Catalyst, p.1
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       Catalyst, p.1



  HarperCollins Publishers


  Advance Reader’s e-proof

  courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

  This is an advance reader’s e-proof made from digital files of the uncorrected proofs. Readers are reminded that changes may be made prior to publication, including to the type, design, layout, or content, that are not reflected in this e-proof, and that this e-pub may not reflect the final edition. Any material to be quoted or excerpted in a review should be checked against the final published edition. Dates, prices, and manufacturing details are subject to change or cancellation without notice.


  HarperCollins Publishers



  HarperCollins Publishers



  [dedi TK]






  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Chapter Thirty-Three


  About the Author

  Also by S. J. Kincaid


  About the Publisher


  HarperCollins Publishers




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  SPONSORED COMBATANTS: Karl “Vanquisher” Marsters

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  SPONSORED COMBATANTS: Elliot “Ares” Ramirez, Cadence “Stinger” Grey, Britt “Ox” Schmeiser

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  SPONSORED COMBATANTS: Emefa “Polaris” Austerley, Alec “Condor” Tarsus, Ralph “Matador” Bates

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  HarperCollins Publishers



  THERE WAS A downside to staying at a luxurious high-rise suite in Las Vegas. It wasn’t the price. Neil Raines had been on a winning streak lately, and he was glad to blow his spoils on a lavish room for his son’s visit.

  The problem was, their hotel room’s location put them in close proximity to several VIPs staying on the same floor. Every time Tom Raines and his dad went up to their room, they passed through a gauntlet of private contractors guarding the hallway.

  So far, Tom had slipped by with a bit of maneuvering.

  Today, something felt different as they neared the metal detectors and body scanners waiting for them.

  Neil reacted the way he always did to the sight. “This is the problem with the overclass,” he blustered to Tom as they neared, a challenging glint in his eyes, voice loud because he clearly hoped one of those VIPs would hear him. “At the end of the day, they’re a bunch of pathetic cowards hiding behind their hired thugs.”

  The security contractors scowled. They’d heard.

  “We can get another room elsewhere,” Tom said in a low voice. “I’m sick of this, too. I’d rather we stayed somewhere cheaper and you put all this money—I don’t know—in a savings account?”

  “Savings account?” Neil snorted. “Yeah, sure, I’ll stash my hard-earned bucks with some thieving bankers so they can pass another ‘depositor’s tax’ to fund their next bailouts. No way.” He clapped Tom’s back. “I’d rather treat my boy right for once.”

  With that, Neil thrust his arms up in the air for his pat down, leering at the security guards who closed in around him. Tom lingered a few feet behind him, delving into his pocket for the medical exemption the military had provided to Intrasolar trainees whenever they encountered security scanners—devices that tended to reveal the neural processors in their skulls.

  As Neil grumbled, Tom’s mind wandered back to the last time he’d visited his father. They’d had a bad fight. He hadn’t understood Neil’s fear of Vengerov and Neil had refused to explain. Later, Tom got it—after Joseph Vengerov locked him outside in the Antarctic to freeze to death. A few trillion dollars gave a man power over life or death, and Neil had realized that before Tom had.

  Tom hadn’t known what to say to his dad to fix things. As it turned out, he didn’t have to. Neil was just as eager to pretend nothing had happened. Maybe he was even trying to make up for something, hence the fancy room, the nice casino, and Neil even woke up earlier so they could grab some dinner before he headed out for the night. He was thrilled to hear about Tom’s promotion to Upper Company, and he, in turn, was eager to tell Tom all about the ghost in the machine who’d blown up the skyboards.

  “Guess you haven’t heard much about this in the Spire, huh?” Neil said, chuckling over his drink. “It happened right before you came back.”

  Tom swallowed. Hard. “Oh, yeah, haven’t heard much.”

  “It was amazing, Tommy. There’s this bright flash overhead, I look up, and every single one of those advertisement boards is lit up with this message: ‘The ghost in the machine is watching the watchers.’ And you know who that’s aimed at—gotta be to the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe Obsidian Corp. Next thing I know, they explode. Every last one of them.” He took a big, triumphant swig of his drink. “You had to be there.”

  Tom couldn’t help a grim flicker of pride, hearing that. Apparently, the ghost had deeply impressed his father, which was awesome, because Tom was the ghost in the machine. He’d blown up the skyboards.

  Neil leaned toward him. “I tell you, the Cocaine Importing Agency’s gotta be crawling up the walls trying to find this guy. Let’s hope they don
t find him.”

  “Yeah, I’ll drink to that,” Tom said, raising his soda.

  “They ever do, and just wait—this ghost will be found with two gunshots to the back of his head in an apparent suicide.”

  Tom’s grin slipped a bit. It wasn’t the most reassuring thing to hear.

  And he wasn’t reassured now as they approached the security guards, trying to pick out the supervisor so he could hand over his exemption and get through this quickly. His medical form claimed he needed to bypass the scanning machines due to an implanted nerve stimulator in his skull to treat epilepsy.

  Every time Tom used it around his dad, he had to be careful. Neil needed to be too occupied to see him slip it to the supervising guard, and he needed to get it back before Neil turned and saw it. Usually he tried to part ways with his dad early, slip back to the room separately. Today Neil had dogged his steps. Today he couldn’t avoid it.

  If Neil even knew about the medical exemption, he’d demand to see it. He’d find out Tom had been given brain surgery. Epilepsy wasn’t the real reason his brain couldn’t be scanned—a neural processor was—but even the suggestion Tom had been given brain surgery would make Neil explode.

  That would not end well.

  Today, Neil passed through the gauntlet in record time, and he turned to look back just as Tom was about to hand over his form. He hesitated. It cost him. A big hand seized his shoulder and steered him forward through the metal detector.

  The metal detector buzzed.

  Tom tensed up, seeing Neil fold his arms impatiently, squinting his way, seeing two security guards lumber over. A bored-looking woman unveiled a metal-detecting wand.

  “Did you forget to remove something from your pockets?” she asked, and frowned as her wand beeped over Tom’s head.

  Tom squirmed inwardly, acutely conscious of his dad watching. “Uh, no.”

  She began pawing her fingers through his hair.

  “Look, I have a . . . ,” Tom said softly, reaching toward his pocket, turning his back to Neil, desperate to retrieve the medical exemption.

  “Hands out of your pockets,” ordered the second guard.

  “It’s not a weapon,” Tom said in a furious whisper. “It’s—”

  “What’s going on?” Neil demanded, tromping over toward them. “What’s the holdup?”

  A third security guard stepped forward to ward Neil off, and Tom again tried to retrieve his medical exemption, but then his cybernetic fingers set off the wand, and the woman ordered his hands up.

  And then something happened.

  There was a commotion near the computers, and then the entire swarm of security guards descended on Tom at the same time, encircling him, guns out.

  “We ran his biometric profile. Step back from him!” one of the security guards shouted to the other.

  The woman drew away from him quickly, and Tom goggled at the suddenly armed guards before his brain made sense of it. Neil had been causing them trouble so they ran both their biometric profiles, and they found out Tom’s identity.

  And the fact that he was on the terror watch list.

  Tom closed his eyes. Oh, come on.

  “Hands in the air!” someone shouted at Tom.

  Tom raised his hands, his mind racing, trying to figure out what to do from here.

  “This is ridiculous,” Neil exploded, and suddenly a few of the armed guards turned their attention toward him. “Does my kid look like a terror threat to you?”

  “He needs to come with us,” the lead guard said.

  “Dad, don’t make a big deal. I’ll go with them for two seconds, okay?” Tom urged, thinking he could clear this up if he talked with one of them in private. One phone call would fix it.

  If he could just get somewhere without his father, he could explain. But the female security guard who’d resumed waving the metal detecting wand over him gave a shriek and leaped back, and Tom saw one of his mechanized fingers come detached where she’d unwittingly tugged it off.

  Tom froze.

  Neil froze, staring down at it.

  “What is that?” Guns were drawn, flashed in Tom’s face. “Some sort of weapon?”

  “It’s a finger!” Tom exclaimed. “Look at it. All my fingers are fake, okay? See?” He tugged off a couple more to show them. “They’re mechanical. That’s why they set off the metal detector.”

  He ignored the way Neil was gaping at him like he didn’t even know him, in utter shock.

  Tom hadn’t told his dad about getting frostbite, losing his fingers. The military was technically supposed to notify his dad of any major surgeries. Amputation of fingers probably qualified.

  Better Neil find out about this than the other mechanical part of Tom’s body.

  “Tommy . . . ,” Neil whispered.

  “Let’s go. I’ll show you. Dad, wait here,” Tom said decisively.

  Neil was stunned enough to automatically do what Tom told him; and even then, Tom might still have salvaged the situation if he’d been able to take advantage of Neil’s shock and slip away with the guards to explain in private. Neil would be upset, but amputated fingers wasn’t secret brain surgery and neural computer–level stuff.

  But his hair had been mussed by the woman running her fingers through it, the patch of fake skin on the back of his neck disturbed. As he turned away, eager to flee, Neil demanded, “What is that?” He lanced forward and grabbed Tom’s shoulders, thrusting his head down, and Tom jerked away from him, but not before Neil saw it: the neural access port.

  His sudden movement set off the security guards, poised for a terrorist incident. Shouts saturated the air and suddenly bodies closed on Tom from all sides, swarming him, bearing him down to the floor.

  The onslaught drove the breath out of him, and as Tom’s cheek scraped the carpet, he heard Neil shouting in anger, frantic voices calling for backup, that stupid medical exemption still burning a hole in his pocket.

  “Let me up. Seriously. I can explain,” Tom told them, pinned in place as a mobile body scanner was run over his head, checking for implanted explosives.

  “Oh my God, take a look at this,” one of the security guards said to the other, waving it over his head. Tom knew what they were seeing: a spiderweb mesh of metal inside his skull.

  Meanwhile, another had found the medical exemption in his pocket and was telling the others, “Yeah, it says he got brain surgery on here, but does that look like a nerve stimulator to you?”

  Tom dragged his eyes over to Neil, pinned on the carpet just feet away. His dad wasn’t fighting now. He was staring at the same image on the scanner they were, his jaw slack, his face chalky, drained of blood.

  Tom closed his eyes and started laughing softly, wondering how this could get any worse. He was in serious trouble here. He and his dad both were.

  THE GOVERNMENT AGENTS who arrived to sweep them all up into custody—Tom, Neil, and the security guards as well—weren’t from the Pentagonal Spire. They were from the National Security Agency.

  Tom recounted the same sequence of events to three different interrogators, and passed days alone in a cell, waiting for his official debriefing. He spent hours on end pacing, fretting over what would happen from here, worrying about the repercussions of this, worrying about what Neil might be saying. . . . He’d already missed the first few days of Upper Company at the Pentagonal Spire. Every other trainee had returned already.

  He’d give anything to be there with them.

  Finally, the day came for Tom to learn the fate of his father, for him to formally meet with the NSA agent overseeing the situation.

  Tom’s nerves were leaping under his skin and he strode in to face the slim, imperious woman. She looked to be in her forties, with light blond hair drawn into a tight bun, sharp cheekbones, and lips set in a thin scarlet line.

  “Mr. Raines,” she said crisply, “I’m glad you’re here. I have a few questions for you.”

  Her profile flashed in his vision center:




  “My name is Irene Frayne. We need to discuss your father. Please take a seat.”

  Tom sat. A distant light bit into his eyes, and he had to blink to make out her face.

  There was something distinctly unnerving about meeting an actual NSA agent. He knew they had files on every single person in the country, and a lot of Obsidian Corp. contractors were also full-time NSA. . . . He’d even penetrated one of their fusion centers by accident when he’d interfaced with Obsidian Corp.’s systems, so he appreciated the reach of their covert eyes and ears. For all he knew, Frayne had a list of every single embarrassing website he’d ever visited.

  Frayne offered him a metallic device, one that resembled a small doorknob, impatience in the sharp planes of her face. “I want you to insert this in your brain stem access port.”

  “What is it?” Tom said warily.

  “I’ll ask the questions here, Mr. Raines. Insert it. Now.”

  Tom felt a stirring of unease just at the thought of interfacing with some unknown device, but he didn’t have much choice here. He flipped it over so he could see the prong where the device was designed to attach to his port, then he clicked it into the back of his neck. Tom tried to settle back into his seat, but he couldn’t lean his head comfortably back now. He sat there awkwardly, his head tilted forward, shoulders tight.

  Frayne, in the meantime, was examining a tablet computer held in her manicured grasp.

  “State your full name.”

  “Thomas Andrew Raines.”

  “Are you a trainee at the Pentagonal Spire, Mr. Raines?”

  “Yeah. Of course.”

  “Have you ever lied to get out of trouble?”

  The question flustered him. How was he supposed to answer that? Hadn’t everyone done that at some point? “Wait,” he floundered, “you mean, right now?”

  Frayne’s gaze remained fixed on the screen. The faintest smile touched her lips. “That answer is sufficient for our purposes. Now, let’s proceed.” She tapped at her screen, her pale eyes flickering back and forth over something she saw there. Then they returned to him. “I understand neural processors enable photographic recollection. If I feel you’re omitting any details, or being less than truthful, we’ll have to verify your account with a census device. Do you understand?”

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