Chapter 1: Jun Bei CHAPTER 1 JUN BEI
IT’S MIDDAY, AND THE DESERT air is shimmering with heat, the streets painted black with the bodies of dead passenger pigeons. A week ago these birds flew thick enough to block out the sun, but now only a few remain, circling over Entropia’s mountain city. Their mournful cries echo in the air, a carpet of fallen feathers whipping into twisting clouds when the wind whistles through the hills. This city once glowed with life, dreams, and possibilities, but now it’s an empty, desolate monument to the dead.
I step away from the window and pace across the cluttered floor of the shared laboratory I’m staying in. Coders are sprawled on couches and armchairs all around me, working silently. You’d think that after Cartaxus attacked Entropia, its people would be focused on revenge, but most of the conversations I’ve overheard have been about plants, algae, and ways to turn dead pigeons into fertilizer.
Sometimes I love this city, and sometimes I want to burn it down.
“Are you sure you’re ready, Jun Bei?” Rhine asks. The sunlight catches the glossy plates of her armored skin. She has a tablet in her hands that’s linked up to my panel. There aren’t many people I’d let access my tech, but I trust Rhine. She’s been helping me ever since she heard about the Origin code. Anyone who chooses to cover their skin with razor-resistant armor is clearly interested in immortality.
“We’ll try for the whole thing,” I say, touching my cheek, tilting my head back and forth.
Rhine taps the tablet’s screen. “Do you want to sit down? We could use the back room.”
I shake my head. “It’s fine. Hopefully, the code is right this time.”
I pace back to the window, chewing my thumbnail. We’re in the penthouse of an apartment building on the slopes of the mountain. A wall of windows lets in a view of the city’s ruined buildings and the farmlands at the mountain’s base. The circle of Entropia’s razorgrass border glimmers in the distance, surrounded by the shadow of feather-strewn desert plains stretching out for miles.
I stare through the window’s dust-coated glass, locking eyes with my own reflection. It’s taken weeks, but the face staring back finally looks like me. My eyes, my nose, the tilt of my lips. Even my hair is the right shade and texture, regrown over the last few days down to the middle of my back. Everything finally looks right, except for a patch of skin covering my left cheek, another on my arm, and one on my right ankle.
The skin there hasn’t changed, even though I’ve tried everything. It’s Catarina’s skin, with her DNA still living inside its cells. The rest of me was altered easily, but these patches refuse to conform.
The one on my cheek will be mine by the end of the day if I can finally get this right.
“Okay, I’m running the code now,” Rhine says, joining me at the window. A tingle starts up in my cheek, rising to a prickle. The code I’ve been using to try to alter these patches has been more painful each time I’ve attempted it, and now my cheek is starting to burn. I watch in the window as scarlet streaks race across my skin. The capillaries are bursting.
I clench my teeth as the skin starts bubbling.
The pain slams against the fractured wall inside me—the fragile barrier separating me from Catarina. There’s nothing on the other side of the wall, though. When Catarina electrocuted the implant to stop me finishing the wipe, she fell silent, and I haven’t been able to feel her presence since. From what I can tell, she’s in a dormant state, and I’m clinging to the hope that I’ll be able to revive her one day. She’s lived through enough pain and horror already, though.
If there’s a way to wake her, I’m not going to do it until this world has healed again.
Trickles of blood run down my face from the pulsing, swelling wound. “Th-this is another fail,” I manage to choke out.
“I’ve already killed the code,” Rhine says.
I double over, bracing my hands on the window. The pain is blurring my vision, threatening to send me to my knees. The urge to scrape at my face is overwhelming, but I know that if I touch it in this state, the skin will just slough off and fall away.
“Okay, it’s done,” Rhine says. The pain levels off but doesn’t drop. I straighten, sucking in a breath through gritted teeth, and slide a gel bandage from a pack strapped to my thigh. The bandage is nanite laced, doped with anesthetic and healing tech. I strip off the clear backing and press it carefully to my cheek. The pain spikes, making spots swim in my vision until the anesthetic kicks in.
“That looked painful,” Rhine says.
All I can do is nod my head. That’s the sixth time I’ve tried this, and the sixth failure. Lachlan used to change my DNA in the Zarathustra lab all the time, and it never hurt me like this. He managed to transform my body completely when he turned me into Catarina, and she didn’t have patches of mismatched skin covering her body. I don’t know why these cells won’t cooperate. It doesn’t make any sense.
What kind of a coder am I if I can’t even understand my own DNA?
“Ruse is coming back,” Rhine mutters under her breath.
I glance over my shoulder as the door to the lab swings open. “Doesn’t he have more important things to do than check on me?”
Rhine slides the tablet into her pocket. “Apparently not.”
“Your face again, Jun Bei?” Ruse asks, striding into the lab. He’s a few years older than me, with silver circuits printed on every inch of his skin. His eyes are cybernetic, built to replace the ones that he lost as a child. He’s the new leader of Entropia now that Regina is dead, and I have no idea why the people chose him.
I flew into the city hoping its citizens would join me, but they don’t follow the same power structures I was used to at Cartaxus. I came bearing my Origin code and promising immortality, but Ruse has lived here for years. He convinced the genehackers they needed to work on their physical defenses—borders, checkpoints, patrols—instead of an untested piece of code. I tried to explain that the only way to defeat Cartaxus is with something new—and powerful.
When I created it, I called it the Origin code, but it’s more than that. It’s a Panacea—a piece of code that lets us alter our minds the same way we can alter our DNA. It should be the most important piece of code in existence, but it’s still missing one final, crucial piece. And nobody here seems interested in helping me finish it.
“I thought you were checking the city’s perimeter,” I say to Ruse. There’ve been reports of raids on genehacker camps nearby. Tensions are running high after Cartaxus attacked the surface and then everyone lost months of their memories.
Nobody knows I’m the one who ran the wipe, and I need to keep it that way.
“The patrol was clear,” Ruse says, “and I thought I told you that I need you to focus on designing defenses for the city.”
I roll my eyes. “The only people who might attack are Cartaxus, and even I can’t design something that will keep them away.”
I’ve barely finished talking when a shot rings out in the distance, followed by a boom.
Ruse frowns, crossing the room to look out the window with me.
“That sounded like a bomb,” I say. I search the streets around us, trying to spot movement through the carpet of black feathers.
“Maybe,” Ruse says. “It could just be people messing around—”
He’s cut off as another round of gunfire rings out, and feathers float up like a plume near one of the entrances to the tunnels. A woman runs into the street, screaming, her clothes soaked with blood. Ruse stares at her, stiffening.
“You were right about needing better defenses,” I say. “This looks like an attack. Let’s go.”
I run for the door. I don’t know who hurt that woman, but this might be the first sign of a Cartaxus invasion. I don’t see any trucks or Comoxes, but they could have sent a stealth team to find us. They already have hundreds of Entropia’s hackers that they kidnapped during flood protocol locked up in cells. I’ve been waiting for them to come for me.
I grab my holster from a rack by the door, slinging it on as I push into the hallway and run down the stairs. They’re oak, the wood grown directly from buds in the concrete walls, the occasional branch or leaf bursting from their ends. It’s only four stories down to the street, but my tech strains with the effort, a warning popping into my vision. The damage to my cheek has stolen most of my remaining calories, and I’m a few days behind on sleep. Now isn’t a good time to be getting into a fight.
“Head for the eastern tunnel entrance,” Ruse says, running beside me. His eyes are half-glazed. “I see intruders there. I think some of our people are hurt.”
“Got it,” I say, bolting down the last flight of stairs, then through the front door and out onto the street.
The air is stifling, thick with the scent of dead pigeons. Their feathers crunch under my boots as we race for the tunnel’s entrance. The gunfire is louder down here, mixed with the sound of screams. I quicken my pace, shooting a look back at Ruse and the others, and slide my gun from its holster.
“The feed cut out,” Ruse shouts. “At least one of our people is down.”
“We’re definitely being attacked, but this doesn’t seem like Cartaxus,” Rhine yells. “They’d be quieter than this.”
“I agree,” Ruse says, “but I don’t know who else it could be.”
We race into the tunnel, gunfire echoing off the rocky walls. Ruse runs beside me, following the sounds of fighting, then grabs my sleeve to jerk me to a stop.
I sway to catch my balance, staring in horror at the scene in front of me. There are bodies on the ground—hackers I recognize from the agricultural levels. Some are clearly dead, and others are badly wounded. There are people standing over them, wearing filthy, bloodstained clothes. They’re definitely not Cartaxus soldiers.
They’re snarling like animals.
“Lurkers,” Ruse growls. These are people who lost their minds to the Wrath. Catarina faced them during the outbreak, but I’ve never seen them before. I look around, disgusted. The body of a woman near me has been torn open, and two Lurkers are kneeling over her with their hands inside her stomach.
I was prepared for a Cartaxus attack—for troops and drones and explosives. I wasn’t prepared for this.
Ruse lifts his rifle, shooting one Lurker, but the shot sends the others scattering. Some of them head along a path that leads to the bunker, and Rhine’s eyes widen.
“We can’t let them get inside!” she yells, bolting after them, leaving Ruse and me with the survivors of the fight.
Not that there are many people left alive. There must be a dozen bodies here. The scent of blood is strong enough to make my stomach turn. I don’t know how the Lurkers got into the city or into this tunnel, but Rhine is right to keep them out of the bunker. We can’t risk them killing more of Entropia’s people.
“Can anyone here walk?” I call out, looking around at the wounded. A blood-streaked woman moans faintly, kneeling beside the woman with her abdomen torn open. I squint at her, and a jolt of horror hits me. I know the crying woman. Matrix. She’s one of the hackers who believed in the Panacea, and that’s her wife lying on the ground. She’s an agricultural worker. The Lurkers tore her open—they had their hands in her stomach.
Footsteps echo through the tunnel. “The Lurkers are coming back,” Ruse says. “We should get the wounded out of here.”
“There’s no time,” I say. “We’re going to have to fight.”
Ruse curses. “We have to secure the tunnel to the bunker. The people in there will be defenseless. They’ll be slaughtered if those monsters get inside.”
“I can use the scythe,” I say. The tiny, lethal script designed to kill anyone with a panel. “The code is ready in my cuff.”
“No,” Ruse says. “Absolutely not.”
“Why not? There are too many to shoot. We’re going to kill them anyway.”
“It’s not about killing them,” Ruse hisses. “If Cartaxus has access to any of their panels, they might record the code. They’ll use it against us—they could kill everyone on the surface in one fell swoop.”
The thought makes me freeze. He’s right. The last time Catarina used the scythe, Cartaxus stole the code. We deleted it from their databases during flood protocol, but the next time I use it might be my last. Either Cartaxus will be waiting to steal it for themselves, or they’ll develop a block that will make it useless. Then they could turn it against us, like Ruse said.
I hadn’t even considered that. Ruse might be sharper than I thought.
I glance at the tunnel leading into the bunker—the one Ruse and I have to protect. The footsteps of the Lurkers are getting louder. The only way to make sure none of them get into the bunker is to block this entrance. I look up at the rocky ceiling. “We need to blow the cave.”
Ruse nods. “Good thinking.” He slings his rifle over one shoulder, sliding a matchbox-size metal case from his pocket. He flicks it open and pulls out two small black discs the size of a fingertip. They’re caked in yellow gel. Flash buttons. They’re tiny, but each carries enough explosive power to blow up a house. Ruse throws them up to the junction’s ceiling, then lifts his rifle. “Get into cover!” he shouts.
But there’s no time. The footsteps are growing closer, the group of Lurkers turning the corner, snarling and filthy. They’re racing for the tunnel that leads into the bunker.
“Shoot it!” I shout.
Ruse aims his rifle at the flash buttons. He fires, and the blast knocks me off my feet.