This Cruel Design
IT’S MIDNIGHT, BUT THE SUNSET is still fading into darkness, the day stretched late by our northern latitude and the Earth’s axial tilt. A million-strong flock of passenger pigeons soars above me, the tips of their feathers glowing faintly, like a swarm of fireflies. They swoop and dart between the trees, their movements sharp and agile, a constellation of pinprick lights against the darkening sky. The sound of their calls echoes from the steep mountain slopes, filling the crisp night air with a hurricane of sound.
This flock is nothing like those I remember from the cabin. These birds are a new strain, with their own mutations and quirks. Their cries are shrill, punctuated with complex streams of whirrs and clicks. They’re getting smarter with each new generation.
It’s almost like they’re learning how to speak.
“Lighter on your feet. Eyes on me,” Leoben says, prowling in a slow circle around me.
I lift the weight from my heels, dropping my eyes from the flock. My fists are raised, my hair hanging tangled about my shoulders. We’re deep in the forest, the grass around us tracked with muddy footprints. There’s
blood in my mouth, dirt streaked across my skin, and bruises rising on what feels like every inch of my body.
“Keep that guard up, squid.”
I tighten my stance. “Did you just call me squid?”
A low smile tugs at Leoben’s lips, and my stomach clenches. He’s going to come at me again—I can see it in his eyes. He’s unarmed, and I know he won’t really hurt me, but he’s still a black-out agent. A tower of finely crafted Cartaxus weaponry, trained to fight since he was a child. His every movement is precise and lethal, corded muscles flexing beneath the tattooed skin of his arms. He tilts his head, his smile growing into a grin, then pushes off his rear foot and streaks forward in a blur.
There’s no time to think. I lurch to the side, dodging the fist he’s aiming at my ribs, but his other hand goes straight for my throat. I bring up a knee, sending out an elbow that connects with his jaw, but by the time I can draw back for another strike, his foot is planted behind mine.
That’s all he needs. A simple lever to tilt me off balance. Even though I know he’s sending me flying, I can’t help but marvel at his grace. His fingers stay locked on my neck, guiding my descent as I tip backward and hit the ground hard enough to knock the air from my lungs.
He steps back, rubbing his jaw as I wheeze, curling up on my side in the grass.
“Good,” he says, nodding.
I roll to my knees, choking in a breath. “Good? I barely touched you.”
He reaches down to help me up. “You’re getting better, but you need to be more aggressive. You have to try to bring me down too.”
I stand unsteadily, trying to blink away the flecks of silver at the edges of my vision. We’ve been at this for days, and every session makes me feel like I’ve been hit by a car, but he’s right—I’m getting better. My
reaction times are being whittled down, my senses growing sharper, and there are fresh, slender muscles in my shoulders and forearms. I’ve never felt as powerless as I do when I fight Leoben, but this training is the only thing in my life right now that makes me feel like I’m in control.
“You okay?” Leoben asks, peering at me. “You don’t look so good.”
I rub my eyes, swaying. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
He shakes his head, the streaks of iridescent blue eyeliner traced above his lashes catching the sunset’s dying light. “You’re a bad liar is what you are. Come on. Cole’ll be back from lookout soon. We should stop for the night or he’ll kick my ass for beating you up.”
“I disabled his protective protocol.”
“I know,” Leoben says. “But he’ll still kick my ass.”
He slings an arm around my shoulders, walking me back into our makeshift camp. Our two jeeps are parked in a muddy clearing, a camouflage-printed tarpaulin stretched between them. The trees around us are tall and thick, their trunks coated with moss, the ground at their bases bursting with ferns. We’ve been here for a week, hidden deep in the forest, an hour’s hike from the Zarathustra lab. We camped in its parking lot the first night after I blew up the genkits, but a troop of Cartaxus soldiers arrived and sent us fleeing into the woods. None of us wanted to stay near the prison we spent our childhoods in, but we were too hurt to get on the road, and we had nowhere else to go anyway.
So we’ve stayed here, resting and healing, eating freeze-dried rations and sleeping in our jeeps. There are still soldiers at the lab, and it probably isn’t smart to stay this close to them, but the jeeps’ black dome chips are hiding our location. Besides, this flock of pigeons has been growing larger by the day, their cries filling the air, their glowing plumage providing more than enough cover to hide us from the prying eyes of drones.
Leoben swings open the rear doors of his jeep, pulling out two metal flasks. “I mean it. You need to rest. You’re not looking so great, squid.”
“You can’t call me squid,” I say.
He tosses me one of the flasks. “So many rules with you. Can’t call you ‘squid,’ can’t call you ‘potato.’ You’re my sister, and you’re getting a nickname.”
“Cole doesn’t have a nickname.”
He rolls his eyes. “That’s because his name is Cole.”
I unscrew the flask and take a swig of water, swishing it around my mouth to clear out the blood, then spit it into the grass. “And where did you get ‘squid’?”
“They can change the expression of their genes, kind of like you. Cephalopods. I read about it.”
“Wow.” I take another swig, fighting a rush of dizziness as I tip my head back. “I don’t know whether to be offended or impressed.”
He crosses his arms proudly, a grin spreading across his face. “Definitely impressed.”
I snort, lifting the flask to pour water over my face. Leoben and I have spent most of the week together while Cole has been recovering from his injuries. Lee braided my hair when the gunshot wound in my shoulder was healing, and I’ve woken him from his nightmares, but after a week of living as brother and sister, he still can’t call me Cat.
Honestly, I don’t really mind, though I’m not so keen on squid. The three of us are all coping with my identity in our own ways. Cole’s been quiet, Lee’s cracking jokes, and I’m doing what I always do—building carefully constructed fortresses of distraction and denial.
That’s how I made it through the outbreak—I spent my days hacking Cartaxus, helping Novak’s rebel group, the Skies, distribute medical code to the survivors on the surface. The harder I worked, and the longer
I locked myself away in the cabin’s basement lab, the less it hurt when I heard people detonating in the distance or had to choke down doses for immunity.
This week I’ve had no shortage of ways to occupy my time. Cole’s tech has needed constant attention while it’s regenerated. I’ve been training with Leoben and reading through the paper files that Cole and I brought from the cabin—barely sleeping, barely eating, barely letting myself think. I’m probably headed for a crash, but it’s working so far. I’ve managed to bend my thoughts away from what’s been hurting me the most.
I’ve barely thought about the green-eyed child with scars curling across her chest.
She is a shadow on the edge of my senses, a puzzle left unsolved. All week I’ve been waiting for more of my childhood memories to return, but they’re still blurry and scattered. I don’t know if that’s all I’ll ever remember, or if I’m just afraid of seeing more. My childhood feels like a black hole I’m locked in an orbit around—I can’t escape it, but if I drift too close, it could tear me apart. I might spend a lifetime recovering from what’s been done to me.
But right now I have to stay focused. I have too much work to do.
From what we’ve been able to tell, there haven’t been any attacks since Sunnyvale. No more orange panels, no more crowds of people turned into mindless killers by the toxic code that was added to the Hydra vaccine. Cartaxus has hidden the truth about what happened—they’re still sending out daily broadcasts from the joint satellite network they set up with the Skies. Every morning, Dax and Novak splash onto the jeeps’ dashboards, talking about the success of the vaccine, promising that we’re getting closer to a new, unified world. Everyone is still celebrating
the end of the plague—there are parties raging in the bunkers and in every survivor camp on the surface.
None of them know that there’s a threat hidden inside their panels, and that the real enemy is still out there.
Dr. Lachlan Agatta. The world’s greatest gentech coder, and the man I once called Father.
Three years I loved him, waiting desperately for him to come home after Cartaxus took him from the cabin. I still carry his features on my face and his DNA inside my cells. From what he told me when I faced him at the lab, the patterns of his thoughts are carved into my very mind.
I don’t really know what that means yet, or why he chose to do it, but I know that Lachlan’s plan didn’t end with changing me. The daemon code he added to the vaccine gave him access to every panel on the planet, and his goal is far worse than turning crowds of people into monsters.
Lachlan’s work on Cole uncovered the link between genes and instincts, and it let Lachlan isolate the gene that controls the Wrath—the instinctive rage that lurks inside all of us, coded into our DNA. A single whiff of the sharp scent of the infected can be enough to trigger it, turning a crowd of people into mindless, bloodthirsty killers. Lachlan thinks he can use the vaccine to make humanity better. He wants to permanently recode everyone’s minds by forcibly erasing the Wrath from our DNA.
But we won’t let him. I know better than anyone how it feels to learn that your mind is not your own, and every minute since I found out the truth, I’ve been researching, planning, and learning to fight.
Because once we’re ready, we’re going to track Lachlan down.
And then we’re going to kill him.
I screw the cap back on the flask and toss it into the back of the jeep. There’s a creek a short walk from our camp, and I should go and wash
this mud off me before I try to sleep. Not that I have anything clean to change into. We’re almost out of soap, food, and healing tech. We’ll need to get on the road again soon, but we still don’t know where Lachlan is. The best lead I have is the comm-link message Agnes sent me after the vaccine’s decryption saying that she’d tracked him to Nevada. I’ve tried contacting her every day since then, hoping to hear her voice or just find out if she’s okay, but I haven’t been able to get through.
I know we’ll find Lachlan, though. He told me he needs my help to finish his plan. He can use the vaccine to suppress or trigger instincts like he did with the crowd at Sunnyvale, but he still can’t alter them permanently. I’m the only person whose natural DNA can be recoded without killing them, and now he wants to use me to recode everyone else—to change their minds in the same way he changed mine. Going after him is dangerous, but as long as he’s alive, I’ll just be another pawn on his chessboard.
I have no choice but to face him, and I know he’ll give me a way to find him. He wants me to go to him. He thinks I’ll actually join him, though the thought is ridiculous.
We just have to make sure that when we’re hunting him down, we’re not walking into another trap.
“How’s your tech today?” Leoben asks, tugging off his dirty tank top. The brown, scarred skin on his chest gleams in the soft light from the pigeons.
I look down at my dirt-smeared arm. The backup node in my spine has unspooled into a brand-new panel—a blazing stripe of cobalt light that stretches from my elbow to my wrist. I spent the last three years believing that I had hypergenesis, an allergy to the nanites that run most gentech code. I survived the outbreak with six measly apps, but now I have thousands: reflex enhancers, built-in painkillers, even
eyebrow management. I should be able to code without a screen or keyboard, and my VR chip is powerful enough to launch me into fully rendered virtual worlds.
But I still can’t get any of it to work.
My panel’s automated apps are running—my healing tech, sensory filters, even a standard aesthetic suite—but it won’t listen to me. There’s a net of four million nanoelectrodes coiled inside my skull to record the electrical impulses that flit through my brain, so I should be able to think about my comm-link and have it pop into my vision, but my panel still hasn’t learned the patterns of my thoughts. It can’t tell if I’m thinking comm or night vision. It was learning faster while I was injured, but now that I’m healed, the installation has slowed to a crawl. At the pace it’s going, it could be weeks until I have full control over my tech. . . .
Unless I find a way to speed up the installation again.
“It’s still not working properly,” I say, reaching into the back of the jeep, searching under the piles of clothes.
“I was thinking of deleting your healing tech,” Leoben says. “If we freak your panel out, it might speed up again.”
“I had a similar thought,” I say, sliding out a black handgun, “but my plan was a little more direct.”
Leoben’s eyes drop to the gun, narrowing. It’s a Cartaxus model—silencer screwed into the barrel, a hacked targeting chip wired into the stock. It’s loaded with custom ammo—hollow resin bullets filled with beads of healing tech that should cause superficial injuries.
At least, they should be superficial if my calculations are correct. I haven’t tested them yet.
Leoben just stares at me. “Are you serious?”
“It’s totally safe.”
He snorts, shaking his head. “Those sound like last words to me.”
He takes the gun and turns it in his hands, his eyes fixed on an empty space in the air beside it. His tech will be showing him data from the targeting chip. Muzzle velocity, recoil, impact simulations, all displayed in a virtual interface sketched into his vision. I’d be able to see it too if my panel was working, but when I try to focus on the gun, all I see is a burst of static. My tech has been like that all week—glitchy and strange, messing with my vision. I need to get it running again soon, though. We’ve been waiting here for Cole’s injuries to heal, but now he’s better, and I’m the one we’re waiting on. There’s no point in us going after Lachlan until my panel is running and I’m able to code.
Leoben checks the gun’s chamber. “What’s the plan?”
“Thigh,” I say, propping my leg up on the jeep’s tailgate. “Close range, more accurate that way.” I pull up the hem of my black leggings, pointing to a scarlet targeting glyph drawn on my skin. “I marked a site already—no arteries, no bone. Just muscle fibers and at least five days of recovery. That should be enough to kick my tech’s installation into emergency mode again.”
Leoben taps the gun’s barrel against his palm. “This seems risky, even for you.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
He tilts his head, considering. “Actually, yeah. I could shoot you in the hand.”
“What?” I step back, pulling my hands to my chest instinctively.
“It’s safer,” he says. “If this bullet fragments in your leg, it could nick an artery, but your hand will be fine. Those bones heal fast, and your tech will shut down a bleed like that in seconds. Come on, hold out your hand.”
I look down at my clenched fists, hesitating. This seemed a lot less reckless when I was planning on getting shot in the leg. An injury in
my hand should still speed up my panel’s installation, but it feels more frightening, and definitely more painful. Leoben could change his mind any minute, though, and I don’t want to have to do this myself.
“Okay,” I say, holding out my left arm, the light of my panel washing over the creases in my palm as I unfurl my fingers. “Give me a five-second warn—”
Leoben pulls the trigger.
The shot through the silencer sounds like glass breaking, startling the pigeons in the trees above us. They erupt in frantic spirals of light, their cries filling the air like a hailstorm. I double over, clutching my hand to my chest. The pain hasn’t hit me yet, but I can feel it coming. Scarlet emergency messages scroll wildly across my vision. Blood pressure readings, injury monitors, calorie levels. My tech is kicking into gear, sending a jolt of adrenaline into my muscles, making my vision flicker as it draws in and out of focus. I suck in a breath through gritted teeth, then look down at my hand to survey the damage.
But there’s no wound.
Leoben throws his head back, laughing. “You should have seen your face!”
I look up, shaking. “What the hell, Lee?”
“There’s no way I was going to shoot you, squid.”
I lunge forward to punch him in the arm, but a crack echoes in the distance, and the air rushes from my lungs.
Leoben doesn’t react, but I stand frozen, listening to the sound as it echoes off the hills. Someone else might mistake it for a gunshot, but I’ve heard that sound so many times that it’s burned into my memory.
It was faint and muffled, mixed with the cries of the pigeons, but it sounded a lot like a Hydra cloud.
“What’s wrong?” Leoben asks.
“I thought I heard something. Didn’t you?”
“These birds are messing with my audio filters. What did you hear?”
Leoben’s smile fades. His eyes glaze, scanning the trees, and another crack sounds in the distance.
“I heard that one,” he breathes, and I turn and bolt into the trees.
My vision flashes as I race through the woods and up a muddy hill, my tech spinning up emergency filters automatically, trying to brighten the trail ahead of me. Leoben follows close behind, catching up as I reach a switchback, both of us heading for a lookout on the crest of the hill. I’ve run up this trail a dozen times searching the sky for Cartaxus copters, worried they’d found us, but never to look for a blower.
The vaccine is out. The virus is dead.
Nobody should be detonating anymore.
We burst together through a line of trees at the top of the hill and stumble out onto the edge of a cliff. The last rays of sunlight are disappearing over the horizon. From up here I can see the sawtooth silhouette of the three-peaked mountains in the distance, the infinite stretch of spruce forest to the south. I shove the loose hair back from my face, searching for a plume. The flock of pigeons forms a writhing, swirling blanket of light through the tufted canopy, but there’s no sign of a cloud.
My vision flickers, and I rub my eyes, willing my tech to switch back to standby, but it doesn’t respond. My panel is only listening to my adrenaline levels, not my thoughts. It still thinks I’m in danger.
And maybe I am.
If those explosions were blowers, the victims probably had the vaccine. I gave Cartaxus code to force it into every panel on the planet. There are a few survivors on the surface without panels in their arms, but the
likelihood of two of them blowing near our camp is low. If those explosions were blowers, it could mean the vaccine isn’t working anymore.
But I don’t even want to think about that possibility.
“I can’t see anything,” I say, rubbing my eyes again. “I don’t know if it’s my tech or not. It still isn’t responding to me.”
Leoben steps to the edge of the cliff, scanning the horizon. He’ll be checking for heat signatures, anomalous air patterns. If there’s a cloud, his tech will find it. “Nothing,” he says. “That was a detonation, though. Seemed smaller than a blower. Could have been a bomb.”
“Why would two be going off right now?”
We turn to each other at the same time.
“Shit,” I breathe. “Cole.”
Leoben turns so fast, he’s barely more than a blur, bolting back through the trees and down the trail. I race after him, my heart kicking, fresh adrenaline alerts blinking in my vision. I couldn’t tell from the sound where those explosions were coming from—they could have been in a nearby camp, or they could have been at the lab. Cole could be hurt. The thought wrenches at something inside me, as real and painful as a wound.
I try to summon my comm-link to call Cole, but all I get is a burst of static. “Can you reach him?” I yell to Leoben.
“He’s gone dark,” he shouts back, racing into camp. “You drive to the meeting point!” He wrenches the tarpaulin away from his jeep, slamming the rear doors shut. “I’ll run the trail in case he’s there.”
“No,” I gasp, skidding down the last stretch of the hill. “I’ll run. My panel’s still freaking out. I won’t be able to control the jeep. You take it.”
Leoben’s brow furrows, but he nods, climbing into the driver’s seat. “He’ll be okay, squid. Be safe.”
“You too,” I say. He pulls the jeep across the clearing and down the
muddy tire tracks that lead to the road that loops around the lab. There’s a meeting point we set up there.
Cole will have heard the blasts, and he’ll be waiting for us. He has to be.
I race across the crumpled tarpaulin, heading for a gap in the trees that marks the trail to our lookout. Leoben and Cole have been taking turns to hike to it every day and watch the lab in case Lachlan shows up. The trail drops sharply once it leaves camp, zigzagging down a rocky, tree-covered slope. I take the switchbacks fast, bolting through the trees, spotting a figure at the bottom of the hill.
A person, kneeling on the ground. Dark hair, black jacket.
“Cole!” I scream, racing for him. He’s on the ground. I should have brought a medkit. “Cole, are you okay?”
I skid to a stop as the figure stands and turns to me.
It isn’t Cole. It’s Jun Bei.