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       Never Fade, p.1

         Part #2 of Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken
 
Never Fade


  BOOKS BY ALEXANDRA BRACKEN

  The Darkest Minds Series

  The Darkest Minds

  In Time (an eBook original novella)

  Never Fade

  Copyright © 2013 by Alexandra Bracken

  Cover design by Sammy Yuen

  All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.

  ISBN 978-1-4231-8702-8

  Visit www.un-requiredreading.com

  Contents

  Title Page

  Books by Alexandra Bracken

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Prologue

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-one

  Twenty-two

  Twenty-three

  Twenty-four

  Twenty-five

  Twenty-six

  Twenty-seven

  Twenty-eight

  Twenty-nine

  Thirty

  Thirty-one

  Thirty-two

  Acknowledgments

  Preview of In Time

  In memory of my dad,

  whose love of life and unflinching courage

  continue to inspire me every day

  PROLOGUE

  THE DREAM FIRST MADE AN APPEARANCE my second week at Thurmond, and it came to visit at least twice a month. I guess it made sense that it was born there, behind the camp’s humming electric fence. Everything about that place withered you down to your worst, and it didn’t matter how many years passed—two, three, six. In that green uniform, locked in the same monotonous routine, time stopped and sputtered like a dying car. I knew I was getting older, caught glimpses of my changing face in the metallic surfaces of the Mess Hall tables, but it didn’t feel that way. Who I was and who I had been disconnected, leaving me stranded somewhere in the middle. I used to wonder if I was even Ruby anymore. At camp, I didn’t have a name outside of my cabin. I was a number: 3285. I was a file on a server or locked away in a gunmetal gray filing cabinet. The people who had known me before camp no longer did.

  It always started with the same thunder, the same explosion of noise. I’d be old—twisted and hunched and aching—standing in the middle of a busy street. It might have been somewhere in Virginia, where I was from, but it had been so long since I’d been home I couldn’t tell for sure.

  Cars passed on either side, heading in opposite directions down a stretch of dark road. Sometimes I heard the thunder of an approaching storm, other times the blare of car horns louder, louder, louder as they approached. Sometimes I heard nothing at all.

  But aside from that, the dream was always the same.

  An identical set of black cars would screech to a stop as they reached me, and then, as soon as I looked up, they would reverse direction. Everything would. The rain would peel itself up from the gummy black asphalt, floating back up into the air in perfect sparkling drops. The sun would glide backward across the sky, chasing the moon. And as each cycle passed, I could feel my ancient, hunched back uncurl bone by bone until I was standing up straight again. When I held my hands up to my eyes, the wrinkles and blue-purple veins would smooth themselves out, like old age was melting clean off me.

  And then those hands would get smaller, and smaller, and smaller. My view of the road changed; my clothes seemed to swallow me whole. Sounds were deafening and harsher and more confusing. Time would only race back harder, blowing me off my feet, crashing through my head.

  I used to dream about turning back time, about reclaiming the things I’d lost and the person I used to be.

  But not anymore.

  ONE

  THE CROOK OF MY ARM LOCKED over the man’s throat, tightening as his boots’ rubber soles batted against the ground. His fingernails bit into the black fabric of my shirt and gloves, clawing at them in desperation. The oxygen was being cut off from his brain, but it didn’t keep the flashes of his thoughts at bay. I saw everything. His memories and thoughts burned white-hot behind my eyes, but I didn’t let up, not even when the security guard’s terrified mind brought an image of himself to the surface, staring open-eyed up at the dark hallway’s ceiling. Dead, maybe?

  I wasn’t going to kill him, though. The soldier stood head and shoulders over me, and one of his arms was the size of one of my legs. The only reason I had gotten the jump on him at all was because he had been standing with his back to me.

  Instructor Johnson called this move the Neck Lock, and he had taught me a whole collection of others. The Can Opener, the Crucifix, the Neck Crank, the Nelson, the Twister, the Wristlock, and the Spine Crack, just to name a few. All ways that I, a five-foot-five girl, could get a good grip on someone who outmatched me physically. Enough for me to draw out the real weapon.

  The man was half hallucinating now. Slipping into his mind was painless and easy; all of the memories and thoughts that rose to the surface of his consciousness were stained black. The color bled through them like a blot of ink on wet paper. And it was then, only after I had my hooks in him, that I released my grip from his neck.

  This probably hadn’t been what he had been expecting when he came out of the shop’s hidden side entrance for a smoke break.

  The bite in Pennsylvania’s air had turned the man’s cheeks bright red beneath his pale stubble. I let out a single hot breath from behind the ski mask and cleared my throat, fully aware of the ten sets of eyes trained on me. My fingers shook as they slipped across the man’s skin; he smelled like stale smoke and the spearmint gum he used to try to cover his nasty habit. I leaned forward, pressing two fingers against his neck.

  “Wake up,” I whispered. The man forced his eyes open, wide and childlike. Something in my stomach clenched.

  I glanced over my shoulder to the tactical team behind me, who were watching all of this silently, faces unseen behind their masks.

  “Where is Prisoner 27?” I asked. We were out of the line of sight of the security cameras—the reason, I guess, this soldier felt safe enough to slip out for a few unscheduled breaks—but I was beyond anxious to have this part over.

  “Hurry the hell up!” Vida said through gritted teeth, next to me.

  My hands shook at the wave of heat at my back as the tact team leader stepped up behind me. Doing this didn’t hurt the way it used to. It didn’t wring me out, twisting my mind into knots of pain. But it did make me sensitive to the strong feelings of anyone near me—including the man’s disgust. His black, black hatred.

  Rob’s dark hair was in the corner of my sight. The order to move forward without me was ready to spill out over his lips. Of the three Ops I’d gone on with him as Leader, I’d only ever been able to finish one.

  “Where is Prisoner 27?” I repeated, giving the soldier’s mind a nudge with my own.

  “Prisoner 27.” As he repeated the words, his heavy mustache twitched. The hint of gray there made him look a lot older than he actually was. The assignment file we’d been given at HQ had included blurbs on all of the soldiers assigned to this bunker, including this one—Max Brommel. Age forty-one, originally from Cody, Wyoming. Moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvani
a, for a programming job, lost it when the economy tanked. A nice wife, currently out of work. Two kids.

  Both dead.

  A storm of murky images flooded every dark corner and crevice of his mind. I saw a dozen more men, all wearing the same light camo uniforms jumping out of the back of a van, and several more from the Humvees that had bookended the bigger vehicle—full of criminals, suspected terrorists, and, if the intel the Children’s League had received was correct, one of our top agents.

  I watched, suddenly calm, as these same soldiers led one…two…no, three men off the back of the truck. They weren’t Psi Special Forces officers, or FBI, or CIA, and definitely not a SWAT or SEAL team, all of which probably could have crushed our small force in one swift blow. No, they were National Guard servicemen, drawn back into active duty by the terrible times; our intel had been right about that, at least.

  The soldiers had pulled hoods down tight over the prisoners’ heads, then forced them down the stairs of the abandoned shop to the sliding silver door of the bunker hidden below.

  After much of Washington, DC, had been destroyed by what President Gray claimed was a group of warped Psi kids, he had taken special care to build these so-called mini-fortresses across the east coast in case another emergency of that magnitude was to arise. Some were built beneath hotels, others into the sides of mountains, and some, like this one, were hidden in plain sight in small towns, under shops or government buildings. They were for Gray’s protection, the protection of his cabinet and important military officials, and, it appeared, to imprison “high-risk threats to national security.”

  Including our own Prisoner 27, who seemed to be getting some special treatment.

  His cell was at the end of a long hall, two stories down. It was a lonely room with a low, dark ceiling. The walls seemed to drip down around me, but the memory held steady. They kept his hood on but bound his feet to the metal chair in the center of the cell, in the halo of light from a single naked bulb.

  I peeled away from the man’s mind, releasing both my physical and mental grip on him. He slid down the graffiti on the wall of the abandoned Laundromat, still in the clutches of his own brain’s fog. Removing the memory of my face and the men behind us in the alley was like plucking stones from the bottom of a clear, shallow pond.

  “Two stories down, room Four B,” I said, turning back to Rob. We had a sketchy outline of the layout of the bunker but none of the small directional details—we weren’t blind, but we weren’t exactly killing it in the accuracy department. The basic layout for these bunkers was always about the same, though. A staircase or elevator that ran down one end of the structure and one long hall on each level stemming out from it.

  He held up a gloved hand, cutting off the rest of my instructions and signaling to the team behind him. I fed him the code from the soldier’s memory: 6-8-9-9-9-9-* and stepped away, pulling Vida with me. She shoved me off into the nearest soldier, grunting.

  I couldn’t see Rob’s eyes beneath his night-vision goggles as the green light flashed, but I didn’t need to in order to read his intentions. He hadn’t asked for us and certainly hadn’t wanted us tagging along when he—a former Army Ranger, as he loved to remind us—could easily have handled this with a few of his men. More than anything, I think he was furious he had to do this at all. It was League policy that if you were caught, you were disavowed. No one was coming for you.

  If Alban wanted this agent back, he had a good reason for it.

  The clock started the moment the door slid open. Fifteen minutes to get in, grab Prisoner 27, and get the hell out and away. Who knew if we even had that long, though? Rob was only estimating how long it would take for backup to arrive once the alarms were activated.

  The doorway opened to the stairwell at the back of the bunker. It wound down, section by section, into the darkness, with only a few lights along the metal steps to guide us. I heard one of the men cut the wire of the security camera perched high above us, felt Vida’s hand shove me forward, but it took time—too much time—for my eyes to adjust. Traces of the Laundromat’s chemicals clung to the recycled dry air, burning my lungs.

  Then, we were moving. Quickly, as silently as a group in heavy boots could be thundering down a flight of stairs.

  My blood was thrumming in my ears as Vida and I reached the first landing. Six months of training wasn’t a long time, but it was long enough to teach me how to pull the familiar armor of focus tighter around my core.

  Something hard slammed into my back, then something harder—a shoulder, a gun, then another, and more, until it was a steady enough rhythm that I had to press myself against the landing’s door into the bunker to avoid them. Vida let out a sharp noise as the last of the team blew past us. Only Rob stopped to acknowledge us. “Cover us until we’re through, then monitor the entrance. Right there. Do not leave your position.”

  “We’re supposed to—” Vida began. I stepped in front of her, cutting her off. No, this wasn’t what the Op parameters had outlined, but it was better for us. There was no reason for either of us to follow them down into the bunker and potentially get ourselves killed. And she knew—it had been drilled into our skulls a million times—that tonight Rob was Leader. And the very first rule, the only one that mattered when you got to the moments between terrified heartbeats, was that you always, even in the face of fire or death or capture, always had to follow Leader.

  Vida was at my back, close enough for me to feel her hot breath through the thick black knit of my ski mask. Close enough that the fury she was radiating cut through the freezing Philadelphia air. Vida always radiated a kind of bloodthirsty eagerness, even more so when Cate was Leader on an Op; the excitement of proving herself to our Minder always stripped away the better lessons of her training. This was a game to her, a challenge, to show off her perfect aim, her combat training, her sharply honed Blue abilities. To me, it was yet another perfect opportunity to get herself killed. At seventeen, Vida might have been the perfect trainee, the standard to which the League held the rest of their freak kids, but the one thing she had never been able to master was her own adrenaline.

  “Don’t you ever touch me again, bitch,” Vida snarled, her voice low with fury. She started backing away to follow them down the stairs. “You are such a fucking coward that you’re going to take this lying down? You don’t care that he just disrespected us? You—”

  The stairwell reared up under my feet, as if dragging in a deep breath only to let it explode back out. The shock of it seemed to slow time itself—I was up and off my feet, launched so hard into the door that I thought I felt it dent beneath my skull. Vida slammed onto the ground, covering her head, and it was only then that the roar of the concussion grenade reached us as it blew apart the entrance below.

  The smoky heat was thick enough to get a stranglehold on me, but the disorientation was so much worse. My eyelids felt like they had been peeled and rubbed raw as I forced them open. A crimson light pulsed through the dark, pushing through the clouds of cement debris. The muffled throbbing in my ears—that wasn’t my heartbeat. That was the alarm.

  Why had they used the grenade when they knew the code for that door would be the same as the one outside? There hadn’t been any gunfire—we were close enough that we would have heard the tact team engage them. Now everyone would know we were there—it didn’t make sense for a team of professionals.

  I ripped the mask away from my face, clawing at my right ear. There was a sharp, stabbing pain and the comm unit came away in pieces. I pressed a gloved hand against it as I stumbled up to my feet, blinking back one sickening wave of nausea after another. But when I turned to find Vida, to drag her back up the stairs and into the freezing Pennsylvania night, she was gone.

  I spent two terrified heartbeats searching for her body through the gaping hole in the stairwell’s landing, watching as the tactical team streamed past. I leaned against the wall, trying to stay on my feet.

  “Vida!” I felt the word leave my throat, but it
vanished under the pulsing in my ears. “Vida!”

  The door on my landing was mangled, dented, singed—but it still worked, apparently. It groaned and began to slide open, only to catch halfway with a horrible grating noise. I threw myself back against the wall, taking two steps up the fractured stairs. The darkness tucked me back under its cover just as the first soldier squeezed through the door, his handgun swinging around the cramped space. I took a deep breath and dropped into a crouch. It took three blinks to clear my vision, and by then, the soldiers were fighting through the doorway, jumping over the jagged hole in the platform and continuing down the stairs. I watched four go, then five, then six, swallowed by the smoke. A series of strange buzzing pops seemed to follow them, and it wasn’t until I was standing, swiping my arm over my face, that I realized it was gunfire from below.

  Vida was gone, the tact team was now deep into a hornet’s nest of their own making, and Prisoner 27—

  God dammit, I thought, moving back down onto the landing. There were upward of twenty or thirty soldiers staffing these bunkers at any given time. They were too small to house more than that, even temporarily. But just because the corridor was empty now, it didn’t mean the firefight below had drawn all of the attention away. If I were caught, that would be it. I’d be finished, killed one way or another.

  But there was that man I had seen, the one with the hood over his head.

  I didn’t feel any particular loyalty to the Children’s League. There was a contract between us, a strange verbal agreement that was as businesslike as it was bloody. Outside of my own team, there weren’t people to care about, and there certainly wasn’t anyone who cared about me beyond the bare minimum of keeping me alive and available to inflict on their targets like a virus.

  My feet weren’t moving, not yet. There was something about that scene that kept replaying over and over again in my mind. It was the way they had bound his hands, how they had led Prisoner 27 down into the dark unknown of the bunker. It was the gleam of guns, the improbability of escape. I felt despair rising in me like a cloud of steam, spreading itself out through my body.

 
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