Follow

Keep in contact through the following social networks or via RSS feed:

  • Follow on Facebook
  • Follow on Twitter
  • Follow on GoodReads
  • Follow on Instagram
Join My Newsletter

Dream Wars: Rising (First Three Chapters)

Hey guys! Dream Wars is on presale now and during the month of May I am donating $1 of every presale to TacaNow.org (Talk about curing Autism Now) You can grab it here. 

This book is CRAZY I really have no idea what I have written but I love it LOL. Check out the first three chapters below. It’s been edited but is going through final proofing stages so ignore minor typos that won’t be in the final copy. <3

*This is upper YA/NA and has bad language. Beware. Earmuffs.

 

Los Angeles 

Year 2030

 

Chapter One

I tipped my black coffee back, taking down the rest of the cup in one big swallow. I needed to stay awake until we met our next job assignment in an hour. 

As I rolled out my neck, my comrade gave me a once-over. 

“You look like shit. When was the last time we slept?” Brisk asked me. His deep, husky voice always made me melt a little, but we’d tried the dating thing and were better off as friends, coworkers. Besides, everyone knew he’d end up with Ronnie anyway, once she learned to get that stick out of her ass and finally give in to his advances. 

“Forty-nine hours, and she’s on her period, so that doesn’t help,” my best friend answered for me. 

I rolled my eyes, groaning. “Geez, Ronnie! You’re stalking me again,” I warned her as she tied her long, black, silky Asian hair into a bun and placed two small throwing knives in to secure it. 

She pursed her lips. “Need I remind you of my position on this team, Commander?” 

Sass. So much sass.

I didn’t think tracking my periods helped her be any more or less of the team surgeon and medic. Maybe it did, what did I know? I failed biology. I was more of the F in math and science but A in English and ceramics kind of girl. I could make a mean table vase, but don’t ask me to do your taxes or explain why volcanos erupted. They just did.

I’d wanted to beat the shit out of Ronnie when I’d first met her at the Dream Wars Cadet Academy. She was a smarty-pants know-it-all with a serious attitude problem. But now I’d come to crave that verbal ass-kicking that only Ronnie could give. Veronica Sato was an Ivy League graduate and the best damn trauma surgeon I’d ever seen. It was her job to make sure that our team of five, including her, stayed healthy and with our organs tucked safely inside of our bodies. 

I groaned, the weight of sleep pulling at my limbs. “We’ve gone longer,” I reminded Brisk, shivering as I thought about the time I went seven days without a single minute of shut-eye. I thought I was going to die.

Ronnie nodded. We all had gone long stretches without sleep ever since the ghouls, an invisible alien race, landed on our planet ten years ago and started feeding on the human bodies of those asleep. The ghouls were like a cross between vampires and zombies. Nodding off had become a fight for our lives, but it also kept me employed. Avoiding sleep allowed me to heal the wounds I sustained while in the Dream Wars. If a ghoul injured you in the Dream Wars, it carried over into your physical body. So I refused to sleep unless I was 100 percent.

“Just the coffee or any stims?” Ronnie had her little freaking torture flashlight out and was shining it in my eyes. 

I flinched, avoiding the light. I didn’t like stims, not since losing one of my best warriors to a stim addiction. She knew that. She’d also spent nearly every minute of the last two days with me, so she knew I hadn’t taken any. Dick. I just glared at her. 

She threw her hands up. “Okay, no stims. Chillax, mamacita.” Even though Ronnie was Japanese, she somehow turned into an old Mexican lady when she was frustrated. It was weird but I’d come to love it. She frequently bitched us out in both Japanese and Spanish. 

“Did you see this client’s file? He’s like mega rich and uber hot. My favorite combination,” Maxine cut in, purring in her raspy Marilyn Monroe voice. 

Maxine was our resident beauty queen. Literally. She was runner-up at a Miss USA pageant four years ago at the ripe age of seventeen. Don’t ask me why we were still having beauty pageants when humanity was dying off in their sleep. Priorities, right? 

It wasn’t until Maxine’s parents were mutilated in their sleep by ghouls that she joined the cadet academy the following year. I’d never seen someone with so much rage. When she fought, it was like a bomb went off; once she started, she didn’t know how to stop herself. She was my front-line soldier, one of the best I’d ever had. 

“Of course I’ve seen his file. I’ve memorized it,” I told her. 

She was right. He was rich—all of our clients were—and he should be. He owned Striker industries, a private weapons research facility on the west side that he headed up with his genius little brother. He was also, in fact, uber hot. 

“I’ll bet he’s a total dick,” I continued. 

The hot, rich ones always were. You had to be rich to be able to afford my team, but we usually protected fat, lazy, old businessmen. Not young, model-hot, in-shape guys like him. Nearly half of my equipment was from Striker Industries. Next to the president of the United States, this was the highest-profile client I’d ever had.

Maxine grinned. “I wouldn’t mind if he got a little rough,” she said with a wink. 

I chuckled. Maxine didn’t hide her promiscuity, that was for sure. She lived life to the fullest and it was admirable. 

Nox, our dark and broody warrior, spoke then. “I heard his last three teams got killed,” he said from his corner in the shadows. Nox Lightfoot was our resident pyrotechnics expert. He loved to blow shit up. His father was Japanese and his mother a full-blooded Navajo, which gave him a smooth brown complexion and cheek bones to die for. We often called him “pretty boy” just to rile him up. 

“I read that,” I told him. 

I had to keep calm, couldn’t let one ounce of fear into my mind this close to entering the Dream Wars. Nodding off after dwelling on bad shit just projected you farther into the war zone. 

That was the reason I was commander of this team. Not necessarily because I was a badass fighter, which I was, but because I had complete control over my mental state before sleep. My mentor, Master Aki, taught me well. It didn’t hurt that I also had a special affinity for mental projections and telepathy. Ever since the ghouls landed, I’d had some certain gifts creep up. Many of us did, as if their presence somehow heightened aspects of our humanity that was previously suppressed. 

Brisk stood then. At six-foot-four and stacked with muscle, he cast a long shadow over Ronnie and me. “I’ll pull the car around,” he said and tossed his lucky green beanie over his messy brown hair.

I nodded, going over inventory one last time before feeling confident enough to head to this client’s house. His file was vague on why he needed protection. Most high-profile cases had a nightly warrior or two whom they went into the Dream Wars with, but it wasn’t usually with an expensive special ops team like mine. That was a bit of overkill for nightly guarding. Especially for Damien Striker, who had military training and an endless supply of weapons. And though most people couldn’t afford us for longer than a week, he’d booked us “indefinitely.” I’d never seen that on a contract before. At a hundred grand a week, it was certainly going to cost him. The average Joe only needed a single warrior to guard them, but hiring an entire team meant something was up. With three teams already dead, something told me nothing about this would be easy.

Walking over to the mirror, I ran some water over my face. Master Aki taught me this ritual. The water symbolized a cleansing. Whatever trials of the day or the week or the year, they were washed away with the water. Tonight was a new night. A new sleep. A new dream. A new war.

“I’m in control. I project peace. I give protection. I harness strength,” I told the blue-haired girl in the mirror. My eyes fell onto the smattering of freckles across my nose and faintly on my cheeks, reminding me of my late father. He told me growing up that they were angel kisses. 

My team was used to my ritual by now. They didn’t say a word, just sat in quiet reverence as if witnessing a person in deep prayer. Which they were. My mind was my temple, and I needed to keep it pure before sleep. 

The guy’s file kept running through my mind. Three teams dead. He hasn’t slept in four days, and he’s injured. 

More water. 

“I’m in control. I project peace. I give protection. I harness strength,” I said again. 

The Dream Wars were my bitch. 

I got this. 

After drying my face, I applied some of my signature red lipstick and ran a brush through my indigo hair. This was about as professional as I got. 

I turned around and told my team, “We got this!” just as Brisk laid on the horn outside. 

Ronnie was strapping up her medical kit when she stood and took in my armor. I was wearing my full Kevlar zip-up bodysuit with wire meshing around the abdomen to keep my guts in. My lucky grenade was hanging off the edge of my knee-high black boots. It was an unusually warm summer in LA, so the full-body suit was going to be warm but necessary. Even with half the population dead, global warming didn’t seem to be slowing down.

“Going in heavy,” Ronnie observed. I didn’t always do the full suit, but my gut was telling me tonight was going to be rough. My gut had never let me down. 

“I’ve got a feeling.” I shrugged. I didn’t want anything to mess up my Zen, so I didn’t say any more. 

Ronnie just nodded and added another gun to her armor belt. 

“I got a new flamethrower I’m dying to try out,” Nox admitted as he grabbed his duffel and then opened the large metal roll-up door to the garage of the building that we owned downtown. I was a city girl through and through; the suburbs made me sleepy. 

I strode over and clapped Nox on the back. “I pray you never have to use it.” I was in my zone now. My positivity zone that Master Aki taught me to allow nothing to enter. Tonight we would be projected to a peaceful place within the Dream Wars, far away from the front lines, and we would have a good night’s sleep. That was my mantra. Nothing before sleep could disturb this. 

Nox just chuckled. 

As I watched my team pack up and head over to the jeep, I couldn’t help but reminisce about younger times. For the past six years I’d slept next to these fools, since we were fourteen and new cadets at the academy. Only Maxine had joined us recently, two years ago when she was eighteen. I’d been with Nox, Ronnie, and Brisk since we were young. Hands interlocked, holding on for dear life, we’d fall asleep together each night. Even when my father died and I had to fly home to Boston for his funeral, they came. They didn’t want me to have to sleep alone. 

As we all piled into the black jeep, I plugged in our client’s coordinates. He lived in some fancy mansion in Bel Air. I liked our downtown loft just fine. We’d bought an old sewing factory and constructed it so we all had our own separate apartments and also a training center. The most important room in the building was the room we co-slept in, sporting four king-size beds. It didn’t matter if one of us had a lover over—at the end of the day, we all slept together. Considering we each made an even cut of twenty grand a week, we could afford to live in Bel Air if we wanted to, but it didn’t suit any of us. Except maybe Maxine. 

We drove to the address in relative silence. Only when we passed the infamous crater made by the now long-gone ghoul ship off the 101 did we begin to rustle in our seats. Looking down at the deep depression in the earth, I had a visceral response. Every muscle in my body clenched as rage flooded through me. Staring at the black scorch marks where the military had attempted to level it, I was taken back to my childhood.

The mammoth titanium-looking ships had arrived on August 22nd, 2020. The ships had no windows, no lights, and when the doors opened, no beings inside. None we could see anyway. We assumed they were empty communication vessels or something, but that night the whole of humanity’s collective consciousness was hijacked. We were projected into the Dream Wars, some type of alternate reality, as the ghouls controlled the landscape and took us out one by one. They started with the animals, the easier game, but eventually made it to the disabled and elderly. Now only the fittest, smartest, richest humans survived the night. It was a literal survival of the fittest, most well connected or the most hardcore. I once saw a fourteen-year-old Latina from a local gang take out a ghoul with a metal ice pick. 

Maxine raised her middle finger to the ghoul ship indentation and shouted obscenities out the window. I simply closed my eyes, focused on my breathing and chanted my mantra. 

After about twenty minutes, we approached the residence and Ronnie went into medic mode. 

“How’s the knee, Nox?” She peered at our pyro warrior who had a lighter in his hand and was twirling it between his fingers. That man was never without fire. Ever.  

He slapped his leg just above the knee and smiled. “Like brand new.” 

Nox had been badly injured a couple months ago, but he seemed to be recovering fine.

“Maxine, how are you feeling?” Ronnie checked in. Maxine suffered from bouts of extreme anxiety and PTSD. She’d seen her parents murdered right in front of her, so I didn’t blame her one bit. Some jobs just made her jumpier than others. If I saw signs of it, then I usually put her to the back of the line. 

She looked calmly at Ronnie. “Full of rage and ready to kill.” 

I grinned. Coming from a gorgeous redhead with the sex drive of a teenage boy, that line always made me smile. 

“I’m your favorite, aren’t I?” Maxine winked at me. 

Ronnie’s mouth opened in shock. “Yeah right! Everyone knows I’m her favorite.” 

Maxine just laughed. “You’re her best friend, but I’m her favorite. There’s a difference.”

This age-old argument.

“What if I’m her favorite?” Brisk asked from his place behind the wheel. 

I scoffed playfully. “You wish. I’ll never forgive you for eating the last of my chocolate last Christmas.”

We pulled up to the guard gate and Brisk chuckled, turning back to look at Ronnie. “I wish I were Ronnie’s favorite.” He winked at her. 

I was pretty sure everyone collectively rolled their eyes. Brisk had been after Ronnie since last year, but because we dated for a hot minute like two years ago, Ronnie kept telling him no. No matter how many times I told her I didn’t care or how much chemistry they had, the poor girl shot him down hard. 

“All right, this guy is richer than God. Let’s get into professional mode,” I told my team. 

Ronnie straightened her black-framed glasses and pulled on her white surgeon’s coat. Clients loved that. No matter how good her résumé was, clients never failed to comment on her age. She was twenty-one and one of the youngest Harvard Medical School graduates in history, having started there at the tender age of thirteen. After long days in class at Harvard, she’d spend her evenings training at the Boston academy in military drills. Then at night, she slept with me, Nox, and Brisk. We’d had each other’s backs from the beginning and always would. 

She murmured something in Japanese and Nox responded with a chuckle. I just shook my head. She spoke five languages, came from a prominent family and loved cats. I never understood how we’d become best friends. Sometimes life just stuck you with someone and they grew on you.

A well-built young man at the guard gate approached our jeep. After showing our papers and IDs, he opened the gates and we drove up the long circular drive. The sprawling estate was fit for a celebrity, craftsman in style but with a modern flair. The home extended the length of the large lot. Standing at the front was the butler, Daniel Hansen, an older man in his fifties with black and silver hair wearing a full tuxedo. 

“Oh my God, what if our new client is Batman!” Maxine commented after seeing the butler. 

I smiled as everyone else in the car chuckled. “You think Batman needs a team to get him through the Dream Wars?” I asked. I wished Batman was real. Then maybe he could end all of this and we could finally sleep in peace again. 

Brisk parked the car off to the side and we all started unloading our gear. 

“Miss Steele, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” the man’s sweet voice sounded from behind me. 

I turned and extended my hand. “Mr. Hansen, I presume?” 

He nodded. I’d pored over this guy’s file too, partly out of interest but mostly because I didn’t sleep with strangers in the house. I wanted to know everything about everyone I was protecting. Daniel Hansen was fifty-two years old and had been working for the Striker family for over two decades. He was originally from England, but his accent was mild. No family, no wife, a slave to the job. Interestingly, before coming to work for the Strikers, he was an MI6 agent in British intelligence. 

“The pleasure is all mine, sir,” I told him as he took my hand in a good firm grip. 

The Striker family was fascinating. The mother and father died the first month of the Dream Wars. Our client was fourteen years old when the ships had landed, though the file was unclear as to whether he witnessed anything. His little brother was ten. The only comfort we had in this world was that the ghouls weren’t attracted to children under the age of maturity. It’s like they couldn’t even see them over there, so kids roamed the Dream Wars harmlessly while their parents fought for their lives. But the day you hit puberty, you were fair game. Food to the ghouls. For boys, that was usually about fourteen, and for girls it was younger, with the average age being twelve. 

Daniel Hansen raised the two boys along with the nanny, Josephine Pearl. Miss Pearl was someone I was dying to meet. She’d taken guardianship of the boys at the age of thirty and single-handedly kept them alive in the Dream Wars until the cadet school could pump out enough graduates to hire so the boys could be trained themselves. This family had been through numerous protection details; they’d all either died or been fired by none other than my client, Damien Striker. 

“We’ve been on the waiting list for your team for over six months,” Mr. Hansen kindly reminded me. The bags under his eyes were deep. I wondered if this whole house had been up for four days or just the injured Damien Striker. 

I’d taken one phone call a week for the past six months from Mr. Hansen, asking if we’d had any cancelations. I knew full well how long they’d been waiting. 

“Now we’re all yours. Indefinitely,” I replied, referencing the contract we’d signed the day before. 

He smiled, a twinkle in his eye. “I am very happy to hear that. Mr. Striker hasn’t slept in—”

“Four days,” I told him, holstering an extra weapon. 

He assessed me with an intelligent gaze. “Where was I born?” he asked. 

He wanted to know how prepared I was. I could play this game. I may not have been too book smart, but I had the memory of an elephant. “Cotswold England, although you grew up in Brighton before entering the Knighting Gale Boarding School for Boys.” 

Now his smile reached his eyes. “It’s so nice to finally have someone competent in charge. These other teams are all muscle and no brains. Come on, I’ll bring you to meet Mr. Striker and Jeremy.” 

I usually didn’t let myself get attached to clients or their families, but right off the bat I liked this old man. It was a good thing too, because he, Josephine Pearl, and the Striker brothers had all been written into the contract as people to protect. The most interesting part was a clause forcing my team to protect Miss Pearl, Mr. Hansen, and the little Striker brother over our main client, Damien. 

As we made our way to the open front door, Mr. Hansen shook hands with the rest of the team and introduced himself. 

“The final member of my team will be here shortly. Can you tell your security to let her through?” I asked.  

Tatum was one of the most important members of our team. She was twelve years old, hadn’t yet gotten her period which would signal maturity, and was our waker. She slept during the day and worked full time for me at night. Her parents homeschooled her, and she did her homework while we slept. Because the ghouls weren’t a threat to her yet, she could sleep in peace, but that peace would come crashing down the day she got her period. 

Other than paying her handsomely, her parents had also requested I train her, so when she reached maturity she could fend for herself. I’d also reserved a spot for her at the local cadet academy when she got her period and they would let her attend. The age of minimum admittance to get into the academy got younger and younger each year. In my day, you couldn’t enter until you were fourteen. It clashed with our need to protect their innocence, but also the need to teach them how to stay alive.  

Mr. Hansen pressed a finger to a listening device in his ear. “Miss Tatum Wallace will be coming along shorty. Be sure to let her and her mother right on through.” 

I chuckled. Of course, he knew her first and last name. Former MI6, I would expect nothing less. 

As we stepped into the foyer, I took stock of my surroundings. The home was large with a tiled entryway that led to a wide open staircase, but the moldings looked dirty and the wooden entry table was covered in a layer of thick dust. A common side effect of constantly losing staff to the Dream Wars. He’d probably just stopped hiring a cleaning lady. It was hard to see people you worked with on a daily basis keep dying. 

“This way.” The butler ushered us up the staircase and to the left, where I assumed the master bedroom was. 

As we traversed a large hallway, I began to hear low voices talking. 

“We’re here,” Mr. Hansen said in his earpiece before I could make out any of the words. 

At that, Damien Striker walked out of the master bedroom. His dirty blonde hair was slicked back and wet, telling me he must have recently showered. A scruffy beard dotted his jaw, and he stared at me with piercing blue eyes. He wore a Kevlar tank top, which showed off his impressive muscles but also showcased a gnarly looking shoulder wound. It was hastily stitched back together, so rough it looked like Tatum had done it. His outfit was topped off with loose green military cargoes and two high-powered weapons, one on each hip. Dark bags shone under his eyes, and he held a stim canister in his hand. Even with all of this, he was devastatingly handsome. I didn’t meet many handsome twenty-four-year-old billionaires. 

“Thank God. I was just about to have to take another one of these.” He chucked the stim can on the floor, full and unused. I wasn’t surprised, knowing he hadn’t stayed awake for four days without stims. I just hoped he only used them when needed, like we all did. The last thing I needed was a trigger-happy stim junkie on my hands. 

I extended my hand, going into professional mode. “Commander Kit Steele.” 

He wrapped his large hand around mine and shook it with a firm grip. He didn’t try to treat me like I would break, and for that he earned one point of respect from me. 

“Damien Striker.” His eyes roamed over my blue hair and then quickly did a full body scan. He was probably wondering if he’d made a good decision to hire a twenty-year-old with blue hair for a hundred grand a week to protect his life. 

I quickly introduced my team, but from the way he nodded as I rattled off the names, I realized he’d already known all their info. This guy studied our files as much as we’d studied his. 

“Let me look at that shoulder,” Ronnie said, setting her medic bag down.

“Nah, it’s fine. I’d rather just get some rest.” He waved her off. 

A tough guy, huh? 

Ronnie ate tough guys for breakfast. 

“Oh, it wasn’t really a question. No one goes into the Dream Wars without my medical approval.” 

Ouch. I tried to hold on to my professional façade, but a slight smile tugged at my lips. 

Damien groaned and acquiesced, cutting me a glare. He’d noticed my smile.

I could already see I was going to have problems with this guy. I was in charge, second was Ronnie, and after that was the rest of my team, including Tatum. If he thought that because he’d bought our services, he’d bought the right to call the shots, he was sorely mistaken. 

“Let’s set up.” I started to walk into the expansive master suite.

“Hang on a second.” Damien grabbed my upper arm. 

I didn’t like being grabbed. 

When I met his eyes, they were so tired and full of exhaustion that I forgave him this small infraction. Just this once. 

He let go of my arm and spoke in a small voice. “I need to tell you something about my little brother.”

Oh shit. This happened all the time. They kept something out of the files and dropped the bomb on you right before you were about to sleep. I only agreed to jobs because I had the client fill out a heavily detailed file to give me all the information I needed. If the brother was a stim junkie or severely injured, I wasn’t doing it. I would walk out right now. 

Jeremy Striker was hardly little—he was twenty and the brains of the research company. The file was slim on him, though it said he was some kind of child prodigy like Ronnie. Graduated college at sixteen and took over his dad’s company, Striker Industries, as head of research and development. 

The team huddled in around me. “What is it?” I gritted out. Money couldn’t buy my respect. If he’d lied about something big that could get my team killed, I was out of there. 

Ronnie kept tending to his shoulder but gave me her signature raised eyebrow. 

Damien sighed, looking ten years older in that moment and tired as all hell. I knew how he felt; going without sleep was torture. 

“He’s not a risk or anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s just that he has some… special needs, and when we get in the Dream Wars, he… can have an episode.” 

 Okay… I’m going to need more information than that. 

“What kind of needs? What type of episode?” Were we talking epilepsy and seizures, because that was fine with me. I would never cancel a client contract over something like that. 

Damien swallowed hard. “He and I saw our parents die in the Dream Wars. He was only ten.”

My heart pinched at his confession, and my eyes fell to Maxine, who was clenching her teeth. They had something in common, and I knew she was trying to hold her shit together.

Damien went on. “He also has a form of mild autism. He’s extremely shy and lacking social skills, but he does okay. But when we get over there, he completely changes. He has a form of selective mutism and will only speak to me, Josephine or Mr. Hansen, people he trusts. In the Dream Wars, he doesn’t like to be touched, he doesn’t like violence, and… he’s a runner. He’ll run away if shit gets too scary.”

Oh shit. 

I backed up and started to pace the hallway, needing to keep my headspace calm. I was fine with the selective mutism and autism, fine with him not wanting to be touched or being scared. It sounded like he had some major PTSD and anxiety issues, which I could handle, but a runner? Of course shit was going to get scary! This was the Dream Wars! It was like being tasked with protecting a child, but that child had gone through puberty and the ghouls would be after him. How could I protect a twenty-year-old man who wouldn’t talk to me and would run at the slightest bit of danger?

“Wait.” Damien stepped in front of me with his hand out, causing Ronnie to fall away from his shoulder. “He’s a genius, with the ability to do rapid calculations and solve advanced scientific string theory problems. The reason we need your protection is because… his research is all about ending the Dream Wars.”

His words slammed into me, my mouth dropping open. Ending the Dream Wars was something we didn’t even dare to wish for, to speak of. 

Chapter Two

End the Dream Wars. 

I stopped walking, tugging Damien to a stop as my team headed into the room to give us privacy. 

“What did you just say?” I asked him head on. I was tired myself. Maybe I hadn’t heard him right. Last time I checked, Striker Industries made guns, bulletproof vests, and the dream band bracelets that allowed us to connect our consciousnesses before sleep so we could go in as a team. But I’d read nothing about research in relation to ending the Dream Wars.

Damien Striker ran a shaky hand through his wet hair. “My little brother is close to proving a theory that dumping massive random data files over the airwaves can repel the ghouls, mixed with a plasma shield of our own making. Every night we enter the Dream Wars to test his theory and a device he’s creating that could be worn by every man, woman, and child. It would repel any ghouls within three feet, and the person wearing it couldn’t be harmed by them.”

Holy shit. I’d read something in Ghouls Weekly about their communication patterns being like those of a computer and certain “data dumps” affecting them, but nothing had come of it so I’d forgotten about it. Until now. 

I couldn’t walk away from protecting someone just because they were different. It went against my inner moral code. I could’ve easily kicked Maxine off my team when her PTSD manifested, but I never could’ve lived with myself if I had. And if he could really create a device that could repel the ghouls, then we had to try. I just hoped Jeremy Striker didn’t get me and my team killed in the process. 

Damien leaned in to me, so close I could feel the heat from his body against my chest. His warm breath in my ear, he whispered, “One more thing.” 

I was entranced by him, his heat, his breath on my ear. “The ghouls are… attracted to me. No matter where I go, no matter how far from the war I get, they find me. Every night. In every Dream War.”

Well shit. So much for him just being a hot, rich guy. Though he wasn’t my first client with a ghoul attraction, and I was sure he wouldn’t be my last either.

I pulled back from him and lowered my voice. “Why didn’t you tell me about your brother’s research before?” 

His face was deadpan. “The last team I told took it as a threat to their job security and tried to kill me.” 

Geez.

I mean yeah, technically I’d be out of work if his brother could create a device that repelled the ghouls, but to be able to sleep in peace again, to not have to bury any more friends or family members, I’d happily be unemployed. 

“And what about the government? I have contacts with the president. I used to protect her. I could get you a meeting,” I informed him.

  He sighed, rubbing his temples. “You can’t be that naive.”

I reeled back in shock. “Excuse me?” I crossed my arms in defiance.

If this guy had a way to stop this war, then we should get the military involved. I did my two years of civil protection duty and went right into private protection because I didn’t like taking orders from other people, but the military had some good guys we could pull in on this. Guys I trusted.

He glared at me patronizingly now. “Miss Steele. I had a meeting with the Department of Defense a year ago when my brother got the idea. I merely told them he had the idea and wanted to explore it.”

I shrugged. “Good. What did they say?” 

He chuckled, his blue eyes arresting. I could even see a hidden dimple in his right cheek. 

“They offered us a billion dollars for the intellectual property once we developed it. When I asked them what they would do with it, they smiled and said that would be classified.” 

Understandable. He was a civilian, after all. “I’m sure they would’ve thoroughly tested it on their military before giving it to the general population.” 

“Hah! You are that naive.” He looked me up and down as if I were a child.

This guy was going to get a throat punch pretty soon. I didn’t care how rich or hot he was. 

“I had someone hack their network. Over the next month, all their chatter was about our idea and how much it would hurt gun sales and take away from the military budget if the war was over. How population would get out of control again. They would give the device to top military brass and the highest bidder, but not to the civilian population at large. Rich and powerful first.” 

Cold hard dread seeped into my bones. I couldn’t believe that, but before I could retort, a familiar voice shrilled behind me. 

“Kitty!” Tatum squeaked. She was the only human alive I allowed to call me Kitty. Anyone else would get their kneecaps blown off. My conversation with Damien would have to be shelved for another time.

“Tate!” I spun around and embraced the twelve-year-old tightly. “Did you pass that algebra test?” 

She pulled back and made a face. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Tatum’s idol was Princess Leia from Star Wars, and she wore some sort of Star Wars memorabilia every day, along with her blonde hair in Leia’s signature buns. Today she had a Rebel Alliance pin on her sneakers. 

They’d stopped making the movies in 2020 when the ghouls landed. Everything related to entertainment or fun had stopped, actually—except the Miss America pageant of course, because that was super important, apparently. It was all about survival now. All of our manpower went to making weapons and other things pertaining to surviving the Dream Wars.

“Well, tonight while we sleep, you can study and Ronnie will go over the answers with you when we wake up.” Her mother homeschooled her so she could work this job for us, and I felt guilty every day that I was taking her childhood from her. 

“Fine,” she moaned. Her eyes fell on Damien then and she blushed. “The new client?” She raised an eyebrow. 

I nodded. 

“Hey. I’m Tatum.” She stuck out her hand. 

All of his earlier fury was gone. He looked exhausted again, but something in him softened when he looked at her. 

“Hello, Tatum. It’s a pleasure to have you here.” He shook her hand and she blushed harder. 

“He reminds me of Anakin,” she told me, and I smiled. Tatum was prone to crushes and compared every crush to a Star Wars character, usually in the older movies. First Nox, then Brisk, now Damien. 

“Before or after he went dark?” I asked, and she laughed before walking into the room to meet the group. 

“I’m tired.” Damien swayed a little on his feet, looking like he might collapse right here. 

I had to make a judgment call. The ghouls were attracted to him and his brother was a runner, but they might possibly be able to end the Dream Wars with my help.

“All right, let’s get the dream bands on and I’ll take us in.” I didn’t even want to talk about the admission that the ghouls were attracted to him. It didn’t matter at that point; I was all in, and the team was too. If his brother could make devices that warded off the ghouls, we had to help. Besides, I’d protected clients who were an attraction to the ghouls before. This was nothing new. 

He shook his head. “I’ll take us in. I have a knack for getting us away from ground zero. It’ll give us more time before the ghouls get to us.” 

Hah! “You can’t be that naive.” I spat his words back at him. His whole body tightened, eyes narrowing to glare at me. “You think I get paid a hundred grand a week to let others control the dream?” I asked as my laughter intensified. 

He took a step closer to me and I put my free hand on the butt of my gun. This mofo was about to get pistol-whipped. 

“You think I’ve kept my whole family alive this entire time by hiring people to protect us?” he spat.

Yes. Yes I do. At this close proximity, I could smell him. He smelled good, like that expensive cologne rich guys wore mixed with… something. Sandalwood, maybe. 

“I don’t have time for this ego trip shit.” I spun away from him and walked into the room. “All right, pack it up. The contract is off,” I announced. 

Maxine and Ronnie shared a look but didn’t question me, just started packing their bags. 

Jeremy Striker was sitting on the edge of the large bed in his pajamas, expression distressed while Josephine snuggled next to him. He started breathing in and out rapidly, and I knew my decision to call off the protection had probably just given him a panic attack. Shit. I knew both he and Josephine from pictures. Now that I thought of it, I’d never seen a video or interview of Jeremy, it was always Damien. Damien was the face of the company, the schmoozer. 

A growl came from the hallway and then Damien walked in. “Fine! You can take us in, but if you get anyone I care about killed, I will—” 

A cocking shotgun cut him off. Maxine. 

“We don’t take kindly to threats. Please try to remember that,” she warned in her Texan drawl. 

I smiled. Maxine was a loose cannon, and one day she would probably do something that got us all in deep shit, but for now she was gold. I hated to start off a new client relationship this way, especially one that would be long-term, but Damien needed to learn the way things were done.

“I told you he would be a jerk,” I said to Maxine. I was done being professional. This guy needed a reality check. He had most definitely screwed up my Zen. Master Aki would not approve.

Maxine chuckled. “You were right, but he’s still nice to look at.” 

Damien groaned, ignoring our comments as he pulled a suitcase from under the bed, opening it to reveal brand-new sleek black dream bands. They were the new 4.0 model, and I was on a waitlist for them. They were supposed to monitor the heart rate, and if you became too distressed, it would send a small electrical pulse to wake you. It could also take in a team of twelve people, not the regular ten the 3.0 bands could take now. It would essentially put Tatum out of a job, but only if it could wake you before getting an injury. 

We’d found that there was a thirty-second delay from when you got an injury in the Dream Wars to when that injury manifested in your body in the real world. If Tatum could wake us before that, we came out unscathed. Thanks to my gift of mental communication, I was able to contact her from within the dream world, but there were dead zones and it didn’t always work. These bands could really come in handy in that case. 

“My gift to all of you.” He held out the case. 

Okay, maybe this guy would redeem himself. 

I reached for one as Maxine leapt forward. “Dude, you should’ve started with that. I would’ve been a lot nicer to you,” she joked. 

He just stared at her emotionless, tired. “I somehow doubt that.” 

“Are y’all done acting like teenagers? I’d like to introduce myself,” Josephine Pearl said and stood. 

Jeremy was peeking up at us from under his bowed head. He looked anxious as all hell, and I wasn’t sure if introducing myself to him would upset him or not. Now that I knew he had some social challenges, I didn’t want to trigger him more than I already had.  

I turned to her. “It’s a pleasure, Miss Pearl. I’m such a fan. I tried to beat all of your records at cadet school but only managed two.” J. Pearl was the first female cadet at the Dream Wars Cadet Academy. She’d enrolled right after the Striker parents were killed, and she was a freaking legend. Now, even in her early forties, she looked fit and ready to whoop ass, wearing cargo pants, a tight tank top and two heavy-powered guns on her hip. I knew I wouldn’t have to watch her back. Her caramel skin was littered with scars that told a story of their own.

She smiled, smoothing her black curly hair back, and shook my hand. “I’ve read your résumé and I’m impressed. We’re honored to have you. Please excuse Damien, he isn’t feeling well on such little sleep.” She shot him a look that said “be nice.” 

Damien just groaned again and put on his dream band. It made a soft hiss as it clicked in place. 

“I’ve been there,” I told her. Four days was rough, but I doubted he would be a fuzzy teddy bear giving out free hugs under regular circumstances. 

She nodded. “This is Jer. If you want to ask him anything or communicate with him in the Dream Wars, you do that through me. I handcuff myself to him so if he runs, I can handle him.”

She was such a badass, but her statement also made me sad. How many nights did this family have to go into the Dreams Wars afraid he would run off and never return? If I were a mother, it would be my worst nightmare. 

“Hi,” he said to me, not really making eye contact. 

“Hey,” I responded simply so as to not overwhelm him. 

In the beginning, you used to be able to sleep next to your family and you would all be pulled into the Dream Wars together, within the same vicinity. But the ghouls noticed that when that happened, the people would band together and fight in packs, so they scrambled the field of consciousness or whatever it was they did and we all started going in alone, in random places with random strangers. Luckily, Striker Industries put out the dream bands the very next year. I was ten so Jeremy would have been about the same age then, and those bands allowed us to tie our consciousnesses together with one leader band that took the others to wherever they went in the Dream Wars. Now that leader was me, and I took us away from the concentrated war zones every time. 

Having a leader with a calm mental state, a controlled mind, was key. We would probably all end up dead if Maxine were allowed to lead the dream bands. Her anger and fear would drop us right at ground zero. 

I nodded to Josephine. “This is Tatum. She’ll be staying awake while we sleep, and if I contact her to get us out, she’ll wake us up.”

Tatum waved and settled into the comfortable couch that had been put against the far wall at my request. My instructions before taking on a client were three to four king beds side by side and a couch for Tate with a bag of her favorite snacks and drinks.

Damien looked at me critically then, scowling. “Your instructions didn’t explain much about why Tatum was here. I assumed she would monitor some heart machines, but with the new dream bands that’s not needed.”

I sighed. Here we go. 

“Ever since the ghouls landed, I’ve had some… abilities, one of which is enhanced mental communication.” 

His eyebrows hit his hairline. “You’re a telepath?” 

I couldn’t read minds. Well, that wasn’t true. I tried once and it worked, but it freaked me out so I pushed it away. But I was a master at mental projection. “I don’t receive, I just give. I can communicate with Tatum from within the Dream Wars.” I could also make Damien bark like a dog, but I drew the line at controlling others. I’d done it only once, when Maxine was having a major PTSD flashback and nearly shot us all.

Jeremy stood up quickly, stepping into my space and circling me while staring at the ground. 

“Fascinating! I’ll bet the ghouls’ presence ignited some type of pineal gland response, which mutated to express a hidden—” 

Josephine put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him. 

  “What?” I was curious how his mind worked. Clearly he wasn’t mentally deficient when it came to cognitive abilities, but obviously there was a social decline. Either way I didn’t care—he was kind of captivating, and I’d always found smart people intriguing. 

“He wants to study you, hook you up to his machines and find out more about your abilities,” Josephine told me.

Ahh. That was a hard no. “Oh I see. No, thanks,” I said aloud, unsure how he would respond. 

He just frowned and sulked back to the bed. Message received. 

My gaze flicked over to Damien, whose eyes were drifting closed where he stood. 

“Hey!” I shouted loudly, and they sprang open suddenly. 

He was more tired than I thought. It had been a while since I’d had to go four days, and I’d forgotten how much it sucked. I also didn’t think the rest of the family had gone that long. Most likely Damien didn’t want to go in with an injured shoulder or with his ghoul attraction and get his family killed, so they’d gone in without him last night or maybe the night before.

He shook his head to wake himself. “We done introducing ourselves?” 

Dick. 

“Yeah. Get in bed and let’s do this,” I ordered. 

A slow grin crept across his face, and I realized I’d set myself up for a dirty joke. 

“I don’t normally like a bossy woman in bed, but I think I can let it slide this one time.” He winked and crawled into the middle of the bed, giving me a nice view of his tight glutes. I didn’t know what to say, and I was pretty sure my entire team caught me checking out his ass. 

Dammit, why is he so pretty?

“Ha-ha. Everyone link up,” I said, flustered, and began to fiddle with my new dream band. I didn’t need an instruction manual—I’d been playing with the 4.0 demo dream band at the Depo, where we bought all our gear, finding it seamless and user-friendly. I picked a frequency, made myself the team lead and also sent a message to scroll across my team’s bands, telling them the ghouls were attracted to Damien. I wanted them extra on guard. 

As the message went out, I saw them collectively look up at me and nod before adding more and more weapons to their bodies. When we fell asleep, the ghouls somehow scanned our DNA and replicated a twin body into the Dream Wars when we slept. Our scientists thought it had something to do with the entanglement particle theory: what one cell did here, the twin cell did in China without anyone touching it, that sort of thing. So in order to bring guns and clothes in, it had to have a substantial amount of your DNA on it so they brought it in with their scan, thinking it was part of your body. Our guns, my samurai swords, they all had little hollow capsules in them filled with our blood. This confused the ghouls, and they would copy it and bring it in with us. We didn’t know why, and we didn’t care. I only cared that the ghouls could be killed over there and that we were allowed weapons. It was the only thing that kept me from going crazy. 

Jeremy suddenly started breathing hard. “No. No,” he mumbled, rocking a little at the edge of the bed. It was weird to see a grown man acting like a child. A brilliant man. My heart ached for him, for his loss, for his mental trauma, for everything. 

I took a required psychology class at the academy, and I never forgot this one statement my professor made. He said two people can witness the same traumatic event, and while one can walk away resilient and fine, the other could have extreme PTSD and psychological issues. Everyone was wired differently. 

“Shhh,” Josephine said, patting his back. “I’ve got you.” 

He chewed his lip, clearly trying to control his breathing. 

“Come on, buddy. I’m tired,” Damien grumbled in the middle of the bed. 

Jeremy looked back at his brother and nodded, scooching back until he was lying next to him. Josephine picked up a large black briefcase and lifted it onto the bed between her and Jeremy before snuggling beside him. 

“Love you, bud. It’ll be okay. I’ll protect you,” Damien told his little brother, and I had a hard time calling him a dick anymore. Even in my own head. 

“Love you, Dame.” Jeremy reached out for his brother’s hand. Damien held it and looked at me. 

We didn’t need to hold hands, just had to be within twelve inches of each other. Something about the human energetic field, I didn’t really know. But I hadn’t slept alone in over a decade. Not many people could casually say they’d shared a bed with the president of the United States for a year, but that had been my life. 

I took a deep breath, walking over to Tatum. “Happy studying. Keep an ear out for me, okay.”

Tatum smiled, rolling her eyes. “I could hear you even if I was deaf. You speak into my mind.” 

She had a good point. “See how smart you are? Now apply that to algebra.” 

She groaned before popping a fried lentil chip in her mouth and looking back at her paper. Everything was lentil, bean, corn or some other easy to grow thing. I hadn’t had meat other than rabbit since I was sixteen. The cows were the first thing to go, then the pigs. Helpless and slow, the ghouls fed off them first. A bacon burger sure would be great right about now.

I turned around to find the rest of my team in bed, a gap open for me beside Damien and Ronnie. Everyone was geared up, and though it should’ve made me feel safe, for some reason I had a nagging sensation in my gut. 

As I crawled in, I started my mantra. I’m in control. I project peace. I give protection. I harness strength.

Damien’s eyes started closing and I smacked his leg, only to be met with a rock-hard thigh muscle. I needed to go under first or he would split off from us and be on his own. Considering he only had two guns and an injured shoulder, that would be a stupid idea.  

“Sorry,” I muttered as he gave me a murderous glare. 

I snuggled in beside him and Ronnie, wondering why the hell my best friend had given me like twelve inches of room and put me right next to the client. His sandalwood scent washed over me again, and it reminded me of Master Aki’s dojo. 

“See you on the other side,” I told my team.

“Oorah” came their reply in unison. It always made me smile. Brisk was our Marine, and when he started saying it every time we went in, it caught on. Now it was our thing, our way of saying we were together in this and ready to die for each other.

“Are you trying to kill me, woman?” Damien asked. 

 Woman? Oh hell no.

As the leader, I needed to fall asleep first, and that didn’t happen in three seconds.

“Shh,” I hissed. 

I’m in control. I project peace. I give protection. I harness strength. I’m in control. I project peace. I give protection. I harness strength. 

After over fifty hours without sleep, it didn’t take long for the heaviness to pull me down. I relaxed, letting it take me. I was in control, I was calm, and I knew where I would end up. I’d been going there for years. There were no surprises, nothing to fear. 

Chapter Three

My feet slammed down onto the cracked surface of the Dream War, and I had my guns out and was doing a full circle within seconds. Damien appeared in front of me a moment later. That was close. Almost too close. The others would get a small vibration on their dream band when I’d entered the sleep state, and only then were they allowed to sleep. Damien must’ve fallen asleep the same time as me, mere seconds after.

“I couldn’t stay awake.” He shrugged, pulling his gun and spinning in a circle. We were in the middle of nowhere, not a ghoul or human or other creature to be seen. 

“Is this far enough away from the danger for you?” I couldn’t help it, I had to gloat. 

Damien pursed his thick lips, looking me up and down. “For now.” 

Rich, hot guys were hard to please, apparently. 

“So the bands your little brother is designing, how will they work?” I asked as we started walking to a cluster of rocks and pod trees in the distance. As the team fell asleep, they would drop in right next to me, no matter where I was. 

Damien gave me a side glance. “They’ll emit a small plasma shield whenever a ghoul gets within a certain range. Then it’ll simultaneously send a large data file through the airways that will hurt the Ghoul but not the human.” 

“Plasma shield?” 

He nodded. “New technology. Basically an invisible barrier.”

My lips turned down. Impressive, if he could get it to work. I didn’t understand it, but it sounded cool. “We tried nuking them though, and it didn’t do shit. How’s a plasma thing or some data text going to hurt?” 

I looked at the green fluorescent goo that ran along the cracks in the rocks and thought back to the time when the Dream Wars barely had any of it. Now it was everywhere. Only after the government sent a team over with an A-bomb and set it off did the stuff start to appear en masse. It healed the dream world in one day, like some kind of regenerative serum for the ghoul planet or realm or wherever the hell we were. But we’d also learned it was flammable. 

Meanwhile, the radiation from the A-bomb had somehow leaked out of the Dream Wars, and we started getting high radiation readings in Australia. That’s when we realized their world lay directly over ours somehow, like an alternate reality. The nuke had killed a bunch of ghouls, but it didn’t take out their world and it harmed ours, so we had to go back to the drawing board. We’d tried everything to find out what the Dream Wars were, where they were. We’d sent signal beacons, rovers, but nothing could tell us how to get there. When the signal beacons sent data back, it looked like it was still on Earth. Basically, we were screwed. 

“Data text? That’s cute,” Damien scoffed. 

Okay, maybe this guy was smart too, but he was most definitely a dick. We reached the “trees” just as Ronnie popped in, nearly landing on top of the glowing green foliage. 

“Sorry,” I told her and moved more out in the open. Everyone was going to pop in next to me, so I would stay exposed until we were all in. 

“I’m good.” She dropped her med bag and pulled her gun, doing a 360. “Damn, Kit, you never disappoint. We’re in the fucking boonies.” 

I grinned. “Until they smell Damien,” I joked. 

Our scientists thought the “attraction” was some sort of phenomenon, as if they sensed a threat in that person for some reason and used their collective consciousness to home in and take them out. Some pheromone alpha male thing, who knew? 

Damien frowned. “Hey, I can’t help it.” 

“I’m just joking. It’s how I stay sane.” He’d better get used to my warped sense of humor or this will be a long time together. 

“You’re sane?” he asked, eyes wide. 

Ronnie laughed. “Good one.” 

Just then, Jeremy and Josephine popped in carrying that heavy case. 

Brisk, Nox, and Mr. Hansen were right after them. 

Poor Maxine. She had issues with insomnia. Even when she was dead tired, it sometimes took her almost an hour to drift off and give in to  sleep. 

“Let’s make camp behind this rock. Maxine will join us when she can.” I headed behind the pod tree and rock cropping. 

The Dream Wars had a specific smell, a foreign metallic scent mixed with death. It wasn’t pleasant, but I was used to it. I looked up to the sky as I always did and saw our moon, our stars, and the faint shimmer of a flying Galadria across the night sky. 

Galadrias were the only thing of beauty in the Dream Wars, winged creatures who posed no harm to humans and fed off the green stuff on the ground. They avoided the war and the ghouls whenever possible. Only landing to feed or sleep, they otherwise lived the majority of their lives up in the sky, peaceful and alone. 

I’d met my first Galadria when I was ten, in its sleeping den. It was then that I realized I could communicate with them, speak their language directly to their minds, and I’d had a soft spot for them ever since. Galadrias looked like a cross between a dragon and a seal: innocent wide eyes and a round head like a seal, with a small button nose, but then their body was that of a winged beast with four stumps for arms and legs. To top that off, their skin was a fuzzy scale, like petting a furry snake. They came in all different colors, and you could tell when they’d just eaten because their skin glowed a luminescent highlighter color. I was admittedly fascinated with them, and they with me, from what I could tell. 

Jeremy got right to work, snapping out of his scared trance and opening the clasps to his case. Josephine, who was handcuffed to him, sat there patiently as he yanked her arm left and right, setting up instruments and beacons and whatever else. He shoved one rod directly into the tiny stream of phosphorescent green stuff that ran into the ground. 

“He seems okay now,” I whispered to Damien, who nodded.

“He lives for his work. He’ll be in the zone, happy as a clam until they show up.” 

Until they show up. I’d almost forgotten his admission that they were attracted to him. I was dreading the moment they showed up. Every so often, I’d make it a whole night without seeing one, but those nights were rare. We didn’t know why they had attractions to some humans and not to others. It’s as if the moment that person entered the Dream War, the ghouls could sense or smell them. Something about Damien attracted them, so we would see them sooner than we normally did, unable to hide out as long. 

Jeremy snapped his fingers. “Need your wrist,” he mumbled to his brother.

One in two babies born nowadays had autism. The spectrum was such a wide range that sometimes the person just seemed a little nerdy and other times they needed assistance for the most basic things like toileting. Jeremy had yet to make eye contact with his brother or anyone here, but he was clearly functioning well and able to express his needs. He was obviously one of the higher-functioning ones. And maybe it wasn’t all autism. Maybe the Dream Wars had played a part in breaking his mind. The thought of either made me sad.

Damien held out his hand without question, and Jeremy fixed a bulky weaponized-looking cuff to his arm. It didn’t resemble the sleek dream bands that Striker Industries made in the slightest. This one was definitely a prototype and had some type of defense system on it, from what I could tell. 

“Where’s the redhead?” Damien asked, looking at our crew. 

“Maxine has insomnia. She’ll drop in once she can get to sleep,” I explained. 

I expected judgment, but instead he gave me a look of pity. Damien Striker was a confusing creature, an asshole with a sensitive side and a sharp tongue. 

“Is that a weapon?” Ronnie asked Jeremy, gesturing to the cuff on Damien’s wrist. 

Jeremy’s eyes flicked to Ronnie’s feet and then over to Josephine. His caretaker leaned in, and he whispered in her ear. I’d forgotten about the selective mutism until then. New people talking while you’re in a place where aliens were trying to kill you was too much to mentally handle for even me sometimes, so I figured it must make him feel safe, more in control. 

“Yes, it’s a small device that will emit a plasma shield when it senses a ghoul within a certain proximity,” Josephine explained. 

Ronnie frowned. “You put it on his bad shoulder. I’m worried it could injure him further, especially since it’s a prototype.”

Jeremy started rocking on his heels, clearly distressed by her words. 

Damien stepped forward. “How do you think I got this injured shoulder in the first place? We’re not going to be able to get the development right unless we test it in real time on a real person.”

Ronnie’s brow furrowed, showing she didn’t like it at all. “You’re telling me the reason your shoulder looks like it got ripped off and sewn back on with dental floss is because of that thing?” 

Damien sighed, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “He’s made modifications since then. We studied them on rabbits first. I’m sure he’s figured out the glitch.”

Ronnie laughed, putting one hand on her hip. “And if he hasn’t?”

Damien smiled sweetly, resembling a male model. “Then I have you.”

Ronnie groaned before cocking her shotgun. “Rich men… above the rules,” she mumbled, then walked off to check the perimeter. 

Nox chose that moment to light up his blowtorch, giving Damien a long, lingering look before following Ronnie. 

“I think I made her mad.” Damien smirked. 

“Not hard to do,” I replied, scanning the horizon. Ronnie was a touchy control freak with cleaning OCD. I pissed her off daily, but I loved that woman more than life. 

He leaned in to me, speaking low. “And I’ve definitely made you mad, haven’t I?” 

“Hey, if you want to blow your arm off, it’s none of my business.” 

Ugh, this guy got under my skin.

While we were having our little bitch fit, Mr. Hansen was helping Jeremy and Josephine with the equipment, tinkering, measuring it all, looking very official. I’d never been paid to go in and experiment in the Dream Wars. I knew the government ran ops where they did multiple experiments, but I wasn’t privy to them. 

Maxine finally popped in beside me, gun drawn, doing a full circle. 

I checked my dream band. “Twenty minutes. Not bad.” 

She smiled. “After I told Tatum to stop chewing so damn loud, I finally dozed off.” 

I nodded. “Nothing much happening here. Jeremy’s setting up his experiment, and Damien’s wearing a weaponized arm cuff that might take off his shoulder.”

Maxine looked at the cuff, seemingly impressed. “Cool.” 

Damien rolled his eyes. “Thank you for the vote of confidence.”

A pinkish glow cast its way before me, and that was my first signal to the Galadria’s approach. Then came the soft fluttering of wings. 

Damien immediately pulled his gun, pointing it to the sky. 

I reached out and shoved his gun down, pointing the barrel at the ground. “They’re harmless. She’s here to see me.” 

He looked gob-smacked, mouth hung open, eyes wide. 

I smiled. “Oh, did I leave that out of my file? I guess we’re even.” 

He pursed his lips and just watched as the winged beast fluttered gracefully down to the surface of the green-hued land. It was Dawn, her pink pearlescent markings unmistakable, besides the fact that she always seemed to find me. 

I holstered my gun and approached her, smiling. 

‘How do you always find me?’ I asked her for the thousandth time, projecting into her mind. 

Her eyes were a bright blue, so round and glossy they looked like glass lawn ornaments. Her fluorescent green veins shone through her pink scaly fur, and I reached up to scratch the spot behind her pointed ears. 

‘Dawn always know where Kit is,’ she replied cryptically, her words like music in my head as they translated to English so I could understand them. I would never invade someone’s privacy by reading their mind, but with Dawn I opened my own to whatever she wanted to project without prying. She’d shared once that the Galadrias, like the murdering alien ghouls, had a hive mind, a collective consciousness. If one could smell or sense me, then she could too, I guessed. But in that same sense, they each had their own compartmented personality. It was hard for her to explain, and also to understand fully. 

‘I’ve got new clients. Important ones,’ I explained as she looked over to the crowd of people staring at us. 

Her large eyes were lingering on Damien. ‘He smells of death,’ she told me in her own obscure way. Galadrias were very wise and almost psychic in a sense. She’d once urged me to run moments before a ghoul regime floated across the area where we were hiding out. 

‘What do you mean? He’s going to die?’ My heart hammered in my chest. I didn’t know Damien that well yet, and though he was kind of a dick, I didn’t want him to die. It was my duty to keep him and his family alive, and I took that very seriously. 

Dawn stepped forward on her clawed hooves and smelled the air, her small nostrils flaring. ‘No, he smells of the death of Galadrias.’ When she looked at me, there was terror in her gaze, something I’d never seen before. 

Shit, what the hell did that mean? 

‘I… I told him not to hurt you. That you’re good.’ Her ominous statement had me flustered. 

She looked to the east. ‘Tonight will be hard for Kit. Dawn does not want to see it. Dawn will go now.’ 

I stepped back from her as she prepared to take flight. I’d never had such a cold and short meeting with Dawn. It shook me to my core. 

‘I’m glad you came to say hi,’ I shared, disturbed in her presence for the first time in forever. Dawn had been my friend in the Dream Wars for a decade, and she’d never acted this cold to me before.

She looked me in the eye. ‘It’s always a pleasure to be in Kit’s presence.’ Then she flew off. The Galadrias didn’t like violence or bloodshed. Dawn told me once that just the sheer act of witnessing it made them physically ill. They were herbivores and creatures of an enlightened mind-set, like dolphins or elephants. When I’d asked her why they chose to live here, among the devastation of the ghouls as they terraformed an entire species, she’d simply replied that it was how it had always been. The ghouls were as much a part of this world as mosquitoes were a part of ours, and there was nothing they could do about it. 

“That was short,” Ronnie commented, opening her med kit and shuffling some things around. 

“Yeah.” I didn’t want to tell her what Dawn had said, that tonight would be hard for us and she didn’t want to watch. What the hell did that mean? She’d never led me astray before, so maybe it was a word of caution. She was always speaking in third person, with riddles and confusing things like that. 

“You know what? I have a bad feeling about tonight. I think we should stay moving rather than hunker down. Maybe team up with some others,” I told everyone. 

Sometimes finding a rock cropping to hide behind was the best move, and sometimes walking to another heavily armed group and teaming up was in our greatest interest. Tonight felt like we should keep moving, not be sitting ducks. Possibly find another squad of armed warriors. When the ghouls had landed, they outnumbered us 1,000 to 1. Now that they’d culled half of our planet’s population, they outnumbered us more than I even wanted to calculate. Everyone left alive now had a gun and knew how to use it, even little old ladies in wheelchairs.

“Why?” Damien questioned. His blond hair fell in front of his face, and I tried and failed miserably not to notice how attractive he was. How long had it been since I’d been out on a date? Clearly too long. 

My team started moving out, getting ready to walk. 

I took two steps closer to Damien, unsure whether I wanted to throat punch him or smell him again. “Because I like staying alive and you hired me because I’m the best, so do what I say and pack up.” 

It was official—I wanted to throat punch him.

His eyes darkened as his brow furrowed. “You go over and… talk to that alien thing, and now we’re moving out? I don’t mind taking orders from you, Kit, but I don’t take orders from them.” He pointed to the sky where a few faint Galadrias floated along. 

So he had noticed we were communicating. This man was perceptive and annoying as all hell. 

“Yes, I speak to them, but I don’t take orders from them. Pack your shit, or I’m leaving you and your brother here.” I walked off to where Maxine was surveying with night vision goggles. 

“What do we have?” I asked her, trying to shrug off how shitty this night was going. First day and I was fighting with my client. It didn’t bode well for our future together. 

“He’s so pretty, I could just stare at him all night.” She snuck a glance at our client. 

I rolled my eyes. “I meant what do we have out there.” I gestured to the area before us.

Maxine was my navigator. The dream world was as big as Earth but with less water, only a few large green lakes for the Galadrias to bathe in and for our sea life to travel to when they slept. Nearly all marine life was dead now, having traveled here while asleep and landing out of liquid, suffocating, or arriving in the green stuff only to be eaten by the water ghouls. Phytoplankton and small sea life like coral and shrimp survived, but the government banned the fishing of wildlife and hunting of wild game due to high extinction probability.

There were three types of ghouls that we knew of: water, land, and… fucking tall and terrifying. The tall ones, which we called the sentries, seemed to be in charge of the others, like commanders of the army. They wore a metallic type of armor and seemed to be rarer. The water ones we called skids. We didn’t worry too much about those unless we fell in the lakes in the Dream Wars. The land ghouls, which we called grunts, were everywhere, your basic soldier that could consume an entire human’s blood, flesh, and bone in under a minute. Sometimes they killed you for food, while other times they injured you and brought you to the sentries to be their food. Either way you were going to get eaten. 

Humanity was their food source, and once they’d eaten us all, they would move on to another planet that had a similar life-form and consume them too. This was the thirty-seventh planet they had terraformed of all life. Bone marrow, plasma, and blood were what kept them alive. At least that’s what Dawn told me.

“I see a heavily armed group just beyond the tree cropping,” she stated, bringing me out of my dark thoughts. Now that I was in the Dream Wars, I could be as un-Zen as possible and it wouldn’t affect where I went. 

“All right, let’s head over and see if they don’t mind teaming up.” One good thing about the ghouls was that they had brought humanity together. It didn’t freaking matter who you were, where you were from or what language you spoke—in here, it was us or them, so humans stuck together. Only one time had I ever had a human turn on me in here, and it was because they’d lost their gun while running from the ghouls and tried to steal mine. 

That was how I met Tatum. Her mom was the one who’d tried to steal from me, and in return I stuck with her, her husband and their kids, protecting them all night until she could wake up. They ended up being from Los Angeles too, and we became friends. 

I heard footsteps behind me and noticed they’d packed up and were now following me. I glanced back and saw that Jeremy had left his equipment stuck in the ground. 

“We might not be able to come back for that,” I said. 

Jeremy whispered to Josephine, who nodded. “It’s all right, it’ll send readings back to his lab. If it gets destroyed or lost after tonight, it’s fine. He has more.” 

Of course he did. Billionaires tended to have that luxury, and endless supply of everything. 

I looked at Maxine. “I’m going to greet them first. If I signal, fall back.” In the rare chance this was a bunch of stim junkies or looters, I didn’t want to lead us into a trap. 

As I started my approach, my eyes flicked to the sky. I kept wishing Dawn was wrong or mistaken, that tonight would go fine, with no injuries or close calls. But I couldn’t ignore the sinking feeling in my gut. 

I approached the tree cropping, or what I liked to call “alien orchard,” and noticed a symbol on the jacket of one of the guys guarding the perimeter. It was a local Hispanic militia in LA that I was friendly with. Tons of militias and gangs had cropped up after the ghouls landed. Armed citizens banded together in groups of ten and went into the Dream Wars together thanks to the dream bands that Striker Industries invented. I wanted to keep my new clients on the down-low, so I wouldn’t mention who they were unless I had to or they were recognized.

“Santiago!” I called out as we approached. 

The tall, lanky Hispanic male broke his notorious scowl and smiled as he recognized me. 

“Kit! I haven’t seen you in forever, but when I saw blue hair, I hoped it might be you.” As I stepped closer to give him a hug, my body pressed against his and I counted two guns strapped to his back on top of the two in his hands. 

“It’s been too long. You need to bring over some of those black bean tamales with Emilia some time.” His fifteen-year-old sister was also an attraction for the ghouls. 

He nodded. “We’d love that.” 

I always found myself staring at the tattoo along his jawline: “Alien Killer.” 

Santiago Lopez was the leader of the three-hundred-strong militia in downtown Los Angeles, Asesinos de Alienigenas, which loosely translated to “Alien Killers.” I couldn’t have asked to be dropped next to a better team. The ghouls always tried to pull everyone into ground zero, near their city where the bloodbath was unavoidable, but you had some leeway if you could control your mental state. Be calm and not fear. Santiago had that mental control. He’d spent one year in solitary confinement for a crime he said he never committed, and in that place he’d learned to control his thoughts to keep from going insane. 

“Damn, Kit, is that the Striker brothers? You protecting some high-profile shit nowadays,” he said as the group approached. 

Damn. I didn’t expect Santiago to have read Tech Monthly or whatever magazine Damien was on the cover of lately. 

I ran my hand through my hair. “Yeah, I wanted to keep that on the DL.”

He waved his hand in front of my face. “Don’t even worry about it. I’ve already forgotten who they are, and my crew is too dumb to know of them.”

I laughed. Santiago was a solid guy. 

“You know, full disclosure, one of my clients is a ghoul attraction.” I didn’t want to get into a beef with these guys by not telling them, then have some shit go down and get blamed for it. 

He shrugged. “So is Emilia, remember? It’s all good. Better that there’s more of us. Although I’m not sure the old guy can pull his weight.” He looked Mr. Hansen up and down. 

I chuckled. “That old guy is former MI6.” 

He looked impressed. “No shit. Well I’m glad we get to hang tonight. Go see Emilia, she’s got some news to tell you.” He motioned behind him.

I nodded before turning away from him. 

“Ronnie girl!” he catcalled, then went into some long Spanish conversation with her. He was always flirting with her, much to Brisk’s annoyance. 

“Who are these people?” Damien whispered, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. He’d come out of nowhere, which didn’t sit well with me. Focus on your surroundings. 

“Friends. If shit goes down, they’ve got our back.” And I’d have theirs. 

He just nodded, looking at Josephine and his little brother, then scouring the open space for ghouls. I wasn’t stupid, I knew Damien Striker could hold his own, but if a guy who was so capable was hiring my team, then shit was probably about to get really bad. 

I walked past the perimeter of the alien pod trees and into the inner ring. This orchard was a great hiding spot, although the glow of the pods lit everything in the middle up; if someone looked too closely, they would see us all sitting inside of it. Good thing ghouls didn’t have night vision goggles or anything like that, just their super alert and heightened senses. 

Our scientists thought these specific tree pods made the green regenerative serum and fed it to the planet through the roots system. They were everywhere though, and when we’d blown a bunch of them up, they grew back in twenty-four hours, from a hacked-off stump to a ten-foot-tall oval pod that lit up from the inside within a day. They’d be beautiful if they weren’t so creepy. Not to mention the serrated needles that stuck out all over the outside edges. They looked like hairs, but if you touched one you were quickly pierced. Those pricks burned like fire on your skin for days. 

“Emilia!” I called to the sassy teenager. 

She spun, gun in one hand, spear in the other, her jaw dropping. “Kit! Dude. Oh my God, is Ronnie here?” she asked with a mild Hispanic accent. 

I grinned. “Of course. How’ve you been? Playing nice with the boys at school?” 

Emilia was a ball buster—no one got the drop on her. I hadn’t seen them in about six months; life got busy and we stopped hanging out. 

She grinned. “I dropped out of school.”

My heart fell. She had always been smart, but a lot of people gave up the pursuit of academics for other, more practical things. 

“I thought you wanted to be an astronaut.” She could’ve done it too.

She was still grinning. “Nope. I got into the academy! Your letter of recommendation went a long way, they said.” 

Oh shit. I’d forgotten I wrote that. It was months ago, and Santiago had asked for the favor. 

I smiled but it didn’t reach my eyes. I didn’t think she would get in, being that she had gang affiliations and no money. She was also old to be starting the program, up against girls who’d been there since they were twelve.

“That’s great. I’m really happy for you.” I hugged her tightly. If she wanted to live this life, I couldn’t stop her.

She nodded, her long brown ponytail bobbing. “I start after the summer. I’m gonna be a badass and work my way up to commander, just like you.” She grinned.

I don’t know why that statement made me sad. It shouldn’t have. I should’ve been proud, flattered. It was a great thing to get into the academy and get the military training. After two years of civic duty, you were free to join the armed forces or go into private protection like me. It paid well, it was practical, but it just wasn’t what I wanted for the future of the youth of humanity. 

“Why drop out of school? Why not do both?” I went to school and the academy, as did Ronnie. The last thing we needed were trained soldiers with no education. 

She shook her head. “Need to help my bro with the family business.” 

I nodded. Santiago ran the militia like a business. Everyone paid monthly dues, and he did training exercises and camp-outs and other things. They were always busy. 

“If Lieutenant Blackthorn is still there, do everything possible not to be in his class.” 

“Why?” 

“Just trust me. First day of class as a young kid, and he maced us all in the face and left the room. He’s not all there in the head.”

I’d hoped the academy had gotten rid of him, but part of me thought they kept him around because he made good soldiers. Nothing about the Dream Wars was predictable, and neither was he.

Her eyes bugged out, and I patted her shoulder.

“You’ll be fine. I still tell people the story of the badass fourteen-year-old hellion I met in the Dream Wars who killed a ghoulie with an ice pick.” She was like Maxine’s mini me, as she should be since the grunts were attracted to her. 

She grinned. “Thanks, Kit.”

I squeezed her shoulder before walking off to greet and introduce myself to the others. I didn’t hang out in the Dream Wars with just anyone, so I wanted to shake each person’s hand and assess if they were okay, not stim junkies or hotheads I needed to look out for. 

After making my rounds to the other eight people on Santiago’s team, I concluded this was a good group. I expected nothing less, but it was still my habit to check. 

Nox came up beside me, flicking a lighter in his left hand. We were alone, standing off to the perimeter’s outer edge facing the glowing of a far-off city miles in the distance. The cities were full of ghouls and frightened humans, but we’d have advance notice if any ghouls started making their way here and could outrun them at this distance. They weren’t fast, didn’t run or walk, just… hovered at a brisk jogging pace. The grunts did anyway—the scary-ass sentries were another story. 

“You think he really can make an arm cuff that would repel them?” Nox asked in a low voice. 

I looked over at him, his long dark hair was prettier than mine. Silky and thick. 

“I think if anyone can, it’s them,” I replied honestly. They were Striker Industries, after all. They’d made half the shit I was wearing.

He nodded, looking out at the glowing alien city. “I wouldn’t even know what to do with myself if I wasn’t fighting them.” 

I chuckled. “You and me both.” It’s all we’d known. For the last ten years, twenty-four hours a day, it’s all we thought about. It was all our society focused on. New cars were only put out every four years instead of every year, the manpower and factories instead making weapons, Kevlar clothing and other practical things to survive the Dream Wars. We needed to tend to crops and coffee plantations that kept us awake, make food in labs and work at water treatment facilities. Fashion, consumerism, entertainment were all luxuries that barely existed. We watched old movies, wore old clothes, drove older cars. The only thing that mattered was surviving the night. 

Nox was one of my best friends. Next to Ronnie, I was closest with him. He got me and was deeply spiritual, so I could talk to him about stuff that others scoffed at. 

I heard the approach of footsteps, knowing it was Damien without looking. Part of my gift, I sensed energies. Everyone had a mental vibration they gave off, and Damien’s was deep and fast, unique only to him. 

I spun around, gathering all of the professionalism I could muster. He was probably going to bitch about meeting up with these riffraff thugs and suggest we move on. 

“You wanna play cards? It settles Jeremy’s anxiety.” He held up a deck of playing cards, and I immediately chastised myself for judging him.

When one was hiding out and biding time in the Dream Wars with no immediate threat, it was common to play games such as cards. I was working though, and I never let my guard down. I’d stare at this open land for the next four hours, bored out of my mind but alert, ready.

“Oh. No, thanks. I need to keep watch,” I told him.

“Okay.” He shrugged and turned around to meet up with Jeremy and Josephine, who were sitting on a cloth blanket they had spread out. 

Nox was grinning at me when I faced him once more. 

“What?” I asked him, adjusting the grip on my weapon. 

Nox shook his head. “Go play cards. That was his peace offering for being a dick earlier. Honestly, do you not understand guys after all these years?”

I barked out a laugh. “All what years? I’m twenty and I’ve been with like two guys. Brisk being one of them.” Steven Martel being the other, plus a handful of guys I’d kissed and then promptly dumped for being douchebags. Steven had cheated on me, and Brisk and I only dated a month. I didn’t have that much experience with guys to go on. There was no time for love when you were stuck in a war. 

But was what Nox said true? Damien was trying to make peace?

“Go. We have to live with this guy “indefinitely.” It would be nice not to have awkward tension. “I’ll take watch.” His air quotes made me smile.

I guess I could play one game. Show him I’m not always a coldhearted bitch. Just most of the time.  

“Call me if you see anything. Even a moth,” I joked. 

He saluted me. “Yes, sir.” 

As I made my way over to Damien, his brother, and Josephine, I scanned the area. Ronnie was talking animatedly to Santiago and most of his crew inside of the pod orchard. Maxine was just outside the orchard, gun drawn as she scanned the area. She was like a rabid pit bull on a chain—if she saw a ghoul, that chain would snap and the ghoul wouldn’t stand a chance. Controlling her was hard, but she was worth the struggle. Brisk stood inside the pod orchard about twenty feet from Maxine, glancing between Ronnie and the open area. Mr. Hansen was surprisingly outside the pods as well, scanning the area including the skies. He had two samurai swords drawn in a fisted grip. Part of me wanted to get some action tonight just so I could see him use them. I’d bet he was badass. The weight of my own samurai swords rested comfortably on my back in their harness, waiting to be used. Guns were great for distance fighting, but when the ghouls got close, nothing shredded them better than swords. 

“Hey, I guess I will take you up on your offer,” I said to Damien as I approached their little circle. 

He looked up at me with a smirk and dealt my cards. 

Josephine made room so I could sit between her and Damien. Jeremy’s eyes flicked up to mine and back down quickly. Josephine was still handcuffed to him, but held her cards fanned out with her free hand. 

“No card reading, Jer. I can tell when you do that.” She pointed at him, and a lopsided guilty grin lit up his face. Damien smiled too. 

As I settled into the game, I sent up a silent prayer for all of us to get home safely tonight. I’d lost all faith in God when the ghouls landed but I couldn’t deny there was something out there. Maybe it was a she or an it but there was something. I just hoped that something or someone was looking out for me tonight because the look in Dawn’s eyes earlier had shaken me to my core. 

 

Preorder it here! 

Leave a Reply

4 Comments on "Dream Wars: Rising (First Three Chapters)"

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Linda
Guest

Put in my order, now I can’t wait for the rest of the book!

Wendy
Guest

What I have read so far has caught my interest. Looking forward to your book. Sign me up. 🙂

Jesi Kraft
Guest

Yet another AMAZING book!! Already pre-ordered it and I’m super excited to read the rest!😘