Authors: Jennie Bates Bozic
“I want my computer,” I blurt out.
George covers his face with his hand. Dr. Christiansen picks something up off her desk and holds it up for me to see.
“You mean this?”
“You had no right to take it.” I can’t think of a better argument. I’m trying, but all that comes to me is pure anger.
“You had no right to have it in the first place. I have already reviewed some of the contents of your files this morning.”
I hold my breath.
She continues. “It seems you have forged an adolescent romantic relationship with a young man named Jack. Is that correct?”
I lick my lips and look to George for help, but he’s staring at the floor.
“I have viewed several of the videos and plan to watch the rest for research purposes, so unfortunately I cannot return the computer to you. Your relationship with this young man must come to an end now. Do you have any questions?”
“You…you can’t watch those. They’re private! They’re none of your business! Give them back!” I veer off to the left. My trembling affects my ability to control my movements, and I sink to the floor. I hate that I’m at her feet.
She looks down at me with a calculated smile. “I am afraid that is not possible.”
I stare at her, numb. Leaden despair threatens to crush me into the floorboards.
“On the other hand, I have some good news for you.” Her voice is too high, almost hysterical. It’s as though she’s mimicking someone who possesses the ability to be genuinely excited about something. I prepare myself to hate whatever she’s about to say.
“I have arranged a birthday party for you where you will be introduced to six companions who are your own size and species. I am sure one of them will make a much more suitable mate.”
Six companions… Own size and species…
“Six males, called ‘Toms,’ were created shortly after you, but they are the property of Lilliput’s sister project. We deemed it appropriate to raise you separately from one another to keep any familial bonds from forming. They are your surprise sixteenth birthday present, and you may choose one of them to mate with.”
Countless invisible bugs of panic crawl along my skin, raising every hair on my body. My lungs have stopped working, like the time I got socked in the stomach with an intern’s golf ball.
“Lina, do you not understand your purpose? The entire goal of this experiment?”
My breaths are coming so fast I’m beginning to get dizzy. Purpose? Experiment? I’ve always been told my purpose is simply to survive.
“You are the answer to humanity’s problems. It is your duty to choose a mate and reproduce.” She smiles.
Oh my god, how can she smile?
I shake my head. “No. You can’t make me marry someone. I’m leaving when I turn sixteen. I’ll be legal then, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
She taps her pen against her chin. “That is a very interesting assumption, but it is incorrect. You will not be leaving.”
“Scientifically speaking, you are not actually a human, so those laws do not apply to you.”
I snort. “Then what am I?”
“Your species is categorized as a type of damselfly. We took special care to make sure there would be no legal difficulties when you came of age. So you will remain the property of the Lilliput Project. Do not worry. I will do everything in my power to provide you with a comfortable life in a controlled and safe environment.”
My throat tightens, but I force out my question. “When were you planning on letting me in on this little secret? You knew I was looking forward to leaving.”
“It would not have been productive to tell you. For research purposes.”
I back up toward the door, shaking my head all the way.
“You can’t keep me here,” I whisper. She can’t hear me. “I won’t let you.”
I take off out of the room, my wings burning into a dead sprint. The door opens behind me, and Dr. Christiansen calls my name before hitting the lockdown button, which triggers an eardrum-piercing alarm. I know that button well, and I already have my escape route planned. There’s a little mouse hole in the corner of the rear chemistry block leading to the underside of the porch.
I fly up along the ceiling, my wings scraping layers of dust and cobwebs from the exposed rafters.
Dr. Christiansen’s assistant, Jane, bursts out of Chemistry Block #2, and I meet her eye as I fly right over her head. Her lab coat is covered in a foul-smelling solution, her face wearing her normal confused expression. The screeching alarm hasn’t registered in her head yet.
“Lina? Oh! Lockdown! Lina, come here!”
Too late. I fly into the room she just left, and I’m almost to the open door between the blocks when I see what she’s been experimenting on. A simple lab table sits in the middle of the room. A cat lies on top, soaked in blood. It looks as though someone’s ripped out all of its fur and its bones are poking out at unnatural angles. It can barely move because of its wounds and bonds, but it blinks and opens its mouth ever so slightly to cry to me through its muzzle. The sound is so familiar somehow. Then I realize the cat didn’t make any noise—it was me.
I hover there, unable to move. What are they
to that poor animal? And why? Tears fill my eyes, and I stretch my hand out to it without thinking, as if I could take its pain onto myself. Jane’s voice catches me by surprise.
“Lina! You’re not supposed to be in here!”
I can’t look at her. My stomach decides it can’t hold anything anymore, and I throw up just as Jane reaches out to grab me. It startles her enough to give me time to escape, but I don’t have any anger left to propel me. It’s been replaced by the cold grip of fear.
I feel her fingertips on my feet, but she’s not as fast as I am. As I get close to my escape hole, I realize I can’t use it while anyone is looking. I can’t have them blocking me on the other side.
Jane smacks the block’s lockdown alert button to tell everyone where I am. She doesn’t take her eyes off of me.
“Lina, what’s going on? You can talk to me.” Catlike, she steps forward, hands at the ready, looking for the right moment to pounce on me. “Let’s have a nice chat, you and me.”
I glance over at the cat on the table as I formulate a plan, and a fresh surge of terror floods my veins. Panic has become my new life force.
That’s it. Panic. Break things.
I hurtle myself toward the cabinet and steel myself for impact. I strike the large glass flask on the end which clatters into the rest, sending them airborne. Jane forgets all about me and tries to catch one of the bottles, but it shatters when it hits her hands and she screams and runs to stick her hand into a chemical neutralizer.
I feel guilty she’s hurt, but there’s no time to stop. I head straight for the hole and crawl inside, praying I don’t actually run into a mouse or some other rodent or large insect. Inside of the hole is half-eaten sheep’s wool insulation and dust. I stifle a sneeze and wade through the thick stuff until I reach the wood of the outer wall. Crawling along a stud beam, I search for a way out.
There it is—a splintered gash in the wall.
And it’s surrounded in mouse droppings.
Really? It had to be this?
I grit my teeth and hold my hands up and away from the disgusting little turds as I pick my way through to the exit. I suck in my breath and squeeze through to the outside, but the underside of my shirt catches on the splinters on my way through and I don’t notice it until I’m somersaulting into the large pile of droppings on the other side. I bolt up from the ground, shaking my arms and legs and head. Even when I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten it all off, I can’t get rid of the feeling of lingering filth.
The alarm screams that I don’t have much time to figure out my next move. I have to get out of the commons and into my forest. But then what?
A half-hearted voice in my head suggests I turn myself in, but it’s only telling me what should be logical in every other situation. Every fraction of my heart and mind tell me it doesn’t make sense to give in this time. A rush of adrenaline brings a huge grin to my face. I’ve fantasized about running away since I was old enough to fly. It feels good to have complete conviction on my side for once.
Now I have to get out of here.
Little nagging thoughts asking, “Where will you go?” and “What will you do?” and “How will you even survive?” are pushed aside. I call upon all of my training to assess my surroundings.
The porch is nothing more than a glorified doorstep with stairs. The sides are wooden lattice, and I can see hurrying feet outside.
I carefully poke my head out through one of the lattices. Two security guards run by, but they don’t look at the porch. Everyone seems to be running toward the supply gate. I guess I won’t be escaping that way.
Darn it. There’s no other way out of the compound. The dome fence surrounding the project doesn’t end at the ground; it goes deep a few dozen feet. But then I remember the hole I crawled through. It wasn’t supposed to be there. Maybe the fence has a hole somewhere, too.
I wait a few seconds to see if anyone else runs by, but everyone seems to be gone. I pull myself through the lattice and climb up to the step. I can’t hear anything except for the alarms.
Then the screen door opens and almost squashes me against the wall. The door stop saves my life, and I jump off of the porch in the nick of time to avoid being seen. I float down to the ground and listen hard. Dr. Christiansen’s steely voice cuts through the alarms.
“…and I want you to alert Dr. Lee and Lilliput II. We are about to release the drones on autopilot until I can get home to control them.”
I freeze. The drones. I haven’t heard them mentioned in years. I didn’t know they existed outside of my nightmares.
The drones are round, flying robots specifically designed to do one thing: find and capture me. When I was a kid, Dr. Christiansen told me they were rescue drones and they would save me if I was ever kidnapped, but when I asked her how they would fight off a bad man, she didn’t have an answer. To make them more child-friendly, she had them painted to resemble bumblebees. Somewhere in her sick, twisted mind, she thought that would make it more fun for me. We would run drills where she would tell me to fly as fast as I could so the drones could practice chasing me and swallowing me up in their metal bellies.
I still have nightmares about them. And now I’m going to have to escape them—something I’ve never managed to do before.
Dr. Christiansen puts her phone away. She walks down the steps, pauses at the bottom, and pulls a pair of tiny scissors out of her pocket. She stands on one foot, draws the other foot up to her knee, and snips off the single stray thread on the hem of her pants. Then she puts the thread and scissors into her pocket and walks toward my forest, though not directly toward my house.
I flutter up to the step, avoiding the door this time, and run to the end of the porch so I can get a good look at the other side of the building.
Nothing. Everyone’s gone.
Unease sweeps over me. Why did they all leave so quickly? Wouldn’t they want to search inside a little longer?
Then a sickly sweet smell hits my nose, and my fingers lose all feeling. I hold them up in front of my face and try to move them, but they hang limply from my hand.
The smell is a paralyzing agent.
I hold my breath and take to flight, racing for a nearby tree. My lungs are burning, but I don’t dare inhale. A cardinal tumbles through the branches and lands on the ground with a soft thud. The chemical’s reach is spreading, so I turn to fly upwind. When I can’t bear to hold my breath any longer, I stop, lie down on a tree branch, and suck in breath after breath.
Immediately, movement and sensation return to my fingers. I shake off the residual dullness and leap off of the branch into flight. I clear the tops of the highest trees and race along them, keeping as much of the forest between myself and the ground as possible to avoid being seen. My lungs are starting to feel tight, but so far my asthma has decided to cooperate. I cross my fingers and hope it stays that way.
There is no sign of any of the Lilliput Project’s employees. I glance behind me in time to see five small yellow-striped discs pop up above the trees.
All five of them head in my direction without the slightest hesitation. How on earth have they already tracked me down?
I fly backward, not wanting to take my eyes off of my pursuers, until I run straight into a branch. Blunt pain knocks out all light and sound for a split second, and I scramble to grab onto a twig. A flock of startled sparrows bursts from the leaves and scatters into the sky. I squint, but they remain blurry blobs to me and my head lolls to the side.
The drones get closer and closer. They separate from one another, and each goes after a different bird, swallowing the terrified creatures up inside their metal bellies.
Then it hits me. They’re heat-seeking drones, and there are only a few creatures in this entire compound close enough to my size to be mistaken for me.
My vision gradually returns to normal as the machines turn tail and head to the main buildings. I rub my head, my stomach still roiling within me. I can’t move too quickly otherwise the world starts to spin. But I can’t stay here. They’ll be after me again once someone realizes they only captured birds. I need to be out of the compound before that happens.
I take off at half-speed, fighting to stay upright through my dizziness. I can make out the edge of the trees from here. The forest will end, and I will hit the invisible wall. Then I have to find another mouse hole.
Waves of uncertainty push the nausea back into motion, and I struggle not to dry-heave. The adrenaline recedes, leaving me with the exhausting sensation that I am alone. There is no one to help me—not even George.
My hands reach the fence first, fingers exploring the strange fibers. Up close, it isn’t transparent; it resembles glowing silver threads all tightly woven. But when I fly backward, the world outside snaps into focus. The only way I’m going to find a hole is to fly close to the wall so I can see any breaks or gaps.