A spring breeze was playing with 003’s hair and scarf. With her eyes closed and fingers on her temples, she could have looked serene. But her teammates knew better, standing ready when she sighed and let her arms fall to her side.
“002, 004, I need you above, clearing a path for the rest. There’s a swarm of them coming our way in less than a minute.”
They ignored the noises from the cameras that were tracking them. An especially grating whirr echoed as it adjusted for the fourth time since they had been dropped off. It had been quite a while since
they had realized that the nature of Skull Island was only skin-deep. For all they knew, the ground under them could reveal itself to be a trap-door in disguise.
“005, I need you on the ground, taking out the right side.”008, your mission is retrieving the canister. 006, dig your way through. The lake will be surrounded by a charged metal wall, so go deep.”
They both nodded.
“007, cover them. Keep your channels open, and await my instructions for where to meet.”
She turned sharply to the left, eyes narrowing,
They were coming off their adrenaline high and wiping off oil and dirt when they were brought into the training room. 001 was already there, placed in an incubator-turned cradle. They began lining up
and stood just a few feet apart as usual. Once 008 had gotten in place, they turned to the shaded windows and lifted their arms in a salute,
“Hail Black Ghost!”
The microphone crackled,
“The professor is bringing a visitor. I’ll be expecting all of you to be on your best behavior.”
Before any of them had a chance to respond, the doors slid open and Gilmore entered, followed by a man in what looked to be an expensive suit. He was using a cane with a lion's head. Pure gold and ruby eyes that bored into theirs.
The two men were laughing about something as they approached them, but the man’s smile thinned considerably once he got close enough.
“A baby? An actual baby?”
“001 has amazing abilities, Mr Daniels. However, we decided to keep him out of the simulation for the time being.”
“They let me know. His father most of all. He kept insisting he is the most powerful one of all. Failed to mention this little detail, though.”
Gilmore merely grunted in response. Gamo was confusing. He didn’t hesitate with opening his son’s skull and seeing how far he could push his brain, but the proud, protective streak you’d find in most fathers was still there.
“It’s merely that he requires the normal care a baby would, and…”
“We’re not interested if that’s the case.”
He went over to Jet instead, looking him up and down,
“And this scrawny guy flies, huh?”
“Quite fast, Mr. Daniels,” Gilmore answered, “The final cyborg has a device much like his.”
“And why isn’t he ready? This one is the oldest model you have, right? Why did you bother to show him? This might have been impressive some years ago.”
002 had been the most antsy one about being on display like this. But even he knew by now that punishment would not be given to him, but to either 003 or 004, so he had practiced the salute and obeyed every order, scowling as he did.
“I assure you, he has gotten all the necessary upgrades and then some… Ah, this is 003.”
“The heightened hearing?”
“And sight. My very own design! She can also scan any area. She is going to be an excellent spy. She can create a telepathic link to the entire team, allowing her to give them orders, and, as I’m sure you saw, her leadership skills…”
“Nothing else? I think you all forgot how much of a liability a woman on the battlefield can be. Would probably have been better to cover her in razor blades.”
003 kept her face neutral. Gilmore felt his heart sink on her behalf. There had been several of his colleagues who had insisted they weaponize her. He had explained that she was to become a spy, and doing to her what they had done to 004 would simply not work. And he couldn’t stand the idea of putting parts into her that would interfere with her ballet training.
“Tell me, girl, are you prepared to face a war where all rules are off the table?”
He suddenly grabbed her arm and put his own around her waist, bringing his face close to hers.
“All rules of decency?”
004 stepped forward. The others exchanged panicked looks as Mr. Daniels let 003 go.
Gilmore looked to the shaded windows. All the others were probably looking at Mr. Daniels in anticipation, hoping he would choose the model they had worked the most on.
“Mr. Daniels, I’d ask you not to push them. These people are quite protective of one another.”
Daniels shook his head. He almost looked offended.
“I thought they were soldiers. Haven’t you trained them to remain calm?”
“Their humanity is what will give them the tools necessary to…”
“To be a liability for themselves and others. Can it be fixed?”
“Delete whatever is going on in their heads and leave capable fighters!”
“Mr. Daniels, I…”
“If we’re gonna have a large group at our disposal, it’s better with a bunch that can take orders, not question them.”
Daniels stepped over to 004, who was glaring tight-jawed at him. He snickered, and with surprising speed grabbed his jacket, tearing it open to reveal the prosthetic chest.
“There we are! This is a masterpiece!”
He knocked his cane against 004’s thigh,
“Do these need to be reloaded?”
Gilmore was too stunned to say anything. 004’s alterations had brought with them a need for physical therapy and medicines. In the end, when he had broken down for a sixth time, he had realized the damage they had done. The artificial coma had been suggested and set in motion merely hours later.
“No matter. I think I will agree to take on this one. Just get his attitude-problem sorted before you send him to us, won’t you?”
The second he let go, 004 pulled his coat around himself and quickly fixed the buttons. He was beet red under the long bangs.
Daniels paid it no mind, as he was staring up at 005, who had no interest in staring back.
“Good lord. Where did you find this one?”
“005 is from Arizona…”
“And all you could think to do with this specimen was increase his strength?”
“He has invulnerable skin as well…”
Gilmore said softly. 005 had spent his first few months training himself to hold a glass of water without breaking it. Someone had decided that a switch for his strength was unnecessary. Gilmore thought to himself that they were lucky to have chosen a man who was so kind. A man that now slowly leaned down and accepted 001 from him, still keeping his eyes off Mr. Daniels.
“And a calm I have never seen the likes to.”
He said as the giant adjusted 001 so that he was lying comfortably in the nook of his arm.
“That’s it? No built-in-weapons?”
“Christ, didn’t you people learn anything from him?”
He pointed to 004.
“That is what’s gonna sell! Not this over-grown babysitter!! I’d advice you to get started on more models this second!”
He moved on to 006. He had been quite a sight on the battlefield earlier. He flinched, he screamed in terror, and sometimes seemed to completely forget what he could do. These days, he was getting more and more efficient. After each turn, he was the one who was running around and checking up on the others, mother hen, as he had turned out to be.
Mr. Daniels laughed,
“This was just for the contrast, right?”
He looked from 005 to 006.
“This is 006, he…”
“Can breathe fire? That’s all?”
“A fire that can burn through anything. We call him the mole because he can make tunnels in the ground, as you saw. He can withstand heat for quite a long time. And he…”
“He’s a splendid cook.”
Daniels started howling with laughter,
“Is that so!! Well, I never acquired a taste for Chinese food. I suppose I’ll have to pass on you.”
He flicked 006’s nose,
“Would you please not do that!”
007 said. Daniels started looking impatient.
“This is just vexing, Gilmore. And why are these two so old?”
“They’re in their 40s, sir…”
“An infant, teens, including a girl, and these two old men?”
“I’d remind you of 007’s shapeshifting abilities…”
“Oh, so that was you.”
007 pressed his belly button and turned into Daniels, giving him an unsettling smile,
“Did you enjoy my performance?”
007 had at first thought he was a part of some elaborate joke when he came to. Then his body had started to morph uncontrollably. Gilmore had been having nightmares for weeks of those big wet eyes in the middle of a twisting, red mess, and a voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once screaming for help. Once he adapted, he seemed to be deeply pleased with his ability, transforming for fun whenever he could.
“Get this one to stop talking, too, and we may have a deal.”
He moved on to 008 who was also staring straight ahead,
“Ah, the merman.”
“What else can he do?”
“He used to be a freedom fighter in Kenya.”
“A terrorist! Excellent. Did you finally realize that people with experience would be a good idea?”
Gilmore bit his tongue.
“And how old are you?”
Gilmore had spent weeks getting him to talk. Before that, he hadn’t done anything more than glower at the scientists and hurt the guards whenever he could. These days, he seemed to not only get along well with the team, but his and 005’s shared room was perhaps the most pleasant in the entire compound. It didn’t mean he had gotten any friendlier with his captors, however.
“At last, one that knows to behave. Gilmore, how old is the merman?”
“22. 008 here is trained in warfare. He can operate any weapon you give him, and he’s an excellent tactician.”
He nodded, and looked over all of them one more time. Gilmore was digging his nails into his palms.
“Well. I’ll take the latest one you’re working on, the merman, the shapeshifter, the big chief, the wind up doll… and I believe we will take the girl if you upgrade her. My employer likes pretty things.”
Gilmore smiled as amiably as he could, but couldn’t help the poison in his voice,
“The negotiating takes place upstairs, sir. Your bid will be the first.”
“Yes. Black Ghost will only sell to the highest buyers.”
"But they're proto-types. Who will want these?"
"Your employer, it seems."
Daniels froze, then he grew crimson,
“I think there has been some sort of misunderstanding. No one ever says no to my employer.”
“I see. I’ll meet you in the board room. Mark my words, this will be in my report.”
The moment the door closed and the lights went off in the round room, Gilmore slumped.
Albert was hugging Francoise who was boring her face into his neck. When Jet came over, he seemed to melt into their embrace.
Chang leaned against GB, sighing deeply as he did.
“Calm down, stir-fry, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh, and here I was, hoping for some peace and quiet.”
“You’d be bored to death, and you know it.”
Gilmore didn’t say anything when he saw them join hands.
‘Good work, everyone.’
Ivan declared, safe in the nook of Geronimo’s arm.
Pyunma’s thought reached them all.
‘Mr. Daniels wants another performance out of us. And I plan to give it to him. In a short while, we’ll have our window, and I need you all to do as we agreed.’
Gilmore nodded, slipping on his glasses again and returning to the laboratory. He took one last look at his cyborgs as the door closed, sending a silent prayer to whatever god was listening to hold their hand over them.
*Is he ready?*
Geronimo asked. Ivan focused, then moved his head in what was meant to be a nod,
‘As ready as he’ll ever be. It’s time to wake up 009.’