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GILLETTE, WYOMING, 2009
Her bare feet pounding, breaking the crust of ice on the snow-packed ground, her thin blue hospital-style smock hiked high over pumping legs, nine-year-old X5-unit 332960073452 barely noticed the February cold. Neither did she have any knowledge that in other parts of the United States, Valentine's Day was less than forty-eight hours away; that was part of a mundane, ordinary life as unknown to her as her controlled existence had been to the outside world.
Though she had learned much at Manticore, all the girl knew, at this moment, was that she was running for her life.
The deafening whir of choppers circling overhead did not cause her to look up, and she avoided the wide white beams of searchlights that probed, slashed the remote Manticore facility, turning the gloomy woods into a haunted house of light, dark, and shadow.
Brunette locks shaved down to a severe concentration-camp buzz cut, she was small, but not skinny--lean, lithe, wiry . . . and, though unmistakably a child, already battle-hard. Her dark olive complexion gave her a tiny advantage over some of the others, the ones so white they practically glowed when the searchlights neared them, ghosts in the haunted house. Her eyes were large and dark, and she might have been referred to as doe-eyed if there hadn't been something lethal glinting in there, something almost predatory in the way those orbs took in whole scenes and missed no detail.
Sprinting through the woods, she didn't breathe hard, didn't even sweat, as--machinelike--she pumped her arms and pistoned her knees up and down. Her hypersensitive hearing picked up--behind her, farther in the distance with each stride--the ragged breathing of her pursuers, grown-ups who, for all their own training, could only vainly fight to keep up with a genetically enhanced soldier-in-the-making.
The child knew it was true now--they were escaping, they were really escaping . . . though she and the others, her "siblings," could barely grasp the word's meaning. They were well schooled, these soldier kids, but their context was limited. The girl knew "escape" only as something you thought about when you had been captured, after you'd been taken prisoner.
But she and the others weren't prisoners, were they? After all, wasn't Manticore their home . . . the only home they'd ever known?
But that home had seemed suddenly a prison, when the man they trusted, the father figure to these special children--Colonel Lydecker himself--had callously shot one of them down. Eva was dead! For what? Mere defiance?
Now they knew exactly what they were--they were an experiment, an exercise in mutated genetics and military tactics; and they knew, too, what they were worth to Manticore, if that experiment failed: nothing. All the training, all the exercises, all the studying, nine years, her whole life, had shattered into something incomprehensible, within the blast and echo of a single gunshot.
A group of snowmobiles, their engines howling like a pack of wild dogs, flew by her flank, traveling too fast to see her as she pressed herself against a tree, the rough bark weirdly soothing, reminding her she was alive, awake, not dreaming this. The grown-up soldiers looked like futuristic monsters to the girl, in their baggy black fatigues and night-vision goggles, all with laser-sighted automatic weapons, pressing up the hill from the valley in an ominous wave . . .
She took off running again.
Cresting a slope, fleet as a fox, Max found herself in a clearing. After a moment of indecision, she saw a head, Zack's head, rise up from behind a log.
Wordlessly, she moved to join him. As she neared, more kids in the blue-gray nightshirts and pajamas began to pop out from behind other logs and the trunks of trees, like strange, sudden night-blooming flowers. They shared not only the same form of dress, but the buzz-cut hair as well, and this sameness made them interchangeable, their individuality lost.
The last one to reveal herself was Jondy, her smile showing her relief that Max--that was the name her sibs had given her--had finally made it to the rally point. Despite Manticore's constant hammering the point that none of them was more valuable than any of the others, the two girls--who even without the hospital clothing and shaved haircuts resembled each other--had bonded, become sisters.
Behind Max, the roar of the snowmobiles plowing up the hill grew louder. As usual, Zack took charge; the boy could be cool and intense at once. Using military hand signals (a gift their instructors had given them), Zack broke the group into escape-and-evade pairs. One by one, the couples dispersed into the woods, each going in a different direction.
When Zack crisply signaled for her and Jondy to take off, Max shook her head. She didn't want to leave Zack behind; she didn't understand why the sibs were separating--wasn't there strength in numbers?
But the solemn boy again emphatically signaled for them to go. She didn't want to leave him alone, but she had no choice--their instructors had instilled obedience to team leaders--and then Jondy was grabbing her by the arm, and they were taking off into the cold night.
Once again, Max found herself flying through the woods, this time with Jondy at her side. Within seconds they reached the perimeter of the facility, where awaited a seven-foot chain-link fence wearing garlands of barbed wire.
The girls scampered catlike up the fence, eased themselves over the barbed wire--unaware they were centered in the night-vision sniperscopes of their pursuers--and as they dropped to the other side and freedom, Max paused to look back, thinking that had been too easy . . .
Sounds in the night perked her keen hearing and drew her gaze to where Zack turned helplessly at the center of an ever-tightening circle of black-garbed troopers, red laser beams sighting in on him, scarlet dots dancing.
Powerless to help, the young girl watched as Tazer darts struck the boy commander and sent him tumbling down a slope, twitching to the ground, his arms and legs writhing wildly, convulsively carving manic snow angels. She stood rooted to the spot, horrified by the sizzling sound of the electricity, until Jondy tugged on her sleeve and got her moving again.
Max knew now that Zack had saved her life by forcing them to separate; and running away from the fence line that night, she couldn't help feeling that somehow she and Jondy had failed him, possibly even betrayed him, by leaving him to face so many with so little . . .
The belligerent growl of the snowmobiles grew louder as the men on machines closed in on the girls on foot. Seeing an opportunity to slow their pursuers, the young fugitives scampered out onto the iced-over surface of a small pond. The ice appeared strong enough to hold them, but Max felt pretty sure it wouldn't support the weight of those bulky snowmobiles. Behind them, the roar of the choppers increased, like an accelerating scream, and the spotlights turned in their general direction as the gunships joined the pursuit.
They were nearly across the pond when Max sensed the ice going spongy, starting to give way beneath her bare feet, and she had just enough time to hear the sharp crack before the ice exploded under her and she found herself dropping into the frigid water beneath.
So cold it almost burned, the sloshing water stabbed at her like millions of tiny knives; but she ignored the feeling and pushed herself to the surface and gulped air.
Jondy, standing barely ten feet away, called, "Max! . . ."
"Go!" Max yelled, even as she struggled to gain purchase on the jagged edge of the tear in the ice.
"No, we stick together!"
"Go, Jondy, I'll find you. Just go."
The girl hesitated for a long moment until they saw a Humvee come crashing through the gate behind them. Max watched the vehicle chewing through the snow toward her and wondered if the driver knew the pond lay directly in his path. She turned and watched as Jondy dashed toward the forest, the snowmobiles plowing after her, the riders firing haphazardly, their bullets . . . not Tazers, bullets . . . tearing bark off the trees and ripping gouges in the snow.
Then Jondy disappeared into the woods.
To safety? To capture? To execution? Max could only wonder.
Turning back as the Hummer veered around the edge of the pond and just as the headlights were about to hit her, Max took a deep breath and propelled herself below the surface of the water. Through the veil of ice, she could barely make out the Hummer sliding to a stop, and two men climbing out. She couldn't tell for sure with the strange angle, blocked as she was by the partition of ice; but one of them could have been Lydecker . . .
. . . and he seemed angry.
The two men spoke for a moment, their words too muffled for even Max's hyperhearing to make out from her watery hiding place; but the pair climbed back into the Hummer and skidded off into the darkness.
It felt odd down here, so much of her body ashiver with the onset of hypothermia, and yet her lungs burned as if someone held a match to them. Fear still squirmed in her stomach, like a coiled snake, and she felt certain that when she broke the surface, Lydecker and the others would be waiting there to kill her.
She made a decision--such battlefield decisions were part of her training, after all, and instrinsic to her makeup. She would die fighting, rather than just give up. . . .
Max swam back to the hole and broke the surface just as her lungs seemed about to explode. She gulped air, went under again, and pushed her way back to the surface trying to suck in the precious oxygen between fits of coughing. She'd learned another thing tonight: even X5s, like herself, had their limits.
Pulling herself out of the water, she looked around, and was stunned to find herself alone in the dark. She was free. Her next thought was of Jondy, but she knew her first priority had to be taking care of herself. The flimsy gray nightshirt, now soaked with the icy water, offered no protection against the frigid night air.
She needed to find someplace warm, somewhere dry, and she needed to find it soon. Trudging off into the woods, she wandered aimlessly. Though she knew time was of the essence, seconds, minutes, and hours seemed to have lost their meaning and she had no idea how long she stumbled around in the darkness until she finally found herself standing on the edge of a two-lane highway.
The woods she had known--they had played war games there, the terrain was familiar; now she was in a world she recognized only from training videos. Still, she had been taught well--to adapt, to survive, had been instilled.
In the distance, Max could see the glow of headlights. The Manticore Humvees? Or someone else? Someone friendly? Hostile?
Ducking into the ditch, Max turned her cat's eyes in the direction of the oncoming lights and listened for the sound of the engine to grow loud enough for her to discern what it was. The vehicle wasn't traveling as fast as the Manticore Hummers would be going, down a highway anyway. Of course, they could be moving slow, to search the roadsides for her . . .
Genetically enhanced though she was, the child could feel the subzero wind knifing her flesh, sapping her strength. If she didn't find some kind of shelter soon, this short chaotic episode of life beyond the fence would be the only morsel of freedom she'd ever taste. She wondered if she should show herself if the headlights turned out to belong to a Manticore vehicle. If she returned, though the punishment would no doubt be severe, it could hardly be as bad as dying alone in the snow . . . could it?
But those had been bullets, snapping at Jondy's bare heels! Lydecker seemed to have made a decision: capture was not enough; execution seemed at least implied. . . .
Watching the lights inch ever closer, Max knew she wouldn't ever let herself be taken back. Ducking down, she listened intently to the pitch of the oncoming engine. It wasn't a Humvee--she'd heard enough of them to know this was a different vehicle.
Whatever it was, the thing lumbered along on seven cylinders, one of them obviously the victim of a fouled plug. As it topped the next hill over, Max recognized it as civilian . . . a blue Chevy Tahoe--Wyoming plates, AGT 249, not a government plate and not a government paint job.
Preparing for a fight, Max slowly eased herself out of the ditch and onto the road, nightshirt flapping in the chill wind like a defiant flag. In the distance, the sirens still wailed and the choppers still circled the woods, their searchlights oscillating around the forest in search of X5s to latch onto . . .
The Tahoe dropped into a valley, then crested beside Max, the tires sliding a little as the driver stomped on the brakes and locked them up. Max glimpsed the Wyoming plate, AGT 249, then the driver finally got control of the vehicle and pulled it to a stop, the passenger's side door right in front of her.
It swung open, like a slapping hand, and a woman in her thirties with dishwater blond hair to her shoulders and wide-set blue eyes stared down at Max.
"Get in," the woman said. The eyes were a peaceful color, the blue of a mountain stream; but they glistened with fear. "Hurry up! . . . Come on."
In 1.3 seconds, Max completed a threat assessment, reckoned the woman harmless, at least for the time being, and the child soldier climbed into the vehicle and shut the door.
"Get on the floor," the woman said.
Max responded to the command and the woman wrapped her in a gray woolen blanket--Manticore issue!
"It's all right," the woman said, responding to the flared-eyed expression of the girl. "I work for them . . . but I'm not one of them."
Keeping her eyes on the woman, Max said nothing. Better to let the woman keep talking and for Max to use the time to gather her strength. In the meantime, the girl calculated that snapping the woman's neck would be the quickest way to kill her; and Max knew she'd had enough vehicle training to operate this civilian machine. Killing her while the car was moving, however, would add unpredictable factors. . . .