On another Friday night, she might have
been out at a Georgetown bar, accepting drinks from attractive men and allowing
them to delude themselves into imagining that they might be the lucky one to
take her home.
Tonight, she had work to do.
The hem of the white lab coat brushed about
her legs as she strode toward the double doors that barred entry to the western
wing. No one paid her any attention. Scientists and lab technicians scurried
past her, nodding at her with absent-minded politeness. On Friday evening, with
the weekend beckoning, no one thought about security.
Where men faltered, technology kept going.
The corridor seemed endlessly long, and the
security cameras that pivoted on their ceiling-mounted frames bore into her
back. She knew that her image likely featured on one or more of the many
monitors at the security desk, but a combination of training and nerves of
steel steadied her. She resisted the urge to twitch or to hurry her pace.
brought her closer to an ominously glowing red eye on the security panel beside
the door. Undeterred, she waved her badge over the panel. Moments later, the
security panel flashed to green and a heavy lock slid back. Another small
triumph. It usually took a series of them to make a victory.
She lowered her head, ostensibly to look
down at the tablet in her hand. Her long, dark hair fell forward, concealing
the lower half of her face from the security camera as she walked through the
open door. “Entering the western wing,” she murmured, trusting the concealed
microphone to pick up on her whisper.
“Good luck,” Carlos’s voice responded
through the tiny earpiece inserted in her right ear. “All’s clear out here.”
“I’m really glad the security pass I programmed
for you actually worked,” Xin added, a whimsical tone in her voice.
Zara was glad, too. She had a solid plan.
Two of her finest associates backed her up—Carlos Sanchez waiting in the car
concealed off road outside Pioneer Labs, and Mu Xin poised in front of a
computer in her Alexandria home—but she could come up with a list of a
half-dozen things that could still go wrong.
“I’ve finished checking the employee log
against the National Mutant Registry,” Xin continued. “You’ve lucked out, Zara.
Apparently Pioneer Labs isn’t big into hiring mutants. You won’t have to
contend with any telepaths or telekinetics tonight.”
Good. That was
one thing she could strike off her list.
Another long hallway stretched in front of
her, but the glass-enclosed research station on the left drew her attention. Two lab technicians huddled around
a network of computers, their attention focused on the output pouring from the
whirling terminals. Her gaze drifted over the lab technicians and focused on
Roland Rakehell and Michael Cochran, the famous co-creators of “Galahad”, the
perfect human. The two scientists stood in contemplative discussion in front of
a liquid-filled fiberglass chamber.
floating within the sensory deprivation tank, his head encased in a metallic
hood and his face covered by breathing apparatus, writhed in agony. Wires
monitoring heart rate and brain waves trailed from his naked body. Jagged edges
leaped hysterically off the computer readouts as mind and body convulsed,
shuddering with madness and pain.
the lab technicians spoke up, “Professor, his brain waves indicate that he is
Rakehell glanced at his watch. “Right on time,” he noted, his voice tinged with
disappointment. “I guess the miracles can’t come thick and fast every single
him human, not superhuman,” Michael Cochran said. “Besides, we don’t really
have time to record a miracle today.” He glanced at the two technicians.
“Roland and I are meeting investors for dinner, and we have to leave now. Take
Galahad back to his room. Make sure he gets something to eat.”
she pushed away from the viewing area and continued down the corridor. Her
violet eyes betrayed the faintest flicker of confusion and consternation.
never have imagined it, but apparently the scientists had no qualms treating
their prized creation like a common lab animal.
she murmured quietly.
here,” was the immediate response.
step ahead of you,” Xin said. “I’ve gotten through the security system and
rerouted all the cameras in the suite to a static video feed. You’re clear to
second door opened into a large suite pressed up against the western wall of
the laboratory complex. No gentle ambient lighting there, just harsh pools of
unforgiving white light blazing over the bed and table, leaving the rest of the
large suite in muted shadows.
through deliberate design or neglectful oversight that no attempt had been made
to humanize Galahad’s living quarters? Empty shelves lined the wall. The small
metal table and matching chair were severe, the narrow bed unwelcoming. She had
seen third-world hospital wards offer far more comfort to its occupants.
echoed, drawing closer, and then paused outside the door. There was no time to
waste. She strode across the room, slipping into the shadows that obscured the
far side of the suite moments before the door slid open again.
technicians she had seen earlier half-dragged, half-carried Galahad into the
room. It staggered with exhaustion, trying to stand on its own. The technicians
hauled Galahad up and dumped it unceremoniously in a wet, shivering heap on the
the technicians cast a backward glance at the unmoving figure on the bed.
“Pete, are you sure he’s going to be okay?” he asked the other.
It usually takes him a while to recover,” Pete assured the younger man. He
pulled out two sealed nutrient bars from his pocket and tossed them onto the
table. “Let’s go.”
we should at least get him a towel or put him under the sheets.”
snapped. “How many times do I have to say it? Let him be, Jack. He doesn’t want
to be helped, though God knows I’ve tried often enough. He wants to be able to
do things for himself, at least here, in this room. It’s the only dignity he
has left; let’s leave that to him.”
man inhaled deeply, sparing a quick glance back. Galahad trembled so hard it
seemed as if it would shatter. It curled into a fetal ball, perhaps to protect
itself from further violation. “I know. And the best thing we can do for him
right now is leave him alone,” Pete said as he stepped out of the room and
allowed the door to seal shut behind them.
impact was thunderous—not audibly—but she felt it nonetheless. It was the
sealing of a prison cell.
wondered what kind of luxuries and privileges the incomparable Galahad—the
pinnacle of genetic perfection—enjoyed. Now she knew the answer.
watched in silence as Galahad stirred, slowly standing and leaning on the wall
for support as it staggered toward the bathroom. She had yet to get a good look
at its face, but the blazing light did not leave much of its body to
imagination. It was slender but well muscled, powerful and graceful, in spite
of its obvious exhaustion—the promise of perfection come into fruition.
waited through the sound of running water. Patience had never been easy for
her, but she possessed the instincts of a hunter closing in on its quarry. Her
patience was rewarded when it finally returned to the room, dressed simply in
loose-fitting white cotton drawstring pants and a tunic of the same material.
As it stepped into the blazing circle of light, her eyes narrowed briefly, and
then a faint smile of easy appreciation curved her lips.
studied the surveillance video feed Xin had hacked from the central computers
of Pioneer Labs the day before, but the wide-angle lenses had not captured
anything approximating the full impact of Galahad’s beauty. Its rare and lovely
color—pale blond hair paired with dark eyes—stood out and attracted immediate
attention, but the longer she looked, the more beauty she saw in its
exquisitely chiseled features, as flawless as a Michelangelo masterpiece.
Galahad was stunningly beautiful—would be stunningly beautiful, whatever the
color of its hair or eyes. The scientists had certainly done well; more than
made its way over to a rattan chair, moving with greater ease. It was regaining
its strength, though she did not think that it was anywhere near optimal form,
not when it had almost collapsed with exhaustion on the way to the bathroom ten
minutes earlier. It curled up in the chair and closed its eyes, looking oddly
content, despite the fact that it did not fit very well into the chair. Within
a minute, she realized from the even rise and fall of its chest with every
breath, that it had fallen asleep.
time to get to work.
did not stir as she silently crossed the room. A*STAR had demanded fresh DNA
samples obtained as directly from the source as possible. Hair or skin samples
would be acceptable, and both were typically abundant in a bathroom. She pulled
test tube and tweezers from the pocket of her lab coat and knelt to examine the
flickered in the corner of her vision.
and trained reflexes took over. In a flash, her dagger was in her hand. She
spun, the black serrated blade slicing outward.
Galahad reacted with uncanny speed. It dove
to the side, dropping into a roll and coming up in a battle crouch. Her dagger
slashed through the air where Galahad had been standing a moment before.
Galahad’s dark eyes narrowed as it assessed her. Its body shifted into motion,
preparing to defend itself.
She too reassessed, readjusted. Her attack
should not have missed. Galahad’s battle instincts had been trained and
polished to perfection. Apparently it was more
than a common lab animal.
Her dagger lashed out once again in a
graceful, snake-like motion, and Galahad evaded by dodging to one side. The
blade sliced harmlessly through the air so close to Galahad that it must have
felt the chill breath of the dagger’s passing against its skin.
Galahad’s silent and sinuously graceful
movements were driven by so much speed and agility that strength—although
abundant—was superfluous. It matched her, step for step, dodging each attack
with a grace that made their deadly waltz seem choreographed. There was no
doubt that Galahad was good, far better than anyone she had ever contended
with. In spite of its obvious fatigue after a long and difficult day, Galahad
possessed flawless timing and impeccable spatial precision, allowing it to
escape injury by fractions of a second and a hairsbreadth. It had nerves of
steel. It taunted her with its proximity and tempted the kiss of her blade,
never straying too far as it sought an opening.
She saw the dark eyes glitter dangerously
and knew that something in it had shifted, had changed. She thrust her blade at
In less than a heartbeat, it was over.
With a swiftness that left her stunned,
Galahad twisted its hand to catch her wrist in an iron grip. It sidestepped,
yanked her forward, and drove its knee into her thigh. Her leg weakened and
collapsed. Its superior weight drove her to the ground and kept her there
without any visible effort.
A perfectly sequenced attack, executed with
flawless precision and stunning speed.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, she
recognized the inevitable outcome as it eased the dagger from between her
nerveless fingers. She cursed soundlessly. She had underestimated its skill,
perhaps to her folly. It suddenly released her, pulled her to her feet, and
then stepped away from her. Some emotion she could not decipher rippled over
its flawless features, and to her amazement, it flipped the dagger over in its
hand and held it out, hilt first, to her. “I don’t know why I’m fighting you.
You came to kill me; I should thank you for your kindness.”
She reached out and accepted the dagger
from Galahad as her mind raced to understand the incomprehensible. Galahad held
her gaze only for a moment before it lowered its eyes and looked away. She saw
its throat work as it fought an internal battle to suppress its survival
instincts, and then it turned its back on her deliberately and walked out of
She could have struck the fatal blow.
Galahad was offering her the chance. She could pull Galahad’s head back and
apply the faintest pressure to the dagger’s blade across its jugular. She could
extract the tissue sample she had been sent to collect, and then leave, her
She could not bring herself to do it. Oddly
enough, something in her wanted it—wanted him—to live.
“Zara?” she heard Xin’s voice softly
inquiring in her ear, her tone concerned.
“I’m all right,” she murmured. “Give me a
minute.” She paused by the bathroom door and watched him make his way toward
the wide windows. He kept his back to her as he stared out at the manicured
lawns around Pioneer Labs. Was he waiting for her to strike?
Well, she could play the waiting game too.
She followed him and then turned, casually leaning against the window as she
looked up at him, her gaze coolly challenging.
Several moments passed.
Finally he broke the silence. “Who sent
you?” he asked quietly without looking at her.
She had expected the question, but not the
calm, neutral tone in which it was asked. No anger. No hatred. No fear. Just a
simple question, driven more by politeness than by any real need to know. “Does
He inhaled deeply and released his breath
in a soft sigh as she neatly evaded his inquiry. He tried another question.
“Are you from around here?”
“I’ve seen media clips of that city. It’s
She offered a nonchalant shrug as a
response to his statement. “It’s pretty enough, I suppose. I take it you’ve
never been there.”
“I don’t get out much, and the last time
was a good while ago.” He shrugged, a graceful motion that belied the
bitterness in his voice. “I’ve seen media clips endorsed by Purest Humanity and
other pro-humanist groups. There is no place for me in your world.”
It was pointless to deny the obvious, but
before she could open her mouth to toss out the retort on the edge of her
tongue, an animal-like cry resonated through the complex. It was a ghastly
sound, starting at a low pitch akin to the sound a lost puppy might make and
then rising until it was a banshee’s scream. “What was that?”
“It’s an experiment in another part of the
“It doesn’t sound like anything I
recognize. What is it?”
He tossed her question back at her: “Does
“Not if you don’t care.”
“It’s been going on for as long as I can
His matter-of-fact statement was like fuel
to fire. Her eyes flashed. “And you feel nothing? No anger? No pity? You’re
“I thought you’d already decided that,” was
his mild rejoinder. “Isn’t that why the pro-humanist groups want me killed?”
She hesitated. Somewhere along the way—she
was not even sure when—she had stopped thinking of Galahad as an “it” and had
started relating to it as a “he”. She had attributed to him all the
responsibilities of being human, but none of its rights or privileges, in
effect placing him in the worst possible no-win situation. She recalled his
anguished convulsions in the sensory deprivation chamber. How much pity did she
expect him to dredge up for another creature in a position no different from
his own? Very little. In fact, none at all.
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The
anger subsided. “Do they conduct experiments on you too?” she asked softly.
He stiffened. Without meeting her gaze, he
answered the question, choosing his words with care. “I…yes, they do,
“What did they do to you today?”
He averted his gaze and bit down hard on
his lower lip. He shook his head, said nothing.
“You looked like hell when they brought you
back. I want to know, please.”
He was silent for so long she thought he
was never going to answer the question, but then he spoke in a measured,
neutral tone. “They gave me a highly concentrated sleeping pill and then
injected a hallucinogen, to induce nightmares. They wanted to see if I could
overcome the effects of the sleeping pill to wake up.”
Another long pause. His reply was a softly
anguished whisper. “No.”
“How long did the experiment last?”
“About eight hours, perhaps nine.” He
laughed, low and melodic, but it was a humorless sound. “I slept all day, and
“Why do they do that?”
“It’s simple; because they can. Humans and
their derivatives, the clones and in vitros, have rights. I’m considered
non-human, in large part because of the successful lobbying of pro-humanist
groups, and I don’t have rights.” Galahad released his breath in a soft sigh.
Long eyelashes closed over dark, pain-filled orbs as he inhaled deeply. He
opened his eyes and met her gaze directly, holding it for a long, silent
moment. The corner of his lips tugged up again in a bittersweet half smile.
“I’m tired. I need to lie down. You can do what you need to do whenever you
“Wait!” She grabbed his arm as he turned
away from her. “You want me to kill you?”
“Isn’t that what you came to do?”
“Do you actually want to die?”
He waved his hand to encompass the breadth
and width of the impersonal and deliberately dehumanizing room. “I’m not sure this
should count as living.”
“But you’re not human.”
“No,” he agreed, his voice even. “No, but I
am alive…just like any other human. This isolation drives me crazy. I know this
is not the way others live. This isn’t living.”
He looked away. His pain was real, his
anger compelling. In spite of it, she had seen him smile a few times and
wondered whether his twisted half-smile could ever be coaxed into becoming
something more. In silence, she watched as he turned his back on her and walked
to his rattan chair. He seemed tired, emotional weariness draining his physical
strength. Slowly he settled into the chair, drawing his legs up and curling
into a vaguely comfortable position. Apparently he had chosen to deliberately
ignore her. He was tuning her out and was once again trying to find solace in
the few things he had left, such as a worn chair and his own company, trying to
get through each cheerless day and lonely night.
Outside, a rabbit, safe from predators in
the falling dusk, emerged from its burrow and hopped across the small patch of
grass in front of the large windows of the suite. Zara watched as a faint smile
touched his face, briefly transforming it. His personality seemed wrapped
around a core that was equal parts weary indifference and tightly controlled
bitterness, but there was still enough left in him to savor the small crumbs
that life saw fit to throw his way. If his quiet strength had amazed her, his enduring courage humbled her.
As she watched him, she knew he had won the battle he
had wanted, so badly, to lose. He had proved his right to live, even though
there was no purpose in living in a place like this. He knew that fact
intimately, and so did she.
Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
“Zara, we’ve got trouble.” Carlos’s voice
cut through the silence of her thoughts, his habitual calmness edged with
tension. “Lots of vehicles incoming. Purest Humanity logos. Could be a protest
forming; they look seriously pissed.”
She took a few steps away from Galahad.
Annoyance disguised flickers of anxiety in her voice. “They’re about two days
too early. They’ve been gathering on Christmas Eve each year.”
“Well, looks like someone had a change of
plans. I’m estimating about forty…fifty cars, at least twice as many people.”
“They won’t get through the gate,” Xin said.
“It was designed to keep out APCs.”
“Uh…The gate just opened…Por dios…They’re driving in!”
“No kidding, I swear to God.” The tension
in Carlos’s voice escalated. “Someone must be screwing around with the security
Zara suppressed a hiss of irritation. “Find
that person, Xin, and disable his access. I don’t want to have to fight my way
out of here.”
“I’m on it, but I can’t guarantee they
won’t get to you. If they’re already through the gate, they’ll be pounding on
the front door in seconds. You don’t have time; get moving. And Zara, if you
don’t take Galahad with you, he’s as good as dead.”
Zara’s mind raced through the options
available to her, the possibilities. She shrugged, dismissing the many logical
reasons why she should not do what she was about to do, and took her first step
down her path with a terse and coolly decisive order. “He’s coming with me.
I’ll get us out of the building. Carlos, stand by for an extraction.”
She stepped toward Galahad. “You need to
change into something else.” The thin cotton tunic and pants he wore would not
provide sufficient protection from the chilly night air. Besides, his clothes
looked like something issued to long-term residents of mental hospitals.
Something with fewer negative institutional implications would work better at
keeping him as inconspicuous as possible.
He blinked in surprise, her voice jerking
him back to reality, and he looked up at her. “There is nothing else to wear,”
he said. He released his breath in a soft sigh, his gaze drifting away from her
to the rabbit outside the window.
Nothing else? A quick search of the suite
confirmed his words. The only pieces of clothing in the suite’s large and
mostly empty walk-in closet were several pieces of identical white cotton tunics
and pants, a subtle but highly effective dehumanizing strategy. “We’re leaving
anyway,” she told him as she returned into the living area of the suite. “Get
up. We’re going.”
He stared at her in bewilderment. “Going?”
Zara exercised exquisite politeness and
reminded herself to be patient with him. “I’m getting you out of here.”
A glimmer of understanding tinged with wary
hope swirled through the confusion in his sin-black eyes, but he still did not
move from the chair. “I thought you came to kill me.”
Not precisely, but perhaps it wasn’t a bad
thing if he kept believing it, especially if it would make him more tractable.
Things were complicated enough; an uncooperative captive would heighten the
stakes and the danger of their situation. “I’ve changed my mind.”
“It’s a woman’s prerogative,” she told him,
a wicked smile curving her lips. Her tone softened slightly. As huge as this
step seemed for her, it must seem even larger for him. “I want to help you.
Will you come with me?”
He met her gaze, held it for a long moment,
and then finally smiled. “Yes.”
The simplicity of his answer staggered her,
to say nothing of the heart-stopping power of his smile. It was a smile that
could melt iron. “You
trust me,” she said, “but you don’t even know my name.”
be ungracious not to trust someone who has already passed up on several
opportunities to kill me.” He uncurled from his chair and stood. His manners
were at least as exquisite as his looks. He made no mention of the fact that he
had beaten her in a fair fight and then refused to follow up on his advantage.
considered it irrelevant. The important point was that she did not. The fight
she had lost had, after all, been the critical turning point. She smiled up at
him, suddenly realizing that his dark, fathomless eyes did not seem nearly as
distant and empty as they had several minutes earlier. “I’m Zara Itani.”
He smiled faintly, the warmth from his
smile briefly lighting up his eyes. “Zara, I’m Galahad.”