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BEFORE

DAWN


Elizabeth Arroyo

Table of Contents

Dedication

Chapter One – Zoe

Chapter Two – Morph

Chapter Three – Zoe

Chapter Four – Morph

Chapter Five – Zoe

Chapter Six – Morph

Chapter Seven – Morph

Chapter Eight – Zoe

Chapter Nine – Zoe

Chapter Ten – Morph

Chapter Eleven – Zoe

Chapter Twelve – Morph

Chapter Thirteen – Zoe

Chapter Fourteen – Morph

Chapter Fifteen – Zoe

Chapter Sixteen – Morph

Chapter Seventeen – Zoe

Chapter Eighteen – Zoe

Chapter Nineteen – Morph

Chapter Twenty – Morph

Chapter Twenty-One – Morph

Chapter Twenty-Two – Zoe

Chapter Twenty-Three – Morph

Chapter Twenty-Four –Zoe

Chapter Twenty-Five – Morph

Chapter Twenty-Six – Zoe

Chapter Twenty-Seven – Morph

Chapter Twenty-Eight – Zoe

Chapter Twenty-Nine – Morph

Chapter Thirty – Zoe

Chapter Thirty-One – Morph

Chapter Thirty-Two – Zoe

Chapter Thirty-Three – Morph

Chapter Thirty-Four – Zoe

Chapter Thirty-Five – Morph

About the Author

Acknowledgements

Also from Ellysian Press

About Ellysian Press



BEFORE DAWN

Elizabeth Arroyo


www.ellysianpress.com


Before Dawn

© Copyright Elizabeth Arroyo 2018. All rights reserved.


Print ISBN: 978-1-941637-50-0

First Edition, 2018


Editor: Jen Ryan, Imagine That Editing, Maer Wilson, M Joseph Murphy

Cover Art: M Joseph Murphy


Ebooks/Books are not transferable. They cannot be sold, shared, or given away, as this is an infringement on the copyright of this work.

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

Dedication

For my daughter Julisa for encouraging me to land amongst the stars.

Chapter One – Zoe

Survival rule number one: eat before being hunted


Zoe almost missed the steady whisper of vibrations under her feet.

She dropped to one knee and placed her palm against the coarse ground. Movement underground often meant earthquakes. Chicago had been one of the lucky cities still left unmarred by Mother Nature. The decay of the dead, the collapsed skyscrapers, and the desolation of the city had nothing to do with earthquakes. The Strategic Alliance destroyed the city, trying to save humanity, while cowering in space stations millions of miles away. Morph’s words, not hers. She believed him since he was one of them.

She let out a slow breath, relieved that these vibrations weren't a result of movement within the Earth's core but movement above ground. She stretched to her full height, her hand steady over the pistol at her hip. The city lay silent except for the constant drone of the Needle’s energy. It gave her a slight headache. Needle-like structures were spread out across the planet, towering into the stratosphere. Using radio transmission and thermal imaging, they were originally designed to monitor the Earth’s core, but the Alliance used them to monitor everything.

The web of light generated by the Needle’s transmission lines hovered above her. Sometimes, when it rained, the light would become trapped inside the translucent water shell, making it look like jewels were falling from the sky. It looked almost beautiful.

Her stomach rumbled, snapping her back to the present. Alone. Morph hadn't returned with supplies like he'd promised. After the second day she'd decided to head out on her own, promising herself not to give him the satisfaction of dying. If she could help it.

A long howl erupted in the distance, carried by the wind and followed by another. This one closer, too close. Zoe sprinted toward the remains of the skyscraper and pressed herself deeper into the shadows. She slipped her gun out of its holster, her hand steady, her breathing even, as she waited in silence.

It didn't take long for the sound of movement to reach her. Maneuvering over sand, grit, and stone provided all the warning she needed of the hybrid’s presence. A flutter of wind brought the creature's stench closer. Depending on its size and mass she would determine the risks involved in killing it. She wasn't stupid. Running was always an option.

The hybrid blocked the sun’s rays with its massive frame. Its shadow revealed a bipedal creature with stingers writhing on its head. No echo of its human features remained. The virus had changed it completely, like most of the population in the Urban Centers. It dropped to its knees about four meters in front of her, picked at the dirt, and lifted a rat the size of a fat cat.

Her stomach clenched, either from hunger or disgust she couldn’t tell. Probably both.

The monster's head split open, and it dropped the rat into its throat. Deciding to avoid the threat, she didn't dare move or look away. She prayed it would keep moving. Just keep going. It took a step away from her, stopped, and cocked its head. Zoe waited, not daring to breathe, not daring to lift her gun just yet. Maybe it wouldn't notice her. Maybe she could keep that promise and not get killed. Maybe—

Her stomach rumbled.

Oh, hell.

It snarled and turned to where she hid. Zoe didn't hesitate. Drawing a ragged breath, she raised her gun. A heartbeat later a crack split the air and her bullet sailed just inches from the creature’s head.

Missed.

It closed the distance between them in three easy strides, and she skittered out of the trajectory of the tentacles preceding it. Her heart slammed into her chest, and she pitched forward again, feeling the rush of wind at her neck as the creature's appendages grazed the air. Too close.

As she jumped to her feet, she swept her gun in a wide arc, emptying the contents into the creature until its head launched into the air while the rest of it fell to the ground. Overkill, but the adrenaline fueling her didn't back down. Scrambling out of the head’s trajectory as it descended, she managed to trip and hit the ground with her backside, stifling a groan. The head fell on her lap. It writhed and twisted, and she half expected it to grow a body. It wasn't out of the ordinary for a hybrid body part to continue the kill. They weren't dead-dead until they stopped moving. This one had a problem with its head. Shoving it off her lap, she jumped to her feet, ejected the spent magazine, and pulled out another, slapping it into the gun in two seconds flat. With the gun aimed at the thing, she almost popped another round into it when a long, thin tail rolled out from under one side of the head, and a tiny snout with whiskers on the other. The rat.

She tipped the head up with the barrel of her gun, releasing the squealing rat. It glanced at her. She could've sworn it nodded before scurrying off. She watched it until it disappeared into a hole. Holstering her weapon, she lifted her chin to it. “You're welcome!” she called after it, though regretted letting it go the moment her stomach rumbled again.

She poked the skull image on her T-shirt. “You almost got me killed.” When the skull didn't respond, she returned her attention to the hybrid. A result of the Nano-virus that wiped out most of humanity, hybrids were crossbreeds of varying species, including human. She couldn’t figure out the separate species that made up this dead hybrid.

Movement to her left forced her to glide back into the shadows. Silence didn't matter. She'd already made enough noise to wake the dead. Slipping between the buildings at her back, she ran through the narrow walkway leading to the alley. Her own heavy breathing and hard steps sounded way too loud. She reached the perimeter fence, an annoyance. The fence offered neither containment nor protection from monsters. She climbed it easily enough, balancing her pack. She landed on an overturned dumpster before planting herself on the ground.

The adrenaline of the kill still flowed through her veins forcing her heart’s erratic pace. She hid behind the dumpster to catch her breath. She needed to remain focused. Inhaling, she peered around the dumpster and saw a girl.

Zoe’s instincts demanded she shoot the girl right between the eyes. Some of the infected had stunted growth, making them appear like children, until they tried to claw your eyes out. But stealth and her Glock kept her alive. Another crack of gunfire and whatever lurked in the area would find her.

The girl's jet black hair hid most of her face. Pale arms stretched too thin revealed knobby bones underneath. She wore a short-sleeved purple shirt with words long faded, frayed jeans, and black canvas shoes. The girl started rummaging through scraps of garbage. Zoe groaned when the girl pulled out a four-inch slug and puckered her lips. With a sour expression on her face, the girl sucked it in and swallowed. A scowl cinched her features.

Zoe pulled back against the dumpster. Normals were rare in the Urban Centers. Morph and Jace didn’t count as she had her doubts about them. At least in the commonsense sort of way. Most Normals were contained in communities with labs and hospitals. The Alliance catalogued everything, tagged everyone. Those registered received care and food. Alliance soldiers, like Morph and Jace, even had fringe benefits that included tapping into water and electrical resources. Stations were strategically placed for them to rearm and regroup. At least until the Alliance decided to terminate access, as Shyla did with Morph, forcing him to meet with her. Those unregistered, like her, received nothing. They didn’t exist to the Alliance. She’d bet her last clip the girl was unregistered, which made her a possible partner in crime, and Zoe could use someone other than her stomach to talk to. But when she finally decided to approach the girl, she faced an empty alley instead.

Basic survivor instinct told her not to follow the girl. Leading Zoe into a den of hungry monsters didn't sound out of the ordinary. Though hybrids weren't well organized, or smart, casting bait didn't take brains. And Morph had warned her to stay away from the inner city. Too many wrecked buildings, places to hide, and underground tunnels. Zoe shouldn't risk it. Survival meant staying alone, staying out of trouble. She should return to the Mart where Morph told her to remain until he returned with supplies. Confusion settled in the pit of her stomach when she thought of him. She wanted to believe it was anger laced with hurt and not the other way around. But it hurt in places she never thought would. Smack dab in the middle of her chest. It felt hollowed out, carved and raw. The trip should’ve lasted a few hours at best. The thought drove her forward. Sometimes, you had to break the rules to prove a point. She could make her own damn decisions. She didn't need Jace or Morph to survive.

Screw it.

She started deeper into the city, exactly where Morph told her never to go.

She never listened to him anyway.

Chapter Two – Morph

Aislyn – Seer of all things and still sane


Morph stood at the center of the universe. At least that's what it felt like standing inside the Needle's glass dome rotunda. The darkness of space hovered above him in its infinite solitude while the curvature of the Earth in the distance, lined with white clouds over patches of blue oceans and green fields, filled his line of sight just below. It forced him to realize Earth's perfect design and all its vulnerability. When Morph decided to leave his birthright and hop on a transport to Earth with grunts, he didn’t know anything about the planet. Like the warm feel of the sun on your skin. Or the soft touch of blades of grass under you. Or the smell of summer flowers in full bloom. The dangers were second to his love of the big blue sphere.

Aislyn approached him with long, graceful movements. With an oval shaped head, gleaming white eyes, and a muscular system suggesting elasticity, Aislyn could very well be the next evolution of human. A scary thought considering the bot also processed tons of information converging in the Needle. With all that data flooding its system, Morph wondered when the thing would finally go crazy. Even bots had their limits. Better to jam a bullet into its bioengineered gut than to let a crazy bot filter information to the Alliance. But just like Morph, Aislyn possessed great skill which included keeping its wiring intact. After fifty years as resident of the Needle and possessor of secrets, Aislyn kept on ticking.

“Aislyn, how are you?” Morph asked.

“I am well, thank you. This way.” Aislyn led him into the command center where the information pathways converged. Tall, thick processors lined the east wall. An umbilical-like appendage fell from the ceiling, spreading into five individual pods. The pods themselves were nothing more than basic transporters with enough thrust to eject the pod into orbit – about four-hundred kilometers above Earth's surface. Once in space the auto nav system sets a course to the nearest tachyon sphere which would turn the pod into a projectile moving at light speed. All of it controlled by the Alliance. An unauthorized launch could result in drifting in space for eternity.

“Well, it's about time.” A female voice echoed in the chamber.

Morph smiled and turned to the small figure on the console. A sense of relief washed over him. Shyla Noria, Speaker of the People, decided to remain on the Phoenix and use a holograph to meet him. A tomb holding three thousand restless souls, the Phoenix, together with the other hundred ships cruising the galaxy, formed the Strategic Alliance. After the Earth started dying, the great leaders decided a mass exodus would save them. As the years passed, and Earth continued to fall out of reach, humans abandoned the idea of returning home. Instead, they sucked the nuclear and water resources off the planet. Eventually, they’d let it rot.

“You must remain within the circle so she can see you,” Aislyn instructed.

Morph nodded but didn't move. He'd never met Shyla in person. She’d won the elections against his father after Morph broke Jace out of Exile. After most of the Arcane were killed, Morph had needed time to regroup, to try to figure out his next move. It took him eighteen months. Shyla left him no choice when she restricted his access to supplies. Eat or die. And so here he stood.

Morph bit down the urge to run away and stepped into the circle.

Long silver hair framed her face. Pale skin accented with brilliant emerald eyes under silver lashes and brows. A long-sleeved white shirt hugged the upper half of her body, and brown fatigues with black boots her lower half.

Her eyes narrowed as she spoke. “I thought you were dead.” Venom spilled from her voice.

“Not yet.”

“Disobeying orders is conduct unbecoming an officer. I’ve summoned you quite a few times.”

Yup, he definitely needed to be careful with this one. He bit down hard to keep the expletives behind his teeth.

“I’m a soldier of the Arcane. I don’t exist,” he reminded her. “You know how we operate. When . . . I mean if our mission becomes compromised there’s no ties back to you. Is this conversation being recorded?” He looked around for effect. He knew the hell it wasn’t. Shyla glared at him, and her intimidation fell away like tendrils of flesh sliding off the human body when exposed to a Shadow Maker – a weapon capable of disintegrating everything within the blast radius, leaving behind shadows. The same weapon used to kill the Arcane.

“Yes, well I guess we all have a purpose.” She inhaled deeply, and for a moment her shoulders dropped, her eyes lowered. A show of weakness. As the Speaker of the People within the Council, Shyla’s frailty could be very dangerous. A heartbeat later she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “What happened in Flat Rock?” she asked.

“My team was killed,” he said through gritted teeth, clenching his fists to keep them from shaking. Every time he thought about it he wanted to kill something. “You should have the feed.” The Needle told no lies.

“I want to hear it from you.”

“We went in as instructed. The town was viable. Jace and Rossi reported activity in the West Tower. When I got there, Jace was fighting Archer. I went to assist when the tower blew, then the hospital, then the labs . . . everything.”

Shyla began to pace, sliding in and out of the visual frame. “And the others?”

“Dante Rossi was in the tower when it fell. All the others in the hospital with the civilians.”

She stopped and spun to face him. Anger in her expression. “And Archer?”

Xerxes Archer had managed to mold the virus to mask his true appearance as a hybrid and the Alliance wanted to know how. Archer had been their mission. “I was unable to terminate him.”

“Your orders are to collect a blood sample, not kill him.”

“I will not risk my life or those of my men. I will kill it if it forces my hand.” And he wouldn’t lose sleep over it.

She considered this a moment, probably weighing her options. As Speaker, Shyla had a firm grip on his life. His commanding officer had told him that she'd squared a deal with the Council not to have him arrested for breaking Jace out, and as long as his brother still needed to serve his time, Morph had to do anything in his power to keep him alive. This meant being her lackey.

“The Alliance claims no participation in the events that led to the deaths,” she said, her tone even, almost forced.

“Last I heard, the Alliance is the only one capable of that kind of destruction,” he spat back.

Shyla stopped pacing and stared right through him. “Perhaps Archer somehow rigged the explosion.”

He hadn’t thought it could’ve been a hybrid. They were infected, volatile, but not intelligent. And Shadow Makers were the sole property of the Alliance, so how the hell did Archer get his hands on one? He didn’t mention this to Shyla. One didn’t brainstorm with the Alliance. Bobbing heads and saluting usually kept them happy. “Why was I summoned?”

“I have a package arriving on Earth in a few days. I want you to retrieve and assist.”

His stomach sank to his knees. A covert operation with collateral damage. He didn’t like it. “What’s the package?”

“You’ll know when it gets there. Retrieve and assist, are we clear?”

Morph had a bad feeling. He always had a bad feeling when orders came from on high. It meant he was as vulnerable as a hybrid with a Glock up his ass. “What about supplies?”

“I’ll have your access reinstated and in the meantime Aislyn will see to your immediate needs. I’m sure we can accommodate such a small team. How is Jace anyway?”

“Alive.”

“Good. Your family here wishes you well. I’ve taken care of them.” The threat in her voice forced his gut to clench. His sister and father remained on the Phoenix.

“Thanks,” he said.

“I sometimes forget how young you are. Sixteen, is it?”

Morph could hardly remember. It’d been so long since he thought of time as linear. “Seventeen,” he responded. “Though age is irrelevant.”

“I’m not so sure,” Shyla scolded. “The young have become a scarcity in this world. One that will be remedied, I suppose. If you grow up.” Her voice took on a sharp edge to it. A clear threat. “Don’t fail me this time. I believe you are all that’s left of the Arcane.”

The screen winked out, leaving an echo of her silhouette against the backdrop of black that shimmered and vanished.

He stepped out of the circle and returned to the rotunda. The grand nothingness beyond the window reminded him of how he hated space. Hated the Phoenix. He belonged on earth with Zoe. During the last eighteen months he’d memorized every nuance in her expression. The arched brow when she had a question, the crease between her eyes when she didn’t understand something, the tightness in her lips when she lied. Also, the softness of her skin, the delicate contours of her features, her full lips. He pulled against the need to be with her, like he always did, fought the need for her warmth to strip away the ice forming around his heart.

Something powerful lay between them. The reality of it held a different truth. Zoe could never join him back home.

It was his last conscious thought before pain surged behind his eyes and the ground rushed up to meet him.

Chapter Three – Zoe

Running not allowed


Zoe tracked the girl by following the imprints she left on the ash covered ground. After the infection spread, the Alliance used plasma weapons to sanitize the Urban Center. They couldn’t risk destroying the entire city for fear of losing the Needle. Zoe didn’t know about the rest of the world. The Alliance governed everything. Even information.

Her mother had ingrained three truths into her brain before she died.

The world had gone to shit.

The Alliance wanted to complete its destruction.

Trust no one.

And yet she found herself trusting Morph, an Alliance soldier, too young and too broken when she’d first met him. After he survived her poor attempt at killing him, he’d cared for his dying brother. During those moments he seemed lost. He talked more than he should’ve, and she listened more than she should’ve, but as she grew to care for him, she felt less broken inside.

But Morph hadn’t returned, and there were no hybrids on the Needle so he couldn’t be dead. Which meant he’d left her alone. She pulled back her thoughts and focused on the imprints. She didn’t dare run. Running meant subtle vibrations underneath her which attracted whatever lived underground. Running also meant panic, and anything could be waiting around corners. Rules of survival: one should eat before being hunted and no running allowed.

The final glimmer of sunlight fell between buildings, like fingers pointing at the remnants of the world. The transmission beams above her formed a web of lights dimmed by the low hanging clouds. It would rain soon making the monsters more volatile. Zoe lengthened her stride, moving faster.

Turning a corner into an alleyway, she came face to face with a brick wall. Dead end. Her heart pounded loud in her ears, and she eased her breathing to a still whisper. Silence draped over her like a steel blanket. A foul wet stench hung in the air. The smell of wet dog. The familiar tingle just under her flesh marked danger. Slowly, she looked up to a canopy of honey-colored sky hanging about twenty feet above her, stretching across the buildings flanking her. The thick sap clung to the brick walls on either side of her, cocooning her. Lowering her eyes to the ground, she concentrated on the sounds around her and the steady pulsing against the fabric of her clothes.

The monsters had found her.

Zoe eased forward one small step at a time, deeper into the alley, catching movement behind her. Feet balanced, she faced the threat.

Two insectoid creatures stood at the opening of the alley, blocking her exit. They moved in unison, and she realized it wasn’t two, just one. Part human and part wasp, the human-like head had four eyes, two noses, and a wide mouth splitting its face in two. Its gelatinous abdomen leaked tendrils of honey-colored resin onto everything it touched. Pincers jutted out of its chest. Its legs stood at an awkward angle, bent back at the knee. It let out a hiss and two more creatures slithered beside it.

Did it just call for back-up? No. These things had no executive functioning. They were ice cubes with no morality, no awareness, save one: survive.

Zoe lifted her Glock. Every bullet had to count.

The hybrid in the middle lifted its bug eyes and made a clicking noise and two more climbed down the resin to stand beside it. The five creatures in front of her branched out in a semi-circle, coordinated in their movements to cut her to pieces. And communicating, which meant higher brain function. Maybe they could reason with humans and find a way to coexist. Zoe fought the urge to look up, knowing she wouldn’t like what she saw there.

The middle one, the leader, took a step forward and a high-pitched sound floated into the air. An electric charge replaced the sound, urging the fight on.

“Wait!” Zoe lifted her hands, the barrel of the gun raised in a gesture of peace. “I don’t want to fight you.” She wasn’t sure if they understood her. Speaking bug wasn’t part of her skill sets. But it stopped and hope replaced fear. Could they make peace? “Please,” she added.

The heat around her spiked and sweat dripped between her shoulder blades. Time stilled. A sharp guttural noise forced her attention to the new threat to her left, just under the shadows, and hope shattered into microscopic photons that blinked out of existence.

Archer.

The hybrid she’d been helping Morph hunt.

Xerxes Archer had once been a soldier. He’d managed to alter the virus to mask his deformity. Lingering between human and hybrid, he could alter his appearance and still retain his executive functioning. Archer was smart and as a soldier, dangerous. Zoe could understand the conflict of living in two worlds. She and he were alike.

He leaned against the wall, arms crossed at his chest, watching her. Even as a hybrid, Archer’s mutations weren’t erratic. While most infected humans were a blend of different species, Archer looked human. He didn’t have extra appendages or eyeballs. The difference in his genetic code seemed contained in the rough texture of his skin and the size of his frame. Solid, like a rock. And crystallized blue. The images Morph had shown her of him were nothing compared to the reality of the threat he posed.

Archer scared her, and she didn’t scare easily. Crazy hybrids were easy to kill. Calculating ones had been nonexistent until Archer came along. She didn’t even know if she should kill him. The key to saving the human race may be embedded in his genetic code.

A glimpse of movement propelled her back to the immediate threat in front of her. If Archer wanted to kill her, he’d have to wait in line.

The attack came quick and hard.

The bug leader slammed into her, sending her sprawling on her backside with a thud. Her shoulder hit the concrete with a crack and sharp pain followed. Pain meant she was still alive. A quick release of air from her lungs, and she twisted her body, gun leading, as the bug thing followed her to the ground. Two shots pierced the bug’s belly just as it came down on her. Liquid sap poured out of the gaping wound onto her hands, warm and slick. In one quick breath, she shoved the bug away from her and jumped to her feet. The threats following suit gave her no other choice but to defend herself. Executive functioning or not, they had to die. She pressed the trigger. One. Two. Three bullets sailed. The deafening echo in the alley didn’t mask the roar that followed. The resin above smashed around her in a deluge of honey-colored shards, dropping six . . . ten . . . twelve wasp people.

They came at her in a blur.

Quick jerky movements kept their dangerous tentacles from piercing her. And the bullets.

She hit one in the chest, another in the eye, a third in the head. But there were too many, and she couldn’t hold them at bay for long. Her instinct to live crashed to the surface. The narrow alley stretched out in front of her. She could see everything as if magnified, and could hear the pounding of their unnatural hearts. The arm holding the gun followed the trajectory of that sound, and the bullets found each and every target until she pulled the trigger and it slid to a lock. Empty.

End game.

She threw the gun at one of the bug things and it bounced off its forehead, pissing it off. Deciding it was a good time to run, she spun away from them. A rickety fire escape ladder hung a few feet above her. If she could reach it, she’d be free. She jumped, stretching her arms as far as she could, her fingers found cold metal. She clung to it for dear life.

But it wasn’t enough.

The bug things weren’t giving up on her. One jumped, hooking a claw into her calf. She bit back a painful scream, and the weight of the creature forced her to release her hold. The ground rushed up to meet her. The bug managed to pull her under it, and a second stabbing pain burst from her side. She knew she’d been clawed again, and again, and again. Tears blurred her vision but dissipated upon contact with her cheek. Heat poured out of her in pulsating rings, each one hotter than the first. The bug thing jumped off of her, as if sensing the deep shit coming. Blood dripped from its claws. Her blood.

Fighting the urge to remain rooted to the ground, Zoe got to her feet. A terrible rising pain burst throughout her body. Three bug things stood in front of her, and each took a step back two seconds too late.

Zoe exploded.

The pain quickly turned into an icy layer around her flesh. Fire ignited around her on command. The bug closest to her flailed and writhed as the fire consumed it. Another tried to climb the resin covered walls but the sap burst into flames, spreading like a web until it reached the canopy. Flame and smoke burst into the night sky as the screeches of the remaining creatures sweltered until there was nothing left.

The alley ablaze, Zoe couldn’t control the fire.

Glass, concrete, and resin fell around her until she could no longer breathe. Gasping, she collapsed to the ground, rolled onto her back, spread-eagle, and looked at the night sky. Ash hung in the air, organic. She inhaled it down her throat with every heavy breath she took, needing to fill her lungs with oxygen. It wouldn’t take long for the creatures to return for her. She’d expended all her energy and had nothing left.

She wondered what Morph would say.

An image of his deep brown eyes filled her memories. He wore his dark, long hair tied at the nape of his neck, and offered her a lopsided smile. It stirred something inside her. A powerful something she couldn’t name. He’d taken her in, taught her how to survive. He’d never asked for anything in return. She knew that one day he would go back home, somewhere in space. Jace kept insisting they leave. But she always thought she’d have more time to prepare, to heal. She’d been wrong. This pain swallowed her whole and wouldn’t heal like the wounds on her flesh. It left a hollowed pit inside her chest. The image dissolved as a shadow in military fatigues leaned over her.

“Are you done?” Archer’s deep voice vibrated between them.

She wanted to respond, but she had nothing left.

She was in deep crap.

Chapter Four – Morph

Zoe Gone


Morph came to, sprawled on the ground with a massive headache building behind his eyes. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he groaned and sat up. His jaw hurt and the taste of blood crowded his mouth. Images flashed in and out of focus behind his lids. His mother hugging him as if she knew she'd be dead in a week. His father's tears when they buried her. Jace and Tania, twins, barely ten looked onto him for guidance. Then Zoe. With no memory of how he got to Earth, there was only one thing he could think of that would’ve left his heart exposed. Aislyn had inserted him into the cryo unit, which meant they’d extracted his memories. His anger doubled over. Shyla hadn’t trusted his account of things, not that he blamed her, but it still pissed him off. He wanted to hit something. With his brain at risk of spilling out of his ears, he slowly got to his feet, letting the world meet him before he attempted forward motion.

The building Jace, Zoe, and he had been held up in rose in the distance, about fifty yards out. At least Shyla had left him close enough to walk back and with an escort. Jace stood outside watching his back. Shyla must’ve called him as a lookout to make sure nothing ate him while he gathered his lost memories. He clenched his fists and eased his charging heartbeat. Shyla at least had kept him alive. She also left him a duffel full of supplies. He lifted the bag over his shoulder and started walking toward his brother.

Jace’s blond hair stood out among the backdrop of shadow. Morph had told his brother to shave it, but Jace liked his locks more than his brains. Morph had to admit the curls on his head made him look younger. It contrasted against his hardened expression, his soulless eyes. Morph would sometimes secretly watch him strip his weapon or camp out on watch duty, trying to remember Jace before Morph had joined the Arcane. He wanted to catch a glimpse of the sixteen-year-old inside him, to hope. But Jace’s eyes had dulled during the two years he’d been in the Arcane.

Killing did that to a person.

Reaching Jace, he dropped the bag. “Help would be nice.” Morph passed his brother and walked inside. The place sat near the waterway and a safe distance from the horde of monsters in the inner city. They’d cleared it three weeks ago, set charges, and placed sentries around the perimeter. If anything lurked in the shadows, they’d know about it.

“What happened to you?” Jace asked, walking behind him. “It took you long enough.” Jace dropped the bag at his feet as Morph sat down on a bench. “I didn’t think you were coming back,” Jace added.

Morph watched his brother, again trying to gauge a human reaction – worry, anger, fear . . .  anything. Jace had been in Exile for three years before Morph broke him out. Three years of poking and prodding. Morph knew he’d broken out a different version of his brother than the one that went in. Jace showed very little emotion, if any. He sounded as if he were stating a simple fact.

“What are you talking about? I haven’t been gone that long.”

“What did they do to you? You look like crap.” Jace opened the bag and his eyes lit up – the one solid expression that made facing Shyla and possibly having his memories scrambled all worth it. Jace pulled out packets by the fistful and shoved them in the backpacks. Finally, he ripped a packet of gummy bears and shoved them into his mouth. The only candy certified by the Strategic Alliance. And Morph didn’t care. Watching his brother’s hunger pains and war wounds resulting in his loss of innocence killed him every time.

Jace swallowed his fill of water and narrowed his eyes, his expression going back to dull. Morph scanned the room.

They were minus one team member. No Zoe. He'd found Zoe after the death of his team eighteen months ago. While Jace was injured, Zoe was the only person who kept him sane. He looked around the empty office. “Where’s Zoe?”

Jace stood, legs securely balanced, and wiped his hands on his dark pants. “You've been gone a long time.”

The tingling in the back of his neck warned him of bad things to come. “How long?”

“Two days.”

Morph cursed, pressing his fingers against his temple, feeling a pulse that didn't quite settle. “She messed with my mind. I can feel it. Remind me to kill Aislyn when I see that little shit.”

Jace tapped his arm with a water bottle. “Drink.”

Morph took the water and drank as he calmed his raging anger. Once done, he met Jace's gaze and slowly got to his feet.

“What did you do to her?” He had the urge to wring his brother's neck. He knew Jace didn't trust Zoe, told Morph to kill her when they found out she wasn’t entirely human, but he never actually believed Jace would hurt her. Until now.

Jace's eyes narrowed. “I didn't do anything. I went out to gather what I could. When I got back she was gone.”

“You left her alone?” Zoe didn't fear much, but being alone terrified her. Jace nodded. “How long were you gone?”

“A few hours.”

He threw the bottle across the room and balled his hands into tight fists to keep them from doing something he'd regret. Like strangling his baby brother. Though Jace had grown over the years he'd been Arcane, Morph still towered over him. “Did you tell her you were coming back?”

Jace shook his head and Morph knew that if he didn't back down he'd kill his brother. Turning away from Jace, he stumbled back out into the night. Jace followed.

“Damn-it Jace, why can't you just listen?”

“She's the one that doesn’t listen. You told her to stay put.”

Heat emanated from his core. Something tugged at his heart but he ignored it, unable to deal with that emotion right now. “We have to find her.”

Echoes of gunshots filled the air followed by an explosion.

“Looks like we just did,” Jace said.

Before the noise silenced, Morph was already on the move.

Unregistered with the Alliance, Zoe had managed to stay under the radar. Morph had tested her DNA which identified her as human, but she wasn't human. Not unless humans had the ability to manipulate fire when highly pissed or heal on command. Having catalogued most of the infected symptoms, the Alliance had missed this one. It led Morph to believe they really had no clue what they'd purged onto the Earth. Not a surprise when they ran things from deep space.

Morph still felt Shyla floating around inside his brain and hoped he hadn't ratted out Zoe. He couldn't piece it together. Not now. He had to get her back.

He turned a corner and almost stumbled on a headless carcass. Zoe's doing. A subtle vibration moved the ground under them, reminding Morph of the dangers in running half-assed and half-blind.

“What was that?” Jace asked.

“An explosion. Above ground.”

“She's going to send the infected her way,” Jace hissed.

Morph had to suppress the urge to snap his brother in two. If they didn't find her soon, she would draw out everything wanting to kill them. He followed her tracks, through the building and out of the alley. Jumping the perimeter fence, he landed in front of a dumpster. Smoke swirled into the sky about a few blocks west. They were close.

Training dictated he move slower, canvass the area before approaching, but his mind wasn't in training mode. It teetered between desperation and panic. Something he hadn't ever felt.

The dumpster pinged behind him and Morph turned expecting to see Jace at his back – not a giant wolf. Its yellow eyes glowed under the lights. A low growl rumbled out of its throat. Faced with a muzzle of full, sharp teeth, Morph's military training burst through the forefront. He pitched forward just as the wolf leapt, striking the dumpster with his shoulder hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Pain soon followed. The wolf turned to him; its muscled legs indicated it ate more than its share. An alpha.

Its hind legs contracted, ready to leap. Morph pulled out his gun from his holster just as its legs left the ground. He lunged into a side roll, pulling the trigger and struck the beast in the chest. The wolf hit the dumpster before dropping to the ground, its chest rising and falling slowly. Morph pulled himself up to his feet, pain bursting through his outer thigh, and pumped the wolf full of bullets until its breathing stopped.

“Enough!”

He didn't hear Jace until he emptied his clip. His brother scowled. “Save your bullets, Einstein.”

Morph ejected the spent magazine and slapped in another. “Where the hell were you? I thought you had my back.”

Jace shrugged. “You're bleeding.”

Morph looked down at his torn pants. Blood blotched the fabric. Jace threw him gauze and he wrapped it around the wound. “I'm fine. We have to keep moving,” he said, swallowing his anger and ignoring the pain. When had things gone to shit?

They headed deeper into the city, exactly where he told her never to go. Maybe Jace's assertion that she'd be a risk had merit. She'd almost killed them twice when she'd exploded without warning. The first time it happened he had thought she'd stepped on a landmine. But the thought of leaving her clouded his mind. He couldn't leave her alone. He needed to make sure that she was safe. His interest in her stemmed from something deeper than trying to figure out the mystery of her DNA. He couldn't explain it to himself let alone explain it to his brother. He pushed the thought aside. It would get him killed.

The remains of the old train systems hovered above them while a maze of tunnels hid underneath, making them vulnerable. Anything could be waiting around corners or in the dark. Morph kept moving, this time with a bit more vigilance. Jace at his back. They entered a narrow alleyway. The buildings flanking them were charred. Glass and concrete mixed with honey-colored shards littered the ash covered ground. Skeletal remains peeked through the debris. Whatever happened here they'd missed it. Jace's breathing grew heavy beside him. Morph couldn't look at his brother without glaring. He wanted to blame Jace for this, for everything, but he couldn't. It wasn't Jace's fault that he decided to keep Zoe instead of taking her to Mecca. It wasn't Jace's fault that Morph refused to go back to the Phoenix. But he held on to that anger, using it to propel him forward.

Though Zoe wasn't among the dead, this was her handiwork.

Movement caught Morph’s eyes and he swung his weapon to a girl standing at the end of the alleyway. Jace followed his lead. Staying alive meant shooting first. It had gotten to a point where being infected didn’t matter. If they weren’t part of his team they were the enemy. But then he’d found Zoe. At first, he wanted her to be a threat, to kill him. It would’ve been easier than to watch his brother die. Archer left Jace mortally injured. His team was dead. Morph couldn’t think about returning home without them, until Zoe showed him something different. Hiding in an old church among the dead, she’d shown him hope. After he learned about her power to heal, he suspected she had saved Jace. Although Jace didn’t trust her, wanted to ditch her, Morph felt he’d been meant to find her. She gave him a new purpose. Though he still had no clue what that meant.

Not killing Zoe made him think about all the others he had killed that were innocent. The thought made him sick. He’d grown a conscience. A dangerous thing in this world.

A slight pause in front of a threat would get them killed, but he’d learned not to shoot first. The girl in front of him had to be about fifteen. Thin, her clothes hung on her frame as if she were a stick figure. Long, dark hair framed her pale face. Her features seemed normal, human. But he didn’t lower his weapon. Normals were violent in the Urban Centers. It’s how they survived.

“So now what?” Jace asked beside him.

The girl lifted a gun. “Hurry, he’s going to kill her,” the girl said. The gun trembled in her hand. With his luck she’d shoot him by accident.

Jace tensed beside him, and Morph quickly guided him to lower his weapon. “Don’t,” he told his brother.

He slowly approached the girl, making sure not to make any sudden movements that would force her to jerk and shoot him. She didn’t cower, just stood still, waiting for him. He eased the gun out of her hands, and she let out a short breath as if relieved not to have it. He ran his fingers along the familiar scorch marks on the handle. Zoe’s gun.

“Who has her?”

“A hybrid dressed like you.”

Archer. Morph didn’t care what Shyla wanted. Archer was going to die. “Where?”

The girl spun and started running, leading them through narrow gangways and into the lobby of one of the skyscrapers still partially intact where a second, younger girl peeked out around a mound of tattered clothes.

Morph quickly lifted his weapon as the first girl jumped in front of him.

“Don’t shoot. We’re normal. Take us with you.”

Putting a bullet between her eyes would be the most humane thing to do, and when he turned to Jace, he noticed the similar expression. He bit it back. “I’m not adopting any strays at the moment,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Please. You won’t get to her in time.”

“Maybe she’s already dead,” Jace added.

Morph refused to glare at his brother. He clenched his teeth to keep from telling them both off.

“She’s not dead. I heard her screaming.”

So not what he wanted to hear. “Where?”

“Promise.” The girl’s voice cracked and tears spilled down her face. “Promise you won’t kill us or leave us.”

The fear and despair in her eyes tore through him. He’d become the monster.

“I promise.”

Jace jerked him back, pulling him by the arm. “If that is Archer, she’ll get in the way.”

Morph narrowed his eyes at his brother. He didn’t have time for this. “I didn’t promise to keep her safe.” He turned back to the girl. “Where?”

Chapter Five – Zoe

Awakened memories


Zoe watched the smoke in the alley rise into the night sky in swirls of black, stars barely visible between the columns.

Morph had told her that humans began exploring the far reaches of space hundreds of years before the virus, when Mother Nature started fighting back with earthquakes, torrential rains, and active volcanos. They expanded space stations, revolutionized space crafts, and created the tachyon sphere that would send them deeper into the dark world. Since Earth started crumbling in on itself, humans sought to survive elsewhere. It was a good plan, if they had the genetic make-up to sustain their own lives in space. No technology could help humans survive in different environments. They tried anyway.

She’d often caught Morph gazing up to the night sky with a sense of longing. Although he told her he didn’t want to go back, it was his home. Jace kept reminding them of the luxuries in space – warm beds, soap, food, a mate. Morph would be happy at home. Zoe wanted him happy, even if it meant leaving her behind.

Maybe he had gone home. That thought hurt more than the dozen or so wounds healing on her body. She’d never had a home. Places she hid or stayed a few weeks at a time didn’t count. Her mother had been adamant about keeping to the road. Keeping safe. All for nothing. Zoe was about to die.

Archer leaned over her, curiously watching her. She risked meeting his gaze. His green eyes scrutinized her as if deciding whether or not to stomp her head with his large boot. Seemingly deciding her unworthy to be stomped like a cockroach, he removed his army coat and draped it over her. Explosions usually left her clothes frayed. He lifted her into his arms. Having spent all her energy, she couldn’t do anything to stop him. And he knew it. Threatening him or begging wouldn’t help her. No sense in denying it. His flesh felt like sandstone, rock hard and smooth. Human eyes under heavy lids watched the road. The steady beat of his heart intertwined with hers. Powerful and stable. Tall and broad, his muscles tensed with every step he took. Snapping her like a twig would be nothing for him. This close to him, she realized that he wasn’t ugly, ugly, like the other hybrids. Archer held on to his human code. Especially in his eyes.

“It's not polite to stare,” he said with a deep voice that vibrated the space between them.

“What do you want with me?” She hated the question, and the weak sound of her voice.

He lowered his eyes to her and fear gripped her, wrenching away any words she had left. Crying became a real possibility. “I need to know what you are,” he answered.

This simple statement brought all sorts of dangerous thoughts to the surface. It also slammed her with the reality of her being an it.

“My name is Zoe. I'm a person, not a what,” she said, meekly, not sure who she meant to convince, herself or him.

He didn’t respond.

Taking a left onto one of the narrow streets, he slipped inside a skyscraper. The putrid smell inside made her gag. It didn't seem to bother him at all. He didn't even break a sweat. His heart didn't pound rapidly in his chest. He seemed not to tire at all as he walked up the seven flights of stairs. They reached one of the upper level apartments, and he pushed open the door with his foot.

A steel cot with shackles welded into it stood ominous in the corner. Neatly lined needles were arranged on top of a steel table next to it. Panic replaced fear and she squirmed against him. His hold tightened around her as she tried to call out to her freaky power, but got nothing.

“Don’t do this,” she pleaded.

His lips tightened and he lowered her onto the cot. Kicking and screaming didn't help. It only angered him. She screamed as he shackled her to the cot. The cold at her back bit at her flesh. Because she couldn't do anything else, she pleaded some more. “Please. Don't do this.”

Once she lay sprawled, shackled on the table, he tossed a wool blanket over her and went back to the steel tray.

Taking a long, thin, flexible needle in his hand, he lifted his chin. It wouldn't help to try to fight him. This was going to hurt. Without a word, he dug the long needle into the back of her neck. She bit down hard feeling her blood turn ice cold. A bright light burst in front of her, swallowing her whole. Her mind pressed against itself, folding out of existence. She tried to move her body off the cot, but pain forced her back. He watched her, lifted his chin to her as if warning her to try something. Anything. He'd fry her.

“What do you want with me?” she asked.

No response.

Pity replaced his stoic expression. It didn't stop him from plugging the other end of the needle into the computer.

“Don't mess with that,” she said. “It's the only brain I've got.”

Pain welled up inside her. Visions floated in her mind, and she had to close her eyes to see them.

Images unraveled like a canvas in the wind. She stood inside a room with bright blue walls. Her mother was with her. Sunburst orange light wrapped around her mother, making her red hair look as if it was on fire. Her mother smiled, and everything seemed better with the world. The feeling quickly soured when the bright colored walls of the room expanded and snapped back to expose rotted wood floors and peeling walls. The room littered with furniture, paper, and drywall. Shadows lurked inside every crevice, under every nook. Her mother frantically piled chairs and desks against the front door. Her hair matted with patches of dirt on her face and two welts – one just above her left brow and another on her left cheek. She wore a dirty gray button-up top, tattered, and frayed at the seams as if they'd been burned.

She turned to fourteen-year-old Zoe with wide, blue, terrified eyes, glossy with tears. “Hide, baby, and don't come out until I get you.”

Zoe hugged herself, her own tears burning her. “I don't want to leave you.”

Her mom charged her. An expression Zoe had never seen before distorted her features. She grabbed Zoe by the upper arm and shook her hard. Fear and anger exploded from her mother, Zoe felt it.

“I do not matter. Do you understand?”

Zoe’s head snapped back and forth with the shock of it. “I. Do. Not. Matter!” she screamed. “Say it!”

“You do not matter,” Zoe replied, her voice cracked.

“You must live. Hide. Now!” Her mother shoved her back, and Zoe had to steady herself to keep from falling. She did as she was told and scrambled inside a broken wicker chest, peeking out between the slivers of wood.

The door burst open and her mother was thrown back, as pieces of furniture she’d used to block the door rained down around her. She crashed to the floor. It took a second for her mother to shake off the impact and scramble away from the person at the door. Zoe couldn't see who it was. Not until he stepped inside.

Jace. He wore green fatigues, black boots, and black gloves. His hair slicked back. His expression dull, a dangerous look in his eyes. Jace lifted his weapon at her mother just as he took a step inside the room.

She didn't know who he was at the time, rattled by how young he seemed and how cold. But her current memories of Jace overlapped with this new memory, this forgotten memory.

“Where is it?” he asked, his face showed no emotion, mechanical. He lifted his gun, and a sharp explosion ignited in the room. Zoe cupped her ears unable to close her eyes. Her mother gasped as blood began to pour from a wound in her shoulder. “I won't ask again.”

The back door behind Zoe swung open and two people walked inside – a girl a couple of years older than Zoe and a male. They wore black uniforms, no emblem of any kind and each held a lance-like weapon in front of them. The girl’s dark eyes lowered and met Zoe’s for a heartbeat before returning back to the threat.

“It's over. You've lost,” the girl told Jace and took a step in front of the wicker basket where Zoe hid. Protecting her.

“Isa,” the boy behind her scolded and took a step into the room where Zoe could see him clearly. He had sandy blond hair and hard chiseled features. He narrowed his eyes at Jace just before his flesh began to glisten and turn blue and his body began to transform into the hybrid Archer. The room shuddered violently and burst into flame.

Zoe screamed. Jace crashed through the window as a hot blast of wind lifted Archer off his feet and threw him out the door they'd come in from, slamming it shut behind him just as Zoe struck it with her back. Her head snapped against it and pain exploded throughout her body. The windows shattered, the rotted walls caved in. After the pulse of heat came the fire. It engulfed her, burned her hair, and shredded her clothes. Zoe curled into a ball, drawing all her pain and fear inside her core. The pain of the fire lessoned, her ears rang and her eyes watered.

The fire lasted about thirty seconds until Zoe pulled in all the oxygen in the room, starving the fire and filling her lungs. Something woke up inside her. Ringing blasted in her ears, and a pounding force pulled against her body. The tips of her toes to the top of her head, her flesh rippled, and the old skin peeled away, replaced by new pink skin. It was the first time she’d starved the fire and healed. An automatic response to the threat she could not control. She was one of them. Infected. Hybrid.

The ringing slowly dissipated, and she started to move. Zoe dragged her body toward her mother, an ashen corpse where she’d fallen. Pain swallowed every movement, every breath. When Zoe reached her mother’s body, she didn’t hold her for fear of tearing her mother’s brittle body apart in her hands. A sharp wind slipped inside from the broken window above her. Isa lay sprawled on the floor near the wall opposite the door. Nothing left but charred remains and a silver ring on her left finger.

Finding feelings in her legs, she got to her feet and faced the shattered window. In the distance, near the river, Archer was fighting Jace.

The calls of more soldiers outside lifted into the room. The Alliance had killed her mother. Had killed an innocent girl. The Alliance had found her. A feeling she'd never felt before swept through her. Fire without pain coursed through her veins finding release just at the edge of her skin. The world as she knew it expanded like an elastic band and snapped out of existence. She knew where the soldiers were, and she wanted them dead.

Zoe raised her hands, palms out into the air in front of her. The world rippled. She felt the wind, the static energy . . . and something else. A mechanical force all around her. And the world exploded.

On the cot, Zoe’s eyes shot open. Screams erupted in the room around her. Terrifying screams that made her blood curdle. Death.

The room came into focus. Archer. The boy who tried to save her. Archer. The hybrid that almost killed Jace. Jace killed her mother and Isa.

She pulled against her restraints. Her back flared. Kill me, she wanted to say. She wanted it all to end.

The screams faded, her throat burned, and the room fell silent.

“We are all going to burn,” Zoe whispered before finally falling into a pit of darkness.

Chapter Six – Morph

Family Matters


Morph followed the screams.

Shyla wanted the hybrid alive. Morph didn't give a shit. Archer had to die. The world had gone dark, and he and Jace used motion detectors and thermal imaging to see. Jace wanted to send Stone, their sentry robot, to scan the area first but Morph couldn't wait. When they reached the seventh floor landing the girl stopped him. He moved both of them aside.

“Find a room to hide in. Don’t stay in the stairwell in case it flanks us.”

The girl nodded, and he and Jace stepped into the hallway.

The tortured screams grew louder until they abruptly silenced. It shredded his heart, threatening to break him into little man pieces. “Forget Stone, we go in now,” he ordered.

They paused in the corner apartment for a breath, and Morph led the charge inside, weapon leading. Every fiber of his being stood at attention. He'd learned to calm even his heartbeat during battle. It made him lethal . . . alive. Morph lived for this shit.


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