Katia flinched at Gaston’s freezing hand on her forehead. So much touching. Crossing boundaries. Her eyes fought against the burning beam of his handheld light. She shivered—sizzling pain rippling through every strand of her.
“Your symptoms are worse than any I’ve seen.” Gaston’s breath hit her hot in the face. “The SG ordered an addictive agent to be added to Ambrosia 8.0 over a year ago. The amounts have been tweaked along the way, so the residents have come in with various levels of addiction. But, this…This is something else.”
He leaned back to look her in the eyes. Finally, Katia exhaled. He still lingered too close, too near—invading her space and exerting control with proximity and touch.
“Katia, have you ingested any serum voluntarily? Apart from the scanner doses?”
Her face erupted in a hotter heat. Why is that any of his business? A lot of people do it. It’s not like it makes me a freak. She weighed her response. He might give me some Ambrosia if I confess. Before Katia could speak, another round of convulsions kicked in. White light flooded her mind. Her eyes rolled back to darkness, and she slumped to the bed unconscious.
Adam dosed by Katia’s side all night as she slept. Gaston surmised that she had been using. There was no other explanation for the severity of her withdrawals. Thirty-three days infected with too much serum already poisoning her system. No easing her off it. A clean break was the prescription.
Katia twitched. A strand of hair fell across her face, resting on her lashes. Her once-white hair was already darkening to her natural shade. The longer she stays, the more the fake will seep out of her. She’s only ever known life as a clone. Needs time to learn what it’s like to feel real. Just like the dye, her numbness will drain away. Emotions will come.
He chanced a touch and slid the rogue strand of hair back with the others.
Katia stirred. Adam snatched his hand away.
Her eyes snapped open. She bolted upright and scrambled against the wall. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing…just staying with you while you sleep off the withdrawal. Gaston said I should watch over you.”
Fire tainted her words as Adam swirled before her. “I don’t need watching,” she snapped.
Spinning. Why is the room spinning? She buried her face in her hands and pressed her fingers into her cheeks to feel something solid. What she needed to feel was the prick of a needle—liquid joy flooding into her.
“Adam.” She tried to focus on his eyes. “It hurts so bad. I…I can’t stand it. I need a little.”
Her slim figure drew tight against the wall. Bloodshot eyes pleaded him. Full lips quivered with pain.
“Just a little,” her voice trembled.
“Gaston says it’s too late in the Infection to give you any more. The shakes will ease by tomorrow. The pain will die down soon. Just a couple days.”
“I hurt all over! Why can’t I have a tiny hit? Why does Gaston get to decide?”
“He’s the boss when it comes to the medical stuff.” The tiny bump of her stomach caught Adam’s eye. “It’s not good. For either of you.”
She slapped her abdomen. “I can’t have any because of this damn thing?”
Katia clawed at her stomach. Adam grabbed her wrists. She struggled against his grip, glaring at him through sweaty bangs.
“If you won’t give me any, I’ll go to the closet and shoot the first thing I find. If Mom can have it, why can’t I?”
He released his hold.
“It’s not what you think. That’s not Ambrosia she’s taking.”
“What is it, then?”
“It’s not mine to tell. But her injections do not contain the addictive agent. The stuff she takes would…would…be very bad for you. Mom has to deal with things far worse than addiction.”
“I doubt that.”
His eyes shifted, back and forth as he formed a plan.
“Okay. Listen.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “I’ll sneak you some. But here’s the deal. Seven days. That’s it. A little less every day to ease you down. Then we’re done.”
“Go get it.”
In the elevator ride back up, Adam second-guessed his compromise. Gaston’s instructions were clear: no more Ambrosia. But Katia’s so distressed; she might try something stupid…If this is a stepping stone to help her through to the end, then it’s worth it.
Katia lay curled on her bed, bunched up in a ball, arms pinning her knees to her chest. Adam closed and locked the door behind him.
“This is Ambrosia 8.0. It has the least amount of agent. You’re already in your second trimester. It’s risky, but it’s the best I can do.”
Katia forced herself to sit up. If not for the hope of the syringe she would have remained a tight lump until the pain killed her dead. She lusted for the green syrup in the vial. She wanted it all. Adam retracted the plunger, filling the glass with her juicy savior.
She reached for it. Hands jerking wildly.
“Let me do it,” Adam said. “You can’t tell anyone.”
“Yes. I won’t. Please.”
She would have said anything.
Adam pushed up her sleeve. He found a fat, blue vein thumping through her skin, straining towards him. She twitched with anticipation as the cold point nibbled at her arm. Then the hot injection burned with its sweet, luscious fire.
A flood of bliss rushing through like piling on strands of real diamonds sparkling with raging light coursing through bones, exploding in colors of peaceful, gentle waves rolling. Giggling goosebumps. Floating in warmth thickened with sun and cloudless blue. Weightless.
Injection day two of seven. He shot the lesser amount of glowing green surging through the heavenly syringe. A little less feeding of the hunger. But enough.
“Can you stand?” Adam asked. “We have raid practice today. Got to be prepared in case there’s a shakedown. We start in the lab and do the mock drill I designed.”
“Okay,” Katia slurred through the fog of the Ambrosia. “Let me change and I’ll meet you down there.”
“Good. I can take the elevator,” he said with a smile.
She easily smiled back.
Once Adam and the serum vial were gone, Katia changed clothes. The lovely day demanded six necklaces. Lots of colors.
As she donned them, inspiration hit. She drifted to the exam room and selected a red crayon from the box of supplies used to draw on the walls. Back in her room, she coaxed the crimson wax into a hash-mark on the back of the door. Then a second one. Two injections down. Five to go.
She floated down the stairs, unaware of her inhales and exhales in the tight space. She drifted through the doorway, down the hall, and into the lab. Everyone greeted her. Good to see you. Glad you’re up and about. Your hair looks good. Ready to play hide-and-seek?
The three computer screens hanging on the wall sparked to life with a blue hum. A still image of the Surgeon General appeared—decked in more gold and jewels than any man’s neck should be able to support. His message of the day flashed on the screens as a deep voice narrated: ALL IS WELL. PROGRESS BEING MADE ON INFECTION. NEW AMBROSIA FORMULA IN COMING DAYS.
“If they only knew,” Nana said.
“We’ve got to crack the code first,” responded Renzo.
Rose mussed his hair. “Don’t worry. We’ll get it.”
His face tightened even further. “We’re down to fifty-five days until transmission.”
Aeiou skipped out of her playroom wearing Katia’s granny wig. “Uncle Adam, can I push the button to start the raid?”
“It’s almost time,” he answered. “I need to work out a quick adjustment for stairway girl over there.”
“Come get us when you’re ready. Katia’s gonna play with me.”
With that, she grabbed Katia’s hand and tugged her into the playroom. Aeiou showed off her things: shelves of old books Nana had given her, a tiny bed smothered in dolls, a hundred paper flowers she folded herself, a mini tea set, and a dress-up box.
“Sometimes I play with the kids up in the ward, but mostly I stay down here. I’m the only kid allowed in the lab,” she beamed. “I fill up the burnjuice for the Incen. It eats all the bad stuff and turns it back into pieces we can use. Annnd, I help Adam with the computers and Daddy with the formulas.”
The strange word sliced through Katia’s dizziness. “Daddy?”
“Yeah. Daddy. Lorenzo. Renzo. But I call him Daddy.”
“Because that’s who he is, silly! Like how Nana is Adam’s mom. But I don’t have a mom. Just a Daddy.”
Katia eased her shaking legs to the floor and picked at the coarse loops of carpet. “I don’t understand what Mom or Daddy means.”
Aeiou giggled. “Here we go again. I get to tell all the newbies.”
She settled on the floor facing Katia. Her six-year-old belly, hung heavy with Infection, rested on her little, crossed legs.
“Adam and me are Freeborns.”
Aeiou blew a strand of wig hair out of her face. “You don’t know anything do you?”
“I guess not,” Katia said.
The mist of the serum was receding, but still fuzzed-up the edge of her thoughts. Katia focused on Aeiou’s squeaky voice as she explained.
“There are clones and Freeborns. The Surgeons make the clones in crops. One crop a month. Twelve girls and twelve boys at a time. Did you know the clones are named after old hurricanes?”
Katia shook her head.
“Well, they are. But Freeborns aren’t clones, so the Moms and Daddies always give them new names. Like Adam or Aeiou. The Surgeon General calls us parasites. But Nana says he’s just mad ‘cause he doesn’t like us being born without his permission. She says we’re not fake jewels. We’re the real thing.”
Freeborns aren’t clones? “I’m still confused. Where do Freeborns come from?”
Aeiou leaned towards Katia, willing her round eyes to explain the words. “From the Moms and Daddies.”
Katia blinked. Aeiou huffed.
“Okay. There are two ways to make a Freeborn. You ready?”
Katia nodded, unsure if she wanted to know more. Her buzz was fading.
“One is the Natural Way. Do you at least know what that is?”
“I’ve heard rumors…It’s forbidden. An abomination. It always leads to disease and death.”
“Rose says that’s not true. It’s a lie the Surgeons like to say. Kissing doesn’t kill you. That’s stupid!”
“So, the Natural Way means two people kissing?”
“Mmhmm. That’s what I think.” Aeiou crossed her arms and continued with a scowl. “But none of the grownups will tell me if I’m right or not. Daddy and Rose kiss all the time. They’re not dead! But Rose never gets a Freeborn either!”
Whether it was fatal or not, kissing was just weird. Why would anybody slime another person’s lips?
“So, if the Natural Way is one way to make a Freeborn, what’s the other way?”
“Infection! That’s how Adam and me were born. Nana was infected with Adam, and Daddy was infected with me. Now I’m the first Freeborn with a 2nd Gen infection. Adam’s right behind me, but I’m gonna beat him.”
Aeiou giggled and continued, “I can’t wait! I know he’s not gonna be like my dolls. He’s gonna eat and poop. It’s gross, but I love him already. Ouch, Billabello! That almost hurt! He gets a little crazy sometimes. Wanna feel him kick?”
Katia’s nails dug into the carpet. The parasite swirled inside her stomach. The playroom began rocking. Freeborns? Adam…Aeiou…made from Infection? But, the parasites aren’t human. They’re monsters. Nasty, ugly, vicious monsters.
Adam called from the lab, “Aeiou, Katia, we’re ready.”
“Yay!” Aeiou squealed. She jumped to her feet, brushing her infected belly against Katia as she tugged. “Come on. It’s time to push the button.”
Adam stood tall and lean, giving instructions in a voice close to that of his docent impression. He talked about sliding bookcases, false walls, and mirrors. Katia only half-registered one piece of what he said—something about running up the stairs and hiding under her bed. Aeiou hit the button that made the red lights in the corners of the lab start flashing. Adam nudged Katia towards the stairs.
More red lights flashed in the stairwell. She rounded the landings and burst onto the fourth floor. A fresh headache pounded. The parasite jerked. Other residents ducked into their rooms. Doors slammed closed. Katia hit the floor and shimmied under her bed. The glass of her necklaces clinked against the tiles beneath her. Tight. Dark. Close.
She held her breath.
Images of green flesh, sharp claws, and yellow fangs lurched at her. Adam’s face whirled with the body parts belonging to monsters. Infection doesn’t really insert a parasite? Kissing makes new humans? Freeborns? Fake jewels versus real ones. I’m not real. Manufactured like a string of cut-glass beads.
Pressure hammered at her chest. She needed to breathe. Needed air. It’s crazy. Aeiou’s telling fairy tales. Doesn’t make sense. Katia’s lungs heaved, fighting to make her inhale. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. It’s too much. Trapped.
“You can come out now.”
A voice floated down to Katia. She pulled herself out of a nightmare and forced her eyes open. Adam knelt next to her bed, peeking beneath it with a toothy grin. She jumped, slamming the back of her head into the underside of the bedsprings.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Adam said. “You alright?”
“Yeah.” Her head throbbed. “No…”
He extended his hand. “Let me help you out.”
“No!” she yelled, then softened her tone. “I’ve got it. Just…just give me some space.”
His face disappeared and then his shoes shuffled away. Katia slid out and crawled onto her mattress. She stared at the crumpled pillow as she wrestled the blanket around herself. She kept her back to Adam, feeling the burn of his monstrous eyes.
“You feeling okay?” he asked. A monster’s claw stroked her shoulder. “Need me to get Gaston?”
She jerked from his touch. “I’m fine. I need rest.”
“Okay…The drill went off without a hitch. If a raid happens, we’ll be ready.”
Katia clenched her jaw. Nothing to say. Not to a talking parasite.
“If you’re feeling up to it tomorrow, I was thinking of training you to help me do the Ilythia runs. I’m gonna need someone to step in once my stomach gets too big.”
“Do you want to? It’ll get you out of the building.”
“Sure,” she managed.
Adam left quietly. Leaving Katia alone with a wrenching gut.