P r e v i o u s N e x t
She forced herself to ignore the burning in her arms as she finished scrubbing away a particularly stubborn stain on the tile floor. Dunking the mop back into the bucket, she stepped back and sighed, observing her work. The floor looked a little more presentable now. It usually did— it had to, in order to continue passing the health codes. And everyone knew how important passing said health codes was, especially now.
She swallowed, nibbling at a loose piece of skin at her bottom lip. The fresh and shiny polish would be ruined when everybody walked out for the night, but that was alright. The polish wasn’t what they had to be worrying about right now. That was the least of their worries at the moment.
“You alright over there, Shelby?”
Her heart leapt to her throat. She whipped around a little too quickly, and tried to compensate by throwing her hands behind her back in what she hoped looked like an act of innocent daintiness. “Yeah. Mm-hmm. I’m alright,” she said, softly. “Are you alright?”
Kegan brushed his disheveled, dirty blonde hair from his muted blue eyes. “I’m fine.” His voice was deep, rough with exhaustion and an ever increasing frustration. “I just want to get done with today and go to sleep.”
“Y-yeah. I totally understand that.” Shelby trailed off into an uncomfortable silence. She licked her bottom lip. It tasted of blood and sweat. “Today’s been a… pretty hard day for all of us, hasn’t it been?”
Kegan snorted. “You tell me.” He put his hands on his hips, looking around the lab. “It’s probably been one of the hardest.”
Shelby followed his gaze. The room was getting clean, but the mindsets of those fixing it up seemed anything but. Dana’s dark face seemed even darker with the bags hanging under his eyes, his curly black hair even more messy and ruffled than Kegan’s mane was. Riley and Parker were storing away the last of the microscopes for the night. It seemed that when one of them wasn’t yawning or rubbing their eyes, the other one was. Owen was struggling not to nod off in one of the chairs. The energy in the room hung down on them like a sodden cloth, stifling, suffocating. Shelby felt her face screw up into a wince. “It’s so sad,” she whispered, more to herself than to Kegan. “Everything had been going so well. We were doing so well. And— and then… and then…”
“And then they had to go and ruin it. You can say it, Shelby. I doubt anybody here save for a few people will blame you.” Kegan turned away, scratching at his five o’ clock shadow. “I need help organizing the Petri dishes for tomorrow. Come and help me when you’re finished with the floor.”
“Alright.” Shelby watched him walk away, fiddling with the hem of her shirt. That was right… the apprentices were supposed to be helping Kegan survey the effects the developing Neuroleptika tincture had on various human body cells tomorrow. Just a few weeks ago, she would have been elated. Spending the entire day with Kegan and her friends, knowing that what they would be doing would eventually help the City become a better place? That would have been wonderful. But thinking about it now only left a bitter taste in Shelby’s mouth. Did the others feel the same way? She looked toward Riley and Parker, then to Owen. Well, they didn’t look very happy or excited, that was for sure.
She sighed, then turned back to the bucket of dirty water. The mop was still slowly rocking back and forth in the cocktail of soap, water, filth, and paper bits. The movement churned the mixture into a frothing mess that Shelby did not want to have to deal with at all. But she had to. Everybody had to do their part.
She picked up the two handles of the bucket, lugging it up. She hobbled toward the sink, set the bucket onto the edge, and tipped it over, watching it all rush down into the drain. Then she rinsed out the bucket and put it back into the cabinet underneath the sink. Drying off her hands, she looked to the opposite side of the room. Kegan was crouched over the countertop, undoubtedly dealing with the delicate Petri dishes that they would be using tomorrow. She stood still for a second, watching the way his sturdy arms moved with a controlled delicateness over the station. Then she walked over to him, smoothing out the bottom of her hair. “Hi. I’m finished cleaning up the floor.”
Kegan grunted. “Good.” He handed a stack of Petri dishes to her. “Just lay them out in a three by three array in that left corner over there.”
“Oh. Okay.” There was nothing in them yet. Well, of course there wasn’t— the cells would probably end up dying if they put them in now and waited overnight. Who would be responsible for putting those in? She shuddered. Hopefully not her. Honestly, it was a shock that she had been chosen for this career in the first place— she didn’t like anything that had to do with human body parts at all. Well, to be fair, the job mostly involved psychology and medicine. But still. She probably would have been so much happier if she could have had another job in the human development branch. Taking care of the newborn babies, for example, or even being a clandestine Seeker in one of the districts…
“What’s the matter?”
She looked up. Kegan was still focused on the countertop, but his face had softened a little bit as he put the rest of the glass dishes into position. “Tired?” he asked. “I am, too. But we’re almost done. Put these back into the drawers for me, will you? They’re extras.”
Shelby watched him slide another stack of dishes her way. “Alright. I will.” Gently taking them into her hands, she walked over to the drawers. She brought her hand to the leftmost drawer, pulled it open and—
“Everyone! May I get your attention for a moment, please?”
Shelby flinched. A single dish slid off the stack. It fell to the ground in what almost felt like slow motion, shattering the instant it hit the tile. Shelby screwed her face up, hurrying to put the rest of the dishes on the countertop so she could squat down to the floor. Her hands danced around the mess, her fingers twitching as she tried to figure out what to do. “Um— guys? Can one of you get me the broom, please?”
Nobody heeded her call. She looked up, exasperation slowly rising up in her, before her eyes landed upon the reason nobody was paying attention to her— or to any of their closing duties, for that matter. “O-oh.”
At the front of the room, Dana relaxed his tense expression and stepped forward, holding one of his arms out. “What’s the matter, Callahan?”
Callahan stepped away from Jaime’s side and walked forward, the double doors clicking shut behind them. She paused and looked over the gathering committee. “If I may—” she paused to cough, harshly clearing her throat— “if I may get your attention, please. Everybody’s attention.” Her eyes flicked to the back of the lab.
Was she talking about her? But the broken glass… oh, well. This was more important. Probably. She stood and brushed off the part of her coat that had been touching the floor, looking up at Callahan.
“Thank you.” Callahan cleared her throat again. “I have some… news to share with all of you. An update, if you will.”
By the counter with the Petri dishes, Kegan crossed his arms. “Good news, or bad news?”
Callahan didn’t speak for a moment. When she did, her voice was so quiet that Shelby had to strain to hear it. “Bad news, unfortunately.” She adjusted her glasses, her shoulders rising up and down in a heavy sigh.
Kegan blew a harsh puff of air out of his nose. He looked toward Shelby. Shelby could almost hear the words not yet released from his lips: I told you so. She looked away, fiddling with the bottom of her braid again.
“What’s the matter now, Callahan?” Dana’s voice was gentle, but his stature was slightly more rigid than it had been a minute ago. A little colder. Shelby couldn’t look at him when he was like that. She glanced down at the floor. Her pointer finger ran over the loose ends of her hair once, twice, thrice, and she found herself calming down just a little bit as she continued that action several more times.
Callahan continued speaking, apparently not caring that one of her subordinates was no longer willing to look her in the eye— and thank goodness for that, too. “In the Academy…” she trailed off. Shelby snuck a glance up at her. Callahan shut her eyes, took in another deep breath. “Things at the Academy aren’t going so great,” she finally said. “In fact, I may even dare to say that they are the worst they’ve ever been. Though it may not be obvious to many there, yet.”
Shelby’s jaw fell open just as a confused ripple went through the rest of the committee. “Wh-what do you mean? What’s going on over there? Are the kids over there alright?”
Callahan glanced over at her. “I was just about to get to that.” She reached up to her glasses, taking them off and rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Most of the students over there are doing well. However, I cannot say that about some of them. Four of them, to be exact.”
“W-what happened to them, Callahan? Are they okay?”
“Please let her speak, Shelby.” Jaime narrowed his eyes. “She’ll get to that subject in due time.”
“O-oh. Alright. I’m sorry.” Shelby bowed her head, biting the tip of her tongue. She had only left the Academy about three years ago. She knew some of those people Callahan was talking about. Perhaps not personally, but she couldn’t not be concerned for them and their safety. And the new students that had come in just a few weeks ago… they were only fourteen years old. Children. The thought of anything bad happening to them made her stomach hurt. Punishments, neutralizations, terminations, anything— she hated it all. And she hated that this job made it so that she had to know about it all.
It wasn’t until she saw Kegan walking up to her out of the corner of her eye that she snapped back to the present time. Callahan was saying something, and she hurried to pick up the rest of her sentence. “…have disappeared into the Outskirts without so much more than a trace. One of them had a termination request set upon him. Needless to say, it was not fulfilled.”
Shelby winced. She shuffled as close to Kegan as she could while still being able to feel comfortable and inconspicuous as possible in this sort of situation. Just knowing that he was there, that he came over here out of his own accord made her feel a little bit more secure. That was exactly was she needed. Gathering a little bit of courage, she looked up to the front of the room. “What’s going to happen to them now, if they weren’t terminated?”
Callahan pressed her lips together as she regarded Shelby, her eyes growing just a little more dark and tired. “At least they have a little more of a chance in the Outskirts than they did here, Shelby.”
“O-oh.” Shelby wrung her braid. Callahan was right. Really, how could it be taken in any other way? If they hadn’t escaped, they wouldn’t even have been capable of having this conversation right now. At least they had a little bit of a chance in the Outskirts, however abysmally low that chance was. Maybe… maybe they would even be able to find Director Ellis. Who still had to be out there, alive and kicking. She refused to let herself think anything different. Perhaps he would even come back one day, ready to right all of the wrongs that had occurred in his absence. That would be a wonderful day.
Beside her, Kegan curled his lip. “Why are you telling us all of this, Director Callahan?”
Callahan returned Kegan’s gaze coolly. “Because, Kegan, if this trend of disappearing students continues, then Presley will come to contact us about the situation. And then he will realize that Ellis is no longer here. He may already be suspicious as it is— the boy who had a termination request put on him can still be easily remembered, for example, and I’m sure the disappearances of the other three students have been recorded a long time ago.” She brought a hand to her lip, furrowing her eyebrows. “In fact, I’m surprised that he hasn’t contacted us about everything yet. But since he hasn’t, it’s safe to assume that he will soon, if something positive doesn’t happen, and in the near future.”
“So what do you suggest we do then, Callahan?” Dana asked. “There’s nothing we can really do for the lost students now. We don’t send out search patrols to the Outskirts, so that’s out of the question.”
“Yes, Dana, you are correct. I was not going to suggest taking a search patrol to the Outskirts. That would be a dangerous and foolish, and most likely pointless conquest.” Callahan sighed. “My suggestion was that we had to crack down on the Neuroleptika production as hard and as quickly as we can while still being efficient. If we manage to release it by or before its estimated release date, then we may be able to stave off the worst of the suspicions for a while longer.”
The room remained silent, save for a few noncommittal whispers bounced about here and there. A notion suddenly reared its head in Shelby’s mind. She shot a hand up, waving it around like the Academy student she had been just a couple short years ago. “W-wait, Director Callahan! I have an idea!”
Everyone in the room looked over to her. She quickly dropped her hand to the side, but it was too late to go unnoticed now. “You do, Shelby?” Callahan asked, her voice airy and tired. “Well. Feel free to share it.”
“Um… okay.” Shelby brought her hands up to her hair again, but caught herself just in time. “Well— you know the Seeker birds? Like, the ones actually used for seeking— the ones that can take a person’s scent and track them down basically anywhere in the City? Maybe we could use those to find the lost people.” Nobody replied, or really even changed their expression. Shelby hurried to continue. “Like— if their dormitories haven’t been disturbed yet. Take their pillow, or one of their uniforms, and… I think their scent would still be on it enough for the birds to pick it up and– and…” she trailed off, shrugging sheepishly. “I don’t know. I guess it sounded like a better idea in my head.”
“No, no…” Callahan held up a hand. “That… actually isn’t that bad of an idea. It’s a good one, actually. I wouldn’t have thought of that. Of course, we would have to assume that they haven’t traveled far enough to evade their scent-tracking abilities— and also assume that the foreign scents in the Outskirts wouldn’t throw them off. But it is still something that can be seriously considered. Thank you for suggesting it.”
She forced the blush that was surely appearing on her cheeks down. “I know. Like— if the Seeker birds can help find them, then we can bring them back, and— you know? It could be a great help, I think.”
“Spare them from a harsher, more suffering-filled fate in the Outskirts? Yes, you’re right.” Callahan nodded, looking down and rubbing her chin in a way that suggested that she was probably talking more to herself than to any of the others. “A termination would be more merciful than what they may be going through right now… maybe we could even try sending one out for Ellis… yes, that could work.”
“Wait— what?” Shelby’s jaw dropped, her voice coming out in a harsh whisper. “No! I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It’s alright, Shelby,” Kegan murmured. “I doubt that she’ll actually be going through with it, anyway.”
“You think so?” She stared down at the checkered tile floor, pulling at her loosening braid. If she had just unwittingly taken away any chances of survival that Director Ellis and the runaway Academy students had, she would never be able to find the will to forgive herself. If she’d just condemned Director Ellis to termination for no real reason at all, then she’d probably have to step down from her position in some sort of feeble attempt to deal with the guilt she would undoubtedly feel.
Kegan didn’t get the chance to answer before Callahan began speaking again. “Anyway, even if that plan does come to fruition, it is doubtful that it will be enough to assuage Presley’s— or the rest of his committee’s— rising suspicions. So unless anyone else has any better suggestions that could prove to solve all of our problems, it will have to be supplemented with the fast production of the Neuroleptika tincture. Everyone will be expected to give their all, and more, starting tomorrow morning. The very future of the human development and behaviors committee could depend on it.” She looked around, pressing her lips together. “Are there any questions for me? Or any questions in general?”
Nothing but silence responded to her for a moment. Then Riley raised a hand. “When does the Neuroleptika need to be released now?”
Callahan set her tired eyes on Riley, sucking in her cheek. “The tincture was projected to be released to the City in about seven months during Ellis’s reign,” she whispered. “Now, it would be best if it was released in six. Perhaps even five, if any new updates are heard from Presley.”
The silence in the room became much more tense. The bags underneath Kegan’s eyes suddenly seemed a lot more prominent. He turned away and pinched the base of his nose. He didn’t say anything. Neither did Shelby, or anyone else in the room, for that matter. The strain between them all felt like it could have been sliced in half with a knife, and Shelby wasn’t sure just how terrible the recoil would be if— or when— that happened.
Callahan pushed her glasses back onto her nose and sighed, breaking the reticence. “If there are no more questions or concerns that need to be addressed, then I will be taking my leave.” She turned back to the doors. “Finish cleaning the lab up. We will talk more tomorrow.”
Jaime put a hand on her back, whispered something into her ear. He looked over his shoulder and scanned over the group, his eyes blank, unbothered. Then he walked Callahan out of the laboratory. The doors slammed back shut behind them. The rest of the committee was plunged into an uncomfortable silence.
Kegan was the one to break it. “Well. Looks like we’d better finish cleaning up. Wouldn’t want to be able to take a rest before we’re thrown into even deeper waters tomorrow, now would we?”
Shelby hesitated, trying to find at least a tiny little bit of a silver lining to share. “W-well, um… to be fair, Director Ellis usually left us to manage cleaning up on our own. Callahan isn’t really being all that different in that respect, right? It’s the same.”
“It’s not the same. It’s nowhere near the same. Director Ellis wouldn’t have made us wear ourselves to the bone if it wasn’t completely necessary. He wouldn’t have thrown out the previous Director over some sort of holier-than-thou power trip. Director Ellis wouldn’t have allowed the children of the Academy to get into such a precarious situation. He wouldn’t have allowed the future of what’s arguably the most important committee in the City to be put at risk because of some arbitrary suspicions over the Neuroleptika.” He shook his head, stalking over to the countertop that held the Petri dishes again. “And Director Ellis wouldn’t have allowed one of his subordinates to cling onto him like some sort of child looking for some shallow comfort.”
Shelby bit her lip, rubbing the top of her arm as if she had been struck. “Sorry, I guess. I was just trying to make you feel better.”
Riley came up from behind her. “It was still a nice sentiment, Shelby,” he said. “Just not… just not the one that we need to hear right now.”
“Oh. I guess I’ll try to be more careful next time.” She ducked her head to the floor, following Riley to the microscopes. “Do you need any help over here?”
“Mm… no. I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “Maybe ask Owen, or Dana? Maybe they need some help. But I think that we’re almost finished cleaning up now, actually.” He looked around. “Didn’t you just finish up mopping the floor before Callahan and Jaime came in?”
“Well, yes. But I wanted to see if I could help around a little bit more. I don’t want to stand around or go up to rest while you guys are still working. I’d feel bad.”
“You’ve done your part already. Don’t worry too much about it, Shelby. Like I said, we’re nearly finished.”
“Alright. I guess.” She stepped back, kicking the toe of her shoe on the newly-polished floor. “But I’ll still stay here. Until everyone is finished and starts going up themselves, anyway.”
“Well, alright, then.” Riley went back to putting the last of the microscopes into the cabinets.
“Yeah. Okay.” Shelby turned away. Dana was almost finished wiping off the cabinet tops, Owen was finished making sure that all the machinery that had to be turned off was turned off, Riley and Parker were almost done, and Kegan was probably finished with the Petri dishes— and even if he wasn’t, he probably didn’t want her talking to him right then, anyway. She should have kept her mouth shut about Callahan and Ellis. What she had said was foolish, anyway. She shut her eyes and exhaled. And she’d thought that she’d disliked this job before. It wasn’t about to get any more enjoyable, that was for sure.
“Shelby? What are you doing standing in the middle of the room all by yourself?”
She snapped her eyes open, turning around. “Oh. Hi, Dana. Sorry, I didn’t see you there.” She forced a smile onto her face. “I’m just thinking. You know. About stuff. The future of the committee, and stuff.” The corners of her smile wavered. “That’s all.”
Shelby’s smile dropped. “Of course I’m worried. Everyone here is worried. Aren’t you worried, Dana?” She squinted and looked away, curling an awry lock of hair around her finger. “It doesn’t make sense not to be worried. The future of the human development and behaviors committee is going to be defined by how these next few months go. I’m probably more worried than I’ve ever been in my entire life.”
“I’m worried, too, Shelby. Don’t get me wrong there. But I’m not going to try and make it so that it makes me pessimistic. Everyone else here is acting pessimistic, from what I’ve seen. Especially Kegan.” Dana glanced over at him, pursing his lips. His eyes glazed over in thought. “I don’t think that you should let that rub off on you, Shelby. You’re still young. You still have time to learn from your mistakes, and other people’s as well. I’m not asking you to pretend that everything’s going to be a hundred percent okay, here. Just— don’t be so hopeless. Things will be okay in the end. Things always are. It’s what we’ve been taught since our days in primaries. Why should that be any different here?”
“Well. I guess you do have a little of a point there.” Shelby let the strand of hair fall into a spiral in front of her face, bringing her hand back down to her side. “It’s better to be optimistic, right? We need to try and keep up morale. You’re right.”
“That’s the spirit.” Dana pat her on the shoulder, either unknowing or uncaring about her tensing up underneath his touch. “You should go and get some rest. Before we’re thrown into the deeper waters tomorrow, as Kegan so eloquently said earlier.”
Shelby took a step back, folding her arms against herself. “I guess that I should. I am tired, but… but I wouldn’t feel good about leaving everybody else behind while they were still working, and stuff.” Never mind the fact that they were all almost finished. She still didn’t feel good about being one of the first to leave… and at this point, she couldn’t find herself counting either Callahan or Jaime in that.
Dana smiled at her before turning away. “Suit yourself. I just hope that you aren’t tired tomorrow morning, that’s all. There’s no need for you to stay if you’re finished. You’ll just be making yourself unnecessarily tired. I’m going to be going up to my room now, myself. I’ll help with the Petri dish tests you all are supposed to be doing with Kegan tomorrow.” He walked off without another word, opening the doors and slipping out into the hallway.
Shelby watched him go. Then she sighed, returning her gaze to the floor. He did have a little of a point. But she still didn’t want to go upstairs and leave everyone behind. It was more important now than ever to keep together as much as possible. That was what Callahan had told them all the day after they had— the day after Director Ellis had been—
“What was Dana talking to you about, Shelby?”
She whipped around, then relaxed. It looked like Kegan didn’t mind still talking to her, after all. “He was talking to me about being optimistic, and stuff,” she said. “He told me that… that I shouldn’t be so worried that it ends up affecting the way that I work. And he also told me that I shouldn’t stay down here if I don’t have to, if I’m all finished up with my cleaning duties. Because it would cut into the time that I could be using to rest.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. That was all, really.”
Kegan flared his nostrils. He looked over to the door with his jaw visibly clenched. “I don’t trust that man as far as I can throw him, if I’m being completely honest. He’s probably the one most loyal to Callahan… besides that Jaime boy, of course.” He snorted. “Who’s to say that he won’t abandon us or rat us out if bad ends up coming to worse?”
Like he had just now? Shelby shook the thought away. He was just going to get some sleep; that was nowhere near betrayal. “I don’t know,” she said. “I mean— he’s still nice. And he still seems to be really loyal to the cause we set out to do in the first place. Not necessarily Callahan or her plan. I don’t know. I still trust him… maybe not as much as you or one of the others. But I still trust him.”
Both Kegan and Shelby turned around at the sound of the new voice. It was Riley. He shrunk back a little, smiling timorously. “Heh. Sorry. I was listening in on your conversation a little bit. But I agree. I don’t think we should have to distrust Dana. He’s just doing what he think’s best.”
“Well, I still don’t trust him. Or at least, don’t believe in his motives or his loyalties at all.” Kegan walked back to the countertop holding the dishes, ignoring the way Shelby and Riley trailed behind him like a pair of lost children. “Anybody who so blatantly trusts and supports Callahan like that isn’t a person who can be a very good ally.”
Riley put his hands on the freshly polished counter and leant forward, kicking his feet up one by one. “Why do you think that?”
“Because none of this would have happened if Director Ellis was still here?” Kegan shook his head. “Why and how we were convinced so easily to drive him out is something that I will never be able to figure out— or forgive ourselves for. It was like something had possessed us.”
“Isn’t that the mob mentality? Or something similar?” Shelby flinched at the look Riley gave her. “S-sorry. I guess this isn’t the time to be brushing up on stuff that we learned back in training. But I don’t think that I’m wrong. It is the mob mentality, isn’t it?”
It was one of the first things that was drilled into the mind of every person who got to work at this committee. The right kind could be constructive, the wrong kind could be absolutely catastrophic. And if the right person— or rather, the wrong person— ended up creating the wrong type of such a phenomenon at the wrong time, they were a prime subject to termination. Of course, that usually didn’t apply if they were no longer of Academy age or younger. And certainly not if they were the new Director of the committee that had organized and sent out these terminations in the first place. Shelby dug her fingernails into her upper arm. She didn’t like where this train of thought was going.
“Yes, you’re right,” Kegan grunted. “But it still doesn’t make it any more justifiable. And it doesn’t change the fact that we were still better off under Director Ellis’s leadership. It does quite the opposite, actually.”
“Oh, I wasn’t trying to deny that.” She clicked her fingernails against the closest Petri dish. “I do wish that Director Ellis would return, trust me. I’m sure everyone here does. Besides maybe Callahan and Jaime.” Or maybe even they wanted him to return as well. Callahan always seemed so stressed out that if Shelby were in her position, she would have called out to the Outskirts every morning and every night, begging for him to return and make things normal again. And she’d only be able to hope that he’d answer her call.
Kegan knitted his bushy eyebrows together. “When Director Ellis returns,” he said, “we will welcome him back with open arms.”
Neither Shelby nor Riley responded. Shelby looked away and squeezed her eyes shut. The sob rose up her throat nonetheless. She turned away and put a hand over her mouth. “I— I’m sorry.”
“Shelby? What’s the matter?” Riley touched her shoulder blade.
She jerked away from his fingers, wiping her nose with her hair. “N-nothing.” Her voice trembled, and she found herself regretting trying to speak in the first place. “It’s— it’s nothing. It’s just— it’s just that… well, Director Ellis has been gone for so long already and— and d-don’t you think that he would have come back already if he wanted to? Or if he was still… you know.” She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat, trying and failing to control her breathing. “But he’s— but he’s not back yet. So I think— so now I don’t think that he’s ever going to come back! He’s gone forever! The Outskirts took him, and— and it’s all our fault!”
“Shelby, come on.” Another pair of hands went onto her shoulders and as hard as she tried to pull away she found that she didn’t have the strength to— it was Kegan holding onto her. “What did Dana just tell you about being optimistic? I’m sure that he’s still out there.”
“I thought— I thought you said that you didn’t trust Dana?” She finally managed to get away from his grasp when his hands loosened. An uncontrollable laugh bubbled out from her lips against her will. “Y-you just said that, Kegan, didn’t you?” She opened her eyes, the lids now puffy with tears as well as exhaustion. The rest of the people in the room were looking at her now. She was making a scene. That only made her feel worse. She buried her face into her hands and moaned.
“Shelby?” That was Owen’s voice, wasn’t it? “Um— don’t cry, Shelby. Everything’s going to be alright. You’ll see. Maybe— maybe you should go and get some rest now, okay? It’ll do you some good.”
Shelby sniffled. “Y-yeah. You’re right. I should probably and get some more sleep. Sl-sleep would do me some good. That’s what Dana just told me. I should have listened to him. I feel so stupid.”
“You aren’t stupid,” Riley said. “You’re just… tired. Everyone here is. We’re all gonna be going to sleep soon. You don’t have to feel like you have to stay behind when you’re already done with your job.”
“I know that. But— I feel like I have to. I feel like it’s my duty to try and help everybody here. To make sure that everyone sticks together, and stuff.” She shook her head, pulling the awry strands of hair in her eyes away. “I don’t know, I guess. I would like to be able to help keep the peace in the committee. You know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean. But don’t feel like you’re obligated to do that.” Kegan rested a hand on her shoulder. She stiffened, her face growing even hotter, but he didn’t seem to notice. “As one of the senior researchers here in the committee, I’m telling you now: go get some sleep. You aren’t helping yourself— or anyone, for that matter— in the condition you’re in right now.”
She sniffed and pulled away, wiping at her eyes. “Oh— okay,” she whimpered. “Thank you, Kegan. Good night, everyone.”
Turning away, she hurried to the exit with her head hung low and her hands clutched tightly at her hips. She threw the doors open and walked out into the empty hallway, listening to it close behind her.
She managed to keep herself composed enough until she got into the elevator. Then, as the doors clicked shut before her and the lift started to be sent up, she leant against the wall and buried her face into her hands. She swallowed, coughed, tried to keep the sobs in. It didn’t work. Warm, salty tears leaked down her face and between her fingers, smearing onto her cheeks and chin. She wiped it all from her face, then immediately started weeping again the second her face was dry. She was pathetic. At least nobody else was in the elevator with her to see her break down like this. It was a very small comfort, one that didn’t really make her feel much better at all.
It wasn’t fair. She had never wanted to be a part of this— any of this. Why had she decided to become a part of this committee, again? She’d known that she’d wanted to do something involving human development and behaviors, but not… not this. Whatever this was supposed to be. She’d wanted to be taking care of cultivating and maturing the babies, or, or… or maybe being a primary school teacher in one of the districts, or something. Anything that didn’t require this much stress. This much work. She couldn’t even have children of her own, working in this career. She had been blinded by pride and ambition when she’d first gotten the offer to work here, and now she was paying the price for it. Pride and ambition were really everyone’s downfall, weren’t they?
The elevator began to slow. Shelby wiped her eyes and cheeks and set her jaw, standing up just a little straighter. Hopefully her eyelids weren’t so red and puffy that anyone who saw her would notice that something was wrong. Hopefully she wouldn’t even walk past anyone in the first place. She was one of the first people to come up besides Dana, Callahan, and Jaime, though, so maybe not… unless one of them was walking around the hallway for some reason. That didn’t seem very likely, though. Everyone was exhausted. Why wouldn’t they be going to their beds as soon as possible?
Shelby was taken out of her thoughts as the elevator doors slowly slid open. She hurried out, immediately pivoting so that she was facing the direction her room was in. Bowing her head even though the area was completely barren of people except for her, she hurried down the dark gray, carpeted floors. Her room was smack-dab in the middle of the others— she had counted the doors, once— so there wasn’t much of a walk to reach it. She fumbled with her wrist, pulling up her coat sleeve just enough to put it against the sensor, and a forlorn sigh escaped her lips as the door opened up for her.
The bedrooms in this building weren’t that much different from the buildings in the Academy— they were just bigger, and tailored to fit one person instead of two or three. Shelby shrugged off her coat and threw it onto the bed. Then, thinking better of it, she picked it back up and carried it to the hook by the door, placing it on that. It was almost the end of the working week, and then she’d have to go and get it washed. She huffed, tugged off her shoes and placed them underneath the coat hook. The shower called for her from the opposite side of the room. She usually took her showers in the morning, but if there was any day that she needed a shower in the nighttime, it was tonight.
Stripping herself of the rest of her clothing, she turned on the shower and stepped into the stream of steaming-hot water. It took a moment for her to adjust to the temperature, but once she did, she went for the soap and lathered herself with it, feeling her muscles relax under her hands. She silently watched the foamy bubbles wash themselves down the drain. If only she could wash the dirt from her mind as easily as she could wash the dirt from her body.
She brought her fingers up to her hair, undoing and redoing the braid while knowing full well that she didn’t like going to sleep with a wet head. Today had been a tough day for all of them. The little update that Callahan had given them had done nothing to help at all. That was what had driven her over the edge from frustrated to despondent, hadn’t it been? Why would Callahan do something like that when they were about to leave for bed, leaving the thought weighing down on their heads for the rest of the night?
Why had she kicked out Director Ellis in the first place? And how had she convinced the others, even if just temporarily, that it had been a good thing? Kegan had been right. Everything bad that had happened over the past few weeks had been a result of that one event, as a result of their and Callahan’s decisions and actions. He was right. He usually always was.
Shelby suddenly found herself acutely aware of the miniature water projectiles beating down on her skin. She shoved her head underneath the stream and closed her eyes, spitting out the warm water that collected in her mouth. She was supposed to be helping Kegan with the new Neuroleptika formula tomorrow. That was going to be… nice. She liked Kegan. He was… also nice, despite how gruff and blunt he could sometimes be. And his light hair and eyes looked nice against his tawny face. It was normal to think that it looked good, wasn’t it?
She swallowed what felt like a lump in her throat and rubbed the last of the tears away from her eyes. Reaching over to the faucet handle, she yanked it over to the coldest side and tensed up her body. She still wasn’t prepared for the sudden shock that came crashing down on her. Her entire body shuddered as icicles beat down on her heated skin, but it worked well enough to dissolve the tension in her chest and the fire in her cheeks and belly.
She was quivering by the time she finally reached over to the faucet and switched off the stream completely. Stepping out onto the bath mat, she reached out for her fluffy towel and wrapped it around herself. Then she wrung her hair over the sink, squeezing out most of the excess water. She knew that it has been a bad idea to get her hair all wet, and yet she had gone off and dunked her entire head inside of the water stream. Now she just had to deal with the consequences. Maybe she could sleep in an extra pair of pyjamas tonight… that would make up for the fact that the water in her head would make her feel colder than usual.
Wrapping her hair in a small towel, she rubbed lotion into her skin and then pulled her pyjamas on. She stepped out of the bathroom, shuddering at the sudden change in humidity. Her bed waited patiently for her, its soft cotton sheets and plumate comforter laid down neatly for her to lay down in— and she was more than ready to lay down in them. But there was still one more thing that she had to do.
She went over to her nightstand and picked up the paper bag that sat on it. Unfolding the top, she took out the needle and turned it over in her fingers. Neuroleptika. It was normally just referred to as the medication by most of the population— some, if not most, of them probably didn’t even know what its actual name was. But to Shelby, Kegan, Callahan, and the rest of the committee, it was known as Neuroleptika.
Every person had to take it from the moment they were born. Babies got it in patches, applied to their chubby little arms. Toddlers and young children took it in the form of a gel pill. When a person turned twelve years old, they would finally learn how to apply it straight into their bloodstream through a syringe. They would then take it day and night for the next thirteen years. Then twice a week, for the rest of their lives. It was an integral part of their lives— an essential part of their lives. And Callahan was ready to take it all away from them.
Shelby squeezed her eyes shut, driving away the negative thoughts. Thinking about this right now was only going to make her feel worse. For now, she just had to focus on taking her Neuroleptika and going to sleep. She plucked the cap off the needle, placing it to the side. In and out, just like it had been taught to everyone.
She drove the needle into her vein, depressed the plunger, and then withdrew, dropping the needle into the metal canister so it could be cleaned and replaced. Then, upon a moment of thinking, she took the green jar out from the bag and let one tiny white pill drop out from its inside. She popped it into her mouth and let it dissolve into goo, feeling it run down her throat. She would probably depend on it to get through the night.
Screwing the cap on, she put the jar back into the bag and the bag back onto the nightstand. Then she climbed into bed, shimmying her legs underneath the blankets. Her hands went up to her head. She frowned, then slowly peeled the towel wrapped around her hair away. Her hair was still damp. Well, there wasn’t anything she could do about it now; she didn’t feel like getting out of bed to spend half an hour blow drying it. Her fingers went down her scalp and to the bottom of her breast, braiding her hair into two messy plaits. That would have to do. She would actually take the time to deal with it when the morning came.
She shuffled the rest of her body under the covers, turning over on her side and curling her knees up to her chest. The second her head fell upon her pillow, a sudden wave of exhaustion fell onto her, weighing down her eyelids. It’d been a long day. Longer than any day had the right to be. Sleep would wipe it all away, leaving a blank slate to be taken on in the morning. She couldn’t be all sluggish and unprepared for her lesson with Kegan, now could she? No, she couldn’t….
Shelby rolled over onto her stomach. She used her left arm to hug one of her pillows to her chest, and tucked her right arm in between her thighs. Fluttering her eyes shut, she willed herself to fall asleep. The Neuroleptika and the pill did their job quickly, thank goodness. Her body slowly fell into the grasps of dormancy, and her mind soon followed into the realm of pristine nothingness.
~ * ~
Shelby opened her eyes. The ceiling of the room was just beginning to brighten with the first few strokes of daylight. It was cold. She’d kicked her blankets off the mattress during the night. The medication had not worked as well as it could have, it seemed. Would the new tincture somehow manage to suppress that even more? Perhaps it would. Hopefully it would. That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?
Shelby forced herself into a sitting position, dangling her legs off the side of the bed. There were still the side effects that had to be considered in the creation of the new Neuroleptika. Over-complacency. Confusion. Fatigue. Migraines. Paranoia. It had been recorded multiple times that as the effectiveness of the tincture increased, so did the strength of its side effects. How would they be able to combat that in the future?
Shelby put her face in her hands. She had woken up less than a minute ago. Why in the world was she thinking about all of this already? She might as well have stayed up all night, if she was just going to be plunged back into this negativity.
Parting her fingers so that one of her eyes was exposed, she looked over to the clock. 07:57. She had woken up just a few minutes before the alarm. At least it wouldn’t be able to rudely wake her up now. She reached over and pressed the button on the top of the clock, switching the alarm off. Then she just sat there for a while. Today would be a good day. She would be able to spend time with Kegan and the others, and get her mind off the events that had happened yesterday night. All she had to do was get up from bed and brush her teeth and fix her hair and get dressed and…
She clenched her eyes shut, shaking her head. No. She had to focus on one thing at a time, here. Trying to think about everything that she had to do would only make her more overwhelmed than she already was. She got out of bed and stretched. Oh… that already felt so much better. Stepping into the bathroom, she flicked the light on and stared at her reflection. Well, then. Maybe this would be more difficult than she had thought.
She used her toothbrush to scrub at her teeth until her gums felt raw, then she splashed handful after handful of cold water onto her haggard face. Cracking her eyes open, she stared at her face through her blurry vision again. That was slightly better. Patting her face dry with a towel, she then undid the plaits in her hair, combining her tresses into one neat braid that cascaded down her chest. Now, that was a lot better.
She stepped out the bathroom, took the first shirt and the first pair of pants she saw out the closet, and pulled them on. Then she swept over to the other side of the room and plucked her lab coat off the hook by the door. Shrugging it on, she paused to look around. She wasn’t forgetting anything, was she? No… she only had to bring herself to the lab today. That was how most days went, really. Breakfast was usually provided to them, as long as they were on time for it. So was lunch, and usually dinner. It was just like the Academy… except they were actually doing work. And said work was so much more important than all the things that a bunch of teenagers happened to be doing. Probably.
She swept out the door and started down the hallway. It was quiet, near silent save for her footsteps, and dark— it was always dimly lit in the boarding hallways, for some reason. It usually didn’t bother Shelby much. It was usually calming. But now, the darkness seemed to be stifling, the walls slowly but surely coming to close in on her. Pulling her shoulders closer in on themselves, she bowed her head and hurried to the elevators. The lab was two floors down. Not much of a ride.
Stepping into the elevator, she pressed the button to the lab floor and inhaled sharply as the lift began its jerky descent. What would today be like? Would Callahan really be pushing them to their limits? Shelby wasn’t sure how well she would be able to handle that. Being expected to work herself to the bone while working with Kegan on top of that— how was she supposed to deal with it? Of course, she already knew the answer to that: as well as she could. Better than as well as she could. The future of the human development and behaviors committee, as well as the City itself, depended on it.
The elevator came to a shuddering stop, bringing her out of her thoughts. She hurried to smooth out her lab coat, straighten her posture, and look as professional as possible before the door opened. It did open— only to reveal that there was nobody there. Shelby loosened herself up with a sigh, shaking her head. It would be best just to try and get to the lab and focus on actually getting stuff done, as well as getting through the day. Yes. That would be the best thing to do.
She hurried through the hallway, slowing only when the double doors that led to the inside of the lab came into view. She couldn’t see any movement coming from inside… she must have been early. Well, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She could show Callahan, Jaime and Dana that she was a hard worker, right? Right. She had to be optimistic, here. Optimistic and hard-working. The two most important things to be at the moment. If she kept repeating it to herself like a mantra, perhaps it would come true easier than it would if she didn’t. Inhaling deeply, she walked to the door and swung it open.
Kegan and Riley were at the countertop with all the Petri dishes. Riley turned around, smiling as he watched Shelby walk into the lab. “Shelby,” he said. “Hi.”
“H-hello.” Shelby nodded at him. “Kegan, good morning.”
Kegan turned around. Shelby flinched back. The bags underneath his eyes had gotten much more prominent than they had been last night. He was wearing a surgical mask over his face, but the frown of his face was prominent even behind the woven cotton. Shelby pressed her lips together. “Are you alright?”
“Mm-hmm. Just a little tired.” Kegan rubbed his face. “Come over here and help, will you?”
“O-oh. Okay.” Shelby hurried over to Kegan and Riley. Shuffling in between the two of them, she looked down at the Petri dishes they were in the process of preparing. “So, um… what are you all doing?”
“Didn’t we tell you yesterday?” Riley gave her an odd look. “We’re preparing the Petri dishes for the Neuroleptika testing, that’s what we’re doing.”
“Oh. Yes. Y-yes, I did know that.” Shelby nodded. “I just meant— what you were doing specifically. Like, um, organizing them, or labeling them, or…?”
“We’re inserting the medium into the dishes in preparation for the cells,” Kegan said. “Then we’ll be able to insert the cells, finally. We’ve labelled all of the dishes already.”
“Ah— I see.” Shelby nodded, flipping her hair to the back of her head. “W-well. When you need help, just tell me, then.” She looked behind her. They were still the only people in the room, it seemed like.
“You can start by putting on some gloves.” Kegan pushed a few of the Petri dishes to the side. “I’m almost done with the medium, but you can finish off the last ones while I prepare the cells. Or Riley can. It doesn’t matter. But you have to be helping out some too.”
“Oh. Alright. Alright, sure. I’ll help.” Shelby turned to go and fetch a pair of latex gloves. She opened the cabinets holding the gloves and surgical masks. As she sterilized her hands and slipped the gloves on, she looked to the front of the lab again. Strange— shouldn’t Callahan have been down already, along with Jaime? They were usually the first ones here. Shelby shook her head, plucking a surgical mask up from the stack to strap it around her head. There wasn’t much of a reason to have to worry so much about Callahan. She was probably just running a little bit late, that was all. Shelby ran late sometimes. But then again, she was an apprentice. Callahan was the Director. She shouldn’t have gotten as much slack, though she had seemed to be quite tired yesterday…
“Shelby?” Riley’s voice came from the other side of the room. “Are you alright over there?”
She turned around. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “I’m alright. Just got a little bit lost in my thoughts, that’s all.” She brought her hand up to her head, but then remembering that she was wearing sterile gloves, caught herself just in time. “I’ll be back over right now.”
She hurried back, peeking over Kegan and Riley’s shoulders to see what they were doing. Riley was pouring the last of the peach medium into a dish, his ruddy brow furrowed in concentration. When he was done, he rubbed his forehead with the back of his arm. “Well then. I think that’s the last of them, hm?”
Kegan looked over and nodded. “Mm, that looks about right. Shelby, go and bring the cell flasks over here, will you? They’ve been thawed out already. In the incubator by the freezer. Be careful with them.”
“Of course, Kegan.” Shelby nodded, but Kegan didn’t seem to notice. She took a step back, then turned around. Kegan was right. There was a flask holder in the cylindrical incubator, holding around six flasks within it. Shelby rolled the glass open, taking the holder delicately in her hands. She turned around— then blinked in surprise as the double doors leading into the lab swung open.
Dana was standing there, backed by Parker, one of the other apprentices. She smiled and made to walk over to them, when she realized the expressions on their faces. None of them looked exactly pleasant. Swallowing, Shelby turned away and hurried back to Kegan and Riley. “Here you go,” she said, setting the flask holder down at the countertop. “Dana and some of the other researchers are here finally, by the way.”
Kegan raised an eyebrow. “No Callahan?” He turned around, pulling the mask on his face down so the lower half of his face was showing. “Do you know where Director Callahan is, at any chance?”
“Good morning to you as well, Kegan,” said Dana. “I was just about to update you all on that.”
Kegan crossed his arms. “Well?”
“Callahan will not be with us today.”
Shelby’s mouth fell open. “What? Why?”
“I believe that she is beginning to fall ill.” Dana raised a hand, rubbing it against his eye. “She told Jaime and me that she has a severe migraine. It was difficult for her to even get out of bed this morning.”
The crease between Kegan’s eyebrows had grown even deeper. He turned to look at Dana, clenching his jaw. “I see. I am sure that we will make do without her for today. Right?”
Dana paused, before nodding. “Oh, yes. Of course. If you have any issues or questions, just direct them to me.”
“Sure. Of course.” Kegan slipped his mask back on and turned around. He shook his head, his scowl prominent now that he was facing the wall. “Unbelievable.”
Shelby wrung her hands. “That really sucks. And… and what about Jaime? Where is he? He’s not sick too, is he?”
“Probably taking care of her like some sort of maid.” Riley snorted. “Parker, come over here and help us.”
Shelby shook her head, blocking out everyone else’s voices. If this was the way things were going to end up being like from now on, then what chance did they even have? Maybe it would be better to just give up, or something… no. That wouldn’t be better all. Just thinking about the consequences they would meet if it was ever discovered that they had driven Director Ellis out made her stomach churn with apprehension.
Shelby took a step back as Parker walked forward to peer into the Petri dishes. Kegan gently nudged him back with his elbow. “Careful,” he said. “Go and put some gloves and a mask on before you come and try to help. I think we’re already almost done with the preparation now, anyway.”
Parker nodded and darted away. Shelby turned back to the countertop, picking at the latex material on her gloves. Riley hummed a little tune as he delicately scraped cells from the bottom of the flask into the Petri dish. “You know what I heard from Quincy last night?” he suddenly asked.
Shelby had to hold back a spark of jealousy. “You mean the Quincy in the Infant Cultivation committee?”
“Yeah. She said that there are… well, a bunch of the zygotes died for no apparent reason at all. About fifty or so.” He shrugged, pursing his lips. “Wasn’t all of them, but it was enough for it to be a pretty harsh blow to the committee. Hope they’ll be able to recover from it soon.”
“O-oh. That’s terrible.” Shelby winced. “I hope they’ll be able to recover, too. That’s not going to be good for… for anyone, really.” Fifty dead zygotes, fifty nonexistent babies. Fifty disappointed couples. Fifty unfulfilled potentials. Shelby rubbed her eyes with the back of her sleeve. “Sorry. That’s just… really sad.” It seemed like the other committees had their own dark spots, too. It almost felt like everything around them was beginning to fall apart with Ellis’s disappearance, didn’t it?
“Guess stuff like that just happens sometimes.” Riley shrugged. “But look on the bright side— the new group of babies will be going out to the districts soon. That’s always a good thing, right?”
“Y-yeah. That’s right.”
Kegan turned to look at them for a few seconds. Then he shook his head, stepping back from the counter top. “Prepare the tincture to put into the T-1 dishes. Then come get something to eat. It’ll probably brighten you two’s moods.” He walked away, peeling off his gloves and taking off his surgical mask.
Riley watched him go, puffing out his cheek. “Well, then. Shelby and Parker, can you do that? Kegan and I’ve been doing most of the stuff until now.”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” Shelby nodded. Pulling her gloves tighter against her fingers, she swallowed back the rest of her tears as she leant over the Petri dishes. There were four groups: T-1, T-2, T-3, and T-4C. Kegan had said that the Neuroleptika was supposed to go into the T-1 group… she frowned, plucking the top of one of the dishes off. “Can you get the Neuroleptika sample for me, Parker?”
Parker walked away. Riley was already gone, probably off to eat breakfast or wash up after inserting the cells. Shelby was alone, now. She stared down at the Petri dishes with a morbid curiosity. There were three different cell types from three different subjects for all four groups. The dish that she had just opened read gw-blood; the one underneath it read sd-brain.
There was barely any signs that cells were even in the dish beside a few, near microscopic flecks in the medium, but it still made her a little queasy. She turned to look behind her, just in time to see Kegan push through the door at the back of the room. Well, at least it wouldn’t take very long, probably. Just one drop each in nine of the dishes. Then they would be able to see the effect it had on the cells.
Parker came back, a needleless syringe held carefully between his fingers. He handed it to Shelby before stepping back. “Remember, just one drop each. And only in the group T-1.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know all of that already.” Shelby narrowed her eyes as she leant forward even more. Carefully, making sure that she wasn’t disturbing the medium or the cells inside, she put one drop— just one drop— of the pale green fluid into each of the dishes. They stained the glass a dirty looking brown for just a few seconds before seeming to dissolve in the glass. Shelby leant back, watching the process happen. How interesting.
“Don’t forget to cover the dishes.” Parker’s voice broke her concentration. “Here, I’ll dispose of the leftover tincture for you.” He walked over, holding out a gloved hand.
Shelby turned toward him, dropping the syringe into his awaiting hand. Then she turned back to the cell samples. It would probably take an hour or so to see any changes— if there even would be any in the first place— but would she be able to wait that long? She wanted to see exactly would be happening to them right now. The faster every test, every experiment, every observation went, the better.
“Are you coming to get breakfast?” Parker asked, taking her out of her thoughts once again. “You know that it’s going to take several hours for any effects to be seen, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” Shelby said. “I’m just… watching them, that’s all. I’m not that hungry right now, anyway.”
“But you still have to eat something. I don’t want to see you pass out.”
“I know, I know. I’ll be there in a second, okay?”
Silence. Then the sound of Parker walking away. Shelby didn’t move. She continued standing there by the Petri dishes, staring into them. Who did these cells even belong to, anyway? How had the committee gotten their hands on them in the first place— willingly or unwillingly? And were these people aware that the cells were being used in such an experiment? Shelby wished that she had the answers.
What if…? In a sudden burst of inspiration, she stood up on her tiptoes and reached up to the cabinets. Opening the one to her left, she pulled out one of the microscopes and rested it on some of the little free space on the counter top. She took her notebook and pen from her lab pocket, rested them aside, and then, with a carefulness she had never used before in her life, plucked up one of the T-1 dishes from its place in the counter. yg-capillary, it read. Shelby slid it underneath the microscope and peered through the eyepiece.
There was nothing much to see yet, obviously. There was the pale color of the medium, the dark green stain that had been placed into it… and just off to the side of it, a cluster of pink, white, and red cells. They looked small and almost helpless, even under the extreme magnification the microscope provided. They would be growing, though, in the next few hours and days. Maybe weeks. Shelby focused the magnification so she could see the contents of the dish in its entirety.
The Neuroleptika seemed to be spreading through the dish, and the cells were quietly, near imperceptibly pulsing with life. But wait…? Sensing an anomaly, Shelby zeroed in on some of bordering cells and narrowed her eyes. It wasn’t a hundred percent clear, but it almost looked like the cells on the outer clusters… weren’t moving. They looked a little duller, too, a little paler. Was this a bad sample?
Shelby increased the magnification on the microscope and adjusted the focus, staring down at the cells. No… they didn’t look healthy at all. Had her disturbing the dish caused this? Would it be best to tell Kegan? She looked up, toward the back door of the lab. They were probably still eating breakfast. She turned back to the microscope, looked back into the eyepiece— and then her heart dropped.
Just a few seconds ago, it was only the outer layer of the cells that were dull and unmoving. Now it was the first few layers. Shelby adjusted the magnification and the lighting yet again. Goodness, if she had ended up messing everything up because of her impatience she was going to get into so much trouble. Wait… no. She darkened the light, and then brought it up to its highest intensity. She could see the subtle green of the Neuroleptika. It was just beginning to touch the collection of capillary cells collected at the sides of the dish. And it was when the Neuroleptika touched the cells that they stopped moving.
Shelby’s heart seized. She shot her head up and looked around. There was nobody watching her. Fingers shaking, she took the Petri dish off the microscope and then put it back into its place. Her hands trembled above the countertop, going over to the notebook and pen— and then they suddenly shot over to the Petri dishes again, picking up the one labelled gw-capillary. Feeling almost light headed, Shelby put it under the microscope and peered into the eyepiece, blinking rapidly. It was the same thing. The cells grew pale and eventually stopped moving mere seconds after the tincture made contact with it. This had never happened before, had it? This wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?
Shelby looked up again, her breathing harsh and heavy. She snatched up her notebook and pen and sprinted to the back of the room. “Kegan! Kegan, come out! I just—”
She was interrupted by the door to the lab clicking open. Her shoes squeaked against the tile as she skid to a stop, just as the door to the break room opened. Kegan, Parker and Riley came out. Kegan walked forward, holding up a hand. “What happened?”
Shelby took a step back. “I—” she looked to the front of the lab and its opening double doors. Had Callahan decided to make an appearance, finally? She watched as the door opened completely, along with Kegan and the rest of them. The person at the other side stepped in.
Shelby felt her mouth drop open. Then she smiled. Oh… how cute.
Kegan didn’t seem to share the sentiment. He stepped forward and narrowed his eyes. “What are you doing up here?”
“Oh, there’s no need to be so blunt about it.” Shelby touched his elbow. “Maybe— maybe she’s just lost.”
Riley snorted. “How can someone from the Academy get lost? The student buildings are right next to the research center.” But he stepped forward anyway, a coy smile quirking his lips upward. “Really, though. How did you even get up here?”
The girl didn’t answer. She merely stepped forward and smoothed out her tie, eyes bright behind her red hair as a thin smile spread across her face. “My name is Olive Zaretsky,” she said, “and I come to you with a proposition.”
P r e v i o u s N e x t