SILENCE THE LIVING
The world hung in the balance because she wanted to live, because he couldn’t live without her.
Former Florida police officer Monique “Moni” Williams carries in her bloodstream the most deadly substance on the planet, an intelligent alien microorganism. The alien life forms seek to transform Earth into a habitat suitable for their resurrected aquatic species, which fled their destroyed planet. Her skin is the only barrier preventing the start of this disruptive process.
Moni is highly contagious. A drop of her blood, saliva or even a tear will overwhelm the defenses of any human or animal. They become alien-controlled slaves that undergo rapid mutation. Moni has prevented the aliens from conquering her mind, although their voices haunt her. She’s been robbed of her ability to speak, communicating through a newfound telepathy, planting ideas and thoughts in the minds of both friends and foes.
Moni’s only ally is her boyfriend, Aaron Hughes. Despite being chased by agents from the FBI and the military, Aaron refuses to leave her side as she flees to the barren desert of New Mexico.
A scientist, Aaron fights for a cure while the aliens strip away more of her humanity by the hour.
Moni hopes her exile in the desert will protect the Earth from her plague, but she soon finds herself under assault from the desert’s most dangerous inhabitants. The aliens are determined to spill Moni’s infected blood or take away the man she loves. Equally threatening, rival policewoman Nina Skillings pursues Moni across the country, seeking revenge for her friends the aliens killed in Florida.
Meanwhile in Florida, a sadistic mutant lurks in the underground waterways, hunting people. Renegade environmental scientist Harry “Lagoon Watcher” Trainer believes it’s connected to the alien invasion and he’s determined to pursue it through the watery depths beneath the state’s limestone surface. In this dark maze of underwater caves, the air is far away, but terror is always near.
Moni must decide. Should she cling to her humanity? Or should she embrace the purple, acidic blood flowing through her veins? As Nina says:
“There are no judges out where we’re going. There’s survival, there’s death and there’s the one thing worse than death, and that’s what your girlfriend is.”
She marveled at the expansive sky, empty except for the sun and its life leeching heat. Her home state of Florida often had cloud cover, usually threatening rain, and so much foliage across the flat land that she could never get a panoramic view of the sky from horizon to horizon. But this was the southern New Mexico desert. She could elevate 20,000 feet from her high perch and still not see another human being, just dusty mountains, parched shrubs and the black-stained cones of long-dead volcanoes.
This was the closest place on earth to the regolith of an alien world. No human could last here without shelter for more than a few days.
Standing here alone was the only way to survive.
She didn’t choose this exile because she hated people. They used to call her Moni, short for Monique Williams, when she was a police officer who protected children. Now they called her an accomplice to the invasion that nearly overwhelmed the Florida coast. They were right. Yet they didn’t know that her betrayal cut both ways, or of the sacrifices she had made.
Her skin was the only thing restraining the microscopic alien horde, which churned through every cell of her body with the intent of making a home of their own on this planet. They needed only a few buckets of water, or an unsuspecting host.
In the back of her mind she knew the grim solution. The incineration of her body would end the menace. She simply couldn’t let go of one person in this world, the only man who trusted her.
The invaders inside her would welcome her death, as long as they found another host.
Her standing here alone was the only way to survive, for herself and every native creature on Earth. Still Moni knew, and they were quick to remind her, that she couldn’t run forever.
A coyote’s howl shattered the desert’s silence. No, it was more than one.
Five days earlier…
Seated in the booth of a roadside diner decorated with college football and NASCAR gear, Aaron Hughes wondered whether every establishment in Alabama was so lively the morning before a race. He had never visited the state before. He would have asked Moni whether she ever crossed Florida’s northwest border, but she hadn’t said a word to him the whole trip. Not with her mouth, anyway.
“I’ve been to Georgia, not Alabama,” Moni’s voice rang inside Aaron’s head. That was the only way she communicated with him since she crawled out of the alien-infested Indian River Lagoon, a dip that should have been fatal. He didn’t need to ask his question aloud because she overheard him think it. “I spent a lot of time in Tallahassee when my parents took me to Florida State games and the culture’s not that different. Same attitude, different teams.”
“Are you uncomfortable in a place full of southern racing junkies?” asked Aaron. He didn’t need to add that she was the only black person here.
“When you’re sitting across from me, I’m always comfortable.”
Tipping up her American flag baseball cap, Moni mesmerized him with her brown eyes. Seeing that smooth mocha skin, plush lips and the thin braids of hair shrouding the sides of her face, Aaron wished he could toss that hat aside and kiss her mouth into a smile.
“I know what you’re thinking. Careful, sugar lips. I can survive with them inside me, but you can’t. They’ll kill you.”
Aaron saw something had transformed Moni the moment she emerged from the alien-infested lagoon as the invasion of Florida’s Space Coast abruptly ceased. Moni had entered the waters with young Mariella. She’d left alone. She didn’t say it, but Aaron knew she’d put the girl down because she’d finally recognized the aliens had used Mariella ever since she’d found her. In order to call off the alien attack, Moni had to become one of them. Nanotechnology fused with alien biology, determined to recreate their habitat on earth, had melded with her body and altered her genetic code. Aaron didn’t know why she could resist them overriding her brain when no other human or animal could, but he was grateful he still had Moni. Even in her current state.
Just like Mariella before her, Moni’s voice had been silenced. Inside, it was the same woman he cared about, only her body carried a sentient plague capable of igniting a mass extinction.
“You alright kid? Looks like you’ve been driving all night,” said the waitress, a plump redhead in her 50s who radiated an affectionate aunt vibe. Moni wasn’t the only one around here who could read minds. Aaron gazed at the reflection of his droopy eyelids and gnarled out hair in the metallic napkin dispenser.
“I wish I got to see more of your beautiful state in daylight. We were taking turns behind the wheel and I caught the night shift.”
“You should have said that you were a gentleman and let the lady have a restful night.” The waitress placed Aaron’s French toast on the table, where its sweet aroma beckoned him, and dished out a plated omelet to Moni.
“Yeah, I need to take gentleman classes, I guess,” Aaron replied as he grabbed his fork. “My mom always said I was more loafers than wingtips.”
“You have no idea what a gentleman you’ve been. Any other guy would have run away from me. Hell, if you had half a brain, that’s what you would do right now.”
Aaron nearly replied to Moni, but he realized the waitress still hovered over him. If he carried on half a conversation in public again, someone might finally have him committed.
“Ya’ll from Florida? You got that look to you,” she glanced at Aaron’s long blond curls, his bronzed tan and his surfer t-shirt. The women on the other side of middle age always gave him more stares, not so much the college girls.
“I was trying to pass as a rugged New Yorker, but you called it.”
“I don’t blame you for driving all through the night. If that freak show happened in my state – alligators, turtles and snakes mutated together, bridges getting blown up, the military helpless as a two-legged dog – I’d high-tail it outta there. Heck, even here in Bama I’m not sure I’m far enough.”
Aaron noticed the wave of guilt passing over Moni’s face as she set down her fork with egg still hanging off it. This lady thought she was hundreds of miles from the threat, but instead, it sat right at her table. Neither Aaron nor Moni understood the methods the microscopic invaders spread through, or how effectively Moni could contain them. By studying infected creatures in his late marine research professor’s lab, Aaron had observed that the alien nanotech survive in blood and saliva, making those liquids more thin and acidic. They rapidly produce bacteria that latch onto all forms of life. They probably spread through most bodily fluids, and they thrive in water.
“You want a refill of your coffee, darling?” the waitress nodded toward Moni’s empty mug.
Moni’s eyes widened in alarm. Aaron kept forgetting that she could hear his every thought, whether he liked it or not. He better not have any dirty daydreams about other women, but that wasn’t what riled Moni up at the moment.
“Don’t let her take that cup. My saliva’s on there. What if they get on her hand and then onto someone else’s plate? Or into the sink and down the drain? Imagine what they’d do in the sewer system, or in the ground water.”
A dozen truckers had pulled off the road for breakfast and a little pre-race coverage played on the two boxy old TVs suspended over the diner’s bar. If the nanobots could make a little girl strong enough to throttle an adult with one hand, imagine what they could accomplish with one of those grizzly specimens.
“Tongue in a knot today? It’s alright, darling. I see you’re thirsty.” The waitress reached for the mug Moni had put her lips on.
“Stop her before I have to.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Aaron said.
The waitress gave him a curious look. “You’ll take care of what, honey?”
He snapped his attention on the waitress, as if he’d meant that comment for her. “My friend here can only handle one cup of coffee at a time.” Aaron gently covered Moni’s mug with his napkin before the waitress put her bare fingers on it. “It’s her turn to drive today. I don’t want her going all speed demon while I doze off.”
“Okay, then I’ll just take the mug out of your way. Maybe a glass of fresh OJ instead?”
Moni opened her mouth in what would have been a sigh if she had working vocal cords. “She’s trying to kill herself with kindness. I should have known stopping in a restaurant was a terrible idea. It’s fast food and packaged snacks from here on out.”
Aaron nearly spoke, but he let the words run through his head this time as if talking to himself, knowing that Moni would pick them up. Sorry, I can’t live more than one day on gas station cuisine. I didn’t recognize the vulnerability of your situation. This is new territory for both of us.
“This is new for all of humanity,” she responded. “Humanity, and whatever I am now.”
Don’t think like that. You’re as human as I am.
He wondered whether his thoughts could lie.
“This is actually quite a fine set of dishes you’ve got here,” Aaron held the plain coffee mug up and examined it, careful not to let the inside contact his skin. “We’re looking to rent an apartment anyhow, and we left our stuff back home. How about I kick in an extra $20 and buy all the dishes and silverware we use today?”
“Do we look like a department store?” the waitress crossed her arms.
“I’m just teasing, sweetie. Twenty’s a fair price.” She gave a homely smile. “Let me just check with the manager to make sure it’s okay.”
As the waitress moseyed back behind the counter, he arched an eyebrow at Moni to highlight how he’d averted that crisis. She shook her head, sending the message that an overly hospitable waitress would be the least of their worries. They had adversaries out there with grudges, and for good reason.
They heard grumbling from the truckers at the bar. The pre-race coverage had been interrupted by breaking news. Given that the Speeding Channel didn’t cover world events, it had to be something huge. Aaron had no doubt about the topic. The footage showed the charred shores of the Indian River Lagoon near his home on the Space Coast. The water was clear; too clear. Sulfuric acid had consumed the sediment and left badly decayed corpses of marine life. The skeletal remains included fish, birds and creatures too bizarre for any museum.
“The government confirmed the speculation today. The White House said it was an alien attack in Brevard County, Florida,” the male voiceover announcer said. “FEMA reports that the death toll has climbed to 562, including a wave of murders that started weeks before the main assault that was previously blamed on a rogue scientist. There are 153 injured and 304 unaccounted for. The Pentagon confirmed that there were casualties at Patrick Air Force Base, but they credited the soldiers for beating back the invasion and forcing them to relinquish control of the Indian River Lagoon.”
Not quite, Moni thought. The mutants had been pounding the base into the ground until she called them off and made all of their minions shut down. Too little, too late. Hundreds of people would still be alive if she hadn’t helped Mariella set this into motion by bioengineering the lagoon. Looking back at her horrible decisions, such as shielding the infected girl at the cost of her fellow officers’ lives, Moni wondered whether she was under the girl’s telepathic spell or she made them out of her own volition. The alien abilities can plant thoughts into someone’s head, but they can’t force their hand. Still, she should have known better. She had failed everyone who had depended on her.
All I wanted to do was save one life. I ended up killing hundreds. And I still lost Mariella.
Moni recognized the speaker behind the podium with an Air Force logo behind him as Brigadier General Alonso Colon. He was in charge of the air base during the attacks. “The men and women of Patrick Air Force Base fought bravely. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. And we were victorious. This is our planet and this is our country. We aren’t giving them a square inch, above or below water.”
Rage bubbled inside Moni, but it wasn’t her own. It was theirs. They buzzed through her bloodstream like gnats, incensed that the greedy humans wouldn’t grant them a small home on their planet. Their world had been destroyed, at no fault of their own, and earth had so many places, especially underwater habitats that they could utilize.
“Do you think this whole planet was created only for your species?” The words came from all around here, vibrating through the walls and the floor. “We know your history. Strong clans conquered the weak and pushed them off their land. Should we follow your example?”
Moni knew she promised Mariella, and therefore her fellow visitors, that they’d have their rebirth somewhere.
“Not here. Not now,” Moni told her unwelcome inhabitants. “I don’t know if you had any public relations firms on your planet, but you could use a damn good one after that invasion stunt you pulled.”
Two pictures blanketed the screen, one of Mariella and one of Moni. “This eight-year-old girl goes by the name Mariella and doesn’t speak,” Colon said. “If you see her, keep your distance and call the police. Do not try to apprehend her because she has a highly contagious disease. She was last seen traveling with this woman, Brevard County Sheriff Detective Monique Williams, who also goes by Moni. Williams is wanted on charges of conspiring with a foreign gov… um, a foreign force,” Colon corrected himself as Moni hyperventilated. “If you see her, alert the police immediately.”
As the news break ended and the patrons started chattering and looking around, Moni lowered the bill of her cap over her face. That didn’t take long. They had no idea that Mariella was dead, or that the alien infection was contained within Moni’s body. If they cut her open trying to catch her, they could infect someone unable to keep the aliens at bay.
Listening in on the furious words and even more spiteful thoughts of the heavy-set men at the bar, she knew that she’d receive a fist in the mouth if any of them recognized her. An old man thought, “It’s no surprise that one of them ‘colored folk’ turned against America.” It’d been bad enough seeing certain people look at her that way her whole life.
“Put the money on the table, grab the dishes and let’s go,” Moni projected into Aaron’s head.
He wolfed down the final piece of French toast and tossed a pair of 20s on the table. Moni realized she couldn’t leave her eggs on the plate because they made contact with her fork. Even tossing them in the garbage could infect bugs or rats. She shoveled them into her mouth and slipped her plate, silverware and mug into her purse. So much for the fine cotton purse liner – not like she’d have much comfort in her life from now on.
When they got up to leave, Moni almost bumped into the waitress as she returned to their table.
“Going so soon?” the red-head asked. “You weren’t going to make off with my dishes until the manager gave the okay, were you?”
Moni stood there avoiding eye contact as the lady stared at her face. She heard the woman thinking, Where have I seen her before? Could that be the woman from the TV?
“We left your money on the table. All of it,” Aaron said as he stepped to Moni’s side. “We’re sorta in a hurry, you know.”
“Well, you’re in luck because he said it’s all right,” the waitress said. But she didn’t clear out of the way. She reached into her pocket, where Moni recognized the outline of a cell phone. Moni heard her think, Don’t call the police in front of them. Go to the back first. She gave a warm smile. “If you give me just a minute, I’ll be right back with your receipt and change.”
She plucked the cash off the table and walked away, drawing her cell phone. Overpowering her would risk infection and attract too much attention. She could do it without touching her, without saying a word. Mariella had done it to her. Simply project her thoughts into the woman’s head, but disguise them as her inner voice.
Moni closed her eyes, envisioning the people in the restaurant not by their appearances but by their trains of thought. They felt like dots on a radar map. She instantly recognized the waitress’ mind, another antenna ready for her signal. “I was just seeing things. That wasn’t the woman from the TV,” Moni projected into her head, mimicking the waitresses’ inner voice. “If I call the police over here for nothing, all it’s gonna do is scare away my customers. Kiss all those tips goodbye.”
Moni opened her eyes and waited. A perplexed Aaron watched her without any idea what was on the line here. The waitress’ mind went silent. Would she accept those thoughts as her own or recognize them as words imposed by a stranger? Maybe the voice of the devil trying to confuse her?
The waitress hurried out from the back and handed Aaron his receipt and a few coins. “Have a safe drive, you two.” She grinned as she made eye contact with Moni, who returned the smile, relieved that she had only manipulated a nice lady instead of hurting her.
Moni shuddered to think how she would have to deal with a person if they recognized her and she couldn’t persuade them to back off. Her thoughts flashed back to her ex-boyfriend Darren with blood running down his chest, and his windpipe in Mariella’s slender, not-so-delicate hands.
She watched her hand push open the diner door, leading her into the sweltering morning air. The long road awaited her.
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