Shadow of the Coalition (The Omni Towers, #2) - Jamie A. Waters - E-Book

Shadow of the Coalition (The Omni Towers, #2) E-Book

Jamie A. Waters

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Beschreibung

Only in the darkness can vengeance thrive…

It's been a month since Kayla, a headstrong ruin rat, and Carl, an OmniLab trader, returned to the surface. After she helped to restore control of the towers to those who would look after the best interests of the people, she'd found herself irrevocably bonded to Alec, the new co-leader of the High Council.

Although her heart belongs to Carl, she finds it difficult to resist the strange bond between her and Alec. Caught between learning how to handle her new emerging abilities, mysterious earthquakes, and a strange group seemingly intent on targeting OmniLab, Kayla is once again swept up in events that threaten to change the entire future of the towers.

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Shadow of the Coalition © 2018 by Jamie A. Waters

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Cover Art © 2018 by Deranged Doctor Designs

Editors: Beyond DEF Lit

ISBN: 978-1-949524-07-9 (Hardback Edition)

ISBN: 978-0-9996647-1-1 (Paperback Edition)

ISBN: 978-0-9996647-5-9 (eBook Edition)

Library of Congress Control Number:  2018907711

Second Edition *September 2018

Contents

The Omni Towers Series

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Sneak Peek

Tremors of the Past

Also by Jamie A. Waters

About the Author

The Omni Towers Series

Shadow of the Coalition

Ruins of Fate

Beneath the Fallen City

Shadow of the Coalition

Tremors of the Past

Drop of Hope

Flames of Redemption

Spirit of the Towers

Chapter One

Kayla got down on her hands and knees, eyeing the space between the floor and a collapsed ancient wall in Sector Twelve. It would be a tight fit, but she’d navigated worse in the past. Taking a deep breath, she sucked in her stomach and squeezed through the narrow space.

She stood, brushed the dirt off her helmet visor, and shined the flashlight around what appeared to have once been a common room. Living room, shecorrected herself, although there definitely wasn’t anything living in the room now. Only the remnants of an old fireplace stood in the corner while pieces of broken furniture remained scattered on the floor, a thick shroud of dust and debris coating everything within the room.

Closing her eyes, Kayla took a deep breath to help focus her thoughts. Using what she now knew as energy threads, she opened up her senses to explore the hidden world beneath the surface. The darkness fell away, and Kayla embraced the energy that now swirled in the ruins. The surrounding energy vibrated, its wordless demand inviting her to tap into it. She shivered, her blood humming with a rush of power. Her fingers unfurled as the energy became a tangible thing.

She basked in the warmth and excitement of the intoxicating power. As the energy flowing through her increased, it was a little easier to ignore the strange ache and sense of longing she suspected came from being separated from Alec.

It had only been a month since she’d left OmniLab’s towers. After she helped restore control of the towers to those who would look after the best interests of its residents, Kayla had found herself irrevocably bonded to Alec, the new co-leader of the High Council. Even though he was enigmatic and alluring, the shared energy bond scared her more than she wanted to admit.

It might have been easier to remain in the towers and allow Alec to train her, but history had taught her to be cautious. She wasn’t willing to blindly trust someone she barely knew and risk being exploited again, especially when it came to these supernatural talents she didn’t understand. So she’d spent the past month secretly exploring her ability to manipulate energy within the confines and solitude of the ruins. Once she got a better handle on this aspect of herself, she’d eventually need to face him again and figure out the rest.

Alec was likeable enough, but Kayla had only spent a handful of days with him. They’d exchanged a few messages since she left, but she wanted to proceed cautiously. Trust took time. Kayla had never wanted to rely on anyone before, and the thought she’d need to return to the towers because of this bond was more than a little unsettling, so she was determined to push the limits, train on her own, and figure things out in her own time. Besides, even though they shared a metaphysical bond, she wasn’t in love with Alec. It was an OmniLab trader named Carl who had truly touched her heart.

Her face warmed at the thought of Carl, and it wasn’t just from the stifling heat in the ruins. Even though they’d known each other for a year when her ruin rat camp had moved to his district, it wasn’t until she recently joined his camp that she began to see him differently. Through his altruistic actions, he’d challenged her beliefs about traders and even OmniLab, forcing her to look beyond the surface. Sure, she was still cautious, but a darker side of human nature could be found anywhere, whether it was in the towers or on the surface.

It was a constant challenge to live as a ruin rat on the surface when survival was sometimes dependent upon outsmarting the OmniLab traders and their crews. Kayla enjoyed the challenges Carl provided, pitting her will against his. He was willing to let her go her own way for the most part, but he wasn’t beyond resorting to some unethical tactics to prevent her from going too far. The man had a quick mind and was incredibly devious, two traits she greatly admired. More than anything, he understood her. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was sexy as hell too.

With a sigh, Kayla pushed away the errant thoughts in order to focus again on the dilapidated room. Her former camp was depending upon her to continue providing them with tradable credits they could use to purchase vital supplies. Since she’d left them a month ago, they’d taken a hit to their productivity and had been struggling to make up the difference. If she managed to find enough tradable materials on this scavenging expedition, it might be enough to put them back in the clear for another few days, or even a week if she were lucky. She couldn’t afford to spend time daydreaming when there was work that needed to be done. Hopefully, tapping into her new energy abilities might help expedite things a little bit.

The energy continued to flow around her, and she channeled it until the mental image of the room shifted and transformed the dingy walls into brightly painted surfaces covered with family photographs. A child played on the floor while her parents sat on the couch and watched an antique vidviewer on the wall.

Kayla opened her eyes and stared at the verisimilitude of the ruined room. A wave of vertigo swept over her as the mental image overlapped with reality. Shaking her head, she pushed aside the image, but the memory of the past refused to leave completely.

An old photograph caught her attention, and she crossed the room toward the cockeyed frame. The glass was cracked and the picture faded, but she gasped at the sight of the image. The family looked exactly like the one she’d imagined. The energy flow around her shifted dangerously, and she swallowed nervously as she tried to regain control.

“Kayla?” Veridian’s voice interrupted over her headset. “You okay? Your vitals just spiked.”

“Uh, yeah. Sorry about that,” she said in a rush, not wanting to alarm her scavenging partner on the surface. He’d been monitoring her progress for the past hour. “I just found an old photograph that surprised me. That’s all.”

Okay, Kayla, keep it together. You know this energy shit is freaky and you haven’t figured exactly how it works yet. Just relax.

A slight vibration under her feet caused her to freeze. The floor felt secure, but vibrations didn’t usually happen without reason. More curious than alarmed, she bent down and pressed her gloved hand against the ground. The vibration grew stronger.

“Kayla, get out now!” Veridian shouted over the headset. “We’ve got seismic activity on the monitors.”

The walls began shaking violently. A rumbling noise grew in intensity as the dust and debris fell around her. The picture frame on the wall clattered to the floor. Kayla crouched low against the wall, powerless to do anything else. A loud crash resounded though the room, and she threw her arms up over her head as part of the ceiling collapsed.

Almost as soon as it had begun, the shaking stopped. Dust filled the area, obscuring her vision through the helmet.

“Kayla? Are you all right?” Carl’s panicked voice came through her headset. He must have been monitoring the channel from the trader camp.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” She tried to brush off some of the dust covering her visor with limited success. The filtration device embedded within her new helmet worked overtime as a cloud of gray powder surrounded her. Apparently, OmniLab had some uses after all—they made terrific toys. “That was scary as hell. I didn’t think there was any seismic activity in this area.”

Carl sighed. “Thank God. There normally isn’t. I don’t know what happened. The building you’re in is mostly underground, and it’s possible some of our equipment may have affected the stability of the chasm. I’m going to have Xantham look into it now. In the meantime, get the hell out of there until we know it’s safe.”

Fantastic plan. She wasn’t a big fan of shaking ruins. “Is everything okay above ground, Veridian?”

“Yeah, I’m fine up here. A few pieces of equipment got knocked over, but that’s it. Can you make it back to your harness so I can pull you out?”

Relief rushed through her. In every way except for blood, Veridian was like a brother to her. It was Veridian’s mother who’d saved her from nearly dying in a ruin collapse when she was a child. After adopting Kayla as her own, she and Veridian grew up together and had created an unbreakable bond. She couldn’t imagine losing him.

“Shit!” Kayla looked around, investigating the now collapsed entrance to the room. “The tunnel’s blocked. I can try digging my way through, but I don’t know if the area above is stable. Can you run a stability scan? While you’re checking that, I’m going to see if I can find another way out.”

“On it,” Veridian replied.

Carl’s voice came over her headset again. “Kayla, don’t move. Other areas may have weakened if that tunnel collapsed. Veridian, send me the data as soon as you finish running it. I’m heading out with Cruncher right now to bring some stability supports.”

Kayla snorted. Don’t move? Who the hell was he kidding? There was no way she was going to sit with her thumb up her ass and wait. She’d been rescuing herself for twenty-one years. No need to stop now.

Visibility was crap, but she could see a few inches in front of her. It would have to do. Moving along the wall, Kayla climbed over rocks and rubble, searching for another way out. Other than the tunnel and part of the ceiling collapsing, the rest of the room appeared to be stable.

A small opening by the fireplace caught her attention. She didn’t recall seeing it before the tremor, but then again, they’d only managed to excavate down to this level a few days before. With grim determination, Kayla began clearing away the debris blocking the area. If she could clear enough of a path, there might be another room on the other side. After about ten minutes, Veridian’s voice once again came over her headset.

“Kayla, we’re going to have to wait until Carl gets here with the supports. It looks like the structural integrity of the tunnel wall is compromised. Everything else appears stable as far as I can tell from here.”

“Sounds good,” she replied absently and continued to focus on the task at hand. They could do what they wanted, but waiting wasn’t an option. When she finished clearing away the rest of the debris, a sizeable hole had been made between the floor and the wall. It appeared to be some sort of natural tunnel sloping downward, and with no debris inside that she could see, she believed it might be relatively safe.

She knelt closer to the opening, and a tingle of energy swept through her. Her heart thudded in excitement. I knew it. There’s something else in this sector.

Kayla bit her lip, debating whether to explore the tunnel. Carl wouldn’t be happy if he knew what she was considering. He’d argue that the strange energy pull was even more of a reason not to explore alone. It might be possible to take a quick look and get back before they knew she’d disappeared.

“V, can you send Carl and Cruncher down with a hydrating pack? I’m parched.”

Veridian’s voice responded in her headset. “Sure thing.”

She pressed the button on her wristband to change comm frequencies to an unmonitored channel. Fortunately, neither she nor Veridian had volunteered their little code to Carl’s crew. “V, I found some sort of natural tunnel. I think there’s something down here.”

“Tell me you’re not going to do what I think you’re going to do.” Veridian’s voice was strained.

“I’m going to do it,” she informed him, pressing her gloved hand against the wall of the tunnel. Even through her gloves, she could tell the temperature was several degrees cooler than the room.

Veridian groaned. “Not a good idea, Kayla. Carl’s got to be monitoring your vitals and comms. You may be sleeping with him, but he’s still my boss.”

She grinned. “Loosen the connector for the control monitoring panel. Pretend the earthquake did it.”

“Fine,” he agreed. “You better cover for me when he loses his shit.”

“Done.” Dropping to the floor, Kayla used her elbows to crawl through the narrow opening. It was a tight fit, but once inside, the earthen passage widened. “I’m inside now. There’s no debris in here. It’s probably safer than the last room. I’ll let you know what I find. I’m going back to the other channel now.”

“Be careful,” he warned.

Kayla pressed her wrist unit again to switch back to the main channel. Sometimes the old saying was true: it really was better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Adjusting the light on her helmet, she crawled through the tunnel where the swirling energy seemed to beckon her further. Rocks bit into her knees and palms, but she continued. After a reasonable distance, the tunnel suddenly ended. It appeared to open up into some sort of chamber, but it was impossible to tell much from her location though.

Twisting her body, she gripped the edge of the dirt wall and lowered herself to the rocky floor below. Kayla pulled out a secondary light and flipped it on to get a better look. She nearly dropped the light, her breath hitching in excitement at the sight in front of her. A huge natural cavern extended back into darkness. There was a distinct noise and she paused, trying to determine what it was. The sound was vaguely reminiscent of the waterfall in the towers.

The light cut through some of the oppressive shadows and illuminated large stalactites and stalagmites filling the cave. Kayla tugged off one of her gloves, unable to resist touching one of the rock formations. A cloud of moisture hung in the air and clung to the rocky surface. Trailing her fingers upward, she felt the dips and jags of the natural stone. She tore her eyes away from the rock and took a step away from the tunnel. The ground was slippery, forcing her to tread carefully as she approached the center of the cavern.

A large underground river flowed through the cavern at a steady pace. In all of her experience, she’d never seen anything like it.

“No freaking way.”

Carl’s voice came over the headset, breaking through her daze. “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”

Kayla swallowed, trying to form a coherent thought. “Yeah. Um, you guys close?”

“We’re in the ruins, and we’ve got the supports in place. Cruncher and I are clearing the debris now. It won’t take long until the tunnel is clear.”

“Uh, you’ll need to excavate a bit farther. I went through another tunnel.”

“Dammit, Kayla! We don’t know how stable that area is yet. We need to run a full scan of the ruins before you start crawling around.”

She laughed into the headset, unable to suppress the giddiness at her discovery. “Yeah, yeah, bitch at me later. You’re not going to believe what I found down here. You might need to widen the tunnel entrance a bit, but it gets bigger once you’re inside.”

Veridian’s voice came over the headset. “Huh. Found the problem. The earthquake must have loosened the connection. You should be able to track Kayla’s location and vitals now.”

There was a deafening silence over the channel. Carl’s voice, when he spoke, was strangely calm—a little too calm. “You’re telling me you just figured this out?”

“Come on, Carl,” she interjected before Veridian could say anything, “you know how sensitive some of our equipment can be.”

“Fine. Don’t move until we run further tests. By the way, we brought you your hydrating pack.” Carl’s voice cut off abruptly, and she could only imagine the swearing that must be going on at the other end. Guess they’d need a new code phrase.

He’d get over his irritation quick enough once he saw the cavern though. Kayla pulled off her helmet and took a deep breath.

The air was clear from dust but still felt thick and heavy on her skin. The different sounds, smells, and even the taste of the moist air in the darkened cavern gave the impression she’d stepped through to another world. The energy threads felt stronger here, too, but she ignored them. Her focus right now needed to be on scanning the dimensions of the cavern. Reaching down, she dug around in her bag to locate an image mapper.

Activating the device, Kayla moved closer to the river. The ground was even more slippery closer to the water. It was too deep to see the bottom, but the distance across the river was fairly wide. She glanced down the length of the tunnel where the rushing water disappeared into darkness. They’d have to bring down some equipment to cross the river and follow it to its source.

Her excitement was bubbling over, but she managed to keep the image mapper steady and focused on scanning the dimensions of the river and cavern. At least thirty minutes passed before she heard movement from the direction of the tunnel. Dropping the image mapper back into her bag, Kayla moved over to where Carl was climbing down into the room.

Kayla still felt that familiar flutter in her stomach whenever she looked at him. Even in his UV-protective gear, the OmniLab trader was a gorgeous hunk of man.

At the sight of Kayla, he pulled off his helmet. Long, dark hair was tied back away from his face displaying a strong jaw with just a bit of stubble, giving him a more rugged appearance. Although his brown eyes were full of frustration and concern, his expression quickly changed to one of shocked amazement at the sight of the cavern.

Another figure climbed through the tunnel and dropped onto the rocky ground. Kayla recognized Cruncher, Carl’s short and stocky right-hand man. A former ruin rat like herself, they’d both developed a deep respect for each other’s skills and abilities. He pulled off his helmet and let out a low whistle.

“Damn, girl. What the hell did you find now?”

“It gets better,” she promised and motioned for them to follow her toward the river. Stopping just a few feet from the moving water, Kayla turned to gauge their reactions. Both men stopped short and stared slack-jawed at the river.

Their stunned reactions mirrored hers. Underground rivers were extremely rare and critical to their survival. Most water sources were heavily contaminated and unusable. Using special water treatment techniques, they were able to purify and treat a scarce few to create safe drinking water.

“You guys wouldn’t happen to have a water testing kit with you, would you?”

“No, but we can quickly change that,” Carl replied before speaking into his headset. “Veridian, I need you to send down the water testing kit that’s in the compartment of my bike. We’ve got an underground river down here.”

“No way!” Veridian’s eagerness and disbelief were apparent, even through the headset. “I’ll send it down right now. Grab some images of the river. I want to see it.”

“I’ll grab the kit from the drop point,” Cruncher offered.

At Carl’s nod, the older man headed back to the tunnel. Carl turned away from the river and focused on Kayla. She smiled up at him, but it faded quickly at the intensity in his expression.

He took a step closer and abruptly pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her. She stiffened, surprised by the sudden movement. Burying his face in her hair, he inhaled deeply. “I think my heart stopped beating when I heard about the earthquake.”

She felt a twinge of guilt at the realization he’d been more than worried. Uncomfortable with the thought, her initial response was to shrug it off, but she hesitated. Although he would never demand it, she could sense his need for reassurance.

The moment she acquiesced and relaxed against him, he let out a sigh and threaded his fingers through her hair. They remained that way for a long moment, and then he tilted her head back to look into her eyes. The depth of emotion in his expression floored her.

Without saying another word, he crushed his lips against hers. Sensations exploded as the heat between them ignited. She wound her arms around his neck, demanding more, and his kiss deepened in response. His hands traveled down her length until they reached the edge of her shirt, brushing at the skin beneath it.

How did this man get her worked up so quickly? The slightest caress seemed to set her off like a blazing inferno. The desire to touch his bare skin became consuming. As though sensing the direction of her thoughts, Carl reluctantly eased away. Damn him.

His eyes were clouded with passion, but his hands were gentle. He cupped her face and pressed a tender kiss against her forehead. “How long does it take to retrieve a water testing kit?”

“Not long enough, you two crazy kids,” Cruncher’s voice sounded over the commlink. Kayla bit back a groan and dropped her head onto Carl’s chest. They’d forgotten to disable the audio. Again.

“I’d take my time getting your kit, but seeing as we just had seismic activity down here, you two are going to have to wait to get your freak on back at camp.”

Carl chuckled and shook his head. Kayla squeezed her eyes shut, imagining the comments Xantham was making. Any day now, they’d probably see copies of Carl and Kayla’s greatest hits distributed throughout camp. She’d have to kill all of them if that ever happened. It wasn’t so much modesty she was concerned over, but rather Xantham’s tendency to assign a point system for performance.

“It’s safe to come back. I think we can manage to keep our hands to ourselves,” Carl said before focusing again on her. His eyes darkened in concern as they scanned over her. “Are you sure you’re not hurt?”

Trailing her fingers lightly over the rough stubble along his jaw, Kayla offered a reassuring smile. “I’m okay. I promise. I did some preliminary scans of the area while I was waiting for you guys.”

Carl took a deep breath and pressed his forehead against hers for a long moment. Pulling away, he let his gaze sweep the dim cave again. “All things considered, this is really incredible. We had no idea this river even existed. How did you find it?”

She debated whether to say anything about the trail of energy that led to the tunnel. It was hard enough for her to understand this energy stuff, but it was even worse for Carl. Even though he had some limited knowledge from living in the towers, Kayla suspected his reservations stemmed more from the fact she was permanently bonded to Alec than anything else.

OmniLab claimed she was a descendant of the Drac’Kin, those legendary creatures also referred to as dragons. Supposedly, they’d lost their shapeshifting abilities centuries ago, but they still retained some of their other supernatural powers. At least that was their basis for explanation when it came to her strange talents. In all honesty, the idea freaked her out. Up until a few weeks ago, she hadn’t known it was even possible to manipulate energy. If she hadn’t experienced it firsthand, she never would have believed it possible.

Deciding it would be better not to remind him of the shared connection with Alec, she shrugged. “The quake must have opened up the tunnel.”

Carl looked skeptical, and she turned away, hoping he would drop it. When she didn’t offer more of an explanation, he sighed. “I see. This is an amazing find, but you shouldn’t have taken the risk. You could have been hurt.”

She glanced back and offered a teasing smile. “I don’t die that easily. Besides, I like keeping you on your toes.”

His forehead creased, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

Although touching, Carl’s concern left her disconcerted. Would she ever grow accustomed to people worrying about her? Maybe she did take some risks, but they were hers to take. Kayla had been on her own for too long to just sit back and let someone else run the show.

Deciding a change of topic was necessary, she said, “Thanks for coming out here. Do you have any idea what caused the shaking?”

Carl shook his head. “Not yet. Our initial stability scans didn’t show any potential for seismic activity, but the readings we just received say different. I notified OmniLab on my way over. I believe they’re going to launch an investigation.”

Kayla frowned. The scanners should have picked something up. Luckily, there hadn’t been any more tremors since the initial incident, but it was always a possibility.

Before she could ponder the issue further, Cruncher returned with the water testing kit. “It’s all yours, girl. You found it, you get to take the sample.”

She flashed him a huge smile and eagerly took the kit. It was a metallic box with a cushioned lining, which contained several empty vials where samples could be stored and tested. Careful to remove one of the vials without breaking it, she knelt beside the river. Once a small amount of river water had been collected, she slid the detector wand into the vial. A moment later, the unit beeped and displayed the reading on the screen.

Carl took a step toward her. “What does it say?”

Kayla shook her head, studying the display. It couldn’t be right. “I must have gotten an error. I’ll try it again.”

Carl knelt next to her, watching while she collected another sample and ran the test again. When the reading displayed the same result, Kayla bit her lip. She looked down at the river and back at the display, contemplating its accuracy. Was it possible this was the first nontoxic water source they’d seen in generations?

She glanced up at Carl, who was frowning and rubbing his chin. It looked like he was wondering the same thing, but neither one wanted to give voice to their hope. A discovery of a relatively clean water source could revolutionize their efforts in locating new resources.

“There might be a problem with that machine,” he said cautiously. “We can take a couple of samples back with us and test it at camp.”

Kayla nodded and bent down to retrieve a few more samples. After locking them into the water testing box, she slid the unit into her bag and stood to find Cruncher touching one of the stalagmites with an expression of awe on his face. He shook his head and said, “This place is incredible. I’ve seen images of caves on pre-war data cubes, but seeing it in person is unreal.”

Carl nodded in agreement and motioned for them to start heading out. “We’ll need to run more stability tests and get some additional equipment down here. Once we get the water test results, we can plan our next move.”

Kayla stared into the darkness and bit her lip, hesitant to leave. Caution was warranted, but she was really curious how deep the cavern went. It wouldn’t take long to explore just a little further.

Before she could take a step toward the darkness, Carl wrapped his hand around hers. “Don’t, sweetheart, the river will still be here tomorrow. Until we figure out what caused the earthquake, it’s not worth risking your safety.” She opened her mouth to argue, but he pressed a finger against her lips. “Veridian’s above ground. Your little stunt with switching channels aside, he’s been worried about you since it happened. Let him see you’re okay before you get into a worse situation.”

Kayla wrinkled her nose. That was a low blow. As much as she wanted to explore, Carl was right. The man had the insufferable tendency to consistently be the voice of reason. Veridian usually went along with her schemes, but he still worried. She blew out a breath and slumped her shoulders. “Fine, but no one else gets to come down here without me.”

The corner of his mouth twitched in a small smile, and he nodded. With one last longing glance at the river, she added, “I want to see if OmniLab has some flotation devices and underwater cameras we can use to explore this tunnel. I might be able to rig up an underwater speeder using compressed air so we can find out how far and how deep it goes.”

He chuckled, slipping his hand behind the small of her back and nudging her in the direction of the tunnel. “That can be arranged. Figure out what you’ll need so we can put in a requisition.”

Kayla pulled on her helmet and considered the necessary equipment. Caught up in mentally designing an underwater speeder, she barely noticed Carl lifting her back into the narrow tunnel. Details and possibilities raced through her thoughts while she climbed after Cruncher. The sooner they got back to camp, the faster she could start working.

Excitement lightened their feet, and it took less time than expected to make their way back through the ruins. Once they reached their equipment, Kayla climbed into her harness and pressed the button to pull herself up to the surface.

Veridian’s face lit up in relief when he saw her. Taking his offered hand, she let him pull her the rest of the way out of the ruins. Before she could even remove her harness, he enveloped her in a tight hug. She returned the gesture and then ducked out of the way so he could help Carl and Cruncher.

Kayla removed her helmet and grabbed a couple of hydrating packs. She tossed one to both Carl and Cruncher before opening hers. Exhausted, she sat and drank it down while Veridian packed up the equipment.

Now that they were above ground, all three men seemed more relaxed. Carl and Cruncher took turns describing the cavern to Veridian, using gestures to show him the size of the rock formations. Using the back of her hand, Kayla wiped her mouth and tossed the now empty drink container into a disposal bag. “Maybe we can talk you into going down there and checking it out, V. It’s incredible.”

Veridian’s eyes widened, looking horrified at the suggestion. His aversion to going into the ruins was well known, but she held out hope that he’d get over his fear one day. “No, thanks. I’ll leave that sort of thing to you guys. I’d love to see the images you took though.”

Unsurprised by his refusal, Kayla nodded in agreement. It had been worth a try. Standing up, she grabbed a bag of equipment and began to help load it onto their speeders. Once they were ready, Veridian pressed the button to deactivate the UV guard over the area. The machine emitted a loud beep as it signaled the sixty-second warning before it disengaged. Kayla and the rest of the guys climbed onto the back of their speeders and fired up their engines.

She crouched low on her bike and took off toward Carl’s camp with the other three bikes trailing behind her. The hot, dry air whipped around them, and Kayla was thankful for the upgraded OmniLab UV-protective gear and equipment. This time of year was always especially brutal. It made the contrast between the arid landscape even sharper against the memory of the cool underground cavern.

They drove through areas that had once been teeming with life. Now, only collapsed and ruined buildings remained, breaking up the otherwise barren terrain. As they approached the trading camp, Kayla slowed down and pulled up outside the entrance. Carl pulled up alongside her just as she dismounted.

She reached over, grabbing the bag from her bike, and then headed toward the entrance. A large roar from some sort of engine sounded overhead and a dark shadow appeared on the ground. Shielding her visor from the harsh light of the sun, she could make out a sleek aircraft flying over their camp.

Apprehension filled her at the sight of the foreign aircraft. She didn’t recognize it as belonging to OmniLab, but she wasn’t an expert. Kayla turned back to Carl, but he was already in motion and running in her direction. He grabbed her around the waist, hauling her backward, and she almost lost her grip on the bag. She caught a glimpse of Cruncher and Veridian rushing toward them.

The moment they reached the covered entrance, Carl released her. Kayla swallowed, searching the sky to track the aircraft’s progress, but it was almost out of sight. She frowned and headed inside with Carl and the others.

Pulling off her helmet, she tossed it on a nearby rack and looked around at the equally alarmed and confused faces. “What the hell was that thing?”

Carl shook his head. “No idea, but that wasn’t one of OmniLab’s drones. They would have notified us if they were sending out some sort of new aircraft in our area.”

Cruncher rubbed the back of his neck. “Could it have been from another facility?”

“That’s the most likely possibility,” Carl admitted with a frown and pulled out his commlink.

Xantham strode into the hallway, and Kayla nodded a greeting while pulling off her jacket. The communications expert for Carl’s camp was dark-skinned with short, dark hair and eyes. He was an outrageous flirt and a bit of a goofball, but there was no denying his skill as a tech.

He winked at her before turning to Carl. “Boss, I’m glad you’re back. Master Tal’Vayr has been calling for the past hour. He needs to speak with you right away.”

“Maybe he already knows about the aircraft or something about the earthquake?” Kayla suggested when Carl frowned.

“Possibly,” Carl replied, slipping his commlink back into his pocket. “No details, just several urgent messages from him. Xantham, I want you to pull up the camp surveillance and tracking system. See if you can get an image of the aircraft. I want it sent to OmniLab right away.”

At Xantham’s confused expression, Cruncher filled him in. After hearing what had transpired, Xantham’s hands swatted the air in frustration. “Well, shit! This wasn’t my fault. I would have seen it if I hadn’t been too busy playing messenger boy for the High Council. I’ll get on the radar now.” He turned and raced down the hall in the direction of the communications room.

Kayla opened her bag, checking to make sure the water samples hadn’t been damaged. Thankfully, the case was still intact.

Carl motioned for Cruncher to take them from her. “Cruncher, start scanning the samples for contaminants. I’ll call OmniLab and be in there in a few minutes to check your progress. Veridian, check with Xantham to make sure it’s clear and then bring in the rest of the equipment. Kayla, do you want to start on the imaging?”

She shook her head. “Not just yet. If you don’t mind, I’d like to listen in and see what Alec has to say about the earthquake and aircraft.”

Surprise and concern flickered in Carl’s eyes. “You sure?”

She hesitated briefly and then nodded. It was no secret she’d been trying to avoid Alec since she’d left the towers. Thankfully, Alec hadn’t pushed the issue, at least not overtly. He still believed she would eventually return to the towers on her own. So far, she’d managed to prove him wrong.

“Yeah, he’ll be more forthcoming with information if I’m with you.” Kayla followed Carl into his office, waiting until he closed the door and engaged the privacy settings.

His office was spotless as usual. A large desk stood in the center of the room with several cabinets displaying unusual artifacts on two of the walls. The third wall held a video screen he frequently used while working. Kayla walked over to the desk and sat on the edge of it.

Carl pressed a button to call Alec on the wall display. A moment later, the High Council leader appeared on the screen. Her heart thudded at the sight of him for the first time in weeks. She bit her lip, convinced this couldn’t be normal. It went beyond regular attraction and straight into that weird paranormal bullshit. Suggesting she join Carl to talk to him might have been a bad decision.

Alec’s brilliant blue eyes regarded Carl coolly. “Where’s Kayla?”

“I’m here.” Her voice came out almost as a squeak. Carl gave her a sharp look, and she tried to cover with a slight cough. If she couldn’t even manage to speak without issue, this could be a problem.

“The ruins were a little dusty,” she offered by way of an explanation. Carl wasn’t buying it. Yeah, it sounded lame even to her. Determined to do this, she straightened her shoulders. “I’m good.”

With a frown, he stepped aside so Alec could see her.

She offered a little finger wave. “Hi.”

Alec was quiet for a long moment, his eyes softening as he drank in the sight of her. The seconds crept by, and when he still didn’t say anything, Kayla felt her cheeks start to flush. Finally, he broke the silence. “Are you all right? I heard about the earthquake.”

Kayla swallowed and rubbed the back of her neck. How could a stupid video call render her so awkward? In some ways, seeing Alec on screen was even worse than responding to the few messages he’d sent her. It made the sense of loss from their shared connection more noticeable. Thankful that at least he wasn’t standing there in person and dumping energy over her, she nodded.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Kayla struggled to regain some semblance of composure. Ugh, the man makes me feel like a complete idiot. ”Just a little shaking and some dust. We found something you’re going to be interested in though.”

Alec listened quietly while she described the cavern and the underground river. By the time she finished, he had already shifted back into High Council mode. “Carl, I want you to send over the contamination report of this water source as soon as it’s complete.”

Carl had been silent up until then, simply observing their conversation. She’d almost forgotten his presence and now, glancing over at him, she realized her mistake. There was no love lost between Carl and Alec. Cruncher let it slip that things had grown increasingly tense between the two men ever since she’d left the towers, but Carl hadn’t mentioned anything. In fact, he made it a point to avoid the topic of Alec as much as possible.

Carl stood immobile and leaned against the desk, arms crossed over his chest. His expression was grim, but his voice remained impassive as he agreed to Alec’s request and proceeded to describe the strange aircraft. Kayla couldn’t help but admire his cool at handling the council leader.

Alec nodded at the end of the report. “That coincides with our preliminary reports. We received notification that an unauthorized air vehicle entered OmniLab territory a short time ago. We’re conducting an investigation now. Send over whatever images you were able to collect. It could help us determine its origin. The towers and surrounding areas are being put on high alert. You should see some exploratory drones in the vicinity while we attempt to make contact.”

Kayla bit her lip. “Could the earthquake be related to this aircraft?”

Alec hesitated. “The seismic activity was not natural in design. That’s actually the reason I was trying to contact you. Kayla, I need to ask you to return to the towers.”

Her eyes widened in shock. “Yeah, right. That’ll happen about the same time I manage to pull a photon generator out of my ass. I had my fill of those towers a few weeks ago. Thanks, but I’ll stay here with Carl and stick to the ruins for now.”

Alec frowned. “I had no intention of asking you to return until you were ready. However, I have some concerns and it would be in your best interest to return. It would be better to discuss those reasons in person.”

Kayla crossed her arms, her temper rising. Alec might run OmniLab, but she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone boss her around. “You need to do better than that. I’m not going to just pick up and run back to the towers on your say so.” Her eyes narrowed slightly. “I don’t belong to you.”

A combination of irritation and something akin to regret flickered in his eyes but was quickly gone. “I’m concerned about your safety. In addition to this unknown aircraft and possible threat, I believe the seismic activity was a result of energy manipulation. I don’t know if you were the cause or… someone else. If you were the one responsible, you need to be trained to prevent further incidents.”

Uh oh. That doesn’t sound good. A feeling of unease crept over her. “What the hell are you talking about, Alec?”

“When you were in the ruins, did you channel energy?”

She glanced at Carl, whose eyes had widened with alarm. Oops. Busted. Resisting the urge to squirm, she admitted, “Um, yeah. I didn’t do anything that would make the earth shake though. I didn’t think that was even possible. You said my talent was finding missing or lost objects.” The last part was said almost accusingly. Although, technically, it could be argued that she had managed to find a missing or lost water source. Shit. If the earthquake led her to find the river, maybe the two really were linked.

Alec nodded as though that explained something. “That’s only part of your talent. That particular ability emerged when you were a child. Other talents can develop as you go through puberty and become an adult. We didn’t have an opportunity to explore your range of abilities before you left the towers.”

Other talents? Kayla jerked her head up, locking eyes with his startling blue ones. She could almost feel the pull toward him through their shared connection. On some level, she desperately wanted to return and feel the exquisite sensations of sharing energy again, but there was no way in hell she was going to let herself be controlled through this bond.

Until she managed to figure out more about this aspect of herself, Kayla couldn’t risk putting herself in another situation like she had the last time she went to the towers. Alec’s father had managed to subdue her a little too easily, not to mention her uncharacteristic reactions every time Alec shared energy with her. Maybe she could try to access OmniLab’s databases to see if they had any information that might help. Obviously, her attempts at exploring this energy phenomenon on her own were proving rather disastrous.

As though he could tell what she was thinking from there, his calm façade dropped briefly. “Kayla, you can’t keep avoiding this. You’re not just channeling your own energy anymore. Through the bond we established, your abilities have been amplified. Whether or not the earthquake was your intention, it’s likely you were the one who inadvertently triggered it. If not...” His voice trailed off, and he took a deep breath before continuing. “Regardless, you need to learn how to harness your skills and abilities. If you come back, I can teach you. It’s not safe for you to remain there without any training.”

Kayla shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest. “Forget it. I’m not ready to come back yet. I won’t use my energy anymore. I managed just fine for years without it. If I go back, you’ll get all up in my head again. That’s not going to happen. I don’t belong to you, and I sure as hell don’t belong to OmniLab.”

Alec looked at her in exasperation. “You’re the most hard-headed, willful, and frustrating woman I’ve ever met.”

She rolled her eyes. She’d been called far worse, and that was on a good day. “You need to get out more then. If that’s all, I’ve got a sample to go check.”

Without waiting for a reply, Kayla hopped off the desk and strode out of the room. There was no point in arguing with him. It might be foolish to ignore the warning, but considering her unwanted imprisonment during her last visit to the towers, she wasn’t willing to risk it. If she knew for sure she could trust him, things might be different. Annoyed that the excitement of finding the underground river was now shadowed by Alec’s words, Kayla scowled and headed toward the tech room.

Chapter Two

Kayla strode into the tech room to find Veridian and Cruncher hunched over one of the computer terminals. Veridian glanced up when she entered and raised an eyebrow at her expression. “You look like you want to hit something or someone. What’s wrong?”

She glowered at him and slumped down in an empty chair. “Alec wants me to go back to the towers.”

Cruncher snorted. “You think? The guy’s been pissing Carl off more than usual lately. He’s had to start giving him our daily scavenging schedules and coordinates. Not to mention he’s been tied into our communication systems. It’s making Xantham twitchy.”

“He what?” Kayla jerked upright in the chair. This was news to her. “He’s been monitoring us?”

“Yup,” Cruncher said with an amused expression. “I guess since you won’t talk to him, he has no way of keeping tabs on you. He just about flipped out when the earthquake happened. Never thought I’d see the High Council leader lose his cool like that. Carl thought he was going to run straight out of those towers and head here himself.”

She slammed her hand down on the desk. Veridian jumped at the sound and shot Cruncher a warning look. “That bastard! I should have known. I’m tempted to go to those towers and kick his ass personally. Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

Cruncher shrugged. “Probably to keep you from heading back to the towers and kicking some High Council ass.”

Veridian sighed, running his hand worriedly over his frizzy brown hair. “Well, it’s not like we didn’t see this coming. Alec wasn’t exactly thrilled when you left. You have a tendency to attract the wrong sort of attention. Leo always said you sucked at keeping a low profile.”

When she glared at him, Veridian held up his hands in surrender and grinned. “So… are you going to go back there? Or are you going to keep hiding out here?”

“I’m not hiding,” Kayla retorted and folded her arms over her chest. Okay, maybe she was hiding. A little. Dammit. She was more transparent than she thought. “I’ll just tell Alec to mind his own business and quit checking up on me.”

“Uh huh. Right. I’m sure that’ll work,” Veridian said, turning back to his terminal. Cruncher snorted in agreement. Neither one of them even bothered to pretend that Alec would listen to her.

Kayla huffed, suspecting they were right. The idea that Alec watched her every move was more than a little creepy. It only reinforced her decision not to return to the towers yet. If he was this controlling when she was miles away, it didn’t bode well for when she eventually returned.

Drumming her fingers on the desk, Kayla tried to figure out the logistics of disabling the two-way communications with OmniLab. It would serve Alec right if their contact were temporarily cut off. The lesson would do him some good and give her a little breathing room. Too bad this whole aircraft thing was happening. Cutting off communication with the towers right now probably wasn’t the best idea.

A loud beep emanated from Cruncher’s machine and drew her attention. He studied it for a moment and leaped from his chair, knocking it to the floor with a loud crash. Grinning widely, he gestured to the screen. “Un-fucking-believable. You’ve got some crazy luck, girl. Check it out.”

Thankful for the distraction, Kayla leaned over to take a peek. “You already finished testing the water samples?”

“Yup. They’re clean.” Cruncher pulled her out of the chair and twirled her around. A laugh bubbled out of her at his exuberance. “We ran three separate tests, and the water’s safe. We’ve got ourselves a clean water source here.”

She turned to look at the display more closely. The test results showed the water was completely potable with only minor contaminants. Ever since the war had rendered most of the planet uninhabitable, clean water sources were like mythical unicorns—they just didn’t exist. Even with OmniLab’s technology, traces of contaminants still remained behind. They had to use specially developed hydrating packs for regular drinking use.

However, Kayla was a realist at heart and eyed the screen with skepticism. Things that seemed too good to be true usually were. “I don’t trust it. We can’t afford to make any mistakes on this. Aren’t there some other tests we can run to check for microbial contaminants?”

Cruncher narrowed his eyes. “You’re too young to be so cynical. Besides, we don’t have a spectrophotometer here in camp for that sort of analysis. Although, you could always go flutter your eyes at Alec and get him to send one our way.” With a smirk, he added, “On second thought, maybe not. If you so much as crooked a finger at him, he’d probably send over a dozen, along with the techs to run them. We don’t have that kind of room with all the other crap he’s been sending us.”

Kayla groaned and half-heartedly punched Cruncher in the arm. The former ruin rat chuckled and turned back to the display. Alec’s generosity had been over the top since she returned to Carl’s camp. Over the past several weeks, they’d received several shipments of new prototypes and state-of-the-art equipment from OmniLab. It bothered her that everyone knew OmniLab’s “generosity” was a direct result of her uncomfortable relationship with Alec.

Before she could say anything else, someone cleared their throat behind her. Kayla spun around, surprised to find Carl had slipped into the room. His expression was troubled, and she wondered what Alec had said after she left. At her questioning look, he simply shook his head. “Find out anything?”

Apparently, he didn’t want to discuss it. She could respect that. Kayla sat back down and pointed to the contamination report on the screen. “Cruncher’s gotten three test results back. All of them are negative for toxicity.”

“I would have thought that was impossible,” Carl mused, stepping behind her and leaning over to look at the data. He rested his hands on her shoulders, rubbing small circles as he read through the data. “If this is accurate, do you have any idea what this could mean?”

Kayla nodded, resisting the urge to groan at the way his hands worked her sore muscles. His attentions made it difficult to focus on the conversation. “Mmhmm. OmniLab’s going to freak out when they get this news. We need to do further testing before we get their panties wet. I also want to find out where this river goes.”

Carl considered her words for a moment. Her head lowered seemingly of its own volition as he hit a particularly tense spot on her neck. The man had magical fingers.

“I heard you tell Cruncher you wanted to do some additional testing. As it happens, I need to return to the towers for a few days. I’ll take a sample directly to OmniLab and have them test it using their equipment. That would be the fastest way to get answers. I’ll also see about making arrangements for some underwater imaging devices while I’m there.”

Kayla tensed, negating the past several minutes of work he’d done on her muscles. “You’re going back to the towers? What the hell did Alec say to you? And why didn’t you tell me he was spying on us?”

Carl dropped his hands and glowered at Cruncher. “You told her?”

The older man shrugged. “She needs to know, Boss.”

Carl sighed in resignation. “It’s not what you think, Kayla. Can you come with me to my office? I need to show you something.”

Her curiosity mounting, she followed Carl back to his office and took a seat on the edge of the desk. He sat, entered in a few commands on a small tablet terminal, and then nudged it toward her. It was an official notice from OmniLab requesting access to all of Carl’s information, including communication logs, trade agreements, and financial records. The record request went all the way back to three years ago when Carl first accepted the trader position. It was long before she’d even met Carl, much less begun working at the camp or scavenging in his district.

Confused, Kayla looked up at Carl. “What’s this? What’s going on?”

He sighed, leaning back in his chair, and eyed the tablet with distaste. “I probably should have told you weeks ago about Alec monitoring our camp, but I knew it would bother you. As you know, OmniLab owns the trader camps and we’re all under contract with them. It’s unusual but not unheard of for them to demand access to our daily records and communication logs. Requests for that type of information have been rolling in since we left the towers. Granted, this level of surveillance is a bit unusual. I figured Alec wanted to make sure you were safe, and this was his way of going about it.”

Carl gestured to the tablet and his jaw tightened. “But this new demand is something completely different. After you walked out, Alec sent this over to me. Director Borshin wants to audit all my records. They’re looking into my finances and interactions between the ruin rat camps now. They’ve asked me to return to the towers immediately so I can go through my records with them.”

Kayla glanced down at the tablet again. “I don’t understand. Why would they want those records?”

His expression was grim, and he didn’t respond immediately. Finally, Carl sighed and rubbed his fingers over his face as though tired from the entire ordeal. “I don’t know, Kayla. Your guess is as good as mine. Alec isn’t particularly fond of me, and my first thought was that he might be trying to replace me as a trader.”

She stared at him in stunned shock, her grip tightening on the edge of the desk. Before she could say anything, he held up a hand. “Don’t worry. I dismissed the idea almost as soon as I had it. That tactic seems a little heavy-handed for him, regardless of our differences. In all honesty, I don’t know what he’s looking for in these records. I contacted Rand as soon as I ended the transmission with Alec. They’ve requested his camp’s records, too, but they’re not focusing on him to the same extent they’re focusing on me.”

Kayla frowned. “But Rand’s only been a trader for a month.”

Carl nodded. “Yes, and that might explain why they haven’t ordered him to report to the towers. Rand mentioned he spoke with Warig and Henkel earlier today, and neither one of them mentioned anything about an audit. Something about this doesn’t feel right to me. But whatever it is, I’ll handle it. I have nothing to hide.”

Kayla picked up the tablet and scrolled through the long list of requested information trying to find some clue to Alec’s motivation. Carl was right though. There was no love lost between the two men, but this didn’t make sense. Both Carl and Rand had supported her decision to leave the towers against Alec’s wishes. It troubled her that they were both being targeted. Why not the other traders?

Kayla jumped off the desk and paced, too agitated to sit still. “I don’t like that you’re being singled out. You’re the best trader OmniLab’s got. Some of the High Council even pointed that out when they were interviewing Rand for the trader position. Alec better not be doing this because he’s still pissed that I left with you.”

“We don’t know anything for sure. The High Council has every right to request the information, especially since the towers are under new leadership. Maybe that’s all this is. Either way, Alec has asked me to return to the towers tomorrow to go over my records with Director Borshin. I was asked to extend the invitation for you to accompany me.”

She froze at his words and slowly turned to face him. Their eyes locked and understanding filled her. “He’s using you to try and get me to go back, isn’t he?”

Carl nodded and stood, crossing the room toward her. “That much I agree with. It’s possible he’s just using this request as an excuse, especially after you refused his invitation. If that’s the case, it’s just more of a headache than anything else. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

Kayla frowned and considered Carl’s words. Part of her wanted to stay in the camp and just continue to ignore Alec, but a larger part wanted to go back to the towers and tell him exactly what she thought of his attempts to use Carl to manipulate her. If Alec’s actions were just affecting her, it might be different. But Alec’s interference was also impacting everyone in Carl’s camp, and she couldn’t let him continue to do that.

Unaware she was considering accompanying him, he continued, “Your idea about sending the samples to OmniLab for additional testing is a good one though. I’ll take them with me. I won’t be gone longer than a few days. When I get back, we can head back to the cavern. It’ll take a few days to run more stability scans anyway. In the meantime, would you mind helping Cruncher render those three-dimensional images?”

Aware he was waiting for a response, Kayla brought herself back to the conversation. “Sorry, what?”

Carl groaned. “It figures. You’re thinking about going because of what I said, aren’t you?”

“Maybe.” She looked away, not willing to meet his gaze. “So what if I am? Someone needs to tell Alec to back off, and I can do that a lot better face-to-face. He has no right to use you to get to me.”

Carl ran his hands over his face in frustration. “You’re going to send the message loud and clear that his plan worked. All he needs to do is call me back to the towers and you’ll go back too.”