“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.”
I make a harsh, involuntary sound.
She stands up. “This is going to be uncomfortable for you. I won’t pretend otherwise. But I’m afraid we have no choice. If this is going to work, I’ll need you to have a healthy, unpolluted headspace. We have to start fresh. When we’re done, you won’t remember anything but what I tell you to remember. Do you understand?”
My heart picks up and I hear its wild, erratic beats amplified on a nearby monitor. The sounds echo around the room like a siren.
“Your temperature is spiking,” Evie says sharply. “There’s no need to panic. This is the merciful option. Paris is still clamoring to have you killed, after all. But Paris”—she hesitates—“Paris can be melodramatic. We’ve all known how much he’s hated you for your effect on Aaron. He blames you, you know.” Evie tilts her head at me. “He thinks you’re part of the reason Aaron is so weak. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if he’s right.”
My heart is beating too fast now. My lungs feel fit to burst. The bright lights above my head bleed into my eyes, into my brain—
“Now. I’m going to download this information”—I hear her tap the silver box—“directly into your mind. It’s a lot of data to process, and your body will need some time to accept it all.” A long pause. “Your mind might try to reject this, but it’s up to you to let things take their course, do you understand? We don’t want to risk splicing the past and present. It’s only painful in the first few hours, but if you can survive those first hours, your pain receptors will begin to fail, and the rest of the data should upload without incident.”