“Cela? Cela, you’re up.”
The illusion of darkness was broken as a pair of amber eyes opened to look up at the silhouette towering over them.
“Celandine, did you hear me?”
As her eyes adjusted to the light, the young woman saw the face of her friend – a well-built man with bushy hair – looking down at her in concern.
“I heard you, Lee…”
“It’s your turn. You don’t wanna keep ’em waiting…”
Celandine didn’t move right away, sitting with her back to the wall as she looked around at the dozen other people in the room. From the flaky old man crouching in the shadows to the mousy girl flitting in and out of the light every few minutes, each face had a story to tell. But it was always the same story.
“You don’t have a choice!”
The two friends turned simultaneously to see who had spoken. A tall, slender woman emerged from the shade, eyes gleaming almost menacingly in the light.
“You have to do this, Cela”, she said softly, ” for all of us. Remember their promise…”
“I don’t believe them, Psi!” Celandine rose to her feet to level with the approaching woman. “They were never gonna set us free! We’re just animals to them! They like controlling us, keeping us for display! They’re all liars!”
“You won’t know that until you finish the task you were trained for!” The taller woman turned to the young man beside her. “Leonidas, help me out.”
“Psipsina’s right; if you don’t go through with this tonight, they might never let us go. Please, just get up there…”
“And let all those people stare at me like the freak I’m supposed to be?!”
As she shouted these words, the young woman thrust her right arm out to the side. Still her greatest desire for the last five years remained unfulfilled, for where she wished she could be seeing smooth bare flesh, there were nothing but brown feathers.
“I’m not normal!” Celandine continued tearfully. “None of us are! You think Lee wanted to be born part-lion? And you, Psi? I don’t remember you ever saying you love having pointed ears and a cat’s tail! I’m sick of these wings that were never meant for me! I hate being a Hybrid! I wanna be human!”
“Ungrateful child!” All eyes now turned to the elderly man in the corner, who rose to his feet and stepped into the light as he glared at the avian woman through livid reptilian eyes. “You dare defy the humans’ will? You’re a product of years of refined biotechnology, a marvel of genetic engineering! They made you the superior being that you are; you owe them the chance to proudly display their work to the world! Now get out there and fulfill your purpose, siren!”
Celandine felt a tear slide down her cheek as she looked up at the saurian man now standing a foot from her face. “Siren” was one of the derogatory terms that inevitably came with having a humanoid body with the wings of a bird. “Harpy” was even worse, but fortunately, not as common. Noticing his friend’s despondency, Leonidas offered her a kind smile and reached out to gently stroke her feathered arm.
“Don’t worry, Cela”, he whispered. “You’re not a freak; everyone else will see that. Now get out there and make ’em wish they were Hybrids. After tonight, you’ll be free.”
The young woman gazed fondly into her friend’s yellow eyes, then timidly dropped her gaze to his torso. His standard-issue jumpsuit did little to hide the superhuman muscle of his Spartan-esque physique, and she had always admired the dark human-like skin on his powerful arms. After a minute’s hesitation, she reluctantly nodded.
“All right, I’ll do it… for you.”
Though her lips spoke the words as if addressing the entire group, her eyes deemed the promise exclusive to her dearest friend. With her head held high in newfound determination, Celandine strode past the others toward the plasma screen on the opposite wall, which was currently showing her test subject profile. Upon stepping into the cylindrical chamber beside it, she was immediately scanned from head to toe by the same invasive laser that had verified all her peers before her. Then the lift slowly rose into the opening ceiling, until the next thing she knew, she was staring through the glass at a sea of white coats and curious faces. As the chamber door opened onto a stage, an amplified voice echoed through the enormous hall.
“And finally, Specimen Omega of the Fusion Project: the Avian.”
The Hybrid slowly stepped out of the chamber to approach the transparent barrier near the edge of the stage. The moment she reached her mark, the spectacled man at the lectern to her far left spoke into the microphone again, his voice booming through the speakers. By now she knew every cue of the speech by heart, and followed her routine with mechanical precision: spreading her feathered arms to first display her wings from the front, then turning to show the back; demonstrating her agility through the obstacle course erected on the platform; and showing off her flight capabilities by gliding between the perches placed on either end of the enclosed portion of the stage. She fulfilled her purpose, exactly the way she’d been trained.
Throughout her demonstration, the spokesman’s words echoed hollowly in Celandine’s ears, the same words she’d been hearing for the past half-decade. “Fusion”… “splicing”… “Hybrids”… “spy units”… “future of military operations”… None of them meant anything to her. She was just going through the motions, waiting for a promise that might never be fulfilled. As she returned to her mark, she gazed out at the multitude of eyes staring back at her in awe, scanning the audience one last time before she would be called back into the lower deck.
Then two things happened in quick succession: she noticed the control panel window high on the back wall, and a second later, a grinding noise from above drew the attention of the entire room. The enclosure roof had gotten stuck while being replaced after the flight demonstration, leaving an opening to the bright ceiling. Suddenly, the Hybrid knew what she had to do. It was now or never…
Celandine spread her wings and took off with the speed of a falcon. By the time anyone realized what was happening, she was halfway across the hall, flying over the panicking crowd toward the controls that would grant freedom to her and her friends. Her focus was unfaltering; she barely heard the alarms going off, and she didn’t see the uniformed men charging past the fleeing scientists…
But she did feel the sharp pain of 100,000 volts coursing through her body at once. Stunned in midair, she crashed into the window at high speed, shattering the glass as she fell onto the controls that triggered the opening of the Hybrid deck and the doors leading out of the symposium hall. Weakened by the collision, the avian then plummeted the several feet to the ground, some of the large glass shards falling after her only seconds before she hit the floor…
A great roar resounded over the screams of the crowd, driving the humans out the doors at twice their initial speed. The dazed Celandine noticed the pairs of black boots near her head retreating with the stun gun probes in tow, then the silhouettes of several wild-looking figures barreling toward her up the aisle as a familiar voice called her name…
The young woman felt her upper body being lifted into a pair of strong lionlike arms. Only then did she notice the rather sizable shard of glass jutting out of her abdomen, as well as the red stain spreading on the floor beneath her. Still numb with shock, she looked faintly up into the yellow eyes that were gazing anxiously back into her amber ones.
“Cela”, Leonidas whispered, “what did you do?”
And then the young man saw something he hadn’t seen in years: a smile forming on his best friend’s lips. While the rest of the Hybrids chased the humans back during their escape, Celandine found comfort in her friend’s embrace, now gazing past him into the bright lights of the metallic ceiling to which, for one minute, she had been close enough to touch.
“I told you I’d do it…” she breathed, “for you. You were right. Thank you, Lee…”
The noises around her were beginning to fade. Leonidas’s face was becoming blurred. She couldn’t feel his tears on her lacerated face, and she barely heard the three words he was uttering to her now. But Celandine was content, for gone with everything else was the life of imprisonment and helplessness she had known for too long, and as the silver skies above her slowly grew dark, her smile never faltered in the light of the truth…
She was free.
This story was my entry for the Dark Futures Contest recently held by Writer’s Carnival in collaboration with Dark Futures e-Zine. The rule was to write a science fiction or horror story, 1500 words or less, that was themed around a gathering of people. The theme I chose for my sci-fi story was a symposium for genetic engineering, the main characters being human-animal Hybrid test subjects. With the contest now over and the winners’ stories already published on the DF website, I decided to share my (slightly edited) piece here on my blog for others to read. Enjoy!
Special thanks to Writer’s Carnival and Dark Futures for hosting the contest, and congratulations to the winners!