End of an Empire

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"Leanna." Rebecca's voice cut through the fog in her brain, bringing her a little more upright from her boneless slump against the lift cage. Lee's breath hitched, fingers lingering on the recorder's play button. It had been the last thing her mother gave her. She would never hear her mother say her name again. "I'm sorry. Let me say that first. I'm sorry because I know if you're listening to this, the inevitable or unimaginable has happened, and I no longer walk this earth. I wish we had more time, I truly do, and I'm sorry my cowardice prevented me from telling you all of this long ago. You deserved better from me. I was selfish and wanted you to have a peaceful life away from the sins that complicated your beginning. Please know I never intended for things to go this far.

"This will be my final confession. You deserve to know who and what you are from the source. My daughter, I have lied to you. Your mother never abandoned you in an alley when you were an infant. You were never adopted. You, Leanna Farrow, are my own flesh and blood.

"In my youth, I was commissioned to work for the North crime family. I say commissioned like I had a choice, but this isn't about me and my mistakes. Not like that, at least. At the time of my 'hiring,' I was working as a geneticist for MIT. My thesis was in the progression and eventual stable creation of gene therapy with a heavy focus on Huntington's disease. The disease I inherited from my mother."

Lee turned to look at the recorder as if it was actually her mother. Genetics? Huntington's Disease? A grisly picture began to form in her mind.

"Leanna, please understand I never meant to create what I did...to create you. That's not to say you were ever thought of as a mistake. I loved you from the beginning until the end, never forget that, but I was absolutely certain the genetic modifications wouldn't take to my egg. I was focused on manipulating markers deep in the DNA strands to create a stable bridge for future gene therapy, but the DNA I was given to fuse with mine was extraordinary all on its own. I never anticipated anything permanently bonding but the mutation took root. In my arrogance and shortsightedness, I fertilized that egg. I felt I needed to. The possibilities at the time were quite astounding, to say the least.

"This was meant to be my secret, despite pregnancy being quite difficult to hide, but genetic research like that...it's not ethical. It's not even moral. There's a reason testing begins with mice and rats, but I was young and foolish and believed the rules didn't apply to me. For that, I am deeply sorry. My ego and clout brought you into this world, and my mistake nearly ended your life before it began.

"You see, my research was being closely monitored without my knowledge. The Norths were interested, as any crime family would be, in the prospects of something marketable. Had I succeeded in creating a genetically superior gene capable of being used for therapy, it would have put the family on the map, so to speak. Billions of dollars were at stake, had I succeeded, which I did.

"I carried you to term, something that could have well killed us both, and on the day of your birth, I was approached by Edward North. It was blackmail from the beginning. He copied my research and took my original documents, even the video evidence of my testing. I was told you were now his property and that my research would continue with you as the test subject. He wanted to make you into something you were never meant to be: a lucrative donor to their cause. His very own test rat.

"My daughter, I ran the first chance that crossed my path, but my severance from the family was messy. There were quite a few researchers and fellow colleagues linked to the Norths who were loyal to me. Emilia was one of them as well as Taft. Emilia was a microbiologist working alongside me as my protégé, and it was with her help I escaped."

Lee felt like she had been kicked in the chest. Em...had been a part of this from the beginning?

"The day we ran was the day she lost her eyesight. That was also the day I nearly lost you, too. A North soldier pulled you from my arms. You fell and hit the floor. I don't think I've ever been so terrified in my life as I was scooping your limp form up and running under a hail of gunfire." Rebecca's breath hitched, close to tears. "I thought I lost you after just meeting you, and it was then I realized there was nowhere I could go in the world where the Norths wouldn't find us. They had eyes everywhere...except focused on the Underground.

"I knew a man who could help us. The first Insider. He ferried us into the tunnels, and that's where we stayed. That's where I stayed, working toward penance for my crimes and vowing to raise you in a world where you'd never be seen as anything other than normal. That's why your Topside treks angered me. I was scared for you, Leanna. Scared that even after all these years, the Norths would find you and take you away from me. And now we truly are separated, and my heart breaks at the thought."

Lee was earnestly crying by this point. Everything she knew had been an unnecessary lie. They should have told her. She would have never gone Topside, but her mother just wanted her to grow up as normal, as human, as possible. Betrayal and longing made a toxic mix in her blood.

"I love you, Leanna. I wish this was something I could have told you in person. I wish our beginning hadn't been so tumultuous. I wish I could have grown old beside you and watched you grow into the beautiful woman I know you will be. I know I've put so much on your shoulders, and I am sorry for that. If anything is left of our home, go to ground. Dig in. Don't let the Norths take you. Find Emilia or Taft. If neither of them are with you, find Cedric Barrowman. There's a radio in my room already tuned to the channel. If I haven't activated it, turn it on and wait for his response. Until then, hide, and remember I will always love you."

Go to ground? Call for help? Mother honestly thought Lee was going to walk out of the Underground alive? It was a sweet sentiment, but there was no leaving. No hiding. No waiting until the dust cleared and starting over. Lee lost everything. Her only source of relief was that Alex wouldn't share the same fate.

It had escaped her notice until now-attention on the recorder-but there was a fizzling sound coming from the other side of the security door. Almost like a cartoon fuze. Or a plasma torch. That suspicion came into focus when Lee spotted a molten bead of bright orange metal drip from a seam forming near the top of the door.

So, the Norths wanted in, did they?

Let them come.

Staggering to her feet, Lee grabbed her closest wrench, sized up her hydroelectric machine, a creation which had taken her more than three years to successfully build, and swung overhanded at the closest regulator valve.

Why did death take less time than birth? Why was destruction so easy? Why did life teeter on such a sharp knifepoint that a strong gust of wind or a malfunctioning electrical system was enough to tip that balance into mayhem?

Flames rose, seeking and consuming whatever they could. The lab was burning, mirroring most of the Underground. Standing at the epicenter, Lee listened as her machines made plaintive noises, dying the painful death of overload.

Her mother said to leave. No, she wasn't leaving, and neither were the North soldiers picking their way toward her. She would let them in, let them think they won, and then bring the fucking roof down on their heads.

Readying herself, Lee smashed the recorder to dust under her boot — no evidence left behind — and raised her wrench, preparing to raze her inherited kingdom to the ground. And when the hydroelectric machine finally issued its death bellows, when the heat in the room climbed to scorching, when the fire soared high, Lee opened the doors to her inner sanctum and met the mercenaries head-on with an eruption of fire at her back and a roar ripping from her throat.

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