Katia drew the third red mark on the back of her door. Four to go. She entered the commons. Adam, already dressed for the Ilythia run, disappeared behind the sliding elevator door. She raced down the stairs, ducked into the playroom, and grabbed the wig and cane from Aeiou’s dress-up box. In the lab, she spied Lorenzo giving Nana another injection. Katia strolled to the reception area, wondering what those injections contained.
On the voyeur side of the one-way glass, Adam watched Katia adjust her scarf. She practiced her old lady impression in the mirror: raising her eyebrows to wrinkle her forehead, drooping her mouth, and making her head tremor like age had filled her with tics. Adam grinned at her goofiness and joined her in the foyer. He pushed open the door, and they plunged into the sunlight.
Room to breathe.
“Here,” he said, dropping a tiny, wet capsule into her hand. His eyes sparkled. “It’s an earbug. Renzo and I designed ‘em. They’re bio-degradable, bio-technology. They work for about an hour, then dissolve completely. You put it in your ear. Like this.” He slipped his in. “We can talk to each other over a series of dedicated frequencies that oscillate every three seconds. There’s a receiver in the lab, so anything we say broadcasts over the wavelength in there, too. In case there’s trouble.”
Katia rolled the slippery little bead around in her palm. She pinched it, tilted her head like Adam had done, and dropped it in. The pellet slid downward, tickling the fine hairs within her ear. It wriggled like a fat, writhing maggot.
Katia freaked. She smacked her hand against her head trying to dislodge the earbug, but the harder she hit, the deeper the squirming thing burrowed. A ringing rang through her skull as the bio-gadget latched onto her ear drum.
Adam whispered in her head.
“The first time it slides in is always the weirdest.”
Can you hear me? she mentally asked back.
No answer. She looked at Adam. “Mine’s not working.”
“Mine is,” he said aloud. His words surrounded her both inside and out. “I can hear you loud and clear.”
“Oh! We have to actually talk? Like move our lips and make sound?”
Adam stared at her, incredulous. “It’s not telepathy, genius. It works on vibrations.”
She followed him through the maze of buildings and alleys, slipping into humpback character when they stepped within view of the cameras. She tried to keep track of the turns as they went. They snaked their way towards the Fortress in the center of the city. The complex had begun as an urban center with towering skyscrapers. Over time, construction filled in the gaps between the buildings with more walls and windows. Now, it was a single secure monolith of steel, brick, and glass spanning ten square blocks. The center of the Commonwealth. The brain. The hub. The seat of control.
To maintain that control, the first Surgeon Generals had banned rural living. Everyone was ordered to move into the cities for the Common Good. The leaders’ goals included the elimination of commuting and streamlining the dissemination of goods and services. Why should there be multiple grocers, banks, and barbers spread out in different communities? A centralized model made more economical and ecological sense. Dissenters were forced to either comply or be declared enemies of the Common Good. The enemies didn’t live long.
Adam turned down a side street. Katia heard him in her head.
“Cross the intersection. Turn left and head to the end of the block. You’ll see a bench perfect for an old lady like you. Should give you a good sightline to the door.”
“Gotcha,” she mumbled. “Will do, whippersnapper.”
“I’m gonna sit on the stoop one building over. The appointment is set for noon. Keep watch on the door. Look for body language: paranoia, fidgeting, someone hiding a belly.”
“What if I see someone?” she asked. “Stop ‘em from getting tagged?”
“No!” His voice rattled her head. “Just watch. Don’t do anything. The only way I want you to get involved is if Doctors show up. Then, only engage if you’re positive you can take them out. Got me?”
“Yeah, I got you.”
Katia leaned her cane against the bench and made a good show of easing down like it hurt her brittle, old bones. She fingered the cold steel of the gun at her polyester waistband. She had never shot a weapon before—never even held one until that morning. Please, don’t test me to see if I can use it. Let it be a smooth run.
A dolled-up woman in a shimmering red dress approached the GeneTag scanner. The parasite—no, the baby—fluttered in Katia’s stomach. Or maybe it was just nerves. The woman looked infected to Katia. The needle extended, and Katia inched forward on the bench, ready to spring. The green light illuminated. Clean. The lady entered the building without a fuss.
They waited thirty more minutes. Twenty past the appointment. Adam’s voice broke the silence in Katia’s head.
“Looks like another bust. Let’s head back. You go ahead. See if you can find the way.”
“Adam, I paid attention, but I’m not sure if I can. The last few turns—”
“I’ll be right behind you. And in your head.”
She looked for landmarks. Right at the lamppost with the e-flyer touting the upcoming Bicentennial. Left at the disheveled storefront on the corner. Broken glass on its north-facing window. She shimmied down an alley. It seemed familiar, but all the rat-infested corridors looked the same. She exited at the next block. Nothing looked right. She’d never been on that street before.
“Adam, I’m lost. Which way?”
“Adam?” Why isn’t he answering? “Quit messing around.”
No response. Only her own heartbeat thumping in her head.
A pair of Doctors rounded the next block. Their gold Doe badges reflected the sun. Katia froze. Stuck. Heading this way. What do I do? What do I do?
A hand covered her mouth. A second arm wrapped around her ribs and snatched her back into the shadow of the alley. She thrashed, throwing elbows as the assailant dragged her into an alcove. Nestled in the nook, he gripped her tightly against him.
“Shhh,” Adam whispered in her ear. “Be still.”
The footsteps grew louder as the Doctors stepped closer. The heat of Adam’s body throbbed against her. The bulge of his belly pressed into her back. His hot breath steamed her neck. How can he breathe at a time like this?
The footsteps stopped.
“Do you see her?” one of the Doctor’s asked the other. “Your imaginary granny? The ghost of the old hag you hauled to the Euthanasia Center yesterday?”
“I’m telling you, there was an old lady standing right here! She looked stupid, confused, and lost.”
“Riiight,” the first one teased. “Just like when you saw that Chief of Staff taking a leisurely stroll without a scrap of gold on?”
“That really happened, asshole. Never mind. Let’s keep moving. I’m hankering for a chewbar. Maybe a hit of Ambrosia.”
“Now, you’re making some sense.”
Their footsteps faded. Adam pushed Katia back down the alley and into the door she had missed. Once they were safely inside, she inhaled the moldy air.
“Why didn’t you answer me, Adam?”
“I told you, the earbugs dissolve within an hour. I was right behind you, hoping you’d turn around, figure it out. Then I saw you hold your breath and knew something was up.”
She recognized the décor and set off towards the opposite end of the building.
“At least the costume worked,” she said. “They were looking for a decrepit old lady instead of an infected girl.”
“That’s true,” Adam said. “I’ve got runs scheduled for the next three days if you want to try again.”
“Why not?” She hung a left at the last hallway. “Feels good to get out.”
Katia paused at the rear door, cracked it open, and peeked out. The sunlight filtered through her hair, tracing the edge of her profile like a gold-trimmed cloud.
“All clear,” she said.
She stepped out. Adam followed.
In the confines of the courtyard outside the safehouse, Katia removed her prevention mask. “I’ve wanted to ask you,” she began. “Why does Nana test every day? I mean, she’s a Chief. And it’s not like she’s out running the streets where she could get tagged.”
Adam lay in the grass. Katia sat beside him, staring up at the square patch of sky.
“She has to test because she’s a Chief. She’s crucial to what we’re doing here. Without her, it all falls apart. Helene and the SG call her in for random, impromptu meetings. It wouldn’t be good for her to step up to the Fortress scanner and have it be like: Infection Detected! Infection Detected!”
“What’s the injection Renzo gives her when it’s a red light? You said it’s not Ambrosia. So what is it?”
Adam uprooted a patch of clovers and tossed them into the air. “Something Mom has to deal with, okay?”
His cryptic response wasn’t enough. Katia needed more. Too many questions flitted around unanswered. She pushed.
“You know if you just tell me what the hell it is, I’ll leave you alone about it.”
Adam stood, brushing off the dead grass clinging to his trench. “If you want to know so much about Mom—ask her yourself.” He mounted the steps and placed his fingers on the sensors. “I put you in the system. Come in when you’re done asking nosy questions.”
The next day’s run was another bust. No one showed. The new detection system killed the pick-up rate. The newly infected never had a chance. Doctors were hauling them off before they could track down the fabled Ilythia. Adam’s lips stayed clamped shut all day. His eyes didn’t sparkle once.
Katia cut a fifth slash diagonally across the first four. She jumped at a knock on her door.
“Good morning!” Gaston said. “I wanted to check on you. See how you’re doing.”
“I’m good,” she answered. “Been doing runs with Adam.”
“He says you’re picking up on things rather quickly. He doesn’t brag on others nearly as often as himself, so that’s a lot.”
Gaston smiled a big toothy grin. He wasn’t so scary when he wasn’t wielding a long-ass needle like a sword. Katia didn’t know what else to say, so she waited for him to speak again.
“Everything okay? Any shakes? Itching? Pains? Nightmares?”
His eye twitched. Suspicion brewed beneath his grin.
“It’s strange…You had the worst case of addiction and withdrawal, but have stabilized rather quickly. Faster than I’ve ever seen.”
The parasite-baby-thing jerked in her stomach. “It’s probably because Adam’s keeping me busy.”
Gaston’s expression changed.
“Are you feeling internal changes?” he asked. “New sensations or—how can I word it…Odd motivations?”
Katia blinked at him.
Gaston laughed. “Maybe that isn’t happening yet. Don’t be surprised when it begins. Strange thoughts and compulsions will bubble up inside you. They’re called feelings. Fear is about the only one the Ambrosia doesn’t kill. If you get overwhelmed, we’re all here to help you through it. Adam is indeed taking very good care of you. I’ve never seen him this attached to a resident before. Not even Nicholas.”
Katia couldn’t decipher any of what he was saying. “Ummm, Adam’s waiting for me in the lab.”
While Katia and Adam studied a map of the day’s run, the Surgeon General’s face popped up on the screen: “ALL IS WELL. 50 DAYS TO THE BICENTENNIAL CELEBRATION OF THE INSTITUTION OF THE COMMON GOOD. GET READY.”
Lorenzo looked up from the helixes, computations, and codes scrolling at breakneck speed on his computer screen. “Please keep reminding us of the blasted deadline,” he grumbled.
“Is it not going well?” Adam asked.
“Not at all. Rose has yet to make her breakthrough. The deadline is two days after the Bicentennial. Fifty-two days from now. I’d rather stab my eye with a scalpel than hear another one of the SG’s reminders.”
“You guys’ll figure it out. You always do.”
Katia studied Renzo’s screen. “What exactly has you guys stumped?” she asked.
Renzo blanked out the images. Once the screen reverted to mirror, the reflection of his bloodshot eyes darted towards Adam.
“It’s okay,” Adam said. “Go ahead. Tell her.”
“Everything?” Renzo asked.
“Yes, Renzo. The whole thing.”
The scientist took a sip of water and leaned back in his chair. “We design the chemical codes for the Ambrosia serums. Early on, we had to send the recipe to a production facility in Commonwealth 23. Now, we transmit the code directly to each of the scanners worldwide.” He pointed to a small machine on the worktable. “Each scanner is outfitted with a synthesizer like that one. It produces the Ambrosia using raw compounds stored within each unit.”
“That was my idea,” Adam beamed.
Renzo chuckled. “The change made the dissemination much easier for the Surgeons. Plus, it presented us with an opportunity. Since we transmit the code directly from here, without a quality assurance check…”
“What do you mean?” Katia asked. “Why does that matter?”
“Because,” Renzo started. He paused.
“Go on,” Adam prodded. “She’s one of us now.”
“It matters because the SG expects the transmission of Ambrosia 9.0 to contain a new additive which will lie dormant in the bloodstream. If an Infection occurs, the additive will be activated. Once triggered, the compound will rupture the virus’s protective sac in the appendix. Its purpose is to eradicate.”
Adam clarified Renzo’s words. “The additive will destroy the baby before it ever forms. The Surgeons want to remove the pregnancies from the equation so they can regain total control over the creation of new life.”
Katia thought through the implications. So, no more Infections. No more Freeborns: no Aeious, or Billabellos, or Adams.
“But,” Renzo continued, “Rose had an inspiration. What if we replaced the preemptive additive with an additive of our own? One that—instead of giving the Surgeons more control—actually rips that power away from them.”
Katia scrunched her face. “I don’t understand how an additive to the serum can take away the Surgeons’ power?”
Mischievousness erupted on Adam’s face. He leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head. “We’re trying to insert the virus into the Ambrosia. Imagine it: every man, woman, and child on the planet stepping up to a GeneTag scanner to enter work, school, or even an Infection Prevention Center. The needles pop out, but instead of destroying any Infections, the scanners actually insert the virus. They cause Infection in everyone regardless of who they are: Surgeon Generals, Chiefs, Doctors, Candystripers included. Ten billion pregnancies erupting worldwide—doubling the population—in a single day.”
Katia’s mind fought to comprehend the scope of Adam’s statement. Everyone infected at once? All those unsuspecting people suddenly host to parasite-babies? All those lives changed in an instant.
Adam leaned forward. “So, what do you think? That’s definitely gonna cause the leaders to perk up, right?”
“It’s definitely gonna cause something.”