READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Hollow World (The Fragments Series, #3) by Tracy Auerbach



The time has come for Kai and her friends to make a final stand. As the war begins, everyone must choose a side. With the lines between good and evil more blurred than ever, she has to stick with her convictions and follow her heart. Kai’s first priority is to free Finn from the clutches of Tessa Raven, who has become no better than the evil she once fought against.



Dive deep into the third installment of The Fragmented Series, THE HOLLOW WORLD by Tracy Auerbach—out next Tuesday, February second. Pre-order your copy NOW!


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CHAPTER ONE


TOO MANY MISSING COEFFICIENTS.

Raven ran her ungloved hand over the smooth, cool metal of the missile. She needed it to shatter the barrier—opening the way down so that she could destroy the Science Council. She knew enough about terminal ballistics to be able to calculate its exact impact on the crystal tube that led to the Science Council’s underground lair when it struck. The only problem was that the makeup of the tube was so unique...


“It’s a thing of beauty, Raven,” Sayers commented. He stared at her hungrily from his spot amongst her people, seeking approval.



“Yes, it is,” she offered, and he smiled.


“The only problem is, because the substance we’re striking has never been studied, there’s no way to tell if it will work without testing it. Our likelihood for success is still low.” She glanced around the interior of the Dome of Artifacts, taking in the relics from the original Earth with an appreciative eye.


“And I’m not willing to risk destroying all of these artifacts by blowing up the whole place when the chance of it failing to destroy the tube is unacceptably high.”


Her soldiers stood around her, silent, waiting for her suggestions. She’d been trying to puzzle this out for three weeks, and the answer was painfully obvious: a last straw plan. And yet, she hesitated, because there was a small part of her that wanted to try every other possible scenario before resorting to what she knew would work, even though she knew that wasn’t logical.



Damn my weakness.


“We’ll need something softer,” she said at last. “Something that will turn to mush on impact rather than ricocheting off the crystal and taking out this whole place. Also, we’ll need something much bigger… heavier.” She scrutinized the crystal tube housing of the elevator platform that had, thus far, been impossible to penetrate.



“Would you like us to try crafting a hollow missile that’s twice this size?” asked Larson. “We’d have to melt this down first.” He gestured toward the missile they’d taken three weeks to craft and painstakingly calibrated.


“No.”


The time to divulge her last straw plan was now. She knew a missile wouldn’t work. A rain of bullets wouldn’t work. But she happened to have a special tool—a former friend who could run at the speed of a bullet and who was close to two hundred pounds.



A human body hitting the tube at that speed would spread adequate weight over a large enough surface area to crack open the entryway to the Science Council’s underground world like an egg. Also, a body would explode upon impact, resulting in a mostly liquid byproduct, causing minimal damage to the artifacts.



Finn’s sacrifice would save the planet.



CHAPTER TWO


One Week Later


Aric stormed into the weight room section of the training facility and cast his eyes around, over the two soldiers working out with dumbbells, before catching sight of the huge type ‘A’ soldier he’d been looking for.


Charlie stood in the center of the gym, a good ways apart from the other soldiers, curling a massive bar weight up to his chest and down again in quick reps. Beside him, on a sit-up bench, sat the trademark type ‘A’-sized flask of whiskey that he was rarely seen without nowadays. Or was it scotch? It hardly mattered.


“Charlie,” called Aric, approaching him.


“That’s me.” Charlie grinned dopily, dropped the weight—which sent a shockwave through the floor—and reached for his drink.


“Enough of that,” Aric snapped. “Are you even sober enough to understand what I’m saying?”


“Sure.” Charlie kept the grin plastered on, but Aric noticed it didn’t reach his bloodshot eyes. It never did anymore. He was so changed from the hopeful, intense, good-natured soldier that Aric had known back at the fort. That had been back when Charlie had hope—when he’d been in love.


“I need to talk to you,” Aric whispered, “but not here.” He glanced toward the other two soldiers, lowering his voice even further. “We need privacy.”


“Privacy?” mumbled Charlie. “I can do that.” He turned toward the other soldiers, shouting, “Get out!”


As his deep voice echoed through the gym, the soldiers—Aric couldn’t remember their names—beat feet out the door as Charlie slumped down against the wall he’d been standing beside, uncapped the flask, and took a swig.


“I…” Aric didn’t know how to begin. The rumors he’d heard about Raven’s plan for Finn Turner were too awful, and he didn’t know how Charlie, his only friend, would react to them. He took a seat beside Charlie. “I’ve heard a few things that won’t be easy for you to hear, Charlie, but I need to tell you because we have to decide what to do.”



“I’m listening.” Charlie stretched his arms above his head and exhaled, filling the air around them with the sweet, heavy reek of liquor. Aric winced.


“Raven’s been talking to her inner circle, and the rumors have spread because Larson can’t keep his big mouth shut, so now everyone knows… I think.” He paused. “Charlie, I think she’s planning to use Finn as a missile. She’s going to have him run into that crystal column at full force. It will probably be our best chance of breaking the thing, but it’s a suicide mission.”


A long silence stretched out between them. Charlie took another, longer swig from the flask, and they both sat there for a moment, staring off into space. Finally, Charlie cast his eyes to the other object on the sit-up bench: the tablet that controlled Finn. It was never out of his sight.


At first, Aric had thought it an odd choice for Raven to leave it in his keeping. But then he’d realized the brilliance of the decision. Nobody—not even the other type ‘A’ soldiers who were controlled by Raven—could get something away from Charlie Manning if he didn’t want to give it up. Charlie knew how to fight, and he was smarter than the others.



Also, Charlie had confided to him that Raven kept calculating things about the people she’d known on an emotional level: Aric himself, Charlie, Kai, and Finn. A lot of her calculations for “potential outcomes”—the way she read probabilities to see the future— were inconsistent when it came to them.


However, one thing that was always the same was Charlie’s loyalty to her. It was always one hundred percent. Not ninety-nine point nine. One hundred. Every single time, regardless of what factors she used in her equations.


Aric supposed it was hard to argue with odds like that.


“I guess there’s nothing I can do, then,” said Charlie, scooping up the tablet. He also grabbed a towel off the bench and mopped sweat off his dripping face. “She’s made her choice.”



Aric’s heart sunk, and he failed to suppress a grimace. This wasn’t the Charlie that he had known. Not at all. Even if the type ‘A’ was resigned to his own fate as Raven’s lapdog, Aric had a hard time believing that he would allow something like this to become of his best friend. Charlie had fought so hard for Finn—only to give up now? If only he’d quit the damn drinking, maybe he’d start acting like himself again.



“How long have you been working out?”


“About three hours.”


“Holy shit.”


“Not much else to do.”

“Charlie…”

“I’ll see ya around, Aric.” The type ‘A’ waved then as he exited the gym, bringing his towel, flask, and Finn’s tablet with him.


Aric bent and, just for curiosity’s sake, attempted to lift the immensely weighted bar that Charlie had been using off the floor. He couldn’t even roll it; his body jerked down, and he felt a pop in his back.


“Holy shit,” he muttered through the pain. “He is strong.” Shaking his head, he left the room and walked down the hall.



The few soldiers who’d been idling outside, waiting for Charlie to leave, shot Aric a side-eye before heading into the gym. Raven didn’t trust him, so, by proxy, none of her goons trusted him.



Aric once again ruminated on his own part in all this as he walked down the brightly lit corridors, passing soldiers who either ignored him or shot him suspicious glares. Had his actions back at his bunker—driving Tessa and Finn away and experimenting on Charlie—somehow dragged all of them further down this awful path? And then they’d helped him, even when he hadn’t deserved their help.


Damn it! I can’t let this happen. I owe it to all of them not to let this happen to Finn.


Since Charlie was, as usual, not very responsive, Aric figured he’d go and give Kai a try next. Not that he thought she’d be much better. She truly cared about Finn but hated Aric himself so much that he doubted she’d be willing to work with him in any capacity, even to save Finn.


Aric drew in a deep breath, preparing himself for the well-deserved ire he knew was coming his way.


“Hey, Kai,” he said, knocking on her door. “It’s me. Aric.” “Screw off!” she shouted from inside her quarters. “It’s about Finn…”


He heard footsteps, and the door opened with a creak, exposing Kai’s tear-streaked face. Her dark eyes, so much like Dex’s, shone with fresh wetness, pooling and dripping down her cheeks.



God, he missed Dex.


She blinked, scowling at him through her misery. “Come to rub it in?” she asked. “Well, you’re too late. I’ve already heard.” “Maybe there’s something—” “Not with you!” She wiped at her eyes with her fists. “I’ll save him, but I’ll do it on my own. I’d let him die before accepting your help. I don’t even know why you’re still pretending to give a crap.” Before he could answer, she slammed the door in his face. With a sigh, Aric walked back to his room, marveling at his own uselessness. He’d once been so powerful, and he’d sunk so low. Sometimes, he wished he’d never gotten emotions, because times like this hurt so bad, he felt like he was falling down a deep well. And every day, the chance of ever crawling out of it seemed farther and farther away.

~ Kai for the sounds of Aric withdrawing before she threw herself face-first onto her bed and dissolved into another fit of sobs. Damn Aric for everything he’s done to my family—for driving Dex away. She remembered the strangeness of her brother when they’d reunited, the distance created because Aric had gotten Dex hooked on Shine. Then the pain Dex had felt later at not being able to trust himself around the source of his obsession and being forced to leave. For making Finn and Tessa leave to begin with. Back at the ‘safe-house’ where Aric had stuck Finn with a red injection and driven Tessa out in her grief because he’d viewed them as unimportant at the time. And look what had become of them now… For giving Charlie the black crystal. That’s where it all started to go wrong.

Erasing Charlie’s personality had been the final straw for the Tessa she’d known. Damn Raven, too. I hate everything about her: the hypocrisy, the way she uses people and discards them—all of it. This new Tessa was just as bad as Aric. And damn Charlie for taking the easy way out. Useless drunk. Kai felt like she was drowning in her own bitterness. But she had to claw her way out if she wanted any chance of helping Finn. She’d heard the rumors about how the girl she’d once thought of as a friend, who’d been a friend to Finn long before, planned to use his body to break the crystal tube. She knew that Raven planned on putting “Operation Finn Missile” into effect any day now… Kai had to make her move soon. The trouble was, there was only one move she’d been able to figure out she could make, and it involved getting that tablet that controlled Finn away from Charlie. Screaming into her pillow, she took a moment to collect herself, then stood and walked to the small mirror in her bathroom. Her eyes were bloodshot, with dark, heavy circles standing out underneath. Her skin looked ashy and stretched too tight over her face. Her hair had started to grow out unevenly. This disarray she’d fallen into was new, a stark manifestation of her hopelessness. Even when she’d been a prisoner back at the Eastern Fortress, it hadn’t been this bad. She’d never felt so alone. Back then, she’d had Charlie and Tessa… and Finn. Once she’d gotten to know the real Finn, it had seemed like everything would somehow be all right. How wrong she’d been.

Get it together, Kai. No use falling apart now. Finn’s life depends on it. Kai steadied herself the best she could before moving back into her room. She strapped on her tactical belt, laced her boots, and picked up the duffel she’d meticulously packed. Over the past week, she’d pilfered what she could: coins, a knife, handcuffs, a photogun, a dart gun, nutrition bars, and, unfortunately, some drugs. She walked toward the gym Raven had refurbished, where Charlie could usually be found. Fewer soldiers loitered in the hall‐ ways now, and the silence of their stripped personalities—mindless servants for Raven to use and discard—gave the whole place a haunted feel even in the brightly lit halls. The gym was empty, so she turned back and made her way through the heavy aluminum door and up the stone stairs— somehow cold even in the midst of the desert day—to the old hospital’s second floor, then down the empty, winding corridors to Charlie’s quarters. She knocked. No answer. She knocked again. Still, nothing. Was he just not answering? Passed out? Leaning her ear to the door, Kai heard the shower shut off. Her heart pounded as she tried to brace herself for whatever state she’d find her old friend festering in. She raised her fist again and knocked loudly.

“Just a minute,” Charlie called from inside. Kai heard his heavy footsteps approach, and the door clicked open. Charlie stood with a towel wrapped around his waist, blond hair dripping.

“Hey, Kai,” he said. “What can I do for you?” His face held that same haunted look it always did lately, but it was hidden behind the shroud of fog that his drinking afforded him. He wasn’t slurring his words, but he definitely smelled of liquor. “I wanted to talk.”

“Sure. Have a seat.” He gestured to the chair that sat at a small table beside his bed. The room was immaculate, just like his quarters had been back at the fort. It seemed a stark contrast to Charlie’s own disheveled state.

“I’ll… just throw on some clothes.” He retreated into the bathroom, taking Finn’s tablet with him. It was always with him—never so much as an inch out of his sight. Kai muttered a curse and sat in the chair, then stood immediately, unable to stay still. She ran her hands through her hair, her fingers snagging on a knot near the ends. What to say? How to approach this? When she’d first discovered that Charlie was himself again, she had never thought such a distance would exist between them. It all came back to what people like Aric and Raven, and all the scientists, had done to them, and as Kai struggled with how to “act” in front of Charlie, her ire toward their enemies rose nearly enough to choke her. She figured she’d best come off as friendly. “What can I do you for?” asked Charlie, emerging from the steamy bathroom in his casuals; white t-shirt and gray sweats. “First, are you sober?” Kai raised an eyebrow. “Sober enough.” He sat on the bed, holding the tablet in one hand and his ever-present, enormous flask in the other, grinning just a bit. “But I can remedy that if you’d like.”

“Charlie…” “Fine.” His face grew serious. “What do you need?” “What do I need?” Kai started to pace, trying not to let her anger overwhelm her. She sucked in a breath, struggling to speak over the tremor in her voice caused by her racing heartbeat. The hate—the constant lump that lived in her throat and upper chest— seemed all-consuming. “I need to save Finn! He’s been rotting away in that cage for a month, and I need to get him out. How is that not a priority for you, Charlie?” “Nothing I can do.” He frowned. Kai had to forcibly choke down the fury that rose in her throat like bile. “All right then.” She managed a weak smile although it took everything in her to not punch him. “I could use a friend.”



“I’m not the best company.” He winced, then took a swig from the flask.


“Tell you what…” She stopped, trying to appear as if she was thinking this up on the fly and not giving away that she’d been planning how to steal the tablet from him ever since she’d learned of Raven’s plans for Finn two days ago in an overheard conversation between Raven and Sayers. “Why don’t you come to my quarters tomorrow evening for dinner, just to catch up? I can get Rourke to ask the chef to make us a real meal instead of that communal slop they serve in the kitchen. What do you say?”


“Okay,” said Charlie. “A meal with a friend sounds nice. And I don’t have any plans for tomorrow night.”


An odd look skated over his features then, and Kai wondered what he was thinking. Was he simply upset that she was disrupting his drinking plans? Or was he suspicious? Charlie wasn’t stupid; she fought not to cast her eyes toward the precious tablet he clutched.



“Great! See you at eight?” She fixed her features into a frozen smile.


“Sure.” Charlie opened the door to let her out. “It’s a date.”

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