Did you miss chapter one? Read it here.

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two

Celdon

It would be easy to lose a person in Information. The section whose job it is to illuminate the truth is filled with shadows.

The walls are black. The floors are black, and the small pools of light emanating from sconces along the tunnels just make the surrounding darkness seem inkier by comparison.

I hate walking down those tunnels because I always feel as though I’m being followed.

I don’t think I’m imagining it — someone is always watching me these days. Ever since I attacked Devon Reid, Constance has made it their mission to strip me of who I was and bring me into the fold.

They isolated me from my friends, pulled me out of work, beat me to a bloody pulp, and then assured me that Constance was my family. I couldn’t go back to my old life because I didn’t have a life to return to.

After a few days in that dark chamber with no food, I started to believe them. But when they released me and I returned to Systems, it felt as though nothing had changed.

Well . . . almost nothing.

Ever since my release, Devon has attached himself to me like a fucking barnacle. When I returned to Systems, nobody said a word about my absence, but they did notice Devon watching me constantly over the top of his monitor. We don’t speak, but I know why he’s there: He’s keeping an eye on me to make sure I don’t stray from Constance again.

He’ll stalk me all day — at work, in the canteen — and then casually drop another assignment in my lap. So far these assignments have all been junior-league hacking jobs, but they still consume most of my nights. By the time I stumble up to my compartment at oh-five hundred for a few hours of sleep, Devon is usually posted up on my couch as though he owns the place.

I wonder if this is how they get all their members — stalking people until they finally surrender and learn to love their watchdogs. It would certainly explain why everyone in Constance is such an asshole. They have no lives outside of the cause and no real friends.

Looking around the crowded canteen, I’m struck — not for the first time — by how lonely it can be even when you’re surrounded by people.

The Systems workers seem to form one giant cloud of white blazers. They’re eating, laughing, and talking about normal things like awkward dates, the upcoming elections, and work. They don’t spend their nights hacking into people’s private accounts and watching them from behind a screen.

But it’s the tier-three sections that make my heart ache for higher ed. Recon people are a little rough around the edges, but they look after their own.

Scanning the tables for Harper, I spot a cluster of cadets that she normally hangs out with: a big guy who’s slowly turning his excess fat into muscle, a short pale girl with a white-blond bob, and a wiry kid with copper-colored hair.

Harper is nowhere in sight. I haven’t seen her since she begged me to tell her what was going on and I blew her off.

I’m starting to worry. I attacked Devon so I could warn Harper that Constance captured Owen on the feeds, but I never heard what became of that disastrous slipup. I have a bad feeling eating a hole in my gut, but I can’t message Harper.

The only reason Devon didn’t kill me is because he thinks I’ve turned my back on her. She lied to me about how I ended up in the Institute, and Devon thought that would be enough to sever our bond. But our friendship has survived a hell of a lot worse than that lie. I just hope it can survive my stint in Constance.

Choosing a seat far removed from the Systems people, I throw down my tray and collapse onto the bench. I haven’t even tasted my food when Devon slides onto the seat in front of me. He eyes the neat little piles of sweet potatoes and plantains on top of my quinoa but doesn’t move to get any food for himself. Devon subsists mostly on protein shakes and green smoothies, and I’ve only seen him eat actual canteen food a handful of times.

“You’re looking a little ragged this afternoon,” he says in that greasy voice of his.

“You try living on three hours of sleep a night,” I grumble. “Then we’ll see how perky you look.”

“You should take better care of yourself,” Devon chides. “We need you running at peak performance.”

“Well excuse me if it’s difficult to sleep with my friendly neighborhood stalker pulling me in to do Constance’s busywork every night.”

“Busywork?” Devon frowns. “Is that how you see it?”

“What would you call it? You can’t tell me you get your jollies from hacking into board members’ bank accounts or watching spoiled tier-one bitches cheat on their husbands.”

“No,” says Devon in a thoughtful tone. “But I do enjoy doing work I know will benefit humankind in the long run. Don’t you?”

“I guess.” It’s a half-assed lie, but I’m too tired to sell it.

Devon stares at me with those probing brown eyes, and his expression gives me a flashback of my time in Constance’s torture chamber. When I was detained, Devon would alternate between beating me and bargaining with me. It’s how he is: charming and sadistic at the same time.

“I know what you need,” he says in that dangerous, silky voice.

“What do I need?” I ask. Besides about ten years of therapy.

“You need to see how the sausage is made, my friend.”

What?”

“I want to show you what the big boys and girls are up to . . . give you a front-row seat while Pierce and the rest of them get their hands dirty.”

Devon shrugs and cracks a grin. “They told me you weren’t ready, but I have a feeling you might find it more interesting than that so-called ‘busywork’ you’ve been doing.”

I load my mouth with food and chew slowly so I don’t have to respond. I don’t want a front-row seat to what I’m sure will be a disgusting display of Constance’s power, but I need Devon to trust me.

Once he thinks I’m one of them, I can ask about my mother. I can ask what they have planned for Harper. I can ask anything I want as long as they think my intentions are pro-Constance. And that will never happen if I act all squeamish and refuse to step up.

“That sounds interesting,” I murmur.

“I knew it!” says Devon, slapping his hand on the table and looking very satisfied with his own intuition. “I always knew you were a ‘big picture’ sort of guy. I like that about you.”

My stomach does an uncomfortable flip. Devon looks genuinely happy. That’s what’s so sick: He actually believes Constance is doing something noble to save mankind.

I shovel a few more spoonfuls of food into my mouth and chase it with some water. It tastes like mush, but at least I’m going through the motions of being a functional human being.

I get up to dump my tray, and Devon slides out of his seat to follow me. I can practically feel people’s eyes on us and hate that they probably think we’re dating. I hate Devon Reid with every bone in my body.

As we board the megalift to return to the upper levels, we’re engulfed by a mishmash of different-colored uniforms. An EnComm guy in tight purple pants has his arm draped around a girl in a flowy yellow skirt. She moves closer to him as we crowd in, and I feel another swell of envy.

Regular lives. Regular stuff. Friends and lovers and jobs.

As the lift shoots up through the compound, people gradually trickle out until only a handful of Systems and Information people remain. Lunch hour isn’t over, so no one pays me and Devon any attention as we disembark behind two Information workers.

My eyes struggle to adjust to the darkness of the main tunnel, but my brain zeroes in on the conversation two reporters are having in front of us. By the sound of it, they’re trying to get a story pushed out to the feeds today — a human interest piece on the AWOL Recon operatives who just returned after being lost for months out on the Fringe.

Of the eight operatives who disappeared, only two have resurfaced so far. I know that Recon workers are debriefed immediately after returning from the Fringe, so whatever story they give the press will be thoroughly sanitized by Jayden to keep the existence of drifters a secret.

I desperately want to message Harper to ask her what really happened to the AWOL operatives, but I can’t.

Devon leads us down a side tunnel that winds deep into the archives. This is where the compound stores pre–Death Storm paper relics, but few people ever come down this way.

This is where the magic happens, Devon says. This is where I was held captive and tortured — not once, but twice.

We stop at a nondescript black door with a placard that reads “antique document storage,” and Devon swipes his key card. The light on the reader turns green, and the door clicks open.

As we shuffle inside, lights flicker on automatically behind the crown molding, giving the entire chamber a spooky glow. The room is empty, but the walls are filled with built-in metal cabinets. Directly across from us, there’s another door built into the wall that reads “maintenance.”

Devon places his thumb on the fingerprint sensor and punches in a nine-digit code on the keypad. A green light flashes, and he turns the handle. But before he opens the door, he swivels his head around and tosses me a reassuring grin. “Come on.”

I swallow and nod. Devon pushes the door wide open, and the sounds of suffering immediately fill my ears.

It’s too dark to make out any details, but I see two chiseled men dragging a body between them. The captive is swearing and struggling, but he seems too weak to put up a real fight.

I force my feet to move, and a moment later, the three figures stagger into the light.

That’s when I realize the men are dragging a shirtless Eli by the arms.

I freeze. Eli doesn’t look good. He’s pale and gaunt and has deep dark circles etched under his eyes. He has so many bruises spreading across his ribs and back that they’ve bled into each other and taken on a rainbow of sinister hues.

When he stops thrashing around, I see angry red dots seared into the sides of his neck — probe marks from an electric shock collar.

Why is Eli here? I wonder. Why hasn’t Harper said anything? Does she even know?

It takes the full strength of the two burly men to hoist Eli onto a low table in the center of the room and secure his arms with leather straps. One of the men bends too close and earns a swift knee to the face. Then they crank a knob on the side of the table, and the top tilts to raise up Eli’s legs.

I just stand there like a statue — simultaneously horrified and confused. But then the other guy pulls out an electric nightstick and zaps Eli. He convulses violently on the table and then goes still.

“It’s always . . . difficult to watch your first time,” Devon mutters, calling me back to reality.

That’s when I remember that I’m not merely an observer. I’m supposed to be part of Constance now — one of the bad guys.

“Just the first time?” I choke.

“Maybe the second time, too,” Devon concedes. “It all seems a little gratuitous . . . until you realize how effective it is.”

I must be doing a poor job of masking my disgust, because Devon chuckles. “Don’t worry. Your dear friend Harper isn’t up here with us.”

“Where is she?” I ask. My throat is almost too dry to speak, and the words come out thin and raspy.

“Safe and sound in the cages.”

The cages?”

Devon nods.

“What do you mean she’s in the cages? Harper didn’t do anything.”

Devon raises an eyebrow and fixes me with a look of pity. “Not according to Pierce.”

As if on cue, Harper’s commander, Jayden Pierce, strides into view. She’s wearing dark-burgundy lipstick and her gray Recon uniform with a crisp white shirt underneath. I’m sure she hasn’t so much as broken a nail torturing Eli, but boy does she look like one stressed-out, stone-cold bitch.

“I’m going to ask you one more time before we take this up a notch,” she snarls at Eli, placing her clawlike hands on the edge of the table. “Where — is — Owen?”

Eli’s breathing is so shallow I’m not sure he’s going to answer, but he manages to hiss, “Go to hell, Jayden.”

“You should stop fighting me, Parker,” she says. “I know you think you’re protecting your brother, but I’m going to find him — with or without your help.”

“Then what do you need me for?” spits Eli, leveling Jayden with a menacing look despite being splayed on the table like a cadaver. “It sounds like you’ve got it all figured out.”

Jayden stares down at Eli with the cool demeanor of a seasoned Constance creep, but I swear I see her nostrils flare in frustration. She’s getting nowhere with Eli, and she’s running out of options.

“Oh, I’ll find him,” she says. “And when I do . . . I’m going to make sure he pays for what he’s done.”

Eli lets out a crazed bark of laughter. “Owen? Please. My brother’s a helluva lot smarter than you . . . smarter than me, too. He’s probably a hundred miles away by now. You’re never going to catch him.”

Jayden seems to consider this for a moment and then smiles as though a brilliant idea just occurred to her. “Well . . . I know one way to make sure he comes crawling back,” she murmurs, crossing to the foot of the table and flicking on her interface.

She takes a few seconds to record her view of Eli, panning over his bruised body and gaunt face with a hungry look in her eyes. Then, without warning, she snaps her head around — focusing first on Devon and then on me.

“You! Computer boy! I need you to do something for me.”

I glance over at Devon, who’s giving me a death glare. That’s when I realize Jayden is addressing me.

“What’s your name?”

“Celdon . . . Celdon Reynolds.”

Glancing over Eli’s dirty feet, I see him raise his head about half an inch off the table and squint into the shadows. When he recognizes me, the look in his eyes shifts from curious to horrified.

I swallow down the urge to shout “It’s not what you think!” and yank my gaze back to Jayden.

“Sorry?”

“I want you to create a hole in our firewall.”

“Excuse me?”

“The drifters have taken their technology to the next level. I don’t know what they’re up to exactly, but they’re probably trying to penetrate our firewall as we speak. Do whatever you computer people do to allow one of those little snakes to access our network.”

“You want me to let them in?”

Jayden’s eyes narrow, and she smiles slowly. “Yes. I just want you to crack the door so they can stumble in long enough for us to trace their location. I also want them to have a chance to view this little movie I’m making to document Parker’s time with us. Wherever Owen is hiding, I’m sure it won’t take long for word to reach him that his brother is suffering for his crimes.”

Down on the table, Eli’s expression hardens.

Jayden is still looking at me expectantly, so I cough once and nod quickly. This woman is fucking insane, but disobeying her isn’t really an option.

She redirects her attention to Eli. “Care to enlighten me with what you know?”

“Fuck off.”

“Very well.”

That’s when the big guys descend. I take an instinctive step toward Eli, but Devon reaches out and snatches my arm. My breathing is heavy and shallow, and it’s all I can do to keep myself from leaping forward to push those guys away from him.

Devon shoots me a warning look, and a sick feeling settles in my stomach.

Eli’s eyes grow wide and terrified as one man pulls a dark cloth over his face and holds his head down. The other hoists a jug of water up from under the table and starts to pour it over Eli’s airways.

There’s a loud splash, followed by frantic choking noises, and I turn away as Eli buckles on the table.

 * * *

Did you enjoy this sneak peek? Lockdown will be available November 23rd wherever books are sold, and I’m running a 24-hour secret sale for readers who buy the book early. Check your email Sunday night for details!

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