Authors: Carrie Butler
“I threw him,” Rena said, with a vacant expression.
Judy cringed. “What?”
“I told him I could do it, but he didn’t believe me. Sorry, I thought there was enough room.”
I threw her a look, and she gave me a nod to go along with it.
“Yeah,” I added, half-assedly. “It was my fault for teasing her.”
Glen walked over to inspect the damage, whistling at the doorframe. “Threw him clear through the thing, didn’t ya?” He turned and a small smile tugged at his features. “That’s my girl.”
“Glen,” Judy chided, as she busied herself dusting me off. “Now, you’re sure you’re all right, sweetie? I can get you some Tylenol, if you’d like. Or a nice piece of cake from the party. That would make you feel better, wouldn’t it? Do you like milk? How about coffee? We’ve got some of those flavored—”
“Mom.” Rena laughed. “He’s okay.”
I gave a quick nod of confirmation. “She’s right, Judy. I’m fine. Thank you.”
“If you say so…”
From there, the conversation buzzed without me. Just watching the Collins family interact was enough to put a grin on my face. I mean, their daughter destroyed part of the house—shoved me through a damn door—and no one had batted an eyelash. Rena could worry about the future all she wanted, but this was promising.
We could work with this.
Did all American airports smell like piss?
I hiked my bag up on my shoulder and surveyed the pick-up area. A guy from the labs was supposed to be around to take me to the dorms at six, and I didn’t want to miss him. What kind of first impression would that be?
“Lookin’ for a ride?”
I tightened my grip on my handbag as a guy meandered in my direction, his hands stuffed deep in his pockets. It was a wonder he could see me past that shaggy blond fringe of his. “I’m meeting someone.”
He tilted his chin at my accent, and I knew what was coming.
“Before you ask, no, I’m not”—I hooked my fingers in the air—‘the black Spice Girl.’” Yeah, I’d gotten that a few times on the plane.
His lips twitched, and I took it as my cue to walk away. Right. Brilliant conversation we had there. Time to find my lab representative.
I rose up on my tiptoes and tried to see around the throng of people. This internship was my ticket out of Preston—literally. If I wanted to land a pharmaceutical job after graduation, I needed to milk this research and development gig for all it was worth. The experience would look great on my CV.
Provided I actually make it there.
“Excuse me,” the same dodgy guy piped up, and I had to bite my tongue.
He forced himself between me and some man in a business suit. “You’re Corynn, right?” A quick flick of his wrist revealed smeared ink. “Corynn Catley?”
I froze. “Yeah?”
This time, his mouth pulled back into a full-fledged grin. “Nice to meet you.”
He slapped his hand to mine and gave it a few quick pumps. “The name’s Maverick. I’m here on behalf of R.S. Tobler Laboratories.”
Worst. Nightmare. Happening.
I played it off well enough, though. Smiled, apologized, and followed him out to the car—but all the while I was dying. How could I have been so brisk with my employer?
“My girlfriend’s driving,” Maverick announced, as he shut my luggage in the boot. “And she’s the owner’s granddaughter, so you’ll want to play nice.”
“Why wouldn’t I pla—”
“Here you go.” He opened my door, gave me a shove, and I landed in the backseat with an unladylike grunt. “Stay clear.”
“Good morning, Corynn.”
I looked up to find a frizzy, bird-like woman smiling at me in the rearview mirror. “My name is Gail Frasier, and I’ll be supervising your work this summer.”
My spine straightened of its own accord, and I tried to press the wrinkles out of my skirt. “I-It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Frasier.”
“Likewise. Please feel free to call me Gail.”
“Gail, then. Thank you.”
And off we went. The first couple of minutes prompted a near heart attack—one of those wrong-side-of-the-road reactions—but I acclimated. “So, we’re headed to the dorms, then?”
“Not just yet,” Maverick answered. “We were able to get you exchange status at Wilcox, but there’s still another month or so left in the semester. Their first vacant room won’t be ready until Friday.”
I frowned “What about until then?”
Gail waved her hand off the wheel. “Oh, you’ll stay with us at the clinic. It won’t be a problem.”
“You guys live in the clinic?”
Maverick looked at Gail, and they shared a laugh. “More like under the clinic,” he muttered. “Don’t worry. You’ll like it.”
Thank God he couldn’t see my face from this angle. “Great.”
Sleeping under a clinic? Was that commonplace in the States?
A few more minutes passed by before Gail spoke up. “Ever heard of the Nullari, Corynn?”
“That answers that question,” she said out of the side of her mouth. “Now, when we get to the clinic, the first thing you’ll do is go through orientation. Then our president will brief you on your first assignment.” Her eyes flashed in the mirror again. “How does that sound?”
“Sounds great,” I mumbled. What else could I say?
“Good.” Gail smiled. “I look forward to you becoming one of us.”
After I received my orientation packet and had my photo taken, I was sent to the president's office—where my life began to unravel.
The dimly lit room, however many feet below the building's ground floor, ensured a captive audience. I had no choice but to sit there, across from the disfigured woman who'd introduced herself as Faye Tobler, while she delivered the most farfetched speech I'd ever heard.
The Dynari, Augari, and Nullari are supernatural races that live among us
, she'd told me. Their powers were split to maintain balance in the world.
She then went on to explain her abilities and those of her relatives. Everything from power sensing to super-strength. But that wasn't the kicker. No, apparently, I belong to the last group—the Nullari—giving me some kind of wet blanket ability that cancels out everyone else's powers.
Uh huh. Just breathe. You’ve obviously gotten abducted by some kind of cult that lives beneath RSTL’s clinic. Whether or not they’re actually affiliated with the company…well, that remains to be seen. They could’ve intercepted the ema—
“It will take a while to sink in,” Faye went on, bathed in the unnatural light of her computer monitor. It tinted her gray hair blue, even though most of it was pulled back. “But I'm sure, in time, you'll come to accept your true nature. That's part of the reason we chose you, after all. To foster that ability, to help you cultivate it.”
No windows. One door. Shit. I could smash that vase over her head, but I’d never find my way out. Maybe if I keep her talking, someone will find me. The cops or an ambassador or something…
Faye folded her hands. “Of course, we’re trusting you with this information—not that the authorities would believe you, if you were to divulge our secrets. Can you imagine trying to explain the situation? Good heavens. Let’s just say we, as a company, would wholeheartedly support any suggestion to institutionalize you.”
“Right. Not to be disrespectful…” I leaned in, humoring the ridiculous notion for the sake of my own safety. “But why? What would you get out of helping me master the ability to cancel out other people's powers?”
Her reply came in the form of a twisted smile as she traced circles on the polished wood. “I was just getting to that, actually. We'd like to put your abilities to their best use, working on a private project.”
“What sort of project?”
Faye's finger hesitated mid-stroke. “I'd like you to imagine something for me, Corynn.”
I lifted my brows. “Okay?”
“Picture a world where a chosen people possess heightened senses and enhanced physical abilities,” she said. “They share a common, engineered temperament and work in the vocations they're best suited for—earning equal wages. With no fodder for petty conflicts, they enjoy an era of peace and prosperity.”
“But what about the others?” The question spilled from my lips before I could stop it.
Am I actually buying into this shit?
I shook my head. “Where would everyone else fit into this world? Especially those with…challenges.”
Understanding creased her eye, and she nodded. “You're referring to your brother, right? I’m prepared to deal with those cases, as they come.”
I flinched. “You…know about Teddy?”
Okay, not a cult. Not a random kidnapping…
“Of course I do. This organization prides itself on research. It shouldn't come as a surprise.” She tented her fingers and leaned back. “In fact, I was just thinking the other day what a shame it would be if you weren't able to fulfill your duties here. It would all be the same to me, of course. One Nullari is as good as another. But I wonder how young Theodore would adapt to such a change…”
I balled my fist, and then caught myself. No. She clearly wanted to gauge my reaction. Why else would she threaten my little brother? My fourteen year old,
brother. My nostrils flared.
You heartless bitc—
“Of course, I don't anticipate any problems between us,” she clarified, waving a hand over her desk. “Do you?”
“No.” I forced the word through gritted teeth. “I am, however, curious as to how you plan on bringing all of this into existence. It seems a little ambitious.”
“You've got grit.” She leaned in, exuding an intensity that made me want to sink down behind the desk. “I like that. We're preparing for a trial that will blend gene enhancement with supplemental brain manipulation—a scientific art we've spent decades perfecting.”
“You actually intend to experiment on humans?”
“We already have.”
My mind raced, and I couldn't stop myself from cringing. “B-But what of your government? Surely, they won't stand idly by during this usurpation. I mean, that is what this is, isn't it? Your select Dynari will seize control, and then you’ll animate the rest of us with puppet strings.”
“How would that be any different than our current administrations?” she asked, in a calm voice. “Based on
interpretation of political climates, they nip some conflicts in the bud while leaving others to fester. Based on
assessment of who will be successful, they offer financial backing.” She leaned in. “We live hand to mouth, Corynn. Our foods are regulated, our incomes are skimmed, and we're constantly at the mercy of their discretion. None of it's fair, and that's why we're starting over. A clean slate. A level playing field. We don't want to rule the world; we just want order.”
I swallowed, half-afraid to respond. Whoever these people were, whatever their true purpose, I was tucked away and at their mercy now. I had to go along with things until I found a way to keep my family safe. “Okay.”
“I feel I should explain something.” Faye drew a slight breath and rose to her feet. “Years ago, I was deeply involved in a humanitarian organization. My ambition took me overseas, to an area torn by civil unrest. Naturally, the conditions were frustrating, but it was honest work. Purifying water, improving seed variety, providing medical treatment—we were making a real difference in the lives of those people.”
Right. You and Mother Teresa.
“But it was all for naught,” she went on, lowering her voice. “Four weeks shy of my obligation, the village was taken by rebel forces. Six men stormed into our hut with guns, screaming in a tongue I barely knew, and opened fire. No questions. No time to escape.”
I recoiled at the visual. “Then, how did you survive?”
“I didn't.” She lifted her gaze toward the ceiling and trailed the perimeter of the room. “Or so it appeared. The rebels buried us in shallow graves among the villagers, days before the organization was even given word of the assault. I imagine they couldn't return right away. And of course, by the time they did, I was already gone. It wasn't safe to stick around there.”
“That's right,” I cut in. “You mentioned having some kind of healing ability, didn't you?”
“Yes, the smoke wrapped me in a protective cocoon after I was shot. It clung to me so tightly, you could barely see it at work—tending to my injuries while I drifted in and out of consciousness. Can you imagine awakening to find yourself under a mound of dirt? It was so dark and heavy, I couldn't breathe. Thankfully, I clawed my way out in the middle of the night. No one bore witness to my escape.”
I shook my head, barely able to believe what I was hearing. “So, what did you tell the organization?”
“Nothing.” She stared at me as if I were an idiot. “What could I say? That my bloodline brought me from the brink of death? That someone within their ranks wasn't human? I stole provisions under the cover of darkness and set off for the next village. A few days later, I was able to connect with some individuals who arranged for a private charter. I flew back to the States, back to my family, but I'm afraid they'd already moved on.”
I cocked my head to the side. “What?”
“I came upon my sister in bed with my fiancé. I might've had a bit of a melt-down and left without approaching them.” She waved me off. “It's ancient history, really.”
“So, I went back to my apartment, packed what I could fit into my car, and moved up here to Cleveland. It was a bigger city, a place I could get lost in for a while. I took on a new last name, started waitressing, and then I met Rudolph.”
Rudolph S. Tobler? The company's namesake? No wonder they could afford to fly me out for story time. He’s one of the wealthiest men in this country.
“He was born with several maladies,” she went on. “And as such, was confined to a wheelchair. But he rolled into that diner every day without fail, and boy, did he leave big tips behind. I learned his father owned a pharmaceutical company, and that got us talking about all sorts of things. The inherit wickedness of man, the limitations of humankind, the progression of medical breakthroughs, my own frustrations at being unable to make a difference…”
She smiled to herself and shook her head. “Eventually, we started dating, and then he proposed. When his father retired, he succeeded the company, and we suddenly found ourselves with the means to accomplish the very things we'd always dreamed of. That's how Project ERA was born, Corynn. We've spent the better half of twenty years doing research prior to this juncture—research that might someday save us all.”