The travel mug slipped from Khalia’s hand just as her swipe card passed the swipe-station and the door clicked.
Khalia kicked it through the door ahead of her and let the warm interior air wash over her before she stooped to pick it up. She was cold, damn cold, and wet, thanks to the damn bus that had been damn late for the third damn time, and then had the gall to splash water all over her as it pulled away.
And she felt sick. Her stomach was compressed into a hard ball in her center, empty because in her frantic effort to get out of the house, she’d forgotten. Her mind was on the medication stashed in her desk, where she’d forgotten it the day before. She’d barely slept, her chest was so tight with the panic of not having the pills in the house.
She shoved her way through the turnstiles, barely looking at the security desk, where two guards were laughing and talking, with guns hanging off their shoulders, and past the buzzing HR offices. The three ladies chatting by the front desk looked up with big eyes, and immediately bent their heads together.
Yeah, gossip about me, you dirt-bags.
Khalia barged through the lab door without even looking up. Her feet pointed toward her desk.
“Good of you to join us, Khalia.” Adam’s deadpan voice made her halt.
“The bus…” Khalia mumbled, then cut herself off as she glanced toward him.
Everyone stood in a semi-circle around Adam, lab-coats buttoned, hands clasped behind their backs. Barjinder met her gaze and his brown eyes softened. Adam peered at her over his clipboard. His hand was still poised, as if he’d been making some almighty point.
Khalia pushed past and dropped her bag on her desk with a solid clunk. She fumbled in the drawer for the pills.
“As I was saying,” Adam turned and squared his narrow shoulders. The fluorescent light reflected through his thinning hair. “This is…” his voice faded out as Khalia’s fingers closed around two small, green pills. She dropped them on her tongue and gulped them down with a wash of cold coffee. She set the cup down, squeezed her eyes shut and sighed. Her hand fumbled to stick the bottle into her purse, but it just scrabbled across the papers on her desk. Khalia opened her eyes yanked the bag toward herself and glanced around. Mina and Jennifer walked, heads together, toward their desks at the far side of the lab. Jennifer laughed, high and shrill. Adam’s drone continued. His gesturing hands poked and waved from behind a white, lab coated back. A dark head nodded.
“Oh…” Khalia froze in place with the bottle poised above the purse. It was Monday, and that was Vermeer, her new assistant-read-replacement. And she had just walked past him and dove for her medication.
Not fair, not today of all days.
She took a covert glance at his back. His erect figure towered over Adam—square shoulders, slender, sable hair in a short, fashionable style. He’d turned his head slightly to the side as if skeptical. He had just a bit of neat facial hair. Was it to make him look older?
Dominic Vermeer was young, twenty-six or seven, but the man had an impressive resume and she was determined to like him,
as unlikely as that seemed. Maybe he’d become an ally of sorts. She needed one. But now she just hoped the oxy kicked in before Vermeer put his fine ass in the seat next to her.
Khalia squared her shoulders and got up. She screwed the top off her coffee cup with hands that trembled and exited out the back toward the cafeteria. She’d be composed by the time she got back.
When she returned with a full coffee cup and a muffin, Vermeer already sat at the desk next to hers, speaking numbers quietly into the laptop. Images and input boxes flicked across the screen at tremendous speed, but as she slipped through the door he looked up. He jerked back his chair and stood.
“Doctor Kassis.” He held her gaze with intent brown eyes that glittered from behind a dark fringe of lashes. She had to tip her head back to look him in the face as she walked forward to accept his extended hand.
She squared her shoulders and smiled. “Khalia, please.”
“I’ve read all of your published papers,” he said as she released his hand.
Khalia pressed her lips together for a moment so her mouth wouldn’t drop open. “Oh, uh, thank you. I perused your doctoral thesis as well. It was… interesting.”
So you’re a looker and a kiss-ass. Great. You’ll go far here, one way or another.
“This didn’t faze the management at Caspian, apparently,” Vermeer’s lip curled.
“Indeed.” The man had written about ‘post production death rates among manufactured persons’. Postulating that the number one cause of death among Empties was suicide hadn’t been a popular conclusion. She’d doubted his reasoning, but she couldn’t deny that he had moxie.
Khalia took a step back and glanced around the room. “Barjinder got you situated? I’m sorry I didn’t greet you properly earlier. I had some unforeseen circumstances this morning.”
“No trouble,” he said.
“I will give you a tour of the production floor this morning, but first I have some policies for you to read and sign. Have a seat, I’ll just go get them.”
As she turned to her desk for the sheaf of policies, Khalia caught sight of Adam marching toward her desk. She sighed.
“Vermeer’s bracelet.” The slim metal bracelet, sealed in a plastic bag, dropped in front of her. Adam leaned in and said in a low voice, “You know, if you’re unhappy with my choice of assistant for me, just say it to my face, Khalia.”
What, was that what being late made him think? Khalia looked up into Adam’s fat face. He had a smudge of something purple in the corner of his mouth, probably grape jelly. Of course, she wouldn’t tell him. Let him figure out that he’d oriented the boy-wonder with breakfast on his face. “No, I’m not unhappy with your choice, Adam,” she said coolly, “And if you’re here to lecture me on being late, you tell me to my face.” Adam knew she’d worked late last night, finishing work he was supposed to do.
“No, I’m not…” Adam mumbled, glancing at his scuffed dockers, “Just give Vermeer the policies and the tour, okay?”
“I have the policies right here,” She tapped the folder, “I’ll give him the tour after break. Good enough?”
“Yeah.” Adam walked away.
Khalia blew out her breath and glanced over her shoulder at Vermeer, who had returned to his computer. No, she wasn’t unhappy with Adam’s choice, though she’d been miffed when he’d made it clear she had no real input in the matter. If Vermeer would just work hard and not be a pain in the neck, everything would be fine. If she could trust him, maybe even call him a friend, well… that might be too much to hope for.
Sons of Earth is a sci-fi novel, slated to be released this spring. I’m excited to share it with you! If you enjoyed this preview, you may enjoy my post-apocalyptic love story, We are the Living (may include zombies).