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Darker After Midnight (CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO)

"DO YOU THINK IT'S TRUE?" Lucan stood just inside Gideon's makeshift computer command center, leaning one shoulder against the wall. "Could Dragos have created a female Breed in his labs?"

Gideon glanced up from his study at one of several workstations. His gaze was serious over the rims of the pale blue glasses resting low on his nose. "Based on what I've found in the cryo container Hunter brought back from New Orleans, I'd say it's more than possible."

He rolled his chair across the polished pine-plank floor, stopping in front of another busy computer. "See this here?" He pointed to the schematic displayed on the monitor. Lucan strode over to have a look. "This is just one of a dozen analyses I've been running on the genetic popsicles in that laboratory ice box. We're talking about countless specimens, Lucan, harvested from the Ancient, his lab-bred offspring, and upward of twenty Breedmates. Hell, I even found some human samples in that tank. Dragos has been collecting DNA, blood cells, stem cells, embryos – everything a lab full of Minion geneticists could possibly need to keep them busy for a generation."

"Jesus Christ," Lucan muttered.

"And those are just the viable specimens," Gideon added. "The second cryo container had more of the same, but damage to the tank had broken the seals and destroyed all its contents." "What's going on over there?" Lucan asked, gesturing to still another computer with a monitor full of scrolling data. A program was running on it in split-screen mode, the bottom half ripping through line after line of rapid-fire code, the top displaying a string of thirteen-character fields. Only three of the fields were filled in with a static number: 5, 0, and 5.

"That," Gideon said, "is a little deencryption routine I wrote the other night. I hacked through some of the lab data without any problems, but one of the files has an extra password lock on it. My usual bag of tricks didn't make a dent in the encryption, so I'm coming at it from another angle."

"And it's working?" Lucan asked, watching the dizzying code fill the monitor and keep on going.

"It's working," Gideon said. "But going a lot slower than I'd hoped. The program's been running for roughly twenty-four hours and that's all it's returned. At this rate, we're looking at another four or five days to crack the whole sequence. Assuming the program's results are accurate."

Lucan grunted. "And we have no way of knowing what's in the file even if we crack the encryption."

"Right," Gideon replied. "But since Dragos took the extra step to lock it down with multiple safeties, I'm guessing whatever's inside is intel we're gonna want."

"Agreed, but another four or five days could be too late to make use of whatever we find in there. Tell me you have something more than this."

Gideon nodded. "I've been hacking into the GPS transmissions that Hunter sent us while he was down in New Orleans. Since that intel led us to Corinne's son, maybe we can get a bead on Dragos's other Hunter cells across the country. We locate those cells, we can start taking them out one by one. Disassemble Dragos's homegrown army from the ground up."

"Sounds like a plan. We need some wins, now that we're beginning to see all that Dragos has been doing in the years – hell, the decades – he's been running unchecked."

"A female Gen One," Gideon mused, getting busy on one of the keyboards in front of him.

"How is it she's been living among the humans all this time? And what the hell did Dragos stand to gain from creating her in the first place?"

"Questions I have myself," Lucan replied. "We'll have the chance to debrief her once Tegan and the others collect her from Rowan's place."

Uncertain if Tavia Fairchild would be cooperative, Lucan had sent Hunter and Niko along with Tegan. Renata went too, not only because the presence of another female might offer some sense of comfort to Tavia, but also because of Renata's unique Breedmate ability. Niko's mate had the power to temporarily immobilize any of the Breed using the ESP strength of her mind. Unfortunately, the industrial-strength migraines she tended to suffer afterward meant Renata used her talent sparingly.

"What about Chase?" Gideon asked. "Did Rowan tell you anything about him when he called?"

"Only that he was there at Rowan's Darkhaven, and that he looks like hell." One more reason Lucan felt it was a good idea to send Renata down to Boston tonight with the rest of the crew. "For better or worse," Gideon said, "I gotta say I'm relieved to know that Harvard is still breathing."

"Don't get your hopes up where he's concerned," Lucan replied, but the truth was, he too was relieved that Chase was still alive. And more than a little grateful that he'd brought Tavia Fairchild to the Order's attention. This, on top of the personal risk Chase had taken in surrendering himself to the humans the morning of the compound's raid. He'd likely saved more than one life that day, an act of sacrifice that still humbled Lucan to reflect on now.

Lucan was the Order's leader all this time because he knew when to draw the hard lines in the sand, but he also knew when those lines should be allowed to bend.

Sterling Chase was more tarnish than shine lately, but he wasn't a total lost cause.

Lucan ought to know. He'd been there himself not so long ago.

"What was it like?" Gideon had turned away from his computer keyboards and was watching Lucan from behind the icy lenses of his shades. The tech genius's usual jocularity was replaced with a sober quiet as he stared at Lucan now. "You've never said what it felt like to brush up against Bloodlust."

It didn't take much to recall. Lucan's struggle with his own feral nature had eased some since Gabrielle had come into his life a year and a half ago, but the memory of it wasn't far out of reach.

"It was hell," he admitted. "Unrelenting, all-consuming hell. Hunger and aggression were constant. It's a dangerous combination, self-destructive. The thirst fuels the compulsion toward violence, and violence intensifies the urge to hunt and feed." He bit off a curse. "As bad as I had it, Tegan endured something even worse."

Gideon gave a grim nod. He knew the basics of Tegan's history. "He lost his Breedmate and went Rogue. You saved him."

"Several long months of seclusion and near starvation saved Tegan, not me. Even then, there had been no guarantee that he'd come out better on the other side." But he had, in spite of everything, even the grief and rage that had owned the warrior. Lucan was glad that somehow Tegan still considered him a friend. A brother. "It was a long time ago, centuries for him, but I can tell you that the itch of Bloodlust never leaves you completely. Tegan came out of his tailspin over time. A great deal of time – something we can't offer Chase right now, with Dragos on the loose."

One of Gideon's brows quirked over his serious eyes. "The walls of the fallout shelter beneath this Darkhaven are made of steel and concrete, twenty inches thick. There's a triple- reinforced door built to withstand a nuclear blast. Ought to be strong enough to hold one pissed- off vampire until we do have time to deal with him properly."

Lucan held the warrior's gaze, feeling a spark of conspiracy tug at the corner of his mouth. "I've already been down to check out the situation myself. Took a look right after I spoke with Rowan tonight."

Gideon was nodding now, a smile breaking across his face. "And here I thought you'd written Harvard off."

"I might yet," he cautioned soberly. "It'll be up to him to persuade me one way or the other. Like I said, best we don't get our hopes up until we see him for our – "

The sudden thunder of footsteps pounding across the floor outside the room cut Lucan's warning short. He and Gideon both got up and hurried out to see what was going on.

Lazaro Archer nearly collided with them. "It's Jenna," he said, concern etched in hard lines on the Breed elder's stern face. "Come quickly!"

They followed him to the great room at the other end of the expansive residence. Brock was already there, crouched at his mate's side where she slumped in a boneless droop on the brown leather sofa.

"Jenna." Brock's voice was soft but urgent, his dark hands roaming over her listless face. "Baby, can you hear me? Come on, Jenna. Open your eyes for me. Wake up now."

Lucan glanced to Archer. "What happened?"

"I'm not sure. We were reviewing the Ancient language journals, trying to work out translations for some of the more elusive alien phrases she's been speaking in her sleep the past few weeks. She asked if she could rest a while, so I went to look in on Kellan. When I came back, she was thrashing on the sofa, panting for breath."

"Another nightmare," Gideon suggested. He kept his voice low while Brock worked to bring Jenna around as only he could. "Yesterday she told me she's been having bad dreams. Dreams about being trapped in a small compartment in the dark, about being pierced repeatedly with needles and knives, her skin flayed from her body while all she can do is watch it happen." "Jesus," Lucan hissed. "That can't be a coincidence."

"No," Gideon agreed. "My best guess is that along with the bit of alien material the Ancient implanted in her, some of his memories came with it."

And that wasn't all the Ancient had given Jenna. Her body was still changing, cells and organs adapting toward something more than human. The glyph on her nape and shoulders grew a little bigger every day; there was no telling how much of her body it would cover in a year's time or a decade. The way her physiology was mutating, enhancing, Gideon was convinced that like her superhuman strength and stamina, Jenna's life span could no longer be measured in human terms.

"Jenna," Brock soothed, gathering her close as she began to rouse and murmur quietly in his arms. "That's it, baby. You're okay now. I've got you. I'll keep you safe."

"Brock?" Her eyelids fluttered as he continued to speak to her. She moaned, breath coming faster as the weight of sleep lifted and she started to regain consciousness. Her body stirred now, waking fully. She sucked in a shallow sob and clung to him, her eyes wide and welled with tears. "There was water everywhere. It kept rising and rising, and the people … there were people screaming all around me, drowning. Oh, God … it was so awful!"

Lucan slanted a questioning look at Gideon, who shook his head, equally confused.

Brock took her face in his hands, holding her still, soothing her with his touch. "What people, baby? What water? Who was drowning?"

"I don't know." She pressed her cheek against his chest and sucked in a ragged sob. "I don't know who they were, but they were dying. Men and women, children. Animals too. The wave roared over everything. It washed away the whole city."

Gideon's wary frown must have been a good match for Lucan's. Even Lazaro Archer looked a bit rattled by Jenna's description of chaos and mass destruction.

Brock whispered soothing words against her ear. "Just a bad dream, baby. You're safe.

Nobody died. It was just a bad dream." The warrior lifted a dark, grim look on Lucan, Gideon, and Archer. "We're pushing her too hard. She's exhausted, physically and mentally. All these tests and journals and analyses. It's too damned much. It stops, right now."

"No." It wasn't Lucan or any of the others who spoke to refuse him but Jenna. She drew back from Brock's embrace, shaking her head. Her face was tearstained and flushed, but her soft brown eyes were steady with resolve. "No, Brock. I don't need to stop looking for answers. I don't want to stop."

"Look what it's doing to you," he pointed out. "You can hardly close your eyes without waking up screaming from a new nightmare – usually worse than the ones that came before."

She was still shaking her head as she caught his taut face in her palms. "I'm all right. Shaken up a little, but I'm fine. I want to do this. We're getting close to something big, I can feel it. I want to understand these dreams, even if they terrify me. They're a part of who I am now, Brock. I need to know what they mean."

"There may be someone who can help," Gideon put in. All heads turned to him. "Claire Reichen," he said. "Andreas Reichen's Breedmate is a dreamwalker. She might be able to help Jenna navigate these dreams and collect details we might miss otherwise."

"Yes," Jenna said. "Do you think she would be willing to do it?"

"Claire's in Rhode Island," Lucan reminded everyone. "With Reichen in Europe at the moment, running reconnaissance on the Agency for us over there, we can't ask Claire to abandon her Darkhaven and come north on a whim."

"Maybe she wouldn't have to," Gideon said. "She's dream-walked remotely before. It's not the easiest thing for her to do, but it's not out of the question."

Brock rubbed his hand over the top of his skull-trimmed head. "I'm not feeling good about any of this. What if something happens?"

"What can happen?" Jenna asked him. "They're only dreams. Maybe they're the Ancient's memories, I don't know. But I need to know, Brock. He let me live for a reason. He made me choose, and then he put this living piece of himself under my skin. Why? What did he want from me? I can't rest until I have those answers. You can't ask me to run away from what I am becoming."

"I wouldn't," Brock told her gently. He lowered his voice to a rough whisper. "You know I love you more than anything, Jenna. I only want you to be safe."

"I am safe." She smiled at him as though no one else were in the room. "I'm safe with you, and I'm not afraid. Just promise you'll be here to catch me when I wake up."

"Forever." He kissed her, a brief meeting of their mouths that radiated as much heat as a furnace.

Jenna didn't take her eyes off her mate for a moment. "Make the call to Claire, will you please, Gideon?"

At Lucan's nod of agreement, Gideon pulled out his cell phone and speed-dialed Reichen's oceanfront Darkhaven in Newport, Rhode Island.

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