Every scientific experiment needs a control, and for the genetically engineered superhumans at Hayes Industries, that means every one of them has ordinary human counterparts who must endure the same horrific experiments as they do.
Sixteen-year-old Beth is one of the controls, designed to be the ordinary biological counterpart of the super-human, Beta, the second-most powerful superhuman at Hayes Industries. But in one escape attempt gone awry, Beta dies.
As Hayes Industries has no further use for a control without a super-human counterpart, Beth must escape an attempt to terminate her life.
Hayes Industries will proudly put BETA on the market in less than two years. She can lift two-thousand pounds, approximately 9 times more than the average control. She can sprint 300 feet in 0.2 seconds, approximately 55 times faster than the average control. She can throw a 20-pound weight at least 645 feet, approximately 12 times farther than the average control.
She is the second most powerful superhuman offered by Hayes Industries.
But this is not her story.
It’s mine. I am the average control.
“And fifty-eight, fifty-nine. Twenty-minutes.” Dr. Whittaker stopped counting to scrawl notes on his clipboard. “You’re doing well, Forty-four.”
I clung to two metal bars on either side of a tank filled with ice and water. My entire body was numb, my toes curled into themselves. The only sensations I could feel were the dull pounding of my heart and the chattering of my teeth.
“H-how much l-longer?” I mustered the energy to raise my mouth above the water-level.
“Just a few minutes more.” Dr. Whittaker looked up at me, and his soft blue eyes met mine through the glass that separated us.
I tried to nod, but I could barely move. My joints felt as frozen as the chunks of ice that surrounded me. My eyelids fluttered, and I squeezed the metal bars even tighter to keep myself awake. I continued Dr. Whittaker’s counting in my head.
Twenty minutes and one. Twenty minutes and two…
Dr. Aikins tapped her lips with one hand, studying the monitors on either side of her. “The subject is still conscious and lucid. Twenty-Two was experiencing delirium already at the fifteen-minute mark.”
Dr. Whittaker shot her a dark look. “If she starts to show signs of delirium, we’re pulling her out. We have more than enough data to show in comparison to Beta’s tests.”
Dr. Aikins’ hand curled into a fist. “The executive order was to keep all the controls in the tank until the timer reached twenty-five minutes.”
Twenty-minutes and forty-five seconds. Twenty minutes and forty-six seconds. I continued counting.
I wondered how long Beta had been in the tank. Maybe forever.
My eyelids fluttered again. The edges of the world seemed to darken. My mouth and nose dropped below the water line.
“Forty-four?” I heard Dr. Whittaker call.
I jolted up and took a huge gulp of air. The ice seemed to press on my ribs even as I struggled to breathe.
“Yeah?” I blinked twice and tried to bring his image into focus.
“How are you doing?” There were two of him. Four sets of blue eyes. They all looked so concerned.
“Twenty-one minutes!” I declared.
Dr. Whittaker glanced at the timer and shook his head. “No… you’ve made it to twenty-three now. How are you feeling?”
His voice was so far away. I couldn’t feel anything. The soft beating of my heart seemed to slow, as I was sinking into darkness.
“Beth!” I heard a shout.
Ice-cold water surged up my nose and my eyes snapped open. I mustered all my willpower and pulled myself above the waterline, hacking and coughing as I did. My ribs felt as though they were crushing into my lungs with every wheeze.
“Yeah?” I shouted back. What number was I on? I had lost count.
“Beth, your vitals don’t look good. Do you want out?” Dr. Whittaker said.
He was standing, his hand pressed against the glass.
“Forty-Four’s vitals are being recorded,” Dr. Aikins snapped. “We have to leave her in until at least twenty-five minutes. Otherwise, the experiment is compromised.”
I slumped against the edge of the tank, trying to even my breathing. Dr. Whittaker had slipped up. He wasn’t supposed to call me Beth. I wasn’t supposed to have a name.
My eyes focused on the black ink that ran the length of my arm. The letters were twisted and distorted in the water. But I remembered what they said:
PROPERTY OF HAYES INDUSTRIES
BETA CONTROL #44
“Do you want out?” Dr. Whittaker repeated, not even turning to look at Dr. Aikins.
“I can make it,” I whispered.
Dr. Whittaker turned to the other side of the observation room, reaching for the controls. “I think we should pull her out now.”
“Just sixty seconds more,” Dr. Aikins said, making a dismissive wave of her hand.
“I don’t think she’ll make it the full sixty seconds,” Dr. Whittaker insisted.
My eyelids felt heavy again. Even when they were open, everything seemed so dark. I wondered why he didn’t believe in me. I thought I could make it another sixty seconds.
Sixty seconds more. Fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven.
“If we lose her, then we’re down to two!” Dr. Whittaker’s voice echoed.
Down… to two?
I couldn’t understand Dr. Aikins. Her voice was a jumble of nonsense that came from the end of a long dark hallway. But I could make it sixty more seconds. I was so close. Where was I?
Thirty-two, thirty-one, thirty…
“Which one do you want to explain? A botched experiment, or just two controls for Beta left, with a year and a half to go before her sale date? We are already down to three,” Dr. Whittaker’s voice made it through the jumble of nonsense.
Down to three. Just three controls for Beta.
No, there were four of us. Well, four of us yesterday. When had we lost number five? I couldn’t remember. It was long ago, wasn’t it?
Twenty-four, twenty-three, twenty-two...
I opened my eyes, but everything was blurry. I thought I saw Dr. Whittaker’s face through the glass.
“Beth… do you want out?” a voice asked.
My teeth were no longer chattering. My fingers slipped along the bars, but I could not unclasp them. I was too cold. My joints were frozen.
“Do you remember your number?” the voice was asking.
I wanted the voice to go away. My eyelids drooped again.
“Do you remember your number?” the voice asked again, louder, insistent.
“Beth,” I whispered. “My number is Beth.” My fingers slipped from the bars and my head plunged beneath the surface.
“Twenty-five. Drain the tank, now,” I heard the voice shout.
Gasping, I awoke at the bottom of the empty tank. Clunks of ice swirled around the drains. Strong, hot hands lifted me up off the floor. My damp dark hair was combed back, away from my face.
“Do you remember your number?” He asked again. He held me now. I was close enough to see the tiny white stubbles on his chin.
“Forty-four,” I whispered. My throat felt stiff, and my numb lips had trouble forming the words.
“Oh, good girl.” He lifted me off the floor.
My soaking wet uniform was stripped off my body and a new, dry one put in its place. I could barely move my arms to help get myself changed. I felt Dr. Aikins’ hard long nails jabbing into parts of my skin, and heard her murmuring something about frostbite. When it was over, a soothing gel was rubbed into my numb fingers and toes, and I was allowed to lay down on a heat bed.
“There,” Dr. Whittaker said, rubbing the last of the gel into my skin. “If you feel any burning or itching anywhere else, let me know. We can take care of it immediately and you won’t lose any skin at all.”
I rubbed my wrist where his fingers had been. Bright warm lights radiated on me and heat curled around my back. I could feel my heartbeat again, pounding strong and steady in the center of my chest, and breathing felt easier than walking on air.
“Which one?” I whispered.
Dr. Whittaker typed something in the terminal next to the bed and turned back to me, lifting his spectacles up on his nose. “I’m sorry?”
“Which one did you lose?” I turned my head to look at him. “You said… we were down to three. Which one?”
Dr. Whittaker’s eyes drifted to the floor. He turned back to his terminal and continued typing for another few seconds. His hands shook over the keys, and finally he laid them down and let out a long sigh.
“Twelve.” He slid the keyboard back into the wall and turned towards the door.
“She passed out after twenty-three minutes and went under. Dr. Owens insisted they continue to monitor her vitals for the full twenty-five minutes without moving her. She drowned. They were unable to resuscitate her.”
Twelve. I blinked a few times. Hot tears gathered in the corners of my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Whittaker said. He gathered up his clipboard and reached for the door handle. “The orderly will be here soon to take you back to your room.” He opened the door, and then paused. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Beth.”
“Good—!” My voice broke. Tears spilled down over my temples and into my hair. “Goodbye,” I whispered.
When the door closed behind him, I curled into a ball and shook with silent sobs.
Just as promised, the orderly arrived to wheel me back to my room. As he rolled me along in the wheelchair, I tried to see through the tiny wire-covered windows of the other dormitories. I felt a sudden pain in the center of my chest when we passed the door that used to be Twelve’s room. It was open. The bed inside was stripped.
The orderly kept wheeling by, until he stopped in front of my room and waved his ID. The door beeped and swung open.
“Can you stand?” He said and moved away from the wheelchair, crossing his arms.
Lifting myself up, I stepped inside my room. The door slammed shut behind me. I peeked out the wire-covered window and watched him hurry down the hall.
“Bye to you too,” I whispered.
I knelt next to the nightstand and jiggled a loose panel in the wall. Once it was carefully out of the way, I pulled a paperback from a secret compartment in the wall: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As I pulled that book out, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Princess and the Goblin tumbled to the floor as well. I carefully picked them up and slid them back into the hidden space. Dr. Whittaker had warned me to be careful with them. They were old, from before the Great Winter. And I wasn’t supposed to have them.
I sat on my pillow, opening The Secret Garden to right where I had left off. I had only turned two pages when I felt a sudden—and familiar—prickle in the back of my mind.
“Hello Tau,” I said out loud. “Come to read?”
The tiny prickle in the back of my head faded away. I closed the book and looked up towards the ceiling. A grey-brown drainage pipe ran along the corner of the room, and at its very top there was a discolored hole in the ceiling, too small to see through, but large enough for tiny scraps of paper.
As I watched, a little slip of paper dropped through the hole and fell to the floor. I got up from the bed to pick it up.
Unrolling the note, I read Tau’s messy script.
Beth, I’m scared.
I frowned, slipping the note through the vents of the heater. Inside, the crackling flames quickly turned the paper into ash.
I waited for the prickle in the back of my mind before I spoke.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked.
Tau wasn’t like me. He was one of Hayes’ twenty-four genetically engineered superhumans. Among the controls, we called them “The Greeks.” They were named after the letters of the Greek alphabet, and as far as we could tell, were ranked according to their ability. Tau was pretty low-tier. His powers were all mental: He could see through anyone’s eyes, hear what they heard, and feel what they felt, provided they were within his range.
The Greeks and the controls were never given the opportunity to interact, as the Greeks were all kept in higher-security rooms upstairs. Until Tau had begun dropping notes down to me, I’d thought of them as spoiled, fearless gods. Tau had convinced me that was not the case.
I waited again. Another note descended through the hole in the ceiling.
His script was shaky.
Beta is planning something. She wants me on board. I told her it was too dangerous, but she’s determined.
I bit the inside of my lip. Beta was my Greek, or rather, I was her control. I had never met her, but I imagined we had the same bronzed brown skin, thick dark hair, and oval shaped faces, just like all my other twin-sister controls who bore her name on their tattoos. To be her biological equal, we had to be the same height and the same build, though I knew from speaking to Dr. Whittaker that we were not the same weight. He’d once told me Beta was seventy pounds heavier than I was because she had more muscle than the average human.
I folded the second note and stuck it in the heater. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
Even though Tau could not hear my thoughts, I doubt he was convinced by my words. I couldn’t see the things that he could. He probably knew this entire base inside and out. With his power, he could jump to any mind within these walls and see through the eyes of anyone he wished.
Another note plopped down next to me. I gathered it up and unrolled it.
Will you read to me? Please?
I smiled to myself. Tau was a Greek, but he was also a kid. Not much more than ten years old from what he’d told me. I grabbed the book off the bed and rested it on my knees.
“Do you want me to read out loud, or will you read along with me?” I asked.
Tau’s answer wasn’t long in coming. It dropped onto the floor next to me.
Read out loud. I like the way your voice sounds.
I slipped the note into the heater and settled against the wall with the book on my knees. I turned back to the last chapter, glancing up at the door. I knew the only one who could hear me was Tau, but it still felt funny to be reading alone in my little room.
A blaring siren echoed through the hallways outside, so loud and so sudden that my shoulders jerked and I ducked my head to cover my ears. The book tumbled off my knees and onto the floor.
The light in the room went dark, and then turned red. The heater shut off, the burning coals within turning black. A wave of cold rushed over the room. At the door, I heard the steady thud of three additional dead bolts locking into place.
Tau’s presence ripped out of my mind, and a stabbing pain throbbed across my temples.
“Tau, what’s happening?” I cried out over the sound of the siren outside.
He was long gone from my mind. I pressed my body up against the wall and looked to the hole in the ceiling.
“What’s going on?” I shouted even louder, somehow hoping that my voice could carry up to his room. But I knew it was hopeless, I could barely hear him through that tiny hole, even when he cried and screamed after another grueling round of tests and experiments.
The siren continued. I watched the tiny digital clock embedded in the wall. Ten minutes, fifteen, thirty. The minutes rushed by and still the siren blared. My skin felt hot, though the room around me turned icy cold without the warmth from my little burning heater. I huddled into the bed and wrapped the blankets around me, shivering and sweating at the same time.
Forty-five minutes after I’d first glanced at the clock, the siren shut off. Its sudden absence startled me almost as much as its unexpected blaring. I jerked upright in my bed and gasped. The ringing in my ears was so loud I could not even enjoy the peace of the silence.
An hour passed. The clock glowed orange with the arrival of the evening. With an earthy snarl, the heater turned back on. I huddled closer to it, and my stomach rumbled as the time for the lab technicians to bring me dinner passed. The clock on the wall glowed blue to signal the sunset outside.
“Tau?” I whispered, though I couldn’t feel him in the back of my mind. “Are you there?”
Only the silence answered me.
The lights shut back off at a quarter to ten, as they did every night to signal my time to sleep. I picked The Secret Garden off the floor and clutched it to my chest as I crawled into bed, trying to ignore my hunger pangs.
The clock was dim now. Midnight was approaching. I heard a rustle and then a tiny thud. A note.
Whipping the blankets off, I rushed over to the corner of the room and grabbed the note. Unrolling it next to the heater’s soft yellow glow, I read it.
Tau’s handwriting was smudged, and there were discolored spots on the paper.
Beta is dead.
I stared at the note, my eyes widening, my heart pounding into frenzy. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind. How? When? What had happened?
I had always thought of Beta as indestructible. The twin sister of mine that would always stand, though all others caved when the pressure became too much.
Though I had never met her, we had been irrevocably linked since birth. Now she was gone.
Beneath the noise of these frantic thoughts, one question burned in the back of my mind.
If Beta is dead, what’s going to happen to me?