Into the Abyss
Six months later
I dive and roll across the cracked concrete floor, missing the fist swinging at me by mere centimeters.
But I take too long springing back to a formidable position. The second fist flies even faster than the first, and it cuts roughly into the curve between my neck and jaw. I feel warmth oozing, trailing down my skin.
Why am I bleeding?
A flash of silver catches my eye. The boy who hit me doesn’t even try to keep me from looking more closely at it; his hand hangs lazily at his side, and around each of his knuckles, there is a band of metal. The edges of each band look like they’ve been filed to a rough surface. A blood-drawing surface. My eyes dart up.
He smiles at me.
All of this takes only seconds, but the distraction lasts long enough to prevent me from dodging the knee that slams into the small of my back a moment later. I fall forward, breath seizing in my throat. The palms of my hands absorb most of my weight. It stings and it stuns, but I grit
my teeth and manage to find enough strength to launch myself back into the air; I flip backward and land lightly on the balls of my feet, facing my attackers.
Six of them now.
They started with two—and that was supposed to be the limit. It’s what we agreed on. But judging by the four more who have joined the fun since that agreement, and by the blood drying sticky against my neck, they seem to be rewriting the rules as we go.
So why shouldn’t I?
The one closest to me is a girl I’ve fought several times before—Emily, I think her name is. She wears a smile identical to that of Metal-Knuckles. And I know she’s quick. Much stronger than her tiny frame suggests too. Her right leg is weak, though, still recovering from a year-ago accident that shattered her kneecap; she was hobbling around on crutches the first time I met her. She seems determined to act as though that accident never happened, but my eyesight is much too sharp, my brain much too predatory, to miss the weak way her muscles quiver when she tries to brace that leg. She sees me watching those muscles. That determination in her eyes becomes almost feral.
She darts at me.
I wait until the timing is perfect, bank hard to the left and drag one leg behind me so it catches her right foot and knocks her off balance. As she tumbles, I catch her roughly by the arm and sling her forward—straight into the chest of Metal-Knuckles. The force is hard enough to knock him to the ground.
Hard enough that neither of them moves much once they’re down.
Hard enough that I’ve made my point.
I should stop.
The four still standing are hesitating a bit now. Worried, maybe, that they’ve pushed me further than they should have. But their mouths are still moving perfectly quick. Jeering, talking threats, and swearing words much braver than their body language suggests.
I should stop, I think again.
But then, it isn’t me who started it.
One of the four has a spark of bravery and lunges toward me. It’s the last clear image I have for several moments, because my vision goes mostly black after that. I glimpse flashes of light and edges of moving things, and I still hear very clearly—shouts and thumps and a scream of “Cut it out!” that I think belongs to Emily. But it’s not until something slams into my head and sends me stumbling—until I hit the ground flat on my back and I have to make a conscious effort to remember how to breathe—that my eyes manage to blink some sort of clarity back into the world around me.
Only one of the original six remains standing. He looms over me, a gun in his hand. It isn’t aimed at me though; instead, the blunt butt of it is tilted up toward my head, which makes me guess that this is what slammed into me and knocked me out of my rage.
“Are you insane?” he asks through panting breaths.
I remember the way they were all smiling at me just
moments ago. And now, instead of answering his question, I simply return the gesture. He stumbles, as if I’ve physically assaulted him with my grin, and he flips the gun around and shakily points it at me. I ignore it. Likely it’s nothing more than a weak Taser gun; he’s too young to have clearance to carry much more than that around here. And if it is something stronger than that, he knows as well as I do that shooting me with it would be a mistake. It likely wouldn’t stop me, for starters, and he would end up just like his friends. And beyond that? Metal knuckles are one thing, but explaining a gunshot—and the potential damage it could do to me, to the president’s most precious tool—is something he likely wants to avoid.
So I go on smiling and ignoring Gun-Boy—his name is Josh, I recall after a split second of processing—as I climb back to my feet. In the process, I nearly step on Emily, who has managed to make it back up to a crouching position. “This was supposed to be controlled combat,” she hisses at me, swiping at the strands of hair that have escaped her disheveled ponytail.
I touch a finger to my throat, tracing the place where the metal knuckles cut in. “It seems we could all stand to work a bit on control, doesn’t it?” I say drily.
But I know she won’t be the last to hiss those words—“controlled combat”—at me today. It’s very likely I have a lecture in my future, perhaps from President Cross herself. Precious tool or not, I have parameters that I am supposed to work within here; namely, I am supposed to keep my inhuman strength in check—to give these young
trainees an idea of what it’s like to fight the others like me, but to not actually put them in any sort of mortal danger.
Whether they deserve to be put in that danger or not.
Whether they outnumber me, cut me, taunt me, spit on me—it doesn’t matter what. Because to most of the people of this organization, I am not a tool they want to use. My risks, they say, outweigh my benefits: I’m unpredictable; I’m a traitor-in-waiting. . . . Pick any argument against my existence, and it’s likely I have already heard it. I was born a monstrous thing, a thing that should have been left for dead. A life that the president shouldn’t have brought back.
And maybe there is truth to some of that. Maybe not. All I know is that one step too far—one deadly “accident” with any of my opponents—would be more fuel on the fire those people would like to use to burn out my existence.
I should have stopped.
It isn’t the first time I’ve blacked out like that.
But it needs to be the last.
I glance at the screen high above us, fastened to the center of the far wall in this enclosed room. A timer counts down on it, angry red numbers telling us there are still nine minutes to go in this training session. Underneath the timer is the shaded window of the control room, which is exactly what it sounds like; everything from that timer, to the lights, the temperature, and even to the gravitational force in some of the better-equipped rooms, can be controlled from that tiny room. It also serves as an unobtrusive observation spot for instructors overseeing the scheduled sessions that take place here.
This one wasn’t scheduled, though. It was an open challenge. One I would have been better off ignoring, where Josh and Metal-Knuckles set most of the rules—which I should have known they wouldn’t bother following. They never do. I should have seen the other four, unfair additions coming long before they sauntered out of the shadowed corners and into the arena. Should have known prohibited weapons would be used.
But the alternative to stepping into this unfair fight would have been to hide, to avoid them until they forgot about their challenge—which I wasn’t going to do. These pickup sessions are the norm around here, especially among the younger, more ambitious members. Nobody says “no” to them, and I am different enough without being the one girl who does. Besides, being called things like monstrous is bad enough.
I won’t be called a coward, too.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see that two of the ones I sent to the ground have pulled themselves back to their feet. They’ve moved back to the corner bench they were sitting on at the beginning of the session, before they so eagerly entered the fray. They don’t seem to care about the still-ticking timer; they look more than finished with this little exercise, regardless of how many of the agreed-upon minutes are technically left. They aren’t the only ones either.
I head for the door.
But there are still those other four to deal with. All of them are standing now, shaking off their stupor, and they
all seem to notice me at the exact same time and with the exact same, hungry-for-more-blood gleam in their eyes. Without a word they catch up, two flanking to either side of me. I keep walking, staring with all my concentration at the metal door ahead.
“Session isn’t over,” Metal-Knuckles says. His voice is viciously prideful. It’s the sort of mindless pride that I’ve found drives so many of these trainees to keep going—particularly when they really should just stop. Worse than his words, though, is how he is so close to me now that his arm brushes mine with each step we take. My entire body cringes. I hate being touched like this; his skin so intimately glancing against mine. I hate how close he is. How close they all are.
Twenty steps to go, I estimate, eyes still on the door. I breathe in deeply through my nose and exhale several times, wiggling each of my fingers through the air, one by one to the count of ten. It’s a trick Catelyn taught me to help stave off the violent blackouts.
“There are still eight minutes left,” says Metal-Knuckles, curling his way around me and attempting to block my path.
“Which is eight times as long as I need to put you permanently back on the ground.” My words don’t sound like they’re coming from me, a detachment that I’ve learned is a warning that my control is slipping. Again. Already. Maybe it’s how stiflingly thick and hot we’ve made the air in this particular training room, or how close his arm is to touching me again, but I seem to be having a harder time clearing my head than I usually do.
“Do it then.” I shouldn’t glance his way, shouldn’t pay his words any attention at all. But I do. And his smile is back.
“You know she won’t,” says Emily from somewhere on my left. She sounds like she’s getting bored with this. I try to siphon some of that boredom from her and make it my own. “She knows better, don’t you?” The question is mocking, inviting no answer from me. “Even a monster has its limits, doesn’t it?”
My hand is around her wrist, twisting it, before I realize what I’m doing.
“Let go of her!”
The other three are all in front of me in a flash, eyes wild and hands lifted slightly in gestures of almost-surrender.
Almost. The word splinters through my thoughts. Almost isn’t good enough though, is it? It’s the same voice that urged me on before my blackout, that told me I wasn’t the one who started this, but I can end it. That other voice, the one telling me to stop, that we’re finished with this, seems to have retreated so deeply back into my mind that I wonder if it was truly there to begin with.
Why should I stop?
My fingers tighten on Emily’s wrist, thumb tracing the thin bones beneath her skin. I can almost hear those bones popping already, so helpless against my strength. She utters something—a plea, a threat, something in between maybe—but it comes out more amusing little squeak than actual words. Her arm tenses.
She tries to jerk away.
Black dots flash across my sight.
But the darkness doesn’t last this time. It’s driven away by the beep of the timer resetting, reverberating through the room. I blink, and my vision clears completely as the lights go from their dimmer, hazier setting to bright and almost blinding. There’s a whir of mechanics as cool air breezes down from the massive ducts above.
Someone was watching from the control room after all, it seems. Someone who has decided this session is over.
I still can’t seem to unclench my fingers from Emily’s wrist.
“Let go of her,” repeat the others around me. I’m not listening to them, though; a new sound, a more important sound, has reached my ears: the door opening and shutting. The same person from the control room most likely, slipping in to interfere completely. I brace myself for the inevitable lecture as footsteps approach, my eyes focused on the soft indentations I’m leaving in Emily’s wrist. The voices in my head—all of them—are gone now. There is only silence beneath an odd prickling along my scalp . . . a silence that’s interrupted by a familiar voice a moment later.
“Six against one, Josh? Really? And even with those odds, I still have to intervene so you all don’t get your asses kicked. Pathetic.”
Josh holsters the gun and turns to the newcomer with a smug frown. “No one asked you to intervene, Seth.”
Instead of answering, Seth reaches for the grip I still have around Emily’s wrist. I drop my hand and jerk away
from both of them the second Seth’s fingertips sweep over mine. I actually find him one of the more tolerable people in this place, largely because Catelyn seems to think I should—but I still don’t want him touching me.
That same touch, on the other hand, seems to have erased the hateful look Emily was shooting me. Her freshly grown smile is full of innocence. She’s still absently rubbing her wrist, but that smile and the rest of her focus is completely on Seth now, her eyes sweeping down over his tall frame and dark skin, and then back up to his earth-toned eyes and the half-cocked grin he’s giving the group. “Thanks,” she tells him. Then with a hasty glance at me, she holds up her wrist and adds, “I thought she was going to break it with her freakish strength.”
I consider pointing out that I still could if I wanted to, but decide it’s not worth the effort. Instead, I shove past them and continue my interrupted path for the door. I hear Seth telling them that it’s over, to not follow me. Part of me is annoyed that he stepped in. But the other part is simply glad that this time, no one tries to follow me.
• • •
The headquarters of the CCA—which stands for Clone Control Advocacy—seem much quieter than usual for this time of evening. I pass only a handful of people as I walk the twisting corridors back to my assigned room. Most of them hug closer to their side of the hall when they go by me, lowering their eyes and lifting their phones or communicators or whatever else they have to distract themselves with.
Exactly one person meets my gaze, though—Zach, a
boy I only know because he usually hangs out around the same people as Catelyn. And I don’t know if he actually meant to look me in the eyes, but once he has, he manages to keep looking at me long enough to offer me a hello in the form of a quick head bob. Not an overly friendly gesture, but at least he’s acknowledging my existence in a halfway normal manner and not tripping over himself to get away from me.
Not that I care about the ones who are doing that.
It’s probably for the best that most aren’t like Zach, actually; there is still blood on my neck, and that strange tingling across my scalp is still there too, only it seems to be penetrating through my skull and down into my mind now. In a way, it’s even worse than those violent, warring voices in my head.
And until all of these things go away, the fewer people I have to interact with, the better.
If I believed I could get away with it, I would lock myself away from all of them indefinitely. Away from their hateful stares and words, away from these stupid training sessions—the scheduled ones or otherwise. But I have run through possible escape scenario after possible escape scenario in my brain, and they all come back with the same conclusion: The truth is, I have nowhere else to go.
Because after all, it is those stupid training sessions that have been earning me my place among these halls these past months since my “awakening”; I am a weapon, that precious tool—though not for destruction, like I first thought, but for teaching, as the president so eloquently
explained to me within hours of waking me up. It gave me an objective at least. Something to cling to. A way to somewhat belong within this organization, which is the only home I’ve ever known.
Though “home” is not exactly the best way to describe it; I understand enough after all these months to realize that it is not a normal home. There are few warmly colored walls here, and none of them holds safe memories, or familiar stories, or embarrassing old family photos. People live here, but they do so in neat, orderly rows, on neat, orderly schedules that keep the CCA running. And the CCA must keep running. President Cross—the woman who woke me up, who granted me refuge within these cold walls in exchange for my cooperation—never misses an opportunity to remind us of that.
Because outside these walls, the world is a dark place.
A world growing darker every day, thanks to the ones those training simulations are meant to prepare CCA members to face: clones. An untold number of clones created by the CCA’s nemesis: a corporation known as Huxley, which, years ago, began slipping those clones quietly and certainly into the population at large. In time Huxley had created a sleeping army, brainwashed, programmed, and prepped to fight for the future this corporation envisioned. Simply waiting for the command go.
And I was one of the sleeping. I was born—created—in Huxley’s laboratories. Another monster for its ranks.
I was apparently different, though; I managed to rebel against that programming. I couldn’t tell you how, because
when I woke in this place, I remembered none of what came before. I have since pieced together some things—from stolen glances at reports of the fighting between Huxley and the CCA, and from what I could squeeze out of Catelyn, who it turns out was my sister in this before-life. But the one who I most want answers from—President Cross—refuses to say much about my monstrous past. Only that I am different, and that it doesn’t matter so much where you’re born. Only where you end up. This is why I was given a second chance at life.
And why would I question being allowed to live?
For all the confusion and chaos in my head and the uncertainty in my existence, there is still a beauty to my artificially beating heart that makes me reluctant to give it up.
I manage to make it close—so close—to my room when I hear an awful word I was hoping to avoid for the rest of the evening: my name. And worse still, it’s come off the lips of Seth. I’m not especially surprised that he managed to catch up with me; he’s the adopted son of President Cross and has spent years living among these halls, so he knows them better than anybody. Including any and all shortcuts. Which partly explains how, no matter what happens around here, somehow it seems he is always in the middle of it. Even if it doesn’t concern him. Actually, especially if it doesn’t concern him, as most things—such as what happened in that training session—don’t.
“Hey,” he says as he reaches my side. At least he has the sense not to try touching me again—though when I glance
at him, he’s in the middle of drawing his hand back, as if he’d at least thought about doing just that.
“Hello,” I say stiffly, only because I’ve learned that ignoring greetings rarely gets people to leave you alone anyway. I’ve also learned that when people run up to you and greet you like this, they generally have a reason for it. But the next time I glance at Seth, he’s only watching me with the same sideways grin he wore back in the training room. Which is irritating, because it forces me to keep speaking. “What do you want?”
“To say you’re welcome.”
I stop walking. “For what?”
“For getting those creeps to leave you alone. You’re welcome for that.”
I wonder if he might be joking. Even after six months, humor is still something I haven’t quite managed to grasp. And it’s especially difficult to tell with this one, because it seems like he is always wearing that bright, arrogant smile, like he’s in on some grand joke the universe has not bothered to tell anyone else.
“They should be the ones thanking you,” I say, not returning his smile. “Things would have ended badly for them if that timer had kept going.”
“Mm-hm.” He leans against the wall in front of me, partially blocking the short distance left between my room and where we stand. “And then what do you think would have happened to you?”
His question makes that tingling across my scalp worse, turns it into more of a buzzing that drowns out everything
I’d been thinking of saying to try to get rid of him. So instead of speaking, I only glare for a moment before going around him, making sure to hug the right side of the wall so there’s no chance of us accidentally touching. I’ve made it perhaps ten steps before he calls to me again.
“Can I ask you something?”
I sigh, because short of ripping out his vocal cords, I doubt there is much I can do to stop him from talking. I never can stop him. It didn’t take me long to realize this—or that, unlike most of the people in here, he is indifferent to my glaring and oblivious to the fact that I could break him in half without breaking a sweat. Nothing I do, and no rumor that has started about me yet, seems to have made him afraid to follow me around and annoy me like this.
Which makes him a bit of an idiot, maybe, but it also may be the real reason I find him a bit more tolerable than most.
I don’t intend to answer whatever his question may be, but I stop all the same, and without turning around, I wait for him to finish. It takes him a moment. And then finally, in a voice not as obnoxiously loud as normal, he asks, “Do you ever wonder why she brought you back? Just so everyone here could hate you?”
The only part of me that I can manage to move right away is my head, and just barely; I tilt my face back so I can see his in the corner of my vision. He is still smiling,
but it’s less arrogant than usual, and more . . . haunted. A ghost of his normal grin. This is far worse than the arrogance I have come to expect from him. I don’t like the way it makes me feel, and I don’t want to look at it anymore.
So I lie.
“No,” I say. “I never have.”
And then I turn and I walk straight to my room and shut the door, locking it behind me—something I never bothered to do before. I’ve always thought that trying to lock things out was a sign of fear. I have no use for fear. I have absorbed everything from the moment I woke up. All the dark and monstrous things in the world outside these headquarters, all the hateful words and unfair expectations inside of them—all of it. And I am afraid of none of it.
Do you ever wonder why . . . ?
I back up against the door and slide down it, onto the cold faux-marble floor. How could such a simple question turn me into a liar and door locker?
Just so everyone here could hate you?
The room in front of me is dark. Simple. Everything is clean lines and function. Bed, desk, chair, closet. It has all been designed with a purpose, just as I have been designed with a purpose.
And as confusing and chaotic as it may feel right now, I am still reluctant to give that purpose up.