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.”