Chapter One chapter one
Nero sat before an open fire—an entirely unnecessary, but comfortable, indulgence—in his office at H.I.V.E., staring into the flames and swirling vintage brandy in a large balloon glass. Nero did not believe in marking birthdays or anniversaries, viewing them as meaningless celebrations of arbitrary dates, but today was the one day every year that haunted him. It didn’t matter how hard he tried to ignore the calendar, it was no good.
He looked up at the portrait of a beautiful young woman above the fireplace.
“Elena,” he whispered, closing his eyes and, despite himself, reliving the memory of that day.…
Thirty years ago
The young man in his early twenties sat outside a café on the cobbled square, a half-finished espresso sitting on the table in front of him. He was watching the passing crowds carefully, as if he were looking for someone, his eyes darting from person to person, assessing them. Suddenly, he felt something hard press into his back.
“Maximilian Nero,” came a woman’s voice behind him. “I’ve waited a long time for this.”
“You seem to have me at a disadvantage,” Nero replied calmly, without turning round. “I’m impressed, it’s not easy to sneak up on me.”
“You forget, Nero, I know all your weaknesses,” she whispered in his ear.
“And you forget, Furan, that I know all of yours.” He placed a flat, rectangular box on the table in front of him, then slowly reached forward and lifted its lid to reveal a dozen exquisitely decorated handmade chocolates.
“Damn you, Max,” the woman said. “Well played.”
He stood up from his seat and turned to face her as she lowered the spoon she was holding to her side. He placed his hand on her cheek, drew her head toward his, and gently kissed her on the lips.
“I’ve missed you,” he said, dropping his hand and placing it on the young woman’s swollen belly. “Both of you.”
“It’s only been two days,” she said, sitting down next to him with a smile. “I mean, every woman wants to be missed, but there’s a fine line between devoted and pathetic.”
“Which side of the line am I falling at the moment?” Nero asked with a broad smile.
“The chocolates just nudged you over into devoted,” she replied.
“Good to know,” Nero said. “So, how did it go?”
“About as well as expected,” she said with a sigh.
“Elena, I told you it wasn’t a good idea,” Nero said gently. “Your sister will never accept us being together. There’s too much bad blood between us. G.L.O.V.E. and your family have been at war for too long. She’ll never forgive me for what happened in Bucharest, I’m not sure I’d expect her to.”
“But you’ve left that world behind… for me,” Elena said. She dropped her hands to her pregnant belly. “For us.”
“You don’t just walk away from that world with no strings attached.” Nero shook his head. “I want peace between me and your family as much as you do, but Anastasia has never been the forgiving type.”
Elena nodded. “It’s just… well… the baby could come any day now and I thought that if she knew I was expecting a child, it might change how she felt, but…” She paused, took a deep breath, and put her head in her hands.
“Tell me,” Nero said gently.
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.” Elena fought back tears. “I’ve never seen her so angry, Max, she scared me.”
“It’ll be alright,” Nero said, hugging her as her tears finally came. “I promise.”
“I just want us to be able to have a normal life with our baby,” Elena said. “And for my family to accept that.”
“We’ll make a normal life for ourselves with our own family,” he said, stroking her cheek. “We’ll disappear, go somewhere no one will ever find us, and build a new life, together.”
“I hope you’re right.” Elena sighed. “Anastasia said… She said she wouldn’t allow this. You know what’s she like, Max, probably better than anyone. My brother may be brutal, but at least there is a heart lurking in there somewhere. My sister is… Well, you know what she is.”
“Which is why we’re going to make that world part of our past,” he said. “Stand up.”
“Why?” Elena asked with a puzzled frown.
“Because I’m old-fashioned and I want to do this properly,” he said as he helped her up from her chair. He dropped to one knee in front of her and took her hands in his. “Elena Furan, will you make a life with me, will you raise a family with me… Will you marry me, Elena?”
Elena gasped and put a hand to her mouth as he pulled a small box from his pocket and opened it to reveal an exquisitely cut diamond-solitaire ring.
“Of course I will,” she said, pulling Nero to his feet and embracing him. “Of course I will.”
He pulled the ring from the box and Elena extended her hand. Nero went to slip the ring onto her finger, surprised that his own hands were shaking, but the ring slipped from his fingers and fell to the floor.
“Clumsy, nervous idiot,” he said with a chuckle, and bent down to pick up the ring.
Elena coughed, oddly. Nero looked up and saw the expression on her face and the crimson stain spreading across the chest of her white maternity dress.
“NOOOO!” he screamed as Elena’s legs folded underneath her and she collapsed to the ground. He looked around desperately for any sign of their attacker but saw nothing. “Call an ambulance!” he bellowed, holding her to him as she struggled to breathe. “Somebody, please, help us!”
A quarter of a mile away, on the roof of a tower block, the sniper rifle fell from Pietor Furan’s limp hands, his eyes wide with horror.
“Oh my God… No,” he whispered. “What have I done?”
A few hours later, Nero sat in the hospital corridor outside the operating room, feeling like his world was collapsing around him. The voices of the people who walked past him seemed to be coming from a long way away as he sat, powerless to do anything while surgeons fought to save Elena and his child.
An exhausted-looking doctor walked toward him, and Nero felt his blood run cold when he saw the look on the man’s face.
“You are the next of kin for Miss Furan?” the doctor asked, and Nero nodded, feeling the world start to spin around him. “I’m so sorry, there was nothing we could do. I’m afraid we couldn’t save either of them. Is there anyone who we can––”
“No, no, no, no…” Nero saw everything he had hoped for: their future together, their family, their lives—everything scattered like ashes on the wind. He’d always thought that the idea of a heart being broken was a sentimental nonsense, but now, in this moment, he knew the truth of it. Something had been torn from his chest, something he could never repair or replace.
The doctor was still talking, but Nero couldn’t hear him. All he could feel was grief, mixing with something hotter, more urgent; a rage unlike anything he had ever felt before.
He got up and walked out of the hospital and into the night, having no idea where he was, or where he was going.
Nero now shook himself from the memory, wiping the tears from his face as he stared into the fire. A few minutes later, he walked over to the bottle of brandy, pouring himself another glass, then went over to his desk and sat down. He tapped at the touchscreen mounted on its surface and pulled up a specific camera feed from within the school. The screen showed a figure in white pajamas, pacing back and forth in a featureless steel-lined cell. Nero tapped another button and a confirmation prompt popped up.
TERMINATE PRISONER YES/NO
His finger hovered over the yes button for several long seconds before he shut down the screen, letting out an enraged cry and flinging his half-full glass across the room. He slumped back in his chair and stared for a few seconds at the portrait of Elena.
“Not today, Anastasia,” Nero said to himself. “Not today.”
The man in the white coat made his way furtively across the room. He knew where the blind spots of the security cameras that covered the room were, and he moved quickly and quietly between them, sticking to the shadows. The banks of computer monitors that lined the walls filled the room with an eerie glow, the cables dangling from the ceiling casting strange shadows on the wall as the man squeezed between pieces of advanced scientific equipment that were, for the moment, still and silent. The man’s head snapped around as he heard a soft chime from the far end of the room and he saw the heavy steel door rise quickly into the ceiling with a pneumatic hiss. He ducked down behind the base of a large robotic manipulator arm, as another man in black body armor carrying a bullpup assault rifle walked into the room. The man in the white coat held his breath as the security guard moved through the room. He stopped, scanned the room, and then raised his hand to his earpiece.
“Cradle lab secure, continuing patrol,” the guard reported, before turning back toward the door.
The man hiding behind the robotic arm felt a moment of relief and ducked farther back into the shadows. His back pressed against one of the pipes lining the room, and he let out an involuntary gasp as it burned him. The guard wheeled around, weapon raised, advancing back across the room to where the man was hiding.
“Come out of there,” the guard ordered. “Hands where I can see them.”
The man in the white coat slowly stood up, raising his hands as instructed.
“I was just checking on the incubation units,” he explained as the guard moved to within a few feet of him. “There was a drop in fluid pressures. Control knows all about it.”
“First I heard,” the guard replied. “This section’s on lockdown. You know the drill, no one in or out.” He glanced down at the ID badge clipped to the other man’s chest. “You’d better come with me, Dr. Higgs. We’ll let Control decide what to do with you.”
“Very well,” Higgs replied. “But this is really most inconvenient.”
The guard gestured toward the door, but just as he was about to follow him out, Dr. Higgs spun around, pulling a scalpel blade from the pocket of his white coat, and slashed at the guard’s throat. The guard reacted just fast enough to avoid the strike, the blade leaving a long incision in his cheek instead. He backed away from the scientist, raising his weapon, finger tightening on the trigger. Behind him the robotic manipulator arm sprang to life, moving with impossible speed and precision as its massive, clawed hand snapped closed around the guard’s wrist and twisted it hard, with a crack of breaking bone. The guard screamed, his rifle dropping from his useless hand and clattering to the floor, and the robot arm released his wrist and snapped upward, this time closing around the man’s throat and lifting him off the floor. The guard flailed in the air, legs kicking, his good arm swiping uselessly at the metal clamp that was crushing his neck. There was a final, soft crunching sound and then he stopped struggling, his body hanging limply in the machine’s grip.
Higgs stood there for a moment, mouth wide open before a voice sounded in his head.
Move. Now. His absence will soon be noted.
Dr. Higgs’s expression shifted from shock to determination in an instant, and he strode past the dangling body and on toward the air-lock door at the far end of the room. He placed his hand on the scanner beside the door and it rumbled aside, revealing a short corridor lined with racks of white environmental-hazard suits. He walked straight past the suits and into another chamber where he was blasted from all sides by jets of white gas. Finally, he approached a door marked with an array of symbols warning of the many and various chemical, radiological, and biological threats to his life that waited on the other side of the door. He did not hesitate as he placed his hand on the scanner beside the door and entered the final air lock, then waited as the air cycled through the small chamber and eventually the glass doors ahead of him, marked with the words PROJECT ABSALOM, slid apart, granting him access to the cavernous chamber beyond.
At the far end of the cavern were a dozen large tanks, surrounded by an array of thick cables and pipes that fed into them like arteries. Higgs walked quickly past the banks of screens and monitoring stations that were spread around the tanks and headed toward a specific workstation just in front of the gently humming pods. He entered his credentials and quickly accessed the facility’s network, hesitating for a moment as he stared at the blinking white cursor on the command console, unsure suddenly of what to do next.
Leave this to me, the soft voice inside his head said.
A moment later, Higgs felt his hands start to move, his fingers flying across the keyboard, entering complex strings of commands impossibly quickly. He watched the text flying past on the monitor, completely unable to make any sense of the code that he was entering. He was little more than a stunned spectator. A few seconds later, he let out a gasp, snatching his hands away from the keyboard as if it had burnt him. He flexed his fingers, which were now seemingly back under his control, and stared in horror at the display that now had a single phrase flashing in its center.
HIBERNATION SEQUENCE TERMINATING, SUBJECT DEPLOYING.
“No, no, no,” the scientist mumbled to himself, shaking his head as if trying to wake himself from a bad dream. He heard that voice in his head again.
I’ve slept too long.
There was a hiss and several of the umbilical cables attached to the pod marked with the number nine detached with small puffs of white gas. There was a moment of silence, and then an alarm klaxon started to sound and warning lights above the pod started to flash.
“Warning, biological arsenal integrity compromised, all personnel clear the area,” a synthesized voice came over the loudspeaker. “Storage tank nine release cycle complete in five, four, three…”
Higgs backed slowly away from the tanks as pod nine split apart, opening to reveal a figure in a skin-tight black-rubber suit and breathing mask, who slowly stepped down from the pod, taking a couple of hesitant steps toward the terrified-looking man. Then, the black-clad figure reached up and released the straps at the back of their head and pulled the mask from their face. Higgs stared in horror at the teenage girl facing him. She had long, straight, bone-white hair, deep blue eyes, and a cold, predatory smile. Higgs felt a sudden deep and animal fear in his gut, every instinct telling him to turn and run as far and as fast as he could, but his legs wouldn’t move. The girl approached him, staring into his eyes as she placed a hand on the side of his head.
“You’ve been very helpful,” she said, her voice identical to the one he had heard inside his head. “So, I’ve decided that I won’t make you suffer too much.” She leaned in closer to the terrified scientist and whispered in his ear, “You’re just going to stop breathing.”
The scientist staggered backward as he felt his legs moving under his control again. He gave a strangled gasp as he tried to inhale, feeling his lungs freeze inside his chest. He fell to the floor with a grunt, curling into a ball as he fought fruitlessly to draw one final breath. The girl watched impassively as he writhed on the ground and then finally lay still.
“This is going to be easier than I thought,” she said, stepping over his body and heading toward the air lock. She passed quickly through the portal, the heavy steel doors rumbling aside to allow her to pass. As she entered the observation area beyond, she saw the first sign of concerted resistance to her escape, as a squad of heavily armed men in black body armor poured through the entrance, quickly taking up defensive positions around the only exit.
“Engage acoustic jammers,” the leader of the squad yelled, tapping a button on the side of his own helmet. The other soldiers followed suit as they aimed their weapons at the girl, who was now standing calmly watching them in the center of the room.
“Get down on your knees with your hands behind your head!” the lead soldier of the security detail yelled, his weapon leveled at her chest. “This will be your first and only warning!”
“I’m not a fan of being told what to do,” she said with a slight frown. “I think it would be much better if you just gave me that gun, don’t you?”
The guard took a single step toward her and raised his weapon so it was leveled straight at her head.
“Your tricks won’t work on us, girl,” he said, his finger tensing on the trigger. “We know what you’re capable of.”
“Oh, but you don’t,” she said with a smile. “No one does.”
Suddenly, the same whispered voice sounded in the heads of each of the soldiers.
Kill everyone except the girl.
Barely ten seconds later, the shooting had stopped and the girl stepped over the bodies littering the doorway and toward the one badly injured guard who was left alive. He dragged himself across the corridor floor, trying in vain to get away from her as she crouched down beside him and took the radio from the webbing attached to his body armor. She then placed her hand on the side of the wounded man’s helmet and closed her eyes. Her lips moved in a soundless whisper, and the man gave a single agonized gasp before lying still.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” she said as she stood back up and carried on down the corridor toward the blast doors at the far end. As she approached, she waved one hand toward the doors and they rolled apart obediently. On the other side of the room beyond, several technicians and scientists were gathered around an elevator door, watching as the numerical display above the door counted down toward their floor. One of the women at the back of the group turned and saw the girl on the other side of the room and let out a frightened cry.
“Oh my God,” she said, yanking on the sleeve of the man next to her. “It’s her. She got past the security team.”
The others quickly turned to face the girl, their expressions a mixture of panic and terror.
“I’m afraid the elevator is…” She tilted her head to one side, and the elevator controls began to spark. “… out of order. Now, who’s in charge around here?”
“I am the project’s lead researcher,” a nervous-looking man said, taking a step forward. “My name is Dr. Klein. Please, there is no need for violence, I assure you.”
“Well, that’s a shame,” the girl replied. “You see, I’m rather fond of violence. It seems to… open such interesting doors.” She looked at the other men and women behind Klein. “Do you have what you need to bring the other incubation tanks to maturity?”
“Yes, yes, I think so,” Klein said, swallowing nervously.
“Good,” she replied. “I have disabled all external communications with this facility, and the only way out is locked down and under my control. Please inform your staff that if they ever want to see daylight again, they will make sure that no harm comes to my brothers and sisters.”
“Of course,” Klein said. “Though some of the subjects are approaching full maturity, like yourself. Do you want us to proceed with their development programs?”
“No,” the girl replied. “I have my own plans for them. You and your staff just keep them safe. I’ll be overseeing their… future development.”
“Of course, miss… erm… What should I call you?” Klein asked.
The girl looked down at the barcode tattooed on her wrist. Below it were printed the words “Test Subject A99A.”
“Anna,” she said. “You can call me Anna.”
“Can you believe we were ever that small?” Otto Malpense asked as he watched the group of first-year H.I.V.E. students preparing for their first grappler lesson, in the enormous cavern that was specifically outfitted for their training.
“I’m not sure Wing was ever that tiny,” Laura said with a smile. The pair of them were sitting on the balcony, which afforded spectators a commanding view of the suspended concrete blocks that filled the cavern and the cold, dark water that lay waiting below for unwary students.
“I now have a mental image of a tiny, baby Wing doing self-defense drills in a nappy,” Otto replied. “So thanks for that. I think.”
“Awww, I bet he’s adorable,” Laura said with a chuckle, resting her head on Otto’s shoulder. “Not half as cute as baby Otto, though.”
“Once I’d finished cooking and they fished me out of the tank, that is,” Otto said.
“Aww, you’re the only clone of a long-dead megalomaniac for me, Malpense,” Laura teased, poking a finger into his ribs.
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a nontraditional upbringing,” Otto replied with a smile. “Besides, it could have been worse, I could have been Scottish.”
“That’s fighting talk, Sassenach,” Laura warned, her accent thickening as she leapt on top of Otto and began to tickle him.
“Easy there, Braveheart,” Otto laughed. “You might damage billions of dollars’ worth of cutting-edge cloning technology.”
“You sure they got all those pesky chromosomes in the right place?” Laura asked. “Because you are a bit… well… funny-looking, to be honest.”
“A face that only a cloning tank could love,” Otto said.
“Exactly,” Laura replied. “And when you combine that with the old-man hair, I can’t imagine what anyone sees in you.” Laura ran her fingers through Otto’s snow-white hair, which was an unusual relic of his strange birth.
“You’re right,” he said. “Only a total weirdo would find someone like that attractive.…”
“They’d have to be stupid, or mad, possibly both,” Laura said before kissing him gently.
“Hey, losers!” Shelby teased as she flopped down on the bench next to them. “Sorry to interrupt the tonsil hockey.”
“Shelby, how wonderful to see you,” Otto said as his friend put her feet up on the back of the seats in front of them. “Your timing is, as usual, impeccable.”
“Hey, if a girl can’t say hello to two of her best friends while they’re enjoying a little private time in H.I.V.E.’s primo make-out spot, then I don’t want to hear about it.” Shelby grinned. “It’s the little things that make life at the world’s weirdest school bearable, you know.”
“Is there something you needed, Shel, or are you literally just here to annoy us?” Laura asked, the slight edge in her voice suggesting that might be exactly what Shelby was doing.
“Oh… erm… no reason,” Shelby said, her eyes darting toward the door. Just a couple of seconds later, the doors creaked open and Otto’s best friend and roommate, Wing, walked out onto the balcony.
“Aah, hello… erm… everyone,” Wing said, glancing at Shelby, who was trying very hard not to make eye contact with him. “I did not realize you would all be here. I was just… erm… coming to inspect the balcony.”
“Really?” Otto said, trying to keep a straight face. “Inspect it for what?”
“For… structural defects.” Wing hesitated, now starting to look visibly uncomfortable.
“And I suppose you were going to help him, were you, Shel?” Laura asked. “I mean, with your background in architecture and everything.”
“Perhaps you two could help?” Wing said enthusiastically.
“Oh, Wing,” Shelby said, covering her face with her palm. “You are, without doubt, the single worst liar I have ever met.”
“You mean you’re not meeting up in H.I.V.E.’s… Oh, what was it again, Laura?” Otto asked.
“Primo make-out spot.”
“That’s it, H.I.V.E.’s primo make-out spot… for a rigorous health-and-safety inspection?”
“Oh, so that’s what I caught you two doing?” Shelby shot back as Wing sat down next to her. “Nice try at a cover story there, big guy.”
“I’m not good at improvisation,” Wing admitted, looking slightly crestfallen. “You should know that after what happened on your birthday.”
“I thought we swore never to speak of that again,” Otto said with a grin.
“Oh, I know, but Shelby’s face when the cardboard unicorn caught fire…”
“So, now there’s just the four of us,” Shelby said, “sitting here awkwardly watching the goblins try not to kill themselves the first time they use a grappler.”
“You know I don’t like it when you call the first-year students that,” Wing said.
“What?” Shelby shrugged. “They’re small, they smell, and they communicate in high-pitched shrieks… Goblins.”
“It doesn’t seem five minutes since that was us,” Laura said, watching as Colonel Francisco, H.I.V.E.’s Tactical Operations tutor, demonstrated the basics of the grappler to the assembled students.
“They really are quite small,” Wing said quietly.
“What about hobbits? Would that be less offensive?” Shelby asked.
A moment later, a soft but persistent chime began to sound from the thigh pocket of Otto’s black jumpsuit—the standard uniform for all of H.I.V.E.’s alpha stream students. He pulled out his Blackbox communications tablet, and a moment later, the familiar blue wireframe face of H.I.V.E.mind appeared hovering in the air above it.
“Good afternoon, students,” H.I.V.E.mind said, addressing all four of them. “According to my records, this period is a designated study window for your upcoming final exams. This is not, however, a designated study area; in fact it has a quite different pattern of behavior associated with it. As your designated academic supervisor, it is my responsibility to remind you that study is essential in the coming weeks if you are to achieve your full academic potential.”
They all knew that it was no coincidence that they’d been assigned H.I.V.E.mind as their academic supervisor. It was precisely the sort of thing that H.I.V.E.’s headmaster, Dr. Nero, liked to do, to remind them that they were being watched just a little bit more carefully than the other students at the school. No one could blame him for his vigilance; the four of them had unfortunately earned their reputation as trouble magnets over the past few years.
“Awww, it’s just like having your mom nag you,” Laura said. “If your mom happens to be a massively sophisticated neural network, running a full sapience AI construct, that is.”
“H.I.V.E.mom, I like it,” Shelby said. “But does that make Nero H.I.V.E.dad?”
“If he ever hears you call him that, you’re dead, you do know that, right?” Otto said, laughing.
“I believe my academic supervision is not being treated with adequate seriousness,” H.I.V.E.mind said.
“Next you’ll be telling us to tidy our rooms,” Shelby said.
“Perhaps I should inform Dr. Nero of your reluctance to prepare for your finals,” H.I.V.E.mind said, looking at each of them in turn. “He did mention that he had some new motivational techniques that he was keen to try out. Something to do with low-level neural reprogramming, using intensive localized shock therapy.”
“Library?” Wing asked.
“Library,” Otto replied.