The orderlies spoke only once during the entire process, as they were lifting him from the casket and onto a gurney nearby, counting down to the main effort. Then they wheeled him from the room, and after we’d walked into the room where we’d slept for the last week, they walked out. We didn’t see them again for quite some time; years rather than the minutes I expected then. I realised only after they’d left that we didn’t know their names, and it had never even occurred to me to ask. Something else did occur to me, though.

Uh, professor… is he going to have as much of a freak-out as I had when we woke up?”

How do you mean?”

The, uh… the smells.” Alex was smirking at me.

Oh, no. His senses are heightened, but not to the same level as yours. He’ll have quite enough to get used to as it is. Now, hush, he’ll be waking soon.”

There was a quiet minute or two, and then his eyes flickered and opened, squinting almost immediately.

Muh… my eyes hurt…” History has little or no sense of true drama, but then, we couldn’t warn him of the weight of the moment. James had no such excuse.

That’s because you’ve never used them before,” he said in a deep brown voice. Alex slapped him on the back of the head. Darwin was looking around, now, his face screwed up.

Where am I? This is… not my bed-room,” and when he said it you could hear the pause between words. I decided it was my turn to speak up.

You’re in a hospital ward at Waiouru Army Base, in New Zealand, and it’s the 28th of January, two thousand and eight.” The professor glared at me, probably miffed that I’d stolen his thunder.

How..?” He was probably hoping for something simple like “You’ve gone mad and I didn’t actually say that.” Instead the poor bastard got the professor on another explain-binge. Darwin seemed to tolerate it, like background noise, while he gazed around at us. James and I had put on more ordinary clothes after our showers – I was wearing the yellow shirt, emblazoned with “EMO!” and a smily face, which Sam had made for my birthday a couple of years back,1 and James was in his yellow-and-maroon rugby shirt. Alex was in a dress uniform, and the professor was in full tweed, so we must have looked a little under-dressed, but he’d have to be shocked by our generation’s lax dress standards sooner or later, and it might as well be while he was in a medical ward.

We sat with him for a while. Mostly he just asked the same questions in different ways, the way one does. He took a while to get the idea of women in the army, and grimaced when he finally understood that Alex really was trained as a soldier. He had no trouble with the idea of two largely self-educated white male middle-class layabouts and ne’er-do-wells, however.

1Because Happiness is also an emotion.

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When we arrived back at the warehouse, we jumped straight down from the truck into the big room, and the doors were closed behind us before the truck drove away. The Professor was already standing at the controls of the big machine, making last-minute adjustments, but he turned back to us and said “It’ll be a few hours yet. You can stay and watch if you like, of course, but it’ll just be me pressing buttons .” Suddenly we were at a loss as to what to do with ourselves, though I’m sure James could have made a few suggestions. We went into the conference room, and James and I passed the time arguing with each other as we tried to tell Alex the old Maui-stories we’d learned as children. Everyone knows them, I guess, though under all sorts of different names, and Alex listened bright-eyed, bringing up comparisons to Prometheus and Anansi, and soon we’d given up the original subject and launched into a more general session of arguing and agreeing and telling snippets of stories and trying to remember things we’d read. If you’ve ever been involved in something like that, you know what it’s like, and how impossible it is to remember who said what afterwards, unless someone says something that really pisses you off. When you’re agreeing, though, I think that conversations like that are the closest the outer world can come to the way our thoughts work, inside our heads and all alone.

You three are going to fit in very well in university, I think, if you pass the time by arguing amongst yourselves and trying to get to the truth at the core of things.” We all started as the Professor spoke, and I learned one of the limitations of our new senses: we could only get use out of them if we were paying attention to them. “In any case, the time has now come. We’re taking him out of the tank and putting him in a bed in your room, and he’ll wake up there. You should probably be there when he does, since you’ll be with him for the rest of the year at least.” We all stood, looked at each other a little sheepishly, and followed him out into the big room, where the casket was swung out again, and the fluid draining away into the bowels of the machine, leaving Darwin lying there, still unconscious, wearing nothing but a thin slick of fluid and a pair of dark blue Speedos. The orderly orderlies rinsed him with warm water from a showerhead sort of thing as the Professor applied some sort of pump, apparently clearing his lungs of fluid. It was all shockingly intimate, like stumbling across a mother giving birth. The orderlies then towelled him dry as the Professor reached behind his head and detached something. I reached up and felt the base of my own skull, and suspicions I’d been harbouring for a few days suddenly crystallised. I kept them to myself, though. The knowledge might be more useful at some point in the future. 

The Naturalist

It’s alive. It’s alive!”

He’s alive. Have some respect.”

We ate out in the forest, in a little clearing with grass and such. One of the orderly orderlies fried bacon and mushrooms on a gas stove, and cooked toast on a pyramidal rack over the other element. We lay on the bank and watched the sun rise. After a week indoors, it was good to feel the light of Mother Fusion-ball on our skin, and we didn’t talk much, apart from a few comments on how nice it was outside. I spent most of my time breathing, the scent of pine needles and crushed grass almost as fascinating as smelling Alex in the flush of victory, and a lot less embarrassing to pay attention to. In truth, I was really beginning to get on top of my senses. They were powerful, of course, but they were part of me, and so I could control them. Or so I told myself, though of course as an adult male I was well aware that there are some parts of the body that have a mind of their own. But after the first few days – barring a few memorable instances – I was aware of what my senses were telling me, but didn’t have to wrestle with myself to control my response to them. Alex told me, long afterwards, that it took her about that long to truly get used to them as well. So far as I know, James never bothered, but it was so hard to tell whether his behaviour sprang from an overactive sense for pheromones or from those parts of him that had been overactive since puberty that it never really caused much trouble either way, when measured against the amount of trouble he got into before the Change.

We were loaded into a truck before dawn, wearing hastily-donned digital camouflage, forest pattern. Normally I’d have been complaining about that, but with the new schedule, it was actually a three-hour lie-in. I still enjoyed eight hours, and when I got it woke feeling more than usually rested and cheerful, but a couple of hours a night was enough. James did grumble a little, but only for the look of the thing.

In the truck with us was one of the less-than-orderly orderlies, and he taught us one more thing: how to reload a paint-ball gun. Then we were left on the side of a forestry road and  told we had ten minutes before a squad of SAS soldiers were going to hunt us down with similar weapons. James was grinning like a hyena as the truck drove away.

“Oh, this is going to be fun,” he snarled.

“Really? I’ve heard about the SAS…” Alex told him.

“I think we can beat them, though,” I replied, not to her words but to the way she’d said them, “If we’re smart. Do you think you can walk like three people, James?” His grin didn’t change much, but there was a light in his eyes as he nodded at me.

“Fast enough to look like three people walking into the forest for a good two or three hundred metres if I start now.”

The details took about a minute to hash out, then James set off. Alex and I shared a quick grin not too dissimilar to his, then each shinned up a pine tree near the edge of the forest, and started moving along the path James had laid out. Even in the grey light just before the sun rose, I could see it clearly, but I knew that for SAS men told they were hunting three teenagers, it would look like we were trying to be as stealthy as we could. When James is good, he’s very, very good. And when he’s bad… well, none of his ex-girlfriends ever complained about that part of the relationship.

Clambering through the treetops was… an experience. I spent nearly ten seconds gazing at the texture of the pine bark, amazed by the patterns I saw there. We’d been surrounded by artificial things since the change, and this was my first contact with nature through my new senses. The complexity stunned me, almost literally. When I scraped a growing part of the tree, getting sticky pine sap on the heels of my hands, the scent of it almost filled my world. I kept moving, though.

Eight minutes later, another truck arrived. It was obvious the men inside hadn’t been told the full story, because I could clearly hear them joking about the task they’d been given. They moved like ghosts down either side of the path James had laid for them, and if they’d been hunting humans they might even have been considered to have been moving stealthily. As it was… it was shocking how quickly it was over.

James fired first, with a harsh little phut followed by a sudden flash of colour to match the pink and orange rising to the east. One of our opponents suddenly couldn’t see through his mask, and was a good enough sport to play dead immediately. Alex and I opened up then, a rain of rainbow munitions out of the forest canopy. They were well hidden, but in infrared they glowed against the cool air, and it was easy to fire the pellets through ferns and past tree trunks. In five seconds it was over, and every one of our opponents was spattered with at least one of the three colours we’d been firing. The sun was rising on us for the first time in three weeks, and we’d proven that we could use the skills we’d been taught to look after ourselves, even against the best.

Our victory breakfast contained no poison whatsoever.

I was expecting the attack, but I’d been instructed to sit in a lotus position. Moving before my attacker stepped onto the mat would cost me points. The upside was that they had to put a foot on the edge of the mat before they could do anything else, and no matter how gently your foor is laid on a gymnastics mat, the foam will creak when you push off against it.

My legs unfolded like an origami spring under me, launching my body high into the air. Alex soared underneath me in a horizontal spear-tackle. As I hit the mat and shoved back towards her, she finished a tuck-and-roll and came back. I tried to fling her arms back, but she countered and we locked together, our arms tangled as we each tried to hook the other’s legs out from underneath. I leaned in towards her, knowing I didn’t even have a weight advantage, and the soft creamy smooth dark secret ohcrap…

I flew through the air, and failed to fly through the concrete.

Nice graze. Try not to look down her top next time.” James was grinning at me, speaking through his teeth so that only I could hear.

This was the grand routine of our days, from the second morning of the rest of our lives until the day we met Charles. The orderly orderlies – who weren’t looking so orderly now that one of them was getting up at 2am to start our training, and the other was staying up until midnight to finish it – turned out to be skilled in all sorts of things, and so we learned knife combat, three varieties of unarmed combat, fighting with a quarterstaff, and even how to use a sword, since the same tricks can be applied to anything in the right size and shape range. None of these skills were developed to the same level as our shooting, but the professor encouraged us, over a meal of warfarin-laced cheeseburgers, to practise them until we were confident. Sparring against each other was exactly as bad as I thought it would be, with Alex’s scent at close quarters – to say nothing of what it felt like when she tried to pin me on the mat, or the distraction that followed whenever she managed to get her cleavage in sight1 – almost driving me mad, and James’ enthusiasm giving me bruises. The bruises, at least, disappeared overnight in an almost miraculous fashion, and the grazes Alex gave me looked two weeks old when I woke the next morning. We ran and climbed and jumped and practised standing still in a variety of postures. James and I picked up the trick of picking locks with the same alacrity as we’d shown on the rifle range, and when Alex kept up with us there, I had even more to consider about her. We learned American Sign Language, with its one-handed alphabet, and James and I taught Alex a few signs from New Zealand Sign Language as well. I’m sure there was a lot more we could have learned from our teachers, but we were still confined to the warehouse until the day Darwin was decanted, when we had our passing-out test.

1The first time was an accident, I’m sure. After that, it was a tactic, and one that worked depressingly well.

The afternoon was taken up with an endurance test, the three of us side-by-side on the big treadmill, jogging at a steady forty kilometres per hour. If we’d been on the road, we would have been far away by the time we stopped for a late dinner. Eight hours at a speed we wouldn’t have been capable of a few weeks before. While we were doing it we didn’t think about it, each of us listening to our own music, falling into our own foot-trance, but when we stepped down with our legs still strong and feeling no worse than after a light jog down the road, we shared a wondering glance. James and I knew the Professor was capable of amazing things, but this was passing beyond strange and into uncanny.

That night we slept well, but after a couple of hours – the clock on my bedside table said it was a little after midnight – I woke, and realised I felt rested already, though I knew that if I curled up in my blankets I would doze for a few hours more. As I was drifting off, though, I heard a giggle from the other room. I’d heard it, or giggles like it, before, though, and chuckled lightly to myself as I buried myself in my pillow.

As we were eating breakfast the next morning, we heard the nurse telling the Professor that she thought we needed no more than two hours of sleep, and though she didn’t offer any particular reason, there was something in the tone of her voice that made the Professor agree, and made me glance at James for confirmation. He had a smug little grin on his face, one I knew all too well.

You didn’t,” I said, as though I hadn’t woken at just the right time to be sure he had.

Will, what on earth would make you think I wouldn’t?” His grin, if that were possible, became a little smugger.

What are you guys talking about?” Alex said, glancing from one of us to the other.

James is a filthy man-whore,” I blurted out, and then we were all laughing, and the rest of the breakfast was as cheerful as it could be, when we’d been out of sight of the sun for so long.

At lunch, the professor launched into another one of his long-winded explanations, telling how the parts of our brains responsible for vision, movement and memory had been linked together by new strands of nerve-fibre. I listened with half an ear, paying more attention to the flavours of my food. My sense of taste was as enhanced as the rest of it, and there was something funny…

Professor,” I broke in when he paused for a mouthful of his lunch, “what exactly did you put in this? There’s a funny undertaste.”

Oh, if you’re talking about the pie, it’ll be the cyanide. The juice has the arsenic.” At his words, James made a truly magnificent spit-take, spraying his drink across the filing cabinets against the opposite wall. “They can’t hurt you, of course. I wanted you to know the taste, though.”

In case of emergencies?” It wasn’t really a question. The Professor just gave me one of his little smiles. “What’s the dose?”

Oh, quite enough to kill someone without your… special enhancements.” He nibbled at his sandwich, took a sip from his glass of water, and continued, “Of course, alcohol still affects you, because you’d hardly be very convincing university students if it didn’t, but I really will be very disappointed with myself if anything else does.” The arsenic might not have killed us, but it did lay low any attempts at conversation for the next few minutes, and it wasn’t until we were scraping the last of the food off our plates – the bitter taste of the poison actually enhanced the flavour a little, I think – that Alex piped up with a question.

Mr Professor, sir, if we could get back to what we were talking about before…”

Of course, my dear. No need to be so formal.” The man who said this, you understand, had actually tucked a napkin into his collar before eating his sandwich, and spoke with an accent that made my own, trained after years of Speech and Drama, sound almost rural.1

How exactly did we learn to shoot that well so quickly? We had to practise breaking down a few times, but we got the shooting right first time.” The Professor considered this for a few moments.

Well, I would assume that you did so well because you all had experience with firearms already. You yourself were trained by the US army to use weapons not too dissimilar to those out in the next room, and the boys here have both hunted rabbits since they were old enough to lift a rifle to their shoulders. That experience gave your brain everything it needed to provide the necessary skill.” I thought about that a lot over the next few days, wondering what other skills we had from before the change that might come closer to perfection now.

1Not that there’s anything wrong with rural, but people tend to take you more seriously if you sound like the BBC.