What makes you human?
Here is a sneek peek at the entire first chapter for Hybrid, a Shadowmark Origins novel, out November 30, 2017!
The long-abandoned warehouse had a dusty, metallic smell. Concrete pillars rose up in the darkness like colorful stalagmites in a cavern. Moonlight shining through the high, murky windows revealed graffiti in French and German, spread across the supports in an art form all its own.
Shadows moved across the patches of light, the people who cast them speaking in low tones. There was an air of tension, but also of release.
This would be the last gathering like this our kind would have. Everyone had a mission now. After finishing a grueling assignment in Germany, returning to this training facility felt a little like returning home. If I’d ever had a home.
From the middle of the warehouse, in the darkest section where moonlight didn’t shine, came the sounds of hand-to-hand combat. Fists connected with flesh in a steady rhythm that suggested both parties knew what they were doing. Occasionally, one of them would grunt as a blow found its mark. A spectator called out encouragement—a small, muted outburst, barely overpowering the sounds of the conflict.
The fight drew me further in, pulling me toward it like the well-known moth to the flame. Only the flame was dark, and I was more like a phantom than a moth.
Even without light, it didn’t take long for me to see my friend Doyle in the center of a tight ring of onlookers, sparring with a female I’d never met before. Doyle was the most powerful among our group. His sharp features and dark hair added to his commanding, serious demeanor. Blood ran freely down the side of his head from a deep gash above his eye.
The combatants took a brief strategy break, a pause for breath. Doyle swept away some of the blood and frowned in concentration as he analyzed his opponent.
Doyle, who normally remained calm during these training exercises, watched the woman with a bit of doubt. I’d never seen him look at an opponent like that before. Like he worried that she would beat him. In fact, she didn’t have any visible injuries on her.
Doyle had never been beaten.
The female stood opposite Doyle, sizing him up. She was tall, regal, with high cheekbones and strong body, hair cut as short as Doyle’s. She circled him confidently like a hawk circles its prey. Her body was wound so tightly the tension in her muscles was palpable.
“She’ll never win,” I whispered to the stranger standing to my left.
“She might,” he said. “She did the other day.”
“Really?” I asked in surprise. “Who is she?”
“Never heard of her.”
Calla struck at Doyle like a coiled snake. The atmosphere grew tense as Doyle went on the defensive. Everyone held their breath.
She jabbed right, going for his jaw. Doyle blocked her with his arm, but Calla came in close and brought her knee to his ribs with an audible crack. Doyle grunted in pain. Taking advantage of Calla’s proximity, he grabbed for her. He had her.
And then he didn’t.
If was the fastest feint I’d ever seen. Calla was fast—every bit as fast as Doyle. She moved around and took advantage of his slight overbalance, sending a blow to the back of his knee.
Doyle landed hard on the floor. His chin connected with concrete, and her knee dug into his back while she twisted his arm behind him. Pinned.
Calla leaned down and whispered something to him. Even with my superhuman hearing, I couldn’t hear what she said. Doyle responded with a quiet word, and she let go.
He sprang to his feet as if he hadn’t just been nearly knocked unconscious and had several ribs broken. Neither of them had broken a sweat.
Although she’d won, Calla’s look remained defiant, like she was ready to compete again if he didn’t accept the outcome.
Doyle signaled his defeat with a curt nod.
Surprised murmurs scattered throughout the onlookers. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed someone could beat Doyle. I watched my friend a moment for his reaction, but if he was feeling embarrassed or angry, he didn’t externalize it.
Calla turned to the spectators and smiled. “Anyone else?”
Her voice, fresh with pride and victory, slid through me like poisoned air. No one moved to challenge her although a few shifted nervously on their feet as if weighing their chances against her. If she could beat Doyle, what chance did the rest of us have?
I found myself wanting to wipe that smug smile off her face.
Doyle scanned the crowd, saw me, and walked over.
I still watched Calla. She met my gaze, locking eyes with me in a silent dare.
You can try, she said, speaking to me telepathically through the hidden alien symbols we both had on our bodies. Her gaze pierced mine, and though she didn’t speak again, I felt her cold contempt for me.
“Careful, Morse,” Doyle said, smirking. “She doesn’t know when to quit.”
I smiled at my friend and then looked back at Calla.
“Neither do I,” I said, stepping forward.
I gained a few approving calls. Someone laughed.
Calla smiled again, taunting me.
But I was fresh. She was spent. I knew I was taking advantage of her tussle with Doyle, but that was her own fault for inviting me to spar. After my assignment in Germany, I was ready for a good fight.
She circled me, sizing me up as she had Doyle. But I’d already seen her feint, so that move wouldn’t work again. I waited, steadying my breathing as her scowl deepened.
Her right index finger twitched. My gaze flicked to it.
That was all the distraction Calla needed.
She struck, lunging for me as if she planned to strangle me where I stood. I shifted my stance, brought up my arm. Instead of being caught off balance, Calla pivoted mid-lunge and brought her arm around low to jab at my ribs. I blocked her easily, but she’d expected that. She was testing me, taunting me.
We both took a step back. The spectator ring had tightened as if the onlookers expected one of us to run.
“Is that all you got?” I asked, amused at Calla’s hesitancy. Then I smiled, beckoning her toward me.
“You must like punishment,” she said.
“Let’s just say I’m not afraid of it.”
And then the dance began. We traded blows in a complicated series of moves, each one riskier than the last, each one blocked by the other.
Surprised cheers rose up from the crowd. I’d already lasted longer than they expected. Finally, I landed a sharp punch straight to Calla’s nose. Blood spurted out of it. Some landed on my face. Then, it gushed down the front of her shirt. The sight excited me, sending heady endorphins to my brain and blocking out all else but the smell of blood and the salty sweat that had broken out on my forehead.
Calla barely flinched. She didn’t even bother to wipe the blood as it covered her lips. But her eyes flashed in anger.
She struck, again like a viper. Only this time, it was all I could do to keep up with her. Calla had been holding back, toying with me. Her punches came so fast I couldn’t block them. The first time her fist connected with my ribs, I felt one snap. No pain, yet, but my breathing grew short. My vision blurred a bit as I delivered a kick aimed at her breastbone. No more games. If she wasn’t holding back, neither was I.
Each time I tried to catch her, Calla moved just beyond my reach. Each time she hit me, I was a little slower to react until she pummeled me so soundly I no longer knew if there was any place on my body she hadn’t hit.
I staggered back, almost falling into the crowd but willing myself to stay on my feet.
“Are you done yet?” Calla roared. She tasted the victory. But like I’d told Doyle, I never knew when to quit.
So I kept at it. Blood poured down into my right eye, and I blinked it away. My left eye had swollen completely shut.
Calla smirked again. Again, something rose up inside me, a surge of anger so pure that all I wanted to do was wipe that smirk off her face. I ignored everything else, all the jeering. I vaguely registered Doyle standing behind Calla, watching stoically.
And then, he did the unthinkable.
“Enough,” he commanded.
I fully expected Calla to laugh in his face, but she stiffened, and, after a moment’s hesitation, dropped her arms.
My anger grew, but this time it was targeted at Doyle. “No! We’ll fight until only one of us is left standing, like the rules say!”
A palpable nervousness scattered around the crowd. Everyone looked at Doyle. Except Calla. She kept her eyes on me, but her ears were tuned to Doyle.
He stepped out into the ring, staring me down with his black eyes.
“You are needed elsewhere, Morse,” he said.
I stood there, bleeding, leaning to one side. At least three ribs were broken, one of them snapped in half and in danger of piercing my left lung. At some point, I had broken two toes although I didn’t remember doing it. As the adrenaline faded and I lost my edge, the pain began creeping in. First, one injury at a time, and then sharp, stabbing pains invaded my body, in every place imaginable.
And still, I stood gaping at Doyle. After all, I’d experienced worse pain. I had the impression that Calla wouldn’t mind killing me. Was he stopping this fight from going too far?
Doyle seemed to read my thoughts. “New orders just came in.”
“And how would you know?” I spat blood out of my mouth.
He straightened, glanced at the surrounding hybrids. Calla did nothing to hide her smirk.
“Since you’ve just returned from an assignment, I’ll forgive you for that,” he said.
That shut me up. Something had changed while I was away.
I panted heavily as my pain swelled and caught up with my brain. “What is it?” I croaked.
“I am going to be named Dar Ceylin,” he said.
Commander. The commander. Of all the hybrids on Earth.
I straightened as best I could, out of respect. “You deserve it.”
He nodded in acknowledgment and then motioned for me to follow him. I tried not to hobble as we left the ring of hybrids, who all looked disappointed that I wouldn’t be dying tonight. They broke up into groups of twos and threes behind us, speaking in low tones, no more raised voices.
“When did this happen?” I asked Doyle as we walked to the door. A fresh breeze rustled the trees outside and blew into the warehouse. I allowed it to soothe my hot face.
“Two days ago. Was your mission successful?”
I had just orchestrated the greatest hack of the century. A whole country’s data now belonged to our alien masters, the Condarri. Per instructions, Doyle didn’t ask what I’d been doing, and I didn’t volunteer.
“Will you know where everyone is now that you are Dar Ceylin?” I asked.
“No. Only general locations. How’d you get here?”
Now it was my turn to smile. Blood poured out of my mouth and dribbled down my chin. I wiped it away and nodded toward the shadowy trees. “She’s finished.”
Doyle turned to me in surprise. “And they let you fly her?”
“It’s a test flight.” I shrugged and then winced in pain.
I closed my eyes and imagined my new ship coming toward me, calling it out of the darkness. When I opened them, I felt the Nomad respond even though I couldn’t see it yet.
Doyle saw it first. “It looks… great.”
High praise indeed, from him. The small spaceship descended from the clouds and landed on the patch of grass outside the warehouse. I felt a stirring of air as the hybrids inside moved to see the ship. It looked like a large piece of slate had fallen from the sky. Black, angular, covered in the circular writings of our masters. I could control it with my thoughts. So could Doyle, if he wanted to.
“They won’t let me keep it,” I said. “Our masters said it would be used for other purposes. All for the cause, right?”
“Do you doubt it?”
“Of course not.”
The Condarri wanted Earth for themselves. It was our job to give it to them. If they wanted other hybrids to use the ship I had built, so be it.
Calla moved to stand on the other side of Doyle. The smirk was still there. Although she’d just beat Doyle, he seemed comfortable around her. I wondered how long she’d been hanging around him. Her defiant attitude and triumphant gaze didn’t sit well with me. Neither did the jealous gleam in her eye as she looked at the Nomad.
“Morse,” Doyle said. “You haven’t officially met Calla.”
I lifted my chin in acknowledgment and then turned back to the ship. “Guess I better get going. Where am I going?”
“Marseille, France. Gregory Emerson-Wright is your target. You’ll receive more details once you arrive.”
Doyle turned to me. “Our goal is in sight, and we’re going to make our masters very proud.”
“Congratulations, Doyle. You’re the best person for the job of commander.”
“It hasn’t happened yet,” Calla said from behind.
I heard the sneer in her voice, the hatred, even. It surprised me. Every hybrid I knew respected Doyle.
“Soon,” Doyle answered, and then, “Leave us.”
Calla stalked off, back into the darkness of the warehouse.
“Where’d you meet her?” I asked.
“One of our bunkers in the Alps.”
“Didn’t think I’d ever see someone who could beat you.”
Doyle smiled. “She only wins some of the time. I had a bad night tonight.”
I scoffed. Doyle never had a bad night. “So you have fought her before.”
“Yes, many times.” Doyle glanced back into the warehouse. A slight frown creased his face. There and gone. “I get the feeling that she’s planning something, but I don’t know what.”
“You better watch your back.”
“I’m not worried about Calla.” He said it like he was convincing himself.
I knew Doyle well enough to know when something concerned him, but I wasn’t going to point it out. It left me wondering just what had happened between the two of them. “I better get going, then.”
He nodded, and I set off for the Nomad—hybrids didn’t bother with goodbyes. Once aboard, the ship took off at my bidding, headed for Marseille and a new mission.
Find Hybrid on Amazon. November 30, 2017