Fragments, p.42
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       Fragments, p.42

           Dan Wells
 

  “It’s more complicated than that,” said Kira.

  Vale nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. You say it’s cruel to keep them like this, unconscious and emaciated; I say it would be crueler, and to more people, to let them go free. Do you know how I keep them sedated? Come over here.” He walked to the end of the first row of tables, gesturing for Kira to follow. The Partial on the last table looked similar to the others, but his equipment was different. Instead of the tube poking out from below his jaw, his entire throat had been fitted with what looked like a respirator. Kira approached slowly, her gun forgotten in her hand, and saw that he had a small set of fans set into his neck.

  “What is it?” she asked.

  “It’s a ventilation system,” said Vale. “I call this one Williams, and he was my last creation before time and wear rendered our gene mod equipment unusable. Instead of producing Ambrosia, he produces another particle of my own design, an extremely powerful sedative that only affects Partials. The biomechanics behind that were monumental, I assure you.”

  Kira’s voice caught, thinking of Samm, and Vale nodded as if he guessed exactly what she was thinking. “I assume your Partial friend is upstairs somewhere, sound asleep?” He gestured at the ceiling. “The ventilation system in the spire still functions admirably well, and pumps the Partial sedative throughout the building and out into the Preserve. I’d be interested to know how far he got before succumbing; Williams here may well become our primary defense if the other Partials you spoke of ever attack us.”

  Kira thought back: Samm hadn’t felt the effects until they’d approached the central clearing—she’d guess fifty yards from the spire at most—but he’d been oddly lethargic all afternoon. Was that from the sedative, or something else?

  And how far would she have to take him before the effects wore off?

  She looked back at Vale. “You can’t just do that.”

  “You keep saying that.”

  “You can’t just turn a person into a weapon.”

  “Child,” he said, “what do you think the Partials are?”

  “Well . . . of course that’s what they are,” said Kira, “and look how that turned out. Didn’t you learn anything from the end of the world?”

  “I learned to protect human life at all costs,” said Vale. “It’s an edge we danced much too close to, trying to have it both ways.”

  “You’re not doing this to protect humans,” Kira snarled, stepping back and raising the pistol. “You’re doing this for power. You control the cure, so you control everything, and everybody has to get in line.”

  Vale laughed out loud, so unexpected, and so genuinely amused, that Kira couldn’t help but take another step back. What am I missing? she thought.

  “What human oppression have you seen here?” he asked. “What iron boot am I wearing that no one else can see? Are the people of the Preserve unhappy?”

  “That doesn’t mean they’re free,” said Kira.

  “Of course they’re free,” said Vale. “They can come and go as they please, we have no guards or police. We have no curfew but the inherent dangers of acidic storms; we have no walls but the deadly expanse of the Badlands. I don’t demand tribute, I don’t control the schools, I don’t keep any secrets at all except this one.” He gestured at the comatose Partials.

  Kira bristled. “Phan and Calix said you won’t let them leave.”

  “Of course I told them not to leave,” said Vale. “It’s dangerous out there. Phan and Calix and all the hunters are vital to our community. But they are still free to go anytime they choose. Just because they made the choice I recommended doesn’t make me a tyrant.” He pointed at Kira. “Even you’ve been free to leave, this entire time—the rabble-rousing newcomer and her dangerous pet Partial. No one’s stopped you from leaving, no one’s shadowed your movements. Tell me, Kira: What are you railing against?”

  Kira shook her head, confused and defensive. “You’re controlling these people.”

  “By a loose interpretation, I suppose,” said Vale. “You come from a land where control, from what I gather, comes at the point of a gun—where the government buys your obedience through scarcity. Through what they hold back. I maintain order by giving people exactly what they want: a cure for RM, food and shelter, a community to be a part of. They accept my leadership because I lead them well and effectively. Not every authority figure is evil.”

  “That’s very self-righteous talk from a man in a secret lab full of half-dead prisoners.”

  Vale sighed, staring at her for several moments. Finally he turned, walking to the side of the room, and drew a syringe of clear liquid from a tray. “Come with me, Kira, I want to show you something.” He walked to a door in the far side of the room, and after some hesitation Kira followed. “This entire complex is connected by a series of underground tunnels,” said Vale. “Let me remind you, before we rejoin the others, that they don’t know about the Partials. I would appreciate your discretion in the matter.”

  “Because you’re ashamed of it?”

  “Because many of them would react like you have,” he said, “and some would try to punish the Partials further.”

  “You don’t know me very well, Doctor, but I’m not really the kind to stay quiet about things I don’t like.”

  “But you are good at keeping secrets,” he said.

  Kira glanced at him sideways. “You’re talking about Samm?”

  “Do you have other secrets, too?”

  Kira studied him a moment, trying to see if he knew, or even suspected, what she was. Probably not, she decided, or he would have asked why I’m not affected by the Partial sedative. Unless he knows more about me than I do. . . .

  Of course he knows more, she thought, he’s part of the Trust. He knows everything we came here to learn. I can’t stop what he’s doing by myself, not now, but if I get the answers I need, I may not have to. She pondered a moment longer before speaking.

  “I’ll keep your secret—for now—but you have to give something to me.”

  “The cure?” he asked. “As you can see, it’s the same cure you’ve already discovered—and, as I told you before, it’s not exactly portable.”

  “Not the cure,” she said. “It’s evil, and whatever you’re about to show me won’t change my mind about that.”

  “We’ll see,” said Vale.

  Kira persisted. “What I want is information.”

  “What kind of information?”

  “Everything,” she said. “You helped build the Partials, which means you know about RM and expiration, the Failsafe. I want to know what your plans were, and how everything fits together.”

  “Whatever information I have is yours,” he said. “In exchange, as you said, for secrecy.”

  “Agreed,” said Kira.

  “Good,” said Vale, stopping beside a door in the hallway. “But first, we go up.”

  Kira read the label on the door. “‘Building Six.’ That’s the one you converted to a hospital.”

  “It is.”

  “I’ve already seen the hospital.”

  Vale opened the door. “What you haven’t seen is the baby born this afternoon. Follow me.”

  He climbed a set of stairs, and Kira followed, suddenly nervous. Of course there would be a new baby—why else would he go to the spire to retrieve a syringe of the cure? Her stomach tightened involuntarily; she had spent so much of her life in the East Meadow hospital, toiling in maternity while infants died and mothers wailed in despair, that she couldn’t help but feel the same tension again. But it was different now—Vale had the cure. This child wouldn’t have to die. Except she knew where the cure had come from. She closed her eyes and saw the Partials’ gaunt, withered faces. Keeping them like that was wrong, no matter what Vale said to excuse it. And yet . . .

  They came out into a hallway, locking the door carefully behind them. People bustled back and forth, and Kira was shocked to see that most of them were happy—they laughed and talked and
smiled, cuddling tiny warm bundles to their chests. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. Families, real, genetic families, like she’d never seen them before. The maternity ward she’d worked in was a place of death and grief, a place of exhausted struggle and a relentless, implacable foe. It was the only kind of maternity she’d ever known. Here, though, everything was different. The mothers who came to give birth knew that their children would live. This was a maternity ward full of hope and success. Kira had to stop for a moment, steadying herself against the wall. This is everything I’ve ever wanted, she thought. This is what I want to create at home—this is what I want to bring them. Hope and success. Happiness.

  And yet . . .

  Behind all the sounds of activity was one that Kira knew all too well—the wail of a dying child. She knew from intense personal experience exactly how the virus would progress; how it would attack the child from moment to moment. If the child had been born just a few hours ago, as Vale suggested, then RM was still developing in its bloodstream. The child would have a fever, but not yet a deadly one; the virus was slowly replicating itself, cell by cell, building more viral spores, eating the tiny body from the inside until finally—tomorrow, perhaps—the child would practically cook itself alive trying to keep up. This early in the process the pain could be assuaged, the fever controlled, but the process could not be stopped. Without the pheromonal cure, death was inevitable.

  Vale walked through the hall toward the sound, nodding politely to the people he passed, and Kira followed numbly behind. Is this what he wanted her to see? The cure in action, saving an innocent life? She didn’t know what he hoped to accomplish with that—she already knew the stakes, probably better than he did, thanks to living so long with no cure at all. It wouldn’t sway her opinion on the captive Partials, and it wouldn’t buy her silence or compliance. Dr. Vale pushed through the last door, entering the room, and Kira saw the mother practically collapse in joy at the sight of him. The father, equally grateful and nervous, shook Vale’s hand enthusiastically. Vale reassured him with small talk and a smile, prepping the syringe, and all the while Kira stood against the wall, watching the baby squall and scream in the bassinet. The parents glanced her way but quickly dismissed her, their focus turning back to the child. Kira watched them as they held their child, looking for all the world like Madison and Haru. Like every set of parents she had ever seen.

  It doesn’t matter, she thought. They can’t justify what they’re doing to those men in the basement. If these parents knew that living, breathing people were suffering like that, would they be so glad to see the cure? Would they even accept it? She wanted to tell them, to tell them everything, but she felt frozen.

  Vale finished prepping the shot and turned to the parents, shooing them from the room. “Please,” he said softly, “we need a moment of privacy with your child.”

  The mother’s eyes went wide in fear. “Will he be okay?”

  “Don’t worry,” said Vale, “it will only be a moment.” They were reluctant to leave, but they seemed to trust him, and with a bit more gentle urging and another quizzical glance at Kira, they left the room. Vale locked the door behind them and turned with the syringe—not toward the infant, but toward Kira, holding it out to her like a gift. “I told you that I lead these people by giving them what they want,” he said. “Now I’m doing the same for you. Take it.”

  “I don’t want your cure,” said Kira.

  “I’m not giving you the cure,” said Vale. “I’m giving you the choice—life or death. That’s what you wanted, right? To decide for everyone what is right and what is wrong. What is justifiable and what is irredeemable.” He offered her the syringe again, walking toward her, holding it up like a grail. “Sometimes helping someone means hurting someone else—we never like it, but we have to do it because the alternative would be worse. I have destroyed ten lives to save two thousand: a better ratio, I think, than most nations could ever hope for. We have no crime, no poverty, no suffering but theirs. And mine,” he said, “and now yours.” He held out the syringe again. “If you think you know better than I do how to weigh one life against another, if you feel like you should decide who lives and who dies, then do it. Save this child or sentence it to death.”

  “This isn’t fair.”

  “It isn’t fair when I have to do it either,” said Vale harshly. “It still has to be done.”

  Kira looked at the syringe, at the screaming baby, at the locked door with the parents on the other side. “They’ll know,” said Kira. “They’ll know what I choose.”

  “Of course,” said Vale. “Or are you suggesting that your choice will be different depending on who knows about it? That’s not how morality works.”

  “That’s not what I’m saying.”

  “Then make your choice.”

  Kira looked at the door again. “Why’d you send them out if they’re just going to find out anyway?”

  “So we could have this discussion without them screaming at you,” said Vale. “Make your choice.”

  “It’s not my place.”

  “That didn’t bother you ten minutes ago when you told me what I had done was evil,” said Vale. “You said that the Partials ought to be released. What’s changed?”

  “You know what’s changed!” shouted Kira, pointing at the screaming baby.

  “What’s changed is that your high-minded morality is suddenly faced with consequences,” said Vale. “Every choice has them. We’re dealing with the very real threat of human extinction, and that makes the choices worse and the consequences horrible. And sometimes with the stakes this high a choice you would never make before, that you would never consider in any other circumstance, becomes the only moral option. The only action you can take and still live with yourself in the morning.” He pressed the syringe into her hand. “You called me a tyrant. Now kill this child or become a tyrant yourself.”

  Kira looked at the syringe in her hand; the salvation of the human race. But only if she dared to use it. She’d killed Partials in battle—was this any different? Taking one life to save another. To save a thousand others, or maybe ten thousand by the time they were done. In some ways this was more merciful than death, for the Partials were simply sleeping—

  But no, she told herself, I can’t excuse this. I can’t justify it. If I give this child the cure, I will be supporting the torture and imprisonment of Partials—of people. Of my people. I can’t pretend like that’s okay. If I do this, I have to face it for what it is.

  Is this what is left, at the end of everything? A choice?

  She held the baby’s foot, pushed in the needle, and gave him the shot.

  CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

  Ariel was surviving the Partial occupation the same way she survived everything: by being alone. The conquering army had scared many of East Meadow’s residents into community shelters, clustering together for strength, and stockpiling their food and water in a single place. This had only made them easier to capture when the Partials started raiding the city, swooping in to snatch victims and then carrying them off for experiments or executions, it was impossible to tell which anymore. The groups’ sheer size and noise made them easy to find and prey on, and really, no amount of untrained civilians could fend off a Partial attack. With Marcus gone, Ariel stayed on her own, moving from house to house, eating food left behind by others and always staying one step ahead of the raiders. It had kept her hidden, and it had kept her safe.

  Until the Partials found her.

  Ariel gasped for breath, struggling to keep going. She knew the city like the back of her hand, but the Partials were faster than she was, their senses keener. She could hear their feet pounding on the road behind her, heavy boots slamming down, one after another, a relentless rhythm getting closer and closer with each gasping breath. She dodged to the left through a gap in a fence, cutting right and then doubling back to the left again, around another wooden fence. Her feet were quieter than theirs, barely a whisper in the darkness, and she h
eld her breath as she tiptoed through the grass, her eyes straining in the dim light for any twig or branch or bottle she might step on and give herself away. She heard one set of heavy footprints run past her, crashing through the hole in the fence and thrashing wildly through the yard beyond. The second pair followed, and she nodded. Just one more. Just one more Partial fooled and I’m free. She crept forward silently, almost to the end of the grass; there she would slip down a stairway to a basement safe house she’d used a time or two before, and hide there until the raiders gave up and left in search of easier prey. All she had to do was make it to the stairs—

  The third set of Partial footsteps stopped, nearly even with her on the far side of the double fence. Ariel froze, not moving, not making a sound, not even breathing. The Partial took a step in one direction and stopped. Back in the other direction, and stopped. What is he doing? But even as she asked the question, she knew, somehow, what he was doing. He had stopped because he had spotted something. And he knew where she had gone.

  She heard a deep chuckle. “Oh, you’re good,” the Partial laughed, and vaulted the fence directly toward her. Ariel cursed under her breath and sprinted again, all thoughts of stealth gone in a flat-out race for survival. The Partial vaulted the second fence and ran after her, just a few yards behind, almost close enough to stretch forward and grab her by the neck. Ariel ran as fast as she could, her mind trying desperately to figure out how he’d found her—she’d been quiet, she’d been hidden, she’d done everything she’d learned to do, and yet it was like he’d known she was there, almost like a sixth sense. Marcus had told her about their link, and the way it let them find one another, but everything he’d said told her that it wouldn’t work on humans—that humans were a blind spot in a sensory system they relied on too much. She’d used that to her advantage before, and it had always worked. How had she given herself away?

 
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