Miranda: Rising Sun
Niket Baines was not a handsome boy. He had a snub nose, small, wary eyes and a mouth too wide for his narrow jaw, which lent his face an almost simian appearance. Miranda had noticed that he didn't have the easy manner of the rich and successful, that aura of assurance that her father's associates wore along with their tailored suits and silver cufflinks. There were times, even at seventeen, when Niket seemed to be a withered, shrunken old man, his forehead marked with faint lines and drawn tight with worry. When she touched his close-cropped hair, it bristled under her fingertips.
He wasn't brilliant or rich or particularly gifted to compensate for these physical defects. He hadn't even heard of most of the books she'd read, whereas she could quote entire pages on command. Advanced calculus baffled him and he squinted at the equations she completed in chalk on the blackboard as if they were hieroglyphics. When she played piano, he couldn't distinguish the notes of a scale or tell her the names of songs that hours of practice enabled her to perform thoughtlessly, without even glancing at the keys. His genes had been left to the whims of nature and the uncertain histories of his progenitors, his development given over to the lacklustre public school system and a series of overburdened and underpaid educators limping their way towards retirement. As Miranda's father had once noted, a lack of planning typically leads to a mediocre result, if not an outright failure. Everything about Niket's life had been unplanned, even his conception. As a result, he was thoroughly average in every way, except one: Miri loved him.
She would have been hard-pressed to say why. When she'd imagined herself falling in love (which she rarely did – her mind was occupied with other things, like lifting chairs with her biotics or perfecting her tennis swing or mastering the Goldberg Variations...) she had expected that she would seek out excellence. As she reached a certain age, her father had arranged opportunities for appropriate 'socialization' and so she had spent time in the company of other young scions of wealth and privilege, many of them also genetically modified or at least, as a selectively bred as racehorses. She had expected that she might find companionship among them, but she didn't enjoy these little parties, events where the adults smoked cigars and plotted their legacies while their teenage children flirted and showed off their new clothes. Miranda preferred the time she spent with Niket, son of the caretaker, roaming the grounds of her father's Queensland estate. On these walks, they often spoke about trifling matters but it never felt like small talk. She let him hold her hand even though his palms were clammy – in fact, she liked his nervousness, the concern he showed for her feelings. She wasn't used to being consulted on things, just handed a schedule, an assignment or a deadline.
Niket was the only one allowed to call her "Miri", a nickname that he had chosen for her. Her father had overheard it once and it'd displeased him. He had endowed her with a name and he would not allow her to use another on a childish whim.
"Tell me the origins of the name 'Miranda'," he demanded, fixing his watery blue eyes on her.
"It was invented by William Shakespeare for the female protagonist of The Tempest. He combined the feminine form of the Latin gerundive, 'mirandus', meaning 'admirable' and the Latin verb 'mirai' meaning 'to wonder at', to create the name, which means 'she who must be admired'."
She could have added that in The Tempest, the character Miranda had been the motherless daughter of a bitter old magician who'd kept her in almost complete isolation on an island he ruled like a despot. She could have said that, but she knew the aptness of the comparison would not be lost on her father.
Miranda knew the baby was coming before her father brought it into the nursery, a locked room in the east wing of the third floor. She'd hacked into the messaging systems at the labs and read over the plans for 'Lawson 2.0', poring over the improvements that they planned to make on what they'd already dubbed perfection. Apparently, this so-called 'prototype' Lawson daughter was too volatile, not social or empathetic enough. Her father wanted the next model to have a slimmer nose and a more delicate, heart-shaped face. It seemed that he had scrutinized her appearance, personality and intellect down to the smallest detail, judging what should be kept and what should be discarded. She found out when the child would be brought to the mansion and tracked the security protocols surrounding its care. It was to be treated with utmost secrecy, she discovered. Her father anticipated that his prototype might not appreciate her replacement and stoop to sabotage to bring his project down.
He had even settled on a name for the new addition to his dynasty: 'Oriana'. Miranda could have told him the origin of that one too. It was Latin for "sunrise". She knew the answer to any question he'd ever thought of asking. It occurred to her that she should envy the child, this Oriana, but she did not. Her sister did not deserve her hatred, not simply for being pulled into the world, endowed with gifts that could quickly become curses. It was her father who she loathed and upon whom she planned to exact her revenge.
At the next 'socialization' party she attended, she ignored the other teenagers and went into the smoke-filled lounge where her father's cronies drank and gloated about their stocks and acquisitions. She found Lyndon S. Fischer there, an uninspiring sight with his ruffled mouse-grey hair and rumpled Armani suit. If she didn't know better, she would have assumed that he was a down-on-his-luck PR executive, not a top recruiter for Cerberus, an organization founded to champion the best of humanity.
"Hello, Mr. Fischer," she said, sidling up to the bar. "I have a proposition for you."
He took a sip of his brandy, his eyes glued to the sportscast showing on the flatscreen TV on the wall. His answer was cautious and quiet, but betrayed more eagerness than his stolid face would have suggested. "I'm listening."
It wasn't hard to convince him. Cerberus needed agents like her and while they were loath to lose her father's funding, she was the best asset he could 'donate' to cause. She would serve them loyally, for the sake of her own life and her sister's future.
It was more difficult to inform Niket of her plan. She took him out to the garden, leading him to the one place where none of the cameras were within visual range. They had to stand close together and she hushed him to ensure they would not attract attention. It was hard to know how good the audio systems were or what areas of the estate her father's security team might have bugged.
"I'm going to be leaving soon. I was wondering if you'd be willing to help me."
"Why not? This place is dreadful."
"I know your father's a...difficult man. Just wait a little while longer," Niket said. "You'll be 18 soon. Go away to university. That'll get you out from under his thumb."
"It isn't that simple. You don't understand - if he has his way, he'll own me my whole life. And...there are other considerations."
Niket gaped at her. "Other considerations?"
"Yes, there are other people I have to think about. I have a twin and she's in danger. I need to protect her. We have to get off-world."
"You have a twin? Why have you never mentioned this before?"
"It's never been relevant."
"It seems awful relevant now."
She gave him a rueful smile. "Yes, it does, doesn't it? Will you help me or not?"
"You know me, Miri. I could never say 'no' to you. I just wish there were...some other way. I'm going to miss having you around."
"Thank you. I'll – I'll miss you too, but I have to do this, Niket. I wish I could explain everything, but you just need to trust me. I'm acting for the right reasons."
Quietly and quickly, she explained what he'd have to do, knowing that he was already well-acquainted with the estate's security rooms. All she'd require was a thirty-second black-out in the eastern wing of the third floor. The deactivation codes were already in her possession, decrypted and copied from the hard-drive of her father's computer. She gave them to him, reminding him to watch out for the security drones, to remember the timing. No one would have to know what he'd done, so long as he was careful and stuck to plan. She wanted to believe that but she knew she was asking him to put himself in grave danger, the kind that a sensible boy, one who wasn't her friend, who didn't love her, would have surely refused.
Niket nodded and as he did, she leaned forward and kissed his too-wide mouth, her arms wrapping around him. She was distressed when he did not kiss her back, pushing away from her and into the range of the security cameras, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You didn't have to do that, Miri," he said quietly. "I would've helped anyway. I don't need payment."
Miranda stared at him, shame coiling inside her, a tapeworm leeching away her strength, her self-possession. Niket could see under her clothes, into her skin – she felt sure of it. He knew what her father had done. At first, the old man only did it when he was drunk, but later, he'd been sober, alternating threats with words of unaccustomed affection. He frightened her most when he pretended to be kind. "It wasn't payment," she snapped.
Niket chewed on his lower lip, his prominent brow ridge shadowing his eyes. "I just know who I am and who you are. I'm ordinary. And you're...perfect. When you're away from here, I won't matter. I may not know classical music or advanced maths, but I know hard reality. Let's not make this hurt more than it already has to. I'll be happy knowing that you're safe. That you have a chance at being happy."
Perfect, he said. She'd been wrong. He didn't know. Niket's reaction had not come from disgust, but out of embarrassment, Miranda realized. He thought that she pitied him, that she was pretending to feel something she did not. She stood there, the sun warming her shoulders and the back of her neck, processing this knowledge and analyzing her response. There was sadness, certainly, and hurt, but a sense of gratitude also welled inside her. Niket was her friend, the only one she could really count on. He could be trusted. That was more precious and rare than any fairytale of romance. He would not demand anything she could not give and he would not accept any gifts that she did not offer freely. That was perfection. She doubted she'd ever see it again.
"Thank you, Niket," she murmured. It was all there was left to say.
The afternoon of her escape came and the chauffeur drove her father off to his biweekly golf game. Miranda snuck up to the third floor, walking to the east wing, and waited, watching the red light on the security door of the nursery. The light blinked off at Niket's signal and she pushed open the door, barrelling into the room and scooping up the sleeping infant. Miranda 2.0, her sister. Hell, practically her clone.
The baby started to wail, her wide blue eyes crinkling at the edges, her plump face getting puffy and pink. Little hands curled into dimpled fists. Miranda tried to hush her as she scurried out of the nursery and down the stairs, counting down the seconds in her head, the time it would take before the security drones pursued her. The baby stopped squirming, calming down when the blue blanket was tucked around her legs, but she didn't like to be jostled and continued to pucker up her face, staring at her elder sister, her almost-twin, with impudent eyes.
As Miranda reached the door of the estate, two drones hurtled towards her and she fired the antique pistol she'd smuggled out of her father's collection. The baby squalled, her cries loud and furious in her sister's ear. Miranda felled one droid with gunfire and then overloaded another. As it fell, it sent up a shower of sparks, a last gasp of smoke. She sprinted across the manicured lawns, turning back to shoot at another group of droids giving chase. They couldn't fire bullets at her or risk harm to the baby – it was against their protocols to damage Lawson Group property – but they had electro-nets and fired blasts of ice in her direction, freezing the grass into spiky white stalagmites and turning the paved garden path into a skating lane.
Miranda fumbled with the lock of the front gate, gripping the baby under her left arm. The child's screams became shriller and more hateful, breaking her concentration. "Shut up, damn you!" she muttered as she tugged at the wrought-iron gate. "It's for your own good."
She slammed the gate behind her, sealing off the droids, and ran away from the main road, towards the cover of the brush. The next four kilometres were hard going through dense forest, the baby sighing in the sweltering heat, eyes glassy and awestruck as she eyed Miranda, her enemy, her kidnapper and her only protector. The compass arrow pointed north and Miranda walked in the opposite direction, crossing a shallow stream and working her way uphill. Bowerbirds chattered in the canopy, tilting their heads and watching her progress with their blue bead eyes.
Finally, she reached the clearing and the Cerberus shuttle, destined for Melbourne and then for points unknown – somewhere amidst the stars and planets Miranda knew only from astronomy books and the view from her bedroom window. Humanity would make its way in space. She would be part of the unfolding destiny of her species. She would fulfil her true potential and accomplish more than her father had ever dreamed possible. Her sister would be safe, relocated to a far-away planet, perfect yet utterly ordinary, perfectly ordinary. She'd have a mother and a father and she would be treated as child, not a tool, a toy or a trophy. Miranda 2.0 – an improvement all around.
Sitting on the bench in the back of the shuttle, Miranda cradled the baby in her arms, trying to be gentle. The baby's skin felt hot, reddened by the sun and shortness of breath. The Cerberus agent – he was tall and staid, told her to call him 'Whitt'- had brought supplies to feed the baby and it wasn't hard to mix up some formula in a bottle. The baby didn't take to it right away, gumming the bottle's plastic nipple, but eventually, she started to take in the sludgy off-white concoction hungrily.
"Greedy guts," Miranda said, not without affection. She supported the baby's head with her hand, her fingers stroking the tufts of brown hair already sprouting over the bare scalp, taking on the appearance of a middle-aged man's bad comb-over. The baby watched her, not with terror or fury as before, but with shy affection, dark blue eyes mirroring Miranda's own. It occurred to Miranda that she could keep the baby. This could be her daughter, her legacy...but she was not the kind of person who was patient and giving and affectionate. She was not the kind of person who should be a mother. Besides, her affections were volatile; her love mingled with revulsion and even if she could get past those stumbling blocks, her father would be trailing her. Better to separate. They'd be safer apart.
"Oriana," Miranda murmured, testing the name's shape on her lips. It meant 'rising sun'. Outside the shuttle, Earth's sun was setting, the ragged clouds tinged with tender shades of pink, bruised purples, a bloody crimson. Night was falling on her father's reign and the beginning of something else, something that could only be better because it had nothing to do with the tyrant who had forced his genes and his will and his notions of perfection upon her until she could barely draw breath. In the end, it'd been only her stubbornness and her hatred of him that'd kept her from picking up a knife and slitting her perfect wrists just to spite him. Of course, her other sister, an older prototype, had actually managed to kill herself, perhaps believing it would hurt him. It hadn't stopped the old man from making others. But his dynasty was done, at least as far as she and Oriana were concerned. In the darkness, he'd rage at his security staff and plot his vengeance against her. In the morning, she'd board a flight from Melbourne, fixing her eyes on the fresh promise of the horizon and then on the clean, cool palette of sky, the atmosphere giving away to space.
"Oh, brave new world!" she would whisper, in imitation of her namesake. "Brave new world that has such people in it." And as Earth receded away from her, as small and sparkling as a new-cut sapphire, she would remember Niket, her first and only friend, who was neither handsome nor brilliant, or even especially talented, but possessed all the human perfection she'd ever aspired to.