Damien wasn’t meant to be here.
‘Thirty-five minutes and you haven’t asked why you’re in this room,’ the border control officer said.
Damien was sitting in an interview room, although he used the term loosely since his wrists were duct taped to the chair’s plastic armrests, with cable ties fastened over the tape just to be sure. If he had to be honest, this wasn’t quite how he’d planned things.
They weren’t taking chances either. Both his sneakers were missing their shoelaces and there was no partition glass. Just a single camera in the corner, which brought him little comfort.
The officer sat behind a table, directly under a sprinkler head fixed to the ceiling. On the table there was a single sheet of paper, face down. The linoleum floor smelled of ammonia, searing Damien’s nostrils. Vents blew cool air; the room temperature was intentionally cold.
The officer prodded a tablet with an impatient finger. He was American, but his portly midsection pressed against his local Guatemalan uniform.
‘Would you like to know why you’re here?’ he asked.
‘You find my aura unusually calming,’ Damien said.
‘I find your criminal record unusually alarming.’
He held up the paper for Damien to see. It was blank.
But Damien was more interested in the officer’s arm. There was a thin band of white fabric above his right elbow. He’d seen it before, yet couldn’t quite place it.
‘I filled out the immigration form wrong, didn’t I?’ Damien said. ‘Should’ve put Casual Relief Teacher.’
‘I hope you enjoyed your time in Guatemala.’ The officer’s attention was back on his tablet.
‘Thank you…’ Damien said, reading the surname on his uniform, ‘…Officer White. As far as being pulled off a bus and cavity searched goes, it’s been a real blast. Some people pay for that kind of experience.’
‘And I expect you’ll pay for this,’ White said. ‘One way or another.’
‘I’d prefer a little Shibari myself, but we have to start somewhere,’ Damien said.
White’s left eye twitched. ‘And I know precisely where this will end.’
Damien focused with his enhanced hearing. There was light traffic in the corridor outside, and someone was talking about his possessions in the opposite room. White’s breathing was a bit faster than it should’ve been.
‘Level 181 is absurd,’ White said.
Damien blinked. ‘That’s where I am?’
White looked up from his tablet. ‘I mean on Candy Crush. This level is impossible to beat.’
‘Why did you take me off the bus?’ Damien asked.
White barely raised an eyebrow. ‘That doesn’t matter anymore.’
‘When the other officers saw my passport, they seemed pretty keen to put me on that bus.’
‘Believe me when I tell you I was doing you a favor.’ White put his tablet down. ‘What matters is where you will go. There are certain gentlemen from a department of the United States government who look forward to meeting you. They should be here soon.’
‘And which department is that?’ Damien asked.
‘Do I look like I should know, or even care?’ White glared at him. ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘I’m crossing off “romantic love interest,”’ Damien said. ‘Or am I not giving us the chance we deserve?’
‘What we deserve?’ He gave Damien a self-assured nod. ‘We deserve to be purged.’
‘I was thinking of doing a detox myself.'
‘Are you scared, Damien?’
He knew the answer. He could die here. Or worse, the government could take him. ‘I’m a little concerned.’
‘You have good reason to,’ White said, his hand on his holster.
Damien felt his skin crawl. Maybe it was the cold air, maybe it was White. ‘What things?’ he asked.
White lifted his hand from the holster and inspected his fingertips. ‘What did you do, exactly? Are you a terrorist, Damien?’
Damien felt his pulse race, a dull throb in his ear. He breathed slowly and focused on the officer. There was still a way out. ‘Why would you believe anything I say?’
White shifted in his seat. His chair squeaked. ‘That depends on what you say. Do you think you’ll survive this?’
Damien resisted the urge to blink. ‘Depends on who’s pulling your strings.’
White’s tablet buzzed. He walked over to check it, then double-check it. His lips shivered into a smile. ‘I have some good news.’
The door opened and a pair of uniformed officers entered. Like White, they didn’t appear to be local. And like White, they both wore white arm bands. One officer closed the door.
Their name tags read Price and Gray. Price had an oddly large head and thick eyebrows that twitched when he drew a fixed-blade knife. It didn’t look government issue, and it didn’t glint under the light because it was coated black.
Gray didn’t reach for her knife, but she kept a hand close to her holstered stun gun. Her glass-green eyes focused on Damien’s body instead of his face. Damien pulled sharply on his restraints, but it did little good. From opposing sides, both officers approached him.
‘Change of plans?’ Damien asked.
‘No,’ White said. ‘Change of strings.’
Ten years ago
St Petersburg, Russia
Olesya rubbed her eyes. Zakhar, her older brother, was whispering in her ear.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked, sitting up.
Zakhar held a letter, typed and printed. She tried to read it but some of the English words were difficult. Zakhar giggled and folded the paper over to reveal the Russian translation.
‘I’m … accepted? I have the scholarship?’ she asked.
He grinned. ‘Congratulations!’
‘Where did you get this?’ she asked.
‘I took it from the kitchen,’ Zakhar said. ‘But you need to act surprised when they tell us tomorrow.’
Olesya looked at him. ‘Where’s your letter? Did you get in?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘My letter’s different.’
‘But … I’m going without you?’
Zakhar smiled. ‘You’re fourteen now, you can do it. I know you can.’
She looked at her brother. He was dressed in jeans, a down jacket and beanie.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked.
‘I’m going to build a snowman,’ he said. ‘And I’m not doing it by myself.’
She frowned. ‘In the middle of the night?’
‘All the other kids are doing it. And it’s your last New Year before you go.’ Zakhar wiggled an eyebrow. ‘You don’t want to miss out on the fun. Unless you’re boring—’
Olesya pushed him to one side. ‘I’ll get my boots—’
‘These ones?’ Zakhar was already holding them.
She grabbed them. ‘Lucky guess.’
Zakhar paced the bedroom while she pulled a thick sweater and jeans over her pajamas. He’d already picked out their scarves and gloves. She reached for the door. Zakhar put his hand on her arm.
‘The window,’ he said. ‘Always go through the window.’
Luckily they were on the first floor, because she didn’t like heights. The window creaked as he opened it, and she hoped their parents wouldn’t hear. She could hear them with the other adults. They were in the apartment next door, sharing Olivier salad, champagne and loud stories.
Their voices were constant enough to cover Zakhar’s movements as he helped Olesya out into the winter’s night, holding up the window so she could wriggle through. She let him take her hand and steer them to the subway, avoiding next door’s windows. It was only a five-minute trip into town and they didn’t have to wait more than a minute for the train.
It was almost two in the morning, but the streets were filled with equal amounts of kids and grownups. She watched kids slide down a hill on a wooden sled and plough into a clump of snow. They disappeared into the white, their laughter muffled.
Zakhar’s nose was already winter-red as he pulled her eagerly toward the bridge. He wanted to walk across the canal—the water frozen solid—but she chose the bridge instead, not wanting to slip across the ice. He didn’t protest and instead they crossed the bridge and reached the Palace Square. This was their first new-year celebration outside of their hometown in Belarus and she wasn’t prepared for so many people or decorations.
In front of the peppermint and cream Winter Palace, Olesya could see large crowds gathering. Grownups ate pirozhki—pies filled with cabbage, mushrooms or beef—while the kids nibbled on sweet gingerbread. Some of the families danced around fir Christmas trees that sparkled with gold ornaments and purple, blue, and green fairy lights. They were dancing for Santa Claus—Grandfather Frost—and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden.
Olesya squeezed Zakhar’s hand. ‘Let’s dance.’
‘Nooooooo,’ he said as she pulled him through the crowd.
They made it as far as the nearest glittering fir tree before Zakhar saw the circle of kids and dug his heels into the snow. He poked his tongue out and broke from her grasp. Olesya gave chase, cutting him off at the market stalls. By then he was distracted. He seemed to ignore the pies and go straight for the fireworks stall. She caught up and pushed him to the next stall where she could talk him into sweet cotton instead. He used his pocket money to pay for two pink balls of fluff, each on a stick, and handed her one.
‘They call this cotton candy in America,’ Zakhar said.
He bit a chunk off the sweet cotton so large it stuck to his cold nose. Olesya laughed as she watched him try to retrieve it with his tongue, going cross-eyed. He was just showing off, so she took the sweet cotton from his nose. He tried to stop her but she was too fast, shoving it in her mouth. It melted on her tongue and tasted exactly like pink.
‘That’s not fair!’ Zakhar said.
This time, Olesya stuck her tongue out.
Together, they walked Nevsky Prospekt and ate their sweet cotton. Zakhar didn’t seem to have a direction in mind, which was fine with her.
‘You’ll need to know words like “cotton candy,”’ he said.
‘I know,’ Olesya said. ‘I need to learn more English.’
‘You’re super-smart. You can do it.’ He pulled her beanie over her eyes. ‘I still get to see you on vacation, right?’
She nodded, breathing thimbles of cold air. The buildings on both sides of Nevsky Prospekt were high and dusted in snow, lit with pretty lights. Everyone seemed to be smiling tonight, eyes warm with hope for the new year.
‘What should we do?’ Zakhar asked.
Olesya wrinkled her nose. ‘Build a snowman, obviously.’
His eyes lit up. ‘Let’s build a snow army!’
‘I have a better idea,’ she said. ‘Let’s build a snow dinosaur!’
‘I’ll make the horns!’
The street was busy and Olesya had to watch her step so the sweet cotton didn’t stick to someone’s coat. They crossed another frozen white canal. On either side of the road there were more aged buildings. Some were aglow with festive lights while others—candy cathedrals and apricot fortresses—gleamed with an enchantment of their own. Zakhar found a garden that was less crowded, but still coated in snow. Olesya scooped up a handful and smoothed it into a ball.
‘I like this statue,’ he said, standing before it.
With a scepter in one hand and olive wreath in the other, the Empress of Russia stood before them. Below her, a second tier of carved men and women—politicians, poets, swordfighters, and courtiers.
Olesya knew the Empress from her mother’s history books. She was called Catherine the Great. Born Sophie Friederike Auguste in the eighteenth century, she was intelligent, kind, and ambitious. Sophie expanded the country’s education, science, and the arts, bringing a golden age to Russia it had never seen before.
Olesya ducked just in time as a snowball almost struck her face.
‘How did you—’ Zakhar said.
She was ready, hurling her snowball at him in mid-run. It exploded over his ear. He spat snow and tumbled. Olesya ran over to see if he was hurt, but he sprang to his feet with a new snowball that clipped her shoulder. He adjusted his beanie and looked up at her.
‘You never miss,’ he said. ‘How do you do that?’
‘Easy.’ She wiped snow from her coat. ‘I watch you move and know where to throw it.’
Zakhar collapsed on his back with a sigh. ‘That’s why they picked you.’
Olesya slumped down behind him, the top of her beanie touching his. She looked up at the sugarcoated spires. They pointed to the stars above.
‘What if I come back and you’re not here anymore?’ she asked.
‘I’ll always be here,’ Zakhar said. ‘And if I move, I’ll leave a secret message for you where no one can find it, except you.’
She laughed. ‘That’s impossible.’
‘Nothing’s impossible.’ Zakhar, still lying down, pointed toward the statue of Catherine the Great. His finger aimed for one of the people carved under her. ‘See that woman in the gown, holding that book?’
She followed his aim. ‘The head of science.’
‘Yeah, her.’ He nodded. ‘I’ll hide a secret note in her gown that only you can find.’
‘What if … I can’t?’ Olesya hated the words as she said them.
For a while, he was silent. It was the longest she’d seen him not talk. Above them, fireworks crackled, then trickled down the velvet sky. Olesya tried to imagine what this scholarship on the other side of the world would be like. What it would be like without her big brother.
The snow squeaked under Zakhar’s jacket. He rubbed his face with a gloved hand and she realized he’d been crying. The fireworks had faded now, golden glitter in the night.
‘I’m supposed to look out for you,’ he said. ‘How will I know you’ll be OK?’
‘You won’t.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘Even I won’t know that.’
The entire squad stopped what they were doing and looked at Olesya.
‘What are you doing here?’ one of them asked.
This wasn’t off to a great start.
There were nine recruits inside the compact living quarters. The quarters smelled of used socks and shoe polish. There was a pair of recruits to almost every metal bunk bed, the bed sheets folded with hospital corners and smoothed by a wooden ruler. The recruits wore nametags velcroed to their uniforms, a privilege reserved only for those in Combat Training.
A boy stepped forward, arms folded. Olesya recognized him as Ark, the squad leader. He was tall and thin, with curly brown hair and rounded eyes that looked too big for his head. He smirked as he approached.
‘Take a wrong turn, Blondie?’ he said. ‘Which squad are you looking for?’
Olesya swallowed. ‘Firebird.’
His smile dissolved. ‘Uh, that’s us.’
‘I’ve been transferred,’ she said.
‘Not to Firebird, you haven’t.’ He lifted his chin. ‘Must be some mistake. Where are you from?’
‘English Squad.’ Olesya noticed the empty bunk. ‘Is that the spare bed?’
‘Whoa, hold up there.’ He stepped between her and the bed. ‘That’s for a proper recruit, not some little girl from English Squad.’
I’ll show you a proper recruit, she thought.
‘I don’t know why they moved me,’ she said. ‘I’m just following orders.’
‘From English Squad?’ Ark laughed. ‘Great, a recruit who can’t even speak English properly.’
Someone else cleared their throat and moved nimbly forward. Her nametag read Xiu. Her large brown eyes flickered between Olesya and Ark. When she spoke, she was calm but sure.
‘It sounds like she speaks better English than you,’ Xiu said. Her accent was American, not Chinese. Her gaze lingered on Olesya for a moment, but not too long.
‘I didn’t ask you.’ Ark focused on Olesya. ‘I don’t care about your language skills, I care about your combat skills. And you have zero.’
‘I have basic training,’ Olesya said. ‘Did you forget?’
Ark almost laughed. ‘Basic won’t get you far in this squad, Blondie.’
The rest of Firebird were whispering in their bunks. Olesya couldn’t hear what they were saying. She spoke up, drowning them out.
‘That’s why I’m here, to learn,’ she said. ‘Everyone says you’re the best leader of all the squads.’
Ark allowed himself a knowing smile.
She leaned in to whisper. ‘But I think they’re wrong.’
‘What do y—’ Ark said. ‘What do you know, huh?’
‘You can’t handle one untrained recruit.’ Olesya stepped forward. ‘The best leader could do that, easy.’
For a fraction of a second, Ark flinched, as though he was about to be attacked from something high above. Then his bony arms locked at his sides. ‘We have more important things to do than babysit you. We have training and tests to pass. You won’t even last a day.’
‘Then you have nothing to worry about,’ Olesya said.
Ark smiled. ‘Exactly.’
Olesya sidestepped him and threw her pack on the empty bed. She just wanted to get on with it and make this change as painless as possible. ‘I’m from English Squad, remember? I’ll only be here for one day.’
Before Ark could reply, an instructor in black fatigues stepped into their quarters.
‘Firebird Squad,’ the instructor said.
The recruits stood at attention, Olesya included.
‘Today you move into your final phase of Combat Training.’ The instructor eyed each of them with passing interest. ‘Your first field exercise is tomorrow. Do you know what happens if you fail?’
‘Corporal.’ Ark cleared his throat. ‘Those who fail to qualify go back to Basic.’
‘Incorrect. Those who fail are disqualified from the entire program. Do you want to be disqualified, squad leader?’
‘No, Corporal!’ Ark said.
‘Any further questions, recruits?’ the instructor asked.
‘Corporal,’ Olesya said.
The instructor inhaled sharply. ‘If this is about why you’re here, recruit, it is not an administrative error. You will keep pace with your new squad or you will be disqualified, which in your case won’t be much of a difference. But since Firebird would be disqualified along with you, they might disagree.’
Olesya shook her head. ‘No Corporal, my question is different.’
The instructor was already turning to leave. ‘What is it?’
‘Do you know when we can make phone calls to our family?’ Olesya asked.
‘Outside communication is prohibited during FPCON Bravo,’ the instructor said. ‘Once the threat is downgraded to Alpha, you might be allowed to have outside contact. Any letters addressed to you will be withheld until further notice. It might not have occurred to anyone here, but our security is more important than your temporary homesickness.’
With that, he left.
Another recruit shrugged. His nametag read Jay. ‘I think he seemed happier than usual,’ Jay said.
Olesya noticed Ark stiffen. He swiveled and closed on her. His nostrils and eyes widened as he stared her down, which was difficult since she was a bit taller than him.
‘Let’s make this clear,’ Ark whispered. ‘We’re qualifying. You’re not going to screw that up for us. On the field exercise tomorrow, you’re a shadow. You follow us and you do nothing else. You got that?’
‘More than you think. I’ve seen your scores in Combat Training,’ Olesya said. ‘They say Firebird is almost the best. And I can see why.’
Ark’s fists opened slightly. ‘Almost?’
Olesya tried not to mumble. ‘Next to Helldiver.’
‘Just ’cos they recently qualified?’ Ark walked to his bunk. ‘That’ll be us soon. Then they’ll be almost the best.’
Jay laughed. ‘Yeah, we have a fresh recruit from English Squad and we still kick ass. Wouldn’t that be something?’
Ark’s lips twitched. ‘She won’t last.’
‘She has to,’ Xiu said. ‘She’s one of us now.’
Olesya met Xiu’s gaze. ‘If you’ll have me.’
‘We’ll have you, all right.’ Ark stepped between them. ‘If you need to aim your weapon, you aim it. If you need to fire your weapon, you do what little English Squad girls do and pretend to fire.’
‘What if she needs to, you know, actually shoot something?’ Xiu asked.
Ark held up a finger. ‘I’m trying to save our squad.’ He focused on Olesya. ‘Do you understand me?’
‘I understand you’re insecure,’ Olesya said. ‘And I understand that someone used to hit you when you were younger. Older brother, bully at school, maybe your father.’
On his face, she noticed an almost imperceptible eye twitch. It was a flicker, and nothing more.
‘So it’s your father,’ Olesya said.
Ark strode toward her, his lips curling to reveal a chipped tooth.
Olesya stood her ground and spoke without pause. ‘My father did the same to me. I think a lot of recruits here had that problem.’
Ark stood, almost nose to nose with her, unblinking. ‘You’re going to have that problem in a minute.’
‘Ark, don’t.’ Another recruit placed her hand on his shoulder.
Olesya read her nametag: Val. His shoulders relaxed. He seemed to listen to her.
‘You’re one of the best performing recruits here,’ Olesya said to Ark. ‘But you could be the best. If they see how much a recruit like me improves—under your command—they would be very impressed. You pull off the impossible, that guarantees your squad qualifies. Maybe that’s the real test.’
‘Wait, she has a point,’ Jay said.
Ark glared at him. ‘She does not.’
Xiu folded her arms. ‘But what if she’s right?’
‘You’re the squad leader,’ Olesya said to him. ‘You have to be right.’
Ark straightened up. ‘Xiu, you like this new recruit so much, how about you train her in your free time?’ He watched Olesya carefully. ‘You only have today, Blondie. Don’t waste it.’
* * *
Olesya stepped into the mess a few minutes late for breakfast. It smelled of instant coffee and overcooked scrambled eggs. She was the last recruit from Firebird to arrive, and after what happened this morning, she preferred it that way.
Her appetite was almost zero, so she skipped the overcooked eggs and dry bacon that most recruits shoveled down their necks and settled for a liquid breakfast: a bland-tasting coconut shake, purposely missing all the chocolate so the recruits wouldn’t go crazy on sugar. So no one would question her appetite, she placed a cup of coffee and a snack-sized packet of cashews on her tray.
By now, all of Firebird were halfway through their breakfast and chatting among themselves. She felt Ark’s stare as she walked to an empty table. Another recruit shifted from Ark’s table to hers, sitting opposite her.
‘So you’re Olesya?’ Xiu asked.
She was reading off Olesya’s nametag, but Olesya nodded anyway.
‘Welcome to Firebird Squad, I’m Xiu.’ She pronounced it as she-you. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Russia,’ Olesya said. ‘Technically I’m from Belarus, but my family moved to Russia. And you are from—’
‘America.’ Xiu grinned. ‘Technically from China.’
Xiu didn’t say anything more. Instead, she ate her eggs in silence, her eyes wide and focused. Under the fluorescent light, Olesya could see freckles scattered across Xiu’s pink cheeks and threads of amber in her brown eyes.
Xiu’s movements were smooth and quick, so quick that a mouthful of scrambled eggs slipped from her fork onto her lap. That would’ve annoyed Olesya, but Xiu didn’t seem to care. She wiped her chin with the back of her hand and collected the egg with her fork. It looked funny, but Olesya was careful not to smile. Xiu caught Olesya staring.
‘Your father never hit you, did he?’ Xiu said.
Olesya swallowed. ‘No.’
Xiu tucked a strand of raven-black hair behind her ear. ‘So why did you say that to Ark?’
‘I was just … trying to make a connection.’
‘What you said to him, no one’s ever gotten away with that before.’ Xiu seemed almost amused. ‘But you said it better than most.’
Xiu chewed thoughtfully. ‘So, English Squad, huh? All this time and then they just throw you in with us.’
Olesya nodded. ‘I don’t know why they decided to move me.’
Xiu’s small lips curled into a smile. ‘I was born in America and your English is better than mine.’
‘But I have an accent.’ Olesya felt her cheeks warm. ‘And I think you overestimate me.’
‘We’re all here because we’re special,’ Xiu said. ‘You don’t think so?’
Olesya sipped her shake. ‘We’re different.’
‘I saw your test results last year.’
That seemed so long ago, Olesya could scarcely remember that. She couldn’t even remember arriving at the base. ‘Nothing out of the ordinary.’
‘What I saw this morning, you ran rings around our squad leader and he didn’t even know it,’ Xiu said, leaning in. ‘That wasn’t ordinary.’
Xiu stopped talking when Jay sat next to her and started eating from his tray. He had high cheekbones, an amber complexion and an ever-present smirk.
‘Sorry about our squad leader,’ he said, between mouthfuls of bacon. ‘He can be a bit of a dick.’
Olesya looked down. ‘I don’t think he likes me much.’
‘Ark can be a bit difficult,’ Xiu said. ‘But we’re family.’
Another recruit sat next to Jay with his own tray of food. His nametag read Damien. He had pale olive skin, scruffy hair, and a nose slightly too big for his face.
‘So you’ve met our squad leader?’ Damien asked. At least he still had a slight Italian accent.
‘Unfortunately,’ Olesya said.
Damien shook his head. ‘There was this one time at the range, the rear sight on my pistol was stuck and I couldn’t adjust it.’
Jay elbowed him. ‘Yeah, I bet Helldiver sabotaged it on purpose.’
‘My point is, we had this big test and my shots were off,’ Damien said. ‘I wasn’t going to qualify. I told the instructor and he just blamed me, told me there was nothing wrong with the sights. He didn’t even bother to check.’
Damien paused to sip his juice.
Jay cleared his throat. ‘When the instructor wasn’t looking, Ark swapped his pistol with Damien’s.’
Damien nodded. ‘I just scraped through.’
‘What about Ark?’ Olesya asked.
‘His shots before that were dead center, tight grouping,’ Jay said. ‘Even with Damien’s messed-up pistol, he just managed to qualify.’
‘Ark looks out for us,’ Damien said. ‘Give him time and he’ll look out for you too.’
‘What if I’m not good enough?’ Olesya asked. ‘Then I get all of you disqualified. What happens then?’
Xiu, Damien and Jay exchanged glances.
‘We don’t know,’ Damien said.
‘I can tell you my theory,’ Jay whispered. ‘When you’re disqualified, they—’
Xiu held up her hand. ‘No one wants to hear your theory, Jay.’
‘Fine, whatever.’ Jay accidentally spat bacon into her shake. He looked at the table behind them and ran off the names of every recruit in Firebird Squad and their ‘inherent abilities’.
‘Sitting next to Ark, that’s his sister, Val,’ Jay said. ‘She has really good night vision and she can see ultraviolet stuff. Ark’s ability is magnets or whatever it’s called. Pretty lame ability. I never said that though.’
Val had the same curly brown hair, but longer, and her face wasn’t narrow like Ark’s. She was actually quite pretty, Olesya thought. Hard to believe she was Ark’s sister. Val caught them looking at her and smiled. She seemed friendly.
Olesya watched as she turned to Ark and rattled her fist. He did the same. They both shook their fists three times, then she opened her palm while he opened his fist into a finger gun. It looked like they were playing some sort of game and he’d lost. It showed on his long face as she pinched the last of his bacon.
‘Val keeps him in check and he looks out for her, just like the rest of us,’ Jay said. ‘But they’re super tight.’ He paused. ‘Tight is like close. They’re real close.’
‘I got it.’ Olesya nodded. ‘Tight.’
Xiu followed her gaze to the table across from Firebird.
‘Who are they?’ Olesya asked.
‘Helldiver Squad,’ Xiu said.
Olesya noticed the girl a few shades darker than Jay. She had tightly drawn lips and dark springy hair tied in a bun.
‘That’s Nasira, their squad leader,’ Xiu said.
Jay risked a glance. ‘She never smiles.’
‘Don’t stare,’ Xiu said.
Olesya averted her gaze and caught a smirk from Xiu.
‘Not you, Olesya.’ Xiu nodded to Jay. ‘I meant him.’
Jay nudged Damien. ‘Tell her your ability. It’s a good one!’
Damien had just started to delicately eat his breakfast, one food group at a time. He cleared his throat and looked up. ‘Um, they call it thermogenesis.’
Jay groaned. ‘That’s too complicated, I told you to call it Thermo! It sounds way cooler.’
‘How does it work?’ Olesya asked.
Damien leaned forward and wrapped his hand around Olesya’s cold cup of coffee. Nothing happened for a while. He released it and she could see steam rising.
Jay grinned. ‘We make him do that all the time, it’s real handy.’
‘What’s yours?’ Olesya asked.
‘I can electrocute stuff,’ Jay said, reaching for her cup.
Olesya quickly moved it from his reach.
Jay looked dejected. ‘I call it Electro.’ He moved his hand toward Xiu but she was quick to intercept it, gripping his wrist.
‘Shock me again and I’ll shave your eyebrows while you sleep,’ Xiu said.
Jay pried his wrist free and rubbed it. ‘Xiu’s ability is she’s a total ninja. Reflexes like a cat. The testicle system—’
‘Vestibular system,’ Xiu said. ‘Balance, agility. The scientists here call it Hyperequilibrioception.’
Damien chewed on his eggs. ‘They’re pretty keen to take that ability and give it to all of us.’
‘If we qualify,’ Jay said. ‘So what’s yours?’
Olesya’s mouth went dry.
‘Jay, not everyone has one.’ Xiu glared at him. ‘We were picked because of our special genetics, not whether we have party tricks. Plus, it’s rude to ask.’
‘Yeah, sorry.’ Jay leaned over to inspect Xiu’s breakfast. She slapped his hand, sending him into retreat.
‘Olesya doesn’t have to tell anyone her ability, unless she wants to,’ Xiu said.
Damien nodded in agreement. Jay did too, although he was busy peering over Damien’s breakfast. He spied a sausage on Damien’s plate and poked it with his fork.
‘Are you eating that?’ Jay asked.
The sausage was already in Jay’s mouth by the time Damien replied.
‘No, I’m not.’ Damien looked over at Olesya. ‘Just give Ark some time. He’ll come around.’
Olesya flicked the straw in her shake. ‘He reminds me a lot of my brother.’
‘Your brother tried out for this?’ Jay asked.
‘Was he eligible?’ Damien asked. ‘It’s totally the whole genetic thing. I’m an only child, but there’s heaps of brothers and sisters here.’ He nudged Jay. ‘Didn’t you say you had a brother?’
Jay rubbed his nose. ‘No.’
‘My brother should be here, not me,’ Olesya said.
‘Why would you say that?’ Xiu asked. ‘So you don’t want to be here?’
Olesya didn’t want to offend Xiu or the boys, they’d been so friendly. ‘Not as much as my brother did.’
‘He didn’t pass the trials?’ Jay asked.
‘Don’t talk with your mouth full,’ Damien said.
Olesya wet her cracked lips. ‘He passed everything but the stress tests.’
‘Yeah, they suck big-time,’ Jay said. ‘He buckled under pressure, hey?’
‘My parents were disappointed in him,’ Olesya said.
Jay smirked. ‘But you got in, right? You’re here.’
Olesya drank the last of her coffee. ‘Yeah.’
Xiu clapped her hands once, sharply. It made Damien jump and Jay choke on his food. Xiu ignored them. ‘Olesya, have you used a weapon before?’
‘A gun? No.’
Xiu leaned over her breakfast tray. ‘OK, so first rule is you don’t call them guns. They’re pistols, rifles, carbines, things that go boom,’ she said. ‘Second rule, you probably don’t get this in English Squad but we have two hours of free training after lunch. I’m no expert, but maybe I can show you a thing or two.’
‘Nice,’ Damien said.
‘Yeah, Xiu’s our best shooter.’ Jay grinned. ‘After me, anyway.’
Xiu tilted her head. ‘Jay, do you even remember our scores in close quarters?’
‘In my head,’ Jay said, ‘And I exaggerated the numbers a bit.’
Damien and Xiu laughed, and Olesya laughed with them. It was the first time she’d laughed in a while.
‘How about it?’ Xiu arched an eyebrow and Olesya saw a glint of mischief in her eyes.
‘You really want to help me?’ Olesya asked.
Xiu smiled. ‘We have to.’
Olesya’s packet of cashews rustled. She looked down to see Jay’s hand over it.
‘Are you going to eat those?’