Authors: Dan Wells
“This mask is grafted on,” said Heron, probing Williams’s face mask with gloved fingers. Samm looked closer and saw that she was right—it wasn’t really a mask at all, more of a cybernetic implant that covered, or perhaps replaced, the man’s nose, mouth, jaw, and neck. Vents stood out on the side like gills, and the surface was covered with nozzles and valves.
His entire body was rebuilt for a single purpose,
to spread this sedative,
but then he paused and considered his own body.
I was built for a single purpose too. All of us were. We’re weapons, just like him.
I’m even designed to destroy myself, when I reach my expiration date.
In eight months.
“We still haven’t decided what to do with him,” said Samm.
“We can leave him here for now,” said Heron. “Vale kept him healthy for years, and he’s still hooked up to life support. Now that the hoses are disconnected, we can access the rest of the building without these stupid helmets, and we can move the rest of the Partials up and out of range so they can wake up.”
“And then what?” asked Samm. “We just keep him here forever?”
“Until his expiration, yeah,” said Heron.
“He’s like a living corpse,” said Samm. “That’s cruel.”
“So is killing him.”
“Is it?” Samm sighed and shook his head, looking around at the room full of atrophied, corpselike Partials. “Every single one of us is going to be dead in eight months—I was part of the last purchase order, and when we go, there’s nobody left. The humans will live longer, but without the cure for RM their species won’t propagate, and they’ll be just as dead as we are. The entire world is on life support, and—”
“Samm,” said Heron. Her voice sounded cold and clinical, and Samm wondered if she was really being terse or if all the consoling, sympathetic feelings were being cut off with the rest of the link. With Heron it was hard to tell, even under the best of circumstances. “Survival is all we have. If we end we end, but if we live a second day there’s always a chance, no matter how slim, that we can find a way to live a third, and a fourth, and a hundredth and a thousandth. Maybe the world kills us and maybe it doesn’t, but if we give up, it’s the same as killing ourselves. We’re not going to do that.”
Samm looked at her, confused by the care she seemed to be taking for his welfare. It wasn’t like her, and without the link to clue him in, he had no idea why she was behaving so strangely. He tried to read her face, the way Kira said that humans did—Heron was an espionage model, the most human of the Partial designs, and showed a lot of her emotions on her face. Even without the curved diving helmet distorting her visage, though, Samm was just too unpracticed to read anything.
The best thing he could do, then, was answer. “I’m not really considering it,” said Samm. “I would never give up.” He stared at Williams. “But he can’t give up, even if he wants to. For all we know he’s miserable—maybe he’s in pain, or he’s aware enough to feel trapped, or something even worse. We don’t know. There’s always a chance for us to find something new, like you said, but what about him? Vale said he lost the technology to make another Partial like him, and that includes the technology to turn him back. He will never be conscious or . . . alive, ever again. I just don’t know if that existence, specifically, is worth preserving. Maybe euthanasia is the most merciful thing to do.”
Heron paused a moment, looking at him, before answering softly. “Do you really want to kill him?”
“Then why are we even talking about it?”
“Because maybe what I
doesn’t matter here. Maybe the best decision is the hardest one to make.”
Heron turned away and started fiddling with one of the other Partials, the one next to Williams, checking his vital signs before carefully disconnecting him, tube by tube, from the life support system. She wasn’t killing him, Samm knew, she was freeing him; this was the next step in their plan. He checked his own oxygen level in the diving helmet—a needless precaution, since there were several hours left—and read Williams’s sensor readout one last time. He was alive, technically, and his body was as healthy as any long-term coma patient’s would be. He turned to the other nine Partials and helped Heron unplug them from the machines.
They wheeled the first two gurneys to the elevator and took them upstairs. The humans who lived in the Preserve were waiting outside, led by the only two humans Samm was certain he could trust: Phan, the short, perpetually cheerful hunter, and Calix, the most skilled scout in the Preserve, now confined to a wheelchair from the gunshot in her leg. She watched Heron coldly as they brought the first two Partials out of the building, but when they actually reached her the coldness was gone, and she was all business.
“I didn’t want to believe you,” she said, staring at the comatose Partials.
“There are eight more down there,” said Samm, taking off his diving helmet. The air was fresh, with no lingering trace of the sedative. “All as emaciated as these two.”
“And this is where Dr. Vale got the cure,” said Phan. He touched one of the unconscious Partials lightly on the arm. “We didn’t know. We never would have . . .” He looked up at Samm. “I’m sorry. If we’d known he was enslaving Partials, we would have . . . I don’t know. But we would have done something.”
“We’ve had more than one thousand children born since the Break,” said Laura, an older woman, and the acting leader of the Preserve now that Vale was gone. “Are you really saying you would have let them all die?”
Phan went pale, an impressive feat on his dark features. “I didn’t mean that, I just mean—”
“Are you saying you want them back down there?” asked Heron, watching Laura like a snake about to strike. She still wore her helmet, and the radio gave her voice a menacing, mechanical sound. Samm interjected before the situation could get out of hand.
“I’ve already told you I’ll fill in for them myself,” said Samm. “You need the cure, and I understand that, so you can get it from me—willingly. The slaves go free, and everybody’s happy.”
“Until Samm dies,” said Heron. He assumed she was being flippant and sent her a scalding blast of
before realizing that with her helmet on she was still cut off from the link data. He glanced at her instead, trying to convey the same sharpness he’d seen so often when Kira was mad at her. She smirked back, silently amused, and he assumed he’d done it wrong.
At least she knows what I meant, even if she doesn’t care.
Calix craned her neck over her shoulder, calling to the gathered humans behind her. “Take these two back to the hospital, and make sure they’re ready for more.” The crowd hesitated, and Calix barked another command that even Samm could tell was intended as a harsh verbal slap. “Now!”
An older man spoke. “These are Partials, Calix.” His suspicious glance encompassed Samm and Heron as well.
“And they’ve saved one thousand of your children from RM,” said Calix. “They’ve done more for this community than any of us, and they’ve done it all from the verge of death. Anyone who’s got a problem with helping them will answer to me.”
The man stared at Calix, a slim sixteen-year-old girl in a wheelchair. Her eyes hardened.
“You don’t think I can back that up?” she whispered.
“Just take them to the hospital,” said Laura, grabbing the first gurney. “I’ll come with you. The rest of you go down with them, now that we know it’s safe.”
Samm let Laura pull the gurney away and slowly buckled his diving helmet back on for the next trip down. He knew this wasn’t easy for the humans to do, but they were doing it, and that impressed him. In the back of his mind, though, he knew that Heron’s quick, snarky comment was the truest statement any of them had made: Sooner or later, no matter what anyone did or sacrificed, the Partials were going to die. And then the humans would die, and it would all be over.
Kira had left to help try to find a cure. Would she and Dr. Morgan find it in time? And if they did find it, would they bring it back here?
Kira . . .
Would Samm ever see her again?
r. Morgan took biopsies of Kira’s uterus, ovaries, lungs, sinuses, heart, spinal fluid, and brain tissue. She built elaborate models of Kira’s DNA, manipulating them on the molecular level through a massive holographic display, running so many simulations she actually slagged one of the hospital’s central computer processors. Every Partial technician who might have known how to replace it had already expired, so they soldiered on with the two remaining processor banks and hoped for the best.
Hope, Kira realized, was quickly becoming their sole remaining asset.
Dr. Vale, for his part, spent his time poring over Morgan’s copious records of Partial genetics, trying to reconstruct as much of his work on the expiration date as possible. When Kira wasn’t on the operating table or in the recovery room, she sat with him, usually attached to a rolling IV, and tried to learn as much as she could.
“This is part of the aging sequence,” said Vale, pointing to a segment of a DNA strand glowing faintly on the screen. He highlighted a series of amino acids with his fingers, and it glowed a different color. “A normal Partial grows to physical maturity in about ten months, all inside of a big glass tube; we called them vats, but they really looked more like those clear capsules you’d use at an express diner.”
Kira shook her head. “I have no idea what that means.”
“Sorry. How about a . . . skinny glass elevator?”
“I was five years old at the Break,” said Kira. “I grew up after the world already ended. You’re going to have to explain this without old-world metaphors.”
“Okay,” said Vale, pressing his fingers to his lips as he thought. “Okay. Imagine a clear cylinder, about seven feet long and two feet in diameter, with a metal cap on each end full of tubes and hoses and such. We had a few of them in the ParaGen building in the Preserve, I should have shown you; the rest were all at the growth and training facilities in Montana and Wyoming, but those were pretty heavily bombed during the Partial War. Anyway: The techs would create the zygotes in a lab and plant them in a nutritive gel Dr. Morgan invented, and by the time they were done growing, they more or less filled the tube; them and all the liquid we pumped in with them. I designed the entire life cycle,” he said, pointing back at the glowing DNA strand on his screen. “They required a remarkable amount of energy to grow at such a rate, most of which they drew from Morgan’s gel, though we had to keep them warm as well—the infant Partials were designed to be so energy-efficient that they lost virtually none of their energy as heat, which helped them grow quickly but kept them unnaturally cold. Once the accelerated aging was finished, the heightened metabolism slowed down, and they live relatively normal lives, but when the twenty years are up, the age accelerator kicks into overdrive—it looks like they’re decomposing, but really they’re aging a hundred years in a matter of weeks.”
“And freezing to death at the same time,” said Kira.
“Well, yes,” said Vale. “The energy has to come from somewhere.” He sighed. “I know you don’t approve, and I assure you that I don’t either. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. But there was no other way.”
“You could have refused.”
“To create the Partials? ParaGen stood to make trillions of dollars—if we hadn’t helped them, they would have found someone else. This way we could control the process.”
“You could have refused to set an expiration date.”
“It was supposed to be a temporary measure to buy us time: The government wanted a kill switch, the Failsafe I thought had been implanted in you, and if we’d gone with that plan, the Partials would all be dead by now, and the humans would have no hope at all. This way we had twenty years to find another solution, but the end of the world precluded that.”
Kira had crossed the continent looking for information on the Failsafe, only to discover that it was a twisted mess: The government had demanded a plague that could kill Partials if they ever got out of hand, and the Trust had built two versions. The first—the plague the government wanted, the one that would only affect Partials—was never implemented, intended solely as a decoy to make ParaGen think the Trust was following orders. The second, which would only target humans, was what eventually came to be known as RM, though for reasons even the Trust didn’t understand, it had proven to be far more deadly than planned. They had tried to make the humans’ well-being dependent on the Partials, giving them a disease only the Partials could cure. They’d thought it was the only way to keep the Partials safe from genocide. Instead, they’d committed genocide themselves.
Kira watched Vale in silence as he pored over the DNA images, reading them the way an archaeologist would read an ancient language—organic hieroglyphics that he studied with a low, intense mutter. After a moment Kira spoke again.
“What was your plan for those twenty years?”
“You said you had twenty years to deal with the expiration date before it kicked in, and that you were going to try to deal with it before it became an issue. What was your plan?”
“It was Armin’s plan,” he said softly, still staring intently at the DNA. “We all had our jobs, and we worked in secret. That’s why Morgan didn’t know about the expiration date.”
At the mention of his name, Kira was lost in another dark reverie. It was Armin who had formed the Trust, he who had suggested the rash plan to save their million Partial “children” from death. If he had a plan to overcome expiration, what was it? Was he just relying on the same genetic equipment Morgan was? Before the Break, with access to the full resources of ParaGen, gene-modding a million people might have been a feasible plan, diving into their DNA and carving out the expiration code like a patch of rot in an apple. What Armin would have done, she could only guess. She’d lived with the man for five years, give or take—she had no idea how long she’d gestated in a growth vat before popping out to be taken care of. Armin had raised her as his own, so fully she’d never even suspected she wasn’t human, that she wasn’t really his daughter. She didn’t even know what her purpose was. Would she ever meet him? Would she ever get the chance to ask him?