THE TEAR CATCHERS

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Chapter 11: The Gene Hunter

The promotional spots covering the hallway are filled with transformations. A fledgling college student is suddenly acing his midterms, scoring what appears to be the winning point of an athletic contest, dating a girl with Greek letters written on her t-shirt, and interning at a major law firm, all of it with a pharmaceutically induced swagger. A mother of three, too listless to get out of bed in the morning, now finds the enthusiasm to ride her bicycle through a field of dandelions and paint beautiful works of art. A man with no shoes and rolled-up sleeves can now stroll along the beach his wife, not having to worry about those frequent, embarrassing trips to the bathroom. Yes, it’s a whole new world, thanks to Proofstock Biomedicine.

If Greymore were a drug, his side effects would include dizziness, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, difficulty concentrating, and impaired judgement, yet somehow it’s all worth it when he touches your cheek and whispers your name, like it was carved in his soul. Or when he talks about the things he loves, as if building something, one stone at a time, until a beautiful tower takes shape in your mind.

I would take the drug every day, if it meant I could see the world the way he does, in hazy watercolors. Sometimes you don’t know you have a disease, until the cure presents itself, that’s what the Proofstock company slogan says, anyway. I want to see Greymore again more than anything, but not like this. I mean, how do you tell the person who means everything to you they’re about to be incinerated?

The conference rooms on the twenty-eighth floor empty, their guests lingering outside, exchanging pleasantries and handshakes. A bodyguard near the end of the hallway spots me, looking out of breath and out of place in my red sweatshirt. He reaches inside the breast of his coat, his fingers probably locked around the handle of his ion gun. A line of Rivegans file past the bodyguard, into the elevator. And for a moment, I see him – Greymore, disappearing behind a cluster of negotiators, advisors, and attorneys in drab suits, like the sun falling behind dark clouds. The bodyguard waits till they’re all inside, then backs in after them, never taking his eyes off me as the doors slip shut.

I glance down at my tracker: the drone is still circling, scanning DNA signatures up and down the floors of the Proofstock corporate offices, zeroing in on the right one. Conrad pulled a sample of Greymore’s blood from the front of Zander’s van and used it to program the bomb’s bio-locater. Once Greymore leaves the building, the drone will find him much quicker. I have to get to him before he reaches the street. With protestors still outside, his bodyguard will take Greymore out through the parking carousel. The lights around me go dead, and the mechanical whir of the elevator quiets, probably from a pulse given off by the drone. It must be close. I fling open the emergency door and race down the stairs.

When Greymore first saw me, in the synth club with that scavenger, he could have walked away. It was the smart course of action. But Greymore chose to save me, and I won’t let Atherton kill him for that. A soft wind blows across my face, whistling all kinds of notes on its way down the stairwell. My feet pound the steps, the railing beneath my hand my only compass. I’m not sure how far I’ve gone, but the time it’s taken feels significant. Hospice units have probably emptied since I started down these stairs. Babies were probably born, and coastlines worn away. Wars played, sports tournaments fought. I’m too late, I know it.

I sit over the steps, the muscles around my lungs taxed to their limit. My limbs feel like blocks of granite. My blood like tar. Right now, my heart pumps as quickly as it possibly can or ever will, but why? The moment I discovered where I belong, the whole world crumbled beneath me as easily as I bit through the skin of that apple.

Then I see Greymore’s hand smacking the limo glass as I roll away, one half of a splintered heart drawn across the tattoo over his wrist. Behind him, the flames from his apartment building brush the night sky. Greymore needs me. My heart beats for him. I can’t let him down, not this time.

I see a girl who tried to make herself a ghost, but she failed, because the fire inside burned too brightly. I see an angel with clipped wings, who fell into my world when I needed her the most and gave me the strength to be who I was meant to be.

Greymore’s voice whispers me through the chasm. He’s the only thing keeping the darkness at bay, and I can’t lose him. A cluster of warm bodies carrying briefcases smacks into me, sending a jolt through me that somehow stills my shaking limbs. I push my way through and burst out of the stairwell.

Are you okay, the parking attendant asks me. I stare at him a moment. I’m most certainly not okay. I squandered too much time on those stairs, and now Greymore will suffer the consequences. Headlights sweep over me. I turn around. An armored transport hovers to a stop at my knees. The back window slides down, and a young girl with blond curls sticks out her head.

“Tessa, is that you?” the girl asks. “I’m glad to see you’re okay. We’ve been so very worried about you.”

When my eyes adjust to the light, I recognize her face and the fear immediately loosens its grip. “Summer,” I blurt out, resting my hands over my knees, waiting for the clouds of breath to grow longer so I can get more than a single word out. “Summer, is Greymore in there with you?”

“He’s in the other car.” Summer smiles, her fingers fumbling with the torch suspended from the chain around her neck. “They’re just ahead of us. If you hurry, you can still catch him. Just don’t –”

Before she can finish, I’m already chasing hovering markers, to a spear of sunlight tearing through the dark fabric at the exit. Oddly enough, the light gets smaller the closer I get. The security tech shouts something at me as I squeeze through the closing bay doors, probably a warning, but there’s no time to mind him.

One of the doors snags the sleeve of my sweatshirt. I tug and twist, until the sleeve rips, flinging me to the street as the doors snap shut behind me. Sunlight strikes my eyes, the ultraviolet rays shrinking my pupils, warping the faces of the protestors in all sorts of unexpected ways. I snake my way through their picket signs and paint cans, until I get swept up by the crowd, into the window of a town car inching out onto Section Street.

A man with a gun, the same bodyguard I saw at the elevator, leaps from the front seat and slams me over a car hood sheathed in pulse-resistant panels, pressing the gun barrel against the side of my head. “Get away from the car. All of you!”

“Stop, let her go,” a voice cries out. Greymore steps from the backseat, his hand clutching the side of his head, mirroring my pain. “She’s with me.”

The bodyguard lets me go. Greymore touches the side of my head. Are you okay, he asks. I am now.

Greymore waves off the bodyguard and pulls me into the back of the town car. I can feel the dusty sealed-off rooms of my hypothalamus lighting up again. His body burns at a different intensity than when I last touched him. Back then, he felt like a thunderstorm, all hot and fragile. Now, he’s more like October rain.

“Seeing you again stirs my heart,” he says, studying me closely, both our brains trying to decode whether or not this is a dream. “When I came home that night –”

I quiet him with a hug, his scent fueling me with the same high I’ve been trying so hard to expel from my brain chemistry. If Greymore came attached with a warning label, I never saw it. Then again, I probably should’ve read in his eyes that he was habit-forming. I feel the stormy energy rushing back to him, filling my blood with sunny neurotransmitters. He feels warm and bright and alive again, and after a few seconds, so does the rest of the world. I pull away from him, letting the dopamine in my brain reshuffle before breaking the news to him.

“What happened to your tattoo?” Geymore stares down at the blank canvas on my arm. “Something’s wrong. Did Atherton do something to you?”

“There’s not much time,” I say, folding his hand into mine. “Atherton thinks you stole our blood. Now, he means to take yours. Blood for blood, that’s what he said.”

“Tessa, I destroyed your blood sample. You believe me, don’t you?”

“Of course, but once Atherton decides a course of action, he never reverses.”

“And he’s ordered someone to kill me?”

“Not a person.” Greymore follows my eyes up to the ceiling of the car.

“How close is it?”

I hold up the drone tracker so he can read the display.

Greymore reaches around me and pushes open the door. “Go, Tessa, right now!”

“No.” I pull the door shut again. “Whatever fate you suffer will be mine, too.”

“It’s too late, there’s nothing you can do,” he says, his eyes searching the clouds for his executioner. “Please, just go.”

“I don’t need a tattoo to know what’s in my heart. The night of the merger party, I was the one who tried to end my own life.” I unbutton his sleeve and trace my fingers along the scar over his arm. “Yet you carry the scar. Can two people be more bound than that?”

Greymore hangs his head. “Please don’t do this.”

“We need to get to the Tearcatcher bank,” I say, sending the directions to the town car’s computer. “The DNA vault will block your photon emission. The drone won’t be able to see you there.”

“That’s six kilometers away. We won’t make it.”

“Yes, we will.” I draw his chin towards me, forcing him to look at me. There’s a chorus of screams outside. The protestors scatter as they gaze up at the windowless, faceless cockpit of the urban drone floating high above. “Get in the front.”

“Why?”

“This will go a lot better if you just trust me,” I say, stuffing all my doubts behind my strongest stare.

Greymore swings open the door and disappears. What if he just runs? What if he gives up on us, the way I did that night Atherton and Conrad showed up at our apartment? A second later, the driver side door opens, answering my question.

Greymore and I, bonded in life and death.

The bodyguard hammers the window with his fists. We’ll have to triple the speed limit, I tell Greymore, making the auto drive useless. He starts the boosters and engages the manual drive. A driverless taxi swerves around us, sounding its proximity alarm, as we zip out into the nearest lane of bottom traffic.

Through the sonic-proof rear glass of the town car, I see the payload separate from the drone. Greymore makes the first turn too quickly, throwing me against the door, dipping the car to its side. The door beneath me pops open and scrapes the pavement. I grab the safety strap to keep from tumbling out, sparks jumping at my feet. A police car looms at the curb ahead.

Greymore twists the wheel with both hands and levels the car back over the street. I tug the door shut, watching shock bleed across the patrolman’s face as I flit past his window. His siren squawks and a xenon light sweeps through our windshield, burning the whole backseat midnight blue.

We make an upward merge, pulling us between the middle lane air markers, where traffic is lightest. Greymore makes the second turn with less velocity.

The bio-missile punches through the steel bones of a skyscraper as it turns to follow us, burrowing through the upper floors, before crashing through a window and exiting the other side of the building. Hot shrapnel and glass shards tumble over the squad car below us. The patrolman jumps out and stares up into the sky, spellbound by the flashing impact sensor at the pointed nose of the missile. It’s way too close. Greymore’s right – we’ll never make it.

“Pull on your harness,” he warns me.

“No, you missed the turn.” I hook my thumb over my shoulder. “You’re not following the directions.”

“We have to improvise,” Greymore says, turning the wheel and swerving us around a lane marker into the thin layers of glass swaddling an office tower. We crash through the spinning blades of the climate window, bouncing us onto the third floor, where there appears to be a new hire orientation going on, according to a sign on the wall. They drop their cups and their work tablets, jumping from our path as we zoom by.

There’s a crash above us, and a low rumbling. Thin cracks spread across the ceiling, branching towards us and spilling dust all around. Interlocking tiles slam to the ground behind us. The missile punches through the crater left in the ceiling and follows us through a row of work stations. The town car clips the edge of one, starting a chain reaction that collapses the flimsy walls as if they were dollhouses, sending the occupants diving out onto the floor.

I turn back to Greymore and see a cascading escalator enclosed in a tube of glass rushing at us from the other side. My nervous hands fumble for the safety straps. There’s an explosion of glass as we burst through the tube, cutting across a thick stream of air traffic outside. The town car boosters stutter and go dead. Greymore pumps the accelerator, but nothing happens. I close my eyes and wait for the impact.

My spine rattles and my head snaps forward. When I open my eyes again, the taxis and the billboards and the vendors on the street spin clockwise until the whole world is inverted. The sound of crunching metal shoots through my ear. The world keeps spinning, setting us upright again. It happens two more times, before the town car finally settles, right side up, at street level. I glance out the rear window and see the missile tunnel out of the office tower behind us. There’s a bit more distance between us and the bomb now, but not enough.

“Release counter mist,” Greymore commands. A red cloud sprays from the town car’s rear exhaust. “It’s laced with synthetic DNA markers. Should buy us a few more seconds.”

Head throbbing, ears ringing, I glance around at the street signs to get our bearings. “Where will a few more seconds get us?”

“There!” Greymore points to a line of train tracks crossing the road ahead. He hits the accelerator again, and the boosters spark to life. We turn beneath the green marker lights and follow the mag tracks to an arched corridor. A second later, the dark portal swallows us. “This tunnel, it goes under the Hudson.”

“I just knew we’d make it,” I say, rubbing his shoulders and kissing the back of his neck. Normally, gliding through a dark void doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but being here with Greymore, it feels like we’re just on a date that took a really odd turn.

“There’s no one like you, Tessa, you can make anything happen.” Greymore smiles for the first time in our hasty reunion. “I’d be a radioactive skeleton if it weren’t for you. How did you ever get away?

“Things are different now, since the DNA leak. Atherton’s become paranoid. I’m one of the few people he trusts. He’s given me more freedom.” A high-pitched wail fills the tunnel. I glance over Greymore’s shoulder and see a tiny disc of light chasing away the darkness ahead.

“Don’t worry,” Greymore says, pulling down on the lever beside him. “It’s going away from us. We’ll just have to go a little slower.”

Greymore makes everything okay. The sound of his voice is like a warm hug, but I swear, it looks like the train is getting closer. A few seconds ago, all I could make out was a blur of light, now I can see a glowing J marked above the front window. The lines creasing Greymore’s forehead tell me he sees it, too.

“I took the right tunnel, I’m certain of it,” Greymore says, his voice a little too high to be convincing. “We should be going in the same direction, to the Jersey province.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I say, the crack in my voice too obvious to be convincing.

Dust kicks up all around us. We’re close enough now to see a warning sensor on the train morph from a green smiley face to a red frowning face. Greymore stabs a couple of buttons on the dashboard, slowing the boosters, then sending them turning in the opposite direction. The town car heaves backwards, but the rail between us and the train shrivels. I can feel the cortisol sloshing through my head.

This is the sort of moment where I should say something meaningful, but my mind is flipping channels way too fast to single out any one thought in particular. I blurt out the first one my mind locks onto. “Greymore, I’m sorry Atherton burned down your apartment.”

“It’s okay, it wasn’t your fault.”

“I saved your sweatshirt.” I’m talking way too fast, my words keeping time with the slapping of my pulse. “You can have it back if you want.”

“No, you hold on to it,” Greymore says, his frantic eyes tracing the path of the guideway behind me. “I’m sorry I lied and said that tree I painted wasn’t a picture of you.”

The train touches off a shockwave among the tiny bones of my middle ear, funneling the vibrations down through my inner ear, electrical energy pulsing out the other side along the auditory nerve to my brain, where the sound arrives as an ear-splitting train horn. “Greymore!”

Greymore jerks the wheel, scraping us against the side of the tunnel, and kills the boosters. The town car clunks to the ground in a circle of sparks, the passenger side tilted against the tunnel wall. The mag train barrels past the tops of our heads, an end-to-end flash of steel and crudely-painted images, the faces behind the train windows too hypnotized by the holographic marketing messages to even notice us.

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