Michelle Rowen

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Countdown

September 24, 2013

Harlequin Teen
ISBN-10: 0373210906
ISBN-13: 978-0373210909

3 seconds left to live.

Once the countdown starts, it cannot be stopped.

2 pawns thrown into a brutal underground reality game.

Kira Jordan survived her family’s murder and months on plague-devastated city streets with hard-won savvy and a low-level psi ability. She figures she can handle anything. Until she wakes up in a barren room, chained next to the notorious Rogan Ellis.

1 reason Kira will never, ever trust Rogan. Even though both their lives depend on it.

Their every move is controlled and televised for a vicious exclusive audience. And as Kira’s psi skill unexpectedly grows and Rogan’s secrets prove ever more deadly, Kira’s only chance of survival is to risk trusting him as much as her instincts. Even if that means running head-on into the one trap she can’t escape.

GAME 0VER

**Countdown (2013) is a rewritten and revamped Young Adult version of Countdown (2008), which I wrote under the pen name Michelle Maddox**

 

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** AUDIOBOOK available from Audible.com **

C h a p t e r   O n e

It’s called nyctophobia. I looked it up once. It’s the official term for an abnormal and persistent fear of the dark. I’ve had it ever since my parents and sister were murdered during an in-home burglary while I hid under my bed.

In the dark I couldn’t see anything; all I could hear was the screaming.

And then the silence.

So, yeah. I’ve been scared like hell of the dark ever since. Go figure.

Unfortunately, that’s where I found myself when I opened my eyes. Frankly, I didn’t remember closing them. I’d been in the mall, I remembered that much. I’d just lifted a new pair of shoes — my old pair was worn out since all I do is walk everywhere in the city, day in and day out. This pair was nice. Red. With strong laces that, if necessary, could double as a weapon.

The streets were tough sometimes. Especially at night. Especially in the dark.

Like right now.

But this wasn’t the street, I knew that much. I was inside.
Somewhere.

Choking panic began to flood my body. I knew freaking out wouldn’t help, but sometimes you can’t stop yourself — or reason with yourself — when you’re in the process of freaking out.

I felt a pinch at my right wrist and reached over with my other hand, trying to feel my way through the inky blackness. It was a metal cuff. Attached to a chain. Attached to the smooth, cold metal wall behind me.

What the hell is going on?

Had I been caught shoplifting? Was this prison? I wracked my brain to try to remember being arrested, but came up blank. No, I’d grabbed the shoes, shoved them under my coat, and left the store to go into the half-abandoned mall where I’d put them on and thrown my old ones in a garbage can. And then…then what happened?

I remembered wanting to grab some food. I’d had two bucks to my name, so I’d figured I could buy a small order of French fries at one of the few restaurants that were still open. That would last me a day before my stomach would start complaining again.

Had I even made it to the food court?

I couldn’t have. I was still hungry. Starving. My body felt as if it was eating itself, but that was a bit of an exaggeration, I guess. Yesterday I’d had an entire meal. Ordered off the menu even, and then tried to skip out before the bill came. The owner of the diner had caught me, reprimanded me, and I’d figured that that was it — he’d call the cops.

Instead, he’d taken pity on me and made me wash dishes. It was a humbling experience, but I’d had a lot of those since my family died.

In the end, I appreciated his kindness. Washing dishes was a whole lot better than getting arrested.

Okay, breathe, Kira, I told myself. And I did. I took a deep breath in through my nose and let it out through my mouth. My heart thudded hard in my ears.

Why couldn’t I remember what had happened after I’d taken the shoes? Damn it. And where was I?

I seriously had to calm down. This wasn’t helping.

I took another breath in and out and forced myself to listen. For anything. There had to be something other than this total silence that told me absolutely nothing helpful.

And then I heard…something. I pushed my fears out of the way as best I could and strained my ears.

Breathing. I could hear soft breathing.

Someone else is in the room.

This realization did not ease my mind. Just the opposite. The thought that somebody was in the darkness with me scared me enough that I almost started to cry.

But I was tough now. At least that’s what I tried to tell myself every morning when I woke up to face another day. This shouldn’t be any different.

“H-h-hello?” Stuttering does not help the situation, I thought. “Who’s there?”

The breathing hitched. I heard something heavy shift against the floor about fifteen feet away.

Then the something spoke. “Wh…what the hell?”

A guy’s voice. His words were gruff and raspy as if he’d just woken from a deep sleep.

“Who are you?” I ventured again.

Why did I sound so weak? I hated that.

He cleared his throat and groaned. “Shit.”

Well, he did seem to have a fine command of the English language.

I strained to see something, but there was only black. “Tell me who you are.”

There was a pause, and then another groan. It actually sounded like a moan of pain as I heard him shift position again.

I frowned. “Hey, are you okay?”

He snorted. “Fantastic. I’m just fantastic, thanks for asking. And you?”

Sarcasm. Yeah, I recognized that.

“I’ve been better, actually.”

Chains rattled. Not mine, so that meant that this guy was also restrained. But why?

“I’m Rogan,” he said after a moment. “So pleased to meet you.”

“Where are we?”

“I tell you my name and you don’t reciprocate? Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?”

“My mother’s dead.”

That shut him up. Momentarily. “Sorry to hear that.”

“It was a long time ago.”

“Doesn’t make it any easier.”

Very true. Two years. Felt like forever — yet, at the same time, it felt like only yesterday. “My name’s Kira.”

“Well, Kira, where we are is anyone’s guess.”

I pressed back against the hard wall.

We could be anywhere, and there wasn’t a damn thing to give me a clue where that was. Except for the main drags, the city was so vacant that we could be in any one of dozens of abandoned warehouses or factories. And nobody would ever find us.

I’d heard about kids who’d vanished from the streets never to be seen again. I was sure they weren’t stories with happy endings.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” I asked. “Who brought you here? Are you chained, too?”

“I don’t know who brought me here. And, yeah, I’m locked up real tight.”

“Who would do this?” My voice caught on the words.

“Try to relax.”

“I’m relaxed.”

“Doesn’t sound like it to me.”

I banged the back of my head lightly against the metal wall and hugged my knees in close to my chest. “You sound relaxed enough for the both of us.”

“What can I say? So far this is a lot better than where I was scheduled to go in a few days.”

“Oh? And where’s that?”

He was silent for a moment. “You really want to know?”

Not really. I didn’t care. “Sure.”

There was another lengthy pause. “Saradone.”

My blood ran cold. Saradone was the maximum security prison just outside the city limits. Only the worst criminals were sent there; some for life, most for death. Horrible people who’d done horrible things. Luckily, they didn’t put girls who stole shoes there…yet.

He laughed at my answering silence. “Guess you’ve heard of it.”

I was in the same room with somebody bound for Saradone — so that meant he was dangerous. Criminally dangerous. Panic returned to swirl through me, constricting my chest, my breath.

Both of us were chained. What was this? What was going on?

A cold trickle of sweat slid down my back.

“Why were you going there?” I tried to make the question sound flippant, as if I was making conversation about the weather.

“My days at St. Augustine’s end in a couple days when I turn eighteen.”

St. Augustine’s. That name I also knew. It was a juvenile detention hall located on the west side of the city. If I ever got arrested, that might be where I ended up.

I’d heard that it was hell.

I hesitated to ask, but couldn’t help myself. “What were you at St. Augustine’s for?”

“Murder,” he answered simply.

“Oh.” My stomach churned as I tested the chains again. They were too strong. I wasn’t going anywhere. “Was it self-defense?”

“No.” There was a sharp edge to his voice now. “But what do you care?”

“I don’t.”

But I did. Of course, I did. I cared because I was trapped in this room with an admitted murderer — stuck in the dark with him, just as I’d been when my family was murdered.

Maybe I was just having a really bad dream. Maybe I’d fallen and hit my head in the mall and was passed out cold in front of the understaffed burger place in the food court. Maybe some gorgeous rich kid would find me. He’d fall instantly in love with me, kiss me like Prince Charming did with Snow White, wake me from my deep sleep, and we’d ride away into the sunset, away from my past and into a bright, exciting future, just the two of us.

I blinked against the darkness.

No, I was awake. Definitely awake.

Too bad.

“You’re quiet all of a sudden,” Rogan said. “Don’t want to talk anymore?”

“Not particularly.”

“Why not? Because you’re scared of me now?”

Pretty much, but I wasn’t going to let him know that if I could help it.

“No. Mostly because I’ve decided that you don’t know anything that can help me.”

“Doesn’t mean you have to be rude.”

“Rude?” I felt a flare of anger and then settled back, trying to remain calm. My ass hurt from sitting on the hard metal floor so I shifted to cross my legs. “Yeah, I’m so rude. Sorry about that. I guess you’ve been treated so nice at St. Augustine’s that my behavior’s a real shocker. Besides, sounds to me like you deserve rude. Or worse.”

He was silent so long that I felt even more uncomfortable than I had been to start with.

“And are you so innocent if you’re here with me right now?” His words were clipped, sounding as if I’d struck a nerve. “What did you say your name was…Kerry?”

Kira,” I corrected. What a dick this guy was. “I’m not innocent, but I know I won’t end up at Saradone.”

“Don’t be so sure.”

I guess I could thank this jerk for keeping my mind off my fear of the dark. He was getting me angry enough that fear had moved a couple notches down the list.

I chewed my bottom lip. “I haven’t murdered anybody.”

“Not yet.”

“Not ever.”

“Yeah, we’ll see about that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“They’ve got you now. They’ll make you do whatever they want you to do, and don’t kid yourself. You’ll do it.”

“They? Who are they?”

Rogan went silent.

My heart pounded in my ears. “You can’t just say something like that and not say anything else. Who are they?”

“The ones who put you here. Who put me here.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know who put you here?”

“I have an idea.”

“Want to share?”

“Maybe not. You’re not all that nice.” It sounded as if he was smiling now. Was he mocking me?

“I’m not all that nice?” I repeated.

“Is this a surprise to you? Do you normally charm the pants off the boys you meet? Because you’re failing big-time with me.”

“Who put us in here?” I said it flatly. I wanted him to realize I wasn’t joking around. If he didn’t tell me, then I was going to scream and keep screaming until they — whoever they were — dragged me out of there.

“They gave me a choice,” he said after a moment. “Go to prison for the rest of my life, or come with them and play their sick little game. At least here I might have a chance. A small one, but a chance. As soon as I agreed, they knocked me out. And then I woke up a few minutes ago to have this fascinating discussion with you. And…and I think they did something to me when I was unconscious. To my shoulder. I’m hurt pretty badly, but I’m not sure how. Or why. Probably to slow me down.” He snorted. “Playing fair isn’t exactly their style.”

“I didn’t agree to this.” I pulled at the chain until my wrist felt raw. “I want to leave.”

“I’m sure they’ll let you. Just like that. Sure.”

“You said they gave you a choice. Why didn’t they give me one?”

“I have no idea.” He paused. “You said your mother was dead?”

“Yeah.”

“And the rest of your family?”

“All dead.” My voice broke as I said it.

Silence again. “So you’re on your own.”

“When I have to be.” He didn’t deserve more of an answer than that.

I’d been on my own for the past two years, since I was fourteen. Before that, I was safe and relatively happy and free to do what I wanted with the love of my family to support me. But once they were gone, I had nothing.

The courts had wanted to put me into foster care, but I’d run instead. A friend of mine had gone into foster care a few years ago, and I never heard from her again. Not even an email.

“Why would they pick you,” Rogan said, but it sounded more like he was talking to himself than to me, “other than the fact that you have no family? What did you do?”

I hissed out a sigh of exasperation. “At the risk of sounding like I’m repeating myself, who are they?”

“You haven’t murdered before…so that’s out. Are you…” He paused and then laughed softly. “Of course. You’re a thief, aren’t you?”

I let the darkness answer the question for me.

“A female thief without a family. Perfect.” He let out a long, shuddery breath. “Well, thief-girl, I have to admit that I’m not feeling so great over here. Whatever they did to me…I don’t think they’ll have to worry about me finishing off my sentence. An eye for an eye and all that.”

I licked my dry lips. “You think you’re dying.”

“Feels like it.”

“Why do you sound so calm?”

“Because I’m not an idiot. There’s no escape. We’re both going to die.”

“Shut up. There’s a way out, I know there is.”

Just as I said it, light flooded the room, blinding me. Ironic. Didn’t these people believe in happy mediums?

I rubbed my eyes, which had started to water at the unexpected light. I blinked at the room as my vision slowly came into focus.

I sat against the wall in an entirely silver room. Floors, ceiling, walls, all made from smooth, cold metal. I’d never seen anything like it. The silver metal band that circled my wrist was attached to a silver chain secured to the wall. It was all very bland, very clinical, clean and pristine.

Almost all.

My gaze moved to the other side of the room and locked with that of the most dangerous-looking boy I’d ever seen in my life.

He stared back at me with a half smirk. His hair, plastered across his forehead, was dark and unkempt. He wore a shirt that might have once been white but was now torn and dirty.

A dark and angry red stain near his left shoulder stood out as the only color in the room. No, scratch that. His eyes. They were blue-green — the color of a tropical ocean and surprisingly jarring in their intensity.

There was a scar on his face that ran from the top of his left eye down to his cheek like an angry exclamation point. It was still reddish, as if it had healed recently. It didn’t do much to take away from his looks — which were incredible. Clean him up and I’d have to guess he’d be painfully handsome.

He wore faded jeans, also stained and dirty, and scuffed black boots with untied laces. A silver shackle led from his right wrist to the chain to the wall behind him.

Despite the good looks beneath the grime, he looked like a murderer. Like trouble. Like nobody I wanted to be trapped in a room with now or anytime soon. I was almost sorry that the lights had come on.

“You’re prettier than I expected,” he said, keeping me locked in his oddly hypnotic gaze.

I swallowed. It was exactly what I was thinking about him, too. “Well, you have been stuck in juvie for a while.”

He smiled. His teeth were white and straight, which struck me as odd for a confessed killer. Though, I suppose it was a bit of a cliché to expect him to have broken, rotting teeth — especially at his age.

“True. Sorry I look like hell.” His smile widened. “They didn’t even let me have a shower before they knocked me out and dragged my ass here.”

“Forget it.”

His gaze slid down the rest of me, black tank top, khaki cargo pants and my new red shoes. My face warmed at his blatant appraisal, until I saw his eyes move away from my body and toward my side. He frowned. I looked to the floor on my right and gasped.

There was a key lying there, only an arm’s reach away.

 

C h a p t e r   T w o

“Try it,” Rogan prompted.

I was way ahead of him. I’d already grabbed the key and found the small keyhole on my shackle, my heart drumming loud in my ears.

I frowned when it didn’t fit. I tried again. Why didn’t it fit?

I looked over at Rogan, who stared at me with a deep frown.

Something sparkled next to him, and I pointed at it. Another key. He grabbed it and tried his lock.

Nothing.

I heard a whirring and looked up toward the sound. At the top of the far wall to the left near the ceiling, a small shutter had opened and what looked like a security camera — only more modern, very sleek and silver — emerged.

“What is that?” I asked.

He looked up at it grimly. “Must be show time.”

I clenched the key so tightly that I knew it would leave an impression on my fingertips. “Why would they be recording us?”

“Because they like to watch.”

“Watch what?” I snapped. “Can you stop being so damn vague and just tell me what’s going on?”

But he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at my key. “I’m going to take a guess here that your key fits my lock and my key fits your lock.”

I frowned. “How do you know that?”

“I didn’t say I know. I said I guess.” The nearly eighteen-year-old murderer smirked at me again. “Try to pay attention, would you?”

I gritted my teeth. “I don’t like you.”

“My heart is breaking. Now, why don’t you be a good girl and throw that key over here so I can test my theory?”

“Screw you.”

He shrugged and then grimaced as if the wound on his shoulder caused him massive pain. “We can do that, too, if you like, but I’ll need to be unchained first. Then again, we can bring the chains with us if you’re into that sort of thing.”

I gave him the look I always gave to guys who tried to pick me up. The losers and the freaks who thought sex was a sport and I was just somebody to score with. In the circles I’d hung out in lately, boys like that were the norm rather than the exception. All the good ones seemed to have left the city long ago. And you know what? With some of them, I played it as good as I could. I knew that I wasn’t ugly — that despite living on the streets a little more than I’d like, I’d developed a good body and a nice face that boys — and men — seemed to find attractive. I played them, and then I took their wallets when they weren’t looking.

So sue me. But not one of them had gotten in my pants.

This boy didn’t have a wallet as far as I could see. He had nothing I wanted. Nothing except that key.

I shifted my position into something a little more alluring. Chest out. Stomach sucked in. I raised an eyebrow and forced a smile to my lips. “Why don’t you throw me your key first?”

Not too much, Kira. Let’s not be obvious here, okay?

He studied me. I still wasn’t letting him have what he wanted, but the vibe I was giving off was much more…friendly. I mean, the guy had been in a detention hall I’d heard was worse than anything I could imagine — and with his record, I doubted he’d been in a coed wing. He had to be horny as hell by now, right? I could work with that. He should be putty in my hands.

Dirty, murdering putty. With nice eyes and — I hated to admit it — a sexy smile. An unusual combination, to say the least.

He licked his lips. “Oh, you’re good. If I didn’t feel like my arm was about to fall off, you might have me, but pain does help me focus. Your key. Throw it to me. Then I’ll throw you mine.”

My fake smile slipped. “And when I throw you my key, how do I know you’ll give me mine?”

“You’ll just have to trust me.”

“Give me one good reason why I should.”

He stared at me and then laughed that short, humorless laugh. “I’m coming up blank here.”

“Then I guess we’re both out of luck.”

“I guess so.” An unpleasant smile twisted his mouth, then he closed his eyes, and pain shadowed his face.

Damn. I didn’t want to feel sympathy for this guy. He was a murderer, just like the bastard who had killed my family. But if that blood was any indication, he was seriously wounded.

Then again, how did I know for sure? Maybe it was a trick. Maybe he was acting as if he was hurt. After all, that camera had just appeared out of nowhere. What had he said a minute ago? Show time?

The camera whirred again as it changed direction to point at Rogan.

He pried his eyes open and looked up at it.

Then he gave it the finger.

Suddenly the lights began to flash, and an alarm sounded, so loud that I instinctively clamped my hands over my ears.

“What’s happening?” I yelled.

Rogan’s gaze darted around the room.

And then I heard something else. A metallic, computer-generated voice that seemed to come from every direction.

“60…” it announced. “59…58…57…”

Rogan began struggling hard against his chain. “Kira, throw me that key. Right now! Do it!”

“Why? What’s happening?”

“It’s the countdown!”

Okay, I’d figured out that much all by myself. If I hadn’t been scared out of my mind, I’d have taken the time to roll my eyes at him.

“Which means what?”

He craned his neck to look wildly around the empty room as the lights continued to flash, plunging us into darkness and light like a strobe light in a dance club. “We’ve wasted too much time.”

“52…51…50…”

“What happens when it gets to zero?”

He stared across the room at me, his gaze panicked. “When it gets to zero, we die. Do you understand? If you don’t throw me that key, in less than fifty seconds we’re both going to die!”

My stomach dropped. “What do you mean, die? How do you know that?”

“There’s no time to explain. I know you don’t trust me, but, please. Just do what I say so we can live.”

I stared at him. No. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t trust him. If I threw him the key, he’d unlock himself and leave me here. He was a murderer. He’d admitted it. He’d told me that there was no reason he could give me to trust him. And I didn’t trust him. I didn’t trust anyone but myself.

“Come on!” he yelled.

“35…34…33…”

I stared blindly around at the metal-walled room. Who would want to kill us? It didn’t make any sense. None of this made any sense.

Rogan swore so loudly it hurt my ears over the alarm and countdown.

“Fine!” he yelled. “Take it! You go first.”

He threw his key at me, and it landed by my feet. Without thinking twice I grabbed it and worked it into my lock. The shackles popped open.

Just as my bindings unlocked, a door to my left swung open into more darkness. I eyed it before I took a step toward it.

“Wait — ” Rogan held a hand out to me. “What about our deal?”

I hesitated. He was a murderer bound for maximum security prison the second he turned eighteen. I should leave him here, wherever here was.

“19…18…17…”

“Forget it. Leave me. Whatever.” He slumped against the wall and looked away, his chest heaving with each labored breath. He wasn’t going to beg.

He’d given up just like that?

He thought he was going to die — honestly, truly die — when the countdown ended. I’d seen it in his eyes. You couldn’t fake that. Whether it was true or not didn’t matter. He believed it.

I swore under my breath and ran back to grab my key off the ground. I sank down beside him and worked the key into his lock. It snapped open. I quickly got to my feet and turned to go, glancing over my shoulder at him. He was struggling to get to his feet. It was the shoulder wound — it slowed him down. He could barely walk.

“10…9…8…”

I turned back and grabbed him around the waist, practically pulling him through the room with me. He leaned heavily against me.

“4…3…2…1.”

We were through the door on the last count and it slammed shut behind us with a deafening, metallic crunch that shook the ground.

Rogan groaned and collapsed to his knees. I frowned and reached toward him to touch his shoulder to find it was knotted with tension.

“You’re seriously hurt.”

He blinked at me. “You thought I was faking?”

“I wasn’t sure.”

“Thanks for the help.”

I was about to say “anytime,” which would have been the typical response, but I stopped myself. There was no “anytime” with Rogan. This was it. We’d escaped the room and I was so out of there.

However, I still wasn’t sure where we were.

We’d entered another room. This one didn’t look much more interesting than the first one, but I could see the outline of a door with no handle. I walked to it and kicked it as hard as I could.

“Let me out of here!” I yelled. My voice echoed against the metal walls.

“That’s not going to do anything,” Rogan said.

“We’ll see about that.” I kicked the door again. And again. I finally stopped when my leg started to hurt and the door didn’t look any worse for wear. I hadn’t even made a dent.

Panting and sweating buckets, I turned toward Rogan and thrust a finger in his direction. “Start talking. I want to know everything you know.”

He blinked at me, holding one hand against his wound. “You came back for me.”

“Yeah. I did. Don’t make me regret my decision.”

“I thought you’d leave me to die.”

“You still think we would have died if we stayed in there.”

He nodded. “The grinding noise was the ceiling slamming down on the floor. I’m just guessing that might have killed us on contact.”

I stared at him blankly.

“How do you — ?”

Before I could finish, I was interrupted.

“Congratulations, Rogan and Kira, on successfully completing level one of Countdown.”

The disembodied voice came through unseen speakers, just as the countdown had. It was almost as if the voice was inside my head. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact direction, and the sound of it physically hurt, like something literally being pushed into my brain.

Unlike the countdown, which had had a metallic sound that had betrayed it as a computer-generated voice, this one sounded very human. Very male. And very smug.

“You son of a bitch,” Rogan growled. “Let us out of here!”

“Level one –” the speaker continued as if he hadn’t heard Rogan’s comment or was choosing to ignore it “– was to test your abilities of reason and compatibility. You have won the chance to continue on to level two, and due to your performance thus far, we have teamed you as partners.”

My heart slammed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t sign up for anything like –”

Suddenly, what felt like a bolt of lightning ripped through my brain. White-hot pain tore through me, and I screamed, clamping my hands on either side of my head as I fell to the ground.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rogan do the same.

The pain vanished as quickly as it had come, and I stared around the room, numb and in shock.

“Wh-what — ?” I managed.

The voice continued as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “Your implants have been activated and tuned to each other’s frequency. Kindly keep in mind that you are playing as a team and to separate more than ninety feet from your partner will lead to immediate disqualification.”

I scrambled to my feet and stumbled over to brace myself against the cold metal wall.

“I want to know what is happening,” I demanded, my voice hoarse. “I want to be let out of here immediately or I’m calling the police!”

It was an empty threat. The police wouldn’t give a crap what happened to somebody like me. I didn’t even have ID. They’d probably throw me in St. Augustine’s for causing a disturbance.

I was on my own.

Rogan was struggling to get up from the floor as I moved toward the door and kicked it again, knowing it wouldn’t help but feeling the desperate need to do something — to do anything! “Come on! Come on, you bastards. Let me out of here!”

I saw a flash of light out of the corner of my eye and turned around slowly. The lights in the room dimmed and a holoscreen appeared out of nowhere, showing an overhead view of the city.

The only time I’d seen anything like it was when I’d snuck in to see an old sci-fi movie at the only theater in the city that was still open. I hadn’t thought technology like this existed in real life. Could it be real?

Obviously it was, because I was looking right at it.

I walked around the screen, trying to see where it was projected from, but there was nothing. I touched it, and the image flickered and morphed as if I’d dipped my finger into a shallow pool of water. It was partially transparent, and I could see Rogan on the other side.

He looked at me and shook his head. “It begins.”

“What begins? What is this?”

On the map a round, white glow appeared at an intersection that was otherwise unmarked.

“Level one has been completed successfully.” The disembodied voice sounded enthusiastic. There was a creepy singsong quality to the words. “There are six levels to Countdown. Complete them all without suffering disqualification or elimination and you will be considered the winner. Your next challenge is to reach the marker you see on the map by the time the clock runs out. If you are not successful, you will be eliminated. Do not delay. You have thirty minutes to complete this level. Your time starts now.”

The map faded into the image of a ticking clock. Then that also disappeared, leaving me staring directly at Rogan. The lights came up, and a draft of cool air brushed my bare arms.

I turned to see that the door I’d been kicking had slid open. Beyond it was the outdoors. The city. Familiar territory.

“Kira!” Rogan called after me.

But I barely heard him. I was too busy running.