"How is she?"
"Tops in every skill class, Madam Director."
The Director stood casually on the metal catwalk, gazing icily down at the girl in the training chamber below. She seemed to be about seventeen, with shaggy auburn hair and cool gray eyes that glared fiercely at the punching bag she was attacking. Every muscle flexed and relaxed in the girl's body as she landed punch after brutal punch on the bag. On the outside, she looked perfectly normal. The Director's interest told a separate tale—as did the two golden wings peeking out from beneath the girl's black tank top.
"What is her maximum heartbeat now?" the Director asked, her cold gaze never leaving the girl below.
"Uh . . ." The man beside her consulted his clipboard, flipping a page over and looking steadily at it. "One-fifty a minute."
"One-fifty? What specimen did we graft onto her?"
Another check of the clipboard.
"You created that girl and then made her three percent common house sparrow?!"
The Director was nearly livid, and she turned on her assistant. He quailed in slight terror before the Director backed down.
"Such a small bird . . . She should be able to attain a higher heart rate. I want to see at least a two-hundred maximum rate on her. At least. Mark her down for increased endurance training."
The assistant hurriedly scribbled down this note on his clipboard as the Director turned to someone behind her. Smiling coldly, she motioned him to the railing to observe the girl below. He obliged, though almost reluctantly, and a moment later, he peered down. He just studied the girl for a few long moments before frowning. The Director noticed immediately.
"Whatever is the matter, Dr. Batchelder?" she asked. "Do you not think that the Mark Twos are far more superior to your Mark Ones?"
Jeb didn't answer immediately. He just kept studying the girl, watching the way her auburn hair bounced free of its ponytail, smacking against her sweat-drenched neck, and the way she so viciously lunged for the punching bag.
"Does she have any liabilities?" he asked finally. The Director appeared insulted.
"Need I remind you that this is my special project, Dr. Batchelder?" she hissed, frowning at him. "You would do well not to doubt. But no, she does not—none that we can find. That extra one percent of avian DNA did no harm; in fact, we are expecting her mature wingspan to be fourteen-point-five feet, perhaps more if she has a sudden growth spurt, but that is unlikely. She has more efficient circulatory and respiratory systems than the Mark Ones, and we predict she will be able to cruise upwards of forty thousand feet with barely any increase in oxygen intake."
If Jeb seemed impressed, he made no show of it. Instead, there was a momentary gleam of sadness in his eyes as the girl below landed one final punch on the bag, brushed the sweat from her forehead, and turned. Emotionless gray eyes stared up at him, sending an icy chill down his spine. The Director smiled a less than genuine smile of cruel pride as she surveyed her handiwork.
"Well, Doctor?" she asked, not even looking at Jeb. "What do you really think?"
"I think she has potential," Jeb managed, eyes never leaving the girl. Such a fate to be born to . . . "You mentioned maturity? How did the artificial aging affect her?"
"It didn't," the Director replied smugly. "The injections have long since worn off. Two years ago, she was a mere embryo, not yet even three percent bird. Quite amazing, don't you think?"
Jeb didn't respond, but the Director paid him no mind. She simply pressed her palms to the cold steel railing and leaned forward, gazing at her precious creation as maternally as she could for having ice water coursing through her veins.
"The greatest recombinant-DNA specimen we've ever created," she murmured to herself, watching the girl return to pounding at the punching bag. "Finally, those pesky mutant failures will be no matter. You will take care of them, won't you, Delilah?"
The girl—Delilah—paused momentarily and tilted her head slightly as if she'd heard something. A cruel smirk twisted the Director's mouth as she watched her prized hybrid put all her energy into that punching bag. Jeb just sighed and walked away.