From Imagination To Publication

Monday, February 29, 2016

Monday Morning Sneak Peek: HANNA, HANNA, ONE-AND-TWO by Myndi Shafer

Did a weekend of reading leave you wanting more? 
Sneaking peeks of your newest novel from under
your desk at work? 

For the eternal is your 
Monday Morning Sneak Peek!



Twenty-two year old Johanna Cochrin has spent the past six years in self-imposed silence. After witnessing her brother's murder, she vowed to take his secret to the grave - even if that meant living the rest of her life as a prisoner in a remote government compound. But when she is kidnapped from that compound, Johanna finds her silence difficult to maintain. With the ruthless dictator of a fragile government plotting to sacrifice her to a time-altering Device, she is forced to trust people she has never met, share secrets she never meant to share, and come to terms with her own mortality - all while trying to save the world.


Hanna, Hanna, Where Are You?

Palm reading is a load of crap.
Every palm that has ever opened to receive a gift, that has ever collided with a cheek in a slap, that has ever stroked the perfect smoothness of a baby’s skin, or the stubble of a man’s beard - every single one had valleys and gullies that ran across its plain. Every palm that ever was, every palm that will ever be, every palm that is. But those lines don’t mean anything. Life line, love line, heart line - everyone’s got them. Fate line - not everyone’s got that one. If you don’t, don’t lose any sleep over it. Those lines don’t mean a damn thing.
Every night as I fall asleep, I listen for the sounds of the wilder-than-most outside the door of my shack. In these parts, the brush wolves are our biggest fear. A wilder-than-most wolf could rip out my throat in three seconds flat, and just like that, my story would be over. The little pot of boiling water I keep on my stove would make a pitiful weapon against them, but it’s better than nothing. Hopefully it would buy Joby enough time to go in for the kill, and that’s really all that matters.
So I listen, and while I listen, I rub the fate line on my left hand, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, like it’s something I could wear away with enough time and enough pressure. I picture it in my mind’s eye while I do: a perfectly vertical crease in my palm with a starburst of lines that dance out from it, like an abstract compass or star. Some folks would call it beautiful. I wouldn’t go that far. Unusual, yes. Unfortunate, probably. Beautiful? No.
Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, I rub it.
Every morning when I wake up,
it’s still there.


It’s been six years to the day since my brother was killed. That’s when they put me here. It seems like I’m alone.
There’s a full one-square mile section inside of the fence. Electric current runs through it twenty-four seven even though the Trench is lucky to get power a few hours out of the day. I’ve never thought of myself a Trenchwoman, but rumor has it Haier doesn’t consider prisoners much better than Trenchfolk, so I try to take the electrified fence as a compliment. It also does a pretty good job of keeping out the wilder-than-most, so you won’t hear me complain about it. The fence after that one, a quarter mile away? I might gripe about it. The one after that, a half-mile away? It seems a little redundant. Three fences to keep in all 5-feet-two inches of me...
You know how it is, right? When a guy compliments you, and you say thanks, but he keeps on gushing about how pretty/smart/funny/angelic/whatever you are, and after a while it stops sounding genuine and just becomes pretty damn annoying. That’s what those last two fences are to me.
I avoid the fence most of the time. When I’m away from it, it almost feels like I’m alone. But I’m not stupid enough to settle into that feeling. Every move I make is watched by careful eyes whose job it is to make sure that I stay harmless, but most of all, that I stay unharmed. The scrawny tree outside my shack, the one that always seems surprised by its own shadow, houses a camera. So does the dingy mirror over the sink that doubles for my kitchen and bathroom. No way for me to prove it, but the moon probably has a camera on it, watching my sorry excuse of an existence.
I flip them off every chance I get, just in case someone’s watching. It probably drew a few laughs at first, when I was younger. People like to laugh at crap like that - young kids using obscenities they don’t understand. Now, though, I’m sure they’re bored with me. Tired of watching me.
It’s a satisfying thought.
Four times each day they rotate guards along each length of the fence. Once a week since they put me here, I’ve walked to that fence, chosen a guard, and stood in front of him, and stared him straight in the face, making him see me. I refuse to ignore them, to pretend they’re not there, that I’m just living my life like any other person. I’m a prisoner, and I know it. I won’t forget it.
They always look away before I do, waiting until my back is turned to hurl insults or slurs or threats that leave my skin crawling. Those are the only moments I’m grateful for the cameras. President Haier, being a woman, frowns upon rape.
There is very little else she frowns upon, especially when it comes to getting what she wants. Certainly not murder.
There used to be one guard who looked at me longer than the rest. When I took my place in front of him, he’d stare back, stubbornness written in the color of his eyes and the set of his jaw. Once he actually smiled. It wasn’t a cold grin, or even a leer. It was a real smile, genuine as the sunrise, and it reached his eyes.
That day I looked away first, tripping over my feet as I ran. He didn’t call after me, not then, not ever.
I avoided him after that, but whenever he was there, I knew it. It was a gut thing, almost like a primal thing. He wasn’t like the other guards. That made him dangerous. With the others, I knew what to expect; with him I was in uncharted waters. Danger, my gut whispered. Stay away from that one. But I was young, and curious - intrigued by the man with the sunrise smile. I walked by him every day, far enough away that it could seem that I just happened to be where he was, but close enough that I could snatch a glance or two out of the corner of my eye. I thought the act was clever, un-see-throughable.
I thought wrong.
One cold day he started coughing as I walked past. The sound of it stopped me in my tracks, and I turned. He squatted to the ground and opened his coat. A puppy was tucked inside. A fucking puppy. The guard’s eyes never left mine as the puppy cantered toward me with its clumsy gait. His mouth broadened into that sunrise-smile again. Somehow a fist found its way into my chest and grabbed my heart, squeezing with all its might. For the second time, I looked away first.
That was my seventeenth birthday.
The next day his face was swollen with bruises. His mouth didn’t smile, but his eyes still carried traces of dawn. Day after that, he was gone.
I named the puppy Joby. I wanted to name him after my brother, but it seemed like bad luck. I didn’t want to lose him like I lost Bill, and the chances of Haier letting me keep the dog were less than slim without an unlucky name haunting him. The dog was the first warm, breathing thing I’d touched since the day my brother died. I wanted to keep him as badly as a person’s lungs want to breathe air.
Turns out, Joby was a lucky name - no one ever came to take him from me. Now he is all I have, and I’m all he has. You could say we’re in a mutually exclusive relationship.
Two days before Bill was murdered, he came home. To see me, he said, and tell me a secret. Nothing could have prepared my sticky-sweet teenage-girl self for what he told me. It was an uneasy Truth, a dangerous Secret - the kind of thing nobody believes except crazy Trenchmen and fallen HighBorn who’d fled to the nowhere places of the plains. I didn’t believe him - still not sure if I do, entirely - but I’ve decided to take it on faith. Faith in my brother. Faith for what he thought he knew. At sixteen years old, I suddenly found myself faced with a burden whose weight felt unbearable without him there to bear it with me.
What’s left of my homeland - the dismantled regions of what used to be the North American Allegiance back when my grandfather was a boy - operate under a precarious sort of peace that’s held together by two things. Two things its leaders lust after; two things its leaders all fear:
It, and me.
I don’t know about It, but I belong to her, and as long as I am in this cage within a cage within a cage, President Haier has less to fear than the others. As long as I am in this cage, I am contained. Not controllable, but not exploitable, either. At least, not by people on the wrong side of the fence.
Even so, I like to think there are nights that she wakes up sweating and terrified at the thought of me. Because I know what she doesn’t. I know how to make It sing. I can either be her Messiah, or I can ruin her fucking life.
After my brother’s murder she tried to talk it out of me. I held my tongue. Gentle coaxing turned to beating. Beating turned to torture.
But I would not speak.
That was a problem for her.
So she put me here. Prisoner, national treasure, however you want to look at it. Titles don’t matter.
It would be a lie to say the thought of killing myself has never gone through my mind, especially in those early days, those days without Joby. But that would have made it too easy for her. She’d have to find a way to cover up and move on. Make do. Forget.
Move on? Forget? Them?
Not after what they did to Bill. I won’t let her. No.
Instead, every day, she’ll get to see my pretty face and remember. Remember that if I get free, she’s screwed. Remember that if I die, her best chance at using It will die with me. Remember that when it comes down to it, I hold all the cards.
So I live to torture her. To honor my brother.
To piss her the hell off.
And no matter what happens, whatever she does, I won’t talk.

Friday, February 26, 2016

BOOK SALE! Who has $0.99?

Don't you just love the fact that you can buy books with the money you find in your couch??

Bridget Young would be perfectly happy with an average, boring existence, but the car accident that killed her sister took away everything normal in her life. As if high school wasn’t hard enough on its own, now she spends her days helping unhappy ghosts move on to the afterlife. Dealing with death on a daily basis is too much for one girl to handle, so when she finds a way to get rid of her supernatural sight, she jumps at the chance. But when a missing student turns up as a freshly murdered ghost with a taste for vengeance, Bridget realizes she's the only one who can find the killer. With innocent lives hanging in the balance, Bridget must decide if she’s willing to sacrifice her one chance at a normal life.

Join Bridget and her rag-tag team of ghostly companions for a nail-biting 
mystery that will keep you up all night.

Read PHANTOM TOUCH, Book 1 of the Phantoms Series for the scary-good price of 99 cents this week only, or check it out free on Kindle Unlimited. And if you love a series, Book 2 is out this week and ready for you to read when you finish!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

NEW book by Kat Ross! Squeeee!

You know I super-raved about SOME FINE DAY and all its awesome. It was the kind of awesome you search for on the YA shelves at B&N. The kind of awesome you're just hooooping will sucks you in the way Hunger Games did or Divergent, whatever your poison...and then it's BETTER. THAT kind of awesome.

So...when I say there is a new book by Kat Ross, it's totally okay for you to freak out. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Feel better? ;)

Now to the good stuff.

Are you ready for the cover?

I KNOW!! RIGHT?? Feel free to judge it by its cover...go right ahead and do it. You won't be disappointed. I was such a lucky duck to be able to read this bad boy before it gets published. Imagine reading TWILIGHT for the first go crazy, right? Then imagine you make friends with Stephenie Meyer. It's like, super weird, but cool. Then imagine she's like, "Hey, do you want to read my next book before anyone else?" Of course you faint, but then you get up and act totally cool, like you meant to faint. You do it all the time... *nervous laugh*

Then, you ask Stephenie if she might want to be publishing partners with you and she says yes. *Double Faint*

Haha! Okay, okay...I've talked it up enough. Congrats, Kat. The book is awesome.

See for yourself, people! Here is a little exerpt:

On my seventeenth birthday, the magus summoned me to his study.
I sat down and waited while he shuffled through a stack of papers. Finally, he looked up.
"I've found you a daēva," he said.
I sat very still, hardly breathing.
"His name is Darius. He was raised by the magi in Karnopolis. By all accounts, obedient and devout. And powerful." The magus held my eyes. "Very powerful. The strongest in generations, if his keepers are to be believed. You were chosen because your gift is so great." He sighed. "And because I can't leave either of you unbonded much longer. You're nearing the time when your mind will become too rigid to accept him, Nazafareen. And so that is my present to you. Are you happy?"
"Yes, magus. Very happy." I was happy. I was also nervous.
"Do you wish to meet him?"
My heart lurched. "He's here?"
"In the yard, waiting for us. Oh yes, and his curse is a withered left arm. I thought the fact that you are left-handed would be a nice complement."
I let out a long breath as we walked outside. Bonding my daēva meant I could hunt Druj. Go on patrol with Ilyas and the others. I'd been waiting for this moment for three years. And yet part of me still wanted to run in the other direction as fast as I could.
We came around the corner of the barracks and there he was. A boy still, although not for much longer. I took in the close-cropped brown hair and pale, serious face. His sky-blue tunic matched his eyes, which were not particularly warm. More along the lines of one of the glacial lakes I'd bathed in as a child.
I walked right up to him, refusing to be cowed. It seemed prudent to let him know who was in charge immediately.
"I'm Nazafareen," I said.
Darius nodded. His face was perfectly impassive, but did I see a spark in those eyes? Of fear? Contempt? It came and went too fast to tell.
I had no idea what to say next, so we just stood there in awkward silence for what felt like an eternity. Finally, the magus spoke.
"Come. Satrap Jaagos and the other Water Dogs are waiting."
The bonding ceremony took place in the audience chamber of the satrap. It was a cavernous room, with vaulted ceilings of gilded tile and three marble pillars. The walls were carved with bas-reliefs of horses, their arched necks and braided manes rendered in exquisite detail.
Jaagos sat on his throne, his Water Dogs arrayed to either side. Half of them wore tunics of sky blue, the other half of a deep, bloody red.
I'd seen Jaagos from afar a few times, but this was the closest I'd ever been to him. In the moment before I prostrated myself, I saw a chubby man dressed in a rich gown of silver thread. He was bald as an egg, with thick lips and sloping shoulders. A housecat among lions.
I pressed my forehead to the stone. To my right, Darius did the same.
I was keenly aware of the eyes of the Water Dogs on me. They were the ones I wanted to impress, especially Ilyas. I didn't give a fig about the satrap, except that I knew I didn't want to make him angry. His authority was absolute, the hand of the King in Tel Khalujah, and if he wanted me dead, he had only to make the slightest gesture and it would be done.
"Get on with it," Jaagos said after an appropriate amount of time had passed for the obeisance.
The magus stepped forward. "You are Water Dogs, the holiest of all dogs," he said. "Without water there is no life, yet water has the power to destroy as well as to create. May your impurities be washed away." The magus slowly poured the contents of a silver bowl over our heads.
"May the Holy Father keep you and guide your actions," he intoned. "May the bond bestowed this day be true and pure. May you always serve the cause of light and shun the darkness."
He set the bowl aside and pulled on a pair of leather gloves. Then he took out a gold cuff, thick and worked with snarling lions. Had he touched it with his bare hands, he would have bonded Darius himself instantly.
The magus's face swam in my vision as he knelt before us. Darius had gone a deathly pale, but he looked at the cuff—the twin of one already encircling his right arm—without wavering. I resolved not to show him how afraid I was. Not to give him that victory.
"You will fight as one, live as one," the magus said. "You will carry out the will of the Holy Father, as directed by your King and satrap. Good words, good thoughts, good deeds. By the Prophet and the Holy Father are you bonded."
Then he snapped the cuff around my wrist and locked it with a tiny golden key. I may have cried out. I probably did. Because I wasn't alone anymore. Floodgates opened in my mind, releasing a torrent of alien emotions. Next to me, Darius drew a sharp breath as the same thing happened to him, although I barely heard it.
Panic surged through me, followed by an aching loss so deep it tore a hole in my heart. I didn't know if it was mine or his, or both feeding off the other. And I felt his power, a deep, churning pool of it, held tight in my fist.
"It is done," the magus said.
My knees trembled as I stood. Darius offered me his hand but I was afraid to touch him so Ilyas took charge of me, leading me from the audience chamber to the fire temple. We knelt there together. I tried to pray, but my teeth were chattering.
"It gets easier with time," Ilyas said in a soothing tone, as if he was talking to a small child. "You'll learn to tell the difference between your own feelings and his. To separate them. To hold onto yourself."
I nodded but I didn't believe him. I just wanted to tear the cuff from my wrist. To get Darius and his bottomless despair out of my head. But that was impossible. It was locked in place.
"Look into the flames," Ilyas said. "Imagine them burning your fear away. Scouring your mind clean of thought. Feed it all to the holy fire. You have the gift, Nazafareen. Now you must learn to control it, or it will destroy you."
I tried to do as he instructed. For a moment, I felt as though I'd broken the surface, that the torrent was easing a little, but then it came back stronger than ever.
I jumped to my feet and just made it to the courtyard before I threw up.
They let me go to my bed after that for the rest of the day. Everyone left me alone. They understood that I couldn't bear to be near even a single other person. I had enough of them in my head already.


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Monday, February 22, 2016

Monday Morning Sneak Peek: THE DOMINO PROJECT by KT Hanna

Did a weekend of reading leave you wanting more? 
Sneaking peeks of your newest novel from under
your desk at work? 

For the eternal is your 
Monday Morning Sneak Peek!


First of all, congrats to KT Hanna! PARASITE (The Domino Project #3) is available TODAY! Happy book birthday :) Go add it on GOODREADS!

CHAMELEON (The Domino Project #1) by K.T. Hanna

After Sai's newly awoken psionic power accidentally destroys her apartment complex, she’s thrown into an intensive training program. The only grades are pass or die. 

Surviving means proving her continued existence isn't a mistake--a task her new mentor, Bastian, takes personally. Her abilities place her in the GNW Enforcer division, which partners her with Domino 12, who is eerily human for an alien-parasite and psionic hybrid. When her assassination duties are revealed, Sai understands the real reason for her training.

On a mission to dispatch a dangerous Exiled scientist, she uncovers truths she never thought possible. Sai is unsure who to trust as her next mission might be her last, and a double agent seems to be manipulating both sides.


Droves of addicts litter the dirty pavement the closer Bastian gets to Block 63. While Markus navigates the Gerts125 through the human refuse, Bastian scans the streets. He tries to avoid the vacant gazes of the Shined, lost staring at the holes in their veins and the stars in the sky, drool running down their chins to pool on the fetid ground. Shine abuse is blatant in the city's outskirts.
The next shockwave hits sooner than it should. Psionic abilities don't normally awaken violently, but Bastian can sense she's a Rare. At this proximity he no longer needs his wristband's help to pinpoint her, but glances at the beeping indicator to avoid arousing suspicion, before silencing it with a brief jolt of power.
Another shockwave warps the air under their vehicle. Bastian doesn't wait for the transport to stabilize, but steps out as it slows and shades his eyes as Block 63 implodes.
Flames envelop the upper floors of the four apartment towers. Pieces of concrete cascade down the outer walls. Amidst the chaos, he can sense her panic, bewilderment, and--above all--her utter exhaustion. The fact that he's still standing there, that the area around him isn't in flames, means she pulled some of the force back into herself somehow.
Panicked screams and distant sirens make it hard to focus. The thin layer of Shine permeating the mess doesn't help either, and Bastian refuses to think about the potential death toll. The surrounding blocks should be safe as long as the emergency forces can contain the blaze.
Smoke and ash obscure Bastian's vision, and he has to close his eyes to focus. He listens for a moment, picking up her--Sai's--incoherent inner diatribe, which leads him to the botanica. The vegetation once protected within has already started to wilt, and the glass walls of the small atrium lie shattered in a perfect circle around the girl.
She sits in the center, blinking tears away as silver power tendrils wind their way through black irises, leaving her eyes unfocused. Blood from a cut on her forehead mingles with dark hair, lending it a dull red gleam in the flickering light. Her flannel nightshirt is tattered. She clutches it as she rocks back and forth. Pieces of glass embedded in her back glitter through the shirt, but he'll deal with that later. Her state of mind is the more pressing matter.
"Sai?" Bastian puts a little suggestion behind it--that she can trust him, that he will help her. He has to be careful, though. Her mind is raw from the awakening blast. She continues to rock back and forth, so he repeats himself a little louder. "Sai?"
She looks up at him and blinks, only tears left streaming down her face. Her mouth opens, but no words come out.
Bastian reaches out a hand and waits for her to take it. For a few moments, her eyes dart wildly. He can sense the turmoil--her instincts telling her to run, her mind urging her to go with him. She slides her hand into his, and he tugs her up.
Markus waits at the end of the street, a scowl on his face as he leans against his door.
"We didn't make it in time after all." He gestures toward the buildings, and his voice carries over the sound of the emergency vehicles as they hiss to a halt next to him.
"Obviously," Bastian says as he motions for Sai to get in the back of the car. A second before the door closes, panic crosses her face, but she sticks out her chin and hugs her chest instead. Her erratic thoughts threaten to break the fragile facade she's holding onto.
"At least we saved her," Bastian says softly as he slides into his seat. "Let's get her to the facility."
Markus grunts as he turns the transport back on. "I still don't believe that young thing caused so much damage."
Bastian shrugs and glances at the girl in the rearview mirror. Her face is mostly hidden by shadows, and her eyes are as wary as her thoughts.
"She did most of it, though some of the sparks ignited the building's filtration system. We're lucky the emergency dampeners still work in this sector or the chain reaction would have spread through the city."
"How can you be so calm? Won't they have your hide for this?" Markus steps on the gas and takes them away from the dregs of the city.
Bastian stops observing Sai long enough to chuckle. "No. I'm psionic, not a fortune teller. I'm only as good as the signals I receive, and frankly the onset of puberty is unpredictable. Besides..." He pauses to watch her twirl her blood-stained hair around her fingers. She counts to ten slowly in her head, loud enough for him to hear, and reminds herself to breathe. Over and over.
Markus prompts him. "Besides?"
"This doesn't happen often. Do you remember a last time?"
Markus shakes his head. "Is she special?"
"Pardon?" It's not like Markus to pry into Bastian's business.
"Can she do something special?"
"Besides blow up an entire block?" Bastian laughs. "Not...not really."
The "not yet" echoes silently in his head. Just a few more years and he won't have to fight alone anymore.

Sweat drips in her eyes, reminding Sai how ineffectual eyebrows actually are. She rolls away from her training partner, defending herself with an ease defined by four years of practice. Being the smallest in all her classes makes her an easy target to pick on, but no one has tried it more than once. She positions her hands to better protect her face.
One more test and everything will be worth it.
But one more test is deceptive. They're all aware of the ones whose minds break. The mutterings and the hollow eyes. The inability to recover that leads to them never being seen again. And those are the lucky ones. Sai's seen the mangled remains wheeled out of the examination areas. Not everyone survives the final examination. Maybe not everyone is meant to.
After decimating a city block and killing and injuring over a thousand people four years earlier, Gerts, Newton, & Williams United Conglomerate will never let Sai forget they own her, that she and everyone else in the training facility live only as long as GNW sees fit.
"Fifty-Two! Where is your head?"
Sai snaps to attention, her train of thought broken, and narrowly avoids Eighteen's punch to her face. She dodges to the side and grabs her opponent's right shoulder with both hands, smoothly bringing her knee up into the girl's stomach.
"That's better." Her instructor, Ms. Genna, glances down at her reader and pokes at the screen before moving onto the next students.
Sai wishes she could read those notes, know something about her fate. As she continues to spar, she feels a desperation that isn't her own. Eighteen's shields are weak, and her fears and emotions trickle through intermittently.
Like everyone else, the girl is scared on the inside but refuses to show it on the outside. It's a pity Sai can hear the panic in her head. The bravado is ruined when half the room can skim your thoughts if your shielding isn't tight enough.
Sai watches her opponent as they circle each other in identical stances--hands up, knees slightly bent, ready to react.
They've sparred numerous times over the last few years. Eighteen was one of the first people Sai used to convince others to leave her alone. This might be the last time she sees her, and the pang of regret takes Sai by surprise.
"That's enough for today." Ms. Genna sticks the stylus behind her ear. "Rest up for your final tomorrow. You'll need it." Her parting grin as she leaves the hall is laced with derision.
Sai stays behind to grab a drink bottle and towel. Twenty-Nine pushes in with a smirk and snatches a water straight out of her hands.
"Didn't see you there..." The false smile doesn't reach Twenty-Nine's eyes, even though they crinkle with the expression. Sai shrugs and watches as the girl turns to leave with the rest of the class. They file out in groups of two and three, friendships they've made and maintained over the years, even as their numbers have dwindled. Sai's never been close to anyone. Not after Block 63.
She knows there are no longer fifty-two people in her class. Many have disappeared over the years, but after the example set when Sixteen asked where someone was, no one let on they cared again.
The scent of lemon lingers in the air as she makes her way through the corridors and back to her room. Her feet make so little noise on the pristine tiles, she can hear the soft whir of cameras tracking her every move.
A murmured mantra leaks from the walls, in the perfect loop her benefactors demand.
For your own safety, please do not leave your designated areas. Report any unauthorized personnel immediately. Remember, the future of GNW depends on you.
Sai's room is sparsely furnished, like everything at the facility. Necessity, not indulgence. The steel bed, desk, and chair have been her home since she arrived. Whether or not she survives tomorrow, everything will change.
With the door closed and the cameras locked out, she's finally alone with her thoughts. They're the only thing not monitored consistently. Sai lies down on the bed and twists a strand of hair around her finger.
"I will not fail. I will succeed. I will not be broken," she whispers to the stark white walls. The words comfort her, even if the memories in her head do the opposite. Sixteen slammed against the wall so hard blood dripped out his ears, nose and mouth. All for asking where his sparring partner went. Older students in previous years carted out of exam rooms in such broken states her mind still can't comprehend.
She clenches her fists and continues her mantra in her head. The faint smell of disinfectant comforts her and helps her drift off to sleep.

Sai rolls over and blinks her eyes open. The lemon scent is gone, and the bed is hard. Pain rips through her abdomen, and she curls into a ball.
"C'mon out, Sai. There's someone I want you to meet."
Shivers convulse her slim frame at the sound of her mother's voice beyond the door. All Sai can think of is the pain in her body and just how much she doesn't want to meet the other person outside.
Her mother's tones are velvet. It's the voice she uses whenever she wants something, which is most of the time.
Sai claws her way into an upright position, trying to ignore the throbbing in her temples. She opens her mouth to speak, but thinks better of it. Any sign of acquiescence and her mother will take it as an invitation into the room.
Instead, she pushes herself off the bed and stumbles to the door. Fumbling at the handle until it clicks, she opens it a fraction, only to have her mother push it in the rest of the way.
The woman's pupils are dilated, and her face shows the same Shined-out expression Sai's grown so used to. All of the wonder and love in that gaze are directed at whatever fantasy is playing out in her mother's brain. None of it at Sai.
"What?" Sai keeps her tone flat. Disdain is a waste of energy on a woman who won't notice it.
Her mother smiles, an empty, vapid expression. "You're old enough now."
"Old enough?" Sai fights the urge to double over as another throb of pain echoes through her.
"To earn your keep. To bring in money."
Sai backs up a step, suddenly wary. She's seen how her parents earn their keep. With the moans in the night and the strange visitors who leave at dawn. Very little money filters back to Sai. "Earn?"
She sees the shadow move in the corridor behind her mother and knows even before the person speaks that it's a man.
"Hey, Sai..." He's tall and built, but not clean. Not even as clean as Sai tries to keep herself. His eyes are as dilated as her mother's, and sweat slicks back the hair on his head. The smell of body odor is cloying, and Sai steps back, but not quick enough. His hand brushes her arm and revulsion almost makes her retch.
Despite the pounding in her head and the pain in her abdomen, she has one amazing moment of clarity. She looks down at where his skin touches her own and back to her mother.
"I will never be like you," Sai whispers, fighting the tears and the pain. Taking advantage of the momentary confusion and reactions slowed by Shine, she barrels through the adults, wrenching the door to the outside open.
"Sai!" Just before the door shuts behind her, Sai hears her mother let out a pent-up breath and giggle. "She's not ready yet. Will I do?"
Nothing else follows Sai as she runs around the concrete veranda to get to the stairs. If she can make it to the botanica, maybe she'll be safe. Maybe she can pretend her parents never existed. Maybe she can pretend she's worth the time they've never spent on her.
The grass is cool against her skin, and she clutches her nightshirt around her legs as the pain in her head and body increases. She scrunches her toes and smells the faint scent of the now broken grass stems. The ground shakes lightly beneath her, and Sai frowns, momentarily distracted from her nightmares of what will happen if she goes back to the apartment.
Nausea overwhelms her suddenly, and she clutches her stomach, screaming out in pain before she blacks out.
All she can smell when she comes to is the smoke. Not even the shattered glass embedded in her back registers as she looks up at what used to be the concrete block she lived in. She stares at the flames and the rubble, at the already withering plants around her, and knows with certainty she was somehow responsible.

Sai blinks at the sudden light and pushes the dream to the back of her mind. Today is not a day for distracting nightmares. Remembering her parents' apathy won't get her through the exam.
The dim morning light filters down through the slit in the wall that serves as her window. It's too small for her to even squeeze through, assuming she could reach it in the first place. Not that there's anywhere to escape to outside, anyway.
Dressed in training gear, she heads to the cafeteria. The tension in the air is thick and choking even before she reaches the line. She accepts the mash doled out to her and forces it down, trying not to think too hard about what makes it grey.
No one in the room makes eye contact, not even the friends who left training laughing with each other the day before. Everyone knows what the final exam means. There is no positive spin to put on it.
Her last bite of food threatens to stick in her throat, but she washes it down with water and heads to the examination rooms.
Trainers suffuse the hall and foyer outside, finding the students they're in charge of and metering out supplies. Ms. Genna catches Sai's attention and motions her over. "Student Fifty-Two, enrolled 2350 via GNW United Conglomerate 17?"
Sai nods and clenches her fists at her side, hating her full designation.
"That's the spirit." The sarcasm in Ms. Genna's voice makes Sai cringe inwardly. "Your cubicle will be ready after the first round of examinees enter their rooms. Stay in the waiting area until I call you."
The allocated room is small with a bench encircling a training mat. Everyone sits, eyes riveted to the GNW logo in the middle. If they're anything like Sai, they're imagining the worst possible encounter and figuring out a way through it.
From pieces of thought strong enough to break through the shielding of others in the room, she can tell they know it, too. No one in this room wants to fail, but the chances of success aren't good. If you owe GNW a debt of gratitude, it's their privilege to keep only the strongest.
One by one, the room empties. By the time her number is called, she feels an odd sense of finality.
Her cubicle is small and dimly lit by a buzzing light. There's just enough room for her to change into the sleek black clothes piled neatly on the bench. She traces her fingers over the subtly strong material and the GNW logo embossed over the shoulders.
As she dresses, a sinking feeling forms in the pit of her stomach. This Sparring gear denotes physical fighting. Though quick and light on her feet, even one direct hit to her head wipes her out.
There is no time for doubt. She's been at their mercy since she was twelve.
Sai squares her shoulders and pushes the door open. She frowns at the tall and lanky man standing there. His dark hair partially obscures some of his face, but the piercing pale eyes catch the light and make her pause. Something about him is eerily familiar.
He motions her over. "Are you ready, Sai?"
She starts as he says her name but masks her shock quickly with a nod. No one in the facility uses her name. It's forbidden. Students are numbers. The familiarity of his voice nags at her, and she has to concentrate on his words.
"You will face single, double, and triple waves of attackers. They will be human, psionic and domino. You know what a domino is, yes?"
"Yes, sir."
He nods and continues. "Human combat requires physical prowess. The psionic waves require that you only use your mind. Against the dominos, you need to combine your combat knowledge of both. After all three waves, you'll face a combination of two or all for the final fight of your test." He waits for a moment, his eyes never leaving hers, and she can't help but wonder why someone so young is in a position to be giving her instructions.
"You will be observed through the whole process. Do not use the incorrect type of force against your opponents, or you will fail." He pauses. "And make sure to stay on your toes. A direct hit from anyone will end you."
Sai blinks at his retreating back. How did he know? She shakes her head to clear the nagging doubt. Three at a time will be the problem, not to mention combining her psionic and physical training. There were few classes on the theory behind it, and fewer still on practical usage.
The GNW doesn't want survivors.
She pushes the thought away as soon as it flashes across her mind. Given the price of her awakening, it's no wonder she's considered a danger. She clenches her fists, determined to make up for her past, to prove her parents wrong.
The door at the other side of the hall opens, distracting her from her thoughts. She stands straight and walks into the examination room. The door slams immediately behind her, and for a second, her body breaks out in a light sweat.
It's dimly lit, but she can make out some weapons scattered around. Sai feels her stomach twist at the realization that the weapons aren't only for her to use, but for her opponents as well. The mundane selection gives her hope. Knives, maces, hammers, and swords, but no distance weapons. Not her preference, but at least she doesn't have to resort to only her fists.
As a gate cranks open on the far side of the room, Sai shakes her head to clear her mind.
She readies herself for attack, hands guarding her face, knees slightly bent, ready to dodge. "I will not fail." The words help soothe her nerves.
Her robust opponent crouches low as he circles her. Darting in, she lands two quick punches to his solar plexus and jaw. While small in stature, she's light on her feet and fires off strong, focused blows. He's clumsier than expected and goes down easily.
She frowns as he's cleared from the room and her next opponent enters. The force of his mind is immediately obvious. Her shields slam up, and she hopes all her practice is enough. She's better than her peers, but against someone this strong, any of them would be dust. His first onslaught takes her by surprise and rattles her head, but she deflects his push back at him and the momentum catches him by surprise. He falls awkwardly onto one of the hammers scattered around the room. The crunch is sickening, and his body goes limp.
Her confusion at his ineptitude is stolen by the iridescent domino as it enters the room. It's bigger than she expected, having only seen them from a distance before. The frequency of colors passing through its system makes her blink as she tries to follow the movements. Her eyes adapt slowly, picking the domino out from its camouflage just in time to dodge the first punch.
Her own speed is barely enough to avoid the flurry of kicks and punches. Sai ducks in once with a lucky punch, barely avoiding the hybrid's left hook. Two more quick punches and she rolls to the corner, crouching in wait for the next onslaught, nursing her hand as a reminder to reinforce her punches with psionics in the next attack.
But it seems she only needs to score a hit on it three times before it backs off and the round is declared won. Her mind swims as the examiners announce she's passed the first round. The opponents were far too easy. Cold sweat drips down her spine. Something is wrong.
The second round of two opponents in each category stuns her, too. Almost as easy as the first victories, she finds herself starting to panic as the unconscious bodies are floated from the room.
When the third round is announced and her opponents revealed, Sai's stomach spasms. These men look brutal, covered in scars. Their forearms are the size of her waist, and they're already armed. This. This is the real test.
There's no understanding in their eyes, just the same gleam she remembers from her parents and the beggars that surrounded her childhood home. The sheer focus of a Shine addict craving their next fix.
Resolve set, she clenches her teeth and attacks first, taking the man on the left by complete surprise. Her kick lands squarely on his jaw, and he crashes to the floor. She grabs his mace, jabbing the butt into his skull before he can make another move. His head lolls to the side. One down. The other two back off, suddenly not quite so confident.
Wary now, they're tougher to fight. She avoids most of their attacks except one narrow miss that grazes her ribs. Heat sears her skin and blood trickles down her side. She sections off the pain and aims for their knees, caps the middle man with the mace in the left knee, and follows through with a sound kick to his other one, barely dodging the right guy in time.
Mr. Right murmurs under his breath, his eyes staring at something she cannot see. She leverages two quick punches directly to his face before jumping back out of his reach and into a crouch to sweep his legs. A second later, Mr. Right lies on the floor clutching his knees and gasping something about coconuts and palm trees. Sai backs away, disgusted, and tries to catch her breath.
She barely has time to take stock of her injuries before the wall opens to float the three humans out and deposit the psionics.
Far more difficult than the previous battle, this one is at least less physical. Suggestion has never been her strong suit, but hours of boredom spent in her room rebuilding her shields gives her an edge. The ability to keep the attacks from directly affecting her mind makes it easier to concentrate on her offense.
She resists the urge to use precious psionic energy to reinforce her physical skills in this stage. Punching them will disqualify her. The stipulation for her to use only psionics on her psionic opponents apparently doesn't extend to their own restrictions.
She forces one of them against the wall in a weak mimicry of Sixteen's fate. The second stumbles as he's about to attack, and she barely deflects it back on him in time. He slumps to the ground. Sai doesn't have time to check if he's breathing, but convinces herself he is.
As she pushes the last one back against the opposite wall, her legs buckle for a moment. Sai holds him still long enough to rest a hand on his forehead and send him to sleep. She stands panting over the three subdued psionics, reinforcing the walls blocking her pain. Her head starts to pound with the effort as they're removed and replaced with three dominos.
The adrium-psionic hybrids are far stronger than any human. Their energy supply never ends, and the way the light refracts off their alien skin makes seeing them difficult, even when they're not attempting to camouflage with their surroundings.
"I will succeed." She takes a brief moment to center herself and extends the shielding she uses for her mind underneath her skin. Her punches hit harder, even though she needs to draw on energy reserves to keep her speed up. Where it was difficult with one domino, it's near impossible with three.
It takes almost all of the energy she has left to keep two of them out of reach while she tries to score three hits on the third. Something brushes her shoulder briefly, and her left arm tingles. She pushes the irritation aside and focuses on hitting the dominos. They won't let her tag them.
Reinforcing her own attacks with psionic strength drains her. With one last desperate heave of power, she flings the first domino into the other two. The weight is heavier against her mind than she expected and the throw goes wild, catching the two remaining dominos at chin height and smashing their heads into the stone wall behind them, temporarily disorienting them. It appears to count.
Sai would laugh but doesn't have any spare energy. She needs to dredge up more stamina for her final round.
She closes her eyes for a moment to regenerate what she can.
The sound of the gate mechanism jolts her out of the mild trance. Three psionics and three dominos emerge. No humans. Six at once. And none of them an easy out. Her mind is tapped, and she feels an odd sense of peace start to wash over her.
When the dark-haired psionic instigates his attack, she feels it in her gut at the same time she hears the strange hum she now associates with dominos. She closes her eyes to get her bearings and make her decision. Her last hope to survive this hell they pitted her against.
"I will not be broken."
She reaches for the glimmer of power inside her and lets instinct take control.