Taken by Midnight (Chapter Nine)
Even after he'd been back at the Order's headquarters for some hours that morning, the unwarranted–completely unwanted–sense of rage that gripped him when he thought of an innocent woman coming to harm made his muscles vibrate with the need for violence. A couple of sweaty hours of blade work in the weapons room had helped take off some of his edge. So had the scalding, forty-minute shower he'd punished himself with following the training.
He might have felt damned good, felt that his head was screwed on straight and tight again, if not for the one-two punch that Gideon had delivered not long afterward.
The first hit was the news that Jenna had come down from breakfast with the other women of the compound and had asked him to run another round of tissue testing and blood work. She had recalled something about the time she'd spent in the Ancient's company–something that Gideon had said left the stalwart female pretty shaken up.
The second blow had come almost immediately after the first samples were drawn and run through the analyzers.
Jenna's blood counts and DNA had changed significantly since the last time Gideon had run them.
Yesterday, her results were normal. Today, everything was off the charts.
"We can't jump to conclusions. No matter what these reports seem to indicate," Lucan finally said into the quiet, his deep voice grave.
"Maybe we should run another sample," said Tess, the only one of the females in the tech lab at the moment. She glanced up from the disturbing lab results to look at Lucan, Brock, and the rest of the Order who'd been summoned there to review Gideon's findings. "Shall I get Jenna and bring her back down to the infirmary for a second test?"
"You can," Gideon said, "but running another sample isn't going to change a thing." He took off his pale blue glasses and tossed them onto the acrylic workstation in front of him. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he slowly shook his head. "These kinds of DNA mutations and massive cellular replications simply don't occur. Human bodies aren't advanced enough to handle the demands that changes of this significance would place on their organs and arteries, to say nothing of the impact something like this would have on the central nervous system."
Arms crossed over his chest, Brock leaned against the wall next to Kade, Dante, and Rio. He said nothing, struggling to make sense of everything he was seeing and hearing. Lucan had advised that no one jump to conclusions, but it was damned hard not to assume that as of right now, Jenna's future well-being was severely in question.
"I don't get it," Nikolai said from the other side of the tech lab, where he sat at the large table along with Tegan and Hunter. "Why now? I mean, if everything was normal before, why the sudden flood of mutations to her blood and DNA?"
Gideon shrugged vaguely. "Could be the fact that until just yesterday she'd been in a deep sleep, almost a coma. We knew her muscle strength had increased once she had awakened. Brock saw that firsthand, and so did we, when Jenna fled the compound. The cellular changes we're seeing now could have been a delayed reaction to simply waking up. Being conscious and alert may have acted as some kind of switch inside her body."
"Last night she was shot," Brock added, biting back the angry snarl that was clogging the back of his throat. "Could that have anything to do with what we're seeing in her blood work now?"
"Maybe," Gideon said. "Anything is possible, I suppose. This isn't something that I, or anyone else in this room, have ever seen before."
"Yeah," Brock agreed. "And doesn't that just suck ass."
From the rear of the tech lab, his booted feet propped up on the conference table while he tipped back in his chair, Sterling Chase cleared his throat. "All things considered, maybe it's not such a good idea to give this woman so much freedom around the compound. She's too big of a question mark right now. For all we know, she could be some kind of goddamn walking time bomb."
For a long moment, no one said a thing. Brock hated the silence.
Hated Chase for putting something out there that none of the warriors would want to consider.
"What would you suggest?" Lucan asked, shooting a sober look at the male who had spent decades as part of the Breed's bureaucratic Enforcement Agency before joining up with the Order.
Chase arched a blond brow. "If it were up to me, I'd remove her from the compound ASAP. Lock her away someplace tight and secure, as far away from our operation as she can get, at least until we have a chance to take Dragos down, once and for all."
Brock's growl erupted from his throat, dark with animosity. "Jenna stays here."
Gideon put his glasses back on and gave a nod in Brock's direction. "I agree. I would not be comfortable removing her now. I'd like to keep an eye on her, get a better understanding of what's happening to her on a cellular and neurological level, at a minimum."
"Suit yourselves," Chase drawled. "But it's gonna be all of our funerals if you're wrong."
"She stays," Brock said, aiming his narrowed gaze down the table to where it skewered the smirking ex-Agent.
"You've had a hard-on for this human since the second you saw her,"
Chase remarked, his tone light but his expression dark with challenge. "You got something to prove, my man? What is it–you just one of those born suckers for a damsel in distress? The Patron Saint of Lost Causes. Is that your deal?"
Brock vaulted across the table in a single leap. He would have had his hands around Chase's throat, but the vampire saw him coming and moved just as fast. The chair toppled, and in half a second the two big males were eye to eye, jaw to jaw, locked in a simmering standoff neither one of them could win.
Brock felt strong hands peeling him away from the confrontation–
Kade and Tegan, there before he could take the shot Chase deserved. And behind Chase were Lucan and Hunter, the two of them and the rest of the warriors ready to dial the situation down if either male thought to escalate it.
Glaring at Chase, Brock allowed himself to be guided away from his comrade, but only barely. For what wasn't the first time, he considered the antagonistic, aggressive nature of Sterling Chase, and he pondered what it was that drove the otherwise skilled–once upstanding–male to be so volatile.
If the Order had a time bomb to worry about in its midst, Brock wondered if he wasn't looking at the source of that danger right now.
"What the hell is taking them so long?"
Jenna hadn't realized she'd spoken her frustration out loud until Alex reached over and took her hand in a reassuring grasp. "Gideon said he wanted to run some extra tests on your samples. I'm sure we'll hear something soon."
Jenna huffed out a sharp sigh. Cane in hand, even though she felt only the smallest need to lean on it, she got up from the sofa she'd been sitting on and limped to the other side of the apartment's living room. She had been brought there by Alex and Tess following her blood draw in the infirmary a few hours ago, told she'd been granted use of the private quarters as her own for the duration of her stay at the compound.
The residential suite was a big improvement over her room at the infirmary. Spacious and comfortable, with oversize leather furniture and dark wood tables that were meticulously polished and free of clutter. Tall wooden bookcases were lined with a library's worth of classics, philosophy, politics, and history. Serious, thought-provoking books that seemed in contrast to the shelf full of neatly organized–good grief, alphabetized–
popular commercial fiction that sat alongside it.
Jenna let her gaze wander the shelves of titles and authors, needing even the momentary distraction to keep herself from dwelling too long on what might be keeping her waiting all this time for answers from Gideon and the others.
"Tess has been down there for more than an hour," she pointed out, idly pulling a book about female jazz singers from its place in the history section. She flipped through a few pages, more to give her hands something to do than out of any real interest in the book.
As she thumbed past a section on 1920s-era nightclubs, a yellowed old photograph slipped out. Jenna caught it before it fell to the floor. The beaming face of a pretty young woman dressed in shimmering silk and glossy furs stared out of the image. With her large, almond-shaped eyes and porcelain-light skin that seemed to glow against her long jet-black hair, she was beautiful and exotic, particularly within the setting of the jazz club behind her.
With her own life spiraling into confusion and worry, Jenna was struck for a moment by the sheer jubilation in the young woman's smile. It was such a raw, honest joy, it almost hurt Jenna to look at it. She had known that kind of happiness herself once, hadn't she? God, how long had it been since she'd felt even half as alive as the young woman in that photograph?
Angered by her own self-pity, Jenna slid the picture back between the pages, then returned the book to its place on the shelf. "I can't take this not knowing. It's driving me crazy."
"I know, Jen, but–"
"Screw this. I'm not waiting here any longer," she said, pivoting to face her friend. The tip of her cane thumped on the rug-covered floor as she made her way to the door. "They must have some of the results back by now. I have to know what's going on. I'm going down there myself."
"Jenna, wait," Alex cautioned from behind her.
But she was already in the corridor, walking as fast as she could manage between the impediment of her cane and the twinge of pain that shot through her leg with every hasty step.
"Jenna!" Alex called, her own footfalls quickly gaining in the empty hallway.
Jenna kept going, around one curving length of polished white marble to another. Her leg was throbbing now, but she didn't care. Tossing away the cane that only slowed her down, she all but ran toward the muffled sounds of male voices coming from up ahead. She was panting as she reached the glass walls of the tech lab, a sheen of pain-induced sweat beading above her lips and across her forehead.
Her eyes found Brock before anyone else in the solemn-looking group. His face was taut, the tendons in his neck drawn tight as cables, his mouth flattened into a grim, almost menacing line. He stood in the back of the room, surrounded by several other warriors, all of them seeming tense and uneasy–all the more so now that she was there. Gideon and Tess were huddled near the bank of computer workstations at the front of the lab.
Everyone had paused what they'd been doing to stare at her.
Jenna felt the weight of their gazes like a physical thing. Her heart lurched. Obviously, they had the analysis of her blood work. Just how awful could the results be?
Their expressions were unreadable, everyone holding her in cautious, silent observation as her footsteps slowed and came to a stop in front of the tech lab's wide glass doors.
God, they looked at her now as though they'd never seen her before.
No, she realized as the group of them remained unmoving, simply watching her through the clear wall that stood between her and the sober meeting on the other side. They were looking at her as though they might have expected her to be dead already.
As though she were a ghost.
Dread settled cold and heavy in her stomach, but she wasn't about to back down now.
"Let me in," she demanded, pissed off and terrified. "Goddamn it, open this fucking door and tell me what's going on!"
She lifted her hand and fisted it, but before she had a chance to pound on the glass, it slid open on a soft hiss. She stormed inside, Alex following in on her heels.
"Tell me," Jenna said, her gaze traveling from one silent face to another. She lingered on Brock, the one person in the room aside from Alex for whom she felt a measure of trust. "Please … I need to know what you've found."
"There have been some changes in your blood," he said, his deep voice impossibly low. Too gentle. "In your DNA, as well."
"Changes." Jenna swallowed hard. "What kind of changes?"
"Anomalies," Gideon interjected. When she swung her head to look at him, she was struck by the concern in the warrior's eyes. He spoke carefully, looking and sounding far too much like a doctor doling out the worst kind of news to his patient. "We've found some odd cellular replications, Jenna.
Mutations that are being passed into your DNA and multiplied at an excessive rate. These mutations were not present the last time we analyzed your samples."
She shook her head, as much in confusion as it was reflex to deny what she thought she was hearing. "I don't understand. Are you talking about some kind of disease? Did that creature infect me with something when he bit me?"
"Nothing like that," Gideon said. He shot an anxious look at Lucan.
"Well, not exactly, that is."
"Then what exactly?" she demanded. The answer hit her not even a second later. "Oh, Jesus Christ. This thing in the back of my neck." She put her hand over the spot where the Ancient had inserted that granule-size bit of unidentified material. "This thing he put inside me is causing the changes.
That's what you mean, isn't it?"
Gideon gave her a faint nod. "It's biotechnology of some kind–
nothing the Breed or humankind has the capability to create. From the newest X rays we took today, it appears the implant is integrating into your spinal cord at a very accelerated rate, as well."
"Take it out."
A round of uneasy looks traveled the group of big males. Even Tess seemed awkwardly silent, unwilling to hold Jenna's gaze.
"It's not that simple," Gideon finally replied. "Perhaps you should see the X ray for yourself."
Before she could consider whether she wanted to see proof of anything she was being told, the image of her skull and spinal column blinked full-screen on a monitor mounted to the wall in front of her. In an instant, Jenna noted with sick familiarity the rice-size object that glowed brightly at the center of her uppermost vertebrae. The threadlike tendrils that had been present yesterday were more numerous in this newer slide.
Easily hundreds more, each thin strand weaving intricately–
inextricably–through and around her spinal cord.
Gideon cleared his throat. "As I said, the object is apparently comprised of a combination of genetic material and advanced high technology. I've never seen anything like it, nor have I been able to find any human scientific research that even comes close to what this is. Given the biological transformation we're seeing in your DNA and blood work, it would seem the source of the genetic material was the Ancient himself."
Which meant part of that creature was inside her. Living there.
Jenna's pulse hammered hard in her breast. She felt the pump and rush of her blood racing through her veins–mutated cells that she imagined were chomping their way through her body with each heartbeat, multiplying and growing, devouring her from within.
"Take it out of me," she said, her voice climbing in her distress. "Take the goddamned thing out of me right now, or I'll do it myself!"
She reached up with both hands and started clawing at her nape with her fingernails, desperation making her go a little crazy.
She didn't even see Brock move from his position on the other side of the tech lab, but in less than a moment, he was right beside her, his large hands wrapping around her fingers. His dark brown eyes found her gaze and didn't release her.
"Easy now," he said, a low whisper as he gently, but firmly, drew her hands away from her nape and held them in his warm grasp. "Breathe, Jenna."
Her lungs squeezed, then released on a hitching sob. "Let go of me.
Please, leave me alone, all of you."
She pulled back and tried to walk away, but the heavy drumbeats of her pulse and a sudden ringing in her ears made the room around her pitch violently. A dark wave of nausea swept her, cloaking everything in a thick, dizzying fog.
"I've got you," Brock's soothing voice murmured somewhere close to her ear. She felt her feet leave the ground and for the second time in as many days she found herself caught up in the safety of his arms.