Today is the fourth anniversary of On The Cobblestone Road! It’s hard to believe four years have come and gone already. Every anniversary, I like to feature a special post to celebrate. In the past, I’ve shared short stories and sneak peeks at the novels.
This year, I’m excited to share a unique behind-the-scenes perspective you haven’t seen yet from the books. If you follow me on Goodreads and social media, you may already know that the Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series is going to consist of six novels and a prequel, totaling seven books. The prequel, tentatively titled Project Alpha, won’t be released until after Book VI, so it’s still a long way from publication! But, like the rest of the WOTR series, I have parts of it written and will periodically open up the document and work on it if an idea or scene strikes me.
Project Alpha will be different from the other novels in that it will be comprised of eight different stories. You guessed it — the eight Alpha ghosts will be narrating their own tales. It’s an exciting but bittersweet look at their lives leading up to their incarceration in Project Alpha. Phantom’s origin story. Axel’s transformation. The full backstories that couldn’t find a place in books I-VI because of the severe amnesia cases in the main character cast caused by the cruel experiments performed at the AGC.
To celebrate the four-year anniversary of the blog, I’m sharing a scene from the first book of Project Alpha. This is Finn’s story before he was Finn, before he was even A1. The twins are two of my favorite characters from a psychological perspective, and I hope you enjoy this brief glimpse into their backstory. Welcome to Project Gamma.
Ms. Simmons is standing at the counter, humming while she sorts the food containers for breakfast. All the kids in the cages around me stir with impatience, which makes me antsy. My tummy growls, and I curl my fingers through the bars.
But the sounds coming from Ms. Simmons have my attention more than the cups of pasty mush she’s organizing onto trays. The sounds she’s making aren’t words and don’t seem to have any meaning. But together in rhythm, each sound a little different from the other, they’re pretty.
The doors slide open, and Ms. Simmons jumps. Puzzled by the interruption, we all turn to look at the pair of strangers who have just stormed into the room. Right before the doors close again, I see a group of men standing in the hall, waiting.
“Agent Byrn, Agent Kovak,” Ms. Simmons greets. She smiles, but she doesn’t look happy to see them.
The one she called Agent Kovak is frowning. He demands, “Where are Agents Rath and DeLetter?”
“Quarantined in their quarters. They both have the flu,” says Ms. Simmons. “The West Wing is closed for testing right now. I’m handling the feedings over there during their absence. Is there something I can help you with?”
Agent Kovak hands her a file and says, “We’re here to transfer the Telepath.”
“To what Project?” she asks, opening the folder. Her thin eyebrows go up in surprise. “Alpha? I thought Alpha was still in the developmental stage.”
“It’s ready for subjects now. All the paperwork is in order.”
“I’m sorry, but apparently you haven’t communicated with Anders. The subject you want fell ill and has been in Quarantine for several days now. Anders doesn’t think he’ll survive much longer.”
“Damn it,” Agent Byrn says under his breath. Ms. Simmons doesn’t like that word, but even though she presses her lips together in annoyance, she doesn’t say so out loud. “That’s the only Telepath we have in custody.”
Ms. Simmons flips through the papers Agent Kovak had given her. She closes the folder, then looks at my brother and me sitting hungrily in wait. “You know, those two subjects right over there are the Telepath’s offspring.”
“What, the Mind-Readers?” Agent Byrn scoffs. “I thought they were sent to Omega.”
“Not yet. Their year isn’t up.”
“Have they developed telepathic powers?”
“No, they haven’t. But their divine power is a mental one. Isn’t that what you’re looking for?”
Agent Byrn rubs his chin and glares at us. Agent Kovak is watching us. The angry frown lines in his forehead aren’t there anymore. He says, “Let me look at one of them.”
Ms. Simmons nods and sets the folder on the counter before she comes to my cage. As she unlocks the door, she whispers very quietly, “Do everything he says. Be on your best behavior. This is very important.”
The cage door swings open, and I crawl out onto the cold floor, then stand still. Ms. Simmons likes it when I stand still. I hope Agent Kovak likes the same. He walks up to me, and I crane my head back to look up at him. He’s really tall. He sets his fingers under his chin and tilts my head to look at me better. “Runts of the litter, huh?”
Ms. Simmons doesn’t answer.
“Level?” he asks.
I don’t understand why she answered that question but not the first one. How does she know when this man wants an answer and when he doesn’t? How will I know if I should answer or not if he asks me a question?
Agent Byrn is still frowning, like he’s angry with me, but I don’t know what to do to change his mind. He grumbles, “Level 2. That’s half the power we wanted. Plus, their Divinities aren’t even fully developed.”
“I don’t know,” Agent Kovak replies. “For a start, they might work. If we can isolate the brain activity when their powers are in use, then we’ll be better prepared to handle more powerful subjects once Alpha obtains the funding.”
“But it’s going to be harder for the equipment to detect such a low power level. I don’t want a T.H.A. brat from the East Wing.”
Agent Kovak puts his big, warm hands on my shoulders and slowly turns me in a circle so he can study me. I let him guide me and then stand still once his hands are off my shoulders. “He handles well enough.”
“Of course,” says Ms. Simmons. She wrings her hands together and smiles nervously. “I train all the East Wing kids to be obedient. I take great pride in my work.”
Agent Kovak walks away from me and picks up the folder. “We’ll be in touch soon,” he says. “We have some business to discuss.”
I don’t see Agent Kovak or Agent Byrn again after that visit, and I’m relieved. Those men made me nervous in a way I couldn’t understand. After a couple of Lightsons pass, the strange meeting is far away in the back of my mind, like a bad dream.
Ms. Simmons takes me, my brother, and four other kids to Quarantine so we can have blood taken for a test. I don’t like the needle, but I’m good and hold still, so I’m allowed to eat that day, unlike 2310, who cries and tries to hit the woman in the white coat. Ms. Simmons smacks 2310 across the face and tells her to hold still. I wish 2310 hadn’t made Ms. Simmons mad; it’s better for all of us if Ms. Simmons is in a good mood. 2310 won’t have anything to eat tonight. She sniffles and whimpers the whole walk back to our cages.
I don’t feel any pity for her when everyone else is given a cup of food and she doesn’t get any. She was bad; she deserves her punishment. Ghosts must obey human orders, and they especially shouldn’t hit a human. I dip my fingers into the gritty paste and suck on them, glad my tummy won’t hurt tonight.
Lightsout should be soon. I’m full and sleepy, and my eyes are heavy. I sigh and curl up in a little ball, my thumb lightly pressing on the bandage taped over the sore spot in the crook of my arm.
The doors slide open, and Ms. Simmons rushes in. Something is wrong; she never comes back after we’ve eaten. She usually isn’t in a hurry, either, but this time, she is. Ms. Simmons unlocks my cage and tells me to come with her, that we have to go to her office right away.
I rub my eye with my fist, and she grabs my arm and yanks me after her. “Quickly!” she says. “No time to dawdle.”
I wonder what dawdle means. I haven’t heard that word before. But I know quickly, so I take faster steps to keep up with Ms. Simmons. The doors slide open in front of us.
She won’t look at me as we walk down the hall. Her voice is hushed and fast: “Agent Kovak has come back to see you. He says he wants to run a few tests. I don’t know what that means, but I want you to behave perfectly.”
We stop outside the closed doors to her office. She kneels down and grips my shoulders, giving me a firm shake. “Do not make any mistakes. Do not make Agent Kovak angry. Nod if you understand.”
“Good. If you cause any trouble at all, your punishment will be severe. You’ll stand in The Square all night, and no food at all tomorrow.” She stands up, takes a deep breath, smooths her hair, and knocks on the door.
I frown. Why is she knocking on her own office door? I’ve never seen her do that before.
“Come in,” comes Agent Kovak’s muffled voice.
“Perfect behavior,” she reminds me in a whisper before the doors open. I follow, not too far behind, not too close that I might accidentally step on her heel. Perfect distance. Perfect behavior.
Agent Kovak is sitting behind her desk. His eyes barely glance at Ms. Simmons before settling on me, and then he rises from the chair, which creaks when his weight leaves it. “Why so shy?” he asks. “Come on, then. Step forward.”
I gulp. I really want to hide behind Ms. Simmons instead. But she would hit me and make me go to Agent Kovak anyway, plus the extra punishment later, so I walk forward with my head down and stop in the middle of the room. My toes curl into the carpet. I like the carpet in Ms. Simmon’s office. It’s not cold like the tiles everywhere else, and it’s soft.
Agent Kovak comes around the desk and circles me. He stops in front of me, lowers himself to one knee, and stares into my eyes. “Has Agent Anders ever examined them?”
“No,” says Ms. Simmons. “He . . . well, he wasn’t scheduled to see them until the transfer.”
“Oh, right. Omega,” Agent Kovak says absently. He stands up and returns to the desk. He sits on the edge and picks up a folder, then starts reading without another word to either of us. The clock ticking on the wall is the only sound in the room. Without moving, I glance at Ms. Simmons. She’s perfectly still, waiting, so I wait patiently, too.
“This is interesting,” Agent Kovak finally says. “The report says the twins were scheduled to be transferred to Project Omega ten months ago, but you requested a year’s extension. Why is that, Simmons? You aren’t attached to them, are you?”
Ms. Simmons’ hands ball up into fists. “I resent that accusation. I’m not attached to any of the test subjects in my ward. I simply felt that we hadn’t given them enough time to let their powers develop.”
“Do you still feel that way?”
“Honestly, yes. I think it’s still too early to write them off as failed experiments. But I’ve already had my extension, so if the transfer goes through, I won’t dispute it.”
Agent Kovak sets the folder down on the desk and glances at his watch. “Anders will be here after he finishes cleaning up from his autopsy. In the meantime, I want to run my tests. You can go ahead and deactivate the neutralizer.” He slides off the desk and returns to Ms. Simmons’ chair.
“Here?” she asks in confusion.
He sits down. “Yes, here.” His voice is different—darker, colder—and it makes me shiver with discomfort. I don’t think he likes repeating himself.
Ms. Simmons lets out a nervous chuckle and says, “Of course.” She pulls the controller from her pocket, taps a short code, and then holds her finger down on the button.
A little gasp of pleasure escapes me. I call the metal band around my right arm The Quiet because it makes all the voices in my head go silent except for my own. In some ways, I like The Quiet because the voices are usually scared and angry, and they confuse me. But The Quiet also makes me feel cold and empty. The warm, tingling sensation in my chest feels good.
Now, I’m hearing Agent Kovak’s thoughts for the first time. Ms. Simmons always has clear, concise thoughts with internal dialogue narrating most of them. It’s easy to understand what she wants when The Quiet is turned off. Agent Kovak’s thoughts aren’t quite as clean; they seem to be a mix of wants, emotions, and sentences.
“Shall we start?” he asks, thinking about the chair across from him. “I just want to make sure he really is a Level 2 Mind-Reader like his file says.”
I silently walk to the chair, hoist myself into the seat, and settle onto my knees so I can see the top of the desk. A tiny smirk reaffirms his thoughts; he’s happy that I obeyed without being told.
Ms. Simmons shifts her weight from one foot to the other. “Do . . . do you want me to stay?” she asks timidly.
“I don’t care. Stay or go, whatever you want.”
She shuffles over to the side and stands by the wall to watch. I’m glad she’s still here with me. I know if I get confused, she’ll think what I need to do so I can make Agent Kovak happy. That’s all I have to do so I can go to sleep at Lightsout and have food tomorrow.
Agent Kovak spreads colored cards across the desk. “Okay, runt. If you’re actually a Mind-Reader, this should be an easy task for you.”
He’s looking at me, but he’s thinking about the green card. That’s the only one he cares about. He wants me to point to it. I can already hear his mind forming the question for his mouth: Point to the color I’m thinking of.
He starts to say, “Point to—” but my finger is already on the green square. He pauses, then smiles. He’s happy with my answer.
Agent Kovak studies me closely, like he’s purposely not looking at the cards in case he might give the answer away. He notices my blue eyes. Blue. Before he can even ask, I’m pointing to the blue card.
“Very good,” he praises. “Now, I’m thinking of three colors in a specific order.”
I point to the red card, then the blue card, then the orange card.
Agent Kovak looks up when the doors slide open even though there was no knock. “Ah, Dr. Anders. So glad you could join us.”
A tall, skinny man in a white coat is standing in the doorway unwrapping something small in his fingers. He balls the wrapper in his fist and shoves it into his coat pocket, then pushes his glasses up his nose as he pops the stick into his mouth and starts to chew. The doors close behind him as he walks into the office. “You still thinking about this subject for Alpha?” he asks.
“I am. He’s already proven his Mind-Reading abilities. Pending your evaluation, I’m convinced he and his brother will make good recruits.”
Dr. Anders grunts in response and crosses the room with long strides. He wants me to stand up. It’s a clear, direct thought—clearer than even Ms. Simmons’ thoughts—but by the time I realize what he wants, he’s already seized my arm and pulled me out of the chair. I would have obeyed if he’d asked or even given me a little more time. Am I in trouble? Was I too slow?
“All right, well, let’s take a look, then,” he mutters. “Huh. Déjà vu. Let me guess—this kid is the offspring of the Gamma I’ve got opened up on the autopsy table.”
I see a man in his mind. Eyes closed, naked, lying on his back, his chest opened up to see his insides. Dead.
So, that’s death. It’s different than I had imagined from Ms. Simmons’ description of going to sleep forever. Falling asleep and not feeling pain anymore had been an almost comforting thought, but the memory in Dr. Anders’ mind is much scarier than a person sleeping. I don’t want to die.
“Correct,” says Agent Kovak. “The closest substitution we could find.”
Whatever Dr. Anders is chewing has a strong, sharp smell. It fills my nose when he bends down and seizes my face in one hand, tilting my head side to side. His grip is firm; it hurts my jaw. Ms. Simmons shifts a little in the corner of my eye. She’s afraid I might move, but I don’t. All three of them want me to hold still, so I will. I’m not like 2310; I know how to be good.
Dr. Anders shines a light into my eyes, then moves his hand to my chin—open, he wants, but doesn’t say—I do.
“Any known health problems?” he asks as he points the light into my mouth.
“None that I’m aware of,” says Ms. Simmons.
“How long has he had his Divinity?”
“Hard to say for sure with it being passive. He could have been reading minds since the day he was born, or even sooner. It’s difficult to tell with infants since they can’t verbalize.”
Dr. Anders doesn’t answer. He drops the light back into his pocket and grabs the round end of a weird Y-shaped tube around his neck. He puts the two ends in his ears, and I gasp when he presses the cold metal against my bare chest, but I’m good and don’t move my feet even though I want to step away. I watch him as he listens; he’s staring at the floor and doesn’t look at me. He’s even stopped chewing.
We stay very still for a long time. Finally, he lets go of the metal piece and takes the ends of the tube out of his ears. He uses his tongue to pop a bubble in his mouth as he reaches into his pocket again, removing a measuring tape and wrapping it around my head.
“What do you think?” asks Agent Kovak.
Dr. Anders takes the tape away and stands up. “I’ll have to recalibrate the equipment and make some size adjustments, but I see no reason why the Neural Monitoring System wouldn’t work on them. Actually, in all honesty, we might have better luck studying the growth in T.H.A. subjects. I know Byrn was concerned about that, but it might be a blessing in disguise.”
“T.H.A.?” Ms. Simmons asks.
“True to human age,” Dr. Anders says, although he rolls his eyes. He’s annoyed that he has to tell her that. “Meaning they haven’t come of age yet and are still in the rapid development phase of their lives, by kálos standards, anyway. I wasn’t sure about this substitution at first,” he tells Agent Kovak, “but I’m feeling more confident now.”
Agent Kovak stands up and claps his hands together. “Excellent!”
He’s happy. Ms. Simmons is relieved. I can’t tell how Dr. Anders feels—he’s not happy, but he’s not upset, either, so I think I did a good job.
Dr. Anders is scribbling some numbers into a small notebook. He doesn’t say another word as he leaves the office.
I can sense Agent Kovak standing right behind me. I glance up at him. He wants me to face him, so I do. “What’s your name, kid?”
Am I supposed to answer out loud? I glance at Ms. Simmons for direction. Tell him, she thinks quickly, nodding her head.
“2296,” I say quietly.
He claps a strong hand on my shoulder. “I’m giving you a new name. You’re A1 now, got it? That’s the name I’m going to call you by.”
He wants me to acknowledge that I understand, so I nod even though I don’t completely. A new name? Am I not 2296 anymore?
Mr. Kovak announces, “I want both of the runts. Fill out the required transfer paperwork and have them delivered to the Alpha level first thing in the morning.”
I hope you’re ready for more of Finn and Reese in Book II: Phantom’s Mask, which is currently still on track for the July release date! The future is still wildly uncertain amidst the chaos of COVID-19, but as of now, Ingram, the company that handles my printing/distribution, is still operating. There have been several delays with the line edit due to the pandemic, but I’m confident I can make up for the lost time and get back on schedule as long as the printing facilities remain open in the next couple of months. Stay tuned!