When Nine saw the puppy and the gun, she knew this was bad.
Even worse, Dr. Greene looked openly happy, which meant that he expected her to fail. He was the only doctor here who obviously didn’t like her, something she had been told was due to professional competition within the program. She didn’t really care about the reasons as much as she just didn’t trust him for the way he looked at her, the faintest traces of resentment in his eyes.
Unlike the other doctors, the ones she liked, he didn’t address her politely. He called her names like the prototype, his sneer making it clear that he thought very little of her, no matter how well she performed. She always avoided Dr. Greene as best she could, an easy task since he was generally busy working with Seven and Eight, whom he clearly preferred. So she was a little surprised to see him now.
“Please sit.” Dr. Greene indicated the chair across from him.
The puppy was sniffing at his feet, its little tail waving in obvious happiness. Nine had never seen a real puppy before, so she was surprised by how much plumper and softer it looked in person. Seeing her preoccupation, Dr. Greene spoke, his tone very satisfied.
“Would you like to play with it?”
After glancing at him to see that this was not a trick, Nine sat down on the floor with the puppy, ignoring the gun sitting on the low table. To her astonishment, the puppy felt even softer than it looked, a sweet, clean smell rising from it as its little pink tongue licked her face.
Kept inside this facility her whole life as she had been aside from brief trips outdoors in the fenced compound during survival training, she could do nothing more than marvel at this new experience. Her hands slid over the puppy’s sleek coat as she held it. She had no idea of how much time had passed, but when Dr. Greene spoke, she was startled.
“Now you need to kill the puppy. Take the gun and shoot it in the head.”
Shocked, Nine jerked her head up from the puppy to look at him.
“What? Shoot the puppy? Why?”
Dr. Greene frowned, his jaw tight as he glared at her.
“Haven’t we spoken about this? Do not ask why. You know better. Just do it.”
There was the faint crackle of the speaker turning on, then Peter spoke.
“Dr. Greene, I’m going to have to protest one more time. This is against the recommendations and established parameters of the program. Furthermore, this violates safety protocols. With all due respect, sir, I have to formally protest against your decision in this case. I honestly think this is a bad idea.”
“Oh, did you receive your doctorate in genetics when I wasn’t looking?” Dr. Green sneered through the glass at Peter. “So now you’re a renowned expert in the field, are you? Oh, wait, that’s not you, that’s me. In fact, it’s very simple, even for you. You press buttons like a trained monkey, while I make history. So maybe you should stick to what you know and let me do my job.”
There was a pause, then Peter’s voice came through the speaker again, even flatter than it had been.
“Of course. My apologies, Doctor.”
Satisfied that he had cowed the help, Dr. Greene turned those beady eyes on her again where she sat on the floor, the puppy in her lap.
“Get up. Now.”
She gently lifted the puppy out of her lap and placed it on the floor before climbing to her feet. Dr. Greene was holding out the gun, a demand on his face. When she shook her head in denial and made no move to take the gun, his eyes narrowed.
“You will take this gun,” he hissed, “and shoot that mangy dog right in the head. You are not here on vacation, Nine. This is part of your training and you will do it.”
“Is it dying?” she asked curiously. “It doesn’t look sick. Is it suffering? Is that why you want me to shoot it in the head?”
“No,” Dr. Greene said, like he relished telling her this, “it’s not sick. It’s a perfectly healthy puppy who could grow into the very picture of man’s best friend. But you are going to shoot it in the head anyway, because I have ordered you to do just that. Everyone else here might have excused your defiant attitude, but I will not. I have given you an order. How you feel about that order is irrelevant. You will do this and you will do it now.”
Nine made no move to take the gun. “What happens if I don’t?”
“Do you remember Six?” he asked, his voice malicious.
“Dr. Greene,” came Peter’s voice through the speaker, now sounding worried.
“Quiet or I’ll have you fired,” Dr. Greene snapped back, his eyes never leaving hers. “Six was much like you, Nine. Defiant, always questioning. Like you, she believed that she had a right to determine which orders she would fulfill and which she would ignore. She also refused to shoot the puppy, failing this test just like you are in danger of doing now. Maybe I should have warned her about the consequences, too, but I didn’t. And do you know what happened? That was the last straw. The next morning she was marched from her room right into Medical to be put down like a stray dog. Fitting, don’t you think?”
Nine thought about it as she looked at the gun he still held out. She had seen Six, who was much older, multiple times in the halls when she was younger. Like she was now, Six had been petite, with long blonde hair, big blue eyes and the same delicate, symmetrical features. While they did not look exactly alike, she believed, casting her mind back to her memories of Six, they looked similar enough to be related. Maybe they even were, she considered.
But now she would never know, because Six was dead. Shot full of something to stop her heart, she had probably thought it was another blood test or a vitamin D shot. Six had no idea it was coming because he had not told her. Without a word of warning, Dr. Greene had sentenced her to death because she wouldn’t kill a puppy.
Forearmed with the knowledge that she was trading her life for that decision, maybe Six would have chosen differently once she had thought about it more, Nine realized. But she wasn’t Six. Her hand trembling, she took the gun from Dr. Greene.
“Excellent. Now do what you were made to do.”
So she shot Dr. Greene right in the head.
Martin Tuttle, CEO of Sentinel Biotech, listened to his head of security with a frown.
“You can’t be serious,” he finally said, not even trying to hide his irritation. “I’d assumed you would have been able to locate her by now. It has been several days since the incident, after all. If you haven’t been able to recover her, did you at least find out what happened?”
Harry cringed slightly, despite being almost as big as the desk Martin sat behind.
“Greene loaded the gun with live ammo, which is obviously against protocol. The tech overseeing the session argued against it, but Greene wouldn’t listen.”
He nodded at the desk, where his report sat in front of Martin, before he continued.
“The full transcript is in there. Greene felt this specific prototype, referred to as Nine, was routinely defiant and required a stronger course of conditioning to override that tendency. He believed that a strong enough traumatic event would create a more compliant temperament. He argued routinely about it with Dr. Lewis, who considered the prototype merely curious rather than rebellious. According to multiple other employees, their rivalry was well-known in the lab and quite heated at times.”
“And what does Dr. Lewis say?”
“That he was trying to sabotage her success by traumatizing the prototype and damaging her career to help his own.”
“Do you believe her?”
“She believes it,” Harry said slowly, “and I don’t doubt it. No one liked Greene, especially not the people who worked with him. But I also think Lewis and the tech know more than they’re saying. They’re both too attached to this specific prototype. There’s something there, something they’re not telling me. They didn’t like Greene, sure, but it’s more than that.”
“And their thoughts on this prototype, this Nine?”
“They’re acting like she was a normal kid who made a mistake.” Harry grimaced. “Like she borrowed the car without asking or skipped school, rather than shot a man point blank in the face. And not just some stranger, but someone she saw everyday. It gives me the creeps.”
“Yes, you’ve never made a secret of your feelings about genetic modification,” Martin noted, letting just a faint trace of his annoyance bleed into his voice to hurry this recitation along. “But in this case, you are going to swallow those concerns because I need you on this. You know the potential value of this program. I don’t want to find out later that one of my competitors was involved and we missed that. If that’s the case, I need to know now. If Lewis or the tech were involved in her escape in any way, then take care of it.”
Harry’s eyes flicked to his, his expression completely flat.
“Subcontractors are approved at that point, I assume, sir?”
Martin appreciated that question, because unlike Nine’s escape, it was exactly what he had expected. Harry never liked to get his hands dirty when he could find someone else to do it, creating one more layer between him and the body. Martin, who had built a pharmaceutical empire in much the same way, appreciated that about Harry, which is why he had made him Head of Security and kept him there for years now. Even better, Harry was wise enough to never question the order, only the methods he might be expected to employ. It made him invaluable, Martin thought, smiling at him now.
“Yes, subcontractors if needed,” he confirmed. “Did you draw up an estimate of how far she might have gotten, using various methods of transit based on her starting point?”
At the man’s nod, he continued, making a distinct effort not to snarl.
“And you’re openly monitoring law enforcement on the local levels for anything involving a girl of her description? Is IT pulling any security footage available from that region?” Harry nodded again. “Excellent. Speak with the doctors about activating her remotely, but do nothing with that yet. Just get the codes from them. We’ll keep that fail-safe in reserve for now. After all, I’m sure we’ll recover her long before we need to resort to that.”
“Should I have a team on standby for immediate recovery?”
“No, no team. Not yet. Once you know her approximate whereabouts, I’ll handle it in-house, so to speak.” He smiled. “Seven and Eight are ready for their first field trial before we present them as finished assets. Unlike Nine, they have already been micro-chipped in preparation for that service, so at worst, you may have to collect them if there are any issues. But even with that risk, this might be a nice time to show their benefactors that not all that time and money was wasted despite the early failures.”
When Harry said nothing, Martin just smiled humorlessly.
“Yes, I know. It gives you the creeps.”
“They can see in the dark,” Harry replied flatly. “Not to mention all the rest of it. I see the utility, but it isn’t human, what they are. It’s,” he paused, obviously searching for the least offensive word even as his lips thinned, “odd.”
“Well, they are odd, Nine especially, since she hasn’t even started her socialization yet,” Martin agreed, pleasantly surprised that the other man had chosen such a diplomatic word. “But that’s precisely why it should be easy to track her down. She has no idea of how to move in the world like a normal person, nor how to interact with anyone outside of a clinical setting. She won’t be able to hide for long. Someone will call her in as confused or on drugs and we’ll have her.”
“Yes, of course. If that’s all, sir, then I’ll get right on that.”
“Please do.” Martin gave him a look. “This is to take priority over everything else. Prototype Number Nine is the culmination of decades of work and billions of taxpayer dollars. If any of this gets out, they will disavow all knowledge and leave us to be ruined. To avoid that, we must recover her as soon as,” his lips quirked, “humanly possible.”
With a crisp nod, Harry left the room, leaving Martin to look over the city as he thought about it. This was a nightmare, true, but he was certain that it could be handled quietly enough. He had not lied about how easily she would be spotted, after all. Nine was hardly ready for polite society by design. They held that training until last, both for security reasons and because it allowed well over a decade of intensive conditioning to be set first. That meant issues like compassion and morality were always secondary to the training they had received, so that they acted first and thought later.
But none of the three surviving subjects were stupid. In fact, if he had to be honest, any one of them would put his intellect to shame. But that was not the same as social polish, which Nine was sadly lacking. He had watched clips from the videos of her sessions and he had to admit that physically at least, she was perfect. She looked like a beautiful young girl, harmless and entirely fragile, but that was far from the truth. Genetically modified and raised as she had been, Nine was deadly.
Just as he had always hoped, she would be the perfect assassin.
When Rand Matthews saw the girl slink into the diner without a parent, he was surprised.
Even ragged and dressed in shapeless clothes far too big for her, she was a future beauty, no doubt about it. Petite and frail, with long blonde hair and delicate features, she looked very young and totally out of place in a diner frequented by local ranchers and interstate truckers. But even more concerning, she was acting like she might have been transported here in someone’s trunk, which worried him.
Even from across the diner, she looked dazed and battered past the obvious as she stood just inside the doorway and actually sniffed the air like some starving orphan. He caught Stacey’s eye and jerked his head in that direction. Seeing the girl poised there like she might run, Stacey bustled forward.
“Honey, you look hungry. Let’s get you seated so we can fix that.”
Stacey settled the obviously nervous girl at a table and immediately brought her a glass of milk and a muffin. If Rand had any doubts about her age, they were settled when the girl gulped the milk so fast that she spilled some down the front of her sweatshirt. Had that not been enough, the look of sadness on her face as she used a napkin to try and wipe it off settled it completely.
If the kid was a day over fourteen, he’d be shocked, which meant she was a runaway, most likely. The way she looked, he didn’t like to think about what she might be running from, or what she might have run into in the course of that flight. It was a depressing subject, one that always made him feel like the world’s good men had all died off, leaving him here alone.
At least he could content himself that he was doing right by young Cole McGuire, taking him on at the ranch so he could save up some money for college. The boy’s family was a pile of foul-mouthed, feuding drunks, that child the sole shining light they had produced. It always made him wonder if maybe that boy’s dearly departed mother hadn’t strayed along the way, possibly. But no matter, the boy had moved into the abandoned bunkhouse by the barn and made it his own, preferring that over the spare bedroom Rand had offered. He wouldn’t be able to stay there come fall without heat, but for the summer it was fine.
Rand couldn’t blame him for wanting a little bit of freedom for the first time in his life. The kid came into the house for meals, but otherwise, he was either in the bunkhouse or out putting saddle time on the sale horses. Rand couldn’t fault his work ethic, nor his hand with horses, so he was more than satisfied with his sole employee.
He was busy reflecting on Cole with a smile when he noticed one of the truckers sit down at the girl’s table. Rand couldn’t hear the words once the man spoke, but he knew the tone, all right. It was not a tone any adult man should be using with a child, future beauty or not. Thinking this was a bad sign, because there was no way he was going to let some greasy trucker abduct a child right in front of him, he decided it might be time for him to get involved.
As he stood up, he caught Stacey’s eye to see her looking worried as she grimaced back at him. She gestured at the phone, as if to suggest she could call the sheriff. Rand shook his head in denial, giving her a reassuring look. He didn’t need the sheriff for this. Should this prove an issue, he would handle it himself, right here and right now. This sort of thing was not going to happen while he stood idly by.
Just as he started to walk over, the girl exploded.
She slammed the trucker’s face into the table so hard Rand heard a crack, then vaulted right over his body like she was playing leapfrog. She jumped right across the table tops the length of the wall like an acrobat, then was out the door in a flash. Just as the door swung shut, the trucker groaned and fell right off his seat onto the floor, blood all over his face from his broken nose.
Since Rand was pretty sure that anything said to a teenage girl which made her react like that deserved at least one broken bone, he ignored the man. Stacey, kindly woman that she was, went to get him some ice, nodding as she passed to say everything was fine. Judging that he was no longer needed, Rand sat back down to finish his breakfast, mopping up the last of his eggs with some toast before washing it down with coffee.
Once he was done here, he’d head back to the ranch and unload the feed he had picked up before checking in on the bay gelding who had cut his hock. Cole had been doing a fine job doctoring it, but he’d unwrap it and just take a look to make sure. Fortunately, Cole was always a good sport about such things, displaying none of the sullen aggression of his father or brothers, so he always just laughed about Rand checking up on him.
By the time the trucker had staggered out the door with directions to the emergency room, Rand was done and waiting by the register for Stacey. After he made sure she was doing fine despite what she had just witnessed, he paid the bill. Then, despite his desire to stay and keep talking to her, he wished her a good day, making sure to leave a nice tip on his way out.
Having gotten to know her a bit since she had started working here last year, he had come to think quite highly of her. Were she not the only attractive, single woman for miles and pestered accordingly for it all day here at the diner, he might be inclined to get to know her even better. But as it was, she certainly had her pick, so it wasn’t for him to decide.
He climbed into his truck, feeling the weight of the feed in the bed as he pulled back out onto the road. Despite the odd scene in the diner, it was a beautiful day, the sky blue and filled with the slow drift of clouds. It was, he decided as he turned on the radio and started to sing along, one of those days that made a man happy to be alive. As he turned onto his ranch, he saw Cole riding along the south pasture fence and waved, knowing the boy would follow him to the barn and help unload the grain now that he knew Rand was back. He was a good kid like that, no question about it.
He pulled up inside the barn’s center aisle, parking so that he was right next to the feed room, with plenty of room to open his door. When he unbuckled his seat belt and looked in the rear-view mirror to check on Cole’s progress, there was a blur as something went right over the side of the truck from the bed. Astonished, Rand climbed out of the truck, baffled at how the feed bags could have fallen like that when they had not been stacked more than two or three high in the bed.
That’s when he discovered that it wasn’t a bag of feed.
Instead, there was the girl from the diner, crouched between the stall door and the side of the truck. As if she routinely stowed away on people’s vehicles, she just held up one hand to keep him there as she started to back away, her expression wary but not openly fearful.
“Easy now, little girl,” he said reassuringly. “This is a safe place. No one’s going to hurt you here. There’s no need to be frightened anymore.”
That was when Cole arrived, his horse’s hooves ringing on the aisle and their combined mass briefly blocking the sun as he led it into the barn. The girl made a panicked noise, her head swinging between the two of them as she tried to determine which one of them to run past. Worried that she might try to run past the horse, Rand spoke once more, trying to sound as calm as he could.
“If you run past the horse, you will scare him. He could hurt you, Cole or himself, maybe very badly.” He raised his voice. “Cole, just strip off his saddle and put him in that stall right there. This young lady caught a ride with me from the diner and she’s a little nervous now. I’m afraid that someone might get hurt if she startles your horse.”
“Sure,” Cole said, sounding surprised before he started speaking to the girl. “Hi. I’m Cole. That’s Rand. You don’t need to look like that. Rand’s one of the good guys.”
Rand’s eyes were on the girl, but he could hear the creak of leather as Cole pulled the saddle off and set it down, then the rollers as the stall door opened. There was the clatter of hooves, muffled as it entered the bedded stall and the girl spoke.
“Yeah, you know, the kind of people you want on your side,” Cole explained, sounding even younger than his eighteen years, earnest as his voice was. “Rand’s a good guy, polite and respectful. So am I. You don’t need to be afraid of us.”
“I’m not afraid,” the girl said softly as she looked between them once more.
“Well, that’s good,” Cole continued, apparently unaware of how odd she looked, based on how cheerful he sounded. “I would hate to think that– ”
He was still speaking when she moved, leaping on him and driving him right into the ground.
“Hey, stop that!” Rand yelled as he started forward. “Young lady, get off him!”
She was up before he even reached them, one hand holding Cole’s little finger, the other arm wrapped around his neck so that Cole was bent nearly sideways, small as she was. She shifted slightly, moving the hand which held his pinkie and Cole gasped in pain.
“One more step, I break his finger. Two steps, I will snap his neck.”
Horrified, Rand just looked at her, completely uncertain about what he should do now.
Based on the way Cole was rapidly paling, she could do exactly that, little or not. After all, he had seen what she had done to the trucker who had bothered her. Thinking of that in all its bloody glory, he realized he needed to stop this before Cole was hurt. A broken finger wasn’t the end of the world, he knew, having had a few himself. But it hurt and he hated to see the boy harmed when he’d done nothing to deserve it.
“You know, I could understand the trucker,” he said, doing his best to look casual as he leaned on his truck and willed his heart rate to slow. “He was my age, maybe even older, so he had no business bothering a young lady like yourself. So I don’t mind that you broke his nose. But that young man there works for me. I need him alive and able to use all his fingers, so I’ll remind you that he’s done nothing to deserve being treated like that.”
She said nothing, but she must have eased her grip, since Cole gave a ragged sigh of relief. Hopeful that this might work, Rand continued talking like this was all completely normal.
“Cole, you hungry?” When the boy agreed he was, Rand looked at the girl. “You must be, too. How about we all go inside and I’ll make up a batch of pancakes.”
“Pancakes,” the girl said, her tone speculative. “I’ve heard of those.”
“Wait, do you mean that you’ve never had pancakes?” Cole wiggled around in her hold to make eye contact with the girl, his expression shocked. “No way! Are you serious? You have no idea what you’re missing. You’ve really never had pancakes with butter and maple syrup?”
When the girl shook her head in denial, that was too much for Cole.
“Then you’re missing out,” he insisted. “Look, just march me in the direction of the kitchen at least, so Rand can start cooking. I’m hungry.”
As if to punctuate that statement, his stomach growled.
That appeared to be enough, as she backed out of the barn with Cole still held in front of her like a shield. Once she was outside, she jerked her head at Rand, clearly indicating she wanted him to come out of the barn. So he slowly walked out into the sunshine, blinking a little before he fumbled in his shirt pocket for his sunglasses.
“Pancakes it is, then,” he announced as he started in the direction of the house.
There was a scuffle behind him like someone might have tripped, then Cole yelped. He swung around to see her looking apologetic as she let go of the boy’s finger.
“Sorry, but there’s a lot of give in that joint,” she said as her hand darted forward to seize Cole’s ear. “This might be better.”
“Ow! Stop that!” Cole batted at her hand as she hauled him along, vainly trying to twist away from her. “That hurts!”
“Then stop jumping around,” she replied, her tone disapproving. “Just walk. You’re only hurting yourself by fighting.”
“No,” Cole declared, his voice annoyed. “You are hurting me. I have nothing to do with it.”
She did not reply, but her grip must have eased as Cole gave another one of those relieved sighs. When they reached the house, she got within twenty feet of the door, then she stopped dead. Rand only noticed because when he opened the door and held it open, expecting someone to catch it, there was no one there.
He looked around to see her looking at the house with an expression of dread, like they planned to trap her inside. Not even wanting to know why she might look like that, because he honestly couldn’t stand some of the possible reasons currently running through his head, he looked only at Cole.
“I’ll make a big stack and bring it all out,” he said, giving the boy a reassuring look. “Why don’t you two kids sit down at the picnic table. I’ll be out soon enough.”
The girl must have done something to his ear, as Cole gasped, his face whitening.
“If you call anyone and they come for me,” she said softly, “I might have to hurt them and maybe both of you, too. I don’t want to, I really don’t, but I won’t have a choice then. Please don’t make me do that.”
Wondering if she was armed and deciding that her ragged and over-sized outfit could hide all measure of sins, Rand nodded, holding one hand up to signal that he didn’t want anything like that.
“Sure, I understand and I’ve got no complaints with that, all right? I’m not going to call anyone, so you don’t need to worry about that. Just go sit down at the table under the tree right there with Cole. I’ll be out with a whole stack of pancakes soon enough.”
He smiled at her, wondering again what kind of world he lived in that he was even having this conversation with a child.
“They’re worth the wait.”
Then he went inside, desperately hoping she wouldn’t maim or kill Cole.
End of Sample...
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