This story is by DJ Curtis and won an Honorable Mention in our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
DJ Curtis hopes to one day create novels with representation because “life should be about more than just surviving.” DJ lives in Oklahoma with her wife, Jade, and they are currently planning to adopt a rescue dog, which is very important information she feels should be shared with the world. They are very excited.
Seven years. It’s been seven years and Dom isn’t about to go now, body lost to the Void in the alleyway of an abandoned apartment complex overrun with the Shifted. She loses herself in the grind, chest heaving and lungs burning with effort as she fights until there’s nothing left, until the flashes of light from Shifted eyes fade and she’s surrounded by death, blood and shadow soaking together on the ground.
She’s nauseated but she chokes it down. When she turns around, there’s still one standing, but Dom hesitates, rooted to the spot. The stranger isn’t glitching, and her red hair is matted with sweat and blood but free of shadows. Still, Dom hesitates; she’s been wrong before. There’s silence save for their heavy breathing and the steady drip of blood from axe to pavement.
“Hello?” says Dom warily.
The woman’s gaze snaps up to meet Dom’s and her stomach turns unpleasantly. Her eyes aren’t cloudy. They’re just a very pretty shade of green.
“You’re not Shifting?”
“No.” The woman takes a cautious step closer, eyes narrowed as she studies Dom intently. “You?”
“What are you doing out here alone, then?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“I was with a group. Most of them didn’t make it. The others, I don’t know …”
Dom’s gaze skitters away before she can stop it and the woman simply stares at her; she’s not used to being around normal people. She’s spent the past seven years with scientists who are as curious as they are cold. People die all the time. No point in letting emotions drag you down. Look to the light, she reminds herself.
“I’m sorry,” she offers when silence stretches between them. “My group died as well.”
“I’m sorry too. Were you together long?”
Dom numbly shakes her head.
“That’s a silver lining, at least. I’m Emerson.”
“Dom,” she says shortly, shaking her extended hand. They’re calloused and warm. Dom can’t even remember the last time she touched another human being.
* * *
The agreement to travel together goes unspoken. They talk as they head across town, dispatching any Shifters that come between them and the laboratory. There’s a sense of surrealism as the hours pass. Dom blames the uncertain flutters in her chest on that. Emerson is something new, something Dom hasn’t encountered in years surrounded by the same faces at the lab. Everyone hated Shifters but Emerson shares the old beliefs, back before the world was lost to the Void. Sympathy and pity for the creatures that were once human. Dom doesn’t understand it, but she finds herself fascinated by her empathy.
In the morning they ready themselves, and Dom loses all the air in her lungs when she sees it. Emerson fishes something out of her pocket Dom hasn’t seen in years — a battered old cell phone. Dom slaps it out of her hands and it clatters to the pavement. Emerson lunges for it, scrabbling to snatch it up, and when she turns it over the screen flickers feebly before turning black.
“What the hell! That was all I had left!”
“Why would you even risk that?” asks Dom incredulously, upper lip curling in repulsion.
“What other choice is there?” snaps Emerson. “We don’t want to use them either, but we don’t have protection, we don’t have anything to trade for a sunhawk — this is all we have!”
Another thing Dom can’t relate to. She’s been with the lab since day one, and they were some of the first to realize what caused the Shift. Every electronic was tossed out at once, and they were forced to discover new ways to use technology without radiation. Now the only safe-zone they know of still standing is a state away, and no one is safe from the Void.
“It’s not worth it,” says Dom, stepping over the ruined phone. Emerson follows after her, fuming. “The luxury of instant communication isn’t worth turning into a monster.”
“Who says they’re monsters?” challenges Emerson.
Dom halts in her tracks, turning to gape at her. “Did you not see them tearing people apart two days ago?”
Emerson’s glare is turbulent with anger and something else — hesitation. Uncertainty.
“Maybe we just don’t understand them enough.”
“I understand them plenty,” says Dom heatedly, eyes stinging as memories surface. Years of watching the coworkers who turned into her family lost to the Void. Watching their eyes turn cloudy as they caught glimpses into a plane of existence no one else could, as their skin stained with streaks of shadow reaching for them from the other realm. “You’re lucky you aren’t showing any symptoms.”
“Why, because you’d kill me?” demands Emerson.
Dom doesn’t answer. She hasn’t told Emerson exactly what they do at the lab. Emerson believes it’s a safe zone, and considering the fact that the two of them may very well die before reaching it, Dom prefers to let her have hope. Now she’s considering otherwise, if only to wipe the sneer off her face, but the sight of it sits heavy and low in her stomach.
“You can’t keep running,” calls Emerson, voice tight with frustration. She catches up with Dom and a hand at her wrist pulls her back, insistent and warm. Dom’s breath hitches in her throat and she feels like she’s drowning in everything she’s been fighting to ignore.
“We have to look to the light,” Dom tells her, intending it to sound firm; it’s strained with desperation instead.
Light green eyes flick from Dom’s eyes to her lips and back up again.
“What’s wrong with a little darkness?”
* * *
They find the lab lit up in flames. They stare in horror at the fire licking across Dr Locke’s words painted onto the wall in bold letters: Look to the light.
Dom and Emerson struggle through the lobby and up the stairs, beating back any Shifters that rush them, ducking to avoid burning debris raining from above. They reach the second floor and are greeted with deafening chaos and more Shifters than Dom has ever seen. The horde notices and she braces herself as they begin staggering toward them. Dom raises her axe and this time her hands don’t shake.
Dom looks at her in indignant disbelief. “Don’t? They’ll overrun us!”
“Don’t, please! Don’t attack them.” Emerson’s hair is plastered to her sweaty face, bright eyes wide and beseeching. “Trust me, Dom, please, whatever you do — don’t attack.”
It’s madness. But Dom looks at Emerson, and something stays her hand. She’s lit up with the destruction surrounding her, firelight dancing on skin coated in soot and shadow, the reflection flickering in cloudy eyes, crimson hair flashing like the morning sun. She looks ethereal and otherworldly, like light incarnate, and it calms Dom as much as bolsters her. Her heart hammers in her chest as she lowers her weapon. The shadows surge forward and Dom closes her eyes, waiting for the press of darkness, for the tear of it into her skin, but it never comes.
Her eyes fly open as curdling screams pierce the air over the roar of the fire and crashes of debris. The shadows have bypassed Dom and Emerson and have set upon the remaining scientists, devouring them where they stand. Some ignore them entirely and hurtle through the halls in glitching dark masses, quickly and erratically as though they’re searching for something. When they enter the last room, they return with a new addition in tow: the child.
Realization crashes through Dom like ice through her veins, a jarring contrast to the heat of the ruined lab. The cogs in her head turn with delayed numbness, piecing disjointed memories together … all this time, the Shifted never attacked first. The attacks always came after a harvesting, never before. Which means …
They told her when humans caught the plague and Shifted, somehow their disease ripped a hole in the world as they know it and they were making the transition from this plane to the next. Dr Locke told her they were seeking a cure when they sent them out to capture patients and bring them back to study, and maybe they were. But maybe the Shifted weren’t a plague at all; the world was dying and tech was taking over … were they simply evolving to survive it? Fleeing to a new place to live? Birth is always violent.
Dom drops her axe and takes a step back.
“My brother,” breathes Emerson, staggering forward to throw her arms around the boy. His eyes are cloudy and opaque and they close as though in relief when Emerson holds him.
The building is falling apart. Shifters stagger off, shadows looming behind them, lights flashing with every blink of their eyes.
Emerson turns to face Dom, her eyes brighter than ever. Shadows are creeping forth on her skin, tendrils that curl like tentacles around her pale arms.
“Come with me.” Emerson extends a hand. “We don’t know what’s on the other side, but we could find out together.”
Dom takes her hand.