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I sit on the edge of my bed, clutching the photo that my fingers itch to rip to pieces.
I don’t dodge fast enough—the blade gashes my neck as I lunge to the side. The pain is eliminated for a split second when my body hits the tile floor, but it roars back to life as soon as I recover from the impact. My cries and the hot blood flowing down my skin do nothing to stop my uncle’s knife-wielding hand and murderous leer.
The image’s background is the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest—the last real forest in the West. The setting sun reddens the ever-present smog that engulfs most of the forest. In the center of the photo, fourteen-year-old August is standing with an arm around my twelve-year-old shoulders. He’s flashing his usual easy smile, the one that makes it seem like he knows a special secret. My smile, however, is small and forced; a reminder of what happened a few seconds earlier.
August’s laugh turns into coughing. Within seconds he can barely breathe. I delve into the backpack, rummaging for the tablets, but by the time I find them August has collapsed. He shivers so violently it looks like he’s having a seizure. I stand nearby, powerless, gripping the medication so tightly my blood veins stand out.
According to my watch, the attack ceases after a minute. While August—still on the ground—washes down a tablet with his canteen, I write in my notebook. “They’re getting worse,” I say.
He shrugs. I take his hand and pull him to his feet. Though his features are calm, his skin is milky-white. “I’m fine, Skylar.” He gives me a smile, sets his arm around my shoulders, and turns to the photographer, who stepped back to let me handle things when August began to spasm. “We’re ready.”
In spite of August’s reassurances, I know my worry will be apparent when the photographer snaps the shot.
The photo was taken four years and nine months ago. August disappeared a week later. I’m pretty sure he didn’t die—he’d caught the VRI only four months before, and it never took its victims until it had occupied their bodies for at least six months. My main guess was that he’d been kidnapped. But I couldn’t prove it. No one could. And no one could find him.
I drop the photo onto my bed and run my hands through my shoulder-length hair. When August vanished, he left me to deal with our sick aunt and alcoholic uncle. Both of them were killed in a construction accident a short time ago. If my suspicions are correct and August is dead, then I’m the only member of the family still breathing. Though owing to recent—and not-so-recent—occurrences, I might not be breathing for much longer. Because of my position within the government, I’m liable to be blackmailed, kidnapped, tortured, or flat out shot by terrorists.
I stand up, tie my hair in a ponytail, and grab my tool belt. As I buckle it, I glance at the photo. A sudden wave of heat through my system knocks all sense from my brain, and I snatch up the photo, crush it into a ball, and hurl it out the open window. The photo arches over the lower roof of the next-door skyscraper, and then plummets towards the street, six hundred feet down.
At that moment the anger subsides, replaced by dismay. I run to the window, thinking futilely that maybe it landed on the roof, or a hover car, or something….
But my aim was good; there’s no sign of the crumpled photo. I sag against the wall. Maybe the archives have an extra photo of August, though getting into that building without my trainer will be a challenge in and of itself.
Realism and idealism war in my head. I’m not gonna worry about it. August abandoned me. I don’t need to remember what he looked like.
I don’t think he abandoned me.
Yeah, right. Prove it.
As I slip on my work vest I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone knocks on my door. “Skylar? You in there?”
“Come in,” I murmur as I fumble with the straps.
The door opens and my trainer, Christian, steps in. I perk up a little—now I can go to the archives. But the expression on his face obliterates the idea before I can even voice it.
“I need you to come look at something,” he says. His mouth is grim, and his knuckles are white as he grips the doorknob. Unease darkens his face.
My chest in apprehension. “Okay.”
I follow him out the door and down the hallway. We step into the elevator and he presses the Basement button. I blink and look up at him. He gives me a weak smile that I guess is supposed to be reassuring. As the elevator descends and the air pressure in my ears change, I ask, “What’s going on? What do you want me to see?”
He folds his arms, staring at the ground. “We’re not exactly sure yet. Lawson found it while she was looking in the cryo-suspension compartments for some embryos. She started screaming; got people running to see what was wrong. I came to get you.”
He exhales. “We don’t know….I can’t….You’ll understand when we get there.”
“Is it bad? I mean, dangerous?”
“I don’t think so. Just…don’t ask anything else until we get there.”
I decide not to argue this time.
The elevator touches the bottom and the door opens. The basement walls are lined with hundreds of compartments of varying sizes and shapes. Each one has a label. Tools, First Aid kits, medicine, blankets, weapons—things someone would need in an emergency are closest to the elevator. As Christian and I walk farther the compartments hold everyday items like cell phones, nonperishable food, clothing, etc. The last area is the cryo-suspension, where icy compartments hold perishable foods, seeds, and other things that can go bad or die without being frozen.
I hear voices up ahead, near the botany section of the cryo-compartments. As we round the corner, it seems like a million eyes turn to me, though there are only about a dozen people there. The crowd parts for me and Christian, creating a path towards an open compartment. I can see a large, deformed, dark mass of ice inside. Definitely not embryos.
Before I can get close enough to investigate, Christian puts an arm out to stop me. “If it’s what I think it is, please don’t panic,” he whispers. I nod, gulp, kneel, and look into the compartment.
My first instinct is to shriek. My next is to retch. Then to sob. I don’t do any. I just sit there, staring. My veins go colder than the already-chilly air around me. My vision gets hazy, gravity warps, and then things go black.
When I wake up, Christian is crouching next to me, holding my head, and faces are swarming around me. Voices break through the fog in my mind. I first register Christian’s question. “Skylar? Hey, are you okay?”
I shake off the trance and sit up, rubbing my head. “I’m fine.” My initial shock has worn off, and I feel eerily calm as I say, “It’s definitely August.”
The crowd buzzes with whispers and exclamations. Everyone knows what happens when someone freezes something in a compartment without permission. I see one of the onlookers pull out his cell phone and step away from the group. Obviously he’s calling the police. I don’t try to stop him.
I stand and look back into the compartment. August’s face is barely recognizable beneath the layers of ice, but I can tell his features are twisted in pain. Of course the freezing process would’ve hurt. What were you thinking, August?
Christian stands next to me and looks at the small screen on the compartment that shows how much longer August will be in cryo-suspension: three months. Also according to the screen, he froze himself four years and nine months ago.
Something is tickling the back of my mind, trying to connect those numbers to something, but I don’t get a chance to figure out what before an authoritative voice starts barking for people to make way. Christian and I step aside as a short, pudgy cop approaches the compartment. His lips clench when he sees the frozen body. He closes the compartment and looks at me. “You his wife?”
The man looks at the screen. He sighs and turns to a taller cop behind him. “Can you crack it?”
The cop nods and steps towards the compartment. All of a sudden I’m angry, and I shove him away. “Don’t you touch it!”
The shorter cop takes out his pistol and points it at me. “Miss, you need to move.”
Christian takes a step towards the cop, but I shoot him a warning look and he stops. His features remain tense as he watches me and the cop.
“He caught the VRI,” I say. “That’s why he froze himself. He was dying.”
“Miss, I’m well aware of what probably drove him—”
“No, you’re not! Just leave him alone! He’ll thaw in a few months anyway. Then you can deal with him. Put him in jail, fine him—just let him rest in peace until then!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, lady.” He cocks the gun. “I’m just following my directives….”
“I’m not moving.”
“Let it go, sir,” the taller policeman says. “It’s just a compartment. The man will wake up soon anyway.”
“This doesn’t involve you, Jameson.”
Jameson looks at me with a mixture of pity and annoyance. “Fine,” he says, and motions the rest of the crowd to clear out. They obey reluctantly, whispering and glancing over their shoulders as they go. Jameson allows only Christian to stay.
The short cop’s gaze is calm as he continues to aim his gun at my chest, but I can tell from the way his fingers twitch that they aren’t very patient. Dread creeps up my spine, and my brain tries to reason with me. I’m breaking the law. Just step aside; it’s better than getting killed. Besides, August wouldn’t have wanted me shot.
I’m not moving.
Finally the cop lets out a long breath and lowers the pistol. Shaking his head, he takes out his radio and says into the mouthpiece, “I need four men down in the cryo-suspension area of apartment building eighty-four’s basement.”
“You’re arresting her?” Christian moves to stand in front of me. I let him; all the fight has gone out of me, and I lean back against the compartments. I can feel the cold surface through my clothes. I listen to the exchange between Christian and the cop as I massage my forehead.
“She’s obstructing an officer, mister. I have to detain her, at least until this mess with her brother is cleaned up. Now please move aside.”
Christian’s tone becomes menacing. “Officer, as an Omega operative and a previous Senator, I order you to back down, or you will have the President himself to answer to for the incarceration of this woman.” He flashes his badge.
The cop hesitates, glances at me, lets out a breath, and slips the pistol back into his belt. He meets Christian’s gaze without wavering. “Forgive me for interfering, sir.”
“The next time you threaten a woman with a weapon it will go on your record.”
“I understand,” the cop mutters. Lifting his chin to muster whatever dignity his diminutive frame possesses, he walks away.
Christian turns to me and chuckles. “He would’ve left a lot faster—”
“Are you stupid?” I clench my fists, suppressing the urge to grab the front of his shirt and shake him. “Do you know what you just did?”
“You mean, do I know that I gave away my identity to someone who could be a terrorist, or at least connected with them? Yeah, I know what I did; I’m more worried about what you did.”
I open my mouth but nothing comes out.
Christian runs his hand over August’s compartment. “Skylar, it looks like August thought he would thaw when the government would have the hospital station ready to cure the VRI victims. Back when he froze himself, the estimation for that date was five years.” He motions to the numbers. “It’s been almost five years, and the hospital still has half a year until completion. When August thaws, he’ll….”
“I know.” I’ve been coming to this realization myself. I study at the tips of my boots. “He’s not going to make it before the hospital’s ready.”
“We can’t add an extra few months to his cryo-suspension. Wouldn’t you rather have him thawed right now?”
“So we could have more time together? We’d have the same amount of time if I let him thaw when he wanted to thaw. Besides, he knew there would be consequences to freezing himself.” I fold my arms. “We’ll just have to see when he wakes up whether he can fight the VRI for long enough. But for now, I’ll leave him.” I straighten, turn on my heels, and exit the cryo-suspension area with Christian, who remains silent. As we enter the elevator, I touch the scar on my neck. “I’ll leave him alone.”
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