November 23, 1AE
The Colony, Colorado
Anna brushed her son’s bangs off his forehead as he settled back in the reclining chair. She would have to trim his hair again soon; it was growing so fast now. “Just close your eyes,” she said, ending the softly spoken words with an even softer sigh. She hated the pain Peter had to endure every day simply to stay alive, but such was the cost of a second chance at life. Such was the cost of being a Re-gen. “It’ll be over soon.”
John, the former coroner who’d been in charge of electrotherapy since the treatment’s inception, turned away from the small switchboard controlling the electrical current flowing through Peter just enough to toss Anna a weak smile over his shoulder. “A word outside while his, uh, treatment is going?”
Anna clenched her jaw, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Despite his irritatingly hesitant and uncertain demeanor, Dr. John Maxwell was valuable. He was short in stature, shrewd of mind, and as far as Anna was concerned, knew more about the anatomy and physiology of the human brain than any other living person. She just had to remind herself of that sometimes. If she lost sight of that—of the help he, and as far as she knew, only he, could offer her son—she might grow annoyed enough to remove him from her inner circle.
And nobody survived to talk about Anna’s inner circle once their membership was revoked. Her life—her child’s life—depended on absolute secrecy, and dead men couldn’t talk. Unless they were brought back as Re-gens, but still...they had limited memories.
Anna shook her head, disgusted with the direction her thoughts had gone. She was thinking like Gregory, something that seemed to be happening to her more and more with each passing day. What would Tom, her first husband—her true husband—say if he could see her thoughts now? Nothing good, she imagined, and definitely nothing flattering.
Peter gave his mom’s hand a squeeze, drawing her back to the here and now. The heavy glove Anna wore protected her from the worst of the electrical current humming through his body, but she still felt a slight buzz. “It’s fine, Mom. Go with Dr. Maxwell.” Peter offered her a slightly strained smile. “I’ll live, promise.”
Anna clenched her jaw harder, then forced herself to relax and release her son’s hand. Standing, she removed the rubber-lined glove and tossed it on the wheely chair she’d just vacated. She paused at the door John was holding open and met her son’s eyes. If it had been her in the chair, hosting an electrical current as strong as the one flowing through Peter, she would have been seizing, her brain sizzling and turning to relative mush.
But not Peter. Because Peter wasn’t like her. Peter wasn’t really like anyone…not anymore. How much longer could this go on? How many more experimental treatments could the sixteen-year-old boy’s body endure? How much higher could they crank up the electrical current without it harming even someone like Peter?
Peter flashed Anna another tense smile, and her heart twisted. How long did she have until Gregory lost patience with their son’s stop and go—mostly stop—recovery?
Holding her breath, Anna left the room and shut the door. “What is it?” she said on her exhale. “You’re very”—she scanned him from sneakered toes to balding head—“twitchy, today.” Or, at least, he was twitchier than usual. “What’s changed?”
John hunched his shoulders. “You know that Peter is—he’s...”
Anna crossed her arms and raised her right eyebrow. “Peter is what?”
“He’s, uh, different…fr—from the others, I mean.” John scuffed his shoe against the linoleum floor. “Because of the chemo and radiation, not to mention all of the experim—treatments we’ve performed on him and…” He met Anna’s eyes and blanched. “Which were very successful. Excellent ideas, all of them. Wouldn’t have done any differently myself, had it been my kid who—”
“Cut the bullshit, John.” Anna leaned in toward the pointy-featured man, planting a hand on the wall just behind him. He seemed to cringe into himself. There were some perks to being Gregory’s wife, however unpleasant the drawbacks. It wasn’t a fair trade, not even close. But it was something. “Tell me,” she demanded gently.
John took a deep breath and held it for several seconds. “He—he’s dying.”
Anna shut her eyes. Breathed. Again. And again. When she reopened her eyes, she said, “I’m sorry.” Deep breath. “I must have misheard you.”
“The treatments aren’t as effective as they used to be for Peter…and certainly not as effective as they are for the others.” John wrung his hands. “The degeneration is progressing more quickly in him...not that it’s not to be expected, considering that he’s older in Re-gen terms than the few others left after the rebelli—”
John must’ve caught the dangerous glint in Anna’s glare, because he shrank back even further. “It’s as though I can’t target the parts of his mind that are breaking down, like his synapses are firing too intensely, or um, burning themselves out before I can reset the connection. And the less effective the treatments become, well, the more quickly the degeneration will progress.” Quickly, he added, “And I’m sure it’s not just him, or at least it won’t be. Soon, the others will reach the same point.” He nodded frantically. “I’m certain of it.”
Anna narrowed her eyes. “I don’t care what you have to do. Find. A. Way. To. Save. Him.” She eased away from the wall—and the terrified doctor—and carefully straightened her lab coat. Purposefully, Anna raised her gaze to lock on his. “Find a way, or you’ll be of no further use to me.” And there it was again, disgusting proof that Anna was, deep down, just like Gregory.
John blinked several times. A deer in headlights held nothing on him. “I—I’ll see what I can come up with.”
Anna nodded and bared her teeth in a self-disgusted smile. “You do that.”
Quick footsteps drew Anna’s attention to the stretch of hallway behind her, and she turned around to see Howard, one of Gregory’s favorite lackeys, approaching. At least, he was one of Gregory’s favorites amongst the lackeys he still had after the uprising, and one of the few who’d remained by choice in the chaos and instability that had followed. The Re-gens had exacted a high toll with their unexpected rebellion, and it was one her son paid for every day with his increasingly rapid descent into illness. She needed more Re-gens…more subjects to run her tests on…more scientists to brainstorm possible solutions. She needed Gabriel McLaughlin.
John tipped the scales in terms of intelligence, but he was an inside-the-box thinker. Gabriel, on the other hand, somehow managed to turn scientific experimentation into an art, constantly redefining the concept of “the box” with his intellectual creativity. Where John was an unquestionably smart man, Gabriel was a true scientific savant. If anyone could find a solution to the degeneration plaguing the Re-gens, Gabriel could.
But Anna hadn’t had so much as a glimpse of him in her dreams for months. Not that it was his fault. These were dangerous times in the Colony, and only when Anna was feeling exceptionally desperate or bold would she dare to let her guard down, just for a brief window, while she slept, hoping Gabriel might be trying to contact her in her dreams. It had yet to bear fruit. Each time Anna woke from such an attempt, she had only disappointment to warm her bed—disappointment and the megalomaniac who’d long ago claimed her as his property...as his “wife.”
Howard stopped just a little too close to Anna.
But she was used to his intimidation techniques. Keeping her feet firmly planted, Anna squared her shoulders and met Howard’s eyes. “Did you want something?”
“General Herodson needs you.” Howard held her gaze, challenged it. “Come with me.” And without another word, he turned and strode back up the hallway.
Anna forced herself to unball her fists. After several slow, even breaths, she looked at John, who was still trembling against the wall. “What do you need to increase the effectiveness of the treatments?” She spoke the words low and rushed. Much as she might find pleasure in making Gregory wait, she knew the repercussions; the anger he would take out on her and the pleasure he would gain from her pain would be far from worth it.
“More Re-gens. More assistants.” John paused, squinting. “A more intense electrical current.”
Anna blew out a breath. “Alright,” she said as she turned away from him to follow after Howard. “I’ll see what I can do.” Gregory would have to see reason, especially when that reason came in the form of releasing the interred rebel Re-gens into her custody so she could use them to hone the treatment process and, if she and John were able to make enough progress, save Peter’s life.
Her spark of hope dwindled when she realized that Howard wasn’t leading her to Gregory’s office on the other side of the Colony, but to the underground holding cells two buildings away from the electrotherapy lab. Doubt sprouted in her chest, spreading like a noxious weed. Gregory had been keeping his distance from the makeshift prison and its ailing Re-gen occupants. She feared his presence there now could mean only one thing—he’d finally settled on their punishment for rebelling. And when Gregory came to a decision, he acted on it quickly and without mercy. It was one of his few qualities that Anna actually admired. Except for right now.
Anna had no doubt of the severity of the punishment the uncooperative Re-gens would suffer, had no doubt that she was walking toward an execution. And she had no doubt that by extinguishing the rebel Re-gens’ second lives, Gregory would be all but killing their son.
A livewire of tension and frustration, Anna descended the stairwell leading down to the long, underground hallway and its intermittent holding cells beneath the headquarters building. She couldn’t allow Gregory to kill the few remaining Re-gens, not when she needed them so badly. Her mind was awhirl with thoughts…possibilities…logic…arguments…excuses…pleas…none of which would be good enough if Gregory’s mind was already made up.
The first door on the right, a heavy, metal barrier set in the reinforced cement wall, stood ajar, and Anna could hear Gregory’s disinterested voice floating through the doorway. “…but some mistakes are just too great to make amends for, MT-01. I can no longer trust you. Your words are now meaningless to me.”
Howard passed the doorway and took up a guard stance on the far side of the opening. Anna stopped opposite him and hung her head. Now that she knew which Re-gen Gregory was addressing in the cell, she recognized the emotionless quality of his voice for what it really was—a mask to cover the betrayal he felt, to hide his utter heartbreak.
Mikey—MT-01, in Re-gen terms—had been Gregory’s favorite. He’d been loyal to “the General” before his death and had trusted Gregory implicitly, to the point of volunteering for the Re-gen program when it was still in the experimental phase. He was the only Re-gen that Gregory didn’t address using a Re-gen identifier. Or rather, he had been…before the uprising.
And while Mikey hadn’t actually participated in the rebellion—in the massive slaughter that had taken place during those few, terrifying minutes that the General’s people had been immobilized by Camille’s metal-controlling Ability—he’d admitted to knowing about it before it happened. How could he not have when the oracle and orchestrator of the rebellion, RV-01—Becca—had been the closest thing he’d had to a best friend?
“Pl—please, Father.” Mikey was sobbing, the sound sloppy and gut-wrenching. It was rare for a Re-gen to feel intense emotions, let alone express what they were feeling, and it yanked on the tangled wad of stored up heartbreak that Anna kept tightly wound inside herself. She couldn’t imagine what it would take to summon such an intense emotional response in her own son. “I kn—knew you w—would be safe,” Mikey said between gasping breaths. “I—I would have w—warned you if I thought you—”
His words cut off with the sound of flesh hitting flesh, but his sobs continued.
“There are few things I enjoy less than the bitter taste of disappointment,” Gregory said quietly, “and I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve felt such intense disappointment as I do now.”
There was another fleshy smack, closely followed by a wet crunch that brought to mind a sickening image of the Re-gen’s skull cracking against the cement wall.
“You were my favorite,” Gregory said in the silence that hung in the absence of Mikey’s sobs, thick to the point of choking. “I loved you like a son,” he whispered.
Anna couldn’t bring herself to step through the doorway, to enter the holding cell that she all but knew now contained only one living thing. At that moment, she refused to think of Gregory as a person—he was so much less.
Anna squeezed her eyes shut. Gregory truly had loved Mikey like a son; she knew it, had seen it with her own eyes. And he’d killed him anyway.
She just hoped he wouldn’t inadvertently do the same to his actual flesh and blood.