In the past year Zel lost her father, the boy she loves, her safety, and any future she might have imagined for herself. Now she, her sister, and the band of genetic outcasts they've come to call their family are forced on the run when their safe house is attacked by men with neural guns. But on the way to a rumored haven in Chicago, Zel hears something--a whisper from Cy, the boy who traded himself for her sister's safety. And when she veers off plan in order to search for him, what she finds is not what she expected. There's more to their genetic mutations than they ever imagined...aspects that make them wonder if they might be accepted by the outside world after all.
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CALIFORNIA SENATOR ALEXANDER MILFORD IS DEAD AT 64
(STATES NEWS PRESS)—Alexander Milford, Senator from the State of California for twenty years, died Sunday morning.
Senator Milford had been diagnosed with cancer only three days before his death, after passing a health screening one month earlier. Test results have strongly suggested a biological attack, and a subsequent homicide investigation has been opened.
“Preliminary reports show that foreign, altered DNA was found in the senator’s tissue samples,” said Dr. Meerhoven, Chief Pathologist at Sacramento’s state hospital. “Every cell type in his body had become cancerous.”
Senator Milford spent the last few years of his life rallying against HGM 2098, which outlaws genetic manipulation of human DNA. While not a direct proponent of the practice of genetic manipulation, his concern was for the human results of such experimentation. Others, however, have strongly disagreed.
“Human DNA must remain pure,” said Dr. Meerhoven, a vocal advocate for HGM 2098. “Those carrying aberrant DNA—who are capable of poisoning the gene pool as they did with Senator Milford—cannot be allowed to exist. We will find the source of this altered DNA. We will find this person and others like them. And we will purge them to protect our society.”
State lawmakers are already pushing for amendments to strengthen the law, calling for mandatory population screening to prevent possible deaths. Quarantines are already being prepared in every State.
“There will be no judge or jury. By federal law, anyone with artificially altered DNA should not, and cannot, exist,” said a U.S. marshall at a CDC press conference.
Many elected officials are now having their own blood tested for signs of the abnormal DNA. Thousands of citizens across the States have lined up at local clinics for testing, and orders for CompuDocs CancerClean screening programs have risen exponentially.
ALONE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD.
Of course, no one in our crazy makeshift family at Carus House will ever admit this, especially while setting up for our nightly slumber party.
“Hex, get your Bomb Bed out of my corner.” Vera is stomping around our common room, a blur of gesticulating green arms. Blankets and pillows are piled everywhere.
“Stop calling it that.” Hex pushes his bedding back against the glass wall. He likes to sleep with his four arms splayed out, so he laid an extra mattress across the top of another and piled on countless pillows, giving it a mushroom-cloud shape. Hence “the Bomb Bed.” It’s also a convenient reference to the fact that Hex gets bomb-tastically gassy after dinner from Vera’s fiber-rich meals.
“Anyway, you don’t even need to sleep in here. The temperature in your room is perfect,” he says, dodging a swipe of her green hand. Vera and her skin-embedded chloroplasts thrive in warmer temperatures, yet she loudly complains about her hot room anyway. But she just doesn’t want to be alone. Same as the rest of us.
Since we lost Cy over a year ago, everyone finds all sorts of reasons to be in each other’s presence, as if the world and our fear are cramming us closer every day. Dyl doesn’t complain when I insist on brushing her hair before bed. For a whole hour. It’s a miracle she has any hair left. And I say nothing when she and Ana sit reading on the floor by me, each leaning on one of my legs, fixing me in place while I work on my e-tablet. My legs get all hot and claustrophobic when they do that, but I can’t bring myself to tell them.
We’ve been sleeping in the common room because the environmental controls have stopped working in parts of Carus House. Our home is growing decrepit, in bits and pieces. Wilbert, who had all the know-how for fixing things, went back to Aureus. And after our battle in the junkyards last year, we lost access to parts and equipment anyway. Even before the assassination of her senator uncle, Marka’s allowances outside Carus were limited. Were it not for Vera’s wicked gardening skills, we’d have gone hungry a long time ago. Even so, there’s a clock ticking down in Carus. We can feel it in our bones.
The common room is one of the only rooms left that doesn’t feel like Antarctica or the Sahara all the time. We could spread out to different corners of the room. It’s big enough. But instead, we end up sleeping like a big egg yolk in the middle, within arm’s reach of one another.
In the middle of the night, I sacrifice sleep to simply watch them, hugging my arms to myself. Savoring the hours we have together. I watch Hex and Vera hold hands all night long. Ana curls into Dyl’s arms, even though Ana’s the tall one. It pains me that Cy can’t witness this sweet evolution of our family.
Marka, the only adult at Carus, sleeps at the center of our human galaxy. She takes turns resting with her hand on Hex’s ankle or Ana’s wrist, as if afraid they’ll disappear before dawn. Last night, when her blind search for my hand came up empty, she found me sitting against the glass wall.
She came over and started combing her fingers through my frizzled hair. I’d have stayed there in silence for hours, but Marka knows when I’m playing chicken. She always knows.
“You miss Cy,” she whispered, matter-of-fact.
Marka wrapped her arms around me. “You’re a lousy liar.”
And that’s when I cried.
No one brings him up anymore, and I don’t talk about him. I don’t want to be a downer, so every day I wear my plastic happiness like a suffocating, form-fitted skin with no cracks.
It’s been over a year since he sacrificed himself to Aureus, so that they’d let Dyl go and take him instead. Aureus is like the opposite of Carus House: Instead of being a safe house, it’s an exploitation factory—if you are traited. They’d mistakenly abducted my sister looking for my valuable longevity trait, but wouldn’t let her go for free. The price was Cy. His regeneration trait is as valuable as mine.
Cy’s scent was gradually swept out by the vents, replaced by the unlovely, sticky air of the State of Neia. I used to burrow my nose into his worn-out shirts, knowing that every breath I took whisked him away.
“Earth to Zel!” Vera hollers at me, snapping me out of my reverie.
I realize I’ve been sitting at the common room table, staring into space like a neurodrug junkie. I was supposed to help Hex and Vera rearrange the bedding, but they’ve stopped fighting and it’s all done already.
“I’m so sorry, what?” I say blankly.
“What is with you, Quahog? Dyl’s been calling you. Didn’t you hear?” Vera’s using her pet name for me. She thinks it’s adorable to compare me and my longevity trait with a clam that can live over four hundred years. Truth is, I try to forget I even have a longevity trait. Because it will mean that I’ll outlive everyone I love.
“Zelia, I said, can you come to the lab please?” Dyl speaks to me through the walls, the transmission crackling with static. These days she’s in the lab all the time, without me. Her virtual professor, a ringer for Marka, has stepped in to teach Dyl when I haven’t had the time.
Hex has lifted Vera off the floor with her legs bicycling helplessly in the air. She’s squealing and laughing, trying to escape his masterful hugging technique.
“It’s no use. You shall never defeat me!” he yells triumphantly.
“All right! You win, insect.” Her face is that brownish color that shows she’s blushing through her green skin. I know the make-out session is about to happen, so I scurry out of the room, protective of their time together.
I head for the door. Before I exit, something catches my arm. It’s like a soft hand, but no one is there. It’s Ana, Cy’s sister. I’m used to her ghostly touch from afar by now. Usually, she’ll also whisper in my ear from another floor entirely, but this time she says nothing.
Maybe she’s with Marka in her bedroom. Lately Marka’s been focused on the holographic screen in her room, absorbing every detail about her uncle’s death. Senator Milford brought her to safety and built Carus House for her. He thought she was a gift to the world and deserved to live, and fought HGM 2098 in public. And now he’s gone.
We’ve all taken turns bringing her food because she’s losing weight from stress. The silence in that room has been frightening, bigger than the room and Carus itself. We know she’s not just in mourning.
Ever since I took Marka’s bionic-smell-enhancing pills last year, I’ve had a lingering, watered-down sense about people I hadn’t had before. Dad had warned me about long-term side effects of pharmaceuticals, and Marka’s scent trait in pill form was no ordinary drug. Now when she’s nearby, I can faintly detect a sharp, metallic scent. Fear.
The transport is humid and warm, and it gets stuck on the third floor, though Dyl’s lab is on the fourth. I curse and kick the walls. Another casualty of the failing muscle and sinew of Carus. After a lot of huffing and two broken nails, I pry open the circuit board and override the door locks, then take the stairs to the lab.
Ana is in her pajamas, perched on a stool with a lit Bunsen burner before her. The yellow-and-blue flame wobbles when I approach.
I’m making beasts, Ana says in my head, waving her hands at a collection of tiny glass animals spread out in a menagerie. Dragons, unicorns, and mermaids, among other things. They aren’t perfect. Pointy glass juts out from odd angles of each one. Only if you blur your eyes can you see the creature it’s meant to be.
Dyl walks over, all gangly in a pair of shorts and faded T-shirt topped with an oversized lab coat. Her hands come to rest on her hips. I hang my arm around her shoulder and she leans into me. I love when she does that.
“We only have so many pipettes, Ana. Really. I need them,” she chides.
I need them, Ana says in our heads. This is part of her trait. She can make us hear her without uttering a word. Though whether she’s echoing or arguing now, it’s hard to tell. The thin glass pipette is like a transparent straw with a tiny narrow end. She holds it over the Bunsen burner with a flameproof glove until a section of glass glows orange, then bends the softened section at an extreme angle and repeats the process. When she’s done, she’s got a prickly glass ball that resembles a sea urchin. After it cools, she presents it to me on a bare, outstretched palm.
Be careful. If you breathe, it breaks.
“It’s pretty Ana, but don’t—”
Ana squeezes the urchin and cries out like a stepped-on kitten.
“Oh Ana!” Dyl rushes to her side to pluck the glass figurine out of her hand while I survey the damage. Luckily there’s no broken glass embedded in her palm, but the cut is deep. Dyl hastily places the urchin on the table, but she’s not careful. It skitters with a squeak and there’s a tinkle of broken glass.
Ana pouts. It died.
Dyl retrieves a first aid kit from a drawer and I get to work cleaning the cut. When I wash away the blood, the wound seems far less deep than before. I blink several times. Huh. I guess the blood made it seem worse than it really is. Ana stares forlornly at the sprinkle of glass shards on the floor.
She is a wonder, even now. And a worry. Ana can make the kraken out of glass but doesn’t have the sense not to impale herself on it.
It was beautiful, she says wistfully.
“Just because it’s beautiful doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you,” I say.
But I loved it.
Love is no guarantee of safety either, I want to say. I think of Dad. His lies, how he experimented on my mother, how she chose freedom over family and, in the giddiness of her new life, forgot her annual vaccine packet. Now she’s dead. Dad was responsible for the creation of children destined to be nothing but raw material for Aureus products. Marka thinks there might be a hundred of us, in total, scattered around the States. Some in safe houses, some in not-so-safe houses. But no one knows for sure, except for Dad. And he’s gone.
Sometimes I hate myself for missing him, for missing his love. That is, if he loved me at all.
Once she’s bandaged up, Ana starts reading a holo book. A much safer endeavor than playing with fire and glass. I tilt my head to scan the book title. Fine’s Advanced Applied Mathematics. Relaxing stuff.
“So . . . why did you ask me to come?” I ask Dyl.
“Oh. I just missed you. How are your med school lessons going?”
I shrug. “At a glacial pace.” After Cy left, I took up the medical duties at Carus. Marka said someone had to take over his job. Since I was getting way too depressed rereading Dyl’s poetry book and obsessing over Aureus’s latest move, Marka put her foot down. Do something constructive, or else.
“Um. So how are you?” I ask guiltily, realizing that I haven’t asked in a while.
Dyl brightens and shoves her hands into her pockets. “The Ana research is going well. My holoprof helped me isolate the protein she sheds in her skin. It’s pharmacologically active. I think the only people affected are ones she’s been around. Even at a distance.”
“Really,” I say, but I’m staring out the window at the darkening twilight of the city. The agriplane looms like a dull, chalky blue ceiling above the buildings. Tons of crops are grown up there in Neia and the Dakotas, away from the more toxic soil on earth. Directly in my line of sight is the building I climbed over to the day I lost Cy.
“Yeah. And what’s more, it’s exclusively for hearing her voice and touch, that’s it. Not taste. That’s good, right?”
“Right.” I’m still staring at the building. The last time I tracked Aureus, they were in Arla, what used to be Arkansas and Louisiana. The patents for Cy’s quick-healing elixirs had been emerging regularly, followed by the products hitting the shelves. The other products, like Accelerated Teggwear—thick, armor-like skin that can now be grown in a day—or ForEverDay—Wilbert’s elixir that lets you stay awake for days without harmful effects (if you don’t mind daytime dreaming)—they’re still on shelves everywhere. The only reason they’re not directly illegal themselves is that they don’t alter the user’s DNA.
It’s ironic the way people scramble to buy these products, and yet are so quick to decry HGM 2098. They have no idea that these products come from us—the traited, the genetically manipulated. The illegal.
But in the last month, no new products have come out of Aureus. They’ve disappeared. Which means Cy has disappeared.
“. . . because it would be bad if we tasted what she might dream about. Like wasabi-flavored scorpions.”
“I’d eat that,” Hex says, sailing in through the doorway with a cookie in each hand.
“Eat what?” I ask, totally out of it.
“You”—Dyl points a pipette at me—“aren’t even listening to me. And you”—she points it at Hex—“are not allowed to eat in the lab! You’ll get radioisotopes in your food!”
Hex hides two cookie-laden hands behind his back and shoves the other two in his mouth. “Who faid I waff eating anyffink?” He ambles over to me. “Marka wanfs to talk wiff you.”
“Why didn’t she call me herself?”
He swallows and picks a piece of raisin out of his teeth. “She says you don’t respond to her calls.”
I’ve been avoiding her since last night’s cryfest, but tuck away the truth and smile brightly. “Oh. The wall coms must be worse off than last week.”
Hex points to the door. We make our way down the stairs to the first floor of Carus, which is the ninety-fifth floor of our building. Marka’s bedroom is insufferably hot. I don’t know how she can bear it.
She sits on her bed in a tank top and shorts, her sleek pixie cut revealing delicate cheekbones and concerned eyes. Vera’s beside her, nibbling her fingernails. Also not a good sign. With this much floor space, she’s usually in some joint-twisting yoga pose.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“You’re right on time. It’s starting.”
On the holographic wall screen, a woman stands behind a podium. She’s got a lab coat on and wears glasses. Only people who don’t trust technology wear glasses.
“The recent attack on Senator Milford was a wake-up call to the illegal and unregulated genomic crimes in the States. We have located several sources of tainted DNA produced in direct violation of HGM 2098.” She stands aside and holo photos appear beside her.
The first photo shows a dead toddler boy with eerie grayish skin. He has no eyes, just plain, bald skin over where the sockets would be. The press corps gasps collectively. The photo is replaced by a baby-sized lump beneath a white sheet. A fuzzy halo of brown hair peeks out from the top. A plastic-gloved hand reaches toward the body and tugs the white sheet away.
The baby is a dull, dead green. He could be Vera’s baby brother. Or son, someday.
My stomach folds in on itself and I touch the wall, steadying myself. The press corps buzzes with frantic exclamations of horror.
Vera’s face is frozen, but only for a second. Something horrible takes hold behind her eyes, widens, explodes. She bolts off the bed and out the door. Hex runs after her, his face harshly carved with concern. I can hear Vera hyperventilating as Hex murmurs to her in the hallway. Marka switches off the holo screen.
“Oh my god,” I say, my hand shaking over my mouth. “They killed those children.”
Marka’s face is all grief, but there are no tears. Maybe she saves them for later, when no one can see, like I do. “I could have rescued some of them,” she says. “New Horizons hasn’t let me adopt anyone in a year.”
New Horizons is where Dyl and I ended up last year after our father died. It’s where Marka found us; an insider from New Horizons would call her whenever abnormal blood tests came up with new residents.
“No, Marka.” We’re all thinking it, so I might as well say it out loud. “It’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
“Zelia, it’s not that—”
“It’s okay,” I whisper. “You don’t have to make me feel better.”
Though the assassination happened a month ago, the media has been swarming with panic over the existence of altered DNA. Until now, altered DNA has been “an issue” and a “credible threat,” rather than real walking, talking people who might sneeze mutant DNA in your face. Today’s news conference is epic, in the worst way.
The day that news bulletin came out about the assassination, I wanted to die. The elixir I made was meant to turn regular DNA into the kind I had, the kind that might never degrade and might allow people to live forever. But when we tested it on Wilbert’s guinea pig, Callie, she’d erupted in horrible tumors within hours. It ended up causing cancerous cells that grew out of control until she was dead. SunAj, Aureus’s two-faced leader, had mentioned weaponizing my elixir. But when Dyl and I returned to Carus, I forgot about my trait-in-a-bottle that failed. In the blur of losing Cy, it was an afterthought.
“Somehow, the elixir I made got into the bloodstream of your uncle, Marka. I am responsible for his death, and we all know it.” I’ve told her countless times already how sorry I am, but she’s brushed the apologies away like errant table crumbs.
Marka moves over to touch my arm. Her nose does that tipping-in-the air thing she does when she’s reading my scent signatures. I wonder what a murderess smells like. Blood, maybe. She opens her mouth to say something, when Hex and Vera return. They both look shaky and wrung-out.
“Are we going to talk?” Hex says. “We need to start planning, like, a month ago.”
“Plan what?” I ask.
“Our evacuation,” Marka says quietly. “My contact in New Horizons warned me that the police have been poking around their database. They’ll decrypt my uncle’s personal records. We can’t stay here for much longer.”
I take a huge breath after the dizziness sets in. My Ondine’s curse. I put my necklace on quickly. The black box pendant dangles at my throat, triggering an implant within me to make my lungs expand and contract. It pushes and pulls my chest wall in that odd artificial way I don’t like. Once my fuzzy brain gets enough oxygen, I start talking again.
“How long do we have?”
“I don’t know, but we can’t wait for someone to knock down our door. We’ll prepare as fast as we can, and get out of here.”
“Where can we go?” Vera asks.
“There’s a safe house in Chicago.”
“Okay,” Hex says, two of his four arms crossed, the other two waving about. “I’ll grow some fake F-TIDs. Every fingertip-ID is registered, but we can generate some black-market ones in a pinch. I have enough of that retinoic acid growth medium to make one for everyone. Vera, you get our provisions ready. Something that will keep for weeks, high protein and carb stuff. We need to load up more ethanol to run the chars. Dyl needs to destroy our DNA samples in the labs. We may even need to torch the rooms, to get rid of any lingering evidence. And Zel, you get medical kits ready to take on the road. Everyone’s gotta pack their own clothes and disguises.”
Vera, Marka, and I gape at him.
A small squeak issues from Vera’s unbelieving mouth. “Since when did you become so . . . responsible?”
Hex reddens. “Is that a problem?”
“Hells, no. It’s hot!” she coos. I smile and Marka laughs quietly, when a feathery hand touches the back of my neck. I grab at it, but the wispy feeling goes away.
I cannot . . . It’s the faintest whisper.
It’s not Ana. I know Ana’s voice inside my head, and this wasn’t hers. I spin around, but no one looks at me like I’m crazy. Hex and Vera quickly separate, startled.
. . . This place . . .
“Holy crap. That sounded like Cy. Did you hear that?” he says.
I freeze, waving my hands at him to be quiet. But the touch that’s not Ana’s, and the voice—they’re both gone.
“I heard it too,” Vera says.
We all look around, confused at Cy’s voice in our midst, when a loud pounding echoes from the main door upstairs.
We all freeze. No one ever knocks on our door. No one.
Thump, thump, thump.
My heart jumps a mile. Cy!
“He’s here! He’s back!” I scream. I tear out the door and up the stairs. I can’t see where I’m going, all I can think is, it’s really happening. He’s really back! Marka, Vera, and Hex follow me, barely able to catch up. As soon as we careen into the common room, tripping over the piles of pillows on the floor, a voice yells from behind the door.
“Open this door!”
We all freeze, the excitement on our faces melting instantly.
It’s not Cy’s voice.
IT’S A GIRL’S VOICE. MY SKIN DROPS ten degrees from disappointment and fear. I turn back to Marka.
“If it’s not Cy, then who—”
“They’re here,” Vera cuts me off. Her body is poised to run in five different directions. Running wouldn’t do any good anyway. We’re totally unprepared.
“No. It’s too soon,” Marka says.
Hex unfreezes quickly. “Don’t open the door. We’ll try to get to the chars by the transport—”
“The transport is broken,” I say. I neglect to say that I’m the one who broke it.
“The medical room can’t be opened from the outside without a verbal order from whoever’s inside,” Marka says. “It’s the best we have for a panic room. Vera, can you—”
“I’ll get Ana and Dyl in there.” She gallops off in a blur of green. Hex ducks into the side door to the kitchen, emerging with a knife in each hand. I want to cry at the sight of him. I don’t want anyone in my family to fight. Knives are no match for neural guns carried by the police.
I run to the window. On the ground, there are no flashing lights that warn of an imminent, violent takeover of Carus by law enforcement. Just the normal midday magpod traffic. Strange.
Thump, thump, thump. The last thump sounds more like a child’s knock, it’s so weak.
“Open up! Please!” the voice behind it cries.
“That doesn’t sound like cops,” Hex murmurs. “Too polite. And too girly.”
“How could anyone even get up this far, without bypassing the mirror password program?” I wonder out loud. We gather around the image on the door’s scanner pad. A blur at the bottom tells us the person out there is lumped on the floor and unmoving.
Marka passes her elegant hand over a scanner pad. There is a silky stuttering of clicks of multiple bolts receding into the doorframe. Hex takes a step forward, readying his knives. With one smooth movement, Marka tugs the door open.
Outside in the hallway, a girl is slumped on the floor. Dirty skin is stretched over too-thin arms and legs. Her hair might have been white once, but is now dishwater gray, matted with dreads and debris. Tired, strangely scarred and wide-open eyes search us, barely focused.
Marka feels it before I do. She staggers back, stumbling, holding her hand to her neck in a protective gesture. A soft wave of an invisible, anesthetic cloud hits my face and hands, along with an unmistakable wave of nausea. I’d go blind if I didn’t stagger backward as well. The horrifying numb sensation is spreading over my skin. I’m not sure which is stronger—the numbness, the nausea, or the hate boiling in my chest.
“What is she doing here?” Hex asks. He rubs his face, irritated and grunting as she affects him.
It’s Caliga. From Aureus. The girl who stole Dyl away without an ounce of regret. The first person that might be able to tell me where Cy is.
“Where is Cy?” I almost scream at her. “Where is he?”
“Not now, Zel! Everybody, get far back!” Marka orders us.
I gesture to Hex, who’s still clutching the knives. “Give me one of those.” Hex hands it over, but Marka shakes her head at me.
“No, Zelia, don’t,” she says.
My hand grips the knife handle so hard my palm hurts. I want to throw it with all the force I have, right into her face, because I can’t see Caliga anymore. All I can see is Dyl, and all the horrible things that happened to her because of Caliga. My knuckles crack sharply from squeezing the knife. I’m shaking with fury.
“He said you’d help me,” Caliga mews, hardly a whisper.
“Wilbert left this family a long time ago,” Hex fires back at her.
Caliga twists her scrawny neck and her eyes converge on me, pinning me in place. The last time I saw those eyes, they had multiple pairs of eyelids, thanks to Hex’s duplicative tissue serum. Now the whites of her eyes are bloodshot, the lids scarred and stretching her eyes open. She takes a gasp before letting her head gently touch the ground, unable to keep it up.
“Not Wilbert,” she rasps. “Cy. Cy said you’d help me.”
Her body sinks to the floor as she passes out.
• • •
WE MANAGE TO PULL CALIGA INTO THE common room far enough to shut the door. It takes us minutes before we have normal sensation in our hands and the nausea subsides. Vera, Ana, and Dyl have since emerged from the infirmary.
We stand at a healthy distance in an arc around her. Just staring.
“How did she even get up here?” Hex asks.
“Wilbert must have hidden access for Caliga in the mirror password program,” Marka thinks aloud.
“What are we going to do?” Dyl whispers. Her face is pale. She’s not close enough to feel Caliga’s effects, but not far away enough to forget her memories of Aureus. Caliga abducted her, and Micah expertly played with her mind and heart, just as he’d done with Ana. He’d impregnated her. Then he’d coldly and brutally ended Dyl’s pregnancy because it was useless to him, and to Aureus.
Micah makes me sicker than Caliga’s trait ever could.
As if thinking the same thing, Vera growls, “I’ll tell you what I’d like to do to this piece of—”
“No.” Marka tilts her head, studying Caliga’s body. “None of that. We need to know what happened. I don’t think it’s a trap. I’d have smelled the deceit on her by now.”
Caliga’s so thin that her knees and elbows are disproportionately huge and knobby. Wherever she’s been lately, there hasn’t been much food. One shin sports a three-inch wound oozing pink liquid and resembling raw hamburger.
“Let’s put a watch on her. She’ll need to be searched, and scanned for any tracking implants,” Hex says.
“And she needs medical care,” Marka adds. “Zelia—”
“No way!” I grit my teeth. “Hell no.”
“You have more training than anyone else.”
Marka stares helplessly at me. I’ll do anything for Marka, but this? She serves me a look that tells me there’s no choice.
“We’ll all take turns watching her at night,” she reasons. “In the meantime, Hex, bring her to the med room. Take a few swigs of that No-PuK and we’ll make a stretcher so you don’t have to touch her directly.”
Hex drops a large sheet on the floor and rolls Caliga onto it. What a trouper. It takes him three breaks and a bout of projectile vomiting before he gets her up the stairs to the med room.
Hex is too depleted of bodily fluids to lift her onto the table, so he leaves her splayed out on the floor. By then, Dyl pops in.
“Let’s get a blood sample. We need to reverse this numbness-nausea thing.”
“Why, so she gets to be normal?” I scowl.
“No, so we can be normal,” Dyl says. “You’re the one working with her the most. Also, if she’s waiting to pounce on us because she’s still working for Aureus, we’ll be able to neutralize her.”
“Oh.” My eyes fall closed for a second. I’ve been thinking with my heart. All red-hot blood and not a single brain cell. Survival has to come first.
“We only have seconds before we succumb, so a blood draw isn’t going to happen. Let’s just cut her skin, get a quick sample, and scoot away.”
Caliga is so out of it, she doesn’t flinch when I cut her. Dyl stares at the vial of blood while I recover.
“You okay?” I manage to ask. “With her being here and all?”
“I don’t know. It’s not so much her, but everything else. You know. Him. Micah.” She crosses her arms and stares at the floor. “There are things . . . I can’t remember. But I remember Micah’s smile.” She shuts her eyes and tilts her head, as if listening to sweet music. “He made it so easy to fall in love with him. I was the center of his everything. Even if I was drugged half the time, I remember that so well.” Her eyes snap open. “And then I remember him hurting you and me. I was in love with an actor.” Her eyes are dry, though mine aren’t.
I still have the scars on my arms from where Micah used his electrical trait to burn me. The scars are a landscape of puckered skin. Unlike Dyl, I remember everything. And I imagine a hell of a lot of what happened to Dyl when she was captive. Particularly where Micah was involved.
After Dyl leaves, I try to check my anger. If Cy sent Caliga here so that I would help her, then fine. I’ll help her until I can figure out what happened to Aureus and Cy.
“After that,” I say to her motionless body, “I owe you less than nothing.”
• • •
NO-PUK AND I ARE THE BEST OF friends. I’ve been chugging it so regularly over the past twenty-four hours that the essence of spearmint and ginger oozes out my pores.
I’ve cleaned Caliga’s cuts and put a dressing on her gaping leg wound. A transdermal patch the size of a small plate is now on the floor. It was supposed to infuse a giant bag of liquid vitamins, calories, and protein, but Caliga is so sick and confused that she’s ripped it off twice.
I hook up the liquid bag of nutrients to a new patch, and peel away the backing. The sticky side has a million microscopic needles. It itches, which is probably why she keeps yanking it off.
“If you touch this one, I’ve no problems with tying you down,” I say, taking a breath and readying to jump into the anesthetic field around her.
“If you try to tie me down, I’ll kill you.”
My hand twitches. Caliga hasn’t moved, and her eyes are still closed. I drop to a squat, many feet away, watching her with narrowed eyes. Her skin color has grown less pasty in the last several hours, and her cheeks are less sunken. The button lead I’ve stuck to her chest reads out on a wall monitor. Her vital signs are almost normal.
“Well,” I say at last. “It speaks.”
Caliga groans, and props herself up on her elbows. Her stiff eyelids blink and it takes nearly a minute for her to focus on me. She licks her cracked lips. “Water.”
She delivers me a withering glance.
I stand up and back away. “I can throw you out the window without even touching you. Really, I’ve been rehearsing it in my brain. It involves a pole, a knife, and a homemade catapult. Want to try me?”
Caliga’s eyes bore into me. Her shoulders start to quiver from the effort of holding her body up. Finally, she gives in to her exhaustion and lies back down, shutting her eyes.
“Fine. Do what you want.”
I turn to leave, when a voice chimes into my head.
My hand goes to my chest. It’s Cy again.
“Wait for what?” Caliga groans.
God, she heard it too, so I can’t be hallucinating. I know it was Cy. I’m absolutely positive. Of course, Ptolemy was sure the Earth was the center of the universe, but still.
“Where are you?” I cry, spinning around to face the wall.
“I’m right here, idiot,” Caliga mumbles from the floor.
I’d love to step on her face to shut her up once and for all. Why doesn’t Cy speak again? Something brushes against my cheek, and Caliga and I swipe away the sensation simultaneously. It’s as if Cy’s broadcasting to everyone. I don’t understand. I thought only Ana could do this.
Ana’s voice whispers to me. I heard him too.
I’ve got to find out what Caliga knows about Cy. I turn to her, crossing my arms. “How would you like a hot bath, a glass of ice-cold water, and a sandwich?”
Caliga cracks open one scarred eye. It’s the hungriest-looking eye I’ve ever seen.
“Okay.” She stretches the word out, making room for the question silently embedded within it.
“And then we talk,” I say.
“That was not a request,” I snap. Caliga turns her bony shoulder to me as a response, and I leave.
In the hallway, I gingerly touch my cheek where Cy had brushed my skin. “Marka,” I call.
Marka wall-coms me back immediately, crackly but clear enough. “I heard him too, Zelia. Come to my room so we can talk. How is Caliga?”
“She’s a royal bitch.”
“I mean, how is her health, Zelia.”
I roll my eyes. “She’s up and ready to eat. The sooner we get some information, the sooner she can leave.”
Great. What is it about parents? They never give the answer you’re looking for. We’ll see is definitely Marka-speak for We’ve just adopted a new Carus member. Ugh.
In the empty kitchen, I punch in an order for a tomato sandwich from the food efferent. I grab the full plate and a glass of water, then return to the infirmary, where Caliga abandons her dignity and crams big bites into her mouth. She makes little umf umf umf sounds when she chews.
“Easy,” I warn. “There’s been enough puke in this place because of you. I don’t need more to clean up.”
Caliga stops chewing. Her eyes travel up and down my body, as if she’s scanning for a good holo channel and finding nothing to her liking.
“You’re not what I expected.” She puts the sandwich down, only half-eaten. “Between Cy and Wilbert talking you up, I thought maybe you’d be wearing a nun’s habit. Saint Zelia, you’re not.”
“If you want your bath, follow me. Saint or not, I’m not carrying you.”
It takes Caliga a few minutes to stand on her spindly, wounded legs and get to the door without falling over. We make our way downstairs to Dyl’s room, ever so slowly. Once, she stumbles and nearly falls. Without thinking, my hands go out to catch her, forgetting for a moment who and what she is.
“Don’t touch me!” she snaps. Her body twists away so fast, she nearly goes down on her knees from losing her balance. I back off, hands splayed in the air. You’d think I was the one with the poison touch, not her.
Finally, we get to Dyl’s room. I start filling up the bathtub, popping in a few tablets of self-bubbling soap.
“Normally one tablet would do, but you stink,” I explain.
“You were probably looking forward to telling me that.”
“Well! Looks like we’re starting to understand each other.”
Caliga doesn’t hide the longing in her face when she sees the tub full of iridescent foam. After a second, she leans over and tugs at the dressing on her leg. The edges are bonded to her skin, and she pants from exhaustion after several useless pulls.
An irritable hiss escapes me. “Ugh. Let me take off the dressing.”
Caliga straightens up and lifts her chin in the air. I guess that’s a yes, so I dart in as fast as I can. I force my quickly numbed hands to pull away the edges of the dressing, peeling it in one fluid motion. I back away and fall against the far wall, slapping my palms together to revive the deadened nerves.
When I turn around, I find Caliga’s scarred eyes on me. Her face is pained, which surprises me. I’d expected she’d be all smiles.
“I hope you don’t need help getting undressed,” I say.
“Hooray for small miracles.”
Caliga makes a soft hooting noise. It’s nearly a laugh.
MARKA AND I HAVE NO EXPLANATION for the Cy hauntings.
Everyone’s been distracted by stray words and touches from Cy. A fingertip on our wrist, a confusing babble of words.
The same sky
Quarters and halves
I don’t understand them. None of us do. But they’re happening more frequently.
“Whatever it is, it’s real,” Marka says. For once, she’s turned off the news and focused on me. Sitting on the bed with her legs tucked beneath her, she seems tinier than her six-plus feet, and younger than usual. Fragile.
“It’s like he’s got Ana’s trait. But I’ve never heard of people carrying more than one trait,” I say.
“It could just be Ana’s memories, playing tricks on us.” She stands up. “So how is Dyl doing with the sample?”
I tell her I’ll check. Marka does this sometimes. She takes any hope lingering around, wraps it under thick layers of worry, and puts it on a shelf. I know she’s protecting me, but it’s irritating. I need straws to grasp. Twigs. Anything.
When I arrive at the lab, I find Dyl wasting the liquid nitrogen in the lab. Which she never does, so she must be frustrated. One by one, she takes a miniature hothouse peony, dips it into the liquid nitrogen tank (our last), and shatters the bloom on the floor. Shards of melted fuchsia, yellow, and orange petals form a kaleidoscope around her feet.
“Caliga antidote working?” I ask.
“It’s . . . I need more time, Zel. I can’t do this in five days. I even used some of Wilbert’s leftover ForEverDay, to stay awake longer. Must have expired, though. Didn’t do a thing,” she says, disgusted.
“What do you know so far?” I ask.
Dyl shows me everything she knows. The open vial of Caliga’s blood has the same effect on us as she does. When my hand strays too close, the fingertips go numb. When I withdraw, the effect goes away. Dyl wraps the sample in a sealed plastic baggie and the effect goes away. We put a drop in water, in liquid nitrogen, burn it, vaporize it, and boil it, trying her limits.
“She’s fascinating,” Dyl says, taking off her safety glasses.
“Yeah. That’s nicer than what I’d like to call her.” Dyl throws me a look and I roll my eyes.
Dyl goes to Cy’s old desk and points out a protein electrophoresis. “She’s actually a lot like Ana. They both shed abundant amounts of a protein particle that affects other people.”
“So can you make an antidote? A reversible antagonist, maybe?”
“I tried. And failed. It’s so annoying. She’s so annoying. It’s like her body chemistry doesn’t want us to figure it out.”
I grimace. “Ha. I’m sure Caliga’s loving that.”
“Loving what?” Caliga mutters behind us.
Dyl and I whip around, beet-faced and twitchy. Caliga limps in, white hair in a tidy ponytail and clad in a skirt and shirt that I know are Dyl’s. I’m sure she didn’t ask, just took. How typical of an Aureus member. She leans heavily on a makeshift cane I gave her.
“Nothing. Just talking about boring lab stuff,” I explain. We haven’t told her we’re making an anti-Caliga medicine. The less she knows, the better.
“Huh.” Caliga pauses to glance at the screen on Dyl’s desk. It’s covered in tiny scribbles of formula and calculations. She squints to read the writing, and then shakes her head, as if it’s too complicated to understand.
She takes another few clacking steps toward us, when Dyl and I reflexively jump behind the table, putting distance between her and us. Caliga stops moving.
“How afraid you are. Like little birdies.” She takes a small step closer. We squeeze ourselves farther back. I can already feel the cottony nebula of her atmosphere against my face. “I know what you’re doing here. Playing scientist.” She waves her stick directly at the computer screen. “Nice try.”
Dyl nudges my foot with hers, and I look down to see that her hand is an inch away from the canister of liquid nitrogen. The top is open, still spilling clouds of cold nitrogen gas onto the floor and obscuring our feet. We could use it as a weapon, if necessary.
Caliga’s eyes follow mine to the canister. She takes a halting shuffle backward and rubs her arms.
“I’m cold enough as it is. No need for that.” She turns around and heads back to the door. “I came to tell you that you’re probably doing it all wrong. A protein antagonist will never work. It’s too short-acting and unstable.” She takes a folded piece of paper out of her pocket and tosses it on the table.
As she hobbles out the door, Dyl picks up the paper, reading the handwritten formula covering every inch. Our expressions mirror each other.
Surprise. And shame.
• • •
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, I’M HELPING DYL IN the lab. Caliga’s instructions are perfectly detailed. I’d compliment her, if I didn’t hate her so much. We’re so close to a final anti-Caliga product, when a rosemary scent breezes by. Vera pops in from the door with a tray of golden cakes in her hand.
“How goes it, my little lab squeaks? Just wanted to tell you that your patient is in the common room. She’s freshly bathed, waiting to be fed.”
“Like a dog,” I mutter under my breath.
“And her leg smells rotten.” Vera makes a face. “Can’t you do something about that? It’s tainting my vanilla biscuits.”
I blow out a raspberry of annoyance and make my way downstairs. Caliga sits by the window. Ana’s perched on the end of the big dining table, and she and Caliga seem to be having a staring contest. Neither of them moves, but Caliga’s eyeballs bulge more with each passing second. I wonder if Ana can make other people’s head’s explode. I certainly hope so.
Caliga slams her hand down on the chair.
“Get out of my head!” she yells.
Ana’s mouth twitches, and she tilts her head, as if trying a new visual perspective. Caliga squeezes her eyes shut and clamps her hands over her ears. That’s as effective as cleaning your hands with spit. But I’ll let her figure that out.
I sigh. “C’mon, Ana. I have to work on her leg. You should be packing, anyway.”
I have everything. Ana jumps off the table and leaves, after gifting me with a whispery kiss on the cheek.
Ana’s cryptic words are either meaningless or so insightful that I’m too stupid to understand.
Caliga cautiously uncovers her ears. I stop three feet away, the farthest reach of her effects.
“How are you?” I ask. Actually, I don’t care, but it’s part of the job.
“I’ve been better. And worse.” She shifts uncomfortably, watching me with her pale blue eyes. There’s a box of wound care stuff sitting next to her on the couch. I get to work cleansing, squirting on antibiotic salve, applying a new bandage, all the while darting in and out of her circle of anesthesia.
The doors to the kitchen open, and Marka strides in. “Here’s our patient,” she says, stopping at the imaginary line surrounding Caliga. Her voice is gentle. I swear, Marka could make rabid dogs go all Zen. Caliga tilts her head up and gives a small smile—the first I’ve ever seen that wasn’t suffused with malice. Marka refrains from overtly sniffing around Caliga (we’ve been working on getting her to tone down the bloodhound behavior), but her eyes glaze over as she reads her. “Ah. You are better today.” The concern on her face intensifies. “Caliga, dear. Can you tell us what happened?”
Caliga nods. I stop putting away the medical supplies.
“They came when we were sleeping. We were in northern Arla, by the border of Ilmo and Okks. Everyone was sleeping, except Wilbert, of course. He sounded an alarm, but it was too late.”
“Who were they?” I ask.
“They were like us. They had . . . traits. One guy was like strangely tall, and there were others, the guy with no eyes—it was crazy. We fought back, and they killed SunAj.” Caliga swallows and tries to catch her breath.
“Wilbert and I ran into Cy’s room. There were single evacuation pods in some of the rooms. They made me take the first one and said they’d follow soon.” Caliga stops staring at the floor and her eyes find mine. “Cy said if he didn’t catch up, to find you in Carus. He said you’d help me. I waited in the woods for them. I waited for days. But they never came.” Caliga’s stoic face trembles and she breathes frantically, unable to speak for several seconds. “I didn’t want to come here. I wanted to be with Wilbert. I wish they’d never put me in that pod.”
Marka extends her hand to reassure her. Caliga eyes the gesture hungrily, but Marka pulls back when her fingertips deaden from getting too close.
Marka takes a breath. “How did you get here, Caliga? All by yourself?”
“I traveled along the refuse pipelines. Wilbert told me how to hack the codes a long time ago, so I accessed the pipes to cross State lines.”
“What happened to the other kids?” I finally manage to ask. What I really want to know is, where’s Micah? Did he burn to a crisp, like he deserved?
Her scarred eyes won’t meet mine, or Marka’s. “Micah left a month before. I don’t know where he went. And Wilbert, well, I just don’t know. I saw the whole house go up in flames from miles away. The others, who knows?”
Gone. Which is why I couldn’t track down Aureus for the last few months. Aureus doesn’t exist anymore. Cy could have been captured by someone even more powerful than Aureus.
“They could come after us too,” I tell Marka.
Her eyes cloud over. “Them, or the police. My contact in New Horizons stopped talking to me last night. We should get ready to leave sooner. Maybe tonight, or tomorrow.”
“Marka? Zelia?” Dyl calls from the walls. “Can you bring Caliga to the lab?”
“What’s wrong?” Marka asks.
“It’s Caliga’s vaccine. It’s done.”
• • •
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Control:
"[It] will keep you wanting more until the jaw-dropping ending."RT Book Reviews, Top Pick
"Unforgettable for all the right reasons."VOYA
"A sweet, edgy romance rounds out this smart, futuristic medical thriller."PW
"Control blew me away...Zel is as authentic a character as I've read in a very long time. Highly recommended." James Dashner, New York Times bestselling author of The Maze Runner