Children of Eden Page 64

My clothes are dry, thanks to the automatic seal on the exposure suit that bonded to my skin as soon as the mask was breached. Most of my hair is even still dry. When I ripped the mask off, the hood section of the suit bonded instantly to the skin around my hairline. For a second I marvel at the technology humans can create. How did we get to be so powerful, but so destructive? With so much intelligence, couldn’t we see the point past which one begets the other?

We dressed for the mission in the typical gray suits of the Center elite. The pants are slim, light steel-colored with the faintest iron-hued pinstripes, the high-necked form-fitting jacket just a shade darker, layered over a black shirt for him, an iridescent silvery mother-of-pearl for me.

I don’t know about myself, but he looks the very image of every young Center official I’ve ever seen on news vids. Except for that scar on his face. That might raise suspicions. That, and the perpetually rakish look in his second-child eyes. He covers them with green-tinted glasses, the kind he says are popular with pretentious young bureaucrats on the rise.

“You have to look more serious,” I insist as I tie my own hair into a businesslike knot at the back of my head. The colors Lark added are mostly hidden, and with the severe hairstyle I know I can pass for at least a few years older.

He immediately assumes an intensely bland face. “Better?”

I can’t help but chuckle, my default mode around Lachlan no matter how terrible the circumstances. We might have just come close to death, and capture (maybe worse than death) looms ahead of us as a very real possibility. But somehow he can always make me smile. Are other people like that? Somehow, I don’t think so. How is it he can always make me happy no matter how bad things get?

I catch Lark watching our interaction, and I bend my head, flushing. Then I straighten defiantly. What’s wrong with having two friends? Why can’t two people make me happy? I had so little for so long. I think I’m entitled to have both Lark and Lachlan without them getting prickly whenever I pay too much attention to either.

But now isn’t the time to dwell on that. I steel myself as I’ve learned to do, and together we head up the long, narrow steps first to the official sub-basements. There, Lark branches off from us, to gather the tools that will be part of her cover, and then wait for us in the main lobby. She blows me a kiss as we separate. I see Lachlan try to hide a scowl. Lachlan and I then go to the data storage floors, and finally to the ground floor, the headquarters of all Center law and security.

We’ve made it so far without incident. My father’s security card buzzes us through every barrier, and the few people we’ve passed hardly glance at us. Lower down, I think most of the people were just trying to finish jobs that had taken longer than expected, so they could go home. They were maintenance types and lower-level data clerks, who probably wanted nothing to do with what we appeared to be—powerful young officials on the rise. People who could make trouble for them, assign them extra tasks, criticize their work. So they lowered their eyes, pretended we didn’t exist, and hoped we showed them the same courtesy.

Here on the ground floor, though, things get harder. Now we have to make sure our story is perfect.

 

 

WE WENT OVER it as many times as possible before we broke in so I’d know exactly what to do. Lachlan, buoyant with confidence, explained that even though the Center was the most secret and secure place in Eden, it relied far more on technology than on people.

“If your card scans, you’re legitimate,” he had said. “They trust the EcoPan. If the EcoPan believes we belong here, no one else will question us. Thanks to your father’s ID, one of the highest-ranking Center officials is simply making a tour of the facilities, or taking care of secret business. There’s no cross-reference, no body scans at this level. They won’t analyze me and figure out that I’m thirty pounds lighter and thirty years younger than the owner of the ID.”

There was a complex assortment of scans and checks at the main entrances—biometric readings, lens scans, all sorts of detectors—but we had neatly bypassed all of those by going through the sewer. Once a person was in the building they were in the clear. It was assumed that the EcoPan had done its job. Anyone inside was one of the privileged, the elite. So even if our faces are unfamiliar, Lachlan told me, we’ll be accepted. They’ll think we work another shift, or we’re new, or the children of someone so important they don’t dare question us. Students who are children of the elite often get internships here, or high-level jobs straight out of school, so no one is surprised if we look a bit young.

“People underestimate the power of expectations,” Lachlan whispers to me as we make our way toward the prison section of the security floor. “We don’t have to prove we belong here. We simply have to be here.” In strange circular logic, our presence is proof of our right to be here.

We’re climbing the spiral staircase to the second floor. It is a strangely beautiful architectural touch, broad and lovely as a bisected seashell. Strong light streams into the lobby—the only part of the Center most civilians ever see—and everything is white, bright, with blue accents and touches of green, like a seaside. A waterfall feature cascades down from the second floor to the first, right beside the spiral staircase, flowing an unreal shade of aqua. Three tiny cleanbots scurry around the pool at the base, mopping up the few drops of water that splash onto the floor.

So far, so good.

When the spiral turns and lets us into the security section of the Center, all that beachy brightness is stripped away. This place is bare, sere. I’d almost call it gritty if it wasn’t so clean. The entire tone has changed, of the building and the people. I glance down to the lobby floor and see an innocuous maintenance worker pushing a wheeled cart full of tools and buckets across the atrium. Only the slight build clues me in to the fact that it is Lark. I wish she’d look up, give me the brief reassurance of her bright gaze. But she’s too sensible for that, and I tear my own eyes quickly away.

We pass a check-in desk with little more than a word from Lachlan and a wave-through. Somberly, seriously, we move through corridors that Lachlan mapped out from the Underground’s intelligence and water system schematics that Lark provided.

Now we go down a narrow hallway that feeds into a large chamber. I hear the sounds of human misery, subdued but evident. I smell something I can’t identify, subtle and sharp, that makes my skin prickle. Maybe it is the smell of fear.

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