“We are terminating the project. Today.”
Dr. Magdalena Santos went stiff in her seat and her fists clenched beneath the conference table. She regarded the overseer with what she hoped was a neutral expression, the same blank face that the rest of the board members wore, and tightened her jaw.
Don’t argue, she told herself. You knew this was coming.
Slowly, she unfurled her fingers and smoothed down her dress. She’d taken great pains today to make herself beautiful, hoping to sway the overseer in her favor. A perfect smoky cat-eye, hair glossy as a raven’s wing, and a black dress that teased between professional and sultry.
“Today?” Magdalena asked, modulating her voice into a semblance of calm.
“Today,” said the overseer. A hostile redness flashed on his face. “The asset will be euthanized and no further research will take place. The military has pulled our funding. The project is too dangerous, they want it over with.”
Magdalena bit her tongue and looked away. She’d given a decade of her life to this project. Dozens of others had died for this project. They justified those deaths by measuring them against a greater good, against an evolved humanity that might survive Earth’s tanking climate. The chimeras were their only chance; it was dangerous not to continue.
But she’d said all this at the last board meeting, when the termination was just an idea they could fight against, so this time she tried to stay quiet. The decision had been made. She contained her anger and tried to force herself to accept it.
“Sir, would they consider selling the asset so we might continue by private funding?” Dr. Dorian Walsh asked. He was a thin man with a gaunt face and warm brown eyes that often bent people to their will.
The overseer faced him with an obstinate chill. “The asset will be euthanized.”
“But sir, we’ve made excellent progress—” Dorian began, but the overseer held up a hand to silence him.
“The decision is final,” he said sharply. “We will pay you for your confidentiality and cooperation. A technician will come by to perform the euthanasia later today.” He paused, turning his gaze onto each member of the board in slow succession. “For Christ’s sake, this is your redemption. This project should have ended a long time ago.”
Several of the board members looked down at the table, fiddled with their paperwork, and considered the statement. Magdalena understood. The implications of the project’s success were bloody.
They had made an entirely new species of human, one that combined some of the best features of Earth’s other life forms and could ascend humankind to a new level. Homo adaptus. The pinnacle of scientific achievement. Project Chimera had gone on for fifty years and billions of dollars had poured into its evolution. It was wrong to end it so abruptly.
“Sir,” Magdalena began, unable to contain herself after all, “if it must be done, then let me do it. The asset trusts me. It might attack a stranger—you know how perceptive they are.”
Dorian and the others cast her a wary glance, and the overseer narrowed his eyes.
“Conflict of interest, Ms. Santos.”
“You can watch, of course,” Magdalena persisted. “The technician can watch. I only want the asset to die comfortably. Veterinarians say that when the owner leaves their dog alone to be euthanized, the animal panics and suffers.”
“You aren’t the owner,” said the overseer, “and this isn’t a dog.”
“All the more reason, sir. Please. The asset deserves a dignified death. She’s a child. It’s the least we can do for her.”
Dorian gave a sharp inhale—it was against protocol to humanize the chimera—but the overseer only sighed in frustration. He steepled his fingers against his forehead, spent a long time thinking, and finally—
“Fine. As long as it gets done.”
Gratitude knocked out Magdalena’s anger like a kick to the chest. “Thank you, sir.”
He waved his hand in dismissal.
Magdalena got on the elevator and rode it to the basement. Dorian rode with her, ranting
all the while about the project’s termination, as if his complaints could change the outcome. Magdalena tuned him out, using all her willpower to remain neutral and blank-faced as before. Her pleas to euthanize the asset herself were dangerous enough, so it was better that she seemed detached now.
Floor B1. They walked down the wide concrete hallway, eerily lit with fluorescent strip-lights, and Magdalena listened to their footsteps echo in the emptiness. The door at the far end was made of thick steel and had a sign on the front proclaiming, in big letters, ‘AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. TRESPASSING MAY RESULT IN DEATH.’
There was a rectangular eye-sensor next to the door, which Magdalena leaned close to
until it flashed green and chimed acceptance. The lock snapped open. They stepped into the airlock, waited while mist puffed in to decontaminate them, and continued down a long flight of stairs. The door at the bottom bore another warning.
Magdalena swiped her keycard and they emerged into the waiting room, which was brightly lit in stark contrast to the stairwell, with tile floors and blue chairs and several magazines scattered on the coffee table. A woman looked up from the reception desk and gave them a smile. Magdalena and Dorian approached a third metal door, swiped the keycard again, and continued into the laboratory.
The lab was a labyrinth of locked rooms and security clearances, designed to ensure that anyone who wandered outside their zone became utterly lost. In all the years Magdalena had worked here, there hadn’t been a single attempted security breach. Most of APEX’s staff didn’t even know about the chimera.
Magdalena and Dorian eventually arrived at the long glass window that looked into the asset’s room, and Magdalena wished Dorian hadn’t followed her. He was a great guy, Magdalena’s favorite of the bunch, but she wanted to spend these last moments alone with Helix. Her sweet, perfect Helix.
It was sitting cross-legged on a hospital bed, reading a book. It couldn’t see them—the window was a mirror on its side—but it sensed them. It closed the book and nosed the air, tasting for energy, then turned to the mirror.
At first glance, Helix looked just like any other girl might. She—because Magdalena failed to think of her as it—was fourteen years old, with a small, lithe build dressed in standard-issue shirt and sweats. Her skin was pale as bone, freckled all over, and a hair tie bound an ocean of copper waves behind her neck.
It was only her eyes that made her inhuman.
Wonderfully inhuman, Magdalena thought.
Helix’s sclera was black. Black where it should be white. The geneticists had tried to resolve it, but when they fixed the eyes, they broke something else. No matter what they tweaked, the more viable chimeras kept presenting like this.
Magdalena wondered if it wasn’t the eyes that spelled the project’s downfall; humans weren’t supposed to have black eyes, and in order to exist, the chimeras had to be human. The eyes had a sort of demonic implication that conjured imagery of vampires, succubi, and a wealth of other supernaturals that could only exist on screens. On pages. In fantasy.
Was it divine intervention that kept the eyes black? Was it some message from Nature that forewarned of disaster?
Magdalena didn’t care either way, and thought the effect was quite marvelous. The girl’s irises were a bright, icy cerulean that contrasted brilliantly with their dark frames, as captivating as the Caribbean sea frothing against volcanic stone.
Helix swept her attention across the glass, pinpointing the scientists’ whereabouts. She was beautiful like a tiger was. Dignified, powerful. Predatory. When APEX took prisoners into her room, which they did once a month, Helix would approach slowly, much like a snake slithers toward the heat of its intended prey. Then she’d strike and drive her fangs in. Four little sharpened teeth that left four bleeding holes.
“Perhaps the overseer is right,” Magdalena murmured. “Perhaps this is our redemption.”
Dorian looked at her in disbelief. “Bullshit! Look what we’ve done to our planet. The Earth is dying. This project was our redemption, not killing the damn thing. A few more years and we’d have changed the entire game.”
“They would have been used as soldiers,” Magdalena said. “Military police.”
“At first, maybe, but think of what would come afterward! If we’d worked out the kinks, we coulda all been like her. No more cutting down forests for cropland, no more wasting billions fighting sickness.”
There was more to their dream, too. Colonies on Mars, on the moon, on the planets orbiting Sirius B. With the chimeric adaptations, all humans could survive better in harsh conditions. Resources wasted on trying to repair the damage they’d done to Earth could be channeled into expansion instead. Humanity would be smarter, stronger, healthier.
“I kinda wanna take some of her blood and do it to myself,” Dorian said.
That surprised Magdalena. “They’d catch you.”
“Wishful thinking.” Dorian shrugged. “But I wouldn’t mind it. Not even the eyes and the taste for blood. It’s no different from eating a steak, if you think about it. Wouldn’t even have to kill a cow to drink some blood. You ask me, it’s less violent.”
“Unless you went after humans.”
That was another thing that spelled the project’s downfall: the chimeras could survive on pure energy, but they craved blood, and particularly human blood. There were two theories about this, the first suggesting that blood was condensed life force, and the second that veins and arteries ran alongside energy meridians.
Aside from the theories, blood was simply more filling than massless energy—it gave the stomach something physical to work with—and human blood was the closest energetic match to what already existed in the chimeras.
They’d forced Helix to go a year without blood once. She’d done well enough physically, but it was her mind that was the problem. She got wild. Ripped her skin apart. Attacked her handlers, killed her doctor.
“Some people are into having their blood drank,” Dorian said. “I’d get volunteers.”
Magdalena glanced at him just long enough to see his grin, which soured her mood even further. This was no time for joking around.
Beyond the glass, Helix watched them without seeing them. It was soundproof in there too, but Helix was gifted with clairsentience—she couldn’t hear thoughts, but she could feel them—and Magdalena had no doubt she knew what was happening. A long moment of silence lapsed in which Magdalena and Dorian observed the chimera, and Helix more-or-less watched back. There was so much life in those dark, demonic eyes. Magdalena couldn’t bear to see them empty.
A thought came to her then. An idea took shape. Dorian wanted to save the project just as much as Magdalena did, and perhaps he’d followed her here for a reason. Perhaps they’d been chosen, placed here for a purpose.
Their science was born to create a new future.
They couldn’t sit back and do nothing.
Magdalena turned to Dorian with a sudden intensity, and he shrank away from the look in her eyes.
“I need you to do something for me.”
Hours later, the technician arrived from the city and joined the overseer in supervising the euthanasia. They stood outside the two-way mirror while Magdalena made her way inside. She pulled on a long white lab coat and buttoned it in front of her dress. Give me courage, she asked the Gods. If you’re real, show me now.
The guard stationed by Helix’s door nodded and stood aside, and Magdalena rolled the EKG machine inside. Her heart hammered against her chest, droplets of sweat tickled under her arms, and she prayed for Dorian to come through.
If he didn’t, they were dead. Or at least locked up for life.
Helix stood up to face Magdalena, her stance akin to a cat bristled for attack, and Magdalena held her palms open.
“It’s okay, Helix. Just a quick immunization.” She knew Helix could read the lie in her. Magdalena had arrived at APEX when Helix was only four and she herself an intern straight out of college, so they’d spent a lot of time together. She’d practically raised the kid.
“What’s going on?” Helix demanded. She took a step back, but there was nowhere for her to go. Sharp apprehension glittered in her eyes.
“It’s okay,” Magdalena soothed. “You’ll be okay. Just relax. Let’s get your heartbeat on the screen.” She offered a hand to Helix and half-hoped the girl would attack her. It was an errant thought, of course, one of those thoughts that shock you when you think them, but something about it gave Magdalena a sick sort of pleasure. Let Helix attack her. Let them go down together.
Instead, Helix accepted the hand and let Magdalena guide her back to the bed, where she sat down and breathed with ragged anxiety. Magdalena hooked up the EKG and flicked on the monitor, which showed Helix’s heart rate picking up speed.
“Why are they out there?” Helix asked, her eyes flashing across the mirror. “Are you killing me?”
Magdalena half-choked on air. “No, no. Don’t worry.”
She withdrew the syringe from her pocket and popped the cap off the needle. Helix eyed it and met Magdalena’s gaze with a desperate, pleading threat.
Magdalena smiled as pleasantly as she could. “Just a little sting, that’s all.” She administered the drug.
Helix fixed her with that ice-black stare, her eyes widening, then getting heavy. A trace of betrayal stole her expression just as her body swayed, and Magdalena embraced her, caught her, laid her down. The EKG beeped out Helix’s heart rate: rapid…steady…slower…gone. It flatlined. Dead. Beeeeeeeeeep.
The sound hurt. It hurt bad. Magdalena forced herself to remain composed and looked at the glass where she knew the others were watching. She gave a nod of completion and rejoined them in the hall, where they exchanged a few last words and kept glancing back at the body. The heart rate still flatlined on the screen. The pale chimera looked paler than ever.
“It’s for the better,” the overseer kept saying, as if he were trying to convince himself.
Magdalena agreed every time.
Eventually the overseer and his technician left. A nurse came for the body, but Magdalena stopped her before she entered.
“Please, I was the asset’s primary caregiver. Let me.”
The nurse didn’t argue.
Magdalena rolled Helix on a stretcher all the way to the crematorium. A sheet had been drawn over the body and, once they were safely in the furnace room, Magdalena removed it to observe her. Closed eyes, parted lips, wispy hair in a mess around the paper-cased pillow. She looked peaceful—more peaceful than Magdalena had ever seen her. A small solace.
Magdalena looked at the oven door, then back at the door she had come through. There were cameras everywhere. Surely someone was watching.
Near the furnace was a bin of old clothes, to which the scent of death clung heavily. Magdalena dug around in the bin, angling her body to block the main camera’s view, and in a quick sweeping motion she heaved Helix inside. She covered her up and opened the furnace, feeding it the pillow, her lab coat, and the long, thin hospital mattress. It might look like a body, unless the monitors were paying close attention—which they should be, given the circumstance.
Magdalena pushed the clothes-cart out the crematorium and up the hallway. Every step was the ledge of a cliff. Someone would notice. Someone would stop her. The overseer would find the body and it would all be over.
But she encountered no one. Not until she reached the receptionist at the front desk, and the woman there just gave her the same friendly nod as always while Magdalena rolled the cart through. She bypassed the stairs by taking the cargo elevator, which set her off down a different hall toward the receiving bay. The big garage doors were closed, and the workers sorting inventory paid her no mind. She started down the ramp that led to the back parking lot.
“Magdalena!” someone shouted.
It was one of the board members, a broad man named Maxwell whom she rarely saw outside meetings. He was coming in through the door she’d pegged as her escape.
“Where are you taking that?” he asked, his tone cautious but blessedly ignorant. He stood in the middle of the ramp, neglecting to step aside even as the cart threatened to run him over.
Magdalena attempted a smile and pulled the cart to a stop, which was no small effort given its weight and the incline.
“To the van.”
“The overseer wants it,” she said. “Evidence, I suppose. I’ll be back for the ashes next. The whole crematorium has to go.”
A glazed expression slid over Maxwell’s features, but he nodded and stepped aside.
Magdalena pushed the cart past him and hurried out the door.
Dorian was waiting there, just like she’d asked. His face blanched as he stared out the van’s window. Magdalena moved as if she were in a dream, her steps more like floating, the world around her swimming. She was almost to the car when Maxwell burst outside.
He jogged up to her, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Before you take that, mind if I have a quick look? Got this silly feeling I’ve got to. Considering…well, you know.” He laughed. “Not that I don’t trust you, I just…mind if I take a look?”
He got to ruffling through the basket before she could stop him. His color drained. Must have felt the body.
“A-all good here,” he said, backing away slowly and looking at Magdalena like he thought she was going to shoot him. She might have, if she had a gun. Her eyes became knives. She lifted her chin. Maxwell turned and almost tripped himself in his hurry to get away, and Magdalena told herself that she didn’t care. Let him go. Let him talk. She’d be a fugitive after this anyway.
Dorian popped the trunk and they loaded Helix in. Magdalena climbed up beside her and the van screeched away.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Dorian said. “I can’t believe we got away with that!”
“We haven’t yet. Drive fast.”
“Yessir. Man, we got her! The whole damn world’ll be after us!”
Magdalena looked at the chimera in her nest of dirty clothes.
“Perhaps not,” she said. “They watched her die. Perhaps he won’t tell. Or they won’t believe him if he does.”
Dorian swerved the van into the second lane and passed a string of cars.
“Hah! As if. We’ll never stop running.” He sounded like he’d chugged an entire pot of coffee. “And that business with the EKG? Never thought I’d pull a stunt like that. Damn, Magdalena, what if they catch us?”
Magdalena moved her hand to Helix’s face and brushed a couple strands of coppery hair out of the way.
“It’s worth it,” she said quietly. “This is our real redemption, like you said. It wouldn’t come from killing her. This is our purpose.”
Dorian slammed on the horn and it screamed at the surrounding cars. He was driving like a madman. Magdalena was about to reprimand him for drawing so much extra attention to them when Helix awoke and consumed all her attention.
First, a fluttering of spidery lashes. She took in a shaky breath and her eyes opened, dusted with bewilderment.
“Don’t worry,” Magdalena said. “You’re safe now. You’re free.”
Helix sat up. She looked carefully around the van as if to determine if it was real.
“You didn’t kill me?” She looked at her hands, at her shoulder where she’d been injected, back around the van, out the window at the whirring scenery.
“We were supposed to,” said Magdalena. She watched Helix register her freedom, brightening in a way Magdalena had never seen of her, and she knew this child was the future. They’d saved the world. There would be colonies on Mars populated with superhumans, balance would return to Earth’s environment, life would be extended, science would reign. And the Gods had proven they were real. “APEX cut funding and shut us down. We got you out of there alive, but it won’t be easy to stay that way. I’ll be here though, I’ll protect you. We’ll fight anyone who tries to stop us, and I promise, we will win.”
Magdalena held the back of the seat as the car swerved again, but the chaos around her melted into the same limbic dream state as before. Sirens wailed in the distance like a chorus of avenging angels, but not even angels could stop them. They were the Chosen.
The chimera glowed with vitality, the blood in her veins pulsed with potential, and a new paradigm unfolded from the shadows in her eyes.
“The project is over, Helix, but not you. You will be immortal.”