Free Chapters of The Shifters of 2040, Shifter Dystopia

This is my shifter dystopian story. Please read and comment. I will post one chapter each day. I love feedback, so don't be shy.


Early March-

In the early morning, Melissa Marn rushed down the hall, her high heels clicking against the marble floor, and her white lab coat billowing behind her. The SCM (Shifter Counterinsurgency Military) ID badge dangled from her lapel, bouncing with each step. Dr. Bruce Wilder, a fellow scientist, followed with just as strong determination. The intensity in his dark eyes, and brows shifted at inward angles, told everyone to move out of the way.
“Please, don’t do this,” Bruce begged behind her, quickening his step, but Melissa moved faster. She jerked her head back in his direction, her hair whipping around.
“I have to. I don’t have a choice. Just like you don’t have a choice,” she argued. Their heated words hit the walls of the SCM base, inviting public ears. Bruce gripped her arm and swung her around to face him.
“Don’t,” he pled one last time.
Melissa lowered her head, sighing. “If I don’t, someone else will.” She twisted away from him and hurried to turn the corner, disappearing from Bruce’s sight. He shook his head, returned to the lab and quieted his mind with busy work.
Melissa raised her head as she entered the Observation room. This order, however disagreeable, required her participation. Her career balanced on successfully accomplishing such experiments, on such moral ambiguities. Rejecting Colonel Raul’s commands would only lead to punishment, and even dismissal.
To a civilian, the order would have offered a choice. Discharge would not be that bad. Returning to life, to freedom, would bring relief. But to the well-trained SCM, to Melissa, no choice existed. The weight of guilt, disappointment, failure and rejection would stink and hang between her and her father for the rest of her life. She couldn’t accept that. Her father would never accept that.
Her fingerprint identification opened the sealed doors. She walked through to two specially formed plastic cots where two alien shifters had been held since six in the morning. Drained of color, they were nearing death. Another shifter dangled against the back wall, clinging to a web of rubber tubes. The grey fluid within him pulsed in and out of his body. Without consciousness, the shifter hung to be studied, examined, probed.
The rubber locks that held the two shadowy shapes to the cots had been especially designed by SCM scientists to prevent shifters from breaking free, the same rubber-jelly used around the iron bars in the cages of the holding room. Three restraints from the bottom, center, and top ensured each shifter had no wiggle room. A few scientists, along with Colonel Raul, stood behind the observation glass above the lab. E-boards and video cameras documented all the data, every detail and discovery.
“You may begin, Dr. Marn.” The ominous, deep voice of the colonel pierced her ears. His Austrian accent mixed with American.
The needle Melissa injected into the first shifter caused the yellow hued internal light to flicker. Pain. She sucked a grey fluid, some kind of blood, from the body. Her assistant, standing beside her, prepared to take the tube of shifter fluid away. Placing the tube into the masculine hand, belonging to a face Melissa hardly noticed, she readied her mind for the next step.
She pointed an elongated metal stick with a sharp point over the shifter’s lower jelly-body. Her hand quivered a second before she remembered the colonel watched her, examined her, like she was the experiment. After a moment of hesitation, she pierced the jelly-skin, slowly inserting to reach the cylinder of light. The photons flickered and shards of photons propelled from the shifter’s malleable body.
The heat of the light burned Melissa’s uncovered forehead and she withdrew a minute before returning to finish. She lowered her face mask and continued inserting the long metal stick. Pincers emerged from the end and broke off a small amount of the cylinder before retreating back inside the metal stick.
Melissa pulled the stick out with precision. She wanted to inflict as little harm as she could in this inhumane research. But then, the shifters didn’t remind her much of anything human, or of anything living. They had invaded Earth in 2020 and, since that time, had acquired the ability to turn into animals or humans for short periods of time.
The assistant took the metal stick away from Melissa and placed the pseudo-biopsy into a plastic red bag next to the bagged tube of grey fluid. Melissa curled her lip in disgust with herself, with her predicament. But curiosity drew her forward. She knew conducting this kind of biopsy when the shifter had died would not provide as useful information. They needed to study the cylinder of light while it still lived.
Then the colonel commanded the third part to the research. “Let’s hurry up, Dr. Marn. We must finish studying these...things... before lunch. I have a meeting.”
Melissa’s glance darted to the glass up behind her. Then, a knife sliced a thin piece of the jelly-body off the shifter, leaving the entity flickering in dimming lights, causing the shifter beside the cot to jerk in attempts at freedom.
As the shards of intense photons flew from the wounded shifter, Melissa approached the second cot and raised the electrical prod. The rod of electricity stung the jelly-skin of the prisoner, and jolted the already fueled photons to overcharge. The shadow shifted into a human, then a bear, a wolf and then returned to the shadow shape as if each change offered a better chance at freeing itself from the rubber locks. The shifter convulsed for several minutes while the yellow lights turned gold and then black.
Melissa turned her head away and refused to watch the deliberate pain inflicted, to merely learn how much electricity the SCM needed to wound, stun and kill shifters. Once the shifter returned to a still state, the shadow regained what Melissa called consciousness, and the blackness retreated as yellow lights returned.
“Why doesn’t it just transform into a mouse and slide out from under the braces?” scientist Ned Tesk asked from behind the glass.
“It must transform into only living animals, and must also occupy at least the same amount of space. Like water, fluid in form, it can alter to the container’s shape. But whatever it chooses to alter into, the shape will always remain at least as large as a human, still limiting itself underneath the clasps,” scientist Roger Furre behind the glass responded.
“We need to know how they transport, penetrate,” the colonel’s harsh voice interrupted over the intercom. “Move on to step five.”
Melissa hit the red button on a screen above her. Manipulating different environments, a box above the cot lowered and when it opened, plastics, rubbers, metals, nano materials, and finally wires extended one-by-one and lowered to the prisoner, testing each material’s effects.
When the wire extended over the jelly substance, the jolted shifter disappeared. The scientists pressed their faces against the glass for a closer view. Melissa glanced up at the wire and the usual pink hue fell from her face, instantly recognizing what the shifter had done and the power it wielded.
“Where has it gone?” the colonel shouted. Scientist Samantha Croon scrambled for a solution, an answer to soothe him. Tossing e-papers, she replayed the video.
“Inside the wire,” Melissa commented with a grin, either at the genius of the DNA code of the shifter species, or at her talents as a scientist and observer.
The room filled with silence and then the shifter who had vanished spilled out of the wire and reassembled over the hard floor. The shadow shape metamorphosed into a large white bear, thrusting wide paws at the assistant. Growls permeated the room. Melissa leapt toward the wall behind her while the large beast clawed the assistant dead. His lifeless limbs fell, his head hit the floor with a thud and Melissa jumped at the sound.
The colonel hit his palm against an emergency knob next to the sealed door, causing red lights to alarm and beam inside the Observation room. The oversized bear bellowed, his jaws dropped open and extended, sharp teeth protruded. Drool dripped from his mouth and he swung his head around at Melissa in one violent jerk.
Blood drained from the assistant’s body behind the beast as the bear approached Melissa and she screamed, not realizing the intensity of her fear. Upon her dropping to her knees, the Observation room door slid open and five SCM soldiers fired their rifles.
Bullets thudded into the back of the beast, knocking him forward and landing on his chest a couple feet from Melissa. The bear shifted slowly, resuming his natural form, with black light inside of him. With her back pressed against the wall, her hands shook. The white lab coat had stained with squirted blood from the assistant, and again from the bear when bullets ripped through his fur and body.
Melissa held herself as her shocked stare dropped to her knees, witnessing the splatter of blood all over her clothes. One of the soldiers rushed toward her and extended his hand to help her stand.
When she found her balance, he let her go and resumed his duty. But before she had time to flee the room, another soldier, under command from the colonel, positioned his rifle over the restrained shifter and fired twice, blowing a chunk of the jelly substance onto the floor. He then shot a few times at the shifter hanging against the wall. All the alien lights dimmed permanently to black.

* * *

In the dark, musty lab room, shifters of internal pulsating light moved in slow motion and surrounded her, threatening to overwhelm her as they shot electricity toward her. They looked like a storm of falling stars, beautiful and dangerous all the same. Raising her hands to hide her eyes from the blinding photons, she stumbled two steps backward. A shifter lunged, knocking into her shoulder bone, but her refined reflexes gripped the monster, hand to beast, and she thrust the monstrosity down with one hard thud onto a cot in the lab.
Other shifters faded around her, lights dimmed. Restraining the shifter in her hands, she bound the monster with rubber clamps, and leaned over the glowing eyes to begin research. From her elbows down, her arms had now become two stainless steel pincers, clicking the blades together, moving closer and closer to the squirming shifter, the sight of her metallic arms repulsive to her. Inserting her right pincer, she winced when the shifter image mirrored her own face and emitted a scream, high and piercing.
Bolting upright in bed, she scanned her dark bedroom and held herself in her arms, calming her breathing. Stroking her arms, she stared at her hands, her human hands, and realized the event was only a nightmare, but her body still shook at the dreamed image of her face staring back at her on the cot in the lab. For a moment, she felt fragile. She grabbed two white sleeping tablets from her nightstand and sipped from the glass of water by her bedside. She relaxed and lowered her body under the sheets as she dropped her head to the pillow, telling herself “it was just a dream, just a dream.”
Pushing the loose strands of her mocha colored hair away from her cheek, Melissa fixed them behind her ear. Rose colored lipstick and peach blush hid the lack of sleep. Thick mascara and a well groomed manicure helped distract her from a life she didn’t want to remember. Her tightened lips loosened as she repositioned herself in her red satin two piece dress on the sticky bar stool at Kino’s Bar in Alaska. Along the coast of Anchorage near the Gulf of Alaska, the bar sat where the sky bleeds with the ocean. In this moment she would be someone else, far from everything she had become.
Today, Saturday, she could be anyone: someone desired, someone emotional, someone free. Anyone she wanted to be. Knocking down a beer, she signaled to the bartender to give her another. As the beer slid down the counter and snug into her palm, she tilted her head upward. Drawing the cold rim of the mug to her lips felt so...wrong, right...rebellious, delicious. She longed for time to herself. A moment of pleasure, a guiltless night. No one respectable from SCM came to this part of town. But no one else at SCM had to deal with as much.
Tilting her head right, her dark locks cascaded around her face, accenting the oval shape. She blushed for a brief moment when she noticed an attractive man on the stool next to her.
The stranger’s long lashes flitted over his deep chocolate eyes, elegant nose, and thin lips. His tall figure towered over her, even when sitting. His lean fingers reached for the jug of beer in front of him and as the foam bubbled over the jug’s edges, he chugged down the alcohol in a few heavy gulps.
To Melissa’s military trained mind, his alabaster coloring indicated he didn’t get out of Alaska often. She wanted that. Needed that. Someone wholesome with Alaskan values. Risking another glance out of the corner of her eye, she caught him watching her reflection in the mirror over the bar.
Knowing he’d been discovered, he swiveled toward her, his knees brushing against her leg. “What’s your name?” the stranger asked with an accent that didn’t quite fit. His rich voice rolled over her like fog on a bayou, covering every inch of her skin, pulling her in.
She batted lashes fringing her sky blue eyes and then whispered, “Tonight, I don’t have one…how about you?”
The stranger paused for a moment, then drew closer to her with his lips parted, about to say his name. Melissa finished the sip on her beer and then, with a need to tease anticipation, laid her forefinger over his lips. “Wait. Don’t tell me. It’s better that way.”
His gaze widened and his left hand reached for hers, caressing her cream fingers. He fixed his eyes on hers while he raised his right hand and signaled the bartender to bring two more beers.
“Do you come to Kino’s Bar often?” he asked.
“Not as much as I like. You?”
“First time.” His thin lips grew tight as his gaze drew away and, for a couple seconds, Melissa saw pain in his gesture. The moment disappeared and the stranger caressed her soft hand again, making her forget there was anything to notice. “You have lovely hands. I noticed them when you first sat down, so elegant.”
“Thank you.” Melissa’s chin drew under as the loose strands of her hair dangled over her cheeks. She pulled her hand away to take her fresh beer from the bartender.
“Nothing like a beer to warm you up in Alaska’s early March weather,” the stranger remarked and cracked a crooked smile.
“Love a good beer,” Melissa confirmed and then fell silent. She soaked up his quiet confidence, his inner strength. Chiseled features filled her, and she drew in his scent, uncommon and yet familiar, like the forests around her. She felt safe, and this gave her permission to let someone direct her — someone not the colonel, someone not her father, and someone not herself. After a moment, she met his intense gaze and asked, “How long have you lived in Alaska?”
“About...twenty years.” He tucked a strand of errant long, dark brown hair behind his ear and focused on Melissa with eyes reminding her of a wolf, wise and wild.
“In 2020. Long time. The same year the shifters came to our planet. Too bad you didn’t get to experience Alaska was a real comfortable place to live,” Melissa finished.
The stranger’s lips tightened again and then his smile widened. “How about you?”
“Twenty-five years. Born and raised an Alaskan.” Melissa grinned and gestured quotes with her hands as she said “Alaskan.”
“What do you do for a living?” A tight swallow followed in the stranger’s throat after the question.
Melissa paused, memories of yesterday’s experiments and deaths flooding her mind. “Let’s not talk about work tonight. One night, all my own. Just one night.”
“Alright.” He nodded and stroked her cheek once. “I’ve had days like that, days I wanted to forget.”
“Days? Try a lifetime.” She winced and then her eyes filled with apology. “Sorry. I don’t mean to whine. I came here to have a good time, to relax.”
The stranger touched her shoulder and tilted his head toward her in a quiet whisper. “Do you want to get out of here?”
Melissa hesitated for a moment and then shook thoughts of the military, her father, and duty to country out of her mind. “Sure.”
The sky lit up from passing hover trains with colorful neon lights around the wheel rims. They moved in silence and only the glow told of their presence. As the stranger gripped Melissa’s hand and took the first few steps onto the beige nano-fiber sidewalks, a group of kids swerved past them on anti-gravity kneeboards and almost knocked into Melissa. The stranger pushed his hand around Melissa as he took a reflexive step back and protected them both.
“Damn kneeboards are supposed to be outlawed. I ought to call this in to the police,” Melissa grumbled.
“One night, just your own. Remember?” The stranger reassured her. She leaned into him and curled her head onto his shoulder. soothed her with his words. “Don’t invite hassle into your life. We’re about to have a good tim
“Right.” She quieted, letting him take the lead.
The stars, once well seen in the area, vanished in 2030 behind hover trains, neon lights, sky cars, cascading metallic glossy buildings, and PDTS’s (People Differential Transport Systems). The city blossomed and the forest slowly shrank in size. Melissa turned to the Electronic Map Display, positioned like a cylinder in the sidewalk.
She touched her fingers to the circular display, swiping the map to open it and show the main roads. A simple touch of the forefinger zoomed in on the solar roadways and revealed traffic congestion and accidents.
“We need to avoid the north roads. There’ve been a few accidents and traffic’s going to be a headache.”
“Alright.” He nodded and rubbed his fingers over her palm, still gripping her hand.
They hustled across the streets while the sky cars wanting to descend onto the solar roadways sat at a red light. As the red light turned green, the sky cars rushed past them. A few landed with a soft thud and pulled into an apartment parking lot. Melissa guided the man to her silver metallic sky car parked across from Kino’s Bar. They slipped into the leather seats after she hit the automatic button and the doors slid up to allow entry.
A light touch to the ID pad on the steering wheel started the engine. The vehicle raised them into the air where Melissa maneuvered into traffic. By the lack of the sunlight, automatic neon yellow lights beamed in and out around the wheel rims.
A soft, robotic, female voice sounded from the car’s speakers. “Will we be going to base tonight?”
“ base tonight. My house, and avoid Chrysler Road. There was an accident.”
“Rerouting your destination in 3, 2, 1. Rerouted.”
The stranger stared at the speakers like he stared at Melissa, with curiosity and intensity.
“We should be at my place in ten minutes.” Melissa turned to the man and smiled.
“Good.” He stared at his right forearm and scratched his skin. Red blemishes, like a rash, began to form.
Melissa pulled up to her house, descending on the other side of the white electronic fence, used to keep out teenage gangs. Slowing, she landed with a smooth, almost silent placing on the long driveway lined with evergreens. In the distance, the Chugach forest could be seen behind her house. Howling emanated from the woods and permeated her premises, and a few birds squawked above them.
Melissa walked the stranger to her door and opened it with a placement of her finger to the secure pad on the wall.
“Lights on,” she spoke and tossed her alligator purse on a side table.
The stranger followed closely behind her, his pheromones strengthening in power and in intoxication. Melissa smelled him like she smelled fine steak and she wanted to eat him up. She poured them each a glass of champagne in two tall crystal glasses and took them into the living room. Lying on the sofa, she gestured with her head for him to join her.
“You have a lovely home,” he said, sitting down, and scratched his right forearm again. He hid his right hand underneath his leg.
“Thank you.” Melissa laid her palms over his dark blue jeans. The plaid flannel shirt he wore over a white tee hid most of his chest hair, but a few curly strands snuck out and teased Melissa. The light stubble across his chin excited her. Stroking his cheek with the back of her hand, her gaze explored his face, his brows, his eyes, and then focused on his mouth.
Leaning over her, he whispered, “You are breathtaking.” His lips found hers, wetting her lips with each kiss. His tender, thin mouth stretched over her plumper lips and took them in his own. Melissa responded by pushing his shirt off his shoulders, then pulling his t-shirt over his head and tossing the garment to the floor. The shirt hid his toned arms, muscular chest, and her hands took their time exploring this new discovery.
His strong fingers, with nubs of hair over the knuckles, unbuttoned her red satin blouse to reveal a black lace bra. After planting searing kisses along her cleavage, his husky voice murmured, “You sure you want to do this?”
Her answer came in a breathless, “Yes.”
The push and pull of the impassioned bodies bumped them into furniture and walls before the stranger asked, “Where’s your bedroom?”
She pointed down the hall, only to be picked up and carried in that direction. Placing her on the king-sized bed, he shed his jeans and lay beside her, holding her close.
“I could so easily fall for you,” he told her, helping her off with her red satin skirt. “Please...” he rolled onto her, “…don’t forget tonight.”
Her bed saturated with sweat and heat from the friction of two bodies. After tossing, rolling, giving and getting, the stranger laid his head on her chest and listened to her heartbeat, while his fingers rubbed over her belly. A strange electrical heat emanated from his skin and warmed her as she basked in his sun. His pheromones drove her mad and she wanted him to devour her all over again. For a few minutes, all that existed to her, to him, was the moment.

The stranger wet his finger with his tongue and continued to massage her stomach, kissing around her navel. She grabbed the pillows under her head while the guilty pleasure intensified, drawing away her breath. Her head rocked side to side while his fingers burned her abdomen with an addicting passion. Each nerve ending throbbed, every muscle constricted, then a release hit her, so intense it slammed her back into her pillows. She arched her back, biting her lip to stifle a moan.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she heard him whisper, “My baby, my baby.”
When the heat abated and his fingers parted from her skin, they lay side-by-side over the wet, white sheets. Melissa grabbed a cigarette from the pack on her nightstand and lit it while they lay entangled. She breathed heavily a few times before inhaling on her cigarette and then turned to the man, widening her eyes.
“Wow! That was amazing. I’ve never had such an...experience.”
As she finished her thought, she noticed the man’s human features flicker with only a shadow remaining and then they returned in a moment so fast, if she hadn’t been staring at him, she might not have noticed. Her body jerked back and her leg unwrapped from his.
Seeing her jarred expression, he asked, “What is it?” The man sat up and drew toward her, but she pulled away.
“You...your face...”
“What?” he asked again with a baffled expression. His brows quirked.
“You...” She jumped out of bed and wrapped the sheet around her. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
“What!” He gasped and leapt off the bed. Red rashes covered his right arm and body, and his human features faded out and in again as shadow filled the missing qualities, like a television with bad reception. His human skin, fading in color, tried to maintain the fragile appearance, but static left a rash of red-pink coloring.
“You are one of them!” Melissa shrieked and felt confused, disappointed, and betrayed. She ran toward the walk-in closet, pulled out her handgun hidden underneath her sweaters and aimed it in his direction. He swung away from her and toward the door. After only a second’s hesitation, she fired, hitting the far wall and he pounced out of the bedroom and into the kitchen.
She chased him, stumbling over her nerves, and raised her gun to fire again. His bare feet sprung off the marble kitchen floors and he propelled himself through the glass window. His human shape vibrated into a shadow and then into a human and then a wolf before becoming human again. Shattering, the glass spread over the floor and one piece sliced her foot. The man landed on the ground and rolled over the soil, then, in one fluid motion, sprang to his feet and darted toward the forest.
Melissa raced to the window, avoiding any more glass, and watched his back draw further and further away. She fired again, hitting one of the trees, before he disappeared altogether. She stood at her window, frozen, unable to disengage from the recent events, afraid he would return, afraid of what she felt for him. Knowing he deceived her, she felt more deceived by herself. She should have known. She was trained to see through this species. The gun sat aimed out the window and her eyes stayed fixed ahead while her arm shook and her cut foot bled.

* * *

The stranger hurled himself into the forest, his limbs full of energy, his mind oblivious to the cold snow on his bare feet and the chilled wind slicing at his bare chest. Despite the low temperature, he felt warm. Always warm. His only thought fixed on the whizzing bullets and became a mantra. Don’t get hit. Don’t get hit. He ran for a mile before he stopped, his hands resting on his knees, his sides heaving.
At the sound of a sharp female voice, he whirled around and peered into the darkness.
“Did you find her?” A woman with cinnamon red hair to her shoulders stepped out of the shadow. A worried expression covered her face.
“Yes, I found her at the bar, just like Diamond and Demri said.”
“And the mating?”
He paused for a moment. “Done.”
“Good. Good.” Her features relaxed and she laid a hand on his shoulder. “I know that must have been unpleasant for you, but you did what you must to keep our kind alive.”
In the night, she didn’t see his eyes flicker in disagreement. Far from unpleasant, he knew he’d have a hard time forgetting Melissa. Turning into their normal shapes, a cylindrical internal light surrounded by a grey-jelly malleable form, husband and wife disappeared into the trees.

Early November...
Early Monday morning, Melissa stood over the glass test tubes holding the human embryos doused with a new growth hormone, the promise of the future, cloned for a third time. Under Colonel Raul’s direct orders, she would not quit until her team proved successful. The cold room refrigerated a number of embryos that had already died mid-way in their growth. Unlike twenty years ago, the embryos had been developed from DNA strands and given a hormone to expedite the growth process from nine months to nine days. The possibility of success was paramount for the military and governmental officials.
While she stared at the test tubes, her mind wandered back several months, to May, to the day that changed her life forever. Her head leaned over the open toilet seat in her bathroom, her knees scratched into the hard Spanish tiled floor. Holding her hair back with her right hand, she threw up for the third time that evening and when she lifted her head, she dropped the grip on her hair and stretched her hand to the pregnancy test on the sink counter.

Please say no, please say no. She begged inside her mind, but the pink indicator revealed she, in fact, was pregnant. A precise marker, the white test rod even offered the possible date of conception based on the urine sample. Denial surged through her emotional facets.
This can’t be happening. Not now. Not ever! My tubes have been tied.
Melissa struggled to her feet, hand to counter and a shot of pain in her belly. Pressing a cloth dampened with cool water against her heated face, she willed her stomach to abate for at least a moment. She needed to think, to figure this thing out.
I’m pregnant. Her eyes peered over the edge of the cloth and confronted her mirrored reflection with that truth. I’m pregnant…by a SHIFTER. Oh, god!
Hitting her knees on the floor, she threw up again. Tears coursed down her face and panic threatened to stop her heart. Grasping the edge of the toilet seat, she raised her head and took one deep breath.
“Get a hold of yourself, Melissa,” she muttered. “Don’t panic. It won’t help.” Standing once again, she wobbled to the kitchen to make hot tea. Holding the ceramic mug under the spout connected to the stove, the water poured hot. She laid a chamomile teabag inside the mug and then stared at her reflection in the night-filled window where the crescent moon shone.
“Tomorrow I’ll schedule an abortion. Except where? Not the infirmary here on base. Everyone would know my business. My father would find out. I could try my private doctor, but how do I explain getting pregnant with my tubes tied?”
Looking down, the chamomile steam slid up to her face like a delicate fog and filled her senses. She loved that smell. Calming.
“Wait a minute. Shifter DNA can’t possibly be compatible with human. This pregnancy isn’t viable. It couldn’t be.” Taking a sip from the mug, she felt good again, sure this pregnancy wouldn’t last, until fear encompassed her. “Or could it?”
Sitting at the table, her fingernails clicked against the wood. “Give it a few weeks. You might not need to do anything.”

* * *

“How are the embryos, Mel?” A dark haired man in a white coat stood behind her and asked. “Mel?” Getting no answer, he touched her shoulder. “Melissa!”
“What? Oh.” She snapped back to the present. “The cells appear sick under the microscope. Take a look, Bruce.” She released her grip on the lenses and watched him squeeze his toned chest between a chair and her to reach the microscope. Minutes passed in silence as Bruce observed the creation.
“Disappointing. We won’t have another shot at it this year.”
“We can’t quit! The colonel is counting on us.” Melissa pressed her palms against the metal table.
“The embryos are dying. We can’t perform a miracle, Melissa. Let it go.”
“We won’t be able to raise the money we need for this next year. We have to succeed.”
“I don’t need to be told how difficult it will be to acquire funding for this project after a third year of failure. I’m twenty, not ‘thick’. But there’s nothing more we can do. We just have to wait and see if the embryo can recover,” Bruce declared.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insinuate you were...any less of a scientist than me,” Melissa apologized.
“It’s alright. I understand the pressure you’re under. Colonel Raul can be...a dick.”
“Forget the colonel; Major Marn is the thorn in my side,” Melissa smirked.
“Yeah, your father, too.”
“I wouldn’t say any of that too loudly, though. You never know who’s listening,” Melissa confided and Bruce winked. He took the test tube tray off the counter and she opened the fridge. Bruce slid the tray into the lower level where the even temperature for the embryos kept them healthy. Once the fridge closed, she locked the doors with a heavy chain and placed the key into her white coat pocket. She turned to Bruce and sighed.
“I know that look. Don’t worry. I’ll deal with Colonel Raul,” Bruce said.
“What will we tell him?”
“We need more time to tell if the embryo is viable. Who knows? Maybe all it really needs is more time.”
Melissa nodded and rested her head on his shoulder, her cheek brushed against his smoothly shaven skin, perspiring.
“And my father?” She squirmed.
Bruce rubbed her arm with his palm. “You’ll get through this. I’m here for you, whenever, wherever.”
Melissa pecked his cheek with a kiss. “I know you are. Thank you for that.”
The lab doors swung open and a robust man in camouflaged clothing, dark blond hair, and not much taller than Melissa, shook his rounded face. Bruce exited as Melissa took a step back, allowing Major Marn to enter and approach the fridge containing the cloned embryos. He shook his head again and darted his light blue eyes up at Melissa.
“Where are we at?”
“I’m not sure, Major.” Her lips pursed and she tightened the pigtail in her hair before concluding, “Bruce and I have kept close eyes on the embryos, but we’ll need more time to know if the experiment worked.”
“We’re running out of time.”
“I realize that, but...”
“The colonel is breathing down my neck. President Ross wants results. We need this new technology to fight the shifters. We can’t have more of our good men dying at the hands of those...those invaders!”
“And we’ll have the results we want, but we just need more time.”
“Make it happen, Melissa, or the colonel will start breathing down your neck, too.”
“Tell Colonel Raul that he and the President will have the cloned infantry they require soon.”
“Good. That’s what we like to hear.” Major Marn nodded and turned in an about-face motion before heading to the swinging doors. Melissa took a deep breath and walked to the exit. She played with the key in her coat pocket and the soft pat of it against the cotton fabric reminded her she had a promise to keep to the major, to the colonel, to the president.
America relied on her scientific investigations and experiments. Her discoveries revealed the weaknesses within the shifter species. These weaknesses showed Colonel Raul how to build his weapons and his prison cells so that shifter prisoners couldn’t escape.
As she sped down the hallway to the holding room on the other side of the building, Bruce headed toward her, returning to the lab with a distressed expression over his face. As he passed her, he reached for her hand to stop her.
“How did things go?” Bruce asked.
Melissa hesitated before answering. “Fine...not good.” She shook her head. “The colonel expects results or we’re going to have a lot of heat in our department.”
“Thought as much. Don’t worry about it. We’ll get whatever we need done.”
“I hope so. I don’t need this extra stress.”
Their brief encounter became interrupted by the urgency within the military building. The air grew tense again. Time returned to the forefront. The presence of soldiers and scientists, however distant, reminded Melissa and Bruce the building didn’t offer sanctuary for secrets. Their hands separated and they darted down the hallway in opposite directions, each to their own private duties.
Everyone had service to perform in a team, and duties to perform individually. America had to remain a powerful force on the earth against invaders. SCM people were forbidden to talk about anything to anyone who did not belong to the team, and harshly disciplined if individual services were discussed with anyone other than a supervising superior. The building held more secrets than Melissa.
Anchorage became one of the last cities in the world to remain infested with the alien species. That is what the SCM believed, or at least communicated to the populous. Competing against other countries, America had to convince the world the nation still stood strong. Earth had been on emergency defense in most major countries since 2025 when the shifters were first discovered. Though Eastern people in Thailand, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Tibet and others welcomed the invaders, soon the dominating hand of Europe and China overcame their hospitalities. War and Martial Law constricted the globe. Whether countries wanted to fight the alien species or not fell to the major players’ political motives. America led the way under the general and president.
Melissa moved to the storage facility, a place for her classified research, a place not even Bruce was allowed. The four digit code locked her alone in a room where only wire cabinets, solar fridges, and iron cages stood against three walls. A large aluminum table sat in the middle. A small black wolf in one of the cages howled when she entered. She walked over to the animal and looked at the electronic chart to the left of the cage. Her forefinger dropped from line to line while she read the data.
“Looks like your DNA has been sampled already. Great.” She stroked the nose of the wolf with her pinky as he whined, and then headed to the other side of the room. She sorted over a few jars in one of the fridges until she found the large red jar with ‘biohazard’ written across it on red tape. She placed the jar on the table and searched for the test results she had conducted a day earlier, filed away in a cabinet. She pulled an electronic file sealed in a foam case and set it on the table. As she opened the case, the file’s bytes of information beamed off of a thin, film-like sheet.
“What do you have for me today?” she said to herself as she glanced over the genetic information marked on the document. Her eyes widened as she stared at the gene codes. “Impossible. How can their DNA be structured this way?” A thud, like a bad knock at the door, drew her attention away from the e-file and to the opening door.
“Dr. Marn.” A tall man with a blond mustache, square chin and heavy grey eyes entered the room. The black wolf grew agitated and growled. His paws clawed the cage and he bared his sharp teeth.
“Colonel Raul.” Melissa addressed him, straightening her posture, saluting, and then holding her salute until the colonel returned the gesture a few seconds later.
“How is the private work going?”
“Interesting. These results are amazing. These shifters...they truly are fascinating...” Her exuberance caused the colonel to clear his throat. “I mean if you look at their genetic codes.” Melissa lifted the electronic file and pointed to the markings unrecognized by the colonel. “Here and here. Over here.” Her fingers moved in rushed motions, like her speech.
“But what does that tell us?”
“They have fluid DNA.” Melissa hesitated and thought about how to demonstrate the information, then grabbed a jar of water and a few sponges from off the fridge. She then got a pile of paperclips from the cabinet. The colonel watched her, examining her every move. “Humans, we have DNA like these paperclips.” She connected the clips together. “Our information stays solid and connects with other information, forming chains.” She squeezed the sponges together over the table and then poured the jug of water over them. “Their DNA is like a sponge, absorbing information, conforming to the shape needed to hold the water.”
“How is that possible?”
“It’s least not for humans. But they evolved on a different planet, and it allowed them to develop DNA possibilities we’ve never seen,” Melissa concluded.
The colonel gasped and then grinned. “You’ve done well, Doctor.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Remind me of this when salary raises come around.” His face shone like a star.
“Thank you, sir,” she said again and saluted the colonel after he lifted his hand to his head.
“Meet me at 17:00 in front of the holding room.”
“Yes, sir.” After the colonel dropped his hand and exited the room, the door locked again and Melissa smiled, feeling the release of stress from her mind.
Looking over her shoulder, she nodded to the wolf. “Not much difference between you and I, is there?” she asked and sat down on the metallic chair. “They’ve got us both in cages. But, we’ve got our secrets, secrets they will never know.”
With a fragile kick inside her stomach, she drew her hands to her belly. The wolf grew excited, pacing in his cage, and whined to her as if she could understand him. Her mind wandered to the day she discovered one of her secrets.

* * *

It had been several weeks and her pregnancy persisted. When she didn’t naturally miscarry, she feared she was creating some kind of monstrous mutant. Furthering her anxieties, she grew afraid she might follow the same fate as her mother, and die in childbirth. Her father was never the same after her mother’s death. The military became his whole life and his relationship with Melissa became more of a duty than an emotional connection. Melissa lost more than her mother that day; she lost her father’s affections, too.
Determined to rid herself of the problem once and for all, she scheduled an abortion in a clinic far from her home, far from the base, and in another town.
Sitting in the waiting room, agitated, she shook her right foot while she filled out the forms with the pen on the end of a chain. It amused her, with all the technological advances, offices still resorted to chaining pens on clipboards. Dark silver chairs lined three of the walls, and half of the chairs were filled with women who, she imagined, held the same expression she did — nervous, pale, anxious. Finished with her forms, she handed them in, then returned to her seat. Picking up a magazine, she began to flip through the pages, not really interested in how to make a delicious meal in fifteen minutes.
Midway in turning, she stopped and tilted her head. Did someone just call her? Looking at the reception window, she saw no one there.
She slapped the magazine shut and straightened in her chair. A voice beckoned to her in a whisper soft, yet strong. The sensation of warmth and love enveloped her.
A feeling pure and deep rushed through her as she closed her eyes and gripped the chair arms. The noise of outside traffic went unnoticed; the room fell away. This voice…or thought…or presence came from within and encompassed her completely.
Hot tears sprang to her face and she leapt to her feet. Grabbing her purse, she bolted out the door, not quite sure what had just happened, but knowing she couldn’t kill her baby.
At home, she stared at herself in the mirror and saw something she never noticed. A glow. Her face glowed, like she had been bronzed by the sun, and her mind felt that strange sensation again, strange because the experience had been different, but pleasant all the same. Someone inside of her spoke in the quietest of whispers, a whisper only she could hear, but not make out the words, only the meaning, calming and yet all encompassing. She didn’t feel afraid anymore. She felt safe.
Unconsciously, she drew her hands to her belly, rubbing her naval in circles like the stranger did the night they made love. She hadn’t noticed she moved her fingers in this shape, until the whisper inside her head stopped and she lowered her head to see her hand moving. She felt the baby bump inside her and she rejoiced at not aborting the infant. Alive.
The baby inside her belly was living and she never felt more vibrant these past three months. Something inside told her she would not die in child birth, that this pregnancy would heal her. Whether a sensation from her deceased mother, from the life within, or from her own subconscious in a need to believe, she listened. She also knew she would never be able to conceive children on her own again. Her father made sure of that. Even her tubes didn’t belong to her, but to SCM. In a way, this pregnancy felt like rebellion and was one of the few things in her life she had control over deciding. The decision belonged to her alone and that felt good. Something buried deep inside her caught its first glimpse of light and struggled to emerge.
“Come on, Mel. Let’s go to Little Milan for lunch.” Bruce spoke into his wrist cell, even though he knew Melissa was somewhere in the building.
“I can’t. I’ve got Raul and Dad breathing down my neck for results.”
He sighed at her expected answer. “Where are you? The lab?”
“The storage room.” She hesitated. “Look, I’m really busy. I’ll see you later.” Clicking her cell shut, she left him staring at his.
A few minutes later, someone banged on the storage door.
“Not the colonel again,” she griped at the caged wolf, with his nose pressed against the bars. He’d been friendly to her all day, unlike himself and his usual snarls. “Raul’s got to give me more time!” She whirled around and crossed the rectangular room, hit the ID pad with her fingerprint and opened the door to find Bruce.
Gripping her arm, he hauled her into the hallway.
“What are you…?” she began to protest.
“I’m not taking no for an answer. You need to get out of here. You’ve been working three days straight with very long hours and you’re exhausted! — even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. And we both need to eat.”
He dragged her down the hall, turning a deaf ear to her sputtering. Escorting her to his metallic blue sky car, he drove them to the nearby Italian restaurant. In a few minutes, he had her ensconced in the back, in a green leather booth with a red ceramic table and a trellis of fresh white ivy hiding them from the front door. Melissa’s shoulders relaxed, rolling forward, as she smelled cooked pasta and herbs, and heard wine bottles pop open to the Italian words, Complimenti.
“I’m starving.” His chocolate brown eyes studied the menu, then focused on her still pouting. “What sounds good?”
Melissa glared at her choices. “Really? I need a steak, thick and juicy and rare.”
“I don’t think they serve that here. What about shrimp scampi?”
She scowled. “I’ve been craving steak all day.” Her firm facial expression drew Bruce’s hand to hers.
“Alright, Mel. You win. Steak it is. I know the chef, an old college roommate. I’ll call in a favor.” When the ISR, Intelligent Service Robot, approached, Bruce asked for Rick and, after a few moments, he appeared.
“How you doing, Bruce?” Rick took off his long, white chef’s hat and raked back his disheveled brown hair.
“I’m good. Glad to see you’re staying afloat these days.”
“Yes, business has been a blessing. And I need it to be with my third child on the way.” Glancing at Melissa whose expression had become a cross between a pale hospital patient and a ravenous animal, Rick asked, “What could I get for the two of you?”
“My darling colleague is in desperate need of a steak, juicy and rare. I’m happy with the shrimp scampi.”
“No problem. I think we have a few steaks back there for the crew. I’ll slip one away and they’ll never notice.” Rick chuckled at his own anticipated antics.
“Thank you. Say hi to your family for me.”
“I will!” Rick shouted back as he walked toward the kitchen.
“We need to eat fast. I’ve got to get back to…” Melissa began, but Bruce’s upheld hand stopped her.
“I will not let you talk about work while we’re here. We will eat at a normal pace and discuss normal topics like normal people. Got it?”
“Ah. Normal. If you could define that, please, I’ll see what I can do.” She smirked and swatted at his shoulder.
“I’m not sure I can define it,” he admitted. “However, I’ve heard rumors that it exists…somewhere.” He smiled at her chuckle, glad to see some color return to her face and some of the tension leave her posture.
“Then, what should we talk about?” She sat back while the ISR placed her salad in front of her.
“I want to take a weekend vacation, starting this Friday night.”
“Oh, yeah? Where?”
“Kodiak Island. Do a little king salmon fishing.”
“You can afford the fishing license for that? I didn’t know you were rich.”
“Not rich. I just rarely get out, so I accumulate funds.” He bit into a breadstick, crunched and swallowed. “Come with me.”
“What?” She stopped the glass of tea halfway to her mouth. “Come with you?”
“I…I can’t.”
“Why not?”
“Melissa…” He cut his eyes at her and frowned. “Working this hard isn’t healthy. Not for you and not for…”
She raised a hand to his mouth, silencing him, and glanced around the restaurant to make sure no one overheard.
He took her hand and held it on the table. “Well, it isn’t,” he continued.
She studied him for a long moment. “You’re always looking after me, especially since you found out.”

* * *

They both recalled the morning in early July when she told him her secret. He’d dropped by unannounced on a Sunday, bearing a box of her favorite bakery muffins.
“Bruce, come in.” Melissa stepped back and drew her silk robe closer to her throat. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
“Surprise!” He grinned, but noted she looked pale. She had been for awhile, and it worried him. “Got any coffee going?”
“No. I’m a tea drinker. But I’ll start some if you’d like.”
“I’d like.” He walked into her kitchen and set the box on the counter. “Where’s the java, lady?” he asked in a New Jersey accent.
She pointed to a cabinet and started toward it, but midway, whirled around and dashed to the bathroom. Bruce didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but he heard her throwing up. Ignoring the coffee, he sat at the table and waited for her. In a few awkward minutes, she returned, still in her robe, still looking pale.
Tapping the floor with his foot, he watched her sit down, then took her hand. “Just how sick are you?” His brow furrowed.
“What do you mean?” Her widened eyes tried to convince him of her ignorance.
“At work and now here, you’re always running off to the bathroom. After what I just heard, I imagine it’s because you’re throwing up. You’ve been looking pale. So, how sick are you?”
“Bruce,” she took her hand away. “I’m not sick.”
“Uh huh, pull the other one.” He crossed his arms, his mouth in a tight line.
“I’m fine. I swear.”
“Oh, really? Then if you’re not sick, you’re pregnant.” He started to laugh at his joke, but his smile soon faded when she stood and turned her back to him, presumably to make tea.
“You’re not pregnant, are you?” he asked in the silence. When she refused to answer, or to even look at him, he went to her at the stove and turned her around by her shoulders. Staring into her eyes, he murmured, “You are! But you’re not even showing!”
Melissa ducked her head, not wanting to confirm his suspicions, not wanting anyone to know.
“Mel, look at me!” He raised her chin with his hand. “I thought…I thought you couldn’t have children.”
Shrugging, she carried her mug of tea to the table and sat down. “I’m not supposed to. You ought to have seen my doctor’s face when the test results showed positive. The best she could figure is that something went wrong in the surgery and, by a one-in-a-million chance, ta dah! Baby on board.”
Bruce lowered himself into his chair, a puzzled frown on his face. “I didn’t realize you were seeing anyone.”
She glanced out the window to answer. “I’m not.”
“The father…?”
Another shrug answered him.
“What the hell!” He leapt to his feet and paced in a circle. “All this time I’ve been asking you out. All this time you kept turning me down. I don’t understand this. I really don’t!”
When he passed close to her, she touched his arm. “I don’t know if I can explain it to you. I barely can explain it to myself.”
“Well, try.”
“It was a combination of things. I’d had a really bad day at the lab. Then I dreamt this horrible nightmare. I felt so disconnected from everything…human. I needed to feel something — anything. So, I went out one night by myself and things just happened.”
“Where’d you meet this guy?”
“A bar.”
His jaws flexed at that answer. Leaning against the kitchen counter, he crossed his arms. “That stranger could have been anybody — someone dangerous or diseased.”
She tightened her grip on the tea mug. “I know.”
“Why didn’t you let me know you were feeling so bad? Why didn’t you come to me? You’ve got to know how I feel about you.”

Pushing her chair back, she went to stand by him. “You know me too well. You’re a part of my work, a part of my life, and at the time, I needed to be someone else. Not me. Not a scientist or a friend or a daughter or a soldier.”
Bruce stared at her for a long moment. “You went to a motel?”
“No. I…” she hesitated, unwilling to face his reaction. “I brought him here.”
“Here! He knows where you live? What possessed you to bring him to your house?” Not waiting for an answer, he shot his next question. “What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t know mine, either.”
Criticism leapt from his eyes, scalding her like acid. “Anonymous sex. And now you’re pregnant. What in hell are you going to tell this baby?”
“I…I don’t know.” Tears sprang to her eyes.
“You don’t know,” he repeated, disgust echoing in his voice. “If I hadn’t come over today and heard you being sick, were you ever going to tell me about this?”
Her silence sliced at him.
“No!” he answered his own question. “Why not?”
“Because I wanted to keep you safe.”
“Safe? Safe from what?” His anger tuƒrned to perplexity.
“Because there’s more...which is why I’m not showing at five months.” Melissa pleaded for his understanding, for someone, anyone to hold her hand through this, to accept her despite her glaring faults. When Bruce sat back down, Melissa told him everything, everything she had wanted to get off her shoulders for four months.
“The reason I’m not in touch with the because...” When she hesitated, Bruce’s brows angled in like arrows and his chin rose. “The father isn’t...human.”
“What? What do you mean?” Bruce shook his head and wrinkles formed over his forehead. “Not human?” he whispered, the insinuation twisting his stomach.
“After we...made love...the man began to shift. I shot at him with my handgun and he leapt through the window, breaking the glass. He transformed into a wolf, a man, and then that thing...that shifter shape.” Melissa lowered her head in her hands. “I’m terrified of what will happen if the colonel or the SCM finds out. That’s why I didn’t tell you — or anyone.”
Bruce drew back from her in shock, creating a clear space between them.
“So, just to make sure I’ve got this straight…” His hand rubbed his forehead. “You go out one night to some dive bar, get picked up by a complete stranger and bring him home. You don’t even exchange names, but you do go to bed with him. Then, after it’s all over, he turns into a shifter and you wind up pregnant.”
Melissa opened her mouth to speak.
“Stop! Just stop.” Leaning forward, a salty tear slipped out of the corner of his left eye. “And here I was, eating my heart out over you. What a fool I’ve been! I can’t believe this. I just can’t believe this.” Bruce stood and, as he turned from her, Melissa reached for his hand, but her fingers grazed his arm instead. With the vein in his neck throbbing, he walked to the door, slammed it open, and left without looking back.
“Good morning, Bruce.” Melissa walked down the SCM hallway and toward her corner office.
“Dr. Marn.” He gave a frosty nod and passed her without slowing his stride.
It had been that way ever since their fight a few weeks earlier. Unless they spoke about their collaborative work, they didn’t speak at all.
She took three steps further, then stopped and wheeled around, trotting after him. “How long are you going to stay mad at me?”
“I’m not mad.” He kept walking. His jarred chin tilted away from her.
“Like hell you’re not!” Placing a hand on his shoulder, she stopped him. “Talk to me!”
“Why? I’ve got nothing to say. And I’m really not mad. As a matter of fact, I don’t feel anything at all where you’re concerned.” His dark eyes narrowed and showed no emotion, neither love nor hate, approval nor rejection. They held no light at all.
At his dead expression, her hand slid off his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I won’t bother you again.” Melissa turned away, praying he’d stop her. When he didn’t, by the time she reached her office, tears spilled down her face. Sitting at her desk, she held her head in her hands, despair washing over her in wave after wave. No one stood in her corner anymore. She’d lost the one friend who knew her deepest secret. One careless comment from him could put their lives in jeopardy. The thought of exposure gnawed on Melissa’s mind, but the loss of Bruce, her closest friend, stung her. Like a swelling welt from a wasp’s sting, Bruce’s emotional disconnect from her and his callous words hurt her more than she ever thought possible.
With her heart pounding and head throbbing, she glanced out the side window of her office and watched the SCM scramble about the ground under orders like ants pleasing their queen, and she knew, she knew she belonged to Bruce more than she admitted to herself. For the first time she whispered the words out loud. “I love you.”