Prologue: Run

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"One of the hardest things in life to learn are which bridges to cross and which bridges to burn."

Oprah Winfrey, dreg pre-Genetic Wars Social Leader

They're going to kill me.

Not because I know too much—which I do—but because they know I'm going to make sure everyone else does too. My heart ka-thuds in my chest, feeding adrenaline to muscles that feel heavier than lead. I push through the exhaustion with a final burst of energy as I clamber up the inside of a ventilation shaft. My palms stick and unstick to the cold metal; my spine coils as I give myself over to a serpentine undulation that is more me than I ever thought possible.

I embody Generation Manifestation.

"Where is she?" an angry voice rises from below. "Find her!"

I don't dare slow, no matter the pain in my shoulder. I concentrate to keep the wound from bleeding. If they smell it ...

Your body goes where your mind pushes it. The ingrained thought is a spark. I pull my scent inward; I direct healing resources in my bloodstream to the gash above my arm; my skin ripples, and I camouflage my thoughts to shield against psychic attack; I race up a narrow vertical tube.

What sixteen-year-old girl can do all that? I can, I tell myself. But can I do them all at once? Bigger worries intrude on my thoughts. What's happened to the others? Have they been captured? Tortured? Killed?

The momentary distraction is my undoing. My tail smacks against the side of the shaft—reverberations echo downwards. I might as well be a marching band on Armistice Day.

"She's in the ventilation system!" someone bellows.

The whine of ripping metal claws at my ears. They're coming.

I look through a grate above; the lights of a passing zoomer momentarily blind me.

Almost there!

I catch an acrid whiff.

No! I want to scream.

Cloud is closing in. The air grows hazy as a genderless, gaseous form surrounds me. I cough and tear up. My eyelids, nostrils, and mouth constrict, locking out whatever gas Cloud's turned zirself into. I clamber blindly upwards.

Cloud sticks to me and alters the chemical composition of zirs body. My scaled skin burns; the wound in my shoulder opens; blood drips down my side; my palms peel. I dig my claws into the sides of the shaft, but it's no use; shredding metal shrieks as I slide downwards. My tail slams from side to side in panic; the vent echoes with the sound of steel drums.

Keep going! I order myself. You see this through to the end!

Cloud has no mouth, but I swear ze's mocking me. Zirs form swirls around my cuticles, burning at my fingertips. Three of my claws snap.

I scream and immediately wish I hadn't. Cloud titters at my blunder, sparking with chemical reactions as zirs burning form fills the sensitive lining of my mouth. Ze'll be hailed a hero. I don't dare speculate what will happen to me. Every time I think they can't hurt me anymore, they find a way.

I fight the pain; pain wins. My strength gives. My vision cuts out. Gravity is my keeper. I brace myself for a fall that will surely smash my spine.

I'm sorry, I think to everyone I've failed—on both sides of the river.

Cloud coils with glee, pinching me with combustive zaps until, unexpectedly, I laugh. Cloud pauses. Does ze wonder if I've gone mad?

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