Flames

Flames is book two in the 'Children of Calox' series, and the sequel to Wings.
---- Copyright © 2014 Danielle Paige. All rights reserved.

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2. Chapter 1

 

The command centre of the aircraft was unlike anything Sara had ever seen before. Her eagle eyes scanned the intricate data scrolling by on the numerous screens, positioned evenly around the semi-circular room. Squinting, she struggled to adapt to the multitude of lights. She was overly sensitive to it; the symptoms of a headache had begun pound in her temple like a drumbeat. It was hard to believe that the people miles below them had descended into poverty, selling family members to Calox’s sickening experiments to afford to feed themselves, when there was so much technology in this one command centre.
   “Isn’t it magnificent?” Juliet said with a smile.
Juliet Parks was the founder of a company called Justice. It specialised in machine-based technology, or the development of artificial humans made of steel, wires, and two tiny blue light bulbs. Slowly, these machines had spread throughout the world, and the governments had taken advantage of the fact that they didn’t require wages. Justice paid the politicians directly for accepting the machines into workplaces. Eventually, they had replaced humans completely, making jobs scarce and money a rarity.
   “That’s certainly one word for it.”
The speaker was Juliet’s son – Devin. He had also been experimented on by Calox, along with his twin brother, who had died at the hands of one of the Justice machines. It was then that Juliet revealed herself and Devin had finally got to meet his real mother. He was put into an orphanage when he was a baby and abandoned, sharing a creased up photograph with Callum until now.
   “Oh, Devin,” she cooed, “I’m sure you’ll get used to it – in time.”
Devin didn’t respond. He was looking at the streams of data as if he could read them, flicking his eyes back and forth between the screens. His feet seemed to carry him forward, as if he was being pulled towards the hardware by some kind of invisible force. Juliet watched him with interest, focused on his extended fingers followed by rapid tapping on one of the exposed keyboards.
   “What are you doing?” Juliet demanded.
   “You have a glitch,” Devin said absently, without turning to look at her. “I can fix it. Give me some time – it’ll make your servers more secure.”
Juliet clicked her fingers and one of the many technicians in black body-suits scurried over to her. She tilted her head in the direction of the computer at which Devin was fully concentrated and the technician went over to him, carefully studying what he was doing. The technician looked over his shoulder at Juliet who had crossed her arms tightly across her chest, nodding slightly.
   “Why was this not noticed sooner?” Juliet snapped at the technician.
   “I don’t know, ma’am.” The technician confessed, raising his hands in surrender.
Juliet pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled loudly: “I’ll deal with you later.”
Devin finished his work and turned around as his mother’s harsh tone. He and Sara exchanged a knowing look. She sounded just like the Leader from Calox: cold, callous, and with little regard for human sacrifice. The thought sent shivers down Sara’s spine.
   “It was well hidden.” Devin insisted. “I doubt you’d notice unless you were intentionally looking for it.”
   “And you were looking for it?” Juliet inquired coldly.
Devin shrugged, “So what if I was? I’ve just saved you from a possible cyber-attack.”
Juliet pressed her lips together to form a thin line but did not retaliate. She cleared her throat slightly before taking to the middle of the command centre, where a large, black leather chair was positioned in front of a huge panel of glass. She took the seat, leaving Sara and Devin to stand. She pressed her hands to a touch screen built into the arm of the chair and the large, curved glass panel dissolved. Well, at least, that was what it looked like. Piece by piece, the glass became transparent and showed everything ahead of the aircraft, including the menacing grey factory.
   At first glance, Sara wouldn’t have seen it. Devin, however, gasped in horror as the thick chimneys came into view. It was expertly positioned between three mountains of varying heights. They were nothing compared to the Himalayas but intimidating all the same. Juliet used the touch screen to steer, dragging the small cross representing her vessel between the first two of the mountains. It glided expertly between them, tilting slightly to avoid any scrapes. Then, she flicked the cross up to the top of the screen, where it vanished completely for a moment. The aircraft mimicked her action, lunging vertically, and sent Sara and Devin hurtling to the ground.
   “I’m sorry,” Juliet said sweetly. “That wasn’t intentional.”
   “Of course it wasn’t,” Sara growled sarcastically.
Juliet ignored her, fully focused on navigating the vessel over the top of the third mountain. It was significantly broader than the others and provided the perfect shield for Justice to hide behind. However, just in case anyone dared brave the mountains, heavy gates protected by armed guards marked the entrance. A steel fence ran around the perimeter, topped with barbed wire through which an electrical current was passed. Security was definitely taken seriously. Sara peered out of the glass screen, taking in as much about the facility as she could. More guards patrolled the fence; these were also armed and were equipped with bulky dogs that rippled with muscle. She gulped at the sight, wondering if there were any hybrids mixed with such a creature.
   “You can try and fly in if you wish, Sara.” Juliet said calmly. “However, we have air defences too. There are automatic guns that will shoot down anything that flies too close – including birds.”
Sara ignored Juliet’s taunting. Calox had bonded her DNA with an eagle’s, which had caused her to mutate painfully and grow wings. Throughout this time, she had been kept in an old prison cell and left to lie in her own blood. Despite this, she had grown to love her wings and the eagle from which they came. She tucked them in tightly, feeling their warmth against her bloodied back. She winced as her shoulder seared with pain, reminding her of her wounds from the battle. Unfortunately, she was now with the very woman who’d sent the machines to destroy them. She’d never felt so vulnerable in her life.
   “Descending,” Juliet announced in warning.
The aircraft lurched again, this time in the direction of the ground, as if gravity had suddenly taken effect. Sara gripped the back of the chair with one hand, holding Devin steady with the other. Pain ripped through her shoulder again and Devin gave her a solemn look, but she dismissed it.
   “You need treatment,” he hissed.
   “I’ll be fine,” Sara replied.
Devin shook his head in disbelief but said no more on the matter. He wasn’t sure whether it was her pride or stubbornness but it was really beginning to worry him. The cut on her shoulder, inflicted by one of the Justice machines, could very easily be infected. She could even bleed to death. It was certainly deep enough.
   His thoughts were interrupted by the mountains looming up all around them. They seemed to consume the aircraft, swallowing it as if it was never even there. Shadows danced across the command centre, emphasising the eerie glowing of the on-board computers. It began to tremble as if affected by an earthquake, humming loudly as it approached the landing pad situated on the roof of the building. Juliet was deep in concentration as she navigated the craft onto the black ‘x’ which was painted there. A thud confirmed their landing.
   “This is Juliet checking in with home base.” Juliet was talking into her wristwatch, communicating with the building she was currently perched on top of. “I’m requesting a team of guards and two rooms to be fully set up. I’ve brought home some guests.”
   “Copy that, ma’am.” The replying voice was tainted by the crackle of static. “I will set my best men on it immediately.”
   “Thank you, Captain.” She said sweetly.
No one moved for what felt like hours. Time ticked by too slowly for Sara’s liking. She watched through the glass as guards came out of the thick, steel doors directly ahead of the aircraft. They were heavily armed with machine guns and an assortment of blades tucked into various belts and straps. The opened the doors of the aircraft, striding in and bowing respectfully to Juliet. She got out of her chair, nodding her head to them once, before exiting the aircraft. Devin made an attempt to follow her, only to be caught in the bulky arms of one of the guards.
   “Get the girl too,” Juliet snarled, “and then meet me in the medical suite.”
Inch by inch, the guards went towards Sara. She froze, knowing that she in no fit state to fight. They were armed and she was injured. They had air defences and she had wings. Her odds were pretty slim, so she slumped her shoulders and raised her palms slightly in surrender. One of the guards laughed gruffly, grabbing her by the forearm and dragging her down onto the landing pad.

*

The medical suite reeked with the scent of disinfectant. Devin’s eyes were watering, stinging furiously and frighteningly bloodshot. Sara was less affected. Her eagle eyes were more resistant but it was still irritating them, causing her to blink more rapidly than before. Juliet, however, was used to the odour and continued to pace around the room whilst a team of nurses swarmed the two weeping hybrids. Sara gasped loudly, holding back a string of curses that were dying to escape her lips, as a clear, acid-like ointment was applied to her injured shoulder.
   “The burning will fade soon.” The nurse said through chapped lips.
   “Good,” Sara snapped at her, making her jump backwards.
Juliet had finally stopped pacing. She was surrounded by the best guards on site and their Captain, Yassen Drugal. He, alike most of the nurses, was of Russian origin. Juliet found the Russians more ruthless, loyal, and organised than any of her other staff. She depended on them greatly, not that she dared tell them this. They would undoubtedly use it against her. She shrugged off the thought.
   “Why did you bring them here?” Yassen said with a glare.
   “He’s my son.” She hissed coldly. “As for the girl, they’re friends. I assume they met at Calox, wherever they were kept.”
Yassen snorted, “You had a child?”
   “Two, actually,” Juliet said, her voice tinged with regret. “One of them didn’t make it.”
   “How unfortunate.” Yassen responded without sympathy.
Juliet nodded simply, avoiding Yassen’s harsh gaze.

*

Juliet’s mind drifted back to the death of Devin’s twin, Callum. He was the younger of the two, less capable, weak. She’d released the machines from the aircraft, only seconds after it landed on the dusty terrain. Fox had sent her there, warning her the threat that they posed, but all she saw were teenagers. That was until she’d looked more closely.
   She’d heard of Calox’s genetic experiments in whispers, nothing more than meaningless rumours – as she’d wrongly assumed. She certainly hadn’t expected what she saw that day. There were about a hundred of them, each disfigured by some animal attribute. Sara had wings, white and feathery. Her sons had small, furry ears poking out from under their hair, with long tails that were thin and lightly coated in fur. At first, she hadn’t recognised them. She’d abandoned them as babies, after all, leaving them in an orphanage to grow up until Calox snatched them away for their sickening plans.
   The memory of when Callum was strangled shot through her mind’s eye. It was vivid, as clear as the moment it happened. The machines had been beating him for a while, punching and kicking like humans would do, until he was too weak to fight them off. One had held his throat, squeezing the oxygen from his dust-filled lungs. That was when Juliet had leapt up, charging into her personal chamber where the locket was kept. Opening it, her two smiling boys stared out at her.
   She’d sent a guard to find them many years ago, to see if they had been adopted together or separated. He’d brought back the pictures from the orphanage, explaining that it had been closed down and the twins were nowhere to be found. That hadn’t angered her. It had been better for her not to know – not to care about them. However, the two boys were still in her locket, smiling on the day that they turned nine years old.
    That was when she’d stopped the fight. That was when she shut down the machines, letting them crash into the ground like dominoes. She’d ran from the safety of the aircraft, setting her eyes on her remaining son with a mixture of grief and guilt. He was furious with her, with hatred burning in his eyes like wildfire. It wasn’t like she cared anyway. She needed to play her part and get Devin on her side, like the perfect son. Only then would he help her and side with Justice.
   “You seem distant, Miss Parks,” Dr Green said gently.
He was one the only member of her staff who she allowed to call her by name. She’d known him for years, developing the very first Justice machines with him at her side. They’d come so far since then and were about to go even further. He was holding a black microchip in the palm of his wrinkled hand. It was the same black microchip that she’d taken from him when she let Devin and Sara on-board, proud to see that he had finished it at last.
   “There has been so many failures,” Juliet sighed heavily. “I just want this one to work.”
   “Oh, it will,” Dr Green assured her. “You can trust me on that.”
   “Show me,” Juliet demanded.
Between her and Dr Green was one of the Justice machines. Its cold blue eyes were sapped of their usual light; its power pack had been discarded onto one of the nearby tables. Dr Green carefully pulled back the disk on the back of its metal skull, revealing a complex network of wires and motors. He fiddled with the layout anxiously, pausing only to wipe sweat from his creased forehead.
   “Here,” he said to himself.
His shaking hands lowered the chip into the skull of the machine. He coiled the edge of a wire around it, nodding with certainty as he did so. After one final glance, he lowered the disk back into place, reforming the skull of the metal machine. He gestured to the power pack which Juliet placed in his open palm. Stooping low, he slotted it into the small compartment at the base of the spine.
   The machine’s eyes lit up with their normal electric blue. Flickering as the reboot took place, it hummed and hissed quietly. Juliet watched it with apprehension. The last chip had caused a small explosion to occur, blasting most of the wiring – including the chip – out of the back of the skull in her general direction. She’d dodged the flying debris without much effort but might not be so lucky if anything worse was to occur.
   “Hello,” Dr Green said gently to the machine. “Is there anything that you wish to be called?”
There was silence. Juliet caught Dr Green’s eye and shook her head, disappointed in yet another failed chip. She slid off the edge of the table, her boots crashing loudly against the floor. Turning to leave, she took four steps towards the door before resting her hand on the handle. Her hand clasped around the knob, turning it slowly.
   “Call me Beta-one-hundred-and-four.”
Juliet turned instantly, a smile appearing on her face. “What’s Beta one-oh-four?”
   “It’s the name of the microchip.” Dr Green explained. “It worked!” 

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