All her life, Marci Guerrero has kept a secret. Her mind is ravaged by shadows that cloak her thoughts and override her. They induce outrageous behavior that humiliates her mother and have Xave, the boy she likes, convinced she’s a stunt-addicted brat. To cope, she Karate-kicks in a dojo every day, while at night she earns her reputation as the best teen hacker in Seattle.
Still, Marci is restless, always getting into trouble as she looks for release from the tormenting shadows inside her head. During one of her stunts, she lands in the path of tenacious James McCray, the leader of a clandestine group known as IgNiTe. His presence stirs Marci’s brain into a maddening frenzy. Her symptoms and ability to control them don’t go unnoticed by James, who soon recruits her and reveals the awful truth . . .
A large number of the world’s population is infected by sentient parasites. They bind to the human brain and rewire the pathways for all thoughts and actions. Once there, the creatures morph their hosts into grotesque monsters with extraordinary strengths. Winged, clawed, fanged half-humans become living nightmares. Worst of all, the creatures plan to infect all humans in a vicious attempt to take over the world.
Soon Marci wishes she was crazy, because the truth is worse. It turns out she’s one of them. She’s infected.
Determined to stop this evil race, Marci fights alongside IgNiTe and others who, like her, can resist the infection. She battles for the world, herself, and to keep the truth from Xave. He must never learn she’s a monster.
I try not to look inside the alley. It’s dark. Creepy dark.
Really, I don’t know what I was thinking when I let Xave slink in there to spy on his brother. He walked between the two buildings until shadows devoured him.
Shadows . . .
Crap, Marci. You know better. Don’t think of shadows.
Sunny days. Think of sunny days.
So I think of my dad and me at the beach all those years ago—his broad hands under my arms as he threw me toward the sky and caught me on the way down. A sad smile spreads across my lips. I push thoughts of Dad aside. I don’t want to get depressed remembering him, so I concentrate only on the sand, the ocean, the palm trees. As hard as that is to do in the middle of February in freakin’ Seattle, I force the images to stay inside my head. Without Dad, the beach colors come out lackluster, but it’s the best I can do.
My hands sweat inside rubbery gloves. The black cloak that fell over Xave’s figure as he disappeared inside the alley is imprinted in my mind and fights the sandy haven I’m trying to recreate. He’s been gone too long. What if something happened? Clark can only be up to no good on this side of town, and he won’t like it a bit if he catches his little brother spying on him.
I wait in the empty street under the cover of night. It’s cold. The motorcycle purrs against my thighs, ready for Xave. My rapid heartbeats feel like a drum roll. I don’t need this kind of stress. It will trigger me.
No, it won’t. Stop thinking about that.
Bright things. Pretty things. Think of that.
The alley looks like a tomb of indefinite depth. I’m trying to tear my eyes away from it when my hands begin to shake. Crap. Not now. There’s never a good time for an attack, but right now has got to be the worst. Fear floods my chest, paralyzing my racing heart.
My eyelids grow heavy with that familiar force that always threatens to banish the light. I fight it, biting the inside of my cheek, clinging to the image of that beach. I take a deep breath, trying to stay in control. My best friend’s in the dark alley. He’s counting on me. I have to—
The attack comes at once.
Shadows form inside my mind, scurrying like teeming spiders. In an instant, they climb one another, forming massive black giants that obscure everything. As they swarm, my very thoughts are scattered like bricks in the path of a wrecking ball. Quickly, the giants break apart and flock to each broken thought, ready to destroy them, like hungry locusts.
I fight to form a new thought, a simple one.
I inhale. A new specter rises inside my mind. It’s amorphous, but my fear gives it a jagged mouth and empty sockets for eyes. It devours my thought to breathe, killing the impulse to fill my lungs, spreading over my consciousness like a whirling oil spill. In the next second or minute—I don’t know which—I’m gasping for air, trying to remember why I’m not breathing. Then it comes back to me. I’m under attack!
Breathe, I think once more. I need to let the thought bounce and morph. If it stays in the same place or shape, the shadows will destroy it. Breathing is important. Random thoughts are important.
Air. In and out.
My gloved left hand squeezes the clutch without my permission. I struggle to release it, while trying to hold on to the thread of my precious thoughts.
Stay calm. Don’t lose it. Steady. Controlled. Breathe!
With unblinking eyes, I see my hand shaking, torn between gripping the handle and letting it go. The two conflicting commands clash inside my brain, neither of them winning or losing. My hand is in the limbo between the shadows and my will to fight them off. My eyes burn like hell. Tears spill down my cheeks, but I don’t blink. I need the light. I need to stay grounded or I’ll be lost in the shadows and their ravenous gloom.
I hear slapping footsteps. They echo against the alley’s walls, splashing in shallow puddles. I want to turn toward the sound, but the idea is swallowed by a black shroud. Xave’s coming, and I’m paralyzed by my demons.
Get a hold of yourself.
“Go, Marci, go, go, go,” Xave says as he sprints out of the alley.
More steps echo behind him, heavy and menacing. “Hey, you. Get back here!” a booming voice cries out.
Xave jumps on behind me. The motorcycle lowers a few inches with the added weight. Now that I need to work the clutch, my hand fights back. It stiffens, fingers forming a rigid claw. The shadows mock me, trying to show me they’re stronger than me. They want to undo me, but I won’t let them. I snap my head to one side, exhale and squint at the alley. Two large figures advance at a fast clip.
“What are you waiting for? Go, go!” Xave urges, thrusting his hips back and forth, as if that will make the bike go.
The pursuers, two men, are almost out of the alley. Xave curses, puts his hands around my waist and shakes me. My bones rattle. Tense and trembling, my limbs respond in slow motion. My foot slowly shifts to first gear. I release the clutch, one finger at a time. My right hand twists the gas, barely making the red needle jump on the rpm gauge. Every one of my movements is painful. God, the men are only a few paces away.
Furious, Xave curses at me.
“Stop right there!” The men are close to the lonely lamppost on the corner. I can almost see their faces. A faint buzz starts in the back of my head.
“Marciiiii.” Xave’s earsplitting shriek melds with that of the revved-up engine.
Finally, we lurch ahead. The front tire leaves the blacktop. Too much, too fast. Xave and I lean forward and stay that way even after the wheelie dies. Half of my mind fears the men will shoot at us, while the other fights to keep the bike moving away from danger. We swerve from side to side, barely under control.
“Get yourself together, Marci,” Xave screams.
I’m fighting the attack as hard as I’ve ever fought, but it feels like I’m losing, and I’m scared. I speed through a red light. It’s late and there’s no traffic. We’re getting away. No one’s chasing us, but we’re not alone.
I’m not alone.
My muscles ache from being so tense, from fighting. Xave’s body moves with the twists and turns of the road. He’s the one keeping us upright. I’m nothing but an unyielding body, fighting not to be possessed by a sinister, alien force.
“Let me drive,” he yells when it seems we’re out of danger. “Stop the bike and let me drive.”
I want to let him, but my body is still caught in limbo, my mind still cloaked in shadows. Suddenly, we speed up and it’s not my doing. My hand twists the accelerator of its own accord. Window displays, stop signs and parked cars are a blur to each side. Downtown Seattle falls behind as we head north. A humid breeze from Puget Sound presses against me like an invisible force field.
“Damn it. Stop, Marci.” He kicks my foot off the brake. The tip of my boot scrapes the pavement.
Good, I think, except in the next second my limbs fight him, even though I want to stop. Xave applies pressure on the brake and the back tire wobbles. I give it more gas and we speed onward. My foot kicks back to regain control of the pedal.
Xave gives up, knows we’ll splat if he doesn’t. “Please, stop.” He sounds scared now.
I want to tell him I’m trying, but it’s taking all I’ve got to keep this thing from fully taking over. Then something totally shifts inside my head, and I speed even more. Complete recklessness. As we whiz by a dark street, a blue light flashes, followed by the whine of a siren.
“You really messed up this time,” Xave says and his words are carried away by the wind.
The needle in the speedometer pushes above eighty and keeps on. I’m going faster than I’ve ever dared in the city. If there wasn’t something maniacal possessing me, I might even enjoy the ride, the chill in the air and the speed. But I’m terrified.
We speed for a few blocks and I dare hope we’ve left the cop behind, but I’m fooling myself. He can go from zero to screwing-up-our-lives faster than I can. He’ll catch up soon. He’s got his radio.
Suddenly, we take a sharp turn. We barely slow down and still we make it around the corner, missing a parked car by a few inches and eliciting a cry from a bystander. This goes beyond my skills. I haven’t been riding bikes that long. I learn fast, always have, but this feels like something else.
Something else entirely.
I crisscross through alleys and streets I don’t recognize. Some fancy part of town. We’ve lost the cop. As my panic dies down a bit, I try to regain control of my body. I can do it. I’ve done it before. I just need to concentrate.
As I struggle to find myself, everything goes blank. Suddenly, I can’t see, hear or feel anything. Panic gains a new level. I try to focus, reaching out for my self-awareness. Nothing happens. Everything feels different, far away and utterly desolate. I can’t find myself. I’m right here and I can’t find myself. Desperation sets in. I whirl in an empty space, trying to claim my body and my very mind. But everything is gone.
All my senses are gone. Yet somehow, I know I’m here, pushed to a corner where I’m tiny and inconsequential. I’m weightless. A plundered body, a consciousness without gray matter, nerve endings or synapses. A wisp of nothing.
What is this?
Then I understand. The shadows have won. I’ve lost total control like never before. My brain, my body are gone. I have been … replaced, as if the code that makes me who I am has been erased by a flawless hack. Something else fuels me, and I realize that my lifelong fears are far worse than I’ve imagined. I’m still alive. This thing didn’t kill me. It made me a prisoner, and it’s worse than a thousand deaths at the blade-end of a thousand knives.
No, no, no!
Rage boils fire-red in my secluded corner. This can’t be happening. Not to me. I’m strong. I’m Brian Scott Guerrero’s daughter. I don’t give up. He was a fighter, a decorated officer, a doctor in combat. Brave as a mountain against a blizzard. I’m like him. I’m like him.
With what little I’ve become, I picture a strong body. It has claws instead of hands. I imagine myself tearing through this quiet bubble. I punch and punch until my claws pierce through something. With all my strength, I drag down, ripping, tearing my prison.
Shadows flow into my space and swarm, attacking my imagined claws. But I’m ready for them, ready to let what’s left of me morph, fluid like water. My claws turn to knives that stab, guns that shoot, beams of light that cut through the darkness. Shapeless, changing thoughts. That’s the key. I learned this a long time ago, before I had enough reason to know what I was doing. The specters shriek as I burst into the light. They grasp for my thoughts, but I force them to morph, concentrating on nothing specific.
Multi-core motherboards . . . Roaring engines.
Wile E. Coyote . . . Speed.
Cinnamon gum . . . Xave.
Ideas fall and rise, turn and twirl. Never the same.
Creaking leather. A dark alley.
I break out into the open, gasping and shaking. A million needles prick my limbs. The world seems brighter and every sound louder.
Release the gas. Release it!
I do, but I can’t manage much else. Inside, the shadows still threaten to strike, hunkering like thieves in an alleyway. I can taste their gloom, a bitter mouthful of loss and imprisonment.
We’re on a curvy road which I recognize immediately. The bike wobbles. I compensate to the left, but so does Xave. We lose balance, the bike tips over and we hit the pavement hard. The weight of the motorcycle clamps my leg and its momentum carries us forward, slipping, scraping, burning. Heat reaches my thigh through my leathers. The side of my helmet scrapes the road. A horrible screech fills my head.
The bike skids ahead of us. I’m relieved to have its weight off me, but we keep sliding after it. We roll off the road into the supple earth that is more forgiving. Branches and bushes scrape and snap, harmless against my body armor. I hear a loud crash. As I roll and tumble amid the brush, I catch a glimpse of the bike smashed against a tree.
I travel downward on my stomach, every rock and bump knocking a little more air out of me. I claw gloved fingers into the dirt. Pebbles hit my visor, but I feel my descent slowing. Finally, I come to a stop. I lay there for a moment, assessing my aching body. Nothing feels broken.
Head spinning, I wobble to my knees and look around. I can’t see anything. Horror grips me, then I realize it’s too dark to see through the helmet’s visor. The bike’s headlight must have shattered against the tree. I stand up on shaky legs, take off my helmet and look around under the dim moonlight that seeps through the trees.
“Xave,” I whisper.
My eyes search the darkness, and I can’t find him.