Table of Contents

 

Chapter 1

RISK

"Do you ever think about the outside world?" Standing at a window of their Upper Ward hotel room, Blaze stared out at Downtown Brooklyn, dawn's pallid glow framing her slender form through the sheet draped over her shoulders.

"Outside world?" Frowning, Dre sat on the edge of the bed in his boxers.

"Yeah. You know... the world outside the NAR. The rest of the world that we used to be able to travel freely. You ever think about what it's like?" Her dark hair fell in braids atop the white sheet.

Dre shook his head. "When I was a kid, maybe. But now, I usually don't dream that big. I got enough trouble dealing with the world we're in."

"No doubt. But you were out there before, weren't you?"

"Yeah. When I was six. Just before they banned all international flights and closed down the public airports." He'd been back in Barbados at the time. It was a memory he preferred not to dwell on.

Dre stood and strode across the room, bare feet slapping on the heated marble floors. When he got to Blaze, he wrapped his arms around her waist from behind. "The most I thought about it since were stories Pops told me about Barbados. Or how the USA used to be before it became the NAR. I used to be fascinated about life before the War of The Americas, the Climatic Shift, or the superstorms. I guess back then it was because I spent so much time in VR."

She snuggled closer into him, leaning her head back and to the side of his chin. He leaned his head down, her braids soft against his cheek. Dre inhaled long and deep, relishing her shampoo's vanilla aroma. He sighed. He could stay in this position, in this room, with her forever.

Up here on the two hundredth floor, the only vehicles zipping along on the massive invisible skyway outside were Personal Transports. Drones emblazoned with NYPD or SDF hovered at regular intervals, silent and foreboding. All other traffic, from Airbus to Maglev, was relegated to below the Upper Ward.

Sunlight weakened by the city's perpetual smog glinted off the other skyrises. Far below, the pedestrians on skywalks were little more than dots. In the distance was the mist-shrouded ocean and the dark stain of the massive seawall eating the coast.

"I dream about the world all the time." Her voice was soft. Longing. "I want to go out there one day. See what it's like."

Dre could understand her feelings. Even if he couldn't exactly relate. Blaze was a DeGen. He paused when he thought of the word, hearing her correct him gently as was her habit of late, telling him she was a Lifer. That's what they called themselves in the Bottoms. Lifers. She was born in the First Ward, and had lived in the Bottom Wards for the majority of her life. Suffering was a part of her.

She had the scars to prove it. Ribbons of raised tissue ran down her spine, her left side, and along her left leg. He'd asked her about them, but she'd said they were nothing, a product of recklessness. He suspected there was more to them than she let on.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he considered the stories told of the Lifers, the things he'd grown up believing to be true. The government had labeled them DeGens, the worst of the North American Republic. Many of them were illegal immigrants who'd come to the city during the Great Migration, fleeing both the Second Civil War and the War of Americas. They had hidden themselves away beneath cities, in places unfit for humans to live. Later on, escaped criminals had joined their ranks. Gangs had formed.

When he saw Lifers on a broadcast, they were dirty, disheveled, emaciated, and riddled with disease. Such displays always labeled them as criminals. Murderers. Thieves. Rats. Dre knew some of it was propaganda, lies told by the likes of Sidrie Malikah and those in power.

Blaze and Pops' tale in Void Legion was proof of those lies. If someone had told him he could feel so much for a Lifer he would have laughed in their face. Not now.

He opened his eyes, gaze drifting to the blanket of smog and clouds blushed by the distorted coin of a sun. "Maybe when this is all over, we can all go one day. You, me, Mom, and Kai." And Pops, he thought.

"Maybe." She sighed.

Despite it being a ridiculous thought, an impossible dream, he wanted it to come true. He felt good saying it.

"I never told anyone, but getting away is one of the reasons I game so much." Her chest heaved with longing. "I can be someone else. Somewhere else. I can be as strong as I want to be as long as I'm willing to work hard. I can fly anywhere. For the most part, my troubles fade away."

"I understand exactly what you mean." Dre smiled. He was more at home in-game than IRL. He enjoyed being one of the top dogs, exploring, fighting, clearing dungeons, and visiting exotic locales.

"Speaking of the game, I heard some disturbing rumors." She raised her head.

"What happened?"

"Remember they mentioned the risk of brain damage from in-game death? How brain function stops for an instant IRL?"

"Yeah."

"I heard it's worse than they let on. A few SR testers who died in-game ended up as invalids. They can’t walk, can’t talk, can't see, or hear. They just sit there.”

"That’s fucked up.” Dre couldn’t even begin to imagine such a fate.

"Same thing I said."

"Where'd you hear this?"

"Players I know."

"How'd they find out?"

"They didn't say, but one thing they mentioned was the mystic's rez spell. When a mystic rezzes a person, they don't return to life at that moment. The person can either stay in that spot for a few hours or choose a respawn location."

Dre thought it was a weird way for resurrection to work, but he knew the reason. "That's because they wanna make sure TNT has done its job effectively. A precaution."

"No doubt. But the players I mentioned never came back in-game. They didn't respawn. Their friends found out Equitane sent them home and went to visit. They found them bed-ridden or in wheelchairs."

Dre was speechless. At the same time, he wondered how Equitane was keeping a lid on such news. Until he thought about the NDA and his own situation.

Blaze sighed. "Funny thing is that a part of me finds the risk exciting while another part is scared shitless. Especially since we have to play."

Without giving the idea much thought, Dre knew his feelings ran deeper. "I'd still play regardless. Particularly after experiencing Total Immersion. And seeing Pops. He's worth it all by himself."

"True." She brought her hands up and placed them over his at her midsection. "I don't even know why it bothers me at all. I mean, I know why, as in no one should be getting hurt doing what we do. But for me, I'm not worried. I'm fully capable of playing without dying."

Dre grunted derisively. "Somebody's feeling themselves."

"Hey." Blaze shrugged. "I can't help it if I'm that good."

"I wouldn't let you die, anyway."

Blaze tilted her head to look up at him. "Let? Pfft, boy, you better go somewhere with that." She was grinning.

"Yeah... let." Dre smiled down at her. "I promise not to let you die."

"Oh, now we're promising?"

"We sure are."

"Alright, alright." She straightened to face the window. "I'll let you have that one." They burst into laughter. When their mirth subsided, she added, "I won't let you die either."

The idea warmed Dre's insides. He grinned like a big kid. They remained in that position until the sun set the smog and clouds on fire.

Blaze turned to face him, dark angled eyes staring up into his. "It's about that time." Her voice carried a hint of reluctance. "You're going to see your Mom, right?"

Dre nodded. "And my sister. I wanna spend a few days with them before we play Void Legion again. What're you gonna do?"

She got up on her tiptoes, planted a kiss on his lips, then slid her face past his cheek until her mouth was at his ear. "Do some research on old school puzzles in games, and deliver the first protocol," she whispered.

He matched her timbre. "Be careful."

"No doubt."

They hugged for a bit longer. Finally, they separated and got dressed. Before they left the room, they shared a long kiss.

******

Blaze's mind was preoccupied with thoughts of Dre as the elevator made its way down toward the Mid Wards. She didn't understand why she felt the way she did for him. Keeping business and pleasure separate had been what kept her alive over the years. She prided herself on it. But though she tried with Dre, she couldn't help her feelings.

At first, she'd thought it was just an in-game thing. Watching him play, his skill, his command, his quick thinking had immediately drawn her to him. The fact he hadn't judged her as a girl but simply as a player had made the attraction even easier to accept.

But IRL, it had become more than that. From the very first day she watched him, studied him on his way to and from Downtown Brooklyn, she liked him. His tall, slim but fit frame, low fade haircut, impeccable waves, broad nose, thick eyebrows, caramel complexion. They all seemed so... right.

Sure, he was young, turning seventeen in a few weeks. But then she was young also. And in this life, the way the world was, time waited for no one. She or he could easily be dead in a few months if caught in the wrong place during a superstorm despite the advantage of the seawall.

Making matters easier, or more complicated, depending on how she looked at them, he hadn't been grossed out when he discovered she was really a Lifer. He'd opened himself to her all the same.

She shook her head. Maybe her mind was just playing tricks on her. So why is he always in your thoughts? Why do you think about his lips, his hands, his voice, his smell?

The elevator stopped. Floor 100. Center of the Mid Wards. The door opened on the skywalk side, letting in a blast of frigid early November air.

Dismissing Dre from her mind, she hunkered into her jacket and strode out onto the skywalk, mist drifting into the air with her every breath. She needed a clear head for the work at hand.

Androids mingled among people who bustled by on their way to work or school or shopping, for those who still felt the need to physically do such activities rather than use the Grid's VR facilities. She understood the sentiment of the ones making that choice. Sympathized with it. Certain things made you feel more alive. Even if it meant coming outside on a cold ass day.

Walking and smiling like she was a tourist or a Bottom Warder enthralled by the soaring glass facades, the many PTs, hover vehicles, and EVTOL craft, she headed to her destination, certain Equitane security was tracking her as they did every other tester. The monitoring was routine. She did not want it to become more than that. Draw attention to herself.

So, she practiced the same habits whenever she'd come up from the Bottoms, gave the same impression of herself: a girl of low status caught in the wonder of great society. The thought almost made her scowl.

Equitane's teams were probably using the plethora of cameras, from those on buildings or droids to the drones themselves, to monitor people. She found comfort in knowing they had to resort to such means for her rather than through direct contact by way of implants. But for the lone chip on her finger for ID, and biometric tatts, both of which she had scanned to make sure there was no funny business, she had no other wearables.

Her current smile was for the frustration security displayed over the years as she'd removed anything they planted on her. It had made for a great game of cat and mouse. A game she always won. Eventually, they'd given up.

What damage could a poor little Bottom Ward girl do anyway? What damage, indeed. She smirked.

"The city's amazing, isn't it?" A man with a too perfect goatee, dressed in only a bright green sweater and khaki pants, looked from her to one of the other skyrises. The blue light of implants flashed in his eyes and was gone. "I try to come once a year."

His accent and choice of clothing would've given him away as a tourist even before he said that bit. The common New New Yorker wouldn't have donned body heat wearables until the temps were in the single digits.

"No doubt." She nodded curtly.

"I fly in from Boston." He was at the partitioned edge of the skywalk, gazing below at the many levels all the way to the crumbling brick buildings and asphalt that made up the First Ward. "You can't begin to imagine what the countryside looks like outside the cities. I never imagined we could've avoided as much damage as we did or grow as quickly as we have after all the madness. Says a lot about being American. As we used to say back in the day, God Bless America."

Blaze slipped among the pedestrians before he turned back to her. She made her way to her favorite spot since she'd become a tester. Skybucks, a quaint little coffee shop that was a throwback to yesteryear.

She entered the Skybucks to the strum of soft jazz music. Two CX3 droids manned the counter while another busied itself making certain everything was clean. All three had the new synthetic skin most companies had adopted in an effort to make bots more acceptable. More human. One was dark-skinned, one white, and the other was like her, Asian.

Blaze passed the cushioned bench seats near the front; the pairings of stools and single round tables; sofa, armchairs, and small table set up in the middle of the room; and headed all the way to the rear that held another set of benches against a wall. She chose her usual corner and sat.

A holo popped up on one side of the table. It displayed a selection of drinks. On the other side was another holo with access to the Grid. Between them was a set of Smart Glasses.

With a flick of her finger, she scrolled down the list and selected a drink with a tap. Caramel peppermint latte. Yummy. They didn't have drinks like these in the Bottoms so she got one whenever she could. The credits deducted automatically from her Equitane account.

With her other hand, she hovered over Grid content selections for entertainment, news, or info. Her first hand now rested on the tabletop near the connection she needed for her ID chip's second and true function. Built by the best Lifer techs to specifications given by Alphonso Taylor, it circumvented the Grid's security, allowing her to pass messages and data on the old system hard-wired into this very table. The internet. Banned by the NAR to limit outside world influence. And blamed by many for the USA's fall.

With a tap of her finger, she could pass on the code stored in her head to Gridrunners like herself, waiting beneath the city. With the first protocol, they were truly on their way to righting so many wrongs. To ridding themselves of a threat to their lives. She raised her finger.

And stopped.

A little voice in the back of her mind said to wait. A second voice chided her.

You worry too much. Nothing's worth doing if there isn't risk.

Considering the importance of her work, the second voice was tempting. She almost gave in. Almost. Until she recalled a time she hadn't listened to the first voice. A time she had almost lost her life. She'd been left with a memory of agony, knife wounds, and blood. Scars. Mental and physical.

Struck by an idea borne of the Sanctum's maze, she tapped the holo for the Grid and picked up the dark-tinted Smart Glasses. She didn't like the idea of wearing them, but doing so was the fastest way for memorization. She put them on. Her mind and the Grid joined, a once weird synchronization that had now become common.

Although her inner thoughts were her own, she could issue commands by mere gestures or by thought projected at the Grid. Recalling all the time she spent with Alphonso Taylor, and his admissions in the Sanctum, she asked for a list of old game companies beginning with NCSoft, EA, Ubisoft, Rockstar, and Blizzard. She checked the wikis of the companies' games for any puzzles and secrets.

Using her contacts from when she fenced goods, she managed to snag a collection of old games including the likes of World of Warcraft 2, Lineage 3, Overwatch: Endgame, Diablo Immortal, and a few others. Her hopes were partially dashed when she saw a few of them were online only with no current servers or versions accessible on the Grid. She settled in to play the others, starting with Diablo.

It was odd playing a game that wasn't in VR. More than odd, it was unsettling. The one saving grace was the ability to still use the Smart Glasses and virtual controls.

After quite a bit of tinkering, she got the hang of the game. Soon, she was engrossed in ancient hack and slash glory.

Blaze didn't know what time it was when someone tapped her on the shoulder. She assumed it must have been hours. It certainly felt that way.

She took a last look at the cow king in the game, smiled, and removed the Smart Glasses, severing her connection to the Grid. She rubbed her eyes for a sec then looked up.

Two Equitane security officers loomed over her. Their hands rested on their sidearms.

The taller one spoke, a familiar man with a too perfect goatee. He looked like he was pissed off. Blaze smiled at him. "They need you in the pod room. Right now."

******

Sidrie scares me. Be careful of her. Mom flipped the pencil over and erased the message.

Leaning over the paper on the clipboard, one shaking hand partially hiding the words, she scribbled another sentence. As she worked, the biometric tattoo's dark stain seemed to shift along the caramel skin of her arm.

Your father had issues with her. He was scared too.

She erased the words. After a furtive glance at the open bedroom door, the shift of her head causing her single brown ponytail to fall down her back, she scratched out another message, her hands moving faster this time. Desperate.

We can never talk about it in here. You must always believe she's either tracking you or has us or this apartment bugged. She might be watching now. And definitely recording us.

All of our conversations going forward must appear normal. The one thing working in our favor is that she seems to need you. Or us.

If she asks about this paper, tell the truth, that I was warning you to be careful of her. We'll do whatever it takes, until we can find a way out of this. Okay?

Mom erased the last warning. Hand shaking, she pulled the paper from the clipboard, tore it into tiny pieces, reached over to the tray sitting atop an AGC, and dropped it into the glass with the remnants of her orange juice. She looked to Dre with round, brown eyes. Eyes that brimmed with tears. Fear. She took a deep shuddering breath.

Staring into those eyes, Dre took her hands in his. They were cold to the touch, but at least they stopped shaking. He ached inside with the need to tell her about Pops' holo in Void Legion. "Whatever it takes."

She squeezed his hand, if a bit weakly. "Good." Though somewhat hoarse, her voice had improved from the day when he'd first returned from playing Void Legion to find her awake. She leaned back onto the bed whose upper portion was raised at an angle for her comfort.

Dre glanced over to Kai. His little sister was sitting at the bottom of the bed with her Holotab, watching Munsters and Minions. She wore pajamas imprinted with the show's yellow and purple creatures. Giggling, she covered her mouth.

Their new accommodations, an apartment on the hundred and eightieth floor of Equitane Towers, was complete with three bedrooms, a large living room, kitchen, expensive furniture, and anything else they might need. The apartment's systems were controlled by an AI named Rachel. They even had an MX4 droid named Mariel who cooked and kept the place clean. In fact, the whiff of stew chicken emanated from the kitchen.

Yet, despite its Upper Ward location, the apartment was little more than an expensive prison.

"Mrs. Taylor," Mariel's voice called from the bedroom door.

Dre looked up. The droid was wearing a short-sleeved deep blue dress and had a white apron tied around her waist. As with all droids from MX4 models and up, she appeared almost human, particularly her synthetic skin and red hair, which was done in a bun.

"What is it, Mariel?" Mom glanced over.

"Lunch will be ready in twenty minutes, ma'am." Mariel offered a smile that showed off perfect white teeth.

"Thank you." Mom dipped her head. "We'll be along shortly."

"Yes, ma'am." Still smiling, Mariel nodded demurely, turned, and left.

Dre regarded Mom with a frown. "You sure you should be walking around?"

"I certainly don't plan on staying in bed." Mom smirked. "Besides, a little exercise would be good for me."

"Is that what the doctors said?"

Mom chuckled. "You sound like me with the questions." Stroking the top of his hand, she offered an encouraging nod. "I really meant what I said yesterday. The crash wasn't your fault. It was me who told you to drive. Praise the Lord that Alphonso's old company had someone working in the area.

"And although it was them who were involved in the accident, we might not be alive otherwise. Sometimes, what seems a curse is a blessing in disguise."

Dre stiffened at the mention of the crash. He fought back the painful memory. His shoulders sagged. He replaced his melancholy with the thought of the crash being more than a simple accident. It had been one of Sidrie's ploys.

A fire rekindled in his belly. "I know. But I can't help feeling bad. We coulda all died."

"But we didn't. Silver linings. Take them when you can."

"I'll try, Mom." Dre reached over and rubbed her round belly. "How's Regi and Rayne?"

Mom shifted her hand to below the prominent swell. She practically beamed now. "The doctors said they're healthy. Which I believe, from the way they were kicking my ass like usual this morning."

Dre cracked a smile seeing her like this. And at the idea of the twins' health. "How long until they're here?"

"Just over another month." Mom's expression grew distant. Then fresh joy creased her features. "Thinking of them makes me remember when you and Kai were babies. It also makes me want you here, not in that damned game. What did you call it again?"

"Void Legion."

Mom shook her head. "Nice name, but I still don't like it."

"But–" Dre began.

"But your gift for gaming is the reason they gave us the care we needed." Mom sighed. "The reason the twins and I are still alive. Why Kai's alive." Her gaze was on Kai, who was giggling again.

So far, Sidrie had kept her part of the deal. Dre wondered if she would do the rest. He agonized over it, had constant images of himself and Mom's deportation. Or of Mom being turned over to the Family Planning Corps for breaking the Better Tomorrow Law. He fought against those nightmare scenarios by telling himself Sidrie would keep her word. She would do the right thing.

"Why do I get the feeling that you just want to play?" Mom arched a brow.

A ghost of a smile touched his lips. "Cuz you know me. Gaming's always been part o' my life."

"Don't remind me. I once tried to talk to your father about it becoming a bad habit, but he wasn't trying to hear me."

"Bad habit might be an understatement." Dre snorted. "When I couldn't game, it was like I couldn't breathe."

Mom shook her head slightly. "And you got all moody. Pouting all the time like a big baby. When are you going back in?" Even as he made to speak, she continued, "And that's another thing I don't like... those pods you mentioned and the time you'll be gone."

"They aren't so bad." Dre shrugged. "As for when I'm going back in... I kept my part of the deal, so Sidrie's gotta keep her word and gimme at least a few days with you and Kai. But if you really don't want me to play at all, then I won't. I'd rather be here with y'all."

"So, who's the girl?" Mom abruptly switched gears, knowing brown eyes focused on him.

"Girl?" Dre frowned before he understood. "I don't know what you're talking about." Clearing his throat, he looked away from Mom.

"Is that why you can't look at me?" Mom's tone dripped with mirth. She lowered her voice. "I can smell her on you."

Dre snapped his head around, eyes wide. "Smell?"

"Her perfume." Mom wrinkled her nose. "And something else. Something I wouldn't say with your sister so near." Mom jutted her chin toward Kai.

Heat flushed across Dre's neck, face, and ears. One thing came to mind. "Nah, you can't smell... stop it." Without thinking, he sniffed but came up empty.

Mom covered her mouth, cheeks puffed up, her eyes sparkling as she tried to hold back her laughter. "I sure can. And I hope you were safe about it. Your father said he had the talk with you when you turned fifteen and again at sixteen."

"I was as safe as I coulda been." Dre remembered the talk all too well. He hoped Mom interpreted anything she saw on his face or his reactions as him telling the truth.

"It's alright." Mom sighed "I'm not mad. Even if I think you're too young. My mother had me when she was your age and I turned out fine." Dre opened his mouth. "And don't mention how you'll be seventeen in a few weeks. This day had to come sooner or later. I'd just rather it had been later. I'm not ready for grandkids. Keep that in mind."

"Yes, Mom." Dre hung his head. He couldn't believe they were having this conversation.

"What's her name?"

Dre lifted his head. "Blaze."

"Blaze? That's her real name?"

"It's what she goes by."

"A gamer like you, I suppose." Mom raised a questioning brow. He nodded. "At some point you're gonna have to let me meet her." Mom gestured toward the room. "This isn't the ideal place or situation, but it's what we've got to work with. I'd rather meet her than not."

"Yes, Mom."

"With that out of the way." A mischievous smile creased Mom's features. "I think you should go take a shower before lunch is ready."

"Alright." Blushing, he hurried off toward the bathroom, only too happy to get away from the conversation and Mom's knowing smile and eyes.

Thinking of Just Blaze got him to wondering what she was doing. His heart fluttered every time he thought about her. He felt like a big kid. If he closed his eyes, he could feel her, smell her, taste her, see her toned body, honey-colored skin, small beautiful face with a dainty chin and angled eyes. Long box braids. A picture of beauty. Exotic.

Unlike himself.

He shook his head, wondering what she'd seen in him. The only thing they had in common as far as looks would be that his skin color wasn't far off from hers. He was maybe a shade darker. More caramel. But he knew his face all too well and didn't need to look in a mirror to picture his blob of a nose and average features.

When Dre entered the bathroom, Rachel spoke. The AI's voice was soft. Melodic. "Welcome, sir. Should I run a bath or shower."

"Shower." He closed the door behind him. "And play some hip-hop. Jay-Z's album. Four four four." It was Pops' favorite classic from 2017 that Dre had grown to love.

 The first song, Kill Jay-Z, pipped into the bathroom. The music was low and clear and sounded as if it were everywhere.

"Water temperature?" Rachel chimed; her question followed by the shushing sound of the shower.

"Lukewarm." He closed the door behind him and got undressed. Immediately, the musky fetor of old sex hit him. He sighed. I knew I shoulda bathed at the hotel. But both he and Blaze had been in a hurry. Him, to return to Mom. Her, to deliver the protocol.

Remembering his hair, Dre opened a nearby linen and amenities closet, hoping to find a durag to cover his waves. There was none. With a sigh, he crossed the warm ivory-tiled floor to the large shower positioned beside the bathtub, both sectioned off and enclosed in translucent glass. He slid aside the glass door, closed it behind him, and stepped under the shower.

Jets of water shot out from the shower heads along the three walls. Relishing its warmth and soothing feel, he thought of Blaze and Void Legion as he recited the lyrics to Kill Jay-Z. He couldn't wait to get back in game and see Pops, experience SR in all its glory, and explore the wonderful world Pops had helped to build. And he was even more excited at the prospect of playing with Blaze again. He could picture her character, Gilda Mordian, even now.

"Add soap for a few moments." His voice echoed.

"Scent?" Rachel asked.

"Start with vanilla. Finish with mint."

In the next instant, the water became foamy and filled with the bouquet of vanilla. While lathering, his train of thoughts drifted to Pops' revelation that Dre was the first gameborn. He fully intended to experiment, discerning how his learning and activities in-game translated to the real world.

He had so many questions about TNT and Uncle Kim's Whole Brain Emulation work. Though himself and Pops were examples of the tech at work, Dre still found the ideas near unbelievable. They were those things you saw in a movie that you thought might always be fiction.

He couldn't begin to fathom all the applications, but the mere thought of becoming smarter, stronger, faster, and more skilled in a shorter period of time was extremely enticing. The possibilities seemed endless.

No wonder Sidrie killed for it.

He shuddered. His thoughts made him wonder about the protocol downloaded through his Two Ring. The code was there, in the back of his mind, a set of instructions he could recite despite his ignorance of the meaning or function.

He stopped lathering. Shit. The protocol. Blaze. Had she gone to deliver it already? An anxious flutter rippled through him. He prayed she hadn't. Particularly if Mom's suspicions of Sidrie's surveillance proved to be true.

He tilted his head to the side, thinking of Blaze's last few words, whispered in his ears. Did she know? He let out a slow breath, trying to drive away the dread rising within. But it lingered.

On edge, Dre hurriedly rinsed, grabbed a towel from the linen closet, and dried off. He rushed to his room with the towel wrapped around his waist. Standing in front a closet filled with clothes to fit his medium build, he chose faded denim jeans, a plain black Tee, got dressed, and headed for the dining area. He'd enjoy a quick lunch with Mom and Kai then go looking for Blaze to warn her. Her room on the floor below his would be a start.

Mom and Kai were already seated at the frosty-colored dining table. Mariel was placing dishes atop its glass surface. A righteous aroma rose from the combination of brown stewed chicken, rice and peas, and asparagus. A glass pitcher in the middle of the table was filled with sparkling water.

Dre's stomach grumbled. He licked his lips. He was on the verge of taking a seat when the doorbell chimed. "I got it, Mariel." He crossed the room, turned down the long hall, and headed for the front door, hoping it was Blaze.

Dre took a look at the holo projection hovering from a panel beside the door, displaying the hall outside. Staring directly into the camera with those dark, predatory eyes, Sidrie Malikah was standing beside a short stern-faced man in a blue suit who carried a small folder in one hand. Stomach knotting, Dre stroked his Two Ring. He had a sour taste in his mouth.

  


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