The Ones: New Excerpt

The Ones, Book 1 by Daniel Sweren-Becker
The Ones, Book 1 by Daniel Sweren-Becker
The Ones by Daniel Sweren-Becker mixes themes of justice, discrimination, and terrorism with actual science to create a frightening version of our near future (Available September 6, 2016).

We are not all created equal.

Seventeen-year-old Cody and her boyfriend, James, were two of the lucky ones randomly selected before birth to receive genetic engineering.

Known as the Ones, this one percent of the population is healthy, beautiful, and talented…and to some that's not fair. Mounting fear and jealousy of the Ones’ success leads to the creation of the Equality Movement, which quickly gains enough political traction to demote Cody, James, and others like them to second-class citizens.

Cody knows even before the brick smashes through her window that it's going to be bad. As their school, the government, and even family and friends turn against them, Cody begins to believe they have no other choice but to protect their own. She draws closer to a group of radical Ones led by the passionate and fevered Kai, and James begins to question just how far she is willing to go for the cause…


Four weeks earlier

THE BREATHING HELPED Cody relax. She ran right down the middle of the street and took huge gulps of air, each breath serving to calm her down. The town was silent, the streets empty, but the quiet actually scared her even more. It reminded her of those eerie moments before an earthquake, when all the birds and insects and animals disappear to somewhere safer. Where do they all go? And how do they even know?

Maybe they all had a mother like Cody’s—the type of mom who would, without any warning, sometimes give you a look that sent shivers down your spine. Cody always wondered what was in that look, that weird combination of love and hope mixed with something much darker. She had come to sense that it was guilt. Guilt over the choice her mom had made for her. A choice that, in hindsight, was putting Cody in danger now. Cody didn’t see it that way, but it still made her uncomfortable. As they sat together watching their old, boxy television, waiting like everyone else to hear the news, she felt her mom staring at her with that look. So Cody grabbed her tattered sneakers, threw on a faded T-shirt, and slipped out the door. Running was always easier than talking. When she ran, she could breathe.

Outside, Cody loped across her patchy front yard and down her gravel street and opened up her stride as she left her crumbling neighborhood behind. She sliced through barren intersections, ignoring the glow of televisions coming out of every home, her dark green eyes staring straight ahead, her thick burgundy hair streaming behind her. Inside those homes, the whole country was watching now, waiting for the decision. But Cody knew what was coming, could smell it in the wind like the birds did. She knew how the Supreme Court would rule and what that would mean for her. Before it happened, she wanted to find James.

Her legs beat a winding path two miles across town, her usual route now too dangerous to traverse. There were houses she didn’t want to run past, people in town she’d rather not see. Flags and signs and graffiti everywhere that she wanted to avoid. If she zigged and zagged at all the right places, she could forget about what the rest of the world thought of her.

When she made it to the stately brick house at the end of Argyle Street, Cody cut across the perfectly manicured lawn and went around to a side window to peer over the square hedges. Sure enough, James and his whole family were huddled in front of the TV in their living room. James sat with his perfect posture, his expression calm under his mop of brown curls, even in the face of what he was watching. Cody knew that if she waited a moment, he would catch her gaze eventually. James was oblivious to a lot of things, but never to her. Not the worst trait for your seventeen-year-old boyfriend.

When James finally looked over, she gave him a flick of the eyes, and a minute later he joined her in the street. Before they could speak, Cody was running, James was rushing to catch up, and they were off, the only things moving as dusk settled on Shasta, California.

To see these two run together was like watching a pair of hawks carve through the air or two dolphins crest a wave. The motion suited them, as if they were born for this exact activity. Their bodies were perfectly proportioned, legs and arms churning in mathematically ideal ratios, their powerful inhales timed with exact symmetry to their powerful exhales. They were both beautiful, and the ground flew by underneath them.

They ran to the edge of the residential neighborhood, then climbed the scraggly foothills on the outskirts of town and entered the thicker pine groves, the trail growing rougher, narrower, and steeper. Their gait remained true, each step agile and soft on the dark, rocky earth.

And then, miles above the town, they emerged into a clearing and finally stopped, catching their breath in the clear, piney air. Below them, the town was still, half-lit in the fading sunlight, and a cold autumn wind blew up from the valley.

“What do you think happens next?” Cody asked, finally breaking their silence.

James never lied, so she knew he’d answer honestly, even if he was worried. She looped an arm behind the small of his back and leaned into his body, trying to find shelter from the wind and everything else.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But no matter what, we’re going to be fine.”

She pressed into him tightly and tried to believe it.

*   *   *

On their walk back down the trail, they couldn’t resist playing a favorite game: trying to kick a single pebble all the way down the hill without picking it up. Most days the pebble would eventually skitter off a ledge or get lost in a bush, but if they ever got it down safely, Cody would take it home and save it. Nothing like a pile of rocks to make your bedroom look cool. They complemented the rest of the mess on her floor—the various telescopes and scales and old medical junk that she liked to pick out at flea markets. It was all part of what James called Cody’s “unique” aesthetic: science-geek chic filtered through a vintage lens. But a stranger seeing her room would probably make her out to be a Wild West snake-oil salesman.

James kicked the stone a few feet ahead, taking care to keep it in the middle of the trail. “You gonna stick around for dinner?” he asked.

“And get trapped in a cross-examination about current events from your parents?”

“My mom saw you loitering outside the window.”

Loitering? Yikes, she better hide the good china.”

“Her word, not mine. She said that if you won’t come in, she’s going to put a saucer of milk out for you. I told her a tray of brownies would work a lot better.”

“Sounds great.”

“Come on, Cody. I know they’re kind of intense, but they like you, I promise.”

Please, Cody thought. Do they ask other dinner guests if their coats have bedbugs?

“It’s your brother, too,” Cody said. “Every time we’re together, he can’t help staring daggers at us.”

“He does not stare daggers at us.”

“Fine, butter knives. But it’s still weird.”

“It’s not easy for him to be the odd man out. When the three of us are together, he’s the one who’s different.”

“No one would even know if he didn’t make a big deal about it!” Cody exclaimed. She kicked the stone and took a breath. “And today … he’s going to be gloating.”

“Even more reason why I need you around. Unless, of course, you want me to deal with it all alone,” James said, slumping his shoulders in exaggerated rejection.

Cody couldn’t help but smile, even as she shook her head. “I hate when you do this.”

“Outsmart you to get what I want?” James replied, grinning at her.

“No. I hate when you think you’ve outsmarted me, even though you didn’t.”

“You’re staying for dinner, aren’t you?” James gave the stone a powerful kick with his fancy neon running shoe, and it tumbled down into the brush. Cody watched it disappear and then gave him a shove, sending James scurrying down the slope.

“Not cool! I liked that one.”

James let his momentum take him down the hill. “Come on,” he yelled. “We’re late.”

*   *   *

Without any time to go home, Cody had to shower in James’s bathroom, but she still took as long as possible to delay going downstairs. Plus, she didn’t have any fresh clothes to change into, so her choice was to either look like a slob in James’s pajamas or smell like a gym locker in her sweaty running clothes. This was typical of James—sweet to want her to stay but blind to the reality that his parents were going to judge her. And even though his bathroom was irritatingly neat, his shampoo situation was pathetic.

They could tell the news wasn’t good when they came back from their run and James’s family just stared at them in silence. Cody quickly excused herself to shower and hid behind the rush of hot water for at least twenty minutes. When Cody felt like she was starting to be rude, she finally got out of the shower and caught her reflection in the mirror. Fine, she conceded with a bit of pride. She could understand why some people were jealous. The high cheekbones, the perfect symmetry, the tasteful constellation of freckles—she knew she was truly beautiful. But Cody reminded herself that it was not as if she or anyone else had asked for this. It was just how they were born. It was who they were.

Cody, James, and hundreds of thousands of other kids across the country were pioneers, the first babies born with the benefits of advanced genetic engineering. All of them were sanctioned by a pilot program run by the National Institutes of Health, which agreed to study this new technology by granting permission to a small segment of the population. One percent, to be exact.

For the past twenty years, one out of every hundred newborn babies had been genetically engineered. A scientist had manipulated their genomes, selecting certain traits from their parents and eliminating others. Grocery shopping, it was called. It was no surprise, then, that Cody, James, and their fellow participants were tall, sturdy athletes with perfect facial features.

Actually, it was still a surprise to Cody: She couldn’t believe that her meager gene pool had offered any positive traits to choose from. Between her wonderful but entirely average mother and what little she knew about her father, the scientists didn’t have a lot to work with. But clearly they’d found something, because here she was, just as perfectly assembled as all the other Ones, as they had come to be known. Sometimes the magnitude of her good fortune took her breath away—literally had her gasping for air. Who was she to deserve such a fate? No one, really, just one baby out of a hundred, chosen by a random government lottery. How would she be able to pay this gift back? And to whom and when and where? Cody thought about this constantly, but she still didn’t have an answer.

Being a One was obviously a gift, she knew that much. The benefits bestowed by this new technology were easy to see, and besides the good looks and physical advantages, it could eradicate any negative trait, from asthma to acne. The unforeseen drawbacks, however, were still being understood. Sure, the children in the study were perfectly healthy and wholly human. But as this first generation reached adulthood, the rest of the world was starting to take notice.

The Ones were excelling. Even in preschool, it was easy to guess which toddlers were part of the trial. As Cody toweled off her hair one more time and continued to stall, she thought back fondly to those early days of playing tag, when no one could catch her, and some of the other kids couldn’t even run without toppling over. Now the oldest Ones were having an impact on the world. Several of James and Cody’s peers had gone on to remarkable accomplishments for people so young: graduating from college early; winning Olympic medals; starting successful businesses; making an impact in the arts, music, and science. It was clear that they had been born with a tremendous advantage.

As Cody stepped into the carpeted hallway, she heard the TV droning from the living room downstairs. She shivered, knowing all too well what the yelling was about.

A grassroots organization called the Equality Movement had taken hold of the country with the stated goal of ensuring fair and equal rights for every citizen. But what they really wanted, Cody knew, was to persecute the Ones. And it seemed that with Amber Reed, a sweet little cheerleader from South Carolina, they had found an ingenious way to do it.

The snowball that turned into an avalanche started with poor Amber getting cut from her freshman cheerleading team. Amber’s parents sued the school, alleging that the Ones who were selected to the team had an illegal advantage. Leaders from the Equality Movement seized on this lawsuit, identifying it as a perfect vessel to challenge the very existence of the Ones. The Cheerleader Case eventually turned into Reed v. The National Institutes of Health, and Amber’s spot on the team was no longer the central issue—instead, the Supreme Court was about to decide if genetic engineering was actually legal. The Equality Movement had played its hand perfectly. And while Cody and James were out running, the decision had come down.

Genetic engineering had been declared illegal.

Cody, James, and all the others now lived on an island in history, with no one like them having come before and none allowed to come after—an orphaned generation. It was a lonely feeling, and it prompted Cody to finally get dressed and go downstairs.

*   *   *

Dinner was exactly what Cody had expected. James’s mom, Helen, was layered as usual in three different sweaters and a stack of bangle bracelets. She refused to sit for more than two seconds, constantly popping up to bring in food or to clear away plates. And God forbid if a crumb hit the floor. James’s father perched at the head of the table and directed the conversation by peering over his narrow spectacles. Arthur was a professor at the state university nearby, and he asked Cody for the tenth time what she planned to study in college.

“Costume design,” she answered, running out of random professions that she knew would drive Arthur crazy.

“Interesting,” he said, trying not to choke on his food. “Sounds colorful.”

“Totally,” Cody replied, glancing at James and suppressing a smile. She felt him flick her knee under the table.

And then there was Michael, James’s brother. He was six years older, tall, handsome, and dark-haired like James and wearing a similarly boring button-down shirt. He had graduated from college and worked as an engineer for a while but recently had to move back home. Michael had been quiet for most of the meal, but Cody saw him put his fork down deliberately and turn to her and James.

“What did you think of the court’s decision today?” he asked.

“Michael, come on—” James started to say.

“Do you agree with it or not?”

Cody saw James look to his father, but Arthur also seemed curious to hear an answer.

“I get that people are nervous about what will happen eventually,” James said, “but that’s the case with all new technology. It doesn’t mean you should ban it.”

“Easy for you to say,” Michael said. He turned to Cody. “What about you?”

“It’s total bullshit,” she said, then looked over at James’s mom, feeling bad about the cursing. Helen wiped her mouth with a napkin, as if she were the one who had said it. Meanwhile, Michael was smiling, clearly pleased that he’d provoked such a response. Cody felt James touch her leg again, but she knocked his hand away.

“I know you agree with me,” Cody said to Michael. “You’re just too scared to admit it. Stopping scientific progress just because a bunch of old people are afraid of losing their jobs is ridiculous.”

The whole family jerked their eyes toward her, and Cody knew right away that she had put her foot in her mouth. She had forgotten for a second that Michael had just lost his job to a younger, more talented engineer. He suspected that his replacement was a One.

“I’m sorry,” Cody said sincerely. “I just don’t think banning the science helps anyone. There are always going to be younger people moving into professions, whether they are Ones or not.”

“The court disagrees—they ruled nine to zero. And Congress is about to pass more laws that address the Ones’ unfair advantages,” Michael said.

“Unfair advantages?” Cody repeated. “That’s nothing new. What about being born into a rich family? Being delivered by good doctors in a fancy hospital? Having a parent at home who has time to read to you? Pretty nice, I bet. Should the court make laws so that none of that is unfair?”

“There’s obviously a line somewhere. The vast majority of the country knows that we’ve gone too far,” Michael said.

“I wonder why,” James chimed in, trying to deflect some attention away from Cody.

“Don’t give me that crap about you guys being a poor little minority group,” his brother replied.

“What are we, then?” Cody said, jumping back in. “We have no political power, no leadership, no money, no way to defend our rights, and we are outnumbered ninety-nine to one.”

“That’s exactly what the Equality Movement is all about—making sure everyone has the same rights,” Michael said.

“The Equality Movement wants to take away our rights,” Cody shot back. “They want to get rid of us.”

“No, we don’t,” Michael responded. “We just want—”

We?” Helen said quickly, surprising everyone at the table. She was normally so quiet it was easy to forget that she was there. “Since when are you part of the Equality Movement?”

Michael sat silently for a moment, startled by his mother’s intensity. Helen reached out and grabbed each of her sons by the shoulder.

“This is your brother! You don’t ever do anything to harm him. Neither of you. Ever!”

Immediately, Cody realized what was behind Helen’s uncharacteristic outburst. This wasn’t about Michael or James; this was about Helen’s other son, the one who had passed away. Cody didn’t know much about him, only that he had died before James was born. Maybe that version of the family had been different, perhaps better, in a way. It was still two parents and two sons, but at least in the original version, the brothers were on equal footing. This current dynamic wasn’t James’s fault, Cody knew. But maybe the rest of his family didn’t.

Back at the table, Michael mumbled an apology. Helen let go of her boys, collected herself, and went into the kitchen. Then Cody watched as James and Michael looked at each other across the table, and the moment almost shattered her. She saw the truth in their eyes—ceaseless adoration on one side, implacable jealousy on the other—and she knew they would never really be brothers. Not while Michael saw James only as a One. Not while he saw him as a replacement.

*   *   *

Even though Cody wanted to walk by herself, James insisted on driving her home, so they climbed into the beat-up red Jeep that James refused to let die. To his credit, he could work wonders on an engine. Did he just learn that one day? Or was he programmed from birth to fix a leaky carburetor? These were the types of questions that Cody had to ask herself whenever she was good at something. Was she born this way, or was she made this way? Should the difference even matter?

“I’m sorry,” James said as they pulled out of the driveway. “I know that was awkward.”

“It’s fine,” Cody said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Michael doesn’t really mean that stuff. He’s just dealing with a tough break right now.”

“He has a One in his own family, and he still can’t stand us. Can you imagine what everyone else is thinking right now?”

“No one is thinking anything. Everything is fine.”

“When are you going to wake up?” Cody snapped, louder than she’d meant to. James shrank back in his seat, surprised at her eruption. “This court decision is just the beginning. Who knows what law will pass next week, or a month from now? Someone spat on the ground when I walked past the other day. Why would a person do that?” she asked, and then answered, “Because they’re making it legal to hate us.”

“Calm down. This was the law that the Equality Movement wanted. They’re getting it. Now it’s over.”

Cody shook her head, frustrated by how naive James was being. “Maybe if I put this in terms you can actually understand…”

“Go right ahead.”

“Remember when we started dating, and I wouldn’t let you kiss me?”

“Of course,” James said. “It was diabolical.” He couldn’t help a cute half smile at the thought, but Cody wasn’t going to be distracted.

“And then after we kissed, what happened?”

“You saw stars and realized you could never live without me?” He beamed a full smile at her.

“You wish. I mean the next time we hooked up, what happened?” Cody pulled one of his arms from the steering wheel and waved it in front of his face. “With these things.”

“My hands? Oh. They, uh, wanted to move around.”

“Exactly. And then what? After they had ‘moved around’ a few times?”

“They wanted to do other things.” He said with the beginning of a blush creeping onto his cheeks.

“And so on and so forth, each step meeting less resistance than the one before it,” Cody said.

James was finally grasping her point. “Wow. So all the Ones are going to be marched off to their deaths?”

“Pretty much,” Cody responded, pleased with her lesson.

“Because you let me kiss you in the stacks of the library that day?”

Cody smacked him hard in the chest, and James laughed, trying to block it. “I am being serious here!” she yelled.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” he said as he slowed the car down in front of Cody’s house. “But honestly, I swear, I don’t think we have anything to worry about.” He put the car into park and turned it off.

Cody gave him a weird look. “What are you doing?”

“I’m coming in. You can’t possibly go through that whole analogy and expect me not to hang out for a few minutes.”

“That wasn’t my point.”

James took his hands off the steering wheel and held them harmlessly up in the air. “Hands at ten and two, I promise,” he said, smiling.

Cody tried to stay angry with him, but it was impossible with his hands raised in mock innocence, his dimples deep enough to have dimples of their own. And then there was the dark hair that tumbled over his forehead, the curls thick enough to have curls of their own. James had a way of looking at her that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up and dance.

“Fine,” she finally said, knowing she didn’t have the willpower to resist. “My mom’s already asleep anyway.”

They got out of the Jeep and walked quietly up to the small clapboard house. Cody silently unlocked the door, and they tiptoed through the dark, cramped living room and into Cody’s bedroom. James banged into a chair in her room and had to stifle a groan. They tried not to step on the broken microscopes and old doctor bags that littered the floor. Cody turned on a globe that threw stars across the wall, making it a little easier to see.

“You okay?” she asked.

James sat down on the bed and pulled her down next to him. “Couldn’t be better,” he said.

Cody turned to face him and hovered there for a moment, savoring that sensation of being close enough to feel someone without actually touching. And then, finally, barely having to move, they pressed their lips together.

After a second or two, James pulled back a few inches. “PQ3318,” he said.

Cody smiled. “PQ3318,” she answered back.

That was the library catalog code that James had written on a scrap of paper and handed to her before disappearing into the stacks. When she got up the courage to actually go look for him, it had taken forever to find him, the butterflies inside her getting crazier with each step. The random book he had picked was deep in their cavernous library, and when she finally walked down the right aisle, they were totally alone. “I almost gave up on—” he had started to say, but Cody didn’t let him finish. PQ3318 was their secret.

It was a wonderful memory, and Cody relished it as she reached up to touch James’s face and kissed him again. Their bodies pushed into each other, heating up as articles of clothing began to come off.

And that was when the brick crashed through her window.

Cody gasped as hundreds of glass shards exploded over their heads. Her bed was directly below the window that now had a gaping hole in it.

“Stay down,” James yelled, but Cody crawled to the window and shoved her face out between the jagged edges. She caught a glimpse of a car, which shot off into the night, tires squealing, lights off, a faint shout of triumph drifting back down the empty street.

She turned to James, who was standing in shock. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Cody didn’t answer. She looked down at the glass-strewn comforter and went to pick up the brick off the floor. It was solid, heavy, cold. Then she turned it over in her hands and saw it.

Two parallel lines, painted in white to stand out against the red brick—a perfectly drawn equal sign. As Cody looked at it, she wasn’t fearful or angry or nervous. To her surprise, she felt something entirely different. She felt … ready.

Cody held up the brick to show James, her arms steady, eyes clear. “I told you this was just the beginning.”



Copyright © 2016 Daniel Sweren-Becker.

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Daniel Sweren-Becker is an author, television writer, and playwright living in Los Angeles. His play Stress Positions premiered in New York City at the SoHo Playhouse. He grew up in Manhattan. The Ones is his debut novel.

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