Pieces on Earth

World leaders meet Mary Parraday's miraculous children, who have been crafted through unique (and ethically questionable) genetic manipulation.

Mary Parraday posed for the mirror, wearily, with the dull resignation of those mutilated beyond redemption. Yes; yes indeed, there, by her right cheek, down towards her neck: her face had slackened a little more. Not that it mattered to her—not any longer—but today she would present the Twins to the Administrators, and since the Administrators were the arbiters of the children’s fate and the Program’s success, she couldn’t help the pointless impulse to look her best.

“All three of them are coming,” the Director had said. “You understand what that means, don’t you? We have to get everything right. Everything. So do and say what I tell you. No more. Clear?” And then he turned away with the same unconcealed disgust that had grown, each year, as Mary’s disease had progressed.

“Yes, Director,” Mary had mouthed through her sagging, ruined lips. But at the same time, she felt surprised by a small, fierce upwelling of emotion—a possessiveness entirely foreign to her rootless, friendless life—which, without warning, silently asserted: They are my children. Not the Program’s. Not the Administration’s. Fortunately, she hadn’t needed to work to remain expressionless; the disorder that slowly pulled the skin from her flesh made her face, now and forever, unreadable.

She pulled her pale hair back into a tight ponytail, smoothing out the collapsing folds of skin above her eyes. Then, once again aware of the sad, bitter gulf between What I am and What I could have been, she turned away and left the bathroom. She walked out of the windowless suite of chambers—the part of the Chicxulub Program’s headquarters that had been her home for the last ten years—and headed to the Twins’ room.

In an age where survival was everything, the sunken corridors at the Chicxulub Program were well-protected. Best-protected of all, perhaps, was the room hidden at one end of the building’s deepest level. High-ceilinged, but small and windowless, with a desk and storage cabinets at one end, and at the other an opaque plastic curtain, floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall. Behind the curtain were two large cages furnished with books, brightly colored beanbags, and other, odder items. And in these cages—sometimes reading, sometimes reclining in a steel cradle, sometimes skipping up to the bars and back again or playing some solitary game—dwelt the future of humanity.

“Hello, darlings!” said Mary. The girl, her head in a book, looked up, smiled, and waved happily before returning to her story. Her brother, in the adjoining cage, glanced at Mary and bobbed his head; he seemed deep in thought.

Once again, Mary felt the hot swell of triumph, of—at last!—a kind of fulfillment. Indeed, the Twins were a proxy bridge between What I am and What I could have been, for they were Mary’s babies, in many ways. She hadn’t carried them, of course, not physically. That she survived the genetic havoc caused by childhood exposure to weaponized retrovirus was extraordinary, but it had come at a cost; her relentlessly declining health precluded pregnancy.

Nevertheless, the Twins came from one of Mary’s egg cells, triggered by biochemical trickery to believe itself a zygote. And they were “her babies” in terms of their very conception; she had brought them into existence through pure will—by intellectual effort and rigorous application of hard-won expertise. Look at them now: glorious products of years of painstaking scientific labor, of a gestation so unlikely as to be miraculous—yes, six years old, and look at them! Emma was utterly beautiful, in a North European way: coppery blonde hair and eyes the deep blue of an African violet, her gaze somehow soft and penetrating all at once. NoEL, her brother, left a still more profound impression. Such children made even ten year’s incarceration in the Program a small price to pay.

The Director had insisted on complete secrecy for six years after the Twins’ birth, but today, at last, the fruits of Mary’s labor would be presented to the highest authorities. This was what she had worked towards for a long, lonely decade. And throughout that time, day in, day out, the Program had been her life. Strange, then, that a small voice now sang in the back of her mind: They are my children . . . Not the Program’s . . . Not the Administration’s.

To appease her nerves—or, perhaps, to drown out that fierce little voice and its rebellious chant—Mary opened the presentation on the wall display and began to rehearse her carefully scripted answers to whatever questions each dignitary might pose.

I was invited to join the Chicxulub Program, Administrator, because of my discovery that environmental change—increased temperature and CO2—triggers rearrangements in junk DNA.

The Twins were starting to get restless. Mary could always tell. It was something about the fidgeting quality of the sounds that came from their end of the room—shuffling and scraping, deep sighs, the clap of a book being emphatically closed.

“Please be patient, my darlings. The meeting shouldn’t take long; it really shouldn’t.”

And after joining the Program, Administrator, I studied the effects of this environmental forcing. I found that junk DNA—piece by piece, generation by generation—was being re-ordered into a coherent structure. Into an alternative genome, in fact.

“I bet this meeting’s going to be horrible,” Emma said.

“Emma, please, darling. We have to do it. And I have to run through this presentation. Please, sweetheart . . .”

By collating all observed junk rearrangements, I arrived at a composite junk genome. A genome that—in silico, at least—produced its own transcriptional machinery and encoded utterly novel proteins. A genome that could generate a new life form.

“Have you finished yet?”

“Almost, darling. Almost. Is that a cut on your arm? Oh, Emma—was it your brother again?”

“He always scratches at me through the bars. I keep telling you that.”

“Oh darling, I’m sorry. I’ll deal with him later, okay?”

Initial attempts to replace the normal genome with the synthetic ‘junk’ genome in vivo failed. Then we realized the junk embryo needs conditions similar to those that triggered the rearrangement of junk in the first place—in particular, relatively high levels of CO2. Hence, we took the artificial placenta route, enabling precise control of the embryonic environment.

Mary set the presentation back to the beginning. An image of the Vehicle rotated slowly, displaying the craft from all angles. This was replaced by an aerial view of the Chicxulub impact zone: at the center of the crater’s fractured geology, a red dot pinpointed the Vehicle’s discovery site. The display then moved onto a cross-section of Chicxulub’s prehistoric sediments, where the red dot sat buried beneath the accumulation of eons. Finally, the display returned to the Vehicle itself; to an emptiness full of meaning.

The Vehicle! A mystery of engineering that defied both belief and comprehension; an enigma hardly disinterred from its Mesozoic silt before it was buried in Administration secrecy. Its very existence raised extraordinary questions, and those that were answered raised deeper questions still. That it was found at the crater’s epicenter: an odd coincidence? No: the Vehicle didn’t land at the Chicxulub impact point by chance—it was the Chicxulub impact. But how could a physical structure survive a landing event so violent that it triggered mass extinctions? How could it remain intact for over sixty million years? Enough there, Mary knew, to keep the engineers occupied for decades. Yet the material sciences aspects of the Vehicle were trivial in comparison to its biological implications: the odd traces they’d found inside, the material that had made the Administration shift Program resources to junk DNA and genome engineering. These discoveries had made them turn to Mary. There was nobody else.

And now she’d done what nobody else could do, made what nobody else could make, and was about to show it to the Administrators. Mary took a deep breath, surprised at how edgy she felt. A certain degree of tension was inevitable; this kind of development would challenge the Administration’s worldview, and the Administration did not respond well to being challenged. Like all bureaucracies, it valued stability; whatever the Twins could bring, whatever their long-term benefits to mankind, it wasn’t that.

Nothing, nothing, would ever be the same.

It was obvious—you just had to look at them. Indeed, in front of the Twins now, Mary felt herself in the presence of, well, of holiness. Of something greater than man.  And she, Mary Parraday, had performed this miracle.

My children.

The quiet shudder of the communicator attached to her oversuit interrupted Mary’s thoughts.

“Yes, Director?”

“They’ve arrived. We’ll be with you in two minutes. Are you prepared?”

“Yes, Director.”

Mary looked around the Twins’ room one last time. Colorful books and bright lights, air filters and educational materials, compressed gas cylinders and musical instruments, like a cross between a surgical theater and a primary school. Everything in order. A noise from the corridor outside set off a brief, fluttering emptiness in her belly. The clack-clack of heels on a hard, polished surface approaching the door, the loud voices of those who believe in their own importance, the Director and his invitees—the three Administrators.

Mary pulled the curtain across the Twins’ cages, motioning for them, finger on lips, to be silent. Normally, she only drew the curtain at night, but the Director wanted the Twins hidden until the right moment. Their introduction to the Administrators had to be a carefully managed event: an unveiling.

The door opened—carefully, but with the awkwardness of one unaccustomed to taking care—and the Director appeared, all false bonhomie and hard eyes, followed closely by his guests. Like Mary, they all wore disposable, sterile oversuits. The Director’s was weighed down by something heavy in his pocket that pulled at the paper-thin material as he walked. Odd for someone who often seemed to be so conscious of his appearance. For no apparent reason, she felt a frisson of unease.

“Administrators,” the Director said, “Welcome to the heart—the soul—of the Chicxulub Program. I have told you all about Mary Parraday, who incubated our key project. Mary, this is Ulrich Kasper, the Administrator for Greater Europe . . . Melanie Kiaw, the Administrator for Greater Asia, and her two colleagues . . . and Aaron Baldesarre, Administrator for Greater America.”

Kiaw’s ‘two colleagues’ remained at a distance—bodyguards, clearly—while the others shook hands with her in turn. Mary nodded at their brusque greetings; her nervousness ebbed away. With this growing courage, the internal voice chanting her secret heresy became deafening: My children! Mine!

Like a plant bursting through bitumen in a dry spring, a simple, shockingly audacious plan erupted, without warning. She would not ask or beg: she would simply go. Yes—tonight, once the Administrators and the Director left, she would take her life’s work with her and go.

They’d find sanctuary somewhere—who would dare turn Emma away? What could the Administrators do? She looked at the visitors again; they weren’t so impressive. Baldesarre was slim but grotesquely tall, with a head of too precise, all-grey hair and off-white teeth—each hair and tooth just so. An artificial man. Kasper was flabby and corpulent, his body the product of years of self-indulgence. Mel Kiaw—ageless face, slim physique—was the most normal in appearance, but seemed guarded and wary, as though among enemies. Mary guessed her bodyguards were not just for show; given the current tensions between Greater Asia and the rest of the planet, this was perhaps understandable.

The Twins would change that. All human conflict, at last, would be eradicated.

The Administrators’ smiles were still pinned on their faces, but they looked around the Twins’ room, puzzled. Mary couldn’t blame them; they’d be used to more pomp than plastic chairs next to a plastic curtain. Behind them, the wall display still showed the slowly revolving, computer-generated representation of the Vehicle.

Mel Kiaw broke the silence, her voice pitched at a level that suggested her own growing deafness.

“As we’re pressed for time, may we have Mary brief us on her role in the Program?” It was a question, nominally, but her tone betrayed the command.

“Thank you, Administrator,” Mary said. “But first, please let me provide some context. You know about DNA’s puzzling redundancy. Fewer than twenty percent of the genome has any biological role—the remainder, the so-called ‘junk’ DNA, sits silently between the genes. Why is it there? What’s all the junk for?”

Mary paused and pointed at the wall display: the Vehicle slowly rotated, exhibiting its complex topography in serial views, its contours in sections, its many-chambered anatomy.

“In science, the answer to a question in one field is often informed by developments in another. Greater America’s discovery of this craft, embedded in the ocean floor at the Chicxulub impact point was such a development. It changed everything.”

“Except Greater America’s habit of keeping global resources for its own benefit,” Kiaw said, stony-faced.

“Now that we understand the global implications, we are sharing the discovery. That’s why we’re all here. Right, Ulrich?” Baldesarre smiled at his colleague and then nodded towards Mary.

“The discovery that we’re not alone in the Universe was momentous. The existence of materials science and propulsion technology so far beyond ours triggered multiple research projects. But within the Vehicle, we found a more intriguing mystery still: a complete absence of complex organic remains.”

The Director interrupted. “Anything that was alive in the Vehicle got out. And shut the door behind it.”

Kiaw looked from Mary to the wall display and back again. “Couldn’t the Vehicle have been remotely or automatically controlled?”

“We don’t think so, Administrator,” said Mary. “It’s clear that biological life was present in the Vehicle. For example, its instrumentation was designed for physical manipulation. We found storage containers – for food, we at first thought — that could not have been opened by the machinery within the Vehicle. And we have additional evidence, which we shall present to you shortly. There’s no doubt that novel exobiological life—NoEL—arrived here on Earth millions of years ago.”

A small noise came from the end of the room, and Mary involuntarily turned to look at the curtain. They all heard it: a small, high-pitched yawn, a child’s yawn. The Administrators exchanged glances.

Mary continued. “Various questions occurred to us, Administrators, as no doubt they occur to you. If the visitors’ technology was so advanced, how did they manage to crash into the planet so spectacularly? What went wrong? And the second pressing question is, what happened to the visitors themselves?”

The Administrators for Greater America and Greater Europe nodded, still wearing their fixed, artificial smiles. The Director shifted tensely in his chair. Melanie Kiaw remained motionless, warily observing, her bodyguards statue-still behind her.

“We believe the answers to those questions are related. First, the violence of the landing was entirely intentional. The impact was designed to trigger mass extinctions—to prepare the ground, eliminate apex predators, and disrupt established ecosystems. It was the planetary equivalent of plowing a field.

“And that helps us with the second question. If our visitors were preparing the ground in this way, they must have intended to stay here, to insert themselves into terrestrial biomes and take the place of the dominant life forms they had so spectacularly annihilated. But again, what happened next? With such advanced technology, after such an investment of effort, did they simply die out? It seems unlikely. But if not, where are they?”

“What does this have to do with junk DNA?” asked Kiaw.

“Put yourself in the position of the visitors, Administrator. They are in an alien environment. The oxygen-rich, low carbon dioxide atmosphere at the end of the Cretaceous may have been uncomfortable for them, even painful.”

The Director nodded emphatically. “Like fish out of water,” he said. From the other side of the curtain, they heard a wet, slapping sound, like a sodden towel hitting the polished floor.

Mary cleared her throat. “How then do you colonize a planet for which you are imperfectly adapted, using only the resources brought in a single spacecraft?” She paused, suddenly grappling with an almost overwhelming desire to cease the charade, to scream out: Here is what I should have been; give me my stolen destiny.

“The answer is dormant amplification—an arrangement that enables your genes to persist and spread, immune from selective pressure, until environmental conditions become more favorable to your phenotype. You deconstruct your genome and tie its fragments to the genomes of Earth-adapted organisms.” Who could have known what would run free when we broke junk’s shackles? “In brief, you hide pieces of your DNA among the DNA of your hosts. You pretend, Administrators, to be useless. Harmless. To be pieces of junk.” Mary paused to swallow; her tongue was dry and sticky from talking.

“Remember the containers I mentioned, that we found in the Vehicle? Analysis of their internal residues revealed nucleic acids. Massively degraded, but short sequences were readable. And they had homology to nothing on Earth—except junk DNA.” Oh Emma! Who could have guessed you lay trapped within the cells of my broken, dying body?

Mary looked at her audience. Something about the men’s expressions rang false. Kasper was all raised eyebrows and wide eyes—the exaggerated, smiling expression of surprise that you would put on for the inept conjuring trick of a child—and Baldesarre was frowning, like a caricature of the man who’s always last to get the joke.

Kiaw seemed to be—what? Skeptical? Angry? But she had a question. “I don’t see how spreading pieces of their DNA around terrestrial genomes—genomes adapted to the terrestrial environment—would enable the establishment of a colony of creatures adapted to an alien environment.”

“These beings planned for interstellar distances, remember?” Mary said. “They were playing a long game.”

They stacked the deck against us; they changed the rules.

Mary continued.Let’s assume the visitors’ ability to manipulate genes was as advanced as their other technology. They wouldn’t just dump their DNA in the local organisms and hope for the best. They would establish genetic mechanisms to subtly change host behavior in the visitors’ favor. For example, increased levels of impatience, aggression, risk-taking. All designed to lead—eventually—to an unstable, run-away program of conflict and environmental degradation…”

We shall run, Emma, you and I, to the mountains, far beyond the reach of rising seas.

“…designed to make their hosts, over millennia, modulate the environment in ways that make it more suitable for NoEL, and that—at the same time—trigger the emergence of the NoEL phenotype.”

We will run, Emma, far from a humanity that is less human each year.

Kasper exchanged a glance with Kiaw, then turned to Mary. His smile disappeared. “Mary, Administrator Kiaw’s original question, which, forgive me, I don’t think you have yet answered, related to your specific role in this project?” He left the question hanging—a small, sour fruit for Mary to pluck.

Mary began to outline the first experiments, her scripted response, but the Director interrupted.

“Mary, the Administrators want to hear, from you, about your role . . . your specific role . . .”

Mary found it difficult to keep the annoyance out of her voice. They ask about the least important things. “One of my egg cells was used as the host. We induced it to divide into two and removed the genome, my genome, from each cell at the two-cell stage. We put the composite, laboratory-synthesized NoEL genome, the junk-only genome, into one cell. At the same time, we excised the junk from my genomic sequences and put my own DNA—now junk-free—back into the sister cell.”

A brief, uncomfortable silence followed.

“Why?” asked Kiaw. “Why test your junk-free DNA? Why not just test the synthetic junk genome?”

Mary had anticipated the question, of course. Still, she hated it, mainly because the truthful answer—To see what I could have been—could not be shared.

“I wanted to test the effects of junk removal on human development. As you may know, I was exposed to a retrovirus bomb as a child in the attack of 2065. I only survived because virtually all of the retroviral insertions hit my junk DNA. So most of my actual genes were undamaged—but not all.” Mary touched a hand to her sagging face. “It made sense to use my genome, partly because—as a result of the retroviral insertions I suffered—my junk DNA is shot to pieces. This made it easier to remove the junk using damage-recognition enzymes. It was simple to correct the retrovirally-induced mutations in my dermal protein genes before inserting the junk-stripped genome into the egg cell. The opportunity for this kind of control experiment seemed too good to pass up.”

The Director interjected again. “Administrators, may I remind you of the full disclosure I made about the exact purpose of this experiment?”

A brief silence. Kiaw read from her device: “An observational study on the attachment interactions between junk-compromised individuals. That’s what you’re referring to, right?” The Director nodded. Mary looked at him. What? That wasn’t the experiment at all! The hairs on her flesh stood up, as though a cold draught had found its way into the Twins’ room, but she kept silent. Careful; remember Emma.

The Administrators appeared concerned about something. Baldesarre frowned at Mary, as though still trying to understand the punchline. Kiaw exchanged glances with Kasper yet again. But the Director, apparently, could wait no longer.

“Maybe if we cut straight to the point of the meeting? It might save some time. Mary?”

“Of course. The twin cells were allowed to develop from separate lab-grown placentas. A junk-only embryo developing in a NoEL-friendly environment, and a zero-junk embryo developing in a relatively normal environment.”

Mary took a deep breath. The moment of the unveiling had come. Here: see what I could have been . . .

“The Twins are now six years old, and they are extraordinary.”

She drew back the curtain, heard the collective gasp, and felt the tender swell of a mother’s pride. Mine, not yours. And soon, I’ll take what’s mine.

In the left cage, as angelic as ever, sat Emma, calm and collected, observing them with those wonderful eyes.

Soon, thought Mary, my dear, my love, my lost destiny, my found future, soon we will go away from here, you and I  . . .

In the other cage, lying in a low, brine-filled metal cradle and bathing in warm, carbon dioxide-rich air, was Emma’s brother, NoEL. The movement of the curtain startled him, and he thrashed violently, slopping salty water onto the floor.

The Administrators stared, fascinated. Pig-sized, he was shaped like a cross between a catfish and a manatee, but without a tail. On each side of his sinuous body were three stubby protuberances, similar to the pseudopods of a caterpillar, with which he painfully moved an anatomy designed for thicker air, heavier gravity. His leathery, dun-colored skin looked smooth, but was covered with tiny, almost transparent, siliceous spines that would break off and embed themselves into whatever touched them. His head was dominated by a gaping, thick-lipped maw that could open wider than his own body. From his eyes, multiple points of fierce black—cold pupils swimming in a gel of pale green—observed the alien world into which he had been born. Around his head was a radial arrangement of eight thin—but strong—multiply-jointed limbs, each ending in a set of finger-like digits. The four anterior arms were shorter, more delicate; behind them were four larger, more robust limbs. Like a cat’s tail or the tentacles of a sea anemone, these were almost always in motion, if only at their tips.

As the group watched him, NoEL opened his mouth wide and gasped and bubbled at them. He was trying to say something—what was it? Adder nee? Add dorny?

Mary glanced at her audience, the great and the good from terrestrial government, and felt a pleasurable thrill of pride at their expressions: awe tinged with fear. She couldn’t help putting a question to Emma purely for the benefit of the audience,

“Emma, darling?”

The girl, who had been sitting in a corner, stood and walked to the front of the cage. She put both her hands on the bars and waited while Mary consulted a number table.

“If I were to ask you what the numbers eleven and—let me see—eighty-one thousand, eight hundred and thirty-nine have in common, what might you say?”

“They are both Fibonacci primes. There are other possible answers, too, of course.” Emma spoke with the air of one who humors a harmless drunk—not precocious so much as patient.

“Thank you, Emma.” Mary could hardly contain herself; the warm, proud possessiveness within her threatened to swamp the room and everyone in it; she felt close to bursting. My child. My child . . .

“You see? And as for NoEL, he’s not as fast and creative as Emma, but he’s still more clever than any normal human.” The floodgates burst and her pride flowed, washing aside the Director’s attempted interjection. “He’s only limited by his mode of receiving and presenting information, which is very different from ours—his anatomy isn’t geared for speaking, for instance, but he understands speech perfectly and often tries to say words. With practice, you can pick them out.”

NoEL raised the front part of his body from the cradle, using two of his longer arms while extending the other six arms around his head in an odd, radial arrangement, a strange halo. Then he spoke again, in his hoarse, bubbling gasp that seemed to come from the depths of space and history.

“A dorny!” he said. “A dorny!

Bless him! He tries so hard. Mary angled a sidelong, satisfied glance at the Director, but he seemed irritated by her unscripted departure from the plan.

“Mary, thank you for your presentation. Administrators, if you have no more questions for Mary, I’m sure she has much to do?” He nodded at her; a nod which said, Go.

But Baldesarre hadn’t finished. “I’d just like to clarify a couple of things for the benefit of our colleague from Greater Asia. Mary, if Emma’s extraordinary abilities are due to the absence of junk DNA—if the junk is deleterious, in other words—how come every species on Earth is still loaded with junk DNA? Shouldn’t natural selection have eliminated the junk sequences?”

“The junk confers a survival advantage. We’ve shown it in the lab time and again—nematodes, Drosophila, mice—every species that we’ve tested.” And also in the one we haven’t tested; I need no experiments to confirm experience.

“Shown what, precisely?”

Something small and vulnerable clutched at Mary’s heart. With the sixth sense of the outcast, she detected a subtle change in the dialogue’s flow. She fought to stop her voice from wavering. “The junk drives behavior that favors its own survival, at a population level. In all cases, junk-poor individuals are shunned or attacked by junk-rich individuals.” Oh no . . .  Please . . .

The Director, one hand in his pocket, gave her a slow, cold smile.

Mary, conscious of a sudden, gut-dragging nausea, looked at Baldesarre, trying to message him with her eyes: Please, please, please.

“So, after a couple of generations, you don’t see junk-poor genomes in the population? Correct? Elimination of the junk-poor by the junk-rich—that’s the natural course of things?”

“Yes.” No, no, no. She fought to keep her breathing under control, but her voice was gaspy and high-pitched, too supplicatory. It doesn’t have to be like that. “But don’t you see—”  Mary stopped, appalled by the icy contempt of Baldesarre’ stare; it was like looking into the inhuman, hostile emptiness of space, “Listen, please—just a little more work, a few months, and I’ll design junk defense mechanisms, I’m sure of it! We’re not obliged to carry this burden! We’re still human!We can be, still; we can. “And the Administration will benefit greatly—imagine the advances in productivity, in innovation, from people like this!” She pointed to the cage, her fingers trembling. “Please, Administrator?” Can’t you see what we could be? Look! Please . . . please don’t . . .

Baldesarre nodded, but his thoughts were obviously elsewhere. And all at once Mary realized that the Administrator was not slow or stupid at all; he had simply been playing a part. All of them had. As if on cue, Baldesarre began to read from his script again.

“So, Administrator Kiaw, given the Twins’ respective abilities and the evidence from the Director’s risk assessment, the question is: What now?”

Emma walked slowly back to her seat, head down.  In the next cage, NoEL shifted slightly and let out a low, bubbling sigh. Mary turned to the Administrator for Greater Asia; maybe Kiaw would understand? Please please please . . .

Kiaw studied the children silently, her face unreadable.

“Greater Asia will support the option that we discussed,” Kiaw said.

Baldesarre looked like one who had to carry out an essential but unpleasant duty: weary, perhaps irritated, somewhat contemptuous. “We are agreed, then,” he said, “that this genetic redundancy, this monstrous thing melded to each of us, represents a serious threat. The very existence of this creature could encourage the emergence of others of its kind.” Baldesarre gestured at the Director as if to give him his cue.

The Director shuffled forward, his hard little eyes sliding towards Mary and then away. “Thank you, Administrators. As you say, Administrator Baldesarre, now that the danger has become explicit, we must address it. There is no place for genetic anachronisms in the coming world.”

He approached the cages, holding something behind his back—a long silver cylinder with some kind of angled handle. Mary lurched forward; Kiaw’s bodyguards grabbed her arms.

“NoEL!” she shouted. “Director! NoEL, not Emma! Please!”

“Emma,” said the Director, “I don’t want you to see this, my dear. Could you come over here and turn around to look at that wall? Don’t look at NoEL. Good girl.”

With an odd, sad expression, Emma did as she was told. The Director put his hand through the bars and pressed the device to the base of the little girl’s skull. Something savagely knocked her head forward, leaving a neat, round hole, half plugged with fine blonde hair. It didn’t start bleeding until Emma hit the floor, limbs akimbo, in that untidy way Death drops what he doesn’t need.

Mary fell to her knees, wanting to scream but only able to gasp for breath, her heart and lungs crushed in a giant fist. She looked at the Administrators—but bizarrely, they too were on their knees beside her. And now the Director also clumsily genuflected before the cages, grunting as he lowered himself in obeisance.

NoEL levered himself up in his cradle, grasping the edge with four of his arms. He raised the other four hieratically above his head. Through the sound of her racking sobs, Mary heard his hoarse voice, bubbling and insistent. What were the words? A torny? Attaw nee?

No—now she knew what he was demanding. Staring at them with fierce, perpetually shifting points of black, NoEL gasped and croaked his divine command:

“Adore me! Adore me! ADORE ME!”

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Purchasers will also receive access to downloadable desktop and phone wallpapers of our beautiful cover art created by the amazingly talented Katerina Belikova (aka Ninja Jo) and inspired by Brian Low's story, “Have You Seen This Hungry Ghost?"

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