Stefan Korsak and his genetically-altered brother have evaded the Institute for three years. When they learn the new location of the secret lab, they plan to break in and save the remaining children there. But one of the little ones doesn't want to leave. She wants to kill...
On the day a nine-year-old boy killed Stefan, he didn't see his life flash before his eyes.
It's what they say you'll see, but not him. Clichés, who needed them?
That this was the second time in his life he'd thought the same exact thing would've been worth mentioning… if it hadn't been for the actual process of dying. That tended to be distracting from pithy observations. He was aware that he was lacking in the last-thoughts, much less last-words, department. He knew… but what could a guy do?
Life is like that. Sooner or later, it boils down to, &What the hell can you do?&
His brother, Michael, once told him that when he had no hope, he dreamed of sun, wind, and horses. They were a part of his pastin a way,the best part. Every night he had dreamed of themsun, wind, and horses. When Stefan had no hope, because dying doesn't leave a person much, he saw the same.
Sun, wind, and horses.
Stefan felt his heart stutter and skip. He wouldn't have thought that one or two missed beats would hurt that much, but they did. Invisible fingers of agony fastened around that beating hunk of muscle and squeezed once, twice, as his lungs staggered in sync. Then red, as scarlet as a field of poppies, bloomed behind his eyes, and he was on the beach. There were pounding waves, pale sand, and a sky so blue it couldn't be real. It was a child's painting, carefully covering every bit of the paper; it was blue and dense enough that you could probably scrape a thick peeling of color away with a thumbnail. He could smell the salt that stung his nose, feel the water that soaked his legs, and the warmth of the horse beneath them, the coarse mane he hung on to as he galloped through the surf. The wind in his face made him feel that he could fly. It was one of those moments no one forgets; the exhilaration, the sensation of wind, water, and sun branded forever in the mind of the fourteen-year-old kid.
He couldn't see his brother, but he could hear him laughing in the way only a seven-year-old can laughwith all his being. He was on his own horse behind Stefan, sharing the adventure. It was a great memory, there, thenbefore the blood. Before the red coated the rock and sand, it was better than greatit was the perfect memory. Time spent with the strippers in his old Mafiya haunts didn't beat that. Even the first time he fell in love didn't conquer that. Didn't come close.
The next flash was when he'd saved his brother ten years after his abduction on that same beach. Stefan didn't see him through his own eyes this time. He wasn't Stefan anymore. He was his brother. He saw himself from his brother's point of viewa stranger all in black standing in the doorway of his prison, then pulling him out of a place of horror. He felt his confusion, his lack of trust, but years of brainwashed obedience had him allowing the grip on his arm and the tug and run to freedom. The gravel and glass under his bare feet, the pain of the cuts, the ear-ripping explosions of firing guns, and the stars; Stefan felt and saw it all. Pain, blood, and flying bullets; he'd thought that would be what would stick with the kidMichaelbut it was the stars he remembered the most. The studentsthe prisonersof the facility weren't allowed to wander the grounds at night, and they didn't have windows in the small cell-like rooms. Death behind him, and, for all he knew, death in front of him, but it was the stars that he saw. Far from any city, deep in the Everglades, the sky might be the color of the Grim Reaper's cloak, but Death's robe did make the ideal background for a hundred stars.
Brilliant light that shone down on you and could almost make you believe in miracles.
A light that could almost make you believe escape could be real and life was more than being trained to kill turned into a weapon with no will of your own.
A light that was worth dying to see.
Only Michael had it in him to think that, which was unbelievable too. A wonder. He was a good kid. A damn good kid. The best. Even while dying, Stefan knew that as well as he knew anything in the goddamn world.
Michael left the bullets and the stars behind. The next was a string of emotions: fear, confusion, exasperation, more confusion, bewilderment, denial, annoyance, finally a reluctant acceptance, contentment, and a sense of belonging. All those emotions had been caused by Stefan, and while he wished the ones at the beginning could've been avoided, he was damn proud of the ones he felt… that his brother felt at the end.
Aside from emotions, there was also life in the world outside a concrete/razor-wire wall of the worst of prisons. Movies, TV, books, people that weren't instructors or torturers, restaurants, pizza, girls, a smelly ferret, making his own decisionsa life. A real life, something he'd thought impossible. And family, something he thought a fairy tale. Michael had been stunned by that. Amazed. He had family, a concept that even a genius like him could barely comprehend and could never have imagined applied to him. Someone cared about him. Someone told him he belonged. Someone would give up everything for him. Someone would give up their life for him. He wasn't alone.
He had his brother. He had Stefan.
Almost impossible to believe, but it was true.
If someone could like dying, Stefan liked that he was reliving Michael's life and not going through a rerun of his own. This way he didn't have to wonder if he'd done good by the kid, done good by his brother; he knew. He absolutely knew he'd done good. No doubts. Not a one.
The kid could've done better than him, he thought in disjointed chunks as he faded further into the darkness, but it was something; it truly was… what Michael thought so fiercely as that Grim Reaper's cloak from the Everglades came to wrap tighter around Stefan. Family. Brother. You always watched out for your brother, no matter if he was the older one. You held on to your family because having one was a luxury no one… goddamn no one could afford to take for granted. You didn't let your family down and you didn't let you brother down, no matter how many times he called you a kid.
How did Stefan know that? How did he know what his brother had experienced thought by thought years ago? What he was thinking now? How did he know Michael felt that wayeven down to his annoyance at being called a kid? His absolute fury that Stefan would dare die on him? How did he get that last gift?
That was easy.
Because on the day Stefan died, that kid proved what his brother had known about him all along.
That damn kid… he was a miracle.
&Hey, kid. I'll take a black coffee, large. I need something to keep me awake in this boring-ass town.&
I didn't bother to look up from my book resting on the counter. &I'm not a kid.& I repeated that every day to my brother, not that he listened. I turned a page. My name was actually Michael, but I couldn't tell the customer that; I couldn't tell anyone. &And it's already waiting for you at the end of the counter. That will be three fifty.& I'd seen him come in, a flash in the corner of my eye, and heard his loud voice from the sidewalk long before he'd entered. If he had been a regular, I'd have given him my immediate attention and the service-friendly smile that exactly echoed that of the former employee of the month, whose picture was framed on the wall. It was the right kind of smile… friendly but not stalker-friendly. It said, &I make minimum wage, but it's a nice day, and you seem like a nice person. How can I help you?& It was natural, nonnoteworthy, and appropriate for the job. It took me two tries in the bathroom mirror to copy it, and I'd used it for every patron since the day the coffee shop had hired me. It was the expected smilethe normal smile.
It was important to be normal.
At least, it was important that people think that you were normal.
I wasn't normal.
This tourist was my first exception to piece my mask of prosaic, run-of-the-mill normalcy. He'd come in every day for a week, ordering the same thing, tipping the same amountnothingand saying the same insult: boring-ass town. Cascade Falls was not a boring-ass town. It was a nice town. It was small and inconspicuous and no one had tried to kill me or my brother here, not yet. That made it the perfect town really, and I wished that this guy's new wifeit had to be a new wife, he wasn't the camping typehad planned their honeymoon elsewhere, because I was tired of hearing him carp every morning. I was tired of him, period.
Also, only my brother could get away with calling me kid.
The man was five foot ten, about forty to forty-three, mildly thinning blond hair greasy with the sheen of Rogaine, hazel eyes that blinked with astigmatism or too much alcohol the night before, twenty-two to twenty-five pounds overweight, and with a small crease in his earlobe that indicated possible heart problems due to his body's inability to cope with his diet. He glared at me over the top of sunglasses he hardly needed on a typical Oregon day in the Falls and tossed down three dollar bills and two carefully fished-for quarters. He snorted and flicked the tip jar with a finger. &Like you caffeine pushers do anything worth a tip.&
He made his way down to a cardboard cup of coffee, still steaming, that was waiting for him, grabbed it, and headed for the door. I could do something worth a tip, quite a few somethings, if that was his complaint, but I doubted he wanted to experience any of them. Although, making him impotent on his honeymoon would be a poetic punishment…
I shook my head, clearing it. Simply because I could do certain things didn't mean it was right. I knew right from wrong. My brother, Stefan, had commented on it oncethat I knew right from wrong better than anyone raised in a family of Peace Corps pacifists descended from the bloodlines of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Considering how I'd actually been raised, what I had been molded for and meant to be, he said that made him proud as hell of me. Proud. I ducked my head down to study my book again, but I didn't see the words, only smears of black ink. Stefan was proud of me and not for what I could do, but for what I refused to do. It was a good feeling, and while it might have been almost three years since he'd first said it, I remembered how it felt thenand all the other times he'd said it since. It was a feeling worth holding on to. I concentrated on that rather than on what I wanted to do to the rude tourist.
Stefan also said that despite his former career, he knew right from wrong too, but before he found me, he was beginning to lose his tolerance for it. It was a lieor maybe a wish that he could do away with his conscience, because what he'd once done had to weigh on it. He'd worked for the Russian Mafiya. He'd done bad things to… well, probably equally bad or corrupt people, but the weak too. The weak always got in over their heads in dark waters. What Stefan had done, he didn't want to tell me and I didn't push, but I did my research. You didn't work as a bodyguard in the Russian mob as Stefan had without doing some serious damage to people who may or may not have deserved it.
Regardless of that and regardless of the things Stefan had done for me, under that ruthlessness to protect, and the willingness to kill if that was what it took to keep me safe, there was a part of him that wanted to believe in a world that was fair. He wanted to believe that concepts like right and wrong could be viable. Despite all he'd done and had been forced to do, he wanted to believe, though he knew better. Stefan had a heart and he didn't realize it. Why else would he search for a kidnapped brother for ten years when hisourown father had given up?
Older brothers, especially ex-mobsters, weren't supposed to be more naïve than their younger ones, but Stefan… sometimes I thought he was. We had both been trained to be killers, but I thought I'd learned far more than Stefan. He would deny it, but he was wrong.
If he hadn't spent almost half of his life looking for me and doing what was necessary to finance that search, I wasn't sure what my brother would've been. Not what he was, I did know that. When I had been takensuch a simple wordit had ruined lives, and when it came to Stefan, when I had been abducted, it had done more than ruin. It had done things I wasn't sure there were words for. And when it had happened, it had changed my brother as much as it had mewhich wasn't either right or fair. But true as that was, we were both alive and free now, and that was a thousand times more than I'd ever expected or dreamed. Where I had spent most of my life, freedom wasn't a concept, only a meaningless word to be looked up in a dictionary.
My brother had made it mean something. Cascade Falls was part of that, which only made me wish again I had made that tourist pay for his contempt. And that was a slippery slope. I focused on my book and the words swam into focus. I was close, very close to what I was trying to accomplishit was only a matter of weeks or maybe days, I hoped. I'd had seven years of a normal life before I'd been kidnapped, Stefan said, although I couldn't remember a single second of them; ten years of captivity, which I remembered with stark, vivid clarity; and nearly three years of freedom, freedom to do research; and now the time was almost right. I was almost there. All the more reason to learn more and do it faster.
A finger poked at my book on neurosurgery. &Parker, you're always studying. If you're not going to college, why bother?&
Parker wasn't my real name, but Sarafynna didn't know that. Then again, Sarafynna didn't know how to spell her own name and that made me doubt she cared that my name was actually Michael. Or Mykyl. When it came to Sarafynna, I wasn't too sure that wasn't how the letters popped up in her brain. Truthfully, I wasn't sure Sarafynna had a brain at all without an MRI to back that up. All that Sarathe nickname was much simpler and it didn't make my mind twitchknew was how to put whipped cream on top of the lattes and how to flirt. To &mack& or &hit on& guys. Since I didn't know who Mack was, I went with the other one&hit on.& That was more modern than &flirt&… to &hit on& guys. Whatever. I had more significant things to concentrate on.
Saving brain cells for important information outweighed saving them for teenage slangwhich was mostly uninteresting anyway. Besides, in another month I wouldn't be a teenager anymore.
In almost three years I'd learned about flirting and sex, but now… at nineteen closing in on twenty, I liked intelligence in girls or women. Sara was entertaining and she let me know my hormones were working at top capacityshe was gorgeous… Hot, I mean&hot& was what someone my age should say. But she didn't have it all. I'd come to find out that I needed resourceful and smart too; Sara had everything except that. She had sunshine-bright blond hairfake; big, turquoise eyesfake; and she bounced wherever she went. That meant certain things on her, those things also fake, bounced with her as she went and rarely stopped bouncing. The first time Stefan had met her, he waited until I got off work that night and took me to the drugstore for a box of condoms.
I told him I didn't need them, and he told me I was an idiot if I didn't want to play in that sandbox. I was nineteen, he said with a grin, and that was what nineteen was all about. Nineteen and frictionknock yourself out.
But I didn't. I saw her fake-colored contacts and thought about the one I wore that turned my one blue eye mossy green to match the other onetwo fakes don't make a reality; I thought about her lack upstairs of anything but whipped cream, and it seemed like a waste. 'Stefan and I had lived in Bolivia for two years before we came to Cascade Falls. I'd played in sandboxes there, whatever Stefan had said. It wasn't as if I were a virgin. I'd had the experience… experiences. I'd been seventeen before I'd gotten to make my own choices, even a single one. Now that I had almost three years of making decisions for myself, I wanted to be sure that each one I made now was the best I could make.
Sara did bounce in a very intriguing way, though. It might be worth thinking about. Hmm.
&I might go to college someday,& I said, turning another page. What I didn't tell her was that I was going to the equivalent of college and then some. I had the knowledge base for a medical degree with a specialty in biogenetics with an emphasis on polymorphism and pseudogenes, and a PhD in biochemistry and neurology.
Nineteen and a doctor three times over, but it was amazing what you could learn when you could hack into the computer system of any university in the world. Computer hacking had actually been the easiest thing to learn compared to many other things. In fact, it was pretty boring.
Yes, I'm smart. I know.
The question was whether I was born that way or made that way.
&College sounds like a lot of work.& Sara's voice brightened. &Except for the parties. I'll bet frat parties are fun. Maybe I should go. My parents keep bitching at me to since I graduated.& She pushed up to sit on the counteragainst the rulesbut I was reading. Technically I shouldn't notice.
And technically my eyes didn't wander to technically not watch her bouncinglying to yourself can be entertainingwhen I saw past her to the television in the break room. What I saw on it made Sara's whipped cream skills and bouncing vanish. The sound was turned low, but I could still hear it. I could still see him on the small screen. I saw a man I'd never expected to see again. His face had that enigmatic smile that could save your life or far more likely put you in your grave; he was Stefan's father.
Or our father, Stefan would say… Anatoly Korsak.
And they were saying he was dead.
I told Sara I felt sick, and then I went to the bathroom and threw up, nice and loudno finger needed. Genetic skills, I had them in spades. And you don't tell stories you can't back up. You always do what needs to be done to provide evidence to support your deception. I hadn't learned that from Stefan. I'd learned it at the Institutethe place Stefan had rescued me from. The Institute had thousands of lessons and some hung around, lingeredwhen I was awake, when I was asleep. They most likely would my whole life. When it came to making people think what you wanted, a small number of those lessons were harmless, the rest considerably less so, but all were efficient.
I was nothing if not extremely efficient.
My trip to the bathroom got me a &Shit, Parker, sweetie. Are you okay?& from Sara and a call to someone else to replace me. Ben Jansen. Ben liked the bouncing as much as I didor as much as Stefan said I should.
Stefan… he should know better. He shouldn't have done this. There was protective and overprotective; then there was something so far beyond thata word hadn't been invented for it yetand that was what Stefan practiced. Anatoly was dead; it was all over the news, and Stefan hadn't told me. He hadn't called me to let me know. How could he think I wouldn't find out? I didn't know, but I did know it had to stop. Nearly three years free and twice I'd saved his life; it was a two-way street now. He had to trust me with the bad as well as the good. I wasn't a kid anymore, no matter what he called me. I could more than carry my own weight.
The coffee shop door shut behind me and I started down the sidewalk with my hands in my pockets, heading to my car. It was seven years old, gray, and a Toyota. They were virtually invisible. That was mob and Institute knowledge, oddly coinciding. Low tech meets high tech, with the same purpose: clean getaways. Of course, the Institute expected no getaway would be necessary if you did your job adequately. I guessed we'd fooled them, because Cascade Falls was a clean getaway so far.
In the distance I could see through the trees the silver glint of the Bridge of the Heavens crossing the Columbia River. When we'd picked this place to live, Stefan had quirked his lips. &Bridge of the Heavens,& he'd said. &How about that, Misha? That must mean this is Paradise.& Sometimes he could be a little thick, my brother. He didn't always get that everywhere I went outside of the Institute was Paradise. If there was actually a Hell, the Institute would make it seem like Paradise too. Hell would be a walk in the park. Hell would be nothing.
&Hey, smart-ass. You get tired of ripping people off with your high-priced shit?& The words, tainted with bile, came from out of nowhere, or nowhere if your attention was not in the here and now, and mine wasn't.
Stupid. How could I be so careless and stupid? Anatoly was no excuse. You were always ready. Always.
It was the tourist. He was sitting on the wrought-iron bench, always freshly painted bright blue, outside Printz's Bakery. I noticed that every day. The swirls of iron reflected the exact same color of the sky overhead. It was one more detail about Cascade Falls that made me… happy, I guess, and made it my home. The tourist wasn't one of those warm, small-town features. There wasn't anything warm about him at all, except his sweat. He had a cheese Danish the size of a four-year-old's head in one hand and a smear of buttery cheese on his chin as he glared at me. As I'd thought earlierhis body had its work cut out in taking care of him.
But it wasn't my job to take care of him, unlike his unlucky heart, and I ignored him and kept walking. That was normal too and being normal was the best move I could make now. Do as a normal teenager would do. Only I was barely still a teenager and I was nothing close to normal. But I played the game as I'd been taught. Normal teenagers usually aren't polite to annoying peopleor assholesand that meant I walked on as if I hadn't heard him.
Stefan would definitely say this guy was an asshole. He wouldn't be wrong.
&Shithead, I'm talking to you.& I'd only just passed him when there was a hand grabbing my arm to give me a shake. From the smell, he'd put something in the coffee after he'd left the shop. Cheese, alcohol, coffee, and natural halitosisI'd smelled better things and I'd smelled worse. People almost always smelled worse on the inside than the outside.
The Institute had had anatomy classes and enough cadavers to make Harvard Medical School jealous. The Institute taught its students to hurt people, taught them to use what had been stamped on their genes. But I hadn't wanted to hurt anyone. I hadn't wanted to kill anyone. The thought of it, in self-defense or not, had made me sick. That didn't mean I wasn't forced to learn and it didn't mean I hadn't killed.
I didn't plan on ever doing it again.
In addition, the Institute had biology classes. One thing they taught us there was that as adolescent males grow, the production of testosterone increases, and so do levels of aggressionthe natural kind that gives you the instinct to protect yourself if attacked. Three years ago I wouldn't have hurt this on-my-last-nerve irritating tourist. I wouldn't hurt him now, although the jolting surprise of his voice and his shaking me made it a very close thing. But I caught myself. He wasn't a threat, despite being bigger than I was. No, I wouldn't hurt him, but it didn't mean I wasn't more tempted now than I would've been when I was younger. My temper ran hotter now than it had then. Natureit can't be stoppedusually.
Slippery slope, I was repeating to myself, same as I had in the coffee shop, when he shook my arm again, harder this time. Slippery, slippery slope.
But then again, what was one ski run, really? Just the one?
This once, I gave in to nature. I looked at the tourist and tried not to smile. I didn't think I was successful and I doubted it was a friendly smile. Not that employee of the month one. &Alcohol is harmful to your liver and not all that great for your stomach either,& I said, pulling my arm free. His eyes widened, he dropped the Danish he was holding in his other hand, and I backed away quickly. I made it in time as he bent over and threw up on the sidewalk. I'd done the same to myself earlier in the coffee house bathroom, but not quite so… explosively. I should've been sorry, but I wasn't. He deserved it. Out of range and unsplattered, I turned my back on him and kept walking toward my car. I heard him vomit one more time, curse, groan, and then vomit again. He would keep it up for approximately the next fifteen minutes until he was empty of everything, including yesterday's breakfast. He would chalk it up to strong coffee, whatever alcohol he'd put in it, and the Danish. After all, what other explanation could there be?
Other than me?
He was fortunate I wasn't more like my former classmates. If I had been, that one touch of his hand to my arm, that hard shake he'd given meI could've ripped holes in his brain, torn his heart into pieces, liquefied his intestines. After all, that was what I was: a genetically created, lab-altered, medically modified child of Frankenstein, trained to do one thing and one thing only.
All with a single touch.
Isn't science fun?
Besides, vomiting didn't hurt. It was only annoying, like the man who was doing it.
Mr. Fat-ass Danish would never know. I climbed into the car, pleased for a split second. Mr. Fat-ass Danish… the phrase had come out naturally, no work at all. Cursing was one thing that had proved difficult to learn. I was getting better at it. Then I remembered Anatoly, and the pleasure popped and disappeared like a soap bubble. Stefan and I needed to talk. I started the car. His babysitting days were over. That took me to the most simple of physics lessons: immovable object, unstoppable force. I sighed and pulled the car away from the curb.
All right, his babysitting days were mostly over.
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