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Edward Ashton lives in Rochester, New York, where he studies new cancer therapies by day, and writes about the awful things his research may lead to by night. His short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction ("Dust," September 2014), The Future Fire, and Escape Pod, among other places. His first novel, Three Days in April, is forthcoming from HarperCollins in September, 2015. You can find him online at ashton@virtualscopics.com.

They lined us up then, along the edge of the pit. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder, shivering because they had taken our coats. We stood silent, heads bowed, staring down into the freshly turned earth. We breathed in the crisp winter air, and waited.
They called us together, to the center of the town. They called us from loudspeakers mounted to the tops of their trucks, told us that if we came to the square, they would give us the mercy of bullets, but that if we fled, it would be fire. A few of us ran. They were true to their word. By ones and twos, and then all together, we came.
It was done for holiness. They told us that much. It was God's inscrutable will, a solemn duty, to be undertaken with sorrow rather than joy. They told us this as they killed us, but the grins on their faces betrayed them. And we asked ourselves: would we have done the same to them, if we could have? If chance or fate or Providence had placed the whip in our hands, would we have cut them down in their thousands, then millions? Would we have murdered their children and burned their homes, taken their lands and their lives and their names, tried to pretend that they never had been? We told ourselves we would not have, that our rule would have been kind and our justice fair.
We told ourselves this, and it may even once have been true. But in the dark of the night now, we know that it is far too late for justice. We have lost too much. If we could murder them all, we would do it.
I come from the north, from the cold, windy shore of a great, frozen lake. Ours was one of the last towns to fall to the UnAltered. We had seen the news, knew what they had done as they spread like a brush fire up from the south. We should have fled, should have crossed the border into what remained of Canada. We should have never come back. But there was a base nearby, and a loyal General. The UnAltered were a rabble, my father said, the products of random inbreeding and inferior genes. The army would hold. And hold they did, along the northern bank of the river, for a week, and then two. Every day, though, more soldiers crossed over. The General was killed in his bed, and what remained of the army melted away.
I was eleven then, and Altered, but not to the eye. A bit taller, a bit stronger than I should have been, and never once sick in my life, but I could have passed. My sister, though--sixteen years old, with white-blonde hair and porcelain skin, clear blue eyes, and features symmetrical to the micrometer. My father thought to disguise her, to dye her hair a mousy, uneven brown, blotch her skin with makeup, dress her in shapeless smocks. It didn't matter. Our neighbors denounced us on the very day that the UnAltered crossed the river.
Twenty years on, and I still dream of that day. From my hiding place in the attic, I hear the shouted summons from the yard, then bare moments later the crash of the front door shattering. I hear my mother's short, sharp scream, and the bark of the rifles.
They failed to find me that day, but in my dreams I feel the heavy tread of their boots on the stairs, hear the low rumble of their voices as they pace through the attic, looking for me. I crouch in the black space behind the knee wall, trying and failing to stifle my sobs. Finally they stumble on the hidden door, and I wake up screaming as a hard, calloused hand grasps my ankle and drags me, writhing like a maggot, out into the light.
We are few now, and scattered, but we are not gone.
We bear a mark, each of us, a stamp on our genes, put there by the Engineers who changed us. It is this that allowed the UnAltered to hound us, even after all the ones with visible changes--the ones like my sister--were long dead. The scanners are everywhere, in airports and schools and hospitals, and when the mark betrays us, we are killed, even now.
It is this mark that will save us.
A Destroyer is coming, like the tenth plague to the Egyptians, carefully prepared in our last secret places. It will spread through the air and the water, through birds and rats and insects. It will find the UnAltered wherever they hide, taking their first born, and also their last. Taking their wives and their mothers, their daughters and sons.
Taking all.
The mark on our genes will be lamb's blood on our lintel. The Destroyer will pass us by.
Spring has come to the mountains now, and the long winding road to the valley is clear. The net has been silent for almost a month.
The wide world is empty.
The wide world is new.
It is time, I think, to see what it has to offer.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Author Comments

This piece was written, start to finish, in less than an hour. It began as a reaction to an article I'd read that afternoon about the latest atrocities in Iraq and Syria, but as I wrote, I think it turned into something else.

- Edward Ashton
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