“Is this really necessary?” Lex muttered, zipping up the Tyvek suit.
Mercy handed him a mask; she was already suited up, only her eyes showing between the bright white Tyvek and the bluish mask. “Yes,” she replied, her voice muffled. “We don’t need any accidental transmission, given the side effects encountered in the early trials. Also, if the scant evidence we have on the … naturally occurring uplifts is correct, their immune systems are fragile at this stage. We don’t want them to acquire anything from us.”
“It seems like overkill,” Lex replied, but he had to see this evidence for himself.
Mercy picked up the box at her feet and walked ahead of him through the airlock into the inner lab. A strange squeaking sound immediately assaulted his ears, almost too high-pitched to be from the species it was supposed to be.
Contained within a separate, secure compartment in the center of the room was Project Uplift’s seventh trial. The surrogate whined, looking at them with beseeching eyes, but Mercy and Lex both ignored her. It was the three offspring they’d come to see. “Just three,” Lex mused. “I thought they had more.”
“Any genetic fault that cropped up early enough would cause the fetuses to be re-absorbed,” Mercy informed him. “There were also two stillborn. Of these three, we have reason to believe one is more affected by the gene therapy than the others.” Saying that, she opened the mini-airlock and reached in with double-gloved hands.
The tiny scrap of life she lifted out mewled in protest, and Lex gasped in surprise. He hadn’t seen this one for its two siblings. “Is that a natural color for the breed?” he asked, holding out his hands.
Mercy deposited a tiny, newborn puppy into his gloved palms. Solid white with pink, folded-down ears and a pink-and-black spotted nose, it squeaked in dismay at the handling. “In some lines, yes, but not in this one.”
In the cage, the black and tan shepherd bitch whined again, staring intently at the puppy that had been taken from her side. Lex held the tiny animal up, ignoring its squeals and the increasing distress of the dam. “A male, hmm? And does he show any other signs besides the unusual coloring?”
“Yes,” Mercy said, and opened the small lead box at her feet. The puppy immediately began to thrash in Lex’s hands, squalling, and the shepherd in the cage bolted to her feet, barking loudly. Mercy covered the kryptonite again and the pup subsided, but the bitch kept her nose pressed to the glass, whining louder.
“Interesting that the dam reacted,” Lex mused, examining the puppy. Its eyes were still closed, and its limbs were still more stumpy attachments to the pudgy body. Other than the color, there was no way to tell that this animal had Kryptonian DNA spliced into its chromosomes.
“It’s not the kryptonite that bothers her, it’s the pup’s distress,” Mercy said. “Speaking of which, we’d best put him back. We can’t allow him to catch a chill.”
Lex laughed and handed the puppy back. “You’re becoming positively maternal, Mercy. Or is that Project Scion’s fault?”
“Hardly,” she laughed, placing the puppy back into the cage with his worried mother. “Although it’s worth mentioning that this litter was spliced with Scion’s DNA.”
“Is that a factor in the trial finally taking, do you think? And why dogs, of all creatures?” All their previous attempts to create Kryptonian hybrids had failed, resulting in spontaneous abortion or fatal birth defects. When the serum to grant Kryptonian powers to humans continued to fail, Lex had been forced to pursue other means of wedding his foe’s powers to his own intellect. All gene splicing tests had also failed, until this one. None of the higher primates, or even humans, had been successful in the lab.
Mercy shrugged. “We used his DNA before, on the chimps and in one of the human trials. Dogs are interesting, genetically. Their morphology is very plastic, allowing for a vast range of appearances. In no other creature would something as different as a Chihuahua, a poodle, and a Great Dane be considered the same species, but they are all dogs. Perhaps there’s something about that that allows them to accept this level of interference.”
Lex looked at the little canine family thoughtfully. “Now we just have to wait and see if the litter survives to maturity.” Something occurred to him then, and he asked, “Do the other puppies react to kryptonite? I hadn’t noticed.”
“No, they don’t,” Mercy said. “Preliminary DNA scans are underway, but I suspect the retrovirus didn’t work on them. The white one is likely the only success.”
He nodded. “If they don’t have any of the Kryptonian genes, destroy them. I’m only interested in the white one. I also want him cloned at the earliest opportunity.”
“Of course,” Mercy replied.
They headed out of the lab, Lex’s mind spinning. How could he translate this success into practical terms? The end goal was opening the way for Kryptonian powers to be distributed among a select few humans. Including himself, of course. But that was no reason why the intermediate stages shouldn’t be profitable in their own right.
At the airlock, he smiled and looked back, seeing the tiny puppy snuggled up to its mother’s belly as she licked its fur soothingly. “It needs a code name. Something more specific than Project Uplift.”
Mercy looked thoughtful, but it didn’t seem that she had any ideas in mind. Then Luthor grinned as the perfect moniker occurred to him.
“Let’s call him Krypto.”
Elise managed a nervous laugh, still trying in vain to see something in the blackness of the room. “Look, um, I’m from Metropolis, yeah, but I don’t actually know Superman. I mean, he saved my bacon once, but that doesn’t make us buddies. You know? So whatever you’ve got going on here, it’s not going to work.”
Again that soft mechanical whirring noise, and Elise’s flesh crawled. What the hell was that? Some kind of motor, obviously, but for what? “You know more than you’re telling,” the digitized voice said from the shadows. “I commend your bravery, but you should know that we’ll find out everything we need to know. Eventually.”
“I’m sure you will, but not from me,” Elise said, managing to make her voice sound angry instead of afraid. “I don’t know anything about Superman you couldn’t get from a quick Google search!”
“Oh, I think you do,” the voice insisted.
Elise’s heart was racing, her palms were sweaty, and her mouth was dry. When she swallowed, her throat made a dry clicking noise. I move all the way to California, get a new boyfriend, haven’t even spoken to Jason since his grandmother’s funeral, and I still get nabbed by some psycho. Shit. This was a perfect reminder of why Elise had insisted on some distance from their relationship. The longer she spent around Jason, the more she could feel her chances of a normal life slipping away.
“Okay,” she said in a small scared voice. “Okay, look. There is one thing I know. But … but you have to promise you won’t go after anyone else, okay? They’re friends of mine and … I can’t let them get hurt because of me.”
A long pause greeted that. “I’ll consider it. Tell me what you know.”
“I…” Elise trailed off into a croak, then asked, “Sorry, my throat’s dry. Can I get a glass of water?”
“No.” Flat denial; oh well, they must’ve seen that one before.
She would’ve crossed her fingers, if it wouldn’t have been obvious. “Look, Superman … he’s still really close friends with Lois Lane.”
Another silence, then a laugh. “Any idiot who reads the Daily Planet knows that, sweetheart. You’ll have to do better than that.”
Elise sighed shakily. Right now she would’ve loved to punch Jason Kent right in his adorable smile. “Will you let me go if I tell you everything?” she asked tremulously.
“Of course.” A velvety note in the digitized voice now, sensing defeat.
Elise steeled herself for this, likely the hardest thing she’d ever do. “Okay, then. The only thing I really know is that…” She let the silence drag out, hoping her tormentor was listening really closely. Then she took a deep, deep breath.
“…you can go fuck yourself!” Elise screamed as loud as she could, tearing in another breath to snarl, “even if I did know anything, you really think anyone in Metropolis would ever give up Superman to some asshole like you?! Go get bent, ‘cause you won’t get any satisfaction from me!”
Heart hammering and yet obscurely proud of herself, Elise was completely unprepared for the reply she heard. “If that’s your final answer, then we’re done here.” The motor moved away, and suddenly the light overheard went out, plunging the entire room into darkness.
“Hey!” Elise squeaked. Somewhere behind her, a door opened and shut, the sound echoing. “Hey, you’re not just gonna leave me here? Are you?!”
Silence answered her, thick silence that seemed to crowd in close. As much as I wanna beat Jason’s butt for getting me into this kind of thing, I wish he was here, Elise thought. Anything could be in that darkness. Anything. Right now a super-powered overprotective ex would be welcome.
She struggled against the chair, but the bonds were tight, and she couldn’t get them loose at all. Then she tried to tip the chair over, but it was bolted to the floor. Trapped, stuck, completely immobile, just trapped here waiting for whatever came next….
“Hey! Hey, can anyone hear me?” Elise shouted, knowing it was futile, knowing she sounded like every stupid teenage girl in a horror movie—oh, but why did she have to think of horror movies at a time like this? Still, it was just something she had to do, something instinct seemed to demand, and she shouted, “HELP!” at the top of her lungs until her throat felt sore.
Jay Todd was lying on a thin mattress, staring at a water-strained ceiling, in a small room with narrow windows that gave him a lovely view of some kind of factory to one side. Not far away was a trucking company, so he could fall asleep to the soothing whoosh of tires on pavement and the steady beeping of big trucks backing up every half hour or so. This was an apartment, not a hotel, leased short-term for cash with no names asked—just the kind of place he liked. It didn’t seem to have roaches, at least, although he’d tossed a spider out the window within minutes of walking in. The building probably had rats, too. He’d seen some big ones running along the gutter outside the factory.
He was holed up in Šećerana, a neighborhood in Zrenjanin, one of the biggest cities in Serbia. A decent base of operations. There was a decent ethnic diversity, with people speaking Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, Romanian, and German, so his American-accented German didn’t grate on the ear the way it would’ve some other places.
Organized crime in Serbia was nothing like as sophisticated as it was back home. He’d managed to talk his way up to some fairly high places just based on his skills with explosives, and now he was set to bring the whole corpulent, self-indulgent house of cards down. These bastards were funneling women—girls, really—from all over Eastern Europe into the human trafficking trade elsewhere. They lured them in with promises of jobs as maids or nannies, and once they were across the border without passports, the gangsters revealed the real jobs. By then it was too late to turn back.
The worst part was, for some of these women prostitution in massage parlors and casinos was almost better than the lives of grinding poverty they’d led before. Some of them wouldn’t have gone home even if they could, caught between debts to their ‘sponsors’ and shame at what they were doing.
Fuck it. Two weeks ago Jay had been minding his own business, trying to keep his head down and stay away from Talia’s trackers. He’d seen a girl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen getting off a truck, staggering like a newborn foal from riding in the dark, crowded cargo compartment for God knew how long. Her eyes were like a trapped animal, stunned mute. He couldn’t look away from that, and he’d started his investigation of the mob that night. Now he just needed to wait until the heads of the two biggest families met tomorrow night, and he could kick over the first domino in a chain reaction that would ruin them all.
So he lay in his room, smoking and drinking and tapping his ashes into an empty beer bottle. His thoughts kept going back to Gotham. To Bruce. To the absolute shit-storm he’d left back there.
Jay had already come to an uncomfortable conclusion. He’d gone too far in Gotham, let his bloodlust run loose too long. Hell, at one point he would’ve killed anyone who got in his way, not just the ones who were guilty. Gotham did need a hero who would really clean up its streets, someone who wouldn’t just let people off with a slap on the wrist and a trip to Arkham’s revolving door. But he hadn’t been that hero. Not the way he meant to.
When he’d woken up in London, Jay had let himself believe Talia, believe that he’d won. Let himself believe that maybe, just maybe, he could walk away from his war with the Bat. And of course he had Talia watching over him so attentively, making sure he slept well at night and everything. For a little while he’d thought…
…but that was stupid. She had a file on him, every piece of correspondence between them, notes on exactly how she’d stalled and manipulated him over the last few years. It was enough to make him think about waiting for her with both guns drawn, but in the end he’d just walked out. She’d saved his life, he’d saved hers by not putting a bullet in her head. Jason Todd was no one’s fucking project.
Of course, Talia had people tailing him, but she’d taught him just a little too well. And he hadn’t exactly been a novice at staying undetected when all this started, either. Now he could pretty much disappear at will. Her people had to work from educated guesses to figure out where he was, and as soon as he spotted them on his backtrail, he moved on.
But he wasn’t moving on from here until his business with the mob was done. There weren’t going to be any more truckloads of girls going through the outskirts of town. Not after the last one he’d liberated.
Jay smoked, looking up at the rusty water stain right over his head. To him, it looked almost like a map of Gotham City. The question was, was Gotham his origin or his destination?