The boy runs in the shadow of giants, clutching a small wooden box to his chest. Dodging piles of half-frozen waste and jumping across open sewers, he runs, his breath leaving a trail of clouds in the frosty predawn air.
High above, safe in their mist-shrouded towers, the Designed People sleep. In the breaks between buildings, slivers of sky are beginning to lighten into a sickly sulfur haze, but here, in the forgotten streets where the city opens its bowels onto the huddled masses of the Natural Born, the morning will never come.
He runs in shadows eternal, past the machines and great engines that churn and smoke and toil endlessly to sustain life on the dead planet. He can hear the gendarmes closing in, the sharp metallic yelps of their pursuing drones echoing around him, circling, herding—growing louder, closer.
Leaping over thick snaking coils of discarded wiring, scrambling under tree-trunk pipes that vent scalding steam, he runs. There is a sharp whistle and a support pillar explodes beside him. Razor sharp slivers of crysteel slash into his face and arms. Moments later the deep report of a rifle follows, reverberating through the streets. The drones yelp and bay.
The boy hugs the box closer to his chest, and he runs.
“Each day brings a new surprise,” the young hunch-backed woman said, “That’s one of the reasons I love you.”
The boy sat at the worktable, his legs dangling off the stool. He peered into a giant magnifying lens and carefully inspected the butterfly mounted on the board in front of him. Reaching for a tool on the table, he pried off a nearly invisible panel on the insect’s abdomen, and nimbly began making minute adjust-ments to the robot.
“It’s remarkably lifelike,” she said, and tousled his mop of hair. The boy grinned, but kept his eyes
on his work. Her engineered disfigurations—cosmetic enhancements popular with Designed People after humanity had perfected itself, and perfection became gauche—always made him uncomfortable. She flicked her tongue through her harelip and frowned at the boy, but said nothing.
He finished his adjustments and carefully put the butterfly back in the wooden box.
“Tonight’s the big night,” the woman said. “Are you nervous?”
“A little,” the boy replied.
The woman held the boy tight against her. “Don’t be afraid. You will be wonderful. Tonight will change everything. You’ll see.”
The boy sat in a corner, holding the box on his lap, while Designed People mingled and gossiped. He could see Doctor Abrams and his two-headed daughter—daughters—from across the huge, opulent room. The doctor lived high above the ancient streets, above the acid smog and sulfur stench of the industrial levels. Far below, outside the high, arching windows, the boy could see a desolate, scorched landscape unroll over the curve of the horizon.
Tonight was the sixteenth anniversary of Sthema and Hyette’s inception. Sixteen years since embryo TZ942 proved sustainable viability and the doctor could sleep at night once more.
The girls were a miracle, the crowning achievement of Doctor Abrams life’s work. His charming daughters were light-years beyond mere genetic tinkering—so much more than the chic abnormalities and cosmetic imperfections in vogue with the last few generations of designer babies.
He had perfected imperfection.
He rubbed his pockmarked and palsied face with a six-fingered hand. Two heads, one baby. They had survived implantation, embryogenesis, infancy, and an uncertain childhood, and now they were the belle of the ball. A father couldn’t be prouder.
The doctor clapped his hands and addressed his guests. “My dear friends,” he said. “Colleagues and family—thank you for joining us tonight.”
He paused as the guests politely applauded.
“My friends,” he continued, “I have something special for you tonight—something I discovered in my travels to the exotic and savage world below; plucked out of the shadows of the city’s undergrowth: a wild flower growing in the darkness!”
The crowd of guests parted as the boy made his way into the center of the room. He could feel their disgust and disapproval; he could see it on their faces. His thick hair, smooth skin, symmetrical features—hideous marks of normalcy in a boy horrifically brought kicking and screaming into the world from his mother’s womb. He was an affront to science, a sideshow freak.
When he reached the doctor and his daughters the boy stopped, bowed, and held his box towards them on outstretched hands. He flicked a latch, and the lid sprang open.
Hundreds of butterflies poured out of the box, swirling around the boy in a pearlescent cloud of fluttering wings. He began a slow, turning dance, and the rabble followed his hands as he arced them overtop the guests, around them, amidst them. The people gasped and laughed at the tiny, shimmering automations. Sthema and Hyette clapped their shared hands with delight.
The boy orchestrated his tiny machines with a practiced, dramatic flair, shooting them high above the room and letting them drift back slowly like ethereal leaves, down to the mesmerized people below. The butterflies landed on the guests, in their hair, on their hands, shoulders, and faces. Dozens settled on the doctor, gently caressing him with their delicate wings.
“Well done!” the doctor cried. “You have outdone yourself, child.”
The boy’s face turned grave, and he looked the doctor in the eye. Above the din of the applauding guests, he shouted, “I bring a message, O ye sons of science.”
The doctor froze, frowned, and took a step back. The guests tittered nervously. The butterflies, forgotten for a moment, stretched their wings lazily.
“And what message is that?” the doctor asked.
Speaking slowly, the boy recited his words like an incantation. “In heart ye work wickedness; ye weigh the violence of your hands in the earth,” he said.
The butterflies quivered.
“The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance,” continued the boy, “he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.”
The butterflies shed their gossamer wings.
And a thousand tiny drills whirred to life with a sudden, high-pitched whining. The doctor and his guests fell to the ground. They screamed and writhed in agony as the tiny robots bored through their living flesh, slowly and methodically eviscerating them from the inside out.
The boy snatched up his small wooden box, and he ran.
The boy runs. Bullets explode around him, the drones closing in. He can see their glowing eyes wavering in the darkness as he flees deeper into the living bowels of the great city; can hear their baying as it rises to a deafening pitch amidst the groaning and hissing of the great machines. He senses them on all sides now.
The first drone lands in front of him, crouching menacingly on long, spidery legs, and the boy flattens himself against a wall. Several of its sisters join it, sinister eyes piercing the darkness, snapping and yelping at the boy as he sinks back, willing himself to melt into the wall, to disappear.
The drones leap at him, but the wall falls away. Hands reach out of the inky blackness, groping, and grab fast, rescuing him from snapping jaws. The boy falls.
He falls upwards at a gut-wrenching speed as the cargo lift rockets into the heart of the edifice. A light flickers to life and the hunchbacked woman smiles at him. She cups his small face in her hands and she kisses him. He falls into her arms, burying his head deep in her embrace.
“We have so much work to do,” she says. “Your father would be so proud of you, my lovely, sweet natural born boy.”
He hugs his mother, and he weeps. It is far, so very far, from the end.
But it is a beginning.