1 Dawn

Tess carefully smoothed the concealer onto the left side of her neck, feeling the cool, creamy texture glide over her skin. Her curse mark, a swirling black smoke that seemed to seep through her pores and form a sinister semicircle, was a constant reminder of her dark secret. With each application, she watched as the mark gradually faded, her natural dark brown skin reemerging in its wake. 

Finally satisfied, Tess let her long white hair tumble down her back and stood before the mirror, reciting her daily mantra. "I am not a monster, I am not a monster..." The words echoed in the quiet room until it was time to head out of her room. That time was usually four-thirty a.m. 

Due to the global curfew, people had adapted to waking earlier to make the most of the precious sunlight. Things were like that since the monsters they all knew as Sybervirians attacked at night. 

Heart racing, Tess peered through the peephole in her door, scanning the hallway beyond for any signs of danger. The green light on the wall detector signaled that the guards had already swept the area and found no monsters lurking. Those guards were Mid-Sentry officials, and they only dealt with monsters known as Sybervirians. 

She moved back a metal notch to reveal a small hole in her door. With that hand occupied, she put the other hand through the hole and turned the metal handle behind until the lock clicked open. In the silence, she pulled the door aside creating an entrance to a white hallway. 

Tess made her way through the labyrinthine hallways, each one sectioned off by grilled walls that loomed above her like prison bars. These were not the smooth, automatic roll-up kind, but the clunky, old-fashioned type that required a firm tug on the latch to open the smaller gate in the center.

In a world where mutations were unpredictable and monsters lurked in the shadows, every house was fortified with grilles and other barriers to keep out the dangers that lurked beyond.… Monsters that didn't feel pain and only lurked on human flesh. 

But today, there were no monsters in sight, and Tess made her way past the grilles with practiced ease. Latch after latch clicked open and closed behind her until she reached Petra's lab. As she pushed open the door, a thick white mist billowed out and spread across the ground like ghostly water.

Petra usually worked through the night on her top-secret project. Thus, she would always be wearing her white coat and goggles to greet Tess in the mornings. 

"Good morning, Petra," Tess smiled. 

Petra, clad in her white coat and goggles, greeted Tess with a warm smile. "Good morning, dear," she said, pushing her goggles above her forehead.

Together, they made their way to the kitchen, where pre-made meals left by the helpers awaited them. Neither of them trusted themselves in the kitchen. The circular table was small, but it was a cozy place to sit and eat breakfast, their only respite in a world fraught with danger and uncertainty.

"So, did you find anything?" Tess asked. 

Petra's smile vanished. The oven cake on her fork stopped mid-way to reaching her mouth. She sighed and said, "Same as always."

It was those darn words again, which meant she did not find a cure. "Oh," Tess replied. She began to poke her oven cake with the fork instead of eating. She had hoped the new data Petra found recently would amount to something. That morning turned out exactly like every other before—disappointing. 

Petra sighed. Tess had too much faith in her. Why did she believe she could find the cure to a thousand-year-old virus that no one knew how to prevent or pass on?

Tess felt Petra's gentle hand on top of hers on the table and then came her low voice. 

"One day Tess, one day it'll happen. I am trying everything-"

Tess thought Petra forgot to mention that that was only in her dreams. Or maybe one day someone might find a cure but she would be long dead. 

"I know. Can we eat now?" Tess pulled her hand from Petra and used it to lift food into her mouth.  "I don't want you to be late for your monthly mee—" 

The sharp pain of stabbing her tongue with her teeth made her take a hard swallow. She hit her fist on the table and froze. 

"Are you alright?" asked Petra looking down at her plate. 

"I'm fine," Tess blurted and stretched her lips into a smile. 

She knew Petra didn't like her eating and speaking at the same time and wanted to avoid an unnecessary lecture. She started to chew with her mouth closed. Forgetting the pain was impossible until she saw the tiny white speck on Petra's sleeve. A sinking feeling formed in her stomach as she realized what it might be. 

She dropped her fork with a clatter and quickly pushed up the sleeve on Petra's arm. Petra gasped and froze as Tess revealed what she had feared—ten caffeine patches stuck to her skin.

Tess's mind raced back to the time when Petra had been poisoned by those very patches, leading her to spend a month in the hospital. The dead nerve at the back of Tess's head flinched as she remembered the ordeal. The sight of the patches made her feel sick with worry, and she struggled to keep her emotions in check.

The sound of a sudden whoosh filled the air as Petra yanked her arm back, biting her lips and avoiding Tess's gaze. Tess could feel the anger boiling within her as she leaned over the table, her body tense. "Seriously?" she seethed. "Why are you still using so many?" Her eyes widened in disbelief. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

"Child, please," Petra snapped while moving one hand towards her forehead to block her out. "I didn't use them all at once, I just forgot to take them off."

Her left brow twitched, and Tess knew she was lying. She leaned back in her chair, frustration coursing through her.

"If that's the case," she said in a tone barely above a whisper, "I may be home late today."

"What for?"

"Don't worry about that. If it's that bad you'll hear from my old pal, the dean."

"Tess, please try to be a good girl today. You promised—"

"I know, I know," Tess said in a low soothing voice. "But you promised too, remember? It's your fault if you think about it."

Petra dropped her fork on the side of her plate and used a napkin to wipe her mouth. "I'm done eating," she said in a dead voice.

"Me too," Tess replied as she pushed her plate away. They glared at each other in silence for a moment before the alarm on Tess's arm went off, signaling it was time for her to leave for school.

As they both got up from the table, Tess couldn't help but feel a sense of sadness. They weren't going to see each other for a while, and it was common for family members to not hold onto bad feelings. The reality was that hearing that loved ones had died was far too common in their world.

As they rose from the table, Petra's lab coat emanated a chill, causing Tess to shiver as she leaned in for a goodbye hug. It meant Petra was burning the air chillers again. 

Petra wrapped her arms around her without hesitation. The coldness of Petra's coat enveloped her like a winter breeze, lingering even as they parted ways.

Tess walked down the deserted street with her hoverbike at her side, one hand clenching the handle to keep it steady while the other clutched her holo-phone. Her eyes flitted across the screen, deleting messages that weren't from her best friend Jeremy. The absence of his messages made her heart sink.

Did he lie to her? Why was there none from him? If there was nothing recent from him, it only meant he was too embarrassed to face the fact that he lied to her.

Suddenly, a dark figure appeared in her peripheral vision, causing her to drop her phone and grip both handles of her hoverbike. She was going to drive from there like there was no tomorrow when she glimpsed people walking through her bike's mirror. She stopped herself. Her racing heart began to slow down. 

She turned and locked her attention on the cross-section where the monster stood. The spot was empty and there were only a few other people heading out. None of them looked her way. 

As she turned to pick up her phone, she couldn't shake the image of the pale-faced figure. It was like a white mannequin came to life, moving with incredible speed. Though she wanted to forget it, the memory lingered like a bad dream. With her eyes held in front, she continued to walk with both hands on her vehicle. 

That was a new one. She had never made out a mannequin in her weird nightmare flashes, and she was not going to tell Petra about it. Petra already believed she needed counseling.

With a flick of a switch, her hoverbike roared to life. The vibration ran over its metal exterior before it lifted off the ground. She swung one leg over the seat and in no time, she was zipping by. 


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