THE ZAHKX ALLIANCE (Dominion Rising #2)
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The black arms of the old-fashioned, chrome-rimmed clock inched across the silver face at the edge of Selene’s peripheral. Only a few seconds to go, and it’d be show time.
Her fingers tapped against the edge of the thin piece of glass and metal Pate called a holopad. It lay on her lap, nearly weightless, and her only source of distraction from the new hell she was subjected to on a daily basis. She sat with her back to the door of the modern prison, straining her ears to listen for lunchtime.
Selene glanced between an article on the screen, one of the few she was permitted to read, and back at the clock. Ten seconds left.
Every day, at exactly noon, one of her prison guards brought her lunch. The swish of the outer door was barely audible, just loud enough to compete with the ticking clock.
The dual arms of the clock stuck straight up. Noon.
Right on time.
Selene braced herself, her heart pounding wildly in her ears. It took her guard fifteen seconds to walk from the outer door, to her room. It was a short hall, white just like the rest of her prison. Once the outer door closed, Selene leapt to her feet.
Setting the holopad on the coffee table between two plush white chairs, Selene circled the sitting area and pinned her back to the wall beside the door.
From her many tests over the last two weeks in Pate’s penthouse hell, Selene had determined the guards only had cameras outside the hall. He, or sometimes she, wouldn’t enter the hall until Selene was far away from the door, but once the guard was inside the hall, she had fifteen short seconds to reposition.
Finally, it was time to make her move.
The door beeped as the guard’s keycard was accepted. Sweat dripped down her temple and her fists balled. The white doors whooshed into the wall, and a black-clad man with a tray in hand stepped through.
Selene slammed her foot into the back of his knee, forcing him to the ground. The tray clattered across the floor, sending water, a sandwich and crackers in every direction. The guard cried out as Selene spun and drove her elbow into the back of his head. He flew forward, crushing her lunch. His groan filled the silence.
In her old body, her strength would have been enough to knock him out, but this clone this farce of a body—wasn’t hers, even if it might look like her, and she had to compensate for it.
Stepping up beside his head of curly dark hair, Selene shook her head and sighed. “Nothing personal, but this is gonna hurt.” Raising her foot, Selene rammed her heel into the back of his skull.
His head bounced off the marble before lolling like a ragdoll’s. She bent and pressed her fingers to his neck. His pulse pounded against her skin. He was alive.
With a sigh of relief, Selene snatched his weapon—a thick plastic baton—and his keycard, from his hip before she made a run for it.
Her bare feet slapped the cold floor. If it weren’t for the adrenaline hammering through her veins, she might have stopped to consider shoes, but Pate didn’t allow such frivolities, not when she was stuck in his penthouse and had nowhere to go.
Gritting her teeth at the thought of her capture, Selene did her best to push the image of his slanted smirk and taunting amber eyes from her mind.
She slid to a halt at the end of the hall, flashing the keycard across a silver panel. The dual red lights flashed green, and the doors whooshed open.
Her heart pounded—this was the furthest she’d ever been, and if she didn’t succeed today, she doubted she’d get another chance to flee anytime soon.
Outside the hall was a small control room with a kitchenette on one side, a bathroom through a sliding glass door, and a rolling office chair in front of a wall of monitors. The half-dozen screens showed different angles of her prison: the sitting area viewed from the main door, the bathroom, two views of the large king size bed, and a full view from the corner.
A growl rose in her throat. How dare they spy on her, even in the bathroom? Her cheeks heated and she spun away from the wall. She’d dwell on her lack of privacy later.
At the opposite end of the room, another door with a control panel would lead her to freedom. Swiping the clear keycard, Selene peeked into the hall. Stark white, like the rest of the place. Pate could really use a new interior designer.
She stepped into the hall, and looked both ways. Several doors led off the main hall, and a window filled the wall on either side, much like the windows in her room.
With no idea which way led where, Selene turned right and took off running. Several doors passed on either side. She glanced at each of them, but each was solid, not transparent like the control room’s bathroom had been. She reached the end of the hall, her feet sore and her heart slamming against her ribs.
She turned left, her only option, and ran right into a large, and extremely expensive looking, chrome kitchen. She slowed as she rounded the corner. Across the room a tall man with a hat and black fatigues had his back to her. Selene covered her mouth with her hand, barely concealing her gasp. She ducked behind the counter, her heart nearly leaping from her chest.
Only one guard. He looked out the window on the far side of the room beside a set of stairs going up. That’s not what she wanted. Selene wanted to go down, out of this giant skyscraper towering over most of New Manhattan. At least outside she could find a way to avoid Pate’s guards and get the hell out of town.
The chirp of a commset attached to the man’s jacket made her freeze.
“Jerr, you got eyes on Randy?” a voice squawked. She couldn’t tell whether it was male or female through the static and rough accent.
“Nope, he’s delivering lunch to the princess,” Jerr scoffed.
Oh, right, like I really want to be here. Selene rolled her eyes.
“Check on him in two if you don’t hear anything,” the person on comms said.
“Yes sir.” The communication ended with a quick cut of static.
Selene glanced between the man at the window, and the rest of the open floor plan. She had two minutes before someone went looking for the guard she’d knocked out. That should be plenty of time to get off that floor.
Across from the kitchen, a living room with sleek, modern, white faux leather furniture sat before a tall brick fireplace, again painted white.
What was the Dominion, and everyone involved with them’s obsession with white? It was so sterile, and had to be impossible to clean.
Selene mentally slapped herself. This wasn’t the time for her wandering mind. Taking a deep breath, Selene peeked over the counter along the wall. The guard continued to look out the window; his sharp whistling off key. She raised a brow. At least the sound should mask her movements, or so she hoped.
On the far right side of the huge, seemingly endless room, full of sharp edges and clean lines, a chrome elevator occupied the wall almost like a centerpiece.
Glancing back at the guard, Selene double-checked he was still turned away before she snuck from her hiding place. Her muscles ached from crouching for so long. She bit down on her lip to keep from making any noises, and quickly but quietly made her away around the bend in the wall, where a glass door led out to a small courtyard terrace. Once she was around the corner, she looked for another door.
The elevator had a control panel, and she was sure the man on the floor with her would hear it ding if she called it. Selene stopped not ten feet from the elevator. A large blue panel about the size of her head stuck out from the right side of the elevator, a white outline of a hand on the surface. So the elevator was handprint activated. Smart.
Slipping around the edge of the room, Selene walked lightly, her feet starting to clam up from all the heat wafting off her nervous limbs.
Around a large pillar at the back edge of the room, a glowing red exit sign had her sighing in relief.
Heart pounding, Selene glanced over her shoulder one last time before making a run for the exit.
Swiping the keycard across the door panel, Selene froze as the door beeped.
“Hey! Who’s there?” the guard rumbled from the kitchen. She slipped inside the stairwell as the whine of a laser pistol charging filled her ears.
Now she really had to move. If the man really thought he heard something, and it wasn’t just his mind playing tricks on him, he’d be after her in seconds.
“Stupid!” she hissed.
Chiding her mistakes could come later; now she had to run. Selene raced down the stairs two at a time, her fingers trailing along each section of cold metal railing as she descended. She flung herself around turn after turn until she had to be six floors down. Her chest ached with each breath, and her throat burned from breathing so hard.
Why did she have to be in such a weak clone body? Why couldn’t Pate have given her something even slightly better? Something strong, like her old body.
Shaking her head, Selene slowed her pace. She continued one step at a time, her heart pounding in her ears until she reached a door. No more stairs.
The door indicated floor one-hundred and eighty seven, and it looked like it was her last stop, at least until she could find another door.
Biting back a groan, Selene pressed her sweat-covered face to the glass window in the top right-hand corner of the door. The glass fogged with her hot breath, and she pulled back. Only another white hallway from what she could see. The window was too narrow to see either side of the hall. All she could see were metal placards with numbers that stuck out from the edges of the walls on either side. Apartment numbers? Or maybe office numbers?
Scrunching her eyebrows, Selene swiped her stolen keycard and stepped through the door. It whooshed close behind her, much softer than the beep of the control panel.
The long hall was wider than she expected, with walls of both regular and frosted glass. Beyond were stark labs with chrome tables, white walls, and medical instruments. Her heart sank and her mouth went dry as she looked back and forth. Another research facility? For humans, or for animals?
A shiver descended her spine, and she held her bare arms. Dressed in only a short white dress and cotton shorts, she felt the chill as if it were winter. She wasn’t imagining that it was cold. In one of the glass rooms, a large freezer with a window in the door had ice coating the hinges, and frost climbing the glass.
She gulped. Did Pate plan on putting her down there? Was she going to be another experiment if she didn’t escape?
Her heart leapt. Her escape. What the hell was she doing? She had to get out of there!
Peeling her eyes from the vacant labs, Selene raced down the hall, picking up speed, and warmth as her muscles burned.
The rumble of boots shook her bones as her pursuers descended a set of stairs. Shit. She was already too late.
The door at the far end of the hall burst open, and out leapt half a dozen guards with laser rifles and faceless black masks. Her pulse pounded hard as she spun back the way she’d come.
The door whooshed open, and two more men appeared.
Two, or six? Two she could take, but if the six jumped in, she was screwed. In her old body she might be able to take them, but not in this one, especially only armed with a damn stick.
“Let’s play nice here boys,” Selene said, her voice high, and edged with the fear cooling her body. “No one has to get hurt.”
One of the faceless guards chuckled, a low, hollow sound. They rest closed in on her silently, not saying a word about her audacity.
“Come on, you can just let me out of here, and I’ll be on my merry way.” Selene held up her hands near her hips, ready to grab the baton tucked into her the waistband of her shorts. “No broken bones, no severed arteries… just walk away.”
They stopped in a half circle several feet from her, keeping her pinned to one side of the hall. Her back hit the cold glass of the freezer lab. She nearly leapt out of her skin. The glass was like ice.
“Come quietly,” one of them said. He aimed down his sights at her chest, but from the position of the silver switch at the top of the grip, his rifle was set to stun – all of them were.
Her lips pressed into a firm line. “Not likely.”
The two men on her left reached for her first. Selene grabbed the wrist of the closest, yanking him forward and driving her knee into his nose. A crack echoed in the hollow hall as she pushed him aside and kicked the second in the gut. While he flew back, Selene followed, diving over his body as the whine of charging rifles filled the air.
Even if set to stun, those things would hurt like a bitch.
Dancing backward, Selene grabbed the shoulders of the man she’d kicked and used him to shield her. Shots fired, and the man she held spasmed with each shock bullet.
Pushing him back at the remaining guards, Selene grabbed her baton and ran two steps before sliding beneath them. Her chest heaved as she leapt to her feet and slammed the baton against one of the men’s rifles. The gun flew from his hands, and Selene had to bite back her urge to lunge for it.
Rolling out of the throng of six, Selene leapt back to her feet, and made a move for the door. She was so close she could feel it: the warm air on her skin, the wind in her hair. She reached for the control panel by the door at the end of the hall.
Something hard slammed into her hip, throwing her sideways and sending her rolling into the back wall. A shock ripped through her, and she lost complete control of her body.
Black and white spots flew across her vision and her whole body stung as pain flared across her skin. She squeezed her eyes shut to wait it out—to wait for the agony filling her mind to cease.
When the shock dulled at last, she gasped for air.
Someone grabbed her wrists and yanked her to her feet. Half-dazed, Selene could hardly stand as they clapped black plastic straps on her wrists and yanked them tight. She hissed out a breath as the plastic pinched her skin.
“Get that brat back to her room,” one of the masked guards growled. She pictured his face like that of a snarling tiger. He was the one with the broken nose.
“Don’t worry.” Selene grinned. “The broken nose might just do your ugly mug some favors.”
The butt of his rifle slammed into her gut, and all the air in her lungs exploded from her mouth. She wheezed in a breath as a few of them chuckled and yanked her along, back down the hall, and up the stairs, practically carrying her back to the top floor.
When they finally reached the main loft, she’d barely gotten her breath back, her lungs laboring to keep up from climbing a dozen sets of stairs.
“Not so tough now, are you?” the man holding her arm said. It was the sort of thing Pate would say, and it made her skin crawl. Whoever this guy was, he was lucky she was cuffed, or he’d be the next one bringing home a broken nose.
They ushered her through the kitchen and back down several halls until they passed the control room, and dumped her on the floor back in her prison cell.
Selene worked her jaw as one of them yanked her wrists back up, snaking a curved blade under the plastic tying her hands together. He swiped up, snapping each loop before turning to leave. The doors whooshed close behind the eight of them. Their laugher echoed down the hall until the outer door opened and closed. Then she was left to her silence.
Raw anger burned through her belly as she rubbed her wrists and climbed back to her feet. They treated her like some kind of spoiled little girl misbehaving because of her overprotective father. Selene shook her head and took a deep breath. She ran her fingers through her hair, dark curls falling through her fingers.
Two weeks she’d been in this room. Two weeks, and this had been her first near escape. And she’d blown it.
Her eyebrows furrowed at the sound. Glancing around the room, Selene wondered if she’d somehow heard the elevator from her cell. But no, it was way too far away. That’d be impossible.
Rounding the sitting area, Selene walked across the fur carpet, the long strands of fabric tickling her toes. She looked down at her holopad, sitting right where she’d left it on the coffee table.
Selene took a seat on the faux-leather chair before she picked up the holopad and flicked her fingers across it. The screen lit, casting blue-tinted light across her skin. On the right side of the screen, where the system menu hid while in read mode, a small icon like a chat bubble bounced up and down, seeking her attention. A red circle with a white number one appeared over the two-dimensional chat bubble icon.
Raising an eyebrow, Selene clicked the icon, and a chat screen popped up over the article she’d been reading. A message from “Unknown” stood out on the white background:
“You’ll need my help to escape.”