That was where Gene would be.
The next night, after the turning was completed, Ashley June emerged from the Pit. She snarled at the people around her, smacking them aside with a glorious newfound strength. They sniffed her, could not understand. Where had the heper odor gone? When they realized she was just as they were and that she had just pulled a cruel prank on them, they poured into the Pit.
They demolished everything down there in their yearning to taste anything heper. Nothing survived. Everything was licked and ripped to shreds. Even the notes were torn asunder. All except one: the letter—that she had folded and tucked into her back pocket. But she found she didn’t even need to look at that letter to know the only words that mattered. Just four words.
Up in the mountains.
SOMETHING HAPPENS. INSIDE the Palace. We sense it miles before we reach the gigantic disc-shaped building. The wind, once saturated with heper blood, suddenly loses its pungency. Only the slightest of scents remain. Sissy and I pause. The heper massacre is over. All heper bodies have been devoured, flesh eaten, blood drunk.
Sissy shakes her head, and long trails of saliva loop around her head. She seems conflicted. Without the heavy influence of heper odor overloading her senses, older priorities are being reclaimed. She’s thinking about David. She’s thinking about re-turning. She’s thinking about the Origin weapons.
I’m thinking about David, too. But not necessarily in the same way Sissy is.
Behind us, the rumble of the millions increases. More of them, and closer now. Sissy and I push forward. A mile from the wall, we see movement along the ramparts, dots of people racing about. We hear their excited voices, chaotic and exuberant.
Once we reach the walls of the Palace, Sissy and I don’t slow down but leap up the walls, scaling the ancient marble easily. We race along the parapet walk, observing the chaos below. Staffers are running across the courtyard, most of them naked, hair disheveled, eyes keening and hungry. But despite the electricity in the air, it is plainly leftover excitement. We’re joining the party late, the apex long passed, the aftermath cooldown already begun. The carnage is over.
But instead of slowing down, a renewed energy surges through Sissy. She stares up at the obelisk, considering, then bursts forward. She leaps down to a lower level, tears along the roof of a covered parapet walk before jumping to the courtyard. She’s barely landed before she’s springing forward, charging down a corridor as if possessed. She doesn’t look back, certainly doesn’t wait for me. It’s all I can do to simply keep her in sight as I bound after her.
As we tear down the corridors, we pass groups of people dashing to and fro. I’d once thought the sight of these naked bodies, gleaming with a sickly anemia, was repulsive. And I never understood their wont for nakedness during the hunt. But now I know. It’s the excitement, the raw energy that pulsates through the system. I grab my shirt and rip it into ribbons in seconds. I shout into the sky.
Sissy stops and looks at me, cocking her head. A wariness in her eyes as she takes in my naked upper torso. For a second—less, maybe just a tenth of a second—I feel shame. Because she hasn’t given in, not yet, not completely. I know it from her clothes, still wrapped around her, untorn. She’s still resisting. She’s not on the prowl for hepers. She’s here to rescue them, one of them, anyway.
“What is it?” I say.
“Help me find it.”
“It’s up in the obelisk tower. In the Ruler’s chamber.”
Her eyes turn suspicious. “What are you talking about? Help me find the Originators’ science lab. Where the dart guns are stored, the ones loaded with Origin blood.” She stares down a corridor, then down the other. “It all looks the same to me,” she hisses.
Forget sight. Eyes aren’t going to help us. I lift my nose into the air, sniff deeply. There. The faintest trail. Of metal unlike any other in the Palace. And an even slighter hint of gun oil.
Sissy sees me raise my nose and realizes what I’m doing. A second later, she catches the scent as well. Her body stiffens, then she’s flying down the corridor, her feet kicking out behind her.
We find the door leading into the laboratory. It is smashed inward, but the hinges and lock have held. Along the edges of the cratered door, a draft from the laboratory flows through tiny cracks. That is how we were able to detect the artillery and weapon scents.
Sissy wastes no time. She backs up, then flings her body at the door. Again. And again. I join her, and on the seventh try we bust through the door.
The laboratory is empty. Not an Originator in sight. A pity, that. “Over here,” Sissy says, and rushes over to a dart gun lying on a laboratory bench. Next to the guns is a row of darts, filled with the Originator serum.
Though I can’t smell the blood through the sealed darts, I’m suddenly drooling uncontrollably.
“Gene.” Her voice has changed, a hint of threat in her tone. She picks up the dart gun, loads it. “We re-turn you first. Then me. Then we go up the obelisk, find David.” Her voice hard, guarded. Suspicious.
But I’m braced, ready for it. “No, wait.”
She lifts the gun higher, at my chest. “No time to wait.”
“You don’t understand. If we re-turn here, we’ll clod along at a snail’s pace. We’ll never make it to the obelisk, much less climb to the top where the Ruler’s Suite is. Truth? We won’t get fifty meters before we’re detected and hunted down.”
She pauses, considering. She’s conflicted. Her battle is not only with me but also with herself. She doesn’t want to re-turn. Not back to that unwieldy, cumbersome heper form.
“We have to hurry,” I say, urging her. Then the lie. “The sooner we get to the Ruler’s Suite, the sooner we rescue David.”
That settles her mind. She throws the dart gun strap over her head, pulls it taut so that the dart gun is secured against her back. Throws her hair over it like a hood. “As soon as we get to the top of the obelisk, we re-turn,” she says.
“Fine,” I say. On the way out, I grab a double-barreled shotgun from the weapons aisle. We’ll likely have to blast through the door to the Ruler’s Suite. I loop the shotgun around my head, strapping it against my back, grabbing a few shells on the way out. And two prototype Origin grenades for good measure. Then I’m leaping through the doorway, following Sissy.
WITH OUR ENHANCED sense of direction, Sissy and I are able to find the entranceway to the obelisk in no time. We tear up a spiral staircase that coils along the inside wall of the tower. A darkened vertical shaft runs up the center of the obelisk like a black spine. I know what it is. It’s the column through which enclaves are transported.
What would have taken us a good ten minutes to climb if we were hindered by the cumbersome coordination and pathetic endurance of a heper is over in less than two. At the top is the door to the Ruler’s Suite. It’s locked. Judging by the fresh scratch marks and the dents pinged into the door, many have already tried to get in, futilely.
Sissy takes a running start, slamming into the door hard. It rattles, but the hinges remain secure. The door is self-locking and triple-barreled. We could be smashing our bodies against the door for the next hour with nothing to show for it.
I pull the shotgun over my head. “Stand back,” I warn. I point the barrel at the doorknob.
The flash of light turns my vision into a white sheen. The sting like a thousand razor blades exploding in my eyeballs. I collapse to my knees, try to blink away the pain. Sissy, bumbling forward, arms outstretched, pushes past me. I hear the sound of the door being ripped apart. Forcing my eyes open, I stagger in after her.
Inside the Ruler’s Suite, I stumble into a metal contraption. It’s the restraint apparatus upon which the Ruler had tied himself two days ago. Eyes still clenched shut, I touch along its width and height. It’s empty. Only the remote control used to open and close the glass partition dangles from the frame.
It takes almost a minute before I regain my vision. There’s no one else here. The suite feels so different from before. Instead of a claustrophobic confinement, it’s airy and spacious, the sensation akin to floating in the sky. The windows, shuttered against daylight the last time, are open now and span the entire circumference of the suite. They offer a panoramic view that lets me see a hundred miles in every direction from an unblocked, elevated vantage point.
I gaze outside. Rushing toward us, from the direction of the metropolis, is a one-mile-tall, five-mile-wide wall of dust. It’s the horde of naked millions of citizens coming in at breakneck velocity. At their speed, they’ll be here in less than five minutes.
Around us, glowing like lanterns, are the five tanks. They’re still filled with the green liquid. When I first saw the tanks two days ago, they were dark and opaque, illuminating little of what lay within. Now they are bright and clear and I see everything in them.
Drool drips down my fangs, splatters against my chest. I try to swallow before more saliva spills out, but there’s too much, too fast.
Sissy hasn’t seen the tanks yet. She’s preoccupied, bent over an opened enclave on the floor. Sniffing, licking the interior. I trot over to her. A heper was devoured in here, every ounce of flesh ingested, the glass licked clean twenty times over. I smell the chief advisor, what little odor of him is left, anyway. In the corner of the enclave is his tablet. I pick it up. The screen, layered with sticky saliva, tells it all. He was trying to make his getaway. He had pre-programmed this enclave to head to the underground train station. And that’s not the only thing he’s activated—he also remotely started the train engines.
“Over there,” Sissy says, head lifting. Her voice flat and hoarse, emotion ripped out. She walks to a tank on the far side of the suite, her paws silent on the marble floor. The heper inside the tank is drifting submerged in the fluid. Eyes closed, arms drifting upward as if surrendering, its hair waving back and forth languorously. The heper boy. David. The only sign that it’s still alive is the oxygen mask placed over its mouth. It looks so different from how I remember it. Sapped now, its youthful aura gone, replaced by a sadness and agony that permeate off it.