"...non-stop action and danger at every turn..."
Help me! Get me out of here before –
Gabby’s screaming voice woke Rayen from a deep sleep, chilling as getting hit in the face with ice water. She sat up in bed, panting and clutching the sheets. Her heart tried to beat a hole in her chest.
Just a nightmare. But it felt real. Sounded terrifying.
She looked around the dark room as her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light offered by the first hint of dawn. It peeked through the horizontal window coverings.
Blinds. Someone had called the coverings blinds. A strange term that didn’t ping any new memory for her.
Surely, she’d had some type of window shield in her life.
She thought on it, willing to take any memory of her past that her mind would offer, no matter how insignificant. Nope. Still stuck with a big gaping void when it came to anything about her, possible family, or even the place she must have called home before yesterday. All she knew right now was life in this isolated school in a land called Albuquerque.
Home … until she found hers.
As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, sparse furnishings took shape around her room. A wall lamp hung over a small table next to her narrow bed. Across the room, a spotless wooden desk had a stiff chair and matching lamp. Other than that, just two metal doors the color of an early morning fog.
She closed her eyes, thinking of what stood on the other side of those doors. One opened to a bathroom with shelves and drawers for clothes. All her storage space was empty. She had no clothes or personal things of her own, only what had been given to her yesterday.
Good to know her recent memory still worked.
The second door led to a hallway with other rooms. More female students sleeping in this area. Boys had their own section. Did any of the others feel as confused and alone as she did?
Rubbing the heels of her hands over her eyes, she blinked to clear them better. Her scrambled thoughts began to separate and focus with details of what she did know. She was still at the Byzantine Institute of Excellence, a school filled with a mix of unusual and brilliant teens. She still didn’t know who she was beyond the name Rayen–which was suspect at best. She’d gotten that information from a ghost–and that she was seventeen, another nugget from her grumpy specter.
Basically, she still had no memory beyond when she woke up in the desert yesterday with a sentient beast chasing her.
Rayen couldn’t get past the sound of Gabby’s frantic voice in her mind. Had that been real or just a bad dream? Gabby’s words bounced around, slowly vanishing like a lost echo in a deep canyon.
Where was Gabby?
The women’s center in the school hospital.
Gabby was supposed to be doing something basic. Tests of some kind. Rayen hadn’t been sent there yet so she had no idea of what went on in the hospital. Her other friend, Tony, had told her not to worry about Gabby, but Tony didn’t have the ability to hear voices in his head.
Not that Rayen really possessed that gift.
Gabby was the one who could hear thoughts, but Rayen had heard Gabby’s yesterday at one point.
That had been accidental.
Not like this, where they weren’t even in the same room.
Could Gabby be projecting?
Tony would roll his eyes at Rayen and tell her to stop imagining things. He knew more about this place than her … and he knew the girl who had led Gabby to her clinic meeting.
Still, Rayen kept thinking about how Gabby hadn’t wanted anyone to know she heard other people’s thoughts. All of that changed in the matter of a few hours in a strange world.
A lot of things changed yesterday.
Rayen couldn’t stop worrying. Gabby and Tony were her only friends in this place.
She’d known them for just a short time, but the three of them now shared a huge secret. They depended on each other. She couldn’t lose either one of them.
Rayen scrubbed a hand over her face. Maybe her nightmare about Gabby was nothing more than a reaction to the bizarre time travel they’d experienced yesterday.
Rayen grabbed her head and pulled her thoughts together.
Tony had assured her Gabby was fine. Might as well get dressed and track him down to come up with a plan for today.
Children were depending on her.
Climbing out of bed, Rayen hissed at the cold floor beneath her feet. She’d slept in a short-sleeved shirt and underwear. She made her way to the bathroom and flipped on the light, squinting.
The reflection in the mirror taunted her.
She didn’t recognize that girl with the long, black hair mussed from sleeping, or eyes a light blue-green color she’d seen on no others yesterday. She splashed water on her face just to look away. While she and Tony had eaten dinner in the school cafeteria last night, he’d asked if she wore aqua contacts and explained how the thin eye covering corrected vision or changed eye color.
When she’d said no, he’d warned, “You tell anyone who asks that you’re wearing contacts or they’re gonna know you’re not from this world. I’ve never seen natural eyes that color.”
To be honest, her eyes looked strange to her, too, but her eye color could be normal for C’raydonians. Based on what V’ru had told her yesterday, those were her people. They’d existed over a hundred years into the future from the world in which she stood.
The head of this Byzantine Institute thought she was a Native American, someone from a local tribe she’d never heard of before or met.
Any family she might have once had no longer existed. She didn’t even know who they were to mourn them.
A wave of sadness pushed her off center. She missed ... she slapped the sink counter, frustrated at not even knowing who she missed.
She wasn’t from this time.
She didn’t belong to anyone in this world. Based upon what she’d learned yesterday, she hadn’t been born yet in this world.
And the one she had been born into had eventually been destroyed.
If she focused too hard on what little she had learned about herself yesterday, it would cripple her.
Hissing out a long sigh, she finished up in the bathroom. Maybe her brain would yield its secrets today. Turning the lamp on in the bedroom, she found the bag of used clothes that had been dropped off in her room. Good thing she was a quick study since everything from speech to paper books to the location of this school had tested her yesterday. She pulled a T-shirt over her head.
Lifting jeans from the bag, she stepped into each leg and fumbled with the zipper thing.
She had to let go of the family and life she’d lost. Just stick with living in the moment.
First thing, she needed to make sure Gabby was safe, then track down Tony. Once the three of them were together again, they could travel through the computer time portal back to the Sphere. She had to help save children imprisoned on that artificial planet.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, she shoved her feet into socks, sliding the metal ankle cuff over the sock to keep it from chafing her skin. The security device had shocked her when she’d tried to run past the front gates of the school. She had no idea if it would shock her if she entered an area of the school where she was not allowed. Thankfully, it hadn’t functioned in the Sphere. She struggled to tie the strings on her sneakers, ready to get moving.
She wanted to return to the sphere this minute.
More than that, she had to go back. She’d made a commitment to Callan.
His strong face formed in her mind’s eye and the pressure on her chest of being alone lifted. He was a healing light that she longed desperately to see and feel again.
She touched her lips and replayed his kiss for the hundredth time. Had that been her first kiss? How would she know with no memories? It had felt like what should be a first time. Chuckling at herself, she murmured, “I’m pretty sure I would have remembered experiencing something that spectacular.”
Rayen! They want to … STR … V.
Rayen jumped at the ragged cry in her head.
Gabby called her by name. Her heart pounded wildly. That was so real this time that bumps pebbled across her skin at Gabby’s terrified voice.
Rayen tried to reach out to her mind-to-mind. Gabby?
Time to go find her. Rayen hurried to the exit door and eased from the room.
No alarm went off.
Two young girls stood talking at the end of the hall. Taking a deep breath, Rayen headed out, moving as quickly as she could without running.
Once out of the sleeping areas, she navigated a series of halls and reached the office for the women’s center of the hospital. She tapped on a small window.
A short woman twice her age dressed in loose blue pants and a matching shirt sat at a desk with a computer in front of her.
She slid the window open. “Can I help you?”
“I’d like to talk to Gabby Lin for a moment.”
The woman typed on her keyboard, read something, then her face turned sharp and serious before she wiped that look away and presented a false smile. “I’m sorry, but Miss Lin is indisposed right now and isn’t scheduled to be released until tomorrow. Come back then.”
Rayen’s skin tingled with worry.
This woman was hiding something. Rayen had nothing to base that on, but she knew. Just a feeling. With no argument to offer the woman that wouldn’t sound as if she were making trouble, she mumbled, “Thank you,” and backed away.
Why can’t you hear me, Rayen? Gabby pleaded in her mind.
I do hear you, Gabby. Rayen listened for a reply, but Gabby didn’t respond, which meant she couldn’t hear Rayen. Gabby had that exceptional gift of talking in Rayen’s mind, but she was clearly still learning how to use it. Evidently, telepathy wouldn’t help Gabby escape her situation.
Rayen couldn’t stand here doing nothing so she headed for the one person who could find out what was going on with Gabby.
As she turned to leave, she caught sight of a familiar shape moving through a cluster of students. A boy who reminded her of someone she’d encountered yesterday in the Sphere, but everyone there was from over a hundred years in the future.
That boy couldn’t be Phen, could he? He had not traveled back to the school with the three of them.
She stilled at catching a whiff of a nasty smell. It belonged to the deadly, sentient beast that had chased her in the desert yesterday and shown up in the school as a bird.
Worming her way through groups of students starting to congregate in the halls, she kept the boy in view. If that was Phen, they had to find out what he was doing here, and it could only mean trouble since Phen was a TecKnati scout, enemy of the MystiKs.
The boy she followed looked to be an older teen, which fit, because Phen had seemed closer to twenty. He managed to stay several steps ahead of her before he disappeared around a corner.
She rushed forward and stopped when she saw him thirty feet away where he paused next to a door that led outside. She looked around to see if anyone was close to her.
Not this early. Most students were heading to the cafeteria.
When she looked back at the boy, he pulled a small creature out of his pocket. A rat that jumped from his hand and changed shape in mid-fall on its way to the floor. The animal was now a tall black dog with a thick, muscular build and wide jaws. Its coat was black marked with brown highlights.
And it stank like the sentient beast.
Rayen’s heart skipped a beat as she realized that dog was the beast that had hunted her yesterday. The boy had control of it. He looked over his shoulder, met her gaze, and boldly smiled in recognition.
It was Phen.
Had the TecKnati leader from the future sent him here? Had he traveled back to this time? From what Callan had told her, the TecKnati had developed time travel, but only to the past.
She started forward, but Phen and the creature ran out the door. They’d disappeared by the time she reached it and looked outside.
She’d deal with Phen as soon as Gabby was safe.
Working her way back through the halls, she passed a few students meandering around. School didn’t officially start for another hour. When she reached the double door entrance to the boys’ sleeping area, she paused at the “No Female Students Allowed Past This Point” sign.
What would be the penalty for getting caught in the wrong place?
Would her ankle cuff set off an alarm or try to electrocute her again if she entered this area?
“Who you looking for?” a squeaky male voice asked.
She turned to look down at a boy who was two or three years younger than her. He had freckles, bright red hair, and a crooked front tooth.
Rayen smiled at him, hoping he didn’t report her. “Tony.”
“What’s his last name?”
Once again, the questions she can’t answer starts. “I don’t know.”
“What’s he look like?”
She searched for the right words to describe Tony, so she didn’t sound strange. “He’s my height, kind of strong looking, and has short black hair.”
The boy thought on that and asked, “Is he a senior?”
He gave her a look that questioned her intelligence. Great. What did senior mean at this school? Something dawned on her that might be helpful. She remembered Tony telling a teacher that his name started with an S. “Tony’s last name is S something.”
“Like Smith or Stevens?”
How would she know? She lifted her shoulders. “All I know is he’s from a place called Jersey.” One more thing hit her. “He’s in some Top Ten contest.”
He snapped his fingers. “That’s gotta be Tony Scolerio. He’s sick on computers.”
Searching her mind for the word “sick,” she recalled Gabby explaining that it meant good. “Yes! That’s him.” Rayen let out a gust of relief. “Do you know where he is?”
The young one gave her a head nod for that.
“Where? I need to get to him right away.”
The boy’s red eyebrows lifted high, and his eyes rounded in horror. “If you get caught in our dorm, you’ll get suspended. Maybe worse.”
Suspended? Did that mean she’d end up hung in the air? She didn’t have time to figure out a new term. “Tony and I have a friend who is, uh, not doing well. It’s very important. If I get in trouble, then I do.”
“Really?” He stared at her, his surprise telling her he didn’t believe her. Shaking his head, he said, “We’re all competing here. No one sticks his neck out for someone else. Why take that risk?”
“My friends are worth any risk,” she stated firmly.
“You’re not like the other girls here,” he mumbled with a touch of awe she didn’t understand.
She tried to decide if that was good or bad, but this was taking too long so she ignored it and pressed on. “Please tell me if you know where Tony’s room is. I’m in a hurry.”
He looked around then back at her and whispered, “It’ll be faster if I show you, but if you get caught anywhere in the boys’ dorm, I don’t know anything about it. Got it?”
She swallowed her excitement. “Got it. I promise not to tell anyone you helped me.”
Pulling one of the doors open, he led the way down a beige hall that mimicked the one in the girls’ dorm.
She held her breath as she followed, hoping her ankle cuff didn’t set off any alarms. When everything remained silent, she let out that breath and hurried to keep up with her guide. He turned a corner at the end of the hall. She was right behind him and barely missed getting hit by a door that opened as they scooted past.
After another two turns, he stopped at the first door on his right and pointed. “That’s Tony’s room. Don’t get caught.”
He’d already backed away and took off, disappearing around the corner.
She knocked on the door and heard, “What?”
“It’s me, Rayen.” She kept her voice low.
Grumbling noises came through next, then he called out, “Come in.”
Turning the knob, she pushed the door open and closed it just as quickly.
Tony’s room was a lot like hers except his bed was neat where she’d left hers in an unmade pile. He sat at his small desk, tapping quickly on a computer that was much newer looking than the one they had used to time travel.
No one from this time would believe them if they told anyone here about yesterday, but the portal to the other world really had been through the monitor of an abused computer that folded up. A laptop.
Tony flicked a look her way just long enough to scowl at her and kept typing as he asked, “What the ‘ell you doin’ over in the boys’ dorm? Want to get thrown outta this place?”
“Gabby’s in trouble.”
Tony’s fingers flew over the keys, tapping rapidly. His eyes never moved from the screen. “What kinda trouble?”
“In the hospital.”
The snarly, impatient Tony was back. The one she’d first met yesterday, before their little trip had taken the edge off his attitude. Traveling to another time with deadly flowering vines and unusual-looking kids trying to kill them had brought a change in him.
Tony was showing no signs of budging.
He’d proven he could be compassionate and loyal when things got tough, but this was the other side of him–belligerent, hardheaded and sarcastic–none of which she had any patience for with Gabby in danger and Phen running around the school.
Tony’s foul mood would be nothing compared to hers if he didn’t start paying attention so they could get moving. She tried for easy by sticking with the most important issue at this moment, which was getting him to realize Gabby was in trouble.
“I woke up with Gabby screaming for help in my mind.” She expected him to be as shocked as her, but no.
“Oh, man, are you kidding me?” He leaned forward, paused then tapped keys harder. “I don’t have time for your woo-woo stuff right now, Xena. You had a nightmare. That’s all.”
There were times he called her that weird Xena name when it sounded friendly.
This wasn’t one of them.
She walked toward his desk where she watched little animated caricatures on his monitor attack each other. Buildings were blowing up. He was grinding her patience to a fine dust that would evaporate any minute.
What was so special about pretend fighting? “I thought it was a nightmare, too, Tony, but not anymore. I’m telling you I hear her in my head, and she’s scared of something.” When he continued to ignore her, she gave up on patience. “What are you doing?”
“I’m just about to win a game against the champion–”
“A game? Gabby’s in trouble and you’re ignoring me for a game?”
He muttered, “Not just any game.”
Rayen! Please, please help me! Gabby cried out in Rayen’s mind.
Rayen’s heart raced at her terror. “Listen to me, Tony.”
“Not. Now.” He was hunched over the computer, intent on that ridiculous game.
Gabby’s voice shouted, Raayeeen!
Energy swam through Rayen in a rush and heated her hands. She slapped a hand down on top of Tony’s fingers.
His keyboard glowed red.