"Whatever happens, it will be all right." Hunter said quickly. Luci was already terrified.
"They found us, Oh, God, they found us. We're going to die." her voice cracked with fear.
"Healing technology. We can't die." Hunter reminded her. She didn't hear him. She was too focused on the man opening the door.
"Don't move." The threatening voice entered the room before the guard. "You've been caught. Hunter Drew, Luci Connerson, the game is over." The deep voice belonged to none other than Steven Tripp. Hunter growled, recognizing the man instantly. His wolf instincts wanted to tear the expression from the man's face without a second thought. The torment he had endured from this man's mind games resurfaced from his memory. He could still feel the anger from the deception.
"Did you bring Samson too?" Luci whispered, trembling at the mere sight of the man.
"Samson? Oh, you mean the commander. We've . . . Done away with him." A twisted grin took over his features. "He had a fatal case of lead poisoning."
"You killed him?" Luci said.
"Well, aren't we nosy." Steven replied. "I must say, it was amusing watching you walk the halls of this establishment for the past few days. You do realize I can not allow you to kill our leader. Any plans you have made are basically pointless, seeing as you are our creations. We will use you, you will help us overthrow the government, and then we shall see what happens to you."
"You can't stop us." Hunter said.
"There are two of you. I have an army. Do you really want to play that game? You're not invincible."
"What's stopping me from killing you right here, right now?" Hunter's muscles tensed, his fingers folding into tight fists.
Steven drew a shiny silver pistol. Passing it between his hands, he asked, "Do you remember that drug we used to keep you from shifting when you were in the van?" He slipped a magazine into the gun. "A stronger dose will kill you. I could end both your lives right here are now. What's stopping me?"
"Why do you want me back so badly?" Hunter's rage began to boil. "Why couldn't you just let me escape and live happily with my fiancée? What makes me so damn important?"
"Wait and see." Steven smiled. "If you cooperate, you'll be with her again soon."
Hunter's face darkened. "How can I believe you?"
"You can't." Steven raised the gun. "Come with me, both of you."
Hunter refused to move. He erupted into the wolf, throwing himself at Steven. The pistol fired. Hunter collapsed on the floor, motionless.
"Hunter!" Luci screamed. She wanted to run to him, but Steven pointed the gun at her.
"Samson was too soft on you. Now, we can do things my way. Killing him was the best decision I have ever made. As for you, my dear Luci. . ."
Luci couldn't understand the words coming from Steven's mouth. She saw his lips moving, making shapes that should have been words. The sight of blood was making her queasy and woozy. Put your head between your knees. Put your head between your knees. Put your head . . . Her sight became blurry as her body crumpled.
"You two are pathetic." Steven sneered.
Hunter's body shivered. He rose off of the ground, baring his fangs. Anger burned in his eyes. You captured me once. I will never allow you to do it again.
"Damn! Wrong magazine!" Steven cursed. He threw the gun across the room, flinging it into Luci's body. He became the lion, tearing into Hunter's flesh with his massive claws. Hunter held nothing back. He clawed at the eyes of the lion, causing him to howl in pain and temporary blindness. Steven swung at Hunter's neck, attempting to slice the jugular. Gray and yellow fur became a blur as the two men warred on. They stopped, circling each other before attacking a second time.
Steven growled in frustration. Captivity had made Hunter a stronger fighter. He had rage to fuel his fury.
Eyes wide, teeth bared, fangs snapping, Hunter delivered blow after blow to the lion. Blood stained his tawny fur. Steven leapt up to counter-attack Hunter, shoving him to the floor. He managed to pin him.
Hunter struggled, maneuvering himself in every way imaginable to reverse the scenario. Steven forced his claws into Hunter's skin, going deeper than the fur. Blood rushed from the wounds. He wanted to kill him, but was under orders not too. Hunter, however, was under no such order. He only fought harder. He rolled suddenly, flipping the lion. He landed on top of him, ready to take away his life's blood by sinking his teeth into his throat. Suddenly, Steven shifted back into a man.
Hunter was surprised by the sudden change. He shifted as well, ready to fight the man with fists instead of paws. It was enough time for Steven to escape from the deadly paws and shoot Hunter again, this time with three consecutive bullets.
Pain took over Hunter. All of his senses shut down. The agony became his only reality. He slumped to the floor, a glare of pure hatred remaining in his eyes.
Steven cast a glance at the still unconscious Luci. "She won't be needing this." He pulled a vial from his pocket, filled with the drug that temporarily removed a shifter's abilities. "At least I can control you with this." Puncturing Hunter's skin with the needle, he slipped the drug into his bloodstream. "I can't wait until they let me kill you."
Luci felt herself coming to, but she stayed frozen. Her mind raced. What happened? Where am I? Is Hunter dead?
Hunter. What had happened to Hunter? She remembered the sound of guns going off, watching him fall, running towards him, seeing blood. . . Then nothing. He wasn't dead though. He couldn't possibly be. He had healing technology as well.
He was there. He had killed Samson, his commander. He had risen to power. He was ruthless and evil, quite possibly unstoppable. He walked in public with no fear of the police. His charming smile and attractive features gave no reason to suspect him. She had seen him use these powers on countless woman to entice them into becoming his victims. She had been one of those women.
There never been a car accident. She had fabricated that story so she would not sound as naïve as she had been a year ago. She did have a boyfriend, but she was almost certain he hadn't even noticed she was gone. She didn't miss him, either. She resolved to tell Hunter the truth, if she ever saw him alive again.
The silence was comforting. It meant she was truly alone, not being haunted by Steven or another guard. She slowly relaxed, allowing herself to stretch out. Her left leg did not move so easily. She tugged again, and discovered she had been chained to the floor.
Idiots. she thought. She shifted into the black cat, expecting the ankle brace to fall away. She gasped as it tightened. Not even her smallest form could provide her an escape.
Fear laced its fingers around her heart. She pulled at the chains, but they were bolted to the floor. This time, she could not escape. Panic set in. Luci yanked at them, refusing to stop, hoping she could at least begin to loosen them, wondering if the continued stress would weaken them at all. Her hands began to ache. The metal links left dents in her skin because of her intense grip. She kicked and struggled, but it was in vain. The chains held fast. She was trapped.
"God?" she cried out in a whisper. "Can you hear me? Please, if you can, help me. Oh, God, help me."
She had called him, had asked to see him. Steven both loved and dreaded visiting her. She ran their institution, and had asked for him by name. There was no way out of it. If she had been just his boss or just his girlfriend, it would have been all right. But, no. She had to be both.
"You wanted to see me?"
The beautiful woman turned in her chair. "I did, Mr. Tripp. Shut the door." Steven obliged. "I trust you've got the woman and Hunter separated?"
"Just as you commanded. Luci Connerson and Hunter Drew have both been dealt with. This time, neither of them will be able to escape."
"You shouldn't have let either of them escape." she snapped. "We came too close to being discovered. All of our careful planning and secrecy would have been for nothing."
Steven began to massage her shoulders. "My dear, I never would have let that happen. Besides, who would have believed him?"
She locked eyes with him. "Take your hands off of me. Anyone that knew him before he died."
"We have to break him so we can use him. Kill him, but without killing him."
"You tried that. She survived."
"She killed one of my best assassins."
"Anything you do to her only fuels him, though. You could slaughter her right in front of him and that would only make him strive to avenge her death. If he knew about the assassin, you and I would be dead. His mind in impenetrable as well. He's so focused on killing you and ending all of this that we cannot control him that way."
"What about the girl?"
"Yes. I believe she's growing on him."
"Then harming her would only have the same effects as hurting Victoria."
"He has to have a weakness."
"Why is he so important?" Steven asked her. "Why are we so focused on getting him?"
She laughed a pretty laugh. "Steven. Think for just a moment about what you asked me."
"You never told me why."
"His body is perfect. We have had our eyes on him for years. He is strong, young, and healthy. He's in almost ideal physical condition. Things that we have tried on others that have failed could work with him. He could become our perfect weapon. He has the potential. The DNA tests confirmed it. He was our first successful shifter. That reason alone makes him a prize. We can do anything to him and he survives it. Need I continue?"
"And you didn't start these additional changes while he was here the first time because. . ."
"He ran off. He was strong enough to escape, and so he did. This time though, this time will be different."
Steven didn't doubt it.
"Mess with his mind, anyway." she continued. "Play games with him. Break him anyway you can. He needs to be ready for more changes by tomorrow night."
"Can't we just drug him?"
She smiled, and kissed him. "This is why I keep you around, my love. Drugging him. That will definitely work."
He returned the kiss, deepening it, stroking her sides. "Are you ready for your changes?"
"Even if it doesn't work entirely, the data tells me I will still survive and be living life more beautiful than before." She rested her head on his shoulder. "What is wrong with this country? Our technology can save people. They're stopping us from saving lives. We're bettering the human race."
"Perhaps if we hadn't conducted unauthorized experimentations-"
"We're scientists, Steven. Its what we do. Any other field would have been able to."
"Any other field doesn't infringe on the rights of people. You took healthy, normal people Americans that had not suffered and were not dying. Victims of kidnapping, that's all they were."
"They had been missing anyway! They weren't children. They had vanished ten, twenty years prior. Everyone assumed they were dead. I would have operated on myself, but that is impossible."
"It was wrong."
"Yet you stayed."
"I believed in the cause." he began to play with her hair. "I honestly think we are doing the right thing. I t did not start out that way. But we are fighting to make the world a better place. Our healing technology will save the lives of millions. Out shifting technology will create the best and strongest armies in the world. If we had started out on a better foot, or perhaps offered it as a choice, and hadn't killed so many people in the beginning-"
"I am glad we stopped collecting the failed experiments. That was too twisted for my tastes." she interrupted.
"We'd be national heroes by now. Honored instead of hunted. Famous instead of infamous."
"Allowed to live instead of on the death penalty." she said softly. "I'm not too worried about that, though. I can assume a new identity and so can you."
"Even if the police come after us, we'll survive. I'm not worried about that either." He pulled her close. "You're a messed up woman, but I'm glad you're my messed up woman."
"I hope that's a compliment."
"It is." He softly kissed her forehead. "One day, you and I will make the world beautiful together. The people will be altered, and it will be amazing. And, you and I? We'll be royalty. We'll practically be their gods. Once they realize what a gift we have created, it'll be a cakewalk."
She looked up at him. "I love you."
Steven kissed her again. "I know. I love you too."
Luci could hear voices drifting in through the slightly open door. Although the room was nicer than the cell she and Hunter had shared, it felt twice as unsafe. The tone of this room sent chills down her spine, reminding her of the first time they had captured her. She felt as if she was in a cage that she could not see out of, but others could see into. Briefly, she wondered if she was being watched. She inhaled a shaky, deep breath, and tried to peer out of the door. She could only see a white hallway. She must have been taken to a different area of the prison. I know it's not a prison, but as long as I'm here, it may as well be.
Luci ran her fingers over the cold metal that bound her to the floor. She squeezed them, testing for a weak spot. She knew it was unlikely, stupid even, but she could not give up hope just yet. Hunter's promise was still in the back of her mind.
"God is good. He's gonna get us out of here. You'll see. . . Whatever happens, it's gonna be all right."
"I hope you're real, God." she prayed aloud. "Because I'm in some real trouble. Hunter is, too. He has to get back to that Vic girl. He really loves her. He doesn't talk about her much, but I can see it in his eyes, and when he stares off into space. He is always thinking about her. He smiles at the mention of her name, even though talking about her makes him sad. If I get out of here, I'm going to find someone who cares that much about me. . . That Vic, she's a lucky girl. She's a lucky girl. So, help us, God, please. Please. Hunter believes in you. I want to believe in you, but I just don't know how right now. . . Although I guess me talking to you says something. But why, why us God? Why did you let us get stuck in this mess? We didn't deserve it! We didn't do anything wrong! Like, yeah, sometimes bad things happen to good people, but this is too much! I could die. Hunter could die! God, why? Why would you put us through this? People are dying here, God! What about them? Hunter says you're good, but I don't understand. I don't know if I want to. They chop up the dead people and burn the pieces! Don't you care? Do you know? Can you even hear me?" Hot tears rose in Luci's eyes. "God, why? I'm so scared. I want your help, but if you didn't help them, why would you help me? I'm no different than them. I'm not. I want out, God, I need out. Save me, please. . . Save me. You have to be real, you just have to be."
"Why are you crying?" a young girl of about seven years pushed the door open. Luci felt her jaw drop. She's so young! "Are you sad?"
She pushed the tears out of her eyes. "I'm all right . . . What's your name?"
"My name's Angel."
Luci looked toward Heaven. Very funny.
Oops. "Nothing, sweetie. I'm Luci." she stuck out her hand. "Nice to meet you."
Angel shook her hand. "I think you're too pretty to cry."
"I know why you're sad." Angel said, sitting down next to Luci.
"Is the rope hurting your leg?"
"You mean the chain? No, actually."
Luci squeezed Angel's hand. "How did you get here?"
"They brought me here."
Luci's heart snapped into pieces. "Honey,"
"It's okay. They saved me."
"Were they nice to you?" Luci asked.
"They gave me ice cream."
Luci smiled at Angel's innocence. "What's your favorite kind?"
Angel beamed. "Chocolate!"
"How did you find me, Angel?"
"I heard you crying. I was walking in the hallway."
"Why were you in the hallway?"
"I needed a drink of water."
"Where am I?" Luci wondered.
"With me, silly goose." Angel laughed.
"Where are we?" Luci giggled.
"In the House."
"The House." Luci repeated. She had forgotten this was where all of the successful experiments were put to live.
"I live in a room with two more girls. One of them can help you. I'll be right back." Angel stood up and ran out of the door before Luci could respond. She returned, pulling a sixteen year old girl with black hair and a lip piercing by the hand. "Help her, Dawn. She can't get out."
"Hi." Luci said.
"Angel, can you go get me a snack? She looks hungry." Dawn said. Angel nodded and ran off again. "Listen, I know you want to be unchained, but trust me, it's better to wait for them to do it. Especially with your reputation."
"I know. I was going to ask you not to unlock me. I've been here before. My name's Luci Connerson."
"I know who you are." Dawn said.
"Right." Anyone who knew her reputation would know her name.
"If you try to run, they'll assume you are going to kill the leader. So, a bit of advice, don't get out of these chains. Just wait. They'll come around. The guards we have aren't bad men. They're trapped, just like us. They have a soft spot, too. They want to get out just as badly as we do." Dawn said.
"What happened to Angel?" Luci asked.
Dawn looked away sadly. "Car fire. . . No survivors. They just assumed her body had burned up. Upsetting, isn't it? Although, with these people . . . Nothing shocks me. I do keep thinking about how happy her grandparents would be if they knew she was alive. She talks about them almost as much as she talks about her family. If we get out, I'm taking her to them myself."
Luci brushed away a stray tear. "I'll help you."
"I can do this on my own. But, thank you. I will keep that in mind, Luci." Dawn smiled for the first time. Beneath the harsh exterior was a very sweet girl. The punk look really worked for her. The only things that made her appear harsh were the hurt in her eyes and the slashes on her wrists. She pulled her sleeve down. "Don't stare."
"No . . . its beautiful."
Luci pulled up her sleeves and pointed. "The scars have begun to fade. But I have my own. What people don't realize is that they're beautiful, because they mean you survived."
"I'm still in hell." Dawn said, pulling her sleeves up to her fingers.
"You'll get out. I promise. If I get out, I'm not leaving without you and Angel." Luci took Dawn's hand. "Your scars are beautiful, even if there are more to come. You're a strong girl. You've got a fire. I can see it. You'll make it. You'll make it."
Dawn shrugged. "I'm trying to quit."
"You can do it."
"Why did you start?"
"I . . ."
"I was raped in college by my boyfriend at the time. Then, he left me for some chick who would give him whatever he wanted. It nearly destroyed me. I haven't had a healthy relationship since. It took . . . years to heal from."
"Yeah. But I'm better, and stronger, because of it." Luci said, shifting her weight to a more comfortable position. "What made you. . ."
"I didn't cut until I ended up here."
"If you don't mind my asking, how come it doesn't heal? Didn't they give you the healing technology?"
Dawn sighed. "They were out of it when it was my turn to be altered."
"You poor thing. . ." Luci whispered.
Dawn shrugged. "It's all right. I mean, I'm not as strong as the rest. But they're going to give me some. At least, that's what I've heard for the past six months. They forgot me. But, hey, it's all good. As long as Angel is doing all right, they could forget to give me food and water. As long as she is good, that's all I care about."
"You really love her, don't you?"
"She keeps me alive." Dawn said, her voice nearly inaudible. "I don't have the healing power stuff. Angel is the only thing keeping me from suicide."
Luci reached out and embraced the girl. The tears she had been trying to hold back were falling freely now. "You're going to be all right, do you hear me? You're going to get out, I'll make sure. Even if it kills me, you two are going to be safe."
Angel skipped back into the room, holding three chocolate chip cookies wrapped in a napkin. "I got these from the kitchen. I hope you like chocolate!" She handed one to Dawn and Luci and kept one for herself. "I love chocolate. It's my favorite!"
"Thank you." Luci smiled. The cookie was the first thing she had had to eat in days. The scent itself was more enticing than any chocolate chip predecessor. Still warm from the oven, the cookie was like heaven to her. "This is so good."
"When did you last eat?" Dawn asked.
"I don't remember." Luci admitted, blushing at the fact that she had spoken with her mouth full.
Dawn grabbed Angel's hand. "We're gonna come back tonight. See you then."
"Bye Luci!" Angel leaned in and hugged Luci, holding on to her very tightly. "See you later."
"Bye!" Luci called after them. "Dawn!" Dawn turned. "Thank you, so much."
"You're welcome. See you later!" She left, but poked her head back in the doorframe. "Get rid of the crumbs! The guards are coming."
Luci brushed every remaining crumb out of sight. Her stomach still growled, but the cookie had provided enough relief for it to be bearable. She could still taste the savory deliciousness. Maybe Dawn and Angel would bring more when they retuned.
She laid down on the floor on her back. Looking up at the ceiling, she wondered about her fate. Was she going to die here? Or would she survive? Nothing about the future was certain. She could die as easily as she could live.
She hadn't stopped thinking about him. She wanted him to be okay. She needed him to be okay. As long as he was alive, she had hope. If anything happened to him, it could very well kill her.
"Oh my goodness." Vic laughed. "This guy is insane."
"Are you still texting James?" Sophie asked. "You two have been at it all day."
"I know! He's really easy to talk to. The thing is, all of a sudden, he stops believing Hunter is alive. He says he was humoring me because I got hit in the head or something. The nerve." She laughed, but she wished he would listen to her.
"That boy is trying to argue with you?"
"Yeah. He says its impossible. He says to forget whatever he said at the hospital about believing it, because there's just no way. He'll believe when he sees. But, I want him to believe me now." Vic typed furiously on her cell phone. "And send."
"What are you telling him?" Sophie grabbed a bottled water from the fridge and tossed Vic one at her request.
"That I've seen him. I've kissed him. It's no hallucination. The man lived."
"Maybe you should just leave it alone." Sophie suggested. "The less people who think you're nuts the better."
Vic put her phone down on the kitchen table. "You're serious?"
"Yeah. Let him wonder. Then, when he sees Hunter, his eyes will bug out of his face and you'll have the satisfaction of being right."
"People think I'm crazy?"
"You told your sister, your brother in law, and James. I already knew. It's not a likely story. It's not going to be so easy to believe."
"Liz and Nick do."
"That took a lot of time and explaining." Sophie reminded her. Vic nodded. She remembered the long nights of staying up at the hospital and re-explaining the facts of the story to her sister and Nick. "Give James time. He'll come around when he's ready."
"Can I invite him over for lunch tomorrow?"
Sophie shrugged. "Sure. It's your house too. Get take out though. I don't think you're ready to cook."
"Thanks for the confidence boost." Vic said. "Probably not, though."
"Do you think spending alone time with Hunter's cousin is really the best idea though?"
"What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing. It just might not be the best idea."
"Stop it." Vic groaned. "It's not like that. He has a girlfriend or something. Even if he didn't, I'm not interested."
"Sure you're not." Sophie smirked.
"This isn't high school, hun. Hunter and I are engaged. When this is over, we're getting married. I love him."
"I know. I was just testing you." Sophie giggled.
"Don't." Vic replied.
"When did you get so sensitive?" Sophie teased.
"Shush." Vic grinned. "Oh, my phone is vibrating."
"What'd he say?"
She rolled her eyes. "He'll believe me when he sees Hunter. He's too skeptical to just take my word for it. I'm just going to change the subject."
"I can't win!"
"He says I tried to change the subject because I know I'm wrong."
Sophie burst out laughing. "Wow."
"We should have taken a picture when he was here."
"He would have said it was photo shopped."
"Probably." Vic agreed.
"Well, if any one can convince him, you can." Sophie replied, finishing the last of her water.
"Thanks for the confidence boost."
"I was serious!" Sophie said.
"I wasn't being sarcastic." Vic answered, her eyes still on her phone as her fingers flew furiously over the keyboard.
Hunter's vision was not clear. The sounds he heard made him feel as if he was underwater. He could not think. Nothing made sense. It seemed he was laying on ice. The room was spinning but he was completely still. Or was it he was spinning and the room was completely still . . . He closed his eyes and tried to breathe. He felt something pierce his skin. The room went dark again.
"If this fails, we're going to lose our strongest weapon." Steven said to the doctor. "If he dies, or if there are any complications, you'll be taking his place."
The doctor paused, fear in his eyes. "What?"
"You heard me." Steven said firmly. "If anything happens to this one, it's you who will pay for it. Am I understood?"
"Yes, sir." Doctor Anderson replied. "I understand."
"Any complications." Steven repeated.
"Yes, Mr. Tripp." Doctor Anderson felt overwhelming pity for the man on the operating table before him, but it was not enough to out weigh his own terror. The last doctor that hadn't satisfied Steven Tripp was now a pile of cinders and ash. Steven had a nasty habit of killing people that didn't agree with him.
He began the operation. He was supposed to implant two sets of new DNA into this man. Steven had been ordered to try to add a second species of animal into the creation, but at the last minute, the command had been retracted. This weapon was too precious to mess with. The final decision had been to add two more types of dog genetics- the rottweiler and the doberman pinscher. If it went well, they could try to regain control of his mind. He would become their slave once again. "I am so sorry, sir." Doctor Anderson whispered before he cut the first incision.