Prologue: The End of the Beginning
World: An Alternate Earth
Twin moons shadowed the giant orange sun through the pale slate-blue sky at different phases. One narrow like the slit of a cat’s eye, while the other seemed to smile at some unknown secret or joke. If there was a joke to be shared, it was that Carina was driving in midday traffic—rather than hiding in a shack outside of Trog’s borders.
“Oh! He’s kicking!” Jade cried as she grabbed Carina’s hand, completely ignoring its previous position on the steering wheel, and placed it over her swollen pregnant stomach.
“Jade!” Carina snapped as she snatched her hand away and corrected their precarious course. She grimaced and tried to ignore the unsettled tumult of her stomach, along with the blaring horn of the car they had almost sideswiped. “Seriously, are you trying to get us all killed?”
The brightness in Jade’s green eyes dimmed as she blinked and turned to look out the window at the distant skyscrapers of Verdine. She clasped her hands protectively over her stomach as her lips trembled in the reflection of the dirty glass.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Carina apologized softly. “That scared me—You know how much I hate driving.”
“No—It’s my fault,” Jade replied. “Getting excited and doing something without thinking—typical me.”
Carina sighed, flexed her right hand against the steering wheel, and then offered it to her friend. “Here—is he still kicking?”
Jade snorted out a laugh as she took Carina’s hand and guided it to her stomach. “There, do you feel—”
“I feel it,” Carina confirmed as her hand absorbed the odd sensation of the baby kicking Jade’s stomach wall. “That’s so fucking weird.” She pulled her hand away and focused on the traffic and GPS in the car panel.
“It’s perfectly normal,” Jade retorted with a satisfied smile. She resumed humming along to the car radio song as the contamination meter on the dash flickered from pink to red for a moment and then dropped back down to an off white.
Carina glanced at it and frowned. ‘When was the last time she had this hunk of metal recalibrated?’ Still, as close as Trog was to Verdine, it should be relatively safe. Most of the other vehicle occupants that speed past them weren’t wearing their protection face masks in any case.
Jade’s humming faded to a halt as she groaned and rubbed her temples.
“Still getting the headaches?” Carina asked sympathetically.
“I thought the morning sickness would be the worst of it,” Jade muttered. “I knew the first trimester was just too easy.”
“We’ll be at the south clinic in a couple of minutes. I’m sure your doctor will have something to help.” The sound of a smartphone buzzing distracted Carina as she glanced down at Jade’s purse. “Who is that?”
Jade opened the purse, glanced at the device’s screen, and sighed. “It’s Rick.”
“I thought you were done talking to him,” Carina replied tensely.
“I—” Jade silenced the phone and put it back in her purse “—I am.”
“Good,” Carina muttered.
“I’m sorry, but if he can’t get behind your decision to keep this baby—” Carina shook her head as her grip on the wheel tightened. “You need a real partner, not some selfish prick who wants to tear you down over a decision that was yours to make.”
“That’s not fair, Carina. I did make this decision without him. He has a right to be unhappy.”
“You’re defending him?”
“No—I understand why he’s upset. Becoming a surrogate mother was one thing—we needed the cash. But deciding to keep the baby permanently—a baby that’s not Rick’s.”
Carina exhaled sharply and smacked the horn as a black sedan with a Verdine license plate cut in front of them. ‘Asshole, there’s plenty of space ahead of me.’
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Jade murmured as she stroked her belly.
Carina snorted. “Which decision? The one to return the $60,000 to the biological parents—”
“I’m his biological mother!” Jade snapped.
“Or the one where Rick made you choose between the baby and his selfish ass.”
“I’m not getting into this with you,” Jade protested wearily, then groaned as she pressed her fingertips against her temple again.
“Do you want the ice pack?” Carina asked softly, her anger evaporating.
“Lunch box under your seat.”
“Carina—how am I supposed to reach that?” Jade grumbled as she pointed at her stomach.
“Okay, okay, red light up ahead,” Carina replied with a sheepish grin as she eased off the gas and shifted to the brakes.
The traffic pulled to a stop around them, and Carina shifted the vehicle into park. She unclipped her seatbelt and reached over the console, mindful of Jade’s pregnant belly as her fingers brushed over the strap of the lunch box.
“Got it!” Carina pulled the box free just as Jade’s hand clamped painfully around her shoulder.
Glass shattered above her as Jade screamed.
Carina scrambled up, her hand brushing against the broken shards as Jade’s door opened. She stared over the petrified pregnant woman at the two men, each dressed in dark clothes with black baseball caps and skull bandannas wrapped around the lower half of their faces. The larger of the two held a strange black hammer-like tool in his gloved hand that had been used to break the car’s window.
Fear rippled through Carina as the men reached into the car, shoved her back, and unbuckled Jade’s seatbelt.
“No—Carina!” Jade wailed as the men yanked her from the seat.
The driver’s side window shattered. Glass bit into Carina’s cheek and neck. She flinched—then sprang into action as she flipped open the console and grabbed her unregistered handgun.
The car door opened behind her. Then a heavy chest pinned Carina down as a firm grip trapped her hand and the gun inside the console.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” the man’s voice growled against her ear as a needle pricked into the side of her neck. “Night, night.”
Lights and sounds faded in and out of focus as the white hospital walls came slowly into focus. The car was gone. The gun was gone. Jade was gone.
Carina struggled to keep her eyes open beneath the harsh lights that hung above her.
‘Fuck, where am I?’
Her body felt numb, and she couldn’t move. Couldn’t feel anything other than the dull methodical beat of her heart.
“We got lucky,” a deep man’s voice grated through the muffled fog around her. “She was traveling with a runaway surrogate my team hunted down this morning.”
“Dr. Bell will be happy. His VIP clients have been quite impatient about finding a heart transplant. O negative organ donors are difficult to obtain the usual way.”
“Well, fortunately, they subdued her without too much difficulty. She’s a bit malnourished and appears to have been living outside of the safe zone, but the heart is stable and in good condition. Most of her tests have come back negative for the viper’s plague. Radiation levels are also within an acceptable range.”
“Excellent! I will let Dr. Bell know. Have the nurses run the necessary screening tests and set up the operating room for this afternoon. Oh! And have your man eliminate the surrogate’s boyfriend personally when he comes to collect his reward. No loose ends.”
“Of course. My team knows the drill. Give Dr. Bell my regards.”
A dark shape passed between Carina and the ceiling lights. She could not make out the man’s face, just his dark profile, the edges of his neatly cut hair, and the rims of his glasses.
“Looks like she’s waking up.”
“That sometimes happens with the new anesthetic. Not to worry, she can’t move or feel any pain. The heart won’t be affected.”
“You mean she’ll be awake during the surgery?”
“Conscious perhaps, not that it matters—it’s not like she’s going to sue us later,” the man replied cynically.
“We’re not taking any risks with this heart—”
“Alright, alright, I got it. I’ll give her another dose.”
Another shadow passed to her right in the corner of her vision. The sound of metal clicking against a surface filtered through Carina’s ears. A moment passed, and then she heard the man grunt.
“There. All done.”
“Right, well, let me call Dr. Bell so he can clear his schedule. Get the donor prepped. As soon as we have the all-clear on those tests, Dr. Bell will be on his way.”
“This many fresh O negative organs will be quite the harvest. The bidding should do well tonight.”
The footsteps and voices faded away, and Carina was helpless to protest or stop them.
They were going to cut her open and sell her organs.
Carina was more than familiar with the black market on organ harvesting. The number of people who disappeared every day among the lower class had been enough to convince Carina to go off-grid when she discovered her blood type was in high demand among Verdine’s elites.
The only friend from her old life that she had stayed in touch with was Jade.
‘Shit, where was Jade?’
A tear ran down Carina’s cheek as the lights above blurred and faded out of focus. The numb darkness that settled in brought her no comfort, only cold certainty—that she would not wake up again.