“Time to go.” The guard curled his lip into an unflattering sneer. His nostrils flared while he nudged me with the tip of his assault rifle.
I shifted my gaze to his ugly, green face, wondering what nanites the security companies gave their guards to make them look just like trolls from a children’s fairy-tale. He had no chance of competing in America’s Next Top Enhanced Model. But he might win a target shooting contest. And he was capable of killing me in a matter of seconds, silently, if I gave him enough provocation.
“Alright, alright,” I said, slinging my bag over my shoulder.
“President Bear won’t be happy if you’re late.”
President Bear won’t have any idea what time I arrive at school considering he’s stuck in his presidential tower and miles away from here.
The guard opened the front door of the apartment building to a blue, sunny, cloudless day and I pulled my sunglasses down from my head. The smell of salt water wafted inland from the nearby coastline. We trudged along the concrete sidewalk, the guard flanking me so close I could smell his coffee breath.
“How many cups do you drink for breakfast?” I waved my hand in front of my nose. The guard didn’t respond.
“Maybe a nice peppermint tea would go easier on your breath.”
“Bet you’re a red wine drinker too. All those stained teeth.”
He never responded to any of my sarcastic jibes.
“Not a conversationalist, huh? Just a ‘take it to the bedroom’ kind of guy. Classy.”
I tried the same routine every morning and not once had I elicited a single response. We kept walking. He swept his gaze towards the horizon and grunted occasionally, signalling displeasure at the crowded sidewalks and students rushing to school. The tip of his rifle glinted in the morning sun. A little boy with a monkey tail ran by me and slammed straight into the guard.
“Oof,” the guard said, and picked up the boy. The kid couldn’t have been more than five-years old. His eyes widened and he whimpered. The guard placed the boy back on the ground, shook one shortened finger at him, and then watched him scamper away. The boy’s genetically modified tail curled protectively around one skinny calf.
“Get it down! Get it down!” The chant of a crowd reached me while I was still two blocks away from school.
“What’s going on?” I asked the guard. No response. Of course.
“Get it down! Get it down!” A group of students loitered outside the doors of the high school.
A fairy type, with the wings from a morpho butterfly, fluttered above the crowd, smiling and clapping in rhythm with the chant. A towering bulk wearing a football jersey stood to her left, a slighter girl with pixie ears to her right. Among the crowd I spotted a few unadjusteds, but they hung back at the edges, their fearful expressions far different to the glee of the superbeings. Superbeings, or was it superbeings? That ninety percent who’d taken the nanite pills. I thought superfreaks was a more apt description.
“Get it down! Get it down!”
I expected to see some display of power; the bulks in a bone-breaking arm wrestle, or perhaps a gymnast, sporting colorful wings or feathers, in some death-defying stunt. The fairy threw her head back in the air and laughed. The bulk reached out a hand to a fellow football player for a high five. A boy, with long, dark hair and eight fingers on each hand, scurried around the edge of the group and darted into the gloominess of the front doors. He was the prodigal pianist; shy, weird looking, but talented on the ivories.
“Get it down! Get it down!”
The crowd grew larger as students approached the school, the chants gleeful like some out-of-control frat party. I passed the group and hesitated in the courtyard, not sure which way this situation would go.
“He’s foaming!” someone yelled.
The fairy’s hands flew to her mouth and she screamed. Her neck muscles tautened and her petite feet kicked at the air, making her ponytail bob about her shoulders – a perfect portrayal of being elegantly horror-struck. The bulks laughed and slapped each other’s backs.
I approached the group, hesitantly at first, and then more urgently as screams rippled through the crowd and turned to moans of anguish and disbelief.
“Silver!” the guard shouted. “This is not your business.”
I ignored him.
Fear licked the group with a wide, all-encompassing tongue. I fought my way to the middle of the crowd. There, on his knees, was a boy. Thick, white foam poured from his mouth. He choked on the viscous liquid, unable to suck in a breath as it clogged his airway. His eyeballs bulged under the strain and his face turned beet red. His hands clutched at his neck as though he could wrestle away the effects of the pill.
“Someone call an ambulance,” I barked at the immobile group. “Now!” I tossed my cell phone to the pixie girl and knelt so my eyes were level with the boy’s. Gripping his shoulders, I made him look at me. You’re not alone, I tried to tell him with my eyes. You will not go through this alone.
Blood began to pour from the boy’s eyeballs, ears and nose, dripping down onto his fresh, white t-shirt. He dropped sideways, falling from my grip, and his head smacked against the cement ground. The guard dug the tip of his rifle between my shoulder blades.
“We have to get an ambulance.” I pushed his weapon away. He grunted something indecipherable and gestured to the school doors. The pixie girl shouted into my cell phone, about the blood and the foam and the gurgling and the choking. But I knew it was already too late.
“What did he take?” I asked the now mute kids at the front of the group. “Which nanite pill did he take?”
“Bulk,” the fairy replied. She’d folded her wings into her back and was now standing on the ground, one foot tucked neatly behind the other.
I looked towards the dying boy as his face contorted. He’d taken the bulk nanite pill. He’d wanted to be a football player; big and strong and immortal with a permanent honey-gold tan. His body had rejected the change. It happened sometimes. He reached a hand towards me and I held it between my own. He choked out one final syllable, but I couldn’t tell what it was through the gurgling blood.
The guard grunted at me again and shoved the butt of his rifle into the small of my back. I went down on the concrete, swallowing a flash of anger. He grabbed my arm and hoisted me to my feet. I glared at the guard. What a sorry excuse for a human being. He pointed towards the school doors again. An American flag fluttered in the breeze of an electric fan. Good old US of A. Good old American Dream. Reach for the stars and all that. Well, they’d been reached for, lassoed, and wrestled back to earth, where they became the opposite of twinkling, optimistic dreams. The world was now cloaked in darkness.
Sirens pierced the air. The ambulance arrived and the two paramedics scampered to the boy’s side within seconds of parking their vehicle. But it was too late. He was dead. His bloody eyes saw nothing; not the lone black bird flapping in the bright blue sky, nor the crowd of worried students slowly shuffling backwards, towards the school. The conversations were hushed and muted, but still animated as they retold their version of events to each other. The school would be wild with the gossip by lunch. Gossip.
The guard pointed again and this time I followed him as the dead boy, his eyes now closed, was carted away.
“Thank you ever so much for escorting me to school once again. How very kind of the government to see that I arrive here safely each day.” My sarcasm was lost on the guard, but I enjoyed goading him anyway. “And of course, the help you offered that poor boy will surely be noted. I’m sure President Bear will reward your cold impassivity.”
This time a frown passed over his face. Perhaps I’d gone too far. I hurried inside the school, leaving him in the baking sun to guard the entrance in case I had the urge to enact some fanciful escape plan.
# # #
“Silver, we need to talk.” Matt crouched by my desk and placed his hand next to mine, so our fingers were just touching.
“You heard about the nanite death?” I asked.
“I did, but it’s not that.” He glanced over his shoulder as our teacher walked into the classroom and then locked his blue eyes on me. “After my robotics class?”
“Ok, lunch? Our place?” I suggested, wincing as the bell rang and scattered the chatting students to their desks.
Matt took his place at the back of the classroom and as Mrs. Flowers cleared her throat, I felt his eyes boring into me. What was so important?
The second bell rang. The teacher clapped her hands to get our attention. Her short, blonde hair was greying at the roots and a sharply cut fringe and pointed chin added to the severity of her face. She held a TV remote in her hand. It trembled.
“This Advanced Placement study period is going to be a little different,” she announced. “President Bear has a message for us. A national announcement.”
At the sound of the president’s name, I felt a twinge in my chest. The TV screen in the corner of the room came to life. I held my breath waiting for the image of the person I hated most in the world to appear on screen. And there he was. The president’s arrogant face loomed from behind his desk in the Oval Office, the Stars and Stripes hanging to his left, just to remind us about his stance; patriotism and loyalty above all else.
The lump in my throat threatened to choke me. I squeezed my eyes closed. And then he spoke.
“This is a national announcement. All unadjusteds are required to report to their local nanite facility for testing by the end of next week. Since the development of the DNA enhancing nanite pill over a decade ago, by the esteemed Dr. Melody –“ At the mention of my father’s name, my eyes snapped open. “- evidence shows these pills have enhanced our natural abilities, making us the most productive country in the world. The nanites helped us win the war against China. Unadjusteds aged sixteen and over will no longer be exempt. At the facility, each person’s status and job will be assessed to decipher which pill is the best fit. Failure to comply will resort in immediate detainment.” Today, of all days, he chose to make this announcement. It was almost as if he’d planned it that way, to make as much impact on my life as he could.
An image of my mother’s face filled the screen. An old image. From fifteen months ago, when she was arrested for treason. Because she refused to produce more nanite pills. I hadn’t seen her since. They hadn’t let me near her. I couldn’t even be sure she was still alive. Now, a cold rage flooded my veins. The pencil I was holding snapped in two. “They can’t do this,” I whispered. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me.
Mrs. Flowers thumbed the remote and the TV screen went black. A tense silence held the group breathless for a few moments.
“Can he really get away with that?” Kyle asked. He was a skinny kid, maybe a freshman. But smart enough to be in an AP study class.
There were a few sniggers. “Didn’t you just set a record?” Someone at the back of the class questioned.
“I never asked to be fast. I never asked for a speed gene,” Kyle said. “I never asked for any of it. We should take a stand. Say no!” He rose from his seat, fists clenched at his side, a thick vein throbbing in his right temple.
“Shh! You can’t say things like that,” I said.
Mrs. Flowers laid a finger across his lips. “Not here, not now.”
“I’m so sick of being stared at. Stared at because I’m fast, stared at because I’m good at something. I just want to be normal, but normal doesn’t really exist anymore, does it?” Kyle continued, unheeding.
A couple of the other kids murmured in agreement.
“It’s not our place to question the will of the president,” Mrs. Flowers said.
I risked a glance at Matt. Eyes focused on his desk, he fiddled with one of his gadgets. He didn’t look up, even when I hissed at him. I turned my head away as a dizzy spell assaulted me. I placed my head on the laminate desk, unwilling to believe this situation was really happening. I tried to breathe, but I couldn’t suck in a breath. My heart beat rapidly, and sweat drenched the small of my back. It had been so long since I’d had a panic attack.
“Silver? Are you ok?”
I lifted my head. Mrs. Flowers placed a hand on the edge of my desk. The panic washed over me. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move. All I could do was endure.
She lowered her voice. “I know this must be hard for you.”
I gave her a dismissive wave and turned my head. I didn’t want her to see the tears brimming in my eyes. That picture of my mother brought back so much. The anger I kept deeply buried just to get through each day, threatened to overwhelm me.
“I don’t want to take a pill,” another voice said, a voice quivering with fear. “I just had my sixteenth birthday. I lost both my brother’s to nanite pills. They’re not safe!” I heard a chair scrape back and Jennifer rushed from the classroom, sobbing.
“What’s the alternative?” Matt said quietly. “Get arrested? Detained? You heard the president. He speaks in euphemisms. Detained? You’d be lucky. Just look at Silver’s mother.”
I felt the eyes of everyone in the class room inspecting me. Why did he have to bring that up?
“Matt, be careful please,” Mrs. Flowers warned. “You can be detained for talking like that, too. And Dr. Melody’s situation is unique.”
Matt’s friend Brian spoke up. “What happened to freedom of speech? Freedom of expression? Just, freedom? The good ol’ days?” He scratched at untreated eczema in the crook of his elbow.
“You’ll have plenty of time to talk to your parents and your nanite reps during the course of the next two weeks,” Mrs. Flowers said.
“For most of us, it’s not really a problem.” One of the varsity football bulks stood at the back of the class, his legs spread and his arms crossed, staring intimidatingly down from his of nine-foot height. I made it a point of not remembering their names.
Matt launched himself to his feet and stormed over to the larger student, prodding a finger into his armored chest.
“Matt!” I stood, worried the bulk would flatten him with one hand, or throw him out the window, or something.
“Listen to your friend,” the bulk jutted his chin towards me. “She’s got some smarts.” He waved Matt’s finger away as if it were no more than an annoying fly.
“Kids, settle down,” Mrs. Flowers said.
Neither the bulk nor Matt moved an inch.
“Now.” Mrs. Flower’s voice turned to steel. Finally, both boys obliged.
“I really don’t see the big deal,” Freya said, twirling her mousy hair around a finger. She smiled widely and fluttered her butterfly wings. Each was three feet wide and colored like a monarch butterfly. And yes, she could actually fly. That was the point. The dress-up version little girls played, made real. “It’s really not so bad. There are some lovely choices. And if you want to be anyone at school, you just gotta have the wings.” Dimples made her smile look elfin.
Fairies. Ugh. Most cheerleaders had the wings. And most gymnasts. I didn’t want to be associated with them. Ever.
“Are there really that many unadjusteds left?” The bulk asked.
“Ten percent,” Matt replied, his lips curling. “Only ten percent of our population are unadjusted. Including myself and others in this room.”
“Won’t take long to improve you all then.” The bulk cracked his knuckles. Was that a threat?
Matt stood again, his cheeks a flaming red.
“Easy,” Mrs. Flowers warned again. “We need to be respectful of each other’s differences.”
“Not for long,” the bulk said, and laughed.
“This is an AP study class, what are you even doing here?” I couldn’t help the words; they just spilled out of my mouth. Bulks: with their armored, impenetrable skin, their unbreakable bones, their stupid bulging biceps and permanent tans. They were morons, only suited to the task of playing football and bashing their heads against each other. Morons, the lot of them.
The bulk raised an eyebrow. “I get good grades.”
“Only because you’re repeating the year. Whatever,” I muttered. I was no longer interested. I would be forced to take a nanite pill. To alter my DNA. To become something I hated. All because of my father.
“I’m not sure people should be forced to take a nanite,” Kyle said. A line of acne across his forehead brightened as he spoke.
“My dad’s cousin died when he took the bulk pill,” Freya said.
“That’s a complicated nanite,” Mrs. Flowers said. “Several enhancements rolled into one. There have been no ill effects reported by taking just one pill, and the human abilities are safe.” She sat on the window ledge of the classroom, peering down to the football field below. Some of the bulks were practising.
“So, intelligence? Strength? Telekinesis? That kind of thing?” Kyle questioned.
Mrs. Flowers nodded.
I turned back to Matt.
“Diana,” he mouthed.
I grimaced. Pain sliced through my chest. My dead friend. Dead because she took too many nanites. I missed her every day.
Jennifer, the girl who’d fled the classroom, crept quietly back in. Her eyes were red and she carried a balled tissue in her fist. “I’m not going,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “They can’t force me.”
“They can, and they will,” Matt said. “But not forever.”
“Matthew!” Mrs. Flower scolded. “Do I need to remind you where you are? President Bear demands your loyalty.”
Matt paused for a moment, eyeing the teacher carefully. “No reminder necessary.”
The bell rang and kids scurried out of the class like a herd of stampeding buffalos. Everyone except Mrs. Flower, Matt, me and Jennifer. Matt went to her and put an arm around her. “Please try not to worry. We’ll figure it out.”
She nodded, her lower lip trembling. “I don’t want to die.”
“I’m not going to let that happen,” he said, ushering her out the door. “Go be with your friends.”
Jennifer left. Mrs. Flowers approached Matt. “When are you going to stop saying such inflammatory things? I really don’t know how to get through to you.” One hand rested on a hip.
“It was hardly inflammatory.”
“You know what I mean.”
They stared at each other for a moment. Then Mrs. Flowers turned to me, breaking the stalemate. “You ok, Silver?”
I nodded. “I think so.”
“Come on, Silver, let’s go.” Matt took my elbow and hustled me out the door.
After Matt’s robotics class, we grabbed our brown paper lunches and my guitar, then settled under the shade of a sycamore tree. Sun glinted off the tarmac and mini mirage puddles dotted the car park. I removed my sandwich from the bag and laid it on my knee, taking bites between strumming the guitar. I fingered the melody of a classical Spanish number I’d taught myself some months ago. It progressed into a series of fast-paced chords and I inwardly cursed my small hands as I stretched my fingers into the G chord position.
“Am I really going to be forced to take a nanite?” I asked, the reality of President Bear’s message finally settling in.
“I’m sure your father can figure it out,” Matt said. “Well, he’s going to have to.”
I snapped my head up. “I’m a little afraid of what it is you want to tell me. Do I have to know?”
“You do,” Matt said. He brushed a strand of hair off my forehead. His blue eyes reflected the sun and shone unnaturally. He lifted my chin so I would look at him. I’d been avoiding the seriousness in his gaze.
“Can it wait until tomorrow? I have a feeling I’d like to live in ignorance a little longer.”
He shook his head, causing his unruly blond locks to flop into his eyes. “There’s no more time.”
“You’re my best friend in the entire world,” I said, my heart suddenly full of emotion. “My only friend really.”
“I know. Me too,” he said simply. “And if it weren’t for your dad taking pity on my parents when Mom was pregnant with me and fixing my brain defect…”
“Don’t pull the pity card. As a result, you have higher intelligence. You can’t complain.”
“So do you.”
“Yeah, well. I didn’t ask for it. The result of inherited self-experimentation.”
“You’d be pretty stupid without it,” Matt said, grinning. I punched his arm.
“Maybe we won’t need to take a nanite pill, if we were altered in vitro,” I said.
“Silver, we’re not going to be around to find out.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him and waited. A tremor appeared in his usually steady hands. He stared at my fingers as I plucked at the strings. A thick cloud of anticipation swirled around us. I clutched the neck of my guitar.
Matt finally turned and looked at me, his eyes steady on mine, the eyes I’d always been jealous of because they were the beautiful blue of mesmerising Caribbean seas, not the silvery grey of a January ocean I’d been born with. He blew his hair out of his face. “This is harder than I thought it was going to be.”