Search (SEEK #1)
They say one bad decision can haunt you for the rest of your life.
It was my bad decision that brought me here. In the heart of the Daniel Boone Forest, shadows of mist and vapor prowl the perimeter. They’re called Khayal and I work for SEEK, a covert government agency who is tasked with destroying the Khayal, or at least stopping the Episteme Brotherhood from getting a hold of them. The Brotherhood, a twisted group who actually uses the Khayal, is growing rapidly. Our government is worried the Brotherhood will use them against humanity in an effort to control the world.
“Time?” my partner, Tom Corduroy, barks.
“Half past a monkey’s ass and quarter to his…” Jackson bellows, spit-shining his Ruger with his sleeve.
“Dude! Really? In front of the girls?” Cord coughs.
“Girls? I’ll give you Martin, but Donavan? She’s no girl, she’s a machine.” Jackson roars, pounding a fist into my shoulder. “How many kills you get yesterday, Donavan?”
“Twenty-seven. Now can we get back to work? I’ve felt at least a dozen slip by.” I rub my arm.
“Damn girl, you need to chill. You’re making the rest of us look lazy.” Jackson points to his partner Jenny Martin, when she isn’t looking.
“It’s like talking to a rock,” I mutter to the tree beside me.
“Wow, sorry I missed the high-kicks. Are we here to hunt or kiss Donovan’s ass?” Martin glares at me, marring her perfect makeup-enhanced features.
“Hey, I didn’t ask to be good at my job.” I’m as surprised as you, I think, knocking into Martin’s shoulder. The scent of blue spruce grows stronger as I storm up the trail.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll wipe her dead first.” Cord catches up alongside me.
I glance back just as Martin flings her freshly-fluffed hair over her shoulder and stalks after Jackson in the opposite direction. “I’ll never understand how a prissy Barbie like Martin got into SEEK in the first place.”
Cord hocks-up a mouthful of saliva and launches it into the shrubbery. “Who cares? You’re only here for one reason, remember?”
Cord’s right. I’m here for my sister, Lindy. And like a switch, my focus turns to the forest, its gruesome secrets creeping silently undetected through the trees. The Khayal. I shudder sensing their presence.
Cord marches at my heels, sensing them too. The Khayal are close. I slide into the thicket, careful not to disturb even a twig. Cord’s right hand slides to his holster as I string an arrow, navigating the thorny underbrush.
“Martin just acts like that because she’s threatened by you. Don’t let her rattle you.” Cord elbows me, pressing against my shoulder.
“I don’t. Every time little Miss tramp-stamp puckers her bitch-face at me, I consider it a compliment.”
Cord howls with a laugh so loud he’s going to draw in every Khayal in the preserve.
“Thomas Corduroy.” I smack his arm, straightening up to my full five-foot six-inches. The trees rustle at our backs. Electricity shoots through my veins, uncoiling my tightly wound nerves. I whirl, following the bend and sway of the leaves, there’s a slight change in color. It’s a blur, like looking through foggy glass, as the concentration of muted greens shift from one branch to the next. Not just anyone would notice, at least not without training. And as a SEEK Agent, this is my job. I’ve been taught to hunt Khayal by an agency that isn’t even supposed to exist, just like the parasites we’re charged with destroying.
“On your right!” I growl, letting two arrows loose. Time slows to that of a dream. Cord draws his monstrosity of a gun, firing blindly to the woods as he whirls. “Gragh!” I fall sideways to the ground, rolling and stringing another arrow. It flies from my bow with a quiet thwap. I fire arrow after arrow before I’m even back on my feet.
Two. Five. Seven charred and deformed figures fall to the ground.
And that’s why Martin hates me. She just can’t stand that a tomboy like me – my face always smeared with dirt and hair littered with twigs – could be more popular at SEEK than someone like her – a curvy blonde whose peachy pink lip-gloss she chose to enhance her canned tan. It goes against the societal norm. But it’s not my fault Martin hasn’t got any friends. She’s managed that all on her own because she’s rude. Maybe if she’d stop spreading lies about me, people would give her a chance.
The forest grows quiet, with the exception of an angry squirrel barking in the long-off distance, the sweet smell of a tropical bouquet fills the air as the shadows dissolve.
Cord holsters his Glock.
“Next time, why not just get a loud speaker?” I guess I should be used to his lack of protocol. Cord’s never been one to follow rules.
“Please, I was never in any danger. You had my back. How can something so ugly smell so girly?” Cord runs a finger under his nose.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen a live specimen. Dead they look more like petrified charcoal than shadows.”
“I hear live Khayal are even more hideous. Team Six in the Mess said the Khayal have the face of a demon, breath like ice, and teeth as sharp as slivered razors,” Cord says with a deep eerie voice trying to spook me.
“You gossip like my mom.” I push him away from the pile of burnt twisted limbs.
“Yeah? I’ll whoop you like your mama should’ve!”
I tear into the trees dodging his too-slow grabs for me. “Maybe if you lay off the steroids you could catch me!”
Here in the forest with Cord, under a canopy of dense leaves, woody vines and Spanish moss, I feel free. Free of my past, free of my guilt, and free of my memories. Tracking is my therapy. For me running comes easily, as does jumping logs and ducking under low-hanging branches, but for Cord…not so much.
“Okay, stop. Hold up. Wait a minute. Or I’ll tell Martin you have a thing for Jackson!” Cord threatens when I don’t stop.
Before I even have time to slow my momentum, I draw an arrow and whirl on him.
“Kidding! Kidding, put that thing away, Keira.”
The sound of my name, my real name, sends a current of joy and fear simultaneously through me. “Shut up! Someone might hear you.” I hiss.
“Who? The Khayal? I don’t think they care. Jackson and Martin are on the other side of the compound by now. It’s just you and me,” Cord laughs, grabbing me around the neck and grinding his knuckles into my skull.
Arrow pointed at the ground, I kick him. “Get off!”
“Ouch, you feisty little ferret!” Cord crows, snaking a hulking arm out to catch me.
I wiggle away, stowing my bow and arrow on my back and thrusting my hands into my hips. “Ha! I’ll beat you to Red River Gorge!”
He can’t say I didn’t give him fair warning as he puffs for breath in a cloud of red dust.
“Yeah, I’ll catch up,” Cord mutters sorely, taking off after me only a second later.
When I reach Beaver Creek I tiptoe onto the log we use to cross the ravine, it’s the only way to get to the cliffs of Red River, and where a place called Angry Hollow hides nestled in a hillside brae. Location is the real secret to my success. There’s always a horde of Khayal hanging out down there with nowhere to run and no one else knows about this place but me and Cord.
“You coming?” I holler over my shoulder.
“Right behind you,” Cord calls from a distance.
I slow my run to a jog.
“Grugh!” Cord’s yelp echoes off the canyon walls.
My veins run cold as I skid to a stop on loose pebbles, whirling around at the unmistakable crack of splintering wood.
“Cord!” I cry, charging back to my partner.
He doesn’t answer.
I grab my two-way with shaking fingers. “Cord’s in trouble!”
“What?” Martin stammers into the crackly walkie, being her usual useless self.
“Jackson! Bentley! Log bridge. Beaver Creek. Now!” I shout breathlessly, sprinting to the edge of the ravine.
I find Cord straddled over a sagging log threatening to crumble at any moment. Judging by the streak of moss he’d slipped. His face is sheet-white—like his knuckles—as he peers down to the snarling stone peaks below. Even the water rushes around the jagged stones—a warning that certain peril awaits anyone unlucky enough to fall.
A ball of fiery panic lodges in my throat. I’ve never thought of Cord as vulnerable before, until now. He drapes himself around this disintegrating log, hanging on to any sliver he can wrap his meaty fingers around, moments from plunging to his death. Even if the impact doesn’t kill him, he’ll be swept into the undertow and drown before any of us could reach him.
“Well, that looks fun.” I mask my terror.
“You should try it.” Cord snorts, sarcasm furrowed in his brow. He knows he’s screwed.
It’s more than I can handle. “Cord, you listen to me! Belly-crawl your butt over here right now, do you understand me?” I wail, all composure forgotten.
“Do you have a plan that doesn’t involve me scrambling my brains down there?”
No. “Hang on! I’ll get help.” My arms flailing like a crazy person, a splotch of orange glints in the sun. “Cord! That stupid survival bracelet is gonna come in handy after all!”
“I told you it would.” Cord’s voice is muffled now, as he’s tucked his face against the log.
I yank the pin, pulling at the first knot with my teeth. It unravels like a snake in a can, pooling at my feet. I loop the paracord around a nearby tree and hurl the free end toward Cord.
It sails straight to him.
But just before it reaches the log, the gusts rising from the raging waters push it askew.
Cord’s arm snakes out—just in time.
I brace myself, digging my heels into red clay.
The moment Cord shifts his body-weight the log crumbles, falling in three pieces to the depths below. Cord’s face bunches up, his tongue lolling about like a canine’s. The rope twangs like a banjo, stretched to its max capacity.
Cord howls, swinging toward the cliff like a human wrecking ball.
“Oh, shi-i-it!” I grimace, vaguely aware the cable is slowly hacking my hand in two.
My feet shred through layers of clay, gravel, and sand as I speed toward the cliff. The next instant, I catch sight of a boulder. If I can just get to it…
“Brace yourself!” I screech.
Suddenly, my hands go numb as the rope slackens.
I fall backward, landing on my bow, it cracks but there’s no time. I crawl to the edge and peer over. “You alright?”
“I’ve been better!” Cord groans, dangling off the end of a protruding rock.
I scoot the cable off my throbbing palms, pressing the blood-raw marks against my jeans.
Cord shimmies up a few feet to loop the cable around his hip and thigh. I say a silent prayer his years of rock climbing will help him now. A drip of sweat rolls between my eyes, the hallow rumbling of a crisis still revving my nerves on high.
“Ready?” Cord is clearly feeling as leery about this as I am.
My hands refuse to cooperate, but I force the twine around swollen palms one more time and jump into what I hope is a good position.
“Seriously, could y’all be any slower getting here?” I mutter to my absent team who should’ve been here by now.
“Okay, go!” I wince.
Blinding white pain rips through my vision as Cord settles his three-hundred pounds onto the rope. The throbbing lessons slightly as he begins to climb. I walk my hands forward and pull, again and again until I see his over-muscled arm reach up between tufts of crabgrass. I wait for his other hand to grasp the edge before I race to him.
My momentum in full swing, I reach down before my feet stop. He grabs my wrecked hand and throws his leg up on solid ground. Gravity takes over. Cord goes one way—and I go the other. My feet fly into the air, one and then the other. It all happens in slow motion, as if I intentionally threw myself in a sort of front aerial, over the side of a cliff.
For the briefest of moments, I catch Cord’s upside-down eyes gazing at me in sheer panic. He makes a grab for me. I stretch for him, but like a dream our fingers graze—and miss.
Time speeds up again as I realize I’m going to die. And next thing I know, I freefall heading straight for a cradle of boulders.
Khayal surround me, an eerie sensation amidst the sweet lilac breeze, and flitter between glimpses of sun sparkling on dewy leaves. They’re everywhere, stalking me in the shadows, sneaking through the trees like ghosts.
I close my eyes searching for memories of how I got here, forcing the hot swampy air in and out of my lungs. The last thing I remember, Cord was climbing over the edge of Red River Gulch and then nothing—except flashes of rainbows in raging waters.
And now I’m pressed against a sugar maple, balancing on one leg, and fumbling for an arrow with bloodied fingers.
Khayal are hunting me.
I squint down the long golden rod. It’s cracked, but I steady anyway and release it. The shaft warbles lamely through the air. A terrible shot. Surprised relief washes over me as the spear stops mid-flight, a charcoal figure materializing around it. My attacker writhes and falls with a dull thump at my feet.
Precious seconds I can’t afford pass while I blink, blurry-eyed, at the dark shape. It’s as though I’ve never killed a Khayal before.
“What’s the first thing you do if you’re injured, agent?” Captain Roselle’s voice rings in my memories.
I give myself a shake. It’s been a year since my SEEK training, but I should know what to do instinctively. Kistall, the corporation which owns SEEK, trained me to react without thinking.
“Inform my team, sir.” I answered easily then, when there was no imminent threat of danger.
I pat my leg for my radio. It’s not there.
“Cord?” I call out softly for my partner.
Tiny hairs rise over my neck with the sensation of being watched. The woods remain quiet, apart from a lonely magpie somewhere in the distance. I shove off from the scratchy trunk, spotting the trail, and stumble forward with a crunch. A twig or perhaps a Khayal arm.
The smell of gardenia permeates the air. I flee from the stench, sodden ground splattering underfoot. I slash my bow blindly through the thicket, branches slapping against my face until I tumble over a mossy stump and bite my tongue.
“Crap!” I curse, hobbling up.
Deep in the hollows of my stomach a restless rumbling says it’s been days since I’ve eaten. I glance down to find a bite in my calf, dripping a bright trail of crimson for every shadow to follow me.
I can’t remember it happening. I’m alone and lost in a forest full of predators. Why am I still alive? I’m easy prey. The thought crosses my mind that maybe the Khayal are like my cat, Mr. Mouser. He likes to play with his kill before he rips it to pieces. I slip over the edge of delirium, the idea of being eaten slowly too much to handle.
Despite the physical protest, I tighten my grip on my bow until my fingers go white, forcing myself to stay alert—knowing each ragged breath might be my last.
Overhead, a Khayal ripples through the branches, invisibly taunting me.
I scramble over a boulder, SEEK’s motto echoing in my dizzy head: Search, Evade, Extract, Kill.
Though it’s March, my breath streams in the sunlight streaking through the trees, a warning.
A shadow dives straight for me.
I reach for an arrow and grab at nothing.
“Dammit!” An empty quiver.
With more effort than is necessary I jump the creek, wincing under my own weight, and hobble to the next tree line. My lungs fill with fire—the Khayal venom must be taking hold—but I can’t stop to breathe. I have to make it for Lindy.
In just one more mile, I’ll clear the trees. But I stumble and sway, latching on to the branch of a birch.
“What do you do when there’s no hope, agent?” Captain Roselle is back in my head.
“Fight till the last breath, sir!”
I have to survive. I have to save myself if I’m going to save her.
I just…have to…hold on…
Glimpses of jagged teeth looming over me cloud my vision.
I shake my head and get moving again. After a few steps I’m sliding down a hill on my butt, and then I’m running, hopping, falling. Until at last, I clear the forest. My eyesight wavers, flickering from real-time to dream. Spindly fingers reaching for me, pointy teeth glint in the sun, smiling at me with their special brand of menace.
My lips tingle—I’m lacking oxygen—but I trudge toward camp, dragging my right leg like a dead stump. The sign post that reads SEEK is a welcome sight. I pass the chain-link barrier into the compound. I’m home. I’m safe. This is where I belong.
I force my feet forward, boots sticking in the mud, each step more agonizing than the last. The red medic symbol on the mobile building is sixty feet ahead when black spots eat away at my vision.
I have only seconds before I lose consciousness.
Sporadic beeping penetrates my snarled reality. Somewhere in there an unfamiliar mechanical hum whirs nearby. I can’t make any sense of it. Where am I? Do Khayal use machines to extract my organs before devouring them? That doesn’t sound right. I must be with their handlers, the Episteme Brotherhood.
What little I know about Episteme baffles me. Handlers—the agents of Episteme—actually use Khayal like guard dogs or circus monkeys trained to kill. Are they going to torture me for information?
I’m vaguely aware of murmurs bouncing around outside of my head. But I can’t work out all the words.
“Is she going to make it?”
To which someone replies, “There’s no way to know how long her brain went without oxygen."
None of it makes any sense and I can't fight my way clear of the grog. I want to get back to the voices. I need to understand what they’re saying. Instead, I slip away to another time…
I’m eight years old. My sister Lindy and I are riding bikes on a long summer day with the wind in our faces and sun on our backs.
Then the image fades to another. I was six when Lindy took me to the park to play. We weren’t supposed to leave the yard but she said it was alright since it was only two blocks from our house. Our mother, pulling weeds in her giant straw sunhat, didn’t see us sneak off. We’d only been at the park for a few minutes when I fell off the monkey bars. I broke my arm. I couldn’t go to school for a couple of days. I was so bored. Lindy felt so guilty. She came straight home every day and took care of me in the weeks that followed. After that, we were closer than any other sisters at our school.
And still another dream flashes. I was fifteen when I started feeling overshadowed. Lindy was so damned determined to make the Olympic Swim Team. She was the star of our town. Her face was in the newspaper almost weekly—which our mother plastered proudly all over the fridge. People stopped calling me Keira. I became “Lindy’s little sister.” That’s when I started making up excuses not to hang out with her. Then I stopped going to her swim meets and I bailed at the last minute on her graduation party. I was her designated driver. She would’ve never gotten in the car that stole her legs, if I hadn’t been such a resentful bitch.
It was at that moment that I decided to do whatever it took to make it up to her. I needed to make it right.
The dreams continue showing me bits and pieces of my life. Some are of moments of great happiness—like Lindy and I making up our own language. Others are memories of sorrow and pain—my darkest hours—Lindy in a wheelchair, bound to a machine for life.
How could she ever forgive me? Look what I’ve done!
The dreams turn dark. My poor helpless sister, with her useless legs, rolls her chair across our high school’s gymnasium. She doesn’t see the Khayal, though how could she? The image transforms, giving the Khayal shape. It looks like a grim reaper composed of burnt trees and spindly arms compiled into the tiny body of a fairy. The effect is fantastic. Horrifying, yet incredible. I can’t stop staring at the creatures, until Lindy screams, “Keira!”
“I’m coming, Lindy! I’ll save you! I have to save you!” I cry in the dream, as my two worlds collide.
“It’s time to let her go.” A dreary voice announces outside of my subconscious hell.
No! My family. Please tell them where I am. I hope I say it aloud. Move something dammit! I concentrate hard on closing my fingers, order my body to obey. It's agonizing.
Save Lindy! Fight for Lindy! I scream in my head.
At last, my hand closes into a loose fist and every sound in the room rushes in all at once. A loud chug-swish pumping in close proximity to my head, running feet skidding to a halt on hollow flooring, and a high-pitched beeping going crazy.
A female voice screeches, “Dr. Solomon!”
“Get Corduroy!” barks Solomon, SEEK’s combat medic. “Now!”
I relax inwardly. I recognize those names and know I’m in friendly hands. Until unimaginable pain tears through me, bringing me back to full consciousness. Eyes wide and vision blurred, I try to scream but only squeak. My head pounds in time with the bleeps of the cardiac monitor. Every muscle feels bruised, but it’s the icy burn in my right leg that has me twisting in the sheets.
“Remain still, Donovan. Do you want something for the pain?” Solomon asks, shining a light in my eyes. His brow furrows as he scribbles on his clipboard.
“Drugs,” I gurgle.
He nods and scurries away in blood-smeared scrubs.
“I knew you’d do it, baby, come back to papa!” Corduroy says, rushing toward me like a freight train. His arms stretched wide to embrace me.
“Shut up, Cord.” I roll my eyes, adjusting the scratchy pillow behind me.
“I see a week with the Khayal didn’t improve your attitude.” Jenny Martin struts into the room like she owns the place.
The last person I want to see. It’s bad enough she makes my life hell when I’m well. I really don’t need her shit right now. I pretend she’s not here, hoping she’ll get bored and go away. I look back to Cord, twisting at my snarled hair. “Was I really alone in the Boone for that long?” I whisper, my throat rough like sandpaper.
Corduroy shakes off a fleeting look of concern and snaps on a cool grin. “Actually, you were. Doc Sol resuscitated you three times. You’re not a cat, you know? You don’t get nine lives.”
Jenny Martin slithers out the door in a huff.
I sigh in relief. I’m glad Martin’s gone and Cord’s here. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”
Cord’s the one true friend I have at SEEK. I trust him with my life. He’s the only agent who is privy to the truth about me. Everyone else knows me by my sister’s name. But I’m Keira, Lindy’s seventeen-year-old sister. That was the condition Captain Roselle gave me when he recruited me. On paper, I became Lindy—nineteen and legal. And Lindy became a number on a waiting list for an organically-manufactured spinal cord transplant.
Although, looking at Cord now – the overgrown cue ball stressing the spindly-legged chair to the max – I wonder why he puts up with me. He’s not bad looking, though he’d look a lot better if he shaved off that ridiculous tuft of hair below his ears, but he’s not my type. And I’m pretty sure I’d know if he had a crush on me. I’m not sure where his loyalty comes from.
The painkillers are starting to take effect. I’m a little too comfortable, almost stoned. A long moment passes, neither of us bothered by the gap in conversation, but he watches me from the corner of his eye.
“How long have I been in Medic?” I ask, voice barely more than a whisper.
I know SEEK policy too well. They won’t keep me long. They can’t afford it. If I can’t SEEK, I’m baggage.
“Five days. Always living on the edge, my friend. Those shadows really busted you up. Wait till you see your face. I hope you got them back.”
“I hope I did, too. It’s all pretty fuzzy, but I did the nose myself.” I grimace, rubbing my hands on my shoulders as a shiver steals over me.
“Yes, I see why you chose it. It’s a huge improvement from the nose you had before. Now you look badass, too.”
The best part about Cord—he has no pity for the wounded and sarcasm is always the best medicine.