If I could have one wish, it would be for peace. Everywhere, all the time.
But specifically, right now, on the stage of the Mediation Center in Jackertown.
“If you bring a gun, you have to be prepared to shoot.” That’s Kira Moore, the face of the Jacker Freedom Alliance, glaring like she’s using her mind powers not words. She’s not glaring at me, but then I’m not armed to the teeth like Anna Navarro.
“I’m always prepared to shoot.” Anna looks like a weaponized version of her twin brother, Julian—same piercing blue eyes and warm brown skin but with serious muscles and black body armor. Two handguns at her waist, a knife at her thigh, tiny flat-black grenades lined up one arm, and a fleet of metallic butterflies complete with launcher on the other. I’ve seen the taser-insects in action, although these are probably tuned for mindreaders instead of mindjackers. Then there’s the thin black tube hanging from her belt—a wand that beams energy and makes you feel like you’re on fire. Brutal, but probably the least lethal weapon in the small armory strapped to her body.
And those are just the weapons I can see.
“We lose everything if you start a shooting war on the streets.” Kira’s body radiates No in every language, but she and Anna both have impenetrable mindbarriers, so this will be fought with words… or weapons if it gets bad.
I’m on standby, lurking at the edge of the weathered, wooden stage in case I need to scramble some minds. Otherwise, I’m staying out of it. The air is already electrified with the mindfields of a couple dozen jackers on the main floor, and using my ability would just make things worse. It’s like one of the Mediation Center’s original Wild West trials from the early days of Jackertown, but what’s broken here isn’t the law—it’s trust. Unity. The civil community Julian Navarro tried to shape Jackertown into while he was still alive. Only the world is less civil by the day, and right now, the Reader First Front is having a bigot party at the edge of Jackertown. Kira wants to meet their anti-jacker “protest” with chants and slogans.
Anna wants to bring bullets to the party.
Julian was the leader of their revolution, but Anna was always the true revolutionary. Julian was the talker, the bringer of peace, and then their representative in the Senate. He designed the Mediation Center, using magistrates to resolve disputes, with Julian enforcing the code. A screen on the back wall still displays the violations that would earn you banishment… or a mind-wipe if you were unlucky. No kill jacks. No stealing. No forced jackwork or memory wipes. Julian kept them together with charisma, vision, and a jack ability that scared the crap out of most people.
All I’ve got is the blunt instrument of spinning a person’s mindfield—it hurts like hell, and pain does tend to keep people from getting out of hand, but it’s not like I want to use it. Kira’s been through all kinds of hell already, and it probably wouldn’t even work on Anna—she’s tougher than most jackers I’ve seen, even in the most ruthless Clans.
Anna makes a low sound I swear is a growl. “There’s already a shooting war on the streets. Are you not paying attention?” Then she grabs a blunt-nosed, wide-barreled gun off the rack—the thing must shoot excessively large bullets or tranq darts—and sights the weapon. Not at Kira, but the hairs on my neck rise anyway. Before I can react, she’s breaking the gun down, checking the barrel, and carefully tucking it behind her back. Then she returns her glare to the defiant, brown-haired girl in front of her.
Kira is seething.
And I know why—this is the opposite of what Julian stood for. He was a legend among jackers. Then an assassin’s bullet took him down, and it broke a lot of things.
Kira’s heart. Anna’s restraint. Most of all, the uneasy peace between jackers and readers. Now it’s threatening to break Julian’s Jacker Freedom Alliance. Destroying the JFA was exactly the intent of the people who killed him—I don’t have proof, but I’m sure one of those people is Beatrix Wright. She’s the director of Jacker Technologies at DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—and she makes a living out of torturing jackers. Killing them isn’t a stretch. And Julian’s assassination was just the beginning. Then Kira lost his Senate seat to a jacker bigot, the president was taken out by a jack attack, and the whole country turned against us.
“Talk to her, Zeph,” Tessa whispers. She’s standing next to me, arms locked over her chest, watching the showdown intently like everyone else in the room.
I sigh because I agree with Kira—Anna bringing her JFA shock troops to the protest is just looking for a fight. But Tessa’s Free Thinkers—soft-hearted mindreaders who advocate for jackers—are insisting on a counter-protest. Which is like bringing kindergarteners to a bar brawl, but I can’t say that to the girl I’m falling in love with.
Tessa turns when I say nothing, her expression all deep brown eyes and pinched lips and tiny wrinkles of concern.
I link into her head, keeping this between the two of us. Kira’s got this handled. Maybe if the JFA doesn’t show up, the Free Thinkers will stay away.
“But Anna’s right—this is already a shooting war.” She’s talking out loud, so I take the hint and pull out of her head, but I don’t like it. What’s she trying to hide?
“You’re the peace and love girl,” I say with a frown. “Since when are you a fan of bringing a small army to a protest?”
“Since this protest is a bunch of anti-jacker bigots… and murderers.”
I grimace. The latest purity killing was splashed all over the tru-casts—some seventeen-year-old was outed by his family and landed on the Fronter’s Purity list. There’s been a wild uptick of families doing that to keep their bloodlines “pure.” Which is horrific enough, but then barely a day later, the kid is dead, his body dumped in the street just outside Jackertown. The Chicago Jack Police did nothing but remove the body, per usual. Just another blood stain on the broken pavement.
“Which is exactly why the Free Thinkers should stay off the streets,” I try, knowing it won’t work.
“We can’t stay silent.” She’s looking at me like I’ve gone demens. Or worse—betrayed her cause. “Even you said it—we have to fight this.”
“I meant with non-violence.” I can’t believe I have to spell that out. Tessa’s always been the one who believed jackers and readers could peacefully co-exist, not me. I’m just now coming around… and more out of desperate hope than anything else.
“I don’t know if that’s enough anymore.” Tessa drops her scowl to the floor.
No, no, no. She can’t lose heart now. But it’s been coming, ever since Kira lost the election. Tessa wrote her concession speech, and that light in her eyes has been slowly dimming…
“You can’t give up.” I’m practically begging. Because if she doesn’t believe there’s a peaceful future between jackers and readers, where does that leave us?
“I’m not giving up.” She says it bitterly to the floor. “I’m just… changing tactics.” She won’t look at me.
My heart is sinking.
Kira’s voice rises. “I could order you to stand down.”
Tessa’s gaze whips up. I mentally reach out just to make sure Kira and Anna are still throwing glares, not kill jacks.
Anna’s expression is dead blank. “Yeah. You could try.” Crap. This is not the way this needs to go.
I slam my mindreach into Anna’s impenetrable mindbarrier. It’s just an ordinary jack attempt, not the finesse of spinning her mindbarrier—which would be poking the bear with a lot bigger stick—but shock still ripples across her face.
“Hey!” I say before she can lay blame on Kira.
They both turn incredulous looks to me.
“If Julian were here,” I say, biting out the words, “he’d instinct jack the both of you.” It’s not true, but for the moment, all their outrage is turned on me. In truth, Julian never lost his cool, not that I could tell. He was the original mediator in the Mediation Center—the justice that pushed Jackertown into being. I’m just a blunt weapon who barely knows what he’s doing. I suck in a breath and soften my voice. “Actually, he’d say you’re better than this. Both of you. Work it out.”
Anna drops her gaze to the floor, chastened, which I honestly didn’t expect. It’s Kira’s bitter gaze that’s burning a hole through me—and she’s right. Who am I speak for Julian? After all, I helped get him killed. And she knows it, even if no one else does.
“Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” I mumble, ducking my head. To Tessa, I whisper, “Let’s give them a minute to cool down.” I tilt my head toward the front door and briefly tug on her elbow then let go. Touching is an intimate, emotion-sharing thing with readers, and I don’t want to embarrass her.
Tessa scowls but follows my lead, and we patter down the three steps to the main floor where the crowd parts before us. This place used to be a furniture store—a hundred years ago, before chemicals in the water turned people into mindreaders, and the city emptied out. Now the Mediation Center is a musty relic filled with jackers, and not just the normal JFA, but the military types, geared up for combat like Anna. Most of the civilian types are in their homes or the clinic or the shops of Jackertown—the normal life that Julian tried so hard to build. My mom and Olivia are back at Aaliyah’s Home, working on my sister’s jacking skills, which is good—they don’t need to be involved in this.
Tessa and I weave through the crowd, shuffling past the pinched looks and the silence of their held breaths. Anna’s boyfriend, Hinckley, is tracking our progress and limping our way—he was wounded while breaking my mom out of DARPA, but I’m sure if Anna gives him the signal, he’ll roll out with everyone else. Tessa’s staying by my side without question, and her faith is carrying me forward. I veer away from Hinckley but then nearly collide with Major John Scott, an ex-DARPA enforcer with serious military skills. His arm is out of the sling now—another person I owe for helping with my mom’s escape—and I manage not to bump it.
He doesn’t try to stop us, just ducks his chin and says, “Whatever you’re doing, make it fast.” Then he steps aside, letting us pass but also taking a stance to intercept Hinckley.
They’re friends, so it shouldn’t get ugly.
But in truth, all of this is ugly. The reader backlash against jackers like us is turning into a wave of hate. It’s been only two weeks since Mac Simpson became our Senator and President Torquin was sworn into office, but the politicians are whipping that wave into an inferno. Torquin wants to equip every man, woman, and child with anti-jacker helmets. Simpson is on the tru-casts every day with the supposed crimes of jackers. The Fronters are having their glory moment—their “protest” is a call for a new quarantine of Jackertown, just like the siege the first time.
Even Tessa is in danger of losing her hope for jackers and readers… all because the world’s going to ash.
I lead her to a small coat closet near the front—the door’s half busted, hanging off one hinge, but I shut it behind us most of the way.
“Hey,” I say softly, slipping my hand into hers. I can’t help giving her a quick kiss.
“Zeph, we can’t just come in here and—” She leans away and looks back to the door.
Crap. She thinks I want to make out. Which I do—always, plus there are no mindreaders here to overhear Tessa’s too-intimate thoughts—but that’s not my purpose. I tug at her with our still-clasped hands. “Run away with me, Tessa.”
Her head whips back. “What?”
“You and me. Leave Chicago New Metro. Don’t look back.” I’m a little breathless. She’s going to turn me down. I know she is. But it’s my opening gambit.
Her face scrunches up. “I can’t just… Zephyr MacCay, what in the world—”
“It’s okay,” I rush out. “I know you can’t. You’ve got Northwestern.” She’s still enrolled, as far as I know, despite all the chaos. “You’ve got the Free Thinkers. Your family. All of it.” I suck in a breath. “I just want you to know that if you said yes, I’d do it. I’d leave with you. Find a way for us to make it in the world. Together.” I’d be leaving my family behind—my mom, who I just got back; my little sister, who’s finally out of DARPA’s grasp; my dad, who’s still being held by Wright. But I’d do it if Tessa would go with me.
Her face has gone slack with surprise, and her deep brown eyes are pulling me in. “You would?”
“In a heartbeat.” If there’s anything the last month has taught me, it’s that one minute, you’re arguing with the girl you’re falling for, and the next, DARPA sweeps in and takes everything away. Or you’re dead with a bullet through the skull like Julian. Or Ethan, the jacker who almost assassinated the president. There are no guarantees in life and precious few do-overs. I want Tessa to know exactly how far I’d go for her. “You want me to link into your head so you can hear my thoughts, judge for yourself?”
She bites her lip and shakes her head.
It wounds me in a way I don’t expect—a literal pain in the middle of my chest. “What’s wrong?”
She drops her gaze. Her fingers slip from my hand, draggin like a dull blade, promising pain.
This is when she tells me it’s not going to work. Like Juliette breaking up with Sammi because the world has decided jackers and readers can’t be together.
Tessa crosses her arms over her chest and keeps staring at the floor.
I’d say something, but it’s getting hard to breathe.
Finally, she peers up. “You’re still going to Juliette’s, aren’t you?”
Air rushes out of me. “As insane as that is, yes.” Juliette’s father is mega-tech-mogul Jeffrey Tiller. He’s developed a new weapon that targets jackers with mind-killing technology. Juliette’s hell-bent on stopping him, and she’ll need my help. “Are you jealous that I’m posing as her boyfriend to get back into Tiller’s estate? Please tell me you’re jealous.”
Tessa cocks her head and gives me a small smile. “Juliette is in love with Sammi. I don’t care if they broke up. Anyone can see it.” But her hand slips back into mine, and the relief of that lets me breathe again.
“Juliette’s been known to date guys,” I venture. “It’s okay if you’re jealous. I’m fine with you being jealous.” I pull her closer.
She smiles more. “Do I have a reason to be jealous?”
“None whatsoever.” I’m desperate to link into her head, but I need an invitation. Not strictly speaking—the most powerful jackers in Jackertown can’t keep me out, and Tessa’s just a reader—but I would never do anything without her permission. And besides, I need more than just her thoughts. I want an invite into her life. Now, and if the world doesn’t break completely, for the long haul. “But admit it. You’re jealous. That’s why you don’t want me to link in.”
The smile dims. “I’m worried about you, Zeph.”
“You don’t need to worry about me.” But I know it’s a mistake when I say it.
I can feel the sudden tension in her hand. “You promised no more lies.” Lying isn’t something mindreaders do—most, anyway. Although Juliette’s becoming a pro at deceiving her father. But in general, the art of lying washed away with the advent of mindreading a hundred years ago, and now even the tiniest white lie is unnatural. Immoral. At the very least, suspect.
“No, you’re right. No more lies.” I swallow. Even now, I haven’t told Tessa everything—just what was safe for her to know. “The truth is that it’s dangerous to go back to Tiller. He’s a powerful man, and he’s got a special torture chamber just for jackers.”
The alarm shoots up on her face.
“But… I’m not going to get caught,” I rush out. “And I know more powerful people than him, surprisingly enough. Plus getting in with Tiller again may be the only way to find my dad.”
“I know.” Her panicked expression has subsided a little. “I just don’t want you to go off and… disappear. Or end up in some alley in Chicago.”
A purity killing. “Hey.” I squeeze her hand. “It’ll take a lot more than some jackhole Fronters to take me out.” Which, strictly speaking, is not true. I’m as susceptible to bullets as the next guy. “And once Juliette and I bring down her father, or at least find my dad, I fully plan to come home again.”
A whisper of that smile is back. “Home?”
“With you.” This is the real pitch. The one I’m praying she won’t say no to. “If you want a jacker for a boyfriend.”
My heart is legit having an attack. But she’s smiling and reaching up to hold my cheek, so I’m frozen in confusion.
“Link in, you dork,” she says.
“Only my sister gets to call me that,” I breathe. Then I link into her mind. Her light wildberry mindscent fills the back of my throat, and her thoughts swirl with happiness, tinged with sour worry.
There’s only one jacker I want for a boyfriend, she thinks with a smirk.
Tell me who it is. I’ll take them out so I can be next in line. I pull her close.
I don’t believe in violence. She scowls, but her thoughts are glowing. This… this is what I love about loving a reader. You don’t have to wonder. It’s all right there. Tessa has always been an open book, even for a reader—starry-eyed and altruistic and just shining brighter than anyone around her. Feeling that glow aimed at me… if I were a reader, the touch of our hands would show exactly how that makes me feel. No clumsy words. No misunderstandings. Just my love for her, and how it keeps catching me off guard, like an untrammeled daisy in a war zone.
Instead, I link the most honest thought I have. When this is all settled, I don’t want to be anywhere but with you.
Her surge of emotion—an electric wave of hope—pulls me right into her kiss. The feel of her lips, the hot burn of her thoughts… even if I’m not a reader, even if I can’t share that touch intimacy with her… this is who we are. This is how we fit together. Tessa pressed against me, my mind linked into hers. It’s everything I want in this world. If it were up to me, we’d spend all our time tangling thoughts and lips and other body parts.
No one has a right to tell us we can’t have this.
A murmur rises in the Mediation Center outside the closet door.
I ignore it, but it grabs Tessa’s attention. She pulls back and twists, then frowns. Then I see it, too, through the cracked-open door—someone has put a tru-cast up on the screen behind the stage. Kira, Anna, and everyone else in the room are staring at a giant, animated image of President Torquin.
Tessa’s already halfway out the door, so I join her on the floor, where everyone is keeping quiet, eyes glued to the screen. Someone jacks in to turn up the volume—Torquin’s speaking out loud, not using a thought-wave mic.
“—and we have to realize that our way of life is under attack.” The president is tall with tru-cast-ready good looks. His brown hair is stylish even under his anti-jacker helmet. He doesn’t look like someone who would assassinate his own running mate, but Wright is taking directions from someone. Not that I have any evidence, but I don’t think it stops with the Secretary of Defense. Torquin’s certainly making the most of it.
He straightens behind his podium and taps his helmet. “There was a time when the President of the United States didn’t have to wear a helmet just to appear before the good people of this country. A time when we knew everyone’s mind because our minds were open. Honest. There was no lying. No secrets. Now we don’t know who we can trust.” He gives a grave look straight into the camera. “As I mentioned last week, I’m working on a partnership between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and manufacturers to produce free helmets for every mindreading citizen in the country.”
DARPA. Just hearing him say the name is making me flinch.
Torquin keeps talking. “My paramount concern is keeping every reader safe from the predations of the jackers among us. But that’s only a temporary measure. Forcing everyone into a helmet is imprisoning the wrong people. You know what I mean. You never have to worry about readers, do you? They’re not the ones terrorizing the populace. Attacking our leaders. Infiltrating our families. They’re putting more inhibitors in the water every day, just to increase their numbers.”
My mouth hangs open, and I flick a look to Major John Scott, but he’s busy giving stony looks to the screen. I know for a fact that DARPA is the one putting inhibitors in the water—because Scott was the one putting them there.
“Soon, they’re going to overrun us,” Torquin is saying. “We have to do something about the jacker problem before it’s too late. And as long as jackers are hunting readers, there can be no peace in our country.”
Hunting readers? Unbelievable. If anything, jackers are the ones being hunted. The angry muttering around the room muffles the next few words. Then the crowd quickly settles.
Torquin continues, “—so I’m offering my support for the protestors today at Jackertown. They’re good people who understand the stakes. The newly elected Senator of Illinois, Mac Simpson, and I are both calling on the Governor to do something about Jackertown. That menace on your streets should not be tolerated. And, sir, if you do not do something, I promise you—I will.”
A chorus of curses rises up. Someone mutes the screen. Torquin jabbers on silently. Tessa’s hands are clenched at her sides.
Kira’s hands are up, trying to quiet the crowd. “Everyone, please. There’s no need to panic.”
“He’s talking about the National Guard!” someone in the crowd shouts.
“I know.” Kira lowers her hands as people quiet down. “But the last time Governor Rancin deployed the National Guard, he was under the jack control of Senator Vellus—and he’s dead now. The governor has increased his security. He’s not going to deploy the National Guard just because Torquin wants him to.”
A muttering rises up again.
“Then Torquin will do it for him,” I say, loud enough to be heard over the noise. I step forward, in front of Tessa and out into the crowd. Scott’s giving me a wary look from the middle of the room, but Hinckley’s nodding encouragement my way. “Look, I don’t want the National Guard to get called out, but if we don’t show some resistance to this “protest” by the Fronters, Torquin will happily roll out the troops.” If I’m right about him—that he had a hand in the assassination of the president—he won’t hesitate to deploy troops against jackers. Not when his entire rise to power is about the “jacker threat.”
I swing my gaze back to Tessa and reach out a hand. She quickly comes forward. With her by my side, I turn back to Kira, who’s scowling at me from across the room. “The Free Thinkers are our best hope. We need to show that it’s not just jackers against readers—that some readers want peace just as much as we do. If the Free Thinkers are willing to stand up to the jackholes at the edge of Jackertown, we should have their backs. It’s not right for the JFA to stand by and let them get hurt.” Tessa’s beaming at me, which makes this all the easier. To the assembled military strength of the JFA, I say, “I’m going. Who’s with me?”
There’s a breakout of chatter, but it’s not really a question. I can see it in their eyes. Hinckley gets a nod from Anna up on stage, and he immediately sets to work, calling out names and organizing. Kira glares at me then marches off stage, disappearing out the rear door. I probably just made an enemy—but this is the best hope we have.
Tessa’s smile is half question. “Do you really think this will work?”
I shrug. “Non-violence, right? That’s what you want.” I don’t want her giving up on her ideals—not now. Not when she needs them most.
“Then I’m going to make sure it stays that way.” I catch Scott’s eye, and he lifts his chin for me to come over. I’m sure the military arm of the JFA can hook me up with weapons.
I’ll need something besides my mental skills to keep the peace.
Book 3 in the Mindjack: Zeph Series – Coming soon on April 16, 2018!