Project Onyx Testing Facility
My delivery to the base didn’t stop at the end of the car ride. After arriving at a military airport and boarding a slim jet, I was sitting in an uncomfortable seat with an X-shaped seatbelt strapping me in. I took a deep breath and tried not to think about the possibilities of a crash.
“Feelin’ the nerves, kid?” said the man. He raised a single eyebrow.
“Yeah…” I said, “Just a little scared of flying, that’s all.”
He chuckled. “It’d do ya’ good to get over that quick.”
We sat in an increasingly awkward silence. After what seemed like an age of being quietly regarded, the huge man put a hand on my shoulder and turned me around. “Listen up. The place you’re going to is the finest military testing facility, this world or the older one. Sure as hell won’t be easy, but you seem tough enough for a runt.” He patted me roughly on the shoulder. “Eugene Grant, former NEC Lieutenant Colonel. Y’can’t contact me when you’re in there, but I figure I should put a name to the face for ya’,” he said, winking. I had the immediate feeling that he wasn’t actually as cheerful as he let on.
I considered my options. This man knew more than anyone else I knew. He even knew about my father, from what I’d eavesdropped on while I was packing. What did I need to ask him more than anything else? What had been nagging at me since I’d first heard him speak of my dad?
The jet fired its engines and began to move, and I struggled to maintain my composure. My knuckles went white on the sides of the seat, but I managed to stay relatively calm otherwise. I looked over at the Colonel, having finally decided what I’d ask.
“Colonel… Did you know my dad?” I asked, scanning his face. I saw the wrinkles on it, the frown lines. There was war on that face. I’d heard from my father that there’s nothing like a war to rally people.
We’d been taught the normal subjects in school: History, Math, Science, English, all the normal stuff. Throughout the entirety, though, and especially in recent years, it had never been made truly clear who the enemy was. Everyone I knew talked about them like they were commonfolk, simpletons; a minor problem that we should pass off and forget. The military gave off this message especially. I’d watched an interview with the General of the NEC once, and throughout the entire thing he never gave a name, nor even an accurate description of them. I remember that it always felt wrong to me. If they were such a little threat, why were we at war for the fifth year in a row? Shouldn’t they have been defeated by now?
My father had been a great man. He was a kind father, a strong soldier, and a dedicated husband. He’d been all those things, and for the longest time I’d considered him invincible. When I’d heard the news of his death, I remember thinking it was all just a dumb joke. “Nothing can kill MY dad,” I’d said as my mother sobbed, still clutching the ID tags she’d been given, “ My dad’s a Captain! He’s the finest soldier the NEC’s ever seen!”
The Colonel looked down, wringing his hands. I forgot my momentary daydream and focused on him.
“I didn’t know him personally, no,” he said. His face looked like it could’ve been carved from stone. I could detect something else behind the tough exterior, though: a softer, more vulnerable part. A part that could quite possibly have been sad. He looked away.
“Go on,” I said.
He cleared his throat and looked at me. I could see the cogs in his head turning, weighing whatever it was that he was about to tell me.
“Did you ever see your father’s body?” he asked.
I struggled for words. What kind of question was that? Of course I’d seen my father’s body. I’d seen the bag. I’d seen the bare outline of him against that dreadful black plastic. They’d told me he’d been killed in action saving a man’s life. I knew it had to have been him. It sounded so much like something he’d have done…
My eyes widened. Realization struck me like a bowling ball.
I’d never seen my father’s body. The implications that the Colonel had subtly revealed were staggering, but I had no idea what it meant.
“I… I…,” he looked at me for a long time, his hand still on my shoulder. Realizing I hadn’t taken a breath for about twenty seconds, I sucked in a lungful and shook my head to clear the fuzziness. I nodded to myself, removed his hand from my shoulder, settled into my seat, and closed my eyes.
The flight lasted about an hour, and I slept for none of it. When we landed, I gave a nod to the Colonel and quietly exited. I didn’t say anything to him because I had nothing else to say; it was enough that he’d given me something new to think about, no matter how unsettling it was.
Exiting the jet, I walked slowly to ensure I’d cleared my head before I entered the giant compound. It was large, built of concrete, but I got the feeling that it was reinforced with something far stronger. I saw very few windows, and the few that were there were barred on the inside. It gave off the vibe of a prison. I didn’t like that vibe.
The weight of the Colonel’s words made the walk to the entrance nearly intolerable, and it didn’t help that the doors were almost four-inch-thick slabs of steel. As I pried them apart, the smell of stale air entered my nose, and a long, white corridor stretched out in front of me. There were doors on either side, alternating sides as they went along, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of a prison once again.
I was immediately greeted by a thin, disheveled man. He was wearing wide-brimmed glasses and a white labcoat with a black shirt underneath. The labcoat was unbuttoned and his glasses were placed oddly. He’d obviously dressed in a hurry, and his wispy blonde hair was in no particular style.
“Turner. Matthew Turner, right?” he asked quickly.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Then I guess we’re both late. Quickly, follow me.” He turned and set off at a brisk pace down the hall, and, not knowing what else to do, I followed close behind. I made sure to wipe my eyes a second time, hoping they hadn’t turned red.
“I’m Doctor Sevelyan, by the way. I get to brief you special recruits on Project Onyx,” he said, turning a corner into a similar-looking hallway as he did.
“Project whatnow?” I asked, “What’s Project Onyx? What do you mean by ‘special recruits’?”
Sevelyan chuckled, turning his head to the side. “Nevermind, then. You’ll find out when we get t– Ah. Here we are.” He turned into a large door that was labeled ‘BRIEFING ROOM’. I looked tentatively between the sign on the door and Sevelyan, but he ushered me in with a reassuring nod. I stepped in, discovering a room that was darker than the well-lit hallway. There was a row of five chairs, and all but one was taken. The others were occupied by two girls and two boys, each looking to be the same age as myself. Out of the corner of my eye I spied two men, both very large, carrying slim assault rifles. They were held casually, but I knew they’d have no problem whipping into action.
“Please sit, I’ll be ready for the briefing in a moment,” said Doctor Sevelyan, who was typing into a laptop and writing notes into a small tablet. He switched rapidly between them, his stylus moving furiously across the screen, his fingers skimming across the keyboard, and it surprised me how well he seemed to be able to multitask.
I looked over at the others, taking them in one by one. Closest to me, poised in his chair with no care for the personal space of others, was a boy that seemed to be a bit older than I was. He had shaggy, thin, black hair that reminded me of feathers, but besides that he looked rather average to me. He had no discerning marks; no freckles, no birthmarks, nothing that I could see from my position looking at the back of his head. He was turned facing toward the next chair.
In that chair sat another boy, perhaps a bit younger than me, that had red hair and a scatter of freckles on nearly all of his visible skin. He was talking in a hushed voice to the older boy, but he seemed to be rather shy. His slightly chubby body was huddled together as tightly as could be without curling into a ball, and his brown eyes darted from person to person in the room, although he never skipped a beat in his conversation.
“Why do you think we’re even here, though?” asked the black-haired guy.
“I-I don’t know, but the two guys behind us don’t look like bodyguards,” he gestured with his eyes toward the two men, still standing in their spot toward the back of the room, “I-I think they’re here to make sure we don’t run or something.”
“You guys are stupid. They’re just here to watch us, they’re probably evaluating us or something. Besides, who’d be crazy enough to run from the NEC?” asked one of the girls.
I stopped listening and leaned forward in my seat to get a look at her. She was on the thinner side, and had straight shoulder-length brown hair. Her eyes were green, and she was clearly the most intelligent member of the conversation.
Just as I was about to address the girl, the black-haired guy turned in his seat to look at me. “Aaah. You’re the late guy. Took ya’ long enough, we’ve been sitting here for thirty minutes.” He gave me an inquisitive look, a single eyebrow raised. His eyes scanned me in much the same way that the Colonel’s had. “What’s your name, anyway?”
I frowned. “Yours first. And the rest of you, what’re your names?”
The black-haired guy considered it for a moment, then smiled. “I like your style, kid. My name’s Andrew. You can call me Drew,” he jerked a thumb toward the redheaded kid, “His name’s Brandon, but he’s a bit shy, so there’s a slim chance of him telling you himself.” He turned around and looked at the brown-haired girl, and I followed suit.
She promptly held out her hand. Each of the three of us shook it in kind, the slightest bit perplexed. “Just call me Emma. It’s nice to meet you guys.”
I smiled at her, shaking her hand firmly. “I’m Matthew. You can call me Matt,” I looked at the three of them, “I guess we’ll be getting to know each other pretty well.” I frowned, took at glance at Sevelyan. “What’s this all about, anyway? Any of you know what ‘Project Onyx’ is?”
They all shook their heads. “All I know is it’s some super-secret NEC thing,” said Drew. Brandon and Emma nodded, and all I could do was sigh. We all knew pretty much the same thing. The vagueness of the name didn’t help in the slightest, either.
At that moment, I finally registered that the other girl hadn’t said her name yet. The way the chairs were angled, I couldn’t get a good look at her face. All I could see was the curly blonde hair that splayed around her like a curtain. It was long and dangled freely, keeping her face hidden from the side. I was about to say something to her when Sevelyan cleared his throat, calling for attention. Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing and glued their eyes to him.
“As you know, you were recruited by the New Earth Coalition to fight. However, you don’t know enough about what you’re fighting,” he looked briefly over at the two soldiers, “The NEC made sure of that. Regardless, your enemy is one that mankind has never faced before. They utilize magic that goes against all known laws of physics and science, and our weapons have only been able to keep them back for so long. Eventually, our defenses will fail. It’s an inevitable outcome.”
He paused for a second, looking at each of us in kind.
Emma raised her hand quietly, and Sevelyan nodded to her.
“Sir, if I may ask… What do you mean by magic? I’ve read books and fairy tails, and they all have magic, but you’re telling me that’s all real?” She shook her head softly, “That’s a bit too mu-“
“Like I said, Mrs. Thompson. Science can’t explain. Science says magic can’t exist, but it does. Something about this world allows it.” He lifted his tablet and held it in one hand, pointing at the screen with the other. Images began to appear. “This right here is the most common usage. Manipulation of the elements.” The images showed a man in shining armor, riding atop a large, gleaming white horse. The man was brandishing a large warhammer above his head, his face contorted because of the hectic frenzy, but that wasn’t the most unusual part.
Lightning was striking his hammer, but the sky was nearly cloudless. His eyes glowed bright white, and the lightning spiderwebbed out from his hammer, striking an entire line of rifle-clad men in front of him.
“Those men were electrified so intensely that swatches of their muscle and inner organs disintegrated. There were holes burnt from one end of the body to the other,” he looked Emma directly in the eyes, emanating confidence, “So. Explain that with science.”
Emma lowered her head quietly.
He continued. “There have been reports of men who can make fire from thin air and manipulate the wind. This gives them an enormous advantage in the war, and we simply won’t be able to hold out. So, as you can imagine, we need changes to our military. We need to adapt. That’s where you five come in.” He swiped the screen of his tablet, and a picture of a five-pointed black flower popped onto the screen. “This is a plant known to the locals as ‘Ebonmyre’. We call it Onyx. While it may look like a regular, old, everyday plant to you, to the locals it is a mystical and revered plant, growing only in a few remote places. When consumed, the plant bestows its user with increased neural function and higher energy efficiency. Basically, anyone who crushes this plant into a paste and eats it is able to think faster and with increased accuracy, to run for longer, etcetera.”
Sevelyan winked at the five of us. The blonde girl looked up, but her face was still obscured. I exchanged a glance with Drew; his expression said nothing.
“We have obtained samples of Onyx and, through two years of rigorous testing, have isolated the few chemical products and genetic traits of the plant that create this effect. We believe we can make it permanent.”
He paused for a moment, and I remember thinking, rather cynically, that we’d been recruited to become lab rats.
“And you expect us to let you… What, mess with our DNA or whatever?” asked Drew. He was sitting forward now, his smirk gone.
“I don’t expect you to let me do anything. I’m afraid you have no choice in the matter. You were all chosen for specific character traits that you have, because Onyx strengthens strong characteristics in both personality and in physique. I’m not at liberty to say which any of yours were at this point in time, but I can assure you that it must be you five that undergo the assimilation process.”
We all sat there in silence, not sure of what else to say.
“Will it be painful?” asked Brandon, who had somehow managed to scrunch his body up even further without snapping the chair in half.
Sevelyan gave Brandon a look of pity, and then nodded gravely. “It’s likely to be one of the most painful processes you’ve ever endured. The forced re-coding of DNA was not what nature intended; it’s only natural that you get punishment for it.”
“That’s ridiculous. You’re saying we have to endure this pain because, somehow, our being forced to go through with this is our fault?” I snorted.
The doctor narrowed his eyes, but said nothing. Then, slowly: “We will begin procedures tomorrow at 08:00. Be awake by 06:00 so that you can bathe and eat breakfast. There will be no breaks,” he waved a hand to the door, shooing us out, “One of your officers will be waiting outside; he will lead you to your dorms.”
The five of us exited the room quietly, still stupefied at the massiveness of tomorrow’s events. A man who introduced himself as our supervising officer took the lead and began leading us to our bunks, forcing us all to scramble to get our things. I let Brandon, Emma, and Drew take the lead so that I could drop back to talk with the mysterious girl, who was walking rather slowly. Taking a closer look at her, I saw that she was wearing a dark leather jacket with a plain gray shirt underneath. There were slim blue jeans on her legs and black sneakers on her feet. The most striking feature, however, were her eyes. They were a deep, dark grey. They wouldn’t have been directly striking to me if they weren’t so deep; there was a quality to them that reminded me of a finely polished piece of granite, and I found myself getting lost in them as we walked.
“Like what you see?”
I stopped dead in my tracks, my mind ramming into the brick wall of the present. The girl was staring at me, her face – a finely carved, well shaped face – was questioning me all on its own.
“I, uh… No? Wait, yes?” I said. I’d had dealings with attractive girls before, but never one so straightforward as her. I straightened up. “Sorry. Just a bit flustered, is all. My name’s Matt, what’s yours?”
She snorted, then asked: “Why are names so important to people? It’s honestly kind of annoying. They hold little more meaning than the word of a politician.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Pretty strange analogy.”
“Doesn’t change how accurate it is, now does it?” she asked, “Still, though. Why do you want to know?”
“Just for the sake of curiosity. Otherwise I’d have to make up a nickname for you, and I’m not very good at that.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, crossing her arms in the process.
“Listen, we’re gonna be put through this crazy stuff together, we might as well have names to put to faces. Names are valuable things.”
“Fine. Just call me Lou. Simple and easy to remember for a flustered guy like yourself.” The sarcasm practically dripped from her words, and I felt my cheeks immediately catch fire.
“Lou, huh? Alright, then. Lou it is,” I said, fighting to maintain my calm and collectedness.
She nodded her silent approval, then sped up and passed the others. I caught up with them, and Drew elbowed me roughly, chuckling.
“Tough crowd, eh? She doesn’t really strike me as the cute ‘n cuddly type,” he said.
“She didn’t strike me that way, either,” I said, rubbing my arm, “She’s kinda weird. Do you know anything about her?”
Drew shook his head, then laughed. “You shouldn’t let one girl get to you like that. As the saying goes, there’re plenty of birds in the sky,” he frowned. “Or something like that.”
I smiled at him. “Sounds like you’ve got some experience in that area.”
His eyes practically glinted. “You could say that. I was pretty infamous as a ladykiller back in my hometown.” He grinned mischievously, then put a hand to his chin, adding: “I can still remember Alys Brown. Man, the things we did...”
“I think I’d rather avoid the details.”
The officer stopped at an open door, turned toward us.
“These are your bunks for the entirety of your stay here. Since there’re only five of you, and six bunks, you’ll all be able to choose your own bunks. Just be ready to wake up whenever I tell you to,” he said, giving us all a hard look, “Oh, and my name’s Jacobson. You can call me Sir.” With that, he left the room, leaving us all to get our things in order.
I chose the bunk in the middle row on the right. Brandon chose the one to my left, and Drew took the one to my right. Emma and Lou chose the two farthest from the door on their side.
It was about 8:00 PM by then, and I figured it would be a good idea to get some sleep, with such a huge day tomorrow. After arranging my single blanket and pillow, saying good night to everyone else, and shoving a sleeping pill down my throat, I fell into a light and generally unrewarding sleep.
Author’s Note: There will be more, but not very soon! Stay tuned!ns 126.96.36.199da2