Darcy Jo Lewis is thirteen years old and sulky when she meets her soul mate on a chilly fall afternoon. She is missing school in favor of being dragged from Wisconsin through Illinois to a family reunion in Michigan.
She manages to slip away from her parents in a crowded roadside rest stop, making her way outside for some quiet to sulk about everything she's missing at home, but the quiet is interrupted by an odd pop, pop sound, which is followed almost immediately by a screech of tires and then a crash from the nearby state highway. Darcy, naturally curious and with a head full of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, darts toward the place where she'd heard the popping.
There is a man sitting behind a copse of bushes, disassembling a gun and tucking parts of it away into his clothing. She gasps, and he glances up at her with a sardonic half-smirk. "It's called a Dragunov, кукла. Don't worry, I doubt you'll ever see one again."
Her hand flies to her chest, to the words written in hasty manuscript just above the incipient budding of her breasts. "Those are the words on my soul mark," she manages to say through numb lips. "I - I think you're my soul mate."
By the time Darcy rejoins her parents a few minutes later, the police are beginning to arrive. Darcy's mother takes one look at her daughter and reaches out, gripping Darcy's hands. "Baby, what's the matter? What happened?"
Darcy considers being stoic for a brief moment, and then, like the child she still is, she falls into her mother's arms and sobs out the whole story. How he was there, and how he had a gun, and how he said he didn't have a soul, and how he didn't want her, and how he walked away and left her there, alone.
By the time she's done talking, someone who overheard has alerted the police that there's a girl inside the rest stop with information, and she finds herself, not much later, sitting between her parents in an interview room at the local police station, explaining about the shooter to an older man with an expression of rude disbelief on his face. She draws a diagram - not a very good one, because she's not much of an artist - to show where the shooter - her soul mate - was sitting to the side of the building. The investigator looks at the drawing, then looks back at her, and he sneers something about kids with overactive imaginations, and Darcy knows, she knows she shouldn't do it, but she just can't stop herself.
She reaches up and grabs the neck of her shirt and pulls it down far enough to reveal the stark black lettering that runs beneath her collarbone. "Is this enough proof for you, asshole?"
"Darcy!" her father exclaims. "Language!"
"Sorry, Dad," Darcy mutters, releasing her shirt and smoothing it back into place.
The investigator steps out of the room; a few minutes later, a different one comes in. He takes Darcy's statement this time with an obvious, and gratifying, air of seriousness, and when she's done, he reaches out and pats her hand, managing not to seem condescending as he does so. "I'm really sorry about this," he says to her, his voice sympathetic. "It's very hard to be rejected by a soul mate, and to find out your soul mate isn't a good person, and you've held up really well under the circumstances. Thank you for this information. Hopefully we'll find him soon."
"Thank you," she says softly.
The new investigator, a tall man with limp white-blond hair and watery gray eyes, looks over at her father. "Will you be continuing on your trip tonight? It's just that we need a way to get in touch with you if we find this man; we might need her to identify him."
Her father shakes his head. "We're going to stay in town tonight, since it's late and it's been a trying sort of afternoon. We'll be going on to Wisconsin tomorrow, but I'll leave phone numbers where we can be reached." He pauses. "You wouldn't happen to know a decent motel around here, would you?"
The blond man gives her father the name of a nearby motor court that he promises is very nice, and takes the contact information that her father gives him, and then they leave. Darcy sits in the back seat, staring blankly out the window, while her father navigates to the motel. It's starting to sink in: she met her soul mate today. She doesn't know his name. He's apparently a murderer. What does that say about her? She grows quieter and quieter as the evening wears on, and after several unsuccessful attempts at getting her to talk, her parents give up and they all go to bed.
Darcy lies in her bed, listening to her parents settle down in their bed, and stares into the darkness. She doesn't really want to sleep because every time she closes her eyes, she sees his face shuttering when she tells him that she thinks he's her soulmate. She feels the tears she's been fighting back all day start to fill her eyes.
Outside, she hears a church tower clock strike midnight. She hears a car drive across the parking lot right outside their room. Its headlights wash across their window, making funny patterns on the opposite wall through the venetian blinds. Someone walks past their door in heavy boots.
With a crash, the door flies open. Darcy, her mother, and her father all sit up in bed. Her father shouts, flinging the covers back. Her mother screams. There are two explosions of sound, and her parents' shouting abruptly ends. And then there are men in the room, grabbing her, dragging her from her bed. She screams for her father, for her mother, but as the men drag her out the door, she can see them both lying in their beds, and she realizes that those explosions were gunshots, and her parents are dead.
She is dragged past her mother's station wagon, numb with shock and fear and grief, and shoved into the back of a van. She lands hard on the floor and stares up at the man there: the police investigator with the blond hair and the watery gray eyes. He smirks down at her. "Hello, Darcy," he says. "It's so nice to see you again."
The place they take her is way out in the woods and underground, like a bomb shelter. It's huge, though – a massive complex of hallways and rooms and things that look like science labs, and there are uniformed soldiers everywhere who stare at Darcy as she is forced along, barefoot and in the knee-length green flannel nightie her mother sewed for her, with tears running down her face and the barrel of a gun pressed against her spine.
They steer her into a small windowless room. Inside the room is a bunch of equipment of a kind she's never seen before. There are television screens everywhere with pictures all over them, and there's a huge chair with a bunch of attachments, and things that look like computers but much fancier and she'd probably kind of be interested in them if her parents weren't murdered and she wasn't kidnapped and her soul mate who rejected her wasn't sitting on the chair with no shirt on, staring at her in shock. She stares back, also in shock. She hadn't realized, earlier, that he had a metal arm and hand; it had been covered by his jacket and a glove. But now she can see it, and it is shiny and sleek and terrifying, with a red star on the shoulder.
He looks up at the blond man with the gray eyes, waiting for an explanation.
The blond man says, "Darcy, is this the man you saw earlier today?"
Tentatively, Darcy nods. The man continues, "And will you please tell me what you said to him when you saw him?"
Darcy swallows against her suddenly dry throat. "I, um. He s-said his gun was a Dragunov, and I said that those were the words on my soul mark and I thought he might be my soul mate."
The blond man nods, and he turns to the one sitting in the chair. "You have words on your arm. What do they say?"
The man in the chair looks down at his arm, and his face registers something like surprise at the sight. "It says 'Those are the words on my soul mark. I - I think you're my soul mate'."
Darcy swallows hard. So she had been right. Her soul mate looks back up at her, and his expression changes just a little bit. He looks... sad? He says, "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," she says automatically.
"Touching," the blond man says. He points to one of the soldiers. "Put them both in Cell Four."
"Together?" the soldier asks.
The blond man nods. "For now. Let them..." He pauses, grinning, and it isn't a pleasant sight. "Get to know each other."
Cell Four is tiny and dim, lit only by a single bare bulb that emits a weak light. They shove Darcy in first, hard enough that she actually falls forward onto the filthy mattress that is the cell's only furniture. When she looks up, the man - her soul mate - is entering the room behind her. The soldier outside slams the door shut and throws what sounds like a heavy locking mechanism, and then he walks away, laughing softly.
Darcy scrambles backward, away from him, but she can only go so far in a room that might be five feet square, and she ends up huddling in the corner with her knees drawn up to her chest, staring at him in terror. She expects him to lunge for her, to demand that she remove her clothing, to, well, anything, really, except for what he does, which is cross the room and sit in the opposite corner, his legs crossed in front of him and his hands resting on his knees.
She stares at him. He stares back at her for a long moment before speaking, and she is surprised at how gentle his voice is when he says, "I'm not going to hurt you."
She swallows hard. "You're not?"
He shakes his head. "If I was going to hurt you, girl, I'd have done it this afternoon when you saw me."
"Oh." She considers that for a long moment before relaxing a little bit, sitting up straighter and letting her knees fall to one side. She says, "Did... did you cause that accident?"
She hadn't been expecting the blunt honesty, and she blinks a moment before asking, "Why?"
"I was ordered to," he replies.
"Do you always do everything they order you to do?"
He shrugs. "Yes."
"Because that's what I do, кукла."
She says, "You called me that before. What does it mean?"
He pauses for a moment before saying, "'Doll.' It means 'doll.' It's Russian."
"My name is Darcy," she tells him.
He shrugs again. "I won't remember. Don't take it personally."
"Why won't you remember?"
"Because that's the protocol," he explains. "I wake up, I get my orders, I carry them out. If there's anything extra, they wipe me. I forget it. Only mission-essential information and skills are retained. Then I go back to the cold capsule." He shivers slightly, even though his expression is carefully blank. "And as cute as you are, you're not mission-essential. They'll take you when they wipe me." He pauses. "I'm sorry about that. But it's not my decision."
She feels her eyes begin to fill with tears and fights them back because some part of her knows that he will see them as weakness. "What are they going to do with me?" she asks, her voice a bare whisper.
He shakes his head. "I don't know," he says. He considers her. "They might send you home, but I doubt it."
"There's no one there," she tells him, pressing her forehead against her knees. "They killed my mom and dad when they kidnapped me."
He nods once. "That's standard," he says. "Witnesses are a liability."
And then she does break down, thinking about her mom and dad and those two gunshots and that last glimpse she got when she knew they were dead, and the home she's never going to see again and the dog that is staying at the neighbor's house while they're gone, and the cousins she didn't want to see anyway and her friends who will wonder what happened, and somewhere in the middle of it he sits down on the mattress beside her and pulls her into his lap, and he wraps his strong arms around her and holds her close while she cries herself to sleep.
She is awakened by the sound of the heavy locking mechanism being thrown open, and she shields her eyes with one hand when the bright light from the corridor falls directly across her face. It is the blond man with the watery eyes, and he is flanked by two dark-haired soldiers with guns. "Get up," he says.
Her soul mate shifts her out of his lap and onto her feet, then gets to his own. She shrinks behind him, just a bit, her fingers gripping at one of his belt loops. "Come on," the blond man says impatiently. "Both of you."
Her soul mate moves forward, and Darcy follows, hovering at his back. She doesn't feel safe by any stretch of the imagination, but she feels better , at least, knowing that he won't hurt her. She doesn't have that assurance about anyone else.
They return to the room with the computers and the chair. The blond man orders her soul mate to sit down, and he obeys, looking at Darcy with his big, sad eyes. Across the room, several technicians are feeding punch cards into the computer's slots, twisting various dials and doing different things that she can't identify. Finally, one of them says, "We're ready."
The blond man nods. "Post-mission protocols," he says. "Fuel, rest, wipe. You've had your fuel and your rest."
"Yes, sir," her soul mate replies. He allows the technician to push him until he is reclining in the chair.
Darcy looks around, her eyes getting huge. She doesn't know what's about to happen, but she doesn't think it's going to be good. The blond man says, "Hold her," and someone takes hold of Darcy's upper arms from behind in a grip she can't break.
One of the technicians offers her soul mate a bite guard; he takes it without hesitation, relaxing back into the chair. His eyes never leave Darcy's, regardless of the spinning machinery that moves around his head. A switch is thrown, and restraints clamp down around his arms. He begins taking deep, even breaths, and she can see the fear creeping onto his face. She struggles. "What are you doing? Let him go!"
And then she sees the arcs of electricity in the panels on the spinning armature - panels that are closing down around her soul mate's head. He starts to scream, and so does she, fighting to get away from whoever is holding her, to get to him, to help him. He is in agony, his body convulsing in the grip of the restraints, and she is sobbing and shrieking, demanding that they let her go, let him go, stop hurting him, stop it, stop it, stop it!
And then, quite suddenly, it does stop, and the chair lets him go, and he sags, a silvery line of drool running down from the side of his mouth. One of the technicians retrieves the bite guard from his mouth, looks into his eyes, and says, "Перезагрузка."
There is a long moment's pause before he speaks, and when he does, it's in Russian. There is a brief back-and-forth, questions from the technician and one- or two-word answers from him. And then the technician says, "He's ready."
At a nod from the blond man, two of the soldiers step forward and haul Darcy's soul mate out of the chair. He staggers between them, his legs refusing to cooperate for a moment, and they hold him up until he can get his feet underneath him. Then they guide him, half-supporting him, out of the room and up a hallway. Darcy is dragged along behind.
The room that they go into next looks like a storage room - there are racks and racks of boxes and crates in various sizes as far as Darcy can see. And in one corner, there is a capsule that looks like something out of a science fiction movie. The soldiers half-carry her soul mate over to it, turn him around, and guide him to step backward into it.
He stands there, blank, for a long moment. And then the blond man moves, exposing Darcy to her soul mate's view. He blinks, and his eyes focus on her. And he smiles, just a little bit. "Goodbye, кукла," he says. And then one of the soldiers shuts the capsule, and the other one manages the latch and presses a button, and before her eyes, she watches him freeze solid, his eyes locked to hers until they close reflexively against the ice.
And she is alone with the soldiers and the blond man, who sneers down at her. "Put her in Cell Three," he says. "I don't think she's quite ready yet."
Cell Three, it turns out, is exactly like Cell Four, only there is no light and no mattress. There is a hole in the floor in one corner, where she can relieve herself, and she is occasionally given food and water - a hard half-loaf of brown bread and a stale jug of water - through a slot at the base of the door. She has no idea how often that is; it could be twice a day, or once, or every two days.
She doesn't know how long she stays there in the dark; long enough that the nightmares about her dead parents start to recede, but not long enough to forget the sound of her soul mate's voice saying goodbye to her. She realizes, not long into her imprisonment, that she doesn't even know what his name is. She tries out several names for him in her head, but none of them fit. She almost decides to call him Paul, because she thinks he looks a little bit like Paul McCartney, but then she decides not to. She doesn't want to get into the habit of calling him something and then have it be wrong.
At last they come for her: one of the technicians, this time, and one soldier. She is dazzled by the light when they bring her out of the cell, and apparently she smells pretty bad, because the technician's face wrinkles up and he ducks away from her. She bristles. "It's not my fault!" she snaps. "I didn't ask to be stuck in there!"
The soldier slaps her hard across the face. "Quiet," he snaps.
She stares, too shocked to even cry. The technician says, "Assets speak when they are spoken to."
Numbly, she nods her understanding. She follows them through the building, and is pushed into another small room. This one is much like her cell, but there is a drain in the concrete floor. The technician steps in with her, moving behind a half-wall; the soldier blocks the doorway. The technician says, "Strip."
She says, "No."
The soldier steps forward and backhands her into the wall. Both men wait until she straightens up and the technician speaks again. "Strip."
She says, "No."
The soldier backhands her again, harder. She falls to her knees this time. When she stands up, the technician orders her to strip a third time. She refuses again. The soldier knocks her down again, and this time the technician says, "Strap her." She tries to get up, but the technician is there, one hand on the back of her neck with an iron grip, holding her down. His other hand grabs the fabric of her filthy nightie and pulls it up, baring her back.
The leather makes a whistling noise when it cuts through the air, and the crack as it hits her back happens just a split second before fire erupts under her skin. The soldier beats her until she's screaming in pain, until her back is a mass of agony, and then he stops. The technician lets her go and steps back. She pants softly in the aftermath, staring at the floor underneath her. When she thinks she can manage it, she gets unsteadily to her feet.
The technician says, "Strip."
She is hosed down with a powerful blast of cold water. While she still stands on top of the drain, dripping and naked, she is given a comb and she combs her hair out. Then the technician cuts it off at chin length. She is toweled off roughly, biting her lip against the agony in her back, and then given a pair of sweat pants and a man's white undershirt and allowed to dress. When they walk out of the room, her hair is still on the floor, on top of her underwear and the green flannel nightie that her mother sewed for her.
They take her back to the room with the chair, and this time she is the one sitting down in it. She fights at first, out of fear, but she is simply shoved down, her back screaming against the padded backrest, and the technician flips the switch that activates the restraints. No matter how she fights, she isn't getting out of those. The machinery above her head begins to whir, and she whines in fear. "Just relax," the technician tells her. "All I'm doing right now is scanning your brain. This part won't hurt."
She tries to cringe away anyway, but it doesn't do any good. The armature clamps down around her head just like it had done around her soul mate's head. She whines again in anticipation of pain, but it doesn't come; the technician was telling the truth about this part, at least.
He begins to ask her questions. He asks about her parents, her home, her friends, her family. He asks about her school, her pets, her hobbies and interests. He asks what she wants to do when she grows up, whether she has a boyfriend, who her favorite teacher is. He asks all manner and variety of questions, probing into every facet of her life, making her recount memories of birthdays and school trips and even the time she was hit by a car when she was seven.
The whole time he is questioning her, the technician never looks at her. After the first few questions, Darcy realizes that she can see one of the screens he is watching; it has a picture of a brain on it, and every time he asks her something, parts of the brain change color. She comes to the slow realization that it is her brain that she is looking at. She watches the colors change with interest, wondering what they mean but not daring to ask.
Finally, though, the interrogation ends. The technician leaves the room. Darcy watches the picture of her brain until he comes back, accompanied by the blond man. The technician goes to do something to the computers; the blond man steps up until he is in Darcy's line of sight. He stares down into her face. "I have to thank you," he says. "You saved us a lot of trouble farther down the line. A soul mate is a very dangerous thing for an asset like ours; that kind of bond is probably the only thing that could break through the conditioning. But now that we have you, we don't need to worry about that kind of thing."
He smiles, and she feels her blood run cold. He picks up something from the table nearby; it is a bite guard like the one they put in her soul mate's mouth. She clamps her teeth together; he defeats her by simply pinching her nose shut and shoving the guard in when she has to breathe. Then he steps back, turning to look at the technician. "Go ahead," he says.
Fire explodes inside her brain. She chokes on a gasp, her jaw clenching around the guard in her mouth, and then she screams and screams and screams.
When it stops, she sags in her bonds, the pain in her back absolutely nothing compared to the blessed relief of the absence of pain in her head. Someone takes the guard out of her mouth and she pants freely as the armature above her head whirs away. Someone steps up and peers into her eyes, and says, "Reset."
She feels information slotting itself into her brain. The man in front of her is Technician. There are other men in the room who are also Technician. Behind Technician is a man in a suit; she recognizes him as Handler. Handler speaks. "What is your name?"
She frowns. "I don't know."
He nods. "You are an Asset. Your designation is Beta. Do you understand?"
"What is your designation?"
"What is your function?"
She searches her memory. "Parameter: function undefined."
"Where are your parents?"
She searches her memory. "Parameter: parents undefined."
"Who is your soul mate?"
She searches her memory. "The man with the Dragunov," she says. "The man with the metal arm. Designation unknown."
"He is also an Asset. His designation is Alpha. Do you understand?"
"Who is your soul mate?"
"Asset designation: Alpha."
There is a long moment of silence. Then Handler asks another question. "What are your orders?"
She searches her memory. "Active orders: undefined. Standing orders: Obey Handler. Obey Technician. Obey Asset designation: Alpha."
"Good," Handler says. "Come along."
She tries to stand; a man her brain identifies as Soldier has to help her up because her legs will not cooperate with her orders. He helps her to stand until she can mostly hold herself up, and then he helps her to walk when she can't quite manage it. With Soldier's assistance, she follows Handler down a hallway and into a storage room. In a corner of the room she sees two metal capsules with glass windows in them; inside one of them, she can see Asset designation: Alpha. He appears to be in stasis. The second capsule is empty. Technician, who has come behind her, goes over and opens it. Soldier helps her across the room and guides her to stand inside the capsule. Handler says, "When you wake, it will be time to train. Your life is now given to the service of HYDRA."
"Yes, sir," she says. Technician closes the door of the capsule; she hears the latch lock on the outside. There is a moment of nothing, and then a moment of cold so intense that it literally steals her breath. Her eyes close reflexively against the ice.