Very obvious warning regarding SPOILERS for Underdogs. Do not read this prologue until you have finished the original novel!
If you want to jump right ahead and pre-order the whole novel, here’s the link to its page on Unbound.
With a swipe of his keycard and a green LED, Iain Marshall was granted access to the Experiment Chamber. Inside, he found that his allies had beaten him to it. New London’s Head of Military had arrived third, behind its Chief of Scientific Research and a fourteen-year-old assassin.
‘Evening, Iain,’ said Nathaniel Pearce with shallow sarcasm. It was not evening at all – barely seven in the morning – but Pearce took every opportunity to point out his colleague’s faults, including lateness. Oliver Roth smirked, his menacing visage blending with the tiredness in his eyes.
‘Is the subject ready?’ Marshall asked, spotting the figure behind the glass.
‘He doesn’t look it,’ replied Pearce. ‘Not that it matters.’
Marshall took a closer look at the clone inside the chamber. He may have been a manufactured collection of factory-grown flesh and organs, but the emotions on his face seemed very real. He showed signs of nervousness and suspicion, clueless as to why he was armed to the teeth with an assault rifle, holstered handguns, grenades and a belt full of hunting knives. Especially since the Experiment Chamber around him was almost empty, hosting little more than a pair of stone pillars that stretched to the ceiling, positioned a metre apart in the centre of the room.
Marshall glanced to his left. Oliver Roth was impatient, his back leant against the wall and his foot tapping an erratic beat on the metal floor. Nathaniel Pearce wore his usual creepy smile, perhaps a little too entertained by his own work.
Marshall hid a scowl. As brutal as he knew himself to be, he was no sadist. Complex work was better performed without personal emotions getting in the way, and Pearce’s enthusiasm was more likely to blunt his effectiveness than add to it.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ asked Roth.
‘We’re four months ahead of schedule,’ Pearce replied. ‘You can wait another minute.’
Don’t say that like you’re proud of it, Marshall thought towards him. If it weren’t for Ewan West stealing our plans from that officers’ sector, Nick wouldn’t have ordered you to speed up the AME research. Dr McCormick and his special needs kids have had three weeks to plan their next move.
Special needs kids. It may have been true, but Marshall used the phrase to insult his enemies rather than underestimate them. After all, they had lasted almost a year outside the Citadel without detection, and three weeks earlier they had burned New London’s clone factory to the ground. Thanks to them the ageing clone population was in decline, propped up only by imported soldiers from other Citadels.
The phone rang at the side of the desk. Before Pearce could pick up the handset, Marshall pushed the speakerphone button to allow himself and Roth into the discussion too.
‘Experiment Chamber,’ he said.
‘Iain,’ came a lively voice through the speaker.
It was the voice of Nicholas Grant.
‘Looks to me like you’re ready. Commence the experiment, gentlemen.’
‘You’re not coming down here?’
‘Floor F’s too low for me. The view on my screen is perfect.’
Oliver Roth leaned over the desk and laughed into the microphone.
‘Hey Nick,’ he said, ‘I bet you wish Shannon were here for this!’
‘My daughter made her decisions,’ Grant answered. ‘Now she can live with them.’
Marshall looked to his side. Pearce had an amused grin which he could not interpret.
‘Now, if you please,’ Grant finished.
Marshall glared at Pearce, who nodded and pushed a button. The CCTV cameras around them began to record the proceedings.
‘Eight minutes past seven,’ announced Pearce, ‘May sixteenth, Year One. Final phase of practical experimentation underway. Atmospheric Metallurgic Excitation, research trial twenty-six. Commencing.’
Marshall retrieved the radio from his belt, and spoke to the clone behind the glass.
‘Soldier,’ he began, ‘move to the other end of the room. At jogging speed, passing between the pillars.’
The clone stared towards the shielded humans, perhaps trying to ask his superiors why. When none of them gave any reaction, he turned his head forward again, knowing that his only option was obedience. He ran for about ten metres, weighed down by his excessive weaponry, before passing between the two stone pillars.
He didn’t live long enough to notice what happened next.
The slow-motion replay would later show the air rippling around him, as if he had run through a vertical surface of water. The previously blank space between the pillars turned crimson and wavy when touched. The clone’s head, the first part of him through, was unaffected by the waves. But his fate was sealed as his metal equipment followed.
The space between the stone pillars burst into action with tiny lightning shards, which attacked the metal in the clone’s grasp: his assault rifle and handguns, his grenades, the belt buckle and hunting knives, and the fronts of his steel-capped boots.
At regular viewing speed the dozens of explosions seemed instantaneous, as every metallic item around the clone’s body was detonated by the red barrier. The shrapnel from his firearms and blades ripped through his limbs, sending his extremities across the room and his artificial blood splattering across the chamber floor. His right hand slapped the bullet-resistant glass in front of Marshall, causing a hysterical laugh from Oliver Roth. As the clone’s torn remains fell to the ground, no more than a collection of carved meat, the rippling red curtain faded back into invisibility as if nothing had happened.
Bloody hell, thought Marshall, grudgingly impressed. As much as he despised Nathaniel Pearce, his colleague had surpassed himself this time. AME had once been a crackpot idea from the depths of Nicholas Grant’s imagination, but somehow Nathaniel Pearce had brought it into the realm of reality: an invisible wall of energised air that destroyed anything forged from metal.
‘Sir,’ Marshall asked into the microphone, ‘are you happy?’
Nicholas Grant’s discreet laughter answered the question for him. To Marshall’s side, Pearce was grinning twice as wide as before, and Oliver Roth was bouncing on his toes with an excited smile.
‘Happy is one word for it, certainly,’ replied Grant. ‘Can you confirm that AME can be reproduced on a much larger scale?’
‘Everything we understand about the laws of physics tells me it should be. If it works for a square metre, it’ll work for a square mile. And if it works for a square mile-’
‘And are we still on target to achieve this within four days?’
Grant’s attachment to May twentieth continues to make his decisions for him, Marshall thought to himself. ‘Yes,’ finished Pearce. ‘It’ll be done within four days. Happy anniversary, sir.’