Fragments, p.44
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       Fragments, p.44

           Dan Wells
 

  “Cronus I’ve heard,” she said, and shot Vale a careful glance. “Dr. Morgan seems to think of you as a threat.”

  “Don’t tell me you’ve met her.”

  “It was not the most pleasant experience of my life.”

  “She’s petty and arrogant and heartless,” said Vale. “By the end, she had all but given up on humanity as a species.”

  “That sounds like her.”

  “If she ever finds this place,” said Vale, “we’re all doomed. My philosophies are, as you’ve seen, somewhat opposed to hers.”

  “You’re trying to protect humanity, even if it means the enslavement of the Partial race,” said Kira, and the truth was beginning to dawn on her. “What happened to your ideals? What is your plan now? For the survival of both races?”

  “After twelve years, I’ve finally come to understand something,” said Vale. “Extinction has a way of making you choose sides,” said Vale. “I don’t want to hurt anyone, but if I can only save one species, I’ve made my choice.”

  “It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” said Kira. “There’s a way to save both.”

  “There was,” said Vale. “But that dream died with the Break.”

  “You’re wrong,” said Kira, and she could feel tears welling up. “You, Armin, Nandita, and Graeme . . . all of your work was about this, about both races surviving. There must be something that I can do!”

  “I promised you information,” said Vale, “and I’m a man of my word. Tell me what you need to know, and I’ll give you everything I can.”

  They climbed the stairs to the hidden lab in the spire, and Kira considered the question: She had so many; where should she start? She wanted to know how RM worked, and what exactly the relationship was between the virus and the cure. If the same being produced both, how did they interact? She also wanted to know about the expiration date: how it functioned, how they might be able to work around it. Vale had been working on RM for years without cracking it, but he seemed to have no interest in the expiration date; he might know something valuable that he hadn’t followed up on yet. “Tell me about the expiration date,” she said.

  “It’s really just a modification of my own work on the life cycle,” he said. “I designed the Partials to accelerate to a certain age and then sit there, freezing the aging process by continually regenerating their DNA. At the twenty-year mark, that process reverses, and the DNA is actively degenerated. They’re essentially aging a hundred years in a matter of days.”

  “Samm didn’t say they age,” said Kira, “they just . . . decay. Like they’re rotting alive.”

  “The effect is the same at that speed,” said Vale. “It’s not the nicest way to die, but it was the most elegant, biologically speaking.”

  Kira furrowed her brow, still searching for the stray pieces to complete the puzzle. “How did you keep the expiration a secret from Morgan?”

  “ParaGen was a maze of secrets,” said Vale. “Nobody trusted anybody else, and the board of directors trusted our primary scientists even less. That’s why we had to build two Failsafes.”

  Kira raised her eyebrow. “Two?”

  “A Partial killer, like they wanted, and the human flu that Graeme and Nandita built as part of our plan. The Partial Failsafe was never put into production, of course, but I still created it, as a cover for the rest of our plan. The board could see the Partial Failsafe, could get progress reports and testing data, and content themselves that we were following orders; meanwhile, the other Failsafe is what we eventually incorporated into the mass-produced Partial models.”

  “Wait,” said Kira. She opened her backpack and rooted around for the old computer handle from Afa’s broken screen—the one with all the info they’d downloaded in Chicago. “Do you have a monitor I can plug this into?”

  “Of course.” He offered her a cable, and she powered up the handle.

  “Before we came here,” she said, “we pulled a bunch of records from a data center in Chicago. One of them was a memo from the ParaGen chief executive officer to the board of directors; we read it because it mentioned the Failsafe, but it didn’t make sense at the time. In light of what you just said, though . . .” The list of files appeared on the screen, and Kira scrolled through it quickly, looking for the one sent by the CEO of ParaGen. “Here.” She opened it and read the pertinent line: “‘We cannot confirm that the Partial team is working to undermine the Failsafe project, but just in case, we’ve hired engineers to imbed the Failsafe in the new models. If the team betrays us, the Failsafe will still deploy.’”

  Vale’s jaw dropped. “They went behind our backs.”

  “That’s all we thought when we read it,” said Kira, “but after what you’ve told me, it’s got to be more than that—if the board didn’t know about the human Failsafe, then the only one they could add to the new models was your decoy. The one that kills Partials. That means it might still be out there, and if it kills the Partials, it will kill everyone, since that’s our only source for the cure.”

  “True,” said Vale. “But look at the time stamp: July 21, 2060. That was two full years after the final batch of military Partials was created. I can only imagine that this email referred to the line of Partials that was never put into mass production.”

  “New models . . .,” said Kira, trailing off. It’s me, she thought. That’s what I am—a new Partial model. That’s even the year I was born, five years before the Break. It’s talking about me.

  I’m carrying the Partial Failsafe.

  “You look terrified,” said Vale.

  Kira brushed her hair from her face, trying to control her breathing. “I’m fine.”

  “You don’t look fine.”

  Kira looked at the ten Partial prisoners lying inert on their tables. If something triggers me, I’ll kill them. I’ll kill Samm. She tried to keep the quaver out of her voice. “What was the trigger?”

  “For the Failsafe? It was triggered by a chemical, administered either through the air or by a direct injection. Only some of the Partials were carriers—viral factories, essentially, that could be turned on at a specific moment. We could turn on the cure the same way.”

  “Yes,” said Kira, “but what is the trigger? Specifically? And would it be the same for the new models?”

  “None of that matters,” said Vale. “The president triggered the Failsafe to stop the Partial rebellion, and when I saw how vicious RM had become I triggered the cure. It’s over and done. Those new models that were mentioned in the email were only prototypes, and as far as I know, none of them survived the Break. They were young children at the time.”

  “But what if they did survive?” asked Kira. What if something triggers her accidentally, and she destroys every Partial left on the planet?

  Vale stared at her, his face confused and pensive. Slowly his expression changed, and Kira couldn’t help but take a step backward.

  Vale took a step back as well. “You said you lived with Nandita, right?” he asked. “An orphanage. How exactly did she find the girls she adopted?”

  Kira watched his face warily, trying to guess if he’d guessed what she really was. He seemed suspicious, but how much did he know for sure? How much did he need to know before he acted—and what actions would he take? If he thought she was a threat, would he kill her right here?

  She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t give herself away. I can’t look like I know too much, she thought, but I can’t look like I’m dodging the topic, either. “She had four girls,” she said. “She found us the same way as every other foster parent on the island. I think some of us were assigned by the Senate.” She wasn’t sure if it was true, but it sounded good without professing any specific knowledge. “Why do you ask?”

  “Some were assigned,” he said, “but not all?”

  “Nandita raised us like any other kids,” she said, but suddenly Marcus’s questions about experiments flashed through her mind. That’s it, it’s me,
she thought, it makes too much sense.

  He watched her closely, taking another step back. Kira glanced over his shoulder—was he backing away from a threat, or slowly inching toward an alarm? How much time do I have? The tension in the room was thick enough to choke on, and she felt a thick bead of sweat run down the small of her back.

  “Do you realize,” he asked softly, “how much damage the Partial Failsafe could do in the open at this point? To the Preserve, to East Meadow, to the entire world?”

  “Please,” said Kira, “think about what you’re doing—” But it was the wrong thing to say, and Kira knew the instant the words were out of her mouth that a plea was as good as a confession. Vale spun around, diving for the table behind him, and Kira didn’t even wait to see what he was reaching for. She turned and ran, sprinting as fast as she could from the room. A gunshot rang out behind her, and sparks flew from the door frame just inches from her head. She ducked around the corner and hurtled toward the end of the hall.

  There were more shots behind her, but she was faster than he was, and already too far away for his unpracticed aim. She stumbled around each corner, barely slowing to change direction, racing back to the elevator shaft she’d come down through. Only when she reached it did she realize she’d left her computer handle back in the lab, plugged into Vale’s computer. “No time,” she muttered, leaping onto the ladder and hauling herself up. “I’ll come back for it later.” She might be able to take Vale—she might, depending on his gene mods—but he could have sounded an alarm by now, and called for backup, and she couldn’t face the entire Preserve. Her only hope was to get to Samm and carry him out, before anyone on the outside knew what was going on.

  But how far would she have to take him before they escaped the sedative’s influence? And how long before the dose in his system wore off?

  She reached the second floor and clambered out through the elevator door, still wedged half-open. Samm lay nearby, right where she’d left him, and she pulled his backpack on over her own before heaving him to his feet. He hung limp and heavy from her arms, two hundred pounds of muscle turned to dead, useless weight. She threw his arm over her shoulders and lifted, grunting with the effort, listening all the time for noise of pursuit. There was nothing behind her, and she couldn’t hear anything outside. She hobbled to the stairs, half carrying and half dragging Samm. She reached the ground floor and leaned against a wall to rest, looking out across the overgrown clearing that surrounded the spire. There were two people talking to the west, resting in the shade by one of the makeshift apartment buildings, but they didn’t seem to be on alert. Kira readjusted her grip on Samm and hauled him through the lobby to the other side of the building, slipping out the eastern edge where no one was waiting. The ground was uneven, broken by roots and gopher holes, and she was forced to move slowly with Samm weighing her down.

  If only I knew where the horses were, she thought, but there was no time to find them. If she carried the Partial Failsafe, then it could mean the death of Vale’s Partials, the death of the Preserve, and the eventual death of all humans and Partials. Kira was a living bomb, and destroying her before she went off would supersede every other goal he had. He would sacrifice his secrecy, his authority, whatever it took to preserve the human race. She had to escape or die.

  She reached the end of the clearing just as a man came around the corner of the nearest building. He stopped in surprise; she clenched her teeth, nearly borne down by Samm’s weight, and forged past him. “Hello,” he said. “Is he okay?”

  “He fainted,” said Kira. “He just needs some fresh air.” We just need to get to the gate, she thought, just reach the gate and we’ll be fine.

  “You’re the newcomers,” he said, matching pace with her. “Were you in the spire?”

  “We’re just out walking,” said Kira, looking ahead. Another clearing loomed before them, and another building, and beyond that the fence and the edge of the city. If we can just get to the city, we can hide . . . but I need to get rid of this guy. “Do you know Calix?” she asked.

  “Of course.”

  “Find her,” said Kira, “and tell her we left a valuable medicine in our bags in her room—a red bottle, wedge-shaped, with a green ring around the lid.” It was an antibiotic, but this man didn’t need to know that; she just needed to draw him away. The man nodded and ran off, and Kira struggled on. She reached the next building, and now there were more people around, adults and children. Just a hundred feet, she thought. We’re almost there. A few of the people asked about Samm, their faces concerned, and Kira did her best to play it off without attracting more attention, but the crowd began to grow.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Where are you going?”

  “What’s happening?”

  And then another voice, in the distance behind them. “Stop them!” The crowd looked up, confused. Kira pushed through them. “Stop them!” the voice cried again, and Kira recognized it as Vale. She kept walking, struggling to keep Samm from falling. A woman in the crowd grabbed her arm.

  “Dr. Vale wants you to stop,” she said.

  Kira drew her gun, and the woman backed off quickly. “Dr. Vale wants to kill us. Just let us leave.” Only fifty feet.

  The woman retreated, hands up, and Kira crept forward, hunched far to the side to keep Samm’s weight centered over her. She clung to him with one hand, dragging him forward and warding off the crowd with her gun. She stole a glance behind her and saw Vale approaching with a group of armed hunters.

  Samm groaned, groggy but awake. “Where are we?”

  “We’re in bad trouble,” said Kira. “Can you walk?”

  “What’s going on?”

  “Just trust me. Wake up.”

  “Stop them!” shouted Vale again. “They’re spies, come to destroy the Preserve.”

  “We’re leaving,” said Kira through clenched teeth, struggling step by step for the open gate. Samm was still leaning on her heavily, trying to walk but too unsteady to do it effectively. The townsfolk hadn’t stepped in to stop her, still wondering what to do. “Just let us go.”

  “Let them go and they’ll return with a thousand more like them,” said Vale. “They’re Partials.”

  Samm’s speech was slurred. “So the recon trip didn’t go as planned?”

  “You’re not helping,” said Kira. “Can you walk yet?”

  Samm tried to stand up, reeling slightly, and fell back onto Kira’s shoulder. “Not well.”

  “Is it true?” asked a voice. Kira turned to see Phan, and the look of betrayal on his face struck Kira through the heart.

  “I’m a person,” she said. “The Partials—”

  “The Partials destroyed the world,” said Vale, catching up to them. “And now they’re here, trying to finish the job.”

  “You’re lying,” Kira hissed. “You destroyed it, and now you’re living in a fantasy, trying to pretend like the past never happened.”

  “Don’t listen to their deceptions,” said Vale.

  The crowd moved in on them, the open path to the gate become smaller and smaller as the crowd closed in. Kira swung her gun around wildly, trying to balance Samm with her other arm. “Please, Samm, I need you to wake up.”

  “I’m awake,” he said, the crowd now mere feet away from them. “I can walk.”

  Kira let go of him, and he stayed steady enough. “We have to—”

  Vale fired.

  CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

  “I apologize for my absence,” said Nandita. “I was trying to save the world.” She stood in the living room of her old house—the one Ariel had run away from so many years ago, and swore she’d never come back to.

  Ariel clenched her fists and snapped back. “You lied to us before,” she said. “What makes you think we’ll believe you now?”

  “Because you’re adults now,” said Nandita, “or close enough. Children need to be protected from the truth, but teenage girls need to face it.”

  Five faces stared bac
k at her, all the women in Ariel’s life: her sisters Madison and Isolde, her friend Xochi Kessler, and Xochi’s mother, the former senator Kessler. Even Arwen was here, the miracle baby. All trapped by the Partial army, brought back here to simmer and worry and die. They’d gathered in Nandita’s house because it was the only home they had left. If they knew how close we were to Kira, Ariel thought, we’d be in even more trouble than we are.

  “The Grid’s been searching for you for a year,” said Senator Kessler. “Where the hell have you been, and what are your ties to the Partial army?”

  “I created them,” said Nandita.

  “What?” Kessler stammered, the first to manage a response. Ariel was too shocked to say anything. “You created the Partials?”

  “I was on the team that built their genetic code,” said Nandita, taking off her coat and shawl. Her hands were wrinkled, but missing the calluses Ariel had always seen on her. Wherever she’d been, she hadn’t been working in a garden, or in any kind of manual labor.

  Kessler seethed with anger. “You just admit it? Just like that? You created one of the greatest forces for evil this world has ever—”

  “I created people,” said Nandita, “like any other mother. And the Partials, like any other children, have the capacity for good or evil. I’m not the one who raised them, and I’m not the one who oppressed them so harshly they were forced to rebel.”

  “Forced?” demanded Kessler.

  “You’d have done no less in their place,” snapped Nandita. “You’re more eager to fight what you don’t agree with than anyone I know; anyone but Kira, perhaps.”

  “Just let her talk, Erin,” said Xochi. Ariel had never heard the girl call her mother by anything but her first name.

  “So you created the Partials,” said Isolde. “That doesn’t explain why you disappeared.”

  “When we created them, we built them to carry the plague,” said Nandita. “Not exactly what came to be known as RM, mind you: The plague that was released was more virulent than even we intended, and for reasons we don’t fully understand. But we also made a cure, carried by all Partials, that could be activated by a second chemical trigger. And then, as you can see, everything went to hell.”

 

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