Chapter One: Chili and Cornbread
My feet smack against the springy top of the Tartan track. The breath moves in and out of my lungs, stinging the back of my throat before puffing into a white cloud in front of my face. Sweat sticks my jacket to my arms, and my sports bra cuts uncomfortably into the meat of my back. There’s a throbbing in my chest and throat and temples that drowns out the sounds of the cold, clear morning.
The run is rough today. I’m barely through mile seven, and already my lungs burn, my calves ache, and my brain feels as if it’s rolling around with every footfall. Off to one side of the track, standing on the fake green of a turf field, stands a man. He’s tall and blond and dressed head to toe in expensive Under Armor athletic wear. Waving to me, he checks the watch on his left wrist as I come into the long straight.
Though I should have another three miles ahead of me, twelve more times around the red and white loop, I veer toward the man and slow to a walk as I approach him. “I’m done,” I say between gasps. “That’s enough for today.”
Tanner shoots me a look somewhere between surprise and disapproval. His ears are red from the cold, and he’s zipped his jacket all the way up and tucked his chin inside it in a feeble attempt at comfort. A piece of shrapnel, embedded in his face sometime when he was still military, discolors the skin on the right side of his jaw. “Are you sure? Your training schedule says you should be on tens this whole week. You want to take a break and keep going in a few minutes?”
Resting my hands on my head in an effort to suck in more freezing air, I shake my head. “My calves hurt. If they wanted me on tens, they should have worked on my arms yesterday, not my legs.”
Tanner frowns, just a hint of an expression, a twitch of his lips before it disappears. It’s the only indication of how he feels about what Karpatrick does. “Fair enough. You want me to look at it?”
I shake my head.
“Stubborn as always, Sid,” he says. But it’s affectionate, a smile laced through the tone even if there’s not one on his face.
He pronounces my name the way I prefer it, like an actual word. Not as a set of numbers and syllables, the way all the other handlers do. It might be inked all over my body, four digits, S-1-d-0, but I’d like to think that my identity is more than a meaningless tag meant to keep track of a science experiment.
“I’m fine, honest,” I say, brushing off his concern. “It just takes some time for the muscles to grow around the implants. I should be able to run the whole thing by Wednesday.”
“All right.” Tanner relents, offering me a metal water bottle that he fishes from his jacket pocket. “You have some time to rest, then, if you want to sit down for a few minutes.”
Without a word, I take his invitation and lower myself onto the track. The cold leeches through my leggings, but it’s soothing against the heat in my butt and hamstrings. Leaning forward to stretch the muscles out, I reach for my calves and knead them gently with my fingers. The new metal, replaced just yesterday in a maintenance surgery that Karpatrick does every few years, twinges painfully when the muscle fibers slide across it.
“How was my time?” I ask as I lean back on my hands. “I felt slow.”
“You were a little slow. You started at about a six-minute mile, but by the last two you were closer to a six-forty-five.”
A sound of annoyance climbs out of my throat before I can stop it.
“You shouldn’t feel too bad about it. I can’t imagine running any distance on a fresh surgery, much less running two 5ks and then some.”
“Welcome to the life of an asset.” My breathing has come down to a normal rate, and I can no longer feel my heartbeat in my tongue. Both good signs. I push myself up to standing, wincing at the zing that flashes up my angry legs. “If we have a few minutes, can we head down to the mess hall? I know it’s not technically within my meal plan, but I’m starving.”
Tanner deliberates a moment before pulling a tablet from a thigh pocket of his cargo pants. “That should be fine, as long as you keep it on the smaller side. Give me your order now, and it should be ready by the time we walk over there.”
Over Tanner’s shoulder, I see the big, gray building of the Facility. It’s built like a cinder block, all right angles and severe lines. A place full of hospital machines and testing rooms, the place I’ve spent all of my twenty-three years, the only place I can reasonably call home—and, right now, the place that’s going to feed me.
“Do they still have that cornbread and chili meal?” I ask. “I could go for that again.”
Tanner flicks his eyes up to meet mine. “That’s neither a small meal nor part of the asset-approved plan.”
I just grin back at him.
With a chuckle, he scrolls through something on the screen. “All right, all right, cornbread and chili coming up. Then a salad for dinner, because that’s a shitload of carbs and you’ll cramp up in Scenario tomorrow if you have too many.”
“I can make that compromise.”
Shaking his head as if I’m being particularly amusing, Tanner places the order. When he’s done, he shuts the tablet off and puts it back in his pocket, then sets off at an easy pace toward the Facility.
“Did I tell you the latest thing Jenny did?” he asks when I fall into step beside him.
“No, but I’m always interested in your wild ex-girlfriend stories.”
The cafeteria that the assets are allowed to use is on the first floor, near the west entrance, which is on the other side of the building from the training grounds. It’s a long walk there, nearly fifteen minutes, and Tanner chooses to go around the outside rather than through the building. Though it’s technically a longer route, it’s less annoying because we don’t have to badge in every time we come to a door or passageway. Instead we enjoy the morning air, the sun just peeking over the hills that surround the training grounds.
When Tanner badges us into the cafeteria, the smell of cooking food hits me full in the face. It’s a thick, delicious smell, and my stomach rumbles in response. The room is large, with tables set up in neat rows near the entrance, with the food lines against the back wall. Though the kitchen is always staffed, the food is made to order and it takes a while to appear, so Tanner and I sit down to wait.
We talk as we rest, about what music he’s been into lately, the most recent book I’ve read, and Jenny, the girl he broke up with a month ago. Normal things. Human things. He’s one of the only staff members who doesn’t treat me as if my life can’t exist outside of training scenarios and assignments. A part of me wishes I could have Tanner here all the time, instead of splitting the week between him and a woman named Rebeca Pellerman.
HR would have something to say about that, though. The handlers aren’t supposed to work more than a certain number of hours in a week, and if they do it’s a hassle for them to get paid overtime. Which is bullshit, in my opinion, because I can’t even leave the Facility grounds on my own, yet I don’t get paid overtime. I don’t get paid at all, though I have to admit I don’t know what I’d spend my money on if I did.
Tanner’s tablet lights up, and he makes his way over to the counter to pick up my midmorning snack. He told me once, when I asked about it, that as far as the American legal system goes, the assets aren’t considered human. Since our DNA is mostly or fully synthesized and we’re built more than birthed, I’m a step and a half below a dog—a crime against me would be a property crime at most. The assets don’t even count as “animals,” so that the people who work with us can’t get brought up on cruelty charges. According to Federal Law, I am a weapon, and not even a weapon of mass destruction, which is a bit insulting.
Tanner sets the tray in front of me, and we decide to share the giant bowl between us. He’s right, I don’t need that many carbs, but it’s meaty and warm, and tasting it against my tongue is delightful.
As I’m dipping a chunk of honey-sweet cornbread, his eyes track something over my shoulder. Turning, I see a nurse, a new one who’s only been working here for a few weeks. Dyed blonde streaks run through her brown ponytail, and her pink scrubs hang loosely on her slender frame. With her hands in her pockets, she walks up to the counter to order her food.
“What’s her name?” Tanner asks, licking chili off his thumb. “And when did she start?”
“Couple weeks ago. She’s up in Imaging. She’s also very gay.”
That gets Tanner’s attention. “Did you and she…?”
“No, not me. I told you, I make it a point not to sleep with the staff. But Threes doesn’t make that distinction.” No matter how many times I’ve told her she should.
Actually I doubt Threes would listen to me if I asked her—again—not to mess around outside the two of us. She likes to have her cake and eat it too, and it’s only because I like the cut of said cake that I can rationalize it away.
Tanner nods. “Good for her. She’s cute.”
“Super cute. I hope she sticks around a while.”
The nurse—Talia, if I remember Threes’s too detailed story correctly—walks by us again and smiles. I smile back and offer a little wave. “So what’s next on the schedule?”
Tanner checks the tablet. “Range at noon. You’ve got an hour if you want to head up and shower. I can meet you by Entrance Two when it’s time to head out that way.”
I lean back in my chair with one last bite of cornbread, thinking how nice a little time to myself sounds. “I appreciate the breathing room.”
“You have a tracker embedded in your skull. It’s not as if you can go anyplace where I can’t find you.”
“Way to take all the fun out of it.”
I wave him off. It’s not his fault he can’t let me out of his sight. I know what happens to me, the incredibly expensive and irreplaceable asset, when I do shit I’m not supposed to. I can only imagine what kind of blowback the handlers get for our indiscretions.
I pick up the tray and set it on top of a nearby garbage can, then set off toward the nearest stairwell.
The Facility is so large that it takes me nearly ten minutes to get all the way up to my room. It’s busy today, and I pass familiar faces all the way through the halls. One is an asset like me, tall and muscular. He smiles as he passes, though he doesn’t stop to say hello. I don’t either, and for good reason. Everywhere, on every lanyard and waistband, are tiny black remotes. They control us, activate chips in our heads. The remotes keep us in line, keep us from getting too many ideas.
I once saw an asset, years ago, try to leave. He decided that he’d had enough of the program and that no person was going to keep him here any longer. I was small then, maybe seven or eight years old, and remember little more than screaming and people scrambling to get out of his way. I don’t know if something inside of him snapped or if his chip went haywire, but he racked up a body count in the double digits before someone managed to hit the right button and send him slumping to the floor. I watched him convulse on the ground for a full minute before security showed up. The rifles they used were silenced, but the sound of the bullet they put into his head still seemed to bounce around the room.
I reach floor seven, where the assets sleep. The stairwell lets me out at the end of the hallway, and it’s a short walk from there to my nondescript little door. A few steps further is a common room, an area for the assets to decompress and mill around. It’s space we can reasonably call ours, though we all know that one too many missteps and it will disappear faster than we can think.
I don’t see anyone there now—all of the others are out on training, on assignment, or still sleeping—so I slide my badge into a reader beside the door handle. The light turns green, and I push my way in. My credentials can get me in but they can’t get me out, so I take a large wad of tissue from where it sits on a table just inside the entrance and jam it between the door frame and the door. That way, when it shuts, the bolt can’t engage.
The room is small, more of a hotel room than an apartment. In the far corner, reaching up the wall and continuing toward the door, are my drawings. Done in markers, mostly, since no one will give me paint, they swirl in and around each other, overlapping and interacting, a mosaic that makes my eyes move as if they’re watching a fish swim underwater. It’s the third one I’ve done; the other two were painted over unceremoniously while I was out on assignment. I try to make that blow sting a little less by telling myself I like this iteration best.
Not much furniture occupies the space. There’s a table by the door, empty now because I don’t need any medicines or packets of information. A laundry bag rests beside that; once a week someone takes it and brings back the clothes smelling less like stale sweat and more like meadows. A bed used to sit in the middle of the room, against the far wall, but I shoved it into the corner years ago. The sheets lie twisted and unmade across its surface, still sloppy from where Threes and I left them late last night.
A door in the far wall leads to a bathroom and a shower, and I head in that direction, stripping off my jacket and throwing it into a bin as I go. I turn on the water and let it warm up, then rip off the tie holding back the short strands of my hair and toss it on the little counter. Though I’m technically not supposed to grow my hair out, I like this floppy mess better than the three-all-around I’ve been forced to wear most of my life. The honey-brown strands barely reach the highest point of my jaw, but the style is my decision, my choice, and for that I cherish it.
Eventually, Karpatrick will force me to shave it off again, but that’s something I can worry about later.
Chapter Two: Things Go Boom
Having washed off the sweat and eased my aching muscles, I wrap myself in a towel and go to the footlocker by the end of the bed to grab new clothes. I put on a pair of heavy canvas work pants and a thick undershirt, then thread a belt through the loops. It will hold a holster later. A jacket is next, since the chill from this morning seems as if it’s going to stay. Finally I yank on socks and boots and make my way to the ground floor to meet Tanner.
He’s there when I arrive at our meeting point, talking to another handler. An asset stands a little apart from them, leaning against the wall and staring blankly at the floor. He’s lean, with the kind of frame that comes from doing nothing but high-level athletics all day, every day. His movements are smooth, almost lazy, the motions of someone who knows he can go from zero to lethal faster than anyone else in the room.
He’s pushed his sleeves up to his elbows, revealing the blue-black ink staining the inside of each wrist: his designation tattoo, his serial number, printed, like all of ours, on the nape of his neck, the soft part of each wrist, the tops of his shoulders, his hips, and the inside arches of each foot. They’re the labels that mark us undeniably as one of Karpatrick’s creations. His reads J-3-5-5-3.
“Hey, Jesse,” I say as I walk up, wanting to announce myself before I startle him.
His head doesn’t move; with just a flick of his eyes and a brief smirk, he recognizes me. “Sid. It’s been a while.”
“How was California?”
He shrugs. “Tests. PR. I shot some targets and impressed some suits. You know how it is.”
I snort. “Better you than me.”
Tanner hears me then. “You’re here. Jesse and Richard will be joining us today, as you can see.” He gestures to the two men.
Richard, Jesse’s handler, looks disturbed by the fact that Tanner used names and not alpha-numerics to refer to his asset. While it’s not an official rule, I’ve overheard several Uppers explaining to Tanner that we’re not people and therefore shouldn’t have human names. People get attached to things once they name them, and attachments get in the way of doing the right thing should something go wrong. And when it comes to us, something always seems to go wrong.
If Jesse appreciates Tanner’s break in protocol, he doesn’t indicate it, instead turning to face our little circle. “Cool. Are there guns up there already, or do we need to get them on the way?”
“Range staff has them. I grabbed a golf cart so we don’t have to hoof it all the way out there. It’s waiting outside.”
“Golf cart sounds good to me.”
We head out the door, Richard badging us out as we go, and pile into the little vehicle. Jesse and I take the backward-facing seats at the tail of the cart, and Richard and Tanner slide into the front. The drive up to the range lasts ten minutes, toward the back end of the property, before it devolves into state forest. Out here the little road winds between two big red hills, each dense with wild, windswept trees and tangled underbrush. Now, nearing the end of October, the trees have begun to thin out their leaves and resemble overgrown sticks rather than beacons to the sky. Dark greens and reds whisper to us as we drive by, both on the trees and littered on the ground. We haven’t had the first snow of the season yet, but the way the wind cuts through my jacket as we drive, I’d be surprised if it were more than a week out. I burrow into my jacket, glad that I thought to bring it.
A few moments later we arrive at the range, nestled in the canyon between the two hills. There are four different sections, each immediately visible. The ground has been bulldozed flat here, the earth packed down into a tough and stable surface. All the dropped bullets and casings have kept it that way, as have the dozens of feet that trample all over it every day.
Some of the lanes already have targets set up, cardboard cutouts standing on wooden posts and a few metal plates hanging from stakes driven into the ground. Others offer much more interesting scenery: several cars in one case, a detailed mock-up of a city street in another, and, most impressive, a two-story house complete with a roof and furniture.
Tanner parks the cart next to a big SUV with tinted windows. An official car, as I can tell by the federal plate, which isn’t something we see up this way very often. As if to explain its presence, a team of people walk out from under a tin-roof overhang to our right. Some of them I don’t know, two men and one woman with severe expressions and more severe clothing. These I take to be government agents, if not military. They’re not in uniform, but the way they stand, absolute and unmoving, makes me think they’ve had that kind of training.
The other faces are much more familiar. One I know mostly from pictures, from the company Christmas card that goes out to all employees and slides under my door every year. In the process of balding, with ears that stick out from his temples and a heavy forehead that houses far too little eyebrow, Director Franklin Howard stands in the middle of the group. The idea that this is just another range day evaporates. I’ve never met the man personally, and the fact that he’s here now must mean I’m about to be part of something that will probably cost more than my life. And that’s saying something, because assets run at more than thirty million dollars a pop.
The last person to emerge is one I’d recognize anywhere, short of being deaf and blind. Hell, maybe even then, since I’d probably feel the temperature plummet when she arrived. She steps forward now, scrubs and badge covered by a knee-length puffer jacket with the Facility logo embroidered on the chest. Her blunt bob hangs just over her collar, and a delicate button nose sits above thin lips pursed in a smug expression.
Karpatrick. Most of the assets don’t call her that, opting instead for one of our less friendly nicknames. I’ve seen her face above me more times than I like to remember, usually when some part of me has been cut open for enhancements or tested for effectiveness.
S-1-d-0 is a novel that will be forever special to me, no matter if it ends up as a New York Times Best Seller or as a trunk novel that never sees daylight. Short of my wedding vows, this book is more personal to me than anything else I’ve done so far. I started writing it about a week after I came out to those closest to me, finally emboldened enough by that experience to start working on a project about a woman who risks everything to be with the girl of her dreams.
S-1-d-0 is, at is very core, a love story. Though there’s plenty of action, as the title character is a genetically engineered assassin, it’s also a book about fighting for your own humanity and right to freedom, a story about love, loss, dismantling toxic societal structures, and building safe spaces, all wrapped up with a lesbian-Jason-Bourne bow.
My hope is that this book will encourage young readers to follow their own hearts and to fight for their happiness, wherever that happiness may be. Especially in today’s world, where inclusivity has become so much more acceptable and even demanded, I hope we can see a generation unafraid to be who they are. This book is dedicated to those who paved this path, those who fought so hard for so many years, as well as those who I know will continue to make our world a better place. To those people, and everyone in between, I hope that you enjoy this novel and that it’s as wonderful an experience to read it as it was to write it.
Jordan M. Griffin is an emerging writer with one previous publication, a short story in Beyond Words. She is currently an MFA student in Fiction at Pacific University and lives in California with her spouse and her marshmallow of a husky. You can find out more about her work at jordanmgriffin.com.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021