General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.
– Bertolt Brecht
She dreamt again of amethyst lights. She wanted nothing more to do with them. Moments of terrifying lucidity punctured her nightmare: distorted faces gazing over her; her arms and legs struggling uselessly against impossible strength; the sound of her own scream, fading away, until there was nothing but silence and amethyst lights.
A slow and steady beep echoed the toll of Keira’s heart.
“Heart rate, twenty beats per minute,” an English voice declared.
“That’s too slow, isn’t it, Dr. Clark?” a second voice asked.
“No, it’s simply more efficient,” the Englishman – Dr. Clark – explained. “Look at this graph – she’s perfect. Perfection perfected.”
“She ought to be. She cost enough,” the second voice grumbled. His voice changed, softening. “I must say, in sleep, she rivals Iris.”
“In sleep alone, I should hope, else we’re all in for a lot of trouble, Mr. Harper,” Dr. Clark laughed.
“And is she dangerous?” the second voice – apparently Mr. Harper – asked.
“Oh very likely,” Dr. Clark replied, no hint of fear in his voice.
Keira couldn’t understand what they meant. Her eyes were still glued shut, but she could feel again. Round sticky pads were attached to her chest, wrists and ankles. She was lying on a narrow table, cold against her back. She felt the fabric of a thin gown covering her, and nothing underneath.
Where are my clothes?
The disconcerting thought faded in the light of her next discovery.
Keira was paralyzed. She struggled to open her eyes to see or mouth to scream, but every fibre of muscle remained flaccid and useless. The incessant beeping mimicked her panic, and more tones and bells joined in the menacing song. Waves of terror coursed through her powerless body.
“Oh dear. The anaesthetic’s worn off before the muscle relaxant.” Dr. Clark stated, sounding utterly unconcerned. “She’ll be awake now, and terrified. Stand back, sir. Kappas, Omega-one, get in here,” he barked in a strange code.
“Why not the Epsilons?” Harper asked.
“They would only frighten her more, Mr. Harper,” Dr. Clark explained brusquely. “Now I must ask you to please leave the room. Beta-one, fetch the others.”
She heard footsteps coming into the room, footsteps leaving, a door slamming, and then she felt the push of a cool, burning liquid through her veins. Her little finger twitched. Her eyes fluttered, and slammed shut again. The squeak of a cry pressed through her lips.
“Omega-one,” Dr. Clark directed. “Touch her shoulder… no, through the fabric. Don’t touch her skin again.”
She felt the press of a fingertip, then two, through the fabric of her gown. A flicker of strength spread like a slow shock from the point of pressure, down her arm, and up to her neck. She opened her eyes again, and this time, they stayed open. Looking down on her was her nightmare. The sight of Aiden’s eyes so unhinged her that her first instinct was to flee.
So she did, her limbs moving so swiftly that she could not control them.
She twisted away from him like a whirlwind, leaping off of the examination table and landing on the other side. As she did, leads and cords tangled around her, sending machines into a cacophony of panicked beeps. She tugged at them desperately, only getting more tangled.
“Stop,” Aiden commanded, stalking around the table.
She flinched back from him, but there was nowhere to go. Her back fetched up against a cold wall, and she knew she couldn’t dodge to one side or another without him touching her again. She shut her eyes tightly as he reached towards her.
Rather than pain, she felt release as he untangled the leads, pulling them off her without touching her once. Once he’d stepped back, she opened her eyes- but kept them averted- taking in her surroundings instead. She was in a room with bright fluorescent lights, white-tiled walls and green laminate floor. There was a second table in the room, behind which sat three empty seats. They were black plastic, of the folding variety. On the opposite wall was a long mirror that almost certainly acted as a window from the other side. Everything was sterile-clean.
Three other people stood in the room: the tall, sapphire-eyed twins who’d been Aiden’s companions, and a russet-and-salt-haired, bespectacled man in a stained white coat. The twins were grinning as if there saw something hilarious in her appearance. The bespectacled Dr. Clark, conversely, looked a strange mixture of proud and sad as he gazed upon her. She wondered who else stared at her from beyond the mirror.
“Keira,” she heard her name whispered, his voice so quiet she knew no one else could hear. She refused to look at him. Keeping her eyes down, she noticed that her forearm was bandaged with plastic wrap. Numbers and symbols were printed on the cling wrap, but she wasn’t sure what they meant. She heard Aiden sigh.
“Keira, look at me,” Aiden commanded, his voice still soft. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to look at those eyes, to believe what she saw in them. “Don’t fight again. It will be easier if you do what they tell you.”
His tone was oddly gentle, and the gentleness compelled her. She found her eyes battling her resolve, moving against her will, taking in his features in segments. Chin, determined. Lips, the upper as full as the lower, curved into the shape of a bird in flight. Mischievous nose. Cheekbones prominent. Unkempt, dark hair that had, from a distance, covered the frightening truth now revealed. Finally, they rested on his eyes; perhaps slightly different in shape, perhaps set a little deeper, but the irises were the exact same, the impossible bright violet of a lightning storm sky. They were her eyes.
“You only took me, right?”
The eyes that matched her own widened in surprise. “Is that what you’re worried about right now?”
She said nothing in response, only kept his gaze on hers, willing truth from him.
When he spoke, his tone was harsh again, and louder. “I left your friends alone. But don’t for a second think that they won’t use them against you if you don’t cooperate. Now will you stay still while you’re examined, or do we need to sedate you again?”
She set her jaw, and determined to meet his gaze with a steely one of her own. It didn’t work. Keira was stuck in awe of it.
Jerk, she thought.
“That’s quite all right, Omega-one,” Dr. Clark said. “I think she’s adequately subdued. Now leave her alone before she gives you a much-deserved smack.”
Obediently, Aiden stepped back.
Dr. Clark frowned. “In fact, all of you leave. You’re putting her on edge.”
The twins walked out the door, but Aiden lingered. “I want to stay.”
Dr. Clark’s voice was low. “She’s afraid of you, most of all.”
Aiden’s gaze swivelled from the doctor to Keira. She glared back at him. How could he expect anything less, when the last time he’d touched her, she’d felt like a bomb had gone off inside of her? He nodded, and shut the door behind him.
“Come now, step away from the wall and let’s have a look at you,” Dr. Clark commanded gently.
She stared at the doctor, and thought of her father. They seemed the same age, and of the same profession. That was as far as the similarities extended. He must have known she’d come unwillingly, which made him complicit in harming a patient. She wondered what her father would think. Nonetheless, she found her feet moving towards him deferentially.
He walked around her in a slow, appraising circle. Here and there he placed his hands upon her back, her arms, her waist. His touch was clinical, thus not repulsive. He took her blood pressure, listened to her heart and her lungs, and felt her pulse. As he examined the facade of her body, she became aware of the changes inside. Keira buzzed with a strange and new strength. She felt and unprecedented awareness of each muscle: from the palms of her hand, to the arches of her feet, she understood her own body in a new way. She was brimming with vigour, which she should not have been after such a tumultuous night. She was awake.
Dr. Clark took her hands in his, and with unsettling tenderness, rubbed silver cream into them and bandaged them. They prickled as the skin healed at an unnatural rate, and she turned them over, watching her own body in awe. Just as gently, Dr. Clark tended to the scrapes on her knees and elbows and left cheek, which must have occurred when she landed on the asphalt. Placing two fingers under her chin, he took in her face. As he did, there was a strange kind of proud delight in his own.
Dr. Clark stepped away and jotted a few notes in her chart. Keira knew about medical charts. Each patient new received one. Hers should have been flat, with nothing in it. Instead, it was two inches thick. He sat down casually on the examination table, his feet on Harper’s chair. “Have you had any illnesses in the past?”
She shook her head.
“Not even a cold?”
He smiled knowingly. “Broken bones, accidents, or medical conditions?”
She repeated the gesture, but then remembered. “Cardiomegaly.”
Dr. Clark stared at her for a moment, obviously surprised, then grinned amusedly. “I suppose that prevented you from participating in physical education classes.”
“But you don’t believe you actually have a heart condition, do you?”
Keira was suddenly interested in the mirrored window, and who was behind it, watching them. Dr. Clark had named a Mr. Harper, she recalled. She looked down again at her bandaged arm. It stung underneath the plastic wrap.
Dr. Clark didn’t seem to mind her silence. “Well, Keira, apart from your unfortunate mutism, I’m sorry to say that you are in perfect health, and that you’ve grown up more beautifully than even I could have hoped for.”
The statement startled her. Hesitant, she turned to him.
Dr. Clark crossed his arms, his expression enormously- and incomprehensibly- disappointed. “You really don’t know, do you?”
Keira’s shoulders sagged and tears stung her eyes. Her voice was barely a whisper, but it rang out with all the devastating inadequacies of her understanding. “Know what?”
His arms dropped to his sides, and he seemed at a loss for words. Then the door swung open.
Keira could not but gape at the stunningly beautiful woman who stepped over the threshold and into the room. Brown curls swirled over her shoulders, and she flicked a strand away from her perfect pink mouth. Even the unflattering fluorescent light sparked a glow off her flawless brown skin, rounding and softening sharp regal cheekbones into something warm. Inside a cave of wide, almond eyes were stashed priceless sparkling emeralds, cold and hard as stone.
She was still staring when a man of equal beauty followed the woman. His skin was pale and pink, his hair a mass of golden curls. His eyes were the same bejeweled green, but warm and welcoming. When he turned those eyes upon her, Keira felt a shock of inexplicable familiarity.
Before she could place it, three more men entered, each forgettable in face and form compared with the two who had come before them. Yet it was on these three, who settled their backsides upon their plastic thrones and set their appraising gazes on her, that Keira fixed her attention. The first was a blond man in his early forties, with blue eyes as shallow as a backyard swimming pool. He wore improvised fatigues: khakis and a forest-green t-shirt, and most disturbingly, a gun on his hip. As he took his place in the far left seat, she saw that he too, seemed vaguely familiar.
On the right sat a thin, middle-aged man in a brown suit. He wore a distinctly more intelligent, and decidedly less decipherable expression than the blond man, and she was certain that she’d never laid eyes on this second man in her life. He glanced at her quickly, and then proceeded to open a thick file folder and flick through the pages. Immediately, she surmised that this man was the greater danger.
Between them a shortish man settled onto his more prominent haunches and placed his hands on the table, lacing them together as he unabashedly evaluated her being. His gaze was utterly dehumanizing. His finely-tailored suit did nothing to improve his repulsiveness. She didn’t recognize him initially because on television, he had never appeared so unwell. Once she did, her mind raced with bewilderment.
That was the man she’d seen on television. That was the Secretary of State.
Bruce Harper’s skin was shiny and pale, his cheeks flushed with the hint of severe heart problems. Too many whiskeys had reddened his nose and rounded his belly. His skull was bald on top, tasselled by a circlet of flat-combed white hair, and crested with a few thin, remnant strands combed over the dome. Brown-rimmed glasses enlarged his watery blue, beady eyes, and the expression in them was magnified frighteningly. Bruce Harper stared back at her with the hungry eagerness of a child in a zoo.
“Omega-two.” Harper’s waxy cheeks folded back on themselves as his thin mouth moved in what she thought might be a smile, but it was difficult to tell, because frown lines had slashed so deeply down to his chin.
Harper furrowed his brow, as if she was supposed to know what he meant. Then he held up a hand and made a beckoning motion, and called out a slight variation on the meaningless code. “Omega-one.”
Aiden slinked back into the room, and she took a step backwards automatically. Harper’s countenance was suddenly stern. “I assume this isn’t one of your mistakes?”
“No,” Aiden replied.
Harper eyed him suspiciously. “How can you be sure?”
“Look at her.”
“I am looking,” Harper snapped. “She’s not the first you’ve found.”
Aiden hesitated. He held up burned, raw palms. “It’s no mistake.”
“Do it again, so that I can see it,” Harper ordered, sounding like a spoiled child.
“Dr. Clark thinks it might not be safe,” He looked down at his hands as he continued, and there was something akin to disbelief in his tone. “The reaction… was stronger than expected.”
“Well, I hope you can find a way to fix that.” The words were sincere, and they were a warning.
Aiden just nodded.
Harper turned back to her, and repeated that same strange phrase. “Omega-two.”
Keira stared right back.
“She does not know that name,” Aiden explained.
“What name does she know, then?” Harper asked as he began to circle her, looking her up and down as if appraising a sculpture. Resisting the urge to flinch away from him, she lifted her stinging forearm to inspect the bloody letters under the plastic wrap. She wondered if she’d grazed herself on the asphalt.
“Wallace.” Aiden spoke her last name only, but it appeared to appease the man. He continued in an oddly formal tone, “As you can see from the adoption papers I provided – ” Keira’s arm went limp, and she looked up at Aiden. “ – her parents had no idea of her origin, which is why I found it unnecessary to bring them in.”
“That was not your decision to make, Omega-one.” Harper paused his circling to chastise Aiden. Keira noticed Aiden’s eyes flash, but no facial muscle gave any sign of retort. Harper continued with another question. “How did she get into the adoption system?”
Aiden pointed to the file on the table. “As you’ll see from the papers, the surrogate posed as her biological mother.”
“And they believed her?”
“Ridiculous.” Harper made a noise of disdain. “Canadians.”
Keira blinked slowly, trying to prevent the truth of what she’d just heard from leaking out of her eyes like tears.
Aiden slouched over to the corner nearest the beautiful green-eyed man. He sank down onto a stool, melting into the shadows of the room, but Keira thought he might have been grinning at her. Keira found none of this funny. She went back to inspecting the bandage on her forearm. She squinted to read the distorted packaging. There was a symbol, and a number, as well as the letters. And then she realized that they weren’t written on the plastic wrap at all. The ink was etched into her arm.
Harper appeared to be addressing her again. “Omega-two. You will no longer go by any name but that, for that is what you are. Do you understand?”
The letters on her arm that corresponded to the name he gave her. She still had no idea what she was doing there, or why Bruce Harper was calling her a new name and implying that she had been adopted. It felt like reality, but she couldn’t say that she was not still dreaming.
Taking her silence for affirmation, he snapped, “Deltas.”
The two green-eyed beauties stepped forward and took their places on either side of the man like guards. It was enough for her to look away from her new markings. The Deltas blinked very slowly, and as they opened their eyes again, the whites and irises were all black, the pupils bloody crimson.
Keira was petrified into stillness.
“Jackson, the file.” Harper commanded.
The thin suit named Jackson slid the open folder towards Harper. He turned the pages slowly- the sound of sliding paper interposed with occasional soft exclamations and chuckles as he perused- and removed a photograph and placed it on the table for her to see. Keira immediately recognized the charred home.
“Female, fifteen, pulls three children from a burning building on August eighteenth two-thousand-and-six.” Harper looked up at Keira. “Tell me, Omega-two, why would this be in a police report, but not celebrated in a newspaper article?”
It hadn’t been worth celebrating. The tragedy still haunted Greg and Linda Louis. Linda had contracted pneumonia, so Greg Louis asked his sister, Diane, to watch the children overnight. Diane was in no condition to be taking care of the children, but Greg had no one else to ask.
Diane had too much to drink that evening and fell asleep on the couch with a cigarette in her hand, setting fire to the house. Keira, incidentally, had smelled the smoke as she drove home from Jack Creek, and had been lucky enough to reach the children in time. Nothing could be done for Diane.
Greg had been distraught by the loss of his sister and wracked with guilt at leaving his children in her care. Keira and her parents, alongside Officer Collins, had promised never to make public the details of the heartbreaking mishap. So Keira, true to her promise, said nothing to anyone. And she continued to babysit the Louis kids whenever Greg and Linda asked.
Harper continued, reading from another report. “Female, sixteen, and male, seventeen, pull couple from dangerous waters in Jack Creek on June sixth, two-thousand-and-seven. Also unreported.” He looked up at her and leered. “My, it sounds as if a furtive hero was in their midst.”
Two silly tourists had gotten caught in a rip. Keira and Ethan had been fortunate enough to spot them struggling. By the time they reached them, the man was still above water, but the woman had sunk. Keira had stung her eyes searching underwater for her. She’d been fine, but her husband called an ambulance, which was the only reason it was ever reported. The couple had been highly embarrassed, and Keira had been highly annoyed. It wasn’t a story worth publishing.
The sickly man flicked across more pages, then leaned forward and gazed at her with his beady eyes. “That’s only two of ten similar incidents. Why do you think someone went to such lengths to hide these feats?”
No one had tried to hide them. They weren’t feats at all, and no one involved wanted them advertised.
“But this event, on October thirty-first, two thousand and four,” he declared, ignoring her silence. He laid a photograph on the table. “This is what interests me most.”
It was the image of a brutally battered young man; broken nose, black eyes, missing teeth, bruised chest. Every part of his body that was not bruised or deformed was otherwise covered in blood. From the photograph, it wasn’t even clear if he was dead or alive. Keira flinched and looked away, burning with shame.
Jason. Even the thought of his name made her sick.
“You put him in the bed of his own truck and drove him to the hospital, despite the fact that you had no driver’s license at the time, and then you turned yourself in, yet no charges were ever pressed. Why is that?” He asked.
She stared at her hands: they were the hands of a butcher, a psycho, and every other name that she’d ever been called. That had been the worst part about the name-calling: they were all true names. She closed her eyes, and wished that he would put the photograph away.
Seeing that she still refused to look at the photo, Harper picked it up to admire. He made a clucking sound with his tongue, and praised her. “It’s astounding, what you were able to do at only thirteen years old with your bare hands.”
It was all she could do to keep her breathing under control, and her fingers from shaking.
“Omega-two, do you know what you are?”
She looked up at Harper and blinked. He would tell her soon enough.
His eyes narrowed. “How old are you?”
He had that damned file, so must have known. She did not reply.
“This can be much more difficult, if you prefer,” the man warned.
She waited for him to elucidate how it might be so.
Her look, otherworldly and inscrutable, moved him to fury.
“Damn you!” he yelled, slamming his hands on the desk. “Epsilons!”
Two more men came through the door; they had to duck. The first thing she noticed was their size. They were juggernauts, not men; each clearing seven feet in height and of equally dominating width, their too-tight gray shirts stretched over excessive musculature. The second was their eyes: bright golden orbs like champions’ medallions. Otherwise, they looked nothing alike.
One had ebony skin that might have been polished, and his bare scalp shone even in the dim fluorescent light. The other was taller, with olive skin and brown curls that circled his head like a wreath. When she looked upon them, she saw any god of war who had ever been conjured. None of them, not the Epsilons or the Deltas or even Aiden, seemed entirely human.
Harper broke her thoughts. “Speak, or I will have them break a bone for every answer you do not give.”
She did not doubt him, but she remained mute.
He matched her gaze, his mind working. She could almost hear cogwheels turning with his effort. He cleared his throat, calming suddenly, and shuffled the file’s papers. “David Wallace. That’s the man you consider your father?”
Her eyes flashed. That made her angry.
“And Jane Wallace, your mother? Iona Wallace, your sister?”
She waited for his threat, feeling the rage rushing through each pulse of her blood.
“You were adopted in infancy. Did you ever wonder about your birth?”
The frosty silence was maintained, but she could not help the thrust of her throat as the muscles tightened around her neck. She kept her trembling fists at her sides, where he could not see them.
His brow knitted together quizzically. “You did know that you are not actually related to a single one of them, didn’t you?”
Her fingernails cut so deeply into her palms, they started to bleed. She didn’t flinch at the pain.
“You don’t remotely resemble either parent.” He shook his head sadly, and placed each photo in front of her, revealing a bluish tint to the beds underneath each tar-stained fingernail. This man was not long for the world, she thought without regret. Then her eyes fell on the photographs: Iona, laughing with a boy outside of their school; David and Jane, getting into their Jetta after work. “Why would they tell you that?”
She stared at each of them: Sister, Father, Mother. Genetic anomaly, they’d joked. Rage shuddered against its container of skin.
His voice was much softer, as if victorious. “Tell me, Omega-two. How old are you?”
She would not give him victory. She said nothing. Her skin was boiling, and she thought she might explode. Instead, she played a game that she always played, a survival game of sorts: she focused on the facts.
Bruce Harper, Secretary of State of the United States of America.
Bruce Harper, sixty-two years old, a former CEO of Jadis; a Fortune 500 Company and leader in the energy sector.
Bruce Harper has endured two previous heart attacks.
Keira almost smiled as she remembered the last fact.
Infuriated by her silence, Harper stood and pounded on the table. “Which one dies first?” He shouted, spittle dripping from his lip.
Our genetic anomaly, they’d called her, and they’d never once yelled or threatened. She looked up and hardened her gaze. “You, with any luck.”
In the corner of the room, Aiden snorted softly, but Harper did not hear. He swatted the photos away with a furious sweep of the hand. “Whom do you work for?”
The question was so absurd, she felt like laughing. Though she did not, her eyebrows lifted. She looked at the man like he was the stupidest person she’d ever met in her life, which, at this point, he was shaping into. She was slightly alarmed, in light of his considerably deficient wit and obvious ill health, at how powerful this man was. “Sometimes I babysit on weekends. Mostly, I go to high school.”
Harper looked down at the paper. “And how long have you lived in… Haidala?” He struggled with the pronunciation of the community’s name.
She shrugged. “Always.”
Harper did not look at her, but rather at the now black-eyed Deltas, as if for some reaction. They had none.
The thin suit to Harper’s left spoke up. “Do you know anything about the Paragon program?”
She shook her head.
“Answer aloud please.”
“No. I’ve never heard of the… Paragon program.”
The man opened his mouth, but Harper jumped in first. “Do you know what you are?”
She crossed her arms over her chest, hiding her balled fists. “I’d imagine you’re going to tell me.”
“Do you know anything?” His tone was mocking.
Keira added one more fact to her list.
Bruce Harper never left high school.
Having painted a sufficient portrait of him, Keira deigned to answer him fully for the first time. “I know that you, the Secretary of State, are apparently complicit in the abduction of a seventeen year old girl from another country, and thus clearly and most disturbingly unconcerned with the laws of international diplomacy. I cannot decide whether I know entirely too little, or already too much.”
Aiden coughed. She’d never heard a cough sound so much like laughter.
Harper’seyes narrowed as he deciphered her reply. “So you know who I am?”
“Of course I do. But I can’t pretend to understand why either of us are here, having this conversation.”
Instead of replying, Harper turned to the man who’d once been beautiful, before his eyes had gone hellish. “Did she not lie once?”
“She speaks the truth,” the man confirmed.
Harper turned back to Keira. “What you must understand, Omega-two, is that you are here, having this conversation with me, because I own you.”
Keira held her breath as she tried to quell the fury. Her game of facts would not work anymore: no facts could contain the rage she felt. Second by second, she grew closer to snapping, and the only thing that held her back was curiosity: she didn’t understand. How could she act, before she understood?
Harper addressed the blond thug to his left. “King, I want her to begin training with your recruits tomorrow. She’ll have one month – I want her to be ready for the Mansoor mission.”
Suddenly, Keira remembered why the blond man seemed familiar. His name was Dean King. He’d also been featured in the news the morning after her nightmare; the founder of Suspiral, a mercenary company that held billions of dollars in US government military contracts. Suspiral was the very same company responsible for the civilian killings in Iraq. Knowing this gave Keira little comfort. She didn’t understand the connection between Harper and King, but more importantly, she did not understand what either wanted with her.
King looked about to object, but Harper was already facing the other man. “Jackson, see to the rest of her indoctrination.”
Jackson dipped his head. “She requires a more complete account of her origin and purpose. It would be best if the other Paragons explained it to her. She may be more responsive to them.”
“They are her own kind of creature,” Harper agreed. “Very well. Do as you see fit. I’ll expect weekly reviews on her progress.” He stopped with his hand on the door, and turned to Aiden. “And Omega-one, for God’s sake, get a haircut.”
With a parting, contemptuous glance at the shadowy figure in the corner, the Secretary of State turned and slammed the door behind him.
King stood and cleared his throat. “You will report to the main field tomorrow at oh-six-hundred hours.”
Keira blinked at him.
“We have a meeting at thirteen hundred hours with the lawyers, Dean,” Jackson said slowly. He was flipping through the folder on the table again, not even bothering to look at King. “Building One.”
King nodded stiffly, and exited through the same door as Harper.
Jackson pushed away the folder. If he’d formed some judgement from his readings, he gave no sign of it.
“Please get her a set of clothing, Delta-one, then gather the other Paragons in Building Two.”
The red-haired woman obeyed promptly, and then there were only four in the room. Finally, Jackson addressed her.
“I suppose you have a number of questions, Omega-two?”
Keira had many questions. But she asked only one. She held up her left arm. “When did I get a tattoo?”