I’m only in the flat long enough to change my trousers and shoes and to upend the small washing basket, scattering dirty clothes over the floor. In the bottom is a hidden compartment, in which is a small black rucksack, stashed there for times like these. Strapping it securely to my back, I’m back out in the living room when a wave of dizziness stops me in my tracks. The room before me blurs.
A bullet smashes the window and enters the left side of my head, killing me instantly.
I drop to the floor even before my mind has cleared; shattered glass falls around me and the bullet that was meant for my brain thuds into the far wall. Downward trajectory. They’re on higher ground. Top of the John Lewis building over the road.
I’m on my feet and running to the door, loading my handgun, checking the safety is on and tucking it into my waistband. Down the hallway to the staircase. Pause. Listen. Footsteps on the stairs. There’s no point taking off my boots, they’d hear me whether I was in socks or stilettos. Up? I don’t have the power or the finesse needed to levitate myself for very long, nor the balls to leap from the roof of a 23-storey building with nothing but hope and the power of my mind to catch me.
I take the door to the south petal of the Y-shaped building. They’re closing in. Last door on the left, I kick it open; there’s a couple on a black settee in the living room.
“Sorry.” My eyes dart over the sleek furniture; a glass coffee table rises in the air, hovers and then hurls itself at the large window.
“Here.” I peel a few notes from a roll and throw them at the screaming woman’s lap, and then I follow the table out onto the train-tracks five floors below.
Adult chat rooms. Probably one of the safest places on the Internet to talk freely.
· fithng: Cardiff?
· fithng: Tropical island? South America? Anywhere but Wales?
· Cran22: Have you ever been to Cardiff?
· fithng: Yeah, once. Smells like cow shit. No, that was Newport. Cardiff had tramps outside the train station and a black guy drumming on a bin.
· Cran22: Perfect place for you to get lost. It won’t be forever.
· fithung: Fine
· Cran22: Good. I’m sending you a file.
· fithng: What is it?
· Cran22: Name and address. He’s a doctor. He’ll sort you out. New nose, maybe some cheek implants.
· fithng: New what?
· Cran22: A new nose. He’s a plastic surgeon.
The landing is jarring, even for me, but I ignore the tuning-fork feeling in my legs and carry on. I leap the twenty-foot gap onto the next set of tracks, the ones that lead directly down to the bay. I start off at a steady jog. The sun burns the back of my neck and the salty scent of the sea stings my sensitive nose. I’m close; I just have to get to the water.
The shaky feeling hasn’t left my legs. Or has it? I stop, listen, and then take off at a sprint. Up ahead is salvation, or at least temporary salvation. I push harder, gather my legs and jump. Catching hold of the edge I pull myself up and collapse on the roof of the train, panting at the sky.
We were twelve to start with. Criminals taken from various institutions to be “recycled.”
Four tried to escape; they couldn’t hack the military training, weren’t cut out for it. They were killed. An example, I’m sure. A warning to anyone else who might have had any grand ideas. You run, you die.
We were trained in numerous things, in various parts of the country.
We were guinea pigs. Our only solace was each other.
The bayside is busy, even for a Friday. A banner strapped above the doorway of a pretentious bar flaps in the breeze, the dull roar of mingled conversation and music, shouts and cheers, the clink of glasses and of cutlery on crockery. Best of all, crowds of people flooding the walkways.
Of course. Bank holiday weekend.
I slip into the glittering throng, both sexes preening and posing like prize peacocks or birds of paradise, trying to display as much colour and as much of themselves as possible. Down a few wooden steps, across the gangway and I’m on the boat that’ll take me to Penarth, to freedom. I pay the woman, pocket the change and sit down.
A hand rests on my shoulder, and my pulse skyrockets.
The room is cold and stark, coloured in granite and black. Spread on the tabletop are about 20 photographs of varying quality.
Cook pushes one across the table at me. In it are three little girls of about 6 or 7, playing in a playground. I recognise two of them, Jenny and Sammy, my nieces.
Without a word he selects another, a grainy close-up of a baby in a pushchair. Then another; the same baby, same pram, but now I can see the person pushing him. I know it is a him, now.
“What is this?”
“Don’t you recognise your nephew? Oh wait, you never met him did you.” His craggy face betrays nothing. “How about your sister? You recognise her, I assume.”
First sickly dread, and then incandescent fury. “All right,” I said. “I get your point.”
“Good. That’s all.”
I turn fast enough to knock the old woman’s hand from my shoulder.
“S-sorry, love.” She gives a nervous laugh. “Didn’t mean to frighten you. Can you pass my change there?” She points to the floor near my feet. I laugh at myself and do as asked, pulse pounding like a hummingbird trapped in my ribcage.
Sweat tickles my armpits and back; a child points out every bird and boat from Cardiff to Penarth, his mother texting the entire time.
Penarth. Small and uptight, full of charity shops, though I don’t see them. From the Marina to the train station to catch a small, rickety train to Grangetown. From there another train to Rhoose; by foot to the airport, and then a plane to Zurich. Pick up some cash and a new identity and then anywhere in the world. All I need is a little more time.
“Dave? You awake?” Charlie’s voice barely carried on the air.
“Yeah.” A rustle as he sat up in the cot opposite mine. “Whass up?” I sat up too, stifling a yawn with one hand and rubbing my eyes with the other.
“Have…” He got out of bed and slunk over to mine. “You mind?” He motioned. I shuffled backwards, making room for him to sit. I tried hard not to stare; he was wearing nothing but a pair of tight black boxers and the scant moonlight coming in through the window only accentuated the muscles of his arms and stomach.
“Have you noticed…” He trailed off, searching my face. Had I noticed what? Had he noticed? I fought very hard to hold his gaze and not to look any lower. My pulse grew steadily faster. Was this- was he-
“Anything… I dunno, different.” He rasped a hand over the stubble on his chin.
I had to clear my throat before talking. “What d’ you mean, different?”
“About us.” His blue eyes bore into me. There were odd moments like these where I could swear the other person could hear my thoughts. I had the same thing with my mother; I swear she was psychic, she always knew when I’d done something wrong, always. I tried very hard not to think about kissing-
“We’re all stronger,” he continued.
Oh. Okay. Not psychic then. “Yeah, well, we’ve been training hard.”
“And we’re faster. We’re more resilient.”
“Like I said-”
“And we’re more intelligent.”
“Come on. I’m not saying any of us were dunces-”
“Except for Smithy.”
“-except for Smithy, but still, none of us was this bright before.”
“Speak for yourself.”
He smiled. “Fine, you might have been a genius, mister mastermind, but the rest of us… look at us, how long did it take us to learn languages?”
“And Mikey doesn’t need his glasses anymore and neither do you.”
“I… I dunno. I’ve had feelings.”
I paused. “What do you mean, feelings?”
He looked at the open doorway then at his hands in his lap.
“I dunno how to explain it. I just… I know where things are.”
I sat up fully. “What do you mean?”
“I dunno. Karl lost his tags on a run. I found them. The others think it was just luck, but I knew where they were.” He frowned, and I melted. “Do you think… I mean, you hear about it in films and stuff, governments experimenting, making supersoldiers…”
My voice came out softer than intended when I said, “I’ve had it too.”
His eyes darted to mine. “What d’ you mean?”
“Not the same. But… Have you seen Star Wars? The Phantom Menace?”
“Yeah, it was shit.”
“You know how when Anakin’s racing, he sees the turns just before they happen? Well it’s like that. I see things just before they happen. But, like, seconds before they happen.”
He looked relieved. “You don’t think I’m nuts, then?”
“So what do we do?”
“Get some sleep for now. We’ll think of something.”
Some of us, though not all, developed… extras. Like Charlie and his ability to find things, and my precognition and telekinesis. Mikey could sense electrical fields, like a shark. Johanna could light fires with her mind, pyrokinesis, and Tom developed a form of mind control. I don’t know whether it was an extra ability or not but Charlie was faster than the rest of us.
We were weapons, physically and now mentally. And they had painted big bulls-eyes on our heads.
Metal shrieks as the brakes are applied. The wait at Grangetown is short. Once on the train I catch a scent that stirs something in me, but it is just a wisp and then it’s gone.
The ticket inspector is a bulldog of a woman, growling and glaring at everyone she passes.
“Tickets, please, all tickets.”
I stare out the window. Almost there, almost there.
I was surrounded, five men, two women, all dressed in black like a group of fitness-freak goths, if such a thing existed. My forehead itched with sweat, but I ignored it.
“Okay,” bellowed General Cook. “Begin!”
A leg from behind me sailed over my head as I ducked; then someone from my right tried to sweep my legs, to no avail; a fist was blocked at the arm, twisted and turned back on itself; Mikey tried for a kick, I caught his leg and swung him at Alfie who had just been about to launch an attack. They were testing me, my abilities, but they couldn’t land a solid hit. My body was finally quick enough to work in sync with my mind. I got bumped a few times, but nothing major.
Until Charlie started in. He’d held back, let everyone else take a shot first. After I deflected a kick from Jo he stepped in, landing a solid punch on my jaw. I staggered, startled, but before I could recover his fist was in my gut, an uppercut to the chin. His attacks were darting, fast, precise.
“Okay, stop!” Cook called. Blood stung my right eye.
“Right. Good. You two.” He pointed at me and Charlie. “Buddy up.” He put the others into teams of two but I paid no attention.
“Nice.” I cracked my jaw and winced. “Solid punch, mate.”
He smiled, eyes crinkling. “Thanks.”
Charlie and I spent more time together. We sparred. We spied. We trained. We waited. I hacked through their security measurements and made contact with the outside world, although I never told any of the others. Apart from Charlie. The others didn’t really mind being inside, and they didn’t care that what had been done to us wasn’t something we chose. Anyway, that was where I met Cran, in the ether of the Internet. He was an information broker; some of the other friends I made said he was ex-SIS, others said that he was kicked out of the marines, but no one had a solid handle on who he actually was. If there was one thing he was good at, it was disappearing.
“It’s been a long time, Davey.” Without looking I know his lips barely move. He leans forward and his scent blasts through me, tugging bittersweet memories from my gut up through my nose, making me feel sick and dizzy and happy and sad.
“It has.” I match his tone. We’d developed this technique during training. None of the norms around us could hear what we were saying. To them we looked like two men enjoying the passing view.
“You look well.”
“I’m glad you didn’t get the surgery.”
“How did you find me?”
I feel for the molecules around me, the air, the seats, the people, like a blind man ‘seeing’ a face. There is a gap in the seat under me. I turn to face him slowly, taking the gun out from my waistband and dropping it to the floor, catching it at the last minute, floating it under the seat. I’m not quite ready to see his face. If I concentrate on levitating the gun, minimizing the threat…
“I find things, it’s what I do.” Out of the corner of my eye I catch him cover a small pin on his lapel. “I always know where you are. I tried to give you as long as I could.”
I’d always wondered why I hadn’t been found sooner.
“Why’d you think?”
“You betrayed me!”
“You left me!”
Silence. I turn to face him fully. Black hair cut short. Dark blue eyes. Small white scar over the bridge of his nose. Elfin ears. Sad smile on those lips.
“You look good.” I finally say. I have to clear my throat. “Why?”
“What do you mean?”
“My mum. My brothers.” Meaning they’d threatened his family if he didn’t comply.
“Don’t bother lying to us, Mister Finn. We know everything.”
My stomach heaved. That might have been because I hadn’t eaten for a few hours; our metabolism works faster than a normal human’s.
I’d been locked in that bare concrete room, in that cold metal chair, since dawn, and it got smaller and smaller by the hour.
“We know that you were planning to escape.” He waited, but I said nothing. “Was the execution of your teammates not enough of a deterrent to you?” I just glared at him through the blood on my face.
“Who is Cran?”
“The fucking tooth fairy.”
His face grew red and a big purple vein popped up at his temple. He sighed, visibly relaxing.
“We trained you too well, didn’t we?” Then to the guards standing either side of the door, “bag him up. Take him out the back.” He sneered at me one last time and left the room.
I knew how this would work. They’d take me out, set me on my knees on the hard concrete and shoot me in the head. It’s what they did to the first lot who tried to escape.
I was led up concrete stairs and out a bunker door into harsh daylight. The guards needed more time to recover their sight than I did; one of the perks of being genetically modified.
With a wrench from my mind the cuffs slipped off, fell to the ground. As the two raised their rifles I was on them, smashing their heads together. I nabbed one of their rifles and searched through their pockets, taking their ID, wallets and access cards.
This was too easy. Cook must have thought that by starving me he’d weakened me. Even with the ten-foot electric fence surrounding the property and the armed guard towers, there should have been more people watching me.
Whatever, I thought. Now is not the time. Shut up and get the fuck out of here.
The electric fence was easy enough to turn off; I’d practiced with other electrical appliances before. All I had to do was scale the fence and run as fast and as far as I could. Yet I was hesitating. Why? Should I get Charlie? How could he have told them?
Fuck him. He fucked you. Now move!
I heard boots in the distance behind me.
“There are four other agents on the train, Dave. I wouldn’t bother.”
“Wasn’t going to.”
He moves to sit next to me. “I’m sorry.”
“Really. You know I am. But I have to protect my family.”
“Did they use them the first time round?” My voice is ugly.
“What first time round?”
“When you dobbed me in to Cook.” I know my face matches my voice; I can feel it twisting like my stomach.
“What are you talking about?”
“You told Cook everything.”
“He was gunna kill me!”
“Dave!” He grabs my chin, forces me to look at him. “I didn’t. I promise.”
“I don’t know, but it wasn’t me.” He sighs, lets go of my face and brushes a hand over his chin. “I thought you’d just left me.”
“I was coming back-”
“How? You got anywhere near that place and they would have locked you up again. Or killed you.”
I look at my hands. “I was.” Then, “you really didn’t tell ‘em?”
I lean over, quicker than thought. But I forgot; he’s quicker than me. Before my lips touch his cheek my chin is in his hands again and his lips are on mine. It’s a brief kiss, and it’s a long kiss. He stares into my eyes for a moment and then stands up and speaks into the pin. “Got him.”
“We should have done this from the start.” Cook is just as I remember him, hard and gnarled, face like a clenched fist.
The room is cold and stark, in granite and black. On the tabletop are about 20 photographs.
Cook pushes one across the table at me, then another, then another.
“What is this?” But I already know.
“Don’t you recognise your nephew? Oh wait, you never met him did you.” His craggy face betrays nothing. “How about your sister? You recognise her, I assume.”
A sickly dread starts to form in my gut, but it catches fire and turns to fury. “All right.” The table starts to rise, along with the photographs. The room shakes. “I get your point.”