Head hurts. Eyes itch. I am dehydrated. In pain. There are wires coming out of my body. I can’t move much. My feet and hands are secured. The room I am in is white. There is a hum somewhere and I am, I guess, on a ship.
Not good. Cyrus sold me out. Bad move.
“Good. You’re awake,” says a cheerful voice to my right. I turn to look at its owner. A thin guy dressed in white.
“Captain Jackal will be pleased.”
Jackal? I think to myself. Do even his own men call him that?
“Can I have some water?” I ask. My tongue feels like dried paper.
“Ah, yeah. The drug they gave you dehydrated you.” He does something to one of the consoles in front of him and a robotic arm whirrs by my head. I angle my head to look at it.
“Don’t worry,” he tells me, “it’ll rehydrate you.”
The arm stretches out, a scanner reading me. Then it edges closer and a thin needle attached to a tube moves towards me. I stiffen. The cold metal tip touches my neck and there is a painful jab. I say nothing. I see a colorless fluid being pumped in through the tube.
“Fastest way to do this,” he says to me by way of explanation. I think to myself that I could easily contest that. A tumbler in my hands would do just the trick but somehow I don’t think he really appreciates humor.
I watch him as he goes to the far wall and speaks into a comm there. Jackal, I guess will be paying me a visit shortly. I mentally prepare and look around the room. The tube feeding me liquid through the needle at my neck is beginning to work. I feel less dehydrated and able to think clearly.
The place is a lab. I can see that now. Neatly folded robotic arms everywhere. I am strapped down on a gurney. There are clear tubes in neat rows that I associate with DNA sequencing. I have seen rooms like that before, one in particular actually. On the Ghost Ship we boarded I remember the room with the blood-stained gurneys, the one that wasn’t mentioned in the ship manifest. I realize I may be in a pickle here and I am angry, really really angry at myself.
I got caught like a rookie because I let my guard down. I underestimated the resources of the Jackal and the Hub Regulators. The quiet street scene outside Cyrus’ joint, “too quiet”. Clichés! I hate clichés. Worse than that, I hate becoming them. I test my restraints but they’ve done their homework. They have me tied down good.
While waiting for things to unfold I take myself mentally to a serene, quiet place. On Eden I have bought a house. I have a new identity. Credits enough to last me a lifetime. I will wake up every day and go for a run by the sea. Do push ups and pull ups afterwards. Catch up with distant news and watch the latest holovid on the streaming channels.
In my mind, I am running barefoot, on sand next to the morning surf and the sun is really hot on my bare torso. I lift my knees up as I run and pump my arms harder to go faster and the salty air feels fresh on my face. I feel freer and happier than I have ever been in my life...
My lungs begin to heave and burn from the effort but I do not let up. I blink rapidly to clear the stinging sweat from my eyes and I take pleasure in this moment where the physical effort of running makes me feel glad to be alive.
“He’s awake and lucid,” there’s a slap on my face. Then another. The voice of the man in white is directly above me and he is slapping me to open my eyes. I am back in the lab, tethered to a gurney and totally helpless. My guess now is he’s a Lab Tech.
“Hello,” I manage and he slaps me again, a little harder and totally unnecessarily.
“Not so cocky now, are we?” smiles the Jackal. He too looms above me and for the first time, in this very clear light I notice the familial resemblance to Tessa. “You are our very special guest here Sef or-” he pauses for effect, “should I call you Red Reaper?”
“Let me guess,” I say, “predictability runs in your family.” The grin freezes on his face. I press on, “Dear dead sis Tess paused for effect like that too when she worked it out.”
He leans forward and slaps me. In retrospect the Lab Tech in white was gentle like a lamb. “Mention her again,” he dares me. He’s like a child really. Easy to goad. If it weren’t for his special brand of viciousness that allowed him to do the worst things you can imagine he’d never had got as far up the Corps ranks of mercenaries as he has.
“Tess?” I enquire and this time he backhands me. It hurts. I taste the faint, metallic taste of blood in my mouth. “I am tied up a little.” I say, “afraid of a fair fight?” Another backhand rewards me with pain. My eyes water with the sting of it.
“I can take you apart here, bit by bit,” he says, “we have tech that will keep you alive, awake, lucid while we dismember you. You can get to watch yourself diminish bit by tiny bit.”
“What? No holovids to entertain you here?” Another backhand. Harder than before. I think the skin above my cheekbone may have cracked open but I am too numb to feel anything.
“Keep on joking killer. Go ahead. But no one knows you are here. No one knows the fabled Red Reaper got caught in our little trap, like a rookie.”
“Who do you think upped the reward ten-fold?”
“Oh. Right. Greed. Yeah. It’s a powerful motivator. But people know I am here-”
“No. No one does.” He says and grins again. I really dislike him when he grins. He sees the confusion in my face and leans forward, just an inch or two above me. “That little pathetic excuse for a bar owner?” He grins. “My men took care of that. And his goons. And - “ there is a stupid, exaggerated theatrically in his pauses that I find really annoying. “Some of the poor unfortunates who frequented his establishment at that time.”
“You killed them all?” I find it incredible. Even in the Hub where Regulator justice is rarely questioned you can’t just do whatever you want.
“There was a little industrial accident with some cables and a few unfortunately contraband substances, it would appear.”
He says. He’s really full of himself with pride. “All that’s left is a charred husk of a place and carbonized bodies inside.”
“You bastard!” It’s an unnecessary loss of life. I know what’s coming next.
“And Snug, of course. How unfortunate that he dealt in exotic weaponry. There’s nothing but small piles of red dust swirling in his shop.”
“The Hub is not a very friendly place,” he grins again and I notice now just how cold that grin really is.
“Anyway, enough talk. We have plans for you Reaper.” He motions to the Lab Tech and the man turns away to do something in his console. I hear the whirring of robotic arms just behind my head and I force myself to not react. I will not give the Jackal the pleasure of seeing me struggle.
“Prep him. Execute,” he tells the man and with a sharp click of his heels he turns around and walks away.
The robotic arms whirr above me.
“Don’t worry,” the Lab Tech says surprisingly soothingly to me. “You won’t feel a thing.” There’s a jab in my arm where he’s injected me with something and everything goes a little fuzzy.
I don’t exactly pass out but nothing is quite lucid either. I come to and there are dozens of needles stuck in me. My neck, arms, torso. I am naked and strapped down. There’s the smell of blood in the air or maybe that’s only inside my head. I don’t really know any more. I feel nothing. My body is not my own.
“Gene splicing at this level is an art,” the Lab Tech talks as he works. His hands fly over buttons on consoles like a consummate pianist. “Tessa was a true artist in this. She’s been sequencing genomes and splicing them, switching on and off arcane genes for years. She was a true master. But even a master needs a good canvas to work with. Something amazing. We’ve been looking for the right material for so long now. Sometimes, when we got lucky in the past, the technique was not quite so refined. At other times we overlooked something minor. A tiny expressive gene that turned out to be major. We learnt the hard way, the hardest way possible actually. You’re lucky.”
“Lucky?” I can barely contain my mirth and, talking as it turns out, is the only thing I can do.
“I know you don’t think so but we looked at the samples Tessa send us on you. You’re perfect. Even more perfect than that little girl and she got away. But we’ll get her back.”
“I don’t know her name. The Captain will find her. He finds everybody. That’s his special skill.”
“But back to you my friend. You will find that you will fade in and out. Don’t worry. That’s normal. No pain. But as the genes take effect there will be changes. You will notice yourself fading. There is some exotic material there,” he says with real pride in his voice, “once it takes effect you will slowly disappear.”
“What do you hope to accomplish?” I ask, “If I am as rare as you say then all you have is just one. One Chimera.”
“Oh, you don’t understand. We will have the recipe. We can clone you forever. An unbeatable army we can control.”
“You will never control me,” I say.
“Carry on believing that,” he smirks. Then, as he turns a switch, “see you on the other side Reaper.”
I am fighting against the restraints that hold me down. Muscles ripple, sinews heave, tendons tense. I almost hear bones cracking and teeth chipping as I pit everything I am, everything I have against the fate reserved for me.
Pain. Pain is a constant. I blank it out. Fear. I am really afraid. Inside my head there is a heavy, frightening growl. Something huge and fast with teeth and claws is coming my way and it really wants me dead. I hide. Darkness shields me from it.
I find myself running in darkness. Trying to outpace a terror that doesn’t tire and doesn’t stop.
I run and run until my legs cannot carry me. I fall and fade. Cry and feel pain.
I am on Eden. My paradise retirement place. I try to make amends for those I killed. Give something back to those I come in contact with. I find myself endlessly lifting heavy boulders, taking them away from the beach.
It’s hard work and the sun is ferociously hot and I am thirsty but I can’t stop. I bring boulder after boulder but when I look back the boulders have somehow returned to the beach and I have to bring them all back again. I cry out. Feel Pain. Then fade.
In the final test I am climbing. A sheer rock face. No rope. Only hands and feet. I have to use my core. Abs to pull myself up again and again.
Look for handholds and footholds where they barely exist. I don’t look down. I am really high. I cling desperately to the rock face, back muscles aching. Abs burning. My hands and feet are numb. Cut and bleeding. I hold on. Abs on fire. The tension is incredible. Something begins to give. A muscle in my lower back locks. My glutes cry out.
I can no longer hold on. I begin to fall. Slow motion. I fade.
“Well? We got it?” I understand the words. I don’t know where I am. I blink to clear my eyes. It’s some sort of long cargo hold. Metal bulkheads everywhere. Tiny, intercom voices filtering to me. I realize no one is talking to me. I can overhear things.
“Yes sir. We finally have it.”
“Look up please.” Says an incredibly loud and very polite voice. I recognize it as the Lab Tech but it is so very loud now. I look up and see above me a series of metal rings. They are embedded in the ceiling overhead. “Jump up and grab them please,” I don’t think about it. I just do it.
The leap is easily forty feet. It almost feels like flying. One moment I am standing at ground level, looking up. The next I am holding onto the rings. Feet dangling. “Let go please,” the voice says. It is coming from a loudspeaker. My hands open.
I drop down, land smoothly with barely a thud.
There are more commands. I bend metal and crack bulletproof glass. I run across the cargo hold and cartwheel in midair. I perform on command. Throw heavy things about that I have no right to even lift. Something metal and heavy comes at me powered by a robotic arm and I seize it in mid-flight. Stop it dead with lightning-fast reflexes and I bend it in half. The tests go on and on and on. The commanding voice mesmerizing.
“Impressive,” from the Jackal this time. How do I know all this? “We have total control?”
“Yes sir. The sequencing led us to a restructured reward system. That makes motivation subject to obedience which triggers hypothalamic responses. It’s a little more complex but basically it takes pleasure in obeying us. We imprint voice modulation so only specific people can command it.”
“Right. Right. All this will hold through cloning?”
“We don’t know yet sir. Theoretically yes. But until we clone several, look for any unexpected deficiencies or micro-mutations that change things…”
“Right. Right. Do it. Do it tonight. We need to know asap.”
I stand. Dumbly waiting for some command to obey.
Darkness. The things I fear. Death is not one of them. I fear vanishing. Disappearing without a trace, leaving nothing behind. Dissolution means meaninglessness. It’s like life means nothing. I fear madness. Actions without logic. I fear darkness. The kind of darkness that steals me from my head.
I don’t know how to explain what happens next. Some of the articulation I had has left me. It is hard to put thoughts into words. But some other things are easier. I can almost see genes inside me. Not see them. I am aware of them. It’s like I can adapt to order. My orders. Adapt to overcome. I can see, for instance, how epigenetic changes affect imprinting, create neural circuits that bypass higher executive functions, robbing me of free will. Choice. And I can change that. If I wish.
What happens next.
I am immune to cold and pain. Energy weapons can kill me but they have to hit me full on. I am fast. Really fast. And strong. Very strong. Space can’t kill me. I don’t even need oxygen to survive. I cannot explain this because I breathe. But out in space I don’t have to. I can feel the radiation. Warm against my skin. And I am big. Larger than humans are.
Metal is torn up. I rage.
Claxons. I find flesh is soft. Pulpy. Even bones. They smash easily against metal bulkheads.
What happened. Flashing lights. Air escaping as the ship depressurizes. Bulkheads smashed. Cold. Darkness. Fear. Chaos.
Everyone dies. An unmarked ship in an unauthorized orbit. I know the planet below is the Hub. I like the Hub. I have met people there I did not want to kill. The ship is full of blood. Bodies. On several walls written in human blood I have left them all a message. A legend: