The Trials


The Trials

Project Paper Doll, Book 3

After being on the run, Ariane Tucker finds herself back where she started-under Dr. Jacobs’s cruel control. Now she must participate in the upcoming trials: a deadly competition pitting her against other alien hybrids, each representing a rival corporation.

But Ariane is no one’s weapon, and she is prepared to die if it means taking down those involved in Project Paper Doll. They destroyed all that she holds dear, including Zane Bradshaw, the one person she trusted and cared for the most. The person she was forced to leave behind, bleeding and alone.

As her plan takes shape, Ariane will need now more than ever to depend on the other side of her heritage-the cold, calculating instincts born from her alien DNA. With Zane gone, she has nothing left to lose.

Heart-pounding action and thrilling twists will lead Ariane down a dangerous path, where shocking truths and the chance for revenge await.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Ariane Tucker

Private Joseph “Joe” Zadowski was young, maybe only four or five years older than me. His reddish blond hair was cut short, buzzed on the sides. He was about a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than me, though his green fatigues bagged loosely around him, like he was playing dress-up. Freckles stood out as dark splotches against the pale skin of his nose and cheeks.

He swallowed hard and shifted beneath my gaze. Extended eye contact made most full-blooded humans uncomfortable. Extended eye contact with an unknown quantity (me) while locked in a small cell in a secret lab made them downright jumpy, it seemed.

But if I was going to do this, I owed it to Joe to remember his face. It would haunt me for the rest of my life. Fortunately I didn’t expect the rest of my life to be all that long. The trials were just weeks away. I’d survive long enough to see my personal mission through, but that was it.

“They told me you’re dangerous,” Joe blurted, surprising me.

Interesting. The techs or Dr. Jacobs? Likely the former. I had a hard time imagining Jacobs deigning to meet and greet the human being he’d brought in to serve as a guinea pig.

“What else did they tell you?” I asked Joe.

He shifted his weight from foot to foot, his fingers tapping against his leg. I didn’t see a weapon on him, but I suspected that nervous twitch was him wishing he had one. He hadn’t come in farther than was necessary for the door to close behind him.

“That, uh, I’m supposed to subdue you by any means necessary.” He produced a pair of clear zip ties from his pocket, a prop provided by Jacobs or the techs. There was no way he’d actually get close enough to use them, even if he didn’t know that.

“And?” I prompted.

“107.” Dr. Jacobs’s voice sounded over the intercom in warning.

Joe jumped. I ignored it. Dr. Jacobs was, I was sure, watching on the monitors in the observation room. The glass wall was opaque at the moment, preventing me from seeing him. But his impatience and eagerness crawled over my skin like a thousand biting ants.

“And?” I said again to Joe, drawing his attention back to me.

His expression flashed irritation mixed with fear. “You’ll fight me the whole time, supposedly.” Already he was making assumptions about me, based on my size and gender. Not smart, but inevitable.

I had just a couple more questions. “You’re a volunteer?” I asked, confirming what I’d been told.

“Yesss,” he said, drawing out the word, not understanding at all why this was relevant.

“And they told you you’d be risking your life?” I pressed. More than “risking,” actually, but that wording was the only compromise Dr. Jacobs and I had been able to reach.

Joe lifted a shoulder in a shrug. Even with the strangeness of the situation and all the unknowns I could hear circulating through his head (What is this place? There’s definitely something wrong with her. Why is she so calm?), he wasn’t nearly as concerned as he should have been.

“I like my odds,” he said, staring back at me for the first time, his ego rising up against that quiet voice of doubt, the niggling sense that something was “off.” After all, I was just a girl, and a small one at that.

Oh, Joe.

“107, time is wasting,” Jacobs snapped over the intercom.

He must have been running a timer along with the camera that would record what was to transpire. Yes, heaven forbid I did not break world records in speed and manner of killing.

“You know the consequences if you don’t do as you’re told,” Jacobs continued.

Without warning, Joe took two large steps toward me, zip ties in hand. Evidently he’d decided enough was enough.

I let him come at me, feeling a bit of grim enjoyment for the momentary panic that caused on the other side of the observation window, and then slid out of his reach, my back to the opposite wall.

“Don’t make this difficult,” Joe said, shaking his head with exasperation. The fact that he’d charged at me and nothing had happened—not that he was sure what to expect, exactly—had boosted his confidence.

Guilt sprang to life in me, throbbing like an infected cut. Delaying wouldn’t change anything, and by doing so I was toying with him, giving him hope where there should be none.

So, when he came at me again, I stopped him, lifting my hand and directing my power to wrap around him, freezing him mid-lunge. It involved little more than a thought from me, no longer the struggle it had once been.

“I won’t make it difficult,” I promised him as his eyes bugged out in panic. His muscles tensed, fighting against me as he struggled to free himself. It was pointless, I could have told him. We were both trapped.

Finding his heart, thumping madly in his chest, wasn’t hard. Neither was the process of stopping it. Just a squeeze of directed power around that muscle, which, though powerful and necessary for life, was no different than any other.

It’s a necessary evil to save others.

This is the least of all the atrocities that will be committed if I don’t do this.

I don’t want to do this.

But none of those thoughts helped as I watched Joseph “Joe” Zadowski, he of the freckles and the nervous fingers, recognize that something was very, very wrong. His face turned from a flushed red to a disturbing purplish blue as his heart slowed and he stopped trying to escape and worked instead to keep breathing, to keep living. His last thoughts were of his family, a flash of his mother—a woman with graying hair, round cheeks, and a perpetual but tired smile—and a younger brother sticking his hand up to block Joe on the basketball court, a triumphant grin when he succeeded.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, my throat tight as Joe’s body sagged in my grip and his eyes closed.

But I didn’t stop.

I couldn’t. Not now.

Chapter One

Ariane Tucker

Two more days. Two more days. Two more days.

I repeated that refrain in my head, over and over again, blocking the errant thoughts and memories that threatened to interrupt my concentration as I pushed myself through another round of sit-ups on the shiny white floor of my cell.

I’d kept a running countdown of days, based on the cycle of the lights in my room and the dates I’d overheard from the staff. It had been almost a month since my return to GTX. Almost a month since the parking lot.

Almost a month since Zane’s blood on my hands, so red and wet…

I squeezed my eyes shut, focusing harder on the burn in my stomach muscles and the dull ache in my head from the strain of pushing my abilities too far, too fast. I could no longer see my metal-framed cot swaying above me, held there by the force of my mind, but I could feel it pulling at that part of my brain, like a weight attached to a limb not quite accustomed to bearing the burden.

In the far corner behind me, a stack of books, a much lighter target, was also levitating near the ceiling, theoretically. I’d turned my attention away once I’d lifted them off the ground, relying on my ability to keep them up without my gaze on them, a stretch for me. A second stack waited in front of me for similar treatment, though I hadn’t managed two at once (plus the cot) yet.

I was improving but not fast enough. Time was almost up. I needed to be ready; I needed to be better. The trials would start the day after tomorrow somewhere in the Chicago area.

I was pretty sure.

One of the disadvantages of being a mouse in a GenTex cage is that people don’t exactly bother to keep you in the loop. They probably thought it didn’t matter. After all, I was just “the product.” It wasn’t as if I could do anything to change my situation.

Sometimes I thought the uncertainty would kill me before anyone else had the chance.

Until recently, I’d never thought much about dying. That sounded great, enlightened even, like a lack of concern about my own mortality was a gift of higher spiritual knowledge via my alien half. But to be honest, that had nothing to do with it.

The truth was there were things worse than death. I’d been far more worried about ending up back in the small white room where I’d lived the first six years of my life, longing to see the world outside.

Here’s the funny thing, though: once the worst has actually happened—well, what you thought was the worst, anyway—you learn that that line was only a low watermark, an indicator of your own naiveté. The idea that there is a cap to the horribleness that can happen to you is ridiculous.

It can always get worse. A lot worse. I know that now. Back in that parking lot by the Illinois border, when I was caught between Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Laughlin with Zane looking on, I’d have leaped into the black unmarked van with the retrieval team to come here—hell, I’d have driven myself—if I’d known what was going to happen instead. There is no maximum threshold for the worst that can happen to you. To believe otherwise is just daring someone to prove you wrong.

Those who would want to show you the opposite, that life can be better than you’d ever imagined, were few and far between.

One fewer now.

At the thought of Zane, a horrible pang of longing and sadness struck my heart with unerring accuracy. But I pushed it away, trying to refocus on the cool, emotion-deadened spot inside me, the one that had opened up shortly after I’d awakened in Laughlin’s facility with an IV in my arm and Zane’s blood all over my hands.

Ford, my counterpart at Laughlin’s company (and probably my clone, if such a thing were possible), made it look so easy—just stop caring. Do what needs doing. Shut off the consequences and the fear and the guilt.

I’d managed to do exactly that for a while, but the relief of that emptiness wasn’t to be found today, not with anxiety and anticipation warring within me, my body tired and my concentration stretched too thin.

Not to mention the all-too-familiar high-pitched nattering filling my ears.

“—and then Cami told me what Trey said. Too high maintenance to be worth it? Seriously? What does that even mean?”

My eyes snapped open against my will on the down motion of a sit-up, showing me Rachel Jacobs perched, as usual, on a swivel chair just outside the glass door to my room. With her ankle wrapped around one of the casters to control her movement, she spun a few inches back and forth, like a child.

She’d been here every day after school for hours, for almost two weeks now. Dr. Jacobs’s master plan. Forget waterboarding, spikes under my fingernails, or strategic electrocution; Rachel’s presence was worse punishment than any of those. She was a constant reminder of my old life, what I’d had and lost, what I’d deluded myself into thinking could be mine forever. It was a finger poking into a still bloody wound, making it impossible to ignore.

I hated it. I hated her.

Which was exactly what I suspected Dr. Jacobs wanted. I just wasn’t sure why. “Someone to keep you company,” he’d announced cheerily before her first visit, and damn him and my stupid broken heart that wouldn’t stop hoping for miracles, I’d thought for a second that maybe it was my father or somehow … Zane. Even though I’d left him bleeding out on the pavement in a Wisconsin park.

But then Rachel had entered the hallway beyond my cell in a swirl of her trademark red. Dr. Jacobs set her up in the chair outside my door and left before I could pin down his thoughts beyond the noise of Rachel’s. My telepathy was spotty at best, even worse around a broadcaster like her. She was so loud; she drowned out everyone else.

Rachel had glared after him, still pissed, but she sat down, anyway. He was, after all, paying her to be there, according to her thoughts. All she had to do was talk. And she hadn’t shut up since.

“Just because I know what I want,” Rachel continued huffily. “What’s wrong with that?”

Rachel shook her head as though I’d responded, her shiny dark hair tumbling forward over her shoulder as she tapped away at her phone. I didn’t know what she was doing; it wasn’t as if she could get any kind of signal down here.

I imagined the flood of waiting texts that would soar from her phone, like evil flying monkeys released from the holding pen of her outbox, the second she ascended to a point where phone service kicked back in.

“And then Trey wouldn’t even apologize! He acted like I was the one with the problem. He’s never done that before.” She sounded almost hurt, if she were capable of such emotion.

In the beginning, Rachel had done exactly as I’d expected, taunted me, said every mean thing she could think of, even repeated a few that she was particularly proud of. All trying to provoke a reaction, just because she could. She thought she was safe on the other side of the door. She wasn’t, but I had zero interest in diverting my focus just to scare her. (Okay, the thought did cross my mind, but only for a moment. I didn’t want to give Dr. Jacobs the satisfaction.)

After a few days of insults and taunts, though, something changed. It was as if Rachel had forgotten I was there or she didn’t care. She’d turned the threshold of my cell into a confessional, treating these afternoons like one long series of free therapy sessions. Either way, for some reason, her monologues were harder for me to ignore.

Maybe because they showed she was human, much to my dismay. (I was half human, after all, and frankly that was already too much in common with her.) Or maybe because, as usual, Rachel had no idea that what she bitterly complained about were things others would be overjoyed to have.

Like the guy who loved her still being alive but shunning her (rightly so) for being too demanding.

“I mean, whatever. It’s not like I care or anything,” she continued in that tone that screamed anything but. She was a child who wanted sympathy over a toy she’d broken herself.

Rage welled in me, breaking past the barriers I’d erected so carefully over the last few weeks, and spilling into the empty, emotion-free zone.

Zane was dead. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was there because he’d cared about me. And Rachel was bitching because she couldn’t manipulate Trey into playing one of her popularity games? The injustice of it made me want to scream until I was hoarse.

“His loss, you know?” she continued, blithely unaware. “I can do better.”

As if love was disposable, easily discarded and forgotten, just as easily replaced.

Maybe for her. My one chance was gone.

My control splintered. Overhead, one end of the cot dipped alarmingly. I yanked my legs out of the way a bare second before the cot clattered to the floor in front of me. In the corner, books thumped to the floor, pages making a ruffling noise. Then I whipped around to face Rachel.

“Trey’s worshipped you for years and you treat him like crap, like he’s yours to do with you as you please,” I snapped, frustrated with myself for responding and yet unable to stop it. “What did you expect?”

Rachel froze, her fingers still poised over her phone. Then she raised her eyebrows. “It speaks,” she said, with a sniff of disdain. “Guess you’re not brain damaged, just a freak still.”

I flopped back on the floor, cursing myself for breaking. “Go away.”

She gave a harsh laugh. “Believe me, I’d love to. You don’t think I have better things to do with my time?”

“No,” I said flatly. Rachel, for all her willingness to express her opinion and dictate to others what theirs should be, seemed to be lacking a sympathetic (or unresponsive) ear to listen to her discuss all the endless trouble in her life.

She gave me a hostile look. “I’m not getting paid enough for this,” she announced to no one in particular and everyone within hearing range before returning her attention to her phone.

But once I’d opened up the barrier—burst through the waxen layers of resistance and determination that had distanced me from Rachel—I couldn’t reseal it.

I sat up. “Does of any of this even register with you?” I asked, sweeping my hand in a gesture that encompassed my cell, the observation window above, and pretty much the entirety of the corporation, levels above me. “People are going to die because your grandfather and Dr. Laughlin are determined to one-up each other.”

The trials, in theory, were a competition to determine who had the best product, a term they used to describe genetically engineered alien/human hybrids like me. The prize: a lucrative government contract to create a whole line of soldier/ assassins of the not-quite-human variety, according to Dr. Jacobs. The losing products would not survive. They would either die in the competition or be destroyed afterward. No reason to keep them around.

There were three companies competing. I didn’t know who Dr. St. John would send, if anyone. (Jacobs didn’t seem concerned about him.) But I knew it was me from GTX and likely Ford from Laughlin Integrated. Laughlin and Jacobs had a history, hating each other for past sins and slights and using us to act in their stead in this grudge match.

It was more than a contract at stake here; it was pride and ego. And those were far worse.

Ford and I, sisters of a sort, would end up at each other’s throats, perhaps literally, vying to win. Ford, because she would fight until the end to save the only other hybrid we knew of, Carter. And I would kill to end this program, to destroy us all and the ones who’d made us. In fact, I’d already killed for that cause, as much as my mind tried to shy away from that memory.

The only question was which of us—Ford or me—would succeed. And it had to be me. If I was going to die—and that was a certainty, only the timing was in doubt—then it needed to count for something.

I pictured Ford on the ground, her face, identical to mine, turning red and then shades of purple, veins bulging as she struggled to breathe while I held her heart still in my mental grasp. Now that I’d actually done it—stopped a beating human heart—it was all too easy for me to picture.

A wave of sadness washed over me. Even in trying to do the right thing, Ford and I would both end up hurting each other instead of the people who deserved it.

I definitely didn’t wish Ford dead. She and Carter were the closest thing I had to family. I didn’t like Ford, exactly—she was difficult and strange—but I admired her. She hadn’t had it any easier than me, living in Laughlin’s facility and forced to attend school as part of a humanizing effort, all the while trying to protect her “siblings.” She’d never had a chance at true freedom, either. But the photo of a gorgeous lake surrounded by mountains—somewhere in Utah, maybe?—that she’d hidden away in the cubby where she slept told me that she’d dreamed about it, at least.

“Not real people,” Rachel muttered defiantly, meeting my gaze with a challenge in her eyes.

It took me a second, lost in my thoughts as I was, to put Rachel’s words in context.

I stiffened. People were going to die, but they weren’t real people to Rachel. I wasn’t a real person.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise she held that opinion. A lot of people involved in Project Paper Doll, including Zane’s mother, Mara, shared it. And yet hearing those words from Rachel sliced at me. I’d been in classes with her. She’d known me as Ariane Tucker before she knew I was GTX-F-107.

I pushed myself up off the floor, ignoring my overworked muscles, and approached the door. “You think this is about aliens and hybrids and creepy crawlies made in a lab?” I demanded.

Rachel pushed her chair back until it slammed into the bottom step leading from the hallway above, and then she jumped up, as if she might run. As if that would save her.

“Stay away,” she said, her hands clutched tight around her phone, her life preserver of normal in the ocean of alien strangeness around her.

I leaned against the glass door, pressing my palms flat on it, the lines on them the same as hers, as human as hers. “They’re going to use us as assassins, spies, and mercenaries,” I said, staring her down, knowing the fear and discomfort my too-dark and almost irisless eyes provoked in people. “Who exactly do you think we’re going to be killing and spying on, Rachel? Not other “˜freaks’ like us.”

She stumbled up the first step and glared at me, hating me for making her afraid. “God, Ariane, okay. What do you expect me to do about it?”

“I don’t know. Care about someone other than yourself. Or pretend, at least.” I turned away from the door and her beyond it, returning to my place on the shiny white floor, near my now-overturned cot.

I waved my hand at the cot, flipping it upright easily and then lifting it up toward the ceiling again, and prepared to resume my physical training.

Push-ups, maybe. My upper body strength was definitely lacking, my bones too fragile to support much of the muscle development. But every bit would help, especially against Ford, someone who was, in all likelihood, my exact match in strength and abilities. It would come down to some less definable element—surprise or willpower or cunning.

I couldn’t let it be Ford. This had to end. Jacobs and Laughlin, they couldn’t be allowed to keep using us, taking from us.

An image of Zane’s face, a smile pulling at his mouth as he leaned over me, flashed across my mind.

“Did you know they’re having a memorial service at school on Monday?” Rachel asked, startling me. She’d been so quiet I’d assumed she’d stormed off in a huff to report me to her grandfather. Instead, a quick glance in her direction showed her back in her chair, albeit still pushed away from the door. “For Zane, I mean,” she added.

My heart stuttered. I’d been expecting this or something like it for weeks now, ever since Dr. Jacobs, in one of his many attempts to elicit a reaction from me, had broken the news that no one could find Zane. But somehow the expectation hadn’t prepared me for the reality of hearing those words.

I sat back on my knees and lowered the cot to the ground quickly before it could crash again. “What?” My voice sounded rough even to my ears.

“Well, I guess it’s not really a memorial service,” she said in a considering tone. “Since they didn’t … they haven’t found his body.” She winced visibly.

I stared at Rachel, making an effort this time to hear her emotions and thoughts as well as her words. Grief mixed with anger, cloudy and pervasive, pulsed through her. “Why are you telling me this?” I asked.

She ignored my question, staring holes through me instead. “His mom, she’s back in town now. I met her. She seems nice. She wants to have a funeral—Quinn, too—but they can’t do that, can they? I mean, what are they going to do, bury an empty casket? Maybe some of the blood the police scraped up from that parking lot?” She raised an eyebrow at me.

My hands clenched into fists.

“The hospital still says his body never got there. I mean, they have the record of the ambulance call and everything, but that’s it. Nobody seems to know what happened to him after that,” she said, lifting her shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. Then her eyes narrowed. “But you do, don’t you?”

I looked away. “No.”

I didn’t, truly. But I had my suspicions, given the people involved. There was no way that Jacobs or Laughlin would risk police involvement, as there inevitably would be with a shooting death. No, it was better that Zane Bradshaw, an inconvenient victim/speed bump on the road to progress, just mysteriously disappear as a bureaucratic error, lost in the system. Perhaps even delivered to an accommodating funeral home and cremated “by mistake,” a discovery that would be made months or years from now. Or never.

Or maybe Laughlin or Jacobs’s lackeys, whomever they’d charged with cover-up duties, had gone old school and simply buried him in a grave that some early-morning hunter or jogger would stumble over one day.

My stomach lurched, and I rocked forward to my hands and knees, the imagined scene pictured too clearly in my head, the white of his shirt, now dull and dirtied, wrapped in tatters around bones. Bile rose up my throat. I coughed and choked it out, bright yellow on the pristine white floor.

“So, see?” Rachel asked, watching me, satisfaction heavy in her expression. “I’m not the only one who’s selfish. You got Zane killed, and you won’t even help his family and those of us who really cared about him say good-bye.”

Her words struck deeply, where I was most vulnerable. Because she was, after all, absolutely correct. I might not know where Zane’s body was, but I was definitely the reason he was dead.

“Screw you, Rachel,” I said, wiping my chin and glaring at her through my tears. “I hope you get everything a real person like you deserves.”

“Girls, girls,” Dr. Jacobs said in a scolding tone, catching both of us by surprise. He stood at the top of the steps behind Rachel, having emerged from the private elevator or perhaps even the observation room behind my cell. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t care.

Rachel stood up immediately, scooping her bag up from the floor and slinging it over her shoulder. Then her hand shot out toward him, palm up. “Cash,” she said flatly.

His smile was tight with irritation. “Good afternoon to you, my dear,” he said. “Manners do still count for something, you know.” But he reached into the pocket of his white lab coat to remove a silver, or more likely platinum, money clip.

“Yeah? How about you save your lectures for the grandchild you didn’t try to have murdered?” She paused for a moment, pretending to think, tapping her finger against her mouth. “Oh, wait…there’s just me.”

Rachel was holding tight to her grudge. Not surprising. Dr. Jacobs had once thrown her into my cell, hoping she’d annoy me enough that I’d kill her and therefore meet the entrance requirement for the trials. When a family member, the only one who seems to really care about you, is willing to have you killed to prove the worthiness and ability of his science experiment—namely, me—that’s probably not something you get over quickly or easily. Unfortunately, that didn’t change the fact that he was still pretty much all she had.

Dr. Jacobs paused counting out hundred dollar bills to give Rachel a sharp look.

“You know, if you’d just give me access to my trust fund, we wouldn’t have to go through this,” she said. “You bribing me to talk to your toy, me pretending not to hate you.” She waved her hand in an airy gesture.

“Not until you’re eighteen,” he said with a weary air that suggested this was a conversation that had taken place multiple times in various iterations.

I pushed myself to my feet to snag the roll of toilet paper from my bathroom—a toilet, sink, and shower set up in the corner of the room behind a privacy curtain that was more of a suggestion of such than the real thing.

I wanted, if at all possible, to get the floor cleaned up before Jacobs noticed. But I forced myself not to rush; that would surely draw his attention faster than anything.

“I could hire a lawyer,” Rachel continued, snatching up the money he held out and shoving it into her bag.

“Not one that’s better than all of mine,” he shot back. “It’s untouchable for the next fourteen months, Rachel. Get used to it, please.”

“Whatever. I’m late to meet Cami,” she said, spinning off in a huff.

I mopped up the floor as Rachel stomped up the stairs, her heels cracking loudly on the tile.

“I’ve already made your excuses for your absence on Friday, as you requested.” Jacobs’s voice was muffled as he turned away from the intercom outside my cell to call after his granddaughter. “I explained your trip to Chicago has an academic aspect, and Mr. Kohler has agreed that a five-page paper on the architecture of the city should be more than enough to—”

“Five pages?” Rachel shrieked.

“Chicago? She’s coming with us?” I blurted, the wad of toilet paper forgotten in my hands. He was bringing Rachel to the trials? Since when had this top secret competition become a spectator sport? The thought of her smug face watching from the bleachers made me feel ill. I still didn’t know exactly what the trials would involve. Dr. Jacobs claimed not to know. The event was supposedly shrouded in secrecy, to prevent one competitor from having an advantage over another.

Dr. Jacobs turned to me, startled. “Don’t be ridiculous. Rachel is accompanying her friends on a shopping outing.” He glared at me, as though I was the one revealing secrets.

“Wait, you’re letting her out?” Rachel asked her grandfather, a beat too slow on the uptake. Was it just me, or had her face gone a shade paler?

“It’s nothing for you to be concerned with,” Dr. Jacobs said, lifting his hands reassuringly. Rachel shuddered.

“Just keep her away from Michigan Avenue. I don’t want her spoiling anything for us. Cassi’s always filling out those stupid giveaway cards. It’s about time she actually won something nonpathetic. They’re sending a car for us on Friday.” She paused with a frown. “I hope the driver knows to bring spring water—the carbonated kind, not that cheap regular stuff.”

Then she turned and stalked off toward the elevator. I felt Dr. Jacobs’s attention return to me.

I chucked the toilet paper into the tiny plastic trash can (white, just like everything else in here) and resumed my place on the floor, forgetting until I was in position that I’d already done sit-ups and my stomach was not in a forgiving mood.

“That was more emotive than you’ve been in a while,” Jacobs said conversationally as I forced myself through another set of five. I didn’t know whether he meant my shouting at Rachel earlier or the vomiting on the floor, but I wasn’t going to ask.

What he said sounded like a statement, but I knew better. It was bait with a bright, shiny hook buried inside. He’d been trying to get me to talk for weeks now, to open up, as he said.

A horrible idea that brought to mind the image of my skull being cracked open with everything spilling out for further examination, speculation, and admiration of his handiwork.

I gave a shake of my head, more to myself than him. No, damn it. My feelings and thoughts were mine, at least. The only things that were, in this place. And I was going to keep them.

Instead, I lay on the floor, giving my abused muscles a break, and retrained my efforts on the other side of my new exercise regime. With barely any exertion, I had my cot suspended above me again, along with my initial stack of books, gathered and reassembled in midair. Once, something like this would have been difficult for me and the results unpredictable. The lightbulbs overhead would have blown and anything not bolted down would have been shaking and shifting.

Not anymore. Amazing what grim, uncompromising determination would do for you.

“Your improvement is quite impressive, particularly for such a short amount of time,” Jacobs said, after a moment. “Then again, I suppose that might be due to your newly acquired motivation.”

I went still, and the books wobbled slightly. Was that an oblique reference to Zane’s death? If Jacobs had guessed my intention to raze Project Paper Doll to the ground, personnel included, I wasn’t sure what he would do. He needed me to compete in the trials but certainly not at the risk of loss, humiliation, and death.

I let out my breath slowly, straining to maintain an impassive expression. Steady, stay steady. I wasn’t sure if I was talking to my cot and the books or myself.

“Your desire to seek vengeance against Ford is understandable,” he continued. “And I certainly can’t argue with the results.”

I relaxed. That was a logical assumption on his part. Of course I would blame the person who pulled the trigger on the bullet that had killed Zane. In Dr. Jacobs’s arrogant mind, that was the only reasonable response. No way would I hold him responsible. He hadn’t hurt anyone.

Except me. Over and over again, in almost every way possible. He had vastly underestimated the depths of my anger and desire for retaliation.

A grim smile pulled at the corners of my mouth. His loss. Or, it would soon be. Yes, Ford had shot Zane, but it had been unintentional, a by-product of her attempt at self-defense against Laughlin’s guards. Zane’s death was her fault only because she, like me, was a pawn in this game Jacobs and Laughlin were playing with us.

“But we,” Dr. Jacobs said with a wink at me, as if we were somehow collaborating, “need you to be you. Everything that makes you special, not some flesh-and-blood robot.” He made a disgusted noise at the idea and then smiled at me as if I understood what he was talking about.

Which I didn’t. Not at first. Robot? What?

Then, suddenly, his meaning clicked. Oh. If I were too much like Ford, too obviously different, inhuman and nonemotional, his methodology wouldn’t shine through, demonstrating the obvious advantages of his technique (i.e., she walks, talks, even smiles just like a real human, but she’s not!) over that of his competitor, Dr. Laughlin.

And that, in turn, explained Rachel’s persistent presence. Rachel had the ability to crawl beneath my skin and set up camp, like a rash that would not go away. She irritated me, to the extreme. He’d been counting on her for that, to force me to react and dissolve the walls I’d put up around my feelings.

He wanted to make sure that if he pricked me, I’d still bleed. Especially in front of the audience we would have waiting for us at the trials. And I’d fallen right in line with his plan.

A fresh cascade of self-hatred washed over me, and I let my cot and books fall to the floor.

I stood on shaking legs to turn my back on Dr. Jacobs’s gloating face. He’d won, yet again.

“You’ll be pleased to hear that Private Zadowski is being released from the hospital today,” he said smugly.

My breath caught in my throat at the name; a vision of that soldier’s face, young and unlined, growing purple from the effort to stay alive, was so bright in my mind.

“Minimal permanent damage to the heart, despite clinical death, thanks to your resuscitation efforts. He’s going to be fine.” He paused. “You really are quite capable of amazing things, 107.” He sounded impressed, pleased, but there was a layer of smugness beneath it all, as if to say, “Of course you are. Because I made you.”

Then he walked up the stairs and away from my cell, whistling, his shoes clacking happily on the tile floor. My fingernails dug into the vulnerable skin of my upper arms, the pain sharpening my focus and reminding me of my true purpose.

Oh, Dr. Jacobs, you have no idea what I’m capable of.

I lowered myself into push-up position on the floor and sent that second stack of books into the air, where they held steadily for the first time.

Two more days.

Other Books in the "Project Paper Doll" series

The Rules

The Rules

Book 1

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The Hunt

The Hunt

Book 2

read more »