Seven Years Ago
“Project Owl, day seven hundred and thirty two.” Speaking into the portable voice recorder that he held in one hand, a man frowned thoughtfully. He was a Caucasian male with dark blond hair and brown eyes, in his mid-thirties. A white lab coat and dark, heavily stained red apron were worn loosely over his clothes, and he sat in a room that might have been large were it not entirely filled by heavy metal tables piled high with a mixture of mechanical devices and tools. Not to mention the large human cadaver lying on a metal dissection table on the far side of the area, next to an industrial-sized sink. The chest of the body had been opened up, with several organs sitting next to it. Tubes and wires connected the heart and lungs both to the body itself and to a nearby machine, which had a small screen displaying a continuous line of computer code.
The slight frown on the seated man’s face held until he thought of the next thing to say. “Paige is getting better every day. She’s going to surpass my best estimate months ahead of schedule. At this rate, we’ll be able to move on to phase three before Christmas.” Another pause, then a murmured, “Julie would’ve wanted it that way. And with help from the Tates, we’ll have the funding we need. As soon as Paige is ready to show what she can do, what these… enhancements can do.” He trailed off briefly, eyes turning slightly to look at the wired-up organs next to the corpse across the room as those last few words left his mouth in a murmur. After that, the man pushed himself up from the wooden stool he’d been perched on and stepped over, hand brushing over the heart just enough to assure himself that it was still occasionally beating. Softly and slowly, but beating nonetheless. A very slight smile touched his face. It was an expression of accomplishment, of satisfaction at hard work being rewarded with results. “We’ll change the world, Julie. With help from the Tates and the Evans, we’ll make everything better.” There was a hoarseness to his voice, born of long-buried emotion that the man didn’t dare allow himself to express in that moment for fear of the damage he might do to the valuable materials around him in a fit of anger. It would not be the first time, but he had learned his lesson after losing hours of work.
Clearing his throat after that momentary pause, the man spoke again for the recorder. “I have another meeting with Russell Tate tomorrow. I’ll take Paige with me and show him how far she’s progressed since he saw her last. If he can convince Sterling and Elena to front the other half of the funding, we’ll never have to worry about working in such… sparse conditions again.”
“Dad?” The voice came from the small blonde girl who stood just inside the doorway of the lab wearing dark blue pajamas. In one hand, she held a well-worn and clearly loved book full of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips clutched tight against her chest, while the other hand rubbed sleepily at one of her eyes. “I had a bad dream. Can I have some water, please?”
“It wasn’t a bad dream,” the man replied simply, casting a brief look that way. “You were just–” He sighed, shaking his head while muttering something under his breath. Then he stepped over that way. The girl raised her hands as though to be picked up, but he stepped past her without noticing or paying attention. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed. It’s a big day tomorrow.”
Rather than following immediately, the small girl leaned up on her toes to stare at the partially dissected cadaver on the nearby table. Her face twisted a bit before she pivoted to trot along after her father, bare feet slapping against the tile floor. On the way, Paige raised the comic strip collection, finding one section in particular. “Dad, dad, listen. Calvin thinks bats are bugs, and–”
“Bats aren’t bugs,” her father retorted without even glancing that way, his voice making it clear that he hadn’t really been listening to the context of what she was saying. “You know better than that. What’s the scientific name for them?”
“No, no, I know.” Head bobbing up and down, Paige hurriedly tried to explain. “But he doesn’t. It’s just–”
They had reached the kitchen by then, and the man flipped on the light before stepping to the nearby fridge. “Scientific name for bats, Paige. You know this.”
With a soft sigh, the girl closed the book upon the realization that her father didn’t care about what she was actually saying. “Chiroptera. It means ‘hand-wing’ in Greek.” As she answered, Paige yawned once more, adding a somewhat mumbled, “They used to be sub-ordered into megachiroptera and microchiroptera, but now they’re grouped as Yinpterochiroptera and Yangochiroptera.” The words came automatically, with Paige clearly barely paying attention.
“Good,” the man noted, while his voice made it clear he didn’t care all that much aside from registering the factual correctness of her words. He took a glass down from the cabinet, then pushed it against the water dispenser in the fridge to fill it before handing the glass to her. “Have a drink, then it’s back to bed. You know how important tomorrow is, don’t you?”
Taking a sip of the cool water while holding the glass in both hands (the collection of comic strips was tucked under one arm), the young girl slowly nodded. “Yes, Dad. We get to meet Mr. Tate tomorrow. Will we meet Mr. Evans too?” She knew the latter was the fish that her father really wanted to land. The Tates were rich, but with the resources that the Evans could bring to Project Owl, everything her father had been working toward for so long would come true.
The man’s head shook. “No,” he murmured. “Not yet. Russell knows the broad strokes of the plan, but we have to convince him it’s possible before he takes it to his friend.” His eyes focused on her, narrowing. “Which is why you need to go to bed, so you can do your job tomorrow and impress him.”
Paige murmured an agreement, before finishing her water and putting the glass into the nearby sink. Then she turned back to face the man with a somewhat uncertain look. “You said the Tates and the Evans have kids like me, right?”
The man’s response to that was a low chuckle that expressed the sheer absurdity of such an idea. “No, not like you. There is no one else in the world like you, Paige. No one at all… yet.” An anticipatory smile touched his face briefly before he shook that off and focused. “Now, sleep.”
Two Years Later/Five Years Ago
After a quick series of beeps as a code was entered in a control panel, followed by an affirmative chime, the thick metal door into the structure that served as both the man’s lab and his makeshift home opened with a whoosh of air. Immediately beyond the heavy door was a set of metal stairs, which Paige descended quickly, taking them two at a time. “Dad! Dad!”
Hitting the bottom of the stairs, the girl had reached a long hallway with an arched ceiling, the walls all made of the same thick metal as the door above. Which made sense, given the amount of damage this bunker had been designed to guard against. Its owner was not an incautious man, in most respects. To the left were the labs and testing chambers, while the living areas, such as the kitchen she’d had her drink of water in that night a couple years earlier, were to the right.
“Where did you go?” The demand came from her father, as he appeared in one of the lab doorways. Dark circles had formed under his eyes in the past few days, ever since the massacre at the Tates house. “I told you to be here waiting for me, not to go wandering off.”
“I wasn’t wandering, Dad,” Paige insisted, taking the few steps that way to stand in front of him. “Listen, I had to help Cassie. I–”
“Cassie? Who–what?” Her father interrupted, a sudden frown crossing his face. “Who is Cassie? Who have you been talking to? You know you’re supposed to be subtle, invisible. You’re not supposed to stand out. If anyone finds out the truth about you, about–”
“It’s okay, she won’t tell anybody!” Paige hurriedly insisted. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Dad. Just listen for a second, okay? She’s my friend, Cassie’s my friend! She–they–”
Abruptly, her father’s hands cupped either side of her face, forcing her to look at him and nowhere else. “Paige,” he snapped sharply, his voice dangerous. “Tell me what happened. What did you do? What do you mean, you have a friend? Who is this Cassie? You know we can’t trust anyone. You know that. Especially now, especially after–” He muttered a curse, releasing the girl’s face while turning to step away, his fist hitting the nearby wall. “It’s the Evans and their family bullshit! All them. We were so close, we were so close. Russell and me, we were going to–he was–” He sighed, pressing his forehead against the wall he had struck. “Russell. He was our friend, Paige. He was our friend and he was going to help make everything better. Everything. If it wasn’t for the Evans dragging their family bullshit into this, if it wasn’t for…” Trailing off, he closed his eyes, shaking his head with a murmured, “I’m sorry, Russell. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. Fuck.”
For a moment, it looked as though the man had entirely forgotten Paige. But eventually, he straightened a bit, voice hollow and quiet. “We’ll make them pay. The Evans and everyone like them. We’ll make them understand what they’ve lost. We’ll tear everything they have away from them, burn it down, and build something better. Something that works.”
With those words, the man took in a long, deep breath before letting it out slowly. He was a bit calmer now, a bit more in control, though the dark circles from lack of sleep remained, of course. “You can’t endanger that by talking to people, Paige. Everything we’ve worked for, it’s almost gone. You and me, we’re going to break the Evans. We’re going to break the entire goddamn system.”
Carefully, Paige pointed out, “I thought you wanted them to fund your work, so you could–”
“Yes, yes,” the man interrupted. “That was the plan. The Evans and the Tates, with both families, we could have changed the world. We’ll still change it. But not with the Evans. Not with them. It’s their fault Russell and Gloria are gone. Their family, their—their evil bullshit drama! Everyone else suffers but them. Everyone else gets plowed under the ground, just like Julie. You really think I’m going to hand this kind of power to them? No. No, no. We’re going to make them pay for what happened to the Tates, for what their kind does to everyone else in the world. We’re going to put them in the ground, and then we’ll make everything better without them.”
Smiling in satisfaction at that declaration, the man seemed to abruptly remember what had started the entire conversation. “Cassie. Who is Cassie? Who have you been talking to?”
For a very brief moment, Paige hesitated, the answer on the edge of her lips. But the anger in her father’s voice, the way he talked about breaking the Evans. She had come running in to tell him that they had to help Cassidy, after she’d witnessed that man in the other girl’s bedroom erase her memory. She’d hidden in Cassidy’s closet, watching as her friend’s memories of Anthony (and of Paige herself) were wiped away. After escaping the house, she’d come here, hoping that her father would help her save her friend.
Now she saw what a mistake that was. She saw just how much his hatred of the entire Evans family had grown. He had been friends with Russell Tate for a long time. Now the Tates were dead, and her father needed someone to blame. He’d chosen to blame the Evans simply because it had been Mrs. Evans’ father and the remnants of his old criminal gang (the majority of which Sterling and Elena themselves had taken over) who had murdered the Tates.
In her father’s mind, his friend Russell would still be alive if the Evans hadn’t allowed their ‘family drama’ to go that far. If they had stopped Jacopo Russo, Elena’s father, before, it never would have happened. Now he would never accept that it wasn’t their fault.
So, the girl did something that should have been impossible. She lied to her father. “She’s this homeless lady by the laundromat,” she answered simply, after a hesitation that had lasted only for a second as all those thoughts ran through her mind. “Remember you said I could go for walks if I didn’t attract attention? The laundromat is across the street from the park, and I see that woman by the bench outside a lot. So I started giving her part of my sandwich, and she told me her name’s Cassie Bawneworth. She thinks I’m Jenny Ferguson.”
“You said you had to help her?” the man pointed out curiously, raising an eyebrow.
“Her dog,” Paige lied again. “He got off his leash so she needed help getting him back. Because she doesn’t run very well anymore. You know, because she’s old.”
Apparently satisfied, her father clearly dismissed the story from his mind entirely with a simple, “Well, you’re going to be too busy to play those kinds of games now.”
“What are we going to do, Dad?” Paige asked, after a very slight hesitation. She knew that talking her father out of his revenge wouldn’t work. She knew how obsessed he could be, how much he had cared about not only the project in general and all the good he was certain it could do, but about his friend as well. The Tates being murdered hadn’t just hurt the project that he had put his entire soul into for so many years, but also hurt him personally. No, not just hurt. Destroyed. He meant it when he said that Russell was his friend. A friend who had done so much for him, who had been there through the beginnings of the project and had been ready to push everything to the next level. And now all of that anger, for the death of his friend and what could very well be the death of his years-long dream of making the world a better place, was being put onto the entire Evans family. Nothing she said would dissuade him from that.
Chuckling softly at her question, the man straightened. “What are we going to do?” he echoed, voice sounding somehow dangerous. “The Evans have two children. We’re going to take the older one, the… boy, was it? Yes. The boy. We’ll take the boy. And when I’m done with him, he will be…” He trailed off once more, words turning to a simple chuckle of dark amusement. “Well, he’ll be better than he was. And more obedient. He will do what I tell him to, just as you do. And with that…” The man’s face set, the anger, outrage, grief, and sheer agony from the death of his friend blazing through his hard eyes and his dark words. “With that, he will kill his sister. The older Evans boy will kill his sister, then confess. Not only to that, to everything. He’ll tell everyone, the whole world, that his sister was going to tell the police about this… Ministry of theirs. He’ll tell them that he tried to stop her, that they struggled and he killed her. And now he’s so upset, he has to tell the truth about everything. He’ll go on national television to expose the truth. Yes. One of the Evans’ children will kill the other, and then expose all of their dirty little secrets to the entire world.”
On a roll by that point, the man pivoted on one heel, walking back toward the lab he had come out of. “And when the Ministry lies exposed and ruined, with so much attention on the Evans and their allies, what remains will need leadership. We will step into that void. You and I, Paige, will take up their resources and use them to complete Project Owl. The Evans will be in no emotional condition to retaliate, not with the loss of their daughter at the hands of their son, and the revelation of their secrets to the world. Every eye in America will be on them, and more beyond.”
He stopped in the doorway, looking back toward her. “We will make this world better, Paige. Just as we planned. But only once the stench of the Evans and their people is removed from it. We’ll scrub them away, and build something better than they could ever dream of.”
Swallowing slightly, the blonde girl straightened and gave her father a very faint nod. “Yes, Dad.”
From there, she watched as he disappeared into the lab once more, to map out his plan in full. Already, the man was muttering to himself about how to grab the boy, how long they would have to work undisturbed before any alarm was raised, and what sort of supplies he would need to stock up on to make certain everything was ready.
For almost a full two minutes after her father vanished from sight, Paige stood there. Her eyes stared unseeingly, her attention and thoughts elsewhere as she fought through so many decisions. Cassidy didn’t remember her. She had no idea who Paige was.
But Paige remembered her.
Eyes finally focusing, the girl turned. She strode past several doors to reach her father’s office before stepping inside. Glancing back to check the corridor, she listened to the sound of the man talking to himself in the lab, before stepping over to the desk. The phone. She picked it up, hitting a series of numbers from memory.
When the person on the other end of the line answered, Paige spoke in a voice that was far different from her own, sounding more male than female. “Robert Parson? No, you don’t know who this is.
“But there’s someone you need to know about.”