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Authors: Stacey Kade

Project paper doll

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Copyright © 2013 by Stacey Kade

ContentsTitle PageCopyrightDedicationPrologueChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20Chapter 21Chapter 22Chapter 23Chapter 24Chapter 25Chapter 26Chapter 27Chapter 28Chapter 29Chapter 30Chapter 31Chapter 32Chapter 33Chapter 34Chapter 35

To Susan, my sister and my best friend. You’ve always been there for me (well…after you were born. Not much you could do about the twelve years and 361 days before that, I suppose). Thank you. I love you, and I’m thankful every day that you are part of my life.

IHAVE A DEAD GIRL’S NAME. Technically, I suppose I have a dead girl’s life. Either way, I’ve had them both now longer than she did, so I guess they’re mine.

The original—or maybe the real—Ariane Tucker lay dying in a hospital bed five hundred miles away even as I first tasted fresh air, saw the sky, or experienced the world outside the small white room where I’d lived for as long as I could remember.

I try not to think about that because, as horrible as it may sound, I’m grateful to Ariane for her death. I owe her my freedom.

If she’d been a happy, healthy child, I don’t think her father—now my father—would have done what he did. Plucked me out of the darkness and saved me when the walls were shaking and the air was full of smoke.

But that Ariane Tucker was fully human.

I’m not.

So there are Rules that come along with my being Ariane. They’re simple but essential for my safety and my father’s:

Never trust anyone.Remember they arealwayssearching.Don’t get involved.Keep your head down.Don’t fall in love.

I followed these Rules faithfully for ten years, once I was old enough to understand what they meant. The trouble with rules, though, is that you’ll always be tempted to break one—for the right reasons, due to unavoidable circumstances, because it feels as if there’s no other choice. And once you break one, the rest seem like so much broken glass. The damage is already done.

ESTABLISHING A ROUTINEis essential for hiding in plain sight. Full-blooded humans are very habitual, as it turns out. They eat the same thing for breakfast for weeks on end, park in the same spaces, and buy the same brand of toothpaste. The best way to blend in was to follow suit. To create my own patterns and follow them without exception. Of course, in my case it was an artificial construction, not the result of naturally occurring preferences or, let’s face it, a severe lack of imagination.

Buttheydidn’t know that.

So, Tuesday morning, first day of my junior year: Tuesday equals cornflakes. Morning, particularly on the first day of school, equals conversation with my father.

In the beginning, these father/pseudo-daughter talks were in preparation for my life outside: to discuss the challenges I would face throughout the day, the exercises I needed to practice, and the plans my father had made to further my assimilation. He worked nights, so morning was the only time available and, conveniently, the only part of the day where I hadn’t screwed up yet.

These days, though, our morning conversations were more often just catch-up, with a little, “Hey, remember you’re not like everybody else.” Like I neededthatreminder.

But today was different, and it shouldn’t have been. It didn’t start out that way.

The kitchen TV, positioned on the counter by the sink for optimal viewing, was tuned in to Fox News. The shrill voices of the morning-show hosts debating the latest conspiracy polluted the air with noise, fear, and chaos. As usual.

“Really?” I asked my father, who was already sitting at the table with his bowl of cornflakes.

He grunted noncommittally, his gaze glued to the crawl on the bottom of the screen. He’d been obsessed with the news lately, particularly anything to do with a senate hearing committee investigating the misappropriation of funds within the Department of Defense. Once a military man, always a military man, I guess.

I took my seat next to him with a sigh. It wasn’t that the TV people—who must have received vocal training to hit that perfect blend of righteous outrage and near panic—were wrong, exactly. Their governmentwaskeeping secrets. I was living proof of that. They were just worried about all the wrong things. All the time. It was frustrating to watch, honestly.

“You know,” I said, “studies have shown that watching this stuff makes you ten percent more paranoid and seventy-eight percent more likely to buy an old missile silo and convert it into a personal bunker for postapocalyptic living.”

That caught my father’s attention. He gave me a sour look, telling me exactly what he thought of my made-up statistics. “It wouldn’t kill you to be more politically aware,” he said, pointing his spoon at me.

I reached for the cornflakes. “A lot of things won’t kill me,” I said. In fact, that list was much longer for me than for a full-blooded human. “But that’s not much of a recommendation, is it?” I poured cereal into my bowl and held up one of the flakes. “ ‘Taste this. You’ll survive it!’ Coming soon to cereal boxes and commercials everywhere.”

He rolled his eyes. “Funny.”

I grinned. “I can be. Occasionally.”

“Less often than you think, kiddo.” But he was smiling with a fondness that still took me by surprise. “So,” he said, hitting the mute button on the remote, “first day of school again. Do you have everything you need to—”

His cell phone trilled, a soft but intrusive sound that startled both of us. He didn’t often get work calls at home.

He plucked the phone off his belt and squinted at the screen, holding it out at arm’s length so he could read it. He’d forgotten his reading glasses again.

I kept eating, waiting for him to declare it a wrong number or to roll his eyes and mutter something about Kagan being an idiot. I had no idea who Kagan was, but apparently, according to my father, he achieved Olympic standards of idiocy on a regular basis.

Instead, I watched as the color drained from my father’s face.

Fear turned my mouth to sand, the bits of cornflake now unswallowable little rocks. “What’s wrong?”

My father shoved back from the table, the phone in his hand. “Stay here,” he ordered, and headed toward his den. A moment later I heard the door snap shut.

I put down my spoon with a shaky hand. Other children had nightmares about clowns, monsters, and—in my friend Jenna’s case—the Hamburger Helper hand from the commercials. I often dreamed about big black vans pulling soundlessly into our driveway and faceless men snatching me from my bed before I could scream.

I got up and spat my cereal into the sink and rinsed my mouth out with water. My head was spinning with horrible scenarios, each worse than the last, a veritable catalog of everything that could be wrong.

I could have tried to listen in on the conversation—not my father’s words, but his thoughts. But that ability—like much of me—didn’t function nearly as efficiently as intended. And on top of that, my father was not easy to read. I could get virtually nothing from him unless he wanted me to, thanks to the intensive mental training he’d undergone during his years of service.

Still, there was one thing I knew for sure: if they were coming, it was already too late for me. I’d have time only to hide, not escape, and that would do no good.

In theory, I should have had nothing to fear. A dozen soldiers or “retrieval specialists” were supposed to be a minor obstacle for someone like me. But I wasn’t quite up to spec in that regard. At least not anymore.

My heart fluttered unevenly in my chest, reminding me that, no matter how much I sometimes hated it, I was part human. Weak.

I sat back down and picked up my spoon, examining my upside-down reflection in the bowl of it. Had someone recognized me?

I look human enough to “pass,” of course. All part of the design. Don’t want people freaking out about an alien spy/assassin; that might lower the odds of my being able to walk up to someone and pick their brain for information, or, you know, kill them.

But passing wasn’t quite the same as blending in. That, I had to work at.

I reviewed the alterations to my appearance in the distorted view, reassuring myself that my camouflage was still intact.

Lowlights in my too-light hair brought it closer to the human range of color. But the texture was still off—heavy and soft, but it caught on fingertips like the raw silk shirt Jenna had appropriated from her mom’s closet last year—and it grew out with strange bends and kinks in it, which I hated. So I kept it pulled up in a ponytail or in a messy knot that hopefully looked deliberately, artistically disarrayed instead of barely controlled.

Colored lenses made my eyes a murky but human blue, disguising the unnatural darkness of my irises—they were virtually indistinguishable from my pupils.

My skin was slightly too pale, verging on a silvery gray in some lights, but there was nothing I could do about that. It wasn’t enough to be noticeable, really, unless I stood next to someone who’d fake-baked to a Cheeto orange…or if you knew what you were looking for.

And there were people who did. Far too many of them.

Was that what the phone call was about? I swallowed, my throat suddenly painfully dry.

My only saving grace so far was that their attention had been focused on locations far from their own backyard. I lived less than ten miles from GenTex Labs, home to Project Paper Doll and site of my very own personal hell.

My father returned to the kitchen suddenly, catching me by surprise. I slapped my spoon in place, producing a louder than expected crack, and we both flinched.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

He nodded wearily, but I could tell he was distracted. He didn’t sit down, just leaned forward with his hands braced on the table as if he needed the support.

A pulse of fear sent me to my feet, and my chair tipped over backward. “Do you need your pills? I have them right here on the windowsill.” My father was not young. He was still in good shape—thanks, he said, to the regimented training he’d picked up from being Special Forces in his twenties—but he would be fifty-six this year. He’d gone completely gray in the years I’d known him, and while his gaze was as sharp as ever, lately he’d taken to moving as if he carried a heavy weight on his shoulders. Last year, I’d ignored every lesson he’d ever taught me and called 911 when I found him collapsed on the floor in the hall, gasping for air. It turned out to be a panic attack, brought on by stress. He also had spectacularly high blood pressure, another sign that his body was not handling the demands of his life very well. Wonder why.

I started toward him, but he waved me off. “I’m fine. I already took my meds this morning. Go on to school. You don’t want to be late.”

No, because that would be a violation of Rule #4:Keep your head down.When my father had first given me that rule I’d taken it literally, which hadn’t helped matters. A second grader walking around with her head ducked down below her shoulders wasn’t exactly normal looking. Hey, you try living in a secret underground lab for the first six years of your life and see if your understanding of the metaphorical isn’t a little shaky.

The point is, people notice you when you are late. But they also notice when you are early.

I felt a fresh rush of frustration at walking this so-fine-as-to-be-almost-invisible line. GTX didn’t own me, not anymore. But they still controlled my life, down to the smallest details. And sometimes that was the worst part.

I could never have anyone at the house or go over to anyone else’s. I had to keep to myself, but not so much that they would worry about my being socially dysfunctional and force me into counseling. I lived with the constant fear of standing out in some way, even if it was for something good. I would be a B student forever even though I’d surpassed the high-school-level curriculum years ago. B’s were the perfect nondescript grade, not low enough to attract teacher intervention, and not high enough to rate nomination for the honor society.

I hadn’t even been able to go with my father when the ambulance took him to the hospital last year. GTX often lends out their specialists, and one of the doctors might have recognized me.

That was my life. And it would be for the next two interminable years, until I could escape under the cover of all the other graduating seniors.

Once I was gone from Wingate I’d be free. Well, freer, I suppose. I’d never be able to relax completely, never be able to just exist without thinking hard about who or what I was supposed to be. But living farther away from GTX—and the omnipresent sense of danger—would help, at least a little.

I pushed my chair up into place, but I didn’t leave right away. I had to know. “Are they on to us?” I asked, forcing the words past a sudden lump in my throat. My father still worked for GTX—he had to. Quitting after their prized possession up and disappeared would have looked suspicious. As far as anyone there knew, I was the daughter he’d gained full custody of after the death of his ex-wife in Ohio. And his staying at GTX did provide at least one major advantage: he had sources throughout the company who were usually able to tell him what was in the offing well in advance.

He looked up, startled. “No, Ariane. No. It’s nothing like that. Just something I need to handle.”

I nodded stiffly. I would die before I’d let GTX take me or punish my father for helping me.

“You don’t have to worry.” He reached out and touched my shoulder carefully, gingerly.

I forced myself not to flinch away. Sometimes I wasn’t so good with being touched. It was yet another way in which I could be caught. Most people didn’t avoid a casual touch as if it might cause them to burst into flame. Then again, most people hadn’t spent years being poked, prodded, and broken (deliberately) for the sake of scientific advancement.

“Okay.” I tried to smile, wishing my father looked more certain or less gray—that was my territory—and pulled away as soon as I could, my heart thundering away on the slow-to-fade rush of adrenaline.

Sometimes I could almost forget. Those days in the lab seemed so far away, a nightmare with a little too much detail. Other times…well, let’s just say today was going to be one ofthosedays.

“Ari!”

The shout came from above me in the crowded and noisy gym, loud enough to make me jump. Twitchy was my middle name today.

Actually, I don’t know if I have a middle name, come to think of it. I’ve never seen the birth certificate that is, theoretically, mine.

I watched the crowd as heads turned, some toward the shouter but most of them toward me. It felt like a spotlight was shining down on me here on the floor.

I winced.Thanks, Jenna.I found her bright and eager face in the second set of bleachers, about six rows up. She was waving furiously as if I hadn’t heard her—as if half the school hadn’t heard her. It wasn’t her fault, though. That was just Jenna. Enthusiasm turned up to eleven. I envied her that. If relentless optimism and determined cheerfulness were actually requirements for the cheerleading squad at Ashe (instead of heavy eyeliner and rumored sluttiness), then Jenna would have been captain. Maybe even a squad unto herself.