“Keep your eyes open, Ella. Now’s not the time to fall asleep.”
Even then, in that painful, terrifying moment, the words sound familiar. Strange and familiar. I can’t figure out why.
“Before we make any concrete plans to keep you here, I need to make sure”—she tugs on a pair of latex gloves—“that you’re still viable. See how you’ve held up after all these years.”
Her words send waves of dread coursing through me.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
I’m still no more than a receptacle. My body exchanges hands exchanges hands in exchange for what
My mother has no love for me.
What has she done to my sister.
“Where is Emmaline?” I try to scream, but the words don’t leave my mouth. They expand in my head, explosive and angry, pressing against the ridges of my mind even as my lips refuse to obey me.
The word occurs to me suddenly, as if it were something I’ve just remembered, the answer to a question I forgot existed.
I don’t comprehend it.
Evie is standing in front of me again.
She touches my hair, sifts through the short, coarse strands like she might be panning for gold. The physical contact is excruciating.
“Unacceptable,” she says. “This is unacceptable.”
She turns away, makes notes in a tablet she pulls out of her lab coat. Roughly, she takes my chin in her hand, lifts my face toward hers.
Evie counts my teeth. Runs the tip of one finger along my gums. She examines the insides of my cheeks, the underside of my tongue. Satisfied, she rips off the gloves, the latex making harsh snapping sounds that collide and echo, shattering the air around me.
A mechanical purr fills my ears and I realize Evie is adjusting my chair. I was previously in a reclining position, now I’m flat on my back. She takes a pair of shears to my clothes, cutting straight through my pants, my shirt, my sleeves.
Fear threatens to rip my chest open, but I only lie there, a perfect vegetable, as she strips me down.
Finally, Evie steps back.
I can’t see what’s happening. The hum of an engine builds into a roar. Sounds like scissors, slicing the air. And then: Sheets of glass materialize at the edges of my vision, move toward me from all sides. They lock into place easily, seams sealing shut with a cool click sound.
I’m being burned alive.
Heat like I’ve never known it, fire I can’t see or stop. I don’t know how it’s happening but I feel it. I smell it. The scent of charred flesh fills my nose, threatens to upend the contents of my stomach. The top layer of skin is being slowly singed off my body. Blood beads along my body like morning dew, and a fine mist follows the heat, cleansing and cooling. Steam fogs up the glass around me and then, just when I think I might die from the pain, the glass fissures open with a sudden gasp.
I wish she would just kill me.
Instead, Evie is meticulous. She catalogs my every physical detail, making notes, constantly, in her pocket tablet. For the most part, she seems frustrated with her assessment. My arms and legs are too weak, she says. My shoulders too tense, my hair too short, my hands too scarred, my nails too chipped, my lips too chapped, my torso too long.
“We made you too beautiful,” she says, shaking her head at my naked body. She prods at my hips, the balls of my feet. “Beauty can be a terrifying weapon, if you know how to wield it. But all this seems deeply unnecessary now.” She makes another note.
When she looks at me again, she looks thoughtful.
“I gave this to you,” she says. “Do you understand? This container you live in. I grew it, shaped it. You belong to me. Your life belongs to me. It’s very important that you understand that.”
Rage, sharp and hot, sears through my chest.
Carefully, Evie cracks open the silver box. Inside are dozens of slim glass cylinders. “Do you know what these are?” she says, lifting a few vials of shimmering, white liquid. “Of course you don’t.”
Evie studies me awhile.
“We did it wrong the first time,” she finally says. “We didn’t expect emotional health to supersede the physical in such dramatic fashion. We expected stronger minds, from both you. Of course—” Evie hesitates. “She was the superior specimen, your sister. Infinitely superior. You were always a bit doe-eyed as a child. A little moonier than I’d have liked. Emmaline, on the other hand, was pure fire. We never dreamed she’d deteriorate so quickly. Her failures have been a great personal disappointment.”
I inhale sharply and choke on something hot and wet in my throat. Blood. So much blood.
“But then,” Evie says with a sigh, “such is the situation. We must be adaptable to the unexpected. Amenable to change when necessary.”
Evie hits a switch and something seizes inside of me. I feel my spine straighten, my jaw go slack. Blood is now bubbling up my throat in earnest, and I don’t know whether to let it up or swallow it down. I cough, violently, and blood spatters across my face. My arms. Drips down my chest, my fresh pink skin.
My mother drops into a crouch. She takes my chin in her hand and forces me to look at her. “You are far too full of emotion,” she says softly. “You feel too much for this world. You call people your friends. You imagine yourself in love.” She shakes her head slowly. “That was never the plan for you, little bird. You were meant for a solitary existence. We put you in isolation on purpose.” She blinks. “Do you understand?”
I’m hardly breathing. My tongue feels rough and heavy, foreign in my mouth. I swallow my own blood and it’s revolting, thick and lukewarm, gelatinous with saliva.
“If Aaron were anyone else’s son,” she says, “I would’ve had him executed. I’d have him executed right now, if I could. Unfortunately, I alone do not have the authority.”
A force of feeling seizes my body.
I’m half horror, half joy. I didn’t know I had any hope left that Warner was alive until just this moment.
The feeling is explosive.
It takes root inside of me. Hope catches fire in my blood, a feeling more powerful than these drugs, more powerful than myself. I cling to it with my whole heart, and, suddenly, I’m able to feel my hands. I don’t know why or how but I feel a quiet strength surge up my spine.
Evie doesn’t notice.
“I regret our mistakes,” she’s saying. “I regret the oversights that seem so obvious now. We couldn’t have known so many years ago that things would turn out like this. We didn’t expect to be blindsided by something so flimsy as your emotions. We couldn’t have known, at the onset, that things would escalate in this way.
“Paris,” she says, “had convinced everyone that bringing you on base in Sector 45 would be beneficial to us all, that he’d be able to monitor you in a new environment rife with experiences that would motivate your powers to evolve. Your father and I thought it was a stupid plan, stupider still for placing you under the direct supervision of a nineteen-year-old boy with whom your history was . . . complicated.” She looks away. Shakes her head. “But Anderson delivered results. With Aaron you made progress at a rate we’d only dreamed of, and we were forced to let it be. Still,” she says. “It backfired.”
Her eyes linger, for a moment, on my shaved head.
“There are few people, even in our inner circle, who really understand what we’re doing here. Your father understands. Ibrahim understands. But Paris, for security reasons, was never told everything about you. He wasn’t yet a supreme commander when we gave him the job, and we decided to keep him informed on a need-to-know basis. Another mistake,” Evie says, her voice both sad and terrifying.
She presses the back of her hand to her forehead.
“Six months and everything falls apart. You run away. You join some ridiculous gang. You drag Aaron into all of this and Paris, the oblivious fool, tries to kill you. Twice. I nearly slit his throat for his idiocy, but my mercy may as well have been for nothing, what with your attempt to murder him. Oh, Ella,” she says, and sighs. “You’ve caused me a great deal of trouble this year. The paperwork alone.” She closes her eyes. “I’ve had the same splitting headache for six months.”
She opens her eyes. Looks at me for a long time.
“And now,” she says, gesturing at me with the tablet in her hand, “there’s this. Emmaline needs to be replaced, and we’re not even sure you’re a suitable substitute. Your body is operating at maybe sixty-five percent efficiency, and your mind is a complete disaster.” She stops. A vein jumps in her forehead. “Perhaps it’s impossible for you to understand how I’m feeling right now. Perhaps you don’t care to know the depth of my disappointments. But you and Emmaline are my life’s work. I was the one who found a way to isolate the gene that was causing widespread transformations in the population. I was the one who managed to re-create the transformation. I was the one who rewrote your genetic code.” She frowns at me, looking, for the first time, like a real person. Her voice softens. “I remade you, Ella. You and your sister were the greatest accomplishments of my career. Your failures,” she whispers, touching the tips of her fingers to my face, “are my failures.”