Ember Miller and Chase Jennings are ready to stop running. After weeks spent in hiding as two of the Bureau of Reformation’s most wanted criminals, they have finally arrived at the safe house, where they hope to live a safe and quiet existence. But all that’s left is smoking ruins.
Devastated by the demolition of their last hope, Ember and Chase follow the only thing left to them—tracks leading away from the wreckage. The only sign that there may have been survivors. With their high profile, they know they can’t stay out in the open for long. They take shelter in the wilderness and amidst the ruins of abandoned cities as they follow the tracks down the coast, eventually finding refugees from the destroyed safe house. Among them is someone from Chase’s past—someone he never thought he’d see again.
Banding together, they search for a place to hide, aiming for a settlement a few of them have heard about…a settlement that is rumored to house the nebulous organization known as Three. The very group that has provided Ember with a tiny ray of hope ever since she was first forced on the run.
Three is responsible for the huge network of underground safe houses and resistance groups across the country. And they may offer Ember her only chance at telling the world her story.
Kristen Simmons’ fast-paced, gripping YA dystopian series continues in Three—available in paperback January 20th from Tor Teen!
The dream was changing. Even asleep I sensed it.
Before, it had been my mother and me, linked arm in arm, drawn down the center of our deserted street by the same violent destiny: home and soldiers and blood. Always blood. But now there was something different. Off. Needling at me like a riddle I couldn’t figure out.
The asphalt was still broken. Our neighborhood waited, silent and haunted, each condemned front door posting the Statutes like a warning of the plague. Above, a pale, flat sky spanned from shoulder to shoulder, and I was alone.
And then beside me, where my mother should have been, Chase appeared.
Not the Chase of now, but the boy I’d met long ago—messy black hair and the curious, daring eyes of an eight-year-old, white socks winking from beneath the jeans he’d already outgrown. He darted down the lane and I ran after him, giggling.
He was fast; every time I swiped at him, he escaped, my fingertips always just inches away from his billowing T-shirt. His laughter filled me with something warm and forgotten, and for a time, there was nothing but joy.
But the sky began to bruise, and the carefree way he kicked a rock down the middle of the road suddenly worried me. He was too young to know what was happening—that this place wasn’t safe anymore. With urgency, I reached for his hand.
Curfew, I told him.
But he fought me.
I tried to pull him along, but it was no use; his little hand was slippery in my grasp. The failing light tightened my fear.
They were coming. I could feel their footsteps inside my chest.
Darkness came, black as coal and just as thick, until I could no longer see the houses and all that remained were the innocent boy beside me and the broken street we stood upon.
A soldier approached, his uniform neatly pressed, his slim, agile build too familiar, even at a distance. His golden hair gleamed, a halo in the moonless night.
I knew how this part went, but my heart still thumped all the way down to my stomach. I tried to push the boy back, to keep him away from the man who’d killed my mother. You will not touch him, I told Tucker Morris, but no sound came from my lips. Still, the cry echoing in my head seemed to infuse Tucker with speed, and suddenly he was upon us, three feet away, aiming a gun directly between my eyes.
I screamed for the boy to run, but before I could turn to do the same, my gaze found the man’s face.
It wasn’t Tucker. Before me was a different soldier, one with pallid skin and eyes long dead, and a hole in his chest that wept blood. One we’d killed to escape the hospital in Chicago.
I gasped, tripped, and fell backward. And left the boy beside me exposed to the weapon.
Harper shot, a sound that made the world quake and the street break open. And when it stopped, the little boy lay motionless, a fist-sized hole punched through his rib cage.
I woke with a start, braced to fight. The image of the soldier— Harper—who Chase had shot while we’d been rescuing Rebecca from the Chicago rehab hospital faded, but left a sticky residue, making it impossible to fall back asleep.
My breath evened out, and as it did I registered the sounds of sleep: heavy breathing and the occasional snore. The hard floor beneath my back served as a reminder that we’d taken shelter in an abandoned house, a break from the beach where we’d slept the last three nights. The heavy moon, nearly full, peeked in a glassless window and helped my eyes adjust to the dark. Chase’s space beside me was empty.
I untangled the beach towel from around my legs. Six sleeping bodies were scattered around the room. People like me, who had come to the coast in search of the safe house—the only known refuge for those escaping the FBR’s oppression— only to find it destroyed. By some miracle, tracks had led away from the wreckage and a small team of us had followed them south, leaving those who’d been injured in the attack on Chicago behind. They waited for us in a mini-mart outside the blast radius, vulnerable with only a few healthy fighters to defend them and a meager ration of food and supplies.
It took several beats to shake off the dream and remember that Tucker wasn’t with us, that he’d gone with the carriers three days ago to tell the other resistance groups what had happened to the safe house. They were supposed to make contact once they reached the first post. We were still waiting to hear from them.
No matter how much I wanted him gone, I couldn’t breathe while he was out there, despite the help he’d given us over the past few weeks. At least when he was close I could keep tabs on him. Now it felt like I’d dropped a knife with my eyes closed, with only the hope that the blade wouldn’t land in my foot.
Someone was mumbling. Probably Jack, one of the survivors from the Chicago resistance. He hadn’t been right since the Moral Militia had bombed the tunnels and we’d all nearly been buried alive. His lean body spanned out like a star in the entryway while a guy from Chicago named Rat, every bit as short as Jack was tall, lay on his side just beyond him. Sean had fallen asleep against a weathered sofa, head sagging, palms open on his lap as if in meditation. Behind him, Rebecca curled across the cushions, the metal crutches in her arms taking the place of the boy who so obviously wanted to be there.
Though she should have stayed behind with the injured at the mini-mart, Rebecca had insisted on forging ahead. The pace was hard on her body but she didn’t complain. That worried me. It was like she was trying to prove something.
The other two that stretched into the dining room were from the Chicago resistance, and hadn’t given up hope that their families had somehow lived through the attack on the safe house, that they’d managed to escape and flee south.
From outside came the sound of twigs snapping. I rose silently and wove through the bodies to the open door. The air smelled strongly of salt and mold, both fresh and dirty at the same time. From over the sandbank whispered the ocean, the ebb and flow of the waves, the hush of the long grass between the beach and this decrepit seaside village where we’d made camp. It was called DeBor-something. The “Welcome to…” sign had fallen victim years ago to someone’s target practice; little copper punctures distorted the right side.
Once, DeBor-something had been posh; the gates that blocked out the poor had fallen, but were still there, stacked beside the burned security booth. There had been riots here during the War, like in a lot of the richer communities. What remained of the empty Easter egg–colored beach houses were ruins: scaffolding stretching like burned, blackened fingers into the sky, foundations half-collapsed on their weathered stilts, walls muted by layers of white salt and sand, and gagged by crisscross boards that blocked what remained of their windows. Somewhere close a rusted screen door slapped against the frame.
From the bottom porch step came another delicate snap. It was only Billy, all sharp elbows and shoulder blades, hunched over his knees. He was peeling the bark off a stick, and hadn’t seemed to notice my arrival.
A frown tugged at the corners of my mouth. If Billy was on watch it was near dawn. He’d relieved Chase earlier in the night. But Chase wasn’t here; the towel he’d slept on had been tossed near the window beside a trash bag that held our only possessions—two cups, a rusty kitchen knife, a toothbrush, and some rope we’d harvested from the wreckage.
Billy didn’t so much as shift as I tiptoed across the porch to sit beside him.
“Quiet night?” I asked cautiously. He gave me a oneshouldered shrug. The red light of a CB radio we’d harvested from one of the carriers’ trucks blinked on the step between his electric-taped boots. It was metal, and half the depth of a shoebox. Not as convenient as a handheld, but it was strong enough to connect to the interior.
At least, we thought it was strong enough. The red light was supposed to glow green when we had an incoming call, but had yet to do so.
My gaze lifted back to Billy. He’d been quiet since we’d been reunited in the safe house ruins. I knew he held out hope that Wallace, the one-time leader of the Knoxville resistance—and more important, his adopted father—was still alive, that he was among the survivors we tracked. But that was impossible. Wallace had burned to death in the Wayland Inn. We’d all seen it go down.
“There’s some canned stew left,” I offered. Hunger gnawed at my own stomach. Rations were running thin. He grimaced and kept picking the bark off that stick with his fingernails, as though it was the most fascinating thing in the world.
Billy could hack into the MM mainframe. A stick wasn’t all that interesting.
“Okay. Well. One of the guys found spaghetti noodles, did you—”
“Did I say I was hungry?”
Someone sleeping near the front door stirred. Billy lowered his chin back to his chest, hiding his defiant brown eyes under a greasy curtain of hair.
The silence between us strained. He’d lost a parent; I knew how that felt. But it wasn’t like we’d killed his father.
Not like we’d killed Harper.
A sudden chill crept over my skin, despite the balmy temperature.
“How long has Chase been gone?” I asked.
He shrugged again. Irritated, I stood, and made my way around the side of the house toward the beach, hoping Chase had gone in this direction. The grass was thinner to the right so I took that path, and winced when the climb up the dune sent a burning jolt up my shins. My legs had become their own war zone: purple and yellow bruises from the Chicago blast, blisters from my boots, and dime-sized welts on my ankles and heels from the gravel that had worked its way into my socks. But when I reached the top of the embankment, my pain was forgotten.
A burst of stars reflected off the black ocean, pure and bright as diamonds, with no competition from the lights of a city or base. The exact line where the water met the shore was hidden in the darkness, but its murmur was as constant as a heartbeat.
The vastness of it swallowed me. The cool, fresh air played with the ends of my hair, in the absentminded way my mother used to when we would talk. It was times like these I missed her most—the quiet spaces, when no one else was around. When I closed my eyes, it was almost like she was back.
“Still no tracks. Not since yesterday morning,” I said aloud, hoping she could hear me. I didn’t know if that was how things worked. All I knew was that I wished I could hear her answer back, just one more time. I twisted my heels in the sand. “No word from our people at the mini-mart. Chase thinks their radio is probably dead. It was on its last legs before we left.” I sighed. “No word from the team we sent to the interior, either.”
Each of us that was searching for the survivors took a shift carrying the radio, anxious to hear news from the other resistance posts. No one spoke the truth: that our team could have been captured. That the chances that anyone had made it out of the safe house were slim. That our friends, our families, were all gone.
“I don’t suppose you could tell us if anyone survived,” I said. “Guess that would be cheating.”
I opened my eyes and tilted my chin skyward in search of any sign of the bombs that had destroyed our sanctuary. But the stars were silent.
Before the War, I’d been so used to the noise I hadn’t even heard it. Cars, lights, the hum of the refrigerator. People. People everywhere—passing by in the street, talking on their phones, calling for their friends. When the Reformation Act decreed that the power be shut off for curfew, the nights got quiet. So quiet you could hear thieves breaking into houses two streets over, hear the sirens and the soldiers that came to arrest them. So quiet you could hear your heart pound and every creak in the floor as you hid under your bed hoping they didn’t come get you, too.
The silence didn’t scare me anymore. I welcomed it because it had strengthened me, made me more aware. But times like this I would have given anything to bring back the noise. To shout at the top of my lungs, I am still here, you haven’t beaten me! To tell everyone who could still sleep soundly because they were convinced the MM was at best our saving grace, and at worst a necessary evil, what had happened to me, and what they’d done to my mother.
A compression in the sand behind me pulled me from my thoughts. I spun toward the tree to my left, and strained my eyes into the darkness, gripping a fork in my pocket that I’d picked up in the street earlier.
“Who’s there?” I called after a moment.
A familiar shape emerged from under the canopy of dewsoaked leaves. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
Relief rose within me, right along with the heat in my cheeks. I should have made sure no one was listening before launching into a one-sided conversation.
“Are you spying on me, Chase Jennings?” I planted my fists on my hips.
He chuckled. “Never.”
The sand shifted with each step that brought him closer, and for an instant the night behind Chase wavered, and he was back in the ruined remains of the safe house, digging through piles of broken wood and bent metal with his bare hands. Destroyed, just as the safe house had been destroyed, because his uncle was gone, because his last hope for our shelter was gone. But as quickly as it had come, the vision dissolved, leaving my throat swollen and my hairline damp.
I shook it off.
I couldn’t see him clearly until he was even on the embankment an arm’s length away. The black hair that grew so quickly was already fringing over his ears, and his jaw was scruffy from days of not shaving. He wore just a white T-shirt that seemed to glow in the moonlight and soot-stained jeans, torn through the knees, that frayed at his bare feet. His boots were tied together by their laces, and hung from one hand.
And just like that, I forgot the images that had clouded my mind. I forgot how I’d woken or what I’d dreamed. Something stirred inside of me, simmering with each moment his dark, glassy gaze held mine.
“Hi,” he said.
I smiled. “Hi.”
We hadn’t been alone much in the last three days, and when we had, Chase had been consumed by the search. He’d been a million miles away.
He didn’t feel so far away now.
I reached for his waistband, threaded a finger through the belt loop, and pulled him closer.
His shoes made a muted clunk as they dropped to the ground. His fingertips rose to my face and brushed along my cheekbones, his skin rough but his touch soft. They inched down the nape of my neck, down my spine, drawing me in as they came to rest around my waist.
I held my breath, aware of his hips against my stomach and the fluid way his shoulders rounded beneath my palms as he lowered his face to mine. I arched into the space between us so there was no longer him and I, but one. One form in the darkness. One breath, in and out.
His lips skimmed over my lips, side to side, as if memorizing their shape, innocent at first, but then something more, until the world beyond us dropped away. His eyes drifted closed and his embrace grew tighter and stronger, as if he could gather me inside of him.
My hands slid up the back of his shirt and traced the puckered skin from a scar on his lower back. He tensed in that way he did when he remembered things he didn’t want to.
The cloud that crawled over the moon hid his face. Sometimes it felt like the past was pulling Chase one way while I was pulling him the other.
Sometimes the past won.
I found the spot where the strong cords of his neck met his shoulder and kissed him there, in the place I knew would always distract him. His breath expelled in one hard rasp.
“You taste like salt.” I tried to make my voice steady, to give him something to hold on to. “You need a bath.”
His muscles loosened by the slightest degree. “Maybe you should take one with me.” I felt his grin against my neck. “Make sure I don’t cut any corners.”
My stomach fluttered. “Maybe I will.”
He went still. I giggled. But the thought of us together, like that, made my mouth dry.
“What are you doing out here?” I asked after a moment. He straightened, and my cheek found its place on his chest. “Couldn’t sleep.” He paused. “My head’s not right.” I heard
his sigh, and the scraping sound of knuckles dragging along his unshaven jaw. My fingers laced behind his waist to lock him against me.
“You could tell me about it,” I tried.
He broke away, and though I tried to hold on, it was clear he needed space. Apart, I felt the cold for the first time since I’d come to the beach. The air around us had shifted and now felt somber and humid.
In the quiet that followed, my dream returned: Chase as a child, stretched out over the ground, bleeding. A prickle of unease crawled through me. I wished I could read his mind; then maybe I’d know what to say to help him instead of feeling so powerless.
“He was never going to come with us—that soldier. Whatever his name was.” The words burst from him with enough force to make me jump.
“You mean Harper.”
His gaze shot to mine, the question clear.
My stomach dropped. Had we really never used his name?
I’d heard it a hundred times a day in my mind—over and over, like a whip coming down on my back. But Chase and I hadn’t said it out loud once. We hadn’t talked about what had happened in Chicago at all, and I wanted to. We needed to. We couldn’t keep pretending like it never happened.
He fell back a step.
“Harper was the soldier,” I said quickly. “The one at the rehab center in Chicago. The one we… you know.”
His expression changed. His whole posture changed. Became tortured and twisted in a way I hadn’t seen since he’d told me how my mother had died. The reminder was enough to make my stomach hurt.
“His name was Harper?”
“I… saw his name badge.” My arms crossed over my chest. I forced them down to my sides.
Chase retreated toward the house where we’d made camp, and when I pursued he held up a hand. Something close to panic swelled in my chest. The sand beneath my feet seemed to quake.
He turned. A forced smile flickered over his face, then went dim. “We need to keep moving. If it rains again today we’ll lose any chance of finding the others.”
“It’s my uncle,” he insisted, as though I’d somehow implied that we should stop tracking the survivors. My shoulders rose.
“He took me in after my mom and dad were gone,” Chase explained, as if I didn’t know. As if I wasn’t there when his uncle had come to pick him up after the car accident had killed his parents. “He’s the only family I’ve got left, Ember.”
His words felt like a slap. “What about me?”
“He’s my uncle,” Chase said again. As if this explained everything.
“He left you when you were sixteen,” I said. “In a war zone. He taught you to fight and to break into cars and then he left.”
The words hung between us. Instantly I wished I could take them back. We didn’t even know if his uncle Jesse had been at the safe house, much less if he was still alive. Regardless what he’d done, Chase cared for him, and it did no good to pick apart his memory.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Chase responded, focusing on the water. “He did what he had to do.”
A different past returned then: a hill above a gray stone base, sour tendrils of white smoke spiraling to the sky, a gun in my hand.
I’m a damn good soldier. I did what needed to be done.
My knuckles were white peaks, nails sharp in my palms. Tucker Morris had said those words right after confessing to my mother’s murder. Chase couldn’t use them; he was nothing like Tucker. He knew not everything could be excused.
But at the same time, I understood why Chase tried. If he slowed down, every disappointment, every pound of shame, weighed on him like a man in quicksand. And so he never stopped. He barely slept. He pushed on. Like he could keep running forever.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “You did what you had to do, too.”
The air was misting, heavy with the coming dawn, and in the dying starlight I could make out the shadows under his eyes, the damp ring around the collar of his shirt, and his fists, balled in his pockets.
Tentatively, I reached for his shoulder. Hard muscles flexed beneath my palm a second before he flinched away.
“We should go,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “We’ve got to get an early start.”
My hand fell, empty, to my side.
Come back to me, I wanted to say. But he was the boy in my dream, running away, and as much as I tried to hold him he slipped from my grasp.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s wake the others.”
Excerpted from Three © Kristen Simmons, 2014