Bill looked at his security monitors one last time before laying back in bed. Not a blip. But then, there never has been a blip. Sighing, he looked with envy at his wife who was gently snoring next to him. She was a master infiltrator heading up a large team for the Order. And yet she had no problem getting a full night’s sleep. Sometimes he felt she was his superior and should be his commanding officer instead.
It was quiet that evening. His mysterious visitor had not arrived yet. Thoughts of the nightly torment began fading as he started relaxing towards the inevitable oblivion of slumber. He hated having to sleep. It broke up his schedule of productivity. However, even with his breeding, at least six hours were needed for optimal functionality. He smiled. Tonight he would get seven hours. He hoped. Perhaps he would actually have a moment of peace.
His hopes were dashed when he heard a loud bump that seemed to shake the whole apartment. His wife snorted briefly, but remained asleep. Bill remained still, grasping his pistol under his pillow as he waited. It had never worked before, but there was always a first time and he was determined to be prepared. As he gripped the pistol and got ready to shoot the intruder, he realized that the shape was all wrong. He looked at it, then up, and flinched as a huge, armored hand gripped his chest and lifted him bodily out of bed.
“If you use this. you are the only one who will perish.” The booming voice seemed to come from everywhere as the hand pulled him close to a steaming, helmeted face. Flames erupted from the seams of the armor and he winced at the heat. “Against me, none of your weapons can prosper.”
Its other hand crunched the pistol and let the pieces fall to the floor.
“I’m not afraid of death.” Bill said, as much to remind himself as to convince the monster that gripped him.
“Have you died before?” The room trembled with the presence of the creature. Dust rained down from the ceiling and pictures began falling from the walls.
“Irrelevant.” Bill looked intently at the flaming eyes that stared back at him. He could almost hear the sneer as the creature squeezed his chest even tighter. But he refused to give in. Self preservation for the sake of self preservation was something that had been actively bred out of his people. He wasn’t about to surrender to the wispy remnants of that.
“For yourself, you may not fear. But I know your heart, William. I know your thoughts and your dreams. I know what occupies your waking thoughts and your darkest nightmares.”
The creature turned and carried him towards a wall. Bill grimaced as flames and sparks escaped the seams of the armor that enveloped the monster. The whole room was lit by the hellish glow. “I cannot give you what you wish. I will not.” Bill grit his teeth.
The creature laughed, and he felt the laugh prying into the deepest layers of his soul. “This will be your reality then.” It waved it’s hand and the wall of the apartment was violently blown away in a storm of ash and sparks. Bill closed his eyes, refusing to look.
“You cannot hide from it, William. Look into the heart of your deepest fear.”
“It’s not real!” Bill said, his voice cracking. He felt the pressure building on him like a steam boiler about to burst, but he still fought the urge to give in to manic fear. “This is a dream! You will not win!”
“Foolish man! This is not a manifestation of my victory! But of our loss!” The creature bellowed, its fury seeming to wash over Bill like waves of fire.
The rest of the walls fell away as the creature waved its arm around, and Bill couldn’t avoid seeing it. Everywhere he looked was destruction. The entire world was a seething ocean of slag. No cities, no land, no life. Just roiling lava.
“Do what you will with the woman. But her children belong to me. Their future is connected to your past.” The creature said coldly. The words seemed to sear into Bill’s mind, opening fresh wounds as he remembered them from the night before, and the night before that. Without warning or buildup, he was surrounded by what could only be described as a cyclone of blindingly bright light. It was then that Bill finally felt the fear that had been hiding in the shadows. He cried out, terrified as the storm reached its crescendo until suddenly, it was gone.
Blinking, Bill sat up in a panic. His wife shifted a little, but continued snoring. Taking in a deep, shuddering breath, he looked down at the floor and saw his pistol. It was broken into little twisted pieces. Scowling, he picked up his phone from the bedstand. “Jacob?” He hesitated, looking at the broken pistol for a long moment. A kill order may not be prudent after all.
Bill almost jumped and fumbled his phone. “Um, I need a progress report on the hunt for your alien.”
“On your desk, sir.”
Bill hung up the phone. He rubbed his eyes, then dialed another number. A sleepy voice answered. Bill frowned. “Get up. I need you to move Mary to the top of the treatment list. And schedule an exam for her.” He stared at the pieces of the pistol. “Yes, Mary Lee.”
~ ~ ~
The fingers felt soft, in spite of looking like long, spiny claws. Andrew furrowed his eyebrows, finding that observation peculiar. How did he know they were spiny? And more importantly, what were long, spiny claws doing on his face? He fidgeted and squirmed, trying to get away from the claws. But they remained on his face. Taking in a deep breath, Andrew opened his eyes and found himself face to face with a monster. It had hard, plated skin. Not quite scales, but close. Its eyes blinked sideways as well as horizontally, and had horizontal figure-eight pupils.
Andrew involuntarily screamed and thrashed out. Strong hands held him, however, and he twisted around to find himself looking at what had to have been a vampire. Her skin was as white as the purest marble. Even her irises were white. She said something and he saw her teeth as she spoke. He cringed away from her as she shifted her grip on his arms. With a jerk, Andrew pulled himself free and scrambled back. But everything was wrong. It looked wrong. Felt wrong. He planted his feet on the floor and pushed off hard, taking a step as he rose up. But his balance was off. He felt vastly lighter, but stronger at the same time. Without warning, he found himself crashing into the wall and then rolling over the window sill.
The fall was jarring. His heart seemed to lodge in his throat. Branches whipped at his face as he fell and he instinctively reached out and clawed for one. Without thinking, he grabbed one and used its elasticity to slow his fall as he grabbed yet another. In an instant he was up against a massive tree trunk, hugging it as he trembled in terror. Why was he afraid? He was a trained agent. And yet he couldn’t control himself. Blinking, he looked around. It was night, but he could see clearly. Almost like it was day. He looked up, then down, and tried to make sense of what was happening to him. The whole world was reeling as vertigo set in. Andrew covered his face. He had parajumper training. Heights shouldn’t be a problem for him.
Then he felt it. Fur. He rubbed his face then jerked his hands away. Looking down, he saw that his hands were also covered with fur. Andrew frantically wiped his hands, trying to pull the fur off. Panic set in again as he looked at his arms that were also covered in fur. Then he looked down at his chest. Except, it wasn’t his. It was a woman’s. A furry woman’s chest. Andrew cried out as he looked in horror. What was happening?
Suddenly a little, glowing girl was floating in front of him. She said something but he couldn’t understand her. Another furry creature swung in from a branch and deftly landed beside him. Andrew looked down for branches to climb on, but more furry people were clambering up the tree from below.
Andrew tried to scramble away but a hand grabbed his face and he saw stars. Screaming, he jerked back, but the hand remained. Memories flooded in. Or were they flowing out? But they were not his. They were hers. The creature was yelling at someone and suddenly more hands were on him. Andrew closed his eyes tight, but couldn’t stem the flow of memories and he suddenly retched.
The vampire landed beside him and grabbed him up effortlessly. He tried to resist but suddenly fell limp as the fight inexplicably left him. Did the vampire do that? Impossibly strong arms carried him back up to a structure high overhead and lay him down. He looked around, confused. The place was familiar, but alien at the same time. The creatures were talking to him, both verbally and in his head.
Then he heard the words. Understood them. But he wasn’t him. He was her. Blinking, she looked around as she dug her fingers into the wooden branches that made up the floor.
“Karan’za? Are you back?”
She jerked around and looked at the vampire. Only, it wasn’t a vampire. She knew her. Aradia. A Keratian. Karan’za opened her mouth but could only cry silently as the world came rushing back to her.
“Hold her tightly.” Another familiar voice. Karan’za looked around. She knew the creature. An Elf.
“Enos’rel, it’s never been this bad before,” Aradia said. The Elf knelt down beside her and grabbed her face. Memories flooded in and Karan’za took in a deep, shuddering breath.
“What…what happened?” She looked around, still trying to pull her wits together.
“You’re pushing her too hard!” Aradia said to someone she couldn’t see. Karan’za twisted her head around and saw another vampire…Keratian. He looked stern but unapologetic.
“She will recover.”
“She could die, Orin,” Aradia said angrily.
“She agreed,” Orin said, looking down at Karan’za. “We must know.”
“You cannot keep her in that long.” Aradia looked back down at Karan’za.
“In…” Karan’za said. In Elvish. It was coming back to her. “The Conduit…”
“Can wait. We had to pull you out,” Aradia said firmly. “Orin, we are running out of Watchers. We can’t afford her to end up like…” She stopped and looked down at Karan’za.
“His loss is regrettable. But we have no other Watchers to take his place,” Orin said, softer this time. “She knows the critical nature of this mission.”
“Did he get it?” Karan’za looked at the alien creature that had been touching her face when she woke up. A Librarian. He had been recording her experience.
“Yes.” The Librarian’s voice was soft and calm.
Karan’za sighed and lay back. “I need to go back in.”
“You need to rest,” Aradia said as Enos’rel moved away. Karan’za was herself now.
She sat up and looked around. “He’s positioned where we need a Conduit. Moving North. Closer to the old Gate. We don’t have any other Conduits in that area.”
Aradia glowered and looked at Orin. He raised an eyebrow. “The information I have points to that region. We need to see.”
“Replace Merl. Watchers are supposed to work in shifts,” Aradia said sourly.
“A replacement will not be ready for several days.” Orin looked at Karan’za. “If he is on the move, he may see something and we could be missing it.”
“If she stays in as long as she did before again, we will lose her.” Aradia stood up.
“She knows the risk. She’s one of our top Chasers,” Orin said calmly.
“She’s not chasing a deviant, Orin. She’s plugging herself into someone else’s mind. She could lose herself.” Aradia looked down at Karan’za. “At least a day. Give her that.”
Karan’za lay back down. Orin frowned at Aradia then abruptly vanished into thin air. Aradia knelt back down. “Do not let him push you like this. You’re no good to us dead.”
“The Sadari are there, Aradia. I can almost taste it when I’m Watching.” Karan’za tried to sit up.
“And they’ll be there tomorrow,” Aradia said, pushing the Elf back down. “We must reduce your sessions.” She looked at the Librarian. “Prioritize your time while plugged in.”
Karan’za sighed. “He is asleep now. Or was when you pulled me out.” She glanced at the Librarian. “Have you found anything yet?”
The Librarian shook his head. “The Archive is processing it, looking for signs of the Sadari.”
Karan’za looked back at Aradia. “I trust Orin, Aradia. He found something in the Archives. He knows they’re still there and still a threat.”
“He’ll not learn anything new if you are not alive to Watch,” Aradia said softly. “Rest. Tomorrow we’ll try again.”
Karan’za nodded and lay back. It was good to be herself again.
~ ~ ~
“I just want to be upfront with you. I’m not here to be your friend.” Andrew glowered at the contrite looking couple that sat on his hotel sofa. He shifted in his chair and tossed each of them an envelope. “You’re traitors. Convicted spies.”
“Like you?” Sally said quietly as she looked at the envelope.
Andrew glared at her but kept his cool. “The only reason why you are here is because you didn’t sell the secrets. But, I think you did far worse than that. You leaked them to every media outlet stupid enough to bat an eye at you.” He rubbed the back of his neck. The headache was back.
“What’s this?” Jonah pulled an ID badge from the envelope and looked at it. Sally pulled a small folder of paperwork from hers.
“Your contract and credentials. As of today, thanks to your plea deal, you now have a permanent career with the Department of Defense.” Andrew leaned forward. “But don’t expect any pats on the back.”
“Did you even look at what we found?” Sally asked defensively.
“If I’m not cleared to look at it, I’m not going to. Even if it’s on the front page news. That’s called patriotism,” Andrew said coldly.
“That’s called sticking your head in the sand,” Sally grumbled, crossing her arms.
Andrew sighed and shook his head. “You work for us, you stay free. Screw up and we put you in separate prisons and you never see each other again. It’s as simple as that.”
“Free?” Sally challenged. “You really think we’re free?”
Andrew raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps you’d prefer solitary again?”
Sally fumed. “Sheep.”
“Yep. And us sheep have the keys, so you better behave and play nice.” Andrew sat up straighter. He looked at his watch and shook his head. “Okay, cover. We kept it simple and basically true. You work for Morrison Labs now. They have a research lab up in Seattle.”
“Seattle? Really?” Sally stood up. “We weren’t told you were moving us out of state!”
“Their facilities best match our circumstances,” Andrew said. He glanced at Jonah as he tugged on Sally’s arm.
“But, this is our home!”
“No. Jail is your home.” Andrew crossed his arms. “It’s not like you’re leaving behind any family.” He looked at the both of them. “Foster kids.”
“We didn’t choose that!” Sally grit her teeth.
“No. But you chose to misbehave. Now we are choosing for you.” Andrew shifted in his chair. “Seattle is your new home. Get used to it.”
“It’s okay, Sally,” Jonah said softly. “We’re together.”
“Yeah, about that. How in the world did you manage to get a marriage license?” Andrew looked at the two of them. They were barely seventeen when they married. Andrew smiled and leaned forward. “Give me more lip and I might let slip to the powers that be that you forged your documents.”
Sally glared at him as she sat down. “We’d just get married again.”
“In Seattle.” Andrew smiled and looked at his watch.
“Late for a date?”
“Waiting on our car.” Andrew sighed and looked at the plate of donuts. Neither Sally nor Jonah had touched them. Nor had he. But he was getting a little hungry. He looked up at them. “We have a long drive ahead of us.”
“We’re not flying?” Jonah looked incredulous.
“Nope. Too many prying eyes.” Andrew crossed his legs and leaned back. “So we’re going on a real cozy road trip.”
Jonah looked at Sally and was about to say something when there was a knock at the door. Andrew got up and straightened his clothes. “Get your bags. We’re leaving.” He pulled the door open then gaped.
“Welcome back, soldier!” A woman jumped into Andrew’s arms and squeezed him tightly. Sally and Jonah fidgeted and looked at each other.
“Mary? What are you doing here?” Andrew stammered as he returned the embrace.
“I wanted to surprise you. Your boss said it would be okay.” Mary gushed as she pulled back and wiped her eyes. “He told me you were being transferred to Seattle!”
“Yes. I’m consulting in a DoD project. But, why are you here?”
“Andrew. You’ve been on deployment for three months and you want to know why I flew across the Western seaboard to…” She noticed Sally and Jonah. “Who are they?”
Andrew looked back and sighed. Things were getting complicated too fast. “Interns at the company I’m going to consult for. That is Sally and he’s Jonah.” He looked at them sternly. “This is my wife, Mary.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Sally said pleasantly, taking Mary’s hand. “How long?”
Andrew cocked his head. “Huh?”
Mary looked down then glanced timidly at Andrew. “I was hoping to tell you over a nice, romantic dinner.”
“Mary?” Andrew glanced accusingly at Sally.
“We’re pregnant,” Mary said softly, looking up at Andrew nervously. “Twins.”