They rolled together like waves crashing on a rocky shore. White waves of white noise. If I squinted at a woman’s lips, I could make out the word Phantom. It was repeated so often I could believe it was the only one spoken, an unceasing, eerie murmur of “Phantom, Phantom, Phantom. . . .”
My gaze passed over the sea of faces saying Phantom in rushing whispers that made the air hiss like wind tearing through wild grasses. Eyes bored through me while I stood still, blinded by quick, bright flashes from cameras. Dizziness created fuzzy edges; that last blow to the head had rattled my brain. Time was a curious clash of too slow and too fast—people trailing by at a crawling speed but appearing as nothing more than a blurred streak of motion in my vision.
Behind me, the stark white spire of City Hall’s clock tower stabbed the cobalt sky. The building was set at the back of an open cobblestone plaza flanked on either side by a covered walkway along the fronts of shops and cafés. Cables stretched across the plaza, suspending lights above our heads; at night you’d swear they were floating. The far side of town square was penned in by a row of trees separating the central fountain from Main Street.
The plaza was large enough to host several thousand, and City Hall’s portico formed a perfect stage for a speaker to stand atop the steps and address a crowd. Today, though no event was scheduled, the square was packed.
I was the one standing on the portico.
The people watched me warily, as if I’d suddenly transformed into an unrecognizable animal that might attack at any moment. Today, I was, whether I wanted to be or not, the center of attention.
A sleek black vehicle had been parked near the portico steps. It was an armored truck, the back completely enclosed from the cab to keep anyone or anything secure. The back doors had been thrown open, waiting to swallow a victim. On either side of me stood a man dressed in white. My two guards were bigger than me in every aspect—height, bulk, strength. But to be fair, I’d never been the strongest or tallest in my grade: an average-sized teenager, lean and lanky while my coordination caught up to my growth spurt, and I noticed this now more than ever in the shadows of these sturdy, broad-chested men.
They’d taken one person away. I didn’t know her name, probably never would. She’d already killed at least five innocent people by the time I realized I couldn’t stay in hiding and let anyone else die. I’d known it was a bad idea to act with Agent Kovak in town, but there had been no choice.
I’d lain low for as long as possible. I was just a few feet away from her when I donned my mask and uncapped the warm power in my core that made my eyes glow—one green, one blue. By the time she sensed me in her range, I’d already thrown the first punch.
In retrospect, I suppose I should have handled it differently. I should have ended the fight quicker, but I’d managed all these months without killing anyone. I didn’t want to start today. Would it have been so wrong to kill a killer? Surely God would have forgiven me.
But I didn’t. I held back. I gave her a chance to return to her home Realm, and she seized that opportunity to slam my head into the wall hard enough to blacken the edges of my vision. I didn’t actually see the shot that downed her, but it must have come from Agent Kovak’s ectogun. His men were on us like a swarm.
She spat, cursed, and kicked when they dragged her into the back of another black vehicle. Nobody stopped them. I wasn’t sorry when the men closed the doors on her blood-splattered face and drove away. The only reason I was still here right now and not on my way to God-only-knew-where was I had loved ones fighting for me.
The cords cut into my skin, restricting the circulation to leave my hands cold and tingling. I curled and straightened my fingers. Focus on the numbness. Don’t focus on the crowd, the voices, the cameras. Focus on the little details. That was all I could do to keep my head from spinning.
I felt . . . strange. Empty. Like every bit of warmth and substance in my core had been scooped out and all that was left of me was a hollow shell since the Agents secured this metal band around my upper arm. When they’d found me lying on the ground, they had yanked my right arm back so hard I was sure the socket would pop. I was still reeling from the pain when they jammed the neutralizer over my biceps and twisted it into place before hauling me to my feet.
Now, I couldn’t concentrate. My thoughts were scrambled. My body was drained.
I shifted my weight, and the men tensed. Where did they think I was going to run? I doubted I could even walk in a straight line. I glanced up at them, but they resolutely stared ahead and refused to meet my gaze.
I’d like to say I’d been in worse situations, but at the moment none came to mind. That was okay, though. This was just a huge misunderstanding. I couldn’t be in trouble; I hadn’t done anything wrong. Technically. Yes, I made mistakes, but it wasn’t like I ever broke the law—just told a few lies. Okay, big lies, but last time I checked, that wasn’t illegal.
The girl standing at the front of the crowd made my heart skip a beat. She was the only still person in this motion-sickness blur of forms. Her emerald eyes were trained on my face, looking at someone she thought she knew and now realized was a total stranger. I had the sudden, ridiculous, and—given the current circumstances—inappropriate thought that I’d never kissed her. Now I’d probably never have the chance.
People continued to murmur droning waves of nonsense while they snapped pictures of me, their unmasked hero, the freak who had been hiding among them pretending to be normal. A few angry, desperate voices rose above the rest, perfectly clear over the white noise because I’d known them since birth. “He was born human!” Mom cried, her voice cracking with strain. “He should be protected by human rights!”
Agent Kovak shook his head while adjusting the shades on his nose. “Humans can’t do the things your son can. And ghosts, as you well know, have no rights in this Realm.”
“But he’s half! That should count for something!”
Kovak bared his teeth in what might pass as a cruel smile. “It doesn’t.”
“But I can prove he’s human! I have his birth certificate!”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said with a casual shrug. “Last time I checked, humans couldn’t turn invisible and walk through walls. He’s not human anymore.”
I caught my breath. No. No, he was wrong. I’d lived my human life in the Human Realm. I kept my jaw clenched so tightly it hurt to ensure no words could escape, though all I wanted to do was scream.
Screaming is bad.
Oh, my head hurt. “I have to take him . . .” Kovak was saying.
I swayed, and the men on either side grabbed me with rough hands to hold me up. Mom cursed—something I’d rarely heard in the fifteen years of my life—and shot back a vile retort at Kovak. As they argued, my eyes followed my sister sneaking behind my guards. She slid something into my pocket.
“Don’t forget,” she whispered.
The Agents noticed her and yanked her away from me with enough force to make her yelp. “Hey!” I took a hostile step.
They turned in on me, and then wordlessly, each grabbed an arm and hoisted me up. The blurry, slow-motion time frame snapped back into real-time the moment my soles left the concrete. They were carrying me toward the armored vehicle. The doors were still open. Waiting.
“No!” I kicked and squirmed, just as desperate to avoid that vehicle as the woman before me. I’d rather be in handcuffs in a police cruiser; at least I’d know what to expect in a normal human prison, and I’d know I have rights. “Wait! Wait! Mom! What’s happening?”
“Shut up,” the one on my left growled. They threw me inside.
“Cato!” Mom called.
“What will you do to him?” my sister asked as she backed out of their way.
Agent Kovak turned his back on Mom. One of his men pushed her to her knees, twisting her arms behind her. Kovak strolled to the truck to gaze greedily down upon me, as though I were a rare treasure he’d unearthed. He smiled. “Whatever we want.” He lowered his voice, his next words meant for me alone. “You, my young friend, are going to make my career.”
I rolled over and pushed myself onto my elbows just in time to see Mom twist free and shove Agent Kovak away. “I’ll come get you, Cato! Be strong. I’ll get this mess straightened out.”
I trusted her. I was scared, but soon, I hoped, this ordeal would be over. I’d have to face a flood of consequences, but I’d rather do that than endure an interrogation and likely dissection under Agent Kovak’s steely watch.
The doors were closing. A surge of panic shot through me, a petrifying fear that this would be the last time I saw their faces. “Wait!” I yelled again.
“I love you!” my sister called out. “Don’t ever forget!”
With a slam, the outside world vanished, and I was sealed away in absolute darkness.
Two years later . . . .
Chapter One: Wind
The truck jolted, sending the cages sliding into each other. I gritted my teeth and squeezed my eyes shut, as if that might somehow quell the pain that ripped my head apart.
It didn’t. Nothing could, and They never gave me any drugs to numb the never-ending headaches. I’d swear I could still feel the thick needles of the neural monitoring system penetrating the ports in my skull. The NMS was Their favorite experiment. It was my nightmare—my freedom and manacle, the price that must be paid to be allowed in the Arena.
What I wouldn’t give to be standing in the Arena now with Jay, RC, and Ash. My joints ached, muscles stiff, and my body tingled with a numbness brought on by limited blood circulation in this cruelly small cage. I rubbed the round ports spanning across my forehead and tried to focus my thoughts on something—anything—other than my current predicament. I could pray, but I’d lost my faith in God a long time ago.
The truck lurched, drawing a grunt from my throat. The motion exacerbated the throbbing in my head. Lucky Axel for being sedated through this nightmare. I exhaled, curling my fingers through locks of hair, twisting, pulling until the tiny pinpricks of pain that sparked across my scalp lessened the deeper pounding ache. I needed to focus on something, but I had nothing, not even memories. Trying just frustrated me; my recollection of my old life had been ripped slowly from my consciousness over time by the NMS. All that remained were murky fragmented glimpses.
I opened my eyes and studied the dim interior. The last time I was in a truck, I was alone, my hands tied in front of me while I cowered in the dark. This time, I was not bound, just caged. And I wasn’t alone.
The others were dozing, except the twins. They blinked at me in the darkness, their blue eyes aglow. Axel, who was locked in the metal container next to me, had been so heavily dosed with tranquilizers that he’d be out for hours. Next to him, a muzzled black-and-white kitten was crammed into the tiniest cage. Her fragile body rose and fell with the quick, shallow breaths of a nightmare as she flexed her claws.
I could hear wind. The Outside was just on the other side of the truck’s wall. I’d never been so close to it, and the dismal reality that I couldn’t smell the fresh air made me feel cheated. One breath, that was all I wanted. Air that wasn’t sterilized and stale.
I wasn’t cold, but I shivered anyway and wrapped my arms around my bare torso, trying to remember the comfort of an embrace. Unless I was in the Arena, all I was allowed to wear were black sweatpants and the neutralizer band around my right biceps. Sometimes I couldn’t even wear sweatpants.
They weren’t watching us, and I trusted the twins not to tell Them, so now was one of the few times I could uncover my whisper.
I pondered that word before I moved. Whisper. Proof that I’d been fully assimilated. It was RC’s word, now embedded into my vernacular as well. A whisper was a secret confined to a small group of trusted people. A true secret never passed through the keeper’s lips. We didn’t have many secrets in Project Alpha, mostly whispers. Secrets weren’t safe in eroding minds.
Squirming in my confinement, I shifted my body enough to extract a folded photograph from the small hole inside my waistband. It was a miracle I’d managed to keep it hidden for so long. Without the help of Finn and Reese, it would have been taken from me and destroyed.
It had aged since the day my blood-sister slipped it into my pocket. The surface was crinkled and permanently creased, the edges bent, a corner torn. The ink had faded after a few cycles through the wash, but the twins always managed to find it and return it to me. I ran my thumb across the bleached surface.
My counterpart was laughing in the picture. Strange, that I once knew how to laugh. My laugh might be broken now; I hadn’t had a reason to try to revive it. I wondered if I still resembled this version of myself. I hadn’t looked at my reflection in a mirror since . . . Before. How long ago was that?
My fingers drifted up to trace the edge of my sunken eye socket and trail down my sallow cheek. If I ever had the opportunity to look at my own face again, I guaranteed it wouldn’t match the full, healthy, sun-touched face in the picture I held before me.
My blood-sister’s eyes sparkled as she beamed at the camera. I had the image imprinted into my mind, so whatever They did to me, however many times the NMS penetrated my brain, I would not forget her face.
Saying her name hurt too much, so I didn’t. I tried to recall what her voice sounded like, but how could I possibly remember? I didn’t even know how long I’d been a captive where the only possible escape was death, and They wouldn’t allow that until They decided you were no longer valuable enough to live. Then you’d be sent to Project Omega. Prisoners who went into that Project never came back out. Someday I’d make that journey, and I dreaded it because everyone knew They dissected ghosts alive on that terrible floor of death. Finn and Reese confirmed that rumor. They didn’t know how to lie.
I refocused on the photograph to take my mind away from my inevitable future. We did look like a family back then. Dark hair, same noses, same eyes. Three people occupied the snapshot of my old life, and yet rather than focus on the third, I noticed who wasn’t there. I didn’t know what to call him. Father, Dad—those words had drastically different meanings. Father, the man who sired me, or Dad, the man who raised and loved me? I didn’t know why he wasn’t in this picture. I remembered absolutely nothing about him, so I supposed I must call him Father.
My mother was standing behind my blood-sister and me in the picture, her smile reserved but genuine. She loved me when she thought I was human.
“I’ll come get you, Cato!”
But she didn’t. She never came. Never visited. I never heard from her again after Lastday. I hated her with such deep passion that I could feel my destructive Divinity stir.
Backstabber. Traitor. Liar.
Heat. I felt the change strongly enough to know that my eyes, normally one blue and one green, both flared green in the darkness just for a moment as my power peaked in rage. And then the neutralizer contained it deep in my core again.
I’d suffered plenty of time in my prison to nurture the festering hatred. She loved her money and her career more than she did the monster that was me. So, here I was, on the way to more torture. They would have brand-new, expensive equipment to use on us. New pain.
I closed my eyes again as the truck heaved.
My days of waiting to be rescued were long over. I’d finally given up, and the resulting depression nearly killed me. Slowly, I’d clawed my way out of despair to endure my new life of captivity. Of white walls and linoleum floors, sterilized rooms, sharp instruments and needles, the cold metal bars of my cage, the taste of blood, the heat of electricity, and a man’s voice saying, “Begin.”
The roar in the background was maddening. I closed my eyes to listen. Wind. The sound reminded me of a fan, but it was more exhilarating because I knew it had to be real. We must be flying over the asphalt.
My chest ached. The steady beat against my rib cage accelerated.
Outside. I was supposed to believe it was a myth, but I knew that wasn’t true because I came from there.
Now, I tempted myself with the dangerous and forbidden thought of escape, which was a myth. That fact had been beaten into me. There was only one way in and out. A single guarded door led to the extensive maze of tunnels that, if you knew the right course, could take you aboveground to the Outside. But the only prisoners who ever made it out that door had already been cremated in Project Omega. No exception. Not a single one had ever walked out alive—only ashes scattered unceremoniously across the prairie.
Each Project occupied one level, and each level could be individually sealed to contain disasters or—though to my knowledge it happened only once and before my time there—to keep an escaped prisoner from advancing to another floor. As if that weren’t discouraging enough, my Project, Alpha, was one of the classifieds, which meant it was even deeper underground than the unrestricted ones. How many levels down, I had no idea.
I never saw the prairie above the subterranean fortress with my own eyes, but I knew it existed, its horizon knowing no bounds. If by some miracle a prisoner did make it out of the tunnels, They could easily do an aerial sweep and locate the fugitive in the middle of the flat land. To escape, I would have had to break free of my cage, traverse the heavily monitored hallway of Alpha, make my way up through several classified Projects above me with equally tight security, and find a way to open the double-reinforced doors, navigate the tunnel maze, then trek across the endless prairie to find civilization. That escape plan wasn’t even factoring in the retinal scanners to access the other levels.
But now, I wasn’t underground. I didn’t have to pass through all those barriers. Just a cage, a truck door, and two handlers, so easy in comparison. The myth of escape might actually be feasible.
I opened my eyes and curled my fingers through the bars to feel the lock. The illusion of escape evaporated. My cage lock required a key with an electronic chip in it, so I couldn’t pick it even if I did have a tool. The Outside air never touched us and never would. I would not breathe fresh air ever again.
Escape was a dangerous thought. But I could hear wind for the first time in years, and I tried to recall what it felt like, what it tasted like. I was sick for it. I wanted to scream. One scream to channel the pain, misery, frustration, and hatred and release them into a force powerful enough to break the bars and cleave open the truck so I could stand unimpeded in the middle of the wrecked metal.
I caught my breath. Just imagining such a potent scream drew the heat inside my core, just for a moment before the green power was smothered once more. I pressed my throbbing forehead against the cold bars. If only escape were that easy. If only. . . .
It could be.
My head turned to find the two pairs of blue eyes glowing faintly in the dark. Wild, dangerous hope choked me. “Hey,” I whispered to my lab-brothers. Their eyes blinked at the sound of my voice. Nearly half my age, Finn and Reese were identical right down to their personalities. In fact, the only way I could tell them apart was Finn’s hat worn backward so his unkempt brown hair stuck out the front. Reese didn’t wear a hat.
I gripped the bars and called out to them softly so as not to disturb the others: “You can get out. All you have to do is use your power, and we could escape.”
It would be so easy for them. All ghosts had a set of basic powers, one of which was intangibility—the power to move through solid objects. Every one of us locked in the back of this truck had that ability, but Finn and Reese, confirmed by the telltale glow of their irises, were the only two right now with access to their power reserves. They were born and raised in that place; they didn’t have to wear neutralizers, because they wouldn’t dare use their supernatural abilities to defy their masters.
Unless I could convince them, just this one time.
Their gazes were cold and despondent. Finn narrowed his eyes at me and then hung his head. Disgruntled, I turned my attention to Reese, not that it made a difference because I couldn’t appeal to one without also convincing the other. “Don’t you want to see the Outside?” I asked, desperation cracking my words. “It’s real. It’s just on the other side of this wall.”
Reese wrapped his arms around his legs, hugging his knees to his chest as though afraid the Outside was going to crush him if he dared to leave the refuge of his cage. Finn squeezed his eyes shut. Too bad He wasn’t as much of a fool as I’d hoped; He’d spent years brainwashing the twins to fear the Outside.
“You’re wasting your breath.” Jay, awoken by my quiet pleas, was watching me with one half-opened eye.
I loosened my fingers from the thin bars and drew my hand into my lap. I stroked the edge of my photograph. “I know. But it’s so close. Can’t you hear the wind?”
He didn’t answer, just sighed and closed his eyes again, exasperated by my delusional talk of escape. I couldn’t tell if he was asleep, but he clearly didn’t want to be bothered by my hope.
Now that I’d refocused on the wind, it sounded louder, relentless, a wailing roar in my ears. Finn and Reese couldn’t crave what they’d never experienced, and Jay, he’d been there too long to remember the Outside.
I squinted at my picture in the dimness again, trying to tune out the wind. Focus. My blood-family. Focus on them. I wanted to forget them, and at the same time, I clutched at their memories because I was afraid I’d lose myself if I allowed the wounds to scar.
But I had. I was Cato to the Outside world and my lab-family, but I was A7-5292 to Them. The numbers were tattooed on my inner forearms, branding me with the moniker They’d assigned me.
Don’t forget . . . don’t forget, I replayed, trying to remember how my blood-sister’s voice sounded when she said those words. But I couldn’t. I was lucky to still have her face in the photograph. The realization that her voice had been erased from my memory was a familiar panic always triggered in the instant I was aware another piece was gone. I should have been used to it by now, but I wasn’t, and I didn’t think I ever would be until my mind was blank. Someday, I may very well end up like Finn and Reese, completely compliant, brainwashed into believing only what They deemed fit. And then—
An ear-shattering screech rudely interrupted my trepidations. Before I could make sense of it, I was thrown face-first into the metal bars. Our cages crashed together. Those who had been dozing were wide awake now.
The wild, animal-like squeal of rending metal nearly burst my eardrums, drowning my own screams. The truck whipped to the side, and then the whole vehicle was off balance, rolling and pitching us about as our cages banged into each other in a thunderous orchestra of chaos.
I was upside down. Ash’s shrill scream crescendoed and faded in my ear as our cages were smashed together and then thrown apart. The truck flipped. I couldn’t tell which way was up anymore. Everything whirled and blurred together, crashing and crumpling and banging and squealing, burning rubber, gasoline, asphalt, screams. . . .
And then the truck shuddered to a stop.