Chapter 1

 

 

“Get it down! Get it down!”

The crowd shrieks around me, jostling each other to reach the front.

A girl with swan wings tunnels past me, her feathers brushing my cheek as she takes off toward the school. A boy with scales stumbles and falls on me. I regain my balance and continue fighting my way to the front of the growing crowd.

“Get it down! Get it down!” The chant grows louder.

A fairy type with wings from a morpho butterfly flutters above the crowd, smiling and clapping in rhythm with the chant. I spot a few unadjusteds among the gathering who hang back at the edges, their fearful expressions far different from the glee of the adjusteds, or as I like to call them, the altereds. They think they’re a class above, some perfect version of a human being. But really, they’re just a bunch of mutated DNA.

I push against the stab of sharp wingtips and pointed elbows, trying to find a gap, trying to catch a breath. Anxiety trembles through my limbs and I hesitate, the crowd pinging me in all directions. An agonized wail from the thickest part of the melee gives me the spur I need. With my head down, I barrel my way to the small clearing. I brace myself, already knowing what I’ll find.

“He’s foaming!” someone yells.

The fairy’s hands fly to her mouth and she screams. She kicks at the air, her ponytail bobbing about her shoulders. Two towering bulks in football jerseys laugh at her and slap each other’s backs.

More screams ripple through the gathering. Finally, I break free from the crushing crowd.

My heart drops.

A boy falls to his knees as thick, white foam pours from his mouth. His eyes bulge and his face turns beet-red. His hands clutch at his neck as though he can wrestle away the pill’s effects. Just like Diana.

“Someone call an ambulance!” I bark at the immobile group. “Now!” I toss my cell phone to a girl with pixie ears then kneel so my eyes are level with the boy’s. Gripping his shoulders, I force him to look at me.

“You’re not alone,” I say, placing my hands either side of his face. “Please fight. Try. Hold on. The ambulance is coming.” Don’t be another Diana.

I shudder against the memories. The foam and the bulging veins.

It’s happening all over again.

Blood trickles from the boy’s nose, dripping onto his fresh, white T-shirt. He drops sideways, falling from my grip. His head smacks against the cement.

The pixie girl shouts into my cell phone about the blood and the foam and the gurgling and the choking. Just like I did for Diana over two years ago. But I already know it’s too late.

“What did he take?” I ask the kids now silent at the front of the group. “Which nanite pill did he take?”

“Bulk,” the fairy says quietly. She folds her wings into her back as her feet touch the ground, one foot tucked neatly behind the other.

I look toward the dying boy as his body convulses. He took the bulk nanite pill. He wanted to be a football player, big and strong and immortal with rock-hard skin. It’s a level ten nanite. The paperwork involved takes months, not to mention the expense. All for nothing. His body rejected the change. It happens sometimes.

He reaches a hand toward me, and I hold it as he chokes out one final syllable, but I can’t tell what it is through the gurgling blood.

His hand falls limp. His bloody eyes see nothing; not the lone black bird flapping in the bright blue sky nor the crowd of worried students slowly shuffling backwards toward the school.

He’s dead.

Quiet conversations wind through the group, spreading the news, their voices rising with the drama of it all. The school will be wild with the gossip by lunch. Gossip.

I sit back on my heels as numbness sets in. That’s better than the anxiety. Images of Diana’s face as she collapsed on the floor right outside our lockers worm their way into my mind. The disbelief in her pupils, quickly followed by the fear.

It’s the fear I remember most. Not how she choked on her own vomit or popped an artery and bled from her nose, eyes and ears. The fear. The last thing she said was “I don’t want to die.” But she did. And there was nothing I could do about it.

I force the thoughts away before the tears come.

Something digs between my shoulder blades. I turn to find the guard who escorts me to school every day. He grunts something indecipherable and gestures toward the school doors. When I don’t move, he nudges my back harder with the rifle.

I glare at the guard. The nanite prerequisite for joining President Bear’s security force has turned his skin partially green and changed the bone structure of his face until he resembles more troll than human. They’re known for their obedience and aggression.

The guard points toward the school doors again, two massive arches of twisted glass and chrome that allow bulks and winged altereds to enter easily. A few yards above the school’s roof are the lowest of the competition hoops. Every year, contests between the winged altereds take place there. They compare how fast they can go around the aerial track or how small they can make their wings, and the rest of us watch from the bleachers atop the building.

The crowd disperses. Anxiety scratches inside my chest. I measure my breaths to a slow count, easing my growing fear. As kids file in through the archways, the morning sun glints off the glass and an American flag flutters in the breeze. Good old US of A. Good old American Dream. Reach for the stars and all that. Well, they’ve been reached for, lassoed, and wrestled back to earth, where they’ve become the opposite of twinkling, optimistic dreams.

In the distance, sirens pierce the air and draw near. The ambulance arrives, more of a truck than a van to fit the larger altereds. Two paramedics scamper to the boy’s side within seconds of parking their vehicle. One of them grimaces as they go about the business of picking up the dead boy and putting him on a gurney. The other shakes his head and makes the sign of the cross. But there is no God here.

The guard points again. This time I follow him as the paramedics cart the dead boy away.

The guard halts at the entrance, and we part ways as I push through the front doors, jostling amongst the wings and tails and the snapping teeth of my altered classmates. We file into a more orderly line to let the scanners hanging from the ceiling read our retinas. The alarm on the metal detector blares, as it does every morning when I walk through it. Even though I’m prepared for the noise, the alarm drills into my head, making my heart skip a beat. A few kids look around, muttering about fire alarms. Then they see me and look away again.

Everyone knows I wear an ankle cuff. Mrs. Montoya, my unassuming Social Studies teacher, nods at me to go through. She pats my hand as I pass and glares at an altered dashing by whose wings dig into my cheek.

I pass the line of lockers favored by the bulks, each one big enough for me to fit inside without touching the walls. Above them is a smaller row, which the fairies tend to use. I stick to the bottom row, where I can stay out of their way. I open my locker and rest my head against the cool metal of the door. My skin is hot and flushed. A sign the anxiety is still hovering. A medley of opposing emotions circles inside my brain and I can’t seem to settle on one. It would be so much easier to just not care. Take a pill. Be like everyone else. But I can’t do that. I promised Diana.

I grab my gym bag from my locker and throw a sweatshirt over my shoulders to ward off the chill of the air conditioning.

The flap of several pairs of wings sounds above my head. I look up. Annabelle and her crew hover in the air, their gazes locked on me. I know one of them is going to drop a book or something.

I open my mouth to hurl an insult, but Annabelle’s bulk boyfriend storms down the hall and glowers at me. I snap my lips shut and dash down the hall in the other direction. I don’t usually run, but I don’t have the energy to deal with them this morning.

When I push open the door to the practice gym, the smell of sweat and chalk rushes at me, calming my angry heart. Sensei Claus stands in the middle of the room, barefoot, dressed in his black karate uniform, his short hair trimmed into a crewcut. A few pairs of kids around him engage in one-on-one combat. Thuds and grunts reverberate around the high-windowed room, though no winged altereds are here. They aren’t built for karate; all those delicate wing bones break too easily.

On the far side of the room, a gymnast springs onto a trampette, flips in the air, sails over a vault, and slams down on a crash mat. Chalk dust gusts into a small cloud around her head. Another boy swings around the highest of the uneven bars, around and around, his body a blur. A sixty-inch TV monitor raised halfway up the wall to record our training is on standby mode.

Claus nods at me as I slip into the locker room and change into my gym shorts and T-shirt—always cumbersome with the ankle cuff. I can never follow the latest fashions, all those skinny jeans and leggings. They don’t fit over the cuff, small as it is. I wish I could cover it up. It blinks at me constantly, a permanent reminder that President Bear has my family by the balls.

I find the black karate belt nestled in the bottom of the locker, but I don’t need it today for training. I slam my locker closed and march back into the gym, throwing my sweatshirt to a bench.

“You must clear your mind before you spar with me,” Claus says, stroking his thin mustache. It mirrors the seriousness in his searching eyes. I always have the impression he’s thinking about something else, something deep and important, like the answer to the universe. Until he’ll say something insightful and I’ll realize he’s been watching my every move.

I push my shoulders down, pleading with myself to let go of the anger. Of the vision of blood and death I walked away from. Because of them.

“There was a nanite death,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady. “Just now, outside school.”

Claus’ lips thin and disappear inside his mustache. “How many does that make?”

I wipe my slick palms on my shorts. “Second one this month.”

Claus lowers his voice, his German accent softening. “I hope you’re not planning on… I know your sixteenth birthday is coming up.”

“Today, actually.” I lift a shoulder and sink a toe into the crashmat.

Claus puts a hand on my raised shoulder, gently pushing it back down. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks. And no, I won’t be taking a nanite.” I lower my voice so it’s covered by the thuds and slaps of my sparring classmates. “I won’t ever be taking a nanite.” I keep the last part under my breath, thinking of Diana.

“Good. Because you’re almost as good as me.” His smile is warm under all that mustache hair, but a frown travels the length of his forehead. “Not sure I could keep up if you took a speed nanite or something.”

A challenging grin creeps over my lips as I tie my hair up into a ponytail. “Oh, I’m better than you already, old man.”

His mustache twitches. “Even with that cuff on your ankle? Doesn’t it weigh you down?”

“Like an extension of my leg.” I balance on one foot, pushing onto my toes, swinging my cuffed leg around like a ballerina, though I’ll never be as graceful as my best friend’s younger sister, Lyla.

While I admire the muscle definition on my supporting leg, Claus takes me by surprise and sweeps my legs out from under me.

“Never lose your focus.”

It’s the only mistake I make that session. I push the death out of my head. Not just the one outside, but all the ones that came before. The ones close to me.

I force my best friend Matt out of my mind too, knowing I’ll see him later in class. He always pops up when I can’t afford to think about him. It takes a concentrated effort to rid my mind of his startling blue eyes.

After twenty minutes of feet kicking shins and arms spinning faster than any Karate Kid movie, Claus shows me a new routine: a complicated series of blocks and sweeps with a few snap punches and a roundhouse. He indicates I should copy it.

“Mouichido,” Claus says. One more time. Having spent time in Japan, the Japanese is as familiar to him as his German mother tongue.

I perform the routine once more, then Claus moves in to block my front thrust kick and shields my high knee rise. And on it goes, him mirroring my actions in perfect synchronization. But I know he’s going easy on me. He’s a 5th Dan. A master.

At the end, Claus dips his head. “Rei.” Bow.

I lower my head in return, resisting the urge to wipe the sweat from the nape of my neck. Then I make my way to help with the more junior kids, like I do in every session, because they need to be as prepared as I am. One day, President Bear won’t always be in charge, and I have a feeling he won’t go willingly. But Claus calls me back.

“You’re ready for grading next week.” Claus gives me his curt little nod of approval and satisfaction blooms in my chest.

“Do you think I’ll make 2nd Dan?”

He smiles and pats my shoulder. “No doubt.”

I punch a fist into the other palm. “I want to get to the top on my own. Without a nanite.”

Claus looks around at my classmates. Kyle stands on the other side. He’s a year younger but not far behind me in rank. His arms and legs blur as he dances around his opponent before bringing him to the floor with a jump kick.

“It’s going to be harder,” Claus says. “You’ll face a lot more with abilities.”

Nothing will keep me from my goal of reaching the top karate level. Nothing. I was a beginner when seventh grade started. Now, at the end of my sophomore year, I’m already a black belt. Claus said I’m the fastest-progressing student he’s ever had. But I have to be. This isn’t just about being at the top of my game or beating the altereds in a useless floor competition.

This is about survival. And escape.

I refuse to live in a world where genetically enhanced abilities are valued more than kindness and compassion. I’m determined to find a place away from it all. If I can figure out how to take the damn ankle collar off.

Claus props an elbow in the crook of his other arm and twiddles his mustache. “I think it’s time.”

I raise an eyebrow. “For what?”

He points to the bleachers, and I follow him to the lowest one, where he usually stashes his gym bag. I pick up my sweatshirt from the bench and slip my arms inside.

Unzipping a side pocket of his bag, Claus removes a velvet black box. My first guess is jewelry, but it looks too heavy and awkward. Besides, Claus giving me jewelry is so not his style. He doesn’t wear any himself. Not even a wedding ring. No tattoos. None I’ve ever glimpsed, anyway.

I step a little closer. “Sensei?”

“You did say it was your birthday today.” Claus quickly surveys the rest of the room. When no one looks our way, he thrusts the box into my hands. “For you.”

I frown at the weight in my hands. The sweat on my palms soaks into the thick velvet. The stale stench of my own body odor rises to my nose, mingled with the deodorant I applied this morning. Deodorant is hard to obtain now that most altereds buy the ‘perfect-smell’ nanites. My local drug store ran out a month ago and don’t plan to stock any more.

He nudges my hand. “Open it.”

I slide out the bottom of the box. The gym’s fluorescents glint off the object. Nestled inside more velvet sits a six-inch blade shaped like an arrow with three small triangular Vs etched into its blade, mimicking its shape. The hilt is wrapped with a lightweight green cord. It’ll provide a good grip. It’s not new, but it’s shiny and sharp.

“Who does it belong to?” I ask.

Claus’ eyes dim. “My partner. Evan.”

I snap my head up. “Is he the one who died in the nanite protest march a couple years ago?”

“Yes.” Slowly, he nods. “We were both there, protesting President Bear’s nanite program.” He covers his face with his hand, then clears his throat. “It was the biggest protest in history. And there’s never been another. The loss of life was too great.”

“I’m so sorry.” My hands tremble as I look at the knife again. “This is too much.”

“It’s just the right amount.” Claus moustache hides his smile, but I can see the emotion in his eyes. “I can’t bear to be around it, and I can’t think of a better person to gift it to. It used to be a set of three, but only one has survived.”

I run my fingers over the hilt, sensing the memories this knife contains.

“Shuto,” Claus says. Knife hand.

I extend my hand. He plucks the knife out of the box and places the hilt in my palm. As much as I joke about the ankle cuff being a part of me after wearing it for the past two years, I don’t really feel that way. I resent every flash of its digital lock. But holding this knife feels completely natural, as if I was born with it wrapped in my fingers.

Claus places his hand over mine so we’re both holding the knife, then squeezes my fingers. “I promised I would teach you to throw.”

I look up at my sensei. His eyes are still warm, but serious. “I didn’t think you meant at school,” I say. “I’ll never get this out of the grounds.”

Claus taps the side of his nose. “I have my ways.”

A crackle from the loudspeaker startles me. I snap my head toward the wall-mounted speakers.

“Students,” the voice of our principal screeches. “Please stay where you are and do not proceed to homeroom. We have a special announcement coming.”

Kyle looks up at the speakers and rests his hands on his hips. A gymnast on the other side lands on top of the vault and stays there, staring.

A walkie-talkie crackles from Claus’ gym bag. He holds it to his ear.

“TV…any moment now…” is all I catch from the garbled message.

“I understand,” Claus replies, pulling at his mustache again. Frowning, he turns to me. “Come with me.”

He calls to the rest of the kids in the gym, and we all walk to the far end toward the wall-mounted monitor. Picking up the remote, Claus thumbs the power button. The whispered conversations fall quiet. Students gather around us. Kyle’s breath puffs against my neck.

The screen comes to life, and the presidential seal fills every inch of it. My stomach clenches and ice slithers down my throat. A panic attack hovers, thick and immediate, like it does every time I see that damn symbol.

“Terror attack?” Kyle whispers in my ear.

I shrug. I know it will be far more personal than that. The last time President Bear gave an unannounced public message, my mother was thrown in prison. My mind races in time with my accelerated heartbeat. I picture my dad working in his underground lab. Is he watching the same message?

“Da-da-da-dum….” one of the bulks calls, laughing.

“Shhh.” Claus glares at those making noise.

I look at my toes, bracing myself, knowing deep in my gut something bad is going to happen. Seconds tick by. “What’s going on?” Kyle whispers.

“I’ve no idea,” I say, watching as the presidential seal is replaced by a room in the White House. The camera pans to a horde of journalists in temporary seating, their faces tense, jotting notes on smart phones. The bell rings, signaling we should be in homeroom. Claus crosses his arms, one elbow resting in the crook of the other, his forefinger tapping his cheek.

“This is bad, isn’t it?” Kyle asks.

With the knife still in my hand, I turn my head toward him. “Always.”

On the screen, the president’s arrogant face looms from behind his desk in the Oval Office, the Stars and Stripes hanging to his left to remind us of his stance: patriotism and loyalty above all else. The scar under his eye is bleached a pale color but no less ugly than a raw wound. He’s never taken a nanite to heal it.

The ice in my throat hardens. I squeeze my eyes closed.

Then he speaks, his patronizing voice familiar. It’s a voice that fills my dreams. No, not my dreams—my nightmares. It’s a deep, barking voice, well-placed to scare a bunch of fresh army cadets into dropping out. The voice that condemned my mother.

“This is a national announcement. All unadjusteds age twelve and over will now be required to take a nanite pill to enhance their abilities. With threats and competition from overseas, we must do more to further the strength of our country.” The president’s red eyes stare into mine, as if the message is just for me.

A dizzy spell washes over me, and I reach out a hand to Claus, who holds my arm. “Breathe, Silver.”

On screen, the president continues. “The nanite representative agency is on its way to every school right now. They will assign each eligible unadjusted a ticket number. You are not permitted to leave before you have your ticket. This ticket will tell you which day within the next two weeks you will be assessed for an appropriate nanite level. You’ll notice some of those assessments start today. Nanite reps and soldiers are on their way to each school in every city to aid the process…”

Kyle inhales sharply. I hold my breath, afraid I’ll collapse if I let it out.

“Once this assessment is complete, we will proceed to residences to evaluate the unadjusted adults. I expect each unadjusted individual to join the strength of the adjusted superbeings. Failure to comply will result in unfortunate circumstances.”

A muscle in Claus’ jaw pulses. He’s an unadjusted too. And Matt…

President Bear’s red, inhuman eyes stay fixed on mine. Even his pupils are red, and they seem to whirl with fire. Today is my sixteenth birthday. It’s almost as if he planned it this way, to make as much impact on my life as possible.

“Our country is the most powerful in the world. Your loyalty and patriotism is expected. But in case you need a reminder of what happens to traitors…”

An image of my mother’s face fills the screen. An old image. From two years ago, when she was arrested for treason because she refused to produce more nanite pills. I haven’t seen her since. They won’t let me near her.

I’m not even sure if she’s still alive.

Chapter 1

 

The January wind howls outside the window, banging insistently on the glass, demanding to be let in. It adds to my already frayed nerves. As I look around the room at my friends, I clamp my hands around my mug. How am I going to tell them?

Avoiding questioning stares, I flick my gaze to the empty window and see nothing but snow. My stomach clenches. I’m about to ask the world of them and they have every right to say no. I would, if I had half a chance.

Safely ensconced in the presidential building, we wait for President Montoya. Or Francesca as I’m still allowed to call her. Matt sits next to me and fiddles with a pen, rolling it over his fingers. I take confidence from his presence. He’s always been my rock, the one person in my life I know has my back. Not only does he challenge me, he brings out the best in me too, even when I’m not in the mood. I don’t know what I’d do without him. Especially with my mother still missing. With his legs crossed, he appears relaxed. But then he knows what’s coming and he’s the only one who won’t be affected.

“What’s this all about, Silver?” Erica asks from across the large conference table. Aside from the bulks, she is the one who has changed the most. Not so long ago, she was a fairy and a total pain in my ass. When the cure worked, she lost her wings. Her eyes returned to a human blue, but her hair remained an unusual lavender. Perhaps a side effect. Even though it has been several months since the cure was delivered in the country’s water system, I still can’t get used to her without wings. They used to change color according to her emotions and now I can’t read her as well.

 “I’d rather wait for Francesca…President Montoya,” I reply. I want to delay the coming conversation for as long as possible.

I glance at my father. He stands by the window with his back to us. A small muscle in his jaw twitches. Right now, the possibility of getting my Mom back is real and tangible. But any one of these people sitting around the table could dash that dream in an instant. If they don’t agree. Seeking reassurance, I put my hands in my pockets and find a couple of loose acorns. I circle them in my palm, the smoothness of their skin calming me.

“Is it about the outbreaks?” Paige asks. Her dark hair is longer than ever, cascading down her back. Her emerald eyes have dulled to a warm hazel color, but they hold the same kindness they always did when she had macaw wings. I don’t know what I’d do without her, either.

Sawyer’s head snaps up, causing his curls to bounce. “What outbreaks?” He asks, around a mouthful of Danish pastry. He still hasn’t been able to give up the habit of eating whatever is in front of him. A habit from living on the streets for so long.

Without warning, the door whooshes open and a gust of cold air follows President Francesca Montoya into the room. We stand to greet her.

“Please sit, none of you need to stand on ceremony for me.” She smiles and her dark eyes dance with warmth.

Her appearance hasn’t changed since her school teaching days, a fact I now find oddly comforting. Although she’s swapped her skirts for a trouser suit. Her graying hair and rosy cheeks portray a maternal warmth, but I’ve learned not to mess with her. Looks can be deceiving. She led the resistance against the altereds and now she’s the president of the country that remains.

“Welcome everyone and thank you for coming,” Francesca says. She takes the time to go around the room, holding everyone’s gaze, then pours herself a black coffee, two sugars.  

“I’m feeling oddly nervous.” Paige fiddles with a doughnut on a napkin, licking her finger to pick up the crumbs from the table. “Someone please put me out of my misery.”

Jacob pats her thigh and leaves his hand there. Like Matt and me, they’ve been together since we lived in the caves. We spent several months there, hiding from President Bear and his army of immortal bulks and hellhounds, trying to figure out how to survive in a world where taking nanites was deemed law. After rescuing my father from the President Bear’s clutches, he found a cure to turn all the altereds back to their unadjusted selves. But not all of them made the transition.

I’m still uncomfortable with the way they died. Those who took too many nanites couldn’t sustain the change back to their human DNA. It was a consequence we hadn’t predicted, and now have to live with. Was it worth our freedom? I wrestle with the question. Matt and I often speak of the alternatives. Every single other option left us dead. This way, we get to start again, with a more democratic society, and hope the remaining altereds still out there will see sense, or leave us the hell alone. Francesca’s army are hard at work maintaining the new laws and regime, but the threat hasn’t entirely disappeared. That’s why we’re here.

“We haven’t all been together since...” Kyle gulps and runs a hand across the back of his neck. He’s taller, and somehow even skinnier, not a spare inch of fat on his lanky frame. Even though he doesn’t possess the speed ability anymore, he still runs every morning. And he remains fast, even without the nanite. “Well, you know.”

“Since the cave,” Francesca says. “Since the cure was delivered.”

With half the population no longer here, houses stand empty. Whole neighborhoods. Cars lay abandoned on roads. Entire schools have no pupils. Francesca’s priority has been securing a new government. Now she is looking to clean up the leftovers and bring a feeling of positivity back to those who remain. But there is one group above all others who threaten that ideal.

“I don’t want to make this any more nerve-wracking than it already is,” Francesca continues. “So I’ll come right out with it. We’ve located Earl.”

A gasp streaks through the small gathering, but this isn’t news to me. Hal’s eyes narrow and Kyle punches a fist into the other palm. Even though I’m expecting the words, an icy fear drips down my spine. Earl. He was one of my father’s colleagues. A top scientist in the field of genetic modification. He created the hellhounds. The very same creatures who tore off part of my father’s leg and attacked me. And he was firmly on President Bear’s side.

Francesca places her hands on the back of the chair in front of her. “He’s fled to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and is able to purify his water source.”

Sawyer fiddles with one of his curls. “So, he’s still an altered?”

Francesca nods. “He is indeed. Along with the others who are with him.”

“How many?” Hal turns his chair around and straddles it, his arm resting along the back. I haven’t seen him for a while. To begin with it was too painful, every time I looked at him, I thought of Joe. Now, it still hurts, but the pain has eased.

Francesca tilts her head. “We estimate a couple of hundred.”

Kyle’s eyes light up. “We can take out a couple hundred.”

Francesca holds up a hand. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’re talking about altereds. Some of the most powerful ones. And they are being organized by Earl.” Her gaze drifts from one person to the next. “As powerful as you all used to be, you are now human, and unfortunately, don’t stand a chance.”

“So, what do we do?” Hal breaks a doughnut in half.

“Can’t we just nuke the fuck out of them?” Kyle asks.

A light chuckle eases some of the tension in the room. Sawyer offers Kyle a high five, which he accepts.

“I’m glad you’re so eager to help,” Francesca says, with a small smile at Kyle. “But there is one other important piece of information. Earl has Dr. Melody. Silver’s mother.”

I close my eyes and hold my breath. I’m not sure I can face the reactions of my friends. Matt puts his hand on my lap, much the way Jacob did with Paige. I open my eyes and glance at Claus. Leaning on his cane at the back of the room, he gives me a short nod of approval. He’s always supported me. He taught me to fight, and even though he’s as anti-nanite as the rest of us, I know he is in favor of my forthcoming request.

“So, we need to go rescue her,” Erica says, her shoulders high, her hands splayed, like it’s the most obvious solution. I’m surprised it’s her who speaks first.

“Of course we do,” Hal says. My chest swells with gratitude. “But how? How do we face off against a bunch of altereds? I know President Montoya has her new army and everything, which I’m proudly part of, but we’re not bulks anymore, we don’t have the strength.”

My father steps away from the window and comes to stand next to me. He’s been quiet, perhaps as nervous as I am about everyone’s reactions.

“Silver and I have a very important question to ask you.” Dad puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. I brace myself for his next words, all my hope wrapped up in the next few moments. “We will be launching a mission to neutralize Earl and his altereds and to rescue Margaret. But Hal, you’re right, we can’t do it as humans. Therefore, I am asking you to take back your previous abilities.”

Paige’s mouth drops open. Both of Kyle’s eyebrows shoot over his head and Sawyer’s curls remain totally still, for once. Erica chuckles, as if she can’t quite believe what she’s heard.

Hal half stands. “Are you serious?”

“I’m so up for this!” Kyle’s voice pitches high. “I have sooo missed my speed. I was trying to figure out a way to ask for it back.” He blushes. “I’m in, I’m so in.”

“Slow down, Kyle. Please. This is…a huge decision. I’m not even sure I would do it if I had a choice. We’ve been through so much, we’ve lost people…this is…this is…” My voice trembles and emotion swells through me. I stand and face my friends, my old mission team. I love them all. I’d die for each and every one of them. And now I’m asking them to do the same for me, for my mom, for the unadjusteds.

Matt rubs my back. “Are you trying to talk them into it or out of it?”

A smile steals across my lips and I wipe at my eyes. “It’s completely voluntary. We only want you to agree if it’s what you want to do. There will be no hard feelings.”

“But everyone’s normal now,” Jacob says. “I mean, wasn’t that the point of the cure?”

Erica shakes her head. “Everyone is not normal. There are people out there with abilities still. The human ones—”

“Yeah, but nothing serious,” Jacob says. “I mean, we can live with a bunch of people who have permanent white teeth and never smell bad, can’t we?”

“You forget about the offspring,” Matt says. “Born from altered parents, they are unaffected by the cure in the water. We don’t know how many are out there, what their abilities are or where they stand on genetic modification. We don’t have that information yet.”

“Not to mention Earl in the mountains. His people will have the worst kind of abilities,” Hal adds.

Matt nods at his words. Frowns and grimaces cloud the faces of the group as they contemplate what I’m asking.

“So, what enhancement will you be having?” Jacob asks Matt, an edge in his tone. “If we’re going to be facing off against some big powerful baddies, won’t we all need physical abilities? Maybe we should all be bulks.”

Back in the day, Jacob had been a nanite junkie, taking anything and everything to further his karate career. Without the added strength, speed and his kick-ass teleportation ability, he is still strong and agile, but nothing like when I first met him.

Beside me, Matt tenses. He was even more anti-nanite than me. But that doesn’t mean he is without abilities. Given intelligence in vitro, he’s the smartest person at this table, but he’ll never add anything else. He won’t compromise his beliefs. And I’ll never ask him to.

“I didn’t take anything additional for our first mission,” Matt says through a clenched jaw. “I don’t plan on taking anything for this, either. I think my weapon and bomb making skills will do just fine.”

Jacob waves a hand. “Sorry, didn’t mean to judge…it’s just, I never thought we’d be faced with this decision again.”

“S’okay.” Matt looks at him. “Me neither.”

“Providing we go ahead, aren’t we going to stand out a bit?” Paige asks.

Behind me, Dad finally speaks again. “No. Silver and I have been working together in the lab. We’ve figured out a way to give you back your powers and grant you the ability to turn them on and off at will.”

An expectant silence winds through the group. Hal grabs another doughnut and Kyle taps out a rhythm on the table. No one breathes. Wind howls outside the tomb-like room. Tiny sparks appear on the tips of my fingertips. I bury my hands in my lap so one notices and hope I don’t accidently scorch my clothes or skin.

The first thing Francesca did when she was elected president was outlaw genetic modifications. Enhancements for the purpose of cosmetics or performance are strictly forbidden. No more bulk genes for football players, no more gills for swimmers, no more speed for runners, no more butterfly wings for cheerleaders, no telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis or mind-control. The list is extensive and unyielding. Any failure to comply is met with the harshest of punishments by the highest court of Central City.

Some genetic modifications are allowed, on a case-by-case basis that fit into the criteria of disease and disability. But each of these exceptions are scrutinized for months to assess the validity of each claim. The case details are presented before the highest court where only a panel of the most supreme judges can grant in favor of the proposed genetic treatment. The rule of thumb is that if you are taking something away; a third eye, scales to be replaced by skin or a disability as a result of the reduction process to an unadjusted state, or if you are fixing something; diabetes, cancer, an organ problem for instance, then the genetic modification is often acceptable and approved. More often than not, they end up in my father’s and my lab. But, if you want something added; intelligence, strength or beauty for instance, then it will be refused. Now Francesca is overturning her own laws, for us, so that we might have a fighting chance.

I look at my friends. At Erica and Paige and Hal. They all had abilities that made them stand out. “I appreciate this is harder for some of you.”

“I don’t claim to understand genetics.” Erica leans over the table. “But won’t the abilities disappear again as soon as we drink water? That’s how the cure works, right?”

“Right, but no,” Dad replies. “If Silver and I give you back your powers individually, not through a nanite pill, the markers in the cure won’t see your DNA as foreign. Hence why Matt and Silver still have their abilities.”

Matt can’t turn his intelligence off, it’s always there. With me, I can only use my abilities in short bursts, for an hour or so, shorter if I use two or more at the same time. I can produce wings or run as fast as a bullet, or teleport myself a few feet away, any time I wish. I haven’t used my abilities so much of late. Occasionally I sprout the wings and take off into the sky, just to feel the wind rushing against my feathers. In a world with no more powers, I try to stay faithful to our new dogma. Now, my shoulder blades itch with the yearning to fly and my core tenses with the need to use an ability, to do something, to fight.

Kyle stands and stretches, like he’s warming up for a race. “I’m still in. I want to run again.”

Everyone laughs and my shoulders drop a couple inches. Maybe this will work.

“Will it hurt?” Paige asks, her brows knitted.

“Shit, I didn’t think of that!” Kyle’s eyes fly wide.

“Because when I first got my wings, it hurt like a son of a bitch,” Paige says, her hazel eyes fixing on me.

“It hurt me too,” I say. “Every ability I gained from each of you hurt every time. But we know it doesn’t last. And not all abilities hurt. It’s different for everyone. But it is something to consider.”

I look at Paige, my best friend. Her indecision is mirrored in her pupils. She is scared. So am I.

“Silver’s right,” Dad says. “It won’t be any worse than taking a nanite. I’ll be manipulating each of your DNA individually, so the ability will be more part of you than you’ve ever experienced. It’ll be like muscle memory. I’m pretty sure you won’t have any pain at all.”

“You don’t have to decide right now,” Francesca says. “Think carefully before you answer. I’m asking you to take back your abilities on a permanent basis. The effects will be…finite. But we do need a quick decision. We want to send a team out ASAP.”

“I don’t need to think about this.” Hal stands, revealing his military uniform. “Of course I’m in.”

He glances at me and our eyes lock. Hal will be a bulk again. Joe, his best friend, was a bulk. My chest lurches painfully as I remember his death, and the loss I still feel.

A crow squawks beyond the window, startling me, surprising us all. Matt drapes his arm across my shoulder.

“What’s the urgency?” Sawyer asks. “Surely we should take some time getting used to our abilities again before we charge into an offensive?”

Francesca’s lips thin. “Earl has already launched an offensive. An evil, insidious attack that he can observe from the safety of his hideout.”

Sawyer blanches. Paige pales under her permanent freckles.

Matt swivels in his chair to look at Francesca. “What kind of attack?”

“The outbreaks,” Paige whispers.

Matt frowns and looks at me. Last week, Matt, Dad and I ate together in front of the TV, watching the news. There were reports about a few towns in California succumbing to a virulent flu. Something the world hasn’t seen for a few decades, not since COVID swept around the globe. The death rate is high. Could Earl have released something into the world?

“We have vaccines for everything now,” Matt says. “Don’t we?”

Dad’s face turns grim. “Not if you have a determined genetic scientist who wants to mix up a bit of plague, a dash of COVID and a smattering of Ebola in a petri dish. Add an enhanced infection rate, and well…it’s nasty.”

“The virus is moving. Fast.” Francesca says. “It will be here by the end of the week. Maybe sooner. So far there is a ninety-nine percent fatality rate, and we have no idea how to fight it.”

No one speaks. Panic swirls in my stomach. The old panic I thought I’d put behind me months ago. Now it usually manifests in my dreams when I’m attacked by hellhounds and hellcats and can only see their glowing eyes and terrifying jaws before they tear me apart. But the undercurrent is always there. After all, my mother was in prison for two years and then held hostage by President Bear. Now we have reason to believe she’s in the mountains with Earl. I won’t relax until she’s safe. But how will we ever leave the presidential compound with a virus so deadly?

After a few minutes, Erica raises a hand. “What happens if we don’t find a cure for it? Or a vaccine?”

Claus steps forward from the back of the room, his cane tapping softly against the carpeted floor. “Then the world as we know it will end.”

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