I shouldn’t have, but I did.
Everyone told me not to go beyond the wall, that I’d find everything I wanted inside the city of Tharia, but they were wrong. I was on the cusp of a major discovery, so close to creating the most potent suppressant in history. Nothing available now even came close to it.
It would change the world as we knew it.
Just one aerosolized dose would render our instincts obsolete for five years. It would save the Health Commission billions of credits every year, plus it would change the future of the city for years to come.
I looked up at the sky through the glass windows of our airship, observing the opaque shimmer from the dome that encapsulated us all, the dome that kept the airborne suppressant in circulation so that none of us fell prey to the feral urges inside us. Without it, we’d be nothing more than rutting animals fueled by the need to breed.
I owed it to the population to keep them safe, no matter what that required.
I licked my lips, turning my eyes to the thick cement walls that kept us contained and protected from the wilds. From the uncivilized men and women who refused the suppressant. From the predators that had evolved into monsters since the time of the Great War. Although I was confident in the members of my expedition, a tiny piece of myself began to grow anxious.
No one from the city had wandered beyond the walls in a very long time. At least not as far as we were going to.
I placed my hand on the crate stowed away in our hovercraft, filled to the brim with the injectable form of the suppressant.
We’d be safe. We were prepared.
“Dr. Kelly, the rest of the provisions have been loaded onto the vessel and we are prepared to depart,” said Jasper, my security team leader. My employer, Genwell Laboratories, had insisted on providing me with protection for this expedition, ten men to be exact.
It was now or never.
“Let’s move out,” I replied, and he nodded. It was time to go.
The gentle whir of the steam engines began to hum, and the creaking gate started to lift in front of us. I don’t remember the last time anyone left. The only thing that traveled outside the city now were convoys that shipped provisions to the other domed cities far away, and even those were totally automated.
Once the gate was fully open, our vessel lifted off the ground and moved forward into the wilds. A veritable sea of green, massive, ancient trees rose up before us. Thick vines curled around their trunks and a multitude of heavy bushes surrounded their bases. Luckily, there was an overgrown main road that our vessel was small enough to maneuver along but I knew that would only take us so far. Eventually, we’d have to continue on foot.
Cold nervousness washed over me as I looked back at the city one last time. I was leaving my home, my friends, and everything I had ever known. I shivered and bit my lip, folding back against the supple leather seats. Instead of my uneasiness, I tried to focus on the mission ahead. I looked out the window as we flew down the road at top speed, traveling far faster than we ever could on foot.
The only other member of my team who was brave enough to want to venture into the wilds with me was Alix. My eyes glanced over to see him sitting beside me.
“I can’t believe you’re actually going through with this whole thing,” he chided, and I just grinned at him, covering my unease with my smile. He’d been my friend and coworker for years; we bounced ideas and hypotheses off one another all the time. He’d been furious at first upon hearing about my expedition into the wilds but had insisted upon coming along all the same. He was that kind of guy, and to be honest, I was grateful he would be with me.
“You know me. Always sacrificing myself for science,” I answered teasingly.
“You seriously think this drug will do what you predicted? Suppress the urges with only a single dose for years at a time?” he asked, searching my eyes for an answer.
He and I both knew the current drug was problematic. In order to work successfully, the airborne meds had to be in constant circulation. If that ever stopped, our bodies would quickly break down the biological structure of the suppressant, rendering us vulnerable to our instincts. Injectable versions of the drugs lasted even less time once the doses stopped.
“I do. I’ve done the calculations a thousand times. The prototypes performed incredibly well in our primate studies. I mean, you’ve seen the data. You know I’m right,” I answered. He grunted in agreement. He turned and stared at me, cocking his head to the side.
“You know what that would mean, right? Travel between world cities would finally be safe for the first time in five hundred years. That hasn’t been seen since the Great War,” he mused.
I’d been working on an experimental version for some time and it was almost complete, requiring just one additional ingredient, but the plant I needed had gone extinct within the city walls several years ago and only grew in the wilds now. Once complete, the ramifications of such a monumental development were vast. Humanity could finally emerge from behind domed city walls in complete safety, free from the rigid animalistic instincts that demanded strict obedience. Free from the bonds of genetic slavery.
Behaviors that were written deep in our DNA. Once, long ago, they would have been called mutations, twisting and intercalating into our genetic backbone. There was no cure for them, only management. I shivered, imagining what life would have been like for me if the suppression drugs hadn’t been invented long ago.
I knew what I was, but I kept it secret. If that information ever got out, I’d face a multitude of hostile reactions. Even if it went unsaid, there was a deep-seated animosity against my kind, like it was my fault I had been born this way. I’d probably be let go for some inane reason from my job. Be forced to live in the special neighborhoods meant for women of my heredity. They’d tell me it was for my own protection, but I saw it as a prison all the same.
So, I kept it a secret.
I was an omega. Fated to spread my legs and be used by an alpha.
If the suppressant was ever destroyed, I’d be weak to my own powerful urges. Even if I didn’t want to, my body would force me to obey. In the presence of an alpha, I would go into heat. I’d be soaking wet and begging for him to knot me, to fill me with his cum, and to breed me. I would become a creature obsessed with primal needs, powered by potent pheromones and overwhelming urges to be mated.
I’d seen it happen.
Two distinct individuals, resistant to the suppressant. Almost as if by fate, the male was an alpha, and she, an omega. He’d torn through a packed day market to get to her. People had been injured, some even killed in the ensuing disaster.
Our urges were dangerous.
I closed my eyes and tried to focus on something else.
“You alright there, Raven?” Alix pressed. His brow furrowed with concern as his dark blue eyes studied mine. I imagined the color of his eyes looked much like the ocean, but I’d never seen it. No one living in the cities had.
“I’m fine. Just trying to remember if I forgot anything back in the city,” I lied. His eyes narrowed just slightly, but he didn’t push me for answers. Instead, he offered me a reprieve by mentioning our agenda for the next few days. The two of us busied ourselves by looking over our notes and assessing the exact area where we were likely to find the purple flower we needed. We aimed to collect both the petals of the plant and its roots, so that we’d be able to cultivate it back in Tharia without delay.
After several hours, though, the steam engines started to sputter sporadically.
“Fuck. Already?” I scoffed.
Steam-powered air technology was positively ancient, but we hadn’t had much of a choice. There weren’t many aircraft available, because they weren’t required for city life. Public transit trains got you wherever you wanted to go within the city, but that made planning my expedition difficult. Not a single train ventured outside the walls.
So, that meant our aircraft was really old, developed before the time of the Great War. I’d found it in a museum, for spirits’ sake.
The engines seized and the vessel shook violently. I lurched forward in my seat, but Alix’s arm shot forward, catching me from falling, and I thanked him quietly.
“Dammit. I think the steam amplifier is malfunctioning,” Alix shouted over the loud clunking. In the chamber behind ours, I could hear my security team scrambling to get to work. The airship began to slow until it finally lowered to the ground and skidded to a stop.
The whoosh of steam sounded loud to my ears and the door to our cabin sprang open. With a sigh, I descended the stairs and ventured outside in order to assess the damage.
Breathing in deep, I sighed contentedly. The fresh air was as wonderful as I could have imagined it would be.
I turned, watching as smoke rose from the aircraft that I had bought to facilitate our journey. My security detail surrounded the vessel, trying to figure out what was wrong, but even I knew it was useless. None of us knew how to repair steam technology.
The time of long-distance travel was long past.
I looked up into the cloudless blue sky, feeling the last tendrils of sunlight pass across my cheeks. I’d never felt or seen anything like it before. Such things were muted by the walls of the dome. A warm breeze tickled my nose and the scent of a thousand sweet smells pervaded my senses. The stale air inside Tharia was nothing compared to this. Out here, it was pure bliss.
Alix placed a steady hand on my shoulder as I observed everything that the wilds had to offer. Brilliant oranges and pinks painted the sky as the sun set on the horizon. I’d never seen so many shades of color in one single moment. It burned like fire on the horizon, slowly fading to a smoldering pink as night took hold. The two of us watched the men work on the aircraft in silence for the next half hour, until the darkness reigned king in the sky.
Several twinkling lights came into view and I gasped. The darker it got, the more I began to see.
“Stars,” I murmured in wonder.
Alix’s fingers squeezed my skin and I gasped as a single shooting star streaked across the sky. I set my mouth in a tight line, suddenly feeling a strong sense of determination. Every human deserved to witness such beauty. I would allow everyone access to it, once my experimental drug was complete. I breathed in the wild air deeply, hopeful for the future as Alix stood at my side.
A very long time ago, I would have called such a thing romantic, but those urges had been minimized into nothingness. Now, I wasn’t burdened with such distracting nonsense. I was focused on my mission and so was Alix.
Now that the sun was down though, it was really dark. My eyes only adjusted a little bit in the shadows, the trees rising impossibly high in the star-filled sky above.
“Well, we may as well prepare camp for the night, since the airship doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for the time being,” I said, and Alix grunted in agreement. Together, we ventured back inside our cabin and gathered supplies for the night. Blankets, pillows, lighters for a fire. Jasper went off and gathered some wood while Alix and I set up camp under the light of the rising moon.
Everything was quiet, and before long, the twelve of us surrounded a crackling fire. The entire experience was tranquil and all I could think about was bringing the same thing to the thousands of people living under the dome, to give them freedom in the truest sense.
Humanity deserved to know what this felt like.
The warmth of the fire drew me in, and I found it hard to focus on anything else. I watched each flame flicker and crackle before me, the myriad colors intoxicating to see. Alix sat beside me, quiet and observant but good company all the same. I was glad he had come along. His presence comforted me.
“Any word on the steam amplifier?” I eventually asked, and Jasper shook his head.
“No. It seems a specific cog malfunctioned and split in two and we can’t repair it. It’s a critical gear in the engine and nothing we have fits to its specifications,” he answered.
“Damn. We’re going to have to continue our journey on foot earlier than we planned then,” Alix answered, and I nodded in agreement.
“We should stay the night and move out in the morning then. Let’s not waste too much time here,” I responded, my eyes beginning to grow heavy. The group was quiet. Jasper murmured his agreement.
I yawned and Alix chuckled. Playfully, I stuck my tongue out at him and he just shook his head in amusement.
“I think we should get ready for bed,” Alix said with a chuckle, and I nodded.
The fire began to burn down and the heat dissipated.
By the light of the moon, Alix helped me set up a small tent. He set his up by mine and I assisted him with his until we finished together. Eventually, I crawled inside mine, he went inside his, and we all settled down for the night. Before I went to sleep, I injected myself with a dose of the suppressant and climbed into my cot, falling asleep not long after.
A loud boom woke me up several hours later.
Blinking sleep away, I tried to figure out if what I heard had been a dream. I twitched each of my fingers and toes, finding myself intact. I looked around me, observing the white walls of my small tent and the lack of light outside. It was still the middle of the night.
Convincing myself that it was probably some nightmare or something, I rolled over, cocooning myself in the soft blankets of my cot. I closed my eyes once more, feeling the heavy tendrils of sleep capture me again.
A distinct male scream sounded somewhere nearby and my ears perked up. My eyes flew open. Instantly, my heart began to pound in my chest and my stomach roiled with anxiety. That was definitely not a dream. Even now, a cold chill gripped me, and a sickening fear began to take over every single one of my senses. What was happening?
“Raven,” a male voice hissed outside my tent.
For a moment, my heart jumped into my throat as I watched a shadow move over the entrance to my tent. A hand pushed the fabric aside and I finally sucked in a breath of relief when Alix stuck his head inside.
“Come on. We have to move,” he whispered.
“What’s going on?” I asked, and he just shushed me. He maneuvered his massive frame into my tent, and I furrowed my brow in annoyance. I had slept in my clothes, so he grabbed my boots and put them on my feet, then pulled my brown leather jacket onto my small frame. I frowned with displeasure.
“I can dress myself,” I muttered, trying to hide my irritation at his overhanded helpfulness.
“Quiet,” he chided, and I shut my mouth.
There was little time to grab any supplies. Outside, a few screams sounded, moving closer to where we were camped. I had barely enough time to grab my bag before Alix gripped my arm and pulled me outside. Within seconds, the two of us were sprinting into the trees.
“Where’s Jasper?” I finally hissed, my voice as loud as I dared.
“This way,” he answered simply, and I didn’t reply, satisfied with his answer for now.
Within thirty seconds or so, we arrived in another clearing where our security team was preparing their weapons. All of them were wearing dark combat gear and were powering up their flamethrowers and laser guns. There was a hushed and palpable tension in the air, and it made me shiver. I looked around in confusion but stayed close to Alix’s side as we approached Jasper, who was directing his team in the center of the clearing.
“Status?” Alix demanded as the two of us rushed to his side.
“Bandits of some kind, maybe uncivilized scum from beyond the wall. They got Rob,” Jasper answered furiously.
It was then I realized that there were only nine of my team there with us in the clearing. One of them, a man named Robert, was missing.
That scream I’d heard before was more than real. It was more than likely that it had been him.
“How did it happen?” I asked. Licking my lips, I shivered anxiously. Jasper met my eyes and shook his head.
“Knife wound,” he replied, and I knew he wasn’t going to give me any more details than that. To be honest, I really didn’t want to know anything more.
“What now?” Alix snarled in anger.
“We prepare for combat, raise our defenses. Here, we brought along extra guns for the two of you. Laser powered, small hand versions of the big ones we got. Point where you want to shoot and pull the trigger. They’re self-sustaining and regenerate their own charges,” Jasper replied, pulling out two small black weapons from holsters on his waist. He held his arms out and passed one to me and another to Alix.
Our security team surrounded us in a loose circle, staring out into the trees. The sky was still dark, making it hard to make out any shapes in the shadows, but I still tried.
The forest was strangely quiet. It was eerie.
The sounds of bugs and animals scampering in the distance had quieted to nothing. The hair on the back of my neck began to rise, and I looked around, searching in the darkness for some sort of clue as to what we were up against. I saw nothing and that made me even more nervous than before.
A low growl echoed all around us and every bit of breath in my lungs rushed out in fear. In planning my expedition into the wilds, I knew there would be predators out there we didn’t know about, didn’t understand, but I had hoped we could avoid them if we moved quickly enough. I closed my eyes and drew in a breath, hoping to the spirits that there were no monsters prowling nearby ready to kill us all.
A long time ago, the entirety of the planet was caught up in the Great War. Nation fought against nation in a battle for power and money and control of trade routes. Entire countries had been destroyed, left to decay in ruins, destined never to be lived in again. The devastation from the war had been vast and the aftershocks from it had been felt for centuries. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Just the loss of human life should have brought the world to its knees, but even then, it wasn’t over. We weren’t prepared for the long-term effects of the biological warfare that had been used to bring the war to its final end.
Humans were among the first to change. Initially, the effects on the human population were subtle. Some men became more dominating and assertive in taking their mates. Some women succumbed to their rule, giving themselves over to be bred, but then, as more time passed, the effects started to become more intense.
It changed us. Mutated us into people that would succumb to feral mating urges no matter what we did to try to stop it. All of us transformed and forced to surrender to the call of our genetics, to give in to our alpha, beta, or omega instincts. To breed.
But it also changed wildlife. Some went extinct. Others changed and mutated into ghastly beasts that hunted the forests. It was one of the reasons the walls of Tharia were so high. Not only to keep the suppressant in, but to keep the monsters out.
The growl rumbled once more, and my entire team stilled with terror.
I closed my eyes momentarily, trying to calm the shuddering erratic beat of my heart, but it did little good. This wasn’t the sort of thing any of us had trained for.
All around us, the bushes swayed and the sounds of footsteps in the shadows met my ears. Leaves crinkled under heavy boots. Branches and twigs snapped loudly, echoing in the silence, and then the beast growled once again.
A strange red glow pulsed far in the distance, rising above the trees. My mouth went dry with fear.
Its growl reverberated in the darkness, the sound so cold and terrifying that it seemed to reach the depths of my soul. It vibrated the very air around us.
Alix drew himself closer to me and I was comforted by the feeling of his warm chest at my back. I hefted the gun in my hands upward, curling my fingers around the leather-clad handle. My forefinger just touched the trigger, ready to pull it at the first inclination of an attack. I swallowed heavily and tried to prepare myself for what was to come.
Abruptly, a group of men dressed in all black rushed forward from all sides. In the darkness, they were incredibly hard to see. They moved too quickly, and the men of my security team tried to react, but they weren’t fast enough. The ambushers moved swiftly, and I tried to focus on one of the attackers, pointing my weapon, but I quickly lost sight of them. I hissed with fear and then my eyes were pulled back to the red glow pulsing amongst the trees once more.
Whatever it was, it was huge and would be an opponent far more formidable than any of us had been prepared for. Wild wolves or cats? We could handle. But this? This was different. This was far worse.
I’d never trained for this. I was a scientist; I wasn’t meant for combat.
Not far from my side, Jasper rushed at one of the attackers and that’s when I saw the metal glint of a knife. All around me, the sounds of hand-to-hand combat echoed, a disastrous cacophony of noise that left me terrified. Behind me, Alix stiffened and the red glow in the woods smoldered brighter, moving closer and closer with each passing second.
It was as though death were coming to claim us.
Jasper grunted in pain not far from me and my eyes tore to watch him fight. His attacker was strong, but so was he. He twisted, landing a kick on the man’s side and forcing him to retreat back a step. The tall man was prepared though and swung around, catching Jasper in the jaw with a strong punch in retaliation. Jasper staggered and he swung his forearms up to protect his face. He swayed and I began to worry for my friend.
The two of them circled around each other, two predators locked in an epic battle to the death. I watched nervously, trying to gauge my next move. Should I run? Should I stay and fight?
The attacker roared and went after Jasper with a ferocity like I’d never seen. Jasper defended himself, blocking the man with everything he had, but still, the man pushed him back. Time seemed to slow as he twisted around Jasper, swinging his arm around his neck and pulling him in close to his chest. He grasped Jasper’s head and then I felt myself begin to scream as he wrenched a knife across his throat. It was as though he was slicing through melted butter and not the pale skin of the leader of my security team.
The wound opened and blood soaked down Jasper’s chest.
I watched in horror as his eyes met mine. I watched as the life drained from his eyes and then as he died before me.
The sounds of feral snarls filled the air and the man holding Jasper’s lifeless body in his grasp grinned wickedly. He must have seen the fear and confusion in my eyes, but I ground my teeth. I had to remain strong, no matter what.
“Who the fuck are you?” I shouted in his direction, loud enough so that I would be heard over the sickening sounds of battle.
He simply chuckled and the beast growled. It was much closer than it had been before and I shuddered, every hair on my skin rising in alarm.
“So, you must be the target then,” he finally answered, and I cocked my head in confusion.
What the hell did that mean?
The beast snarled and I jolted, the sound practically feet from me now. My blood ran cold with fear and I whimpered softly.
“Out here, we train the monsters to do our bidding,” he said coldly, and I trembled with terror. What the hell did that mean?
The red glow shimmered amongst the trees and I knew that the battle had only just begun. With a sense of terror like I’d never known, I forced myself to look up even though I didn’t want to.
The beast had arrived.
Two glowing scarlet eyes stared down at me, unblinking and dangerous. Within them, fires smoldered just like the one I’d stared into only hours before. Two thick, bull-like horns extended outward above those angry eyes and a mouth full of sharp teeth opened and closed ominously, gnashing with fury. The beast’s entire body glowed red, like it was comprised of living fire surging through its veins. I could almost see the flames smoldering just underneath its skin. With flaring nostrils, the beast breathed in and out slowly and smoke rose up around it, ominous and terrifying.
It walked forward on all fours and that’s when the screaming really started. Long, pointed claws curled into the dirt beneath it and at once, it hurtled toward us all.
It lashed forward with one paw and struck one of the members of my security team, lacerating him in two with just a single swipe. In horror, I watched as his upper half fell toward the ground, leaving his lower half standing for just a moment until it tumbled to the ground as well. The monster’s first casualty. I had a feeling this was just the beginning.
Like a wild cat, the beast slinked forward, growling and snarling as the rest of my team shot at it with everything they had. Laser pulses bounced right off the beast’s body, effectively useless against it. Flamethrowers did nothing against this beast of fire, rendering my men defenseless against it. We hadn’t been prepared for such a devastating creature. We hadn’t even known it existed.
The monster continued on its rampage and the sounds of bodies ripping into pieces was deafening. A keening, desperate noise echoed around me and it took me a long moment to realize that it was emerging from my own throat.
Blood and gore fell to the dirt all around me. I struggled to breathe and the coppery taste of blood felt stale on my tongue.
The man holding Jasper’s lifeless body finally dropped him to the ground.
“Kill them all. Leave those two alive,” he said, pointing in my and Alix’s direction. “Then destroy the airship and every last vial of their drugs. Leave nothing but ashes,” the man said, seemingly in the direction of the giant beast.
Then he rushed toward me and I didn’t even have enough time to lift my gun before he grasped my bag and tore it from my shoulder. My body wrenched backwards, and I tried to hold onto the backpack, but he was stronger than me. Alix lunged for him, but he was too late. The man dashed off into the woods with everything I held dear in his possession.
I didn’t have any time to focus on the loss of my bag though while the beast was tearing through the rest of my people. Death and devastation surrounded me.
The monster roared and its horned head descended down. I watched in horror as its mouth opened, glowing red from within. Teeth grated together and another man from my team was torn into pieces.
The monster attacked, again and again.
I knew then that I would never forget their screams.
The creature breathed in deep and the glow beneath its skin grew brighter, the smoke surrounding it thicker and much heavier. I took a step back in alarm. The great beast began to breathe fire, directed straight at the remaining members of my expedition.
The bandits that had attacked us scattered back into the trees. Overhead, the sun was just beginning to rise, and the sky was starting to lighten. It should have been beautiful, but the only thing it served to do was expose the death and ruin that this night had become.
One by one, the monster eviscerated the men who were supposed to protect me. Within just a few minutes, it had killed them all.
Then it turned toward us. I felt a droplet of sweat drip down my back, cold as ice. Even with Alix beside me, fear consumed me.
I stared into its eyes and it gazed down at me, promising my death should I step out of line. A soft growl emerged from its throat and the fire under its skin pulsed in warning. It was telling me to run. To get as far away from here as I could.
But I couldn’t move. I was frozen.
Behind me, Alix’s hands grasped my waist and all of a sudden, my feet weren’t touching the ground anymore. He hefted me up and over his shoulder, my body fitting against him like it had been molded for it. He sprinted off into the forest and I watched as the monster bounded off in the other direction. It moved toward our camp, our airship, and all of our supplies. Several minutes later, a ball of fire rose up into the sky. A great blast of destruction that took all I’d ever worked for and annihilated it within seconds.
I knew then that everything we’d brought with us must have been destroyed.
Including the supplies of injectable suppressant.