Valerie looked down the hallway past Max’s foyer at the light fixtures, searching for an indication of Max’s genetic standing. Though no lights were on, it was still midday and plenty of natural lighting shown through the many windows. She had at least met Jack once before, but this was the first she had ever heard of Max. She had always felt a general apprehension toward every new face she saw, but there was something about her surroundings, maybe the house itself, that felt like a threat to her. Regardless of where the danger was coming from, Valerie wanted to leave as soon as possible. Her father had trusted Jack to keep her safe, but she could not shake the feeling that some of the people he respected might have hidden agendas.
“Valerie, can I take your bag?” The thin man came out of nowhere. He was taller than the rest of the group. His short red hair appeared slept on, and he had two days of growth on his face. He looked worse off than she and Jack did after their day of walking.
“No, thank you. I can manage,” she lied. She did not want to part with her gear. She needed her things close in case she found a quick escape, but the twenty miles weighed on her body. Her shoulders and feet ached.
“There is a room for you upstairs,” Max interjected. “We have a lot to cover this evening, now the last of us are here. I’m sure you don’t want to lug this thing around all night. You are safe. I promise.”
Valerie did not hold his promises to any weight, but she had run out of energy to argue. The thin, tired man lifted the bag from her shoulders. She unbuckled the straps, shrugged off the load and peeled the sweat-matted shirt away from her torso. The cold air and relief were rejuvenating. She shivered and waited while Jack reconnected with his friends. She brushed a hand over her leg holster and the handgun. Having the weapon eased her anxiety.
Max led them through the rest of the house. The main floor was just as grand as the exterior appeared. The entire first level flowed together with elaborate flooring providing a sharp transition between each room. A full length, stocked bar ran along the wall spreading from the kitchen and into the formal dining room. Max crossed the room and picked up a crystal decanter.
“This here calls for some drinks.” He lined up eight shot glasses, held the bottle higher than necessary, and poured each glass until they overflowed.
People gathered around as each shot glass was passed out. Valerie passed two shots down, one to the tired man and one to Jack before holding on to her own. She sniffed the clear liquid. Tequila.
“All right now, shut the hell up,” Max yelled over the group.
Everyone fell silent.
“In our childhood, we were taught as children. But today we stand here as grown adults making grown decisions. Along with the Event came many real-life surprises. We can choose to act out of regret, spite, or malice because of how the cards played out, but retribution would be selfish and foolhardy. We are better than that. Hell, I’m better than most of you, but I love you, bastards, and have welcomed you into my home.
“Anyway, we are here because the gene is no longer dormant, and the conductors of electricity are made apparent. As the conductors draw from the energy, there is one way to ground such power. We have a grounding rod among us, what the world is calling a DiaZem. A new age is the reason we have gathered and why we are sacrificing so much for this mission. Most of us were once a part of the same organization now calling themselves the CDC. We could have been the poor blue-suited bastards out there following orders, but now we have a higher purpose. I’d much rather be drinking here with you fools than the finest in their ranks. But for the continued prosperity of all, the DiaZem must not fall into the wrong hands. So, steady your glasses and dry your tears, ladies, and gents, because this day is not a sad one. No, today we celebrate what makes us great and do what we’ve been born to do. To the DiaZem.” Max raised his glass, and everyone followed suit.
“The DiaZem,” answered the group. As Valerie lowered the glass to drink, a hand covered the liquid and pushed the glass away from Valerie’s open mouth.
“You never drink to yourself,” the woman said. After slamming back her own shot, she relieved Valerie of hers and treated the second tequila the same, without a wince.
The sight of the woman made Valerie freeze. She was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. With a slender but muscular silhouette, she sported many different tattoos, including a tribal eagle with wings covering her chest. She had dark hair. Bangs swept to the side, still covering her forehead. The rest of her hair was sectioned off and wrapped in tight strings extending to her waist resembling dreadlocks. She carried a once-lit cigar like Max’s tucked behind her ear.
“Cheers,” she said without inflection of any kind. She handed the empty glass back to Valerie and walked away.
Valerie was left with her mouth still open. She wanted to know what she meant. How did everyone seem to know who she was before she walked in the door? And why were they toasting her?
“Don’t mind Hyka. She comes off a bit hostile. She likes you, or else she wouldn’t have said anything at all. As for taking your drink, I’m kind of mad she beat...