Book Title: Argonauts
Author: Kevin Kneupper
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Release Date: March 28, 2016
Hosted by: Book Enthusiast Promotions
Some called her a sorceress, though what she did was science. Medea was a genomancer, a programmer of human genetic code. She could extend someone’s life, turn an ugly duckling into a startling beauty, and cure the most stubborn of diseases. She’d have spent her life helping those who needed it, if only she could have.
But the Argo Corporation didn’t pay her to help people. It paid her to remake their warriors into the ultimate fighting machines. Men with claws, and teeth to match. Men with the reflexes of cats and the strength of a bear. What was once the stuff of fantasy was now real, and corporations the world over were all using genomancers to build armies of their own.
Medea was comfortable in her lab, and she would have stayed there given the choice. She was one of the few who still had a job, now that most of the world’s occupations had been automated away, and she lived a life of relative luxury. But she didn’t count on being pulled into the machinations of two of the biggest corporations on the planet.
And she didn’t count on meeting Jason.
Jason was a shareholder, one of the few, and wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of the masses. He was tall, handsome, and rich, and he could have lived an idle life of ease. He’d chosen to be a warrior instead. But his father had kept him from fighting any actual battles, and years of grueling training left him with disgust for anyone who’d stoop to using a genomancer to cut to the front of the line.
Now Jason’s father is dead, and things have changed. He’s been summoned by Pelias, the CEO of the Argo Corporation, and assigned to a dangerous mission in a strange land full of wonders. And he hasn’t been given a choice about who he’ll take with him: Medea. She was born in the city they’re heading to, and she’s indispensable to the mission. Now Jason is forced to protect someone he sees as a cheater, someone whose genetic shortcuts can only taint a warrior’s honor. He can’t stand her, and he can’t stand what she does for a living. But he’ll need her if he expects to survive the trials to come.
Some called her a glorified nurse. Just a pusher of pills, a dispenser of shots. Just the woman who sat on the sidelines while the warriors did their deeds and fought their battles. A cog in their machine, meant to stand behind them, always in their shadow and always in her place.
But she was more than that. She was the woman who healed them in battle, the woman who patched them up when things went wrong, the woman who controlled their very genetic code. She was the woman who changed them, and made them something more than what they’d been. And without her, they’d all be nothing: just ordinary men, with ordinary skills, and ordinary genes.
She was in her lab, perched atop the city of Argos, windows on all sides looking out on the skyline below. There were people who would die for that view, and the privileges that came with it. There were people who’d fought and clawed their entire lives just to get near it. They could call her what they liked, the warriors. They were glory hounds one and all, and none were fond of sharing the limelight. They could mock her, and they could insult her, but beneath the bluster they all knew who needed whom.
Her lab was state of the art, the best tools for the best of her trade. Sleek white machines hummed their metal songs as they worked, processing her data and mixing her concoctions. Stocky little robots whizzed around the floor, running materials back and forth wherever they were needed. Giant hydraulic arms did the grunt work, pumping liquids into trays and beakers in just the right amounts, at just the right times, all according to her specifications. She had everything she could want, everything that could possibly save her time or make her work go just a little bit more smoothly. It was valuable, what she did, and no expense was spared in making sure she did it well.
She walked along the rows of machines, checking each against the data on her tablet, confirming that every detail was correct before she went through with the procedure to come. She was a beauty, but then, everyone in her trade was. Appearances could be tailored, altered from one day to the next on a whim. Cheekbones could rise and fall, noses could thicken or thin, eyes could whirl through a kaleidoscope of colors according to one’s tastes. She controlled it all, and the outside was the easiest part to change. At present, her eyes were dark and her skin was olive. She wore a white lab coat, the uniform of her profession, and one that had protected her clothing from more spills than she could count. Her hair was jet black, and she kept it long, tightened into a neat bun while she worked. But she liked to tinker with herself, just as she did with others, and what she’d look like from one week to the next was anyone’s guess.
Her lab was a lonely place, and often she had only robots to keep her company. But today she had a patient: a man, strapped to a chair, thick metal wires coiled around his arms and legs to lock them into place. He was a warrior’s warrior, a muscle-bound bruiser who killed who he was told to kill and did what he was told to do. His hair was a shaggy, sandy mop, his eyes a dull brown topped by a thick brow. He wasn’t a thinker; you could tell that just looking at him. But they all wanted to climb the ranks however they could, and here he was to make himself just a little bit better at what he did. Just a little edge, the kind that could make all the difference in battles where everything was at stake on the outcome.
“Four more injections,” said Medea. “Then you’ll be the warrior you’ve always wanted to be.” They were lined up in a row on the counter, the little vials of green liquid she was about to pump into him. She plunged a syringe into the first, filling it up and double-checking to make sure the dose was precise.
“This better not fuck me up,” said Antaeus. He gave his restraints a wary eye, tugging against them just to be sure. “I’ve heard stories, about what this does to people. About what happens if you get things wrong. And I’ve heard the things they say about you.”
“That’s all black market stuff,” said Medea. “You go to a back alley genomancer, who knows what you’re injecting? I splice everything myself. And we don’t skimp on quality.” She waved a hand to a row of machinery taking up an entire wall in the lab: a vast computer attached to an array of tools, ranging from centrifuges spinning biological materials to bubbling vats of pink goo. “The best the Argo Corporation has to offer. The best you’re going to get, anywhere.”
Antaeus didn’t trust her, but none of them ever did. It used to irk her, that they’d let her do something so intimate to them and yet treat her like an outcast. The comments they made once cut, and deeply, but now they merely stung. They thought of her as an enchantress, working her unfathomable magics upon them. They couldn’t understand her, and so they wanted to control her, chopping away at her just to be sure she was still safely under their thumbs. She hurt a little with every slight, but she’d built up a shell, a persona they couldn’t fluster, and it kept her safe inside even when they were at their worst.
She held the syringe above his arm, poised for the first injection. “Last chance. Once this code goes in, it’s not coming out, not for months. It’ll be a part of you. Every last strand of your DNA will change. You can go back, if you change your mind, but it won’t be easy. And it won’t be cheap.”
“Do it,” said Antaeus. “Let’s get this over with.”
“I’m not going to lie,” said Medea. “This will hurt. Just for a few days. Just until your system processes the new code, gets it merged in with all the rest.” She stuck the needle into his arm, dumping the first of her concoctions into his veins.
“I can handle it,” said Antaeus. “I can handle anything.”
“We’ll see,” said Medea. She emptied shot after shot into his skin, continuing on until the course was done. Then a final needle: a nutrient tube, attached to a machine nearby. It began pumping yellow fluids into his body, concentrated proteins, vitamins, and other biological raw materials, the fuel he’d need to make the change he was about to undergo.
They waited, and everything was quiet at first. She checked the diagnostics, watched his heart rate, watched his blood pressure, watched anything that could go wrong. Nothing did; he was healthy, and he was young, and she was good at what she did. He sat there in the chair, and for a time all was still. For a time, there was no sign she’d done anything to him at all.
But as the minutes passed, his hands began to twitch. First the right one, then the left. He gave a grimace, and he kept looking back and forth between the two. “I can feel something. Under my skin. It itches.”
“That’s normal,” said Medea. “That’s okay. Just let the shots do their work.”
“It’s in my throat,” said Antaeus. “Is it supposed to be in my throat?”
She shined a light in one eye, then the other. Then she picked up a black, handheld diagnostic device, holding it against his arm as it pricked his skin with a tiny needle and sampled his blood. “Everything’s fine. Vital signs are good. Your code’s changing, right on cue. Just roll with it, and keep calm. You know what’s going to happen to you, and you know it’s going to be a bit of a shock to your system.”
He tried to keep it together, but big as he was and strong as he was, he wasn’t prepared for what came next. None of them ever were.
“My fingernails,” said Antaeus. “They’re turning black.”
And they were, little spots of pigment appearing at random across them. They spread until they were pools, and as he wiggled his hands the nails themselves seemed to change: thinning, growing longer, clicking against the arm of the chair as he moved. “Good,” said Medea. “That’s good. Keep them still. Just let them do their thing.”
“It hurts,” said Antaeus. “My skin. Everywhere, it hurts.”
“You’re a big boy,” said Medea. “And you wanted to be a bigger one.”
He was getting bigger, in fact, and visibly so. He’d been tall and muscular beforehand, but now he was growing cartoonishly oversized, his biceps bulging against the restraints, his pectorals moving under his shirt as they added pound after pound of muscle beneath. She could see hairs crawling out of the neck of his shirt, long, brown strands that probed their way out millimeter by millimeter until they joined together in thick, scruffy patches.
“Hurts,” said Antaeus. But it was barely a word as it came from his mouth. He bit down upon the sound as it left him, and his lips flared to reveal the cause: overgrown canines, poking down further than they should. Soon he couldn’t even close his mouth around them, and his voice lowered and wavered until nothing was left but a growl.
“It’s supposed to hurt,” said Medea. She wiped a damp cloth against his forehead, dabbing away his sweat, speaking to him in soothing tones as he became more and more a beast. “You’ll get better. Just keep yourself centered, and don’t panic. Everything’s fine. Everything’s under control.”
He didn’t seem to believe it. He kept looking at his hands, watching the spread of fur upon them, watching his wrists balloon until they pushed up against the very edges of the restraints. He pulled at them, trying to break free, shouting unintelligible sounds all the while. His eyes were wild, and he lunged his head toward her, trying for a bite, before falling back exhausted as the changes slowed and his body stabilized.
“The worst part’s over,” said Medea. “Now you’re what you wanted to be.”
He was still a man, mostly. But he was something else as well. The fur had spread all across his body, a thick coat of light brown. His fingers were tipped with sharp black claws, nasty enough to maul anyone foolish enough to face him in battle. He was stronger than ever, and he looked it: his chest was a barrel, his arms oversized pistons, and all of him bigger than any human had a right to be. But the biggest change of all was to his face. His teeth were daggers, the whites of his eyes had gone brown, and his nose looked distinctly like a snout. If one didn’t know better, and were to catch him in the dark, they might think him nothing more than a big, angry bear.
Medea drew a sample of blood, running it through her diagnostics. She pressed a button on one of the machines and he was bathed in a blue light, scanned from head to toe by the laboratory’s systems. She put a finger to his wrist and counted his pulse by hand, just to be sure. She went over the bloodwork, for both check and double-check, before turning back to the creature sitting before her.
“Everything’s green,” said Medea. “Vitals are good, code is functioning, chromosomes are stable. You’re everything you hoped you could be, and you’re exactly what the Argo Corporation needs in a warrior. Looks like today’s your lucky day. Welcome to the Argonauts.”