THE TEAR CATCHERS

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Chapter 15: The Crying Festival

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to drift through the highest rings of family power. To be included in the conversations that give the world its shape, and be the one they all stare at with curiosity because you’re three steps ahead. I used to look at the closed doors on the top floor of the estate and imagine myself with a seat in one of the chambers.

Now that I’ve got one, I wish I was back on the other side. Here on this side, every outcome is weighed against a thousand different metrics. Every potential universe annihilated and rebuilt to best suit the Tearcatcher brand. People are variables in a regression equation, their value haggled over like items at a yard sale. It’s a logic fail to envy those who hold power in my family, just as it would be for a first draft to envy me because I was born a Tearcatcher.

After I grabbed that needle from my pocket, I raced straight to the lab, where I isolated the DNA and replicated each segment millions of times with a polymerase chain reaction. T63 markers never lie, and the markers I found told me Greymore didn’t steal my blood.

I was so excited to have Greymore back on the sunny side of my brain, I marched straight to Atherton’s office and explained how a sample of the black market DNA that’s been making first drafts ill had found its way into my hands, leaving out the particulars of course. When I told him what I had discovered from the results, Atherton invited me to present my findings to the Council of Generations, a highly secret committee represented by one member of every Tearcatcher generation. Just give them the test results, he told me, don’t offer my interpretation. Keep things brief and on subject.

When I first walked in and the page directed me to a seat in the back of the parlor, I was sweating through my bio-skin dress, cuing the reactive bacteria to thin out and allow the fabric to breathe more. They looked so intimidating up there, each of their throne-like chairs raised to a different height by mechanical lifts according to their seniority. A portrait of each member projects on the wall above their chair. Not of their faces, but of their genetic fingerprints, laid out in elegant multi-colored grids. Westfall’s is the only portrait missing, his empty chair beneath the blank space on the wall draped in black.

I’ve been sitting here for an hour now, listening to them bicker about anything and everything falling beneath the umbrella of Tearcatcher business. My knees bounce with anticipation, and I fold them beneath me to still them. Finally, the page summons me to stand and leads me to the speaker’s circle.

“Alright, next on the schedule, we have Tessa Tearcatcher presenting evidence regarding the source of our recent DNA leak,” says Bathurst, repositioning his prosthetic mandible. At 183 years old, his chair sits the highest of them all. The wrinkles and dents make his face look more like dry paint scraped off a canvas than skin. “Whenever you’re ready, young lady.”

“It’s an honor to speak before this committee.” My words come out muted, the membranes in my throat having run dry a good 20 minutes ago. “The shadow of war looms over us all.”

“I’m sorry, young lady, I didn’t quite hear you,” Bathurst says, drawing a long breath from his oxygen mask. “You’ll have to speak up.”

The page fills a goblet and sets it over the stand beside me. The cool water soothes the rub in my throat. I glance behind me at Atherton, who offers a nod of encouragement. Deep breaths, Tessa, keep it brief and on subject.

“Forgive me, chairman, the shadow of war looms over us all. It’s my hope that what I present will bring an end to our feud with the Rivegans.”

“There’s no need to raise your voice, young lady, we’re sitting right here in front of you. And there’s no need to stand on ceremony in this chamber, just speak to us as you would any other colleague,” the eldest one says, prompting me to continue with the swing of his wrist.

“Yes, chairman,” I say, motioning to the page, who taps a button, filling the space beside me with a holographic image of the DNA sample. “This analysis, verified by two separate teams, shows the illegal DNA did not come from any profile in the Tearcatcher genetic bank.”

“Did I hear you correctly?” he asks, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, doubling the number of cracks in his face. “You’re saying the Tearcatchers have been absolved in the matter of this leak? That’s excellent news.”

“Forgive me, chairman, allow me to clarity speak. DNA typing of the sample shows it came from the cells of a Tearcatcher, just not one registered in our family vault.”

“How can that be?” Bathurst asks, his smile quickly fraying. “The DNA of every family member has been carefully archived and stored.”

Behind me, Atherton springs out of his chair, crossing his wrists in the shape of an X and tapping them together in front of his chest.

“Very well, the council acknowledges our CEO, Atherton Tearcatcher,” Bathurst declares. What is Atherton doing? I thought he wanted me to present the findings.

“If the council is agreeable, I would like to submit a memory scan that will explain this contradiction,” Atherton says.

“Submit what you like, Atherton, as long as someone here starts makings sense.”

“Play the footage,” Atherton tells the page, who quickly replaces the DNA image with an episode from my own personal horror movie.

Things look bad for the heroine in this particular scene. She’s being dragged out of a dingy club, half-conscious, into a dark alley by a man with a shaved head and the markings of a convict. The scene ends with a handsome stranger, and his bloodthirsty little brother, coming to her aid. It’s a playback of Zander’s memory, the same one Fallkirk showed us at the police house, only this time, there’s no shadow blotting out my face.

“Would you care to tell us what we’re looking at?” Bathurst asks, squinting and leaning forward in his chair.

“Perhaps Tessa would like to narrate this playback.” Atherton turns and stares at me with cold, lifeless eyes. “After all, she’s the principle subject of this memory.”

If this were one of Greymore’s old films, this would be the part where the ticking clock finally runs out. The part where spotlights are flung on all secrets, revealing each character for who they truly are. The wicked get punished, the just are redeemed, and the credits roll. It’s all over for me now, my sins about to be laid at my feet, as I knew they would. Weirdly enough, that thing that Camilla said runs through my brain again:

When you think the stone they just stacked on your shoulders is about to crush you, just say thank you and ask for another. What you’re feeling inside, keep it locked in a box of iron and bury it ten feet deep, because you can’t use it right now.

“Since Tessa is at a loss for words, allow me to narrate on her behalf. This is a memory scan taken from a scavenger named Alexander Prophet. It shows our own sister, Tessa Tearcatcher, with a Rivegan named Greymore on the night they met, 9 months, 24 days, and 18 hours ago.” Atherton turns to make sure the memory has finished playing. “Display the next hologram, please.”

The page taps the button again, swapping out Zander’s memory with a copy of a signed contract that scrolls on for pages.

“This a lease agreement on an apartment building where I found Tessa living a few weeks later.” Atherton sweeps his hand in front of the hologram, highlight three words at the bottom. “The lease is held by Shadow Court Properties, one of the many holding companies owned exclusively by the Rivegan family. Next, please.”

As quickly as it pops up, Atherton pinches his fingers over the next hologram, aerial footage taken outside the Proofstock building. The drone’s eye zooms in on a swarm of protestors, before finding me, squeezing through the crowd to a limousine parked on the street. “This is Tessa, not three days ago, interfering with priority Tearcatcher business to save her beloved Greymore from a scheduled drone attack.”

The page taps the button one more time, replacing the drone’s surveillance with the original DNA image.

“And this DNA sample Tessa was kind enough to bring us originated from an infant conceived by Tessa and Greymore, an unauthorized child whose DNA would not appear in the Tearcatcher family bank.”

You have to admire Atherton’s showmanship. He laid an exquisite trap, now he and his audience get to watch me squirm in it. I won’t give him what he wants. Shoulders back and eyes cool as an autumn breeze, I smile at him.

“A Rivegan and a Tearcatcher lying together. A Tearcatcher child of no sanctioned generation poisoning the first drafts against us.” The mechanical lift lowers Bathurst’s seat to the floor. The old man rises to his feet, bracing his right leg against his cane. “These are serious accusations. We have not yet heard from the accused.”

“I believe the silence speaks her truth,” Atherton says.

“Let the girl speak her own truth. She is a Tearcatcher, and she has the right to be heard in this chamber. What do you have to say, young lady?” Bathurst limps across the room, standing nose to nose with me. “Did you bare a child with this Rivegan?”

I stand there, unafraid. I’ve felt a love they couldn’t possibly imagine, even with their perfect brains, and a cruelty I wouldn’t wish upon any of them. I’ve lived in palaces and tenements. I’ve drank from cups of silver and walked among the first drafts. All the collective years among them, and what do they know? They sit in judgement of me, and I sit in judgement of them. Of their cruel, sterile existence.

“Very well,” Bathurst whispers, his sad eyes finally leaving me.

Atherton walks over to Conrad and reaches into the holster slung around his shoulder. Atherton returns to the speaker’s circle, grabbing me by the elbow and yanking me down to his level, probably so he can look into my face as he pulls the trigger. With one hand, Atherton forces my head against the tabletop, using the other to jam the barrel of Conrad’s ion gun to my temple. The scent of cold leaves fills my head, and the taste of violet swirls in my mouth.

There’s nothing left he can do to me. I’ve been humiliated, tortured, and separated from all I hold dear. I’ve watched people die in front of me, even died myself. Ever since the night of the merger party, when I opened up that beehive and waited for the sting, I’ve been living on stolen heartbeats. The venom has finally arrived.

“Stop!” Bathurst shouts. “You will not defile this chamber or this house with your violence. The hands of this council will not be tainted with this girl’s blood. This matter is yours to resolve, Atherton, settle it outside of the estate. Meeting dismissed.”

Bathurst swings his cane, shooing me and Atherton from the chamber. Conrad follows us into the hallway, prying the pistol from Atherton’s coiled fingers. “Bathurst told us to settle this matter outside of the estate,” Conrad reminds him.

“Do it outside then,” Atherton says grudgingly, shoving me into the elevator. “But I don’t care what the old man says, I want an example made of her.”

I glance over at Atherton. Conrad seizes the back of my neck, redirecting my gaze straight in front of me. “How long have you known?” I ask Atherton.

“Detective Fallkirk was right. There is an identity safeguard embedded in the memory scanners we manufacture. I had the techs create a backdoor,” Atherton says, the waterfalls cascading along either side of the glass walls softening his dark eyes a little. “I afforded you every chance to truth speak, but you chose to subvert me. Did you really think you could outmaneuver me? I’m smarter than you, Tessa, by a distance you could never imagine. Your hubris sickens me.”

The elevator doors snap open. Conrad pushes me out into the atrium, steering me away from the balcony.

“What are you doing?” Atherton asks. “I told you to make an example made of her.”

Conrad keeps Atherton in his gaze for a long moment, before finally bending to his will. Conrad grabs a fistful of my hair and drags me backwards down the left side of the grand double staircase. My toes scratch at the steps, trying to maintain balance, but my muscles stiffen. I stop struggling and fall onto my back, the heels popping off my feet. The chandelier hanging above blurs and then sharpens again as my eyes drift in and out of focus. The blood vessels in my neck compress; the nerves in my scalp go numb. My spin vibrates as it bounces over every tread on the way down the staircase, until Conrad releases his death grip on my locks. My head smacks the floor of the main entryway with a hollow thud.

It’s all a hazy shade of Thursday 47, but there must be an event going in the ballroom. A cluster of fuzzy shapes in neckties and diamond chokers gathers around me. I can’t make out their faces. Not because my eyes are dimming, they’re all wearing white masks with black tears lovingly painted beneath the eyeholes. Some of them are personalized with rouge or exaggerated eyebrows or spools of DNA falling like hair. It’s The Crying Festival, honoring the fallen Tearcatchers. I wonder if my name will be added to the list of honorees. Probably, I’ll just join the ranks of the outliers: family members who so shamed the Tearcatcher name, they aren’t permitted a space in the family tomb, or even the right to have their name spoken within the walls of the estate.

One of the guests removes her mask, and I see perhaps the last fast I ever will. It’s Darien. Her skin is as white as the statues in the courtyard, and her eyes just as still. She wears a face I’ve never seen before. If I didn’t know her better, I would call it empathy. Darien draws in a breath, as if to speak, but Atherton steps between us.

“Brothers and sisters, behold!” Atherton shouts. “This is what becomes of whores.” A hush falls over the crowd, as one by one, they remove their masks and stare at me as if I were the belle of this mourner’s ball. It’s the last thing I remember before everything goes black.

#

The sound of tides nipping the shore stirs me. I open my eyes and see a banner of clouds drifting across a sky of marigold. Brushing the sand from my face, I stare out at the bay. Something floats just above the surface. A drone? I watch it dip its nose, spearing a fish from the water and dropping the bloody remains into a nearby nest. It’s the Pandion haliaetus, or what first drafts would call a fish hawk.

“Nature is cruel,” I say, finally collecting the courage to look over my shoulder at the figure standing behind me.

“We’ve tweaked every gene known to humanity. Beneath the skin, we’re no more evolved than that bird,” Conrad replies, his eyes a few time zones away.

“You’ve killed people before, haven’t you?”

“Yes.” Conrad watches grimly as the nestlings pick apart the carcass. “It never gets any easier, especially when it’s one of your own.”

“And you dump the bodies in the bay?”

“Sometimes in the bay. Sometimes elsewhere.”

“Do they ever float back to the beach?”

“No, I weigh them down with stones.”

“Like that one there?” I ask, nodding to a rock sitting on the dune. I push myself onto my knees and turn to face him. The ion gun rests loosely at his side. I reach out and, with Conrad’s hand still wrapped loosely around the handle, press the gun to my forehead. “Would you like me to pull the trigger for you, as well?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“This isn’t of your choosing, Conrad, I’m trying to make it easy.”

“No, I mean, why didn’t you defend yourself to the council? Do you hold your own life in such weak regard that you refuse to open your lips and tell them you’re innocent of this crime?”

“And what crime have I been accused of? Acting like a human being? Do you really wish to live in a world where the punishment for that is death?”

“Tell them the child isn’t yours, Tessa.”

“Why? So they might execute some other poor girl?” I release the gun and stand. “How do you know the child doesn’t belong to me?”

“This anti-theft gene that’s making all the first drafts sick.” Conrad turns away from me and stares back at the Tearcatcher estate. From this distance, it’s nothing more than a toy castle. “It wasn’t given to your generation. Only the G-13s and higher. A child born to you wouldn’t carry the gene.”

“And Atherton knows this?”

“Of course he knows, but if the leak didn’t come from you, Atherton won’t get his war with the Rivegans. To him, you’re nothing but a pawn in a war that will secure our seat at the head of the table among all the coders in the east.”

The corridors to the rational part of my brain lock, and the back doors to the reflexive part swing open, pumping catecholamines through my body. The blood leaves my intestines and rolls into my muscles. I knew Atherton had a dark side, but I didn’t know his soul had crossed the other side of midnight. I want to rip the tiny limbs from his body. “Pawns are meant to be sacrificed, yes? If you don’t do it, Atherton will kill you.”

“Fine,” Conrad says, leveling his gun at me and squeezing the trigger.

A warm current pulses through my brain, and then the rest of my body, thinning my blood and igniting my heart. The vapors of my breath get shorter. The warmth turns to fire. A smoldering fist squeezing every nerve ending. Conrad watches as I shake and burn and shout, until a fine black mist is coughed from my lungs.

I crawl into the dunes and smother myself in the tall grass. Conrad stares oddly at me. I stop and glance down at my body: there are no flames crawling up my arms or legs. “What did you do?” I ask, running my tongue along my warm teeth.

“I short-circuited your biosensors,” Conrad says, throwing a scrap of paper at my feet. “I’m sorry for what I did back there, in the ballroom, but I had to convince Atherton I could handle this. He knows I have a weakness when it comes to you.”

I unwrap the paper. The symbols scrawled over it are coordinates along a neural map.

“It’s a link to a forged neural network. I don’t expect to hear from you again, unless it’s a matter of life and death. There should be enough credits in that account to get you fixed up with a new life. You remade yourself once, Tessa, you can do it again.” Conrad scoops my red hoodie from the sand and holds it out to me. “It’s cold out. You’ll need this.”

I fold it into my hands and smile at the ground. “Why are you doing this?”

“This is Atherton’s war. He should be the one to fight it, not you.” Conrad brushes the sand from my hair. “Besides, who are the Tearcatchers without a few strands of red to color them.”

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