Authors: Dan Wells
“Then let’s get to work.”
ira read through Dr. Morgan’s archive without sleeping, without leaving the room, not even pausing to eat. The grim scientist had studied RM, but only peripherally, and never in the context of Partial expiration. Most of her research on the subject was related to Pheromone 47, the mysterious particle that Kira had dubbed the Lurker, because it didn’t seem to have any purpose. Morgan’s hypothesis had been that the Lurker could cause RM, or somehow trigger it in a human who was carrying RM but had not yet manifested symptoms. Kira had deduced—over a year ago now, she realized—that the Lurker was in fact the cure for RM, but she had only made that connection because she’d spent months studying RM itself. Morgan had never done that.
The records also contained a fair bit about the other Partial factions, the ones who still held out against Morgan’s consolidation, and Kira read these now and then as breaks between the endless string of biology studies. Each rival faction was too small for the larger armies to bother with, and now that Trimble’s forces had been brought into her fold, Morgan seemed to be ignoring them completely. Each one was marked with an approximate location, and one or two lines explaining their reasons for not supporting Morgan: “disagrees with our methods”; “opposed to medical experimentation”; “formed a new, pacifist cult”; and so on. The nearest was a group called the Ivies, somewhere in northern Connecticut. She read each new entry with fascination, astonished not just at the variety, but at the one thing that made each group the same: Faced with the issue of supporting Dr. Morgan or dying of expiration, they chose the latter. None of them had firm plans to solve it on their own—or at least if they did, it wasn’t recorded in Morgan’s files. Kira wondered if Morgan’s records had a prideful blind spot, or if the other factions were really just ready to die. Trimble, it seemed, had been holding out for something to step in and cure it all for her. Were the others the same?
Did anyone, in the end, have any hope of being saved?
Scrolling through the medical records, Kira’s mind turned just as often to Arwen, the baby she’d saved from RM. But no, she wasn’t a baby anymore—that had been over a year ago. She’d be a toddler now. Setting aside her cursory glances of the children at the Preserve, Kira hadn’t seen a toddler since the Break, more than thirteen years ago, and though she had studied pregnancy and childbirth in excruciating detail, she realized she knew next to nothing about childhood itself. How fast did children grow? Would Arwen be walking by now? Talking? The entire concept of early childhood development had never come up before, for her or for anybody. Madison would be learning everything for the first time.
Kira felt a wave of despair, thinking that Arwen’s tiny, precious life wouldn’t even matter if she couldn’t find a way to cure everyone completely.
She dove back into her studies, determined to do just that.
RM was a shockingly complex virus that passed through multiple stages over the course of its life cycle. When she’d been studying Samm—
well over a year ago,
she thought grimly—she’d named these stages the Spore, the Blob, and the Predator. The Spore was the most basic version of the virus, created inside of the Partial respiratory system, where it passed into the air and, eventually, into a human body. As soon as it entered the bloodstream, usually by being absorbed through the lungs, it transformed itself into the Predator—a vicious killer that sought only to reproduce itself and build more of the Spore, attacking the host and practically eating it alive, breaking down every cell and tissue it could find in a mad rush to spread the disease to as many new hosts as possible. Carried to its extreme conclusion, this process could reduce a human body to goo, but obviously the infected person would die long before, as her organs and internal systems broke down. Most hosts actually died from fever, as their bodies fought back so violently they ended up frying themselves from within.
As deadly as the Predator was, human doctors knew very little about it, simply because it killed too efficiently. Anyone who lived long enough to be properly studied was either inherently immune—a staggeringly small percentage of the population—or infected with the third stage of the virus, which Kira had named the Blob. She had thought the Blob was the killer, but the Blob was in fact a combination of two different particles: just as the Spore reacted with human blood to become the Predator, so the Predator reacted with the Lurker, the mysterious Pheromone 47, to become the Blob—a fat, harmless, almost completely inert version of the virus. The Partials breathed out the disease, but they also breathed out the cure, which they could pass along in proximity to a human. Vale and Morgan insisted that the Trust had never intended for RM to destroy the human race, and it was the Predator they were probably referring to—RM was simply too good at its job, far better than anyone had ever expected, and the disease spread too quickly among people far from any Partials. Graeme Chamberlain had designed it, and killed himself soon after, so whether he’d done it on purpose was anyone’s guess. But the key interaction, the most important part of the process, was that third stage. The Blob. It said so much about the Trust, and about their plan, and about the man who’d come up with it.
Armin Dhurvasula. Kira’s father.
Kira had yet to find any solid connection between RM and expiration, but she had leads. First of all, she knew from Dr. Vale that the purpose of RM had been to tie humanity intrinsically to its engineered children. The Partials were thinking, feeling people, and the human race couldn’t be allowed to cast them aside like used tools when it was done with them. By putting the cure for RM inside the Partials, it seemed as if they were making a clear statement about the solution to this problem—the humans who cast the Partials aside would get sick, but the humans who embraced them would be fine. The Partials would breathe out their cure, the humans would breathe it in, and everyone would be healthy. And if the Predator had been less deadly, that plan probably would have worked. Would the same plan have saved the Partials as well?
If Kira was right, somewhere in the life cycle of the RM virus there was a cure for expiration. Obviously it wouldn’t be in the Spore, because then the Partials could heal themselves; it wouldn’t be in the Predator, either, because the mere presence of the Partials removed the Predator from the bloodstream. No, the cures seemed to be designed to activate only when the species intermingled, so what she was looking for would be buried in the Blob. The Partials would give humans the Lurker, thus saving them, and then the humans would turn around and give something back to the Partials and save them . . . but what? Was there a fourth stage of the virus she hadn’t encountered yet? Was there another interaction she hadn’t seen? It was possible that some of the Partials who’d spent a lot of time around humans would have already been exposed to the cure, but the only way to test that was to wait until their expiration date and see if they died. She opened a new file on her medicomp and made a note to check the records for something like this, but she didn’t hold out much hope for it—if any of the Partials had survived their expected expiration, it would be bigger news. Very few of the Partials had come into contact with the humans anyway, not for nearly eleven years. The Partials involved in the East Meadow occupation had received plenty of human contact, but was it enough? How much did it take? How quickly could it take effect? There were too many variables, and they were running out of time—observational data wasn’t good enough. She would have to test her theory directly, and that meant hands-on experimentation: She had to obtain a sample of the Blob and expose it to Partial physiology.
It was a good plan. It was the only plan she could make. But the steps she would have to take to carry it out made a part of her die inside.
“We need to kidnap a human.”
Dr. Vale looked up from his medicomp screen; another iteration of the same data Kira had been poring over for days. He stared at her a moment, blinking as his eyes refocused from the screen to her face. “Excuse me?”
“We need a human test subject,” said Kira. “We have to study the interactions between the stage-three RM virus and a living Partial, and the only way to get stage-three RM is from a human. I’m not human, and you’ve already used gene mods to make yourself immune. The only way to get what we need is from a human—I don’t like it, but it’s a medical necessity. What we learn in this experiment could save the world.”
Vale stared a moment longer, his face blank, before finally furrowing his brow and turning fully toward her. “Forgive my incredulity, but is this the same young woman who called me a monster for keeping Partials imprisoned under the pretense of medical necessity?”
“I told you I didn’t like it. And I’m only talking about taking blood samples, not inducing a comatose state in our subject for years on end—”
“Is this also the same young woman,” Vale continued, “who was herself kidnapped and studied? In this same facility?”
Kira gritted her teeth, frustrated both with him for resisting, and with herself for suggesting it in the first place. It tore her apart even to consider it, but what other options were there? “What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know,” said Vale. His voice sounded lost and weary. “I’m not fishing for a specific response, I’m just . . . surprised. And saddened, I suppose.”
“Sad because this is our only option left?”
“Sad because I may have just witnessed the death of the world’s last living idealist.”
Kira clenched her fists, trying to calm herself as tears threatened. “If we can find the interaction between the species, with RM as a catalyst for both cures, we can save the world. We can save everybody. Isn’t that worth every sacrifice we can make?”
“When you gave yourself to this research, it was a sacrifice,” said Vale. “I didn’t like it, but I admired you for it, but now—”
“Now we have even less time to debate the ethics of it—”
“Now you’re talking about someone else,” said Vale, raising his voice to talk over her. “Now I see I was wrong about you, because you weren’t giving yourself for a cause, you were just obsessed, as obsessed as Morgan is, and you only gave yourself because you didn’t have anyone else to give.”
Kira’s tears were real now, streaming hotly down her face as she screamed back at him. “Why are you fighting me so much?”
“Because I know what it feels like!” he roared. He stared at her, his chest heaving with the force of his emotion, and she looked back in stunned silence. He took a few more ragged breaths, then spoke more softly. “I know what it’s like to betray your ethics, your humanity, everything that makes you who you are, and I don’t want you to go through that. I destroyed ten lives in the Preserve—ten Partials that I didn’t just enslave, I tortured. I loved them so much I betrayed the entire world to give them the life they deserved, and when that plan went as wrong as it could possibly go, I betrayed them in return, all to save what, a thousand humans? Two thousand? Two thousand humans who are just going to die alone once the only source of the cure expires anyway.”
“Not if this experiment works.”
“And if it does?” asked Vale. “What then? Say the humans can’t live without the Partials, and the Partials can’t live without the humans—how will that possibly end well? Are you expecting some kind of glorious cultural marriage between the two? Because that’s not what happened before, and it’s never going to. The group with the power has always oppressed the group without—first the humans, by making Partials in the first place, and forcing them to fight and die and come home to a life of second-class subservience. Then the Partial War. Then my work in the Preserve. Dr. Morgan’s experimentation with live subjects. Even you captured a Partial for study and were captured in return. Now Morgan’s invaded East Meadow and the humans are fighting tooth and nail, and Kira the Partial wants to capture a human. Don’t you see the futility of it all? You know both sides better than anyone. If
can’t live in peace, how can anyone else hope to do it?”
Kira tried to protest, knowing that he was wrong—that he had to be wrong—but completely failing to find any reasons why. She wanted him to be wrong, but that wasn’t enough to make it so.
“There will be no cultural marriage,” said Vale. “No meeting of equals. The future, if we have one at all, will be a mass cultural rape. Tell me with a straight face that that’s good enough, that that’s acceptable on any conceivable level.”
“I . . .” Kira’s voice trailed off.
There was nothing to say.
amm shouted into the hallway, “I think this one’s waking up!” He heard a flurry of activity and raced back to the side of the bed where Partial Number Five was slowly stirring. The Partials from Vale’s lab had been free of the sedative for weeks now, but the effects had lingered, and their bodies, unconscious for nearly thirteen years, seemed reluctant to wake up. Many in the Preserve had given up hope that they would wake up at all, but Samm had refused to abandon them. Now Number Five—they did not know their names—was moving, not just shifting in his bed, but fidgeting, coughing, and even groaning around his breathing tube. Samm had watched with growing excitement all morning, but when Five finally started to flutter his eyelids, as if struggling to open them, Samm called for the others. They came flooding into the room: Phan and Laura and Calix, who was now on crutches as Heron’s bullet wound slowly healed in her leg. The girl pointedly avoided even looking in Heron’s direction.
Avoiding Heron was all too easy these days, as she seemed to have withdrawn herself from the community—not completely, but almost. Instead of disappearing from sight, she simply hovered along the edges, lurking in shadows and hallways, detached from the others. She stood now against the back wall of the hospital room, practically in reach of the humans but somehow miles apart from them. Samm knew without looking that she was as curious about the humans’ behavior—and Samm’s—as she was about the slowly waking Partial. Her link data was typically analytical, but with a tint of the growing confusion that Samm had started to sense from her more and more frequently.