"Dad, what exactly do you do for a living?" A young girl in pigtails sat at the kitchen table, kicking her sandaled feet. She held her notebook and pencil reporter style, while her daddy made his coffee.
"I guard things."
"What kinds of things?" The girl scribbled her father's first answer with careful, neat printing.
"Entrances, exits, boring stuff really." He came over from the counter and sat beside his little girl.
Sunlight burning through her hair, framing her like an angel, she looked up at her father accusingly. "Why didn't you guard us?"
Tom Foss jerked awake, tangled in the blue cotton sheets his wife used to keep clean. They hadn't been changed in weeks. He glanced at the digital clock and sighed, 300 hours? His meeting with the dragon lady wasn't until 700 hours, but further sleep wasn't exactly appealing. Tom rolled out of bed and headed for the shower.
Fully clothed and ready to face the world again, Foss picked his way past the empty takeout containers and the pizza boxes, but felt no motivation to clean them up. Just stepping through the front door and back out into the word was the biggest step he could handle today.
An ice queen in a smart navy suit, Dr. Thatcher stood in front of her desk, shuffling a stack of papers. She showed no sign that she even knew there was someone standing, waiting, and watching. Maybe she had tied her hair so tight that it was hindering blood flow to her brain? For the first time in months, Tom had to suppress a smile.
"Finally back at work, Mr. Foss?" Thatcher asked. "If you hadn't returned my call, I was going to start interviewing replacements. This corporation has needs, as does this project."
"Of course, ma'am. I appreciate the chance to come back and to work. I've been home too long." Tom waited expectantly for Thatcher to hand over the file. She stared, blankly appraising him as though he were a potentially faulty machine. Finally she handed him the file. "781227 XW is ready for trial. I want you to train it according to protocol four. You have ten weeks. Questions?"
Tom looked down at the file he'd been handed. Protocol four in ten weeks? It wasn't possible. To keep that deadline, he wouldn't have time to sleep and this experiment would have to be a genius. Dr. Thatcher had handed him the perfect distraction. "Where is he?"
"It is in lab four. If you hurry, you can be there when it wakes up."
Two people were there for experiment 781226 XW's first moments. Ted, a lab technician, spent those moments busily suctioning up used incubation gel. The other witness, Tom, chose to observe from a short distance, alternately reading the file Thatcher gave him and staring at his new student. Another permutation of the Genenova experiments, this lab rat was designed to be a super-soldier. Brilliant, with superior reflexes, acute senses, and impressive durability, XW would be a dangerous force if he half measured up to what the eggheads had designed.
Covered in a layer of pink slime and making his awkward way across the room, XW looked more like a tottering toddler than a soldier. Would ten weeks be long enough for protocol four? He had better get started if they were going to have any chance of making deadline. "781226," Tom said. "Do you know your name?" The experiment turned toward him, an innocent inquisitive look on his face. Why did they have to make these things look so human? "I'm going to keep talking to you, 781226, and keep using your name until you pick up the concept of speech. With your intelligence level, you should pick it up fairly quickly."
Tom fished a bottle of pills out of his pocket and rattled it like a baby's toy. "These are anti-toxin pills. You've been engineered with endogenous toxin producing cells that will be aggravated into releasing their contents when you stress your genetic potential. As long as you take your antitoxin on schedule, that won't be a problem for you. Without your antitoxin, you run the risk of neurotoxicity, seizures, and death. This bottle of pills is your leash. It attaches you to this company, to Mada, for the duration of your life."
XW's mouth turned up at the corners, mimicking the facial expression Tom was projecting, and he took the bottle of pills. He rattled them, not understanding the words and phrases Tom used quite yet.
"Let's get you cleaned up, 781226."
It was nearly three weeks before Tom left Mada again. 781226 developed so quickly that the first few days were vital for setting him on the correct learning tracks. Tom was able to submerge himself in the experiment, in making the soldier Mada wanted, and that disconnection saved him. It saved him from the ghosts on the other side of his front door, the ghosts he had to face tonight for at least a little while.
The front walk was paved in red bricks. Grass had started to shoot up in the creases. Judith hated when grass tried to take over her walk, and she always poisoned it back. But the walk was his responsibility alone now. He didn't even know where she kept things like grass poison. Tom slid his key into the door and twisted it left. The locked clicked smoothly and familiarly. He opened the door to silence. His daughter's music wasn't playing, and his wife was not cooking. The tomb of his family waited, and Tom strode inside.
He was stronger than this, stronger than grief. He moved through the empty house without pausing to dwell on the missing pieces, smells, and sounds. The detritus of his recent existence made the house over so that he could almost imagine that it wasn't his home.
A quick glance in the fridge confirmed that the last of the food from the funeral had gone over. Rather than go through the moldy mess, Tom grabbed the coffee out of the pantry and set his pot to perking.
"You know better than to drink coffee this late. You sleep little enough as it is."
"I know," Tom whispered. He could hear Judith so clearly in his head. He unplugged the pot and headed for the stairs. He needed to sleep and the magic pink pills in his nightstand were his only real hope for making that happen.
The pink pills made him sleep deep. It was heavy sleep without dreams, and he always woke foggy. Tom opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. The sun danced through the lacy white bedroom curtains informing him that he had slept entirely too late. 781226 would be awake and finished with his latest goals. He would need direction if they were going to stay on track. The hairs on the back of his neck tingled and Tom sat up abruptly.
A boy in a set of simple green fatigues sat at the end of the bed, still as a statue. Calm blue eyes watched him, unblinking.
"781226, you are not cleared to leave the base," Tom barked. "Explain yourself."
"Sir, you were late, sir. I used my recent lessons on tracking to locate you and make sure you weren't captured by an enemy, sir."
Tom ran his hands through his hair distractedly. Thatcher would not be pleased if she found out 781226 had left the base. How late was he? "Did you use classic evasion techniques? How certain are you that you made it off base without being spotted?"
"100 percent, sir. The cameras are placed with a delta nine pattern and they rotate at regular thirty second intervals. I timed my exit carefully, sir."
"Stay there. Don't move. I have to get ready then we have to get you home." Tom didn't take time for a shower. He ducked into his closet, grabbed some clothes, and dressed hurriedly. He didn't want to leave the experiment alone in his house for another moment. The company was never supposed to invade here. His life in the company and his life in this home were completely separate.
When Tom returned to the bedroom, he found 781226 immobile and waiting, just as commanded. The speed at which he had learned his lessons from talking and reading, to chain of command was inhuman. It helped Tom maintain his distance and perspective. It helped him to remember that 781226 wasn't a boy, wasn't ever a he. 781226 was an it, an experiment.
But he was holding Pooky.
A detail he hadn't spotted from the bed, a silky stuffed orange cat of his daughter's was clutched in one of 781226's hands, resting on his lap. Tom strode across the room and snatched the stuffed animal back. "What are you doing with this? What do you think you're doing?"
"It's soft," 781226 said. "I liked the soft."
"We're going back to the base," Tom said. "And you're never to leave the base again without explicit orders. Do you understand?"
"Yes sir." 781226 looked at him with an expression Tom never thought he'd have directed at him again-the unconditional adulation of a child for a father.
Tom winced. "Move soldier."
"The preliminaries have been very promising Tom." Thatcher paced along the workbench in her lab, a cool smile on her face. "The final exam is today. Finally we have a working prototype. Are you proud to have been a part of it?"
Tom nodded slowly. "It's been my pleasure to teach him. He's like a sponge for information, he is tough as nails, and his reflexes are inhuman."
"That's because it isn't human," Thatcher said. "When we bring in buyers, I can't have you messing up the semantics. The word human is not to be used in relation to experiment 781226 ever."
"Of course," Tom said. "I apologize."
"Go get it then. I'll be waiting." Thatcher sat on the closest stool and crossed her legs primly.
Moving forward with a measured stride, Tom felt disengaged from the gray halls of the research facility. He had been working security and occasionally training an experiment for Mada for years, but he had never felt so nervous about the outcome. Tom wanted 781226 to succeed today. Human or not, he had become important to him.
Dressed in his usual uniform of dull green fatigues, 781226 sat at his desk, listening to a set of headphones and reading a book. According to his schedule, he would be learning Cantonese. Tom watched the clock, waiting for the minute hand to click over to the top of the hour. The moment it did, 781226 took off the headphones and put away the book he had been reading.
"Did you complete the assignment?" Tom asked.
"I'm very nearly fluent, sir. I would need another few minutes to finish populating the vocabulary." 781226 smiled briefly. "Should I continue?"
"Not today. You have to focus all your energy on a mission that will be starting momentarily. It is critically important that you execute the mission perfectly." Tom took a step forward, suddenly wanting to touch his student, to hug him and encourage him. But that wasn't appropriate. Treating him like a human would only make things more difficult later. "Follow me."
781226 returned to Mada at 0300 hours. He carefully avoided the cameras that might alert the compound to his return and infiltrated his commander's room. Commander Foss wasn't sleeping, but he rarely slept through the night so 781226 wasn't surprised. His commander rarely went to the other place with all the soft things to sleep, though 781226 would gladly have gone back there to complete his mission as soon as possible. He wanted Tom to know that the mission was complete and that it had gone perfectly.
"That was fast." Tom turned from the window and held out a hand. 781226 grinned and his chest puffed out. He placed the package on Tom's hand. "Let's head down to the lab so you can describe your methods and give Dr. Thatcher her package."
Tom led 781226 back down the hall to Thatcher's lab where everyone else was waiting for the experiment to end. Tom placed the package on Thatcher's lab bench and stepped back to let her question the prototype. 781226's smile spoke a thousand words about how he felt he'd done. Tom just hoped he was right.
"We watched your infiltration of the test site. Your mission was to penetrate the perimeter and retrieve the package without being identified and in the most efficient manner possible." Thatcher picked up the package that the experiment had retrieved and sighed. "You managed all but three of the of the objectives. Efficiency was not achieved. You spent entirely too much time incapacitating your enemy. Killing them would have been efficient. You were trained in efficiency, but you managed to adopt some personal arbitrary moral standard despite your training. The level of empathy we're seeing in you is unacceptable."
Tom felt a painful lurch in his stomach at Thatcher's negative review. Concepts like the value of life weren't addressed in the training protocol he had followed for XW. Where had he picked up the concept?
"It was a simulation," 78226 said. "The enemies could have been valuable assets of the company. Death is permanent and not retractable. I thought caution was in order."
"Its mind is brilliant and efficient at justifying its squeamishness." Thatcher just shook her head with a resigned expression plastered on her face. "You fail, experiment 781226 XW. Liquidate him Mr. Vitale."
There wasn't time for Tom to react. The hulking blond soldier standing quietly in the shadows, didn't hesitate after the liquidate command. He drew his gun and aimed. With his reflexes, 781226 could have made a run, could have perhaps escaped, but he just looked back to his commander, to Tom for direction. A pair of blue, human eyes asked him what now. As Tom drew a horrified breath, a single shot ended experiment 781226.
The blood spray from the perfect headshot spattered his well-shined shoes, and for a moment Tom thought he might be sick.
"Are you okay, Mr. Foss? Ten weeks of intensive training, it must feel like I just ordered your own pet killed. I apologize, sincerely. That shouldn't have been done in front of you." Thatcher stepped delicately over the corpse. "If you would, oversee the disposal of XW and the XY that we never woke up. He's an exact genetic replica of XW and there's no point repeating the failure. I have some ideas for XX that might solve the empathy problem. I want to get them down while they're fresh in my mind."
"Is empathy really such a big problem?" Tom asked, still staring at the expanding pool of blood in the floor, at the speckles on his shoes.
"We want to create a conscienceless tool, a weapon. All motivation, good or evil should come from the buyer pulling the weapon's trigger. The 781 series will not be complete until we've managed it." Thatcher paused and stared at Tom again, the same cold appraisal of ten weeks ago. "I'll ask you again, are you okay Mr. Foss?"
"Of course," he replied, finally looking away from the carnage on the floor. "He was a pet project, a distraction when I needed one. It was just a bit of a shock at first."
"Good. We were all quite pleased with your training. Aside from the genetic flaw, he was perfect. We will want you to repeat the process when XX is ready."
Tom waited for Dr. Thatcher to leave before he addressed Vitale. "Transport the body to cremation, but don't start the fire. I'll start it after I bring down the disposables from his room. After you drop off the body, come back and clean this lab. I don't want the janitors talking about blood pools."
He had to leave before Vitale started moving the body and cleaning. If he didn't get out of there soon, Tom was going to vomit and ruin his façade of disdain. If anyone suspected how completely horrified he was right now, his life might very well be forfeit, and though his buzzing mind almost wanted that escape, he knew that there was something he had to do first.
Tom escaped and walked sedately to his corner of the compound. Once safely ensconced in his barren office, Tom switched on a jamming device, to short out the listening devices that he knew recorded his every moment in these halls. He picked up his cell phone and dialed the number of a traitor. It rang seven times before anyone picked up, but Tom never considered hanging up. Each ring made him more desperate and worried, but he knew what he had to do.
"Adam?" A long silence stretched out, and Tom began to wonder if maybe he had been wrong. Maybe Adman Baylin wasn't interested in the Genenova experiments any longer? Maybe he had moved on and wanted to be left alone?
"Tom Foss. I thought you never wanted to speak to this traitor ever again?"
"Things have changed. If I could bring you a 781 model, alive and untrained, would you take it in? It's slated for liquidation, and I'd have to bring him now." Adam went silent again, and Tom started pacing. Why was he hesitating? A 781 experiment was chocked full of exactly the genetic samples he had been denied when he broke from the company. "Adam?"
"It depends. Has Rebecca managed to obliterate their souls yet, or are they still frustrating her?" Baylin laughed then. "Never mind. If she had created her perfect weapon, she wouldn't be liquidating it, would she? I'll take him, Foss. Get him off the compound and contact me again."
Tom clicked his phone shut and dropped heavily into his seat. What was he doing? God damn it, if he did this, he was a traitor worse than Adam Baylin. When Baylin left it was without any of the core research data, without a single shred of genetic material in severance for twenty years of work. Tom was contemplating stealing Mada's core research and giving it to a rival. He couldn't really do this.
Rising abruptly, he headed for 781226's bunk space to gather everything that would require incineration. He tossed the experiment's things onto the bed, clothes and notebooks of completed assignments. One of the notebooks fell open to a graphite sketch. The picture was of Tom in his office looking at the one personal item on his desk, the picture of his wife and child. It captured the life and emotion of the moment, the grief and despair like only fine art could. Tom tore out the sketch and folded it carefully into a square.
The rest of the items, he bundled together and carried to the incinerator. The walls of the company had never felt so claustrophobic, so dark and malevolent. Foss pushed open the swinging double doors that led to the furnace where garbage and failed experiments were burned together in efficient blocks. A corpse of a failed experiment awaited his arrival today, jumbled together with other waiting trash, 781226 lay, his body stiffening. Tom set down the bundle of clothes and notebooks on the blackened floor.
There were no cameras in the furnace, no listening devices to betray his grief, so Tom allowed himself the weak indulgence of crying. He gave 781226 his tears as he had failed to give him anything else of value in life. "781226 XW isn't a name. It's a label, an experiment's title. I wish I'd realized how much more you were, before it was too late to protect you. I wish I'd given you a name. In my head I named you weeks ago. William or just Willy for when you were being silly. But I never gave you the name, never spoke it out loud, so it wasn't real. Not giving you your name, I'll regret it for the rest of my life."
Tom Foss walked to the red switch on the wall and clicked it. A weak siren started to squeal, warning him to exit the furnace in the next five minutes, before the doors closed flash burning him with the rest of the trash. Tom lingered for a moment, knowing suicide wasn't for him. He had a boy to save, a boy who someday might have a name instead of just a number.
This is was written back when we knew nothing about Kyle's past. I made it up and got it all wrong, but still enjoyed writing it. The fic exists elsewhere, but I'm consolidating my efforts onto this site wherever possible at the moment.
There is no need to review and explain sex chromosones to me; while I'm glad you remember grade school science, I remember too. Half the point of the fic was to buck the obvious when I wrote it.