Once she knew they were going to kill the children, Wendy had no choice.
She sat through the executive management meeting announcing the chimera program’s impending cancellation, trying not to gasp aloud. As if these were not children they were discussing, genetically altered or not, they wanted all of them euthanized after the last set of tests finished. That way, they could preserve their research, but there would be no physical evidence that might be used against Genaxicon in the future.
The real problem was that Sentinel’s collapse had changed everything for Genaxicon, creating a degree of scrutiny which they had never experienced before. None of them had been prepared for the way Sentinel’s sins had suddenly exposed the entire industry. But since then, watchdogs, journalists and investigators were busy filing FOIA requests on a daily basis, looking to track everyone who had ever done business with them.
With that kind of pressure, it was only a matter of time until someone found out about their chimera program. Her company, Genaxicon Biosciences, was particularly vulnerable to that risk, especially since they had licensed the core genetic material from Sentinel. While the licensing arrangement was a common practice, now it meant the investigators on the Sentinel case would eventually find that contract and start sniffing around Genaxicon, too.
That would be the beginning of the end. It wouldn’t matter that buying genetic material for experimental purposes was the industry standard. No one would even listen to that part of the story. All that would matter was that Genaxicon had done business with the devil, and might be up to the same types of pure evil that Sentinel was engaged in.
Worst of all, if they came looking while the program was still active, they would find the children. Once that happened, Genaxicon would collapse, just like was happening to Sentinel now. But unlike massive Sentinel, Genaxicon wouldn’t have the resources to even fight back, much less pay salaries as they did so.
As a former business partner of the company everyone now loved to hate, Genaxicon was vulnerable, no matter how limited that relationship had been. They were already seeing the effects of it, after all, even before they had been accused of anything. Once Sentinel’s disgrace had come to light piece by piece over the preceding year, even those politicians who had been on Genaxicon’s payroll for years had turned skittish about any further involvement with them.
That meant there was no more money coming anytime soon, effectively stalling their growth. Without at least one elected official on the payroll to guide those government contracts their way, they didn’t stand a chance against their competitors. That was how the game was played, after all. Whoever owned the most politicians won, because the laws were always written and enforced to benefit them, courtesy of their political puppets.
But it was even more than just money at this point, she understood as she listened to the management team discuss their options, their voices frantic. Without political protection and support to make any accusations against them disappear, they were vulnerable to criminal charges and possibly even jail time if some over-zealous prosecutor wanted to make headlines at their expense. So these children couldn’t be left alive as evidence against them. Not if the industry watchdogs and inspectors were already sniffing around.
It sickened her, but she knew she wouldn’t change anyone’s mind now. They weren’t willing to be torn apart like the Sentinel executives, their names dragged through mud and their lives consequently destroyed. Many of the people around the table had come to Genaxicon precisely because the chimera program was expected to catapult this company into the big leagues, allowing them to reap the resulting rewards.
But if Genaxicon was dragged out into the light of day and punished like Sentinel, they probably wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open long enough to collect their golden parachutes. So this was a stalemate, where Genaxicon could not afford to be caught holding the bag if it ever wanted to be granted another government contract. That meant all the evidence of the chimera program had to go, even the children.
Sickened by what she had heard, she knew she couldn’t just sit idly by while four children were euthanized. Back in her office, she copied everything she had accumulated about the program to a USB key before she could reconsider. That was strictly prohibited, of course, but since there was nothing technically stopping her from making copies of files onto portable media, she filled it with everything important that would fit.
Being an executive didn’t spare her from their security procedures, such as they were. Her bags would be searched on the way out tonight, as they were every night. But the thumb drive was small enough to fit inside her bra, so that’s where she put it. Even if they insisted on frisking her in addition to searching her bags, she would still be safe. And if she timed leaving with the five o’clock rush, the likelihood of being randomly selected for increased scrutiny was unlikely.
When the clock finally hit five, she locked her office door and merged with the rest of the employees heading for the elevators.
Passing through security on the way out was quick and easy. In spite of her anxiety from the day’s events, she was one of only a few executive managers who were even aware of the grisly plan. The bag-screeners at the door didn’t seem any more or less concerned with her belongings than they were with anyone else’s and she passed through the doors without even being searched.
As Wendy got to her car, she quickly removed the battery from her cell phone and got in. Stopping at the first gas station she was passing, she bought a bottle of iced tea, some duct tape and a roll of paper towels from the attached convenience store. In the restroom, to ensure her actions weren’t captured on a store surveillance camera, she poured the tea out in the sink, then thoroughly dried the inside of the bottle before stuffing a dry paper towel in as a cushion. Carefully wrapping the thumb drive in another paper towel, she pushed it into the bottle, then packed another one inside before taping it shut and returning it to her purse.
Back on the highway, she continued on her planned route. Turning off the main road to wind her way through an upscale neighborhood, she carefully checked her mirrors to make sure no one was following her. Seeing that it was clear, she slowed in front of the right house and heaved the bottle through the open passenger window onto the lawn, as close to the front steps as she could get it. Then she hit the gas, got back onto the highway, and continued her commute home.
A few miles further along, she pulled over into another strip mall, then pulled out her cell phone and put her battery back in. She was going to reach out to the only other person she thought might understand, the same woman who currently had an empty iced-tea bottle full of secrets in her front yard. She had worked with May years ago when she had been employed at Sentinel. After Wendy had left for Genaxicon, May had clawed her way into a management position of some importance there, so they had stayed in touch and sometimes chatted at industry events.
The last time Wendy had seen her had been just weeks prior to Sentinel’s collapse. At the time, unaware of what was to come, May had been very chatty after a few cocktails, then even more so when they had left the event for a drink or two to speak privately about the industry. So now, she just had to hope May would help her. She took a deep breath as she heard the other woman answer.
“May, it’s Wendy Arble from Genaxicon.”
“Wendy, how are you?” May’s voice was cool. “How lovely to hear from you.”
“Yes, well, I was just thinking about that charming conversation we had the last time we saw each other in person.”
“Oh?” If anything, May’s voice was even colder, suggesting she had not been so drunk that she could not recall what she had said. “I’m not sure I recall that conversation.”
“You know what I remember the most? That story you told me about finding a bottle full of cash tossed right in your front yard years ago, like it was garbage. I just had to call because I was thinking about that. Can you imagine finding something amazing in an iced-tea bottle in your front yard? How about if it was better than cash? Wouldn’t that be something.”
As she had hoped, May was silent, clearly either suspicious or bewildered. She decided that was as good a place to stop the conversation as any.
“Great catching up with you, May. I’m going to make sure to check my front yard for unexpected treasures tonight. You should, too. You never know what you might find.”
Then she hung up. Once that was done, she drove home, her skin still crawling with nerves as she thought about what might happen next. May had lost her job with all the other top Sentinel execs, so if she had hated the industry before, Wendy could only imagine how she felt now.
May’s drunken confessions had included the fact that she knew the activation codes for Sentinel’s defense project subjects, and often wished she could set them free. Since those same three girls had actually brought down the entire company after escaping, Wendy was hoping she might be willing to help by getting in touch with those same girls and asking them to help. Fortunately, she and May had also joked about dead-drops on their front lawns to arrange further meetings to complain about their jobs, so she had to assume May would find the thumb drive.
Once she saw what was on it, she’d realize immediately why Wendy had passed it along to her specifically. Knowing she had nothing to lose, May would activate Sentinel’s program subjects remotely to help these children. Wendy had to believe that, because once she had sobered up enough to get past her seething personal discontent with her CEO, May had been as uneasy with the state of the industry as she currently was.
While they had clearly been maudlin from too much alcohol, neither had been lying. Nor had they been exaggerating their unease with how their respective companies, and the industry in general, behaved. In fact, that drunken conversation, strewn with shared regret and mutual confessions, had been the most honest conversation Wendy had shared with anyone in years.
Both of them had gotten into this field to help people, not exploit them. Yet that appeared to be where the entire industry was trending, shaving and altering the genetic proportions of subjects to allow them to claim them as animals rather than humans. Unrecognized as legal humans, they had no more rights than animals, which was the whole point.
It was disgusting, they had agreed, that anyone would argue a blood test could deny humanity to a person standing there asking for it. So she knew May wouldn’t approve either, not once she had looked at the contents of that USB key. She could go to the press, like the escaped girls had done, but until enough outrage had been stirred to convince the industry’s pet politicians to stop protecting their benefactors, nothing would actually be done.
Realistically, it would take months of investigation before anything actually happened which involved a raid on the facility. By then, the children would already be dead. No, she had to trust that May would activate the Sentinel girls to save these children from that fate, because anyone with a conscience would.
She just had to hope it would be enough.
Rand Matthews glanced over at his wife, his expression amused.
“You know what they say,” he said quietly, his voice teasing. “You can’t fight nature. Looks like we might be seeing that play out right here.”
“Well, it’s good exercise, I suppose,” Stacey agreed with her eyes on the girls, sounding like she was trying not to laugh. “There is that, at least.”
They were watching the three girls they had informally considered daughters for nearly a year now as they sparred on the front lawn, using the picnic table as a prop. He’d met Nina first, when she had hidden away in his pickup after escaping the lab where she had been created and raised as a genetically modified assassin, referred to only as Nine. Her sisters, Sara and Emily, had been sent to bring her back. Like her, they had been planned and trained for military deployment and called by number, Seven and Eight in this case, rather than proper names.
But they were every bit as human as Nina. Realizing that they could become more than numbers and military assets just as she had done, they had defied a lifetime of training and conditioning. Instead of dragging her back as ordered, they had chosen to protect and support their younger sister, long before they had understood how such a thing would truly free them.
Through that experience, his life had been completely changed. Now he was a happily married man once more, his wife Stacey as good a woman as any man could ever want. But this time he was also a father to these three girls and Cole, a fine young man who had become a son far more than a ranch-hand. Never a sentimental man, he had been surprised by how deeply contented it made him to be the husband and father to this family. It had been even better than he had ever expected.
But that said, the girls kept things from ever getting boring, that was for sure. Daily sparring was one of their hobbies and he had to admit that it was compelling to watch, fast as they were. But every time he watched, he also cringed a few times, and not just because their two dogs were racing around them, barking loudly enough to make his ears ring, either.
He didn’t care if they made noise or tore up the place. But he did sometimes worry about someone misjudging a punch, possibly during a spectacular leap from the picnic table, which they loved doing. He’d be a liar if he pretended that didn’t sometimes make them hard to watch for man who considered himself their doting father.
He knew they would never intentionally hurt each other, but even playing, they hit so hard that the sound alone made him wince. Remarkably, none of them ever had so much as a bruise on her cheek in the aftermath. Considering the brutality of the shots they took, these girls of theirs were as tough as nails, no doubt about it.
Right now it was Emily’s turn to hold off Sara and Nina. Once she was bored or needed a break, they would switch and she would join forces with one sister to attack the “target.” Sometimes one of them would play trainer while the other two fought, calling out encouragement and suggestions. Most days, if they weren’t at classes or doing chores, they would train like this for several hours before they tired of it, giggling like little girls the whole time.
That was why he and Stacey had just accepted it. The girls never acted like this in the house or around the horses, two places he would not have permitted any roughhousing. Outside of gleefully assaulting each other on a daily basis, they were model daughters, he had to admit.
He winced now as Emily clubbed Sara in the back of the head with a closed fist, knocking her to one knee. Despite that, Sara laughed as she jumped back up, throwing a punch and setting Emily to excited screeching as she dodged it, even as Nina kicked her hard in the hip, nearly knocking her down. That just seemed to make her even happier, Rand noted, trying not to laugh and unwittingly encourage them.
But no matter how he reacted, they clearly considered attacking each other like this to be training, exercise or possibly even play. Maybe all three for all he knew, because it never turned serious, and none of them ever got angry. In spite of appearances, after how they had come into his life, he didn’t have the heart to disapprove of anything that made these children happy.
They were such good kids, after all. In addition to helping out around the ranch, they were also taking classes at the community college along with Cole. Charlotte Anderson, the investigative journalist who had blown open the Sentinel case and had acted as the girls’ unofficial advocate upon occasion, had been a lifesaver there. Unknown to him and Stacey, she’d made sure the court had set up an account for the girls’ expenses, only telling them about it once it was established.
But that had certainly been nice when that stack of tuition bills had arrived, he had to admit, especially because it hadn’t even occurred to him to consider petitioning the court for anything like that. He’d just assumed that now that the girls lived here, they were his responsibility. Like Stacey and Cole, these girls had become family, so he hadn’t even considered any other possibility.
But before he could even write his first tuition check for anyone but Cole, she had gotten the courts to agree to cover any and all of their expenses, so that he was only obligated to forward any bills or expenses to the court-appointed accountant. When he had tried to argue, she had shut him down completely, pointing out that it could be years before the case came to trial. In the meantime, she had stated gently but firmly, the girls deserved the right to any education they wanted at the very least, regardless of the cost.
After she had put it like that, he couldn’t even disagree. He knew the value of a good education, which was more than just classes, because he’d been lucky enough to have one himself. But since then, that value had only risen apparently, at least on the expense side, he had noted in dismay when he had looked into college tuition costs in general. That had been a sobering moment, because he didn’t really want to have to mortgage the ranch if one of the girls suddenly decided she wanted to become a doctor.
But as smart as they were, there was really no limit on what they could become if only given the opportunity. After everything they had been through, he had no right to deny them the chance to reach their true potential by limiting where they could go or what they could study. But he was equally uncomfortable risking the ranch covering bills which Sentinel should be forced to pay.
So in the end, he had accepted that court-appointed charity gracefully, seeing Charlotte’s foresight and concern for the girls as one more example of her integrity. That had been just one of the many things she had done to help them, simply because it was the right thing to do. Certainly, she had set a fine example for them all.
He heard Cole coming up behind them, just as Emily kicked Sara in the hip and sent her reeling back, her left hand coming up to deflect the punch Nina threw at her face. Cole gasped in reaction, sounding like he might be wincing, then he came to stand with them and watch.
“I know I should be used to this by now,” he said, his eyes on the girls he called his sisters. “But, whew, some of those hits, I can’t help but cringe. If they weren’t laughing the whole time, I’d be scared.”
“Does take some getting used to,” Rand admitted, cringing himself as he watched Emily just barely avoid Nina’s fist in her eye. Predictably, Emily shrieked in delight and stuck her tongue out at her younger sister. “I do a lot of twitching and wincing, myself. I think we might have to put our heads together to come up with some new ways for them to exercise in addition to this. Between this and their shooting range, I’m likely to have heart trouble within a year.”
Stacey chuckled right in time with Cole’s snort of disbelief, the noises shifting into gasps as Sara kicked Emily in the side with an audible thump. Emily went with it, diving sideways, but Nina was quick as she followed, her fists slamming down on Emily’s shoulders as she tried to rise. She locked her hands together, her fists like a hammer, and was about to clobber Emily right on the head when Stacey ducked her head into his shoulder.
“I can’t watch,” she muttered.
He flinched as Nina connected and Emily went down face-first before rolling away. The only thing which made it bearable was that she was laughing the entire time. Stacey must have recognized the sound of it, since her head came up, her expression relieved. She gave him a rueful glance as he heard Sara burst into laughter, then the sound of a fist striking flesh. He wasn’t sure if he could feel a slight tremor under his feet as one of them went down, or if he was imagining it. But he kept his eyes on Stacey’s as he smiled.
“Well, we’ll certainly never have to worry about leaving the doors unlocked all the time,” he teased. “With kids like these, who needs a security system? They are one.”
Stacey and Cole both burst into laughter.
Her spirits high, Emily smiled around the table at her family.
While she had never thought she would be able to say that, she could now. Born in a lab where she was nothing more than a number, she had come to this ranch, where she was a real person. To prove it, she had a real name, a family who loved her, a dog named Ashley and a glitter sign on her bedroom door which told everyone that she was a real person now. She had never been happier.
Since they were between semesters and had no classes right now, the three of them had finished their chores, then spent the afternoon on the practical shooting range Rand and Cole had set up for them. Even though the field they used had good visibility, Rand had insisted they would do this safely or not at all.
So he had used his tractor to build them a earthen backstop to safely contain any wild shots, then set them loose to finish it like they wanted. While both he and Stacey had given them a look when they had seen what they had done, they had not said a single critical thing. But now, Rand eyed them all over the table.
“Took a walk down to the shooting range, girls,” he said, his expression calm. “Any reason the targets labeled as hostages have bullet holes in their foreheads?”
Emily started to snicker, then Nina joined in. Sara shot them a dirty look.
“They put other targets over those without telling me,” she explained, her expression slightly sour. “Then they took them down, once I was done. They thought it would be funny. So they could tease me about it later.”
“You shot a hostage.” Emily couldn’t contain herself as she teased Sara, who wasn’t nearly as grumpy about it as she was acting. “Ooh, I’m telling. You shot a hostage.” She turned to Rand and grinned. “You should have seen her face. She was so freaked out.”
“Honey, do you think maybe upsetting your sister like that isn’t very nice?” Stacey asked, giving Sara a sympathetic look before she turned her attention back to Emily. “I don’t think she’d do that to you.”
Emily blinked at her in confusion. “But that’s where I learned it. She used to do it to me. It’s not a big deal. Besides, Sara used to shoot the hostages all the time, by choice. Just to be difficult.”
When Rand, Stacey and even Cole all looked at her, their mouths dropping open, she realized they had misunderstood. “No, not real hostages. Just the targets.” She turned to her sister and frowned. “Sara, I wasn’t trying to be mean. You know I was only teasing.”
“I know, I know,” Sara grumbled. “But you made it look like I missed or something. I don’t miss. I’m a very good shot.”
“Of course you are,” Cole declared, perfect big brother as he was to them. “Why, if I saw a hostage target with a hole right through its head, I’d never assume it was because you missed. I’d know that had been one of the kidnappers trying to escape by pretending to be a hostage.”
“You would?” Sara said, her tone pleased.
“Of course,” Cole replied, his tone kind. “I know you only shoot people in the head who deserve it.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” Rand muttered, poking at his dinner and sounding like he was trying not to laugh, which happened a lot, she’d noticed. When he lifted his head, she was certain of it from his expression. “And can someone tell me why all I hear from dinner time on is snoring dogs? Those are two young, healthy and active dogs, yet they sleep more than old ones lately. Why is that?”
“We’ve been taking them running in the morning with us,” Emily replied. “But it’s really hard for them to keep up.”
“It’s hard for them to keep up?” Rand asked, his tone shocked. “Are you girls teasing me?”
Emily frowned, uncertain why he would think that. When she looked at Sara and Nina, they both looked equally confused by that idea. Seeing Rand was waiting patiently on her answer, she shook her head.
“No, that’s the truth,” she assured him, even as she had a horrible thought. “You’re not angry at Ashley and Haven for being slow, are you? They can’t help having such little legs, and they try very hard. But they just get tired really fast.” When no one replied and Rand was still looking at her oddly, she did her best to clarify. “And we don’t make them run or anything. They just follow us as fast as they can, trying to keep up. But by the end, they’re really tired.”
“I see,” Rand replied, blinking a little like he was thinking. “Good to know.”
“That explains a lot,” Stacey mused, smiling at them. “Like how much they eat now.” Then she glanced at the two dogs, who were flat out and sleeping, having finished their own meals already. “But they look good. And I have to admit that they are very well behaved in the house for such young dogs. So there is that, at least.”
Emily smiled at Stacey. “They are good, aren’t they?” Then she frowned a little. “It’s just too bad they’re so slow. I always thought it would be fun to have a dog to take running.”
“Me, too,” Sara admitted quietly. “Like the perfect friend. You’d never be alone.”
“Cheetahs are really fast.” Nina sighed happily. “I wish we had a pet cheetah.”
“That would be perfect,” Emily agreed, smiling as she thought about it. “It could probably even keep up with us. That’s a great idea. We should definitely get a pet cheetah.”
“No, I don’t think we can have anything like that, not here on the ranch,” Sara objected sadly. “Not only is that probably illegal, but it would scare the horses.” She turned to Rand, her expression troubled. “Even if it didn’t, I don’t have any idea where we could get one. Do you?”
But Rand couldn’t answer right away, because he was too busy laughing.
Lying in her bed as the others slept, Cassie knew their time was limited.
She could feel it, the stray thoughts floating through the building, the faint tinge of regret coating those feelings like mud. She knew a decision had been made, one which would result in their deaths. She didn’t need anyone to say it aloud, because as an empath and remote viewer, she could feel it.
She might only be seven, but she wasn’t stupid. None of them were. Not only had they been created to be smarter than the average person, but she also had access to the thoughts and impressions of everyone around her.
That gave her a degree of context that no child her age would ever naturally have, confusing though it often was. But that wasn’t terribly surprising, as she wasn’t natural. None of them were.
They didn’t even have real names like normal children did, certainly not two of them, anyway. They each had a different four digit ID number, and they had the nicknames the nice techs had used from their earliest memories. Those were the names they used with each other, because they were real in a way numbers never could be.
But if they were no longer needed or wanted, they would not be placed with loving families, like happened to normal children who had lost their families for whatever reason. Created and raised here in this facility as they had been, they had never had a family, and they were not even remotely normal. So those rules didn’t apply to them, most everyone here at Genaxicon believed.
That meant they were on their own. If they didn’t escape, they would die. She knew that much.
So she would have to tell the others. But first, she was going to reach out and see if she could find someone to help. She had never tried that before, broadcasting the equivalent of a psychic distress call, so she wasn’t even sure it would work. But now, it might be their only hope.
While they were special, they were still just children, so they needed help and soon. Leo could probably hold off someone trying to harm him and so could Ellie, but she and Otter were essentially defenseless. Even being so much stronger and faster than normal children wouldn’t be enough against all the adults here, since they hadn’t had much training in self-defense yet. Without someone on their side, they had no chance of surviving what was coming. So this was her only hope. She would broadcast as far and hard as she could, hoping that someone would hear.
Her eyes closing, Cassie began calling for help.
End of Sample...
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