Soldier Page 24

As one, the dragons raised their heads and looked up.

My skin crawled, and I clutched the cold railing, repressing a shiver as I stared at them. These were hatchlings, my age, or they would have been if they’d had a normal hatching. They were dragons who should have been like me, but they were all...wrong. There was no spark of personality, no individual that stood out from the rest, no defining features or characteristics. They were carbon copies, perfectly alike, staring up at us with eyes as blank and empty as a statue.

“We’re still in the testing phase,” Dr. Olsen said, observing the dragons with a faint smile on his face. “There have been a few hiccups here and there—you have to tell them when to eat, and sleep, and...well, let’s say they don’t follow the call of nature on their own. But we’ve found them highly responsive to stimuli and able to retain nearly everything they have learned. So far, they are able to follow complex commands without fail, provided you show them what you want them to do first. Observe.”

He pulled a silver dog whistle from inside his lab coat, then blew on it sharply, though the only sound I heard was a faint, high-pitched hissing noise. The clones, however, straightened and instantly began to Shift. Scales melted away; wings shrank down and vanished; tails, claws and horns disappeared. Now a dozen barefoot, identical humans stood in two neat rows at the edge of the room. They wore skintight black briefs, their heads were shaved, and I could just make out a line of numbers tattooed above their left ears. Thirteen pairs of blank, silvery eyes stared fixedly at the scientist, unblinking.

A chill crept up my back. Somehow, this was even worse.

“Marvelous,” breathed Mr. Roth, gazing down at the replicas with a broad smile on his face. “They can Shift, after all. The organization will be very pleased, indeed.”

I swallowed the dryness in my throat. “Why do they all look the same, Dr. Olsen?”

“Part of their genetic code,” the scientist replied. “They look the same because they share the same genetic makeup. You can’t clump them together in public, of course, but they are much easier to hide and transport in human form.” Dr. Olsen beamed, as if showing off a winning science project. “The knowledge of Shifting was also part of the encoding,” he went on, turning to Mr. Roth. “So these dozen hatchlings managed to learn and reliably perform the skill in a few days, rather than the standard two years.”

“Very impressive,” Mr. Roth said, a dark gleam in his eyes as he stared down at them. “And how long have they been able to hold a human shape, Doctor?”

“We’ve been slowly testing to see how long they are able to remain Shifted,” the scientist replied, gazing over the clones with an almost fatherly smile on his face. “So far, they can reliably retain human form for eight hours.”

“Excellent. So they are very nearly ready.” Mr. Roth nodded once, then turned to me. “Soon, Mr. Hill, you will have the opportunity to prove yourself. You will have the chance to show Talon exactly what you, and these vessels, can do.” I gave him a puzzled look, and he gestured back to the creatures below us. “We will need the clones ready for battle as soon as possible, able to follow commands and kill without question. We need them to be a fighting force, and you will be in charge of overseeing this project, Mr. Hill.” His smile widened as I blinked at him in shock. “We realize you are not a Viper or a Basilisk and this is not what you were trained for, but nonetheless, Talon is entrusting you with this task. I hope you surpass all our expectations.”

“Sir...” For a moment, I stumbled on what I wanted to say, torn between confusion and horror. Talon was putting me in charge of making the vessels battle ready? Why? I wasn’t prepared for this. My calling was politics and business, meeting important people and swaying them to our way of thinking. Blending in to the human population. What did I know about preparing things for war?

“You have questions,” Mr. Roth said matter-of-factly, still smiling at me. “Don’t be afraid to ask, Mr. Hill. Talon wants you to be fully comfortable in the tasks we set for you.”

“I only have one question, sir,” I said, knowing that statement wasn’t entirely true. It didn’t matter what I felt or what doubts I had. It didn’t matter that just watching the vessels from a hundred yards away made my skin crawl, and that I certainly didn’t want to get close to any of them. When Talon gave you a job, you did it, no questions asked. Talon’s interest lay in how well you completed your task and whether you succeeded or failed. Nothing else mattered.

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