“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.
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.