Wings

{Shortlisted for the Sony Young Movellist of the Year 2013! - DUE TO BE EDITED}

Firstly, it was just the prisoners that were used.

Then it became orphans, and even some of the elderly.

Now it is everyone in a society where people are struggling to find work.

Money is offered to anyone willing to volunteer themselves or their children to take part in scientific trials run by the organisation called Calox.

Except no one ever gets the money.

No one is ever seen again once they've volunteered for the trials.

---- Copyright © 2014 Danielle Paige. All rights reserved.

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8. Chapter 7

 

The Leader left his office the moment he was informed of the Alpha Team’s arrival. They were quite a talented set of hybrids, as he called them, with lots of useful abilities between them. He had a particular interest in Ruby, the chameleon hybrid, and Sara’s unique visible alterations. However, he knew that there was still a lot of training for them to undergo before they would be the deadly hunters that he wanted them to be.
   He’d already issued the command for them all to go swimming in the lake. Not only would they have to adapt to the cold but it would be good for their fitness, something which interested the Leader. He was going down to the lakeside himself to observe their progress; he wanted to ensure that the guards were strict enough with them.
   He left his office and the door locked automatically behind him; he tapped his jacket pocket to locate the key card. There had been numerous occasions when he had forgotten to pick it up and had to change offices whilst the other was slowly and meticulously broken into. He smiled, knowing that was not to occur this time, and began to pace along the corridors. The carpet was soft under his shoes, and his face was illuminated by small lamps positioned on pine tables evenly spaced apart.
   He called the elevator with the touch of a small grey button. It opened with the ring of a bell and he stepped inside, setting his destination as the ground floor. He winced as the elevator began its descent as it threw his stomach upwards uncomfortably. There was a grinding sound above his head before the elevator stopped and the doors revealed the reception to him. It was a shared view among the hybrids that the reception looked like a hotel lobby, and he couldn’t help but agree as the receptionist gave him a welcoming smile.
   “I’ll be back later,” the Leader said absently, “Be sure that there is a fresh bowl of fruit in my office for when I return.”
   The receptionist nodded, scurrying straight out of the room. The Leader was used to getting what he wanted, exactly when he wanted it, and so left the reception without acknowledging her departure. He found one of the many discarded quad bikes and started it up, powering over the field to the more secure part of the compound. Even from a distance, he could see the two hundred small cabins in which hybrids were waiting to begin their training.
   The quad bike roared, kicking up the grass beneath it as it skimmed over the field. The Leader paid no attention to the noise, as instead, he was enjoying the wind rushing through his chocolate brown hair. It was cold against his face and his lips felt dry, but he didn’t mind. It was one of the small thrills of his life, and one which didn’t happen very often. 
   Upon reaching the facility, he dismounted the bike and made his way over to the lakeside where the six new hybrids had been assembled. Erika was smiling wickedly and rubbing the gills on her neck; she definitely had an advantage over the others. Sara and the twins, however, were looking almost intimidated by the water. Neither eagles nor lions had a strong urge to dive into deep water just for the fun of it, and the animalistic instinct within the trio was beginning to truly take hold.
   The guards were stood around them in a malignant manner, each wielding a different weapon with which to encourage the hybrids to complete their training. The Leader was disgusted. He’d ordered the guards to only use force when it was strictly necessary; they were abusing their position and would suffer the consequences.
   “Guards,” he barked, “I expect you to support the hybrids, not intimidate them.”
   Some of the guards looked away, their eyes clouded by guilt and unease. The Leader had created Calox, and had therefore created their jobs, so they had no right to argue with him. One or two grumbled about his command, but the majority chose to remain quiet and leave him to direct the hybrids.
   “You are no longer ordinary children,” the Leader said to the gathering as he approached, “You are hybrids, the first generation of a mixed species. You are all gifted with extraordinary abilities, brought to you by the fusion of your old DNA with that of an animal.”

He paused, looking over the puzzled expressions of the hybrids. Sara seemed genuinely interested in what the Leader had to say, as her eyes narrowed curiously as he spoke. Devin and Callum had mirroring expressions of discombobulation. The Leader shrugged it off, continuing with his speech calmly.
   “You know what Calox is all about now. You know that we’re creating a race of hybrids to take back our roles within society. You know that we’ve been replaced by machinery programmed to do our jobs for us.” The Leader suppressed his anger, “People are dying out there from starvation, thirst, and disease. We need people strong enough to take back what is rightfully ours – jobs, food, water, and shelter. Surely we deserve that much at least.”
   He strode over to the lakeside and placed one finger into the water. He shivered involuntarily as the chills shot through his veins like ice. He almost felt guilt at the prospect of forcing the hybrids to swim in the lake, but it was soon forgotten when he remembered that he hadn’t finished his speech.
   “And so you exist to serve Calox, and the rest of the human race,” the Leader’s voice elevated dramatically as his emotions spiralled out of control, “You’re not just training to be the best, but you’re training to snatch back everything that was stolen from us. You will be just a selection of the many that will tear down all of the machines and their creators. You are our future.”
   “No pressure,” Erika muttered.

*

Anastasia and Ford both leaned over a page of results that had been sent to them by Eva. Their first hybrid, Sara Worthington, had been accepted into the Alpha Team and was to undergo the best training in the world. There was a level of pride in each of them which neither cared to acknowledge. To Anastasia, Sara was simply a host for the DNA she’d spent so long manipulating. To Ford, Sara was the young girl he’d watched suffering who’d clung onto life with everything she had. Both, however, were thrilled by her success.
   “This is brilliant,” Ford exclaimed, “This will ensure that the prison remains open.”
   Anastasia agreed gleefully, “Indeed. It’ll also secure our funding for the next five years. We can start mass producing hybrids, experimenting with exact traits and rarer species.”
   “Of course,” Ford’s eyes widened, “We can do so much more now. We can be like some of the other facilities who can already create multiple hybrids at once.”
   Anastasia nodded, rushing back to her laboratory with a grin on her face. Nothing could ruin her mood. It was almost midnight, the sky was obsidian and flecked with silver lights, and she had managed to secure her job for a few more years. She’d spent a few months sleeping rough once her position in the morgue was taken by a machine from one of the Justice factories. Smirking, she realised that she was finally getting the revenge she wanted against the machines.
   Ford was having mixed opinions. Surely he was like those working in the Justice factories by producing hybrids for the Leader. He was altering fellow human beings, improving them just like the machines were being reprogrammed. It was like making a new prototype – his job was almost of robotic as the machines. Still, it was a job, and so he did it to the best of his ability for the purpose of making enough money to support what little family he had left.

*

Erika had stripped down to her t-shirt and trousers. Her shoes had been discarded into a pile of other footwear made by Devin, Callum and Jay. Most of the others were reluctant to get into the lake, but Erika was struggling to keep her feet on dry land, despite the frosty feeling of the water. Sara was hesitating on the very edge of the lake, leaning over the water with a look of mistrust.
   “Alphas,” the Leader snapped, “Your next instruction is to get into the lake and swim to the red buoy and back again. You will repeat this ten times.” 
   Most of the hybrids appeared reluctant to comply, but Erika dived straight into the water. The cold liquid seeped through her lips and back out of her gills as she sank deeper into the shadowy depths of the lake. Her hands grazed the sandy floor and with a start she realised that she was at the bottom of the lake, metres beneath the flailing limbs of the other hybrids. She began her ascent, arms gliding gracefully through the water until she broke the surface.
   “Sorry,” she spluttered to the waiting guards, “It’s a force of habit.”
   Sara began to make her way over to where she’d resurfaced. She seemed extremely uncomfortable in the water as she tried to keep her wings dry, and Erika was forced to conceal a cough as she watched her. Her skin was crawling with goose bumps, and she shivered helplessly as the cold drained her energy from her. The boys were equally awkward with their legs tangled up in their tails; the fur on their ears was damp and sticking up at odd angles. Jay was clinging to the side of the lake with his long claws embedded into the soft mud, and Ruby was nowhere to be seen.
   “Hey,” her voice was clear and loud, “I can blend into water too!”
   Ruby reappeared, her skin fading back into the normal peachy colour it had as the rest of her body took shape before them. Erika rolled her eyes and took off, swimming expertly over to the buoy and back again, only to see that none of the others had moved. Upon seeing it was achievable, Devin followed her for the second lap, with Callum and Sara close behind.
   Slowly but surely – one by one – each of the hybrids began to swim the distance. Erika kept dipping below the water excitedly. Something about the water made her feel so alive, so pure and oxygenated, as if she was anything but ordinary. Obviously, she completed the task first and waited for the others to join her near the lakeside.
   When they’d all emerged from the water, breathing heavily, and collapsed onto the ground, the Leader smirked. He wanted them to work hard and push their limits, and then push past those limits to make new ones. He needed them to be the best.
   “Hybrids,” he said, arms extended, “Get back in the lake and do it again.”
   Sara dived back into the lake first and began to swim. Her arms ached and her thighs were sore but she didn’t stop. She even managed to finish her laps a few seconds before Erika did, and then she refused to climb back out of the lake. The Leader smiled triumphantly, pleased with Sara’s actions. His smile grew larger as the remaining hybrids realised that they were just going to be told to ‘do it again’ unless they chose to themselves. This was training at the hardest level, in icy cold water and the risk of doing laps all day.
   Devin had lost count of how many laps he and Callum had completed. He was exhausted, freezing cold, and running out of willpower at a rapid rate. Panting, he swam back to the lakeside and pushed off, heading for the buoy, only to see that his mirror image was no longer with him. He whirled around to see that Callum had given up and was being lifted from the lake by the guards.
   “Go on Devin,” he shouted over the water, “One more lap!”
   Devin was spurred on by his brother and kept pushing, determined to reach to buoy and begin his slow and steady backstroke towards where Callum was waiting. He heaved himself from the lake and made his way over to him, scared by how tired he was. He knelt down beside him and rubbed one of his ears affectionately.
   “What’s wrong?” Devin said, “Why couldn’t you continue?”
   Callum shrugged, “My muscles and throat were burning; I’m far too tired to go on.”
   The Leader made his way over to the pair, offering towels and bottles of water to both of them. The boys accepted, drying their faces and hair first before taking deep gulps of the beautifully clear, bottled liquid. Devin felt refreshed. He’d swallowed a mouthful or two of the muddy lake water and felt contaminated somewhat, as he’d always appreciated a long shower and a fresh toothbrush. Callum was the same, and poured some of the water onto his hands and rinsed his face with it.
   “Forty one laps,” Ruby said, joining the boys, “I’m beat.”
   Jay emerged shortly after her and cleaned his claws on the towel he’d been given without a word. He was breathing heavily, his chest rising and falling over and over again as he struggled to refill his lungs.
   Erika and Sara were still swimming. Erika had the advantage, but Sara wasn’t letting that get to her. She was swimming at her own pace, trying to feel like she actually belonged in the water, and forced herself to carry on. Erika was actually enjoying the challenge. She had been mutated to feel at ease in situations such as this, and was certainly living up to her expectations. She was fooling around more than she was straining herself but the Leader didn’t mind. He’d expected her to be overconfident.
   “C’mon, Sara,” she teased, “Catch me if you can.”
   Sara ignored her. She was on her fiftieth lap and was about to climb out of the lake. She’d done a lot more than she’d expected, and due to her wings, she had a lot more resistance than any of the others. She placed one knee onto the muddy bank and pushed out of the water. Within seconds, she’d extended her wings and shook the droplets away from them furiously, determined to take flight again. She left the ground behind for a few seconds, letting all of the exhaustion slip away from her. A guard grabbed her ankle, ready to hit her with a big wooden baton.
   “Wait,” she said quickly, “I’m only drying my wings. If I was going to fly away, wouldn’t I have already?”
   The guard thought about this for a moment, but did not let go of her ankle. She stopped flapping her feathers and landed gently next to the guard, throwing him an I-told-you-so glare before sitting down with the others. She used the edge of Jay’s towel to dry her face and took a long drink from a bottle of water left for her.
   “Well done, hybrids,” the Leader said to them, “I assume your friend will be out soon. Even she will tire, despite her adaptations.”
   The guards wasted no time in handing out a second set of camouflaged clothes to them. Then, Erika was summoned from the lake and the little group was taken back to their cabin where they changed into the clean, dry clothes. Yet again, they were locked in, left only with their towels and bottles of water, desperate for some food.

*

The Leader was still delighted when he reached his office. He took an apple from the fruit bowl that had appeared on his desk and bit into it, letting the sweet juice flow into his mouth. It was crunchy and slightly sour, just the way he liked it. He reached for a notepad in the drawer and began to write about what he’d witnessed with the new Alpha Team, making a note of which were the most determined. They would be pushed the hardest.
   After all, he needed to ensure that they all reached their full potential.
   “Guards,” he snapped into a radio, “Ensure all of the members of the Alpha Team are fed. It’s time they all met in the food hall.”
   The guard replied at once, his voice tinged by static: “Yes, sir.” 

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