The peace and quiet never last.
A scream makes the birds scatter from the trees. My full-body flinch kills an innocent daffodil—my spade slices clean through the green stalk and leaves the yellow head lying severed in the mulch. I ignore it and go back to bedding the impatiens. It’s my job to beautify the grounds of a rich mindjacker’s estate, not worry about the screams that come from the house. But the banging open of a door and the trample of feet across the freshly mowed lawn says whatever’s happening has moved outside. I try to ignore the rush of breathless pants crossing the yard… but I can’t.
I look up.
She’s running—the girl darts toward the trees with her short shorts and her long legs and her terrified eyes—and I just watch. One heartbeat. Two. I think maybe she’ll make it. Maybe she’ll reach the forest around the estate, the one I spent the last month pruning back so the shade from the encroaching brush wouldn’t kill the fresh spring grass… but then the boys come out of the house. I’m eighteen, and they’re older than me, but they’re not men—not the kind who are decent, anyway. If they were, they wouldn’t be laughing and jogging across the lawn after a girl whose mind is probably as soft and breakable as her body.
I reach out with my mindfield and brush the mindbarriers of the runner and the three in pursuit. Just a light touch they won’t feel to verify what I already know—the girl’s a mindreader; the trio hunting her are mindjackers.
She doesn’t have a chance.
Jack it all. I put down my spade and stand. I really should have stayed in Wisconsin.
I leave the impatiens half in the wheelbarrow and half in the ground and stroll with a deliberate slowness along the winding brick drive away from the house. With its white marble columns and castle-like stone and rooms-piled-on-rooms, the thing screams money like it’s a new invention. I don’t know how long Rutkowski’s been head of his Clan of mindjackers, but he throws around unos like they’re confetti.
Up ahead at the truck, Tomasz, my fellow groundskeeper, is breaking apart more packs of impatiens. We share a room in the workhouse out back, with the rest of the mindreading staff that Rutkowski keeps penned up like cattle. That close together, mindreaders hear each other’s thoughts in their dreams, but it’s not like Rutkowski cares. It’s tricky for me to keep up the pretense of being a reader, but I have him fooled, and it works for me to have a place to stay, lying low and blending in. I haven’t had to jack anyone since I landed this job, which is the way I like it.
But that’s about to change.
I’m within the twenty-foot range mindreaders have, so I reach out with my mindfield and link a few random thoughts into Tomaz’s mind, which means he “hears” me as if I’m beaming thought waves from my head. The masquerade is a habit—one that’s probably pointless now. Linked into his mind like this, I can hear his thoughts, too. He’s focused on prepping the next round of impatiens with his gnarled hands, spotted with age and too much sun. We’re past the last frost of May, and he’s concerned about working fast to get them into the ground quickly.
It’s as though he didn’t even hear the girl.
Or see her.
Done with those? I ask, dropping the thought into his mind as I scan his progress.
He doesn’t look up, still struggling to get two flats into a larger tray. Too fast. Make me look bad, Zephyr. He uses my full name and that funky grammar that comes with his native Polish. Mindreading’s universal, though, so it comes through in English along with his mindscent—a hint of musty fall leaves at the back of my throat.
Take your time, I link to him. I snag a mesh bag filled with daylily clumps. I’m going to plant these around back first. The heft of the bag is substantial, filled with divisions of roots we pulled from another part of the estate yesterday. It would make a good physical weapon, not that I’ll need it. But I want Tomasz to stay here by the truck, and this gives me a plausible reason to be gone for a while.
Wait! Tomasz looks up when I’m halfway down the side of the truck, walking away. I go with you. Bring the watering can.
I grit my teeth. It’s just a simple jack, I tell myself. Nothing bad will happen. I reach back to him with my mind. Just plant the impatiens. I make it a command. A gentle one, but it’s not like he can refuse. He’s a good guy. I hate even being in his head this way.
I’ll just plant the impatiens, he repeats. My command echoes in his mind. I pull out. The jack should hold until I’ve taken care of this.
The girl screams again. My heart skips a beat. I hurl my mindreach out into the thick of the forest while lurching my way into a run. The weight of the daylilies is slowing me down. I rapidly scan for her mindfield. Whatever Rutkowski’s sons and their messed-up friend have in mind for her—
I find them.
She’s panicked. And surrounded. I sense the hard marble of the boys’ minds—all three —intruding into hers, tormenting her with images of what they’ll do. How they’ll erase her memories afterward, so they’ll get away with it. They’re building up to it, getting off on the sweet taste of her fear.
My stomach curls into a knot as I sprint across the last stretch of lawn to the trees.
There’s a reason readers hate our kind. A good reason. Because monsters like these prey on the weak simply because they can. If her attackers were mindreaders, this girl—Jiaying; her name pops up the instant I brush her mind—could fend them off. A simple touch, flesh-to-flesh, and their thoughts would meld. Her fear would be theirs, a shield against the worst acts of depravity. Instead, this mind-invasion is just the beginning.
One of them steps toward her—
I move fast, expanding my mindfield to surround each of theirs and taking a quick map-read of the contours. Every bump and valley, every spiked, static-filled crest is part of the unique signature of their minds—and their jacking powers. The mindmaps are complex, but intuitively memorizing those is only part of my ability. I’m not like any other jacker, and these jackholes are nothing special—they’ve got no defense against the things I can do. Once I have a lock, I spin their mindfields, flattening the peaks, raising the valleys, and generally scrambling their minds.
Their screams echo off the house.
There’s enough spring growth on the trees to hide us, but someone has got to hear that. Yet… the door stays shut. I’m hoping no one gets curious before I can reach the girl. I’m crashing through the underbrush, watching for buried hazards. Last year’s fall leaves have moldered into a half-foot of mulch, and if I twist an ankle here, I’m no good to anyone. Not that I’m worried for me, but with Rutkowski’s sons Piotr and Arek down on the ground, writhing in pain next to their friend Tony, the girl—Jiaying—is confused, afraid, and ready to bolt.
I glimpse her through the trees as I get closer. Her shorts are ripped up the side, and her t-shirt is rumpled and stained with who knows what. A darkened patch on the flawless skin of her cheek could be dirt—or a bruise. I gently push further into her mind, which is riven with panic. There are blank spots. Holes where her memories should be. All those screams…
Sweet mercy, how long has she been in the house?
Her hands are clenched into fists, held close to her temples as she stares at her attackers on the ground—as if she could make sense of what’s happening by pressing hard enough. The noise of my approach finally grabs her attention. She jerks with surprise then loses her footing. As she struggles to get up, she darts looks between me and the screaming bodies in the leaves.
I hold out my hands, one still clutching the bag of roots. It’s okay. I’m here to help.
She shakes her head, jerky and emphatic—her mind is nothing but a haze of panic. I want to cold-cock the boys with my daylilies to shut them up, but that’ll take time, and violence will definitely make her run. I need her to calm down and trust me, but jacking her into that puts me square in the camp with Rutkowski & Sons. I can’t imagine how much damage they’ve already done. Instead, I dig into my pocket to pull out a plant sensor. It scans for nutrients and cell wall strength. Very high tech—only the best for newly-rich mindjackers. Looks like something out of a sim-cast space adventure, so I figure it can pass for anti-jacker tech.
I hold it up. I’m disabling them with this. But it only lasts a short time. We have to go. Mindreaders can’t lie, so I’m hoping she’ll buy that I’m telling the truth.
The relief is visible—her thin shoulders drop from where they were hiked up around her ears, and she skitters through the leaves toward me.
Her mind settles enough to ask a coherent question. Where should we go? Her eyes are deep brown, almost black, just like her hair, and her delicate features are definitely Chinese, just like her name. The wild innocence of her eyes reminds me of a girl I once knew, a lifetime ago, although it’s only been nineteen months, two weeks and three days. But even then, I was already more danger than a mindreader like her could afford in her life.
I blink back to the present. I know a safe place, I tell Jiaying, the girl standing before me, not the one who haunts my dreams.
A banging sound comes from the house, barely heard above the moaning of the boys, but it jolts us both. I can’t see through the trees, but I can mentally reach the house. One of Rutkowski’s men is tromping across the grass—Pawel, a bulky guy with a hard head, the kind most jackers can’t break. There’s a shield up around the sprawling building, so I can’t tell if anyone else is coming, but it’s clear we’ve already attracted the attention we don’t want.
What is it? Jiaying peers through the trees in a jerky, nervous way. But she’s alert and focused, and that’s all I need.
We have to go, I repeat. I’m careful not to touch her because that’s not a thing readers would do—too much emotion sharing, and that’s the last thing someone needs when they’ve been traumatized by jackers. I’ve seen what mind-abuse does to people, and it’s not pretty.
I lead her north through the trees, away from the house. The estate isn’t that big—I’ve spent time out here. The neighbors are separated by their own personal forest preserves, but a few hundred feet in this direction, and we’ll reach a road. Then I can summon an autocab. They’re plentiful on the rich side of Chicago New Metro, parked in hidden mini-shelters, just waiting for the next call.
The noontime sun is lost in a seamless gray sky, and the crunch of our hurried steps is covered by the screams we’re leaving behind. I’ll keep the boys’ mindfields spinning, reconfiguring and not locking down, as long as I can, to cover our escape.
Running seems like all I’ve done since I left home eighteen months ago.
I knew jackers were a horror show before that—I’d been swept up in enough brutal jacker Clans to know the ugly truth—but things have really gone downhill since a girl named Kira Moore told the mindreading world that jackers exist. Not that I lay all the blame at her feet, but that’s where it started. I knew readers would freak out en masse. If jackers couldn’t hide, I knew they’d have to fight. And I’d already done things that gave me nightmares—I was too dangerous of a weapon to get caught up in the escalation that was coming. The day Kira Moore outed jackers was the day I hugged my kid sister goodbye, left my home, and spun my own mindmap to lock my mind tight. Then I ran away to Wisconsin and booted up the full-time illusion of being a mindreader—all to keep my family safe from the horrors I knew would come.
Then, somehow, the horrors were even worse than I imagined.
Six months ago, new super jackers started popping up all over the Metro area. Readers were being turned into jackers by the poison in the water. Technically, I knew it wasn’t poison—the tru-cast reports said the genetic inhibitors were only meant to render jackers harmless. You don’t have to be crazy to think that’s a good idea, not when jackers like Rutkowski exist. But putting it in the water? That everyone drinks? That takes someone not right in the head—and apparently, thorough safety testing isn’t a high priority for the insane. So those genetic inhibitors were in fact poison to innocent readers. Not all of them, maybe one in a thousand, maybe less, but still… that was a ton of people. They drank the water, went to bed, then woke up with jacking abilities they had no idea what to do with. They didn’t have to be evil with it—I get that—but when guppies are turned into piranhas after being hunted by sharks, weird stuff happens.
I should have stayed in Wisconsin, but I couldn’t—not when my family might be next. Funny how I’d assumed they would be right where I left them a year before, just sitting at home, wondering where I’d disappeared to all that time. As soon as the inhibitors dropped, I called… but they never answered. After a couple weeks, I finally grabbed a train and came down, but the house was empty. Like, abandoned… as if they’d gotten up from breakfast and simply walked out. I’ve spent six months trying to track them down to no avail. With all the new jackers being created, I can too easily picture why they haven’t come back.
Jiaying’s thoughts are muted. I’m still pretending to be a reader, so I’m linking into her head an endless loop of thoughts about the forest, the plants, the upkeep to maintain it, and the way out. Boring and random, like most readers. I’ve gotten the patter down. Lots of practice.
She’s speculating about who I am and how she got to be here. She’s poking at the memory holes, and that’s not good, but she finally lands on a question directed at me. What’s your name?
Her nose scrunches. No last name?
Sometimes, I screw up and link in thoughts that are suspiciously blank. Not enough information. Like the fact that I should have a last name. Jones, I lie. I shift quickly to something that matters. Where are you from? Maybe she’s got a home far from here. Somewhere she can run to.
Glenview. An image pops up of her in a crisp cheerleader uniform, poms raised and shushing the air. In real life, she frowns down at her white tennis shoes, dismayed at the forest muck that’s tarnishing them. She likes things clean and has aspirations to be a nurse. Then her thoughts go loose again like she can’t figure out how she got in this state, tattered and battered and running through a forest with a strange boy. No way am I filling in the blanks for her, even if I could. The memory holes are bad—disorienting, plus they make readers think they’re coming unhinged—but remembering is often worse. For Jiaying, it’s safe to say much worse.
And, unfortunately, Glenview is practically around the corner. I hardly have the heart to tell her she can’t go back home. Does Rutkowski know where you live?
Where I live? she echoes back, her mind still whirling.
Your home, I prompt.
A white-sided spire of a cookie-cutter suburban house flashes through her mind. Rutkowski has to have gleaned that from her. Plus she has a mom and a dad and a little sister, too. One with big eyes and a too-smart mouth. So much like Livvy…
I catch a toe on something in the underbrush and nearly go down, cursing as I catch myself. This is why I get away from the workhouse whenever I can and don’t hang out in readers’ heads any more than necessary. Their minds are wide-open caches of too much information. Too much personal stuff. I don’t want to know they’ve got families and lives and people they love and miss. I don’t need to see that.
You can’t go back there, I link to her. They’ll come looking for you. I leave out that her family isn’t safe, either.
Her thoughts spin, and she glances back, but Pawel is preoccupied with the boys and their unknown source of pain. I’m still scrambling their mindfields, but I’m coming up on the limits of my reach.
Don’t worry, I link to her. I know a place you can stay, just until it’s safe to go home. That calms her. A little. But we both pick up the pace.
A short jog later, we break out at the edge of the road. I pull out my phone and summon an autocab. We’re both twitchy while we wait—her because she’s afraid we’ll be caught; me because this is the longest I’ve ever kept mindfields spinning. It’s wearing me down. We both sigh in relief as the boxy black autocab rolls into view down the tree-lined lane.
I can’t believe it. She stares at the autocab as it draws near, slows down and pulls over. It’s got the standard mindware interface—I could jack in, but she beats me to it, mentally commanding the door to open with just the thought waves beaming from her head. Which is good—that means she’s not too damaged.
As she climbs in, I release the minds of the three boys. Then I hold my breath while the fields sort themselves back into their original maps. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure they wouldn’t just keep spinning. I let out a low breath, sling the daylily roots into the cab, and take a seat. Then I jack into the autocab’s mindware and program a path to a halfway house I know—the only place in Chicago New Metro I’d trust to take someone like Jiaying.
She’s giving me the side-eye. Her thoughts are jumbled, now that we’re rolling away, and the immediate danger is past. She’s thinking she’s grateful—like she should give me a hug or something—and there’s a frank and open assessment of my physical attributes. Mindreaders are weird like that. No secrets. No coyness. I used to be a scrawny kid—a lot has changed in the last eighteen months since I left home—but even as she’s checking out the muscles I’ve built planting flowerbeds and hauling mulch, her body is recoiling into the door, as far from me as she can get.
Her body remembers, even if her mind doesn’t.
I’ve seen that before, too. You can erase the memories but not the trauma. Not entirely. And even the short amount of mental abuse I saw firsthand would be enough to freak anyone out.
It’s making her thoughts go loose again. I owe you, she thinks, but I… I can’t really repay you. She shakes her head. Or maybe her head is shaking because she’s shaking.
You don’t owe me anything. I keep my distance, staying on my side of the autocab.
She calms a little, but she’s still glued to the door, blinking at me. She’s wondering why she’s so freaked when I must be a nice guy. After all, I rescued her. Readers are naïve that way. They have no idea how dangerous the world is. Even now, as we’re escaping some jackholes who hurt her in ways I don’t want to think about, Jiaying still believes the world’s basically a good place. It’s a breath of fresh air, right along with her apple-crisp mindscent, but Jiaying-the-mindreader should be afraid of someone like me.
I turn away and look out the window.
I’ll get her to safety, but that’s it. No thank-you hugs or gratitude kisses, even after she recovers from the shock and horror of today, not to mention the lasting damage of whatever happened in that house. Because making out with readers, even if you’re not like Rutkowski & Sons, is a messed up thing for a jacker to do. It’s not right to hurt readers, but it’s not right to date them, either. Besides, Jiaying’s problems aren’t mine, not once I hand her off. I’ve got my own to worry about.
I check my pocket for my memory stamp—I wouldn’t have left Rutkowski’s without it—and it’s still tucked at the bottom. It’s just an inch square, flat black, waiting to be activated. The images and vids used to be stored on a bigger frame—the one I took with me when I left home—but I needed something portable. I pass my thumb over the thin film, and it expands to a two-inch screen. All the pictures are old. In one, I’m about twelve, playing Tentacle Beasts Four with Olivia and my dad. She’s six in that clip, with her new mini-sized gaming gloves, but she beat the snot out of both of us. In the stills, she’s even younger, practically a baby. I play the one where I’m making cookies with my mom once, and then again. Then I freeze the vid where she’s holding my birthday cake. She’s wearing her string bracelets, a black leather one for me, and thin woven one for Livvy. One knot for each year, just like the candles on the cake.
Thirteen knots on mine.
That was the year the change hit me—only I didn’t exactly turn into a mindreader like everyone else. After that, I never updated the pictures again. They’re preserved in amber, my life before the world reached into my head and smacked me around.
Your family? Jiaying’s thoughts jolt me out of my reverie.
She’s staring at me. At the memory stamp. I’m screwing up again, not matching my thoughts to my actions.
Just some old pictures, I link to her. Then I swipe the stamp closed, stuff it back in my pocket, and go back to staring out the window. I play a loop of mindless thoughts about the forest whizzing by.
Jiaying is free of Rutkowski & Sons, but now I’m out of a job and a place to sleep. It’s about time I face the fact that my family’s gone for good. And if I’m truly on my own, I should head back up north, away from the city. It’s not like I can fix the world, and if I stick around here, eventually, the world’s going to get a fix on me.
Better to leave while I still can.
Book 4 in the Mindjack Series – Coming soon on April 17, 2017!