Fragments, p.16
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       Fragments, p.16

           Dan Wells
 

  Samm stared at the photo intently, his dark eyes flicking back and forth across the image. Heron seemed more interested in the various Trust-related documents scattered across the table. “So your father created you at ParaGen,” said Samm. “He knew you were a Partial. And so did your guardian on Long Island.”

  “But she never told me about it,” said Kira. “She raised me like a human—I think my dad did, too. At least I don’t remember any reason to think that he didn’t. But why?”

  “He wanted a daughter,” said Samm.

  “You were part of their plan,” said Heron, shaking her head. “All of us are. We just don’t know what it is, and what each member’s part was in creating it.” She held up another email, one Kira had been looking at the night before. “This says Dr. Morgan was assigned to ‘performance and specifications.’”

  “I think that means she programmed your super-soldier attributes,” said Kira. “Each member of the Trust had a part in the creation of the Partials, and her part was all the extra gizmos that make you what you are—enhanced reflexes, enhanced vision, accelerated healing, stronger muscles, and so on and so on. The rest of the team tried to make you as human as possible; it was Dr. Morgan who made you . . . more.”

  “And she’s still doing it,” said Samm. He set the photo down and looked at Kira somberly. “I’ve overheard some reports about Morgan messing with the Partial genome, and Heron says she’s seen it in person.”

  Heron raised an eyebrow, still sifting through the pages on the table. “Apparently she can’t stop tinkering.”

  “Is she trying to just work around the expiration date?” asked Kira. “Maybe she can’t find the genes that kill you after twenty years, so she’s adding in new mods to try to dampen them.”

  “Maybe,” said Samm, “if something like that is even possible. But she’s mostly doing more . . . well, like you said: augmentation. Making certain Partials stronger or faster. They say she has a whole squad that can breathe underwater. She’s drifting further way from the human template.”

  “Sounds like she’s turned her back on humanity across the board,” said Kira. “Or maybe just given up on it.”

  “She had help at ParaGen,” said Heron, picking up another sheet of paper. “Look. Jerry Ryssdal was assigned to the same project, or another part of it.”

  Kira nodded, marveling at Heron’s ability to sort through the information scattered across the table. It had taken Kira days to find these connections, but Heron was putting it all together in a matter of minutes. “I don’t know exactly what Ryssdal’s contribution was,” Kira said, “but I think you’re right. Some of them worked in pairs.”

  “But not all?” Samm prompted.

  Kira shrugged. “I honestly have no idea. We’re talking about the biggest secrets of an incredibly secretive company, and the even more secretive inner circle that was apparently working both for and against them. Even the basic information is buried in layers of security and coded emails, and I can’t even be sure if the clues I’ve found are real or just disinformation designed to throw people off the trail. Afa’s spent years on this, even before the Break, but it’s just . . . incomplete. We don’t have the answers.

  “He’s . . .” Kira paused, not certain how to articulate the big man’s condition. “He’s been alone for a very long time, let’s put it that way. I think it kind of broke his brain, but even broken he’s a genius. He was collecting information on the end of the world before it even ended. He’s got stuff about the Isolation War, and the biotech industry, and the Partials, and . . . everything. He worked for ParaGen, running part of their computer system, which is where most of this stuff comes from.” She gestured around the room, and Samm nodded appreciatively.

  Heron received the information more passively, seeming to soak it up while studying a full array of documents at once. Her eyes flicked back and forth as she read the papers before her, and a dark frown crept across her face. “This isn’t good,” she said.

  Samm looked up. “What?”

  “Morgan is a part of the Trust—we have two conflicting ideas of what the Trust is, but they both say she was a part of it. And the Trust seems to be the group that created the Partials.”

  “We know all that already,” said Kira. “None of it’s awesome news, but it’s not exactly terrible, either.”

  “That’s because you’re not paying attention,” said Heron. “Start putting the pieces together: Morgan built the Partials, but she didn’t know about the expiration date until the first generation started dying three years ago. Why didn’t she know? The cure for RM is built into the Partial pheromone system, but she didn’t know about that, either. You’re some kind of new-model Partial, and she had no idea you even existed.”

  The implications hit Kira like a punch to the gut, and she sank into a chair. “That’s not good.”

  “I’m not seeing it,” said Samm. “The three things you just mentioned have nothing to do with the physical augmentation package she worked on, so it makes sense that she didn’t know about them. Why is this a big deal?”

  “Because it means they’re not who we thought they were,” said Kira. “They’re not what we thought they were. I’ve been out here for two months trying to find the Trust because I thought they had it all together—a group of geniuses or whatever with a plan for exactly how everything was supposed to work. Cures for RM, details on expiration, answers to how I fit in, everything. But now that we’re finally learning about them, they’re just . . .” She sighed, understanding, finally. “If everything Heron is saying about Morgan is true, then they’re just as fragmented as everybody else. They kept secrets from each other; they messed with each other’s work. I was relying on them for answers, but I’m starting to think they might not have them, either.”

  “And if they don’t have them,” said Heron, “nobody does.”

  Samm paused, lost in thought. Kira thought about the problem from different angles, going through everything she knew about the Trust. Each member of the Trust would still have certain answers to her questions, right? She could still find them, like Nandita had told her to, and she could still learn something. If there wasn’t a plan in place, she could make one. The pieces were all here. And perhaps there was a member of the Trust out there who did know it all, who oversaw the project, who could tell her how these pieces fit together. How she fit together.

  She had to believe.

  Samm broke the silence. “What about the scientists who worked with you directly?” he asked. “Your father, and Nandita: What were their contributions?”

  “My father did the pheromone system,” said Kira, “which I suppose makes sense—I don’t have the full link, but I have a version of it. He may have built it custom.”

  “Which parts of it do you have?” asked Heron.

  “I have no idea,” said Kira. “I knew you were waiting for me on the stairs, and you knew I was waiting for you, but right now I can’t sense either of you at all.”

  Heron raised an eyebrow, a motion half-mocking, half-curious. “We knew you were on the stairs because you’re about as stealthy as a moose. There was no link data coming from you at all—and there isn’t any now.”

  “But I felt you,” said Kira. “I knew exactly where both of you were.”

  “Interesting,” said Heron.

  Kira turned to Samm. “What about you?” She thought about the connection she’d felt with him in the lab, and suddenly grew anxious. “Do you feel anything?” She felt stupid for asking, like a schoolgirl, and couldn’t bring herself to ask the second part of the question: Did you feel anything?

  Samm shook his head. “Nothing . . . right now.”

  “And before?” Heron asked.

  “I . . . can’t be sure.”

  What’s that look in his eyes? thought Kira. Why are these stupid Partials so hard to read?

  “Maybe all she can do is receive,” said Heron, “with no ability to transmit.”

  “Or the transmitter’s been
turned off somehow,” said Samm. “I don’t know why, though.”

  “To hide me from other Partials,” said Kira, “or to protect me from them. I’ve never gotten any of the ‘command’ data you’ve talked about, either. When Dr. Morgan tried to force you to obey her, I didn’t feel a thing.”

  Samm’s expression was dark. “Count yourself lucky.”

  “I wonder if she’s a spy model,” Heron mused. “Strength and reflexes slightly boosted, physically attractive, heightened intelligence, human communication skills, and apparently engineered for independence. It fits.”

  “You have spy models?” asked Kira.

  Heron laughed, and Samm cocked his head in the most human expression of confusion she’d seen from him yet. “What do you think Heron is?”

  “But if I’m a spy, then what’s my mission?” asked Kira. “Am I going to wake up someday with a data download telling me to assassinate a senator? How could they have even planned something like that five years before the Break?”

  “I have no idea,” said Heron. “I’m just saying it’s a possibility.”

  “Moving on,” said Samm. “Dhurvasula built the pheromone system, but what about Nandita?”

  “That’s another of our big holes,” said Kira. “Nandita and one other guy, Graeme Chamberlain, were working on something called the Failsafe. Of all the things that went into making the Partials, this is clearly the most secret. I have absolutely no records that explain what the Failsafe was, or what it did, or even who ordered it.”

  “What do you know about this Chamberlain?” asked Samm. “I’ve never heard of him before.”

  “That I can tell you,” said Kira, “but it’s going to creep you the hell out.” She opened a manila folder and pulled out a single sheet of paper: a death certificate. “As soon as he finished building the Failsafe, he killed himself.”

  The three fell silent. Kira had gone through Afa’s records as thoroughly as she could, and they simply didn’t have the information they needed—they raised some tantalizing questions, like this one about Chamberlain, but they never actually answered them. All the most important secrets were still locked away somewhere: Who was the Trust? Why did they create RM? What was the Failsafe?

  What am I? Kira thought. What purpose do I have in all this? Without more information, there was no way to know.

  It was Samm—always pragmatic, always straightforward—who broke the silence again. “We have to go.”

  “Where?” asked Kira.

  “To ParaGen,” said Samm. “To wherever they were when they did all this—when they made all these decisions. If the information’s not here, that’s the only other place it could be.”

  “That’s not going to be easy,” said Heron.

  Kira nodded. “The ParaGen headquarters were in Denver. I’m not really up on my old-world geography, but I’m pretty sure that’s not close.”

  “It’s not,” said Heron, “and the road to get there is, by any estimation, hell.”

  “How horrible could it be?” asked Kira, gesturing around. “We’ve made it through this, didn’t we? Is Denver any worse?”

  “We honestly don’t know about Denver,” said Samm, glancing at Heron, “but most of the Midwest is virtually uncrossable, thanks to Houston. It was the biggest oil and gas refinery in the world at the time of the Break, and without anyone to keep it operating properly, it started to fall apart. Eventually it lit on fire—a lightning strike, maybe, we don’t know for sure—and it’s still burning ten years later, creating a cloud of toxic fumes a thousand miles wide. The entire Midwest is a toxic wasteland, everywhere those gases have been blown to by the Gulf wind.”

  Kira raised her eyebrow. “And this is your plan?”

  Samm’s face remained stony. “I wasn’t intending to enjoy it, but if it’s the only way, it’s the only way.”

  “It’s not the only way,” said Heron. “We could call in Dr. Morgan right now and end this entire thing—the search, the war, everything. We know now that even if she doesn’t know everything about RM and expiration, she knows more than she’s let on, and the information we have might be enough for her to come up with a plan to cure us. And we wouldn’t have to cross this nightmare wasteland to do it.”

  “She’ll kill Afa,” said Kira.

  “Probably.”

  “She’ll kill everybody,” said Kira, feeling an edge of steel in her voice. “She wants to solve the expiration date—”

  “That’s exactly my point,” said Heron.

  “—but I’m trying to solve them both,” said Kira. “Expiration and RM. They’re connected through the Partials, and through ParaGen, and if we can find the ParaGen records, we can find the answers we need. If we give up and side with Morgan, the humans die.”

  “The humans will live,” said Heron, “because Morgan will stop killing them looking for you.”

  “So they’ll die in a few decades,” said Kira, “but they’ll still die. RM won’t be cured, and they won’t be able to reproduce, and the human race will go extinct.”

  “Did it ever occur to you that maybe it’s time for them to go extinct?” Heron asked. Kira felt like she’d been punched in the face. “Maybe humans are just done,” said Heron, “and it’s time for the Partials to inherit the Earth.”

  Kira’s voice was a hiss. “I can’t believe you would say that.”

  “That’s because you still think you’re one of them,” said Heron.

  “It’s because I care about people and don’t want them to die!”

  “There are Partials dying every day,” said Heron. “Do you care about them?”

  “I told you, I’m trying to save everyone—”

  “And what if you can’t?” asked Heron. “A journey across the continent is incredibly dangerous—what if we don’t make it? What if we get there and can’t find any answers? What if it takes us so long the Partials all die before we get back? I don’t want to risk their lives just because you couldn’t pick a side!”

  Heron’s eyes were practically flaring with anger, but Kira met them fearlessly and stared straight back. “I’ve picked a side,” she said darkly. “And everyone’s on it. And that’s exactly who I’m going to save.”

  Heron glared at her, practically snarling. Samm spoke with his typical stone-faced demeanor. “If we’re going to go, we need to go now—the sooner we leave, the sooner we get back.” He looked at Heron. “And we’ll need you, or we’ll never make it.”

  Kira looked at them both, steeling her courage. “If we do this, we have to do it right. Any records we find will be stored on computers, under heavy encryption: Do either of you know how to get past that kind of security?”

  Samm shook his head; Heron only glared.

  Kira blew out a long, low breath. “Then we need to find Afa.”

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  Heron found Afa in a nearby drugstore, holed up in the back in a mini safe house he’d obviously prepared years earlier. He refused to come out, insisting, variously, that he was the last human being on the planet, and that he couldn’t ever leave his backpack. Heron came back for Kira—probably because beating him unconscious would require dragging him home, and she didn’t want to bother with the effort—and Kira tried to calmly talk him out. The last thing they needed was another explosion.

  “We need your help,” said Kira. It was a small drugstore set back into a larger building, the shelves picked clean of anything edible. The floor was scattered with dirt and animal tracks. Afa was in the back room, the door closed, and from the looks of it something heavy had been shoved in front of the door on the other side. Kira couldn’t see any explosives, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. “These are my friends, and they need your help. You have to tell us how to get to Denver.”

  “Denver’s gone,” said Afa, and Kira recognized the distant lilt to his voice, the half-absent slur that meant he’d retreated into his protective stupor, perhaps deeper now than she’d ever seen him before. The assault on his building ha
d shocked him profoundly. “I’m the last human being on the planet.”

  “The people are gone,” said Kira, “but the city’s still there. The records are still there. We want to help you finish your work—to fill in all the missing pieces about the Trust, and the Partials, and the Failsafe. Don’t you want to learn all that?”

  Afa paused. “I have everything in my backpack,” he said at last. “I never leave my backpack.”

  “You have almost everything,” said Kira. “You don’t have the Trust—not their plans, not their formulas, not their secrets or their reasons or anything. We need that information, Afa, it might be the only way to save any of us, humans and Partials.”

  “Too dangerous,” Afa muttered. “You’ll burn up. You’ll be poisoned.”

  Kira glanced at Samm, then turned back to Afa’s door. “We’ll be as safe as possible,” she said. “My friends are the best wilderness scouts I know, and I’m pretty handy myself. We can cover ourselves, we can carry our water, we can defend ourselves from wild animals—we can make it. Trust me, Afa, we can get you the records you’ve been looking for.”

  “I think you might be overselling us a little,” whispered Heron. “The wasteland is going to be hell no matter how well we prepare.”

  “He doesn’t have to know that,” Kira whispered back.

  The drugstore was silent, everyone listening quietly while Afa thought. Birds wheeled between the broken buildings outside, watched closely by a feral cat perched high in a windowsill. The morning sun turned the rusted cars into fuzzy shadows on the road.

  “You could go to Chicago,” said Afa.

  Kira snapped back to look at the bunker door. “What?”

  “ParaGen was in Denver, but their data center was in Chicago,” said Afa. His voice was clearer now, more lucid and confident. “Remember what I told you about the cloud? All the information in the cloud was stored somewhere, on a physical computer, and most of that physical storage was in huge central locations called data centers. ParaGen’s was in Chicago.”

 

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