Nocturnal - By Jacquelyn Frank & Kate Douglas & Jess Haines & Clare Willis

Chapter 1

Amara couldn’t even count the places she ached in.

As usual.

She opened her eyes and for those two instants between waking and awareness, she hoped for the miracle of opening them to her gloriously dismal little room in the county workhouse. She never would have thought she would long for the days when she had worked hard labor just to have a dim little windowless cell to live in. The small gray mattress on the canvas and coiled struts had been big enough for only one person, and the cell itself had been long enough only to tightly fit the bed, and wide enough to fit a nightstand and a small dresser besides. The lights and digital readout clock alarm had been automatically shut off at sleep hour and had awakened her with a blare an hour before she was to report for her shift. It had been a tedious, cramped way to live, but it was better than the alternative of starving or being raped at night in the streets by local gangs because you had no safe roof over your head.

It was better than this.

She opened her eyes to the bright glare of overhead lights and shock-white walls. It gave her an instant headache, all that brilliant brightness, and she groaned as she tried to blink her stinging eyes into adjustment.

As always, within seconds of her first opening her eyes, the door opened and Raul stepped into the room.

“Good morning,” he greeted her with his usual efficiency and lack of sincerity as he went about his morning routine, which consisted of taking several tubes of blood from the permanent port imbedded in her arm. He checked other vital statistics pertaining to her body just as he always did, and she lay there stiffly acquiescent.

It wasn’t as though Amara had much of a choice.

Not anymore.

“How do you feel, Amara?”

“Sore. Tired. Bitchy.” She affected a sweet smile that was glaringly false. “And I have a headache.”

Raul made his usual “hmm” of comprehension. He never pretended to give a damn, and it was obvious that he didn’t. There was no use being nice to her, she supposed. From what she knew, she was one of many, many lab rats and it wouldn’t pay to get too attached.

Especially when the so-called Phoenix Project had a rumored mortality rate of 90 percent.

“So tell me, Raul,” she said conversationally, scooting herself up in bed and trying to avoid the tangle of leads they stuck in her hair, against her scalp, every night. Most of the women had shorn off their hair, keeping it peach-fuzz short or completely bald, the stickiness of the glue from the leads just making it easier to deal with, but Amara refused. They’d taken enough away; she wasn’t going to let them have her long, platinum blond hair too. Besides, what else did she have to do all day? She could afford the time it took to wash and work free the adhesive. So what if her hair was thinner than it had been from being pulled out in the process? It was still long and it was still hers. “What’s on the agenda for today? Drug testing? Narcos? I admit, I dig the narcos so long as they don’t give me hallucinations. Those last ones were a bitch. Or are we gene splicing? Maybe…ooo, don’t tell me! Radiation therapy? No? C’mon, not even a teensy clue?”

“Do you have your period?” Raul asked, ever efficient and bored, even in the face of the questions they both knew he would never answer.

“Nope. I might be PMSing, though. Bitchy, remember?”

“And all of your implants are comfortable?”

He meant had any broken through her skin. She was very delicate skinned, and her body liked to push out their implants at various intervals, spitting them out in defiance as if to say, “Take that, fuckers!”

Amara loved her body.

Knowing Raul would check for himself despite his courtesy of asking, she showed him both forearms and calves where she had been implanted with tracking and disciplinary devices. They promised to keep her confined to the grounds or kill her if she dared try to escape. They could inject a reservoir of tranquilizers on command if she got rowdy. They could give her a bitchin’ case of heaving nausea for punishment if she copped an attitude and didn’t comply with the medical personnel and their constant testing and assessments.

Luckily, they didn’t count being a smart-ass as having an attitude. Otherwise, she’d have been puking for the entire three months