Excerpt Book One: Chapter One
The mid-sized brownstone, which had been parceled into smaller apartments, felt like a place of respite when Daniel had moved in three years ago. It had reminded him a little bit of his childhood home except the neighborhood, with its smooth, tree-lined sidewalks and working street-lamps was a lot cleaner, and the landlord kept the building and its apartments in good repair.
He wondered if he could just rent out a closet to unplug himself, as if he was a robot powering down for the day. It wasn’t like he had much of a life beyond what he did at work. He thought about his routine: shower, dinner, read a book, and watch some baseball until he passed out. Not for the first time, he mused that he might look like he was twenty-eight, but there was no question that he lived like an old man. “America’s walking symbol of might,” he muttered. “Yup. That’s me.”
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes before opening the apartment building’s door, trying to exhale and erase the last three hours of his workday. He had been training his ROTC cadets at Roosevelt University outside in the mud for most of the afternoon. That wasn’t a hard thing in itself. Today his boss, accompanied by some important military recruiters, had come unannounced to watch him. He had decided to crank up the performance by a notch or three and, to his surprise, the cadets had balked. All through the hot afternoon, going through drill after drill with whiny cadets, Daniel had longed for a few days in the field on active duty, chasing down arms dealers. He’d take that over the rude laziness of this newest batch of entitled, apathetic students any day, especially considering today’s embarrassing display. Afterward, he had endured a spectacular chewing out by Rob Fisher, then by a couple of other higher-ups. Now tired, sweaty, and, although he wouldn’t dare admit it to anyone, a little achy, he was ready to end his day. He opened the door, grateful to close it to the world behind him.
He stood at the bottom of the stairs and noticed a small sofa blocking the path to his apartment. He put his hands on his hips, let his shoulders slump, and his head dropped toward his chest as he shook it. Straightening and backing up from the first step, he ran toward the sofa and jumped. His left leg twisted between cushions, sinking into the deep crease where the seat and back met. Pressing his palms flat on the floor to balance his weight, he tried to dislodge himself, but ended up taking an awkward lunge. Letting out a deep sigh, he surveyed the mess he had made.
“Sorry about that,” said a voice.
Daniel twisted in the direction of the voice. A young woman stood at the threshold of the building’s only first-floor apartment. From this angle, he couldn’t see her face right away. She was wearing light purple sneakers and torn-up jeans that hugged the bottom half of her hips. Her darker purple t-shirt, damp down the center, skimmed her narrow waist, emphasizing the roundness of her breasts.
She said something else, but his brain had gone momentarily numb. He looked up and stared at what seemed like Helen of Troy, come to life. She was stunning. Her eyes were large, with long eyelashes. Her nose was small and straight, and her mouth was full, evenly proportioned, and dark pink. Her black hair was pulled back in a long ponytail. The remote, artistic part of Daniel’s brain, which he’d thought long-buried, lit up. His long-abandoned sketchbook sprung to mind momentarily. He refocused.
“I should’ve asked the movers to bring this inside, but they said it was too bulky and it would cost extra,” she was saying. “I didn’t want to pay the extortion money. It’ll be out of your way as soon as I figure out how to maneuver it.” She smiled.
Daniel swallowed hard. He saw pretty women all the time. In fact, because of his unique standing at the university, he was a frequent recipient of unwanted female attention. They either came on too strong or acted awestruck, or they were way too young and silly. As a general rule, he disliked his semi-celebrity status as a youthful hero from a bygone era. If this woman showed interest, he admitted to himself, he might not mind so much. Her hands rested on her hips, as if she was waiting for him to say something. Had she asked him a question? “Very nice, schmuck ,” he thought. He prided himself on not being the kind of man who leered at or objectified women, but he couldn’t stop staring, all the while thinking, “I’m no better than the rest of them.” He used his hands to yank his foot out, rolled sideways, and hit his head on the banister. The banging of his skull against cast-iron bars clanged through his head.
“Are you alright?” She was a few steps closer now, just at the foot of the stairwell, looking up at him.
“Yeah.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I think your couch ate my shoe.” He put on what he hoped was a charming smile, then lurched forward as he tried to sit up straight. He barely avoided somersaulting over the couch and slid gracelessly down the stairs. He ended up sprawled on the floor looking up. It wasn’t a bad view. “Uh…do you need some help moving this, ma’am?” He pushed himself up to sit. He wondered why on Earth movers would just plunk someone’s stuff outside their door and leave, or demand extra to do their job, especially, when it was a beautiful girl who needed help. He fought the urge to voice his indignation at her treatment.
“Only if you’re up to it.” She waved a hand in front of him. He could feel his face heating. “I think you hit your head pretty hard.” She regarded him with concern. “I’m Nina, and I’d love the help, but can I help you first?”
“Oh, right. Yeah. I’m Daniel. Sure thing. I mean, I’m fine. Sure, I’ll help, thanks.” He figured he could find a picture of himself in the dictionary later, next to the word ‘awkward’. Then again, he also was pretty sure that he was one of the few people left on the planet who used a physical book for a dictionary. He slid himself down, careful not to topple the thing backward and onto her. Nina grabbed his arm to steady him as his he got to his feet.
Her skin was smooth and cool. Up close, he saw that her eyes were dark blue, almost indigo. Her complexion brought to mind a beach whose sand was soft, with a touch too much peach undertone to be called tan. She even smelled like the beach: seawater, driftwood, and some tropical flower. Jasmine, maybe. He was dizzy for a moment, as if he’d smacked his head again. He wobbled as he balanced between the one shod and one bare foot. He pulled his hand away and stepped back more abruptly than he’d intended. Nina’s brow furrowed. Daniel looked down at the sofa. “No. Yeah.” His voice was a hair higher than he would have liked. “I mean, I’ll help you get everything inside. Then uh…maybe I can get my shoe and sock out of your furniture.” He shifted his weight to his bare foot, wishing he’d been less awkward and more charming. He was perpetually stupid around dames. Women.
Excerpt Book 2: Chapter One
Daniel watched from the plane as the Beakers formed a shimmering blue cloud above the courtyard at the National Gallery of Art. The courtyard, with its gray, stone-tiled floor and its rainbow of colored souvenir and snack bar awnings, was mostly obscured. He saw people running in every direction, obviously terrified. Many of them were kids. He wished he could make the plane fly faster. “They’re controlled by your followers,” Graham said. He looked anxious, as if he, too, wished he were down there now. “I bet they’re trying to lure you into the open. Maybe you should stay back.”
They were in one of Rob’s larger aircrafts, the one he usually used for VIP’s. It was more like a flying hotel suite than a transport. The cabin had a couple of sofas and couches toward its center in addition to the comfortable but more traditional airplane seats used for emer gencies, takeoff, and landing. In the back, behind a partial wall, were a few bunks with privacy partitions. The plane’s amenities seemed excessive to Daniel, but on short notice, it was the most convenient one available.
He continued to peer down from the window. “Graham’s got a point, Nina.” He turned to her for acknowledgment. She shook her head.
The Beakers swarmed around the large fountain at the gallery’s sculpture garden. The team watched from above as most of the visitors and staff panicked and ran for cover. The problem was that no one seemed to agree on what safe cover meant, and the result was chaos as people screamed, shoving one another aside as they tried to get away. One group of eight children in their school uniforms, along with two adults, however, didn’t have the option to run. They were surrounded and cowering beneath a picnic table.
Daniel banged on the cockpit hatch and yelled to the pilot, “Get us down there, yesterday.”
Nina announced, “This can’t wait.” She stalked her way toward the plane’s cargo area.
“I’m not entirely sure what that meant,” Daniel mumbled to no one in particular. Kevin grabbed Daniel by the sleeve and pulled him along a few steps before they jogged after her.
Daniel and Kevin found Nina in the loading area by an entry hatch. “What the hell are you doing?” Kevin shouted as they closed the gap.
“We need to be down there now,” she insisted.
“Nina, step away from the hatch.” Daniel’s voice was firm. “Get back over here right now.” He could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t going to follow orders.
Kevin sprinted toward her. “No, you don’t, your goddessness.”
She ripped the latch away from the door next to the loading ramp and dove straight down toward the fountain just as the rest of the team joined them.
Daniel and Kevin looked at each other and cursed. “You three.” Daniel pointed at Graham, Ty, and Abioye. “Parachutes. You.” Daniel pointed at Kevin. “Get Miri and me down there now. Miri get those civilians out of the way. Kevin, work on the Beakers.”
As he wrapped one arm around Miriam and the other around Daniel, Kevin grumbled, “Weren’t women supposed to be under their men’s control in your day?” Miriam whipped her head toward him and narrowed her eyes. “Sorry,” Kevin said. They jumped, and Kevin’s boot thrusters engaged.***
Nina wasn’t sure how fast she could fly. In Uruk she couldn’t fly at all. Arms locked along the sides of her body, she willed herself to go faster. Closer up, she saw children and their chaperones huddled together on the ground. One child, a boy with light hair and pink cheeks, crawled away from the group. An adult’s arm reached out to grab him but missed. A Beaker swooped down, grabbed the little boy, and rose up into the sky. Nina thrust her fists ahead of her and picked up speed.
The Beaker, holding the child in its bottom four legs, rushed toward Nina head-on. The boy couldn’t have been more than seven. He was wearing khaki pants and a blue polo shirt, a typical school uniform. His floppy, blonde hair fell over his brow and stuck there. His eyes were scrunched shut and his chest heaved as he sobbed and screamed for his mother. They were only a few meters above the ground now and other Beakers buzzed around the group of adults and children. Nina didn’t change course. Daniel once referred to this maneuver as a game called ‘Chicken,’ which, now that she was participating, seemed like a preposterous name. The Beaker and boy were only an arm’s distance away. It made a sharp turn upward, soaring into the sky. The boy screamed.
Nina tore off after it but couldn’t get close enough to intercept. She clenched her jaw and her fists and surged toward them, wobbling as she forced herself to go faster. As she approached her target, it occurred to her that she wasn’t sure how to slow herself enough to snatch the boy away. The Beaker dove downward again. Nina careened along her trajectory for a few more yards, unable to change course in time to follow it right away. She drew her head and knees to her chest as she sped forward, curled into a ball, and tumbled along.
She hovered and looked for the Beaker once she stopped. It was moving further upward. Nina gave chase. She clenched her fists and jaw, and the air burned her cheeks and knuckles as she picked up speed. She was at least a couple of yards away when without warning the Beaker let go of the boy. The child plummeted toward the ground. Nina went cold. “No,” she shrieked.
She nose-dived to catch him, using gravity to propel herself faster. She rocketed down and then jerked backward as fingers yanked at her arm. Sharp pain shot through her left arm up to her neck. Nina dangled as the Beaker held her wrist in its fist. It zig-zagged through the sky, pulling her along as she flailed. Her arm popped from its shoulder socket. The shock of separation flared along her torso, causing her to lose her breath.
She hung there, held together only by ligaments and skin. The Beaker held her in one hand and a tree branch another hand. The air whooshed as they ascended. There was no way Nina could save the boy; the Beaker carried her further and further away from the scene, as if abducting her, as if Graham had been right, and she had been the target all along.
She bit the insides of her cheeks and shook. She reached behind with her free hand and grabbed the shaft of her spear. There was no room to angle it properly. Her eyesight blurred with tears. She whacked the Beaker in the side with her spear and it thwapped against its midsection. The Beaker squealed and held on as bright blue fluid seeped from its side. She returned her spear to its sling. Heat burst at her shoulder and spread through her as she grabbed one of the legs holding her, drew her free arm to her chest, and kicked her feet into the wound. The Beaker burst into wet, blue dust, and Nina was left holding the small tree branch. She shoved it into her sling and whisked herself downward, one arm still dangling painfully. She charged toward an empty ice cream stand whose green, steel awning had a large, deep indentation from the two Beakers who had just landed on it. She heard the buzzing of two more sets of wings approach from behind her.
Nina landed in a crouch. She grabbed her left arm in her right hand. Suppressing a yelp, she shoved it upward, reconnecting her shoulder. Her left side throbbed as she stood.
The buzzing got louder. As the four Beakers she’d already seen landed in front of her, two more approached her from the ground. Their wings were like translucent, shiny mirrors, shimmering and bouncing sunlight into Nina’s eyes. She squinted and pivoted to face the two who had just landed. She grabbed and angled her spear. They rushed at her. She sprang forward, shoving the shaft against their necks with all her might. The two Beakers made a high-pitched gurgling sound and stumbled backward. They leapt to their feet and flew away.
Nina pivoted and gouged a Beaker through its middle with the spear’s head. It burst and disappeared. The two Beakers who Nina thought had flown away hurtled forward. She retreated toward a concrete wall. The Beakers closed in. She lunged sideways and hurled her spear into the torso of the one closest to her. It screeched as the weapon ripped straight through it and the next and stuck in the last one. Nina tore the spear out of the Beaker’s gut and it screamed. The creatures exploded. Blue particles shimmered in the air and evaporated.
She pivoted in time for a heavy fist to thud against her lower jaw, knocking her onto her back. The impact reverberated along her spine and through the back of her skull. The taste of iron and salt filled her mouth. She pushed herself up to stand as two Beakers ran at her on their rear legs with the other four angled to grip her. She crouched and shot up into the sky, causing the Beakers to topple into each other. They landed in a buzzing, blue heap. Nina aimed her spear again and launched it straight down. It pierced them through, obliterating them into blue specks before they disappeared.
She glanced around for the boy. Her displaced shoulder protested the constant, repetitive movement of throwing her weapon. By now, her teammates had joined in the fray. Daniel parried three of the Beakers with a small table. Abioye slashed a Beaker’s head from its body, making it explode. Kevin and Ty seared the creatures with fire and light, causing them to burst into blue dust. More Beakers lay on the ground full of crossbow bolts before they, too, evaporated and the bolts clattered to the ground. Nina saw flashes of silver light as Miriam whisked civilians to safety.
Excerpt Book 3: Chapter One
The fluorescent overhead lights in the WISE conference room hummed and cast a stark-white hue over the blank, gray walls. Daniel held the chair out for Nina, who sat and smiled up at him as he took a seat next to her. Graham followed, balancing a bagel wrapped in paper and a disposable coffee cup in one hand. He set them down next to Daniel, dug around in his jeans pocket, and produced a wadded napkin to clean the cream cheese that had squeezed out and stuck to his palm.
“Hey guys, back already?” he asked, sitting down.
Daniel smiled. “We couldn’t stay away forever.”
Across from him, Ty stirred a packet of powdered creamer into a mug with a fake prescription label for coffee printed on it. He yawned, stretched his arms overhead and cracked his knuckles.
“Did we miss anything?” Daniel asked.
Ty smiled and scratched his head. “Since you’ve been gone for a whole two days? Not much.” He took a sip from his cup. “A lot of rain, unseasonably cold temperatures for this time of year. Where did you hole yourselves up?”
Daniel sat up. “What? What do you mean we were gone for only two days?”
Miriam breezed in and sat across from Nina at the front end of the table. She grinned at Daniel. “Well, you two look a whole lot more relaxed. Good weekend?”
Daniel shook his head. “It’s been over a week…”
Nina leaned toward him and cupped her hand outside his ear. “Time is different where we were,” she whispered.
Daniel nodded. He smiled at Miriam. “Yeah. A few issues, but overall a good weekend.” He threaded his fingers through Nina’s. Ty cleared his throat.
Rob walked through the door, frowning. Usually, he had a slight spring in his step, as if everywhere he went, there was a sense of purpose. Today, his steps were measured and slow. Marcus followed, tight-lipped, staring straight ahead. Daniel heard Kevin and Abioye in animated discussion, and the heavy silence that accompanied the two bosses into the room muted them. Their smiles vanished as they took their seats on Ty’s side of the table. Rob stood at the head of the table. “First of all, congratulations.”
Heat crept up the back of Daniel’s neck and his breath caught. He leaned toward Nina. “What did you say to them?” he whispered. A brief vision of the ritual they’d performed, the mutiny of her people, and the way she had writhed and screamed his name when he’d used his mouth on her later on that night in Uruk popped into his mind, and imagined how pale he must have looked right now.
Nina shrugged and mouthed, “Nothing.”
“Excuse me?” Daniel’s stomach twisted. He knew his jaw had dropped and that he was gaping at Marcus and Rob.
“Marcus and I have been talking about things over the past couple of days. We’ve got enough artifacts to keep the Concordance Group from going through with building the Eye of Enlil. We’re not out of the woods, but we’ve bought ourselves time to wrap this up and toss it.”
Nina made a face. Daniel opened his mouth to explain when Ty piped in, “It means we’re not completely finished with this issue yet, but things are looking good. He’s telling us we still have a few things to do before we can stop worrying […], but he’s feeling confident that we’ll be able to put this all behind us soon.”
She smiled at him. “Thanks, Ty.” Ty grinned back. Daniel squeezed Nina’s hand and she pulled it away from him.
“Right,” Rob said. He looked at Daniel. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have let you and Nina go anywhere.” Daniel looked at his lap and suppressed a smile.
He heard Miriam stifle a laugh, and once again wondered what Nina might have revealed, especially to her friend. When he was a kid, it had been a common assumption that women couldn’t help gossiping. “We still have work to do,” Rob said. […] Marcus and I plan to confer a lot over the next couple of weeks with the team leader. Abioye, Nina, and Graham are going to be doing some research and recon, and the rest of you will have specific assignments.” He looked at Daniel. “I need you to come with me and Marcus for a minute.”
Marcus and Rob got up and left the room and Daniel followed, closing the door behind him. They stood a few feet away from the door, where they were less likely to be heard.
Rob leaned on the wall and let his shoulders drop. Above him was a print of Lionheart from back in the forties. In this picture, he was posing with some airmen in front of a bomber. He recalled that the photo had been taken in France. He refocused on Rob and Marcus, whose knuckles had turned white as he clutched his briefcase.
“There’s no way to say this other than bluntly. I’m taking you off-point while we go into Phase Two,” Rob said.
A rock seemed to drop into the pit of Daniel’s stomach. “I beg your pardon?”
“You’re a valuable part of the team,” Smallwood said, “and we need you with us, but not as the team leader right now.”
Daniel’s heart thudded. “I was exonerated. I didn’t argue with the time off-duty. My record is…”
“Your record was spotless,” Rob interrupted. “You’re losing control of the team, and we can’t afford that, especially not now.” Neither of Daniel’s bosses looked happy to deliver the news. It wasn’t often that Rob actually looked diminutive. In reality, Rob was a slight, five-foot-eight man, and delivering the news seemed to shrink his ego back to the size of his body. He had bags under his eyes, which his black-framed glasses appeared to deepen against his dark skin. “This isn’t in any way a disciplinary action or a demotion. I want you to know that, and it’s temporary.”
“Yup.” Daniel clamped his mouth shut, turned, and walked back into the room. He heard the door close behind him as he made his way back to his seat next to Nina.
Rob made the announcement to the team. “For now, Captain Rye’s on point.” Seated next to Ty, Kevin blanched. It was obvious that neither Rob nor Marcus had told Kevin about this. “To be clear, this is coming from me directly to all of you. Kevin, come see me in my office upstairs in two hours; Daniel, come see me in my office in ten minutes.”
Rob and Marcus exited before there could be any questions. The team sat around the conference table in stunned silence. Kevin’s shoulders dropped. “Look Hecht, this wasn’t how I envisioned things going down.”
“Yeah,” Daniel replied. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Nina bristled and glared at Kevin. “This is temporary. He did nothing wrong.”
Graham put his hand on her upper back. “Hey, the more of an issue we make of this, the worse it’ll be. No one thinks…”
“There’s a reason for this,” Kevin interrupted, but not very loudly or authoritatively.
Nina shrugged Graham’s hand away. “There is no good reason.” Her voice was raised. She rose from her seat. Daniel, without looking at her, grabbed her arm and pulled at her to sit down. “Please let it go,” Daniel whispered. Nina flushed, and her eyes narrowed, but she closed her mouth and sat down.
Miriam stood up next. “I guess congratulations or something,” she muttered to Kevin. Pale and tight-lipped, she left the room.
Daniel looked around the table. “I dropped the ball. We’ve had too many failed missions, a fight ended up with casualties as well as public destruction, and I didn’t reign in…certain behaviors in the field even though as the point person, it was my duty. I know why this is happening. […].
Kevin stood up and reached his arm toward Daniel. Daniel got up and did the same. The men shook hands. “Short-term change,” Kevin promised.
Daniel nodded “You can bet on it.”
The group filed out of the room, leaving Nina and Daniel alone. Nina looked like she might cry. “I took advantage. I should have shown you more respect and deference in battle.”
Daniel sat up on the table, spread his legs, and pulled her into a hug. “You were still learning and I’m a big softie,” he told her. “This is on me. I’m not in huge trouble; I’m not going to lose my job.”
She held still and took a shuddery breath.
“I’m not upset, Nina. My reasons for wanting to be in charge were more about anxiety and needing to control a situation than any desire to boss people around.” Even he heard the resignation in his voice. He squeezed her once more and let her go. “Why don’t you wait for me in the arboretum, I need to talk to Rob.” Nina nodded, kissed Daniel’s cheek, and left the room.