Brett Perkins had always believed in life after death. He’d just never thought it would be the same one.
It was a question he’d thought about a lot. Occupational hazard. Up to a few months ago he and the three others in the room with him had been soldiers. An assignment to a base in the ass-end of beyond had seemed like a dead-end move for his career. Until he’d realized that he’d been sent to a top-secret project. One so classified that he’d been told most of the higher-ups didn’t even know about it. That knowledge had puffed his chest out until he’d figured out the truth. The Project was top-secret for a reason. Genetic experiments on soldiers didn’t go down so well with anyone who had a conscience.
Trouble was, no one left the Project. Not alive. Definitely not human.
Now he was neither human nor alive.
And life after death sucked hairy-ass donkey balls. Gigantic ones.
“Would you hold still?” he demanded. He squinted, trying to match up the torn flesh on the arm of the man sitting in front of him so he could staple it shut.
“Sorry. How’s this?” Evan Fredericks, their section leader, altered his position so Brett had better access. For some reason Brett had found himself designated as the team medic. Which, given their newly dead-but-not-dead state, meant he got to get busy with the office supplies.
Ignoring the white of the bone deep in the wound, if he could even call it a wound since it didn’t bother Fredericks at all, Brett pulled the ragged edges together and pressed down quickly with the stapler. Stolen from the desk behind him, it was bright pink, with a happy face and some chick’s name on it. Sophie. He grunted. Nice name.
Wrapping a length of stretchy bandage around his handiwork, he tapped Fredericks on the shoulder. “Okay, good to go,” he said. “But you’re gonna need to eat something soon, to seal that up.”
A grimace crossed Fredericks face momentarily. Brett ignored it as he moved to root through the drawer of a nearby desk for more staples. Some elements of their new natures were taking more time to adjust to than others, but the need to eat was one Brett suspected none of them would ever get used to.
Because they weren't talking about hitting up the local diner and chowing down on a burger. In fact, just the thought of cooked meat made his stomach churn, even if his brain told him he wanted it. No, their new bodies needed something else to power and repair them. To stop their dead flesh falling into rot and decay.
Warm meat. Hot blood. Something that only moments before had a heartbeat. Something with a heartbeat if the need got bad enough. Either way, they only had a small window of opportunity. As soon as the flesh cooled, their bodies rejected it and they couldn't eat.
In a sick twist of irony, their dead bodies needed food nearer to alive than they were. And they couldn’t avoid the need. If they refused to eat, wounds didn’t close, and their flesh began to look wrong. Like they were starting to decay. None of them wanted that.
Dying wasn’t the worst of it. Decaying in your own dead body with no way to end it all? That was a nightmare Brett didn’t want to contemplate. With the Project always on their tails, looking to recover their wayward creations, they had enough problems without adding to the burden.
Methodically, he searched the small office they’d holed up in for anything useful. They’d torch the place before they left to cover their tracks and remove any genetic material, just in case, but he had to do something to occupy his hands. Keep busy. Anything to avoid thinking.
He cast a surreptitious glance around the room. Dominic Fletcher sat at a desk by the door, and Kelwood was across the room, rocking to himself. Brett caught Fletcher’s eye and shared a look of worry. Jared had been that way since they’d been infected, his only conversation about his wife and child. A wife and child he wouldn't be able to see again. He was dead to them now; he had to be . There was no way back to their old life. Not with what they were now.
Fredericks stood by the window, rolling his shoulder as he tested the range of motion in the injured limb. Despite the fact that the cut had opened his arm to the bone, no pain registered in his expression. Wounds didn’t bother them. No physical damage did.
Brett looked down, opening and closing his hand. He could still feel… touch, sense. But it was like their pain responses had been turned off the instant the Project had pumped whatever crap they had into their veins.
He didn’t remember their infection. All he remembered was being brought in injured and wondering if the pitted ceiling of the temporary med-bay would be the last thing he’d ever see. He’d woken up in a cage with the others, and it had all gone downhill from there.
The project had thrown everything it had to offer at them. Bloods, Lycans… even Reanimates. Brett shivered at the memory. Zombies powered by nothing more than the need to eat, their dead, empty eyes had always given him the creeps. And they’d killed them all. Nothing thrown into the cage stood a chance. Bloods, Lycans, Reanimates.… Nothing stood a chance against what they were.
The initials hung in his mind like a shimmering jewel. Self-Aware Re-Animate.
They’d turned him into a fucking zombie.
Anger surged through him and he slammed the drawer shut. The force shot it through the back of the desk and into the one behind it with a loud crack that made the others look around at him.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Wasn’t concentrating.”
He went back to searching, but kept his attention on the others. Fredericks watched over Fletcher’s shoulder as he tapped away on the keyboard in front of him. Like their leader, he wore field dressings like they were a new fashion. H is ribs had been taped up until he could eat enough to seal the vicious claw marks he’d gotten in an altercation with a vamp three nights ago.
Fletcher frowned at the screen, muttering something, but then his expression cleared and his fingers flew over the keys faster than he’d been able to when he was merely human. Like every night since their escape, he used the internet, hacking into police databases to gather intelligence about possible Blood attacks.
The Project made one big mistake when it had created its super-soldiers. It forgot the men and women it had experimented on had been soldiers. It had only taken one pack, Alpha Three, and their determination to rescue one of their own, to bring the Project to its knees. The subjects, the SARAs included, had escaped. Brett had naively imagined a world where they could disappear, pretend to be human and live out their lives.
Then the fucking Bloods had started killing civilians. So now it was game on.
“Got something.” Fletcher’s voice broke the silence. “Shots fired, woman missing. Black blood-like substance found at the scene. Cops think its oil or something.”
“That’s their MO.” Without thinking or feeling himself move, Brett was right at Fletcher’s shoulder, looking down at the screen for the address. “Not far from here. Greenwood. Sounds like a shitty place.”
“That’s an hour at most,” Fredericks confirmed. “Right, let’s move. Fletcher, torch this place. Perkins, get some transport. Kelwood… Kel! We’re up, let’s go.”
The town of Greenwood was just as much of a shithole as Brett suspected it would be. Nose wrinkling, he waited in the shadows as Fredericks cased the house. The police had long gone, but Brett could smell that they’d been here. Hell, he could practically still hear their heartbeats and, if he lapsed into his new senses too far, he’d be able to track each and every one of them back to their homes. Break down the doors that separated him from the hot, sweet flesh and blo—
“Keep it together, mate,” Dominic Fletcher’s rough voice broke through his little daydream. He turned his head. Dom had one shoulder propped up against the fence, but his eyes were steady on Brett’s.
“How’d you know I wa—” He couldn’t bring himself to say it, but the expression on Dom’s face said it all. He shrugged.
“You were tweaking,” he said, shaking his head rapidly to the side. Brett easily followed the movement, but to anyone else, it would be too fast. Like a DVD caught in a rapid replay loop. “Figured the ’mares had gotten you.”
“Yeah.… Hard to shake them off sometimes.” Brett let a heavy sigh escape him and leaned back against the fence. His gaze slid sideways to Dom, to the width of his tattooed chest and shoulders and frowned. “You gettin’ bigger, dude? Or did you find a weight-bench at the last place? And eat it?”
Dom looked down, and grinned as he tensed. The dressings pulled again as his abs popped into high relief. “No. At least if we gotta be zombies, we’re fucking ripped zombies, hey? Think the ladies will like me like this?”
“Nah, muscles like that they’ll want a monster prick. And yours… even with the increase, we’re talking maggot at best.”
Dom chuckled, his face splitting in a broad grin. “Wanker .”
The conversation degenerated into comfortable name-calling and then fell into silence for a moment until Dom spoke again. “Seriously though, whatever they put in that shit worked. If they could get rid of the side-effects, they’d make a fucking fortune in gyms.”
Brett arched his eyebrow. “You mean like… having no fucking heartbeat? And generally being dead?”
“Yeah, that.” Dom kicked at the dirt with a booted foot. “Bit of a downer that.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
The side door opened, the sound bringing them both to attention, only to relax when Fredericks and Kelwood emerged from the shadows at the side of the house. There were no lights on; they didn’t need them.
“Definitely Bloods,” Kelwood rasped, the first time any of them had heard his voice for a couple of days. Of all of them, his sense of smell was the keenest. “And a human female. She managed to shoot one before they took her.”
Brett frowned. “They didn’t kill her?”
Kelwood shook his head, his pale blue eyes focused for once. They were red-rimmed, but no one commented on it. They had more shit to deal with than bothering a guy about a tear or two.
“If they did, it wasn’t here.” He looked back at the house, a frown on his face. “Which is odd. Generally they kill their vics on-site and leave, but that makes at least three they’ve kidnapped.”
“And we haven’t found the bodies yet.” Fredericks looked around the group. “I’ve never seen a Blood consume a whole body, you?”
They all shook their heads, but it was Dom that spoke. “Nope, they usually just drain their vics. Never seen them take so much as a bite.”
Fredericks’ lips compressed into a thin line. Brett suppressed a shiver. As a human Evan Fredericks had been an easy-going, affable sort of guy. Post-infection as a SARA, the dude was fucking scary, even for them.
“Okay,” he said. “That means they’re taking these women for a reason. Kel, can you track the scent?”
Kelwood took a breath, his eyes unfocused as he concentrated. He nodded. “Yeah. It’s faint, but I can follow it. We’re going to need to go on foot though. They took her over the back here.”
Fredericks nodded. “Okay, let’s grab our gear and move out. I want to know what the fuck they’re doing with those women.”
A groan was the first thing Julia heard when she woke up. It took her at least thirty seconds to realize the drawn out, painful sound came from her own chest.
“Ugh.” She opened her eyes, fighting lids that seemed to be made of lead, to see.... Nothing. Her eyes searched the darkness, looking for something to focus on. Crap. Where was she?
She fought back panic and took deep breaths. In and out. In and hold for a couple of seconds to slow her racing heart. Just the same as she did when she ran. Work the body like a machine, obey its rules and use those to make it behave.
The panic shoved to a small corner of her mind, she focused on what she knew. She was alone. Only her own breathing rasped in the darkness. It surrounded her like a blanket, but not one she’d want to wrap herself up in. It was cold, wet and with a chill breeze from somewhere that froze all the hairs on the back of her neck where they stood upright.
She lay on a hard surface, one that was uneven with something. Pebbles? She moved her hand, and the unmistakable texture of dirt and loose stones pressed against her skin. Sitting up, she looked left and right, eyes wide to try and catch the tiniest bit of light.
Her breath caught. She was underground. The air had that dank, close quality she associated with cellars and basements. Carefully, she scooted back until she hit something. A wall. The rough brick rubbed shoulders bared by the vest top she’d put on after her shower.
As she looked around, her eyes became a little more accustomed to the lack of light. She was in a small room, the walls disappearing into shadow, but she didn’t think the ceiling was very high. Probably lower than normal. The air felt too close for anything else.
Sliding her back up the wall, she rose to her feet and took a step to the side, then more until she reached the corner of the room. Corner meant she had walls on either side, so anything had to come at her from the front.
If she could see it.
Where the hell was she? Back braced in the corner, she rubbed at her face, trying to clear the fuzziness from her mind. She’d been in town, and her tires had been slashed. She’d had to walk home, the heat blasting down on her. She remembered taking a shower…. Then her memory got fuzzy and soft, like cotton wool. She hissed in frustration. What had happened next ? Something had, because this sure as hell wasn’t her bathroom.
More details came into view from the darkness. Opposite her, there were faint outlines like there was a door there. The sight of a door triggered a flash of memory. The door in her kitchen. Fear slammed into her, the instinctive reaction pressing her back into the rough bricks of the walls as memory returned in fits and starts.
Buddy’s men had found her. They’d gotten in. She’d shot one. But they weren’t Buddy’s men. Unless her ex-husband’s men had taken to sporting vampire fangs. A whimper escaped her as the scene in her head changed. Being carried through the darkness over someone’s shoulder. But no one could move that fast, the ground a blur beneath them. There was darkness and pain. Her heart raced as she relived the memory. Agony slicing through her neck, the fear she was going to die. A man over her, his knee forcing her thighs apart. She’d fought him, lashing out like a wild cat. The memory of a man’s face recoiling from her blow, nail marks across his face, swam to the surface of her mind. His features twisted in anger, became something terrifying as he swung his fist back. Pain in the side of her head, her face and then nothing. Darkness.
She whimpered, her face pressed to the cold brick as she tried to control the trembling of her body. Tentatively, she reached up to her neck. Her fingertips brushed the skin there, searching carefully. She winced. Dull pain at the touch warned her that all was not right. A bruise maybe? She searched the borders, and worked her way across the tender spot. Two scabs nestled in the center.
“Shitshitshitshit.” Her brain didn’t want to comprehend the facts. She hadn’t been bitten. She couldn’t have been, because Vampires didn’t exist. So if they didn’t exist she couldn’t have been bitten. But if they didn’t exist, who had kidnapped her?
Putting the question aside, she moved her hand down. Over her ribs and her stomach. Her thighs quivered, fear of what she’d find taking root. A hand between her legs, she pressed gently. And closed her eyes in relief. Everything felt normal. No soreness. She hadn’t been raped.
A soft snuffling sound broke through her thoughts, dragging her head up to listen. Was that someone crying? A frown on her face, she lifted her hand. Her cheeks were dry. Okay, it wasn’t her. So that meant there was someone else down here.
She launched herself across the room, reaching the door in less than a heartbeat.
“Hello? Is there anyone there?” Mouth against the lock, she called out, then put her ear against it to listen.
The snuffling became soft sobs. She’d been right. There was someone down here with her. New purpose filled her, chasing away her fear.
“Hey… hello? Who’s that? I’m Julia,” she called out, pitching her voice to carry but not too far. Her discovery she wasn’t alone was tempered by the fact that she and whoever else had been brought down here on purpose. The kidnappers could be listening.
The sobs stopped. Shit.
“Hey… talk to me. Who are you?”
Silence. Julia cursed softly under her breath and ran her hand over the door. It was wooden, with iron bands across it. A crude handle jutted from the surface to the left. Grabbing it, she rattled the door. It was locked. Further investigation revealed a barred window near the top. On her tiptoes, she managed to look out and could just make out what looked like a corridor, more doors like her own lining it.
“Be quiet. They’ll come back.”
The voice was so soft Julia thought she’d imagined it, but it got stronger at the end of the sentence. It was female, that much she could tell, but that was it.
“Who’s ‘they’? Please, I just woke up. What’s going on? Where are we?”
The response was short, succinct and stole Julia’s breath.