He picks up a dagger, slides the broad side of the blade against the back of his hand. “I am telling you this because visuals are worth a thousand words. So look at the technology here. Think of the decades of work they represent, the lives sacrificed, the carefully calibrated planning that made all this possible. All set in motion years ago by your father. Now think: are we really going to jettison decades of work and sacrifice to help a few miserable wretches make a doomed attempt to escape to the mountains?” He places the dagger on a counter next to him. Deliberately, slowly, conspicuously.
“This big plan,” I say, “to re-turn everyone. It’ll take an arsenal a hundred, a thousand times larger than what you have here.”
“We know,” the chief advisor whispers. “Believe you me, we know.”
“That’s going to take a lot of Origin blood.”
“You speak,” I say, “as if Sissy and I are going to be around for years. Well, I have news for you. The Ruler knows about the Origin. We read a letter from the Palace. They know all about us. And they know we’re here—they saw us down in the catacombs. There’s no way they’ll let us live past a few more days.”
“Oh, that letter,” the chief advisor says. “From the Palace? Written to Krugman and the elders of the Mission?” The chief advisor scratches his wrist. “Did you like my penmanship?” His nose lifts high, chest balloons out. “I told you, I’m His Highness’s advisor. As such, I have access to his Official Seal. And we’re quite capable of slipping a letter aboard the train if and when we need to.”
Absentmindedly, he gently touches the lapel of his frock coat. “The Palace staff doesn’t know a thing about the Origin. And yes, they saw and recognized the two of you when they’d earlier toured the catacombs. Your appearance stirred quite a ruckus—the hunter boy, the dome girl, found! In fact, in a scant forty-eight hours, the Ruler has plans to devour you. Both of you. For his birthday.”
He pauses, takes in the look on our faces. Something humors him; he takes a long, languorous scratch of his wrist. “But you needn’t worry. Before that can happen, tomorrow, in fact, I plan on relaying to him the sad, unfortunate news of your premature deaths. That you got into a kerfuffle with some boys down in the catacombs. Over what I don’t know—perhaps over Sissy, say. Things got out of hand, and you ended up drowning in the cesspool, then flushed through to the sewage incinerator. Both of you.”
“The Ruler won’t believe you,” Sissy says.
“Of course he will. He will fly into an apoplectic rage, of course, will sprint down into the catacombs. And of course, he won’t find you. Nor will he—or anyone—later smell you up on the Palace grounds. Not so long as you remain in this hermetically sealed secret room.”
He dabs the corner of his mouth with his pinkie. “We have just a few kinks to work out before our story becomes airtight. So we’ll need to send you both back to spend one more night in the catacombs—just in case the Ruler decides to spring a surprise visit tonight to gawk at his catch of the century. But come tomorrow, after we’ve crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s, we’ll have you back in this room. And then we’ll inform the Ruler of your untimely demise.”
He studies us for a moment; something about our silence irritates him. He picks up the blade, looks at me. “I think it’s best if you consider something.”
“You and this girl,” he says. “You’re the Origin.”
“You’re no longer Gene and Sis. That’s no longer your designation or your name or your identity. You’re the Origin. You’re the cure for the duskers. Best to now think of yourself that way.” He lifts the blade to his nose, sniffs. “We can inject you with sedatives. Render you into comatose blood-producing vegetables. And there you will lie, asleep, for years, no, for decades. Your eyelids will never open again while you slowly turn into withered plants, hair white, nails long—”
“But you won’t,” I say. “Otherwise you’d have done it, already. You need our blood pure. Not polluted by whatever chemicals you’d have to inject into us.” It’s all conjecture, but I seem to have nailed it.
His lips twitch ever so slightly.
“You need us awake, healthy, and robust for years. Not chemically jacked vegetables lying on cots, bodies atrophying away. You need—”
“Shut up,” he says quietly. “Just shut up.”
The air in the room stills.
“We Originators haven’t survived in their midst,” he says softly, “without becoming ruthless. Business done with the minimum of fuss. Risks avoided, deadweight sacrificed. So remember this word: ruthless. If you resist, we shall be ruthless. Ruthless in exacting your full, if not glad, cooperation.”
When Sissy speaks, her voice is as calm and unflinching as the chief advisor’s. “And you’ll never have our cooperation. Not while you continue to send countless human boys and girls to their deaths. You claim it’s for the greater good, but whose greater good?” She shakes her head. “So go ahead, shoot us up, inject us. That’s the only way you’ll get our blood. Go ahead and taint your precious Origin blood.”
The chief advisor regards her coolly through half-lidded eyes. He picks up the tablet, taps the screen.
The group of men shift as one, moving several meters from a rectangular outline grooved into the floor. Two of the men slip into the aisles, grab weapons. Tranquilizer dart guns.
The floor starts to hum.
“We’ve been waiting, have had oodles of time to think and plan for every possible contingency that might arise.” His cadence is slow, it is deliberate, it is hypnotic, and it is menacing for all these reasons. “Your little shenanigans which you probably think are so intelligent and quick thinking—why, we anticipated them years ago. And we designed a menu of options to deal with every possible response: A, B, and C, as well as iterations A One, B One, and C One.” His voice is thick with smugness. “Your response right now calls for plan B One.” He presses a button.
At once, the rectangular outline in the floor slides away, exposing a hole. An enclave emerges through it. The glass is fogged with condensation and it’s impossible to see who is inside. Then a hand inside the enclave wipes across the glass, revealing eyes, then a face. The face is frightened. The face is young. The face is David.
“We have our ways of securing cooperation,” the chief advisor whispers.
Sissy immediately tenses. As she springs toward the enclave, two Originators step forward. I grab her arm, hold her back. The other Originator is aiming the tranquilizer dart gun at her.
“These darts are loaded with heavy sedatives,” the chief advisor says. “Please don’t make us use them on you.”
Sissy tries to pull her arm from my grasp.
“Sissy,” I hiss, “don’t.”
She shakes with fury but stands her ground, her eyes glowering at the men. One of the Originators walks over to a shelf and removes a shotgun. He returns, stands next to the other two men, his face bereft of emotion.
The chief advisor scratches his wrist, his eyes shining with approval. He reaches down to the enclave, presses a button on the side. The glass partition slides open.
David coughs at the sudden infusion of fresh air, dry, grating heaves. The chief advisor pulls him out, then unceremoniously drops him to the floor. And kicks him in the gut.
“Hey!” I shout.
David curls around, grabbing his knees. The chief advisor pulls out of his coat pocket a pair of latex gloves, then withdraws from another pocket a hypodermic needle. It’s filled with a sudsy yellow fluid. He grabs David’s hair, snaps his head back.
Sissy leaps forward. As do I. But the armed Originators move forward, shoving their shotgun and dart guns in our faces. We stop.
The chief advisor stabs the needle into David’s neck, depresses the syringe fully. Within seconds, David’s body goes limp, his head flopping to the ground.
“What did you inject him with?” Sissy yells.
“It’s a concentrated compound,” the chief advisor says, placing the hypodermic needle into a ziplock bag. He strips off his latex gloves, balls them into the bag before carefully sealing it. “Made up of saliva from five different duskers. Centrifuged together, the middle two—and most potent—layers of the mixed compound then removed, a few preservatives added, and voilà, the yellow liquid. Which is now flowing in David’s bloodstream. Which is now seeping into every organ, every molecule, inside him.”
Sissy and I together spring toward David, no longer caring about the men and their weapons. They apparently don’t care, either; they lower their weapons. David has already begun shivering, his skin frigid to the touch, streaming with hot sweat. Then he starts convulsing, his arms flopping against the floor, the flesh of his sweaty skin smacking the smooth tiles.
“I’m sure Gene already knows this,” the chief advisor says softly, his eyes riveted on David, “but let me spell it out for you just in case. Once infected, a human will turn into dusker in anywhere between two hours and two days. Saliva from several duskers will exponentially increase this rate of turning.”
David suddenly arcs his back, his body taut as a pulled bow. His jaw gapes wide, then judders, teeth snapping. The man with the shotgun swings his weapon nervously at David.
“David, poor child, has been injected with the blood of five duskers. He will turn in less than forty seconds. Fifteen seconds have already passed.”
In my arms, David is plummeting off a cliff. Sweat is pouring out of his pores, his temperature is dropping precipitously, and he’s shaking so hard, his fevered face is a hazy, vibrating blur.
“Twenty seconds before he turns,” the chief advisor intones, gazing at his watch.
Sissy screams, leaps to her feet. She pounces toward the chief advisor, but he doesn’t move. Doesn’t even flinch when she snatches the dagger from his hand.