Very obvious warning regarding SPOILERS for Underdogs. Do not read this prologue until you have finished the original novel!
With a swipe of his keycard and the flicker of a green LED, Oliver Roth was granted access to the Experiment Chamber. The teenage assassin found himself in the same room as Iain Marshall, New London’s Head of Military, and Nathaniel Pearce, its Chief of Scientific Research. Only Grant himself was missing.
‘Evening, Oliver,’ said Nathaniel Pearce with shallow sarcasm. It was barely seven in the morning, but Pearce took every opportunity to point out his colleagues’ faults, including lateness.
Roth smirked, and said nothing. Part of being fearsome meant knowing when not to step into arguments.
‘Is the subject ready?’ Roth asked, spotting the figure behind the glass.
‘He doesn’t look it,’ replied Pearce, taking a sip of coffee from a mug which read ‘smart-arse and proud of it’ in big bold letters. ‘Not that it matters.’
Roth 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.
Roth glanced to his left. Iain Marshall was predictably impatient, his hands in his pockets and his top lip beginning to quiver. Nathaniel Pearce wore his usual creepy smile, perhaps a little too entertained by his own work.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ Roth asked.
‘AME is four months ahead of schedule,’ Pearce replied. ‘You can wait another minute.’
Don’t say that like you’re proud, Roth thought. If it weren’t for Ewan West stealing our plans from that officers’ sector, Nick wouldn’t have made you speed up the research. McCormick and his special needs kids have had three weeks to plan their next move.
Special needs kids. It may have been true, but Roth used the phrase to insult his enemies rather than underestimate them. Thanks to their efforts in April, New London’s glorious clone factory had become a burned-out ash pit which hadn’t grown a soldier in three weeks. Those ‘special needs kids’ were the reason why the ageing clone population was in steep decline, only propped up by imported soldiers from other Citadels.
The phone rang at the side of the desk, and Marshall picked up the handset. Without seeking permission, Roth pushed the speakerphone button to allow himself and Pearce into the discussion too.
‘Experiment Chamber,’ Marshall said.
‘Iain,’ came a lively voice through the speakerphone.
It was the voice of Nicholas Grant.
‘Looks to me like you’re ready. Commence the experiment, gentlemen.’
‘You’re not coming down?’
‘Floor F’s too low for me. The view on my screen is perfect.’
Roth leaned over the desk.
‘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.’
Roth looked to his left. Pearce’s face wore an entertained grin, and one corner of his lips perked at Grant’s last sentence. Roth could not interpret what that particular grin meant, and Pearce did not elaborate.
Roth had not spoken to Shannon much during their time together in the Citadel. As far as he remembered, the girl had spent most of her days locked away in some far corner of Floor A like a fairy-tale princess. Whether this was through her own choice or through her father’s overprotection, Roth had never known; he just knew that Shannon Grant had been a private neurotic failure of a person, and she was probably still her private neurotic failing self in Spitfire’s Rise too.
‘Now, if you please,’ Grant finished. Roth brought his attention back to the Experiment Chamber and the clone who stood inside, and he remembered how excited he was to witness the proceedings about to take place.
Pearce nodded and pushed a button. The CCTV cameras around them began to record.
‘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.’
Roth watched in amusement as the clone gave a frightened stare towards the shielded humans, perhaps trying to ask his superiors why. When none of them gave any reaction, the clone turned his head forward again.
He knows his only option is obedience. Poor guy.
The clone ran for about ten metres, weighed down by his excessive array of 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. Tiny lightning shards 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.
But at that moment, Oliver Roth could only watch at regular viewing speed. To him the dozens of explosions seemed instantaneous, as every metallic item around the clone’s body was detonated by the red barrier. The shrapnel from the 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 Iain Marshall, causing hysterical laughter from Roth. As the clone’s torn remains fell to the ground, nothing more than visceral chunks of carved meat, the rippling red curtain faded back into invisibility as if nothing had happened.
Bloody hell, thought Roth, grudgingly impressed. As much as he despised Nathaniel Pearce, the Chief Scientist had surpassed himself this time. Atmospheric Metallurgic Excitation 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,’ Pearce asked into the phone, ‘are you happy?’
Nicholas Grant’s discreet laughter answered the question for him. As Roth started to bounce on his toes with an excited smile, he looked to his side and found even Marshall smiling. Pearce rested his smart-arse mug at the side of the control panel and started to applaud himself.
‘Happy is one word for it, certainly,’ Grant said. ‘Nat, can you confirm that AME can be reproduced on a much larger scale?’
‘Everything we understand about the laws of physics tells me it is now possible,’ Pearce replied. ‘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 20th continues to make his decisions for him, Roth thought to himself.
‘Yes,’ finished Pearce. ‘It’ll be done within four days. Happy anniversary, sir.’
Read Chapter One here, or see below for where to find the whole novel.