Chessa Dawning never thought she’d be on the run. Yet, she was, having left the only home she’s ever known, staying two steps ahead of the men chasing her and falling for a resourceful ex-criminal with colorful friends.
Most of the time, Charlotte Lake can’t believe her life. The reluctant leader of a rebel faction called the Ginger Nation, Charlie’s days are filled with planning surveillance, rescuing detainees, and exposing government conspiracy. Surrounded by loyal friends and soldiers, she knows she can never reveal the true nature of her quest: finding her real father.
When a sudden twist brings the two girls together, revelations about the past will make them rethink where they came from and define the future in ways they never could have imagined. Not every scientific breakthrough is a gift.
THE SOUND OF THE television woke her up. The news was on. Chessa Dawning twisted around and sat up on the couch in the living room, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. She wondered how long she’d dozed; it had been light out when she’d fallen asleep, and now the room was dark as death. She reached up and snapped on the lamp next to the sofa, rubbing her eyes. The silence in the house told her that her dad wasn’t home yet. She sighed. He never got home from the lab until well after dark anymore.
For a brief moment, Chessa had a memory of before her mom died. Of before her dad went to work for Gen-Tech and before their whole life, the whole world in fact, had changed. She remembered happy evenings and family dinners and her dad coming home every night to eat with them. The world had been different back then, when no one cared about the Wingspan experiment. Long before her dad discovered that stupid little gene mutation that changed the way, well, everything was done.
Chessa yawned and turned off the television. A moment later she heard her father come in. She looked up and waited for him, waited to see his face. It would immediately tell her how his day had been. He’d seemed to age so much lately. His heavy tread as he plodded into the living room told her he was exhausted. When he appeared in the doorway, he wearily leaned the weathered satchel he used as a briefcase against the wall. Straightening, he sighed and pulled his worn brown cardigan around him, shivering against the chill in the room.
“Hi, Dad. Another late night?”
“Sorry, honey. Every day I try and get away on time and every day something comes up.” Dr. Martin Dawning hugged his daughter then ventured into the kitchen next to the den. He peered inside a pitifully outfitted fridge and sighed. “I think it might be time to think about that housekeeper again. Did you even eat?”
“Oh, I grabbed a bite at school.” Since her mother’s death, Chessa had been more concerned about her dad’s eating habits. She ate alone most nights; she was never sure if he ate at all. “I should be asking you the same thing,” she muttered. “You’re the one who never eats.”
Resolved, Chessa got up and headed to the kitchen. Reaching into the sparse refrigerator, she found some tortillas and cheese that didn’t look too bad. She grabbed a dish of butter, and in no time, she’d made her dad a couple of pretty decent cheese quesadillas. She carried the plate and a glass of milk to him in his study where he’d already spread out his notebooks and journals.
“Here, Dad. You need to eat.”
“Thank you, baby. I really am hungry.” Dr. Dawning took the plate and glass and set it on a corner of the desk then patted the loveseat that was snugged up to the side of the desk.
Chessa sat down and watched him eat.
Between bites he said, “Tell me what’s going on in the world, honey.”
“I was watching the news earlier. They were talking about Wingspan and the Gingers again. Now they’re saying the original gene carrier might not be one lone person and that there are still more rebel groups forming. Rebel groups of Gingers. Can that really be true, Dad? Should we fear them like they say?”
Dr. Martin Dawning leaned back in his chair, thoughtfully munching on a tortilla. “The government only started rounding up the Gingers a few years ago. I have no idea why they think only redheads carry the gene. I never meant them to have that idea. It’s gone so far now.” His shoulders sagged and he sighed heavily. “I think it’s entirely possible that there are that many rebels. Are they still calling themselves The Ginger Nation? I think there may be many more than we know about. They’re careful, you know.”
Dr. Dawning took a few more bites of his dinner and drained his milk. He debated how much to tell his daughter. Inwardly, and for the thousandth time, he wished he’d never made the life-changing discovery regarding the media-monikered “ginger-gene.”
To have found and isolated one gene to likely be responsible for causing the carrier to sprout and grow actual wings was a revolutionary and amazing thing. For centuries, man had yearned to join his feathered friends as they ascended the heavens. But to further be able to take that isolated gene and implant it in the genetic lineup of an unborn fetus? Well, it was nothing less than fantastic. But her father was treated the same way all revolutionaries had been treated. At first they’d called him a quack. Then, when he proved his astonishing theory, the world of science went nuts. Beserk, in fact. Inside of one year’s time, the eminent Dr. Dawning’s discovery was lauded as the scientific breakthrough of a generation; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in science. Then just as quickly, they’d turned on him. And the world as everyone had always known it ceased to exist. Overnight everything changed.
First, they loved him. Then, quietly, and insidiously, they began to hate him. Oh, they more than hated him. They despised him, reviled him, called him every name in the book. In the beginning it was only the creationists that went after him. His bosses and the CEO of Gen-Tech laughed it off. They told him there were always non-believers and a handful of crazies who would be jealous of his obvious brilliance. A handful? Jesus, to Dr. Dawning it seemed they had come after him like a pack of wild dogs after a single bone and tore him to verbal shreds. But he could handle it. And when the Right-To-Lifers joined the fray and accused him of playing God, he told Chessa he could handle that too. It was only when a disgruntled medical student leaked unofficial data from Dr. Dawning’s notebooks to a media outlet that all hell broke loose.
“Redheaded Gene Causes AIDS!” screamed the headline of a disreputable tabloid magazine.
Martin found out much later that the grad student was paid enough money to clear her entire medical school debt and then some. He reported it to the legal team for Gen-Tech, thinking they would try to staunch the flow of blood, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. The executive board of his company embraced the false report as their best hope for first burying then capitalizing on their brilliant employee’s discovery. They quietly fanned the flames of the hysteria by planting stories and articles first within the biochemical engineering community, and then to the nation as a whole.
The carefully choreographed release of misinformation paralyzed the country. Dr. Dawning’s scientific “breakthrough” was morphed and manipulated in the media by irresponsible journalists, and a panicked and put-upon government had responded in kind. Unbelievably, laws were fast-tracked regarding the internment of redheads, and the rebel faction began to form.
In the middle of it all, Martin Dawning continued, day and night, to try and prove his own research wrong. He also kept a close eye on the developments regarding the rebels. He felt certain that sooner or later the “handful of crazies” would become a full-fledged militia gunning for him. His bosses at Gen-Tech didn’t think the media-dubbed “Ginger Nation” was a threat, but Dr. Dawning wasn’t so sure. He spent many sleepless nights worrying about Chessa and wishing he’d never even heard of Gen-Tech. And he worked tirelessly to change his data, to create some kind of antidote. His daughter didn’t know it, but she was the origin of it all. His mind drifted to the last conversation he’d had with his superiors.
He’d cornered them in a conference room. He hadn’t been summoned, and they hadn’t been expecting him. He knew this by the startled look his boss gave him when he barged into the room.
“Dr. Dawning. Is there something we can do for you?” Even as he asked the question, he smoothly covered the papers on the table in front of him with a large folder, a move Martin didn’t miss.
“Are those the reports I sent you about the project?”
His boss had held his stare, offering no response.
“If they are, I need to amend them. There was a, um, a miscalculation.”
His boss’ eyebrows had risen slightly. He had never known the scientist to make even the smallest mistake. His security team had been right; the good doctor might have been the creator of the gene, but he was a danger to the project now. He moved toward the nervous man, slowly, as one might approach a wild animal. Behind the scientist, two muscular men positioned themselves between the doctor and the documents on the table. “Of course you can see the reports, Martin. Just let me get them straightened back up. I’ll have Neal messenger them over. You’ll be in your office, then?”
Martin had thought fast. He’d forced a smile. “Take your time, Don,” he said, adapting the same easy tone as his boss. “I’ll stop by tomorrow. No rush.”
His boss had offered a bemused smile of his own. “Good deal, then.” He turned and gestured behind Martin. “Gentlemen? Will you show Dr. Dawning out?”
Dr. Dawning had taken a few steps back and reached the door himself.
“No need. See you tomorrow.” He’d left the room and walked briskly down the hallway to his office. He’d known they were watching him – he had to look natural. He’d rounded a corner then took a side door from the building. At the time, he’d thought he’d never return. He’d been done with Gen-Tech and the project. And he’d been about to tell everyone what he knew.
His daughter’s voice brought him back to the present.
“They mentioned you, Dad.”
He tuned in. “Really? Again?”
“Yes. Don’t you worry about that?”
Dr. Dawning did worry, but he wasn’t about to show that to his daughter. So far, all the Ginger Nation rebels had done was free the redheaded detainees and spirit them away. There had been little violence and no one had been seriously injured — certainly not killed. But it was escalating. There were clandestine yet credible reports to the company that owned his research facility that the rebels were increasing in number. But he never wanted Chessa to know. And so he lied.
“I don’t worry, honey. I’m sure they’re harmless.” At that moment, neither of them could have imagined how wrong he would turn out to be.