Aurora

“You’re Peyton?” Andre checked the authorization form for the third time. “Peyton Saunders?”

The woman sat board straight across from him, her hands folded in her lap. Her narrow frame fit loosely between the chrome arms of the office chair. She nodded. “Yes, sir.”

He checked her name patch, also for the third time. His eyes went to the paper again after he noted the slight curve of her breast—an odd thing beneath the camouflage uniform. Not that he’d never seen a woman in uniform. He’d just never seen one here at this facility.

“Is everything okay, sir?”

Andre stood and headed for his office door. “Just one moment, please.”

She gave a tight nod, her eyes fixed straight ahead. He noted a flush in her cheeks and her hands clenched. Nervous. The smart ones always were.

“I’ll be right back.”

He tugged at a fistful of his hair as he stepped into the antiseptic-white corridors of the facility. Long, loping strides carried him down the hall, his lab coat billowing. He whipped past a soldier with a grunt of apology. This had to be a mistake.

Of course, coming to work for the Augment program in the first place had been a mistake. He never figured he’d be another cog in the wheel of the defense industry, let alone have access to their most closely guarded secret. College ideals and the crushing interest rates on his loans didn’t go hand in hand.

At one time, he’d been convinced like everyone else that the Augment program was dead. Five years working his way up from an assistant lab tech and processing unlabeled samples proved otherwise. Even with his current clearance, though, he and his fellow scientists were often the last to know about any changes. He always had the feeling that the guys with guns only tolerated his brainy colleagues because someone with bigger guns said to.

He paused outside the foyer to the major general’s office. The guard at the desk beside the open office door eyed him. Andre took a step, turned on his heel and turned again, tugging at his hair.

No, this had to be a mistake. As far as he could tell, their program audit remained unresolved. There was no reason to return to an operational status. The recent incident remained a fresh stain.

And then there was the female candidate waiting in his office.

A mistake was the only explanation. Probably some mindless government employee flying their desk into retirement had mixed up any number of the unnecessary forms that formed the maze of paper and good intentions this place was built on.

He stepped into the commanding officer’s foyer.

The guard rose and adjusted the submachine gun slung over his shoulder. Lost in thought, Andre ignored him and fixed on the major general’s door. He’d been inside once before. He could see a lamp glowing under a green shade on the one visible desk corner. Behind that, a plaque hung above a metal shelf stuffed with red-jacketed files.

“Can I help you, sir?” The guard sounded annoyed as he moved to block the door.

“I need to speak with—”

“Send him in.” Major General Cooper sounded distracted but his voice carried easily into the foyer.

“Yes, sir.”

“And close the door.”

Andre whisked by the guard. He kept his eyes on the desk lamp and nodded his head in the closest thing he’d ever give to a salute. Behind him, the security door closed with a finality that made him cringe.

Bent over his work, the major general’s coat was slung across his chair and his sleeves rolled up. An archaic oddity sat on his desk, a combination monitor and terminal, the result of an infrastructure slightly older than their current work indicated. More notable was the mostly full decanter of scotch next to it and the half-empty glass.

Andre’s earlier momentum had waned. Pacing back and forth didn’t solve the problem as he tried to find the right way to phrase his question. He wanted to sound confident, like he’d come here for a reason; a reason which began to fade the more he paced. In fact, he no longer knew why he’d come here. Didn’t understand why he’d marched into the commanding officer’s presence as if he and his white coat were anything more than a means to an end.

He examined the plaque above the metal shelf. No names, only stars. Dozens of them. Last time he was here, it had been the centerpiece of their conversation. He stared at the newest one and had an urge to scrawl a name beneath it. He was fighting that urge when the major general finally spoke.

“Yes, she’s the right candidate for your work.”

The words didn’t register but the sound informed Andre he’d been recognized. He swatted the hair from his eyes.

“It’s about this Peyton. Peyton Saunders,” Andre said, tugging on a lock of hair. “The form doesn’t say…I mean, it never says, of course, but I don’t know if you knew that maybe she … yes, she, Peyton is actually a woman.”

Cooper planted his hands on the desk and stood.

“I know a woman when I see one. Any reason you didn’t go to Doctor Craft first?”

That’s right. Doctor Craft had been here last time too. A post-incident debriefing, they’d called it.

Cooper pushed an empty tumbler toward Andre’s side of the desk and poured a thin layer of scotch. “Go ahead.”

Andre stared at the tumbler. Hard liquor wasn’t his thing. He worked with chemicals in the lab that smelled better and he’d never had an urge to drink those. But this felt like a rite of passage or other manly thing which he needed to accept. Cooper’s square chin and heavy brow made a silent demand softened only slightly by what might be a smile. Andre grabbed the glass and knocked it back.

The scotch burned and lodged in a fiery knot in his gut. Cooper crossed to the front of the desk and sat on the edge.

“To a new era.” Cooper tilted the glass and swallowed.

Andre’s throat continued to burn and his eyes watered. He raised his own glass and tried to repeat the toast but only choked out a muffled “New.”

Cooper took the empty glass and motioned toward the decanter. Andre raised a palm.

“You’re no doubt aware of the changes in the field?”

Andre cleared his throat. He’d recently been asked to provide a complete accounting of his work. An internal review of the entire Augment program was underway.

“Yes. We’re offline, pending the review.”

Cooper grimaced and poured another glass. “I was handed this program fifteen years ago. We’ve had successes. Crimson Mask. That was a beaut.” He sipped the scotch and his lip curled as it went down. “That one’s a true soldier. Won’t ask questions. Stays on the straight and narrow.”

They didn’t always go that well, Andre knew from experience.

“Why are we returning to operational status?”

“Uncle Sam isn’t about to give up the Augment program just yet. We need to clean up our mess.” Cooper set the glass down and stared into the crystal base. “Plans have been set in motion to do that. Throwing away everything we’ve worked for isn’t an option. We need a new approach.”

“With Ms. Saunders?”

The Major General nodded but didn’t look up. “We’re working on a source for a more discreet supply of volunteers.”

“You read my reports, right?” Andre felt the heat in his stomach rising. “I know it wasn’t a popular opinion, but I don’t think there’s any clear metric that points to why—”

“I read your reports. They were passed on to greater minds up in D.C. They decided we should try working with a different physiology.”

Andre thought for a moment. “Women? Why?”

“I just need Augments I can control. Can you make that happen?”

Always a simple, brute force answer for them. On the surface, the idea sounded absurd. He desperately wanted to find fault, but the more he considered the science, the more he wondered exactly how the new variable would affect the process.

“Control? Nobody can guarantee that. Granted, the genetic differences could provide radically different results. We’d need to start tests…”

Cooper moved away from the desk with the gait of a predator unwinding after a rest in the hot sun. He stood over Andre, much like the last time he’d been in this office. Only then, the major general had been flexing his command presence to encourage and bolster in the face of disaster. This time, when his eyes flashed to the plaque on the wall they were full of warning and not lament.

“Then start with the candidate in your office. Next time you have a question, remember your chain of command.”

Andre studied his shoes. Right. He was supposed to go to Doctor Craft. He knew that.

***

The lab was an open space built to be observed and recorded. At the center was the operating table, standing like a stainless steel altar. On every side were lights and cabinets, workspaces and machines, all dwarfed by the tall ceiling.

A single exit led into the decontamination chamber. Guards posted there could keep watch through a six-inch thick transparent sliding door. Up and to the side of the chamber was an observation deck, a crow’s nest where the white coats would record observations at their individual stations. Today, science had become embarrassingly popular.

Overall, the facility wasn’t a place for privacy. Secure rooms, like Cooper’s office, offered rare places for solace or conspiracy depending on your rank and intent. If necessary, the lab where Andre stood with Peyton could be sealed off by blast doors. This was never done for privacy.

“You understand, there’s no turning back once we start?” Andre avoided eye contact, choosing to focus on the clipboard in his hand.

“Yes, sir. I read the paperwork. Pretty sure when I boarded the transport, that was the point of no return.”

She was right.

“We just need to start with an examination. If you could please remove your uniform.”

Through his tangled hair he saw her glance at the viewing chamber windows and give the same tight nod he’d seen in his office. She started with her hat. Her hair beneath spiraled into a bun and she gave a questioning look as she reached for the pins. Andre imagined the hair cascading down and faces pressing to the glass. He shook his head and turned to survey the gathering behind him.

Men clustered in both the observation deck and the decontamination chamber. Instead of the single guard required for the examination stage there were half a dozen soldiers. His own colleagues crowded the window deep in conversation punctuated by furtive glances.

Andre sighed and walked to the intercom.

“Could all unnecessary personnel please leave the examination room.” He had no real rank or say over such things, but he hoped the exasperation in his voice would count for something. Doctor Craft used to be able to get the white coats to jump, but he hadn’t been inside the lab since the accident.

The knot of white coats sheepishly unraveled, most likely headed for the monitor feeds in an adjoining room. In the decon chamber, the camouflaged soldiers kept up their animated vigil.

“Lieutenant? Lieutenant?” Andre figured he’d keep calling out the ranking officer until something happened. Being an awkward nuisance was his only real defense here. Soon all eyes were on him. “How many men do you need on guard prior to the procedure?” Their response was a group of vacant stares.

“It’s okay, sir,” she said. Andre turned to her voice.

Peyton was naked.

Andre’s eyes searched for the clipboard but found it tumbling out of his grasp. He bent to chase it along the smooth concrete as he tried to wedge a fingertip between the board and the floor. Her toes slid into view ahead of his chase. She reached down to pick up the board by the metal clip.

He let his hair dangle into his eyes, maintaining a focus on the clipboard as she handed it to him. Once in hand, he swept his hair from his face and locked eyes with her.

“Thank you. Please.” He motioned to the operating table and she sat, wincing at the cool metal.

Behind him the guard post cleared in a flurry of stiff salutes as Major General Cooper stepped into view.

“I’m sorry. We don’t have gowns here. We need gowns.” He pulled a rolling work table closer to the bedside.

“Really, it’s fine.” She sounded more relaxed and much less flustered than he was. “Just a body, right?”

Andre half-smiled but focused on the instruments lined up on the rolling table. He didn’t need most of them. A routine physical, nothing more. He looked at her face and observed the same physiological signs of nervousness he’d seen in his office.

“You’re a doctor,” her voice tightened, “I imagine you’ve seen plenty of naked people.”

Andre looked away and reached for a stethoscope. “I have a PhD. Not that kind of doctor. But Doctor Craft asked me to handle the routine work.”

“Oh,” she said. When he turned back she was sitting comfortably, her legs sprawled and one elbow on the table.

“I’ve seen lots of naked men,” he said, trying to fill the silence. “What about you?” All of those words sounded better before he’d said them.

“I don’t know. Quite a few more since I joined.” She answered the question with a sincerity that gracefully covered his idiotic babbling.

Her demeanor felt comfortable and familiar and Andre fell into his routine. When he was done checking her breathing she exhaled and asked. “Is there really that big of a difference? Aside from the obvious. We’re all hairless monkeys, right?”

“I suppose.” Andre smiled and grabbed a rubber hammer from the tray. He tapped it in the air next to his temple, glad for the change in topic. “Cross your legs please. In a manner of speaking, there’s a broader genetic gap between you and I than between humans and chimpanzees.” As he spoke, he began to feel excited again about his work. Maybe this time would be different.

“What do you mean, genetic gap?”

Andre tapped her knee. Satisfied with the reaction, he moved on to the next. “One could say there are two genomes for humans, not just one. The differences between male and female go far beyond a single chromosome. Lie down, please.”

As she reclined, her eyes chased whatever thought she clung to. She was back to her tight little nod. It was, in fact, just a body. He’d seen bodies here before. Andre’s compartmentalized thoughts began to slip.

“Is everything okay?” he asked, not sure who needed to answer the question.

She gave a tight nod again.

“Good. Let me know if you feel any pain.” He probed her abdomen with his fingertips. She barely reacted to his touch, staying focused on that faraway thought.

“When do we start?” she asked.

He stopped with his hand on her belly. She wasn’t afraid or nervous  he’d miscalculated. She was anxious. Ready to begin.

“Most of the paperwork and prep work has already been done. We’ll start in the morning.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Honestly? I don’t know.” He wanted to tell her she’d be okay, but she must’ve heard about the dangers in the briefings prior to her arrival. The armed guards were there for a reason. The ventilation system rigged in its particular way, for a reason.

***

Red light bathed the room. Klaxons whined and Andre shouted over the noise. He couldn’t hear the beep of the cardiogram but the lines spiked in needled peaks. “He’s crashing!”

“Get out of here!” Doctor Craft grabbed his sleeve, dragging him away from the table.

Andre fought. They’d lost men before, but not in the middle of the procedure. It was usually after, when their broken bodies rejected whatever power had been thrust inside of them. They burned out. Unspooled like a tossed ball of twine. This was condition red territory, where the power had started to manifest and they had not yet regained control. Anything could happen.

Andre fought for the crash cart. He needed to save this soldier—Steven. He couldn’t even remember his last name or rank. Just Steven.

Steven’s body jerked and he screamed. His IV line ripped from his arm. Andre yanked against Doctor Craft’s hands and he heard the seam of an environment suit rip.

Tortured metal rose above the siren wail and the operating table buckled. Soldiers pushed past as Steven tumbled. Where his head crashed into the floor, a divot of concrete leapt out.

Doctor Craft dragged Andre toward the decontamination chamber as he hurled muffled shouts at the soldiers. The visor of Andre’s suit fogged with his breath, clouding his view.

A soldier knelt and put his rifle to Steven’s temple.

“No!” Andre reached out. The gunshot echoed. The soldier stumbled backward, smoke streaming from his rifle and blood dotting the floor beneath him.

“They’re locking down!” Doctor Craft’s face appeared in the haze of Andre’s visor. “Get up!”

Andre clawed his way to his feet.

Doctor Craft raced ahead of him into the decontamination room, where steel plates began to lace across the chamber door. He frantically waved Andre into the chamber while his eyes tracked whatever horror was taking place in the lab.

Andre didn’t look back as more gunshots sounded and a rifle skidded past him. He didn’t look back as he leapt sideways through the closing teeth of the barrier. Only when he fell against the far wall of the chamber, hunched and breathless, did he turn and see Steven one last time.

Steven’s head was marred with a black powder stain where the gun barrel had been pressed. His pupils were dilated. His face twisted in pain and rage.

The mangled bodies of soldiers smeared the floor. As the last bars of the interlocking barrier slid into place, Steven charged, his feet crunching the concrete floor like fresh fallen snow.

The bars locked and the decontamination chamber rattled, as the mass of what later tests determined to be fifteen tons impacted the door leaving a blister of extruding steel.

A hiss of gas filled the lab on the other side. Andre huddled against the wall. Doctor Craft clutched his torn suit and hammered on the exit door, begging the soldiers outside to open it. A hazy cloud trickled in around the dented steel barrier. It would be hours before they were cleared to be released.

***

Andre stared into his coffee as he sat in the empty break room. His reflection looked alien, a dark, tentacled blob stretched on the surface. He sucked in the bitter aroma, hoping to chase a sleepless night out of his mind even before he’d taken a sip. It didn’t work.

He heard a swish of cloth above the everpresent fluorescent buzz, and didn’t bother checking to see who was approaching from the hall. This early, it would be a soldier making his rounds. All his fellow white coats would be getting their rest before the big day.

The sound stopped in the doorway. This was enough to pique his interest. Head down, he glanced toward the entry and saw, not tightly laced combat boots, but a pair of loafers and plaid pants.

Doctor Craft.

Andre turned back to his coffee and his odd reflection in the cup. “Good morning.”

The lights hummed for several heartbeats before he heard an answer.

“Morning.”

Doctor Craft crossed the break room and stopped at the coffee maker. An odd medicinal smell wafted after him, like hot upholstery. Mugs rattled. The Doctor grunted a few times and Andre winced at the discomfort in each ragged plea. A mug came haphazardly down onto the counter and set into a wobble, oscillating in long turns before the space between the swish and clunk shortened to a steady vibration then melted into silence. He watched Doctor Craft’s arm flop toward the mug and hold it steady while his free hand poured.

Andre grasped his cup with cold hands, drawing as much warmth as possible. He took a deep drink of the steaming coffee without raising his eyes. Doctor Craft returned the pot to the machine, sliding it in place after several failed attempts.

Harsh medicine combined with bitter coffee to form a smell Andre knew distinctly as Doctor Craft. A cloud of it assailed him as the man shuffled by and his lab coat flapped opened. Andre glimpsed a lump of pink, blistered flesh, and closed his eyes to gulp from his mug again.

“See you at the procedure.”

He’d said the words and left before Andre finished his cup.

“See you,” Andre whispered to the empty hallway.

***

Peyton was on the table, naked, when Andre entered the lab. Whether it was her nonchalant attitude, or maybe her boyish figure, the guards had lost interest. The observation deck, however, was filled with his colleagues, their awkward banter replaced by a focus on their individual stations.

Above, Doctor Craft sat closest to the window. His aloof presence had always given him a barrier, a palpable aura that the rest of the team accepted as his own space. That was no longer the case. The empty space was for other reasons.

“Nice suit, sir.” Peyton’s voice sounded faraway through the visored helmet.

“Only a precaution,” Andre said as he approached.

“Why, you don’t want to be Augmented?”

He forced a smile and grabbed an IV tree, pushing it across the lab with him.

“Not for me. I’m not a soldier.” He hoped, through the layer of plastic and shadow, that she’d accept his smile as genuine. She only nodded again and focused on the ceiling while he buckled the restraints.

He went to work. Alone. Ever since the accident, that’s how it had been. The others didn’t seem to mind that he’d volunteered. They thought it was proper even, given how everything had happened. Andre didn’t argue.

There was nothing to the procedure that a single set of hands couldn’t do anyway. The other white coats had all finished their tests and prepped the equipment each was responsible for, leaving it ready by the operating table. A combination of drugs and radiation would be fed into the subject’s body over the next several hours. Andre would stay and monitor her vitals, check the infusions, and run samples as the transformation took place.

As the final step, they’d introduce the genetic material. Crimson Mask Alpha was their current go-to injection but they all knew they couldn’t expect those same results, only a measure of stability. The mutations that took place, the alterations, were unpredictable and seemingly endless. With Peyton, they were in further uncharted territory.

The one certainty—no two Augments had ever been the same.

“Am I supposed to feel anything yet?” she asked.

Andre glanced at the countdown clock above the observation room. “It’s only been a few hours. We’re still administering the process.”

“How long before I notice anything?”

“We’ll need to monitor you. Could be a day or so.”

“A day? Maybe a sedative, huh? I mean laying here that long … I can’t wait.”

“We need you awake. Responsive.”

Andre checked the maze of screens around them and turned to her. He’d lost sight of the girl on the table as he went about the routine. She was bare and small under the dangling tubes and hoses. He noted again that her expression was determined and anxious.

At this stage, fear often set in. Even the burliest of soldiers began to rethink the decision. Not many truly wanted the power for the sake of it. They’d been explained the risks. They’d been disabused of their notions of grandeur. With Peyton, something felt different.

“Ms. Saunders, if I can ask, did you undergo the psychological briefing?”

She took her eyes off her focal point and glanced at him. “I took a test, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yes, that’s part of it. But were you informed of the risks?”

She frowned. “Well, I know everybody’s different. I’m just hoping this will …” She paused and looked at the equipment surrounding her. “I’m hoping this can help me become, well, me.”

He scrunched his face in confusion.

“Not that I don’t know who that is. I mean, that sounds weird. But I heard that the process gives you powers based on who you are. It changes you … turns you into what you really are. Right?”

Andre stared, slack jawed. He nodded stiffly then turned to the monitors to give his brain time to process.

Once candidates signed on, they were given information about the program. Nothing about the classified process, but clear, detailed reports about their chances of survival and what they should, or mostly, should not, expect.

Her level of understanding seemed about the same as the gossip at the officer’s club over beer and pretzels.

He headed to the intercom. His eyes went to the observation deck where both Doctor Craft and Major General Cooper now stood. Another glance over his shoulder confirmed Peyton was eyeing him from the metal slab, not back to her determined focus as he’d hoped. He’d have to yell in the damn suit to be heard.

“Question for you, Doctor Craft.” He released the intercom button and cast about as if he’d find the best way to frame the question lying on the lab floor.

Doctor Craft shambled to the wall and picked up the handset. “Yes?”

“The candidate. I don’t think she was properly briefed.”

Doctor Craft clutched the receiver in his one good hand. The other hung in a fleshy lump at his side, partly concealed by the lab coat. He stared vacantly out over the lab. “Were any of us?”

Major Cooper leaned across the doctor and pulled the receiver from his loose grip. “You’ll proceed as normal.” He returned the receiver to the cradle, eyes never leaving Andre.

Andre looked to his colleagues and followed their confused glances. As he watched realization dawn on their faces, he noticed the back row where armed soldiers stood along the wall.

The decontamination chamber was the only place they were needed. He waited to see what might happen. If one of his colleagues would ask a question. Or maybe Doctor Craft would uncover a shred of who he used to be.

Cooper’s stare burned through him. The major general reached for the receiver again. “You will continue with the procedure.”

Andre pressed the intercom button. He held it down until static whispered across the lab. “What’s going on here?”

“Sir?” Peyton’s voice drifted to him from the table but he couldn’t face her.

With a careful motion, the major general returned the receiver to the cradle, then disappeared into the adjoining hallway.

Out of habit, Andre wiped uselessly at his visor, the moisture trapped inside. He stared at the door into the decontamination chamber until he saw the soldiers there snap to attention when the Major General stepped into view.

He wanted to run. A fight or flight response; whether it was necessary or not, he didn’t know. His wild eyes fell on Peyton, watching from the table. She definitely looked worried now.

He swallowed. “One minute, please.” He held up a gloved finger and made his way toward the door.

Cooper stepped into the room and Andre stopped in his tracks. The officer stalked forward, alternating his gaze between him and the table.

Had he gone mad? Short-term exposure to the chemicals, the radiation in the lab, might not outright kill him, but the air was toxic at this stage. Safety parameters required the suit because there were never any guarantees. Extended exposure, well, Doctor Craft provided plain evidence for all to see.

Andre fought back his urge to flee and placed himself directly in the predator’s path, between Cooper and Peyton. “We can’t do this,” he pleaded. “I can’t let this happen again.”

Cooper stopped short. “Again?”

“We can’t treat her like this. She’s a person.”

Cooper grabbed the suit and yanked Andre aside where a bank of monitors and equipment obscured them from the table. “You can and you will.”

“Why? The program is still offline, isn’t it? The review is incomplete. Augments are not responding to command in the field. Our accident.”

The grip tightened and the bigger man shook him as he reeled Andre in by a fistful of his suit. “There was no accident! We’ve all been told the risks, remember? We’ve lost one hundred and sixty-seven men here over the past forty years. I look at each and every one of them every goddamn day. This place has been here since long before you ever showed up and will be here longer if I have anything to say about it.”

“But … your superiors … the guys in Washington. You said …”

“They’re planning to relaunch the program,” Cooper’s eyes lost focus. “Testing on women, just like I said. But not here, where it all started.” He released his grip on Andre’s suit and smoothed it out, inspecting the crumpled front. “They’ve got a new facility with a new directive. I’m out of the loop. Need-to-know only.”

“Then stay out. What we’re doing here is wrong. She doesn’t even know what could happen!”

Cooper’s eyes turned up. “Can you even reverse things at this stage?”

Andre’s heart went into a freefall. “No.”

“Then finish. This is your last warning.” Cooper turned and headed for the exit.

As the major general reached the door, Andre slipped out of his stunned silence. “Why?”

Cooper stood in profile, waiting for the glass door to slide open. “Because they need to know this place is still relevant. That you can’t just mothball decades of service. You can’t cover up those stars on that goddamn wall.”

Andre watched him disappear between the saluting guards and through the door. Where did this end? Fine, the program had plenty of successes. Mathematically, those outweighed the tragedies like Steven’s. But the girl on the table, she’d been lured here. Lied to and kept in the dark. The worst part—Cooper was right. If they aborted the process now, she would surely die.

***

“So I can’t control any of this?” Peyton asked. “What I want doesn’t affect the Augmentation?”

Andre shook his head.

He’d given Peyton the briefing she was supposed to have while he administered the rest of the procedure. She’d listened in silence, giving her small nods. A tear had streaked her cheek. She’d been so excited for whatever change she imagined. He’d stopped at the final step, the introduction of the genetic material. The one thing that would begin the chain reaction among the forces already at work in her body.

“And I can either choose to die or finish this?”

“That’s pretty much it,” Andre sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

She exhaled, her chest falling away from the restraints. “Will it hurt?”

“The transformation?”

“No. When I die.”

“I … well …” He checked the monitors. She was flooded with toxic levels of prepping agents. They’d never terminated the process midstream. He could only imagine she would die painfully. Slowly. Of the few he’d seen die after the final stage, he was mostly sure they’d lost their minds. Or, he wanted to believe that in their black stares, they were no longer themselves. “Yes. It will be painful.”

Another tear ran down her cheek. Andre awkwardly grabbed a cotton swab and dabbed at the trail. She blinked and held back more.

“Can you make it less painful?”

He frantically ran through the inventory of dangerous chemicals. Instantly a lethal cocktail sprang to mind, but he fought back the formula swimming in his head. There were also the containment measures. They could gas the chamber but he didn’t have control over that. “Why?”

“I’m ready to die.” She wasn’t crying anymore. “I wanted this process because I thought I could change myself. Have some control.”

“But, why? I mean despite the risks, the Augmentation process has a decent success rate. I’ll be here monitoring. I’ll do everything I can to make it go smoothly.”

“No.” Her hand tightened into a fist. “I’m ready. I wanted to change who I was, not be a super version of what I already am.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You wouldn’t.” She looked away. “Nobody does.”

“I can’t—well … I won’t just …”

“Kill me.”

“Is there a problem?” The major general’s voice echoed over the intercom.

Andre pulled himself away from the table and faced the observation window. Cooper stood pressed to the glass, the receiver in his hand and an armed soldier at his side. Doctor Craft was no longer in the room. His colleagues stared, breathless, into the lab and soldiers stood ready in the background. Andre meekly raised a hand and turned back to Peyton. He moved to her side and pretended to check the straps.

“Are you sure?” he whispered.

The tight nod.

Andre moved toward the stand where a syringe prepped with Crimson Mask Alpha waited. He glanced up at the window. All eyes were on him. He could swap the syringe and prep a different chemical quickly, but they’d see it later on the video feed. The longer he stood there, thinking, the more suspicious Cooper would get.

With trembling fingers, he loaded a new syringe. Then he heard the door to the decontamination chamber slide open.

Doctor Craft shuffled into the lab. Under the full protection of the environmental suit he looked normal, restored to that very day Andre had last seen him in the lab. He remembered fighting Doctor Craft when he should’ve just left. He should’ve followed the drill and evacuated to let the soldiers deal with the problem. He couldn’t save Steven. And he couldn’t save her.

Craft was beside him. “Cooper sent me to assist.”

Andre held the syringe in front of him, unmoving. Craft reached out and took it from his limp hand.

He watched the doctor shuffle toward the table, carrying the syringe like it were a fragile, delicate thing, guarded against the impending moment where a tiny misstep or quirk of fate would send it tumbling from his hands. Craft stood staring at the needle point long after he’d reached the table. Peyton ignored him, lost again in her thoughts.

Andre watched as the doctor plunged the syringe into his own arm.

Craft doubled over. He fought to breathe. His airways would begin collapsing, his veins shriveling into narrow threads. But he wouldn’t feel it, not until he was dead. Andre had made sure it would be painless. Peyton was wide-eyed with fear as she stared at the syringe jutting out of Craft’s arm.

“What on earth are you doing?”

“Finishing what was started,” croaked the doctor.

“That’s not the vector! Not CM Alpha!” He dropped next to Craft, who hunched over on the floor, his body seizing and twisting in the amorphous mass of the suit. “I’m sorry.”

Had Craft been watching him mix the syringe? Did he know it would kill him, or was he insanely hoping that his exposure to the prepping agents had made him a candidate for the real deal? The entire base had gone mad. Cooper, Doctor Craft, this new recruit lying on the table.

He heard the doors open again. Boots. Peyton’s fear shifted to the incoming soldiers then back to Andre. “Do it. Hurry!” She strained against the bonds and her eyes went to the far station, where the unused syringe of Crimson Mask Alpha waited. All the fear flooded out of her expression and the determination returned.

Andre scrambled to the table as the guards closed in, guns ready. He grabbed the syringe. He turned and heard gunfire, but raced to the table and jammed the needle into Peyton’s arm, belatedly hoping he’d hit a vein.

The transformation was instantaneous.

Brightness flooded the room, turning even the sterile operating table light into a dark shadow; then, nothing. Andre felt warmth in his suit trickling down his side. Blackness descended, and he fell. More gunfire and confused shouts. The klaxons engaged with their shattering wail. His head spun and he put both palms on the concrete floor to try and rise.

Glass shattered. Screams came from the observation room. The major general roared commands between bursts of weapons fire. Waves pulsed through Andre, he couldn’t say of what. Sound? Heat? Andre only knew the dark, the hard floor under his knees and palms, and the warm trickle of blood down his stomach.

He heard a hiss which he’d heard once before. The gas. It would kill them all. The exit may be sealed, but he was sure he’d heard the protective glass of the observation room shatter. The final failsafe, the gas, would flood the base. He slipped to his elbows, then lowered himself to the concrete. Maybe things were better this way.

As the world fell away, he felt strong arms pull him off the ground.

***

Andre woke. Fresh air rushed into his lungs and he gasped for more. Crisp, verdant air unlike the stale atmosphere of the facility. He didn’t realize how long he’d been without that simple pleasure.

With the breath, pain lanced through his side. He felt not only pain, but an envelope of cool air on his exposed skin. The protective suit was gone. His shirt was open, and strips of what used to be his lab coat feathered out from a band around his abdomen. No, the suit wasn’t entirely gone; a leg had been torn from it and tied around his waist to hold the makeshift bandage. Dried blood crusted his skin.

The ground was smooth rock bedded with pine boughs. Tall trees speared the sky on all sides.

“I can take you to a hospital.”

He looked over his shoulder. A wispy figure hovered there. So thin, he couldn’t ever imagine it beneath the straps of the operating table. He was certain it was Peyton, but couldn’t say why.

It gave a tight nod.

The body was featureless. A humanoid shape suggested by a cascade of energy coursing through the lower end of the visible spectrum. The unearthly fringes of a magnetic disturbance in the atmosphere. An aurora. That was all it was.

He sat up and winced at the pain. He heard the being sigh wistfully, then a pair of hands found his arm and helped him rise. The grip was strong, yet strange. No physical pressure touched his skin, more like the field of static radiating off a sweater on an arid winter day. He tried to find eyes on the blank, shifting face.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could say.

“Don’t be.” It said with a voice that called from the same faraway place she used to gaze into. “I know who I am now. And the body that held me back, the people that prevented me from being who I am, they don’t matter anymore.”

Andre stared. He understood. Not entirely, but enough. Those college ideals he’d abandoned, they were who he was. He’d been overwhelmed and left them behind to become another cog in a wheel. Never again.

Andre stood. “I have a friend. George Walker. We went to school together, and he went through the program. I think he can help us. Can you take me to him?”

The empty face offered no expression, but the voice crackled with excitement. “Pretty sure I can go anywhere.”

END.

Image credit: NASA



Categories: Free Fiction, Podcast

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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