Dreams might fade in the light of day, but reality didn’t disappear behind closed eyes. Tess felt a familiar sense of foreboding wash over her. As hard as she tried to push it away, it seeped into her subconscious, numbing her with fear. If she’d known then what she knew now, she would have changed everything about that day. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter, but still saw the same thing.
She leaned over and swiped at the binding of her snowboard with her mittens. Normally, they would have popped loose right away, but not this time. She seemed to be all thumbs, and she was tired, cold and wet. Her frustration mounted as her goggles fogged and the tears she’d been holding back spilled unbidden down her cheeks. She yanked the goggles off her face and pulled them back over her head. The gesture was savage enough to pull her hat off with the goggles, along with enough hair that she had a real reason for the tears now.
Clenching the end of one mitten in her teeth, she pulled out her hand, bent down again and dug her fingers into the catch of the binding. Wet, slushy spring snow covered her boots and packed her bindings in ice—Cascade Concrete. Her fingers turned blue as she worked them in far enough to get the leverage she needed. With a mighty pull, she sprang the catch loose and stepped out of the binding. She blew on her cold hand before sticking it back into the mitten, and stamped her boots on the packed slope. Her mother swooped down and skidded on her heel edge to slow. Tess turned her head and swiped her face with her parka sleeve.
“Gosh, you’re fast,” her mother said, sliding gently to a stop a few feet away. “No way I could keep up.” She looked back up the slope for a moment. “What a great last run.”
Tess picked up her hat and stuffed it in a pocket, sneaking a glance at her mother from under a sheaf of hair the color of a raven’s wing. Her mother had the same hair, the same exotically shaped face and features. But somehow, against all odds, Tess had gotten her father’s blue eyes and a little bit of his nose. The cold had turned her mother into Rudolph, the speed of the run turning her nose cherry-red and making her eyes water. Maybe she wouldn’t notice that Tess had been crying.
“So,” her mother said, “any thoughts about where you’d like to eat?”
Tess had a choice of where to go for a celebratory dinner. Some celebration. Eating was the last thing she felt like. The day had started out all right. Her parents had offered to take her up to the pass to go boarding after school and then out to a late dinner as a treat for scoring so well on her SATs. “Not a reward,” her mother had said, “just an acknowledgement.” Her parents—especially her “Tiger Mother” mom, but even her laid back skater dad—expected her to get good grades, to get into the best schools, without the promise of any sort of reward. Tess didn’t have a problem with that. She felt naturally driven to do well. Maybe it was the competition at school. After all, Tess was younger than most of her classmates, so had more to prove. Especially since this was spring of her junior year. Her combined 2240 on the college boards would help. So would her 3.98 cumulative grade average. And she could always take the SAT again in the fall and try to raise her scores. That was all good, but the day had somehow devolved into a mess.
She looked up the lighted slope past her mother without answering. She spotted her father’s plaid parka with the Olympic insignia on the front, the one he said Shawn White had given to him after the 2010 Winter Games. He flew down the slope, carving elegant curves, caught some air going over a small mogul and did a cab 360, and swooped toward them. Gnarly. Only natural, since he’d been almost as good a skater as Tony Hawk or Rob Dyrdek. Better than both, some said, even though Hawk was vert and Dyrdek was street. But her dad had never been interested in going pro. At least that’s what he’d told her. Tess sometimes wondered. He stopped quickly, showering them with wet snow, his grin stretching from ear to ear. He looked from one to the other, his smile fading like shadows do when a cloud passes in front of the sun.
“What’s going on?” he said lightly.
“Nothing,” said her mom. “Tess is deciding where we’re going to dinner.”
“Really,” her father said. “I could’ve sworn something’s up.”
Her mother flashed a quick smile and said lightly. “She’s miffed because I told her she couldn’t invite Toby. I thought it should be just us tonight. I’m being selfish.”
Her father shrugged. “I don’t think that’s selfish.” He turned to Tess. “Your mom’s right. We hardly ever get you to ourselves anymore, kitten.”
Tess looked at her mother with daggers in her eyes, then turned an imploring look on her father.
It just blurted out of her. “She told me I can’t go to prom, Dad!”
Her mother shook her head. “No, I said I didn’t want you to go alone with Toby. I don’t mind if you go with a group of your friends, but you’re not getting into a car alone with someone when you don’t even have your own driver’s license yet.”
“But that’s not fair!”
She blinked back tears and turned to her father for help again. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t have a license. Not entirely. Between the pressure to keep her grades up and her extracurricular activities, she hadn’t been able to find time to take driver’s ed.
He wiped air with his hands. “Don’t look at me, kitten. Not getting in the middle of this.”
She’d always loved the idea of being his snuggly little kitten. Now she hated the nickname.
“What do you mean you’re not getting involved?” she said, pouting. “You’re a parent, too.”
“I meant that I’m not about to countermand your mother,” he said gently. “We have each other’s back, especially when it comes to parenting. And it so happens that I agree with her.”
“But why?” It sounded whiny, but Tess couldn’t help it. She really wanted to go with Toby.
“For the same reasons your mother mentioned,” he said. “I used to be in high school. I used to be just like Toby Cavanaugh. Heck, I was him. I know exactly what’s on his mind.”
Her mother positively beamed. Tess couldn’t stand it. Her father and Toby were nothing alike. And she was losing her touch. She’d always been able to sway her father before.
“You don’t trust me, is that it?” she said.
“Oh, we trust you,” her mother said. “It’s Toby we don’t trust. Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s a nice boy, Tess. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for you two to be without some sort of chaperone.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Maybe so,” her father said, “but for now, think about going with your friends instead.”
“It’s just not fair!” she wailed.
Tess grabbed her board and stomped off toward the parking lot. She stood next to the big SUV under the lights and fumed, pacing while she waited for her parents to slowly catch up. They could be so infuriating. She watched them surreptitiously, head bowed, as they approached holding hands. Eewww. She didn’t know anyone else whose parents acted so sickeningly romantic in public. She glanced around the parking lot to see if anyone was looking. If she did that with Toby in front of them they’d just lecture her.
Engrossed in conversation, they acted as if nothing was wrong when they came up to the SUV. Her father opened the tailgate and put his board inside, then took her mother’s and laid it in on top. Almost absentmindedly, he reached over and grabbed Tess’s board and stowed it along with the others, talking to her mother the whole time. He walked around to the passenger door and opened it for her mother, and circled around to the driver’s side. Tess got in the back and flounced onto the seat. Her father climbed in, started the engine and plugged his iPod into the stereo system. Soft jazz filled the interior.
“Dad, could you get some decent music on your playlist?” Tess said.
He glanced in the rearview mirror. “I’ll get I.T. on it right away.”
From the way his eyes crinkled, she knew he was smiling. She turned away and sighed. At least it wasn’t the head-banger, eighties punk rock he sometimes listened to when he wanted to pump himself up. “Reliving my ill-spent youth,” he’d say, recalling his days skateboarding around the Cal Poly campus. She shook her head. Parents were such a pain.
Five minutes later, they got onto the highway heading west toward the city. Tess stared out the window and watched the dark terrain zip by in a blur. A mix of light snow and rain had started falling, and the sparkling, lacy veil of flakes and drops mesmerized her. The season had run late this year. Normally, the ski areas closed by early or mid-April, but the cold, wet winter had provided plenty of snowpack. They might even get in another day of boarding in early May. It wasn’t unheard of.
Tess’s head nodded as drowsiness overtook her, and she jerked awake. She leaned against the door, wrapped her mittens in her hat, and put it between her cheek and the window as a pillow. Her mother craned her neck to look at her.
“Put your seatbelt on, Tess.”
Her mother smiled. “I love you.”
Tess folded her arms over her chest and closed her eyes without responding. She must have dozed off. When her eyes opened she immediately sensed something wrong. Her parents had stopped talking, but Tess felt rather than heard the unspoken communication between them. In the dim light from the instrument panel, she saw her mother’s hand grip her father’s arm. She felt the tension in it and slowly became aware of a sound other than the steady hum of the engine—a low rumble and loud hiss that almost sounded like a waterfall or a huge wave breaking on shore.
Tess swung her gaze out the window, eyes straining to see in the darkness. She suddenly realized with growing horror that a moving wall of snow was descending the mountainside ahead of them. They were driving right into it. Her father tensed and the SUV momentarily slowed then spurted ahead again.
“James?” her mother said, a note of fear in her voice.
“No brakes, Sally,” her father growled.
He gunned the engine, but there was no way the SUV could outrun the avalanche. As the edge of the rolling wave of snow and debris reached the edge of the highway next to them, Tess clutched the door handle, her heart leaping into her throat.
“Hang on!” her father yelled.
The roaring avalanche tumbled over the vehicle, blotting out the taillights of the few vehicles ahead of them. Tess heard screaming and realized the sounds came from her as the tsunami of snow flipped the SUV like a toy, rolling it over and over, burying it in an icy tomb.
Tess screamed again, the awful sound of her terror and pain lifting her from the depths of the nightmare into consciousness. It was the same dream she’d had for the past year, one that had recurred nightly at first. Lately, it haunted her with decreasing frequency, but with no less terror than it had when it had begun. She lay still, letting the tendrils of the nightmare dissipate like morning mist, willing herself to think of sunnier things. It wasn’t easy.
When she came fully awake, and the dream was no more than a fading memory, she slowly opened her eyes. And, like every other day for the past year, she saw nothing. Not darkness, or light. Not shapes or colors.
One year earlier…
Captain Travis Barrett, U.S. Army Special Forces, took slow, deep breaths to decrease his rapid heartbeat and focus his nervous energy. Sweat trickled down his side under his qmis, the traditional loose-fitting shirt that Pashtun men wore with full trousers called shalwar. He ignored it and opened his eyes wider to see more clearly in the dim light. He was acutely aware of the smallest sounds—the high squeaky chirrup of a bat in the night, the faintest whisper of moving air, and somewhere up ahead the low murmur of voices.
Travis kept up the deliberate, steady breathing, trying to keep his excitement in check. It appeared that they’d finally gotten some HUMINT that might pay off. He and his team relied heavily on two forms of information—HUMINT, or human intelligence that came from informers, eyes and ears on the ground, and COMINT, or communications intelligence that came from intercepted phone calls, text messages and e-mails. And information was the currency Travis and his team traded.
He eased farther into the cave.
In a sense, Captain Travis Barrett didn’t exist. An avowed adrenaline junkie, he’d felt rudderless in college, like there was no point to studying. Realizing he couldn’t afford passions like skydiving and motorcycle racing on the wages of a burger-flipper, he’d joined the Army. He figured Uncle Sam might as well pay for his adrenaline fix. The Army had definitely delivered. After 9/11, he’d immediately signed up for Special Forces, and the thrills, along with the opportunities to serve his country, had gotten bigger. His skills and fearlessness, along with a previously untapped facility for languages had earned him notice from the top brass.
Less than six months after terrorists had brought down the Twin Towers by hijacking and flying jet aircraft into them, Travis had been recruited for a special Army detachment called the Strategic Intelligence Collection & Containment Unit. The Army, like most government agencies involved in the war on terror, didn’t want to rely on any other agency for help. That’s why the Navy had its own airforce, the Army had its own navy, and the Air Force, well… So the Army created a little version of the CIA within its ranks. And Travis was one of the unit’s best spies.
For most of the past six years Travis and his team had operated in and around “the ’Stans”—Afghanistan, Waziristan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan. They’d also led incursions into other Mideast hotspots, like Yemen. But most of his time had been spent in Afghanistan tracking al-Qaeda. Even though its leader Osama bin Laden had finally been hunted down and killed after nearly ten years, the organization and the terror it sowed still existed. Few people knew about his unit; fewer still knew what he and his teammates actually did.
Right now Travis was following a lead from an Afghani shepherd he’d been cultivating for months as a potential informer. He and his team, blending into the native population, had found the man veterinary care when his sheep had come down with a mysterious illness, and had brought in a midwife when the man’s wife was due to deliver their third child after a difficult pregnancy. Travis had personally offered the man his friendship, sometimes sitting with him through late nights watching the flock, just talking with the man in his native Pashto language. Travis knew the shepherd’s allegiance was to his family and tribe, first and foremost. The man had no love for the Taliban or al-Qaeda, both groups foreign to his tribe’s traditional way of life. Recently, he’d passed on information to Travis’s team.
Travis eased into the narrow passageway, instinctively ducking to keep from banging his head on the low, rock ceiling. They never would have found this cave without the tip from the shepherd. Travis’s excitement grew. His mission simply was to get in, verify the cave’s occupancy, identify members of this particular cell if possible, and get out. If the information checked out, Travis would relay what he’d learned to another unit awaiting instructions.
The sound of conversation grew louder now as Travis made progress in the confined space, and shadows flickered on the walls of the cave limned by dim orange light. Travis heard the low rumble of a generator then, and along with it came the faint odor of diesel fumes. The light grew brighter as Travis negotiated a tight bend in the passage, and the volume of the words, murmured in Arabic, not Pashto, told him he was very close. The passageway took another turn ahead of him, and Travis crept closer and snuck a peek around the edge of the rock wall.
Beyond the turn, the tunnel opened up into a larger cavern. Six men sat in a rough circle, some on the cave floor, a few on bedrolls and one on an ornately carved, wood Afghan chair. All were bearded and dressed in the traditional qmis, shalwar and pagray—turban—of the local tribesmen. Most also wore a long vest and a chadar, a scarf that doubled as a cloak, over their shoulders. Now Travis detected the smell of sweat of men who hadn’t bathed mingled with the smell of horsehair and damp earth and rock. The man on the chair appeared to be the leader. Travis needed a closer look to confirm his identity. Conscious of a soft whirring sound, he edged a bit closer, then closer still until the man turned his head and Travis saw his face in the light of the few dim electric bulbs powered by the generator. Travis held his breath. It was him! An al-Qaeda leader they’d been chasing for two years.
Quickly, he scanned the faces of the rest of the men in the group to see if he recognized anyone else. Just as he started to turn away, one of the men sat up abruptly and stared directly at him. Raising his arm to point, he shouted an alarm to the other men. Travis whirled and moved as fast as he could back down the passageway without waiting to see if the others spotted him or not. The tunnel walls flickered with the brighter glow of flashlights and Travis heard excited shouts behind him. Not far now, he ducked his head, leaned forward and pushed toward the inky black hole of the cave entrance as fast as he dared. They wouldn’t dare shoot at him inside the cavern for fear of ricochets, but once outside, he’d be fair game. He had to hustle if he was going to outrun them. The blanket of night would help provide cover.
As he moved, he thumbed a mic on his radio and called out clear instructions to the Army unit awaiting his commands. A joystick jockey somewhere safe and warm in the mountainous neighborhood was piloting an MQ-1C Grey Eagle drone by remote control. On Travis’s command, the pilot would signal the drone to fire a bunker-busting, AGM-114R Hellfire II missile at the cave.
The cave opening was just ahead. Breathing heavily now, Travis pushed himself to the limit. Before he even reached the entrance he shouted into his radio, “Go! Go! Go!” He burst out into the starlight and immediately cut to the left, out of sight of the entrance. He heard the yells of the men behind him as they converged on the mouth of the cave, but their voices were quickly drowned out by the deafening shriek of the incoming rocket. The night lit up like the sun, erupting in a huge, fiery explosion, and the world in Travis’s vision tumbled end over end and finally went dark.
Travis ripped the virtual reality helmet off his head and turned to his teammates excitedly.
“Hoo-ah!” he yelled. “What a rush! What’s the verdict? Did we score a hit?”
“Direct hit, Captain,” his warrant officer called out. “L-and-S ground station says images from the Grey Eagle confirm it.”
Travis pumped his fist in the air as his unit cheered. The drone pilot at the Army’s Logistics & Support base had locked on the coordinates and had infrared pictures showing the blast site.
“Looks like we lost the avatar,” Travis said, “but as long as we got that S.O.B., Basir al-Samara, that’s what counts.”
Travis knew that certain people, James included, would be pissed. The avatar was actually a tiny radio-controlled helicopter, but not just any toy. James and his company had put hundreds of millions of dollars into R&D on the little gizmo, and Travis had just proved it was everything it was cracked up to be. First, he could control most of its functions with the virtual reality headset. Turn his head, and the helicopter turned. Lean forward, and the little flying machine moved ahead; lean back and it flew backward. Equipped with stereoscopic cameras, the device saw exactly what Travis would see if he was there in person. Better, Travis could shift to infrared night vision if needed. When Travis moved his eyes, not his head, tracking cameras in the VR headset moved the helicopter’s “eyes” in the same direction. Stereo microphones worked just like Travis’s ears, but were even more sensitive.
All this was crammed into a package that could fit in the palm of his hand. The flying device was powered by a lithium-ion battery and backed up with solar cells so efficient they could generate electricity in starlight, so it had virtually limitless range. And, coolest of all, the olfactory detector that James’s company had developed for video games meant that Travis could even “smell” whatever was in the little helicopter’s vicinity. An olfactory sensor—essentially an electronic nose—constantly “sniffed” the air, sent the signals to a computer for analysis, and the odors were recreated for Travis with a vast array of volatile oils, esters, terpines and other odorants. Travis knew that no one on the team would be happy to hear he’d lost one of the prototypes, especially given how much it cost. But the result had been worth it.
He was still buzzed with the excitement of how the mission had turned out when Warrant Officer Wilson, his second-in-command, signaled him with a wave. Some of his men clapped him on the shoulder with smiling faces as he walked over to see what Wilson wanted. As he approached, Wilson held out a handset wired to a radio transceiver.
“It’s Major Townsend.” Wilson mouthed the words.
Travis spoke into the handset. “That was fast, sir. Calling to congratulate us already?”
“No, captain, though I gather your mission was successful.”
“Very successful, sir.”
“Good for you. But we have a problem. You’re being reassigned, effective immediately.”
Travis felt a wave of disappointment break over him. He’d grown to like and, better still, trust his team, and with the new technology he’d just put through the wringer, they could really begin to take the war on terror right to the terrorists. Root them out in their mountain hidey-holes. But duty called, apparently. And as freewheeling as his career in the Army had been, allowing him to satisfy a lot of personal needs, its discipline had been good for him.
“Where to, sir?”
“Stateside,” the major said. “You’re going home, captain.”
“What’s the assignment?”
Travis’s heart sank. After years of excitement on the front lines of the war now he was being asked to babysit some brass? To hell with that.
The major broke the silence. “It’s James, Travis. We’ve intercepted what we believe is a credible threat. He and his family are in imminent danger. And you know what that would do to the program.”
Travis felt his jaw clench. “I’ll be on the first transport out, sir.”
“You’re the best person for the job. Oh, and captain? Congratulations on eliminating al-Samara.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Good luck, Trav. I think you’re going to need it.”
Now that she was awake, Tess sensed someone else in the room. It was hard to explain how she knew; she just did. At first it was a feeling, like something pressing in on her, something foreign taking up space in the familiar surroundings of her room. Then the presence took on more tangibles.
Sounds, for example. She knew every rustle and creak in the house, the hum of the refrigerator compressor, the distant rumble of the furnace and hiss of the air through the vents, the squeak of a floorboard in the hall or on the stairs to the ground floor, rain on the roof and the rattle of water in the drainpipes, the chirps and warbles of birds outside and the fluttering of leaves in a soft breeze. From all this background noise she could pick out the sound of quiet breathing, the rustle of fabric.
Smells, too. Without even an audible sniff, she could taste the air around her, gathering in the faint scent of lavender, the stronger smells of caramelized bread and roasted coffee, as if someone had passed through the kitchen on the way to her room, and something else that reminded her of her young childhood, a buttery smell with a hint of lemon and vanilla that reminded her of the sugar cookies she’d made with her mother. And behind all that she caught a whiff of something sour, though not unpleasant. More like the smell of honest hard work, a little sweat and elbow grease.
Tess realized that the feeling was probably what had pulled her out of the nightmare in the first place.
She sat up and turned toward her closet. “Morning, Alice.”
“Ah, you’re awake,” Alice said. “Good morning. I thought you might sleep forever. Isn’t today your big day?”
“You know very well what day it is, Alice.”
Tess heard her sigh.
“I suppose I do,” Alice said. “Just a day like any other. Anyway, I’ve laid some things out here on your chair. Breakfast is ready whenever you are.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.” Tess didn’t hear sounds of movement. “I don’t need any help. I’ve been doing this since I was three.”
“And thank goodness for that,” Alice said. “I have enough to do around here without worrying about getting you in and out of your clothes.”
Alice bustled toward the door and paused. Tess opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, Alice said, “All right. I’m going. I’ll be downstairs in the kitchen.”
Tess let her go without another word. The bedroom door closed with a soft click. Tess was glad that Alice had made no reference to her nightmare, though she must have been in the room or close by when Tess had screamed. She resented the fact that Alice still treated her like a child sometimes. She was eighteen now, for goodness’ sake, an adult. She swung her legs out of bed, got to her feet and mentally pictured the layout of her room. With confident steps, she paced off the distance to the bathroom door, put out her hand and touched the molding of the doorframe. She could do this in her sleep. The rest of the day she wasn’t so sure about.
While she washed her face and brushed her teeth and hair, Tess thought about Alice. Short and slight, Alice was rather plain, though not unattractive. Tess didn’t know how old she was, but the fact that Alice never wore make-up and almost always had her mousy brown hair wound up in a bun at the back of her head made her look older than she probably was. Tess knew she had a kind heart, but her manner was as severe as her appearance.
Alice had been part of the family for almost as long as Tess could remember—first as a nanny when they’d lived in California, and then as a full-fledged housekeeper after they’d moved to the Pacific Northwest. Alice had never been what Tess had considered warm and cuddly. Practical, maybe, or efficient—these words described her better. Tess had always gotten along with Alice, but they hadn’t exactly been best buddies. Alice had been perfectly capable of pitching in when her mother had been too busy—taking Tess to gymnastics or piano lessons, helping with homework, that sort of thing. But Tess had never confided in Alice or snuggled up with her the way she had her mother.
Family—as if Tess even had such a thing anymore. However much a misnomer, though, she supposed it was true. Alice was her family now. And what an odd, untraditional family it had become. Ironic, a housekeeper named Alice—like this was yet another episode of The Brady Bunch. The problem was that Alice wasn’t her real family, not her real mother, but she’d taken over her mother’s role. Tess could hardly stand it. Alice could never take her mother’s place. No one could.
Tess counted off the steps to the chair next to her dresser, reached out and touched the articles of clothing Alice had left there for her. She shimmied out of her pajamas and dressed carefully, minding where zippers and buttons and seams went. Reasonably certain that she hadn’t done anything stupid like put the skirt on backward or button the blouse unevenly, she went back into the bathroom to brush her hair one last time and tie it in a ponytail. Next time, she’d try to talk Alice into letting her wear something simpler, like jeans and a sweatshirt. But Alice had insisted she look especially nice today.
The thought of what lay ahead made her nervous, and she clutched the edge of the sink for a moment, heart racing, her breath coming in shallow gasps. She felt the cool porcelain in her hands, the smooth rounded corners of the basin somehow reassuring, solid. Easy. You’ve been there before. No big deal. But it was a big deal. First day of school was always a big deal.
She straightened and carefully walked through the doorway into her room, taking small, slow steps. She was instantly aware of another presence in her room, this time accompanied by the strong sweet smell of sarsaparilla, reminding her of root beer floats.