Look, there’s no easy way to tell you this, so I’ll go ahead and say it: your life might be in danger. See, someone injected Mina and me with a Vector serum without our knowledge. It makes people more of what they are. Some people become stronger. Others smarter. There are even a few who see dead people, or the future. I’m not going to lie, at first I thought the abilities were cool, but altered people die in terrible ways.
Why am I telling you this? Because the person who did this to us might do it to you too. And reading this book is the only way you’ll learn how to survive. Seriously, your life could depend on it. Don’t let anyone stop you.
My name is John Drayven. I’m fourteen years old. The day everything started began like any other. I was walking my brother into our school, Darnell Cookman Academy. Some students glared at us. Others pointed to me holding his hand and whispered to their friends. They knew Michael had special needs, but they laughed anyway.
I noticed Matt Beaumont leaning against a locker, snickering. He elbowed one of his minions and said something. They both laughed.
I clenched my fist and tried to ignore them. Before I could turn the corner and take my brother to his special class, Matt stepped in front of Michael and said, “Hey, M-M-M-Michael.”
Michael released my hand and hid behind me. I stared up at Matt and said, “Leave us alone.” I admit, I
I knew I couldn’t get into any more trouble, so I clenched my fist harder and tried to bury the anger bubbling inside me.
Matt leaned his wolfish face toward Michael and said, “What’s the matter, M-M-M-Michael. Can’t talk?”
My vision flared red and I shoved Matt. “Back off!”
“John Drayven,” Principal Cochran said.
A sinking feeling settled into my chest. The red haze evaporated and I realized what I’d done. I had to show the principal it wasn’t my fault. My mom counted on me to take my brother to school. “He started it.”
Principal Cochran glanced at Michael and asked, “Is this true?” Michael stared at the floor and didn’t respond. “Michael,” I said. “Come on. I really need you to tell him.”
Michael grabbed my hand and leaned his head on my shoulder. Students around me snickered and pointed. A red haze edged into my vision again.
The principal asked, “Is this true Matt?”
Matt straightened and said, “No Mr. Cochran. I was only asking Michael how he was doing and then John just shoved me.”
His friends nodded in agreement.
“I see,” Mr. Cochran said, moving closer to me. He lowered his voice, but other students could still hear. “John, ever since the…incident with your father and sister, you’ve been combative. I’ve tried to find alternative consequences to keep you here, but this is the last straw. It’s time I speak to your mother and grandmother about…”
“Mr. Cochran,” Mr. Jackson said. “A word if you please.” I breathed a sigh of relief. Mr. J was different than the other teachers. He was more observant. He also looked different. He was built like a pro athlete, dressed like a banker, and his black curly hair was shaved close in a military cut.
Mr. Cochran tried to stand a little taller and motioned him over. Mr. J leaned down and whispered something.
Mr. Cochran frowned, nodded, and then said, “John, go with Mr. Jackson. He’ll administer your punishment. But if this happens again, you will no longer be at this school, do you understand?” The early bell rang and Mr. Cochran yelled, “That’s the bell. Everyone head to your class,” and walked away.
Matt snickered and left. I wondered if he’d heard Mr. Cochran coming and set me up. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d done something like that.
I grabbed Michael’s hand and followed Mr. Jackson toward the back of the school.
“Thanks, Mr. J. But what did you say to him?”
“That I knew you, and what’s happened to your family. And you deserved another chance. Also, that you’d do extra science homework to make up for shoving Matt.”
“It’s better than getting kicked out. But Matt—”
Mr. J held up his hand. “I know, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to shove him, or the other students who picked on Michael.”
“But I get so mad when people bully him.”
We stopped in front of Michael’s class. “I understand. But you must learn to control your anger. Controlling our emotions is the one thing that sets us above the animals.”
I like Mr. J. He’s always trying to help. Still, the punishment was going to be absolute torture. “Did you have to give me more science homework?”
Mr. J smiled at Michael. Michael smiled back, something he almost never does. “Science is the most important subject you’ll ever learn,” Mr. J said. “It literally holds the answers to every problem we face. And, in time, it can even help people who are born with autism.”
Ms. Vernon, Michael’s teacher, came to the door. “Time for class Michael.” Michael glanced at me with his blue eyes. The opposite of my brown ones. As I ushered Michael into class, I wondered again how two brothers born only a few minutes apart could be so different.
“Now,” Mr. Jackson said. “Head to the parking lot. We have a field trip.”
I groaned because I knew what came next.
The field trip was to a chicken museum. I’m not kidding. It was horrible.
My eighth-grade science class clustered around the baby chick hatchery in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Students think teachers spend their days finding ways to torture kids. Sometimes they’re right. And they can do it in creative ways.
The room didn’t seem like a museum. It had orange and yellow walls with three large steel and glass octagonal domes in the middle. I stared at the baby chickens hopping around on a bed of pine shavings and wondered what we’d done to deserve such punishment.
“We’ve covered that DNA is in every cell of every living thing on earth,” Mr. Jackson said. “It’s the blueprint that tells cells what to do. It’s shaped like a double helix and consists of four nucleotides: adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. Now, who discovered DNA?”
No one answered. Mr. Jackson surveyed each of us like we were about to dash toward the door which, in my case anyway, was true.
“Mina, please help us out.”
Mina Vargas stood away from everyone making short strokes in her sketchpad with an oversized pencil. Her brown eyes flicked between the sketchpad and the baby chicks from under her wavy, blackish-brown hair. I remembered when we used to play together in grade school she’d get so excited about the things she drew. I hadn’t seen her excited about anything since her dad ran away.
“James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953,” Mina said.
“Excellent, Mina. Now, DNA strands are incredibly long and are organized into sections called genes. Genes, working together, determine how a body grows and develops.” He gestured to the glass dome. “Chickens have around 23,000 genes. How many do humans have?” When no one replied, he said, “Matt, what’s your answer?”
Matt and his friend Cesar, a shorter thinner version of Matt, were snapping pictures of themselves, no doubt posting them to Instagram in their desperate need for more followers. When Mr. Jackson called his name, he straightened and faked attention. “I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson, I was discussing the baby chicks with my classmate. What was the question again?”
“I don’t think snapping selfies is focusing on the assignment. The question was how many genes do humans have?”
Cesar elbowed Matt and covertly displayed his phone. “25,000,” Matt said, smiling.
“That’s correct,” Mr. Jackson said. “But you don’t get credit for Cesar showing you the answer on his phone.”
My mind started to wander as Mr. J continued. “Although we know a great deal about DNA and the genes of many animals, we are ignorant of many aspects of it. For instance, we don’t know why two chickens will have different colored feathers, or two brothers can develop so differently.” Mr. Jackson glanced at me. I thought of Michael and guilt gripped my heart.
“Yet, rather than patiently exploring and cataloging genes, scientists are rashly using RNA, the construction workers of genetics, to combine the DNA of different species to produce cats that glow in the dark, goats that produce spider silk, and pigs with human organs. Scientists in Russia are even trying to alter the DNA of extinct animals like sabretooth tigers and bring them back to life.”
He gestured for us to move to the third dome. Inside were a dozen eggs. One egg rocked back and forth. “But we’ll cover RNA and genetic manipulation next week.” The whole class stared inside the chick hatchery. A small beak poked through the white shell. Most of the class brought out their phones and started videoing as a small yellow chick broke out of the egg and stumbled to its feet.
The class ooh’d and ahh’d, except me. I’m not a fan of chickens.
“It’s time for the next exhibit. Make a right as you head out of the room.” The students started forward but Mr. J gestured for me to walk with him.
“Do you know why I mentioned two brothers being different?”
I felt embarrassed. “Because you wanted me to pay attention.”
“Yes. Darnell Cookman Academy is a special 6-12 science magnet, and the only school in the city with the program your brother needs. You must maintain a 3.0 GPA to stay there. And you know you need to do better.”
A sinking feeling settled in my stomach. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but Mr. J pushed me so hard. Sometimes I didn’t think I could reach his expectations.
We passed a reporter and cameraman filming a segment about the museum. Mr. J went out of his way to make sure he wasn’t in the camera’s view.
As we turned into the Inventing the Future exhibit, I understood why everyone loved the museum. LCD TV’s paraded inventors across their screens and lighted glass and plastic boxes displayed prototypes of the latest technology.
As my class and a few other people shuffled through the room, they ogled the displays, especially the stacked lighted boxes that formed an example of vertical farming.
Matt came up next to Mina and whispered, “You know, my dad really did you a favor by telling the police about your dad embezzling money. You should be grateful.”
She slammed her sketchpad into his shoulder and said, “Leave me alone!”
“Mina,” Mr. J said. “You do not hit other people, do you understand?”
She said nothing.
Mr. J said, “Matt, that behavior is unacceptable. Come with me.” He eyed the students the way he did when he wanted them to behave, and then led Matt toward the corner. Matt did not look happy. But I was.
Mina was alone again. I wanted to talk to her. To say what her dad did didn’t matter, she was still my friend. But every time I’d tried, she said she wanted to be left alone.
Odd movements caught my attention. Off to my left, two bearded men were doing something to a panel marked “Security and Sprinkler System”. One placed a small rectangular object inside while the other tried to block people’s view of whatever his partner was doing.
The first man closed the security panel. He and his partner both eyed the museum patrons with the same serious expression Mr. J always had in class. The situation seemed so out of place that I wanted to tell Mr. J, but he was still talking to Matt. I was not going to interrupt that.
Turning toward the Ayanna Howard exhibit, I accidentally tripped over a man’s leg. As we tumbled to the floor, a silvery metal object shot out of his hand. I saw his face clearly when I landed on top of him. He had long trendy dark hair and was dressed in jeans and a fatigue jacket. His dark eyes glared at me from under a red baseball hat pulled low over his forehead.
He lunged toward the silvery cone-shaped thing he’d dropped, clutched it to his side, and scrambled to his feet. He glanced behind me and said, “He can identify me. Kill him,” and disappeared into the crowd.
“John, look out,” Mr. J said.
I turned and saw the two bearded men who’d been messing with the security panel reaching for me.