Read Stray Online

Authors: Rachael Craw

Stray

Contents

Cover

Blurb

Logo

Champagne

Rules

Halloween

Virgin

Love

Signals

Flight

Tesla

Harvest

Implant

Ovaries

Sanction

Responsibility

Treatment

Decisions

Requests

Allergy

Revolution

Felon

Hypothermia

Scalpel

Monster

Superstition

Asset

Knox

Secret

ReProg

Symbiosis

Shields

Fault

Blame

Proxy

Prisoner

Manipulation

Miriam

Road Trip

Rain

Static

Storm

Attic

Wounds

Cylinder

Brother

Paralysis

Promises

Lies

Tears

Truth

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Copyright

Dedication

Other Books by Rachael Craw

Coming Soon

It’s hard to remember hating anything as much as I hate Affinity; a bone-deep loathing for the faceless unknown and the concrete walls of my own DNA
.

EVIE IS A SHIELD:
designed to kill in order to protect, and the Affinity Project have finally come for her. But Evie isn’t ready for the sinister organisation to take control of her life, her body, her mind. She isn’t ready to follow their rules about who can live and who must die – not when it condemns the innocent. She has one option: risk losing everything and everyone – including Jamie – and run
.

CHAMPAGNE

I turn my back on the last pale slice of light cutting through Kitty’s balcony doors, the sun sinking slow and heavy behind the trees of the Gallaghers’ estate, a cold burn at the end of a cold day, the end of a long cold month. I wish it had been longer. I hate time passing, its threats and pressure in the atmosphere. It leaves me dry-mouthed, calculating the number of days since the Warden made her sweep, since the night of the attack, since Aiden was arrested … Tomorrow it will be November.

Kitty has left a costume on her bed for me. It looks tiny. The pins and needles in my spine elevate to an aggravated stabbing. Defeated already, I brush the stiff synthetic fabric with my knuckles. “Is this all they had?”

Her voice echoes from the bathroom. “Don’t be ungrateful.”

“I said, nothing lame.”

“It’s not like I didn’t have an entire committee to coordinate on top of everything else.” Indignation always broadens her English accent.

“Keeping you alive wasn’t exactly twiddling my thumbs.”

“Think of it as a compliment,” she calls. “It was probably the only thing left because nobody else could pull it off. Besides, it’s funny. An in-joke!” She steps out of the bathroom looking like she’s been poured into the black PVC of her Catwoman costume.

I blink at her. “Batman’ll have a heart attack.”

“I should hope so,” she says, her pronunciation round and crisp. She turns on the spot to provide the full effect, light glinting off the gentle slopes and peaks of her fine frame, and finishes with her hands on her hips. “Haven’t eaten for a week.”

“Maybe Pete will survive. Doubt your father will let you leave the house.”

She wrinkles her nose beneath the black mask. “It’s not that bad.”

I wave at the costume on the bed and its complicated accessories. “I can’t wear that.”

“Don’t be such a baby.” Her grey eyes, artfully smudged and mascaraed, sparkle darkly. She raises her finger and crosses the room to the oak chest. Biting her lip, she pulls a huge bottle of champagne from her bottom drawer. It’s like something you’d christen a boat with. “Dutch courage?”

I close my eyes. “Barb is going to kill you.”

Kitty giggles, a breathless sound, a reckless sound, making me an accomplice with her furtive glance at the door, asking, all clear? I strain to listen. Her folks are downstairs; it’s a big house but if I concentrate I can pick out the faint sounds of movement. Jamie’s in his room; I know without trying to hear. I reach into the bandwidth for his signal so familiar and resonant, so attuned to my own. It pulses back to me. I wonder if he knows I’m reaching for him. I could give him a telepathic nudge but that might bring him up the hall and I’m not sure what he’d say about his sister’s boat champagne. Apparently it’s unusual for Shields to sense signals they’re not bound to, but I doubt my ability was intended for this sort of application, playing lookout for a teen lush. I give a reluctant nod – it’s safe. She grins, fishing crystal flutes from the same drawer. She pours two glasses and returns with a sweet smile, flicking her honey-blonde bob back from her face. “The others will be here soon. It’s Friday night. It’s Halloween! And you’re not going to ruin my buzz.”

The last time I drank was at the Governor’s Ball, moments before my DNA went ballistic at Kitty’s touch, binding me to her signal, making me her Shield. Hardly a comforting association to have with a glass of champagne. That time, I never got to enjoy the supposed benefits of booze: increased confidence, indifference to gossip and the opportunity to forget my troubles. No doubt I could use all those benefits tonight. I blow through my lips and drain the glass in one hit. It makes my eyes water and my nose run. She cheers and I cough over my fist, holding the glass out for a refill. “People will see my scars.”

Her gaze flits from my left arm to my right shoulder where, beneath my shirt, bullet holes have left a permanent reminder of my mutant genes. “People know you have scars,” she says, which is true. They just don’t know how I got them, shot by my boyfriend and my boyfriend’s mom - accidentally, of course. There are rumours. Always rumours.

“Scars will go down a treat. Get dressed. I’ll braid your hair.” She turns to the bookcase and pumps the volume on her sound system to shut me up.

In the bathroom, I dump the costume and its artillery on the cool tiles, swearing under my breath, torn between genuine dismay at what I’ve gotten myself into and grudging satisfaction at Kitty’s good mood. I sigh at the mirror. Our joking disguises a level of feeling too tender to poke at. Kitty lives. So does Aiden - a miracle beyond any I had dared hope for. In the last few weeks the wonder of it has broken over me multiple times a day and with it fear that taints the future, the Affinity Project, Orientation, disciplinary hearings, Jamie … always Jamie. Soon they will come for me and when they do they’ll Harvest my memories and find out about Aiden.

This is what obsesses me during the day and terrorises me at night. Affinity won’t let Aiden live – Miriam and Jamie have hinted as much – protocol won’t allow it. The fact he was a Stray, that he attempted to take Kitty’s life, condemns him. It makes no difference that he didn’t have a choice, that he was bound by the mutation in his DNA to fixate, stalk and kill. It makes no difference that he has changed.

A month ago I lay in the emergency room next to Aiden. My blood pumped into his drained, unconscious body. In my desperation I Transferred the full kinetic memory of my Sparking experience to him. Either my blood or my memory or the combination of both resulted in Aiden having a massive seizure on the operating table. The psychic tether, binding us both to Kitty, released and all danger left the bandwidth. I knew then Kitty was safe.

I lie awake imagining how I might explain all this and convince the Affinity Project Aiden has deactivated, but all the arguments against it shout me down.
It’s never happened before – a Deactivation – and just because he’s no longer bound to Kitty doesn’t mean he won’t become a threat to someone else
. I always hear these points in Jamie’s implacable voice.

So, in bed each night I compile lists, known variables and possible outcomes, fantasy scenarios where I liberate Aiden from the detention centre and come up with infallible evidence that stops Affinity from hunting him down. I have all kinds of rash confidence plotting a felony in the dark but then sunlight dismantles my courage. Jamie and Kitty pick me up for school and their smiles disintegrate my resolve. How can I do it to them?

How can I not when my brother is running out of time?

Miriam has promised we’ll visit him this weekend. She doesn’t like me pushing the issue but I know she’s losing sleep over Aiden as much as I am.

Another glass of champagne. I focus on the sweet burn fuming in the back of my nose. Not a second thought for Miriam’s warning when she dropped me off, “Remember, no alcohol.” Let it seep into my bloodstream and dissolve the fear of the unknown, the fear of the inevitable. One night’s reprieve isn’t too much to ask, is it?

I screw my nose up at my reflection – my faint spray of freckles. Sure, I’m pale but at least I have colour in my cheeks. Tonight, the green in my eyes trumps the blue and the flecks of black and gold seem pronounced. I tuck my hair behind my ears and straighten up, surprised by the rush to my head. I frown at the empty glass. “That was quick.”

It takes a moment for the dizziness to ease, then I peel my sweater over my head and unbutton my jeans. In my black lace bra and briefs, I turn from side to side, evaluating the scars on my arms. Kitty’s right: they work as Halloween accessories. The rest of my body is bruise-free, a rare thing, and I am grateful, enjoying a break from the endless training of previous months.

The chocolate-brown shorts are alarmingly short and the sleeveless shirt has the give of a rubber tube, leaving red marks on my arms in the fight to get it over my head, the thick elastic thwacking my ribs. I suppose breathing isn’t everything, and wowsers – hello, boobs! I keep my back to the mirror, unsure that champagne will cut it as fuel for courage. I probably need the whole damned bottle. I fumble for a full five minutes trying to figure out the straps and clips that go around my waist and thighs. There’s a knock on the door. I grab the handle too hard and crush it, a brief groan of metal.
Damn it
. “Don’t come in!”

“I won’t,” Kitty calls. “I’m just leaving the boots and extras right here.” She pauses before adding, “You’re a good sport, Evs. Jamie’s a lucky boy.”

“Go away!” I rub my palm, feeling the bruise on the inside of my thumb knuckle and scowl at the concentric dents in the doorknob, a match for my grip. Am I that wired? Kitty won’t be mad; I’ve broken plenty of the Gallaghers’ doorknobs, but I slide my fingers into the grooves hoping I haven’t damaged the inner workings of the handle. It turns – I hear the clunk of the latch – and I snatch up the remainder of the costume, shutting the door before Kitty can get a good look at me. By the time I lace up the boots, pull on the black fingerless gloves with their Velcro strips, and find homes for the fake artillery – silver guns, grenades and all – my head is spinning. It isn’t that long ago I was loading my pockets with live ammunition. I swallow and turn to the mirror. “Holy crap. Tomb Raider.”

I grab Kitty’s brush and rake it through the length of my hair, steeling myself against the memory and the assault of my reflection. I yank against snags until they tug away at the ends, until my hair crackles with static, trying to keep my mind on the night ahead. The key to surviving public humiliation is in projecting confidence … or is it indifference? Mom – well, the mom I grew up with – had loads of catchy advice for moments like this. Not being able to remember her words exactly makes my chest ache. I put the brush down and stare at the sink hole, waiting for April’s voice in my head, the wry twist of her mouth, the way she moved her hands when she talked. I can’t be forgetting things already – she hasn’t even been gone a year. My throat thickens. Sometimes I think it would take a frontal lobotomy to avoid the landmines in my head, loss and worry waiting to blow.

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