She woke when it was still dark in the corridors: they hadn't switched over to a day cycle yet, or light would be coming in through the little window in the locked door. That was all right. If it was still night, she didn't need to get out of bed yet, and she didn't want to get out of bed. Instead, she rolled over onto her stomach and pulled the heavy sheet up over her head.
The fabric was scratchy, but the weight was comforting. She wriggled backwards a bit, burrowing deeper into this heavy cocoon, until she felt a slight draft on her toes. Too far back, soldier. Don't expose yourself to the enemy! She lay as still as she could. Her stomach was rumbling. How long was it until breakfast?
Her breathing was hot under the sheet, and it was getting stuffy, but she didn't push back out. It was nice down there, in a funny sort of way. Warm and cozy, curled up in a little nest like a rabbit or some other small animal – with that thought, abruptly the imagining became less fun. She pushed the sheet aside roughly and sat up.
Light flooded the room, and she ducked her head away from it, squinting as she climbed to her feet. She moved carefully: there wasn't anything breakable in the room anymore, but they got angry when she knocked things over or spilled things. She padded over to her locker and swung it open. The shirts inside were all the same, so she just took the top one and slipped it on, tying the belt securely. The light material hung loosely on her frame. She stepped into her pants, tugging them up and pulling the drawstring waist tight. They ended too high on her ankles, but they'd do for another month or so.
There were no mirrors, so she brushed her hair by touch, then crossed to sit on the bed, waiting with ill-restrained impatience for someone to notice that she was awake. The heel of her left foot bounced up and down; her knee jittered with the motion. It seemed a very long wait.
Her head jerked up. She hadn't been able to find the speakers in the room, so she imagined they had to be hidden behind the walls or ceiling. She was on her feet quickly, calling out an eager, "Yes, sir?" She resisted the urge to bounce on her toes. The hallway light flickered on.
"Report to the medical bay immediately."
But breakfast… She did not complain: soldier on, girl! She no longer had to fight the impulse to bounce, however. "Yes, sir."
The lock on the door snicked open, and she stepped out into the corridor. It was not far to the medical bay, and when she arrived, Dr. Dalai and Dr. Canaba were already there. A sheet was pulled around the bed at the far end of the room, and her eyes clung to it for a minute. But a soldier didn't ask questions. Instead, she turned expectantly to Dr. Canaba.
He had looked at her when she came into the room, but he did not speak to her, instead turning back to Dr. Dalai. The two of them were studying a comconsole screen and speaking quietly enough that she could not easily overhear. She waited with as much patience as she could, staring at the wall opposite her and trying not to fidget. Her stomach rumbled again, this time audibly, and Dr. Canaba looked back at her.
"Sit over on the bed there," he instructed, nodding to it with his chin. "This shouldn't take very long at all." He turned back to Dr. Dalai, his eyebrows arched in a question. She watched the pair of them as she crossed to sit obediently on the bed.
Dr. Dalai looked grim as he blacked out the display on the comconsole. Too late, she was struck by a deep desire to know what had been showing there a minute before; she craned her neck to see the dark screen, hoping irrationally to draw some clues from it. It remained stubbornly mute, however, and Dr. Dalai left the room without speaking to her.
As the door hissed shut behind him, she looked back at Dr. Canaba. She knew he could read the question in her face, even if no one else would be able to. He always seemed to know what she was thinking. But he ignored her expression, instead just smiling at her in his usual abstracted way. "We're just doing a quick physical scan today," he told her, "so you should be able to go get breakfast in just a few minutes. Nothing to worry about, just routine."
Dr. Canaba was a good liar. They were all good liars. She knew from the kinds of things that they said when they were lying, though. Dr. Canaba never reassured her like that when it really was just routine. Her eyes, inexorably, went back to that white curtain. "Where's Four?" she asked him, sudden suspicion knotting in her stomach like ice.
"We've moved her to a new location for boarding," Dr. Canaba said with a smile, turning on the medical scanner and studying the readings. She restrained the urge to knock it out of his hands.
Another one dead, then, or – she watched the white curtain hang silently – dying, more likely. And now it was just her. Her shoulders hunched forward and her hands closed on the edges of the bed. She did not even realize how tightly she was gripping until Dr. Canaba frowned at her. "Nine," he said, his voice sharp, and she automatically released her grip, jerking nervous hands back from where her claws had cut deep into the sheet.
She felt her cheeks burning, but didn't speak to apologize. Dr. Canaba glanced back over his shoulder at the curtain to which her eyes were drawn, and his own face tightened. He turned back to face her and placed a hand on her forearm gently. "It's nothing for you to worry yourself about," he told her, and his voice was different this time, softer. She didn't know what to make of it. "I'll take care of you, Nine."
She stared at him in real bewilderment, but he just frowned again and tapped a few buttons on the medical scanner. "I want to adjust your diet again," he told her. "Your metabolic rate seems to be increasing again. Has your exercise routine changed at all?"
"No, Dr. Canaba," she answered him, looking over at the medical scanner. The dozens of lights and bars on the readout meant nothing to her, but she always looked at them, hoping they would suddenly start disgorging their data in some understandable way. She frowned at them.
He caught the frown and smiled again in more absent reassurance this time. "It's not a problem," he told her. "We'll just be adding a few hundred more calories to your diet. It's not even terribly unexpected."
More food! She cheered quickly, nodding her understanding and glancing over towards the door. "Was that all you needed to check?" she asks, trying and failing to keep a plaintive edge out of her voice.
"Yes," said Dr. Canaba, and then, "Well, no. Just… one minute." He seemed a bit nervous now, and she frowned again. "Nothing serious, just an immunization." He took a needle from the pocket of his lab coat, and she studied it warily.
"No hypospray?" she asked.
"It's a special kind of immunization," he told her. "It needs the needle. It shouldn't hurt."
She let a bit of her scorn at that reassurance show. Pain didn't bother a soldier! "I was just wondering," she said.
She watched as he uncapped the needle and flicked its side, then glanced down at her leg. "It needs to go in your thigh," he said. "The gastrocnemius muscle. It –" He broke off an explanation, instead saying, "Pull your pants down." She obeyed. The needle bit for a moment into her thigh. Dr. Canaba pressed down the plunger, then withdrew the needle slowly. It left a little knot behind on her leg. She wanted to rub it, but resisted the urge, pulling up her pants again at Dr. Canaba's nod.
"Is there anything I should watch for?" she asked.
"No," said Dr. Canaba. "There shouldn't be any complications." He mustered a weak smile, and she stared at him blankly. He cleared his throat. "Well. Off to breakfast with you, then."
She didn't need more prompting than that, pushing to her feet and stepping towards the door. She couldn't help one last look back over her shoulder at that still, white curtain.
Four was definitely dead. Everything about her life had changed with that.
They had stopped giving her classes. She didn't think that was a good sign. You never learned everything, right? If they had stopped teaching her, it wasn't because she knew everything. It was because she didn't need the teaching any longer. She tried not to think about what that meant, but it was hard.
It was made harder by the fact that she had nothing else to do. She spent most of her days in her room or the gym. She still had access to the training libraries, and she worked herself hard, but it was not enough to really distract her. I'm only sixteen, she told herself in the heart of one long afternoon. My life can't be done already.
It did not seem that conclusion was hers to draw, however. She hardly ever saw people anymore. She wondered at times if the facility had been completely emptied except for her, left to skulk around the deserted corridors like the ancient Minotaur. A monster gone wrong, locked up to die in her own time. She looked for the exit once, halfheartedly, but could not fight her way out of her labyrinth. It was a foolish fantasy, at any rate: her food was always there for her.
The weeks passed slowly. The doors opened for her in the morning and closed behind her at night. Once, she decided not to return to her room for lights out, waiting to see what they would do. The lights of the corridor where she sat just flicked out on schedule. No one came for her, and she spent the night on the hard floor. She went back to her room on time the next evening.
The isolation gnawed at her, and doubts spun over and around in her head. What did I do wrong? She could not tell whether it was punishment or unconcern that left her rattling around the lab, ignored.
One morning, as she clawed her way up out of sleep, a voice sounded in the room. "Nine."
Her heart seemed to skip a beat, and she surged to her feet. "Yes, sir?" She could feel her pulse hot in her veins, thumping wildly.
It took a moment for the voice to reply, and she feared for a horrible moment that she'd imagined it, carried it over as a residual of a dream. After a brief pause, however, it spoke again. "Get yourself dressed and report to classroom two."
"Yes, sir!" Her soul was surging inside, hope bubbling out. Was this all just another test? Had she passed? Was it over? She grabbed for her clothing too fast; the first shirt tore under her claws. She flinched, but didn't delay, grabbing for the next one. She dressed as quickly as she could and sprinted down the hallway, her toenails skittering on the cold floor. She slowed as she rounded the final corridor.
The classroom door was already open when she reached it. Two unfamiliar men waited inside, speaking quietly. Unlike Dr. Canaba and Dr. Dalai, however, they weren't accounting for her improved hearing, and she could hear snatches of their conversation as she approached.
"…don't really know if it will be of any use to me, but the price is certainly right."
"I assure you, my lord, the product is all we described."
She hesitated outside the door for a moment, then stepped inside and drew herself up to attention. The man on the right turned to look at her. The other man watched him. "Good god," the first man murmured. "It is impressive, isn't it?"
She wasn't entirely sure what was expected of her, so announced herself in a clear tone – a soldier's voice. "ALN-S54-9, reporting as instructed." The man's eyes made her uncomfortable. He was younger than any of her teachers or doctors had been, with long black hair tied back elaborately and a long, thin nose. He was almost handsome, but his eyes were dead.
"And it's unique, you say?" He did not acknowledge her words at all.
"Yes, my lord. The other nine have all died. That is, as you know, factored into the price. It may not be terribly durable."
The black-haired man smiled. "Well, we can always build replacements as needed. You say it is physiologically female? Are any of the modifications tied into the sex chromosomes, or will males be as easy to produce?"
She felt her shoulders knotting, but made herself stand still, not speaking. She didn't know exactly what was happening, but it was her job to report and then to wait. She didn't look at the lord, letting her eyes rest on the wall opposite her.
"I'm not fully up on the genetic details, my lord," said the other man – a sales agent? -- "but I can have one of the scientific team speak with you after we are done here, if you like? I don't believe it should present any difficulty."
"Good." He moved forward, circling her slowly. She didn't like having him behind her. It made her shoulder blades itch. He stopped where she couldn't see him, and, unable to stop herself, she glanced back over her shoulder at him. He smiled briefly as she turned. "I want those clothes off it," he informed the other man.
She stared at him for a moment, not fully processing the words. The salesman hesitated as well, then said, "Remove your clothing, Nine." She didn't move. There was something very wrong here. Before she could regain her balance, he added, his tone sharper, "That is an order. Now."
She swallowed, but complied, pulling off her shirt and untying the drawstring of her pants. She stepped out of them very carefully, not sure what to do with them. The black-haired man smiled again, his eyes traveling down and up her form. "Hideous, really," he said conversationally, "but there are all types, and who am I to judge?" Her cheeks burned, and under the shame, a surge of anger was starting to build. "Ryoval's pet monster," he mused. "It will fetch a good price from a very select market." He turned away from her, dismissing her from his attention, and spoke again to the salesman. "I am definitely interested. Shall we discuss it further in your office?"
"Indeed, my lord!" The salesman looked back at her just long enough to say, "Put your clothes back on and wait here." Then he gestured to the door with a shallow bow. The dark-haired young man left without another look back. She watched them go in silence, then slowly crouched to retrieve her pants. Her hands shook as she pulled them back on, knotting the drawstring carefully. She slipped on her shirt and belted it.
Very carefully, she moved forward, lowering herself to sit in one of the chairs still in the room from the classes she'd attended. Ryoval's pet monster. She looked down at her hands, at the clawed fingernails there, the thick tendons that laced them, and felt her eyes stinging with tears she couldn't let herself shed. Her jaw set against them.
If a monster was what they wanted, perhaps she would give them a monster, then. And they would find there wasn't a labyrinth that could hold back this Minotaur.