Hi, folks. Cyrus Keith once again, her to regale you with tales and teasers, characters and cliffhangers, from my series The NADIA Project. This is a special occasion, because Critical Mass, the third and final novel-length installment of the Project, is not even released yet! So you fine folks get to see an early preview of what will prove to be the best book in the series. If you liked my award-winning debut Becoming NADIA and its sequel Unalive, you’re sure to enjoy Critical Mass. More details are sure to come, but let me share with you why I chose this particular passage for our excerpt tonight.
When I started writing this project, I wanted several things to happen:
1. I wanted the story of Nadia Velasquez to come to its final conclusion. No more loose ends.
2. I wanted to open more of Jenna’s past. She had become so prominent during the course of Unalive I knew there was more for her, and this was her time to shine.
3. Okay, so I really stopped at two. But dudes and dudettes, several can be two, depending on the moon phase and the angular symmetry of the modulation on the Cosmic Background Radiation signature, okay? Besides, this is really cool, so just stick with me, okay?
Anyway, this part is actually another of my favorites. I was writing toward a point where Jon and Jenna had to come to some kind of deal to not kill each other long enough to focus on their mutual enemies, The Pinnacle. It just so happens when I write, I kind of follow this figurative “dotted line,” from Point A where Jenna survives a treacherous attack from her own people, to Point B where she and Jon come to their understanding. So the first thing to do is come up with a feasible reason for them to want to find each other. Then you make a reasonable way for them to meet up. So I had a reference point and certain conditions to write toward, and a way to get there. Then I just started in, and let the story just kind of carry me along. It seemed to write itself as the characters engaged in their own back-and-forth repartee inside my head.
Which only goes to prove that writers are all at least partially schizophrenic. So here we are: An unedited excerpt from Critical Mass by Cyrus Keith:
* * * *
[Cover art pending. That's how new this is!]
At his car, Jon unlocked the doors and waited on the driver's side for Jenna to get out of the wheelchair and climb in. She just sat in the chair in her disguise until he lost patience and came back around. He flipped the hat from her head. “Okay, you can dump the old lady act—” He took in her disheveled hair, the bruises and stitches on her head, her pale skin, and a hot wave of shock washed over him, mixed with shame. He tried to think of something appropriate to say, but all that come out was a gasp, followed by, “You look like hell.”
“Way to compliment a lady, Agent Daniels.” Her face twisted in a grimace. Her trembling hands clutched at the chair's armrests. “I need a little help getting up.”
Jon opened the passenger door and helped her in, and then got in and started the engine. “Do you need a hospital?”
“No.” She grunted, settling into the seat. “But if you could line me up with some painkillers and a place to lay low for a couple of days, I'll be a happier girl.”
“Would you at least tell me what happened to you?”
“Bad day at work. Just get me out of here, will you? No hospitals. Can't be seen in public.” Her voice was getting weaker; she was slurring her words. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Jon swerved out into traffic, and she moaned with the sudden movement. “You've a doctor workin' with you. Take me there.”
“Okay, but I'll have to blindfold you.”
“Don' worry,” she slurred, “I'll prolly be unconjus in 'few minuz. 'Zis seat lay back?”
Jon stole a glance at her as he swung onto an entrance ramp. Her face looked like school paste and her jaw hung open. She was breathing, for now, but the last time he saw someone that pale, they didn't live much longer. Dammit, girl; don't you die on me. He put his magnetic rotator light on the car's roof and goosed the accelerator. As soon as he hit a clear stretch on the interstate, he called Donna Hermsen. “Boss Lady? We have a problem.”
“What is it now? Are you followed?”
He double-checked his mirrors. “Doesn't seem to be an issue. Donna, I've got Jenna Paine—”
“And who's got who tied up this time?”
“Ha, ha. No, seriously. She's hurt, bad. I think she just passed out.”
“What did you do to her?”
“I didn't do anything; she came in like this.”
Donna's voice was tight with tension. “Make sure it's not a trick.”
“Oh, it's no trick. She looks like hell.”
“Well, what's wrong? Have you checked her out?”
“Hang on.” He pulled over. “Okay, what do I do?”
“Weren't you a boy scout?”
“It's been a long time, Donna. You're a doctor—”
“A physiologist, not an MD. Hang on, Beth is here.”
Jon clipped his Bluetooth to his ear as he ran around the front of the car and opened the passenger door.
Beth's voice sounded in his earpiece. “Okay, what's she look like?”
He felt her head. “Fishbelly white, her face is clammy. She's got fresh stitches on the side of her head and bruises all over the place.”
“Check her pupils; make sure they dilate evenly.”
Jenna didn't even twitch when he thumbed her eyelids up. “They look the same size; they react to light.”
“There has to be something else going on. Is she bleeding anywhere else?”
“Hell, I don't know; she's dressed up in a huge grandma sweater—” He saw the stain on his car seat and cursed. “Beth, she's bleeding. Hang on—” He lifted the sweater and saw the dressing on her torso. “She's got a huge bandage on her waist, and it's soaked through with blood.”
“Fresh, or clotted?”
“It's soaking with fresh blood.”
“Dark or bright red?”
“It's bright red.”
“How much is flowing?”
“It's just seeping right now.”
“It's an active bleed, but it's not an artery. Okay, don't peel it away, but tell me what color is the skin around the edges of the dressing?”
“There's some bruising, but not too bad.”
“Is the area hard and swollen?”
When he reached out to feel her side, Jenna grabbed his wrist. She looked straight into his eyes. “Wha' th'hell you doin'?”
“I'm seeing if you'll survive a four-hour drive.”
“If I don', I prolly d'serve it. Le's go.”
Beth said, “Okay, she's conscious. Listen; put more padding on top of that dressing. Do you have any way to secure it, to put pressure on it? Don't take it off for anything. Donna, Hushi, and I are going to take off right now. We'll meet you at the Virginia state line, at the welcome center on the southbound side. Meantime, I want you to push liquids, as much as she can drink and keep down. OJ and clear soda, half-and-half. That'll keep her blood sugar up, and give us a little more time. Now haul out, and we'll meet you.”
Jon hung up and took off his shirt. He packed it on top of the blood-soaked dressing and secured it with his belt before pulling Jenna's sweater back down over it. Then he jumped back in and pulled out onto the expressway. At the next exit, he found a quick stop and picked up a two-liter and some orange juice. Now if I can get her to drink it…
* * * *
It was dark when he crossed the Virginia state line. When he pulled in at the welcome center and opened the door, he looked over at Jenna. In the dome light's glow, her face was a mask of ghastly pallor. Her breathing came in ragged, shallow gasps.
He grabbed her shoulders. “Jenna? Jenna, don't you do this! Stay with me, do you hear?”
Her eyes opened halfway, glassy and blank. “Lemme th' hell 'lone, dammit.”
“Don't leave us, okay? I need you.”
Jenna brightened up. Recognition came into her eyes. “Y-you… wamee stay?” She grimaced and moaned. A tear squeezed from her left eye and caught on the side of her nose. Her hand fell slack as she passed out again.
Jon sat on the pavement, leaning back against the side of his car. He had expected a lot of things today, but a tear from Jenna Paine? He would sooner have expected Osama bin Laden to put on a yarmulke and sing “Hava Nagila.” He came out today ready to take up their rivalry from where they left off, with bullets and fists.
But something had changed. Something? Hell, a lot of things had to have changed. Miss Paine, what in God's name happened to you? Did her last target pack more than she could handle? It would be easy to say she deserved it. Hell, she was an enforcer involved in the world's most insidious hostile takeover bid. God alone knew how much blood was on her hands. But did anyone deserve to die like this, slowly bleeding to death, alone in the hands of the enemy? He almost felt sorry for her. Almost. Right now, all she was to Jon Daniels was a link to The Pinnacle's leadership. If she could be turned. If she lived long enough to turn.