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I keep my eyes locked with Nicolette's as the Equinox voice counts down. The corner of her mouth quivers. She bites on her bottom lip to hold herself together, and I find myself doing the same. As I clench my fingers together, I breathe in and out. Mentally, there's no way for either of us to relax. I don't know where Stephen is, but hopefully he's okay.

The glass walls soon awaken, text appears on all surfaces. My name, height, and weight appear around me. "The first step in the Equinox process is conducting a physical assessment," the voice says.

Blue holograms switch on within every box. The aqua grids cast themselves over each inductee, collecting data to cast on the walls. As the warm rays pass over my skin, my heart rate, blood pressure, and body proportions float onto the glass wall. Even x-rays of my teeth and 360 images of my body find their way into the digital records.

I skim the records carefully as the data locks onto the screen. The holograms continue to shine on me, causing the readings to fluctuate. My fingers curl in and out, attempting to relax me. The heart rate calculation drops by one tiny digit.

The swoosh of an elevator sounds from behind me. I watch Nicolette and the other inductees as lone Screeners enter their boxes. My eyes fly to the dozens of metal briefcases in my peripheral vision. The Screener in my box clicks open his case. My heart drops when I recognize it.

It's the same briefcase from the Project, with the same black padding and everything. But this time, there's two syringes instead of one.

My heart beats a million times a second as my legs threaten to give out. The stiff feeling in my gut senses danger... but is it because of the Project? Or is it just nerves concerning the Equinox?

I curse myself as the Screeners in the neighboring glass boxes prepare their syringes. How could I assume the Equinox would be easy? Of course there was going to be syringes involved. But the realization doesn't stop my fingers from twisting into faltering fists.

The speakers return to life when the announcement voice speaks again. "Inductees, please relax to receive your next preparatory assessment. The following two injection will be used as sensors for Equinox purposes."

Cold metal shoots through my neck, and I let out a gasp. Just as quickly as the freezing needle comes, it disappears with a click. I feel a pinch within my neck, and I rub my fingers over a small lump within my skin. With a swallow, I wash away a pang of trembling. A second injections follows with the same amount of pain.

Glancing back at Nicolette, the Screeners clamp their briefcases closed and leave the room. They step into the respective elevator cabs and shut us back into our confined areas. We all stand and blink at each other through the glass, clueless and confused.

The text fades away from the walls, but the holographic grids remain hovering over our bodies. The heat begins to bother me. What could possibly be so important to track if we're trapped in empty glass?

"Now that the preparations are complete, the Equinox tasks will begin shortly. When you reach the designated area in front of the leaderboard, please wait for the Screeners to specify the rules."

Reach a designated area? I think to myself. How can we travel if we're trapped in glass caskets?

The lump on the base of my neck becomes hot, and I feel a dull pulse, like the tap of a finger. I blink my eyes, and the glass walls are gone.

My jaw drops as my eyes flicker open. I twist to look at the other inductees, not stepping off my platform. Equally as shocked faces meet mine. No one says a word.

My eyes blink again, and the entire viewing area is quadrupled in size, filled with hundreds of additional people in identical clothing. A few girls around me let out screams as others gasp. My fingers cover my open mouth as Nicolette turns pale in front of me.

"What on Earth?" a brave soul says. I whip my head to the source of the voice. Stephen turns his head just in time to look at me, and recognition floods his startled eyes. It's enough to keep me sane for a second or two.

Within another blink of my eyes, the endless pale room turns into a vast cornfield. Tall green stalks rise up to the waists and stomachs of the inductees, lightly sifting in the wind. The bright sun blares onto our skin, restoring the heat.

I take a step back, almost falling of my platform. By the reactions of the teens around me, I can tell everyone's stunned. But not nearly as stunned as I am because the pit of my stomach is icy.

I lock my gaze on Stephen for another moment, his chocolate brown eyes telling me he wants to help us both somehow. Heat rises from my heart to my ears, but I can't afford to lose focus. I want our partnership to stay safe.

After a painful second of resisting the urge to blink, the eyes around me gape at the field. I use their body language as bait for hints. Whatever is waiting for me will probably be a deadly surprise. I swallow, and after taking a shallow breath, I close my eyes and open them.

The hundreds of people around me continue to gawk at a now-visible tower of glass in the middle of the cornfield. The monument stretches at least two stories above our pedestals, completely blank. No explanations arise from the speakers... because there are no speakers or electronics anywhere.

I pull my long sleeves over my hands and ball them into loose fists. Crossing my arms over my chest, I crane my neck to scan over the glass wall again. My eyebrows draw together in confusion as I try to decipher it's purpose. With another blink, the glass wall fills with bright aqua text.

Names and information align into tight columns, and I manage to read a dozen words before my next blink. Eva, Kai, LeighAnn, Jasper, Claire, Xander, Ember, Euan, Jamie and countless other names cover the glass mural. Heights and weights stand out as well. Noah, Shya, Weston, Lilibeth, Garrett, Sara, Kendall, Stephanie, Damon, Katrina, Zacharias, Michelle.

I nod my head at the screen, deep in thought. It's a leaderboard, but what's the competition?

The announcement voice returns, blaring across the cornfield. Even the few birds in sight fly away from the source of the sound: the glass wall.

"Your first Equinox task begins now!"

-- -- -- -- --

surprise, surprise! if you remember from chapter 28, i asked for y'all to list your favorite male and female names. many of those were featured as well as the first names of some dedicated readers. that means you, CLAIRE, SARA, STEPHANIE, EUAN, EVA, MICHELLE, AND JAMIE!

Question: Comment your first name or a favorite name (male or female) if you want it to be a new character or featured somehow in Enhancement.

Follow-Up Question: Choose a phrase: first challenge, first death, or first failure.

EXCITING NEWS! as promised, i will be revealing THREE winners of my contest/raffle! the winners were randomly chosen using my sister's hand.

RAFFLE WINNERS: @forest_queen @HussamAamir @theunknxwn

congrats, winners! all three of you will be receiving a dedication, shout-out, critique, and more! thanks for being such amazing readers, and please message to tell me which book I should critique. i love and appreciate you three immensely along with every reader of Enhancement! Thanks again so much!

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