The story so far:
His weathered cheeks carried no grin this time. He was hardly reminiscent of the playful janitor I used to see every school morning. His near-black eyes carried only the gravest of expressions; he was transformed into my enemy.
"You're not getting your children back."
I thrusted the gun inches from his face. "Like hell, I'm not!"
Richard was slowly approaching me, unsure of what to do, solicitious of the situation. But I was constant, determined. I was getting those students back, replicants or not.
I eased closer. "I don't know how long you've been watching me, but it's over now. Consider this my resignation."
Pete didn't flinch. "Your attempt at humor is appreciated, but amiss. Your contract with us is more binding than you think. And besides, look at what you've brought us. Not only the engineer of the experiment", I saw Richard wince at this statement, "but the experiment itself."
"They are not some factors in an experiment! They are children... why don't you see that?" I could feel I was on the verge, ready to pull the trigger.
"Maribel, it is you who is being myopic. Look at you. Reunited with your dead husband after a decade, and willing to accept his declarations of innocence? You think he's the victim of pursuing his work? Does that excuse his abandonment? When you needed him most, after the death of your child, you think it's okay he disappeared for, as he calls it, your safety?"
Richard stepped forward this time, furious. "That's enough!"
I closed my eyes in frustration. I felt so confused. I wasn't sure why I trusted Richard. Hadn't he left me alone in my grief? When all I had loved was taken away from me, I had nothing but my work, my name, and my tears. And I was only able to rid myself of one of them.
And Pete wasn't going to let up. He stood up, regardless of the firearm in point blank range. He took two steps behind him, then began to circle the two of us in the abandoned schoolroom.
"Has Richard even told you about the side effects?" Pete said.
"There were no side effects!" Richard shot back.
My quizzical expression included worry, fright. What the hell have I gotten into?
"What are you talking about?" I still held the gun to him, but the tremor in my arm was unmistakable, revealing my transparency.
Pete continued to circle us. "Your late husband, and his team of scientists were on the frontier of genetic and biological history. They thought they had the power of God in their hands, creating lifeforms from used genetic material. Recyclables."
I couldn't help but remember Jake, sitting in my home. Was he a replicant? What about Amy?
"The Society's puppets were creating what they thought were new lifeforms. But they were far from the truth."
I glared at him. "What told you that?"
"The work they've done, though pioneering in technique, was flawed."
"God dammit! There were no flaws! You're lying!" Richard lept towards Pete, arms outstretched and hands ready for blood. But Pete was faster, pulling out a gun from his back holster. One blast from the chamber sent a piercing round into Richard's stomach, knocking him to the ground.
"NO!!!" I raised my arms to fire, but Pete swung around and backhanded the pistol from my hands. As the gun slid across the classroom floor, I brought my elbow to Pete's face. He caught my arm, swinging behind me, grabbed my other and brought them together, putting me into submission.
"Listen to me, Maribel! This is all paradoxyl and alien to you, but you've got to understand me! You aren't hearing the whole story!"
"I don't need to hear anymore!" I was near petrified at my uselessness to help Richard, and my inability to take down an old janitor like Pete. But he wasn't a janitor. He had the moves of an agent.
"Your husband created what he thought were children, wanting to bring happiness and joy to kidless families across the globe, thinking he was the savior to infertility and infanticide. But he forgot one vital detail!"
"Please, just let me go!" I pleaded. I wasn't just submitting to him, I was submitting to fear. My sanity was floating away. I never expected this. How did one threat from a child turn into a science fiction massacre?
For the children... I don't want you to die...
"When formulating the procedure for replication, they thought they took everything into account. The physics, the chemistry, the biology, it was all relevant for creating cells, tissue, organs, and life. But, not human life. When calculating all factors, they forgot the one thing that connects us all to the rest of humanity."
"And what's that?!" I could feel the wetness fill my eyes.
Where had I heard that? I was hesitant to ask, but it came out of my mouth, "Twenty-one grams?"
Pete began to loosen his hold on me. I'm sure he was trusting I understood the gravity of the exigency.
"The weight of the soul. There was once a doctor in the early nineteen-hundreds that was able to measure the weight of the soul by comparing the mass of the living to when they... "shuffle off this mortal coil."
I just couldn't bear the information. I was now in the midst of national conspiracy regarding the theology and science of existence, and all I can think about was Richard, lying motionless on the ground. The crimson pool was slowly expanding underneath the small tables and chairs, reaching the boxes of puzzles and legos.
"When they played God, they didn't truly appreciate the intelligent design of a human, and what they created were subtle comparisons to the youth we've all known."
I spat back, "What does that matter? They look like children to me! They act like children!"
"They are merely a collective of cells and atoms, working together to survive just like any organism on Earth, but what they have in similarities, they lack in normalcy. They are different. They are a collective. They are NOT human!"
I jumped back, slamming Pete into the chalkboard, breaking his hold on me. I dove for the pistol, but Pete grabbed me by my hair, yanking me back to their struggle. I screamed in pain.
He threw me against the wall, holding my arms above my head. He leaned in, cheek to cheek, speaking into my ear, his hot breath fogging my neck.
"When you play God, you suffer the wrath. What they've created is not the new scientific discovery of the millenium, but the extinction of everybody on this planet. Without including the twenty one grams into the equation, they doomed us all!"
He grasped both my wrists with his strong hands, while he reached back to his holster, unveiling the gun for a second time. But he didn't threaten me, didn't aim. He didn't even click off the safety.
"You understand, more than most, that the world is full of lies, deceit, and treachery. You've just stumbled upon the most important objective of the FBI, the United States, even the United Nations. Your husband, the man who lied to you, discarded you, has designed the obsoletism of us. He created a soul-less hive, all linked to their genetic relation. One day, they will unite. Disease, injury... they are all futile to the immunity that Richard created. He knew what he was doing, and he sacrificed your daugther for it."
I thought of Danya, and immedietely the tears I was holding were relinquished from my eyes. This... life. This world of cruelty and corruption... how can anyone survive this? Why did Richard have to insist on his work? Why not find me? Tell me the truth?!
"Melinda, you are a strong woman, and can't be decieved by the Society's intentions. You have the power to save the human race by destroying the catalyst."
I knew what he was getting at, and it was swimming over and over again in my mind. I was lost in a world of hatred and grief, and Danya would pop into my mind intermittently. He handed me his gun, and walked me over to Richard, who still lay on the ground, hand palming his gunshot wound.
"He alone knows the formula to create more of these atrocities. Without him, we can put an end to the corruption of God. Bring justice to what he did... to God, to us, to you... to your daughter. Bring him to justice."
He helped me aim the pistol at his head. I breathed heavily, unbelieving of life. Was all this true? Could Richard be held responsible? I could see a flicker from Richard's eyelids. Was he alive? Would I let him live? I had come to hate him for everything he did, in just the past couple of hours. And then, a memory came into my head, like a cinematic intermission from the drama I've had.
It was 1996 in Iowa. I was in my study while I was supposed to be grading school papers, but opted to note my studies instead, listing off the possible criminal activity I had observed. In mid-sentence, my hand cramped, causing me to drop my pencil, and wait on the FBI mess for a minute. I massaged the space between my index finger and my thumb, allowing my thoughts to wander. I wasn't sure I was ever going to tell Richard the truth, I had concluded.
Was it fair? Probably not, but it had to be for his safety. For Danya's safety. Who knows what would happen if he found out the truth? I feared his resentment, and the possibility he'd leave me and take our daughter with him. Though, I would probably deserve it.
My pessimism was interrupted by the giggling sounds of Danya in the other room. My curiosity got the best of me, and I investigated the source, finding Richard and Danya painting pictures on her new white walls.
I asked, "What are you two doing?"
Danya replies with a wide smile, "Daddy keeps drawing weird faces, and says they're me!"
I gave a pseudo-disciplining look to Richard. "Is that true?"
Richard bows his head in fake shame. "Yes, dear."
I picked up a paint brush. "You know the rules, if you can't be nice, you get punished." Then I pounced on Richard and began painting his face, inviting Danya to join in.
"Help! Help!" Richard exlaimed playfully. He grabbed the paintbrush from my hands and begins to paint on me, causing me to scream. He then grabs a hold of Danya, giving her a big hug.
"I love you sweetie."
"I love you too, daddy."
I got up off the floor, "All right kid, get in the shower. We'll finish this tomorrow."
She smiles and bounces out of the room. Richard's eyes followed her. I had never seen so much happiness on a person, and whenever Richard was home with the two of us, he was never angry, or frustrated. However, sometimes, when he didn't know I was looking, I could see something like remorse from his face. Regret.
And there was a hint of familiarity when I saw it. Perhaps in fear of what he was thinking, I never questioned him. Never pushed him.
And if I punished him for wanting to protect me, from hiding something from me... I'd be a hypocrit. As I held the gun, I trembled in the arms of Pete, the FBI agent undercover as a janitor. I had enough. I clenched my teeth, let out a scream of anger, then put all of my force and momentum in throwing my head backwards into Pete's face, causing him to fall behind himself.
"No", I said bluntely.
"What are you doing?! You have a duty!"
"I have a duty to those children."
"You don't know the consequences of tampering with nature. You can't experiment with the unknown!" He clutched his nose as blood flowed freely from his nostrils.
"This isn't a theocracy. And you are willing to punish innocent lives all based on a theorum." I stepped forward, infused with a level of confidence that was new, that I never felt before. "I'm no longer a puppet." I raised the gun once more.
"I'm only going to ask this, one... last... time. Where are the children?! "
He seethed at me, and in rage he stepped in large strides ready to destroy me. I raised my gun, but he gave a fist to the right side of my face, knocking me down, giving me stars. On the ground, still clutching the gun, I tried to bring it up to him, but he stepped powerfully on my wrist, wrapping his fingers around my throat. The squeeze was a pressure unknown to me.
"I will not let you be the death of us! The children are gone! Far away! And you won't be alive to find them!! Those demons will be destroyed!!"
But a foreign noise was heard. It wasn't the sound of me gasping for air, or the heavy breathing from Pete's mouth, but the explosion of gunpowder. The source was revealed when I looked at the shocked face of my aggressor. I couldn't see it, but a scarlet circle began to increase in radius across his back, and he fell over to the side.
Behind us, Richard stood holding his bleeding gut in one hand, and the gun I had took from Lockley in the other. Smoke was still seeping out. He was panting, tired.
"Why didn't you do it?" He asked me.
I got up slowly, brushing myself off. "Because as much as he thought he knew you... he didn't know you as well as I did."
He smiled at me, but I couldn't return it. Not yet. "Richard, do you have any idea where they could have taken the children?"
"I have no idea. I can't understand why they wouldn't be here. I don't know what to do..."
He trailed off, but an idea came to my head.
"Can you get some of your armed entourage to meet us?"
He thought for minute, then concluded, "Yeah. Yeah, I think I can. Why?"
I walked quickly out the classroom door, Richard following behind me. I couldn't be concerned about the death of the FBI agent. I couldn't be concerned about Richard's wound. I had to find those children. I had no idea where to look, but I had an idea where to start.
Somebody knew where they were. This town was too entrapped in a web of conspiracy. We were going to find out where they would take the children.
We left the school and headed through town to kidnap and interrogate Jake's parents.