Excerpt for The Second Chance Project by , available in its entirety at Smashwords












THE SECOND

CHANCE PROJECT


VICTORIA ZAGAR



All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

THE SECOND CHANCE PROJECT SMASHWORDS EDITION Copyright © 2016 Victoria Zagar. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For more information, write to admin@victoriazagar.com

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PROLOGUE



Second chances.

I didn’t expect one the night my executive limo crashed on the way back from a fundraising banquet with the Esstek Foundation. Despite throwing a lavish fundraiser, we’d learned in private that the number one research grant Esstek offered had already been granted to LifeSciences, Inc, for their work on cloning back on Earth.

It was the best grant offered in the galaxy. Why had I even allowed myself to hope it could be mine? My work on cyborgs was groundbreaking, but now my prototype would sit on the table without a brain to go inside it. We were out of money, and therefore out of time. Cyborg research was incredibly expensive, and few were willing to put their bodies on the line for unproven technology. Even those who had lost limbs in the war had found solace in less permanent wearable technology that they could take off at the end of the day.

I stared out of the window as my assistant poured another glass of champagne. I sipped at the liquid, the bitter burn comforting. How stupid, to have ordered champagne when it was clear we were unlikely to win. Hubris was the weakness of scientists, the ability to dream that we can be more than we are becoming twisted until we believe that we are more than we are; somehow invulnerable to such petty mortal concerns as financing.

The lab would close. There was no doubt about it. All that remained was to go back to the office, pack up our things, and hightail it back to Earth or one of the nearby colonies. The colonies always needed good scientists and doctors. The pay was enough to live comfortably for the rest of my life. If I could just forget my dream—

I closed my eyes, blocking out the inside of the limo. It was too painful to bear, the thought that my life’s big dream would never bear fruit. It had been a long shot to even think of developing a technology that so few would need under the guise of helping everyone. Foolish to think I could help myself someday. I was ready, if the technology ever was. Willing to become the first person ever to endure a full body transplant into a cyborg unit. I’d even made a living will, outlining my wishes, should I die before my time. The courts would be more likely to approve the surgery if it was performed on somebody who had no other choice. That’s what I told myself, anyway.

Two purple moons loomed in Orimar’s night sky. The seers of the Outer Colonies loved to portend that heavy moons were a bad omen, those nights when it seemed they were so close they might crash into the planet, even though minds like mine knew that could never happen. Their orbits weren’t decaying; we were in no danger, but that didn’t stop the Oracles from predicting doom and gloom every one-hundred and eighty Sol days. Coincidentally, donations to the Oracles always rose about that time. I smiled at the cynicism of it, how easily people could be played when they were afraid.

Though, these days, it seemed almost as if people yearned for the apocalypse. News from Earth came daily, none of it good—yet colonists who had never been there sat glued to their vid-screens, watching someone else’s disaster play out before their eyes. We were safe from the virus, all the way out here on the Rim. The few ships that came from Earth were thoroughly scanned for contaminants. We could sit back in our armchairs and watch someone else’s world shatter like a feature film. Never mind that millions were dying. Thinking about it, I should have known that LifeSciences’ cloning program would win the grant. Earth needed that project, now that the sterility plague had doomed its future. And while its children had spread out across the galaxy, few were willing to come back and help a homeworld they barely knew. The cloning program would give them hope. Flesh and blood hope.

Nobody really wanted my solution. Few thought it acceptable—even on my team—to accept a substitute body made of steel and fiberglass, no matter how beautiful we could make it. I was the only one who truly yearned for that body. That’s why my project had failed—I was the only True Believer on my team. Now the prototype would gather dust in some warehouse, sold as an asset to pay off the debts my company had amassed. My stomach churned as I contemplated the bankruptcy paperwork I’d have to file on the morrow, the visual of my life’s work being packed up haunting me like a ghost.

I’d come so close, and yet I was still so far. If only we’d had more time.

As if hearing my thoughts and forming a response, I heard the honk of a horn and everything flipped. It happened so quickly that I couldn’t even process what was happening until the champagne glass slipped out of my hand and shattered against the window. Nothing was right, and it was then that I realized we’d come to a stop upside-down. The limo rested on its roof, the sounds of the night pouring in through the shattered window. Cries and gasps from the sidewalks. Someone yelled “By the Gods!”, another one chanted in the way of the Oracles, the alien words sounding like nonsense to my ears. For all my years of education, I’d never picked up more than Terran as a language.

A stupid regret to have now, considering all the pain I was in. I pulled a slick hand away from my abdomen and didn’t have to look to know it was bad. The table had splintered and a large wooden stake now pinned me to my seat by way of my abdomen. I didn’t need my three medical degrees and two doctorates to tell me I was dying. I panicked for a moment, before realizing a sense of peace. It was as if the world was going on without me, as if this chaotic, bloody scene at the intersection had never taken place. The sirens seemed distant, as if the ambulances were heading to some other scene and this one was happening in a dimension separate from ours.

“Hang in there. We’ll get you out.” The voice was supposed to be calming, but I felt nothing when the firefighter poked his head in. I knew by the time he operated the jaws of life, it was going to be too late for me. I felt a strange sense of embarrassment for a moment, a sense of humiliation at being seen like this. Regret that they’d never see the real me, not really. She lay on a table at my company, all fiberglass and plexisteel and long, black hair—

twisted until we believe we are more than we are—

With that thought, the darkness came for me, wrapping me in its embrace like a long-lost lover.




CHAPTER ONE



Surreal fails to describe what happened next. If I had died, than perhaps the Oracles were proving themselves right; there was some kind of Paradise, though it was confusing and muddled. I felt great, high as a kite, like I was in college once more and experimenting with some grey-market substances. For science, of course.

There were also bouts of pain, though they felt distant as well. Everything had a dreamlike, hazy quality, and I had no sense of time at all. No real sense of anything, really. Concepts were too hard to grasp, feelings were difficult to put names to. I was simply hanging, in limbo, in stasis. Waiting, with no idea how long I’d be here.

Maybe this was Purgatory, that concept from that long-lost Earth religion. Neither up nor down, Heaven or Hell. Just a perpetual waiting room for those who had neither done great deeds or committed sins.

Before I could realize that was actually a concept and that I had grasped it, I opened my eyes. They felt… strange, my eyelids heavier than I’d remembered. Must be the drugs.

“She’s coming around. Keep her stable while we bring her out of the coma.”

“This is crazy. What if she hates us for this?”

She won’t. This is what Celeste wanted more than anything. It was her living will that made this possible. We have to trust her.”

The voices sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put names to them. I was too busy feeling odd, my body heavy, every sensation different to the way that I remembered it. My eyes slipped into focus and I realized I was in the lab.

I lifted an arm, my mouth falling open in surprise. My team backed off as I sat up, pulling off a million sensors with my stubbornness. I flexed my hand as I looked down at myself and for a moment I had the strangest feeling, as if I wasn’t in my body and was at the same time. I ran my hand down my chest, over my breasts and across my thighs, caressing myself like a lover. I felt every touch acutely and gasped. I looked across the room with naked eyes, seeing the far corners that my old eyes had never managed without glasses.

“I’m alive,” I whispered. My voice sounded so strange, yet so right, the octave how I’d always imagined when I’d practiced in the mirror. I tried to sing as joy bubbled to the surface. Some might have felt only horror to wake up in this body, but for me, a lifelong dream had just been fulfilled. I’d been transplanted into the prototype body I’d built with my very own hands. Song burst from my mouth, air turned into a realistic sounding voice through the artificial lung system of the prototype body.

No, not the prototype. The artificial lung system that I had.

Easy, Celeste.” Lissa placed her ebony hand on my pale arm as I moved to stand. “We need to move slowly on this. You’ve just woken up—we haven’t had a chance to test your systems yet.”

“I’m testing them right now.” I smiled as I effortlessly stood and twirled like a ballerina. I couldn’t believe the grace that I now possessed, a far cry from the body I’d lived in before that perpetually battled with hormonal problems and associated weight gain. A crippling thunderclap headache sent me tumbling down to the bed like a dancer with a broken foot and I clutched my head until it passed, my vision blurring.

“You need to be careful,” Lissa chastised me. “You’re only two months out from brain surgery, and five minutes out of the induced coma we had to put you in until the swelling abated. We were scared you wouldn’t make it. So perhaps we can save the celebration until later?” The concern in her brown eyes was evident, and I loved it. Lissa had always been a woman of compassion and mercy. The conscience of the project, I’d dubbed her privately, in the dark hours where I’d admired her from afar, knowing I’d never have a shot at making her mine.

But that was before. Now I had a new body, a new life. The expectations of my previous life had been swept onto the floor like ashes. I had been reborn.

“Do you remember anything about how you got here?” Lissa asked, her eyes wide like two brown saucers. Dark curls tumbled over her shoulders as she leaned in close.

“I remember the accident,” I said. “I died, right?”

“Your liver, stomach, lungs and heart were pierced by the table,” Lissa explained. “The machines kept you alive while we took your case to the emergency court. Without your living will, you’d be in the ground by now.”

“Thank you,” I said. “For fighting for me. How did you get the money?”

“That’s the strange part,” Lissa said. “An anonymous benefactor provided a substantial sum both to fight your case and to perform the transplant. He’s the reason we’re standing here now, fully funded for as long as the project goes on. We have a few ideas about who might be responsible, but we can’t put a finger on it.”

“I dread to think…” I closed my eyes for a moment. Still couldn’t get used to the heavy lids. Maybe I’d have to have the team work on those a little. “Say it’s not Saffron Med, at least.”

“We don’t think so,” Lissa reassured me as the other members of the team reattached the sensors I’d so carelessly pulled off. It was relief to know it probably wasn’t Saffron Medical funding this excursion into my new body. They’d wanted this technology from the outset, but for ideological reasons—they wanted the project so that they could patent the technology and effectively keep it from ever being used in circumstances like mine. They believed that to circumvent death was to defy the Oracles and wanted to keep cyborg tech on the shelf forever.

“The first transhuman.” I looked down at my hands, marveling at how it felt to be inside this body I’d crafted with my old one. I’d long wanted to transcend my human limits, and now here I was, the first cyborg.

“We need to have a press conference,” I said. “This is a breakthrough. We have to—“

“I’m not sure that’s a great idea,” Lissa said, looking down at the floor as if I might read the contents of her mind should I look into her eyes. “The legal challenge… brought a great deal of attention to your case. There have been protests. People are… afraid of our technology. Afraid they won’t get to die. Afraid it’ll anger the Oracles. Afraid… Afraid of someone who would want to shed their flesh and blood body for a steel and glass one.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I replied. “I would have died if not for this project.”

“There are some who would rather you had,” Nigel said. The young med student met my eyes, his smoke-colored irises showing a great deal of resolve. “This project will not be easy to sell to the public.”

It all fell into place then; why I’d not gotten the grant. Cloning on a dying world could be sold to the masses, explained as a necessary evil. Cyborgs, on the other hand, were a tough sell. The idea of the dead walking amongst the living, steel and flesh merged together in some Frankenstein experiment was sure to raise eyebrows. I don’t know why I’d never realized it before, but now every look of revulsion I’d seen on the face of those who had toured our facility made sense.

The galaxy wasn’t ready for this. For me. And yet I’d gone and done it anyway, pushed humanity to its limits. I felt a sense of pride at the same time that fear gripped me. People feared change. Sometimes they would go to great lengths to eliminate it and to preserve the status quo.

The sympathetic nervous system seems to be operational,” Lissa said. I watched the monitor as my artificial heart pumped blue synthetic blood around my body, bringing oxygen to my brain where it was still needed. “How does it feel, Celeste?”

“It feels like fear.” I sighed.

“We’ll keep you safe,” Lissa said. “Our benefactor has provided us with the best in security. Just concentrate on your recovery. Let them deal with the public.”

I clenched my hand into a fist with strength my human body had never possessed. I longed to go out and show the world that I was better now—faster, stronger, fitter. But for now I had to bide my time and focus on recovery. I knew from the research we’d done that the first few weeks would be critical. If the brain showed signs of rejection, it was all over and I would find myself in the ground after all. It was the hard truth Lissa hadn’t been able to voice, but it was there—we had to wait and see before I could face the world, in case I turned out to be the failure everybody was expecting—and perhaps hoping—for.




CHAPTER TWO



I longed for sunlight so badly that I dreamt of standing beneath the red sun of Orimar on more than one occasion, waking to the fluorescent lights of the lab with a sense of acute disappointment. No matter how many artificial sun lamps the team waved in my face and how much melatonin they injected into my synthetic blue blood, my brain still longed for the freedom of the outdoors.

The tests had gone remarkably well. Everything was ahead of schedule, and my recovery had been largely free of complications. I felt fitter, stronger and more capable than ever before—but the cabin fever was seriously getting to me.

“It’s time for the press conference,” I announced one morning, a few weeks later. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life cooped up in here like some sort of dirty little secret. I’m going to demystify this whole process, right now.”

“Are you sure?” Lissa asked. “If anything, the protests have only grown larger as word has leaked on your progress. Are you ready to stand in front of a hostile crowd and argue for your right to exist?”

“I can’t run from them forever,” I explained. “I have to go outside. Otherwise this whole project was for nothing. What’s the point of creating a superhuman who has to live their life out inside a lab?”


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