She hung her head with its jet-black hair low as she signed the contract.  She now had no identity, no past to fall back on.

It suited her really.  After everything that had happened she was ready to wipe the slate clean and start again.  Only this time she was going to do things right.

“Good to have you on board.  Your designation is 24-42.  Please follow the green lights to your lodgings and wait there for further instruction.” An electronic female voice said as the two human agents snapped the folder holding her signature closed and walked off in the opposite direction.  They had remained eerily silent throughout the whole thing, opting to let Computer 1A-42 do all of the talking.  

Forty-two.  Her project number.  Twenty-four.  Her identification number.  Twenty-four, forty-two.  Her new name.  One-A.  The computers identification number.  Forty-two.  It’s project number.

Project 42 – the Hero Improvement Program.  The newest peacekeeping system of Ostraya.  Given the civil unrest overseas, the Government had worked with its allies to make sure there was an impartial force to protect the world from war, stepping in to prevent loss of life wherever possible.  The Hero Improvement Program, creating new super-humans, was part of this plan.

This was important to 24-42.  She had things to atone for.  She had a world to protect.

She continued down the green-lit path to her lodgings, looking in the windows of the various rooms she passed.  Mainly people looking harassed while banging away on their keyboards.  Some people running on treadmills while being analysed.  One guy playing Solitaire (and losing).

Finally the green lights led to a blue door with the number 24 on it.  She pulled out her blue key card and swiped it.  The door slid open.  Her few belongings were still in boxes, except for five unruly cats (Bandit, Tigger, Boots, Panda and Splodge) who looked rather annoyed at being removed from their home and transplanted into this new one.  They were happy to see their “mother” though, and all bounded over to her, meowing loudly.  The lodgings were very nice and very modern.  The front hall led on to a lovely little lounge room with a coffee table and L-shaped couch, which backed onto the kitchen.  In the lounge room was a large flat-screen TV sitting on a long shelf of cupboards and shelves, and the kitchen had a long counter with five barstools.  Off to the side of the front hall was the bedroom with a nice king-size double bed and a large en-suite with a gorgeous bathtub and shower.  It was like a large hotel room, really.  

24-42 walked through the lounge room through the glass sliding door, inspecting everything with hazel-green eyes.  It was a big enough yard, but the fact that it was surrounded by very large walls on all sides made it seem smaller.  You could easily fit three or four large SUVs in the yard, which meant there was plenty of room for the five cats, both inside and out.  The walls meant that they wouldn’t get out either.  24-42 made a note to plant some small trees for the cats to climb in.  Maybe even a veggie garden, if she could get enough sun.

She left the back door open and started unpacking. Her laptop, her extensive DVD collection, a few clothes, albums, decorations.  Any photos from her old life were shoved in the bottom of one of the cupboards, hidden from sight.  After an hour, the place felt like home.

Now bored, 24-42 flicked on the television.  All her old favourite channels were there, and she spent a while channel-surfing.  Her new couch was very comfortable, and she would have nodded off if the front door hadn’t beeped loudly. Sighing, 24-42 got up and opened the door.

“Good Afternoon 24-42.  I hope everything is to you and your cats liking.”  An old lady smiled in the doorway. She was carrying a large bag and looked very official. 

“It’s very nice, thank you.”  24-42 let the old lady in, closing the door behind them.

“I am C42, the Commander of this Project.” The old lady sat down on one of the comfortable chairs.  “C for Commander, 42 for the Project.”

“Nice to meet you.” 24-42 stood straighter.

“No one has an identity here.”  24-42 commented, feeling intimidated.

“No, we lose our old lives as we move through the Projects.  You however will always be 24-42, as you’re an Experiment, not staff.”  C42 explained, sitting on the couch

“Nice to know.”  24-42 sat back down on the couch, not knowing what to really say or do.

“I’m here to deliver your uniform and let you know what you’ll be doing for the next few days.  I like to get to know the people I’ll be working with.”  C42 smiled kindly, setting the bag down on the coffee table.  24-42 couldn’t help but like the old lady.  “Tomorrow morning you and the 23 other Experiments will go through your preliminary testing.  Basic fitness tests, aptitude tests, medical tests, the like.  You’ll all get the chance to meet each other, hopefully you’ll all get along.  You have to work together for the rest of your lives.”

“Sounds fun.”  24-42 leaned back into the sofa.

“Then on Tuesday the Exposure Therapy begins.  Those who aren’t being Exposed will be free to explore the Facility.  This is your home now, we hope that you will get to know and love the place.”  

“It seems pretty high tech.”  

“After you’ve recovered from the Exposure, then your training begins.  Hopefully you won’t be required on actual missions, but given the fragile nature of International Relations between various Alliances…” C42 trailed off.  “Anyway, you’ll be quickly assigned into Teams and assigned Majors and Captains.  I hope this isn’t too much information for you on your first day.”

“No, I’m fine.” 24-42 tried to smile, but smiling had become difficult over the past twelve months.  She sighed, and tried to forget.  She wasn’t that person any more.

“Anyway, 1A-42 and 1B-42, our site-wide computers, will always be around to help you.  They both monitor the Facility and can easily be called upon from anywhere within the place.” C42 continued. “However, for ease of use, you can use the call tablet on your wall there by the hall.”

24-42 looked towards the front hall. Sure enough, on the wall was a small touch screen. 

“You’ll use that tablet for ordering more food, toiletries, clothes, anything you like, and for seeing your schedule for the day. Everything here is free (for you) so feel free to order anything you like. It’s all linked to your biometrics, so you can approach any vending machine in the facility and it will dispense for you without needing cash.” C42 looked at the younger lady with some sympathy.  “We do try to make life as comfortable as possible.”

“Thanks.” The smile came a little easier this time.  

“See you tomorrow first thing then!” C42 said cheerfully, before heading out.  24-42 let out a breath, and rummaged, which had various uniforms in it.

The main uniform was made of cotton, a tight gunmetal grey skivvy and tight black pants. There were also two jackets, three vests, a cap and several pairs of socks.  There were gloves that were thick and dark grey, along with some pyjamas, and when 24-42 headed back to her room to put the uniforms away she saw that two pairs of tough black boots were there, as well as two pairs of runners and a pair of comfortable slippers.

The five cats were all standing outside of the bedroom door when she was done, looking up at her expectantly.  24-42 sighed, the little sods were hungry.  Sure enough, the fridge was stocked with plenty of food, both human and feline.

24-42 had a lovely spaghetti bolognese for dinner, and the cats enjoyed their high-end cat food.  She flicked through the channels again as she lay contentedly on the couch.  Some stupid reality TV.  An interview with the Captain of the Brisvegas Leos.  A news bulletin about the Mayor of Pleasantville being saved by some Knights. Instructions on how to make the perfect pasta bake.

24-42 settled on the pasta bake channel and started taking notes.

Twenty-four men and women, none of them over the age of 35, sat in the breakout room when Tuesday finally arrived.  It was a clean white room, with pale blue tables and chairs, two sofas, a drinks machine, a snack machine, two fridges, a coffee machine, a sink and a large television.  

The group had just had their final interviews, and were now waiting for the Exposure, whatever that was, to begin.

“So what do you think this Exposure is going to entail?” 15-42, a brash young man of 24 years asked the group.

“I hope it’s not too painful.  I heard they don’t expect all of us to survive.” 19-42 said, worried.

“Probably why there’s so many of us.”  16-42 said.  24-42 liked the look of 16-42, he seemed like a type to be a leader.  He’d survive easily.

“Wonder what they’ll do with the stuff of all the ones who don’t survive.”  21-42 said thoughtfully.  She seemed to be a bit ditzy.  24-42 marked her down as one of the ones she didn’t expect to survive.

“I know I’ll be fine.” 06-42 bragged.

D42, one of the kindly medical scientists, walked in and jumped slightly.

“Goodness, you’re all still hanging around!” He laughed.  “Explore!  Hang out in your lodgings! 1A or 1B will summon you if you’re required!” 

The Experiments looked warily at each other.

“That being said, if 01-42 could make their way to the Lab that’d be great.” D42 smiled sheepishly.  “Follow the yellow lights.”

Suddenly one of the doors lit up yellow, and a path of yellow lights led away from the room.

01-42 got up, and headed out for their Exposure.  15-42, 03-42, 21-42 and 06-42 followed.

Fifteen minutes later, 21-42 ran back.  She looked terrified.

“They put you in a glass jar thing, with a pipe for air and a pipe for waste.  Then they fill it up with this horrible red liquid – 01-42 wouldn’t stop screaming with pain.  They stopped after about five minutes.”  She told them what had happened.

About fifteen minutes after that, 15-42 walked in.  “02-42 didn’t make it.” He said flatly.

24-42 had heard enough.  She headed back to her lodgings and played with her cats.  She stroked their soft fur, scratched their little chins and petted their little heads.  Was this the last time she would ever see them?  What would happen to them if she died?

It sucked being number 24. The last one.  The waiting was horrid.

Finally, the voice of the male computer 1B-42 sounded out.

“Experiment 24-42, please follow the yellow lights to the Laboratory.” 

“Oh well.  It’s time guys.”  24-42 kissed and hugged each of her cats one last time.  Then she got up and followed the yellow lights to the Lab.

21-42, 17-42 and 15-42 were sitting outside of the Lab, all looking very pale and very shaky. 17-42 looked ready to faint, she was that pale.

“So many have died.  The others are still fighting for their lives.  We all only just woke up.”  21-42 pointed to the other two. “16-42 is off getting a snack, he’s hungry. How he can think about food right now…”

“You really know how to inspire confidence don’t you?”  24-42 deadpanned. She had to admit she was impressed that 21-42 was alive, let alone up and about.

“15-42 was pretty okay though.  He was the only one able to walk away after having a rest, even though he was in there for a long time.”  21-42 continued. “I think he lasted 10 minutes.”

“Well there’s your target. Good luck, you’ll need it. It hurts in there!”  15-42 smirked at 24-42, patting her shoulder.  She sighed, and headed into the Lab, where destiny awaited her.

“What happens to my cats if I die?” She blurted out almost the moment the door closed behind her.

“They’ll be allowed to stay in your lodgings, and they will be given the best care we can provide.” S42, another doctor, smiled kindly.  “I’m guessing you heard about the deaths we’ve had already.”

“Was that supposed to happen?”  24-42 asked, worried.

“No.  We didn’t count on too many fatalities actually.” S42 looked down.

24-42 looked towards the large tank in the middle of the room.  If this was her path to atonement, then so be it.

The scientists pointed her to a curtain, where she got undressed.  She then got into the tank where the tubes were hooked up.

“Good luck.”  One of the assistants tried to smile.  The tank was sealed and 24-42 was alone.  She could see the doctors and scientists making notes and doing their last checks.

Then the red liquid began to fill up the tank. Finally the tank was full. Through the red haze 24-42 could still see the scientists, but they seemed so far away.

At first it felt warm.  Her skin prickled and it stung her eyes a little bit. It was a bit boring really. 24-42 moved her arms around, feeling buoyant. The floating felt nice.

“She’s doing much better than the others already.”  She could faintly hear the doctors and scientists.  It felt like they were worlds away.

It took a while, but soon the warm prickling started to turn into burning.  24-42 tried to keep her breathing even, to breathe through the pain.  It was working, to a degree.

“You’re doing well!”  She heard someone say.  She thought of her cats.  That was a nice thought.  The five of them wrestling, chasing each other, chasing their toys, getting high on catnip together.

Bandit and Boots were her two calico girls.  They were small, mouthy and bossy.  Tigger was a ginger boy.  Panda was a black and white boy and Splodge was white with a big brown mark on his back flank, making it look like he’d pooped all over his leg.

The pain was starting to interfere with her thoughts.  The five cats were from the same litter, rescued from an idiot who was going to drown them all.  Fairyfloss, their mother, had died two years ago when the cats were all a year old.  24-42 had to admire Fairyfloss, staying alive for her babies.

She tried to keep Fairyfloss in her mind as the pain started becoming unbearable.  

“Hold on 24-42, you’re doing extraordinarily well!  You’ve just about surpassed 15-42!” S42 called out to her.  Had it been so long already?  Time was fuzzy in her mind.  She felt sluggish.

Then thoughts of him began. 24-42 began to thrash, trying to shake the memories out. It was taking all her energy to not think of him, to think of what had happened. It was sucking everything out of her, leaving her hollow and alone.

But she also felt something different inside of her. It was like it was growing throughout her body, reaching out from her chest to her fingers and toes. What was going on?!

“Let us know when you’re ready to come out!”  D42 called out after what felt like forever.

“NOW IS GOOD!”  Was the almost instant reply.  There was no way that 24-42 was staying in there any longer than she had to!

The horrid red liquid was drained off.  Her skin tingled.

“I want to go for a shower.  NOW.”  24-42 demanded as she stepped out of the tank, shaking off the scientists that had surrounded her.

“Of course you do, but we need to check your vitals-,” D42 rushed over.

“Now.”  24-42 said coldly.  A strange feeling of power had overcome her.  

D42 and S42 looked at her.

“Of course.”  S42 pointed to the shower.  24-42 walked over and let the cold water hit her.  The relief was immense.

“Only 15-42, 16-42, 17-42 and 21-42 are awake.” D42 told her.  “And now you.  It’s good that you’re okay.”

24-42 felt better than okay.  She felt alive and powerful.

“I feel strong.  Do you have something I can test myself out with?”  She asked.  The doctors and scientists were stunned.

“Let me give you a quick check up first.”  D42 quickly checked her vitals.  “You might feel fine, but I want you to rest and relax until tomorrow.  Your heart-rate is all over the place and your temperature is unstable.”

24-42 glared at him.  S42 quickly backed him up.

“Please.  We’ll go through full testing tomorrow, and you’ll get to see how the Exposure worked.” She tried to calm Experiment 24-42 down.

24-42 wasn’t having it.  Power flowed through her like blood, and it had to come out.  Her fingertips tingled, her muscles twitched, and she suddenly grabbed both doctors by their collars, lifting them up.

“Are the others this strong?” She demanded.

“We don’t know how the Exposure affected them.” S42 stammered. “They didn’t walk away like you did! Even 15-42 stumbled out of here.” 

“What have you done to us?” 24-42 might have sounded angry, but in all honesty she was starting to enjoy herself.

“You’ve been mutated by Exposure to Compound 42.” D42 explained.  “One of our informants on the outside is dating a man who came up with the original concepts.  Understandably, his version is rather flawed compared to you. He only invented a suit, but your powers are forever.” 

24-42 dropped the doctors and got back into her uniform.  She then made to leave the lab when she stopped.

Her fingers were still tingling.  Without really knowing how she did it, she turned around and blasted a red wave of power at the tank in which she had marinated, and which had killed so many of the others.

It exploded.

“You won’t hurt us again.”  She left the doctors completely stunned.