THE ALDAR DOMINION (Dominion Rising #1)
Dangling from the open hovercraft door, Selene searched the desert wasteland surrounding the New Manhattan laboratory fifty-feet below. It was late, well past midnight. They had spent the last few days staking out the low security facility on the edge of the city. Its five stories were shrouded by the surrounding barren hills, and small security bots swept the yard. The low thrum of the hover propellers broke the silence of the night, beating in time with her heart.
At the front of the cockpit sat the captain of their small smuggling operation, Rikkard Gunnar. “Stick to the plan,” he snapped.
Taking stock of the dark roof one last time, Selene spun in her harness, grabbing onto the bar above the door to pull herself back inside. Meeting her partner’s all-too-knowing gaze, she couldn’t help but grin.
“Don’t I always?”
Rikkard rolled his eyes, swiping a hand through his short dark hair as he turned to the control panel at the head of the hovercraft. He clicked through the ship’s navigation system until the craft began to lower. He’d have to hide their ship in the mountains behind the lab while she was inside or risk being seen by security.
“Twenty minutes should do it.” Turning from her captain to the open void below, wind whipped at her black and green wig. Not the most conventional of disguises, but neither was her skin-tight suit. She adjusted the straps around her hips and thighs before tugging on the cord hooked above her.
Rikkard turned in his seat. “Don’t be reckless.”
“When have I ever been reckless?” Selene shot him a wicked grin as the craft came to a smooth halt in midair. He was right, of course. After three years of working together, he knew better than anyone she had a reputation for improvising. But before he could answer, she gave him a thumbs up and jumped from the ship. The wind snatched his retort, and Selene swallowed a laugh. She’d have to ask him later what he was so worried about.
The wind’s current tore at her body like waves in a hurricane. Selene loved the feeling almost as much as the danger of throwing herself from twenty feet up. A spike of adrenaline rushed through her veins until her harness yanked up. She slowed and landed soundlessly. Brushing her bangs from her eyes, Selene unhooked her harness. She gave it a tug, and it disappeared into the clear night sky as she trotted across the roof.
The roof was barren, a simple sheet of concrete broken only by air ducts and a rooftop exit. With her long legs, it only took Selene a few strides to reach the smooth grate of the air filtration system. Pulling a small blowtorch from her utility belt, she extended its two halves, twisting them into place. She made quick work of it; the grate tilting away from the duct once the torch sparks dissipated. Selene gently laid it on the ground. Returning her torch to her belt, she slipped into the confined space of the air duct.
Cold steel pressed in on all sides. It bit through her suit and froze her bare, sweaty hands. Breathe, she told herself, shimmying army-style through the metal tube. Selene squeezed her eyes shut. Forcing the pressing walls from her mind, she visualized the lengths of duct she needed to stay quiet in, and which portions she could rush through as fast as the confined space would allow without alerting after-hours security.
Memorizing maps had always come easy to her.
She moved on. Steel squeezed against her shoulders with every turn, forcing her to pause and take a breath.
Her uncanny internal clock told her three minutes had passed when Selene unscrewed another grate and dropped into a dimly lit room filled with computers. The soft thrum of sleeping fans filled the room; they’d been on standby for some time. Her heart beat faster. An excited grin pulled at her lips.
During the planning stage of their mission, Selene and Rikkard had mapped out the security cameras, which is why a ceiling-high bookcase covered her descent from the duct. The single security camera blinked its red gaze at her only exit from the office. Selene peeked from her hiding spot, holding her breath.
It didn’t move.
Lowering herself onto her belly, Selene crawled between desks until she reached the private office at the back of the room. Before rising from the cold tile, she glanced at the corner sentinel. Its smooth gray plastic remained pointed at the exit, unmoving. Selene smiled and raised her hand to the square control panel beside the door. Quickly hacking the keypad, she slipped into the private room.
On the map this room was so small she’d nearly mistaken it for a closet, but instead it was a tiny supervisor’s office. Closing the door with a soft click, Selene rose and pushed the office chair from her path. She stood before the desk, flicking her fingers across the computer screen to illuminate it. Once the soft glow lit the room, she tilted the screen up. The computer prompted for a passcode.
“Hm.” She cocked an eyebrow at the thin monitor.
Tapping her fingers across the transparent keyboard, she typed in a line of code that usually broke through most security systems. Each key illuminated at her touch, but once she hit enter, an error message popped up in red.
“Of course.” Selene gritted her teeth. As much as she wanted to, she wouldn’t be able to crack the password herself—she was coming up on the five-minute mark, so she skipped right to her golden ticket. Pulling a small plastic screen from her sleeve pocket, she tapped in her own passcode. Her phone had helped her out of many sticky situations. Opening the small compartment in the bottom, Selene extracted a hard drive the size of a fingernail with a long thin black cord attached. She inserted the drive into the sleek silver monitor’s access port.
Twenty seconds later, a black box popped up on the screen, green type scrolling rapidly until the error disappeared and she had full access to the lab’s internal network.
Grabbing the discarded chair, Selene pulled it into place and took a seat. Her fingers flew across the keyboard as waves of data scrolled down the screen. Rows and rows of jumbled letters and numbers passed by before a single word caught her eye—experiments. She paused, her heart sinking into her stomach. Her fingers became fists and she narrowed her eyes at the word.
Selene unclenched her claws and went back to work. Images, videos and work logs popped up in boxes of their own. Gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans—just a few of the species the Dominion loved to experiment on. When a map of the complex replaced the bloody images of their tortured subjects, Selene scanned each floor until she found the live tests lab. Her heart clenched.
“I’m coming for you,” she murmured, silently praying the apes were still alive.
With her soon-to-be cargo found, Selene accessed the lab’s security network. Her screen filled with video screens, different angles of each room and corridor. She flicked through them until she found the three men working security. Two on the main floor. One on the second.
She froze every camera in the building before double-checking her route to the first floor, just in case the map she’d memorized had been out of date. Shutting down the computer, Selene extracted the hard drive linked to her phone and returned it to her utility belt.
She smirked as she stood and left the room. The corner camera didn’t blink at her when she weaved through the desks, nor did it budge when she left the room and found the hall.
Selene was on the top floor, with four more below. Her targets were on the first, along with her extraction point. Glancing at the watch pinned to her suit’s wrist, she had nearly half her allotted time to rejoin her boss and get away with their cargo before the half-hour system check.
Entering the stairwell, Selene leapt several stairs at a time descending to the main floor—the one certain to be most heavily guarded. Private security teams who ran labs like these generally assumed infiltrators would come from the ground, not the sky.
Selene slowed before she exited onto the main level. Pulling the map to mind again, she stepped into the hall on her right. The experiments were held at the west side of the building, not far from her extraction point in the loading bay. She had exactly six hallways to get through if she wanted to avoid the main security office, but only three if she skipped right by them.
Glancing at her watch, Selene knew what her captain would say. Don’t risk it. While part of her understood the wisdom of being careful, the reckless side of her jumped at the opportunity to test herself.
She opted for the dangerous route.
Her heart pounded and her palms sweat. Her right hand found the gun at her hip. The assurance of cold metal made her smile.
Peeking around another corner, Selene double-checked the corridor for security personnel. Clear. Slipping out, she started down the brightly lit hallway, which led to the main path several strides away. Stepping into the next hall, a black clad man stood with his back to her not fifteen feet away.
With his hand raised to his ear, and a soft buzz through the silence, he spoke to another guard through a comset. Selene crept forward silently. Sweat beading on her forehead, she slowed at each intersecting hallway to check for other guards. Clear.
“Cas, I think there’s something up with the cameras.” The device crackled slightly and a terse voice answered.
“There can’t be anything wrong with them. I just checked.”
“I swear, there’s something—”
“I know you’re new, but everything is fine,” Cas’s somewhat distorted voice answered. “I’ll be back down in two. Go take a booster or something. Nothing happens in these labs. No one gives a shit about some modified apes.”
Nostrils flaring, Selene bit back a growl. Her fingers danced around the holster at her hip as she drew close enough to make out a small jagged scar at the base of the guard’s neck. The curves of the white stretch of skin had to be from the claw of an animal.
She resisted a scoff. Working in a place like this, he deserved it.
“You’re right.” The man sighed, shifting toward the main security office. “I’ll wait with Grey.”
Selene ducked into a nearby hall, plastering herself to the wall while the man joined another guard in the main office, equipped with a wall of monitors. Her heart raced as she glanced around the corner. The second guard sat with a steaming cup of something, facing the security screens. He acknowledged his companion with a nod and a snort of agreement. They sat, their backs to the glass window overlooking the small office. She waited a full minute for him to greet his co-worker and sit down. Once they started talking about the coming election in New Manhattan, Selene leapt from her hiding spot and sprinted down the hall.
Before she reached the glass window, she dropped to her hip, sliding under the open window. Her suit squeaked against the tile—she winced—then leapt to her feet and ducked into a small alcove. Heart pounding, she glanced back out and waited.
The two in the office didn’t stir.
Selene took on the rest of the corridor in a few bounds. She listened for the swoosh of a door opening, the squeak of a boot; anything that would indicate she was being followed. Only thing was her pulse thudding in her ears.
Another hall later, Selene found the live tests lab. Her phone did quick work of the passcode before she swept inside, keeping her back to the now shut door.
A blue glow emanated from a line of x-rays displayed on several dark light panels at the far end of the long, dim lab. At least twenty workstations sat in rows, steel tables lined up beside thin computer monitors.
Selene pushed away from the door, stepping closer to the cages lining the back wall. The stench of blood and decay assaulted her nostrils. One hand flew to cover her mouth, while the other grabbed the nearest table. Her head swam. She steadied herself against the cool metal. She cursed the Dominion for the way they tore these creatures apart—all to test boosters and their effects.
Taking a few deep breaths, Selene took stock of the animals she was here to save. Four primates—a baby gorilla and three chimpanzees—blinked back at her. It wasn’t as many as she had been expecting. Swallowing the lump in her throat, Selene avoided the workstations littered with carelessly discarded surgical knives still wet with blood.
Pushing tables aside to create an open space, Selene produced two small black squares from her back pocket, their thick plastic smooth between her fingers. Pressing her thumb into the small indent on each, she tossed them into the open space she’d created. Both unfolded into four by four-foot hover plates. Their sleek black surfaces floated several inches above the ground.
Taking the gun from her left hip, she pointed it at the young gorilla. The tranq dart hissed through the hair, hitting him square in the chest. He barely had time for a soft whine before slumping against the bars of his cage. Once he was out, Selene shot the rest. It only took a few seconds for the animals to collapse into unconsciousness, and by that time she was already loading the small gorilla onto the first hover plate.
Gently tugging the gorilla from his cage, she braced her feet apart, lifting from her legs. Particles of grit stuck to her fingertips, his coarse fur greasy from lack of care. Bracing him in her arms, she set him on the first of the hover plates, which dipped under the added weight.
One by one she removed the others from their cages. Setting the chimpanzees inside their new enclosure, the plate righted itself, hovering a few inches above the white tiled floor. Once they were set, she took the controller from her pocket and clicked a small blue button. A glowing white force field popped up on each side of the plates, connecting at the top to form an enclosure. She clicked another button and the cages followed her to the door. She peered out; all was silent and still. A pungent whiff of cologne brought the hairs along the back of her neck to full attention. Nasty.
Sliding the door the rest of the way open, Selene led the devices further down the hall. She glanced at her watch. She was gaining on her twenty-minute timeline, and if she didn’t hurry, the half-hour system check would catch her. Arriving at the loading bay, she brought the hover plates to a halt and peered around the corner, through a wide-open doorway.
Straight into the face of a black-clad guard, not two feet from her.
The man’s eyes widened—Selene slammed her foot into his chest. Air exploded from his lungs. She pushed him inside the loading bay and over a railing. His back hit the concrete below with a heavy thud.
Selene swung over the railing after him as he climbed to his feet and reached for the sleek white laser gun at his hip. She drove her heel into his stomach. He doubled over—she slammed her elbow into the back of his head. He collapsed.
Selene bent to check for a pulse. It was steady, but he’d be unconscious long enough for her to escape.
Punching a button on her remote, Selene made her way across the large room to the row of loading bay doors, the hover plates following her. She eyed the line of switches next to the cargo lift—which door would Rikkard be parked closest to?
The furthest to the left would be closest to the rest of the building—an unlikely choice. That left the middle or the right. Shrugging, Selene picked the switch furthest to the right, and flung it.
An alarm pierced the quiet.
Her jaw dropped—this building was not supposed to be rigged with alarms. Cursing whatever god she’d clearly angered, she grabbed the door’s handle.
“Come on…” The door rolled slowly along the ancient pulley system and into the ceiling. It squeaked against the rusted chains.
Yanking upward with all of her might, the wheels screeched.
Glancing under the door, Selene spied Rikkard in the cargo bay of the hovercraft, waving for her to hurry. She tossed him the remote, and she ducked back inside, shoving the door open further. The hover plates rushed under the gap and into the cargo bay of their ship.
Selene glanced back as the red beam of a laser shot past her head, burning a hole through the bay door. Her heart leapt.
Five guards clad in black and wielding laser pistols charged through the loading bay entrance. While one stooped to help their fallen comrade, another pointed the barrel of his gun at her. She strained to hear the whine of his weapon over the alarm. Selene ducked under the rising door and leapt the small gap to the hovercraft entrance. Another shot sizzled on the cargo deck, inches from her feet before she ducked behind a large crate.
Rikkard returned fire, blazing shots of red flying through the lab’s loading bay. The security guards leapt for cover behind a large shipping container.
“Time to go.” She caught Rikkard’s disapproving gaze.
He nodded and holstered his pistol as he rushed for the cockpit. Selene approached their new animal companions, keeping low to the floor and pulling her gun from its holster. Flicking off the safety, the gun charged.
“Anytime, Rik,” she whispered, peeking from behind her crate.
The soft thrum of propellers hummed louder, and the ship lifted higher. A guard darted from his cover and raised his gun, but Selene was quicker: she squeezed off a shot, aiming for the arm holding the gun.
She was not going to see these animals get shot after all they’d been through.
The guard fell back, clutching his shoulder. The hovercraft lifted from the sand covered earth, arching above the roof of the complex. When she was sure they were out of range, Selene checked the knots on the enclosures; they were tight enough to hold. Though the apes were stirring, they weren’t out of trouble yet. The lab’s personal security team was sure to follow.
Picking her way through the cargo hold, wind whipped at her wig and body, threatening to send her sailing into oblivion. Keeping hold of the safety bar along the wall, Selene found the large red button to close the rear doors.
With the ship pulling higher in the sky, the bright burn of the city came into view above the barren hills guarding the laboratory. Sleek white buildings towered into the clouds, their windows reflecting the night sky. The whole city glowed with fevered nightlife. Its beauty caught her off guard, much like it always did. Selene wasn’t one to gawk, but the alien city was hardly a common beauty. A piece of her yearned to be part of it, while the rest of her shied away from the moral ambiguity of the growing populace.
Movement outside the closing cargo doors pulled her from her reverie. Blinking in confusion, Selene stood and holstered her pistol. Beyond the small crack remaining of the outside world, two Class Three speeders flew in pursuit.
“Class Three? Really?” Selene sighed. Sleek metal with huge glass windows and laser turrets mounted on the hulls, pointed her way. For such a minimum-security facility, she wouldn’t think they’d send such heavily armored speeders after them.
Her pulse quickened, pounding in her ears. Making her way through the ship, Selene joined Rikkard in the cockpit.
“What took you so long?” he asked in an irritable monotone.
“Just checking on things,” Selene lied. She turned to peer at the scanners depicting their surrounding area. Two small blips followed behind their larger ship. “We have two Class Three speeders coming in fast,” she added, as two blips became three and then four. “Or more.”
Rikkard glanced at the screen. “Hold on tight.”