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Casey Waldam

a new author

in YA science fiction
 

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From the sun-drenched streets of Riverside, California to the chilling, unfathomable void of space, unfolds a tale of love, lost memories, interdimensional war, and the relentless search for identity.

Ben Kensi, a top high school basketball player, is haunted by dreams of a green-eyed girl wielding PSI powers. When tragedy strikes heartbreakingly close, he's cast into a realm beyond our galaxy. He soon finds himself aboard the flagship of a beleaguered human civilization from another dimension—the Alliance.

As he endures grueling training and stands on the precipice of war with the dreaded Acheron, pieces of Ben's obscured past collide with his reality. The mysterious green-eyed girl transitions from a figure in his dreams to a tangible link to a history rife with love, betrayal, and powerful PSI abilities.

Yet, with Earth's very survival at stake, revelations arise that shake the core of Ben's identity. Is he truly the savior foreseen to prevent interdimensional war, or is he just a pawn in a grander scheme? As destiny's crossroads near, Ben is forced to face the ghosts of his tormented past and determine his role in the looming cosmic conflict.

In "Worldcatcher", alliances waver, hidden truths surface, and the very fabric of reality becomes questionable. Dive into an epic interstellar journey where nothing is as it seems.

 

The 5th Wave meets Divergent in this action–packed

science–fiction thriller.

Chapter 1 
  
Riverside  


At sixteen, she was born again,
baptized with a fire pale as ice.

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1

She focused her mind on the electronic lock and the small crack in its steel case. She had noticed it that morning when they took her for another MRI. They always did another scan after completing tests, wanting to see if the repeated experiments had caused any changes in the brain. In the lab, she stole one of the needles used to inject the contrast agent; taking it when no one was looking, from the table where it lay discarded among plastic containers full of drugs.

Now, lying in her cell, shrouded in darkness, she felt the rigid springs piercing through the flimsy mattress. The seconds ticked by slowly, like an insect caught in resin. Each second drew her closer to much-anticipated freedom.

Today, she would get away from this hell. She was certain it had been years since her arrival, but she couldn’t be more accurate than that. At first, there were more prisoners. She met men and women in the hallway. Led by the guards, they walked as if in a nightmare, their eyes filled with resignation. But lately, those people had vanished, and she wasn’t sure if they had been taken somewhere or killed.

She shut her eyes, waiting for the right moment.

There, she saw his face. She recalled how he put his arms around her and whispered that her eyes held a promise of happiness. Thinking about it, she felt the vicious sting of sadness. Now, instead, her eyes held the same emptiness as those of the other prisoners she once met in the hallway.

In this place, as ruthless as death itself, they were trying to vanquish her soul, day after day. But she was too tough to be crushed that way. At sixteen, she was born again, baptized with a fire, pale as ice. The same fire that took everyone she ever loved.

Everything afterwards was just a fight.

Everything except him.

He showed up unexpectedly, to save her from the burning remains of the dead world. Later, standing among the ashes, she peered into his soul. She knew he came straight from hell, but she was also sure he was never a part of it.

She opened her eyes. Darkness inside her cell wrapped around her like a velvety abyss. She knew she must act now, while a sliver of strength was still left in her sore body. She waited for the lights to go out in the hallway. Much earlier, she had discovered the guards finished their first round fifteen minutes before lights out, and the next round began an hour later. So when the weak glow trickling through the peephole disappeared, she knew the moment was right.

She sat up on the bed, pulled out the needle, and waded through the darkness toward the door. Touching the smooth surface of the lock, she found the small crack and slid the needle inside; her psionic powers guiding her. She moved the needle up, to the left, and up again. Finally, the electric latch squeaked, and the lock clicked open. She tugged on the door and a blast of cool air rushed into the room.

She held her breath and glanced at the corridor.

Quietly, she left her cell and raced toward the ward exit. She was grateful they kept her in a cell on the upper level. Had she been held captive in an underground lab – a room with huge, armored glass – she would never have had the chance to escape.

She dropped to the floor and crawled beneath the watchful eye of the corner-mounted camera. A few more steps and she reached the double doors. Shivers ran down her spine as they opened with a soft hiss of pneumatics.

She entered the second hallway and clung to the wall, listening for any guards alerted by the noise. To the right, in the darkness, the corridor led to a steel airlock and a spiral staircase plunging down to a subterranean lab. She didn't know what lay to her left, but she had a feeling there might be an exit. She went that way.

Suddenly, she sensed a guard coming from deep inside the facility. She was sure it had been less than an hour, so the man approaching could not be on a regular round. Had they discovered her escape somehow? Maybe she missed something. Did the doors have extra security she was unaware of? Maybe she’d stumbled within range of a well-hidden camera. But if that were the case, the alarm would have gone off a long time ago, and instead of one man walking toward her, there would be a swarm of guards running. Following her psionic instinct, she pressed the nearest door handle and quickly entered the small room.

There were bottles full of floor and glass cleaner piled up against a wall. Amongst them, she spotted a small blade.

She ran her finger along the edge; it was sharp.

She took the knife, closed the door, and moved on. The emergency exit sign symbolized freedom: it was right in front of her. She stopped, knowing she wouldn't have time to reach it. Her heart thundered in her chest, and the blood pumping through it pounded her veins hard.

Holding her breath, she crouched down and looked around the corner. She heard the hiss of a pneumatic door. The space filled with the sound of heavy footsteps.

Pure rage descended upon her.

The man striding down the hallway became a symbol of all her time here: merging into one long string of torture marked by injections, the touch of cold metal, and electric shocks that scorched her nerve endings.

She forced herself to remain calm and gripped the knife tightly in her hand.

When the guard came around the corner, she struck him just above the shoe, slicing through his Achilles tendon. The man screamed and dropped to the floor. She jumped on him, grabbed his dark hair, and slammed his head repeatedly on the ground, releasing her pent-up fury.

Panting heavily over his limp body, she watched as blood trickled from his battered head, before grabbing him by the legs and dragging him around the corner. She ran toward the emergency exit looming bright in the darkness.

At the door, her mind sensed an active alarm. She knew how to disable it. They didn't know, but she could read their minds. The other night, in the brain of the commanding officer, she discovered a well-remembered sequence of numbers.

She was about to find out if she had guessed correctly and if the sequence was a code to deactivate the alarm.

She lifted the plastic hood of the control panel and entered the digits. The red light darkened, replaced by a green one. When she opened the door, the cold night air enveloped her.

It smelled like freedom.

She suddenly felt as if she were home again. Memories of the smooth touch of her mother's hands and her father's soothing voice soon disappeared though, buried under the ashes of her dead world.

She closed the door behind her. There was still hope. That hope was him, the last man she’d grown close to and he lived somewhere out there.

She snapped out of her memories and ran. In the darkness, flashlights flickered menacingly behind her back. She sped up, and so did the lights. They were getting closer, swirling in the blackness like a pack of rabid dogs.

The ground sloped upward; she was just a few steps away from the fence. She scrambled toward it as three guards burst out from the bushes to her right.

She struck the first one with the heel of her hand, almost driving his nose into his brain. Blood spurted, and the man crumpled to the ground like a rag doll. The second guard grabbed her at the waist and threw her down. As she tried to strike his face, the third one smashed her head with a nightstick.

Her eyes filled with hot liquid – blood. Another blow. There was no pain, only numbness and regret, suffocating all hope.

She wouldn't make it after all.

The guards dragged her back to the subterranean lab with metal walls. Inside, they threw her onto the table. Its familiar cold plunged her back into despair. Doctors dressed in white scrubs sewed up the bleeding wound on her forehead and administered several injections. Then they plastered her head with sensors, tossed their bloodied gloves into the bins in the corner, and left.

Disoriented and weakened by drugs, she looked at them through the large window. She saw her face in the glass; a faint shadow of the old days. Somewhere deep within this shadow, she sensed his presence.

Her thoughts broke free from this metal hell and soared through space.

Straight to him.

"Ben," she whispered. "Help me."

 

2

 

The annoying buzz woke him up. He opened his eyes, and only after a moment did he realize where he was. Despite the shutters being closed, searing rays of sunlight forced their way into the room. Slowly, he sat up on the bed, dragged a hand over his face, and hit the alarm clock on the nightstand.

“Shut up,” he mumbled.

The clock’s buzz died, but his head was still throbbing. It started at the back of his skull and radiated through his temples, attacking them like a jackhammer.

Then he remembered his dream. A wide windowpane made of armored glass. An examination table and a cold flash of stainless steel. A girl, lying there. Her whisper: “Ben, help me.”

Stupid hallucinations, he thought. He shook his head as if it could help dislodge the nightmares that had haunted him for the last couple of weeks.

He remembered her green eyes. They promised happiness.

He was sure of it, but he couldn’t remember why. His memory only went back two years; from when he woke up in a hospital in downtown LA. His past stripped from him.

He left the bed and surveyed the room. Despite yesterday’s cleaning, it was a mess. Crumpled trousers lay on the floor next to a sweatshirt and socks. His desk, again buried under a ton of books, demanded attention. He picked up his jeans from the floor and searched the pockets. He found his smartphone and checked his messages.

Additional training. At 12:30. Remember? Santiago: the captain of the basketball team and a friend.

His thumbs danced across the screen. No worries, I remember.

The sounds of everyday hustle and the smell of fresh coffee flowed up the stairs through the half-open door and attacked his senses. It was 7 a.m. His parents were getting ready for work. He knew he had to get ready too. He opened his closet door: shirts, blazers, and sweaters were piled on the shelves in one giant mess, magically keeping their balance. He dressed and sat on the bed to put on yesterday’s socks and shoes.

The face of a ten-year-old appeared in the doorway. She had shoulder-length blonde hair, and her eyes twinkled playfully. Her cheeks were dotted with light-brown freckles, looking like specks of foam on a freshly brewed espresso.

“Are you getting up? Maybe you need some help?” She smiled innocently.

“This time you won’t escape me, Ann!” He jumped off the bed, pretending to chase after her.

The girl’s head vanished. “Come downstairs, Ben!” she yelled, laughing. “Mom’s just finishing the pancakes.”

Jesus, not pancakes, not again, he thought, clutching his still throbbing head. That’s the third time this week.

In the bathroom, Ben washed his face with cold water. He noticed the tiny droplets running down his face when he looked in the mirror. Watching them, he felt like something was expanding in his head. Some unclear thoughts, like gray spots, slowly took shape and color. He wondered if there was something wrong with him.

Or maybe with the world he lived in.

He took his backpack and rushed downstairs. Next to the kitchen door, he found Chris, his foster father, standing in front of a mirror in the hallway. He was over six feet tall, dark-haired, and had a neatly trimmed beard. He was busy tying his gray tie, which didn’t match his shirt.

“What’s up, Ben? Are you ready to stand your ground today?” Chris asked, looking sideways at him.

Ben was sure this day would be like a day on a battlefield, especially during morning classes with Mrs. Hudson. “Yeah.” He couldn’t muster up too much enthusiasm. “Are there any painkillers left?”

Concern flashed in Chris’s eyes. “Another rough night?” he asked. “Or was the party too hard?”

Ben’s visit to Mike’s last night had run a little late, but not so late as to cause another odd dream and a migraine.

“Rough night,” he replied.

Chris pulled the slimmer end of the tie through the knot. “Your medicine’s in the kitchen,” he said, finishing with his tie.

The TV hanging over the countertop was filled with the face of a presenter reporting on yesterday’s robbery in some city in Central Valley. Her dark eyes blazed as she described how some lunatic shot people dead in the local bank. You could die at any moment. On the street, in a hospital bed, or like those people in a bank, on the receiving end of a madman’s bullet. But lately, there had been an escalation in this madness. It was almost as if the approaching summer was making everyone crazy.

The kitchen smelled like pancakes and freshly brewed coffee. Lindsay, Ben’s foster mother, was bustling about at the counter. She put the frying pan into the sink, dried her hands with a tea towel, folded it neatly, and placed it back on the countertop.

“How are you, boy?” she asked with a low voice. “You have one of your headaches again?”

“Mike and I played The Last Defender for too long,” he lied, trying to avoid another health-related lecture. He rifled through the medicine cabinet and found a pack of prescription painkillers.

“Not now,” Lindsay called as she set up the dishes in the dining room. “Take them after breakfast; otherwise, they’ll burn your stomach out of your belly.”

“Sure,” he said, tossing the pill into his mouth.

“Could you pass me the silverware,” she asked.

Ben retrieved the cutlery from the pantry, and brought them over to Lindsay. Coffee cups, glasses, and plates already lay on the dining table, glittering in the sunshine like a formation of brave soldiers.

“Ann, Chris, where are you?” Lindsay called out, surveying her work with satisfaction.

Ben heard someone dashing down the stairs; one step creaking slightly louder than the others. Ann stormed into the kitchen, breathless.

“Let’s eat. Clock’s ticking,” Chris said, patting Ann’s head tenderly.

After breakfast, Ann went back upstairs to pack up for school. Ben lingered, wanting to help Lindsay carry the plates to the sink.

“You better get going or you’ll be late again. You’re still on the hook at school,” she said, giving Ben a worried look.

“I’m going, I’m going,” he said, feeling around under the table for his backpack.

The last few months of his life had not been a success story. At school, he was constantly getting into trouble: coming in late, arguing with his teammates, and receiving reprimands from teachers. Principal Hamersfield had told Lindsay that Ben was close to the point of no return, and crossing it would result in suspension.

“Do you have practice today?” Chris called from the hallway.

“Yeah, half past twelve,” Ben said as he shouldered his backpack and wandered into the hall. “I’ll be back later. We’ll go to Albert’s.” Chris was standing next to a small table, rifling through the contents of his new leather briefcase.

“Okay, fine,” he said. “You know, I’m still worried about your migraines. You seem to be getting them more and more often.”

“No, I don’t.” Ben disagreed a little too vigorously. “It’s just the stress at school,” he followed up, lowering his voice.

Chris sighed, put some papers into the briefcase, and locked it. “True. I know you’ve had a lot on your plate lately with basketball, exams, prom. But if this continues, we’ll consult a specialist.”

Lindsay must have heard their conversation because she suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Those might be the side effects of the accident,” she said, wiping a coffee mug with a tea towel.

“Why make a big deal out of it?” asked Ben. “Let’s wait. Everything might go back to normal.”

Two years ago, after the accident in LA, he’d consulted specialists. The doctors could only confirm amnesia caused by a head injury. He had no intention of letting that nightmare happen again. So, he was grateful when Ann came running down the stairs, saving him from the painful conversation.

“I missed the bus,” she panted, leaping off the last three steps. “Can you drop me off at school?”

Ben took her by the hand and pulled her toward the front door. “Don’t worry, you little devil,” he assured her. “We’ll get there in time.”

When they were outside, the April sun forced them to squint. Their parents’ Chrysler was parked next to a yew tree on the concrete driveway. Ben’s old Dodge stood right behind it.

“You’ll be late for school because of me,” Ann said.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” He was trying hard to make his voice sound carefree. “I’ve got government class in the morning. It’s so dull that some folks pick their noses and roll boogers.”

Ann’s mouth twisted with disgust. “Now, I won’t be able to eat my lunch,” she complained.

Ben gave her a wink. “You’ll give it to one of your many admirers.”

Ann blushed so fiercely that her freckles almost disappeared. Ben laughed and opened the Dodge’s door. “Hop in,” he said.

He started the car and headed toward Clifford Lane. A silver Ford Taurus appeared suddenly in the rearview mirror when Ben stopped at the junction. Three strange guys with clean-cut hair were inside the vehicle.

After dropping Ann off at school, Ben drove on to Central Pacific High School. He was already late and had to cruise around the parking lot for a space. He finally found an empty spot, parked, and raced across the lawn.

Suddenly, he felt an odd sensation, like he was being watched. He stopped just before the main entrance. He glanced over his shoulder in time to see a car driving off. The driver punched it, and the vehicle disappeared around the corner of Scholar Drive.

It was a silver Ford Taurus.

Ben entered the hallway and saw Paul sitting at the security station. The beefy Black man was the school’s security guard. He was both amused and displeased. “You’re late again,” he stated. “You’re going to get it eventually.”

“This is the last time, I promise,” Ben replied with a smile, bounding up the stairs three at a time.

Meanwhile, the silver Taurus circled back to the school and parked near a house enclosed by a tall brick wall.

 

 

 

3

 

The Observation Center was divided into three main zones. The first zone featured a massive screen that stretched over thirty yards, accompanied by a control panel consisting of a dozen sections. Ten technicians worked the night shift, hunched over the controls. The second zone, filled with empty analysts’ desks, housed the command post. The third zone comprised a small gallery lined with a metal railing, where officers gathered to observe essential operations.

Today at the OC, in addition to the night-shift staff, Ronejson and Brand were also present. They sat at the command post, towering over the rest of the positions, talking and occasionally glancing at the screens. The only sources of light in the dark room was the soft shimmer of the skirting lights and colorful announcements displayed on the consoles of the technical posts.

Ronejson, commanding Central, was taller, slimmer and older than Brand. He had a clean-shaven head that glistened in the glow of the large screen hanging before them. An hour ago he had received an urgent message from Ebba causing him to abandon reading routine reports and instead meet with Brand in the OC.

“As I said, Ebba has picked up massive Acheron activity around this boy from Riverside,” Ronejson said, pointing at a screen. The video showed a teenager stepping out of a two-story house on the outskirts of Riverside. He looked about eighteen years old, six feet tall, with brown hair, blue jeans, and a white T-shirt. A small girl in a yellow dress walked beside him. Hand in hand, they climbed into a navy-blue Dodge, and drove off.

Brand folded his arms and leaned toward the screen, the sleeves of his uniform stretched tight over his massive arms. He pointed at the silver Ford Taurus following the Dodge.

“It’s them?” he asked, squinting his blue eyes. The scar on his forehead narrowed into a thin line.

“Yes,” Ronejson said. “Yesterday, the Sentients detected Acheron agents near the house. We just had no idea who their target was.”

“You sure they want the kid? Maybe they’re after the girl,” Brand suggested.

“Look, they followed him after he dropped her off at school. So, it’s him,” Ronejson confirmed.

The screen displayed a busy street, and the top-right corner read, “Riverside aerial view.” Both cars were crawling through the morning traffic. The Dodge drove first in the middle lane, with the silver Ford three cars behind it.

“Do we know anything about him?” Brand asked.

Ronejson wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead and opened a file on the computer. The screen displayed the photograph of the boy, and some basic data. “We’ve dug this out from the Census Bureau,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s not much.”

 

Name: Ben Kensi

Age: 18

No criminal record. In foster care for two years.

Attends: Central Pacific High School.

Foster parents: Lindsay and Chris.

Foster sister: Ann.

Biological parents: Unknown.

Previous residence: St. Albert’s Children’s Home, Los Angeles, California.

“They’re following some regular boy from the suburbs,” Brand commented. “Maybe we should put him under surveillance and see what comes out?”

“We’re short on people,” Ronejson said. He was staring at the screen, thinking about how little time he had to prevent the apocalypse. His brow was covered with sweat again. He was debating internally whether he should keep his staff from their critical duties and let them supervise some insignificant teenager.

 The Dodge entered the parking lot. The Ford tailing it stopped across from the school.

 “Okay, let’s try,” he said at last.

 

4

 

Ben paused for a moment in front of classroom 23 to catch his breath. He was late again. He thought about Mrs. Hudson but didn’t care about the consequences of her anger. For the past few days, he’d felt dazed. School, test results, his friends—all these things seeming to determine his fate didn’t matter to him anymore. He felt like a tourist passing through a city he had never seen before. Like someone who lost himself in a crowd of strangers. The place held his interest, but it was foreign. He would soon be gone, leaving this world and these people behind. Memories would fade away and disappear. It was just a quick stop on a long journey.

To where? He had no idea.

He turned the doorknob and stepped inside. The students collectively raised their heads as if on cue. Beyond, through the large picture windows, he could see the school football team practicing on the field. Mrs. Hudson stood next to her desk. Her black hair, shining in the morning sun, cascaded down her shoulders. She turned away from the whiteboard, where she had been writing the main features of the American electoral system. Ben glanced at the scribblings covering the white surface. Government, he thought, a class for people who think they can rule the world.

“Mr. Kensi, come on in,” Hudson said in a high-pitched voice. “How nice of you to finally grace us with your presence.”

“I’m sorry. There was a terrible traffic jam,” Ben said, feeling he was digging himself deeper.

“These excuses are not helping you, young man.” Mrs. Hudson shook her head. “Now sit down and don’t disturb your classmates any further.”

The mood in the classroom eased, and everyone turned back to the whiteboard. Ben walked past a few empty desks and sat next to Mike, his good friend. Laura Jackson, the most popular girl in school, sat in front of Mike. He always chose the desk right behind her. He considered her his girlfriend, but Ben wasn’t sure if Laura shared that opinion.

Mike and Ben had been friends ever since Ben arrived at the school. Even though Mike came from a wealthy family, he had never looked down his nose at anyone. When Ben sat down on the firm plywood chair, Mike looked at him, incredulous.

“What the hell are you doing?” Surprise mixed with concern in his brown eyes. “You’re late again. You can’t just slack off at the end of high school.”

Ben shrugged. “So what? It’s not a big deal. I don’t know why this old bat has it out for me,” he whispered. “Besides, I don’t care. I had to drop Ann off at school and didn’t get much sleep.”

“You had that dream again? Listen, man, this isn’t normal.”

Ben had told Mike about the nightmares haunting him. How, at first, he was only wandering through what looked like an abandoned hospital. And how later, the visions grew longer and more precise. The night before, he had seen the girl lying behind a huge window for the first time.

“You’re right,” Ben agreed, touching his temples.

Despite the aspirin, his head still throbbed. When he closed his eyelids, he recalled the girl’s eyes. He could not stop thinking about the one question filling his mind. Who is she?

“If I were you, I’d get myself checked out,” said Mike.

“I’m not crazy, man. You sound just like my parents.”

Raising his voice was a mistake. Mrs. Hudson must have heard the last sentence because she paused and looked at him. “That’s enough, Ben!” she said. “You’ve been late repeatedly, and now you talk during my class. You’re weeks away from graduation, the most important time in every young person’s life. You should focus on your future, not waste your final weeks on nonsense.”

Everyone froze.

“At noon, you will report to Principal Hamersfield,” Hudson continued.

“But we have practice…” Ben began.

“Too bad. You’ll have to be late. But I’m sure you’ll be able to explain that to coach. You’ve had plenty of experience.”

 

 

5

 

After morning classes, Ben found himself waiting outside the principal’s office. He was eager to join his team on the court and frustrated at being kept waiting. While he bided his time, he imagined his teammates warming up without him. The clock on the wall kept ticking, but the brown office door remained closed.

Fifteen minutes later, Ben finally had the honor of a private audience. Mr. Hamersfield sat behind a massive wooden desk. He was a lanky man with dark-brown skin which contrasted sharply with his gray hair. Behind his glasses, his eyes held a look of helplessness.

“According to Coach McFarley, you’re the star of our basketball team,” he said. “Congratulations. Mrs. Hudson told me you’ve been attending extracurricular classes, Government?”

Ben nodded.

“Are you taking these lessons because you want to be a lawyer?” the principal asked.

“I keep asking myself the same question,” Ben replied.

Hamersfield played with the file folder on his desk, which he had taken from one of the gray cabinets standing behind him. The cabinets towered over the room, stretching from the floor to the ceiling. Ben’s surname began with K, so the folder had to be in one of the bottom drawers. To get it out, Hamersfield didn’t have to use the metal stepladder standing in the corner.

The principal opened the folder. “What do your foster parents say?” he asked.

“Chris insists that I become a lawyer, and Lindsay supports his opinion.”

“You should be thanking them. Do you realize how much they’ve helped you?”

“Oh, I am grateful to them,” Ben said.

“Then why are you sabotaging all their efforts? You’re constantly late, and your grades are slipping. You’ve just turned eighteen, so you should be considering your future role in society.”

Ben didn’t answer. Suddenly, he thought the file cabinets looked like sinister creatures, as if they were hiding an awful past that shouldn’t be exposed.

Hamersfield briefly examined the papers from Ben’s file, including his report cards, teachers’ opinions, and medical records from Los Angeles.

“I agree you’ve been through a lot during the last couple of years,” Hamersfield admitted, “but I also believe that you must take your life seriously. I think it’s best if the four of us meet: you and I and your foster parents. It would be a perfect opportunity to discuss your recent behavior and its long-term consequences.”

The principal looked through his leatherbound calendar. “I’ll see you next Monday,“ he said. “In my school, nobody gets special treatment, so if you don’t change your behavior, don’t expect to attend prom. And if you continue to skip classes, I’ll be forced to suspend you.”

After his conversation with the principal, Ben was surprised by how insignificant the threats sounded. He couldn’t care less about them. They were like blanks – powerless. All he could think about was his last dream. He couldn’t understand why, but he had a strange feeling he knew the girl with the light hair.

He blended into the crowd of students. Juniors mixed with seniors. Fear faced routine; curiosity met boredom. He noticed a group of seniors, including Alan and Jason from his history class. Alan waved at him with a long, bony hand.

“Hey!” he yelled. “I heard the old man called you into his office again.”

Bad news travels fast, Ben thought.

“I had a little run-in with Hudson,” he admitted. “She set Hamersfield against me.”

“It’s like the third time this semester,” Jason said with a hint of genuine worry in his voice. “She must be sick of you.”

“It takes guts to pull off something like that right before graduation,” Alan said.

“What did that old goat threaten you with this time?” asked Jason.

“Suspension,” said Ben.

“You messed up big time, man.” Jason chuckled nervously and nibbled at his thumb. “Did he call in your parents?”

“Yeah, next Monday.” The whole conversation was irritating Ben. “I’ve gotta go,” he said, seeing the crowds of students begin to disappear behind classroom doors. “Otherwise coach will kill me.”

He waved them goodbye and headed toward the gym. In the locker room filled with benches and the smell of sweat, he changed into red shorts, a T-shirt, and high-top basketball shoes and ran out to the gym. The guys were in the middle of training, and Coach McFarley was standing on the sideline, supervising.

“Sorry I’m late, Coach, but I was called to the principal’s office!” Ben shouted, trying to be heard over the crash of bouncing balls.

McFarley frowned and glanced at his watch. Then he looked at Mike and Santiago, who were practicing passing.

“Get to work!” he screamed. “You better improve your accuracy, or you can kiss your dreams of the finals goodbye!” He looked at Ben like he was seeing him for the first time. “What are you waiting for? Get your ass to the court!”

Ben ran into the group without a word. He took off, dribbling the ball and cut to the basket, finishing with a two-point throw. Playing as a point guard, Ben seemed to have an uncanny ability to anticipate his opponents’ moves, while the others were still trying to think ahead, plan, or predict. He didn’t have to wonder whether the offense would play on the right or left or maybe down the middle. He didn’t understand how, he just knew where his opponent would be. After last year’s finals, even McFarley, who wasn’t a very forthcoming man, said they would have never secured first place in the division without him.

After a few more minutes of warm-up, the coach whistled twice. “Get to the sidelines, all of you!” he roared over the noise from the floor. When everyone had taken their places, he started to explain tactics. He had drawn out each play and assigned tasks. They were preparing for this year’s county finals in a few weeks.

This would be the last game of Ben’s high school career. It was surprising how little regret he felt after realizing this. Instead, he had the recurring feeling he should be doing something more important in an entirely different place.

A firm nudge from Mike snapped him out of his daydream. He nodded at McFarley. The coach had just finished explaining the tactics and was glaring at Ben expectantly.

“Kensi!” McFarley yelled. “I see your talk with Mr. Hamersfield had no bearing on you. Would you like to repeat the experience?”

“No, Coach,” Ben replied.

“Then I need you to focus! You’ll lead the green team. Mike will be the captain of the blue. First, we’ll practice zone defense. Then, we’ll move on to man-to-man, according to the layout I just drew. Questions?”

“No, Coach!” they called out in unison.

“Let’s go!” McFarley clapped his hands.

Mike ran up to Ben and gave him a high five. “After the game, we’re going to Albert’s. You wanna come?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Okay, but the loser pays.”

“Then you better have money, smartass,” Ben said and ran out onto the floor.

Chapter 2   

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They took everything from me,

and I’ll become a beast if that’s what it takes

6

Even though it happened a long time ago, she still remembered everything as clearly as if it were yesterday.

The thunderous crash of water.

The salty smell of the air and dark clouds moving across the faraway horizon.

She remembered, the trail pierced through a dense forest, along which she had to trudge with Ben, toward the ocean hidden behind the trees. Birds sang in the swaying treetops, flowers were blooming, and the air smelled so sweet that each breath made her dizzy.

“It's so beautiful. I wish I could stay here forever,” she told Ben when they reached the cliff.

“I wouldn’t mind that,” he said, so quietly she could barely hear him over the roar of the waves.

Below, water splashed over the rocks and burst skyward in a spray of white droplets.

“Every time we come here, I get the feeling we’re like those waves.” She pointed at the rough water. “We rush toward an invincible force that will turn us to pieces, just like the drops.”

“Faith plays with us like a mad god.” Ben gazed at her with the sore look she knew so well from the mirror every morning. “And yet, there’s no price I wouldn’t pay for your world to exist again.”

She looked at the green wall of trees and high mountains hovering above them.

“That world is a thing of the past,” she said, feeling the pain, cold as the ice wind, chilling her to the bone. “My brother died in there, and I couldn’t even bury his body. Sometimes, at night, when I can’t sleep, I feel like I’ll meet him in the kitchen. Mom will make breakfast, and then we'll go to school. But I know they're all dead, and I’m left with nothing but hate.”

She couldn't tear her eyes from the mountaintops, keeping her apart from the place she used to call home. Shadow and dust, that’s all that was left of her previous life. Later, while stepping through the ruins, she couldn’t accept that all it took was just a few seconds for everything she ever loved to turn into a valley of ashes.

“Don't say that,” Ben whispered. “It’s what they want, to take us down and turn us into beasts just like them.”

“They took everything from me, and I’ll become a beast if that’s what it takes.”

“But I’m still with you.” Ben put his arm around her.

“Do you love me?”

“I do.”

Lightning flashed among the dark, distant clouds. A sudden gust of wind brought the smell of an incoming storm. “When I think of what’s happened to us, I get the feeling that love no longer counts,” she confessed.

The boy went silent, watching the waves.

“I still believe in love,” he said after a while. “And I am sure that, in the end, love is what will save us all.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. "Do you think we still have a chance?"

Salty droplets lashed at their faces with each gust of wind.

“Yes. But we must fight hard for all the people we’ve lost, and those we’ll yet lose.”

His words comforted her but also made her think of her mother, and she felt the touch of grief. The ocean roared woefully, like a dying animal. She looked at the darkness, massing where the water met the sky. Maybe her mother was waiting there with all the others, who were taken by the dark.

“We’ll fight for each other,” she said, touching Ben’s cheek as if she was trying to shield him from the storm. “The dead don’t need us anymore.”

The boy kissed her hand.

“You know, sometimes I wonder what’ll happen when they track us down. And what I see fills me with fear,” she said.

“I swear to you, we won’t get caught,” Ben assured her. “Just say you trust me.”

“You think you’re unbreakable, but you’re the same as we all are. Easy to hurt.”

“Say it!”

“I trust you,” she whispered at last. Listening to the ocean, they hugged each other until the sun went down and the storm finally arrived.

She snapped out of the memories and came back to reality.

She was in the underground lab, strapped to a metal table to one side she could see a massive panoramic window. The cold pierced through the paper-thin shirt they had dressed her in the previous night. Her head and chest were covered in sensors. Their wires curled around like a swirl of snakes. She’d spent the whole day there. Her only companions were monitors and the guard, who came down every hour to see if she was still alive.

The air reeked of ozone. The machines buzzed monotonously, and their screens cast grotesque, colorful shadows. Her bashed-in head hurt like hell. The bandage they put on was now soaked with blood, slowly dripping down her cheek.

Lately, she kept thinking back to the time she spent with Ben. His absence became an unbearable void, making her feel dead inside.

A few days ago, something changed.

It was like a flash.

Suddenly, she uncovered Ben telepathically in Riverside. Her happiness was as great as the despair she felt when she thought she had lost him forever. Her hope renewed, she had tried to escape from the facility the day before. Her attempt failed, and she was certain she would never escape without Ben's help. That’s why, after she woke up, she sought to reach him again. But the answer never came back, leaving her with one nagging question: Why?

Was he too far away to be summoned? Or maybe there was another reason?

Once again, she tried to free her hands from the restraints. The only result was the screeching of the leather straps mixing with the buzz of the diagnostic equipment. She raised her head and looked at her hands. She noticed a dark print on the white sleeve of her gown: 934, a prison number she knew well.

“934, cooperate or die!” She remembered Gorendrin’s odious screams. “No one will ever know where we’ve buried your body!”

The flashback roused her anger, and it grew into a rage. I’m not a number. My name is Chloe, she thought, recalling the joy when her mom used to say it.

She thought of death, which had chased her like a shadow. First, it took away those she loved, and now it was hiding around the corner, waiting for the right moment to take her.

“I won’t give up!” Chloe growled. “I will survive!”

She cleared her mind, squeezed her eyes shut, and once more sent her thoughts to Ben.

    ... 

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW WHO BEN AND CHLOE ARE?

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