“Get a message to Prodigal—Athena blackmailed. Go to ground.”
‘Moses’ ducked quickly into a copse of trees, pulling Felicia with her.
“You asked me to meet to deliver a message for you? Jeopardizing all the conductors? Stupidly dangerous. Why Prodigal?” Moses hissed, her face an inch from Felicia’s.
“He’s my brother.” Felicia lived and worked inside The Capitol and was an Underground Railroad conductor along the journey to the ‘Land of Canaan.’ Her brother Orion was a conductor at the last stop before Canaan. The Railroad helped people fleeing the oppressive rule of The Capitol and its agenda to produce ideal citizens by DNA manipulation. He had returned to The Capitol a year after his disappearance to recruit her to work from within the walls.
“You’re not supposed—”
“I wouldn’t, but the two women Prodigal took to ‘Canaan’ himself-- our mothers. I’m alone in here. Someone knows what I’m doing. Not just this, other things. I need---”
“That’s not my problem. We smuggle cargo and messages about them. Not messages to your brother. If you’re compromised, leave now with me--”
“No, I’m not leaving. I can fix this.”
“It endangers me, all of us. Get out now.”
“I’m staying. Pass the message on or don’t. I’m going to deal with it. We all want Prodigal safe.” She stood. “I’m going back.”
The woman did not stop her.
Three Days Earlier
I know what you are doing.
Felicia stared at the etching on the slide in her quantum nucleic microscope. She blinked, shaking her head, hoping it was eye strain. She looked again—still there.
Deliberately not looking around the lab, she slid the slide out, and moved it, continuing her work as if nothing had happened.
Who could know? How much did they know? What could she do without knowing the extent of the threat?
At 30, Felicia was much too old to run to her mothers when she was frightened and needed advice, but she desperately wished Penelope and Daphne hadn’t been forced to escape from The Capitol when their work against the agenda of Capitol Headquarters was discovered. Orion sent word their mothers were safely in Canaan.
There had been an uproar and an investigation by The Capitol Police that two such highly regarded Medical Quadrant Citizens would simply disappear, especially since their son had done the same thing eight years earlier. Felicia and her younger sister Phoebe were questioned repeatedly. Phoebe could actually claim complete ignorance and shock. Felicia had to fake both. As planned, she had reported their absence and taken their robomastiff Sappho home with her, adding her to her pack of smaller robodogs Hal and Mito. They were easily programmed to get along with each other.
Now, Felicia needed Penelope, Daphne, and Orion. Phoebe was no help—more of a liability than an ally, as she subscribed to The Capitol’s doctrine of superior Citizens through manipulation of mitochondrial DNA to prevent and to eliminate any undesirable traits. She and her husband Astin had been “modified” and their twins were designer embryos—Science’s Bastards, Penelope called them.
Work now. Stay calm. Maintain appearances. Be rational and logical. Exactly what Penelope would tell her. Daphne would hug her, make enchiladas, and reassure her.
Felicia held herself together during the day, hiding behind her professional identity: Dr. Hughes, detached, introverted, focused, driven.
She thought she saw the team leader, Dr. Waterman eyeing her more closely than his usual lewd manner but maybe it was her paranoia. He was her first suspect—constantly looking over her shoulder, literally, access to her work and equipment, and a personal motive for blackmail.
At home in the residential area of the Science Quadrant, she sat on the couch, avoiding the required daily viewing of the Director of Propaganda’s holo-vid, with a glass of wine, and three warm, loving robodogs. Sappho stretched out her massive body on the floor so Felicia could use her feet to pet her and rub her belly. Hal draped himself over her lap, and Mito pressed himself close to her, snoring softly. She petted Hal and drank her wine.
She wondered if she should contact Moses or Orion. Was it too early to take that risk?
Felicia was alone, trapped inside The Capitol walls.
The next day at the lab, Dr. Waterman was in Felicia’s lab when she arrived.
Felicia’s chest tightened, and she felt her carotid pulse jumping in her neck. She struggled to take discretely slow breaths. Her hands started to go numb. Focus. Do not react emotionally to a situation best served by logic, Penelope would tell her.
“Good morning, Felicia.” The man’s perfectly groomed beard parted to reveal wet smile. His round forehead was pale, his skin oily. He was one of the few scientists who wore a tie every day under his monogrammed lab coat instead of the utilitarian scrubs Felicia wore.
“Dr. Waterman, why are you at my workstation?”
“Felicia, I’m the Team Leader. I am exercising my prerogative to examine your work and your equipment any time I see fit. I don’t understand why you have to be difficult about it—unless there’s a reason—”
“The reason, Dr. Waterman, is that I have politely requested on numerous occasions that you do so in my presence as a professional courtesy.”
Patches of florid skin crept across his skin. “Do you have something to hide? Why are you being hysterical, Felicia?”
“I assure you, Dr. Waterman, that I have never been hysterical a moment in my life. I am being professional—Dr. Waterman.” She flexed her now clammy hands, trying to restore blood flow. Her stomach muscles contracted, reminding her skipping breakfast was an excellent choice. Choosing to ignore him, she walked into her workspace, removed her coat and slipped into her lab coat, tucked her bun of long, wavy black hair neatly under her cap, and removed a pair of non-latex gloves from their sealed compartment.
Dr. Waterman eyed her as she changed. “You look well, Felicia. Have you lost weight?”
Felicia resisted the urge to smash his face into the wall. Daphne would have slapped him. Her brother would have punched him. “Dr. Waterman, I have informed you many times that your comments are inappropriate and unprofessional. You will not make comments about my appearance—as I refrain from making comments about yours.”
His jaw tightened. “Overreacting as usual, Felicia. It was a compliment.”
“Keep your compliments to yourself. Now then, which parts of my work would you like to discuss?”
Dr. Waterman opened his mouth, pausing momentarily in an unflattering expression, then closed it again. He straightened the already meticulous knot on his tie. “Your work has slowed in the area of….”
After an hour of questioning and examination, he left Felicia’s workstation. She did not acknowledge his friendly wishes for having a good day.
Her work was slow, deliberately so. She sabotaged the scientific advances incrementally to derail The Capitol’s agenda. The team was now experimenting with mitochondrial DNA alteration of ova and spermatozoa, one step prior to the zygote manipulation that had gained wide acceptance. This would “correct” flaws before conception, avoiding the risks of in utero procedures like the one Phoebe and Astin utilized to design their twins. This would move the science forward exponentially—and eliminate another element of Citizens’ rights to their reproductive systems. Felicia did all she could to reduce the success rate of the experiments. Her efforts required delicate calculations of what margins of the process she could safely tamper with.
Did Waterman know what she was doing? Did he know about the Underground Railroad? Was his manner his normal, overstepping, lascivious self? Was she overreacting?
Deliberately planning to worry about this later, Felicia turned her focus to her work.
When Felicia returned home after a frustrating day of being watched by Dr. Waterman and being unable to slow experimentation due to his scrutiny, she made herself a pitcher of margaritas instead of her regular glass of wine. Hal, Mito, and Sappho sat in the kitchen looking up at as she poured the first glass.
“Don’t judge me. You’d be drinking too if you had to deal with that prick.”
The robodogs were unfazed by her rebuke.
Felicia chuckled and patted their realistic warm, furry heads as she walked by them. “Come on, let’s hit the couch and endure the latest holo-vid bullshit.”
The three ran and leapt on the couch, Sappho taking up half, the smaller ones occupying the remaining space.
“Where am I supposed to sit? You mechanical goofballs.” Setting her margarita on the end table, she scooped Hal up and planted him on her lap. Sappho laid her mastiff head on her knee and began to lick Hal’s face. Felicia laughed at her. “Who knew you were programmed to be such a nurturing mommy dog?” Sappho ignored her and continued grooming her packmate, who twitched in delight as Sappho snaked her tongue to the perfect spot in Hal’s ear. So realistic.
“Computer, play holo-vid.” Felicia picked up her drink, planning to guzzle it during the boring message and go back for more.
The holo-vid clicked on, but the Director of Propaganda did not appear in her living room. A pulsating red light emerged as the digital voice began. “Dr. Felicia Singleton Hughes, this is your warning to amend your mistakes and align yourself with The Capitol. Our next communication will inform you of the price of our silence.”
Felicia didn’t realize she had spilled her drink until Mito jumped off the couch to lick up the puddle. “Mito, no! Tequila’s not good for… robodogs, I guess, I don’t know. Just stop it.” She plopped him back on the couch and got a towel to clean up the mess.
The tequila bottle was still sitting on the counter, so with shaky fingers, Felicia downed three quick shots. The Director spewed his daily message. Felicia ignored him.
“They hacked my holo-vid. Anyone in the Technology Quadrant could do that. My middle name-- from my file? Does Waterman know that? The message said our. Two people? A group?”
She took two more shots and went to bed, leaving the holo-vid playing to an audience of robodogs.
Felicia spent the early hours of the morning throwing up, more from the shock than the tequila, she told herself.
Nothing to do at this point except work like everything was normal. And wait for the message, wondering what the price would be.
The price was unacceptable, one Felicia discarded as easily as she tossed the glove with the message inside it into the bio-hazard disposal system.
Orion’s location was the demand.
She ignored the rest of the message as irrelevant. Why ask about Orion now, eight years after his disappearance from The Capitol? Why not their mothers’ recent departure, eminent Citizens of the Medical Quadrant? Had someone made the connection, assuming that Orion was involved. People disappeared regularly—some of them from Capitol Headquarters, which is what would happen to her if the blackmailers acted on the threat.
She had to warn her brother.
The following day there was another message—this time an email with from an untraceable account.
Felicia stepped into the breakroom and called her contact in the Technology Quadrant on the secure comms he had gotten for her. Andreous could trace it.
It took Andreous less than an hour that night to trace the email.
“That can’t be right. Someone has hacked their account and is trying to make it look like it came from them. Dr. Waterman has contacts who could do that. It’s the cowardly---”
“Felicia,” Andreous interrupted, “I checked for that. It was routed through multiple accounts with double blind redundancies. It’s right.”
Her own sister. Phoebe and her husband Astin. She wanted to ruin her own sister and risk the life of her brother. They’ve been drinking The Capitol’s Kool Aid so long they couldn’t see what was happening. How could Phoebe possibly be the child Penelope carried? Was there a genetic agenda in the insemination? Was it when they had their DNA altered voluntarily? Had someone secretly developed a blind obedience DNA sequencing?
Daphne would kill Phoebe if she were still inside The Capitol. Orion would too, after insisting on Felicia leave The Capitol. Penelope would try to reason with them, appeal to their logical thinking that by exposing Felicia and Orion, they would damage their own status. Penelope would tell Felicia to do the same. Moses would tell her to leave.
Felicia wanted to fight not run, not debate. She would handle it.
When Felicia returned home, Orion was sitting on her couch with the dogs.
“Hey, Lecia,” he said casually, his crooked Cheshire Catlike grin spreading.
“Dammit, Orion! I told you to go to ground. What the hell are you doing, coming back like this? Again. You’re---”
“You thought I wouldn’t come back to help you? Why the fuck didn’t you leave?” He looked older than the last time she had seen him, even though it hadn’t been long.
“It’s Phoebe. Phoebe and Astin.”
Orion’s jaw tightened, his hands rolling up into fists. “That little bitch. Astin, I can believe. But Phoebe? She’s further gone than we thought.”
“We have to go,” he insisted. “Grab your Go Bag. Now.”
“No. They probably have Capitol Security—”
“I got in, I can get us out.”
“I won’t let them do this.” Felicia tried to shake off the tears that brimmed over and threatened to wet her face. “They can’t get away with it.”
Orion pulled her into a warm hug. She sobbed into his shoulder, all her self-control melting in that moment of betrayal and loyalty colliding.
“Getting you out is more important. They way they live is its own punishment. It’s not worth the risk.”
“You can live with this?” She pulled back from him, wiping her face. “Knowing they wanted both of us dead? That’s not the brother I know.”
Orion ran his hands through his short black hair, which they both inherited from Daphne. “What’s the alternative, Lecia?”
“We silence them.” Her voice was flat.
“You don’t really—”
“Orion, stop. There are only two ways to shut them up. Taking them outside the walls unwillingly is too dangerous for the entire Railroad.”
Orion nodded. “You know I’ll help you.”
“Afterwards, we leave.”
She shook her head. “I stay, continue my work. I’ll carefully escalate my efforts inside the lab and recruit more people. I’ll leave when I have done everything I can. I can get out on my own anytime. And I’m bringing the dogs.”
“Lecia, you’re insane. They’re robots.”
“That you were just on the sofa snuggled up with.”
“True. But you’re still insane.” His crooked smile returned.
“We both are. We can blame Daphne for that.”
They stood in silence, thinking.
“You’re sure you want to do this, that you can do it?”
“Can’t you?” she challenged.
“Yes, but I’ve killed people before.”
“So have I, Orion. You’ve been gone a long time. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the only thing I can live with.”
“Agreed. We do it together. Tonight.”