The Queen's Army
It took him a moment to realize it was a question, and he gave a shaky nod.
"Excellent. The rest of your modifications will evolve over the next eight to twelve months. As your body adapts to the genetic alterations, you'll notice new muscle strength, agility, flexibility, and stamina. All this will come with increased metabolism, so you'll find yourself eating more in the coming months. Even more than a normal twelve-year-old boy, that is." Her eyes twinkled.
Z's pulse began to pound against his temples.
"But we've prepared for all that," she continued when he didn't laugh. "Soldiers are provided a high-protein diet that we've created for your specific needs. Do you have any questions before I hand you off to Thaumaturge Jael?"
His breathing was becoming more and more difficult to soothe. "What's going to happen to me? In the next…eight to twelve months?"
She flashed a braggart's smile. "You'll become a soldier, of course." She held up the small device again. With a tap, a holograph emerged, showing two rotating images.
One, a young male, perhaps in his late teens.
The other, a white wolf.
"Based on years of research and trials, we have perfected our methods of genetic engineering, allowing us to combine select genes of Her Majesty's prized Canis lupus arctos with those of still-developing Lunar males." She tapped another button and the two holographs merged. Z sucked in a breath. This new creature had rounded shoulders, and enormous hands that were covered with a fine layer of fur, and fangs that jutted from a grotesquely twisted mouth. More fur covered his face, surrounding severe yellow eyes.
Z pushed himself back into the exam table.
"Using this method," continued the doctor, "we have created the ultimate soldier. Strong and fearless, with the instincts of one of nature's greatest predators. Most important, he is a soldier who is entirely subject to the will of his thaumaturge." She shut off the holograph. "But Thaumaturge Jael will be able to explain all that to you in due time."
"Th-that's going to happen to me?"
The doctor opened her mouth to speak, but the thaumaturge cleared his throat and took a step toward the bed. "Perhaps, or perhaps not. You have undergone the modifications to give you the skills all soldiers require. But we chose to withhold the more animalistic changes. For now."
"Though we can complete the necessary mutations at any time," added the doctor.
"You have been selected as one of only five hundred conscripts to receive special training. Your aptitude tests suggest you could be valuable to us as more than a member of the infantry, and Her Majesty is preparing a unit of soldiers to play a very specific role." He listed his head. "Whether or not you are admitted into that program will ultimately depend on the promise you display during your training."
The threatening look the thaumaturge pinned on him wasn't necessary. Z never wanted to be back on this exam table. He never wanted another needle beneath his skin. He never wanted to wake up with fur on his face and eyes that had no humanity behind them.
The queen was making a different kind of soldier, and he had already decided that he would be one of them.
He was kept in the facility for another twenty-four hours, so that the doctor could monitor how his body was reacting to the surgeries. He discovered that what had seemed like a few hours of nightmares had, in reality, been twenty-six days of being kept comatose in a suspended animation tank while his body underwent the surgeries and adapted to the mutations. Twenty-six days, gone, while his DNA melded with that of a white wolf, while nameless doctors and scientists turned him into a beast to serve his queen. In that time, the sun had come and gone, plunging the great city of Artemisia into another long night.
The next day, he found a pile of clothes left beside his bed-soft brown pants, a black T-shirt, and plain boots. They fit him perfectly.
He had just finished dressing when he smelled someone coming-the thaumaturge from the day before. His nausea from his new heightened sense of smell had quelled during the night, but a new sinking, crawling feeling settled in Z's gut as the thaumaturge entered the room.
Because another sense was missing.
The telltale vibration of energy that his people could perceive and manipulate. It was gone.
His throat clamped. "Something's wrong with me," he said, before the thaumaturge could speak. "My gift. It's…I think something's wrong."
The thaumaturge stared blankly for a moment, before his expression softened into kindness. The look eased Z's growing panic. "Yes, I know," he said. "That is an unfortunate result of the modifications. You see, wild animals do not have the abilities that we do, therefore we must hinder your awareness of bioelectricity so that your Lunar instincts will not interfere with your new wolfish instincts. Don't be alarmed-you are not powerless. We have simply given you a new tool with which to take advantage of your gift. It will be my job to ensure that all of your instincts and abilities are functioning properly when you're called on to use them."
Z licked his lips, finding it awkward to maneuver around his new teeth. He had to shut his eyes to force the wash of bile back down his throat.
They had taken away his Lunar gift. He was as vulnerable as an Earthen now. As useless as a shell. And yet, they wanted him to be a soldier?
"We were not properly introduced yesterday," the thaumaturge continued. "You are to call me Master Jael. You will be known as Beta Kesley until and unless your ranking changes. I am glad to see you dressed. Come then."
He left the room and it took Z a scrambling minute to realize he was meant to follow.
"The candidates for special operative status have been given their own training grounds beneath Sector 8," Master Jael said as they left the research facility. Z caught only the briefest glimpse of the glittering white buildings of Artemisia-Luna's major city-before Jael led him down into the lava tubes beneath the surface. A personal shuttle was waiting for them. "The training grounds consist of separate barracks for each pack, a community dining hall, and a series of training rooms in which you will perform formations and learn fighting techniques. This is also where you will decide your placement in the pack."
"Your new family. We have found that your instincts react best when we mimic the hierarchy of wolves in their natural habitat, and so each pack consists of six to fifteen operatives, depending on the mental strength of their thaumaturge." His grin widened. "You are my fourteenth pack member."
Z turned away to watch the black regolith walls pass by the shuttle window, and tried to pretend that he understood what Master Jael was talking about.
The training grounds were in enormous caverns carved into the lava tubes. When they walked into the main room, Jael's heels clipping with each step, Z saw that thirteen soldiers were already lined up to greet them, dressed exactly as he was. He guessed their ages ranged from twelve to eighteen or older, and though they stood in perfect posture in a straight line, with their heels together and arms stiff at their sides, Z knew instantly who was their leader. The tallest and the largest and the one whose eyes flashed when they met his.
"Master Jael," he said, and in unison, all the soldiers clasped a fist to their hearts.
"Alpha Brock. You have a new member joining you today. This is Beta Ze'ev Kesley."
Scrutiny seemed to pass through all the soldiers. Z forced himself to stand up straighter, though it pinched the muscles between his shoulder blades. He took the time to meet each of their gazes, thinking that, though there was a proliferation of unfamiliar aromas in this hall, he could pick out which scents belonged to each of them.
"Beta Kesley," said Master Jael, "join your pack."
Z glanced at the thaumaturge and his pulse skipped. There was something eager in the look, but Z didn't know what he was expected to do. Did Jael want him to bow? Or clasp his hand to his heart like the others had?
Before he could decide, Z felt a jolt through his nerves, like an electric shock. And then he was pacing toward the line of soldiers, his feet no longer under his control.
Blood rushed to his face.
A surge of defiance crawled up from the base of his throat. Z scrunched his face up, and, with every bit of concentration he had, he forced his legs to freeze. He found himself in an awkward stance, his legs caught midstep, his hands fisted at his sides. He was already panting with the effort.
He pried open his eyes and looked at Master Jael. He was surprised to find amusement, not anger, in the thaumaturge's expression. Through his teeth, he said, "Thank you, Master, but I can walk without your help."
Jael grinned, and with a snap Z felt the hold on his mind release.
"But of course," Jael said. "Please, join the line."
Letting out a breath, Z turned toward his new pack.
He gasped. The leader-Alpha Brock-was now less than an arm's distance away, a snarl showing the points of his canines.
Before Z could think, a fist collided with his jaw, knocking him onto the floor and shoving the wind out of him. For a moment his lungs burned with the need for air and his head rang from the punch. The pain in his jaw was the worst, his gums still sore from the surgery. The throbbing brought tears to his eyes.
"Don't ever disrespect Master Jael again," said Alpha Brock. With a grunt, he landed a kick to Z's ribs.
Z cried out and crunched into a ball, trying to protect his stomach, but another kick didn't follow. Tasting blood, he spit onto the chalky ground. He was glad that none of his new teeth came with it.
Shaking, he risked a glance at Master Jael, but the thaumaturge was standing calmly back, his hands in his sleeves. When he caught Z's gaze, his eyebrows rose without mercy and he said, very slowly, "Get up and join your pack."
Standing seemed impossible. The world was spinning and he wondered if that one kick hadn't broken a rib.
But more afraid of the repercussions of ignoring an order than the pain, Z pulled himself to all fours and, with a grunt, pushed himself onto wobbly legs. The Alpha stared down at him as Z stumbled to the end of the line. The other soldiers had not moved.
"You will soon learn," said Master Jael, "that your placement in this pack is determined by strength, courage, and the ability to defend yourself. You will not see such mercy again."
Z began to lose track of time. First the days, and then the weeks and months merged into constant training. Formations. Strategies and tactics. And fights-so many fights. Like wolves in the wild fight to determine their rank, these soldiers fought all the time. Constantly trying to best one another, to show off, to prove their worth, to improve their station. Almost all of them seemed to have a thirst for violence that Z couldn't claim, though he often pretended to desire the taste of blood and the crunch of bones as much as any of them. There wasn't much choice.