I also see others. They stop and watch us, and I can’t help staring in turn. Like Thunder and Ragweed, many of these people have famous faces. I see Meryl Streep, Gandhi, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Princess Diana. It’s just too weird. Awesome but weird. My clone theory is starting to feel more and more plausible.
The path leading to the building we are going to starts blinking blue. How they get cement to turn color is another neat trick, but considering what I’ve seen already, it’s almost hardly worth noting. The blinking lights flash more rapidly and turn into arrows, and it’s apparent that this is the pathway we are meant to take. I don’t love being told so explicitly what to do, but I figure this is the fastest way to find out if Ezra is here, so I stay on the path.
We arrive shortly at the entrance and two massive glass doors slide open. I center myself to steady my heart. I have no idea what these people are or what they want from us. I have just injured—more than likely killed—one of their own, so that’s going to play into this equation. On top of that, if Ezra even showed up here, would they tell me? And how will I find him if they won’t? It’s a mix of frustration, fear, and curiosity coursing through me as I walk through the doors.
Once we step inside there are more famous people sprinkled among others I don’t recognize. I notice they are dressed more for comfort than fashion, but there is a certain element of minimalist chic going on. Everyone is wearing loose-fitting cotton or linen clothing. Some of the women wear leggings with long tunics past their knees, almost like traditional Indian dress, but without the vibrant colors. In fact, all the colors are muted: grays, blacks, ivories, and rusts with more browns than reds. The people move silently around us, staring with unabashed moon-eyed curiosity, and it’s unsettling, so I take in my surroundings instead.
The ceilings are incredibly high, at least three stories with long pendulous lights that hang down from the ceiling like necklaces. There are elevators, but we veer away from them and end up at a frosted glass door that slides open with our approach. Inside this room is a man who I don’t recognize and a woman who is Tilda Swinton because of course Tilda Swinton would be here.
Thunder stays at the door, and any trace of his earlier goodwill has dissipated. In a way, I almost find this more imposing version of him comforting. It’s kind of how I expect Jason Momoa would actually be. In the middle of the room is an ivory-colored reclining chair and there is a bunch of equipment lined up on a tray that is hovering a few inches above the ground. I have a sinking feeling I know where this is going. I glance at Levi, who has focused all his attention on the man seated on a low stool by the chair. If I were that man I would be very worried right now. But he does not seem worried at all. His unremarkable face is open and gentle. His posture, though straight, is not rigid.
“My name is Feather,” he opens with quiet confidence. “I am the head of the biomed division here. I understand that you do not want to be touched, but if you will allow me, I can repair your eye in less than ten seconds. Please?” He asks kindly. My eye. It must still be bruised from when Levi hit me on the island. It has been throbbing, a dull ache that I have ignored and, admittedly, my vision hasn’t been 100 percent. There is more than a good chance that he actually fractured my orbital bone or even my maxilla.
I look to the chair and then back again at the man who I suppose is a doctor, or something like it. “How would you fix this?” I ask skeptically.
“We have a patch. It has the ability to instantly heal damaged tissue. It is painless and I promise to apply it only to your eye.” A Band-Aid that can heal cuts and bruises instantly? That’s the kind of thing a Citadel could really use—the kind of thing that would stop our parents from worrying about our time at all those fake martial arts classes ARC says is a mandatory part of the curriculum but which is of course just a cover-up for the injuries we sustain.
“And it is not just your eye. The initial scan our drone sent back before you shot it down revealed that you both were exposed to a dangerous level of radiation. I could fix that as well, but it would require cooperation on your part.”
“Radiation?” asks Levi cuttingly.
“The microwave Earth,” I remind him. I assumed we had just been burnt, but of course there was bound to be more than just toxins in the atmosphere. These people found it with a blinking light. We don’t have anything like that sort of tech, and now it seems like my earlier paranoia about our lack of technological advancement wasn’t paranoia after all. I think these people probably have a lot of things that would help us, save us even.
“I didn’t notice it before,” I say to Feather calmly. “We were outside. There was a helicopter over our heads. You all look like famous people, except for you. I don’t know who you are,” I tell the man honestly. “But that,” I say, pointing to the woman who is silently standing behind him, “is Tilda Swinton with silver eyes, so I’ve been distracted, but not here. Not now. The thing is, you don’t have a heartbeat. Your chest moves up and down and you blink, but you don’t have a heartbeat.”
Feather looks past me. He is doing that same zoning-out thing that I watched the others do. He quickly shifts his eyes to me after almost twenty seconds and says, “I do not have a heartbeat, but that does not mean I do not want to help you. I promise, I would never hurt you. None of us would ever hurt you. It goes against our very nature. And our nature does not change. Ever. It is why Ragweed did not fight back. He did not even struggle, because he might have accidentally harmed you if he had done so.”
“We’re looking for a friend,” I try, but Feather holds up a single hand.
“Please. I do not want to appear disagreeable. I am not authorized to answer any of your questions. My only job here is to make sure that you are healthy. I am asking that you let me do my job.”
“I think you should let him, Ryn. I think they really can help us and they did let us keep our weapons.” I curl my lip up and throw him an incredulous gaze. Why is he talking like that? Is he trying to good cop/bad cop this situation? Because I may have already killed one of them, so the jig is up on that front. It doesn’t matter how much ass he kisses or how official he tries to sound; they probably won’t see us as anything more than teenage crazies.
“Look, I’ll go first.” And before I can do anything Levi has his pack off and is sliding onto the chair. He unclips his rifle and holds his hand out. “Here. Take it,” he tells me.
“Well, they aren’t clones or zombies. So, this means that this must be some sort of Westworld Earth, and how shocking that you would be so down with that.”
“We don’t know anything yet except for the fact that we’ve been exposed to radiation, which I believe because I don’t feel all that great. Do you?”
I swallow hard and push my thumbnail into the pad of my index finger. I don’t have a clue how I feel. There’s my eye. And Tilda Swinton. And the rocket boots. I guess now that I’m thinking about it, I suppose I do feel a bit hot and disoriented, but isn’t that more likely an indicator of our present circumstance than radiation? To Levi’s point, though, I can’t be sure.
“Fine,” I say, grabbing hold of his gun and stepping back.
“Thank you. Your name is Levi, I believe? Now, in order to neutralize the radiation, I am going to have to take a sample of your blood. My colleague Shrine will create an effective treatment once we know the precise levels of toxicity in your body.”
“That’s fine, but only you are allowed to have any contact with me. She can’t touch me.” Whoa, I’m surprised and impressed. Levi must think Tilda’s a bit sexy (quite frankly so do I, and I’m not even into women). He’s ensuring the Blood Lust won’t kick in.
“It is only me. Shrine is the head of our chemistry division. She is here only to create a compound agent,” Feather assures him.
“Okay, go ahead.” Feather gracefully picks up a metal tube with the tiniest of needles on the end. He sticks it quickly inside the crease of Levi’s arm, into his vein. I can see there is a clear window in the tube and in maybe two or three seconds a large portion of blood has been taken, almost like a vacuum.
“That is the first part done. Normally I would not activate the holo-sets, but in the spirit of transparency you should see exactly what I am seeing.” Feather plugs the metal tube into what looks almost like an electronic tablet but thinner. We don’t have to wait long. It takes less than a minute for the images to pop up, seemingly out of nowhere. The first thing we see is something that looks like different lines of tape with varying thicknesses, hovering in midair. Then behind Levi, and slightly above his head, another Levi appears … naked.
Feather examines the image. I don’t know where to look. I’m a soldier. Nudity isn’t an issue for me, but it’s kind of like I’m staring at a naked photo of Levi, which feels weird and icky. Feather notices the wound from the beach right away. “I see there is tissue damage here. Would you allow me to repair it with one of our biopatches?”
“Sure,” Levi says indifferently. He had glanced at the image when it first went up. He’s well aware that his naked bod is floating right before my eyes. If he’s embarrassed, he sure isn’t letting me know. I look down at my boots. I hear paper ripping. I don’t need to see exactly what’s going on. It’s not like Levi can’t handle himself if things suddenly go sideways.
I look up when I notice Feather’s hands rapidly touch the projection. With two fingers he plucks at the naked holographic form. Levi’s skin is removed so that now the image displays his musculature only. Again, Feather picks at the body and the muscles are taken away, leaving only bones and organs. After a cursory examination of those, Feather dismisses them with a short flick and a turn of his wrist until all that remains is Levi’s skeleton and circulatory system. Feather sticks one hand in and opens his palm until we are actually inside Levi’s blood stream. And then, with two flat hands, Feather enhances the image so that we can see the cells themselves. I suppose with who I am and everything I’ve experienced I should be past surprise.
I am not past this.
Air gets trapped in my throat as I bring my hand to my mouth. Levi is staring at the display, but then he looks at me and I know we are thinking the same thing. How did we even get here? There is a sudden weight to this room. It is thick and heavy with all the things we should be doing. Parties and part-time jobs, football games and essays. We can’t unsee this. We can’t have normal. I accepted that long ago. We weren’t like other kids before, but now, after this trip, we won’t even be like the other Citadels.
“Display toxins,” Feather says with quiet authority. And there again, hovering in the air, a list of words comes online. Ammonia, sulfur dioxide, lead, mercury—the list keeps scrolling. I think a lot of this stuff we were exposed to on our Earth. And some words I just don’t know. I look past the words, to the strange strips running almost around the room like a news ticker. Oh shit. Of course I know what this is.
“You’ve sequenced our DNA.” It’s not really a question, more of a statement. Check our blood, okay, but this veers dangerously close to crossing a line.
“It was necessary, for an accurate holo-projection.” I stare at the black marks as certain lines begin to ping and flash in different colors. Feather stares at them. I stare at Feather. These angry, perfect lines. These unnatural stretches of biology, pocked and darkened like craters on the moon. I don’t want to see it. I fight the urge to look away, but I stand firm.
This is who we are.
“Your DNA has been altered,” Feather says to Levi. There is a melancholic tone to his voice. It’s almost as if seeing this hurts him. But we knew our genes had been messed with, so it’s not really news to us. “You are not even entirely human.”
That, however, is news.
“What?” Levi and I both say at once.
“Your DNA has been spliced with other species. Not all of it, obviously, but here,” he says, pointing to one of the red flashing parts. “And again here.” His long finger gestures to another line, this one a bluish purple, like a bruise. “I cannot even say what species resides in your genome. It does not exist here on this Earth.”
Not entirely human. What have they done to us? What does that even mean? There is too much information buzzing around in my head. I need to process this, alone, with Levi. I don’t like the idea that these people have figured something out about us that we ourselves didn’t know, and I certainly don’t want to let on that I was in the dark about my genetic alterations, at least right now. It will make me appear ignorant, weak.
“You can still fix the damage done by the radiation, though?” I ask deliberately. If Feather isn’t going to answer any of our questions, then I am not going to answer for this.
“Yes. Ryn, would you please change places with Levi?” Levi hops off the reclined chair and I slip onto it. It isn’t leather, because it doesn’t smell like leather, but it is certainly one of the best imitations of it that I’ve ever seen. “You will allow me to fix your eye, please?” I just nod my head and Feather opens a paper package and holds up a tissue-thin piece of material. It is cool to the touch and slightly wet when he puts it on my bruise. After a few seconds he removes it, and sure enough, even without touching it, I can tell that whatever swelling was there has gone because my vision is better.
“You can go ahead and take my blood, too,” I offer, knowing that I will need a neutralizing agent that differs from Levi’s because we’re bound to have different levels of toxins in our cells. I push up the sleeve of my uniform and watch diligently as he takes the blood painlessly. Again, he plugs the silver tube into the tablet and in a matter of seconds the holo-projectors begin to work.
I am well aware that Levi can see a naked version of me, but I notice that he doesn’t stare. He finds another place for his eyes to focus on, which is a relief. I already feel too exposed. It took me years to accept and adapt to what my body could do. And now there’s this.
Not entirely human …
Keeping my face deliberately passive, I think about Edo. She’s a liar. She might be under ARC’s control, but she kept this from me. So, what are we? Part Karekin? Dinosaur? Maribeh? We could be a hundred different species. There’s also a good chance that not even ARC knows the truth of it.
Feather wastes no time in plucking the skin and musculature off my holographic form. I catch Levi’s eye. I wonder what he thinks about all this. He has put our rifles in the corner with our packs. He is standing with his arms folded, his brows knitted together, and his full lips stolen by a thin-lined grimace. For just a split second, all this fades away and it is only the two of us. The two Citadels who know the truth behind our strength and speed. We are as alone as we had been back on that deserted island. I almost want to reach out for him, just to steady me, to hold me fast to where we are, but that would be inappropriate and would likely trigger the Blood Lust. Instead, I bring my fist up to my heart and push down, hoping there will be some kind of comfort in the pressure.
“Ahh. Yes. There. Your orbital socket has a small hairline fracture. We do not have anything that can repair this quickly, but I will assign one of my colleagues to look into it.”