Songbird’s crew was restless.
It was the morning after the whole… incident with Johnny Deuce. Jayna, Ash and Mari were all assembled in the dining room, trying and failing to occupy themselves while they waited for Zane to wake up. He tended to keep odd hours, even by spacer standards.
“We should just let him come about at his own pace,” Ash said, clutching a cup of coffee and staring at the door. If he’d slept a minute, Mari wouldn’t have believed it. “It’s going to be hard for him no matter what.”
Mari looked into her own cup. “Tell me that it’s a bad idea to fortify this stuff so early in the day,” she said.
“Speak for yourself,” said Jayna, as she tipped a flask into her mug before passing it down. Mari accepted it, keeping her gaze focused on the door.
“You guys really never asked Zane where he came from?”
Ash shook his head, leaning back in his chair. “We literally found him in a ditch, Mari. We waited on the planet for two weeks to see if anyone was coming for him. No one did. We didn’t… ask a lot of questions after that.”
“He told us that he’d been in an institution for awhile,” said Jayna. “Which is probably true, considering. But besides that we didn’t want to pry. He was more a danger to himself than to either of us.”
“It’s still mind boggling. I’m just now figuring out what his brain chemistry is kind of like. I think I’ve got him on a good system. I can’t even imagine what it was like when he was self-medicating.”
Ash sighed and rubbed at his temples. “Much worse. His flare ups were less predictable,” Ash said. “I’m so glad we found you.”
“Me too,” said Zane, as he stepped through the door. Everyone immediately turned to look his way. He blushed.
“Um, hi there,” he said, waving. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
Ash smiled. “Hey man, we were all just talking. And I know that this is going to be hard, so if you need to work your way up to it, we all understand comp–“
Zane raised a silencing hand.
“It had to happen sooner or later,” he said. He took a deep breath. “Mari? I sent a list of medications to your tablet. Please bring me everything on it, exactly those dosages.”
Curiously, Mari looked down at her tablet. Her eyes immediately went wide as plates. “Are you shitting me?” she said. “These are the most heavy-duty tranquilizers and antipsychotics I’ve got on board, and at these dosages–“
“I’ll be fine,” said Zane. “I need to be lucid for this. Very, very lucid. And this should give me that for… twenty, maybe thirty minutes.” He smirked. “And then I’ll be a gibbering wreck for the next twelve hours, but I’ll bounce back. I’m more resilient than I look.”
She frowned. “As your medical counsel at the moment, I feel like I have to say that this is a really terrible idea. But as you’re probably going to do it anyway, at least go eat something with fat, grease, and bread in it first while I’m putting it together?” Mari said, and then smacked Ash. “Make the man some pancakes. Heavy on the butter.”
Ash, who hadn’t taken his eyes on Zane since he’d entered the room, jumped as Mari swatted him. “What?” he said. “Oh, um, whatever you say.”
Twenty minutes and a stack of pancakes later, the crew was assembled in Zane’s bunk, where he was currently being strapped to his bed by Jayna.
“Tight as you can go without cutting off my circulation,” said Zane. “And make sure to do my ankles too.”
“Is all this really necessary,” Ash finally said. “Zane… I don’t really care about where you’re from. I just want to make sure that Johnny is the biggest issue we’re going to have to deal with.”
Zane sighed. “Look. I appreciate you always looking out for me. But I’ve gotta do this. And you guys deserve to know the truth.”
“All set,” said Jayna. “Mari?”
Mari stepped forward, bearing a cupful of pills and a syringe. “If this gets out, there goes my nursing license,” she said with a humorless chuckle. “Well, here goes nothing. I really hope you know what you’re doing, Zane.”
Zane nodded. “Do it,” he said. She tipped the pill cup into his mouth and gave him some water, then swabbed his arm and gave him the injection. Zane closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. Five minutes later, he started to thrash, and everyone stepped back. But then he went still, and his eyes opened again.
He looked… different. His eyes were half-lidded, and his features were more relaxed than any of them had ever seen him.
“As long as people have been people, people have been trying to make better people,” he said, and when he spoke, it was in a dull monotone, as if he was giving an exceedingly dry lecture.
“There have been many ways in which they’ve gone about this,” he continued.
“Some of them more horrifying than others. Eugenics programs and the like. Somebody is always looking for a… shortcut.”
Another pause. The crew exchanged glances, but were struck silent.
“Some of them opted for… the direct approach,” said Zane. “Do any of you know much about genetic engineering?”
Mari raised a hand. “Just what I’ve gleaned from textbooks,” she said. “I’m no expert.”
Zane took a deep breath. “What about cloning?” he said. She gasped.
“Are you saying you’re-” she began.
“Don’t get too ahead of yourself,” he began. “Do you know much about it?”
Mari swallowed heavily. “I interned for awhile with a doctor who specialized in bio-engineering,” she said. “He grew organs, tissue. But full cloning, growing entire people, it’s been illegal for centuries, hasn’t it?”
“It has,” said Zane. “That has not been as big a barrier as it should be.”
He took another breath before continuing.
“Some time ago–I couldn’t tell you exactly when–one such project took place. It was known as Human Advancement Project Zeta. Their mission: to make a better class of human. People who were stronger, smarter, more skilled than an ordinary human was capable of. And then to hire these people out to the highest bidder.”
“They began with genetic material donations from the best and brightest they could find. Using this material, they produced five hundred artificially-grown human zygotes. Out of these, two hundred and thirty-five survived long enough to become viable humans. From these, one hundred and eighty-eight were stable enough to live past early childhood. And from these, one hundred and seventeen survive to this day.”
He looked over to Ash and Jayna. “Do you remember how you learned my name?” he asked.
The two of them, who had been staring with rapt attention at Zane, nodded at him. “It was written on a citation for public intoxication that he had on him,” said Jayna, turning to Mari.
“Zane Forde is not the name I was given,” said Zane. “In my delirium, when the officer who arrested him asked me my name, I told him the only thing I had ever known myself as, and he wrote down what he heard. Mari, would you please lift up my shirt and look right above my left hipbone?”
Slowly, Mari did so. In the indicated spot, some small, black lettering was tattooed onto his pallid skin. “Group A, Subject 40” she read out.
Mari slowly let his shirt drop and took a step back, a thousand different possibilities tumbling around in her head. It explained everything and nothing.
Ash was the first one that seemed to rise out of the foggy depths to ask the question that everyone would come to eventually. “How did you end up where we found you then?”
Zane smiled. “It’s a long story,” he said. “But I may as well make good use of everything running through my system and tell it to you. A lot of it is kind of fuzzy, but I’ll tell you my story. Our story. Me. Johnny. Troia. And others.”