Chapter 4 – Earth, One Year Ten Months Ago
The world stood still at Subject 3A’s command. So long as she kept moving, that is. That was the tricky part; she couldn’t just stop to observe, and running around and around something tended to create cyclones. This frustrated her, because as the new girl walked into the training room, Subject 3A wanted badly to study her up close before they talked. With a sigh, the red-haired girl slowed, the light fading off of her. Normal speed was so boring.
The new girl startled like a frightened mouse when Subject 3A pulled up next to her. She might be three or four years older than 3A’s twelve years, but she was skinny and pale, her black hair ragged around her chin, with silver eyes that stared frantically at everything. Her weak state surprised 3A, though; the scientists didn’t care for the Subjects to be at suboptimal physical levels. What’s more, no one else was in the room with them. This was normally 3A’s private training time.
A voice on the overhead speaker drew 3A’s head around to the viewing window. She snapped to attention at the sight of Dr. Vern. “Subject 3A, we are having Subject 6A join you for your exercise period today.” The new girl jerked slightly but kept her eyes fixed on the floor. Dr. Vern continued to focus on 3A, her no-nonsense tone demanding attention and obedience. “Be aware that she is still in unstable condition, and her powers are toxic to the touch. Do not make physical contact with her. You will guide her through the basic exercise regime, but stay on your guard.”
It dawned on Subject 3A then. She’d been the first other Subject paired with Subject 6A because she was fast enough to avoid any attacks if the girl went crazy. Even the normal trainers must be worried about getting poisoned by the new Subject if they were leaving it to her. Subject 3A swelled with pride.
Then she slumped, or would have if such disrespectful behavior wouldn’t have resulted in punishment. If she was stuck babysitting the new Subject, that meant she’d have to go slow when not being attacked. There was no use arguing about it, though. Turning back to Dr. Vern, she bent in a small bow. Dr. Vern nodded and sat down in her chair, waving a hand for them to start.
3A turned to the older girl and jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Come on, we’ll do warm-ups around the track. The typical curriculum is laps, core exercises, obstacle course, and power practice,” she explained, pointing to the different areas of the massive training room as she spoke. She didn’t mention that they never made her do the obstacle course anymore because she’d beaten it too many times. “We can vary the order, so long as we do two rotations of each. We’re allowed an additional hour of time in here if we create a new physical challenge for ourselves that demonstrates a refinement of our powers.” She’d heard the smarty babble from the scientists so many times that she could recite most of it by heart.
Subject 6A only nodded, staring at the floor. 3A frowned, wondering if they’d gotten another sourkraut like Subject 1A. Not that 1A was all bad, for a sourkraut. But this was her chance to learn what she’d been wondering about since their new roommate moved in. “So what do you do?” she asked, then added in a low voice, “Pick it up to a jog or they’ll discipline us.”
The new girl managed a light jog that felt like molasses in the freezer unit to 3A. Subject 6A glanced over at 3A, her silver eyes reflecting the overhead lights. “What do you mean, what do I do?”
3A waved a hand. “You know, your power. You wouldn’t be a Subject if you didn’t have a super ability.” She flashed the friendly smile she usually reserved for convincing the scientists that she was excited about an experiment they wanted to perform. “And I’ve been killing of curiosity about it ever since you showed up.”
The black-haired girl stiffened, dropping out of her jog to stand ramrod straight. “I’m not a subject,” she said tightly, and something silver glistened on the exposed skin of her neck.
3A glanced sharply at the viewing window before leaning towards the taller girl’s shoulder, whispering harshly. “I hate to break it to you, dishcake, but if you’re here and you’re not staff, you’re a Subject. Sorry to bring you down to our level. Now keep moving or we’ll be punished.”
The older girl looked at 3A, face defiant for a second; but then she started jogging again. Ten yards later, she blew a sigh and shook her head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” There was a pause, and then 6A’s lips twisted oddly. “Dishcake?”
“What, isn’t that what they say on the outside?” 3A kept her tone nonchalant, but she looked away to hide the red burn on her cheeks. She was proud of her sayings – she was pretty sure they were from “before” – but she’d always wondered if she was getting them wrong. Righteous indignation stiffened her spine. Well, what did this newbie expect, when the only things Subjects could learn about the outside world came from strict curriculums and what the scientists deigned to mention?
To her credit, the new girl gave her a genuine smile. The life it brought to her face for a moment made 3A realize with a start just how flaccid and hopeless the girl’s features had been before. “I think you might mean ‘cupcake’, but nobody outside of cheesy detective novels really says that anymore.”
“Right, right.” Whatever a cupcake was. 3A shot a hungry glance at the girl, dying to ask the thousand new questions rushing to her mind. Were the rumors true? Did this girl really remember what it was like on the outside? Did she know what normal kids acted like, or said, or wore? But now wasn’t the time; they might be listening. Shannon picked up her speed just a hair. “So? Tell me about your power. Maybe I can help you come up with a practice program.” Then she’d get to spend more time in the room AND be rewarded.
The new girl’s face paled again, and she looked down at her black-gloved hand. In fact, now that 3A was paying attention, she realized that most of the girl’s skin was covered, all except her neck and head. “They bonded these… these little robots to my skin. Mercury nanites. They think I sh-should be able to control them with… with my mind…” Her breath hitched, pupils contracting until her irises resembled silver discs. 3A slowed as the girl stumbled to a stop, beads of silver rolling down her temples like sweat. “B-but I d-don’t know how, I can barely control it, and, and if I touch anyone, I could, I could—”
“Hey, hey, calm down!” 3A whispered urgently, glancing at the viewing window while keeping one eye on the girl. If she went crazy and lashed out somehow, it would be easy work to speed out of the way. But 3A didn’t want to get the blame for setting off the new Subject, especially not when she still had questions for her.
The teenager kept gasping her breaths, but as 3A hovered over her uncertainly, she seemed to grab a hold of herself. She hitched again but shook it off, taking a step away from 3A. “Please, you can’t touch me. It’s dangerous, and I… I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
3A raised her eyebrows. There were any number of people she wouldn’t mind hurting. But she flashed 6A a confident grin. “You don’t have to worry about me. You couldn’t touch me if you tried.”
That brought 6A’s head around. The pale girl studied 3A, and for the first time, 3A noted the intelligent light in the girl’s eyes. She had a soft, open face, like Subject 4A’s. “So is your power different from Lyra’s?”
3A stared at her. “Who’s Lyra?” None of the scientists had that name.
The new girl smiled sheepishly. “Oh, sorry. That’s, ah, what I and the girl between us came up with for me to call her. I don’t, um…” She winced. “I don’t like calling you all Subjects. No offense.”
“So you gave her a real name?” The words came out in a whisper. 3A felt a thousand miles away as the outrageous implications froze her in her tracks. “You mean you actually gave 4A a real, honest-to-goodness name?!” Forgetting herself, 3A grabbed the other girl’s arm, her green eyes sparkling. “Can you give me one?” she whispered.
The new girl quickly shook her off, face contorting in panic. But when it passed, her expression turned thoughtful. Some emotion 3A barely recognized, something soft and warm and sad, flickered behind the girl’s silver eyes. 3A wasn’t used to compassion. “Of course I can, but… why don’t you give yourselves names?” the new girl whispered back. “Have you ever tried?”
3A hesitated, fiddling with a lock of her red hair. “Well… you seem to know more about how names really… work,” she admitted. “Like, 4A says you’re from the outside. I know a few real names from our authorized reading materials, but… I want something I haven’t read before.” Something different, she didn’t say. Something that doesn’t remind me of here.
The soft, sad look in the girl’s eyes grew in intensity. She nodded. “I get it. Well, let me think… I named Lyra based on her power. Maybe we can do the same thing. What do you do?”
A thrill shot through 3A, and she suddenly saw the valuable gift in front of her: a new person, someone who’d never seen her power before. Someone who was actually interested, not just looking for ways to control or use it. 3A’s face split with the first honest-to-goodness genuine smile she’d had in years. “Well, since you asked so nicely,” she said, pretending to study her nails as she had seen Dr. Lain do occasionally (for some reason). “I guess I could show you real quick—!”
She always felt the vibrations at her core first, flowing outwards until they touched her extremities. The exhilaration of speed, of wind blowing her wavy red locks away from her face, filled 3A with a rush as the track of the massive training room shortened before her, the new girl and even Dr. Vern standing like statues. Halfway around the room, mere seconds after her initial burst, her cells began to shine a brilliant white that trailed behind her as she circled the small room again and again, faster and faster. This was her favorite part: she was a comet, a shooting star, a sun hurtling thousands of miles though open space—
She skidded to a stop next to the new girl, whose jaw hung open. The loudspeaker squalled overhead as Dr. Vern came on the intercom. “Subject 3A, you will stay with your charge until her training activities are complete. Any further showboating will result in strictures on your free activities.”
The two girls exchanged chagrined looks and resumed their jogging pace, finally completing their first lap. But 3A beamed inside at the whispers from the older girl. “That was amazing! How— I don’t get how ANY of the stuff you, we can do is possible. You were so fast, and that glow… why do you glow like that?’
3A shrugged. “Heck if I know. Something they did to my DNA, I guess. The scientists call it an unfortunate side effect, but I like it.” Her green eyes fixed sharply on the other girl. “So? Do you have an idea for my name?”
Seconds that felt like years passed as the silver-eyed girl thought. Then she nodded decisively. “Shannon. The way you shine when you run… there’s a phrase my dad uses sometimes, ‘shine on’. It sounds kind of like Shannon. And you seem like you’d be a free spirit if you weren’t stuck in this place.” She shot the red-haired girl an uncertain glance. “Does that sound good?”
It took effort to hide her smile, to stay calm and invisible to Dr. Vern’s scrutiny, when inside she was glowing like a supernova. “I think,” Shannon murmured, “that that’s the best name I’ve ever heard.”
Shannon. Shine On. The girls finished their training session, and Dr. Vern even commended Shannon on efficiently guiding the new girl through her exercises. But the scientist’s praise was dry as dust compared to the glow that warmed Shannon’s insides as she returned to her room, a glow that followed her for the rest of the week through training, testing, and endless routine. Shannon. Shine on.
She would shine on. Like a star in the sky, bright and free.
(A/N: I really enjoyed writing these little vignettes into the Subjects’ lives leading up to the prologue. It gave me a nice way to introduce the characters and intersperse them with Barrenger’s introduction; if you pay attention to the times listed in these Mercury chapters, you’ll probably notice that their build-up takes place over a much longer period than the few days we will have with Barrenger. It’s also just kind of enjoyable to write a short scene as opposed to an extended narrative, since I can just jump in and out without needing it to connect perfectly to the surrounding chapters. Yay variety!
These alternating stories are very different now, but I promise, all will come together. Part 1 is setting the stage for a much bigger adventure.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you keep enjoying! =D