Excerpt from SERAPHIM ASCENT

Prologue

“Fiery the angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll’d.
Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc.”
— William Blake, America: A Prophecy

They were born underground, in a facility called Niflheim. A boy and a girl, with golden hair and lime colored eyes. Prisoners of four white walls; a single metal door secured shut. The full spectrum light flooded from the ceiling, over the twins. Both bearing the same angular jawline, pointed noses, and narrowed faces.

From the lookout station that surveyed the white room, Dr. Stransky pressed her hand to the glass barrier that divided her and the twins several feet below. Though they weren’t human, though they didn’t look a day older than sixteen, though they had been fabricated of alloy and human flesh, she thought of them as her own in an odd way. Her heart wrenched; she listened to the director of the Niflheim Research Facility speak to the children.

“You are vessels. You’re born to die,” he said through the intercom, his voice booming into the white room. “Do you understand this?”

Crouching at the left of the boy, the girl replied: “Yes.”sktches

Before her brother spoke, the boy burst into flames.

Dr. Stransky tensed, unable to breathe. She turned to her husband; his electric blue stare widened as one of their creations from his flesh and blood, their son, screamed and burned alive. But her husband did not move. Dr. Stransky went to elbow past him, crying out the children’s names before he seized her by the arms, holding her back.

“Stop it! Stop the examination!” Dr. Stransky cried. She watched a warden in black body armor storming into the white room, and she could do nothing. The warden swung the sharp end of a powered blade, extending out of the armor’s hand. The cutting edge sliced through the girl’s face. The top of her head flew off, exposing brain and blood and bone. White walls, white floors, now splashed in red. Her body froze, kneeling for several moments, and then collapsed next to the corpse of her burning brother.

Straight faced, the director leaned back into the microphone. “Bring her back in, warden. We’ll salvage what we can for the next one.” Clicking the intercom off, he looked to Dr. Stransky and her husband. “I trust you two will find out what went wrong. Otherwise, you can kiss your funding from the bureau goodbye. The president is about to declare war, and I recall you promising him weapons.” He lowered his glasses, giving Dr. Stransky a sincere look. “I understand what these children mean to you. Perhaps it would help if you made their likeness into something a little less… obvious.” Sliding his glasses back on, the director said, “That is all. Please have another vessel prepped to report to Washington DC soon, or the board will have all our skins for this.”

Dr. Stransky glared, but said nothing. The director slammed the door on his way out of the lookout station, his words muffled in her mind. She gaped at the bodies of their twins, the white room darkening when the warden shut off the light.

“What happened just now, Lucas?” Dr. Stransky whispered; her face hot. “They were our…”

His arm covered her shoulder, this time more like a protective shield than a restraint. “I’ll figure it out. Next time, we’ll get it right,” said her husband with a shuddering breath. She sensed doubt in him. But he repeated, almost to sway her misgivings: “We’ll get it right…”

***

Fourteen months. It took the project fourteen months to reconstruct one vessel. The director had ordered her to remain in a containment room known as the Glass House. For now, no one could touch her, go near her, or speak to her directly.

The Glass House was a ten-by-ten room beyond an observation chamber. The chamber’s wall was made of a two-way mirror, allowing onlookers to view the Glass House, but the vessel living in the cube-shaped quarters unable to look out. Inside was a bed, an eating tray, and a tablet where the project had provided the vessel with a selection of books to read. Wallscreens built into every corner of the Glass House for the surveillance team to monitor her activity.

Until the psychiatric department could present an official evaluation, Dr. Stransky had been prohibited from interacting with the vessel. Even with her expertise in biology, genetics, physics, mathematics, and even psychology, the director did not trust her judgment enough to allow her to see her own girl. From the moment the vessel had opened her eyes, her husband tore Dr. Stransky away so that the vessel could be contained and handled properly this time.

This time, Dr. Stransky thought as she watched the vessel in the Glass House, flipping through the pages of her tablet. The wallscreens of the Glass House flickered, distorting the brief illusion that she was sitting among a peaceful forest in summer. She had never seen the surface, that world a mile above the Niflheim Research Facility. All the vessel ever knew as what she had been allowed to see on the wallscreens. A fake and empty world. She has never even seen a human being without black armor.

“She’s beautiful,” said a voice entering the observation chamber.

Dr. Stransky glanced to one of the new researchers who had been transferred to Niflheim six months ago, sent to partake in the girl’s psych eval. Something about his stony stare and the way he looked at the vessel made Dr. Stransky’s skin crawl. She had found him lingering in the chamber at odd hours. Yet each man kills the thing he loves, she caught him whispering to the Glass House once, and doubted that he knew she had heard him. When asked what he was doing, he simply claimed his curiosity regarding the vessel’s imminent evaluation.

His comment concerning her beauty did not help his case. After watching the Glass House for so long, Dr. Stransky couldn’t take her eyes off the new researcher. “I’m sorry; I don’t believe I remember your name…?”

The researcher gestured to the badge on his sterile coat. “Jonathan Quayle. And you must be the renowned Undine Stransky?”

“Dr. Stransky,” she corrected him.

“My apologies. I’ve been told you earned at least five doctorates by the time you were thirty — that’s an achievement that merits respect.” Jonathan turned his eyes to the Glass House. The vessel was sitting on her cot. She had since set the tablet over the food tray, and lay down over the bed with her eyes closed. The edges of Jonathan’s lips turned upward. “Do you wonder what her dreams must be like?”

“She isn’t asleep,” Dr. Stransky said. “She never sleeps like that.”

“So I’ve noticed.” Jonathan nodded. “I heard about what she did to her brother last year. What an unfortunate incident. I take it you were unable to reassemble the boy?”

Dr. Stransky shifted. Jonathan stood uncomfortably close between her and the two-way mirror, separating them from the Glass House. “No. The fire damage was too great, and the director placed more value in her because of the Brísingamen. It’ll take years before we’re able to culture the cells and organs the boy needs.”

Jonathan nodded his head at the glass. “And you believe that our salamander here is responsible?”

“Excuse me?”

“When I was a boy, I was obsessed with stories,” Jonathan said with a sigh. “My grandma read me a book about salamanders. Not the slimy kind, but a creature that eats fire and does not burn. It’s been said that if you douse yourself in the blood of the salamander, you could walk through fire yourself.” He placed his hand over the two-way mirror, gazing into the Glass House with fascination alight in his eyes. “But she is not a work of fiction, is she?”

Afraid of his answer, Dr. Stransky didn’t say anything.

“I watched the records,” he went on saying. “When she burned her brother, I remembered this story. It makes me wonder… if she fails this evaluation, what will the director do with the Brísingamen inside her?”

“I haven’t thought about it,” Dr. Stransky lied. “She won’t fail the evaluation.”

His hand over the mirror, Jonathan turned to her. He was a tall man — almost as tall as her husband — and had to bend a little in order to meet eye-to-eye with her. “For your girl’s sake, I hope you’re right.”

***

Weeks turned into months. The director had given Dr. Stransky permission to speak with the vessel, though she was under strict orders to maintain a professional distance with the subject during her reformation. This prohibited the doctor from addressing the vessel by her given name.

As Dr. Stransky was allowed to see the vessel, Jonathan Quayle’s visits to the Glass House were also more relentless. He seemed eager for the upcoming evaluation, which would entail the vessel leaving her confinement for the first time. The more Dr. Stransky saw the vessel, the more she noticed Jonathan’s personal visits. The director had informed him that his work in Niflheim was done. He was to return to the surface tomorrow, but that didn’t stop him from seeing the vessel.

He stopped muttering under his breath as Dr. Stransky entered the chamber. The vessel was asleep inside the Glass House, sitting on the side of the bed with her back pressed to the wall. She never slept lying down.

It was then that Jonathan informed Dr. Stransky of the final evaluation. Her stomach tightened. The vessel had failed. Her husband was finalizing the forms that would subject the girl to termination. Of course he would… he had since given up hope. He gave up, and the vessel would die tomorrow.

A heavy weight sunk Dr. Stransky to her knees. Her head spun, her heart drummed in her ears. This wasn’t happening… couldn’t be happening. Things were getting better, the girl even showing symptoms of remorse over what happened to her brother last year.

Suppose remorse was not what the director was looking for in a tool for war.

“Don’t cry,” Jonathan assured her, more so than her husband ever had when it came to the vessel. “I have a plan to save your daughter.”

Daughter. The word sounded so strange. Even her husband had firmly told her not to refer to the vessels as children anymore, let alone accepting them as their own, inconceivable as the taboo was to her.

“Why?” she asked. “Why do you want to help her?”

“I want to imagine a world where she doesn’t have to fight to appease politicians and generals, men who will never know her like a mother would. I want to imagine a country that isn’t riding on the backs of children to fight for us. I want to imagine a girl who is allowed a chance at life.” Jonathan squeezed Undine Stransky’s shoulder. “Will you help me help her have that?”

Dr. Stransky turned her eyes to the mirror. The girl sitting on the bed looked so peaceful; that long golden hair pouring over her shoulders.

She looks so much like her mother, Jonathan had said on more than one occasion. His words echoed in her mind as she turned to him again, and knew that he was sincere.