"Afifi’s staggering and un-put-downable debut offers a fresh and feminist-forward take on cloning [...] This riveting debut is a must-have for any sci-fi fan."— Publishers Weekly starred review of Book 1 in the series
Amira Valdez’s adventures continue in the sequel to The Sentient, as she finds herself in unprecedented danger. The ruthless new leader of the fundamentalist Trinity Compound seeks to understand his strange neurological connection with Amira and unleash an army on an unstable North America. The first human clone has been born, but thanks to the mysterious scientist Tony Barlow, it may unlock the secret to human immortality – or disaster. Together, Amira and Barlow form an uneasy alliance in pursuit of scientific breakthroughs and protection from shared enemies. But new discoveries uncover dark secrets that Barlow wants to keep hidden.
FLAME TREE PRESS is the imprint of long-standing Independent Flame Tree Publishing, dedicated to full-length original fiction in the horror and suspense, science fiction & fantasy, and crime / mystery / thriller categories. The list brings together fantastic new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices. Learn more about Flame Tree Press at www.flametreepress.com and connect on social media @FlameTreePress
Release date: May 17, 2022
Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Print pages: 370
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The People vs. Amira Valdez
Amira stumbled along the cracked rivulets of the vertical farm’s slaughter floor, rusted hooks only a foot above her head. She tried to blink away her double vision. When this was an active kill room, so much blood must have run down those rivulets, as livestock experienced their final moments upside down. Through a curtain of black hair, she touched the ridged skin where her ear had been torn away by an angry man’s teeth. A dark shiver ran down her spine and she chased it away with a swig of cheap whiskey. Her throat burned.
Through the dirt-streaked glass windows, a sea of grass rustled in the wind. Vertical farms – working ones, unlike her current hiding place – lined the trainway, elegant structures that rotated with the sun. Suburban lights twinkled in the distance, the Pines neighborhood stretching out to the Pacific Ocean. And even further away, to the southwest, Westport’s skyscrapers glittered across the horizon.
Westport. The only home she cared to claim, the city that saved her when, as a frightened teenager on the cusp of marriageable age, she escaped her life on the Children of the New Covenant Compound. She found friends and success at the famed Dunning Academy, and a promising career as a neuroscientist, cultivating a remarkable gift for holomentic reading. With deft fingers and a flick of a holomentic machine’s controls, she could navigate a person’s memories, dreams and subconscious, displaying their mind’s eye on a holographic platform. She could wander through the maze of the human mind, exposing its dark corners to help her patients heal.
She had rejected the compound for a life of her choosing in Westport. Now, after the controversial Pandora project, an effort to create the first human clone, the city had rejected her. She had fled a police station after being blamed for an armed attack in which the project’s lead scientist had been shot and its main human subject, Rozene Hull, abducted
by the fearsome leaders of the Trinity Compound. Amira had eventually rescued Rozene from her captors – but that failed to answer the question, in the eyes of the Aldwych district’s laws, of whether she had been guilty of the attack in the first place.
The flashing light on her ankle monitor winked at her, a cruel reminder of how far she had fallen. She was on a tether, stretched as far as the courts of the Aldwych district would allow. She crossed her legs and wrapped her hair into a thick bun. After a drunken pause, her foot shot forward and kicked the already fragile glass wall. A cool breeze trailed in, scented by crushed pine leaves from a nearby wall of towering trees. Crickets sang in the dark. She giggled and lay on her back. Blue streaks glowed across the ceiling, graffiti drawn with illuminating paint.
The companion robot Henry’s wheels announced his presence on the slaughter floor before he spoke. The robot had been designed for companionship, not stealth. Amira wanted neither. Tomorrow morning, she would lose everything.
“M. Valdez, your friends have a message for you.” He dipped in a low bow, in the perfect impression of an English butler from another era.
“I don’t want to speak to anyone, Henry,” Amira said, voice slurring and thick. Despite her many years in Westport, she never grew comfortable talking to machines as if they were human, the way ordinary people did. The compound drilled some lessons into her that were too deep to unlearn.
The companion robot wheeled from side to side, as though considering the concept. For years, he had been Dr. Mercer’s only company at his Pacific Northwestern mountain retreat, but Amira’s lonely mentor had moved on to better things. He had loaned her the robot after the Academy suspended her, leading to her expulsion from the Canary House in the city’s Riverfront district. Dr. Mercer’s house had been too far for the ankle monitor, but she hadn’t wanted to stay there, anyway. Her current home, isolated and wracked with decay, suited her mood better.
She had also protested the robot’s company, but he had proved useful in keeping her somewhat functional – washing last night’s vomit out of her hair, supplying her with a steady stream of water and protein bars, and reassuring her when she woke in her makeshift bed of bundled rags, yelling and kicking, in the throes of old nightmares.
Tearing her gaze from the darkening skyline, Amira faced the robot. Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, and Amira had to untangle her spinning thoughts to argue with the machine.
“I’ll respond to their message later, Henry. I know what they have to say.”
“But they’re here. They’re waiting on the lower level, near the elevators.”
Amira blinked. The concrete surface underneath her tilted and she held out her hands to steady herself. Someone – her friends – had left the city to retrieve her. But she didn’t need to be retrieved. Not yet. The trial would start tomorrow, and she would have no shortage of curious, hostile stares to contend with. Amira Valdez, the compound girl turned neuroscientist turned disgraced defendant. She had one more night to be alone and unbothered.
“M. Valdez? Should I send them away?”
“I’ll deal with them,” Amira groaned as she forced herself to stand.
The elevator, miraculously, still worked. It rattled as Amira descended to the lower floor, sending vibrations up her feet. A sickly metallic smell lingered inside the car, the elevator wide enough to carry trays of plants or frightened cows. Her ears rang, one of the many warnings that tomorrow morning would be a rough one. She slid the metal grating aside and stepped into the dark ground level.
D’Arcy, who had been crouching on the bare floor, sprung to her feet at the sight of Amira’s silhouette in the dim room. Julian leaned against a graffiti-streaked wall, his smooth features stern but not unkind. An aspiring artist, he couldn’t resist stealing glances at the glowing, neon graffiti.
“This would be a cool spot for a mural,” Julian said. “I’d call it Rural Gothic, or something. This is an old-school farm. Would be a great commentary on rural decay.”
“Not now, Julian,” D’Arcy snapped. She threw a small drone into the air, which cast a bright light across the room. Under the bulb’s flickering glare, the two women stared – Amira’s features twisted in annoyance, D’Arcy’s in alarm. How bad did Amira look? She had only been alone for two weeks – not counting Henry, and Amira didn’t.
“Amira, what are you doing hiding up here?” D’Arcy asked. Her oldest and closest friend never wasted time on niceties. “This place is so grim. We’re worried. All of us. The— the hearing’s tomorrow morning. You’re not going to—”
“Relax, I’m not skipping trial,” Amira said. “I’ll be there – I don’t have a choice.”
But in truth, she had entertained the idea of defying the fearsome Aldwych Council and becoming a hermit of some kind. With a well-placed blade and mechanical precision, Henry could relieve her of her ankle bindings. She could travel north, learn how to fish and forage. Live a wild, free life. Give up her holomentic machines and dreams of working in the space stations that orbited the Earth. She had been there, after all, and only found killers, convicts and ruthless Cosmics, a pseudo-religious organization as dangerous as the compounds and ten times more powerful. Those same Cosmics dominated the Aldwych Council that would judge her tomorrow. No matter that she was innocent of all charges. No matter that she had uncovered the real saboteurs of the Pandora project – one of their own, in alliance with dangerous, zealous Trinity Compound Elders. Her adventures had proved inconvenient for the Cosmics, and they would ensure that she paid for them.
As though reading her mind, D’Arcy shook her head.
“Don’t give up, Amira,” she said. “You have a chance. Not everyone in the Aldwych Council is out to get you. There’ll be others who are sick of the Cosmics, who might listen to your story. It’s not like you to give up.”
Amira snorted. Ignoring D’Arcy’s crestfallen face, she took another swig from her whiskey bottle. If they were dragging her back to Westport – and why else would they come all this way? – she had no intention of returning sober. She was already a disgrace to the Academy, to Aldwych. Why not play the part?
A loud tutting sound interrupted her thoughts. Julian approached her, uncharacteristically business-like. He had always been the passionate activist to D’Arcy’s pragmatist but tonight, the couple switched roles.
“If you don’t care about yourself, maybe you’ll care about the others who depend on you,” Julian said in an even tone. “I have a message from Tony Barlow.”
Coldness spread across Amira’s chest, a chill that no amount of whiskey could neutralize. She closed her eyes and tilted the bottle, wetting her lips. She counted to five. As a holomentic therapist, she had played enough tricks to avoid being prey to them.
She sighed. “Proceed.”
“Drink some water,” Julian said. “Or Bottled Rehab. You need to sober up, starting now.”
D’Arcy shot Julian a warning look before turning back to Amira. “Barlow needs you back. He’s taking the Bullet train from… you know where, to be at your trial. Things aren’t good with Rozene.”
“Given Tony Barlow’s definition of good, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing,” Amira retorted, but the statement had the desired effect. The skin on her neck prickled; a cold sensation cascaded down her spine. A well-connected scientist within Aldwych’s most elite circles, Barlow held an unofficial and undefined role on the Pandora project. Amira never trusted him. And her instincts had been proven right.
Rozene Hull, another damaged compound girl, would have been the final victim of the Pandora project if Amira hadn’t fixed her tampered memories. Instead, Rozene Hull gave birth to the first human clone, a fact known to only the people in the room and a few others.
But only Amira and Tony Barlow shared another secret. And three months into the clone Nova’s life, the first signs of trouble must have begun. It hadn’t taken long.
“What kind of trouble is Rozene in this time?” Amira ventured. D’Arcy winced, but Amira had not meant to be callous. Ever since they first met, Rozene Hull had been in some kind of mortal peril. It bonded them, but it was also exhausting.
“Not just Rozene,” D’Arcy said. “Barlow said she’s in good health. It’s more… strange things, between her and the baby. Things he can’t explain easily, he said. You’ll have to see them for yourself.”
Amira bit the tip of her tongue, tasting blood through the alcohol. Of course strange things were happening. What else could result from transferring part of a person’s consciousness into another body? Anger hummed inside her at Barlow, not only for what he had done, but for burdening her with this knowledge. For taking what should have been a seminal scientific breakthrough that would change lives – successful, safe human cloning – and turning it into a sinister experiment, one that required her to become his deputy of damage control. In return, he would protect her from her ever-growing list of enemies. But could Barlow save her from the Aldwych Council? Could anyone?
Amira sank to the floor with bent knees, burying her face in her hands. Dehydration kept her from crying, but a low moan escaped her lips.
“I’ve made a mess of everything,” she whispered. “I put you in danger. Why are you here?”
“Because we care,” D’Arcy said, heated, but Julian knelt beside Amira.
“Listen,” Julian said, placing an arm on Amira’s shoulder. She flinched at his touch but met his eyes. “I know the last month’s been hard. Everything you thought you knew about Westport, about the future you wanted, has been turned upside down. You watched people die. You almost died.”
“But dammit, Amira,” D’Arcy interjected. “Fucking pull yourself together!”
Amira gasped, as though splashed with cold water. Her face flushed with indignation, followed by a sudden surge of shame. D’Arcy’s throat had been cut in the Soma building’s shiny lobby. It had been horrible to witness – one of the most reliable scenes to feature in her current reel of nightmares – but nothing compared to what D’Arcy experienced that night. It was unfair, Amira countered in her mind, to compare her suffering to D’Arcy’s, to feel guilt for not handling the aftermath better. The human psyche didn’t keep score against others, or theorize away feelings. Amira was in pain. Perhaps the last few weeks were exactly what she needed to process that pain. But perhaps it was also time to move on, as D’Arcy had not-so-subtly stated.
Amira rested the bottle on the floor and massaged her temples. Hesitation flickered in D’Arcy’s eyes – Amira’s closest friend rarely lost her cool, especially when it came to the actions of others. It was not in her nature to judge, unless you showed her a bad line of code.
Amira smiled. Then, after a pause, she laughed.
D’Arcy followed, her features relaxing, and even Julian broke into a smile. Henry, trained to mimic human emotion, decided to join in, and his electronic bray only made them laugh harder.
Amira shrugged at D’Arcy. She was not all right, not completely, but a fog lifted inside her. She had laughed for the first time since that day in the desert, when they had rescued Rozene from the Trinity Compound’s leader, Elder Young. When she had learned too much about the underbelly of Aldwych, and herself.
“I’m sorry,” Amira said, wiping her eyes. “I guess I fell into that self-pity spiral they taught us in Introduction to the Negative Mind back at the Academy.”
“I remember that class well,” D’Arcy said, already scanning the room for Amira’s limited possessions, to pack her things away. “First year. Remember when Dr. Mercer had us memory scan that old patient from the Drought Wars Memorial Hospital? I think some of those Pines kids were scarred for life.”
They walked down the gravel path out of the vertical farm, flanked by two other abandoned, high rise farms. Three towers of concrete, layered with different levels for vegetation and livestock before the Synthetic Meat Act had banned the last vestiges of factory farming. D’Arcy had shuddered when Amira led her through the kill floor to gather her remaining possessions, her pale features whitening further at the sight of the hooks.
Back on the first level, Henry peered through the now-lighted window. His small face followed their path, a hand waving goodbye.
A twinge of guilt strummed Amira’s chest. “Do robots feel lonely?” she asked D’Arcy. “Or is that just emotional blackmail we’re seeing?”
“People want to feel missed,” D’Arcy said. “That’s why they’re programmed to act like puppies, to express sadness when we leave. But who knows what they feel?”
Amira sighed. She scratched her neck, stealing another glance at the window.
“He’s not needed here,” she said. “And I could send him back to Dr. Mercer, but he doesn’t need him either. What does a companion robot do without companions?”
Hours later, after taking the day’s last, swaying Blue Line train to Westport, Henry sat in the Canary House’s musty living room with folded hands. The robot’s presence earned curious stares from several Academy students poring over lecture notes into the late hours, but nothing compared to the stares directed at Amira. A few first-year students stepped carefully around her on the way to the kitchen, as though she were radioactive. Amira stretched across the couch and cradled a large Bottled Rehab drink in her lap.
“You’d think they’d never seen a drunk felon before,” she muttered, pulling her hoodie around her head.
“Technically, you’re not a felon yet,” Julian said. “You’re a defendant about to go on trial. You haven’t been convicted of anything.”
“Yet,” Amira said darkly. Gloom had descended over her again like a shadow. Now that she was back in the Canary House, surrounded by things she could no longer have and people whose adventures in Aldwych had just begun, regret seeped into her thoughts. Perhaps she shouldn’t have come here for her last night of possible freedom. The bright living room lights seared her eyes and triggered the dull beginnings of a headache.
“You won’t be convicted,” D’Arcy reassured her. “And you can sleep in my room, like I said earlier. It’ll be like the old days.”
“The old days are over,” Amira said with a sad glance at a young student engrossed in a quantum theory textbook. “It’s fine, D’Arcy. After sleeping on rags the last few weeks, the couch is a better transition bed. I’ll be happier here.”
And with Henry nearby and the chatter of students distant in her ears, Amira sank into an uneven sleep.
Blue light crawled across her vision as she navigated a stark corridor. The tunnel tilted and turned as she floated through, rotating upside down. More blue light shone at the end of the passageway. A sudden terror seized her. Muffled screams trailed from the distant room – soft at first, but rising in volume. Terrible, heart-rending screams, thick with pain and despair. A howling that almost sounded inhuman, except for the occasional word that reached her ears.
“Don’t look! Stop! Don’t watch!”
The world shifted underneath her and Amira lay in a crimson pool. Blood ran out of her and she unleashed a scream of her own.
Amira cried out, burying her face in her hands. They came back wet – her face was streaked with tears. The living room’s bright light had dimmed, the only source of light a warm orange lamp in the far corner. All of the students had gone to bed, leaving her alone. Mostly alone.
“Do you need comfort, Amira Valdez?” Henry intoned next to her.
“I’m fine,” Amira snapped. The robot’s presence shook her back into reality, the nightmare on the space station receding from her mind’s eye. “I just had a nightmare.”
Dogs barked in the distance and birds chirped outside. The windows sweated with the damp, early morning air of the Pacific Northwest. Amira frowned and blinked twice to activate her Eye. The time displayed in the corner – 5:23 a.m.
The last time she suffered from a recurring nightmare, of a burning house, she barely escaped with her life when Victor Zhang’s seized home caught fire. Dr. Zhang had been a Cosmic who ran afoul of the Trinity Compound. They murdered him and used his home in the American Southwest as a base, until Amira and her friends caught up with them. She could still taste the smoke on her tongue, feel the heat in her nostrils as Hadrian threw her through a window outside. It had been the most terrifying experience of her life, the day she and her friends had rescued Rozene Hull, who then gave birth to the first human clone underneath a withered tree.
Now, she awoke every night to the sound of a man’s screams in her ear. Was this another event waiting to happen, or a present-day nightmare unfolding for someone far away? Amira shuddered and rolled off the couch, ready to return to the waking world. Whatever the dream meant, it was more than a dream.
* * *
As she stepped out of Aldwych station with D’Arcy at her side, Amira was greeted by none other than Detective Dale Pierson. And the usual rainfall that eased Westport into the morning hours.
“The criminal mastermind arrives,” the boyish Westport officer said with a glance at Amira’s ankle monitor. “So you didn’t attempt a second, daring escape?”
“I think I’ve pushed my luck on escapes,” Amira replied. Pierson’s mouth twitched. The last time they had come face to face, he chased Amira out of the main Westport police station and across a set of maglev tracks. A high-speed train aided Amira’s flight from Westport justice, after she had been falsely charged with Rozene’s abduction.
But Westport PD dropped all charges against Amira after she sent them the holomentic recording of a compound man who had witnessed everything. Its contents proved that it was Elders from the Trinity Compound, not Amira, who were behind the crimes against Aldwych, including the murder of Victor Zhang. They attacked Aldwych, seeking to eliminate the last surviving subject of the Pandora project and end the perceived abomination of human cloning. The evidence had placated Westport law enforcement, even eliciting an apology from Detective Pierson, but the Aldwych Council proved more difficult to satisfy.
D’Arcy squeezed Amira’s hand. “It’ll be ok,” she said. “I wish I could come in there with you and yell at the judges myself, but I can’t miss another day of work. I can at least walk you to the Judicial.”
“And yelling at judges probably won’t be the best way to support your friend,” Pierson said drily.
D’Arcy let out a loud huff and marched out of the station. After exchanging knowing glances, Amira and Pierson followed, D’Arcy’s bob of black hair bouncing with righteous indignation ahead of them.
“We had ten holo-whatsit experts view your data,” Pierson said as they crossed Aldwych Square. “All of them confirmed it was undoctored. What more convincing does the Aldwych Council need?” Pierson spat on the ground. If the excitable detective loathed one thing, it was the scientific district’s unique powers within Westport, a city within a city subject to a different set of rules.
“This isn’t about my guilt or innocence,” Amira said. “This is political.”
Pierson scowled. “I figured as much. I’ve been talking to your buddy, the crazy guy with the tattoos and the weird accent. Hadrian. He has the same problem as a NASH officer – when it comes to Aldwych, he’s always got one hand tied behind his back. Doesn’t help, I guess, when your law enforcement jurisdiction is in space.”
“Have you heard from Hadrian lately?” Amira’s throat knotted at the mention of her unlikely friend. Though he officially worked at the North American Space Harbor, the closest station in Earth’s geostationary orbit, his job took him many places, often in secret.
“He’s been on the hunt,” Pierson said. “Searching for his team after that crash in the desert.”
Amira nodded, her mouth dry. Hadrian and his crew had come to her rescue on the Carthage station. But while Hadrian managed to fight his way onto the shuttle carrying Amira as hostage, the rest of his NASH team followed them in another vehicle. Amira and Hadrian had crashed through Earth’s atmosphere into the Southwestern desert. No one had heard from the crew on the other shuttle since. Amira shuddered at the memory of those terrifying minutes. A welt of scars filled her palms where she had tried to push a melting escape door open, joining the many other scars she had earned on the compound. A collection of old wounds, forever growing.
Together, they passed the main fountain in Aldwych Square. Above them, the familiar Soma building stretched to the sky. Nothing in its shiny onyx exterior hinted at all that had transpired only months ago. Amira’s heart fluttered, but they pressed ahead to the Judicial complex.
Nestled between the Soma and the Avicenna corporations, the Judicial complex lived up to its unimaginative name, a muted, concrete building at odds with the surrounding opulence of the square. But within its walls, the greatest minds and most powerful players of Aldwych gathered. Waiting for Amira.
D’Arcy wrapped Amira in a tight hug. “You’ve got this,” she said. “We’ll talk after the trial’s over. We’ll celebrate with drinks at Sullivan’s Wharf. Have a normal night, for once.”
With a warm smile and a wink, D’Arcy disappeared into the sea of lab-coated Aldwych commuters making their way to work.
Pierson hovered at the entrance, hands pressed in his pockets.
“I’ve already submitted my testimony,” he began. “But I’ll linger, in case they decide to summon me for follow-on questions. I hate this place, Valdez, so I hope you appreciate that I’m here for you only. And maybe also to find one of those hired shits who attacked my police station.”
Amira managed a bitter smile. She had not forgotten that the Aldwych Council, the same tribunal she would stand before, had sent mercenaries to seize her from Westport custody. Thanks to a tenacious Hadrian, a furious Pierson and her own quick feet, they had failed. But in the end, she couldn’t evade their summons.
“Throw an extra punch for me,” she said. They hugged with an adolescent stiffness – neither of them touchers – and parted ways.
With Pierson gone and her friends at work, Amira stood in the center of the entryway. The oak doors stared back at her, dark and heavy. With a deep breath, she pushed her way inside. There was no time for hesitation. If she lingered, fear would swallow her. So she moved forward.
She strode down the hallway at a steady pace, her heels echoing on the Judicial building’s marble floors. For the first time in a month, she didn’t want to be alone. Even Henry would be a comfort now.
* * *
“Not guilty on all counts.”
Amira’s voice rang through the chamber, stronger than she felt. Dim lights winked at her from the towering ceiling, casting shadows over the row of grim faces on a high platform. Behind the Aldwych Council, a beautiful mosaic stretched across the wall. Scenes of planets orbiting suns, of figures swathed in light raising their arms to the stars. Buildings rising from the ground, ships sailing to distant worlds. Icons of science and faith, reason and emotion. Which side would Amira face today?
An elderly man cleared his throat.
“Very well, M. Valdez,” he croaked. “So you deny escaping from Westport custody after you were found next to Valerie Singh’s body, covered in her blood? You deny that you remained a fugitive from justice, evading Westport and Aldwych security after escaping from Westport custody?”
“And you deny sneaking onto the NASH space station in the cargo hold – as contraband – before moving covertly around our space-based facilities?”
“I did all of those things, but—”
“This is a cut and dry case,” a woman said, cutting through Amira’s protests. She sat apart from the Aldwych Council, but the panel let her speak. A small woman with stringy blonde hair, she spoke while her Eye device flashed in her left pupil. A multi-tasker, even as she pronounced a woman’s guilt. “She broke the law, she admits as much. Let’s wrap this up.”
“This is more than a question of technicalities,” a white-haired woman on the Aldwych Council said. She spoke in a booming voice, eyeing the interrupter with thinly veiled contempt. “I do not care if she left a Westport district police station, when they have long ago dropped all charges against her. I also don’t care what happened on NASH, since that is also out of our jurisdiction. I would like to know if this compound girl had a role in the attack on the Pandora project, and if so, why.”
Relief and anger battled within Amira’s constricting chest. The term “compound girl” bit her like a pointed blade, but the woman meant well. She wanted facts.
“I’m from a compound,” Amira said, and a weight lifted from her as she vocalized that once-painful reality. “I grew up on the Children of the New Covenant Compound in northern Arizona. I wore a bonnet, I drank Chimyra, I learned the faith. And then I ran away to Westport before they could marry me to some older man, to have children and do chores until one of those things killed me. My loyalties lie here, in the city where I learned neuroscience and have been given everything I wanted. Every choice, every possibility. I didn’t want to be on Pandora at first, because it hurt to go back and remember how I once lived. But I would never have sabotaged the project and harmed the people involved in it.” Her voice cracked at those last words. A vision of Valerie Singh, lying askew in her own blood, was conjured in her mind’s eye.
“So you escaped from Westport custody to find the true culprits?” the white-haired woman asked.
“Yes. And to rescue Rozene.”
“But that rescue, it seems, proved fruitless,” the woman continued with sudden energy. “She hasn’t been seen since the abduction, has she?”
Amira’s jaw clenched. How could she have been so naïve? The kindness had been a ploy. The woman on the Council had been fishing for information about Rozene. Only the few that had joined Amira knew that the Pandora project’s last subject had survived, and was now living under Dr. Mercer’s observation in the Baja peninsula with her newborn clone. And she needed to keep it that way – at least until they knew what Barlow’s experiment had wrought.
“Let’s cut this dance short,” a smooth, clear voice echoed through the court room. Tony Barlow strode up from the entrance, nodding with smiling eyes at Amira before joining her side in front of the Council. His unsettling blue eyes scanned the Council members with casual familiarity.
A surge of relief warmed Amira’s veins – an unusual reaction to the cryptic scientist, but much about this day proved unusual. Surrounded by the hostile stares of the courtroom, Tony Barlow was at least a familiar, reassuring presence. A complicated ally, but an ally all the same. His unnatural calm normally left Amira with an uneasy tightness in her stomach, but here, it became a balm for her mounting nerves.
“M. Barlow,” a young, muscular Council member said, emphasizing the M. The Aldwych equivalent of throwing a punch, given that Barlow held a doctor title several times over. A man dangerous in many different subjects. “I don’t believe you’re on trial today.”
“Not as of yet,” he said. His tone remained as neutral as his face, but carried with ease across the room. “But I am here, as the new head of the Pandora project, to represent my chief assistant, Amira Valdez.”
His words sent the courtroom into a buzz of excited chatter. Members of the Aldwych Council exchanged glances, eyebrows raised in meaningful alarm.
“You mean your former assistant,” the male Council member said slowly, with a lopsided smile.
“Current,” Barlow said with his trademark patience. “She is my active second on all of my current work.”
“But there’s no more Pandora project,” the white-haired woman said. “The Council banned the use of additional test subjects for cloning until the Soma can demonstrate some regard for safety.”
“Anne, if you want to know something, you can simply ask,” Barlow said, a slow smile spreading across his face. “Firstly, let’s drop the charade with M. Valdez. She is clearly not a criminal, but a resourceful woman who finds herself in dangerous situations that prove no match for her talents. Even Westport Police, a zealous group fixated on curbing Aldwych’s power, have concluded as much. We need to put her back to work, not waste her time because you want to interrogate her about the aftermath of that terrible Soma attack. Because she’s a compound refugee with little power and resources, she’s therefore an easier target than me.”
The ground around Amira’s feet began to blur as tears welled in her eyes. She blinked them back, avoiding the Council’s searing gaze. No one, aside from Dr. Mercer, had given her such high, public praise. She loathed Barlow for what he had done and yet, here he was – her strongest and unlikeliest champion. ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...