The gist of the year 2056 was this: no one asked what wound up in the garbage.
On a certain night in July, what wound up in the garbage were the contents of an armored transport the size of a semi-trailer. An escort of six black vans followed it across the state of Arizona, clawing at the sand. Flying cars were still too conspicuous in this part of the country. But ground vehicles had very little traction here. They slid through the bare Mojave like a particularly callous funeral procession. The motorcade muddled on this way for hours until, at no especially notable point in the desert, the transport squatted up against a lonely concrete building.
Drivers emerged from the vans, craning their necks. This was one of the few remaining places in the continental States where one could clearly see the stars. A man with lemon-colored hair leaned out from the passenger seat of the transport, whose engine was still running. No one could hear him clearly over that, but he managed to yell at everyone until they looked down from the sky.
Then the transport’s carapace unfolded to reveal sixteen white bags sat on rubbery shelving. Each bag was the size of a tall person, and stamped only with a crisp bio-hazard icon. Some bags twitched; the lemon-haired man clambered around the machinery in back, administering injections from a bag of sharps until they all seemed to lie still.
Before long, white fire glowed through concrete windows. Two men fit an aluminum slide to the back of the transport; this connected the bumper to a longer chute which carried refuse into the building.
When the yard was deserted, a dull motor clicked on. The rubbery shelves became a conveyor belt, gradually advancing its cargo towards the chute.
Disturbed by the jerking motion, the eighth bag twitched. It twitched. It twitched again. The woman inside sat bolt upright and tore herself out with a gasp.
It wasn’t a pleasant situation to wake up to. She was still blinking crust out of her eyes as they rushed to piece together the bags, the salt-sprinkled sky, and the glare of the incinerator slowly growing closer. She wore an unfamiliar black jumpsuit covered in pockets.
The yellow-haired man wandered outside, staring at a clipboard and holding a brace of needles. He didn’t notice the woman right away. So she watched him without making a sound. He hummed to himself, walked right over, and clambered halfway up one of the large tires before he happened to look up. The contents of both hands went flying with an undignified, “Blergh!”
“Harold!” the woman shouted. “What the hell?”
Harold seized the clipboard and held it like a shield. “V-Velvet!”
Velvet rolled her eyes. “Harold!” she shouted sarcastically with two jazz hands.
“I know this looks bad,” he stammered.
“Oh, you think?”
“But—but you know?” He tried to back off slowly. “All good things must come to an end. And sometimes, Velvet, that includes life. Now, now, I have my orders, and—”
Velvet interrupted him with a growl. “I know this isn’t your call, stupid! I’m talking about—this!” She flailed her arms to indicate the other fifteen sacks.
“I wanted to make it easy on you!” Harold burst. He was close to tears. “I didn’t want you to be scared. I thought if you didn’t have to know, you could—if you could go to bed happy—”
“No, no, no.” Velvet covered her forehead with a hand. “That’s not how it’s done! You’re supposed to give us some kind of hint.”
“A hint! You drop a copy of the kill order in the bathroom, or casually mention that we should enjoy the springtime because we might not be around next year. Look, it’s not in the manual, but it’s just how we do things here!”
Harold threw up his arms. “Well, how was I supposed to know? I’ve only been on site for a month!”
“What is it with you, Harold? You think because the lab is top-secret you’re not supposed to talk to people? You could have asked anyone! Every time this happens, Doctor Smith throws us a last meal. I was going to get caviar. And popsicles! Fucking spaceship popsicles!”
The clipboard drooped. Harold leaned forward with an incredulous look on his face. “They were going to spend money on that?”
He looked deep into his sneakers as the news sunk in. “Oh, God. I fucked up. I really fucked up.”
“Yes. Yes you did.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance we could start over?”
Velvet sniffed at his grimace. She had a large nose, which made her derisory sniffing quite effective.
“And what’s with this setup?” she said. “You’re just going to drug us before you throw us in the incinerator? Never mind how sick that is. Do you have any idea how many tranquilizers we’re resistant to? It really burns me up when people fail the most basic—”
She would have gone on, but they were interrupted by a loud thump. The first white bag slid into the furnace.
Harold’s grimace took over his face. “Are you going to hit me?” he squeaked.
Velvet frowned for a moment. “Actually…no.”
He relaxed all at once; a smile blossomed on Harold’s face as he lowered the clipboard. “Hah! That’s a relief. You really had me going for a minute.”
He was just looking awkwardly to one side, so as to laugh the whole thing off, when he noticed the needle poking out of his shoulder. Harold looked crestfallen for a moment. Then slumped to the ground.
Velvet hopped off the truck, careful not to prick her feet on any of the other needles Harold had flung when she startled him. She sprinted for the fence as the chute chimed with the impact of another bag.
A second later she ran back. Harold had a half-loaded pistol on his person. She plunged it into her pockets and took off again.
Once she was over the fence, Velvet picked up quite a bit of speed running on the packed dirt road which connected the incineration facility to a hazy blot on the horizon. It was as promising as any other direction. Maybe the blot would be place to hide.
Although maybe she didn’t need to hide. Velvet couldn’t hear any engines behind her. She wasn’t sure if she expected to. Would the black vans try and chase her down? That would be silly. They wouldn’t leave Harold alone with the cargo. You couldn’t leave Harold alone with a lab rat. Besides, she was confident she could outrace vans, if it came to that. She was outracing lizards that burst out of the creosote like fireworks.
All through fifteen minutes there was nothing but the quiet sound of sprinting. Velvet found herself grinning like a maniac. She had run this hard before, but never alone. Never in her bare feet. The wide open-ness of the desert was more intense than it had ever been. She couldn’t even feel the chill anymore. The Milky Way was like a rainbow stretched from where she had been to wherever she was going.
“Yeah!” she hollered. “Freedom is really cool!”
She took flying leaps over cacti, chuckling whenever she stumbled.
“Whoo-hoo! God bless A-merica!”
A far-away boom picked Velvet up by the heels. The desert sand didn’t actually bounce like beads on a drum, but Velvet almost startled flat on her face. She had to sprint another thirty paces just to keep from falling over.
As soon as she could slow down, she ducked behind a Joshua tree. Two bright lights had suddenly appeared to drown out the stars. As they decelerated by circling the area, they looked like a pair of glowing rings over the whole of the Mojave. Velvet stayed where she was, too stunned to move while searchlights made a colorless disco of the desert ground.
It was flat out here. If she screwed up her eyes long enough, she could zoom in on the hill where the strike tanks eventually descended. She managed to make out the reflection on a metal case being unloaded between the two hovercraft.
Her imagination could fill in the rest from there. Velvet was panting even before the cords were cut. She knew what was in the bullet-shaped sarcophagus.
As it opened, someone yelled sequences of prime numbers through a megaphone. Another echoed, “Kappa. Attention, Kappa. You have a new priority.”
The creature stepped down from cold curling steam. From the angle where Velvet squinted, it looked salmon-pink. That would be the color of muscle tissue. Searchlights were trained on it from three directions, and its skin was almost transparent under that much light.
It stretched experimentally, then it wandered a couple paces, looking curiously at the shimmering objects above it.
Both strike tanks abruptly jumped several meters in altitude. “Kappa! Stand down! Attention!” And the prime numbers came faster. Gradually, the Kappa calmed.
“Kappa. Priority. There is an Iota unit outside of bounds. Recover in any state.”
No one was looking this way. Velvet should run. She should run right now.
Instead he hugged herself. Her hair, the color of red velvet cake, was plastered to her face with sweat.
The megaphones never stopped. “Attention! Observe standing orders. Attention, Kappa. Attention. Go now.”
In the instant it spun on the ball of its foot, it seemed to look directly at her.
Velvet yanked her head down. That was definitely her imagination. Her chest contracted, shaking, as she got up on her heels and ran.
The horizon blot turned out to be a disappointment. Where the dirt road finally met up with some asphalt, a cluster of buildings stood against the brown expanse. From the look of it, the brown had won a few times over; there were two concrete towers with graffiti that no one could make out anymore, and several halfway-walls made out of kiln-fired brick. There wasn’t even a single sprinkler feeding the lawns—which meant no mud for Velvet to rub on her skin. She had to manage with some cool dust she found under the gravel.
She wasn’t sure what kind of nose the Kappa Organism had. She’d done her best not to learn when they were teaching her about it. But knowing her luck, she’d better do something about her smell. Velvet could disguise herself by activating glands which pumped out something other than her normal scent. It was supposed to be for hiding from security dogs. She liked to think the lab would be pissed if she used it against their own bio-weapon.
But then again, she could only smell like copper, dead leaves, or peppermint. Fat lot of good any of those would do out here.
Peppermint was so useless. Damnit. What if peppermint had been Harold’s idea? She felt violated just thinking about it.
There were a small number of new buildings here, including a rest stop. A row of LED streetlamps stood over the parking lot. All turned off. Their light wouldn’t have been visible against the glow of the extra-large billboard down the road. A hologram ad for see-through television screens loomed over the neighborhood.
One intact house had an open window on the second story. Velvet hopped onto the air conditioning unit and decided she could make the jump. The lights turned themselves on as she punched out the window screen.
Ideally, her new hiding place would have a computer. She found something even better—a huge, wrinkled roadmap. Velvet tipped the table, causing a computer, a desk lamp, and papers to avalanche to the floor. Then she spread out her map of the United States. Some of the eastern states dripped onto a chair.
She needed a plan. Shooting off in random directions wouldn’t work anymore. Velvet spread her fingers over the lines in the paper, starting with Arizona.
If she could get out of the country, that would be good. No way she was worth so much that they’d risk the Kappa being captured in another nation. Mexico was close. But moving south from here would be suicide. If the desert didn’t get her, the Border Patrol would. Velvet didn’t think she’d be lucky enough to get deported by accident.
She’d have to go a long way east before that changed. Velvet shook her head just thinking about it. There was too much open space in that direction.
It might actually make more sense to run north. If she could just get to California, she’d be in good shape. There were lots of cities there, lots of people. Lots of places to hide. And she’d heard a rumor that the border with Canada was weak in Washington. She might be able to find someone to take her over.
The door to the study squawked. Despite the way Velvet jumped, it wasn’t the Kappa. It was a middle-aged man with a stylish combination of crowbar and comb-over.
Velvet fumbled the pistol out of her pocket. “FBI! Don’t move!”
The man lifted his arms. But he didn’t look that scared.
“Keep them both where I can see them,” she said in her dangerous voice. “I’m a human killing machine, and I’m—”
Her backward steps carried her back out the window. Velvet tipped over and vanished. The pistol could be seen through the window for a moment longer, spinning in midair before it followed her.
She lay on the ground and waited for her knocked-out breath to come back. This wouldn’t have been happening if people weren’t so stupid. Doctor Smith was an idiot. They were all idiots.
It should have been obvious that surrogate-born GMO’s like her were far superior to the new test-tube crap. The Kappa wasn’t mature enough to be a soldier. She’d seen what it did to people, and not just the ones it was supposed to ‘recover’. It was like a five-year old with a cruel streak in a world full of fascinating bugs.
She could smell it coming closer now, a taint like ice and linen and formaldehyde. Her lungs were still fighting for air, so she had no choice but to scarf down fistfuls of the smell. As soon as she could sit up, she went flat against the air conditioner.
And when it arrived she closed her eyes against the screams. Those people were fine. They were going to be fine. She could crawl away, grinding her knuckles into her ears.
It wasn’t her fault. She could have sworn that even at this distance, she could hear bags tolling the aluminum chute. Kappa was here now. Her entire generation was just so much hazardous waste. Because Kappa was better than generation Iota. Better in every way, Harold had said at one point.
And it was hard to ignore a feeling of guilt, the sense that this was all happening because she hadn’t done well enough in a test. The sense that if she’d tried a little harder, they wouldn’t have needed to develop a next generation. But that was the lab talking. This was inevitable. She just hadn’t expected it so soon.
Now Kappa was going to personally finish them off. All her little escape had done was set up that irony. She couldn’t outrun the Kappa, and she certainly couldn’t fight.
But she really didn’t want Harold to be right. Maybe, in the two minutes it took the Kappa to ransack this rest stop, she could find something she was better at.
Soon the Kappa had finished searching the neighborhood. It returned to the road and looked either way for signs of its target. Oddly enough, Velvet was standing in clear view. She was on the billboard, backlit by intense saccharine pink and crossing her arms.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” she said when they locked eyes.
The Kappa’s response was to coil up its body and jump. It landed on the billboard walkway, a few inches away from her. A hologram of a TV was all that separated them. And Velvet stood the shorter by almost four feet. She was around the height of the extra pair of limbs that sprouted from the Kappa’s torso, and were now reaching out as if to wrap around her skull.
She flashed a smile full of incisors. “I see you had no trouble waltzing into my trap.”
The Kappa slowed down. Velvet knew it was being cautious because she wasn’t a ragdoll.
“Don’t tell me you think we’ve been running around aimlessly,” she smirked. “You’re supposed to be the clever one.”
The Kappa waited for the trap to spring. A wall of white teeth gnashed.
“Oh, you’d like to know, would you? Frustrated that a puny little Iota has your head muscles in a knot? Maybe if you got out more, you’d have caught on already.”
Velvet was rubbing her hands together now. But nothing had happened. The Kappa snorted in her face. It cocked one arm back to put it through Velvet’s chest cavity—
It hesitated, she had—twitched.
“I was wondering when you’d show up,” she said.
The Kappa froze.
“I see you had no trouble waltzing into my trap.” Velvet flashed a smile full of incisors. She was looking at a point somewhere in the middle of the Kappa’s chest.
When the Kappa took a step, everything shuddered. Digital static fluttered across the billboard. Velvet made a gurgling noise while pixelated pink washed over her calves.
“Don’t tell me you think we’ve been running around aimlessly,” she smirked.
The Kappa spun around, thundering past the holograms to re-examine the road. After looking across the desert for a couple seconds, it took a jump which shook the walk like a diving board. Soon it was a cloud of dust on the state route, breaking the speed limit heading south.
Velvet continued repeating herself. “You’re supposed to be the clever one…”
But once the Kappa was probably out of hearing range, she trailed off. Velvet stood stock still for a moment. Still watching the Kappa. Then she stutter-stepped out from behind the holographic TV screen. Another wave of static hit. The screen crackled again, casting a wash of pixilation over everything seen through it; it made even the walkway wires look like holograms.
She decided she had to make a break for it. Velvet scrambled around to the back of the billboard, un-bent the antennae there, and slid back down the ladder.
Then, more running. Velvet’s knees came up too high as she got tired, burning up her lungs to maintain the pace. As she ran by the very last house to the north, she passed the first ground car she’d seen since the incinerator.
Velvet tried to skid to a stop and tripped over her own feet. She pulled herself up at the same time she was crawling through a post fence to get to the truck.
It was perfect—a total piece of junk. From the smell on the seats, the pickup ran on gasoline. It had to be at least thirty years old.
Velvet didn’t have a screwdriver, but she punched the steering column until the plastic cracked and then pried it open. Inside, there were only two wires. Velvet grabbed one in each trembling hand. “I can hotwire this!” she squealed.
Minutes later, the truck swerved into the road, decapitating mailboxes on both sides. It wasn’t built for breaking into a dead sprint, but Velvet forced it to make a level effort. It had no muffler whatsoever. So she couldn’t stop looking over her shoulder until it had reached at least ninety miles an hour.
At that point, it would have been tough for the Kappa to catch. Velvet wondered what she had to worry about next, and then realized that there wasn’t anything. Nothing immediate, anyway. She had driven away.
Velvet might have pinched herself once. Then she started watching for road signs that pointed to California.