Authors: Jeremiah Knight
Tags: #Action & Adventure
Ella Masse opened her eyes, and for a moment, she forgot she was responsible for the deaths of seven billion people, give or take a million. While she hadn’t developed RC-714 personally, she’d overseen the man who had. She had taken it to her superiors, lauded it as the miracle gene they’d all been searching for and pushed it through to mass production. While the blame technically fell on ExoGen, she didn’t buy the whole ‘corporations are people’ scapegoat. Real people worked behind the corporate names, making decisions that affected the world, or in her case, killed it.
But for a moment, looking at the sun filtering through a shade, illuminating flecks of dust dancing on breezes too subtle to detect, she felt human again. Protected. Safe.
Pain pulled her from the daydream. Her gut was on fire. But pain meant she was alive. Meant her encounter the night before hadn’t been a hallucination brought on by exhaustion.
We made it
, she thought.
We found Peter
She looked around the bedroom, but saw nothing familiar. She’d never been in this house. Her eyes settled on a photo on the bedside table. She recognized Peter right away, and the woman standing next to him—his wife, Kristen. A boy stood between them. His son. Jakob. The last time she’d seen him, he was just six. Her eyes lingered on Kristen. Coming here had been a gamble. She didn’t know if Kristen would welcome her or put a bullet in her head. But it seemed the sins of old had been forgiven. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be lying in the woman’s bed—Ella lifted the comforter—or wearing the woman’s clothes.
She’d been dressed in a matching set of white underwear and a white tank top. For a moment, she felt violated. Without granting permission, she’d been stripped naked by a man she hadn’t seen in twelve years, and his son. She chastised herself a moment later. If Peter Crane was anything, it was honorable, and the only glaring flaw in his character had been her. Plus, she’d been covered in vegetation, both natural and the ExoGenetic variety. She wouldn’t be surprised if the clothing had been incinerated. She tugged up her shirt to find her stomach wrapped in tight bandages. There wasn’t a trace of blood showing through, which told her two things: the bleeding had stopped, but only because Peter had sewn her up, putting his old military field experience to good use.
Agony swept through her when she tried to sit up, her muscles pushing against the line holding her gut together. But she couldn’t stay in bed. Couldn’t stay stationary. There was too much to do. Too much at stake.
And she needed to check on her daughter.
Rolling slowly to her side, Ella grunted and pushed herself up, careful to have her right arm, which was toned, strong and uninjured, do all the work. Sitting up, she had a better view of the room around her. It looked almost unused.
She spotted a note on the dresser in front of her. She could read the text on the folded sheet of paper from a distance.
You should probably stay in bed,
but I know you better than that.
Help yourself to some clothing.
I think it will fit.
Standing wiped the slight grin from her face, her present pain replacing ancient memories. The movement shifted the air over her head and sent a shiver through her body. Why did her head feel cold? She put a hand up to her hair and felt the short, stubby scratch of a recent shave.
He shaved my head!
She nearly got angry, but quickly understood why. It was the same reason he’d gotten rid of the clothing. They had arrived at his doorstep contaminated.
She headed toward the dresser and opened the top drawer. Underwear and bras. She looked down at her chest. Peter hadn’t dressed her with a bra, probably because she was two cup sizes smaller than his wife. But that didn’t matter, she’d gone without one for so long, the underwire and foam cups would probably irk her.
She closed the drawer and opened the next. She found a black t-shirt and exchanged it with the white one she’d been dressed in, not because she liked black or wanted to outwardly express the condition of her soul, but because it would help her blend in with the darkness. The third drawer down contained pants. Mostly sweats, but buried at the bottom was a pair of dark green cargo pants. The tags still on them. She imagined Peter buying them for Kristen, never to be worn. She was a far too fashionable woman. For a time, Ella was too, but function was far more important than fashion these days.
The pants fit, but she snugged them in place with a belt from the top drawer, careful not to squeeze her belly too tightly. For shoes, she went to the closet, pushing aside Peter’s old suits, and dresses that hadn’t been worn in years. She found a pair of hiking boots on the floor, but didn’t put them on. Clothes were one thing, but she’d need to ask about the boots. Supporting her weight on the doorframe, she bent down, wincing in pain and plucked up the boots.
When she stood, waves of pain echoed through her core and out to her extremities. She steeled herself with a deep breath, and then headed for the bedroom door.
The wood floor in the hallway creaked underfoot. She froze, listening for hints of predators who might have been alerted to her presence.
, she told herself.
You’re in a house. With a locked door
It won’t be enough.
Deal with that later.
The warring sides of her conscience were silenced by a high pitched sound that was alarming and unfamiliar. She reached for her machete, but the weapon—along with the rest—was missing. But then the true nature of the sound was identified by her scientist’s mind: laughter.
She took the stairs cautiously, untrusting of the world, unbelieving in the lighthearted atmosphere. But what would the point of that be? And the person laughing wasn’t Peter or Jakob. She stepped out of the stairwell and looked into the dining room. It was her daughter, Anne.
Jakob sat beside her, still chuckling. His voice was silenced when he looked up and saw Ella. “Oh. Uh, hi.”
Ella said nothing, but stepped further into the room, eyeing a piece of paper lying on the table. Colored pencils, some worn down to nubs, surrounded the page, which Anne was now leaning over, blocking from her mother’s view. Feeling a surge of protectiveness, Ella craned her head around for a better look. When Anne hid the page, Ella’s hand shot out like a striking snake, snatching the piece of paper from the table.
“Sorry, Dr. Masse,” Jakob blurted out. “I—I didn’t think it would—”
“What is this?” Ella asked, looking at the page. She couldn’t really tell what she was looking at. A page of TCAG genetic code would make more sense than this. “What am I looking at?”
“It’s a drawing,” Anne said.
Ella gave her daughter a once-over. The girl had a bandage around her now shaved head and a second on her right forearm. They looked as professional as the one around her own waist. Like Ella, Anne was dressed in new clothes, except they were too big, and masculine. She was wearing the boy’s clothes, perhaps from two years ago, when everyone on Earth had stopped buying anything. She glanced back at Jakob and confirmed that his clothing was too tight on him. He’d be in his father’s clothes before long.
“It’s a Stalker,” Anne said. “You’re holding it upside down.”
Ella cringed at the word, but turned the page around. Then she saw it. The human-like head, the slender body, powerful legs and arms. The long tail ending in what looked like a stalk of wheat. It was a Stalker, all right, but something had been hastily added to the image. Two large lumps that looked like... She looked up, trying not to smile. “Is this a butt?” She turned to Jakob. “Did you add a butt?”
Jakob burst out laughing, and Anne joined in. The annoyance Ella felt about trivializing something like a Stalker quickly melted away as the pair of kids—who were just
“It’s got a big booty,” Anne said, the laughter pushing tears from her eyes.
“Shake, shake, shake,” Jakob sang, and Anne joined in, “Shake, shake, shake. Shake your booty.”
Ella shook her head at the uproarious laughter that followed. “You’ll be lucky if one of these doesn’t hear you two.”
Anne’s laughter cut short immediately.
Jakob’s faded more gradually, but ended more glumly. “Are you serious? I thought they were nocturnal?”
“Used to be,” Ella said. “And even if they are hiding from the sun right now, it doesn’t mean they can’t hear you. There isn’t much making noise out there these days, and the—”
“Walls are thick.” It was Peter, standing in the second door to the dining room. He carried a basket of veggies, the likes of which Ella hadn’t eaten in months. “We’re locked up tight. Nothing outside can hear us in here.”
Anne and Jakob looked instantly relieved.
Peter put the basket on the table. “You’re just in time for breakfast.”
Anne eyed the vegetables. “Are these Exogenetic?”
Jakob huffed, plucked a carrot from the basket and snapped off a bite. “Yeah, right.”
Anne didn’t wait for permission. She dove right in, grabbing handfuls of pea pods, carrots and broccoli.
While the kids ate, Ella slowly rounded the table toward Peter, who stood waiting, a sheepish grin on his face. “You kept the seeds out.”
“Until last night, it was pretty easy. Sorry about your clothes.”
She shrugged, looking over his shoulder. “Where’s—”
A sudden, hard glare in his eyes stopped the question from leaving her lips and simultaneously answered it for Ella.
Kristen wasn’t here.
She was dead.
Trying to ignore her rising emotions, Ella put on the boots, tying them tightly, while Peter watched in silence. When she finished, tears welled in her eyes. Peter took a step back, and then another, leading her out of the room. She followed, meeting him in the hall. For a moment, they just stood there, looking at each other. Then his arms moved. Just a slight gesture. An invitation, which she accepted, slowly stepping into his embrace. His touch was light at first, but then, as she squeezed her head into his chest, his arms wrapped around her, squeezing, shielding and sparking ancient memories.
When he leaned down and kissed the top of her shaved head, all of the walls she’d erected, to keep her sane and moving and motivated, came crashing down. He quickly closed the dining room door as she sobbed against him and collapsed into his arms.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“For coming here. For ruining what you have.”
“Ella,” he said. “There is no one else on the planet I’m more happy to—”
His body went rigid. He understood. They’d brought danger with them. She looked up into his light brown eyes, as sharp as ever, and said, “We can’t stay here. They’re following us.”
The mix of emotions roiling through Peter was almost disorienting. His joy at seeing other living people dulled the knowledge that danger followed in their wake. That one of those people was Ella Masse had further muddled his thoughts. Her presence here was either a gift meant to ease his pain, or a cruel twist of fate, designed to open old wounds. Of course, either option meant that some higher power was guiding the events playing out on planet Earth, and he didn’t buy into that. If there was a God, he was shaking his head at what Ella and ExoGen had done to his world. Maybe that’s why she was alive still. Retribution.
We all have sins to pay for
, Peter thought, squeezing the source of his biggest folly against him. His resurgence of feelings for Ella surprised him. It had been so long. But then, their relationship had a long list of starts and stops. He’d known her since fourth grade. Loved her since seventh. They had become high school sweethearts separated by college. The relationship rekindled briefly post-college, but was separated again by careers—his in the military, hers in the sciences. When they found themselves living in the same town, a fluke or fate, the relationship had flared once more, but that time with consequences. Ella’s work had suffered, and Peter’s marriage had nearly broken apart. The light they had always brought each other had become a darkness. He hadn’t seen her since.
Ella’s voice, fresh in his ear again, was like hearing music for the first time. But then her words finally sank in. “Who is following you?”
Ella stepped back and wiped her tears away with the cuff of her sleeve wrapped around her knuckles. “Stalkers.”
“The thing Anne drew?”
Ella leaned her head to the door. The kids could be heard, still talking and laughing. Not listening. “Too many to count.”
“They’re hunting in packs?” The last predators he’d seen were so vicious they would turn on each other.
“They’re adapting,” she said. “Quickly. Competition is fierce. But what’s following us is less of a pack and more like a herd. Upwards of fifty.”
Peter’s confidence plummeted. He could manage a handful of most anything. But a hundred? He didn’t have that many shotgun shells. He headed for the kitchen. Poured two glasses of water from a pitcher full of peppermint leaves. A sprinkle of sugar, which was nearly gone, went in each. He mixed them and pushed one glass across the island. Ella accepted the glass and sat down across from him.
She sipped the water and smiled. “Tastes like a candy cane.”
“Only because you haven’t had candy recently.” He took a swig from his glass, the mint waking him up and making the water feel cooler than it was. “Tell me about them. The Stalkers.”
Ella placed her glass on the island. “We should just leave now.”
“I want to know what we’re up against. I’ll decide if we need to leave.” Peter leaned on his elbows and raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t going anywhere without answers. “Tell me about the Stalkers.”
Ella sighed and rubbed her hand over her stubbly head.
“It’s a good look on you,” he said. “Like Sigourney Weaver in
“Never saw it.”
He shrugged. “I’ll wait until you’re ready.”
“Persistent as ever.”
“I get what I want.”
She looked him in the eyes. “Not always.” They stared at each other for several seconds, neither wavering. Then Ella cleared her throat and leaned back. “They’re hairless. Black eyes. No noses to speak of. Sharp teeth, of course. Skin covered in jagged plates that jut out from their spines, like oversized spinous processes. They might be defensive, or for attracting mates. I don’t know. They’re fast. And smart.”
“They strategize, like lions used to, using natural camouflage and setting traps. They range in size from a hundred pounds to three hundred. Long arms. Strong legs. They run on all fours, twice as fast as you or I could manage, but they can also stand upright.”
Something about Ella’s description unnerved him, but he couldn’t quite peg what it was. The creatures she was describing sounded horrible, but it was something else about them. Something inferred, but not yet said.
“Corn and wheat crops are their preferred hunting grounds. They have long, thin tails—not prehensile, thank God—that look like stalks gone to seed. You could look at a field of wheat, like yours, and see a hundred of them, tails raised in the air, and not know it. Not until they rattled.”
“They shake their tails before attacking. What look like seeds are actually hollow, hard nubs of skin that make a racket when shaken.”
“But why warn prey of an attack?”
“It’s not a warning. It’s a strategy.”
“Ahh.” Peter understood. The sound was meant to flush the prey into a trap. Again, horrible, but she hadn’t touched on what was bothering him. “What were they? Before?”
The way Ella paused before answering told him what he feared, even before she spoke the words.
“Human,” she said. “And you can see it in their faces. But they’re mostly monsters now.”
“How is that possible?”
“RC-714,” she said.
“How could a single gene make all those changes in the human body?” He’d seen people go savage, with longer teeth and claws. It was horrifying to witness. Even worse to be on the receiving end of an attack, and mind-numbingly painful to watch it happen to someone you loved. But those changes were minimal and mostly in the mind. What she was describing now was something different. A species transformation.
“The gene doesn’t carry any information regarding specific traits,” she said.
When she paused, he thought for sure she was going to say he wouldn’t understand. But she knew him better than that. CSOs weren’t just the most physically fit or deadly soldiers the Marines had to offer, they were also the smartest. And he’d spent enough time with her in the past to understand genetics better than the average layman.
She sipped her water. “It’s more like a key.”
“A key to what?” he asked.
“The human race evolved over millions of years.”
“Which is why the rapid evolution you’re talking about doesn’t seem possible.”
She held up her hands, beseeching patience. “We’ll get to that. Most would say that it took the human race 160 million years to evolve into what we are today, starting with small squirrel-like insectivores like haramiyids. While creatures like the haramiyids might be distant ancestors of the human race, the haramiyids didn’t emerge from the primordial soup, or even from the oceans for that matter. They evolved from therapsids, which were mammal-like reptiles living at the end of the Triassic Period, 210 million years ago. And the therapsids...”
“Evolved from reptiles. From Triassic dinosaurs. That’s what you’re saying?”
She nodded. “As species evolve, adapt and diversify, new genetic code is written, while the no longer useful code becomes pseudogenes. They’re like backup copies of old genes that have lost their protein-coding ability and biological function. 98.5% of all genes in people, and animals, have been deemed ‘junk’ DNA. While it’s likely that some of them serve some function we don’t understand, most of them are pseudogenes, going back to the beginning of genes, containing all the adaptations, abilities and mutations of millions of individual species that resulted in the human race.” She paused to look Peter in the eyes. “RC-714 unlocked those genes, making them available.”
“But why did everyone and everything become predatory?”
“Not everything did. There are a few species that remain docile, but are certainly more capable of defending themselves. Others haven’t changed at all, like bees, still feeding on flowers unaltered by RC-714. But the main reason for the change was hunger. The release of all those genes created an insatiable hunger—for protein. That was the instigating external force that pushed those species to adapt, first into predators, and then into specialized predators dealing with competition. Over the past two years, new species have evolved without reproducing at all. What used to take millions of years can now happen in weeks.”
“Leaving us with Stalkers.”
“Tip of the iceberg, I’m afraid.”
Peter’s body had gone rigid with tension, but Ella’s iceberg comment twisted the muscles in his back into tight balls. “What do you mean?”
“Apply the same junk DNA scenario to other species. Not just mankind. Not just predators. And not just mammals.”
“What, like fish?” There were already giant killers in the ocean, and the Blue Whale was the largest animal to ever exist on the planet. While an ocean full of predators wasn’t a pleasant thought, they were smack dab in the middle of the country, thousands of miles from the nearest shore.
Ella shook her head. “Birds.”
“Birds?” The first thing he realized upon speaking the word, was that he hadn’t actually seen a bird in a long time. That realization sparked his imagination. The first bird that came to mind was the extinct, South American Phorusrhacos. He’d seen a documentary about the giant, flightless bird. Eight feet tall, three hundred pounds and predatory. But it didn’t sound much worse than the Stalkers she had described. He pictured the large bird and thought it looked a lot like a... “Dinosaur.”
Ella gave him a sheepish grin, confirming the hypothesis.
He felt incredulous. “There are
Thankfully, she shook her head. “But there are animals with dinosaur traits. Remember, all genes going back to the beginning of life on Earth have been unlocked. The genetic Pandora’s Box has been opened. If a dinosaur trait is advantageous, a species—or even an individual—will quickly adopt it. Rapid evolution. And that’s what really makes them so dangerous. Once you find a way to beat them, they’ll change. That’s why we need to leave before they get here.”
“Because you’ve been in this situation before?”
“Other biodomes?” When Ella had contacted him all those years ago, telling him to not eat the food, to build a biodome, he heeded her warning and allowed a crew, hired by her, to build the structure. Kristen had hated the idea, mostly because it had come from Ella, but he knew Ella wouldn’t lie. Even if he had become untrustworthy because of Ella, his trust
her was implicit. Part of him wanted to believe she was merely looking out for him, because of what they’d had. But now it seemed there had been an alternate reason. “You’re moving from one dome to the next, aren’t you?”
She didn’t even try to deny it. “There’s a network of domes around the country, most built using funds I made from ExoGen. I am stopping at some I come across on the way, but I didn’t build them for that purpose. Especially yours. If it weren’t for Anne, I wouldn’t have come here. But...”
“I knew you would protect her. It’s selfish, I know. But I can’t do this without you.”
“Turn the key the other way.”
“There’s a lab, off the coast of Boston. I had it built, but the world fell apart before I could get there.”
“And you want me, and
, to escort you there?” His words were nearly a growl “You want us to risk my family’s life? I already lost Kristen, and now you—”
“Your family is already at risk,” Ella said.