Where was Rayen? Had they killed her and Gabby by now?
Tony paced along the groove he’d worn in the hard-packed, green dirt floor of the crappy isolation hut. The hum of energy circulating through the walls taunted him.
No way out of here. Not alive.
When the sound stopped all at once, the change was chilling. He moved to the center where he could turn in any direction, prepared for the worst.
An opening appeared, then a young girl stood there holding a gourd-like flask and a bowl. When she stepped inside, Tony looked past her shoulder until she said, “There are guards outside.”
“Figures.” He swung his gaze back to her. She might be a little younger than him, but she didn’t look like she’d survive more than a day on the streets of Camden where he’d grown up in Jersey. Slender, fine-boned, her hair in strawberry colored cornrows, her tunic some shade of red. She didn’t look too threatening, but you never knew. Sure, he could probably overpower her and figure a way to use her to get past the guards, but that wouldn’t help Gabby or Rayen and right now he was tired of being alone. “What’s your name?”
“Neelah.” Her voice fluttered when she spoke and gave him the impression she might talk. Which surprised him. It was kind of nice not to be treated like evil incarnate the way Sparkle Face treated him. Neelah extended the flask and bowl. “Here’s some water and fruit.”
“Thanks.” No chance to make a run for it, so Tony accepted the food, trying not to act too grateful, even if he was. He took a deep swig of...water? The stuff smelled like perfume and had an oily aftertaste.
Feeling her eyes on him, he managed to look as though he liked the water. “My friends okay?”
Her face brightened with interest that found its way into her pleasant tone. “One is still with the healer and the hunting party hasn’t returned.”
She didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave, so he decided to make a stab at getting information. Plus he liked the sound of her voice. “How old are you?”
“Sixteen. How old are you?”
“Seventeen.” He squatted down to put the bowl on the floor then took another long drink from the flask. Once he got past the weird taste, the water refreshed his raw throat. “What’s with all this House talk? You from the same place as what’s her name? Zilya?”
She glanced over her shoulder and when she looked at him again her eyes had lost the happy creases. She moved forward, squatting down to his level. “No. She’s of the Governing House, as is Mathias.”
Neelah said that with a load of disdain.
Discontent among the natives? That could be useful.
Wouldn’t Rayen get her panties in a twist if Tony figured out how to get the three of them out of here first?
He hadn’t found a reason to smile since walking into Suarez’s classroom this morning and getting tied to Rayen, but he beamed one now. All girls liked to be appreciated. He’d learned that about the same time he learned to walk. “What’s so special about Zilya? I mean, can’t be looks ‘cause you’re gorgeous.”
That hit the mark with Neelah. Her face visibly relaxed and a shy smile touched her lips. “All who come from the Governing House believe they are above the rest of us, even Etoi.”
“You talkin’ about Zilya’s prune-faced girlfriend?” He lifted a handful of fruit, tasted a piece after deciding that if they wanted to kill him they wouldn’t waste food by lacing it with poison.
Not when they could use spears to turn him into a human pincushion.
Neelah nodded, her lips now curling in a sneer. “Etoi is a Rubio level servant. The very highest of rank for her position, but she is still just a servant. Nothing more.”
“What’s the deal between your group and the tek-nah-tees?”
“You’re our enemy.”
“Not me, babe. I’m not one of them. Don’t even know what that is or what you guys are.” Tony had an idea. “Can you write those names on something?”
She cocked her head at his request then swirled her finger above the ground and the letters carved into the surface even though she never touched the dirt.
“Awesome! How’d you do that?”
Neelah grinned, dark brown eyes shining at the compliment in his tone. “I have other gifts.”
Tony had never been slow to understand when a girl was coming on to him. “I have no doubt, babe.” He straightened his shoulders even as his mind raced with conflicting thoughts. He wanted to encourage a possible ally, but she could just be jerking his chain so he kept her talking. “How’d you end up here?”
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Etoi, except that she’s glad to be here with Zilya. Etoi believes she will be treated as more once we return, if we ever see home again, but she’s wrong.”
“I still don’t understand.” He shook his head. “Who were the TecKnati trying to catch if you were grabbed by accident?”
“It appears that the TecKnati have devised this plan to prevent Zilya and the other future rulers from attending the BIRG Con or taking over their respective Houses afterwards.”
“Taking over? Like becoming crowned or something?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know this crowning, but once a MystiK is presented at the BIRG Con, they’re acknowledged as leaders in training. They begin their official duties as they will assume the role of House leaders within ten years, or upon the sudden death of the existing leaders.”
“So these TecKnati people grabbed you instead of the MystiKs they wanted. Yeah?”
She gave a sad nod.
Her smile peeked out again. “You speak in the strangest way. I must go. But I’ll return if I can.”
“So you don’t think I’m a TecKnati?”
“Oh, I’m hoping you are one.”
That made no sense. Did she want a TecKnati ally? “Don’t take this wrong, babe, because I’d love to have you come back to visit, but if ya think I’m your enemy, why you wanna be friends with me?”
She stood to leave. “I’d befriend the devil himself to get out of this place.” She paused then, her face determined. “And I’m not the only one.”
In the next instant she was gone and the walls buzzed again, but Tony felt better after the water and fruit. And Neelah’s information. He shifted the fruit bowl and flask near a wall so he could pace. The longer he walked in circles and criss-cross patterns the more frustrated he got at being stuck in this place when Mathias had no reason to lock him up.
Or kill him.
He slammed his fist into his palm over and over, ready for a target. How could everything he’d worked for at the Byzantine Institute disintegrate in the blink of an eye because of a computer?
Until now, he’d believed his skill with computers would rule the day. That his natural abilities with technology would afford him control over his future and, most important, the chance to find his little bro.
He’d never get Vinny back if Tony had to depend on other people. Gram had done all she could when Tony and Vinny got dropped in her lap as small boys. She’d held off child services as long as possible, but the day had come when the social worker put Gram in the position of losing one or both, forced to admit she couldn’t afford to care for two children.
At eight years old, Tony had begged the don’t-give-a-damn social worker to take him and leave his little brother who’d only been four at the time.
That’s when he was given his first lesson in logic.
Younger children were easier to place, sort of like mutts were cuter as puppies.
Tony squeezed his eyes shut, fighting off the misery of thinking about Vinny. Gram was too old to fight the authorities. She barely managed to keep her and Tony alive, even with him working every minute he wasn’t in school.
The day she told him only wealthy and powerful people got to choose their futures, Tony chose his and studied nonstop.
He’d jumped at the opportunity to be tested as a candidate for the Institute three months ago. Money and age didn’t matter to the Browns. If he made the grades, he got a full ride to a prestigious university. But the Top Ten Project meant going to MIT a year early if he won the competition.
No. Not if, but when.
That was a year closer to finding Vinny.
First he had to get out of this freakin’ prison hut...and this nightmare.
If Neelah came back, he’d find out just how willing she was to go against Zilya and maybe Mathias. He should’ve asked her to go find out what was happening at the healing hut.
Gabby could be dead from her reaction to the vine if that goofball healer in the skirt didn’t kill her. And Rayen had beaten one croggle, but that Callan couldn’t be trusted. He might spear Rayen and serve her up to the croggle.
Even if Mathias has any doubts about Rayen and Gabby, he’s still convinced that I’m the devil’s spawn.
He hoped Gabby and Rayen were having better luck.
If they survived.
He swiped a layer of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
Friction sparked in the air, alerting him to potential company again. Good. Just give me someone who isn’t a kid, or a girl. Someone he could pound out his frustration on if they refused to let him out.
Stepping to the middle again, he faced the blurry change in the wall where everyone had entered so far. Fists raised, he shifted his body into a fighting stance.
When the opening finally appeared, a tall guy stood there in a metallic jumpsuit Tony couldn’t decide was green or gray. Dark, short-cropped hair and a sick-looking tattoo on his exposed neck. Dude made a good candidate for the Scorpion gang from Tony’s old hood. The guy was shoved inside so hard he fell flat on his face at Tony’s feet.
Looking over at the opening, Tony found Etoi standing half inside the hut with her spear propped on the ground.
She sneered at the guy on the floor. “You two should get along fine, TeK scum.” When her gaze jumped up to Tony, she took in his raised fists and rolled her eyes then disappeared as the opening vanished.
The guy on the ground let out a painful groan. The tat snaking around his neck was a cobra, which writhed as he moved. Tony was so gonna have to get one of them. Floor guy bent his elbows and pushed, trying to get up.
Ah, crap. Tony dropped his fists and hooked one of the guy’s arms, giving him a tug.
Once Cobra guy was on his feet, he dusted his hands then wiped green off his face and stretched his jaw back and forth. “Not broken.”
“Who are you?” Tony asked.
“A scout of course. Phen. You’re?”
“Tony.” That’s all this guy needs to know. “You’re a TecKnati?” Tony asked just to be clear.
“Course I am.” Phen eyed Tony. “Where’d you come from?”
“One of those pod things. Transender.”
“What TecKnati brought you here?”
Shoving his bottom lip up, Tony shook his head. “Don’t know any TecKnatis, except you. I traveled here with friends.”
“MystiKs can’t travel in a transender without an escort.”
Tony tossed his hands up in the air and walked away then swung around. “I’m not a MystiK or a TecKnati. Got a third choice?”
“C’raydonian, but you couldn’t be one of those.”
Based upon Phen’s dark tone, Tony didn’t want to be one of those either. “What’s going on between you guys and the MystiKs anyhow? You have a throw down?”
Phen’s forehead wrinkled and he stared harder. “Your clothes and speech...I’ve never seen or heard anyone like you.”
Making a chuffing noise, Tony gave him a wry smile. “Not surprised. There’s only one o’me.”
“You say that as if it is a positive.”
Tony caught the insult and considered popping the mouth that uttered it, but he had a chance to find out how to get out of here if this guy played ‘escort’ in the pods. “Where’s home for you?”
“TeK City Two.”
“What planet, dude?”
Phen’s eyebrows lifted in amusement. “Earth. What planet are you from...dude?”
Earth? No way. Unless this was some military experiment gone bad. But that didn’t explain getting pulled into a computer. Would Phen tell him anything if this was some whacked out military program? Nah.
Back to Tony’s immediate problem–finding a way home. “Do those transenders return to their original destination?”
Eyeing Tony with wary observation, Phen answered with a superior attitude. “Yes. They can only return to where they were initiated, but don’t get any foolish ideas about hijacking one. I told you. A MystiK can’t travel in one without an escort.”
The way Tony saw it, this was outstanding news since neither he, Gabby nor Rayen were MystiKs and they hadn’t needed an escort the first time here. But he’d have to figure a way out of this prison hut first. “I’ll make you a deal.”
Phen listened silently, his stance noncommittal.
“Let’s work together to get outta here. In return, I only want to know how to call up and operate a transender.”
Phen smiled at some inner thought. “I will escape and without your help. I’m not telling you anything about a transender.”
“How can you be so sure you can–”
The power that constantly hummed through the walls went silent.
“See you on the next trip,” Phen whispered and put his palms together. He shoved them between the vertical reeds that made up the walls and pushed his hands wide, creating an opening he stepped through.
Tony hesitated only a second then jammed his way out of the hut, too.
Power hummed behind him the minute he stepped clear.
His knees went weak.
That was a close call. I coulda been a fried Italian.
Taking in his surroundings, Tony caught sight of Phen who’d run thirty paces away and stopped, swinging his head as he looked for something. Two more steps past a wide thatch of inky black plants twice as tall as Tony that reminded him of bamboo, and Phen halted, his attention drawn to his right. A smile appeared on his profile, as if he’d hit the Jersey Lotto.
When Phen paused, a small-sized hand appeared from behind the bamboo stalks and passed Phen something he shoved in his pants pocket. Then he nodded and snuck off down a path that had been cleared through the trees dotting the village.
Tony followed, trying to keep his footsteps soft. He slowed next to the stand of bamboo and leaned forward to see who was there. No one.
When he caught up to Phen, the scout had reached the fog wall surrounding the village.
The guy was running straight for the deadly haze.
Tony called out, “Stop! The fog’ll kill ya!”
Phen spared a quick glance over his shoulder but didn’t slow down, rushing headlong into the puke-colored mist.
Tony tensed, ready for the blood-curdling scream...that never came. What happened?
Crap. He couldn't lose the TecKnati.
Besides Rayen had stepped in to keep the crazies from executing Tony and had saved the three of them from a killer plant. And Gabby had tried to help Tony when the vine first attacked him. This was Tony’s chance to do something to help them get out of here.
He ran five strides and reached the fog where he realized how Phen had gotten through.
The angle of Tony’s approach hadn’t allowed him to see that someone–probably the person who helped Phen escape–had cleared a narrow path through the protective wall.
And that tunnel was squeezing closed.
No time to lose.
Plunging ahead, Tony lifted his St. C medal and kissed it. “Please don’t let me die now.” Then added, “Not ‘til I get laid...at least once.”