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Chapter One - Wake Up, Alpha

“There’s an Awakened bleeding out all over two,” snaps my attending. “Stop it until I can get there, please.”

The fact that he bothered to add a “please” to that demanding statement shocks me, and I’d like to snark something back in response. I’m a great nurse, but my Irish temper has gotten the best of me once or twice recently, so I hold in my irritation. I was quick to anger before the world went to shit, but it’s definitely worse now.

Nodding at the doc, I grab a syringe full of the serum we keep specifically for Awakened and head quickly to the ER. When I carefully open the door to the room, the floor is already slick with blood—so much blood, if this was a normal human on my table, he’d be nearly dead.

But this is an Awakened, and a virus has turned him into a hulking beast of a man who’ll rip my head from my shoulders if he wakes up. One of the other ER nurses is already in the room with him when I arrive.

“Hey, Pen, this one is in terrible shape; you didn’t happen to bring a syringe, did you?” Her eyes flash with excitement when I hold it up with a smile. “Would you be able to do his vitals? I haven’t gotten to them yet, and Dr. Raj is already paging me for something. Damn, he’s such a douche,” she mutters as I shoo her out of the room. I can handle this. “Be careful though; he’s still bleeding from a chest wound, and I almost busted my ass.”

Stepping carefully to the patient’s side, I take his vitals, and they’re incredibly slow but steady. Multiple stab wounds to his dirty torso leak blood onto the floor. He’s been in a terrible fight, maybe with citizens, but most likely another Awakened, given the jagged edge to his wounds.

I’ll hook up his IV in a moment, but I need to do the serum first. I look for a vein in his muscular arms and carefully insert the serum, pushing it through gently.

Thank God the Awakened Task Force delivers it to us, because it’s the only thing that seems to keep the beasts under long enough to be retrieved. What the Task Force does with them after they pick them up is anybody’s guess, but there are a lot of theories. I’d assume they’re trying to find a cure for the virus, but it’s been three years, so who knows.

This one must be seven feet tall, his broad figure riddled with muscle, although I can count almost all his ribs too. He looks...unhealthy, and I wonder if all the stories are true that the Awakened live under the city in the old railway tunnels now. Looking at his bedraggled, dirty figure, I can believe it.

The room is silent save for his ragged breathing as I clean each wound gently, noting in the computer what I see. He’s an absolute mess, but then they usually are by the time they make it to me. In the three years since the pandemic hit and the virus started sparking the Awakening in men, I’ve seen dozens of them come through the emergency room doors for one reason or another. According to his slim patient file, this one dragged himself in and passed out in the lobby.

We don’t bother to stitch up the Awakened we get in the ER, but we get them stable enough for transport until the Task Force arrives, which should be any minute.

I turn back to my computer to make a few notes when his heart rate starts speeding up, something I’ve never seen with this serum. Either his body is blowing through it fast, or something else is happening. His enormous hand darts out, clamping onto my forearm as I scream. The hospital installed emergency buttons in multiple places in each room once we started getting the Awakened, but I can’t reach any of them just now.

Eyes wild, he struggles to sit up before gasping in pain and looking at his battered chest and stomach. Bloodshot green eyes look up at me as he grinds his teeth together. Stringy shoulder-length hair sways down into his face as he shifts over to his side, keeping a death grip on my arm.

“Did you, Force,” he questions me groggily.

I blink twice in disbelief. I’ve never seen an Awakened talk. They’re wild, raging beasts, no longer capable of normal cognition—everybody knows that.

Tapping my forearm with his fingers to get my attention, he repeats his question.

“Front desk did it already. I...I’m sorry,” I gasp out, hoping he won’t kill me if I wasn’t the one who did it.

“Not your fault,” he mumbles, almost to himself, as he sucks in a breath and clutches the bleeding wound in his chest. “I need your help now, though,” he struggles between gasps. “Get me outta here.” His voice isn’t a request; it’s a command I can feel all the way down into my bones.

Shaking my head no, I try to pull from his grip, but it’s no use.

He cocks his head to the side and inhales, eyes darting to the door as he sniffs the air like a dog. “Shit, they’re coming up the stairs,” he says to himself, worry lacing his tone. His eyes dart to mine one more time, and I feel so guilty I can barely stomach it. When I thought Awakened were mindless beasts, calling the Task Force seemed logical...responsible. But now? This is a man in front of me. A flesh and blood man absolutely capable of holding a conversation. This feels so incredibly wrong.

“There’s nowhere to go,” I say weakly as he slips off the table to a stand.

“Just help me across the hall; I can smell a breeze. I’ll hop out the window. You can say I forced you,” he offers wryly.

“If I say no?” I ask primly. “Because I have to have a damn good reason for breaking the rules to help you. They could throw me in jail for this.”

The Awakened throws an arm around my shoulder and leans into me, bringing his mouth close to my ear. “How about the fact that I didn’t ask for any of this? I didn’t ask to become a monster who can’t go home to his family. And I sure as shit didn’t ask for the Task Force to round me up and make me a dancing monkey for the rest of my life. How about just being a decent fucking person and choosing to do something that’s right today, even if it’s against the law?”

For the first time in my entire life, my sarcasm fails me, and I can’t think of a damn thing to say. But my Catholic conscience rears its ugly head, so I throw an arm carefully around his waist and help him toward the door.

“Don’t see how you’re going to make the leap out of the window if you can barely walk, but I guess you’ve got a plan?” My voice is clipped, nervous, because there’s a hornet’s nest in my stomach swarming wildly.

“You let me handle that,” he snaps, cocking his head to the side. “Hallway’s clear; let’s go.”

“You can hear that?” I’m surprised, but he doesn’t elaborate.

“Why’d you bother to drag yourself in here just to escape again?” I question him. Despite my terror, I’m curious.

“Seemed like a good idea when I thought I was dyin’,” he mumbles. “But it was an absolute shit idea, and I need to get outta here now.”

We make it quietly across the hall and into the supply closet, where there’s a window onto the roof. Just as we open the door and he lets go of me, I hear the telltale stomp of boots at the other end of the hallway. I know he’s heard it too by the way he grimaces. It’s the Task Force.

The Awakened looks at me urgently and makes a “shooing” sound, waving his hand to scoot me away. “Go on now,” he says in a lilt that makes me wonder if he’s from the South, or Texas maybe.

When I don’t move, he smiles. “Gonna get hurt if you’re here when they try to take me, and I’d hate to see that pretty blood of yours spill across this floor. Thank you, though.”

Startled, I step back and shut the door in his face, striding quickly to the nurses’ station so I’m not in the line of fire.

Dozens of black-garbed Task Force soldiers pace around the nurses’ station and set up defensive positions along the hallway. They’ll already know he got put in room two, so they’ll likely check there before they look across the hall. My heart pangs for the Awakened who’s probably trying to jump out of the supply room window even now, despite his horrific injuries.

My coworker comes back to my side with a soft sigh. “Don’t you think it's so sad how they get hauled off like animals?”

Turning my head to her, I try to drum up an appropriate answer when there’s a crash in the supply closet, and a grunt of pain that must be his. The Task Force surrounds the door as I step back behind the nurses’ station. The front row of soldiers part, and two more step forward carrying guns with a string of ammo loaded with serum.

There is no countdown, but as one, the soldiers bust down the door and begin firing into the room. The Awakened lets out an angry roar that shakes the walls of the supply room. One of the nurses lets out a squeak of terror as we all duck. We’ve never seen one of them wide awake before…

Sounds of a scuffle ricochet along the hospital halls as several soldiers get thrown bodily out of the room. Dozens more pile into the supply room as roars and shouting take over. Thirty seconds later, I watch in horror as the soldiers drag the Awakened, barely conscious, out of the room and down the hallway.

I step out to watch, torn about this whole scene. He talked to me. Like a normal patient. I don’t even realize tears are sliding down my cheeks until a soldier comes forward and starts interviewing the nurses congregating in the hall. I step forward, because I don't want it to look like I’m resisting the Task Force, and I quickly and efficiently tell them what happened. For some reason I leave out the part where he talked to me, because I feel like the Task Force doesn’t care about that. Shit, they probably know the Awakened can talk, which just makes me want to hurl up my breakfast.

After they leave, the head nurse comes around to check on me. “Pen, honey, are you okay? You were in his room, right?”

I nod, feeling my brows scrunch together in a vee. Ultimately, I decide I have to confess to somebody. “He talked to me, Caroline. Like, full sentences.”

She shakes her head as she tucks a strand of red hair back behind my ear protectively. “You’ve probably already got PTSD, Pen, what a wild night. The Awakened don’t talk, honey. If they could, it would be all over the news, right? You probably heard something else. But it’s all over now. Why don’t you go home, and I’ll cover the rest of your shift, okay?”

Nodding, I let her walk past me as the hallway fills with cleaning people trying to get everything back in shape. Heading to the locker room, I grab my hoodie and bag, disquiet trilling alarms in my brain. What happened tonight wasn’t right, and I’m very conflicted by it.

I step out of the ER doors and into the oppressive dark of the city at night. The world feels eerily normal, the air brisk but dry. The occasional car rumbles past slowly, a pitiful reminder of how busy the city used to be...before. What is the Task Force doing to that man right now? He thought they’d make him a “dancing monkey.” What does that even mean?

I remember the early days when people protested the Task Force dragging Awakened men away to who-knows-where, but after three years of being afraid, people no longer stand up to the government. And there’s been no reason to, because Awakened men wrought destruction across the globe.

But tonight, that Awakened helped me to get out of harm’s way. It’s a new perspective, and I’m torn to shreds about it.

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