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Chapter 23: The House of Rivegan

The last time I let loose a bee/wasp/spider hybrid, the entire hive got free and took down the impenetrable defenses of the Tearcatcher estate. My intention back then was to silence my own heart, because the world around me beat to a rhythm I couldn’t feel, and didn’t want to. Things are different now. I can feel the heartbeat in Greymore, and in the world of first drafts I’ve come to think of as home. For the first time, I can imagine a future worth fighting for, and that’s precisely what I intend to do. I glance up at Greymore, but his face is a blank slate. If he had the energy left, he would probably be mirroring my shaking hands, but he must have spent it all sneaking us through the security fields and onto Rivegan island.

“Why are you afraid?” Conrad asks. “They say when a person returns from the dead, they come back twice as powerful. Guess that makes you about the strongest person I know. There’s no one I’d rather go into battle with.”

I steady my hands over the jar and twist off the cap. Stress hormones empty my glucocorticoid receptors, filling my blood with epinephrine. I’m not scared for myself, I’m worried about what will happen to Greymore if we fail. The bee crawls up the lip, its leg brushing my fingertip. I drop the jar and watch it float into the air. The bee doesn’t care whether or not we find Sodalane. The bee has no heart, pumping blood with simple contractions of its body, but when misted with a DNA sample, it can hunt a target clean across the province.

The bee leads us under a sky bridge, between two of the buildings connected to the main compound. It should feel right at home here, among the hive-shaped domes covered in spirals of glass and stone, but the bee was programmed to hunt, not to nest, and its genetic imperative takes us through the courtyard and into a thick forest beyond.

It’s not really a forest, Greymore says, just one giant tree that’s been spreading its massive canopy for over 200 years. The branches grew so long they sunk under their own weight, growing new roots wherever they touched the ground. Exactly where the first roots punched through the earth is impossible to tell now. In the distance, cold wind blows snow across the inlet. The atmosphere is polarized. The charges in the storm clouds above have topped the insulating properties of the air around them, I can taste the electricity on my tongue.

A song filters down from the branches. Like a robin’s voice, but not as rich. Just three dull notes repeated in continuous loop. I look up and see a flock of summer tanagers, one of the few birds that can correctly judge the speed and angle needed to snatch up a bee in the middle of its flight. Here’s hoping their stomachs are full.

So far, the Alchemist’s merchandise isn’t up to the quality he boasted. The H-flush got Greymore moving again, temporarily at least, but the DNA maskers meant to conceal our genetic signatures aren’t doing much for me and Conrad right now. This ecosystem is heavily biased against DNA that doesn’t belong to Rivegans. All manner of creature drop from the limbs above, creeping into my sweatshirt. Banded longhorn beetles, bark crap spiders, and giant mayflies. The stream beneath my feet slowly rises as I trudge over it. Greymore walks ahead of us, unburdened by any pests. The undergrowth parts, shaping into a thorny tunnel of limbs and vines through which he’s invited to pass. When me and Conrad try to follow, the whole thing collapses around us.

“If this tree was picking up your DNA, you would be dead already,” Greymore explains. “It’s your scent that gives you away.”

“He’s right,” Conrad says, breaking off a twig, and smearing the resin over his suit. He passes it me, and I douse my sweatshirt with it, pulling the hood around my face. The tree offers us a little more breathing room, and we use it to catch up with Greymore, who has stopped to stare down at a dendrophylax lindenii. Its roots are tethered to the tree behind it in a way that makes the flowers appear to float in the air like beautiful specters. I can appreciate nature’s quirks as much as the next person, but it’s hardly the time to stop and marvel at a ghost orchid blooming out of season. His behavior makes more sense when I glimpse the bee crawling over the white tendrils dangling from the lower petal.

“I don’t get it,” I say.

“What’s there to get? Bees like flowers,” Conrad replies, his eyes scanning the sky above. “We should go. Those drones will pick up a surplus of heat signatures if we stay out here much longer.”

“No, I mean, a bee can’t pollinate a ghost orchid. It doesn’t have a long enough… um, proboscis.”

Greymore smiles at me and kneels down beside the flower, the stems bending away from him the closer he gets. He pushes his hand into the dirt, and the tree roots spread, revealing a panel beneath. A square of light scatters the darkness as Greymore pulls it open. The three of us stare down into the gaping wound beneath the tree. “Who wants to go first?” Conrad asks.

Before anyone can answer, Greymore swings his legs into the chasm, descending the ladder as soon as his legs find solid footing. It’s okay, he says, there’s no one here. Me and Conrad follow him down the ladder, into a hallway constructed of dull reflective material. Yellow biohazard suits imprinted with the Rivegan family crest hang beside a control panel lit up like a rainbow.

The underground lab is an elegant bit of bioengineering. The slots lining the surfaces feed scrap into microbes embedded in the wall, converting waste into energy. The DNA vault is made of pure cryophosginate, a rare material forged with 12,000-atom long chains synthesized from the strongest allotropes in the known universe.

Greymore doesn’t have access to the vault, because his work isn’t done in labs, but if the Alchemist is true to his word, the molecular breach he gave us should do the trick. I hold the injector in my hand and stare. “It has to be me.”

“I’m the one who’s dying,” Greymore says, sliding his hand around mine. “Logic think, Tessa, we both know whoever goes in there might not come out in one piece. There’s no sense in both of us dying.”

“Forget it, kid,” Conrad snaps. “We’ll have to bring down the temperature in these walls to less than a thousandth of a degree above absolute zero to lower their energy. Your immune system can’t handle that kind of cold. I’ll go.”

“No, you have to stay here in case someone else comes down that ladder,” I tell Conrad, before turning to Greymore. “And Conrad’s right, you’re not strong enough right now. It has to be me.”

“This is madness,” Greymore says, tugging at the roots of his hair. “We have no idea what’s in that injector, it could be junk. The Alchemist could be setting you up. If that breach gives out on you before you make it all the way through, that wall becomes your tomb. We don’t know how thick it is, or if the baby’s even on the other side of this vault.”

“We wear each other’s scars.” I run my hand along the jagged tissue over his arm. “We’re bound together. Either we both live, or we both die.”

“Love is not a poison dagger with two blades. Let’s just turn around and go back to Violette’s, we can forget all of this. I haven’t even showed you Rebel Without a Cause yet.”

“What’s it gonna be, Tessa?” Conrad asks, punching buttons on the control panel and bringing up a holographic floor plan of the vault. I nod my head, and Conrad reprograms the microwave emitters, redirecting the long-wave radiation to cool the ions in the wall.

When ice crystals form over the mirrored surface, I scrape a few particles of cryophosginate from the wall with a scalpel and drop them in the tube of the injector before sticking myself. Conrad applies sensors to my neck and runs a transient current through me with a handheld amplifier, but I feel nothing. “Your electrical capacitance is down. You’re breached, it’s now or never.”

I refill my lungs with a long breath and hold out my hand. My fingers glide through the wall, becoming one with my reflection. A ring forms over the surface, radiating like compression waves the deeper I stick my hand. The sleeve of my sweatshirt peels back over my arm, stopping at my shoulder.

“Your matter can pass through that wall, but your clothes can’t,” Conrad says, opening his pack and throwing me a purple bodysuit printed with capillaries that disperse calcifying bacteria. I strip off my old clothes and worm my way into the bodysuit. It constricts around my skin, reacting with my biochemistry and hardening into an exoskeleton grown from my own DNA. “The regulator won’t let your core temperature fall too low. Just get through that wall as quickly as you can. Your body won’t freeze, but your brain could shut down if you stay in there too long.”

I fold my clothes over the floor and stare at my reflection. I said it before, and I’ll say it again – a mirror is the worst of all things. Now I have to become one with it. My reflection wobbles as I step through the wall, bowing slightly at the middle like a hologram breaking up. A low voltage shock creeps through my nerve endings, but fades quickly.

“You’re too colorful to be a ghost, make sure you don’t stay that way,” Greymore calls out. It’s the last thing I hear before the wall engulfs me. A ghost should feel nothing, and that’s what I was hoping for, but the frigid temperature squeezes my blood vessels, choking off the circulation to my skin and directing it inward. My feet sink through the vault floor, the earth below catching me a few meters later. Lucky for me, the floor wasn’t built very thick. If it had been, I’d be trapped in a crater too deep to claw my way out of.

The electrons whirl around inside the atoms of the wall, even at these extreme temperatures,

their waveforms swelling and merging with other atoms until it looks like I’m walking through one giant cloud. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says that matter can never get to a temperature of absolute zero, the quantum nature of particles just won’t allow it. That’s why Conrad cooled the wall to just over zero degrees Kelvin. If it were to get any lower, the atoms would have no momentum, and their wave functions would stretch across the cosmos, meaning it would be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Sort of like I feel right now.

In this state of matter, everything looks the same. The wall, the air, the thoughts running through my synapses. Can it really be so mechanical? Are we nothing more than the neutrons and protons buzzing through our grey matter, their precise motion telling us how to react, what to feel, and who we’ll be? Or does the dance of chemical signals that set them in motion spark from a depth we can’t see, not even at the molecular level? Perhaps the soul can only be seen from high above, in its proportion to other beings and the universe around it, like a giant mosaic.

If I’m not making sense, it’s because something’s taken hold of me. A feeling I can’t quite describe. Vertigo spliced with claustrophobia, maybe. I have to stop for a… well, that’s the peculiar bit. My awareness of time has skewed. How long have I been in here? Maybe I should turn back. Only I’m not really certain what back means right now. I’m paralyzed. Does my heart beat too quickly or too slowly? The two words hold no meaning for me. Lost in space and time, that’s what it’s like. Trapped in a quantum umbilical cord.

Something bumps my knee, making no sound as it trips me. Beside me, a pipe engineered from a different material than the rest of the wall stretches up into the ceiling. It feels good to touch something solid again, to know the world has not disappeared around me.

I stumble to my feet and keep going, the molecules of my arms and legs vibrating in sequence to those of the wall around me. I can feel myself expanding, become something else entirely. My legs don’t work because they no longer have a shape, but some part of this wall must still carry a picture of Greymore in its particles, because that’s what propels me forward, out of the void. A blinding light rushes at me. The strips of ice covering the outside of the wall crumble, and I fall to a floor of white tiles.

A woman in a yellow biohazard suit removes a tray of samples from a cryogenic freezer drawer. Behind her, another woman attaches a flask to catch the distilling solvent at the bottom of a rotary evaporator. On the other side of the room, two more techs hover around an ultrasonic cell disruptor. It’s the middle of the night, the vault was supposed to be empty.

I try to hide behind an incubator, but the muscles in my legs refuse the command. The scientists in the lab go about their chores like worker ants (except two of them are men, something you would never see in ant colony). Their rhythms are completely unaffected by my presence. Maybe I really am a ghost.

There are no living specimens in this chamber. If Sodalane is here, she must be in the room beyond, but even among this crowd, there’s no way I can walk straight across the room, and through the door, unnoticed. When my legs start working again, I roll onto my knees and crawl back into the void. Staying close to the edge, I walk among the walls around the chamber I just left, but solid chunks of matter bump my head either way I go. Maybe there’s too much heat pouring into those walls from the lab ovens, or maybe the cryophosginate there has been alloyed with some other element.

If I can’t go through the chamber, and I can’t go around it, I’m left with only one route – above it. I trudge back to the water pipe and climb along the metal ridges, as high as it’ll take me, until the pipe makes a sharp turn, running sideways along the vault ceiling. It’s high wire time, there’s no other way.

Carefully depositing one foot in front of the other, I creep across the pipe. I push my hands into the earth above to balance myself, my fingers playing along tree roots and earthworms I can’t see. Probably, I should be buzzing with adrenaline right now, but I feel completely at ease. I’ve been walking a tight rope for as long as I can remember, trying to be the girl my family expected. My whole life, I’ve stepped aside, blended in, never raised my voice or complained. I’ve been the one to bend and shift and adapt. I’ve been the synovial fluid filling in the joints.

The atoms dim all around me, the blood vessels in my eyes constricting to save energy, and my whole body shakes. Not vibrating at an atomic level, but shivering. Maybe the temperature in these walls is rising too much to keep me in breach. Nerve impulses can reach speeds of up to 120 meters per second. My neural pathways will probably be the first thing to solidify, the dense wall squeezing me between its molecules like a cold fist.

Molecular breaching is made possible because atoms don’t exist in one exact place at one exact time. Like the rest of us, they live their lives as a wave of probabilities in which anything is possible. One wave submerges me in this wall forever. The second wave washes me clean off this pipe, sending me crashing to the vault floor below. A third, and the one I’m hoping to ride, delivers me to a room on the other side, where the DNA of an infant Tearcatcher could save Greymore and a thousand first drafts.

The regulator in my bodysuit kicks into high gear, thawing my skin and most likely erasing the possibility of wave number one. And I’m expanding again, making wave number two also an unlikely outcome, because now that my molecules have fused with the wall’s, I’m much too stable to fall through the ceiling. I am the ceiling. I ride wave number three, drifting across the ceiling, down the wall on the other side, and into a lab housing mice in cages and fish in aquariums.

Sodalane sits under the dull light of an incubator at the far end of the room, as if she were just another specimen to the nameless techs in the contamination suits, instead of a Tearcatcher wearing priceless genetic information in her chromosomes. Her skin and nails are pink, her eyes tinted just to the other side of midnight. The breath cycles in and out of her lungs at a rate almost twice as fast as mine, and I just tunneled through an unbreakable wall. Is she afraid of me, or is this a typical infant behavior?

I slide my hands beneath her arms and hold her in front of me. My baby sister. You have perhaps more intellectual capacity than any human being on the planet right now, but still, there’s so much they’ll never teach you. The world of coders is a viper’s nest. I don’t want to see you get eaten, but I don’t want to see you become one either. I wish I could tell you I’ll be here to look out for you, but the future is so uncertain right now. For me, for you, for all the Tearcatchers.

Sodalane keeps her puffy legs tucked close to her body, and her hands clenched in tight fists. So many outcomes rest on these tiny shoulders, but the smile on her face shows me she’s completely unaware of it all. I hope she stays this way, innocent and carefree, for as long as possible. I set her back in the incubator, and lay the warmer inside a supply cart. I can’t go back the way I came, not with Sodalane by my side. The only way we’re both getting out of here is through the door. I stuff myself into one of the yellow biohazard suits and punch the button on the wall. The door whooshes open, and I push the cart into the room on the other side.

Just act like you belong here. But don’t look at any of them. And don’t keep your eyes pointed down at the floor. Then just what should I do with them? I decide to let them roam around the place, like I’m inventorying lab equipment. I’m half way across the room when one of the techs finally notices me. “Can you bring me a viscometer?” she asks.

I point to my helmet and shake my head as if my audio were busted, before turning away. “Hey, you, turn around,” says another one, but I lower my head and keep steering the cart to the door. Me and Sodalane are an autoclave and a centrifuge from reaching the door when I feel someone tugging at my elbow. One of the male techs braces his hands on the front of the cart, and another pulls open the side panel, their eyes shooting wide when they glimpse what I’m smuggling.

I reach out for Sodalane, but the one who has me by the elbow hooks me backwards, pinning me to the floor. I tug the pressure valve on my shoulder. My suit decompresses, shriveling in the tech’s hands. I wiggle out of the suit and jam the door release. The two men clench my arms and haul me back into the room.

“You’re being inhospitable to my sisters,” a muffled voice says, a second before one of the techs sinks to the floor, a jagged crater punched through the glass of his visor. Conrad plants the heel of his boot over the man’s chest and swings his ion gun in the direction of the other three, edging them back into the corner. Conrad trails me and Sodalane through the doorway. “It’s been a pleasure banking with Rivegan,” he says, sealing the door from the other side.

“We did it.” I wrap my arms, first around Conrad, and then Greymore. The triangle of stress in my body suddenly withers, starting at the hypothalamus, drawing in the corners of my adrenal and pituitary activity as it goes.

Greymore runs his fingers along the buttons of the control panel as if he were playing music. “I’m overriding the security locks, but they’re smart people, it won’t keep them in there for long.”

Conrad goes up the ladder first, arching his gun in a circle as he climbs out of the tunnel, then waving us up. Greymore follows, the weight of tonight’s chaos showing in his trembling limbs. When Greymore finally reaches the top, and Conrad hoists him to the surface, I close my eyes and permit myself a smile, before lashing Sodalane’s crib to my back with material cut from the bio-suits. Greymore waits at the top of the portal as I scale the ladder, he, too, allowing himself one of his rare grins.

Two flashes of light slice through the darkness above him. Could be the storm clouds trading lightning, but the two noises zapped at the same time as the flashes, negating the possibility. Greymore turns and disappears. The sounds I hear next only confirm my fears – a series of primitive notes at the highest human octaves. The kind that only escapes our throats under extreme trauma.

My fingers tighten around the rungs. I can’t move, neither up or down, and truth speak, I’m not sure which I would choose if I could. What would Sheriff Will Kane do in a moment like this? Come on, Tessa, this isn’t one of Greymore’s old films. I want to help, but I can’t bring a baby into the middle of a laser fight.

Three more flashes quicken my pulse and soften my limbs to a workable clay. I climb back down the ladder, picking up momentum as I go. Something falls past me, clanking to the floor and spinning to a stop. As the hallway gets closer, my eyes separate its shape from the floor beneath it. Conrad’s pistol. I look up and see Conrad slung over the top of the ladder, a plasma knife stuck between his shoulder blades. Arms dangling into the chasm, a red line carved into his cheek.

I let go of the bottom rung and drop into the hallway with Sodalane. She hasn’t made a sound since I picked her up. I wish I had her strength. She’s the neonate, but it’s my tear ducts that are filling up.

“Tessa?” a high-pitched voice calls out. It’s Phoenix, I recognize the dissonant harmony of his vocal folds. “Show yourself, girl. Greymore’s up here waiting for you.”

I shrink into the corner and cover my face. The pattern is always the same. The moment you think you’ve found solid footing, the world crumbles beneath you. It’s like the same terrible riff being repeated over different melodies.

“Allow me to clarity speak,” Phoenix says. “Either you and the baby come up that ladder, or I send down Greymore’s head. The nature of this reunion is entirely up to you.”

I creep over to the ladder and lift my eyes. Conrad shakes, his long hair swaying around his face. His body gets pulled out of the opening by two small hands, and Phoenix stares down at me, his fingers traveling over the scar on his cheek. As soon as I reach the top, he grabs me by the back of the bodysuit and jerks me out of the tunnel. I roll across the grass, and into a corpse. Not Conrad’s, but a Rivegan’s, his neck snapped like the twigs of the tree above. I look around and see three more just like it. Conrad didn’t die easy.

“You have the baby, Phoenix,” Greymore says, hands folded behind his head, knees digging into the earth. The ventricular pressure forces open my pulmonary valves as soon as I see him, closing just as quickly when I logic think about the mess we’re in. Phoenix will kill us both and stuff Sodalane back in her cage. “Let Tessa go. You and I can sort out the rest like two Rivegans should.”

“There was a seat at my table for you, right beside me,” Phoenix says, scratching the back of his neck with the barrel of his gun, as if it were a cylinder-shaped appendage. “I trusted you above all others. We could have been kings, you and I, like we always talked about.”

“We were just children. I’ve grown enough to see that a crown is nothing more than a headstone. You don’t want this burden, little brother.”

“Brother? Would a true brother plot a coup behind my back?” Phoenix marches over to me and smiles. “That would be akin to making you watch as I feed these tree roots with your girlfriend’s brains. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Beside Phoenix, Conrad’s arm stirs, his hand reaching behind him, fumbling for the pinch stuck in his back. I unstrap Sodalane from my back and set her warmer on the ground beside me.

“Have some mercy, Phoenix. My life is forfeit, but make peace with the Tearcatchers,” Greymore pleads. “Let Tessa go as a sign of reconciliation.”

“You forfeit nothing, Greymore. You lost, and now you’ll reap the consequences.” Phoenix angles the gun at my head. Conrad plies the knife from his spinal cord and rams it into the calcaneal tendon of Phoenix’s leg.

Greymore springs to his feet, scrambling over the tree roots and burying his shoulder in Phoenix’s sternum, driving them both to the dirt. Greymore plucks a rock from the earth and hammers Phoenix’s skull until the rock face is tinted with blood. Phoenix swings up the palm of his hand, landing an even strike to Greymore’s larynx, putting him on his back, gasping for air. Phoenix swipes the rock off the ground and raises it over Greymore’s head, but the sound of the particle accelerator gives him hesitation.

I removed Conrad’s pistol from the back of my suit and charged it, hoping it would back Phoenix down, but now he’s coming straight at me. “Come no closer, Phoenix,” I squeak, my fingers jittering around the trigger.

“Shoot him, Tessa, now!” Greymore yells.

“Go on, then.” Phoenix stops in front of me, his cool eyes drifting down to the gun as if he held some sway over its cruel mechanics even from this distance.

I stare down at the weapon, in all its simple tyranny. It feels wrong in my hands, much more so than I expected. I turn and drop it into the tunnel.

“Why did you do that?” Phoenix stares oddly at me. “You just threw away the only leverage you had.”

“Power doesn’t rest at the tip of a gun. Let us logic speak. Wiping out the Tearcatchers, letting the first drafts suffer and die, it won’t bring back Summer, it’ll just turn the whole world against all the families,” I say, my words punctuated by a dull buzzing sound. “A bunch of spoiled young ones fighting over a chest of toys that belongs to none of them, that’s how all this started. We can put an end to this feud, and write a new beginning.”

“You’re wrong! Our names are inscribed on that chest. The Rivegans were meant to rule this province, with me as their CEO. It’s our inheritance, and my destiny. The ending’s already been written on our genes, Tessa, we’re the winners, and this is my prize,” Phoenix says, reaching for the incubator.

I hold Sodalane close to me and turn away. A small fist drives into my back, beneath my ninth and tenth ribs, upwards toward my spine. I sink to the ground, all the muscles in my body locking up at once, allowing Phoenix to snatch her out of my arms.

“At least you and Greymore lill why tomewer I mean, why tofeffer,” Phoenix says, something flashing in his eyes I’ve never seen before – fear. “Ehh, aahh, muuw, yew!”

Phoenix rolls his tongue out of his mouth. It’s nearly twice the size it should be. The skin around his eyes and throat swells, and his breath shortens. Angiodema, caused by an allergic reaction. He gazes down at me through the two narrow slits remaining between his eyelids, before falling to the ground. I pull Sodalane from his twitching arms, she was, after all, the bee/wasp/spider’s intended target.

The little mercenary crawls out from beneath Phoenix’s jacket and buzzes a circle around me. Greymore reaches out and traps it between the jar and its lid. I’ll no longer have to wait for the sting to arrive. The venom was finally delivered, and Phoenix’s eyes will open no more.

Behind us, Conrad rolls onto his back and coughs. I bring Sodalane and kneel down beside him. “This is your brother. His name is Conrad.”

“So you’re the one causing all this trouble.” Conrad stares into her big dark eyes, spellbound. “All I ever did was scare up business for the tomb keepers.”

“I didn’t mean for this to happen, none of it. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m not. If I go back to the estate now, Atherton would just order me to hunt this little one down and kill her. I’m a blunt tool. It’s what I was bred for. Do me a favor, Tessa, make sure she becomes something more.”

“She’ll grow up to change the world, Conrad. And she’ll know what you did for her. They all will.”

Conrad’s eyes lead me to the tree above, its long grey arms reaching up into the darkness, spreading its fingers, each of which continues to grow along the lightning-touched canvass at a vaguely different angle, stopping only when its fingertips graze the cellar of the heavens. It doesn’t look as cold and empty as I remember. In fact, it all has a sort of lovely order to it. Like maybe it’s all rooted in something after all.

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