The diabolic, p.1
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(a.k.a. The Real Yaolan)
Having one lifelong friend I could absolutely trust and rely upon is a blessing, but I have been lucky enough to have two. You guys mean more to me than you know.
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
—WILLIAM BLAKE, “The Tiger”
EVERYONE believed Diabolics were fearless, but in my earliest years, all I knew was fear. It preyed on me the very morning the Impyreans viewed me in the corrals.
I couldn’t speak, but I understood most words I heard. The corral master was frantic in his warnings to his assistants: the Senator von Impyrean and his wife, the Impyrean Matriarch, would be arriving shortly. The keepers paced about my pen, surveying me head to toe, searching for any defect.
I awaited this Senator and Matriarch with my heart pounding, my muscles poised for battle.
And then they came.
All the trainers, all the keepers, dropped to their knees before them. The corral master reverently drew their hands to his cheeks.
“We are honored by your visit.”
Fear shot through me. What manner of creatures were these, that the fearsome corral master dropped to the floor before them? The glowing force field of my pen had never felt so constrictive. I shrank back as far as possible. Senator von Impyrean and his wife strolled over and looked in at me from the other side of the invisible barrier.
“As you can see,” the corral master told them, “Nemesis is approximately your daughter’s age and physically tailored to your specifications. She’ll only grow larger and stronger over the next several years.”
“Are you quite sure this girl is dangerous?” drawled the Senator. “She looks like a frightened child.”
The words chilled me.
I was never supposed to be frightened. Fear earned me shocks, reduced rations, torment. No one must ever see me afraid. I fixed the Senator with a ferocious look.
As he caught my eye, he looked startled. He opened his mouth to speak again, then hesitated, squinting, before his gaze broke from mine. “Perhaps you’re right,” he muttered. “It’s in the eyes. You can see the inhumanity. My dear, are you very certain we need this monstrous thing in our household?”
“Every great family has a Diabolic now. Our daughter will not be the only child to go unprotected,” said the Matriarch. She turned to the corral master. “I wish to see what our money will pay for.”
“Of course,” replied the corral master, turning away to wave at a keeper. “Some chum . . .”
“No.” The Matriarch’s voice was whiplash sharp. “We must be certain. We brought our own trio of convicts. They will be a sufficient test for this creature.”
The master smiled. “But of course, Grandeé von Impyrean. You cannot be too careful. So many substandard breeders out there. . . . Nemesis won’t disappoint you.”
The Matriarch gave a nod to someone out of my sight. The danger I’d been anticipating materialized: three men were being led toward my pen.
I pressed back against the force field again, the tingling vibrating along the skin of my back. An icy pit opened in my stomach. I already knew what would happen next. These were not the first men who had been brought to visit me.
The corral master’s assistants unchained the men, then deactivated the far force field to shove them inside with me before raising it again. My breath came in gasps now. I did not want to do this. I did not.
“What is this?” demanded one of the convicts, looking from me to their impromptu audience.
“Isn’t it obvious?” The Matriarch linked her arm through the Senator’s. She cast a satisfied look toward her husband and then addressed the convicts in a most pleasant tone: “Your violent crimes have brought you here, but you have an opportunity to redeem yourselves now. Kill this child, and my husband will grant you pardons.”
The men goggled at the Senator, who gave a disinterested wave of the hand. “It is as my wife says.”
One man swore violently. “I know what that thing is. Do you think I’m a fool? I’m not going near it!”
“If you don’t,” replied the Matriarch with a smile, “you will all three be executed. Now kill the child.”
The convicts surveyed me, and after a moment, the largest of them broke into a leering grin. “It’s a little girl. I’ll do it myself. Come here, girl.” He stalked toward me. “You want this bloody or do I just break her neck?”
“Your choice,” the Matriarch said.
His confidence emboldened the others and set their faces ablaze with the hope of freedom. My heart punched against my rib cage. I had no way to warn them away from me. Even if I had, they would not have listened. Their ringleader had declared me only a girl—and so that was what they saw now. That was their fatal mistake.
The big one reached down to grab me very carelessly, his hand so close that I could smell his sweat.
The smell triggered something within me. It was the same as every time before: the fear vanished. Terror dissolved in a swell of rage.
My teeth clamped down on his hand. Blood spouted, hot and coppery. He shrieked and tried to pull back—too late. I seized his wrist and threw myself forward, twisting his limb as I went. His ligaments crackled. I kicked at the back of his leg to knock him down to the ground. I leaped over him and landed with a stomp of my boots on the back of his head. His skull splintered.
There was another man, who’d also been too bold, moved in too close, and only now realized his error. He yelled out in horror, but he did not escape. I was too fast. My palm thrust into the cartilage of his nose and drove it straight into his brain.
I stepped over the two bodies toward the third man—the one who’d had the sense to fear me. He shrieked and stumbled back against the force field, cowering as I had done earlier, when I was not yet angry. He held up his shaking hands. Sobs convulsed his body.
“Please don’t. Please don’t hurt me, please no!”
The words made me hesitate.
My life, my whole life, had been spent this way, fending off aggressors, killing to ward off death, killing so I would not be killed. But only once before had a voice pleaded for mercy. I hadn’t known what to do then. Now, as I stood over the cowering man, that same confusion filtered through me, rooting me in place. How was I to act from here?
The Matriarch was suddenly standing before me, separated only by the force field. “Can she understand me if I speak?” she asked the corral master.
“They’ve got enough human in them to pick up language,” the corral master said, “but she won’t learn to respond until the machines do some work on her brain.”
The Matriarch nodded and turned back to me. “You’ve impressed me, Nemesis. I ask you now: Do you wish to leave here? Do you wish to have a precious thing of your own to love and protect, and a home with comforts beyond your dreams?”
Love? Comfort? Those were strange words. I didn’t know their meaning, but her tone was coaxing, full of promise. It wove through my mind like a melody, drowning out the whimpers of the terrified man.
I could not look away from the Matriarch’s sharp eyes.
Love. Comfort. I didn’t know what those were, but I wanted them. I would have them. I closed the distance and snapped the man’s neck.
As the third corpse dropped to the floor at my feet, the Matriarch smiled.
Later, the keepers brought me to the laboratory, where a young girl waited. I was restrained for her safety, my arms and legs encased in thick iron with an outer ring of glowing electricity. I couldn’t stop staring at this odd little creature, small and trembling, with dark hair and skin and a nose that had never been broken.
I knew what this creature was. This was a real girl.
I knew, because I’d killed one before.
She drew a step too close to me and I snarled at her. She flinched back.
“She hates me,” she said, her lower lip trembling.
“Nemesis doesn’t hate you,” the doctor assured her as he double-checked my restraints. “This is how Diabolics behave at this stage of development. They look like us, but they aren’t truly human beings like you and me. They’re predators. They can’t feel empathy or kindness. They simply don’t have the capacity for it. That’s why, when they’re old enough, we have to civilize them. Come closer, Sidonia.”
He crooked a finger. Sidonia followed him to a nearby computer screen. “See that?” he asked.
I could see the image too, but I didn’t find it interesting. I’d broken open enough skulls to recognize a human brain.
“That’s called a frontal cortex.” He fell silent a moment, and there was a flicker of fear in the look he darted at the girl. “I haven’t researched that for myself, of course, but in my line of work, you simply learn things from watching the machines.”
Sidonia’s brow flickered downward, as though his words had puzzled her.
Flustered, he went on in a rapid tone, “As far as I understand it, these machines are going to make this part of her brain bigger. Much bigger. They’ll make Nemesis smarter. She’ll learn how to speak to you and how to reason. The machines will also begin the bonding process.”
“Then she’ll like me?”
“After today, she’ll be your best friend.”
“So she won’t be so angry anymore?” Sidonia’s voice sounded small.
“Well, that aggression is simply how Diabolics are engineered. But Nemesis won’t direct that toward you. In all the universe, you’ll be the only person she will ever love. Anyone who tries to hurt you, though—they better watch out.”
Sidonia gave a tremulous smile.
“Now, honey, I need you to go stand where she can see you. Eye contact is critical for the bonding process.”
The doctor positioned Sidonia before me, carefully out of reach. He avoided my biting mouth and applied stimulating nodes to my skull. After a moment, they buzzed and hummed.
A tingle through my brain, stars prickling before my eyes.
My hatred, my need to smash and shred and destroy—it began to calm. Began to fade.
Another fizzling of a current, then another.
I gazed at the small girl before me, and something new stirred inside me, a sensation I’d never felt before.
A constant roar within my skull now, changing me, shifting me.
I wanted to help this girl. I wanted to protect her.
The roaring went on and on, and then it faded away as though nothing else existed in the universe but her.
For several hours as my brain was modified, the doctor ran tests. He let Sidonia move closer to me, and then closer still. He watched me as I watched Sidonia.
Finally it was time.
The doctor withdrew to a distance, leaving Sidonia alone before me. She rose to her feet, shaking all over. The doctor aimed an electricity gun as a precaution and then flipped open my restraints.
I straightened up and extricated myself from the bonds. The little girl drew a sharp breath, her collarbone standing out below her scrawny neck. It would have snapped so easily. I knew that. Yet though I could have hurt her, though I’d been released upon her just like all the others I’d slain, the very idea of injuring this delicate creature made me recoil.
I stepped closer so I could look at this girl in full, this being of infinite value whose survival now meant more to me than my own. How small she was. I wondered at the feeling inside me, which glowed like warm embers in my chest. This marvelous glow came from looking at her.
When I touched the soft skin of Sidonia’s cheek, she flinched. I examined her dark hair, such a contrast to my pale, white-blond shade. I leaned close to examine the irises of her large eyes. Fear flooded their depths, and I wanted that fear gone. She still trembled, so I placed my palms on her frail arms and stood very still, hoping my steadiness would calm her.
Sidonia stopped trembling. The fear faded. Her lips tipped up at the corners.
I imitated the gesture, forcing my lips to curl. It felt unnatural and strange, but I did it for her. It was the first time in my life I’d acted on behalf of someone other than myself.
“Hello, Nemesis,” Sidonia whispered. She swallowed loudly. “My name is Sidonia.” A line appeared between her brows, and then she pressed her palm over her chest. “Si-doe-nya.”
I imitated her, patting my own chest. “Sidonia.”
Sidonia laughed. “No.” She took my hand and pulled it over her chest. I could feel the frantic thump of her heartbeat. “I’m Sidonia. But you can call me Donia.”
“Donia,” I repeated, patting her collarbone, understanding her.
Donia broke into a smile that made me feel . . . warm, pleased, proud. She looked back at the doctor. “You’re right! She doesn’t hate me.”
The doctor nodded. “Nemesis is bonded to you now. She’ll live and breathe for you all the days of your life.”
“I like her, too,” Donia declared, smiling at me. “I think we’ll become friends.”
The doctor laughed softly. “Friends, yes. I promise you, Nemesis will be the best friend you’ll ever have. She’ll love you until your dying day.”
And at last, I had a name for this feeling, this strange but wonderful new sensation within me—this was what the Impyrean Matriarch had promised me.
This was love.
SIDONIA had made a dangerous mistake.
She was carving a statue out of a great stone slab. There was something mesmerizing about the swiping and flashing of her laser blade, bright against the dark window overlooking the starscape. She never aimed the blade where I expected, but somehow she always produced an image in the stone that my own imagination could never have conjured. Today it was a star gone supernova, a scene from Helionic history depicted vividly in rock.
Yet one swipe of her blade had extracted too large a chunk from the base of the sculpture. I saw it at once and jumped to my feet, alarm prickling through me. The structure was no longer stable. At any moment, that entire statue was going to come crashing down.
Donia knelt to study the visual effect she’d created. Oblivious to the danger.
I approached quietly. I didn’t want to warn her—it might startle her into jerking or jumping, and cutting herself with the laser. Better to rectify the situation myself. My steps drew me across the room. Just as I reached her, the first creak sounded, fragments of dust raining down from above her as the statue tilted forward.
I seized Donia and whipped her out of the way. A great crashing exploded in our ears, dust choking the stale air of the art chamber.
I wrested the laser blade from Donia’s hand and switched it off.
She pulled free, rubbing at her eyes. “Oh no! I didn’t see that coming.” Dismay slackened her face as she looked over the wreckage. “I’ve ruined it, haven’t I?”<
“Forget the statue,” I said. “Are you hurt?”
She glumly waved off my question. “I can’t believe I did that. It was going so well. . . .” With one slippered foot, she kicked at a chunk of broken stone, then sighed and glanced at me. “Did I say thanks? I didn’t. Thanks, Nemesis.”
Her thanks did not interest me. It was her safety that mattered. I was her Diabolic. Only people craved praise.
Diabolics weren’t people.
We looked like people, to be sure. We had the DNA of people, but we were something else: creatures fashioned to be utterly ruthless and totally loyal to a single individual. We would gladly kill for that person, and only for them. That’s why the elite imperial families eagerly snatched us up to serve as lifelong bodyguards for themselves and their children, and to be the bane of their enemies.
But lately, it seemed, Diabolics were doing their jobs far too well. Donia often tapped into the Senate feed to watch her father at work. In recent weeks, the Imperial Senate had begun debating the “Diabolic Menace.” Senators discussed Diabolics gone rogue, killing enemies of their masters over small slights, even murdering family members of the child they were assigned to protect to advance that child’s interests. We were proving more of a threat to some families than an asset.
I knew the Senate must have come to a decision about us, because this morning, the Matriarch had delivered a missive to her daughter—one directly from the Emperor. Donia had taken a single look at it and then thrown herself into carving.
I’d lived with her for nearly eight years. We’d virtually grown up side by side. She only grew silent and distracted like this when worried about me.
“What was in the missive, Donia?”
She fingered a slab of the broken statue. “Nemesis . . . they banned Diabolics. Retroactively.”
Retroactively. That meant current Diabolics. Like me.
“So the Emperor expects you to dispose of me.”
Donia shook her head. “I won’t do it, Nemesis.”