Authors: Dan Wells
Did knowing the truth about who he was, and what she was, make him less of a father? She remembered him with love—was that relationship any less meaningful now? She hadn’t decided yet. She wasn’t sure if she could. You didn’t need a biological connection to be a family; all of the family relationships post-Break were ones of adoption, and the love they felt was real. But none of those adoptive parents had lied to their children about the fundamental aspects of those children’s existence and species. None of those adoptive parents had synthetically engineered their children and grown them in a clear glass cylinder.
None of those adoptive parents had ended the world.
Well, except Nandita. I have all the luck with parents.
“Do you know where Armin is?” she asked softly.
“You asked about him before,” said Vale, pausing to turn and look at her. “What’s your interest in him?”
Kira wasn’t sure she wanted to share that part of her life with Vale or Morgan—at least not yet. “He’s the only one we can’t account for.”
“We don’t know much about Jerry Ryssdal, either.”
“But Jerry Ryssdal wasn’t the one who created the Trust.”
Vale shook his head helplessly. “Well, given the circumstances, I would assume Armin is dead.”
Kira swallowed, trying not to let her feelings show, even as she was unsure of what those feelings were. “But the Trust are all immune to RM. You gene-modded yourselves for protection.”
“There are plenty of ways to die that aren’t related to RM,” said Vale. “When things fell apart . . . he could have died in a looting scuffle, during a Partial bombing—”
“I thought the Partials didn’t attack civilians.”
“ParaGen was hardly a civilian target in that particular war,” said Vale. “Many of our facilities were attacked, and he may have been in or near one at the wrong time.”
“But you survived.”
“Why are you interrogating me?”
Kira took a deep breath, shaking her head tiredly. “You’re trying to work, and I’m . . . preoccupied. I’m sorry. You’re in here practically twenty hours a day trying to cure this thing, and I should be helping you, not—”
Now it was Vale’s turn to shake his head, refusing to meet Kira’s eyes. “You’re helping more than anyone.” There was more anger in his voice than Kira had expected. “You’re a sixteen-year-old girl and I’m letting Morgan treat you like a cell culture.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“It’s the only right choice there is.”
“That doesn’t mean I like it.”
They sat in silence for a moment, and Kira smiled sadly. “I’m seventeen, actually. Almost eighteen.”
Vale smiled back, though the smile seemed just as sad and forced as Kira’s. “When’s your birthday?”
“I have no idea. Sometime in January. I always just celebrate it on New Year’s.”
Vale nodded, as if that meant something profound. “A snow baby.”
Vale sighed again. “I forget you kids don’t know about snow. When was the last time . . . ? I can’t remember. . . . Even I must’ve been a kid the last time it snowed. Anyway: a New Year’s baby, then.” He turned back to his monitor. “That’s good luck. We’re going to need it.”
Kira looked at the glowing DNA strand, trying to read it like he did, but it meant virtually nothing to her. She’d trained as a medic, so she knew the terminology, but genetics were not her specialty. She traced the tape holding the IV tube to her arm. “Are you sure there’s nothing more I can do to help?”
“Find Armin,” he muttered, staring at the screen, “and ask him what the hell we’re supposed to do now.”
Kira felt a surge of excitement at the suggestion, but she knew it was a hopeless plan—there was too little time left, and no idea even where to begin. And when it came right down to it, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to find her father. What would she say to him? She didn’t even know if she’d be angry or glad. “I’ve tried looking for the Trust already,” she said at last. “I can do more good here, helping you and Morgan with your research.”
“That’s what you keep saying.”
“I know you’re just trying to help me,” said Kira, “and I appreciate that, but I’m serious about this.” She felt a flutter of fear, as she always did thinking about her situation, but forced it down. She thought about Samm, and steeled her resolve. “I don’t go back on my promises.”
“Even if they have no purpose?”
Kira frowned. “You don’t think Morgan will find anything?”
“I think she’s looking in the wrong place. All she’s going to find in you is a basic Partial template, an example of a Partial genome with no expiration triggers.”
“Which is exactly what she’s looking for,” said Kira.
He dismissed that notion with a wave. “It’s a solution she can’t implement. Even if she finds the right genes, what then? We don’t have the time or the means to disseminate the cure to more than a handful of Partials, let alone every Partial in the world. I’ve talked to her about it, but she’s determined.”
Kira started to speak but trailed off, uncertain and terrified. “But if I’m not . . .” It was a fear she hadn’t even realized she had, but which sprang up in her mind like a nightmare, shaking her to the core.
I’m not a cure for RM, and I don’t have any special powers or abilities that anyone can find. I’m not even the Partial Failsafe, according to every test they’ve been able to run. I thought I was created for a purpose, but I’ve tried everything else, and curing expiration is the only purpose left.
But if I’m not the cure for expiration, what good am I to anyone?
She tried to control her tears, but they burst out in a flood. Vale looked up in surprise, his face a mask of confusion; he looked like he wanted to help but had no idea what to do or say, and Kira stood up quickly, grabbing her rolling IV stand and walking away before he could try to comfort her. She was still sobbing, so much she could hardly see, but she knew that a single word from anyone, even a kind one, would wreck her completely. She staggered out of the room, closing the door behind her, and sagged against the wall in a torrent of tears.
I thought the Trust had a plan to save everyone, and the more I looked the more it kept coming back to my father, to me, to the questions that no one could answer. Why did he make me? Why would anyone hide a Partial among the humans? What was I intended to do or be or accomplish? What was I
. . . She sobbed, completely unable to even articulate the thought anymore, even to herself. She’d dared to believe that she was the plan—that her father had created her for this time, for this purpose, to cure both species and save the world. To lose that dream was hard enough, but the sheer arrogance of having that dream in the first place broke her in half.
Dr. Morgan found her twenty minutes later, curled on the floor and shivering in her hospital gown.
“The spinal fluid was another dead end. I want brain tissue.”
Kira didn’t bother to ask why, or what her methods were, or how much brain tissue Morgan needed. She dragged herself to her feet, clutching the IV stand like a cane, and shuffled toward the operating room. The biopsies were invasive and painful, more like torture than a medical procedure, but Kira set her face grimly and lay down under the spider. The hospital was so empty, they hadn’t passed a single other person in the halls. Too many of the Partials were dead.
The needles gleamed, piercing her like daggers, but Kira embraced the pain. It was all she had left.
riel tapped her fingers on the stock of her rifle, watching Nandita as the women in the house readied themselves to leave. It would be so easy to kill her—half a second to aim, another to pull the trigger. Boom. Dead. So easy to rid the world of its most heartless, deceitful, irredeemable denizen. Nandita Merchant had created the Partials, she had created RM, she had kidnapped Ariel and three other girls and experimented on them for years, right under everyone’s noses, lying to them about their true nature. Ariel was a Partial. Her adoptive sisters—Kira and Isolde—were Partials. The enemy.
In Ariel’s mind it felt as if Nandita had changed her with a sentence, like a magic spell, stealing her humanity to leave her gasping in the darkness. She had made her a monster, with the blood of the world still dripping from her talons. She didn’t know what to think, or even how. It was too much to take in. The world had shifted, and it would never be the same.
Only one thing remained after the announcement: She had hated Nandita before, and she hated her now. She touched the trigger, just lightly, not even pointing the rifle in Nandita’s direction. The curve of it gave her a dark, illicit thrill.
It would be so easy.
Isolde walked into the room, a stuffed backpack in each hand and Mohammad Khan, her red-faced, screaming baby, in a tight sling across her chest. Ariel moved her hand back to the stock.
“I have blankets, clothes, and everything in the house that can be used as a cloth diaper,” said Isolde. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her voice was raw from emotion and fatigue. “I think that’s everything, but I don’t know. I’m convinced I’m forgetting something.”
“You’re fine,” said Nandita, stroking Khan’s cheek ineffectually. He was five days old—an outright miracle in the world after the Break, when most children died in three—but his apparent immunity to RM wasn’t saving him from the other disease he’d had since birth, a mysterious illness that spiked his fever and ruptured his skin with boils and rough, leathery patches. Nandita thought she could save him, that Khan’s human/Partial hybrid DNA would make him more resilient. But Ariel knew the truth. Being a hybrid hadn’t saved her baby two years ago, and it wouldn’t save Isolde’s now.
Isolde set her backpacks on the couch, next to Xochi’s and that of Xochi’s adoptive mother, Senator Erin Kessler. Madison’s bag was on the floor, packed mostly with supplies for Arwen, her baby, and the only healthy human child since the Break.
Isolde froze in terror when a sudden knock sounded sharply on the front door. Every woman in the house looked up with wide, wild eyes, for a knock on the door meant only one thing.
Ariel took stock of the room in a single, practiced glance—almost everything in the house was liable to get them arrested, starting with Arwen. The Partials had heard rumors of a thriving human child, nearly one year old, and they wanted her for their experiments. Khan would probably mean nothing to the average observer—his condition made him appear as just another doomed baby—but the guns were contraband and the loaded backpacks were a clear sign that they were about to make a run for it. Nobody was allowed to leave East Meadow, and if the Partials thought they were trying, they’d arrest them all just to be sure.
Ariel stashed her gun behind a bookcase, still in easy reach if she needed it, and caught the bags Xochi threw to her. Nandita, who the Partials had been searching for almost as eagerly as Kira, hid herself in a back room, while Senator Kessler did the same—she wasn’t necessarily a criminal, but if the Partials recognized her as a senator, they might take her anyway. Isolde struggled to calm her screaming baby, and far in the back, beneath a false panel in the floor, Madison quietly shushed Arwen. Ariel hid the last of the bags in a kitchen cupboard; barely ten seconds had elapsed since the knock on the door. The soldier outside pounded loudly again, and Ariel opened it.
“What do you want?” Her voice was more surly than she’d intended; she was trying to act innocent and unnoticeable. When the Partials didn’t react to her anger, she realized that maybe anger was the most innocent reaction of all in an occupied city. She allowed herself a fierce scowl, surprised at how good it felt.
The pair of Partial soldiers on the porch were both young—about eighteen years old in appearance, as they all were, though she knew they were closer to twenty. She wondered if she’d seen these two around the city anywhere, maybe guarding a street corner when she’d been out scavenging for food, but they all looked so similar she couldn’t tell. The Partials weren’t clones of one another, but they may as well have been. Ariel found them completely indistinguishable. It made her wonder if the Partials thought the same thing about humans.
Which only made her grimace, nauseated anew by the realization that “us” and “them” meant completely different things than they had three days ago.
“Miss,” said the first Partial, “we heard a baby crying on the premises. We’ve come to see if there’s anything wrong.”
You mean you’ve come to see if it’s Arwen,
thought Ariel. She glanced at Isolde, who flashed a look of impotent fury before gritting her teeth and giving a small, almost imperceptible nod. They had prearranged a plan to use Khan to hide Arwen, and while Isolde had agreed with it, she hated it intensely.
“Yes,” said Ariel, pointing toward the swaddled infant. “Can you help? We’ve done everything we can, but he’s dying.” The Partials glanced at Isolde and her baby, and Ariel stepped closer. “It’s RM, and it’s killing him.” She felt more anger boiling to the surface and unleashed it like a flamethrower. “Don’t you have any medicine? They told us the Partials had the cure—can you help him? Or are you just here to watch him die?”
The first Partial stepped inside and walked to Isolde, examining Khan up close. Isolde took up the act as well, though she was less angry and more pleading. Ariel studied the second Partial, still in the doorway, covering his partner like a good wingman; his rifle wasn’t aimed, but it was ready to bring up at a moment’s notice, and they all knew from experience just how fast a Partial could be.
It occurred to Ariel, not for the first time, that she could give them Nandita. The old woman was concealed in a closet, trapped like a rat if Ariel decided to lead them to her. What would they do if they found her—torture her? Kill her outright? Nothing good, she knew, or Nandita wouldn’t be so intent on staying hidden. Ariel wanted to speak up so desperately she had to clench her fist to keep from blurting it out, but there were two reasons she forced herself to keep quiet: first, because the inevitable questions that followed might possibly expose Arwen, or even Khan’s unique parentage. Second, and more frustrating, was Nandita’s mysterious power over the Partials—she seemed to be able to control them, and exposing her to these two soldiers would do nothing but give her a new pair of pawns.