A Park Avenue Award winner and Final Draft / Big Break screenplay competition quarter finalist!
Emily is like any other teenage girl. She goes to high school, has a crush on her best friend, Duncan, and is stressed out about college applications. Oh, and one more thing: Emily isn’t real.
She’s actually Nocturne, the leader of a team of super soldiers created by the Janus Project. Genetically engineered. Surgically enhanced. Chemically altered. Psychologically conditioned.
Perfect. Driven. Deadly.
Emily’s cover identity is so convincing that even Emily herself doesn’t realize that she’s been turned into a human weapon. When a crazed soldier from the rival Ares program comes gunning for her, Emily’s perfect life is shattered, and Emily has to fight to discover who–and what–she really is.
God, it was good to be out of the box.
It had been three weeks this time. Nocturne had gone to sleep, and when she woke up it was suddenly October. The lab geeks talked about how her neural patterns needed time to cement and how the cognitive enhancements would fry her noodle if they were kept running all the time, but none of that mattered to Nocturne. What mattered was the fact that her life was slipping away, one lost day at a time.
But she was awake tonight, and she was going to make the most of it. On paper, the mission was just a simple infiltration, a little bit of reverse corporate espionage, and a quick exit. But in reality …
Her target loomed in front of her. DNA Digital was one of the largest biotech firms in America, according to the dossier she’d been given. They worked on artificial hearts, cures for cancer, all that crap.
They were also a shell corporation, a cover for Jade Dragon, China’s latest attempt to create a super soldier.
The building was right out of the Evil Overlord’s Home Shopping Catalog: fifteen stories tall, gleaming, black. DNA Digital’s red logo glowed like the Eye of Sauron. Yeah, she’d seen Lord of the Rings. Even the Janus Operatives got an occasional movie night.
A guard complex sat on the South side. They had tried to make it inconspicuous, but Nocturne knew that the reinforced concrete and bulletproof glass weren’t cheap, and they weren’t added without good cause. The pair of barbed wire fences were a good indication that there was more going on here than pain pills and diabetes drugs. And the guards, with their body armor and assault rifles, really pushed it over the line.
Nocturne had to laugh. These people hadn’t learned the most important lesson of SPECOPS: invisible is better than invincible.
Heavy boots crunched on gravel. Nocturne slowed her breathing and let the shadows embrace her. The guard walked by, flashlight playing off the grass inches from her feet, but he never even suspected she was there.
Nocturne waited until he rounded the corner, then counted to fifteen. The next guard wouldn’t be by for six minutes.
She leapt from the shadows and ran straight at the fences.
She crouched, her muscles coiling like springs, and threw herself into the air. She cleared the ten foot tall fence without a problem and dropped to the ground between the two. The second fence was even taller–fifteen feet, probably–and Nocturne would have loved to see if she could clear that, too, but the fences were only four feet apart. Not nearly enough room to get a running start.
Instead, she started to climb. Quickly, silently, she scaled the fence. Her gloves, woven with Kevlar, protected her hands from the biting razors at the top. They gloves weren’t even fancy; you could order them from Amazon. Nocturne wondered why people bothered trying to secure their facilities.
Nocturne dropped to the ground inside the compound. She raced to the left, toward the biggest patches of shadows, and melted into the darkness. That was another mistake; DNA Digital should have covered their lawn with lights, illuminating anything that would allow an infiltrator cover. Instead, they planted lots of pretty bushes and trees and kept the lighting to a minimum. Probably worried about their carbon footprint or something.
The next guard was thirty seconds late. That was actually good OPSEC. You don’t want to be too predictable. If the guys running this shop really knew what they were doing, they would have completely randomized the patrols. Apparently it’s hard for a nefarious organization to hire decent help these days.
He was wearing about thirty pounds of gear, mostly Kevlar armor, but the guard moved easily, confidently. This guy was no rent-a-cop. He wasn’t exactly an elite–an elite would have known something was wrong, sensed that someone else was there–but he seemed capable.
Nocturne watched him turn the corner. He didn’t lead with his weapon, which was smart. You don’t want someone to grab it before you spot them. He stepped away from the building, too, so he could see what was waiting for him. Quietly competent. Nocturne was almost impressed.
Ninety seconds until the K-9 unit arrived. Nocturne ran.
DNA Digital had made one more mistake when they built this place: the building wasn’t square. It had all of those nifty little outcroppings and angles and crap that let you know the architect’s degree had cost a ton of money. If they had set up their headquarters in a normal building, she would have been exposed the entire time she climbed, but this fancy architecture provided plenty of cover.
The freaking guy with his freaking dog showed up just before she started to scale the building.
Nocturne took cover behind a row of hedges. She willed herself to be invisible, forced her heart to slow, clenched her hands to stop them from trembling. The guard, and more importantly his dog, came closer. The dog sniffed the air, tugged its master toward the hedges.
“What is it, boy?” he asked.
The dog stopped a foot from Nocturne’s hiding place. Its snout was inches from her face. Its eyes, amber in the dim lights, looked right at her.
She looked right back, glowering, asserting dominance.
The dog whimpered, tucked its tail, and turned aside.
“Silly mutt,” the guard said. He ruffled the dog’s head and walked away.
The next guard was two minutes away. Nocturne had to move. Now.
She hurried from the hedges and threw herself at the wall. She hit the gleaming black surface sixteen feet up, and her magnetic gloves locked on with a metallic clunk. Hand over hand, she started to climb.
The wind didn’t hit her until she was halfway up, her feet dangling in the air. Suddenly, chilly air rushed over her body. It was nice; her combat suit wicked the sweat away from her body, and the air was refreshing. Less nice, though, was the way the air made her sway left and right. She had to fight to maintain her grip, even with the gloves.
She made short work of the last few stories and hauled herself over the edge, onto the roof. She raced across the gravel–everything was gravel here–and knelt by the ventilation grate to unscrewed the cover.
The ventilation shafts were narrow. Good thing Nocturne kept her girlish figure. She shimmied her way from the roof to the room on the thirty-fifth floor, removed the grate, and dropped down.
There were no laser trips or motion detectors. Good to know that the Project’s intelligence was solid. She crawled, quietly but quickly, through the maze of ductwork and shafts, until she reached her target.
The room was empty. You know, except for the elevator door and the giant, featureless cube right smack in the middle of the floor. Thirty feet tall, smooth steel, and accessible only through a reinforced door on the West face.
Nocturne crouched by the door, pulled a set of tools from her belt, and started working on the card reader that controlled access to the cube. It took her forty-seven seconds to make the reader flash green and the door whush open. That was three seconds faster than she’d managed in training.
She screwed the card reader back into place and entered the cube.
Inside was a server farm; row after row after row of computers, each one the size of a refrigerator, each one as black as the DNA Digital building itself. The room was lit with soft blue lights, and the computers’ LED status indicators twinkled like fireflies.
Nocturne pulled the door closed and ran down the rows. The control panel sat at the far end of the room, in a drawer concealed in one of the servers. Nocturne slid the drawer out, raised the screen, and deployed the keyboard.
A login screen appeared, showing the Jade Dragon logo.
“Subtle,” she whispered. Nocturne inserted a USB drive. The device blinked, and a moment later the screen unlocked.
She typed, and a search program ran. Nocturne opened a handful of the results. A schematic of a building in Colorado, which was officially a credit union, but actually had five subterranean levels that weren’t on any of the blueprints. A video of a firefight in the Czech Republic. A dossier of a scientist named Kurt Vaulner.
Nocturne touched the communications unit strapped to her neck. “Guys? Our informant deserves however many renminbi we paid him, because these guys have everything.”
Doctor Sarah Williams was picking at her fingernails.
It was a bad habit, something she fell into every time she was nervous. She’d done it since elementary school, and she’d never been able to stop, not even when her mother used to snap her with a rubber band every time she caught her doing it.
She was nervous every time Nocturne went on an operation. She couldn’t help it. Despite her training, despite the fact that Sarah knew she wasn’t supposed to get attached, she was starting to realize that she cared about her Operative.
Of course, being in the field herself was also pretty nerve racking.
She understood the why. Jade Dragon was a serious threat, the biggest threat Janus had ever dealt with. And if their intel was correct, Jade Dragon was the biggest threat to the Janus Operatives, too. If something went wrong, it would be important for Sarah to get to Nocturne as quickly as possible. But she’d still prefer to observe the operation from the safety of the lab.
The van was big, but she still felt claustrophobic. The bench seats had been removed, and the space filled with computers and communications equipment. Oh, and a small cache of automatic weapons.
Creede, the Project’s head of security, sat in the driver’s seat, slicing an apple with his giant, gleaming, clearly-overcompensating-for-something knife. He acted like this was just another night, like they were waiting for an oil change or something. It freaked Sarah out. His partner, Hauk, was on top of the telephone pole outside, pretending to be performing maintenance. Creede was cold, but professional. Hauk, on the other hand, actively scared her. He had cauliflower ears and scars around his eyes, and a slash than ran from his right ear to his chin. And they way he went about his job … Creede called what they did a necessary evil. Hauk seemed to enjoy it.
Sarah was glad she wasn’t responsible for his psych evaluations.
Ryker Jennings, who was technically a Doctor (three times over), sat in the back with Sarah. He was supposed to be monitoring his computers, but instead he was reading a comic book. Sarah had only known him for six months, but she had already exhausted all of her anger toward him. Now all she could feel was exasperation, and a deep, abiding wonder that he ever managed to pass his dissertations.
Nocturne’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Guys? Our informant deserves however many renminbi we paid him, because these guys have everything.”
Creede stopped mid-slice. “Damn it. Even Dr. Vaulner?”
“I’m looking at his picture now,” Nocturne said.
Creede swore. Ryker giggled, but Creede shot him a homicidal glare. Ryker choked and nearly fell out of his chair.
Sarah just shook her head. Ryker’s file claimed that he was one of the most gifted scientists in the Project. He acted like a reject from The Big Bang Theory.
“Um, okay Nocturne,” Ryker said, finally turning toward his comm station, “just run the program I gave you, and it’ll take care of the rest.”
“Really?” Nocturne asked. “I thought I was picking up pizza.”
Sarah bit her lip. She wished that their star Operative would take the mission just a little more seriously.
Nocturne clicked on Ryker’s program. A window opened, with the title JNS-187. A progress bar appeared and started slowly climbing towards one-hundred percent.
Outside the cube, the elevator door dinged open and a security guard stepped onto the floor. He made a complete circuit around the cube, walking casually, swinging his flashlight to the rhythm of the old rock song he was humming to himself.
He unclipped the walkie-talkie from his belt. “Control, this is Stevens. Thirty-Five is, and I know this is gonna be a shock, empty and secure. I’m heading into the cube now.”
The security guard held his badge up to the card reader. A moment later it flashed green, and the door whooshed open.
Nocturne’s head whipped toward the sound. Her eyes narrowed like a viper’s. Her muscles tensed, and her mind filled automatically with thoughts of violence.
The progress bar read seventy percent.
The guard walked into the cube, humming a song that hadn’t been popular since his prom date stood him up to bang the quarterback. He took his time, swinging his flashlight down each row, seeing what he expected, not what was really there.
But an entire person? An open terminal, uploading a virus? Even Bob Seger there wouldn’t miss that.
The guard stopped halfway into the room and bent to pick up an empty Twix wrapper. “Damn geeks,” he muttered. “They know they ain’t allowed to eat in here.”
Nocturne suppressed a growl. Her muscles coiled, ready to lash out.
Bob Seger shoved the wrapper into his pocket and resumed his inspection. The control room would be expecting him to call back in five minutes, ten at the max. If Nocturne took him out, that’s how much time she’d have to finish uploading Ryker’s virus, get back to the roof, climb down thirty-five stories, run the three blocks to the van, and get the hell out of there.
She could do it, probably, but it would be close.
The guard drew closer.
Damn it, Ryker. Write faster software.
Bob Seger was one row away, humming something about night moves. If Nocturne didn’t have better discipline, she would have shuddered.
Fight scenarios flashed through Nocturne’s mind. A swift punch across the jaw. A rear naked choke. A flurry of knees and elbows. Any one of them would take him out long before he could scream. Not that screaming would do him any good inside the cube.
Nocturne pressed up against the server, waiting for the guard to turn the corner.
One-hundred percent. Nocturne ripped the thumb drive out of the computer, stashed the control console, and jumped into the air. She grasped the top of the server and silently hauled herself up. She laid flat on top of the server rack. Bob Seger walked below her, completely unaware.
He took his time wandering back out of the cube, and Nocturne almost started drumming her fingers to pass the time. But he finally scanned out, and Nocturne felt her ears pop as the vault door whooshed open.
“Control, this is Stevens. Cube is big, empty, and boring.”
“Copy that, Stevens,” control said through the walkie-talkie. “Food’s here. Get back down here before Tony eats it all.”
“On my way,” Seger said as he pushed the door closed.
Nocturne jumped down from her hiding spot, counted to fifty, and left the cube, slipping back into the ventilation shaft and heading toward the roof.
Scott was dead.
He hadn’t meant to come in late. He really hadn’t. But he’d only been married for three months, and Tina was very persuasive, and …
He’d been good all week, on time for every shift, but Dennison had made it pretty clear that he was running out of patience. Maybe the box of doughnuts would smooth things over.
Huh. The electric company had a van parked on the North side of the complex. That wasn’t impossible, Scott figured, but it was still weird. The only time Scott had ever seen the utility company work after hours was when the transformer blew, in that big ass thunder storm last spring. A quarter of the city had lost power, and they had all hands on deck trying to get things back up and running. But tonight the sky was clear, all of the street lights were on, and Scott couldn’t see a good reason for the van to be there.
“Nice of you to show up,” the guy at the gate, Turner, said.
“Yeah yeah yeah,” Scott answered, flashing his badge. It was a formality, but the bosses were big on formalities. “Wife, uh, lost my keys again.”
Turner smirked. “I’ll bet she did. I’ll bet she stuck them right up–”
“You are a disgusting human being, and I hope you die alone,” Scott said. “Shut up and take a doughnut.”
“You get any chocolate cream?”
“Of course I did. You know I love you.” Scott passed the box through the window. Turner grabbed it gleefully.
“Hey,” Scott asked, “how long has that van been parked there?”
“Van?” Turner said around a mouthful of pastry. He stepped out of the gate shack and looked down the street. “Huh.”
Turner grabbed his walkie-talkie. “Control, this is Turner. We’ve got a suspicious vehicle on the North perimeter. Probably nothing, but can you send a team to check it out?”
“Copy that, Turner,” the walkie-talkie crackled.
“Okay,” Nocturne said into her comm unit, “mission accomplished, the Eagle has landed, Houston we have no problems. Let’s make like a tree and get out of here.” She fit the grate back over the rooftop ventilation shaft and screwed it into place.
“Copy that, Nocturne,” Sarah said. Nocturne could hear the stress in the doctor’s voice. “Come on back to the van and we’ll get out of here.”
“Can we stop at Wendy’s on the way home? I’m starving.”
“Nocturne,” the scientist began. Nocturne smirked. She wondered why Kingsley had sent her into the field. The girl clearly wasn’t ready. Hell, she was a sexy librarian that somehow wandered into a secret government project. Chances were, she’d never be ready.
“I’m on my way, Doc. Don’t get your unmentionables all twisted up.”
Nocturne slipped on her climbing gloves and started her descent.
Thank God. Nocturne would be back in a few minutes, and then they could get out of there. Sarah would feel infinitely better once she was back in the lab’s safe confines, away from espionage and intrigue and Creede and Hauk and anyone else with a gun. She’d …
The guy walking toward the van was wearing a private security uniform, but he was no rent-a-cop. The shotgun he cradled in his arms was very, very real. At least, it looked real to Sarah. She wasn’t trained to know the difference between a real gun and a fake, between an unloaded weapon and one that was ready to punch a big, red hole through her Pilates-sculpted stomach.
Crap. She’d missed her Pilates class, too.
Sarah shook her head. Calm down, focus. “Um, guys?”
“Shut up and stay down,” Creede hissed. He slid his knife back into the sheath strapped to his hip and drew his gun. His apple fell to the floor and rolled into the back of the van.
“We’ve got company,” Hauk said into the radio.
“Eyes on one,” Creede added. “Total hostile force unknown.”
“I see five moving in this general direction. Could be more on the way.”
It was going to be okay. None of them were dressed up like ninjas or commandos or anything. Well, except for Nocturne, but she was still a hundred feet in the air. The van was dark, and all of the gear and weapons were hidden from view. It was going to be okay.
“Nocturne?” Sarah whispered into the microphone. “We may have a problem.”
“God,” Nocturne responded, “I leave you guys alone for five minutes.”
“I said shut up!” Creede spat, a whisper as harsh as a gunshot. Sarah turned off the comm link.
The security guard stopped by Creede’s window and tapped on the glass. Creede rolled the window down. “Evening, sir,” he said. His voice was pleasant, almost cheerful.
“Evening,” the security guard said. His tone was light, friendly, and he had a light Southern accent. “Can I ask what you all are doing out here this evening?”
“DSL’s down,” Creede said, jerking his head toward Hauk.
The guard craned his neck to observe Hauk, who nodded in acknowledgment. The security guard whispered something into his wrist, then turned back to Creede. “Kinda late for a maintenance call, isn’t it?”
Creede shrugged. “I just go where they send me, man. People been calling, complaining, so here we are.”
The guard tried to peer into the van, but couldn’t make out anything in the darkness. He talked into his wrist again. “Control? You guys having issues with your internet?”
“Negative,” a little box on his shoulder crackled.
The guard raised an eyebrow. “We aren’t having any issues.”
“You a corporate account?” Creede asked.
“A corporate account. You from that big fancy building over there?”
“Yeah,” the guard said, suspicious.
“Gotcha. Yeah, you’d be running a business class connection. Different wire.” He jerked his chin up, toward the cables running overhead. “This one serves the residential accounts.”
Creede pressed his gun against the door frame, pointed right at the security guard.
Sarah picked at her fingernails.
“Okay, then,” the guard said. “I just need to take a peek in the van here, and you guys can be on your way.”
“Come on, man. My wife’s already pissed that I left her with the kid. Don’t make this night any shittier.”
“I don’t want to cause you any undo grief, sir,” the guard said, “but procedure is procedure.” He raised a flashlight and shone it into the back of the van.
Onto Sarah and Ryker, crouched beneath the makeshift desks.
Onto all of their computer equipment. And surveillance gear. And weapons.
The guard choked up on his gun.
“I’m gonna have to ask you to step out of the van, please.” His tone wasn’t friendly anymore.
“I don’t think you want me to do that,” Creede said, his voice barely more than a whisper. He was staring straight ahead.
“And why’s that?”
Now Creede turned to face the man, and his face was a grim mask. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Get out of the van, now! Bill, open that door!”
Someone ripped the sliding door open, revealing an entire team of guards, their weapons all pointed into the van.
Sarah screamed. Ryker threw his hands into the air and pushed back against the far wall.
The lead guard shoved his shotgun toward Creede’s face.
Sarah tried to look away. She didn’t want to see what happened next. She didn’t want to see the gun go off. She didn’t want to see what that would do to Creede’s body. She didn’t want to see…
Creede moved, lightning fast. His hand darted out the window and grabbed the shotgun. He pushed just as the guard fired, and the shot went wide. Holes appeared in the van’s roof. Creede grabbed the man’s collar and pulled, slamming the guard’s head against the door frame. There was a sickening crunch and the guard fell to the ground, blood streaming from his flattened nose.
In the same instant, Hauk dropped from the telephone pole, gun drawn. He fired rapidly, emptying his clip in a fraction of a second. He ejected the magazine, caught it, and threw it into the van, then quickly inserted more ammunition into his weapon.
Three of the guards were on the ground, big, silver welts in their bullet proof vests.
Creede threw his door open, slamming it into another one of the guards. “Hold on!” he screamed.
Sarah barely had time to register the words. Hauk jumped into the van and slammed the door shut. Creede slammed the gas pedal to the floor. The van lurched and shot forward. Sarah was thrown out of her seat. She tumbled to the back of the van, banging her hip on the console edge, and slammed into the back doors. Ryker careened off the comm station and landed in her lap.
“Hey,” he said. “You know, every once in a while I have a dream about you holding my head like this.”
Sarah tried to push him away. The van rocketed down the road.
The security team opened fire.
Bullets punctured the van’s back door. Sarah screamed. Hauk leaned out the window and returned fire. Creede ignored it all, focusing only on piloting the vehicle.
One of the tires exploded. Creede fought for control of the van, but the vehicle careened off the road and smashed into a telephone pole.
The windshield shattered. Glass filled the van’s interior.
Creede and Hauk jerked against their seat belts.
Sarah and Ryker flew through the air and smashed into the chairs before them.
Everything went black.