Veronica Roth is best known for penning the Divergent series, but her latest project branches out of YA: sci-fi thriller Chosen Ones, her first novel aimed at adults. The book is out today and io9 has a juicy excerpt to share.
Here’s a description of the story, to start:
Fifteen years ago, five ordinary teenagers were singled out by a prophecy to take down an impossibly powerful entity wreaking havoc across North America. He was known as the Dark One, and his weapon of choice—catastrophic events known as Drains—leveled cities and claimed thousands of lives. Chosen Ones, as the teens were known, gave everything they had to defeat him.
After the Dark One fell, the world went back to normal . . . for everyone but them. After all, what do you do when you’re the most famous people on Earth, your only education was in magical destruction, and your purpose in life is now fulfilled?
Of the five, Sloane has had the hardest time adjusting. Everyone else blames the PTSD—and her huge attitude problem—but really, she’s hiding secrets from them . . . secrets that keep her tied to the past and alienate her from the only four people in the world who understand her.
On the tenth anniversary of the Dark One’s defeat, something unthinkable happens: one of the Chosen Ones dies. When the others gather for the funeral, they discover the Dark One’s ultimate goal was much bigger than they, the government, or even prophecy could have foretold—bigger than the world itself.
And this time, fighting back might take more than Sloane has to give.
Now here’s the full cover, followed by the exclusive excerpt, which plunges you right into Sloane’s supernaturally troubled world.
SOMETHING WAS THERE.
Sloane felt it as soon as she passed through the doors.
Being inside the geodesic dome that housed ARIS’s public-facing front corporation, Calamity Investigation and Restoration (CIR), felt like being inside a giant golf ball. The structure was massive and white, the roof made of small triangular panels that held together in a curve. Fluorescent lights shone between the panels, so the whole place glowed like a Halloween decoration, making everyone’s skin appear green. The people who rushed back and forth inside it wore either the standard government garb—black or gray suits with boring ties and sleek hair—or white hazmat suits with the hoods down.
Agent Henderson waited for them by the entrance, checking his bulky watch. He held a leather file folder against his chest. When Sloane had first met him, right after Bert’s death, he had been the definition of strapping—tall, muscular, and energetic—but he had gone soft around the middle since the Dark One fell. There was gray mixed with the red-brown of his beard now. He had a wife and two children, a mortgage, and a retirement plan.
“Hey, guys,” he said with a grim smile. Sloane squinted at him a little. He looked . . . not right. Or maybe that was just the unsettled feeling inside her talking.
Something was there, in the Dome. She could still feel it.
“How was the golf cart?” Henderson asked.
“One hell of an engine in that thing,” Albie said.
“Yeah, how much torque does it get, like three hundred and sixty-nine foot-pounds?” Ines said. “And the RPMs!”
“I forgot about this little comedy tag team,” Henderson said, waggling his finger between Ines and Albie. “See anything weird out there?”
“We passed a séance in progress, but that seems fairly standard for that crowd,” Matt said. “Has anyone managed to speak to the dead yet?”
“Allegedly,” Henderson said, shrugging. “Pretty sure it was a hoax, but I won’t rule anything out anymore. You okay, Sloane? You don’t look so good.”
Magic, that was what it was. It had to be. She felt that tingling in her chest, right behind her sternum. But she had never felt magic at a Drain site before. She was more likely to feel the opposite, a kind of limpness in the air, like something had wilted.
“Thanks,” she managed to say to Henderson. “Just what everyone likes to hear.”
They said goodbye to Scott, who gave a cheerful wave before returning to his golf cart, and Henderson led them across the springy temporary floor—gray—down an equally gray hallway with temporary walls hemming them in on either side. It had been ten years, but the structure still looked like it had been set up only to be taken down. There were no offices, just long tables packed with computer monitors and tangled cords.
If the Drain site was a bicycle wheel, they’d started off walking its circumference, then turned down one of the spokes and were walking toward the center.
As they neared it, Sloane saw that the middle of the site was surrounded by glass panels from floor to ceiling. Clusters of floodlights aimed white beams inward. Whatever was left of the Drain site, ARIS wanted to get a very close look at.
But it was not the source of the magic Sloane felt. The prickling spread from Sloane’s chest to her abdomen. She tried to focus on the meeting room Henderson had taken them to, where his partner—Eileen Cho—waited. She was spinning a closed laptop in circles on a table. The right wall was all windows, showing the Drain site, where dozens of workers in the typical white hazmat suits walked along the edge, gesturing at each other and taking samples with metal tools.
The Drain had driven a crater deep into the ground, so deep that some of the workers looked child-size from where she stood. When Sloane first saw a Drain site, she had expected it to be a uniform substance, like the surface of the moon. But there were still remnants of what had been there: broken planks, crumbling bricks, chunks of asphalt, bits of old fabric. They were reminders that this place had once been a suburban street. People had lived here. And they had died here.
“—Ten Years Peace celebrations,” Cho was saying. “We wish Bert could be here to see it.”
Ines and Matt were nodding, but all Sloane could think of was the stack of files in the bottom drawer of her desk, the ones she was reading early in the morning before Matt got up. The Bert that appeared in those files wasn’t quite like the one she remembered. The Bert she remembered would never have called Sloane a “stray dog.”
“All right there, Sloane?” Cho asked her. Her hair was in a loose knot at the base of her neck, and her buttons were askew. Cho always looked like she had gotten dressed in the dark. It was part of what made her good at her job—she was warm and clumsy, and you felt like she was someone you could trust. Bert had had the same quality when he turned up on Sloane’s front lawn in his decrepit Honda.
Sloane was tapping each tingling fingertip against her thumb in turn, trying to press normal feeling back into them somehow. “What’s going on here?” she said.
“I see your small-talk skills are ever improving,” Henderson said. “Let’s sit.”
Once they had all settled in their chairs, Henderson pointed a remote at the wall of windows. They all lit up blue, showing a desktop with a white cursor. Cho had opened the laptop, and was clicking on a video file labeled 1ICI45G. They all stared at the pinwheel as the file loaded—as ever, Sloane was blown away by how finicky government tech was, and she might have commented on it if she hadn’t been focused on how tingly her fingers felt—and then the footage played across all five windows at once.
“This is footage taken from a fishing boat west of Guam in the Pacific,” Henderson said. “Five days ago.”
The video wasn’t crisp, played on such large screens, but it was clear enough for Sloane to get a sense of the waves that stretched in all directions, the swollen bellies of clouds about to unleash rain, the sway of the boat as it charged through the water. It almost looked like it had the last time she was on the ocean—but she wasn’t going to think about that now.
Then the sea went flat as a pond, the boat stilling. She saw something dark moving just beneath the surface. It pierced the calm and shot up straight into the air. Another followed, and then another, too fast for Sloane to identify the objects, which were each as big as a man—no, bigger; the perspective was just flattened by the camera angle. Whatever the things were hovered in midair over the water, which began to move again, the boat bobbing along like a rubber duck in a bathtub.
The camera zoomed in on the objects, and Sloane realized they were trees. Not just trees, but pine trees, dark needles heavy with water. There were maybe thirty, all hanging at different heights, like wind chimes.
“What,” Ines said, “the fuck.”
“That’s what I said,” Henderson replied. “Would you open the second one, Cho?”
Cho closed the first and clicked on the second, labeled 2ICI45G.
“Australia,” Cho said to introduce this one. The footage opened on a rocky beach with the sun just beginning to set over the water. The land around it, even the dry grasses that grew on the slopes, glowed orange.
“Are you sure?” a male voice asked from behind the camera.
“Yeah!” came the chirped reply. The camera swung to the side, showing a massive boulder as tall as a house with others leaned up against it, as if part of the slope had crumbled off at some point in history and the rubble had been left there. There were silhouettes of lithe bodies on the boulders, beer bottles balanced next to them. Sloane spotted the ties of bikinis, the frayed hems of jean shorts, the brim of a baseball cap.
The camera zoomed in on a girl no older than sixteen with a red-and-white-striped bikini top and a flat, tanned stomach. She wore her sun-streaked hair loose around her shoulders. She had turned toward the camera and was waving.
“If it doesn’t work this time, I’ll just fall in the water,” she said with a shrug. “You recording?”
“Yep!” the man with the camera replied. “Go on!”
The sun burned orange behind the girl as she lifted one foot, skinny arms held out from her sides, and stepped into the air next to the boulder, over the water. She then lifted up her other foot so she stood on nothing at all. Sloane could see the light of the sky beneath her heel—there was only emptiness beneath her, yet she wasn’t falling.
Half a dozen voices crowed with amazement, fists in the air, bottles clinking together, the camera shuddering as the one who held it gave a shout.
“I’m gonna take another step!” the girl called out, and before anyone could object, she did, leaning out, seemingly into the sky—
Her body tipped, not forward, but sideways, her feet ripped from beneath her. She screamed as her hair dropped toward the water in a sun-bleached curtain. She fell, but not toward the ocean—she fell up, toward the clouds, her arms flailing, her screeches echoing over the rocks. The camera followed her as she grew smaller and smaller, a tiny black shape against the clouds. And then she was gone, and the man with the camera was screaming. “Barbara! Barbara!”
The footage ended, leaving the screen blue again. They were all silent this time.
“The third, please, Cho,” Henderson said.
The file was 3ICI45G. And the footage had been filmed underwater; it was blue, cloudy, and dreamlike, the surface undulating with light. Sloane thought again about the Dive, her last trip to the ocean, the smell of salt and seaweed on the air—and she felt the tingling again, not just in her fingertips this time, but all the way up to her elbows, as if her arms were asleep. She shook them out, watching as a diver entered the camera’s line of sight, eyes shielded by the reflective mask. The figure jabbed a finger down, and the camera swung in that direction.
Sloane saw what she thought was a bunch of seaweed growing along the ocean floor; the person holding the camera swam closer, the movements smooth. Shafts of light shone through the surface, refracted by the waves, onto neat rows of plants, their long, sharp leaves shifting as the water did. The diver swam closer, and Sloane saw a large metal structure on wheels with a bar arching gently away.
She recognized it. It was an irrigation pivot, like the kind used to water the fields around her hometown.
Sloane leaned closer to the windows as she realized the neat rows of plants along the ocean floor were not seaweed, but stalks of corn. The shadow of a tractor loomed in the distance. The diver swam over the corn, zooming in on the intact husks among the leaves, then under the metal arch of the irrigation system, where the tractor was in full view. As was the man still sitting atop it, trapped there with his knees under the steering wheel, his arms floating toward the surface.
Cho stopped the footage so that image stayed frozen on the screen for a few seconds before she closed it.
“That was in Hawaii, three weeks ago,” she said. “We haven’t been able to identify the man, but the girl from the second clip, Barbara Devore—she’s been missing for a month now.”
“It has to be magic,” Matt said. “Right? There’s nothing else it could be.”
“It certainly falls under the category of the supranormal,” Henderson said. “We have done extensive investigations on each of these incidents as well as hundreds of others that have occurred over the past decade. We’ve been able to confirm that these are not hoaxes.”
“There are always supranormal occurrences here and there,” Cho said. “But they seem to be happening closer and closer together, and they’re becoming more numerous.”
“Do you . . .” Albie swallowed so hard Sloane could see his Adam’s apple forcing its way down. “Do you think the Dark One is back or something? Is that why you asked us to come here?”
Sloane felt a burning in her chest, and she wasn’t sure if it was the same thing causing the tingling in her arms or if it was just run-of-the-mill terror. She couldn’t sit still anymore—she got up, stepped around her chair.
“What is it?” Cho said.
“Can’t a gal do a good, old-fashioned pace back and forth without getting questioned?” Sloane replied.
Henderson chuckled a little and said, “No, we don’t think it’s the Dark One. We haven’t seen any evidence of his return—there are no actors present at any of these incidents, see? No one wielding magic—but magic is happening anyway. It seems to us . . . well, the prevailing theory in ARIS, anyway, is that it’s like a malfunctioning radio. It’s creepy when it starts playing music out of nowhere, but it doesn’t mean anything sinister.”
“You’re saying that our planet is like a malfunctioning radio,” Matt said, “and that doesn’t alarm you?”
“Obviously it alarms us,” Cho said. “But I’ll take the source of Earth’s magic being busted or . . . whatever this is . . . over the Dark One any day.”
Sloane was moving, now without meaning to, toward the double doors across the room. Her body was burning, and as she drew closer, she smelled something sulfurous and chemical and familiar. Her hands had smelled that way after she did magic.
With the artifact.
The Needle of Koschei.
She hadn’t known when she went with a crew of ARIS agents to the middle of the Pacific Ocean how much the Needle would cost her. In the end, she had been so desperate to get rid of it that she had chewed it out of her own hand.
The others had gone quiet. Or maybe she just couldn’t hear them over the pulse in her ears. She didn’t try the handles of the doors, just pressed both palms against them and drew a long, slow breath.
She felt Matt standing behind her. She didn’t need to look to know it was him; she knew the shape of him, the heat of him. How close he dared to stand, so their arms were almost touching. And not because they were dating—no, engaged, she reminded herself—but because that’s how Matt was: not afraid to get close to anyone.
“What is it?” he asked.
“You don’t feel it?” she said.
“It feels weird in here, but no more than usual for a Drain site,” Matt said. “Why? What do you feel?”
Sloane stared at the scar on the back of her right hand. A web of thick tissue, paler than the rest of her skin. “It’s been bothering me since we got here. They made something new,” she said. “And it’s through these doors. Somewhere.”
“Okay,” Matt said, touching her shoulder. “Okay, let’s go sit down and ask them about it.”
Sloane nodded. On some level, she recognized that she would feel embarrassed later. But for now, she just let Matt take her hand and lead her back to the table. Henderson, Cho, Albie, and Ines were still sitting there, looking confused.
“Well, I guess that’s as good a segue as any,” Henderson said, scratching at his beard. “Uh—since these incidents have been increasing in frequency, we’ve stepped up certain programs we were already working on. It seems important to understand what exactly magic isand how to use it, so—we’ve developed a device that we believe channels magic. You reacting to it that way, Sloane, is actually really encouraging.”
“You haven’t tested it?” Ines said.
“Not yet,” Cho said. “We were hoping you might agree to help us. You are, after all, the only people we are aware of who have successfully wielded magic before. You’re less likely to cause a catastrophe.”
Sloane tasted copper. She wished she had kept the empty potato-chip bag with her.
“Did you go for a wand?” Ines said. “Or, like, an orb? Or is it a giant hammer? Please say it’s a giant hammer.”
“No,” Sloane said.
“Yeah, you’re right, it’s the government, so it’s probably a boring box,” Ines said.
“No,” Sloane said. “No, we aren’t going to help you test your fucking weapon.”
“Slo,” Matt said. “Just because it uses magic doesn’t mean it’s a weapon.”
Cho sat down in the chair across from Sloane and folded her hands on the table. Her fingers were thick at the knuckle, and callused. Sloane had heard her say, once, that she liked rock climbing.
“In order to know how to fix whatever it is that’s broken,” Cho said, “we need to understand how magic works and how it’s used. So we have made a tool—that’s all.”
“You expect me to believe you developed this thing so you could keep teenage girls from falling into the sky?” Sloane scowled. “You were already making it before you realized something was wrong—you just said that.”
“We are a branch of the government concerned with scientific advancement—” Cho began.
“I studied history,” Sloane interrupted, swallowing down the flavor of blood in her mouth. “And I know what motivates the government to invest in scientific advancement. We only have rockets that go into space because you guys were trying to blow up Soviets. This is just another Space Race.”
“Even if it is a weapon,” Henderson said, “would you rather Russia or China figure it out first, Sloane? And do you think they won’t be racing to harness magic themselves?”
“I would rather governments stopped playing the who-can-destroy-each-other-faster game,” Sloane snapped. She knew by the ringing in her ears that she was panicking.
“Yeah, well, I’d rather open up a goddamn ice cream shop,” Henderson said. “But we all have to deal with reality.”
“Countless people have died because of magic,” Matt said. “Right here, in this spot, actually. It’s happened right in front of us. And you want us to be complicit in something that might bring more of that?” He sounded choked. Sloane hadn’t heard him sound that way in a long time. “After what we’ve seen—after what we’ve done?”
He didn’t know the half of it, Sloane thought. He didn’t know a damn thing about what she had done, and it would stay that way.
Beside her, Albie was staring at his hands, curled over the edge of the table. His fingers had once been nimble enough to fold the most intricate origami Sloane had ever seen. He had tried to teach her once how to make a crane, and the session had ended in a heap of crumpled paper. But the damage sustained from their time as captives of the Dark One had taken the feeling from his fingertips, so he had given up the hobby. Now those hands were trembling.
“Albie,” she said.
He didn’t look at her. “Isn’t it . . .” He cleared his throat. Albie was shorter than average, with thinning blond hair that stuck up in all the wrong places and a hunched posture from the permanent damage done to his spine. He was nobody’s Chosen One, not now and not ever. “Isn’t it important to know how to use it, though?” he said. “So it can’t be used against us again?”
“Albie,” Matt said. “You can’t mean that.”
“Don’t give me that Hero Voice,” Albie said, his own voice shaking. “Nobody ever used magic against you—any of you!—the way the Dark One used it against me. Whether it’s a tool or a weapon or a freaking plush toy, I’m not going to sit back and let the rest of the world figure out how to do it to us without us knowing how to do it back. Mutually assured destruction.”
Sloane reached for words and came up empty. He had a point—she had been kidnapped by the Dark One, too, but he hadn’t done to her what he had done to Albie, hadn’t attacked her body and left her with no feeling in her hands and no way to rejoin the fight.
He had done something else. Damaged her without so much as touching her.
“If people die because of your help,” she said finally, her throat aching, “you’ll have to carry that around.”
“And if people die because I don’t help?” he said, meeting her eyes at last. “Either way, we’ll carry it. We always do.”
Excerpt from Veronica Roth’s Chosen Ones reprinted by permission. Copyright John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
As an added bonus, you can also hear a different excerpt from Chosen Ones than the one we’ve provided above, from the Audible version read by actor Dakota Fanning.
Veronica Roth’s Chosen Ones is out today; you can order your copy right here.
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