I've always loved flying dreams.
In this one I swept across the choppy waters of a clear blue sea at a leisurely pace, enjoying the rare opportunity to goof around planetside. I was so low I could feel the ocean spray on my face, the wind of my passage whipping the waist-length mass of my hair into a billowing cloud behind me. The sunlight warmed my bare skin, obstructed only by a tiny bikini I wouldn't have dared to wear in real life. But then again, I never could have filled it out the way I did now either.
A flock of sea birds swirled curiously around me, no doubt wondering what this strange interloper in their world was. I vaguely remembered that this place was a nature preserve, and the wildlife might never have seen humans before.
But something happened, and I was needed elsewhere. An authorization was given, a lock deep inside me clicked three steps towards full release, and warm power welled up from somewhere far, far down in the vast hollow spaces of my soul. My sharpened gaze picked out the gleaming shapes of starships and space stations high overhead, the souls of their crews and the twinkling ghost-light of their reactors shining bright through the emptiness of the void.
I called up my wards, and flung myself into the sky with a crash of thunder.
The sea fell away quickly below me, but not quickly enough. The air was suddenly a viscous barrier slowing my ascent, keeping me away from… who? A blurry vision of long blonde hair and deep blue eyes, frantically calling my name. Kimeska? No, that was me. Insara. My… sister? Partner?
I couldn't remember. But she was everything to me, and she was in danger.
I broke through a cloud bank and rose into the upper atmosphere in a violet haze, the wind screaming past my wards as I fought for more speed. I caught sight of the largest station now, floating far above me in geosynchronous orbit. It was the only home I'd known in my short life, and it should have been safe for me and mine.
But the ships clustered about it were lit by flashes of weapon fire at point-blank range. There was a confused babble of panicked voices on the com network, demands for surrender flashing back and forth, a fierce argument over whether to allow me weapon release…
The station exploded.
My connection to Insara was broken.
I screamed in anguish at the loss of my one true companion, and for a moment tears blurred my vision. But then a terrible rage rose up within me, at the temerity of those who had killed her. With the strength of white-hot hate I tore the limiters off my core, smashing the locks meant to regulate my terrible strength. Crackling black lighting filled my heart, the sky, the whole world and beyond. I'd kill them all, for taking away my-
My phone rang.
Still half-lost in the dream, I groped blindly at my nightstand and came up with a lump of hard plastic.
"Hello?" I mumbled sleepily.
"My god, I can't believe this is working," came the voice I thought I'd never hear again. "Who is this?"
"Insara?" I rubbed my eyes. No, wait, that was the dream. This was real, wasn't it?
"No… well, maybe. I don't know, this is so crazy. My name is Sara Wellman, but that might not really be my name, because no one ever figured out where I came from. But your voice is so familiar, I'm sure I must know you from somewhere."
My bedroom was dark, but that's never mattered as much to me as it seems to for most people. The little clock on the front of my cable box read '4:00'.
"Do you realize it's four am?" I mumbled grouchily. "Damn it, I'm on shift in three hours. Call back later!"
"Oh, sorry," Sara said, embarrassed. "I, um, guess you must be used to this, or something. Sorry. Later."
She hung up. I sighed, and flopped back down among the pillows. Stupid crank calls. Whatever. I closed my eyes.
The musical trill of my phone dragged me back to consciousness. Had I fallen asleep? I raised it to my ear automatically.
It rang again.
Stupid 'smart' phones with their stupid little buttons. I held it in front of my face and tried to make my eyes focus.
I was holding my alarm clock.
I dropped it with a sigh, and crawled across the bed to retrieve my purse from the floor. Sure enough, my iPhone was in it. This time I glanced at the caller ID before answering, and realized it was work.
"Hello?" I said blearily.
"Kim? This is Liz. Can you come in early today? Tammy had to clock out, got bitten by a patient of all things. She's getting stitches now, but things were getting crazy down here even before that. We're getting swamped."
"Oh," I said dumbly. I glanced at the clock, and saw it was already after five am. For about the thousandth time, I wondered if becoming an ER nurse had been such a great idea.
"Sure," I sighed. "I'm not getting back to sleep now anyway. I can be there in half an hour."
"Thanks, Kim. You're a lifesaver. Oh, drive safe, ok? You wouldn't believe how many accidents we've gotten in here tonight. Must be a full moon or something."
"Not for another four days, Liz. See you in a bit."
I put the phone down, and stared at it in confusion. If my phone was in my purse, how did I get that prank call? Or was that a dream, too?
Fifteen minutes later, with my head marginally clearer after a quick shower, I decided it must have been. What a weird night.
I eyed myself critically in the bathroom mirror, wishing for a moment that I actually looked like I had in that first dream. The girl flying over the ocean had been impossibly beautiful, a creature of softly sensuous curves despite the hard muscle hidden underneath. The real me was pretty enough, with deep green eyes and straight black hair made more striking by my pale complexion. But I was painfully thin and depressingly flat, and despite years of trying my hair stubbornly refused to grow past my shoulders. At twenty-six I still looked more like an anorexic high school student than a competent professional.
Naturally most of the doctors I worked with didn't take me seriously. Worse, just about every man I met these days assumed I was jailbait, and steered clear of me. Some days I wasn't sure which problem was more frustrating.
"Ah, well," I sighed. "At least I've got a pretty face. Time to quit woolgathering."
I was tired, but then I'd been tired as long as I could remember. Whether I slept twelve hours a day or three it was always the same, a dull sense of fatigue that dogged my every step. The doctors I'd consulted in college had scratched their heads, run dozens of tests, and finally concluded that it was all in my head. The fact that lack of sleep didn't make me feel worse than normal led me to suspect they didn't know what they were talking about, but what else could I do?
Back in college I'd once gone eight days without sleep during finals. Then I turned in my last exam, went up to my dorm room to see my roommate off on her summer vacation, sat down on the couch… and woke up three days later.
Even back then I knew I should have been half dead of dehydration after being unconscious that long, but somehow I didn't feel much worse than usual. Still, the incident spooked me enough that I'd resolved not to poke at my body's various inexplicable eccentricities. Maybe someday I'd find an explanation, but I wasn't going to risk hurting myself looking for one.
Or ending up in some government lab.
Because being tired all the time is the least of my oddities. I've never been sick, and I'm stronger than most men despite the fact that I don't even work out. I can pluck a fly out of the air with my fingers, which is supposed to be some kind of impossible martial arts trick. I can see in the dark almost as well as in daylight, and on a cold night I can make out the faint glow of my own body heat. At least, I hope that's what that glow is.
I'm pretty sure that somewhere in the world, there must be a secret lab that's missing an experimental subject. There are too many little oddities for me to just be a mutant, and the other explanations are too crazy to take seriously. Aliens? That look just like humans, but with low-grade superpowers? Yeah, right.
If there's anyone looking for me, they've somehow missed me for twenty-four years. With any luck they've long since given up. But I try to avoid attention, just in case.
I threw on a set of scrubs with my usual quick efficiency, grabbing my purse and a handful of meal bars on my way out the door. My metabolism is absurdly high, and if I make a habit of skipping breakfast I start looking like a famine victim pretty quick.
It was normally a ten minute drive from my little apartment to Ben Derrick Memorial, the hospital where I'd worked for the last two years. But if anything Liz had understated things. I passed two accidents on the way in, one of them a nasty-looking auto-pedestrian. There were more people than usual roaming about on foot as well, and once I had to swerve around some drunk who wandered into the road.
If I lived in New York I might have shrugged it off, but this was Houston. Downtown might have problems like that, but Ben Derrick was well outside the loop. Something really strange was going on, but the news I could find on the radio didn't give much clue about what. Just some reports on a sudden outbreak of gang violence in Los Angeles.
Something about this situation was definitely tickling my memory, but I couldn't place it. Frustrated, I pulled my little blue sedan into an empty spot in the employee lot and headed in to find Liz.
Elizabeth Harris was a big, brassy woman who'd been head nurse of the ER night shift for years before I came along. The night shift gets a lot of problem patients – drunks, drug addicts, DV cases, petty criminals who get injured resisting arrest, it's just an endless tour of the seamy side of civilization. Liz took it all in stride, maintaining a reasonable approximation of order with a loud voice, an intimidating stare, and occasional help from whichever rent-a-cop the hospital had on duty that night.
Tonight, she was apparently fighting a losing battle.
As I came down the hall behind the nurse's station I saw that the waiting room was packed with people, several of them bleeding on the floor. A beefy guy was leaning over the nurse's station shouting something about his wife at Liz, but there was such a din I could barely understand him. The reedy brunette leaning on his shoulder was a little pale from blood loss, but I could see at a glance that the ragged wound on her shoulder had already stopped bleeding. On a night like this the odds of her getting a transfusion were low, but she'd probably be fine without it.
Then I spotted the revolver that Beefy was waving around, and I understood why Liz hadn't shut him down yet.
Well, I wasn't going to let some asshole shoot my boss. Before I even realized what I was doing, I'd stepped up behind her and leaned over the counter to pluck the gun from his hand. I gave it a little toss, caught it by the handle, and put the muzzle between Beefy's eyes.
"Calm down, sir." I ordered. His eyes went wide. So did Liz's, for that matter.
"Has he filled out the inpatient form?" I asked Liz. She shook her head numbly.
"Right." I lowered the gun, and handed the guy a clipboard with the in-patient questionnaire on it. "Fill it out, and we'll get your wife looked at. But I'm holding on to this until you're done."
He glanced uncertainly at the weapon, and back at my face. Whatever he saw there convinced him not to argue. He turned, and stumbled back into the waiting area with the woman.
"Where's security?" I asked Liz.
"T-they got called away," she said uncertainly. "Kim, are you crazy? You could have been shot! Hell, I could have been shot."
I shrugged. "No, it was aimed past you at the wall when I grabbed it. You want to step away for a minute? I can take the desk for you."
I know it doesn't make sense, but for whatever reason I've never been afraid of guns. Or much of anything else, for that matter. Some crazy part of my subconscious seems to think I'm bulletproof, and insists there's just no threat potential in any normal weapon. I try to remember that it's just a delusion, since I certainly had the normal assortment of bumps and bruises growing up. But sometimes it does come in handy.
She stared at me for a moment, and then shook her head.
"Well, I guess you'll be good to have around if… um, anyway. Yeah, I need to catch up on these insurance forms, or we're never going to get anyone back out of here. Just be careful not to get bitten, alright?"
"Huh? Why would that be a problem?" I asked, confused.
She hesitated, and shook her head again. "It's probably nothing," she said. "But be careful. And keep the gun, just in case."
Now I was really confused. Liz wasn't one of those anti-gun nuts I'd run into at college, but she was usually pretty big on procedure. We were supposed to call security when we had an 'incident', and turn any weapons involved over to the cops when they showed up.
"Security is really busy," she said in answer to my expression. "Ben's off organizing some things with the other EMTs, but he should be back down in a couple of minutes. I called Janet right after you, and she's on her way in too. We'll have reinforcements here before long."
A fresh line was forming at the desk now that the nut with the gun wasn't standing there, so we didn't have time to chat any longer. I turned my attention to the nervous Latino woman who was first in line, and started trying to bring order to chaos.
Twenty minutes later it still didn't make sense. We were getting the usual trickle of heart attacks, strokes and other serious cases, along with three times the normal number of auto accidents. But on top of that were dozens and dozens of minor trauma cases.
Mostly bite wounds. From humans.
"Why does this sound like the beginning of every zombie movie I've ever seen?" I muttered to myself as I accepted a form from a tall, sweaty-looking black man. He held a baseball bat in one hand, and kept glancing nervously at the bite on his other arm.
"That shit ain't real, is it?" He asked, with a bit of a pleading tone in his voice. "That girl that bit me, she was just on something, right?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Did she have a pulse?"
His eyes darted around the room nervously. "I don't want to talk about it. Just get me fixed up quick, so I don't… you know."
The other eyebrow went up.
"Don't worry, sir," I reassured him. "The whole zombie virus thing doesn't make any sense at all. A virus can make you sick, but it can't animate a body. That's just silly. Now have a seat, and keep some pressure on that wound. We'll have you in as soon as possible."
I wasn't too worried about him. I've always had a knack for telling which injuries are serious, and which ones aren't. He'd turn out fine. I was more worried about the fat guy who was having chest pains, but with all three doctors busy already there was only so much I could do. There were four other patients with serious symptoms ahead of him in the line, and the doctors are the ones who make triage decisions. Us nurses just do the paperwork, and screen out the most obvious of the non-emergency cases.
I caught an EMT uniform out of the corner of my eye, and glanced up to see Ben looking over the room.
"You alright up here, Kim?" He asked solicitously.
He was a nice-looking guy, six foot one with sandy blond hair and a warm smile. So I took a moment to smile back at him.
"I'm fine," I said. "We're falling behind, but that's mostly because we don't have enough doctors on shift. What's up?"
I turned back to accept another form, and glanced over it while listening with one ear. A broken arm this time. Damn, she was going to be waiting a long time to get that set.
"Me and a few of the guys were just making some plans. You know, in case. I heard about that thing with the gun from Liz, and… well, Jim has a place out in the country, and a couple of us have bug-out bags. You want in?"
I frowned in annoyance at the next patient's illegible scrawl. "In on what, Ben? What are you talking about?"
"Come on, Kim. You've got to have noticed by now."
A scream from the waiting area interrupted my reply.
I glanced up to see a man sprawled on the floor with a woman on top of him, her long brown hair hiding both their faces. But he was thrashing wildly, and a pool of blood was beginning to spread across the floor.
"Hey!" I was over the desk before I knew I'd moved. I grabbed a fistful of hair and pulled her off him, though she was much stronger than I'd expected.
Lying on the floor with his throat torn out was the man who'd been waving the gun around before. The woman I was holding by the hair was his wife, the one who'd been bitten. Her mouth and the front of her dress were covered in blood, and she turned to snarl at me. For a second I thought she was going to attack me next.
But then she stopped and cocked her head, looking momentarily confused before her gaze went past me.
"Kim!" Ben shouted from behind me. "Get away from her! Don't let her bite you-"
She tried to leap at him, but everything seemed to go into slow motion. I kicked her feet out from under her and caught her wrists, twisting them behind her back and planting my knee between her shoulder blades as she hit the floor.
She struggled wildly, but there was no way she was getting loose from this position.
"Ben!" I shouted. "Check on the guy, it might not be too late. Calm down, bitch, I'm not letting you up. Liz, we need help out here!"
To my immense surprise the woman under me immediately stopped struggling.
Ben carefully circled me to check on the bleeding man, and a moment later Liz and two more EMTs arrived on the scene. It sounded like he was still alive, thank God. I caught a glimpse of a doctor I vaguely recognized out of the corner of my eye, but the woman under me held most of my attention.
"Operation… authorized… ma'am…," she said in a dry, rasping voice.
"Tell it to the judge," I told her. "There's no way security won't show up for this."
"Security… neutralized," she grated out slowly. Each syllable was a struggle, like her lungs weren't working properly. "Probe… complete. Flood… in… eight."
Someone handed me a pair of handcuffs, and I risked loosening my grip for a moment to put them on her wrists. Then I did something I knew was silly, but at that point I had to do it anyway.
I checked her pulse.
She didn't have one.
"Flood… in… six," the dead woman under my knee said to me. "Assist?"
Suddenly, it was too much. I hauled her to her feet, and looked around shakily. They'd gotten the injured man out of the waiting room, but Liz was still here. The crowd was watching me uncertainly, and I noticed a number of them inching towards the door.
"Alright, everyone!" I said loudly. "Who here thinks they've seen a zombie tonight? Show of hands!"
About a third of the room raised their hands.
I stared at them. Then I looked down at the slowly cooling corps that was standing meekly under my gaze. She had her hand as far up as she could manage with the handcuffs on.
"Argh! What the hell is going on?" I muttered. "If you're a zombie, why aren't you attacking me?"
Inter-service cooperation, a sourceless whisper answered. Flood in two, ma'am. Please assist, or stand aside.