Prologue


(Subject LT-1022)

Castor Laboratories, Branch No. 12, Section 17;

Eastern District of Finiché, Holy City of Baellé, Seienia;

Error?ndegbé?LT-1022iCon637KT5057...?CANNOT TERMINATE


The first thing Dr. Arthur Kindley notices when he steps inside the laboratory is the air—it's heavy and thick with the metallic scent of oil, hints of smoke, and that particular smell of starched cloth unique to laboratories, the one he knows he's never going to get quite used to.

"What the hell is this?" he barks, his voice cutting through the whir of machines and the distressed murmurs of the lab's occupants. "What's going on here?"

"It's not responding, sir," a young man—bespectacled, jittery, with brown eyes a little too warm for a place as cold and unfeeling as this—steps forward to offer an explanation. "Apparently, the subject's termination is being de—"

"Which subject?"

"Uh," he blinks, "s-subject LT-1022, sir—"

"Is he the only one?"

"Y-yes, I believe so," the man puhes his glasses up the bridge of his nose in a display of nervousness. "As of yet, no other subjects have shown the same—"

"Wait, hold on," a woman calls out to them from the other side of the room. Her gaze is fixated on the computer screen in front of her even as she speaks to them. "Oh, hell—sir, other subjects are starting to respond similarly. It—I don't know, they're suddenly rejecting the infusion, it's extremely abrupt—"

"How many? How many are rejecting it?"

"Elev—no, fifteen, and—" she inhales sharply, "it's—it's growing, the number of—it's twenty-three now—"

"Shut it down!" he barks, a hint of panic seeping into his voice. "This project is to be abandoned right now! Can everyone hear me? It has to be abandoned immediately!"

"Y-yes, we—oh, my God," one of the workers lifts a hand to her mouth in astonishment, "they're all—oh, God—"

He scrambles to the centre of the laboratory, struggling to maintain his composure and keep the increasing panic at bay. He takes in a deep breath, preparing his lungs to bellow over the pandemonium encompassing the lab, and shouts, "All of you are to evacuate this facility as soon as the central computer is shut down! I repeat, all of you are to evacuate the facility as soon as the main system is shut down! Is this clear to all of you?"

His efforts do nothing to calm the anxiety plaguing his employees. Amidst the choas, he beckons over the bespectacled, brown-eyed man and gives him clear instructions to guide everyone out.

"I need this building empty within the next sixty minutes or less, am I understood?" he hisses. "All other NGI-facilities in the immediate area are to be notified as soon as we get out."

"An hour?" the man squeaks, and he knows, he knows that the steely undertone of his command and the hints of panic breaking through his calm exterior are the reasons for the trepidation dawning in his eyes, but at this point in time—at this point in time, he can hardly concern himself with the well-being of his employees, not when he can see his life's work going down the drain right in front of his old, tired eyes.

And so, he merely nods and confirms, "An hour."

"B-but, sir—"

The blare of sirens interrupts his protest. If he strains his ears, he can hear glass shattering, liquid overflowing. It's enough to force him to abandon any semblance of composure he may have previously had.

"Fucking hell, shut it down! Shut down the goddamn—!"


"He didn't do anything!" a teenager cries to the hostile crowd, clutching a smaller boy to his chest protectively. "What's wrong with you people? He's just a child!"

The aforementioned child huddles closer to the boy, frightened by the rage and disdain in the eyes of the crowd. He sees flames flickering somewhere, casting sinister shadows across their faces.

"Nyle," he whispers. "Nyle—"

"Hush," the boy comforts, smiling a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "You'll be fine, yeah? You—everything will be—"

"Get out of the way!" someone amid the crowd shouts, over the roar of the flames and the contemptuous cacophony of sounds. "You're not a N.A.N.O., we don't want to have to hurt you, but the kid has to go!"

"He hasn't done anything to you!"

"He will if we let him!" someone else defends. "The rest of his kind did, who's to say he won't?"

"You're crazy if you think I'd let you kill a child!" Nyle grips his shoulder and waist hard enough to bruise, but he doesn't mind. He doesn't mind as long as it's—

"You brought this on yourself, kid—"

"Don't—"

He's not sure he feels anything after that; just red and orange and the last vestiges of Nyle's grin and the thump of his own feet as he runs. Then, it's quiet, and the silence is enough to lull him into a darkness he suspects he's never really going to escape.


N.A.N.O.


(Northern District of Mana'iya, Holy City of Baellé, Seienia, 55 D.M.S.)

.

"Thirty grand, kid. Take it or leave it," a boy declares, perched cross-legged on a dumpster, sealed boxes of marijuana stacked beside him.

"Damn, are you serious? Thirty?" another boy—body plump and eyes beady—scoffs. "You're crazy if you think I'd pay that kind of money for—"

"You're not getting it for less than fifty anywhere else," the boy interrupts flippantly, reclining against the shadowed wall of the alleyway. "Look, you don't want it? Fine. Just don't waste my time, alright?"

The plumper of the two purses his lips in contemplation, eyes narrowing in an unspoken threat of hostility. "Where do you get off talkin' to me like that, man?"

The other looks up, sighs in what seems to be irritation, and replies curtly, "Look, you want it or not? That's all I want to know. Whatever your problem is with me, it's your problem. I'm just trying to make ends meet, got it? Now, you buyin' or what?"

"What, you think you're so tough just 'cause you beat up a couple of thugs?"

This particular statement catches the other's attention, enough to make him stop fiddling with the silver chain he wears around his wrist. He glances up warily. "You said you were from—where? The Finiché district? I didn't know news of that had already reached the east."

"Yeah, well, you thought wrong," his 'customer' grumbles, digging his hand in the pocket of his well-worn jeans and fishing for what the other assumes to be money that folds. "Folks down there have got some of it wrong, though—think you sell cocaine instead of marijuana."

The boy only hums noncommittally in response. His eyes catch a flash of dull green as the other boy lifts his hand out of his pocket.

"So, you buyin' after all?"

"Do I have a fucking choice?" he mumbles to himself, pushing a few crumpled notes into the boy's waiting palm, snatching up one of the boxes, and trudging out of the alley as fast as his pudgy legs can carry him. The boy on the dumpster grins—wide and feral—and shoots him a two-fingered salute. As soon as the plump boy's footsteps fade away, the grin slips off his face. He slides off the top of the dumpster, buries the notes in his pockets, and stretches his lean arms with a sigh.

"All the way to the east, eh?" he murmurs to himself. "Got to move somewhere else again."

The boy-child is lithe. The graceful curve of his spine and the obvious firmness of his arms, despite their lean quality, are reminiscent of a feline. His mousy brown hair is long and unkempt, brushing the tips of his shoulders, and his complexion is dark—a dull golden-brown, courtesy of long, endless hours spent bathing in the heat of Seienia's sun. His name isn't Lye, but it's what he's come to call himself anyway.

He pulls an old, tattered overcoat over his shoulders, clutching a pair of brown contacts buried in the coat pocket. He's learnt well enough that the people of Baellé wouldn't appreciate the natural colour of his eyes—a poison-green almost bordering on dirty yellow. Although, Lye scoffs inwardly, he's not sure if he can call even that colour 'natural'. He doesn't speculate on the difference for long, though—it's been ages since he gave up trying to remember what eye-colour he was born with.

When he passes by a quaint little café situated at the corner of the street, the back of his throat itches for a cup of coffee—hot, black, and bitter, just the way he likes it.

Lye bites his bottom lip in hesitation. The market-place and residential areas are a fair distance away, so there's hardly a crowd on the street he's on. The café seems to be nearly deserted, and the hunger pangs in his stomach are reminding him that a little indulgence every now and then is acceptable, even for someone like him.

Making a decision, he steps inside. The walls of the café are painted a modest beige, and the round tables are placed a reasonable distance away from each other. There's no one in the shop except a middle-aged man in the corner and a young college couple too involved in each other to notice him. Fair enough.

He enters the shop, resisting the urge to flinch at the ting-ting sound of the bell, and smiles at the employees. He forces the stiffness out of his posture and relaxes his shoulders. He sits down, gives the waiter his order, and waits at the table with his chin propped in the palm of his hand, as if he's bored, as if he's got nothing at all to think about.

After casually sweeping his gaze over the faces of the customers and working employees, and checking all the shadowed corners and concealed doors of the café (just for a little peace-of-mind, he knows that there's hardly going to be a serious threat in a place as nondescript as this), Lye allows his thoughts to wander.

There's always that place at the back of his mind that he's got to avoid, though; that little Pandora's Box in the recesses of his memory, in which he's sealed all those pretty emotions and shiny bonds he had to throw away to survive. He avoids that, he knows, and he'll be fine. He won't be undone, not this time.

Fifty-five years, he muses, since the the monarchial system had been completely demolished. The system of kings and queens and nobility and aristocracy had long since been brutally destroyed. The wars had been bloody, he'd heard as a child, and all nations had been forced to choose a side; even those which were governed by a democratic system and had little to nothing to do with the conflict itself.

Mindless violence, he thinks, which resulted in nothing except more bloodshed and the death of innocents. War, war, war. It never quite ended, did it? He gazes out the window with narrowed, accusing eyes, before schooling his expression back into indifference. He recalls the incident which had forced him (and hundreds of unfortunate others) into the role of a near-refugee.

Liberalism? Freedom? he scoffs, and takes a sip of his coffee to suppress the sardonic smile that threatens to surface. Where'd all that even come from?

Not from the civil wars breaking out between the liberals and the conservatives every three months, at least. They had reduced the world to a war-torn and broken battlefield, with people like him standing furtively at the jagged edges. The so-called scientific advances that the liberal scientologists spoke of did nothing to ease the tension encompassing the whole country of Seienia. If anything, they worsened conditions. Lye's lips tighten and his fingers press into the white table-cloth, as his mind flashes back to the blood-curdling measures that the scientologists had referred to as advancements.

Biting into his croissant, he back-tracks to the events of 25 D.M.S.— or rather, the year 2075, as most people had referred to it uptill thirty years ago. It was when the system of 'Evolution' had emerged. Certain growth-controlling nanomachines were inserted into infants who were born into the new generation. The aforementioned machines enabled the bearer to control their way of growth and physical development, enabled them to fish out inconvenient defects. It allowed a certain 'perfection' in the new generation; no one would be unusually short, nor unusually tall, neither unusually fat, nor unusually thin. No child in the future would have a gap between his teeth, no child would have a strange-looking nose, and no child would have too pointy a chin.

Perfection, Lye tastes the word on his tongue, sickened. Evolution.

Times are difficult. The piercing sounds of gunshots have faded into the background as common occurences. People don't dare venture forth outside of their houses after dark, in fear of getting caught up in yet another spontaneous conflict. Evolution does nothing to ease their fear and terror.

Unfortunately, the insertion of such devices was nothing more than mild, compared to another development that had been restricted to the confines of laboratories only: N.A.N.O. development. Children were investigated through various databases, and those found to be genetically strong and tolerant were selected for the infusion of animal DNA. Not more than mere test subjects, their DNA was inseparably fused with that of specific animals. Most of them were taken in for experimentation forcibly, while some of them, like him, were willingly given away by their families.

For the sake of science, was it? he'd wondered two years ago. He knows better now.

Experimentation had been strictly confidential, and was spoken of only inside the safety of N.A.N.O.-gene Induction facilities. It had been practised in secret from the public, at least until two years ago. In 2079, an unnamed accident had caused 460 incomplete N.A.N.O.s (the name given to 'the freak children') to escape from an NGI facility. Out of the 460, around 400 had lost control and gone berserk, triggering a horrifying killing spree. Lye traces the rim of his styrofoam cup, recalling the number of civilians murdered in cold blood. They had been caught and apprehended by the scientologists, of course, and probably disposed of, but that didn't mean that the incident was erased from the minds of the public. It's no wonder the civilians despise the N.A.N.O. children with a passion now, and Lye wouldn't blame them, but he wouldn't blame those berserk N.A.N.O.s either.

The fortunate sixty that were still sane—and very much alive—had enough sense left in them to seek out hiding places for themselves. Even after two years, the scientologists had yet to give up on finding them, and Lye hopes that the fifty-nine others weren't having as hard a time as he was in avoiding the scientologists.

He's struck with the urge to massage his temples in frustration, but refrains from doing so. It's one of the many insignificant things that come with the package of being one of the Children; constant paranoia ingrained into his every action, until he was forced to let survival instincts govern him. Physical deformities here and there weren't uncommon either — he's safe from any obvious ones, all he needs are some cheap contacts to conceal the unusual hue of his eyes, but others of his kind wouldn't be quite so lucky.

Digging his hand into the pocket of his snitched overcoat, he leans back against the chair. He was running short on money again, and if he wanted to survive with two decent meals a day, another round of drug-selling was due. Lye supposes he ought to be happy that the number of druggies is increasing as rapidly as it is, but he can't really find it in himself to be.

The world is rotting, he knows, and the Children can smell the stench of it better than anyone else.

Lye is startled out of his musings by the sound of a gasp. Tentatively, he risks a glance over his shoulder, and sees the college girl's eyes focused on the Holographic News Unit set up from across the street. At least one holographic News Unit had been set up in every district of Baellé, having replaced the garagantuan T.V. screens that had been used for the same purpose roughly sixty years ago.

"The NANO-gene Induction facility in the Mana'iya district of Baellé, Seienia is reported to have been attacked by an unknown entity. This has been the fifth in a queue of similar attacks, all of which have been focused on NGI-facilities in the city of Baellé. Casualties include a total of sixty-two scientologists and two-hundred test subjects, with a further seventy-three wounded severely. Scientologist Micheal Cassidy, one of the twenty-eight survivors, is reported to have said that the cause of the explosive attack has yet to be determined, and that it could possibly be the result of mishandling an explosive substance. Further news on the subject will be brought to you shortly. Reporter, Kohji Lee."

"Explosive substance?" he mutters dryly under his breath. "Bullshit."

Lye taps the rim of his cup absently, speculating on the recpp-ent explosion. He has a few guesses on who could have been responsible for the explosions; plausibly a conservative group of N.A.N.O.-haters, more passionate than the rest, or perhaps the scientologists themselves—they were crazy enough to try anything, after all.

But the mind-boggler was the number of N.A.N.O.s who were reported to have died: 200. Way too less, Lye speculated. An NGI-facility held at least five-hundred N.A.N.O.s for testing in a branch. Either the media was hiding the exact death toll, or the N.A.N.O.s had been shifted out before the explosion took place, and both possibilities left behind too many questions.

Something is either really wrong, or too right.


(Northern District of Mana'iya, Holy City of Baellé, Seienia, 55 D.M.S.)

.

In truth, Lye isn't quite modest enough to deny the fact that he is, in fact, quite the intelligent individual. Of course, he isn't particularly book-smart or a wealth of knowledge or anything of the sort, but he's smart enough to stretch out more than seven years in alleys where water is scarce and food is close to non-existent. He's smart enough to establish the perfect amount of anonymity for himself in a state like Seienia—the normal folk and the tycoons pass him off as just another street-rat, but beneath the social ladder, in the pits where crime is rampant, his reputation is enough to allow him a livelihood, illegal as it may be.

It's times like these, however, that force him to reconsider that assessment.

I'm fucking insane, is the conclusion he reaches, ignoring the incessant chatter around him and tapping the marble surface of the table as he waits for his order. Why am I even hereagain?

He supposes he should know better; it's never safe to visit a place more than once, no matter how innocuous it may seem at first glance—and yet, here he is.

"Must have really good coffee," Lye mutters sardonically to himself.

He tilts his head a little to bring more of the café into his field of sight. It's much more crowded today as compared to the last time he was here—all the more reason to berate himself. All the tables seem to be occupied. It's taking the servers much longer to bring him his coffee, he thinks with a displeased frown.

"Excuse me. Would you mind? All the other tables are taken."

Lye whips his head around to face the source of the voice. A man—or boy, really—stands near the edge of the table, his shoulders relaxed and his eyes unsurprised and unwavering despite Lye's abrupt reaction. Why didn't I notice him coming? is the first thought that enters Lye's mind. It's been a long time since anyone has managed to successfully sneak up on him. He supposes it's the noise of the surrounding customers that's messing with his senses.

"Nah, go ahead," he replies easily, but he can't make his words sound quite as nonchalant as he would like. It's a little irksome.

The boy simply nods his thanks and pulls out one of the chairs. He holds a book in his hand (worn with age and unnervingly thick, Lye notices with an inward grimace—he's never been a fan of old literature). The boy cracks open the novel and begins reading without a second glance at Lye. Lye's just fine with that. They can both mind their own business and be on their merry way.

Still, he can't refute that fact that he's just a little perturbed by the air of apathy the boy has around him. He's thin and slender, but not in the way Lye is; he isn't all firm muscles and feline grace, he doesn't walk with an easy confidence to his gait. No, he's more of the willowy sort—subtle, a little refined, a little androgynous, but with eyes sharp and cold enough to make up for the lack of muscles of his body. If Lye had to describe the boy's appearance in one word, it would be brittle. Although, with the way the boy effortlessly ignores his scrutiny, Lye would think him anything but breakable. He can hold his own.

Lye raises his eyebrows—if he can dismiss the staring so easily, a little observation should be fair game.

His hair-colour is nothing eye-catching—black, with perhaps a hint of brownish-red—but it's his hairstyle that's peculiar. He's grown it long, all the way to his lower-back. It's gathered in a loose ponytail with a few stray strands hanging limply around his face. His face—Lye wouldn't exactly use the word 'beautiful' to describe it, but maybe 'elegant' would suffice; it's all sharp edges and thin cheekbones and an aristocratic nose, with the palest complexion Lye's ever seen.

His gaze lifts from his neck, to his lips, to his eyes—and he blinks.

He's staring right back.

Well, I guess subtlety's never been a specialty of mine, Lye muses, raising his eyebrows but not allowing his gaze to stray. As immature as it seems, Lye can't help but get a kick out of ruffling the guy's feathers. The calm exterior is smooth and undisturbed, and Lye's always been told that he has a bit of an innate ability to drive people up the wall. Doesn't seem to be working on this guy, though, he thinks.

The nameless boy stares back at him, but he can't find anything beneath the cold, hard sheen of his wine-coloured eyes. Lye smiles—saccharine sweet and bright enough to disgust even himself—just before the waitress ambles over to their table and the clatter of the tray as she sets it down causes him to look away.

After that, he doesn't glance at the boy again. He waits until he leaves, though, and as the boy walks away, the sway of his ponytail and the unnatural quietness of his footsteps stirs something in him.

Lye dismisses the thought, and turns his eyes back to the unfinished cup of coffee.