Paragon II

As Captain Paragon, Columbia’s first military-engineered transhuman completes his training, his creators debate his readiness for deployment. How much of the man Paragon once was now remains? And what are they truly unleashing upon the alleged enemies of freedom?

‘Paragon II’ continues the twisted superhero tale of Captain Paragon.

He was aware, in an intellectual sense, that there was a concept known as ‘stamina’; the idea that the ability to continue to perform physical activity was a finite resource that would eventually be expended. He had been told about it during his Reorientation classes, and he knew it, dimly, from before, when he was somebody else. But it was like being told about a bat’s ability to use sonar to echolocate, or the bizarre reproductive cycle of a marsupial. It was outside of his personal experience, an alien thing. When he ran, when he did anything physical, he stopped only when it was required. Theoretically, he could continue indefinitely. Or at least until his bones were ground down to dust which, itself, would take far longer than in a normal human body. He spent a lot of his time running. Like all machines, his body must be maintained and, since this particular machine was more complex and – importantly – expensive that one grown in a human womb as a random recombination of its parents’ genomes, it had to be maintained that much more stringently. He ran the equivalent of two marathons a day, round and round the track in the facility that was the only home he could clearly recall. Round and round and round, endlessly, monotonously. Boredom, thankfully, was another concept he knew only by reputation.

“That’s enough for today, Captain,” a voice from the control room, transmitted via loudspeaker into the gymnasium, told him. He slowed to a halt. He could tell his heart was beating faster, could feel it in his muscular chest, but his breathing was unaffected. His breath never quickened, his lungs never burned. His body simply did not generate lactic acid – all his respiration was painlessly aerobic, no matter how far he pushed his muscles. The machine, the machine that he was, had simply been constructed that way. Calmly, he walked to the exit. There was a palm scanner by the reinforced door, but since he had no fingerprints for it to detect, he relied on the retinal scan. He was the only one in the huge room, the only one who had entered all day, and no one had left in between, but they couldn’t be too careful. Others, others who shared a certain trait with him, could do things that mocked such common sense checks. The human mind was flawed. The machines were not.

Ms Goodman was waiting for him outside. It was her voice that he had heard earlier. Of all the other people who lived in the facility with him, it was her with whom he had the most daily contact, and he felt for her a version of what he understood to be affection. She had told him how much of her was in him how, in a way, she was like his mother. That was what normal humans called the female parent, in whose body they incubated prior to their birth. He shook his head. He knew he had to stop thinking like that; stop thinking of himself as something different. He had once been human. He still was human, he mentally corrected, he just had some extra pieces now. The same machine, just with a few upgrades. That’s how Ms Goodman had tried to get him to think of it.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

“My heart rate is slightly higher than it has been,” he said.

“That’s probably a good sign. It means your metabolism is adapting.”

“I see.”

“We’ll check today’s samples for any abnormalities though.” She led him down the corridor to the laboratory. He automatically climbed onto the phlebotomy chair that sat in a curtained-off area to one side as the nurse prepared the needles. The man always told him to relax, even though he’d been through this ritual every day since he had been revived from the procedure. He had been hired for his bedside manner. That was because they didn’t know what the procedure would do to him, and what it would make him into. He could have been unruly.

“Thank you, Captain,” the nurse murmured as he took the blood sample. “And now for the treatments…”

The same routine, day in day out. There were seventeen injections altogether. Various serums, hormones, viral compounds. He was an unstable machine, for now at least. In time, he would no longer require these continuous biochemical infusions, but at the moment failure to administer the daily cocktail of drugs would cause his enhanced physiology to go into meltdown. He would die: badly.

And that would be the worst thing. In all of his classes, he had had instilled in him certain key concepts. He had a purpose. Not all humans were so fortunate. Most strived blindly their whole lives, trying to do what they believed to be right, trying to make a better world for themselves and their offspring. He was born with his eyes open though – he was born with a singular, defined purpose. He had a mission and, if he should die without completing it, he would be judged a failure. It was that simple.

“Dr Guttenberg thinks we’ll only need a few more weeks of this, Captain,” Ms Goodman said.

He rolled his eyes towards her. “What then?”

“Then, we will begin the next phase of the project.”

“I see.”

She watched him over her glasses for a moment. She almost always had a clipboard with her, and now it was held closely against her chest. He didn’t know what was on it. Information about himself, he assumed, although he didn’t think about it much. “Aren’t you curious about what the next phase is, Captain?”

He considered her words. “No. Am I supposed to be?”

“People are generally curious about their future, yes. It’s very…human.”

“To be human is to be uncertain, then?”

“Yes, of course. No one can know what lies ahead.”

“I do,” he replied as he set his gaze straight ahead. Some of the injections were quite painful, even with his modified nerve endings. For a normal human, they would be unbearable. On the wall in front of the phlebotomy chair was hung a flag: the stars and stripes of Columbia. “I am Captain Paragon,” he said, “the embodiment of Columbia. The spirit of freedom made flesh. Democracy in action.” He clenched his fists. “For me, the future holds no fear. I have not felt a moment’s uncertainty since you revived me and told me who and what I was.”

Ms Goodman watched him silently. Sometimes, he thought that the things he said troubled her, but he couldn’t think why that would be: he was only repeating the things he’d been told in his classes. He was only doing what they asked. He literally had no idea how he would do anything else.

*

Janet Goodman walked into General Hepburn’s office and took a seat opposite him. He didn’t look up, just continued to scan one of the many reports that were stacked up on his desk. She recognised her own handwriting on this particular one. Finally, he shut the file and looked up at her. “How’s he feeling?”

“I don’t think he feels anything at all.”

“There’s a problem with his sense of touch? Guttenburg’s report didn’t…”

She rolled her eyes. “No, I was being poetic, General. Probably just to prove that someone in this facility has a soul of some description. There’s nothing wrong with Paragon’s ability to feel physical sensation. He has a very…complete…understanding of his metabolic processes. But ‘how’s he feeling?’ is a very loaded question with him.”

“Yes, I read your report.” Hepburn didn’t sound impressed.

“But I expect you’ll be ignoring my recommendations.” She didn’t phrase it as a question, because it wasn’t one. She was empowered only to advise and, more and more, her advice was being overruled.

“You’re only one of our experts, Ms Goodman,” he said, “and the only one to raise a note of dissent. I have doctors, military psychologists, physiotherapists, tutors in every subject on God’s green Earth that tell me, in no uncertain terms, that he is ready for deployment.”

“They may say he’s ready, but that’s not the same as recommending it,” she pointed out. “I have no doubt he’s medically capable of performing his duties, but we still need more time to study him. Two months ago, he was a brain, a spinal column and a ribcage floating in a jar of green slime. We have no idea how his metabolism will continue to develop.”

“Guttenberg says he’s responding better to the treatments than we expected.”

“It will still be at least a month before…”

“A week. If we increase the daily dosage.”

“We don’t know what that will do. And even then, we still have more training to…”

Hepburn took a report from the top of the pile on his desk and threw it down in front of her. It was a flimsy folder, and the noise it made as it landed wasn’t loud – just a gentle, cardboard slap – but it still silenced her. It carried the Presidential Seal, meaning it came from the White House. “Give that a quick read, Ms Goodman.”

She eyed him carefully as she flicked it open, and then glanced quickly at the first page. Then she shut the file with a disgusted sigh. “This is no time for being reactionary.”

“It is precisely the time for being reactionary,” Hepburn growled, “indeed, it is times like these for which being reactionary was invented. These are the kinds of things that we, the war machine of Columbia, are supposed to be reacting to.”

“He’s not ready,” she said softly.

“No one’s ever ready for their first battle. You become ready. Remember, Janet, that no matter how attached you are to him, he’s nothing more than a machine. A weapon. He was built for a single, unerring purpose, and if we do not use him for that purpose, we have wasted a great many of this nation’s resources. Don’t be fooled by his flesh and blood.”

My flesh and blood…”

“And Iron Cross’s, and The Hunter’s, and Steven’s, and a dozen more, named and unnamed. He is a machine,” Hepburn repeated, “a machine of war. Let him fight, Janet. It’s all he’s for.”

She nodded. “You have my recommendation, and I won’t recant it. But it’s your decision.”

“I know. I just wanted you to understand why I’ve made it. We all owe you that much.”

*

Dr Guttenberg smiled reassuringly at him as he sat down beside him. “Would you like me to talk you through these results?” he asked. He was not large, but he had a paternal manner that made him seem in charge of any situation.

“If you think it would be beneficial, doctor,” Paragon said.

“Okay, well, let’s see,” Guttenberg scratched his nose and opened the file. There was a picture in there, which Paragon understood to be of his brain. He was familiar with normal human anatomy, and knew that this was not a usual brain. “Do you see this enlarged lobe here?”

“Yes.”

“In an ordinary…that is…in an unmodified brain, that would be the cerebellum. It controls, in humans, almost everything that makes us what we are. It’s not the be all and end all, but instead think of it as a sort of filter. It takes the animal sensations and it translates them into human sensations. For years, neuroscientists thought that its only role was to control fine motor functions, but now we know that it is involved in language acquisition, concentration, imagination…in other words, the things that make us human, that make us self-aware.”

Paragon nodded. “In the case of transhumans though, there are differences, is that right?”

“It is,” Guttenberg smiled, “you still have a cerebellum of course. If you didn’t, you’d know about it. Or rather, you wouldn’t, which is rather the point. No, in the case of transhumans, the cerebellum is mutated into what we call the T-organ, a kind of third lobe of the brain, if you like. Your cerebellum is vastly more developed than mine is. You have a control over your body that is unimaginable to me. But, the key thing today is for you to compare this scan to this one…” He took out another page, showing another brain.

On this one, the T-organ was much larger, and appeared more complex somehow. Paragon frowned at it. “Whose brain is this?”

“Ms Goodman’s. As you know, she is a transhuman, and was once the costumed hero known as Columbian Woman. Her genome was used to create you.”

“Then why is her T-organ different to mine? Is it because of the other genetic patterns?”

“No, it’s simply because, like any other part of the human brain, the T-organ will change and grow over time. Ms Goodman was mutated during the T-event, over eighty years ago, and her brain has been evolving ever since. It is fairly stable now, but the more she exercises the incredible mental powers that transhumanism unlocks, the more those same powers will grow.”

“So I am…unfinished?”

Guttenberg chuckled. “We all are, Paragon. All of us grow. We build new neural pathways, new connections in the brain. We learn, and we remember, and we change. You too will change. Your T-organ is still in its most nascent stages. We’ve stimulated it as much as we can – some of the injections you’ve been receiving are for that – but it will only truly begin to reach its potential when it is put to real use. This facility,” he waved his hand around him, “it’s like a womb. An infant grows fast in the womb, but when it emerges into the light it’s still powerless, still just a person in potential, really. The baby has to live, to be exposed to the world around it, before it can truly become a human being. So it is with you, Paragon. All that you have learned is just a beginning. And the T-organ,” he held up the first MRI again, “is a literal manifestation of that.”

*

Paragon marched smartly into General Hepburn’s office and saluted just as smartly in front of his desk. “At ease,” the General told him.

“Thank you, sir.” He moved his hand down to his side, but there was otherwise no appreciable difference in the rigidity of his body language. He was stretched taut, like a bowstring about to be loosed. Hepburn looked at the man standing before him. Physically, he resembled who he had been before the procedure. His skin tone, general build, the structure of his face, were much as they had been. But in all other ways he was different. Already at close to the peak of human condition, the former US Marine now appeared carved from a block of granite. Every muscle bulged from his lean, tall frame in a way that made the General wince slightly. His voice was an octave lower, a condition apparently caused by some modification to his larynx that would allow him to hold his breath underwater for longer. He had no body hair at all, like someone with alopecia or, the General didn’t like to think, a chemotherapy patient; a side-effect of the various biochemical treatments he had undergone. But it was his eyes that were strangest of all. He had been a hardened killer even before he was selected for the project, but now he had a blank, faraway stare that unnerved even a decorated combat officer like himself.

“Captain Paragon,” Hepburn said, “I don’t need to tell you who and what you are. Since you were revived following the procedure that transformed you into what you now are, you have been told your purpose in life, your mission, your very reason for existing. You are a soldier. A soldier whose body, whose mind, represents the single greatest investment of military funding in one individual in Columbian history. Perhaps even the history of the civilised world. You are without a doubt the most impressive physical specimen I have ever had under my command and my only regret is that I must now sign the transfer order and pass you into the hands of another.”

Paragon fixed him with his cold, distant stare. Was it his imagination, or did he see a kind of hunger there, in the depths? As far as he knew from all the reports, and from speaking to the man personally, Paragon had never expressed anything resembling desire. He simply did as he was told. “Then…?”

“Yes, Captain. As of tomorrow, you will be placed on active duty. Today, in ordinary military terms, is your passing out. Congratulations, soldier.” He stood up and held out his hand. Paragon took it and, very gently, shook. Hepburn could feel the power in that arm. “Would you like to see your uniform?”

The Transhuman License Act had put an end to the costumed heroes of the last century. Oh, there will still vigilantes roaming the streets, and mercenaries out there in the wilderness making their way as heirs to a legacy written mostly in the blood of other transhumans, but they were all technically illegal. They weren’t endorsed, weren’t openly championed. Still, people knew what to expect. When you create a hero like this, there are certain tropes that must be obeyed. On another man, this would have looked silly. On Paragon, it would look iconic.

“What do you think?”

Paragon narrowed his eyes at the suit hanging in the glass display case. “Shouldn’t it have some red on it?” he asked.

Hepburn raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t been expecting so constructive a comment. “Why? So it has all the colours of the flag? This isn’t the 1930s, Captain. You’re going into battle, not posing in a pageant.”

Paragon nodded. The suit was blue. It had a hood that would cover his eyes, a white chest-piece, shaped like a diamond that recalled nothing specific except for an idea, and a similarly alabaster cape. The boot and gloves matched. The design was simple, modern. “What’s it made of?”

“A new polymer-Kevlar compound. Stab proof, will protect against blasts from grenades, mortars, IEDs, but it won’t stop bullets. But you’ll have your speed for that.”

“The cape doesn’t seem practical.”

“It’s all about the image, Captain. When you’re in the air, it’ll look great.”

“I can’t fly.”

“Not yet, no. But give that brain of yours time to grow, and who knows what you’ll be capable of?” Hepburn took a case out of his pocket and removed a cigar from it. “I’d offer you one, Captain, but your body just filters out the toxins, and where’s the fun in that?”

“I’m not here to have fun, sir,” Paragon said, still staring fixedly at his suit.

“No,” Hepburn agreed, “no you’re not.”

*

The roar of the engines was deafening. Everyone else in the cabin was wearing ear protectors, but he didn’t require any. The Colonel signalled to him, counting down from three on his fingers. Paragon nodded along, and then turned to face the ramp as it slowly opened, revealing the turbulent skies outside. The plane’s engines got louder. Red lights guided his way along the ramp. He stepped forward. The wind buffeted him right and left, but he braced his legs against the metal grille beneath his incongruous white boots. At first some of the other soldiers on the mission had found the uniform funny, but one look into his eyes had seen the smiles die on their lips and now as he let the cape unfurl behind him, their expressions were simply awestruck. He strode calmly to the yawning abyss at the rear of the aircraft. Lightning flashed in the clouds, but any sound of thunder was drowned out by the engines. He clenched his fists.

“God speed, Captain,” the Colonel told him through his earpiece.

“There is no God,” Paragon replied, not knowing where the thought came from, “only me.”

He jumped. The cape caught the wind, streamed out behind him and acted like a chute. It was designed that way. He plummeted through the storm, angling himself straight downwards, letting himself accelerate. He fell like a bolt from the heavens, like the wrath of Columbia made manifest. As the clouds cleared and the ground raced towards him in a manner that he understood should have been terrifying, he spread his arms, altered the angle of his descent, let the cape billow out again as he righted himself. He saw heads turn, the gunfire momentarily stop and everyone stare in disbelief as he smashed into the ground, landing on one knee, his fist hitting with such force that it caused a crack to snake across the hard packed earth. He stood up. The nearest insurgent turned his gun towards him.

“In the name of the United States of Columbia,” Captain Paragon said in a low voice that nonetheless carried over the storm, “Put down your weapons.”

They didn’t listen. He’d been expecting that and, in some deep, hidden part of him that still remembered what it was to be human, hoping it too.

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