White concrete walls, floors and ceiling—they weren’t thinking about making the place look pretty when they built this room. There were no windows, only a heavy iron door locked from the outside. This was a cell, not a bedroom; the bare walls pressed in on me, a constant reminder of the fact.
I perched on the edge of my bunk, the white blanket twisted between my hands. Another set of bunks stood against the opposite wall.
Nicole, my twin sister, counted out push-ups between the beds. Her blonde hair hung loose around her face, coiling on the hard ground as she reached the lowest point. She hit a hundred and rolled onto her back. “Come on, Mouse. You said you’d do the sit-ups with me.”
“I’ll do them later.” Mouse sat propped against the wall, eyes fixed on a thick book. She turned the pages of The Mayan Phenomenon at such a pace it was hard to believe she was absorbing the information—at least, until the scientists quizzed her later.
“Can you guys shut it?” Briana lay on the other top bunk. “I’m trying to read here.”
She flicked through an old magazine, her finger traced the outline of the prom dresses. Where she'd gotten it, I had no clue, but as soon as it was discovered she’d lose it. Somehow she’d braided her black hair into an intricate twist; quite a feat without a mirror.
Footsteps neared our door and an electrical hum sounded. I couldn’t suppress my groan.
“Stand back!” a voice crackled through the intercom.
I dropped from the bed and slouched to the back wall with Nicole, Briana and Mouse. I placed my palms against the imprints in the concrete and waited.
The moment we’d all done what we were supposed to, the door creaked open. I didn’t turn around—I didn’t need to. There were three sets of footsteps and three heartbeats. Six more waited in the hallway.
“Three Seventy-Six,” one of the guards recited.
I raised my hands, threaded my fingers together behind my head, and took four steps back.
One of the guards clamped a metal cuff around each of my wrists and wrenched my arms down behind my back. A remote beeped and the magnets in the cuffs sprang to life, securing my wrists together. Guards on either side gripped my upper arms and propelled me from the room.
The men in the corridor eyed me with a mixture of fear and disgust. To them I was a freak, an abomination. Their loathing and distrust guaranteed their employment. We had little chance of ever befriending one of our captors again.
The guards pulled me through a maze of walkways, from one end of the building to the other. We eventually passed through an automatic door into one of the smaller labs. The glass panes swished open and the harsh smell of disinfectant invaded my nostrils. The scent overlaid the entire facility, but in the labs the intensity was overwhelming. The guards didn’t seem to notice any difference. They didn’t even scrunch up their noses.
In the center of the room sat a silver chair. They pushed me across the tiles and into it. The cold metal caused goosebumps wherever it came into contact my skin. I wanted to fight them off, but they’d just make life more difficult for us in the long term; we’d learned that the hard way.
Another beep and my wrists flew apart, pulled in opposite directions to bind themselves to the arms of the chair. The men fiddled with something beneath my shoulders. A band of metal wrapped itself around my chest and pinned me in place. They exited the room, leaving me alone.
The glass doors on the opposite side of the room slid back to admit two well-groomed women. They carried folders and clipboards, but no weapons. These were the scientists. They treated their lab coats like some sort of fashion accessory—they never actually participated in the messy stuff. That’s what the lab techs were for.
One of the women, her black hair confined in a sleek bun, wheeled a small trolley to my side and laid her files on the top. She stepped on a lever and my chair reclined.
“Has it received a dose of AH four-sixteen yet?” She didn’t even look at me.
I hated her voice. Her southern drawl reminded me of Mom. I didn’t want my memory of her to be tainted by this woman.
“Yes. Its immune system disposed of the organisms and expelled them from the body within two hours,” her older colleague said. “It suffered no ill effects.”
“Good.” The first woman peered down her narrow nose at the notes. “WH three-oh-nine?”
“Yes. We were unable to tell exactly how long the virus remained within the body, but it wasn’t present twenty-four hours after introduction. The subject exhibited minor symptoms, including fatigue, swelling of the salivary glands and headache between eight and fourteen hours after introduction.”
“KN four forty-one?”
She reached over and switched on a small recording device. “The Sphinx Project, subject Three Seventy-Six. Doctor Sharnee Foulds administered twelve units of KN four forty-one intramuscularly at thirteen-hundred hours on Thursday, November twenty-ninth.” The woman spoke slowly to ensure a clear recording. She opened one of the drawers in the trolley and extracted a small box.
I curled my fingers around the arms of the chair. She emptied the contents onto the tray and my body tensed. No matter how often I had to deal with needles, they always sent my brain haywire. I couldn’t help it.
I tried to moderate my breathing. My heart pounded in my ears. I was warm all over, too warm. The woman drew a serum into the barrel of the syringe and my lungs heaved even faster. She approached. My eyes swam, my head thumped.
The tip of the needle hurt as it pierced my skin; she pushed it deep into my muscle. The lab techs were much faster than this. She injected the contents and dragged it out. I gasped for breath.
“The subject is to be monitored at one-hour intervals over the next twenty-four hours. If after this time symptoms persist, observation frequency will be adjusted accordingly.” She switched off the device, and the other collected her files. They left the room without a backward glance.
No one came to retrieve me for some time, but I didn’t mind. At least today's session was over quickly—I hated being a guinea pig. When Mom died, their experiments had been escalated; they’d finally been able to test exactly how far our ability to heal stretched. The scars had long since faded, but the memories remained.
The guards eventually returned and, after locking my hands behind me, we left the room. They guided me to our little canteen and pushed me into my place. Briana and Nicole were already seated, but Mouse’s chair was empty.
The bright beginnings of a bruise blossomed along Nicole’s jaw, and rough stitches held a sharp cut across her forehead closed. I couldn’t hold back the frown that tugged at my lips. What had Nicole done during her training sessions and where on earth was Mouse?
I set my feet into the grooves molded in the seat. A metal brace slid forward, locking them in place. Happy I was secure, the guards released my wrists.
“Yummo,” Briana murmured sarcastically at the arrival of our bowls.
Nicole flinched as she reached for her food, favoring her left hand.
The food wasn’t bad, just boring. The meals were balanced so we received exactly enough energy to facilitate muscular growth and training without encouraging excess flesh. They'd even put out mothers on controlled diets before we were born.
The only thing I really disliked about our diets was the lack of ice cream. Mom used to sneak some to us, but that was a long time ago. She’d gotten in trouble for that. Now that she was gone, we had no one to smuggle in treats.
When we’d cleared our bowls, one of the lab techs made his way between our tables to dispense our daily vitamins. He paused in front of me and drew something else from his pocket, keeping it hidden from view.
“Hold out your hand."
I did so. He reached forward and before I realized what was happening, a burst of pain shot into my thumb. I pulled away.
“Ow!” I cradled my hand to my chest. “You could have warned me.”
“We all know how that would have turned out.” Everyone was aware of how much I hated needles. He pocketed the device and pulled out a microscope slide. I held out my hand again and he smeared the tiny bead of blood from the pinprick onto the rectangle of glass.
He set a small plastic cup containing three tablets in front of me. There was a brown liquid capsule, a white tablet and a pinky-purplish tablet. They were always the same. I swallowed them one at a time, washing them down with water while he watched. The man spared me a smile before he left.