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ratings:
4.5/5 (13 ratings)
Length:
727 pages
10 hours
Released:
Dec 21, 2014
ISBN:
9781310353741
Format:
Book

Description

Man’s quest for genetic perfection has led to the creation of new subspecies. Wolfen were the pinnacle of scientific achievement, redefining the limits of what it means to be human. Their counterparts, in turn, grew into the ultimate predators. Incapable of higher thought, converts were unstoppable in their need to breed and devour, and when they escaped, they brought the world to its knees.

Almost two decades later, humanity is on the brink of extinction and only the heartless survive. Rescued by two Wolfen brothers, Sinna must now brave the treacherous wastelands of North America in order to reach safety and the promise of a better life. But when an unexpected gambit forces them to separate, a genetic advantage becomes a liability, and the worst monsters turn out to be the ones who don’t have claws.

In the game of survival, Wolfen were created to be champions. No longer. The enemy keeps evolving, rendering old tactics ineffective, and the only rule left is to endure at any cost.

Released:
Dec 21, 2014
ISBN:
9781310353741
Format:
Book

About the author

Alianne Donnelly is an avid lover of stories of all kinds. Raised on a healthy diet of fairy tales in a place where they almost seemed real, she grew into a writer who seeks magic in the modern age and enjoys sharing a little bit of it with the world through every story she writes. Her books span the spectrum from fantasy to science fiction with varying degrees of romance sprinkled throughout. Alianne now lives in California, where she spends her free time reading, writing, and daydreaming. To find out more about her books and works in progress, visit her website at aliannedonnelly.com.


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Wolfen - Alianne Donnelly

Alianne

Dedication

This book is dedicated to my friends. All of you. The end of the world just wouldn’t be the same without you—and I mean that in the most loving way possible. Here’s hoping we all make it long enough to hook up with the Wolfen!

P.S. to Rebekah Lewis:

Sorry it took so long, but here you go, dearie.

Now write me Melancton!

We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

-Stephen Hawking

The End

2015 Common Era, Chernobyl

You can always tell the Wolfen children from the inerts. Although the term is misleading, given the broad spectrum of animal traits mixed in vitro, they truly do behave like a pack. The two oldest of this batch, Alpha Seven and Beta Twelve, are growing like weeds, and their intelligence quotients are off the charts.

Dr. Leslie Gerome watched the two boys on screen, playing quietly in one corner of the playroom, while the rest of the children chased each other and fought for toys. Her smile ebbed. It worries me sometimes. I can see it in their eyes, they just…know.

She set her voice recorder down, popped a piece of gum into her mouth, then tossed the wrapper in the general direction of the trash bin. Orderlies normally kept the lights on in the room, but Leslie preferred the dark. It was more intimate, and it forced her to pay attention to the monitors and nothing else. Dr. Hallemann’s file said that during the last round of tests, Alpha Seven noted a mistake in his serum formula. He’d pointed out that, at those levels, the acid content would burn a hole in his arm when injected. Leslie chuckled to herself. Hallemann’s recordings show him arguing proper test administration techniques with a ten-year-old. The child turned out to be correct.

Alpha Seven and Beta Twelve were brothers—the genetic equivalent of fraternal twins, born three years apart, and the only instance in which a particular cocktail of DNA fragments resulted in more than one viable embryo. Now, they were Chernobyl den’s pride and joy, playing with construction puzzles, building intricate towers and castles. Every so often, one of them looked up to survey the playroom, his eyes catching the light like an animal’s.

Such serious children they were. They never smiled anymore, not since the regeneration experiments had begun. And although Leslie knew them to have vast vocabularies on par with college students, the brothers never spoke, unless absolutely necessary, as in the case of the mistaken formula.

The psych team has declared them at risk of being compromised, but fit to continue being tested—with caution. They’re to be monitored closely during interactions with other children, but they rarely play with anyone else.

Sometimes a younger child would approach them for help with a puzzle, and they would help. But once the puzzle was solved, they’d turn their backs and let the child wander away. They’re deliberately setting themselves apart, Leslie said. I’m sure they have a reason for it, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is. It goes against their social nature, and has to be hard on them…

She trailed off when one of the inert boys pushed a Wolfen girl, making her lose her balance and fall over a pile of hard wooden blocks. When the girl broke into tears, the brothers paused and looked up at the same time. The culprit faced them immediately, and as the brothers stared at him, he stared right back.

None of the other children noticed the three holding preternaturally still, but Leslie gaped, held her breath, and waited.

After a full sixty-seven seconds, the brothers exchanged a speaking look, then ducked their heads back to their own game. Too easy. This was in no way over.

Leslie frowned. Their protector instinct is strong. They do not tolerate dissent within the group, but pick their battles and only engage when they can get away with it. Technical note: Move cameras in the play den. They’ve found them again.

The lights flicked on, blinding her for a moment. Leslie rubbed her eyes and swiveled away from the monitors to give the intruder a piece of her mind, but stopped short when she saw her colleague darkening the doorway.

Dr. Sallinger was a distinguished intellectual with a pair of glasses on his nose and another on top of his head, overdressed in a starched white lab coat. His real name was Dimitri Andreyevich Roskoff, but he liked to pretend he was a man apart. Tablet in hand, he barely looked up when he announced, Sigma Nine is to start testing today. Have her prepped and ready in an hour.

It took Leslie’s mind a moment to redirect and catch up. So soon? she asked. She’s only just transitioning.

There were certain biological thresholds which marked the end of childhood in all things. In humans, it was puberty. In these children, it was a little more complicated. Generally speaking, a conversion could be considered a threshold to failure. Children who converted were the result of a destructive combination of DNA flaws; they became more animal than human, incapable of higher thought function. They were incredibly fast when they wanted to be, yet had a lumbering gait that bespoke of an inner ear defect, which also accounted for their poor hearing. Having observed several of these for a number of years, Leslie recognized them for what they were. Monsters.

Another threshold distinguished Wolfen from inerts, and it was determined by a measure of pheromones. A higher level in one or the other usually predicted which way a child would develop.

Sigma Nine had only shown an imbalance of pheromones last week. It was tentative at best, so they’d been holding off further testing until she’d matured a little more.

Apparently there’s some confusion in her blood tests, Sallinger said. We need to know where she falls.

Why? she demanded, mentally preparing for an argument. She couldn’t help it. Sigma Nine was only four years old.

Don’t know, don’t care. Sallinger lowered the tablet with a put-upon sigh, and deigned to look at her. Will you do it, or shall I call in Michito?

Leslie frowned. Michito is here?

Tick tock, comrade. Sallinger made a face and tapped his wrist. He didn’t close the door behind him when he left, a signature Roskoff passive-aggressive jibe to get her moving.

The voice recorder was still on. With a sigh, Leslie spoke into the mic. I’ve just been informed that Sigma Nine’s timeline has been expedited, so… I guess I better get going. She was reaching for the stop button, when the Wolfen brothers caught her eye. Jonah had stepped out on break, and the brothers were putting their puzzles aside, watching the inert boy who’d hurt the Wolfen girl.

An odd thought occurred to Leslie. Observer commentary: A few months back, we received a message that the Fukushima den was having issues. I know the protocol is to limit contact, but we haven’t had any updates or progress reports since then. Now one of the Japanese team leaders is here, and this thing with Sigma Nine… She rubbed her brow. I don’t know, maybe I’m being paranoid, but something just doesn’t feel right. My gut tells me Michito wouldn’t be here unless something was wrong. She chuckled at herself. "Listen to me. A seasoned geneticist having feelings. Ignore that last remark. It’s apparently been a longer day than I realized."

Leslie turned off the voice recorder as Alpha Seven and Beta Twelve closed in on the inert boy. The others instinctively moved out of the danger zone. Fights like this occurred regularly among the subjects, and they were allowed, considered as an integral part of development. Unless blood flowed, the orderlies did not interfere.

But this was different. When the first blow came, it wasn’t the childish slap Leslie would have expected. Alpha Seven drew back a fist, fingers tucked in like a champion boxer, and drove it into the boy’s midsection. The inert boy went down, curling in on himself, and already the brothers were easing away.

It should have ended there.

But instead of staying down and accepting defeat, the inert boy pulled himself up and faced off with Alpha Seven, a mean gleam to his eye.

Beta Twelve cocked his head and leaned in to sniff the inert boy. He met eyes with his brother and both nodded.

Leslie frowned. Had she missed something?

She was about to page Jonah to get back into the playroom, when Beta Twelve curled his fingers into claws and slashed them across the inert boy’s neck. Quick as a snap; one swipe, and blood sprayed, sending the other children into a screaming panic. Leslie gaped. She couldn’t have just witnessed a seven-year-old commit cold, calculated murder against another.

She zoomed in on the inert boy gurgling blood on the floor. The pool spreading around him was too bright to be healthy. Pressing a shaky hand to her mouth, Leslie sat back. He’d converted. And the Wolfen boys had smelled it on him.

But he’d tested safe!

Children weren’t allowed into social units until doctors determined them either safely inert or Wolfen. How could he have converted so late?

By the time Jonah came back, the brothers had wiped off the convert’s blood and returned to their game. Though still visibly shaken, the other children seemed to sense the threat had been eliminated, and following the brothers’ example, quieted as well. They went back to their smaller groups, giving the now-dead boy a wide berth. Inert or Wolfen, they all trusted the apparent alphas of the pack, instinctively adhering to the subconscious social structure. Amazing.

Jonah herded the children out of the room and away from the corpse. He looked uneasy, as well he should. None of the children moved until the brothers did, recognizing their authority over them as greater than Jonah’s.

Leslie was still pondering this as she walked down the Green corridor to the nursery. The hallway was quiet. This level didn’t usually see much activity, what with nothing here but the guts of the facility—control rooms, nurseries, and incubation chambers. A horizontal green line ran its length as a directional. At the next intersection, a red line ran down another hallway that led to the convert testing rooms and loading/unloading docks.

Leslie glanced sideways at it as she passed, and waved to an orderly jogging to get somewhere. He didn’t see her. She shrugged, and kept going to the nursery. This chamber was separated into halves, with the far side walled off for newborns and an antechamber that served as the sleeping quarters and playroom for the one- to five-year-olds. It had gray walls and black floors; a deliberately bland environment to encourage imagination and mental development, while curbing overt excitement.

Sigma Nine sat at one of the plastic tables, coloring with crayons. Her brown curls fell over her forehead and she kept blowing them back with frustrated huffs. The cutest little angel. She still had her chubby cheeks, but Leslie could tell it wouldn’t be long before Sigma Nine hit her growth spurt, and when she did, the girl would be a show stopper.

Hey, Sinna, she said.

Sigma Nine looked up and gave her a ten million megawatt smile. Hi, Gerry! Are you here to play with me?

Oh honey, how I wish I could. Leslie struggled to maintain her own smile. Not today, sweetie. I need to take you to do some tests. Is that okay?

Sigma Nine pouted. Will it hurt?

Maybe a little.

Do I have to?

Leslie nodded.

Sigma Nine bowed her head, put down the crayon, and came forward, holding out her hand for Leslie to take. She kept her gaze on the floor, but didn’t drag her feet, as docile as a trusting little lamb despite her apprehension, and it broke Leslie’s heart.

When they reached the lab, Leslie lifted Sigma Nine onto the exam table and performed a quick routine physical, noting the results on her chart.

She was just finishing up with the initials when Dr. Sallinger arrived. He checked the chart, scrubbed up, and held his hands out for gloves. His face mask, as always, hung around his neck, ready to be donned in a hurry. He pulled it up, saying, You may begin, Dr. Gerome.

Leslie stared at him. Me?

Did I not make myself clear?

Leslie swallowed hard. Sigma Nine was watching her with an eerie calm. She couldn’t make herself move.

Are you unfamiliar with the procedure?

Leslie shook herself. No. I mean, I know what to do.

Then what are you waiting for?

She stepped up to the table and pulled the instrument tray closer.

Secure the arm, Sallinger instructed, and she did, hating that he felt the need to talk her through this. Now, disinfect the area. That’s right. You’ll want a number eighteen scalpel. Make a six-centimeter incision parallel to the ulna, beginning one centimeter from the styloid process.

Leslie’s head snapped up. Six centimeters?

Need I remind you we have two hundred and forty-seven other children to see to? I do not have time for this. Now, make the incision. Six centimeters parallel to the ulna, beginning one centimeter from the styloid process.

Again, Leslie swallowed hard, and tried not to look at Sigma Nine’s face when she pressed the blade tip to the inside of the girl’s arm. She made the cut smooth, but not fast enough to spare the girl pain, and Sigma Nine gasped and moaned. She started crying, but like all of the children, she was trained not to move during testing. With a scalpel so close to her delicate skin, a sudden twitch could kill her.

Starting timer, Sallinger said, as blood began to flow. Five seconds… Ten seconds…

Leslie frowned. She’s not healing.

Give her time. Fifteen seconds…

Sigma Nine sobbed, her heart rate rising with her distress. And she kept on bleeding.

Twenty seconds…

Leslie shook her head. Enough of this. She grabbed a bunch of gauze and pressed it to the wound.

What are you doing? I did not tell you to arrest the—

She’s not healing! I am not letting her bleed out on the table.

Sallinger tore off his mask and gloves. You have just contaminated the test and wasted my time, and you have achieved nothing except to ensure the test will need to be repeated.

Get out, Leslie snapped. She’d been careful to make the cut shallow, but Sigma Nine was still losing too much blood. Pinching the girl’s skin together, she applied a clear solution to glue the edges closed. It wasn’t normally used for lacerations this long, but Leslie didn’t want to mar the poor girl with rough stitches and an ugly scar. It would have to be enough.

I will see you fired for this—

The lights went out with the disconcerting sound of a power-down as the entire facility sighed into darkness. Five seconds later, emergency generators kicked in and red bulbs flared, illuminating the room and the corridors outside.

What’s going on? Leslie demanded, winding a sterile bandage around Sigma Nine’s arm.

Sallinger cast her a dirty look. Probably just a power outage. Stay here.

Gerry?

It’s okay, Sinna. Just hang tight for me, all right? I’m so sorry I hurt you. I promise it’ll never happen again. There was no reason; her lack of regenerative abilities confirmed her status as inert.

That’s what you thought about the dead boy, too.

She pushed the thought aside. If she studied the boy’s behavioral history, she’d probably find clues about his convert tendencies beginning from an early age. Sigma Nine was too gentle, too sweet. No, she was inert—for all intents and purposes, human.

When she finished with the girl’s bandages, Leslie freed her arm and sat her up, pushing her curls away from her face. How are you doing, sweetheart?

Sigma Nine’s chin wobbled, and more tears spilled.

Leslie hugged her tight, rubbing her back for comfort.

That was how Sallinger found them when he came back. His hair was disheveled and he was missing one pair of glasses. Gasping for air, he slammed the door shut and locked it. They breeched the holding pens, he said, heading for the security console.

What?

It took him three tries to enter his code, then the screen split into nine, showing security feeds from their wing. I knew I shouldn’t have signed off on the transfer, Sallinger rambled. My God, they’ll kill us all!

The break in his voice sent a chill down Leslie’s spine. W-what are you talking about?

Sallinger rubbed his sweaty face, shaking as he watched the screen. Two of the nine feeds showed groups of scientists herding several children in one direction. Two more showed the convert holding pens—empty. The crazy Japs! Michito didn’t come alone. Fukushima den was compromised. They were storing too many fully grown converts, and they broke free. Michito didn’t want to lose twenty years of research, so he captured several of them and brought them here.

Is he insane?

Sallinger trembled so hard, he knocked his glasses off his nose trying to adjust them. He wheezed, on the verge of tears, and his distress sent Sigma Nine into wailing fits. Sallinger froze, staring at the child. She knows, he said. She can sense them. We can use her to get out.

Don’t you dare! Leslie twisted to keep Sigma Nine away from him, but her gaze was fixed on the screen and all of those people nervously looking over their shoulders.

"Didn’t you hear what I said? We’re going to die if we don’t get out."

Leslie circled around Sallinger to get to the screen. Her thumbprint would be enough to signal distress in the lab. You’re panicking over nothing. The guards will take care of this. They were highly trained mercenaries, paid well for their service, and their response time was usually less than seventy seconds. Of course they could handle this. She was certain of it. They’d come and escort the three of them to safety.

But Sallinger shook his head. They’re all dead! Fully grown converts are not like the children, Gerome. They feed and they breed, and they’re unstoppable when the urge hits them. It’s like a hive mind effect. The Fukushima ones were starved, and their frenzy riled up the converts here. The den is overrun!

No. That couldn’t be. He was in hysterics. When he calmed down, he’d realize how crazy that sounded. A small army of guards, dead? No way. She’d show him.

Adjusting Sigma Nine in her hold, Leslie typed one-handed, looking for a duty roster. Everyone on active shift could be reached directly in an emergency through a tracker in their radio unit. She called them with her digital page, one after the other, but no one answered. Throat suddenly dry, Leslie shook her head and tried again. One by one, the signals disappeared as if deactivated. Either every one of those radios had gotten smashed, or someone—something—had damaged the main controls in the lower level server hive. She couldn’t call out. No one was coming. They were on their own.

Apprehensive and irritated by the red lighting, Leslie backed away from the screen. What about the others?

Sallinger hesitated.

"What!"

He jerked his chin toward the screen just as the last group disappeared from the shots. They’re already evacuating. The researchers and orderlies are gone, along with whatever children they had with them at the time. The rest they left for dead.

Leslie’s knees buckled and hit the floor so hard, the impact jolted through to the top of her head. Sigma Nine clutched her, whole body shaking with sobs.

Listen to me, Sallinger said. There’s an escape hatch at the end of the corridor. We can make it. If we can get to the surface before they detonate the charges, we’ll be fine. We just have to get there. Give me the child.

None of his words had penetrated Leslie’s haze of fear, but when he reached for Sigma Nine, something snapped. Why did he want her so badly? No. She moved out of the way. I’ll take her.

Though he looked ready to throttle her, he somehow pulled himself together and nodded. Very well. But you must calm her down. They will hear us.

A flicker of movement on the screen caught her eye, but she refused to look. Give me a minute.

Removing herself to one corner, Leslie rocked Sigma Nine, crooned to her. Easy, sweetheart. Breathe. You’re okay. You’re going to be just fine. I won’t let anyone hurt you.

Hurry up, Sallinger hissed, nervously watching out the window.

Leslie hummed and rubbed the girl’s back until her sobs eased. That’s my girl. That’s my brave girl. Now, we’re going to play a game, okay? I want you to close your eyes, and stay as quiet as you can. We’re going to pretend we’re hiding from monsters.

Will they hurt me?

Sallinger gasped. Move it!

Leslie glared at him. No, baby. No one’s going to hurt you again, I promise. Are you ready?

Sigma Nine sniffled and nodded against her shoulder.

Good girl. On three, okay? One…

She signaled for Sallinger to open the door. He did it slowly, peeking out to make sure the path was clear.

Two…

Silence out in the hall—no hum of artificial lights, no pitter-patter of rushing feet, not even alarm sirens. Just total, dead silence. And that terrified her. They were truly all on their own. Gritting her teeth, Leslie walked when Sallinger beckoned, and stepped out of the room.

Three, she whispered.

The race was on. Leslie focused on the ceiling hatch some thirty yards away. She headed straight for a wall ladder leading up to it, heart pounding, and Sigma Nine sitting heavy in her arms.

Of course, Sallinger noticed her readjust her hold. Let me take her, he offered. I can carry her more easily.

Leslie shook her head and quickened her step. Almost at the ladder. Shuffling noises from the other end of the corridor made her look back. Oh, no…

Two converts, an adult and a child, lumbered toward them. They looked marginally human, with patchy hair and thin bodies corded with lean muscle. But their long limbs ended in clawed fingers, and they had fangs instead of teeth. Because of their cold-blooded nature, their skin held a grayish tinge, but this condition didn’t seem to affect their metabolisms in any significant way, acting as a cloaking mechanism only. Matching body temperature to their surroundings made them invisible to heat sensors and infrared cameras.

Monsters. Boogeymen out of nightmares. Mindless, ravening beasts.

And they were coming closer.

Climb! Sallinger shouted.

Hold on to me, Leslie told Sigma Nine, and then she climbed.

The converts stopped and sniffed the air. Although their hearing was impaired and their eyesight compromised by the flashing emergency lights, their sense of smell remained unequaled. The moment it scented prey, the adult convert tossed its head back and screeched.

Several others answered from a distance.

Then it ran forward.

"Climb! Climb!" Sallinger shrieked.

Leslie climbed as fast as she could, arms burning with strain, Sallinger right on her heels. But they could only go so far before Leslie had to stop to open the latch. Sallinger clambered on top of her as high up as he could manage.

It wasn’t far enough.

He screamed as the adult convert sank its claws into his leg and dragged him down to the floor.

Keep your eyes closed, Sinna. Leslie trembled, vision blurry with tears, but she didn’t dare take her eyes off her target as she touched the thumbprint pad to activate the latch mechanism. Don’t look down. Don’t look down! Just hold on, baby girl, she whispered as monsters tore into Sallinger below. The sounds he made…

Please, God, get me out of here.

The heavy escape hatch slid open, and she moved, climbing higher to reach the pad on the other side. Don’t look down. Just a few more rungs. Almost there. Don’t look down…

Got it!

The three-inch metal hatch slid closed, sealing off all sight and sound.

Leslie pressed her forehead against the ladder, too shaken to keep going. They were still thirteen stories below the Chernobyl disaster site. To this day, few came to these parts for fear of radiation poisoning. Just as with Fukushima, it had been the perfect hiding place, with all contingencies accounted for.

Except for the crazy Japanese.

If Sallinger had been right, then somewhere on the surface, a researcher had his twitchy finger on a detonator that would entomb this place forever. Leslie had to get moving or she and Sigma Nine would be buried right along with it.

Gerry?

It’s okay, Sinna, we’re safe. You can open your eyes now.

I can’t see anything.

That’s because it’s dark. Leslie looked up. Twelve stories above, a small green light marked the exit—her north star. I’m going to get us out of here, she swore. We’ll get out, and catch a plane to San Francisco. We can go check out the sea lions at Pier 39, would you like that?

Sinna nodded.

Good. Now just hold on.

Keeping her eyes on that little green light, Leslie reached up for the next rung.

Interim

Start Recording…

I thought we’d left it behind. I really believed it would all be over.

I was so very wrong.

My name is Dr. Leslie Gerome. I am recording this because someone out there should know what really happened, how the world really came to an end. And it wasn’t with a bang or a whimper. It happened with the splicing of a single cell. Man tried to become God, and Nature bucked under his command, striking out with unimaginable fury.

They never buried Chernobyl den as I’d hoped. I think I died ten times over on the climb up to the surface, expecting the walls to start caving in on me at any second. But they never did. No one ever came looking for it, or for me and Sinna. They probably thought the converts were too stupid to make it out, that they’d starve to death down there. Maybe they were right. Maybe the monsters we created thirteen stories below a nuclear wasteland did eventually die there.

Those they extracted did not.

Whoever finds this, please believe what I’m about to tell you. There’s no such thing as an inert—no middle ground for the creatures we engineered. The DNA grafts might be dormant, but sooner or later, one way or another, they always activate. That’s why Fukushima den imploded; they never realized how many potential converts they housed together.

The inerts who converted outside the dens are fully viable and capable of reproduction. It has now been three years since the dens shut down, and in that time, world governments have tried in vain to bury the story with mindless entertainment for the masses. But there’s no hiding it anymore.

Last night, I found an online video of a female convert giving birth and promptly devouring her own young. Conspiracy theories estimate that converts, or Grays as they’re called, are reproducing at an increasing rate. Outside of stable laboratory conditions, they can develop three times faster than a human and, although they show each other the same ravenous savagery they display toward prey, they do mate, and they do breed.

End Recording.

Start Recording…

September fifteenth, twenty-twenty, four NE.

I watch Sinna growing beautifully every day. She’s my hope that we must have done something right. The dens may have unleashed a terrible plague on the world, but we’ve also created beings so much more than human. The Wolfen are still out there somewhere, walking among us, hiding in plain sight.

I think of Alpha Seven and Beta Twelve often. Are they still alive? Who’s taking care of them? They’re not that much older than Sinna, but they’re strong, and they’re smart, and they have each other.

Martial Law has failed against the Grays. Cities are becoming overrun with them and people are fleeing for the hills, but I doubt they’ll find safety there. Sinna and I have stayed in San Francisco too long, and now that they’ve destroyed every bridge to the mainland, there’s no chance of leaving. So we hide.

Sinna has tested negative for regenerative capabilities three times under real life conditions. That’s enough for me. I think… I think as long as I keep her inside, away from them…I can keep her safe.

End Recording.

Start Recording…

Hellooooooo. Is this thing on? Gerry, how does this work? Testing. One, two. And a-one, two, three, four.

End Recording.

Start Recording…

Tomorrow is Sinna’s eighteenth birthday. She’s so excited, it breaks my heart. I asked her what she wanted for her present. She answered, To go outside. Cabin fever has been our faithful companion for a long time now, and with each day, I see yearning in Sinna’s eyes. She wants to go out there, to see the world, such as it might be, and I don’t think the silver cuff I found for her will impress her much by comparison.

Four years ago, San Francisco was one of the last few strongholds left in the United States. The city has since lost contact with the outside world. With the bridges gone, the peninsula is effectively cut off from the mainland on three sides. They’ve erected barricades fifteen stories high wherever the southern perimeter was compromised, and against outside Grays, the protections are quite effective. But there are still those inside the city itself. They’re growing smarter, bolder. They’ve learned when and how humans hunt them; they hide so well, even the keenest eyes can’t spot them. And when they come out again, their wrath is terrifying.

The war’s at a stalemate. Humans are holding their own for the moment, but it’s only a matter of time before Grays overwhelm us. I fear that day’s not long in coming…

End Recording.

Start Recording…

Sniffle… Cough.

Umm…

Sniffle.

This is Sinna. Uh, the date is… Hell, I don’t know. Thirteen New Era? Not that anyone gives a crap anymore.

Silence.

Gerry’s dead—sob—I di—I didn’t know! We were out looking for food, and she told me to stay close, but I saw this…stupid, useless lava lamp in a window, and I thought I was so smart. I’d just go out for a second, check it out, and be right back. But then a pack of Grays came out of the old reservoir. I hid inside, but I couldn’t warn her. She ran back to our house, but…

Moan…

God, she screamed so much.

Soft crying… Sniffle.

Anyway, she’s gone now. I can’t stay here anymore, it’s not safe. The Grays marked this area; they’ll definitely come back. I only came in for a minute to get my stuff. There’s a group of survivors holing up in the church. I heard them when they passed by the other day. If I give them all the food I have, they might let me stay there for a while.

So pathetic. Everything I ever had in this life: a few cans of tuna, a stupid bracelet, and an ancient voice recorder that’s about to run out of—

End Recording.

1: Sinna

16 NE (New Era)

There it went. The last can of beans. They were officially out of food, and as far as anyone could tell, their little ragtag group was all that was left of the once-thriving city of San Francisco.

Sinna licked her spoon clean, refusing to waste a single molecule of nourishment. She felt like hell, but then, they all did. Most of them hadn’t stepped foot out of the underground rectory in so long, they couldn’t remember what the outside looked like anymore.

Nate, their leader by virtue of his assault rifle, sometimes scouted for food with David and Connor, but over the last few weeks, they’d returned with nothing. Sinna suspected Nate and his seconds-in-command ate whatever they found before they came back inside, but she had no evidence to support that. All of them looked a small hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.

Night was coming on, depriving them of what little light filtered in through the handful of ventilation holes torn into the ceiling and the outside walls. Sinna drummed her spoon against her up-drawn knee, debating what to do with it. Highly unlikely they’d ever again find food she could eat with utensils, but she was reluctant to just toss it away.

Nate tapped his foot against a crate, and his hand on the weapon in his lap. Something was eating at him—no pun intended. When he shoved to his feet and started pacing, Sinna flinched. His camo uniform was covered with dirt and dust, but his boots were in surprisingly good shape. She envied him that. Her own had been pilfered off of a half-eaten corpse and were a size too small for what she considered to be her abnormally gigantic feet. Two months of wearing them had accomplished nothing but bloody blisters on her heels and her big toe wearing a hole through the inside lining.

This is it, Nate said.

By the door, David and Connor sat up a little straighter. They weren’t soldiers like Nate. David used to be a school teacher, and refused to touch anything more lethal than a baseball bat. Connor, a former butcher, liked to arm himself with knives and cleavers. He was slightly more heavyset than the rest of them, which made him the logical choice for defensive brute force. He’d lost his cleaver a few months back, but a number of his steak knives were still in pretty good shape. He’d even found a decent-sized rock to hone them on. For him, this was as good as it was going to get.

David and Connor didn’t exactly get along with each other, but both followed Nate with the mindless obedience of lost sheep. One day, he’d lead them to slaughter. Perhaps not intentionally, but Sinna knew it would happen, and when it did, they’d obey without question.

What’s it? Sinna asked, since no one else seemed inclined.

With a huff, Nate paced another circuit, then took a knee in the middle of the room. A longish lock of dirty brown hair fell over his eye. He might as well have been posing for a fashion shot. He had the bone structure for it, and those dark, mysterious eyes beneath a pair of sweeping eyebrows with one set slightly higher than the other in a sometimes quizzical, sometimes menacing way. Hard times had lent his features a sharp quality, just short of starved. He had that whole renegade soldier thing going on. The look suited him.

Nate swept his gaze over them, like a general about to go to battle. It made Sinna nervous. We always said we’d stay only as long as we had a safe shelter and food to eat. We all agreed that a quick death out there was better than starving down here.

Sinna frowned. She could hear David gulp while Connor rearranged himself on the stoop.

In the back corner, Amy clutched her son, Matt, even tighter. A sixteen-year-old miracle child, born with the turn of ages. The only reason he’d survived this long was because his mother refused to let him out of her sight. Amy was desperately devoted to Matt; he was her reason for living. If anyone would stand up to Nate on this crazy idea, she would, surely.

But Amy didn’t say a word. Instead, she hid her face behind a fall of matted blonde hair.

You can’t be serious, Sinna said.

Nate gave her a grave nod. I am.

You can’t mean to walk across the city with Tam in tow! The short, half-Chinese, half-Portuguese barista hadn’t spoken since her boyfriend had to be put out of his misery a couple of weeks ago. Poor Jimmy. A bad fall, a broken leg, and the resulting infection had put him half in the grave.

Tam couldn’t handle it. She’d sobbed hysterically while Jimmy had screamed in pain and fever-induced delirium. When Connor had done what needed to be done, Tam had just…stopped. She’d turned catatonic. Nothing got a reaction from her. She ate when hunger drove her to it and drank when they gave her water, but that blank haze in her eyes never lifted. It probably never would.

Nate ducked his head. We may need to leave her behind.

How dare you!

Sinna, there’s nothing left. What do you want me to do?

She pushed to her feet, clutching her spoon like a weapon. If you’re so eager for death, then turn that gun on yourself and blow your own goddamn head off. You have no right to decide who lives and who dies.

Nate stood to match her. You think this is easy for me?

Yes. I think you’re just itching to get rid of us and go off with your buddies over there.

David scrambled up, too. Now that’s not true! Tell her, Nate.

Ignoring him, the former soldier sighed tiredly, his handsome face creasing with lines of strain. I could have done that any day, he said, and in a softer tone added, Why do you think I keep coming back?

That was as close to a declaration as she’d ever allow him to get. Tam was as good as a walking corpse. At thirty-four, Amy might have been Nate’s age, but she was vicious when approached, and as long as she had Matt with her, some last shred of human decency kept the men away.

But Sinna was still young, and she had no one, which made her fair game. Nate watched her all the time; she felt his gaze on her so often, she’d almost gotten used to the feeling, akin to warm slime oozing along her skin. She’d allowed him to look because his attention seemed to keep the others at bay, and he’d kept his own distance when she’d pushed back, almost out of courtesy, as if he’d appointed himself her knight in shining armor, willing to wait for her to make the first move.

If that status quo was changing, then Sinna was in deep shit.

Taking a step back, she prepared to thoroughly lambast him, when Amy spoke up. He’s right, Sinna. We need to go. Now, while we still can.

Sinna shook her head.

Old Isaac sat up on his pallet. Listen, I don’t like it any more than you do, but the fact is, we ain’t gettin’ any younger, you know what I mean? In his late fifties, Isaac was physically the weakest, with bad knees that locked up, making him limp if he moved around for too long. Whenever Nate and his crew went out to gather, Isaac guarded the door. He should have been the voice of reason among them. How could he agree to this?

Isaac, what if you can’t keep up?

Thought about it. I’m willing to take the risk.

So we’re going to sacrifice the old and weak, so the rest of us can live? Amy, what if Matt falls behind?

Amy started rocking the boy. He heard what they discussed but, with a sick sort of trust, he never said a word in opposition. He’d never known a world without his mother, and as long as Amy made decisions for him, he’d never make one on his own.

How about we put it to a vote? David suggested, adjusting the frames of his glasses. Sinna didn’t know why he bothered wearing them. The lenses had gotten smashed out years ago.

Sinna looked at each of them in turn—all people who’d seen the worst of what humanity could do, who’d watched their world get torn apart. The eight of them could very well be the last people anywhere on Earth, and they had nothing left to fight for. Except for Tam and Matt, every one of them looked ready to walk out and risk becoming a banquet for Grays.

Maybe they were right. Maybe it was time to move on.

No, Sinna whispered in defeat, you win. We’ll leave.

Nate’s shoulders sagged, and he smiled, raising his arms to hug her. Sinna stepped out of his reach, disgusted by the gesture offered like a treat to an obedient pet.

His smile dimmed somewhat, but he must have interpreted her retreat as fear because he said, Don’t worry. I’ll keep you safe, I promise. And Tam—

I’m not leaving her behind, Sinna decreed. No way in hell would she walk out of here and leave that girl to the monsters.

Sinna—

She can walk on her own, and she’s quiet. I’ll guide her if I have to, but I’m not letting her stay here to rot.

Nate’s mouth twisted. In the three years she’d known him, he’d never shown a hint of temper; ever the level-headed soldier with a gun. Now, he seemed to seriously contemplate choking the life out of her.

Sinna refused to back down. There were some lines she refused to cross. She had to believe there was still good in people. If they left someone defenseless behind to die, they’d be no better than the monsters everyone feared so much.

Fine, Nate growled when Sinna wouldn’t let him win the staring contest. Get some rest, everyone. We leave in the morning.

2: Sinna

I dream of Gerry—her face, her smile, the creases of her wrinkles when she laughs, explaining some ancient concept of satire. I dream of her reading beautiful words from books that will never be read again. I hear her tell me I may be the last to learn in this way; that civilization has shattered, and what few pockets remain whole will be on par with cavemen. I understand all this, which pleases her. She tells me she loves me. I am her world, her sunshine.

But she calls me Sigma Nine.

Something is wrong.

And then the Grays come, and she screams…

~

Sinna started awake, slapping a hand over her mouth to stifle a scream. No loud noises. Not ever. Intellectually, she knew it wouldn’t matter; Grays were so hard of hearing, she could blare heavy metal music through a bullhorn and they wouldn’t notice. Still, that subconscious evolutionary mechanism built into her DNA whispered to stay hidden. Stay quiet, and don’t make a move.

She wheezed for air, chanting to herself, Calm, calm, calm. Years of practice had honed her instincts. She slowed her breathing, calmed her heart, though her senses remained on high alert as she scanned the dim room. Not quite day yet, but close enough. The sun had come up recently. High time to get moving.

The others were rousing as well, faces grim, but determined.

Nate checked his weapon, Connor inspected his knives. David shoved his baseball bat with its handle cracked down the middle through his belt like a sword. It was all for show. If Grays showed up, he’d probably die before he could wrestle it out to use.

How are you feeling, Isaac? Sinna asked.

Creaking, he said with a gap-toothed grin. How you doin’, beautiful girl?

Let’s move out, Nate ordered, taking a stand by the door. Last night, he’d explained the formation he expected them to keep: Nate would lead to scout the way, with David behind him as second, followed by the women, Matt and Isaac after them, while Connor took up the rear to sound the alarm if anything moved.

While Amy smoothed out Matt’s shirt, Sinna went over to Tam. She wasn’t usually this sound a sleeper. Rise and shine, Tammy girl. We’re going for a walk. She gave Tam’s shoulder a shake. Tam?

Nothing.

Tam…

A harder shake made Tam roll onto her back, head turning toward Sinna. Blue lips parted, sightless eyes wide open.

No…

Her pasty-white skin had already cooled, but rigor mortis hadn’t set in yet. Sinna pressed her fingers to Tam’s neck in a pointless gesture, shaking her head in denial. What did you do? she whispered.

Come on, Nate said, we’re burning daylight.

Sinna’s world narrowed to a point. Tam’s eyes stared at her in accusation. Blood roared in her ears, drowning out indistinct voices that could have come from either within or without. Part of her mind said the others were rallying, demanding to know what had happened to the poor, defenseless girl lying so still on the floor. But she didn’t hear. She didn’t feel anything except a rage so powerful it filled every cell of her body from head to toe, and finally made her move.

Sinna stumbled to her feet. "What did you do! She blindly shoved Amy and Connor aside to lay into Nate. You son of a bitch, you killed her!" She struck out, kicking and hitting, but Nate deflected her blows, slapped her flailing arms away with laughable ease.

One good grab, and Nate wrenched her arms behind her back, pressed her chest to his. His hand nearly covered the back of her head as he forced her face against his shoulder in some caveman attempt to comfort her. Shh! he hissed. No loud noises—ever.

Sinna didn’t care. She writhed in his hold, bucking to get free and making no progress whatsoever as he rocked her like a fucking child.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Isaac had pushed to his feet, but David held him back. Not that the old man could do anything anyway. He kept looking between Tam on the floor and Sinna in Nate’s arms, shaking and unsteady on his feet.

Sinna seethed, pinned so tight, she could barely breathe, let alone fight. Amy was crying as if it had been her own child murdered. Too fucking late! Where had that compassion been last night? Where had her righteous anger been when Nate had sneaked across the room, stepping over Amy and Matt, so he could snuff Tam out? Had Amy heard him? Had she grabbed her baby boy and turned away?

I made a judgment call, Nate snapped at them, squeezing Sinna until her nose felt one pound of pressure away from breaking. She could smell her own blood, and it made her livid. She wouldn’t have made it anyway, and she would have cost us more lives. I couldn’t allow that.

This ain’t right. Isaac shook his head, voice trembling. It wasn’t your call to make.

Don’t look, baby, Amy sobbed to her son. Sinna imagined the woman rocking Matt in the same way Nate rocked her now—to subdue. Nothing about Nate’s hold offered comfort. He only clutched her as he did, because the moment he let go, she’d kill him. Every second he held her, Sinna’s skin burned with hate. She couldn’t stand his touch.

With a muffled scream, she wriggled to gain some leverage, then hiked her knee up, managing to tap Nate’s privates just enough to get him to release her. Murderer, she snarled and, curling her fingers in, punched him with all her might. The satisfaction of seeing his knee hit the floor buffered the pain that radiated from her wrist. How long before you put a bullet through Isaac’s head because he slows us down? she demanded. Or Matt’s, or Amy’s?

Nate, Connor warned, shut her up. He’d drawn two of his blades, staring at Sinna through small, mole-like eyes. One word from his leader and he’d do it himself—permanently. Sinna itched to knock some sense into him.

Nate motioned for Connor to stand down as he picked himself up. What’s done is done, he declared softly, spitting blood. He assessed Sinna as if seeing her for the first time, but did not engage again. I’m sorry, he told her, but here now, or out there later, Tam was already dead. It was only a matter of time. She was a friend to us all, and I, for one, would have been grateful for a bloodless death like that.

You should have told us that last night, Sinna snapped. I would have obliged you.

Connor took a step forward, but Nate’s glare stopped him in his tracks. Noted, she thought. She wouldn’t be turning her back on either of them.

You killed her, Isaac said. "You did. You chose to end a life, and that’s on your soul, son. No one else’s."

Amy murmured to Matt, removing both of them from the discussion.

Fine, Nate said. I concede to that. And I consider the matter closed. He looked directly at Isaac, hand on the butt of his rifle to make it clear he wouldn’t tolerate further arguments. Then he turned to Sinna, though addressed all of them. Now, you’ve got a choice. Come along, or stay behind. What’s it gonna be? Gone was the knight in shining armor. There was nothing left of him but a soulless soldier about to head into battle knowing a certain percentage of his unit would die.

He knew, and he was okay with it.

Sinna gaped as understanding dawned. No, not just okay. He was planning on it! You’re bringing us along as bait!

Nate shrugged. Any one of us could be bait. That’s the strength in numbers, babe. It ups your odds of survival. Gives the enemy somebody else to shoot at.

Amy occupied Matt with some bullshit assurances while her son nodded listlessly. They could be the next to go. Or Isaac, who was even now massaging his right knee. Connor was the blade. Nate would want to keep him alive as long as possible, if for no other reason than as an additional guard, and would protect him over anyone else. With the weak ones down—as Nate said they would be, sooner or later—David and Sinna were the next expendables.

This was the choice Nate had put before her: sacrifice the others to save herself, or play the martyr and go off alone. For a moment, she was tempted. Oh, how tempted! She had plenty of know-how to evade Grays, and she could scavenge or hunt to sustain herself. But if she left, there’d be no one to look after the weak ones. Nate would throw them to the monsters in a heartbeat, if he thought it would up his odds.

The worst part? The others knew it, too. But in their desperate circumstances, they had no one else to turn to. They put all of their trust in the murdering son of a bitch with a gun, because they had no other choice.

Bile rose in Sinna’s throat, but she ruthlessly pushed it down. Isaac had no more fight left in him, Amy and Matt were effectively null and void, and Connor would leap at the chance to get rid of extra baggage. They’d all do as ordered.

Sinna looked to David, who clutched the knob of his bat, eyes transfixed on Tam’s lifeless body. He hadn’t said a word this whole time. Shock. There’d be no help from him. Once again, she was defeated.

When she still hadn’t answered—because she refused to dignify Nate’s decree with any sort of response—he turned his back on her and headed for the door. Everyone filed behind him in formation as they’d been instructed, except for Sinna, who waved Connor on with a mocking bow so she’d be the last one out.

Nate checked the stairway, then signaled it was safe. Together, they crept up to the main level of the rectory where thick dust covered the once-gleaming wooden floor in a dull grayish-brown. At the pulpit, the massive crucifix had been broken into three parts, the metal form of Jesus bent over the altar beneath the weight of his wooden cross.

Nothing had been disturbed. Nate and his crew always used the same path going in and going out, always stepping into their own footprints. No marks indicated anyone else had been there in a very long time.

It meant nothing. Or at least very little. The real danger was outside.

It took Nate, Connor, and David together to remove the bar and open the wooden double doors. The hinges groaned so loudly, Sinna held her breath, expecting to hear screeches at any moment. When nothing happened, Nate stepped out, big commando man taking the lead, and all of them followed behind.

First time in months Sinna had seen the outside world, and it was an eerie feeling. No sounds—no animals, birds, or even insects. Buildings had been burned or looted long ago. Cars had crashed left and right; rusted wrecks and jagged pieces of metal littered the road. Every so often, something would flit across a window above, and Sinna’s heart would skip a beat, until she recognized it as the movement of a drapery or piece of clothing.

They followed the street until they hit a makeshift barricade barely tall enough to obscure what might have been on the other side. It made Sinna’s chest ache. The wall wouldn’t have slowed Grays down, and whoever had toiled so diligently to build it would have died in seconds when the packs came hunting. Structures like this only attracted them.

Nate slung the rifle across his back and climbed up to help the rest of them. They hoisted Amy up first, followed by Matt. Isaac took a little more time, but he managed.

Then Nate held a hand out for Sinna.

She wouldn’t take it. Instead, using David’s shoulder, she levered herself up on her own, shoving past Nate on her way across. He caught her elbow, no doubt ready to say something. But one look at her face and he changed his mind, using his hold to help her down instead.

David, Nate said when they were all across, go check inside those stores over there.

David frowned. What?

There might be food.

You want me to go by myself?

One will attract less attention than two.

By that logic, Sinna chimed in, we should all split up now and go our separate ways.

Nate speared her with a venomous glare. Be my guest.

She raised her chin and glared right back. Come on, Dave, I’ll go with you, she said, without taking her eyes from Nate.

David wrestled the bat from his belt and adjusted his glasses. God, if a single Gray showed up, they were dead.

Wait, Nate growled and, cursing under his breath, reached into one of his many pockets to pull out a hand gun.

Sinna frowned. How many of those do you have?

He checked the magazine, snapped it back into place, and handed it to Sinna. You know how to work this?

"What, now you want to share? Did you guys know he had an extra gun?"

Jesus, Sinna, what is your problem? Connor griped. In daylight, his ugliness was glaring—an asymmetric brutish face with a flat, wide nose, one nostril visibly bigger than the other, and Cro-Magnon brow bones over small, deep-set, freakishly pale green eyes so close together they were nearly lost beneath his bushy eyebrows. His teeth were crooked, which

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    I loved this book. I didn't want it to end. When I did finish it, I was disappointed there wasn't a second book.
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    Great story I would love to read more by this author