Authors: Jessica Brody
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I was born in secret. In a time of war. Not a war between nations. Or beliefs. Or territorial claims. It is a war of will. Us versus her. Who is stronger? Who is more clever? Who will win?
The answer is as obvious to me as the air I breathe. It flows through me as easily as the superior blood in my veins. It fuels me like food and fire.
We will win.
She will lose.
She will succumb to us because we are more powerful. We have more tools and weapons and technology at our disposal.
We will win because we have Dr. Alixter.
And she only has the boy. The weak, arrogant, ill-fated boy whose sole weapons are words and empty promises. Whose sole tactic is to run.
But you can only run so far before you're tracked down. You can only hide for so long before you make a mistake and we find you.
That is what I was born to do.
To find her.
I hear the crowd of eager spectators above my head as the man-powered lifts raise me up and deliver me into the center of the Colosseum.
My opponent stands on the other side of the arena. He's holding a steel shield in one hand and a dagger in the other. I'm given a choice of weapons: trident, lance, cavalry sword. I choose none.
I'd like this to last more than thirty seconds.
I'm dressed in the traditional garb of a gladiator circa AD 45. Red cloak, gold body armor, and a helmet with tassels that resemble peacock feathers. I take off my body armor and let it clank to the ground by my feet. It will only slow me down.
Plus, I don't plan on getting hit.
The clock ticks down and my legs tremble in anticipation. The horn sounds and my reflexes take over. Before my opponent has a chance to blink, I'm behind him, jabbing an elbow to his skull. He sinks to his knees, his dagger swinging feebly through the air in a last-minute attempt to fight back.
But you can't fight something you can't follow with your eyes. I dodge his feeble blows easily, my movement a mere blur. Once he's down, I deliver the final blow. A heel to his neck. The skin breaks and the blood begins to spread.
I count the seconds as his life wanes.
10, 9, 8, 7Â â¦
As he gurgles his last dying breath, my surroundings start to change. Confetti and fireworks burst into the sky and the crowd cheers in delight.
In giant red text, a message appears among the clouds:
Time Elapsed: 32 seconds
Well, it lasted longer than thirty seconds.
“Deactivate link,” I command my Lenses. They obey and slowly the Roman Colosseum fades, dissolving into the typical whites and blues of the lab that has been my home for the past four months.
This is where I was born. Where I was brought into the world as a fully formed seventeen-year-old man with muscles as solid as stone, bones as strong as tree trunks, and a face designed to elicit awe and envy. Building 1 of the Medical Sector has been my home for the past three months. I sleep here. I train here. I receive my daily uploads here.
The large spherical womb where I gestated still stands on a steel pedestal in the center, like a trophy. It is empty now. The orange amniotic fluid that breathed life into me has been drained and washed away.
My bed is in the corner. It is small with only a thin blanket but I don't need much.
I cannot leave the Medical Sector and roam about the compound. It is too dangerous. The world is not ready to know me yet. Not even the scientists and children of scientists who dwell on the compound are ready to learn what I am.
For now, my objective is not to be known. It is to be unknown. As soon as they locate the girl, I will be sent into the past to apprehend her and bring her back. It will be my first official mission as a Diotech soldier. My entire lifeâall 121 days of itâhas been leading up to that.
When I step out of the simulation chamber, I'm startled by the sound of someone clapping on the other side of the room. I thought I was alone. Normally my enhanced hearing would register anyone entering, but the sound effects of the game must have masked it.
When I turn, I see Dr. Jans Alixter, the man who created me. Who brought me to life. Who coded my DNA to his exact specifications.
The man who made me what I am.
A scientific miracle.
“Thirty-two seconds,” he drawls, nodding toward the chamber I just exited. I now realize he was watching the entire simulation on the viewer screens mounted outside. “Impressive.”
“I was going easy on my opponent.” I'm quick to defend my time. “I could have ended him sooner if I'd selected weapons but I wanted the game to last longer.”
He makes a
sound with his tongue. “You should never go easy on your enemy. They won't go easy on you.”
I double back toward the simulation chamber. “I will go again. I will show you how fast I can be.”
“That won't be necessary,” Dr. Alixter says, stopping me in my tracks. “I know how fast you can be.”
Panic flares in my chest. A deeply unsettling feeling that I've disappointed him. And a fierce desperation to make it right. “I'm sorry, sir. It won't happen again.”
Dr. Alixter smiles, easing my anxiety slightly. “Just remember, Kaelen.
was a simulation. A game. It can be switched off or restarted at any time. When we send you out into the real world, there is no room for error. There are no restarts. If you are presented with an opportunity to make the kill, you make it. Hesitation will only lead to unnecessary complications.”
I nod. “I understand, sir.”
Dr. Alixter begins to say something else, but breaks into a fit of wild, violent coughs. My eyes narrow in concern. I have only received rudimentary uploads in the science of medicine, but I am certain those coughs don't sound innocuous.
“My apologies,” Dr. Alixter says after regaining control of his breathing. “It seems this bug of mine insists on lingering.”
“Bug?” I repeat inquisitively.
He smiles. “It's slang. It means illness.”
“Surely whatever illness you have can be cured right here in the Medical Sector.”
“Surely,” he echoes, but I detect a hint of insincerity in his eyes. “I will look into it. You should not trouble yourself with my well-being. You should be focusing on your mission. We will find her any day now and you must be ready.”
“Of course,” I reply quickly. Shame creeps up my cheeks, making them hot. I should not have questioned him. “I hope I did not cause you to doubt my loyalty to the cause.”
Dr. Alixter laughs. “Ease your mind, Kaelen. I would never doubt
I nod, relief cooling my face. “Thank you, sir.”
“The girl on the other handâ¦”
“The girl will be apprehended,” I say. “I am confident I can fulfill my duties and return her to you. Just as I have been designed to do.”
Dr. Alixter cocks his head, studying me. “Your confidence is admirable. But possibly foolish as well.”
I swallow, fearing I have said the wrong thing again. “Foolish?”
“The girl and her”âDr. Alixter's face twists in repulsionâ“
have managed to outsmart us more than once. She is dangerous. She is crafty.”
“She won't outsmart me,” I assert.
His doubt is disheartening. “Do you not believe I am ready?”
“I didn't say that. I'm just making sure you understand that this won't be an easy mission.”
“We have prepared you with uploads and training simulations, but you have never been out there.” He points vaguely toward the door of the lab. The door that has marked my perimeter for three months. “Out there is a different place, one that she has grown accustomed to, while you have no experience in it at all.”
But his warnings do not sway my resolve. “I will not disappoint you. She is disloyal to our cause and I willâ”
,” Dr. Alixter corrects. “Which is quite different. Her genetic programming is not as perfect as yours. Being that she was the first of your kind, there were flaws in her design. Flaws that we, thankfully, fixed in you. Disloyalty can be corrected, but brokennessâa defectâcan be dangerous. You can't predict how a broken person will react. They don't operate logically. They don't rely on reason.”
“It was the boy who broke her, wasn't it?” I ask. “He lured her away. He baited her with false promises.”
“The girl was already broken,” Dr. Alixter says. “It was the boy who discovered her flaws and exploited them.”
“I will not fail,” I promise. “I will bring her back so that she can be fixed. So that she can serve Diotech just as I do.”
“And the boy?” Dr. Alixter asks, raising a single eyebrow.
My pulse quickens. We have never discussed what I am to do about the boy. He has always been omitted from the conversation. Until now.
This is a test. I know it. He is analyzing my reaction, assessing my ability to think for myself within the constraints of my assignment. I have to formulate my answer carefully, as Dr. Alixter will be judging my preparedness based on how I respond.
If I answer wrong, he may deem I'm not yet ready.
But I am. I am ready. I am anxious to fulfill my mission.
I consider everything I've learned in the past 121 days. I recall every upload I've received on the history of Diotech and its future agenda. I weigh every conversation Dr. Alixter and I have had about the girl and her betrayal. And then I answer with clarity and conviction.
“The boy is a threat to us. He must die.”
A small, almost imperceptible smile parts his pale lips and I know that I have answered correctly.
The girl was created to be perfect.
Superior DNA. Beauty stolen from the digitally enhanced faces on the fashion streams. Abilities that rivaled those typically reserved for the comic book superheroes of the past.
But it didn't take long for her imperfections to surface. Unbeknownst to the scientists who spent years bringing her to life, there was a flaw buried within her genetic code. A defect more powerful than they could ever have imagined.
It made her foolish. It made her disobedient. It made her run.
Like her, I took my first breath inside the walls of this compound, hidden deep in the desert. Like her, I took my first steps on the synthotile floors of a secret laboratory, shielded from the eyes of the world. Like her, I was tested for strength, speed, mental aptitude, and my ability to heal.
I was told from the first day that I was perfect.
That people would be jealous of me.
That I was born to change the world.
like her, I am not broken. The defect they found in her doesn't live in me.
In a way, I followed in her footsteps. But I was never created to be her shadow. I wasn't even created to be her equal. I am superior to her in every way.
I knew from the moment I opened my eyes that I was expected to surpass her. If I was going to be the one to track her down and bring her back, then I had to stand taller, run faster, think quicker.