Humans destroy what they can’t control and are terrified of what they don’t understand. Why, then, do they create and unleash things into the world that they can’t control and will never understand? When their species faces extinction, this error in judgment will be the reason.
I hate them all.
My cell’s lights flash on, bringing me out of the near-constant night. I sit up in my narrow cot and wait, hands folded in my lap, as the air recyc fan activates. Goose bumps pop up along my exposed calves, and my nipples harden against the thin cloth of my gown. I twist around to look at the letters carved in the wall behind my bed. They’re the only decoration in the room—my only companion. I trace them with my fingertips.
Letters, not numbers. A human was kept here before me.
The door slides open, and the Hazmats push a gurney through. It’s not time for another sedative, then. It’s time for a dose.
They lift me with cold, rubber-gloved hands and strap me to the gurney. The straps cut into my legs and arms, and the one around my forehead is too tight, but I don’t fight it anymore, because what’s the point?
I count the lights in the hall.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
They slide me and the thin pad I’m strapped to into the chamber. Curved glass arches over me, a few inches from my face, and it’s bright in the room beyond. The doctor and his two assistants arrive, wearing the same Hazmat suits my captors always wear. Silver infinity symbols are stamped across their chests: the logo for the corporation that’s become my judge and jury, and will be my executioner—if I ever die.
Maybe I’ll get lucky, and it’ll happen today.
Dr. Dalton looks down at me in his detached way, deep lines creasing around his watery eyes as he plans his next round of torture. He hands the scanner to one of his men. “Scan it, Mr. Monroe. Let’s see what kind of training you got up at Corporate.”
Monroe grabs my wrist through a slot in my glass coffin and scans the silicone disc embedded beneath my skin. “318. Confirmed.”
Monroe’s gaze finds mine by accident, and I hold it, willing him to truly see me. But he averts his green eyes. New eyes, those. I’ve never seen them before. Yet for some reason they trigger memories of a boy—a blond, his features hazy in my mind—and my heart twists.
Did Anders look like that? All I remember is that he betrayed me, exposed me for what I really am: not human, yet trying to hide among them. A little flicker of anger ignites in my chest. If I ever see Anders again, I’ll make sure he suffers as much as I have.
“Full body analysis,” Dalton says, sounding bored.
I squint against the bright rainbow of colors that ripple over my body and bite back a gasp as the needle plunges into my right calf, stealing my blood.
“Temperature normal,” Farrow says. “No sign of any pathogens.”
Monroe clears his throat. “Doctor, I thought I was here to assess adult patients. She’s a… a child.”
“Not she, Monroe. It. 318, if it needs a name. 318 is an abomination—not our species. Don’t ever forget that.”
Monroe looks back at me. “How old is… it?”
“Nearly seventeen. Not a child at all.”
Monroe nods, averting his eyes again. “I’ll need a few minutes alone with the—with 318.”
Dalton holds up a hand. “This is my laboratory—”
“You mean Infinitek’s laboratory,” Monroe interrupts. “And they sent me here, per the new Protected rights regulations.”
“You and I both know that vote was just a PR stunt. It should have no bearing on this lab. I’m going to call—” He shakes his head with a grunt. “I don’t have time for this. You’ve got two minutes. That's it.”
Farrow and Dalton retreat, leaving Monroe alone. My heart beats faster as he stares down at me through the glass.
He’s looking at me in the way that all real humans used to look at me, and I don't understand why.
“How do you feel?” He pauses, then leans closer. “Can you talk?”
“Yes.” I force myself to speak, my voice coming out rusty from disuse.
His eyes soften, and I detect emotion there, but my brain’s scrambling to understand the meaning behind it.
“What’s your name?”
His brow creases. “Do you like being called 318?”
“It’s my name."
“Were you ever called something else?”
“I’ve always been 318.”
His eyes grow cold, and somehow I know the look isn’t for me, but for what I just said.
“How do you feel?” he asks again.
I pause. “I don’t feel.”
The door slides open. “That’s enough, Monroe,” Dalton says. “We have a dozen others to dose, and I don’t have all day.”
I shut my eyes, but soon enough, Farrow's pushing her hands through the slot to grab my arm, holding it steady so Dalton can line up the needle. Cold metal slides into my skin, and I wince at the pain, at the pressure of the liquid entering me.
“Record,” Dalton says. “June 26th, 2073, 8:43 a.m. 318 receives triple-dose Ebola. Single- and double-dose vials had no effect. Strain origin: 2044 pandemic.”
Will I feel the effects of this one? Most have no effect until they give me a triple dose or higher. And even then, it’s a twelve-hour fever or cold. And no matter how much I wish for it, none of the vials ever kill me.
Maybe today, my mind teases me.
“Farrow,” Dalton says, “adjust the machine to run a scan every twenty minutes for eight hours. If there’s no response, return 318 to its cell, and we’ll administer a quad dose tomorrow.”
“How long does 318 have before autoimmunity sets in?” Monroe is staring at me again, but this time, I’m the one who looks away.
“It varies,” Dalton waves a hand dismissively. “Twelve to eighteen months, usually, but we’ve had 318 for two years. It's resilient, but I don’t expect it to live much longer.”
Another stabbing pain shoots through my leg as the machine takes more blood. The scanner's rainbow light floods my vision, and I close my eyes.
When the cycle stops, the room is dark and empty. I try to sleep, but every twenty minutes the needle and lights awaken me. When the fever takes me, I almost welcome it, until a sharp ache begins to radiate through me—tearing through my nerves, settling in my bones. It’s pain like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I’m on fire, and I can’t breathe as I struggle against my restraints, soaking the bed with sweat. At some point I lose control of my bowels, but I have no shame. I'll relish the disgust on their faces when they have to sanitize my body.
Hours pass, but no one comes for me.
I’m Snow White in my glass coffin, dead but still alive. But Snow didn’t shake with fever and lie in her own shit, did she? Tears stream down my cheeks as another cycle of light washes over me. My mind tries to fly away, but it doesn’t get far.
My hand is wrapped in my mother’s warmer one as the trucks bring us into the Protected camps. The skies are gray, and a light rain that never stops churns the dirt beneath our feet to mud. The little ones play in it, kicking a half-deflated, neon green ball between them.
We stand in long lines for the quin sludge they feed us, and soldiers with guns peer down on us from high platforms.
“We’re keeping you here to protect you,” they say, “Mobs kill your kind out there, but inside these walls you’re safe.”
One day I fetch our rations, and when I get back, my mother’s bleeding in our tent, her skull caved in. I cry out for help, and guards come, uncaring, to haul her body away and overwrite her camp record.
“317,” a soldier says, “Blunt trauma to skull. Status: Deceased.”
They move me to a bright, warm cell, give me better food, and tell me I’m safe now.
Another wave of pain shoots through me, and I swear I can smell the scent of wet earth again as I slide into darkness. Maybe I'm being buried.
It feels like days have passed when the Hazmats finally take me out of the glass case to clean me up. I’m too tired to enjoy the disgust on their faces as they cut my stinking gown off with scissors and dunk me in ice cold water.
I gasp, but settle in, too fevered to complain. Darkness and exhaustion threaten to take me, but no one will let me sleep. Dalton’s talking somewhere, his voice too loud.
“Triple dose broke the threshold. None of the other subjects responded like this. The antibodies 318 is producing are exactly what we need. We’ll dose it again if we don’t get enough.”
“Why wouldn’t it be enough?” A tight voice. A name floats through my fevered mind. Monroe.
“It’s fighting the exact strain that’s resurfaced in the European epidemic,” Dalton says. “318 might provide the cure before the virus gets here. We need as much serum as we can get.”
“Is it worth losing a test subject?”
Dalton lets out an abrupt laugh. “Don’t you realize how many of us we’ll save through the loss of just one subject?”
The Hazmats lift me from the bath, dry me with stiff towels, and don’t bother to dress me again. I’m strapped naked to a fresh pad, and they slide me back into my coffin.
Monroe asks to speak to me alone again. As I gaze up at him through the glass, his masked face blurs before me, and for a second he looks like others I’ve known. Others who betrayed me.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“318.” My voice is weak, my mouth parched, lips cracked.
“Do you like being called 318?”
“It’s my name,” I say.
“Were you ever called something else?”
“I’ve always been 318.”
“And how are you feeling?” he asks again.
My body is dying, but the rest of me is numb. “I don’t feel.”
Then it all begins again.
Darkness mixes with rainbow light. The heat is unbearable, and the taste of blood on my lips is bitter—salt and metal. As the fog over my mind lifts, my stomach heaves at the stench of my own piss and shit.
Dalton’s voice raises me from yet another twenty-minute slumber. “We have what we need.”
I open my eyes, and I see them in my peripheral vision, standing off to the side of my glass prison. Farrow’s talking, but I can barely make out her words. “Autoimmunity… immune system failing.”
“More days… pathogen-free,” Dalton replies. “Euthanize.”
My stomach clenches at the words. Euthanize. Autoimmunity means death. Mine. Why doesn’t the thought bring relief? Haven’t I wished for this nightmare to end?
Soon the machine says I’m pathogen-free, and when Hazmats clean me up, I try to enjoy their obvious revulsion. But I can't. I can't forget what I heard.
Monroe requests a private visit with me again, and I don’t know why I care, but I’m suddenly grateful to the Hazmats for remembering to dress me in a fresh gown. When Monroe’s green eyes meet mine through the glass barrier, my heart speeds up a little, and I feel warmth spread in my cheeks.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“318.” My voice is strong. Confident.
“Do you like being called 318?”
“It’s my name.”
He looks away for a moment, and when he turns back, my stomach drops. His eyes are distant now, empty. Like Farrow’s and Dalton’s.
“Were you ever called something else?” he asks, his voice flat.
I want to give him the answer he wants, so he’ll look at me like he did before, but I don’t know how. “I’ve always been 318.”
“And how are you feeling?” The words are abrupt, clipped short.
I’m feeling more than I’ve felt in a long time. Much more. I hesitate, swallowing, then I meet his eyes. “I feel like I want out of this damn box… Monroe.”
His eyes widen, and he blinks fast and glances toward the door. When he looks back at me, there’s a shine to his eyes.
What would it feel like if he removed his glove and reached his bare hand into the box to grasp mine? My hand warms at the imagined touch, but I can’t remember what someone’s skin on mine actually feels like.
“Monroe,” Farrow calls from the front of the lab. “Dalton wants you in lab C.”
The Hazmats take me back to my cell, and my chest expands at the sight of my familiar cot and the steaming tray of food on the small table. I sleep and wake several times before the light comes on and a Hazmat brings me another tray of food.
It’s Monroe, holding the tray out before him, not dropping it on my table like he’s supposed to. I wait for a minute, breathing fast, and when it’s clear he expects me to come get the tray, I carefully step closer, my pulse a dull roar in my ears.
As my hand wraps around one edge of the tray, he speaks. “318.”
I freeze, then risk looking up at him. “Yes?”
My heart’s pumping so hard, I think it might explode.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice soft.
“Sorry?” The concept of that word—in this place—is foreign, and my mind can’t make sense of it.
“You’re not an ‘it,’” he says. “You’re a person, a human who should be treated—”
“I’m not.” I try to step back, but he grabs my wrist, wrapping his rubbery glove around the spot where my silicone disc is embedded.
“Of course you are.”
Confusion tears through me, and I shake my head.
“You’re genetically modified, yes… and the Protected gene therapy had some side effects they didn’t like, but… You aren’t perfect, but none of the people who did this to you are, either.”
I want him to be a liar, but his words trigger something in my mind, and all I want for him to do is keep talking. My eyes burn, and I rub them with my free hand, then stare down at a teardrop on my finger.
A voice is whispering in my mind. The truth.
You’re not Protected. You’re Defective.
“You’re wrong," I say, my voice breaking. "I’m defective."
“No. They’re defective.” His voice is hard, angry. “They’d have died a million times over from the diseases they’ve given you. Your superimmunity is a gift. You’re special and strong, not defective.”
I shake my head back and forth and try to pull my wrist away, but he holds it tight. Panic fills me, and the room seems to tilt.
“I’m 318 and—”
“Your name is Alexia Drago.”
I go still, and he releases me. I slowly turn, my eyes seeking the letters carved into the wall behind my cot.
I stumble back to my bed to trace the letters with my fingertips as I’ve done so many times before.
I hear Monroe drop my tray on the table, and I feel his presence at my back. Emotions run through me, a chaotic mix of shock and grief—of fear… and rage. I clench my hands into fists, and heat spreads through me as I turn back to him.
“I... am Lex.”
He angles his body in front of me, closer to my bed, blocking my view of the camera affixed to the top corner of my cell. “I’m like you, Lex. I’m a Protected, too.”
My breath catches, and I can’t answer. I can’t even comprehend someone like me—working with them. “But—”
“I’m not one of them—I’m working against them. From the inside,” he says, his voice low. “Would you leave here if I helped you get out?
Leave here. The thought of leaving here makes my lungs seize, and I struggle to find the breath to respond. “Go back to the camp?”
“No,” he says quickly. “Somewhere else. Somewhere safer.”
I slowly nod, unable to speak, scarcely believing what's happening.
He bends forward to quickly slide something beneath my pillow. “It’s a syringe. A sedative. If a medic comes to give you a sedative tonight, inject them instead. I’ll handle the rest. Just wait for me in your cell. I’ll come get you.”
Once he leaves, I lie awake, my heart pounding too fast for sleep, the syringe clutched in one sweaty palm beneath my blanket.
More memories are coming back. A warm breeze on my cheek, the scent of summer and sun. My mother, baking in the kitchen, the scent of chocolate chip cookies wafting through our house. My brain shrinks away from it all, and I choke back a sob. It’s too painful. And now that I can feel again—I feel everything.
Everything they did to me.
I’m human, yet they treated me like some animal. They used me up, and now they want to throw me away.
I hate them. I hate them so much.
Monroe is right. I’m superior to them, not defective. They fear me, yet they need me to help save themselves.
I’m breathing too fast when the door to my cell slides open, and I have to try to calm myself, slow my breath so they don’t know I’m awake. Is it Monroe, come to free me—or a Hazmat with a sedative?
Or something... worse?
I ready the syringe just in case and peek through my lashes as the light comes on. I can tell right away by the man’s stance and his stooped shoulders that it’s not Monroe.
The Hazmat comes closer, and I see his watery, lined eyes.
I lurch up on my cot, and he steps back, surprised that I’m awake. Adrenaline races through me, and I ready the syringe in my grasp. Something must have happened to Monroe. Why else would Dalton be here? He’s never come in here before.
“You’ve served your purpose, 318,” Dalton says, his voice calm. “I need a fresh host, and I can’t get one unless I have an available cell.”
As he approaches, I see a look in his eyes that I've seen before. He relishes the power he has over me. He enjoys my fear.
He opens his gloved fist, revealing the syringe he holds there, and I jerk away, pressing my back to the wall, keeping the sedative I hold hidden. I can feel the jagged edges of my real name against my back.
He grabs my arm roughly, expecting no resistance. I let out a scream and jab my syringe into his arm, hard, pushing it through layers of thick plastic. Then I empty it into him.
His eyes widen with shock, then his eyelids begin to flutter. The syringe he holds clatters to the floor as he sinks to his knees. He wavers there for a moment, then falls face down on the tile. He’s passed out.
I’m breathing fast, and my pulse buzzes loudly in my skull as I stand on shaking legs. I glance toward the door, then back at Dalton.
Monroe said to wait here. But the small fire in my belly burns brighter, and rage replaces my fear.
I have the power, and Dalton is at my mercy.
I strip off his suit and see his whole face for the first time. He’s so old and frail.
I break out in a sweat as I drag his heavy, limp body across my cell. His access card is still attached to his suit, so I scan it. The door slides open to reveal an empty hall beyond.
Fear tries to paralyze me, but I fight it off by calling up my anger again. I drag Dalton out into the empty hallway and as I struggle to pull him across the cold tiles, I lift my sweat-soaked face to the ceiling.
I count the lights.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
A thrill shoots through me, and I know I need to hurry if I want to do this before Monroe gets here. Something tells me he won’t approve.
It takes every ounce of strength and adrenaline I have to drag Dalton into the lab and strap him into my glass coffin.
I suppress a smile and grab a syringe from the drawer. As I open the cabinet, cool air rushes over me, and I shiver. Which one do I need? It’s been so long since I’ve had to read anything that it takes a minute for my mind to decode the symbols on the vials.
The mind may bury what it can’t handle remembering—but it never fully forgets.
Ebola. Strain Origin: 2044 Pandemic.
I lift the Ebola vial and attach it to the syringe. I’m grinning now as I whirl and nearly skip back to the glass chamber where my victim lies. When I push my hands through the slots on the side of the case to grab his arm, his eyelids flutter.
It’s so strange, my skin against his. How many times have I imagined what it'd be like to feel the warmth of another person’s bare touch again? Not in my wildest dreams could I have pictured this.
I plunge the needle into his arm, savoring the moment, and his eyes flutter open as I empty the vial into him. I lean over the glass and meet his gaze, so he knows exactly who killed him.
His disorientation fades as he recognizes me. “318,” he croaks out.
"Lex," I say softly.
His eyes widen, and he struggles against his restraints, but I did a good job strapping him down. I’ve had hundreds of chances to learn how to do it right.
He's shouting now, but his screams are muffled by the glass. I don’t blink. I just watch and wait. The virus is moving through him, and the pain will soon be unbearable.
“Lex! What are you doing in here? We have to leave now. Transport’s waiting.”
I turn to find Monroe at the door. He’s not wearing a Hazmat suit, and for the first time I get to see what he looks like. He has short, light brown hair, and a stricken expression mars the sharp angles of his handsome face.
Dalton’s cries grow more desperate, and I look at him one last time, at the delicious terror on his face, trying to memorize this moment. Then I lick my dry lips and turn back to Monroe. I can tell my behavior’s scaring him, but I don’t care.
“What have you done?” He says each word slowly, like he’s afraid to hear my answer.
I smile. “Don’t you realize how many of us we’ll save through the loss of just one subject?”