being touched? I’ll grant that you did have a reaction to the vine, but I don’t believe that’s the reason you avoid contact.”
Something he’d said a moment ago struck her. “Did you say it would be inappropriate to enter a mind uninvited?”
“So you can enter someone else’s mind if they invite you?”
“Yes, of course. Why is that surprising? It’s a simple matter of training for some and bonding for others.”
“So I’m not the only one,” she murmured to herself.
“You try to hide this ability by not touching? Why?”
This had to be the most bizarre conversation she’d ever had. How could he act as though picking up thoughts was as natural as breathing? What would be the point in trying to lie again with someone like him? She admitted, “You’re right. I hear thoughts through touch, but I hate it.”
She especially hated the day she’d heard her mother’s thoughts about sleeping with another man who wasn’t Gabby’s dad. Barely ten years old, Gabby had blurted out, “Why were you in bed with that man?”
“What man?” her mom had stammered, squeezing Gabby’s hand harder.
“The yellow-haired one. At the Four Seasons where we’ve had tea. The hotel.”
Her mother had backed up from her, demanding in a frightened voice, “How’d you know?”
Gabby told the truth. “I saw it in your mind.” She raised their joined hands and looked at them, whispering, “I see things when I touch you.”
That was the day her mother backed away from Gabby with a look of horror on her face. Her mom normally only drank at home, but she grabbed a bottle of liquor and jumped in her convertible Mercedes, squealing tires when she tore away from their home. Hours later, the police arrived to inform Gabby’s father that her mother had died in a single car collision. She’d been ejected when she lost control and the car rolled down an embankment.
Gabby developed her skin phobia the day she killed her mother.
“Did you hear me?” Jaxxson said, snapping his fingers in front of her face.
“I asked why you listen to other people’s thoughts via touch if it bothers you? And to do so is wrong anyhow.”
Her temper came back with a vengeance. “I hate to point out the obvious, but if I could prevent hearing them, don’t you think I would?”
Jaxxson dropped his arms to his side, angling his head and frowning with exasperation. “Our children learn to shield their minds by the time they can write their names.”
“You can do this, too?”
Pushing herself up, she scooted back to sit up. To get out of a vulnerable position. Lying down reminded her of too many visits with mental health professionals. She lifted her wrists to find the swelling had gone down, her hands flexed normally again. So Jaxxson was some kind of doctor after all, but he’d also been able to access her thoughts while she was out of it.
She asked point blank, “I’m having a hard time accepting that you didn’t listen to my thoughts.”
“Entering someone’s mind when they are defenseless is no different than entering someone’s home uninvited. I am not an intruder.”
Where were these people from? “I’ve never met anyone else who can do this.”
“So you were telling the truth.”
“About what?” She had the feeling she was about to find out what had caused that wariness still hanging in his gaze.
“That you were born in 1997.”
“Oh, that. Well, of course, it’s the truth.” Her whole body relaxed. “Look at me. Don’t I look sixteen?”
She might have gotten an early gift from the booby fairy, but she had a baby face that had never been mistaken for being older.
What was the big deal about her age?
Then out of nowhere, the thoughts she’d heard from Jaxxson’s mind a second before she’d lost consciousness rushed forward.
She lies. . . impossible. . .I was born in–.
Her jaw dropped. “Now I remember. I had no way to stop myself from hearing your thoughts. You were thinking about being born in...2162.” No way. No freakin’ way. Unless . . .“What planet are you from?”
“It’s known as Earth.”
“That can’t be possible. I’m from Earth, too, and 2162 hasn’t happened yet.”
But he was shaking his head. “I don’t understand. How can you be here?”
“Right back at ya.”
She gave him a half grin, feeling it wobble around the edges as she grappled with what she was saying. “It means I’m asking you the same question. Really? Seriously? If you were born in 2162 then what year do you live in?”
No way. “Are we in some kind of weird time travel warp?”
“No, the tek-nah-tee would never risk sending one of us back in time.”
This conversation got stranger by the minute. If not for seeing purple and green striped skies, having traveled here through a computer, fought killer flowers and watched giant croco-monsters climb out of the ground, Gabby might actually be surprised by meeting someone from the future.
She reminded herself to roll with it. “What are these tek-nah-tees? Bad boy teckies or what? Sounds like naughty techs.”
After a long moment, the suspicion and irritation that had held his face hostage disappeared. He actually smiled and folded his arms, starting off explaining by spelling MystiK and TecKnati. “Many years ago, civilization divided up between the MystiKs and the TecKnati. The TecKnati excelled in science and technology while our MystiKs developed gifted skills and supernatural powers with each generation becoming stronger.”
“Why’d the TeK dudes put you in this place? And if this isn’t a time warp, where am I?”
“V’ru says this Sphere is an artificial planet. A satellite.”
“V’ru? Is that a guy or a girl? A MystiK or a TecKnati?”
Jaxxson looked as if he couldn’t decide if she was joking. “A male MystiK. V’ru is from the Records House, a rare G’ortian no less.”
“Does that mean he keeps journals for you?”
“His gift is much more sophisticated than that. Upon being captured and arriving here, he assessed the contents of this Sphere and began identifying the plants and animals that are from other planets the TecKnati have been exploring and placing in this Sphere. The TecKnati are capturing young MystiKs and sending us here, using this as a holding facility.”
Was this Jaxxson for real? “Why?”
“We’re in constant conflict with the TecKnati. They see our gifts and powers as impeding research and expansion plans in space that they feel will assure us natural resources and a better way of life as our world rebuilds. We see their technology as exposing us to greater risks outside of earth and threatening our ability to continue developing powers due to health risks caused by technology.”
“Who’d have thought?” she murmured.
“The TecKnatis are at heart fearful of any threat against their supremacy. We now believe SEOH, their leader, plans to rid our world of powerful MystiK rulers who pose a greater threat to TecKnati than before, even though the TecKnati claim no respect for our powers.”
“So the TeK guys want to get rid of you and have all of earth for themselves?”
Jaxxson nodded. “Currently they control the ten cities, but that’s not enough for them.”
“Your whole world is limited to only ten cities?”
“Yes. Our records indicate that once there were many more, but now…” He shrugged and glanced away.
“The K’ryan Syndrome wiped out populated areas around the world, including North America, leaving small groups of people in isolated outposts. As the survivors joined up, they made their way to ten cities that were still physically intact and capable of sustaining a sizable population.”
Unfreakingbelievable. Gabby couldn’t form a thought, but Jaxxson didn’t seem to notice and kept talking.
“The great TecKnati minds came from those sequestered in remote research locations and labs. Powerful MystiKs developed from those who had chosen a more simplistic way of life, living in areas away from any civilization. Each of the cities in the new world is encircled by an energy field that is controlled by the TecKnatis, as is all travel between cities.”
“Why do you need an energy field?”
“For protection. The virus didn’t kill everyone. One particular group became rabid and, even though they were destroyed, there is fear that other infected humans might come to the cities. I admit the energy field keeps us safe, but there is a price to pay for giving TecKnati that power over us.”
“So that’s what’s going on in the future.” She didn’t want to tell him his world sounded like it sucked, big time, and she had another burning question. “How did we end up here? In this Sphere place?” she wondered aloud.
“Wait a moment.” Jaxxson walked away and lifted a stump that had been cut from the middle of a tree trunk and brought it over to place next to her.
Gabby enjoyed the rare opportunity of admiring a male up close while he was unaware that she checked him out. Jaxxson’s lean body flexed with hidden strength. She’d never spent time with someone who looked like him.
Get real. She’d never spent time up close with any guys.
He sat down, now on eye level with her, which she appreciated. He admitted, “I don’t understand how or why the three of you arrived...if you are not TecKnati.”
“There’s not much else I can say other than we’re not. At some point, you have to decide to believe me or not.” She hoped he took that in the spirit it was offered.
He nodded. “Until I see differently, I accept that you were not sent by SEOH. As for your being here, I can only think that the TecKnati made some error to bring someone into this Sphere from the past. V’ru says there is evidence of TeK time-travel research, but every confirmed report indicates that as yet they can only send a person into the past, not bring one forward.”
She was so going to blow Tony’s mind when she told him all this. If she told him. “You said the TecKnati never send someone like you back. What did you mean?”
“TecKnati would never send a MystiK into the past and risk MystiKs alerting the world to the strategies of TecKnati in the future, otherwise MystiKs would become even more powerful over time. A bigger threat to TeKs. TeKs send only their own kind into the past.”
“Time travel,” she whispered, marveling at what was going on in the future one minute and still in shock the next.
“But we have no report of this being successful so they may have killed everyone they experimented on. They don’t value life as we do so we think they are only sending those they consider disposable on missions to the past.”
“How would they know if they were successful?”
“I don’t know for sure. Our reports confirm that the TecKnati have not found a way to communicate with someone once that person enters their time travel portal. And since the TecKnati are very good about shouting their accomplishments to all the cities, I trust we would’ve heard if they’d succeeded in teleporting to the past and returning. At least, that’s our most recent news.”
“How would you know in this place?”
“MystiK children are dropped here fairly regularly. The older ones arriving bring reports from home.”
“Wow, this is over-the-top crazy,” she murmured. “And people think I’m a freak.”
She gave him her best duh look. “Because I hear thoughts. Where I come from that brands you as strange, a sideshow act, to be avoided at all costs.”
Jaxxson’s face tightened and his eyes darkened. Why did that make him angry?
Shaking his head as though what she’d shared was irrational, he said, “Although I’ve not studied all ancient worlds, I knew our gifts were not once celebrated and appreciated as they are now. But I had no idea those with our abilities who lived two centuries back were persecuted.”
“Persecuted is a strong word,” she argued, thinking of the entire civilizations lost or abused at the hands of evil people.
“It’s not strong enough if you’ve spent your life without basic human comfort because of being born with a gift. To treat one as that in our MystiK world is to face punishment, because the gifted are rebuilding our world and protecting our future.”
Good grief. He made her sound like something special.
She couldn’t wrap her head around that.
Or that he came from the future.
If not for having Rayen and Tony on this whacked-out trip, she’d think this was all some insomnia-induced dream. Speaking of Rayen and Tony, she had to do her part and get as much information as possible on how to get out of this place. She’d been so engrossed by talk of the future–could that all be true?–she didn’t know where to start. Since Jaxxson claimed to be a captive as well, she led with that.
“I’ve figured out that none of you want to be here,” Gabby began. “Can’t you escape?”
“No. Only TecKnati scouts can operate the transenders.”
“That metal thing that spit us out here?” She described it further.
If only TecKnati could operate the pods, what did that say about going home to Albuquerque? Had that little girl Rayen rescued traveled in their same pod since she was dumped in the clearing they’d been ejected into?
What a weird place, but one where her strange ability was accepted. No, celebrated as special. And Jaxxson could teach her so much.
Staying here had huge benefits, for a short time anyway, while she learned from Jaxxson, but she had to help Tony and Rayen find a way home. This was a dangerous place where people with abilities were held as prisoners.
And too easily died.
She could see why everyone had reacted so strongly to her, Tony and Rayen.
Still, where had Jaxxson’s antagonism from earlier gone when he’d seen her as a hybrid or whatever that word was? “I appreciate that you’re no longer looking at me like I’m a devil spawn, but what changed your mind about ‘my kind’ as you called me?”
He took a moment to answer, looking chagrined. “In my world, one with your unusual eyes is called a Hy’bridt, and is revered above all other MystiKs. The majority are women, who are allowed choices other MystiKs are not.”
Revered? Fat chance that’d ever happen back home. “What kind of choices?”
A muscle twitched in his jaw and his words came out loaded with resentment. “Such as the one in my family who should have been the next healer sent to YEG/4. City Four. But it would have meant traveling from ORD/1 where we both lived.”
“What’s city one and four?”
He thought on that a moment then lifted a finger. “I understand what you’re asking. Where would these cities be in your world?” When she nodded, he explained, “Due to my need to understand medicinal resources available in each of our ten cities, I had to study the development of different lands. At one time ORD/1, or City One, was known as Chicago and YEG/4, or City Four, was called Edmonton.”
“Those are definitely in North America,” she acknowledged. “So what happened with this Hy’bridt girl? How old was she?”
“She’d reached eighteen, her age of maturity, and chose not to leave home. I was sent instead.”
“How old were you?”
Outrage surged through her on his behalf. She’d been sent here and shuttled there since an early age with no regard to how difficult the changes had been on her. “That’s so wrong. How could they do that to you? You were just a kid.”
“MystiKs are considered mature at eighteen and expected to take their respective places in society at that moment. Thirteen is not a child in our world. Healers are rare and, with the exception of Hy’bridts, few are female. For that reason, we’re trained from birth, prepared to go anywhere at any time.”
She waved off that comment, refusing to accept that it was okay to do that to an adolescent. “Regardless. You deserve to feel ticked off about being screwed.”
He smiled. “Ticked off? Screwed?”
“Ticked off means angry, po’d, really, really frustrated,” she clarified. “And screwed is, well, it means that no one considered what it meant for you to be yanked out of your home and shipped across your world.”
“Ah. Interesting terms, yet accurate assessments.”
“Sounds like the world hasn’t improved since my time.” She put her hand on her forehead. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to someone from the future. Tony would go bat-crazy if he was here.”
“He’d kill to find out what happens with technology and science in the future.” At Jaxxson’s look of horror, she said, “Wait, I don’t really mean ‘kill’ as in bloodshed. Just another slang word that means he’d really like to know all this. That’d give him an edge in a special school project. I think Tony believes he’s the next Steve Jobs.”
Now that was funny. “Never mind.”
Jaxxson stood. “I’d like to continue our conversation, but I must check on the little girl who arrived today.”
The one Rayen saved. Pushing away the paper-thin coverings that appeared to be made of pounded leaves, Gabby swung her feet around, dangling them off the side. “Is the little girl sick?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m watching for a reaction.”
“The Sphere. MystiK gifts and powers are drawn from natural elements in their surroundings. When new MystiKs arrive here we have to observe them constantly. Some react negatively to the elements in the Sphere right away, some later on and some not at all. We’ve lost children early on by not recognizing the signs. I must return you to the unit before I can see the child.”
She didn’t want to go back to jail. “I’ll go with you.”
“Callan, who oversees our security, would not be happy with that decision.”
“Because he thinks I’ll try to escape. I won’t.” Before he could argue further, she raised a hand, palm out to stall him. “And you know I’m telling the truth.”
Sighing, he ran his hand over his sandy-blond hair, considering what she said and clearly in a hurry to get moving.
Gabby wouldn’t lose this opportunity. “I’d like to ask you questions about how to block other people’s thoughts. I’m tired of constantly worrying over being touched.”
The healer in him considered her request, but he shook his head. “If you did try to leave, which I’d understand, I’d be forced to contain you and would rather not harm you.”
Bottom line? He had powers he had yet to reveal. She got it and let her hand fall to her side. “I promise to be your shadow and follow orders.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.” He looked at the table and it floated down until her feet reached the floor.
He suddenly became very still. His eyes stared vacantly but concern gripped his face.
Gabby held her breath.
When his eyes focused on her again, he said, “I’m being summoned for the little girl. There’s a problem.”
“We helped save that child. Take me with you. I’ll help.”
He hesitated and then seemed to make up his mind. “Fine. But know that even though I believe you’re not TecKnati, Mathias believes you are one and as the leader of the Governing House here, his word is final. If you make any unauthorized move, I will stop you.”
Hair danced on Gabby’s arms at the threat in his tone. This was not the guy who had patiently explained his world to her. She swallowed as she said, “I understand.”
Following him to where she’d have to pass through the wall of the tree again, she rationalized that she’d only agreed to not try to escape. She’d said nothing about using this opportunity to find a way out of the village and the trick for passing through the wall of fog. There had to be a plan for emergency exits with all these children in one place.
What if Jaxxson thought there was an emergency?
Would he and the others herd the younger children out of the village?
Gabby had activated a few alarms in her past. Could she get away with it here?