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Treason, betrayal, and heartbreak.
A lot can happen to a girl between her first kiss and her first kill.
It’s 100 years since the Genetic Integrity Act was passed and America closed its borders to prevent genetic contamination. Now only the enemy, dysgenic Deviants, remain beyond the heavily guarded border. The Department of Evolution carefully guides the creation of each generation and deviations from the divine plan are not permitted.
When 16-year-old Jess begins to show signs of deviance she enlists in the Special Forces, with her best friend Jay, in a desperate bid to evade detection by the Devotees. Jess is good with data, not so good with a knife. So when the handsome and secretive Sergeant Matt Anderson selects her for his Black Ops squad, Jess is determined to figure out why.
As her deviance continues to change her, Jess is forced to decide who to trust with her deadly secret. Jess needs to know what’s really out there, in the Deviant wasteland over the border, if she has any hope of making it to her 17th birthday. Because if the enemy doesn’t kill her first, the Department of Evolution probably will.
I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours.
It’s part of the Special Operations Assessment and Selection course, twenty-eight days of grueling work. The two days of no sleep are meant to disorient us, part of discarding our former selves. There are three hundred of us trying to figure out how to do what we’re told, when we’re told to, and how to do it correctly. Jay and I weren’t assigned to the same platoon, which was unexpected. I’m in the “civilian” platoon; we’re the ones with skills that don’t generally require brute force. I think Jay is in some kind of elite group because I haven’t seen him, I’ve only seen the G-men platoon. They are all about brute force; they’re the ones that opted for genetic enhancement at age thirteen without the supervision of the Devotees. But Special Forces is, well, special, so they have to prove they’ve got more than muscle and I’ve gotta prove I’ve got more than a quick mind.
If I don’t make it to Special Forces, my life expectancy in the regular army could be pretty short. And if I’m a complete washout, I’ll have to go to my assessment with the Devotees and they’ll find out about me, making my life expectancy even shorter. I seriously need to pass.
Zero dark thirty is when I have to haul myself out of bed in the so-called morning. My drill sergeant has been yelling at me for most of the past two days. The word “why” has been surgically removed from everyone’s vocabulary. Any individual hesitation in following orders means at least one private is getting smoked, if not the whole platoon, which usually means push-ups. We’ve done a lot of push-ups. I stare straight ahead as the drill sergeant walks by me and continues down the row of privates. I made the mistake of “eyeballing” him yesterday.
Never. Eyeball. A drill sergeant.
Three weeks earlier – May, 2125
My mother thinks I’m a Deviant.
It’s the kind of thing that can really throw a girl for a loop.
The Devotees missed it when I was born, she said, but one day they would come for me. That was a few years ago, she didn’t know I was home when I overheard her; I got out of there lickety-split.
And it’s not as if I haven’t noticed the way my mother looks at me sometimes. If they had taken me when they had the chance, maybe her other baby would still be with her. I’m pretty sure that’s what goes through her head when she looks at me.
So the early assessment notice wasn’t entirely unexpected. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Lots of kids are called for early assessments and nothing happens; they show up at school the next day. Some of them are all excited because they got called to become a Devotee.
But some of them, well, they don’t come back.
I’m in the parking lot of my high school, West Liberty. It’s prom night, and I came with my best friend, Jay. He’s still inside; he likes this sort of thing. I haven’t told him the early assessment notice came this afternoon. I didn’t want to ruin tonight for him. The humidity has made my dress even more uncomfortable than it was inside. Jay owes me. At least he won’t mind if I go home; it’s not that kind of date.
A car door slams shut. There aren’t a lot of kids who can afford the fuel to drive their own car to the prom.
I take a step back. Blake is a popular kid, with the right look, the right home, the right pedigree.
Despite my attempts to blend in and stay in the background, Blake noticed me this year. When I didn’t respond like all the other girls do, I became his target.
His car keys jangle as he drops them in his jacket pocket. I stand still; maybe he hasn’t seen me.
“Hey, freak,” he calls as he comes around the blue pickup I was hoping would shield me. “Not leaving, are you?”
I smell alcohol as Blake backs me up against the truck.
His slicked-back hair smells slightly astringent, and his tongue slides over his upper lip as he looks me over from top to bottom. A shiver of revulsion goes through me. I can’t imagine what girls like about him. I can hear some voices, but they’re at the other end of the parking lot. It’s just me and Blake.
“I’ve got an early graduation present for you,” he says quietly. His face is close to mine, and I can see beads of perspiration on his forehead. Slick from the humidity, his hand glides down my bare shoulder, as if he’s entitled to touch me.
I don’t think I want a present from Blake.
I’m surprised when my hand moves. There is a wet sound as Blake’s head snaps back.
Blood spurts, and it seems as if time has gone into slow motion. The blood sprays toward me. I move my head to the side to avoid it, and watch it slowly drift by, suspended in the air.
I turn back to Blake and a thrill zips through me. Thick, glossy blood creeps down his chin from his mashed nose. His mouth is open in shock; blood colors his teeth and gums. He moves sluggishly, and each blink seems to take effort.
Drip by slow drip, the blood falls from his chin onto his shirt. Fascinated, I watch each droplet burst on his crisp white collar.
A wet plonk hits my forehead as a sudden coldness envelops me. The grin I’m shocked to find on my face sags. Fat droplets of rain release the pressure in the air and mix with the blood on Blake’s shiny shoes.
Hands to his face, he doubles over as time suddenly speeds up again. The rain pelts down now. I take two steps to the side and run. I hear a sob and realize it’s me.
What just happened?
It’s the morning after prom, and Jay saunters along beside me as we walk back to my house. I met him half way, as per my usual. His t-shirt is a bit wrinkled, but that’s on purpose, to go with jeans that are a little baggy in back. He’s over six feet and gets asked if he’s a model, which he laughs at, but I know he’s pleased. He could be quite popular if he wanted, but he hangs out with me instead.
Jay and me are Fifth Generation. We’re the ones born between 2100 and 2120. We found each other in the seventh grade. We were the last two kids left when we all paired up for gym class. He asked me why I wasn’t moving when we were supposed to be heading out to the field. I explained that I was trying to activate my special powers so that I could use them to transport me far away. Usually that kind of talk would send kids running, and they’d whisper that I must be a Deviant. But not Jay. He blinked at me, then asked if I would take him with me, should my special powers ever actually work. We’ve been best friends since, and tell each other pretty much everything.
“So, can you come to the thing?”
I think I’m supposed to know what he’s talking about.
“Uh, when is it again?” I stall for time. What thing?
I push my hair behind my ears to help me think. It doesn’t always work. I have shoulder-length brown hair, parted on the side. My no-nonsense look is how I think of it. I still don’t know what the thing is.
“Wait. Jess. You’re joking, right?” Jay says with a laugh that’s on the edge of anger.
“I’m sorry.” I do my best pleading cringe. “I’m a little distracted.”
The early assessment and whatever that was with Blake last night are the distractions. I can’t quite believe I punched him, broke his nose by the look of it. He’s probably going to have two black eyes. But more than that punch, as surprising as it was, is the way time seemed to slow down around me. I want to say it was shock, or some kind of temporary fugue state, but that’s not what it was. Something happened.
“My mother’s thing, remember?” Jay practically yells at me.
“Oh, that,” I say with relief. Jay’s mother is hosting a party to celebrate his seventeenth birthday. That’s what the thing is. It’s going to be awful.
“We met up, what? Five minutes ago? And you’re already trying to drive me crazy?” He pinches my butt. Hard. He’s pretty worked up about this party.
I yelp and dance around. “No way. You are not blaming your crazy on me.” I give him a solid punch in the gut. “You had years of exposure to your mother before we even met.”
I go rock climbing, so my arms are strong. I’ve never needed to go to the gym to work out and “stay in shape” like some of the other girls do. I’m five feet ten and a half inches and the coach at school said I have an athletic body; he tried to get me to go out for track and field. I don’t like the idea of people watching me like that.
But hitting Jay is like hitting concrete. He doesn’t even notice my punch.
“And of course I’m coming, I already told you. That’s why I didn’t know what thing you were talking about. I thought you meant some other thing.”
“You didn’t actually confirm with my mother,” he complains, “and I know how you feel about people, in general.”
“I don’t have a problem with people, in general. Just the idiots,” I say. “And your mother.”
It’s kind of a toss-up, I suppose. A mother like mine, who actively avoids you and has already decided you’re not worth the effort, or one who pays too much attention and has too many expectations.
Jay nudges me as an unfamiliar dark-haired boy, a bit younger than we are, walks toward us. He doesn’t look right at us, but he flashes us two crossed fingers with his right hand.
I look up ahead and see them coming our way. Three Devotees. Jay and I mumble the greeting in unison, “Blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh, soul of our soul,” and we look down as they brush past us in their crisp white lab coats. It’s best not to be noticed.
The Devotees work for the Department of Evolution —everyone just calls it Devo— and they do the work of Creation in partnership with God. The Department of Evolution is under the direction of Secretary Galton. Basically, she’s God’s voice here on Earth. In the midst of the genetic revolution a hundred years ago, when the Genetic Integrity Act closed America’s borders, strict protocols for border biosecurity were instituted to stop genetic contamination. But we were still in danger of being overrun by the Deviants on the other side. Galton took control, ordered the fortification of our borders and gave the military the authority to do what they needed to do. Most people agree; she did what was necessary for our survival by relinquishing certain powers to the military to ensure our protection. Including the ability to create proprietary, genetically enhanced soldiers. The G-men. Since then, Galton has been leading us through the current stage of evolution, Regenesis, removing unwanted traits and improving and enhancing our best traits with the guidance of God.
In Social Biology class, Devotee Theresa taught us that we must all work for the common good, whether we like it or not. The less intelligent are more fertile and must be discouraged from breeding. Only those with desirable traits are allowed to produce the next generation.
There’s this section, practically a whole semester of tenth grade, where we studied pedigree charts, and DNA, RNA, proteins, and ribosomes. DNA is a double helix that carries the genetic information for all life. If only one part of one gene is wrong, it can create a whole generation of imbeciles, and that is not in God’s plan. Or in Devo’s plan. All Devotees have that DNA double helix tattooed on their forearm, as a constant reminder of their purpose in life.
That’s what the crossed fingers warning represents, the double helix tattoo.
We come up to the old Palace Theater. It’s been shut down for a long time, and the large sign that hangs out front lost its first A, so it says PLACE. Someone found a way in down the side alley, and now kids hang out there. They say, “Meet me at the place.” If they’re overheard or an adult sees a message, it only says “the place.” So far it’s stayed secret. I’ve heard they have illegal sim-seats in there, ones that can scramble the biometrics and mask what you’re doing.
“Jess,” Jay says as he slows right down, “something’s wrong.”
“It’s time to wake up!” a skinny boy with curly red hair yells. He’s standing on a wooden crate, and people are hesitantly milling about. “People are dying! Out there, children are starving, and you send them poison. People are sick, and you send them plagues. The blood of our blood is on your hands!”
There are gasps at his blasphemy, but a few people cautiously move toward him in morbid fascination. His eyes are wild, there’s spittle on his lips. Jay grabs my arm to tug me backward.
When the bullet enters the boy’s left temple, it’s as if he doesn’t know it’s there for a moment.
He’s about to yell, his mouth opens, his lips form a word he will never say. Then he topples backward, and I hear the terrible thud as his head hits the ground. The people closest to him quickly step back. No one screams, no one looks up to see the Guardian with the rifle on the roof across the street. Everyone wants to blend in.
Another Guardian comes toward the Palace. The Guardians work for Devo and protect us from Deviants. The stiff collar somehow makes his slightly rumpled, brown uniform shirt look crisp. The yellow double helix is on the front of his cap, and above his left shirt pocket.
“Move along,” he says. “It was just a Deviant.”
We all know that the plain fact of his yelling out crazy stuff in the street like that is proof of his deviance. It’s what happens sometimes, but it’s most prevalent during adolescence. The deviance manifests and people become dangerous, psychotic Deviants, intent on our destruction.
The Guardian rests his hand on the butt of the holstered pistol hanging from his belt and waits for the brown panel truck with the whooping siren we can hear approaching.
Jay swears at him under his breath and keeps hold of my arm. We hurry off with the rest of the crowd, wanting to move as far away as possible. I look back in time to see somebody dart in behind the Guardian, dip a hand in the boy’s blood, and leave an angry red handprint on the front of the Palace Theater. A red hand. I’ve heard the whispers but never thought it was true. As I stare at it, I bumble into Mrs. Yamoto, one of my neighbors. She walks fast, gripping her daughter’s hand tightly. Last year, I saw the brown truck with the double helix on the side parked in front of her house. The Guardians had come to take her son.
That was his name.