Zoe leaned forward and blew out the candles on her cake. Eight candles! She was eight, officially a big kid now. All the little kids in the playground would look up to her. At least, they would once Daddy was done with his work and they moved back to Dursten together.
Mommy went to live with the gods in their paradise when Zoe was six years old, so Daddy was taking care of her by himself now. Daddy had to live out here in the super secret base to do his work, so Zoe had to leave her friends behind and go with him.
Living in a secret base was fun at first, but she wished there were other kids here to play with. There wasn’t much to do here. She spent most of her days reading story books from the library, travelling to other worlds in her imagination.
Even though there were no kids, she wasn’t alone at her birthday party. Daddy was working so he couldn’t come, but seven people showed up. They were all guards. Zoe wasn’t really expecting to see any of the researchers show up. The mages weren’t that friendly, but the guards seemed to love her. She resented being called their ‘mascot’ though.
Mary, one of the soldiers and the only other girl in the whole base helped her cut the cake and dish it out onto plates for the others. Zoe set aside the piece with the most icing on it for herself.
After the cake, came the presents. Zoe already knew what they were, but she pretended to be surprised as she unwrapped them. Pastries, dried fruits, and candies! Sweet things! Normally she only got one treat for dessert at dinner, but she had so much now!
“Thank you!” she said to everyone.
Zoe looked down at her dragon’s hoard of sugary things with glee. Where should she start?
“Mommy used to give me lots of candy,” Zoe said to Mary, who was sitting beside her. “Daddy says that’s why I’ve got such a sweet tooth now.”
“Make sure y-you enjoy it… Don’t wait too long or it’ll s-spoil before you can eat it…” Mary was smiling, but her lower lip was trembling. She patted Zoe gently on the back, stood up, and quickly left the room, “Excuse me, I uh… forgot I had to do something.”
Was Mary crying? Why? Did she bang her toe on something? That made Zoe cry sometimes.
Zoe looked back down at her candy and chose a dried plum to start with. Yum! The six other guards were being really quiet. Was something happening? Zoe turned to Doug, sitting on the other side of her.
“Have you been in the lab before?” Zoe asked. Doug looked nervous but nodded slowly.
“What’s it like? Daddy always said I was too young to go in there, but I’m a big kid now. Daddy said he would let me see it today.”
“…yes, you’ll get to see it…” Doug stared down at the floor as he talked. His voice was super quiet, Zoe could barely hear him.
“I bet there’s lots of interesting stuff in there, right?”
Doug nodded quietly. Another guard stood up and quickly left the room, “Sorry, I just realized I needed to… go.”
Zoe watched him leave. What was going on? Everyone was acting weird. Zoe reached into her pile and took a pastry. She’d eat those first and save the hard candies for last. The hard candies wouldn’t spoil very quickly so she could save them for later.
One by one, the guards left the party. Doug was the last one to leave, but he came back a few minutes later, cradling a folded piece of cloth in his arm.
“Zoe…” he said softly, “are you ready to visit your dad in the lab?”
Zoe’s eyes lit up. “Finally!” she said.
This was it! She was finally going to find out what he dad actually did here. Zoe only knew it was some kind of magic research, but whenever she asked him about it, he always said it was a secret. She lived here for two years, and she still hadn’t found out. Today, she was finally going to see his research project and get a tour of the lab. Daddy said she’d be able to see it up close.
Doug handed the cloth to her, which turned out to be a dress, “You can’t wear your normal clothes in the lab, so you need to go to your room and change into this. It’s a special lab dress.”
Zoe snatched the dress out of his hands and ran to her room with her candy pile forgotten. She would have cheered out loud, but she’d get in trouble for making too much noise. When she closed the bedroom door behind her, she slipped out of her clothes as fast as possible, carelessly throwing them on the bed, and pulled the lab dress on. She was changed in less than a minute. It wasn’t the nicest dress, and the fabric was kinda scratchy, but it was ok, she could change back into her normal clothes after.
Doug, and Markus, another one of the guards, one that couldn’t make it to the party, were waiting for her outside her door.
“Your shoes too,” Doug pointed out. Zoe looked down at her feet. “We don’t have any lab shoes that will fit you, but you can go barefoot. That should be okay.”
Zoe quickly kicked off her shoes and threw them behind her into the room, feeling the cold white stone beneath her feet.
“Ready?” Doug asked with a smile. Zoe nodded, and followed the men to the lab.
The doorway that separated the lab from the living quarters was huge and thick. It wasn’t the sort of door you can get through easily. Daddy said it was because the things in the lab were super-secret, while the things outside the lab, like the bedrooms and dining hall were only normal-secret. Doug unlocked the door with a strange cylinder shaped key, and something inside the door went ‘clunk’ before Doug was able to push it open.
Zoe entered the lab for the first time. The two guards followed, closing and re-locking the door behind them with another ‘clunk’. Daddy was standing there, waiting for her.
“Daddy!” Zoe ran to her father and hugged him.
“Hey pumpkin, are you ready to see where daddy works?”
Zoe was. The first room she saw was the ‘Alchemy Lab.’ It was full of strange old books, and weird glass bulbs and beakers, all filled with different strange substances. She was told to be very careful not to touch anything. Most of the chemicals were poisonous to humans, and many of them had to be kept at a high temperature to keep them stable. The hot beakers were labeled with red warning stickers and were sat on top of fire rune heating plates. Daddy said that they were the temperature of boiling water.
The next room Daddy showed her was a long hallway, lined on either side by windows. These were the holding cells, eight on either side of the hallway. Daddy said that the windows weren’t glass, they were actually a colorless sapphire, enchanted to prevent shattering. All the cages were empty white boxes with nothing inside. When Zoe asked what they were supposed to hold, Daddy said that he was trying to make a new form of life. He started talking about the potential of the mind, and how ant colony was really one giant organism made up of separate parts. Zoe didn’t really understand him, but she knew her dad. Once he got talking, he could keep going and going. Zoe smiled and nodded while pretending to listen.
The final room was the ‘Creation Room.’ All sorts of strange crystals and arcane brass instruments lined standing benches along the walls. In the centre of the room was a single massive cylindrical tank. It was only about as deep as a bathtub, but it was very wide. It was made out of clean, polished steel, and there was a thick lid on the top. Just like the Alchemy Lab, warning stickers were placed on the side saying that the contents were very hot.
Daddy gestured to the tank, “The lid please.”
The two guards started walking to the tank, and Daddy grabbed Zoe’s shoulders and turned her to face him.
“Zoe… Daddy loves you very much. Remember that, okay?”
“Okay?” Zoe already knew Daddy loved her… why was he saying this now?
“Promise? Promise that, no matter what happens, you’ll remember?”
“Daddy, what’s-” Zoe turned to watch the two guards strain and lift the heavy metal lid off the tank. Daddy quickly turned her head back to him, and hugged her, burying her face in his chest.
“uh pffomisff,” Zoe attempted to say she promised, but her face was being squished into Daddy’s chest.
“I love you so much,” Daddy repeated quietly.
There was the sound of metal sliding across metal. Daddy released his hug, still keeping a firm grip on Zoe’s shoulders. Zoe saw tears in his eyes.
“You’re going to be so beautiful…” These weren’t tears of sadness, they were tears of joy. Daddy turned to the two guards, “It’s time.”
Two pairs of hands gripped her tightly by the arms and lifted her up. The hands were clad in thick leather gloves that reached up to their elbow. Zoe looked at the two men carrying her. Both Doug and Markus wore protective masks that covered their entire face with only a single narrow slit for the eyes. Zoe was starting to get scared.
“Daddy? What’s going on?”
She heard Daddy’s voice behind her, “You’re going to change sweetie, just like a pretty butterfly.”
Daddy’s voice was distant and soft, almost like he was talking in his sleep. Zoe was definitely scared now.
As the two men carried her towards the edge of the tank, she looked inside. The thick goopy fluid was impossible to see through, mostly purple in color, with streaks of orange and green mixed in. The colors slowly blended and swirled around. Zoe could feel the heat, even from a distance.
“Daddy?” Zoe shouted in alarm. This was scary.
“It’ll be over soon, sweetheart. Just a quick little swim in a warm bath… Be a good girl for Daddy.”
The two men carrying her brought her up to the edge of the tank. Zoe finally realized they were going to throw her inside! The updraft caused by the boiling goop puffed out her skirt, and she could feel the terrible heat on her legs.
Zoe desperately kicked out with her feet, and thrashed around, trying to get free, but the two guards kept a firm grip on her arms. Her desperate struggling continued until she accidentally brushed her foot against the steel edge of the tank. She yelped in pain and tucked her legs in, bending her knees to keep her feet clear of the scorching metal.
“Daddy please! I don’t want to go in,” Zoe cried.
There was no response. The two men held her over the boiling goop and lowered her down. She started kicking and thrashing again, and accidentally dipped a foot below the surface. She screamed and tucked her legs in again. The goop clung to her, still sizzling, turning the skin around it an angry red. Even after pulling it out of the tank, the burning didn’t stop.
Heedless to her screams, the men let go. Zoe fell into the tank with a splash. Her feet hit the searing metal bottom, fully immersing her up to her hips, and splattering small spots of burning goop all over her upper body. The screams were inhuman. The agonizing pain was beyond anything the girl could have ever imagined, but she refused to let herself die.
Zoe walked on the horrible burning floor, wading through hell while her legs cooked. She saw the edge of the tank, if she could just get close enough... Daddy walked into view holding a long pole ending in a ‘U’ shaped fork. He held the pole out and Zoe desperately clung onto it.
“Please! Take me out!” she screamed.
“Happy birthday.” Daddy said, with a smile.
He pushed against her chest and forced Zoe’s upper body down against the tank bottom. She writhed in agony, trying to keep her face above the surface. The last thing she saw was the heavy steel lid sliding back over the tank, leaving her alone in the hellish, burning, darkness.
The dull thumps against the tank walls stopped after a minute or so. The two guards looked down at the tank solemnly. John Eldridge rolled his eyes at their reaction and made a small adjustment to the tank’s temperature. The cooling process would take 17 hours.
“Her screams…” said Markus the guard.
“We killed her… we killed Zoe…” said the other guard, the fat one, seemed to be on the verge of tears. What was his name again?
“Try not to look so dour, gentlemen,” John said cheerfully. “This is not a funeral, it’s a birth.”
“Your own daughter. How could you do something like that to her?” The fat guard asked with an accusing tone. Was his name Doug? That sounded right.
He didn’t bother to dignify that with a response. Doug was a hypocrite. This was no different than the other 74 experiments he’d helped John perform. The only difference was that instead of some nameless orphan or slave, it was a girl whose name he knew. John was under no such illusions. Every one of those 74 screaming victims was a tragedy, but those sacrifices were all necessary to achieve this final greatness.
This one was going to work. John was certain. Certain enough to bet his beloved daughter’s life on it.
John was certain because he had a secret. He’d been deceiving his benefactors for more than a year. Starting from experiment 36 he’d been deliberately creating failures. They would have easily survived the transformation if not for John’s sabotage of the extremely delicate cooling process.
He was successful, but not successful enough. It would have been good enough to satisfy the benefactors, but it wasn’t perfect enough to be Zoe’s birthday present. The changes he made in each experiment were subtle, fixing small flaws, improving what could be improved, and it wasn’t until experiment 74 that he finally perfected the formula. This time it was no experiment, the work was complete. John would have jumped into the tank himself if he could, but alas, only children could successfully adapt to the transformation.
“I don’t need your help anymore and I don’t need to be distracted. Take the rest of the day off, you’re both dismissed.”
The two unnecessarily guilt-ridden guards left the room. John Eldridge watched them leave and lock the door behind them. Keeping a close watch on the tank temperature, like the good father he was, he gleefully danced around the lab.