It’s 2096, sixty years after ninety percent died from a man-made Bioplague. Humanity has splintered into four unequal subspecies: immortals, cyborgs, enhancers, and subservient half-human, half-animal hybrids.
The world is anything but equal. Hybrids everywhere are suffering, but sixteen-year-old Raek Mekorian, a wolfish with a nose for trouble, doesn’t see an alternative. Except the Resistance, who don’t stand a chance against the world government. His mom always said, “Keep your head down.”
And he does, until his sister is murdered by a pair of cyborgs. Overnight, his simple life is shattered, fracturing the rigid governmental caste as he is thrust into the dangerous world of superhuman hit squads, Resistance uprisings, and secrets better left unsaid.
With only built-in blasters and the advice of a mysterious professor, Raek must navigate crushing betrayal, self-doubt, and a limitless enemy whose evil knows no bounds.
The fate of mankind may rest in his hands.
Cynetic Wolf is the first in the Wolfish YA sci-fi dystopian series that features bloody immortality, post-apocalyptic progress, and gene editing that splinters the very fabric of society. If you like dark technothrillers, fast-paced adventure, and surprising sci-fi, are a fan of Divergent, Red Rising, or the Hunger Games, or love classics like the Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World and Ender’s Game, you’ll love this speculative fiction thriller.
Buy Cynetic Wolf today for a page-turning dystopian whirlwind… right up to its astonishing conclusion!
Targeted Age Group:: 13-25
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A lifetime of loving books, bucket list of becoming an author, and an in-depth background with exponential technology and existential risk.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
A combination of past novels I loved, individuals in my own life, extrapolation of animal-esque qualities in human form and of course, aspects and issues of myself as a person
CHAPTER 1: CLAWS
I sprang onto the picket fence, gauging the trajectory like those old American baseball holos we’d seen in school, back before the empire and its pastime collapsed, of course.
The pungent smell of the Conalds’ dog hit me, but he wasn’t anywhere in their big yard. Must be in their two-story mansion. What did a dog do all day? Despite being wolfish—and an unusually wild animote at that—I hadn’t the slightest idea. Actually, domesticating pets at all was weird, but the Conalds were good people, I guess.
I dove for the ball but came up shy as it clattered to the ground alongside Mr. C’s rusty e-bike. He’d let me ride it once. It’d be nice not to have to walk everywhere, but would take mom months at the center to afford something like that. At least we didn’t hit it or break a window, again…
My spine tingled as I reached for the ball. There was a faint crunch.
Bruce appeared from around back, staring me down, the fifty-kilo mutt baring his teeth as he crouched. Jeez. I took a step back, unsure how to react—it was always strange between us half-human animotes and animals. Was it jealousy? My claws shot out as I stood taller to scare the dog off. The wind turned, and a whiff of flowers and feces hit me.
Bruce froze and time slowed. Without warning, he dropped his shoulder and charged, muscled body bounding towards me as he built up to killing speed, his uncomplicated eyes burning with primal anger.
Crap. I ran for the fence. I was fast, he was faster.
At the last second, I spun and snarled, flashing my fangs. He skidded to a stop, whimpering, and slammed through the white fence, bolting down the dirt road.
Shoot. Should I follow? It might make things worse. I ran to Mr. C’s porch and hammered on the painted door. Nothing.
The window didn’t help, only my disheveled reflection: bags under dark silver eyes and even my hair—short with flecks of silver, black and brown—looked messy. Forgot to shave too, dark stubble covered my pointed cheeks and chin. Oh well. Mr. C wouldn’t mind. Another knock. No luck.
Now what? “Pavel? Toras?” I yelled. They must have taken off when the dog appeared. Crap. Tapping my wristband, I opened a virtual screen, fingers flying through the air as I fired a quick message to Mr. C explaining what happened.
I headed in the direction Bruce had run, but stopped. After what happened at Ms. Ivey’s, I knew I should grab Mom. She’d have a fit otherwise. I sprinted home.
Three minutes later, our two-room hovel came into sight. The door was ajar, good old Elly at the kitchen table, calling Vovi from the sound of it. Elly’s blue eyes focused on two glimmering holographic screens floating in front of her.
Mom was out back, bent over her newest pet project; a tangle of sweet potatoes along the 3D-printed wall. Her jet black hair was in a bun, furry arms sweating. Being wolfish, we didn’t eat many vegetables, but “It’s cheaper if you grow it,” as she liked to say. Unless you lived in the cities… but for bottom-dwellers like us, that would never happen.
I told her everything.
She dropped the roots and whipped around, brown eyes thrashing me as mine sought cover in the dirt beneath my feet. “Not again.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” I said before she got going.
She stood, her eyes blistering. “It’s never your fault!”
After getting the facts straight, we headed out. It was a chilly autumn day, but a beautiful one, colorful leaves dancing in the wind. Mom took a deep, calming breath, looking around our well-kept little yard as mist rose from her lips. “Did Roge see what happened before you left? I hope you didn’t leave a mess and not say anything, Raek Mekorian. That’s not how I—”
“No, I tried…” I cut in. I explained everything again which seemed to placate her, somewhat.
Dread built as we walked the dusty road, past sporadic huts and shacks. A handful of furry neighbors were out, enjoying the weather or on video calls as they gardened or gossiped, but we hurried past. Mom was on a mission, which was never good.
As we got closer, Mr. C’s slimy, wet musk assaulted my extra sharp nose. He must be back. I should have waited…
Mom’s expression darkened with each passing meter as she ran callused hands through her sweaty hair. Not a good sign.
Mr. C appeared, his pale-green-tinted skinscales standing out against the backdrop of the enormous two-bedroom house. He was tall and bald, with emerald eyes, a pointed nose, and his signature ultra-warm red jacket.
Mom put on her best smile. “Roge, I am really sorry. Whatever the boy’s done, we’ll make it right.”
“I know, Preta. You wolfish are good about honor,” he replied. “I got your message, Raek. What happened?”
Both adults turned to me and I fidgeted. “We were all playing down the street…” I pointed for effect. I’d been through this enough to know details and sincerity went a long way. “I didn’t mean to scare him or hurt him, I swear. Dogs don’t do well with our kind.”
We all shared a knowing look. It happened all the time with us animotes—descendants of those ill-advised initial genetic experiments—and unenhanced animals. It was innocent at first, a gene here, a mutation there. But it was never enough. You’d think reptilian genes for regeneration or canine ones for metabolism could only help, right? Talk about unintended consequences… Eventually, there were dozens of types of animotes and the -ish thing stuck, hence “wolfish.”
Mr. C pulled up a virtual screen with several areas highlighted and pushed it to my school-issued wristband. “Bruce has run away before. I’m sure Raek will find him.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Be glad you’re not a cold-blooded old fart like me, it’s going to be cold tonight.”
That would suck. I turned to leave.
“Don’t make me regret this, Raek Mekorian!” Mom yelled before I’d gone far.
“Yes, Mom,” I answered without looking back, rolling my eyes. She always had to have the last word…
“I’m sorry,” she said as I took off. “Kids, you know?”
“Don’t be too hard on the boy. Remember the things we used to….”
By the time I reached the crumbling mass graves at the edge of town—about two hundred meters out and not the place to dilly-dally—my sharp ears could no longer hear what they were saying. Odd, must be windier than usual. Skirting the creepy memorial, I shivered, avoiding the place like, well—like the plague it once was before it changed everything.
Where was he? It’d been almost an hour.
Something was out there, in the murky forest. The fur on the back of my arms and neck shot up, an electric shock stabbing my spine. My heart raced and the wolf in me smelled blood, feces and fowl too.
I found Bruce, what was left of him that is, the moon casting an eerie glow on his limp body. Insects stirred and wings fluttered as I crept into the clearing. It was surrounded by billowing pines and hefty oaks, making it near impossible to see into the wood or distinguish much beyond the sappy butterscotch of the trees.
The dog’s scruffy hind leg was broken and missing from the joint down. Warm blood dripped from the wound.
Ugh. I knelt next to him, but his side wasn’t much better. Gashes several centimeters deep ran the length of his torso; sticky blood matted his fur. Was that bone? Jeez! What did this? The claws were sharp and narrow, wicked long too. Wait, there were six of them. Six? No way. I’d never seen the six-clawed beast before—no one had, as far as I knew—only heard tell. This was definitely experimental!
Holy crap. My chest thundered. It wasn’t safe here. But the dog’s pulse… If Bruce was alive, I had to save him, at least try… It was my fault he’d escaped. I retracted my claws, as far as they’d go, and put my fingers under his jaw, holding my breath. Come on, Bruce, come on!
No pulse, nothing. Pressing harder and harder, my fingers went numb, desperate to find a pulse. Damnit, Bruce. My claws scraped his clammy skin as his body cooled.
Standing, my knees buckled, body shaking. I hadn’t realized how scared I was, or how dark it had gotten. Without wolfish eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to see anything. Even so, everything beyond thirty meters was black.
My fur tingled and gut twitched. Something was approaching. Crunch. A twig broke. A loud THUD.
I sprinted all the way home—all thirty minutes—not stopping until the door was slammed shut and locked behind me.
Mom jumped up from our little kitchen table, rattled. Her brown eyes were wide with startled fear bordering on anger, her wiry body tense.
Bent over, panting, hands on my knees, I let out a deep breath. Another. My heart was exploding in my chest, lungs about to burst. What was I thinking? Alone, at night…
Bleary-eyed, his dark hair disheveled, my brother Vynce opened the flimsy door of our joint sleeping room, careful not to wake Elly. “What happened to you?” he joked—like always—to hide his unease as he shifted from side-to-side. “You see a ghost, or a cop?”
“Is everything okay, baby?” Worry lines creased Mom’s normally confident face at the mention of the corrupt police force. She wrapped the ratty light blue bathrobe tighter and crossed the makeshift living room in an instant. “Did you find—”
“Bruce is dead!” I burst out. “Something killed him.”
“Hold on, what happened?” Her eyes narrowed as her furry face darkened. “Are you okay? Where’s the dog?”
“I told you, he’s dead.” Jeez, I was shaking. Covered in goosebumps, I replayed the scene in my head. For once, my fur wasn’t warm enough. “In the forest. Whatever it was ripped his leg clean off and sliced open his side. Six claw marks. Six!”
“My god!” She covered her mouth, and her claws shot out involuntarily. A raw, animal fear I’d never seen flickered across her face as she threw her arms around me. “Are you okay, baby?”
No, not even close.
“Awesome!” Vynce flashed his fangs, and put his arm around me. “Did you see—”
“Shut up, Vynce!” Mom barked. “Go back to bed. No, on second thought, go get Mr. C. Tell him what happened. Put on your jacket and bring your wristband. Ping me when you get there.”
He grumbled, scratching his ‘tough guy’ beard as he slumped away.
“Now, Raek, tell me everything.”
After I’d finished, Mom sighed. I couldn’t believe she’d stayed quiet the entire time. That was a bad sign. It also meant she believed me, which was good. I got mixed up in stuff a lot, even once with a pair of emulate elites—damned immortals—after she’d pulled me from soccer to focus on school. She didn’t always believe me, didn’t realize I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ten minutes later, the door flew open. It was Vynce, Mr. C on his heels, his wiry body rigid. Here we go…
“Where’s Bruce? What happened?” Even in a thick black jacket and denims, Mr. C looked cold, scared, and angry, his hair rumpled, emerald eyes flashing. “Raek?”
“Raek was telling me what happened, Roge,” Mom said, hands on her bony hips. “Sounds like Bruce was attacked.”
The odd-shaped flaky skinscales along Mr. C’s neck flashed burnt crimson, then back to normal. You’d miss it if you blinked. But I’d seen it. I was positive. My stomach tightened. This was all my fault. If I hadn’t jumped the fence…
“I am so sorry, Mr. C,” I sputtered. “I was too scared to carry him back. I… It was dark. There was blood everywhere.”
“It is okay, Raek.” He gritted his teeth. “You did the right thing. I’d never risk a boy’s life for a mutt. Your brother tells me there were claw marks. Six of ‘em. Are you sure?”
I flinched. Of course I’m sure. “I can take you back there if you want. Do you think it’s—”
“Shhh! Let’s not speculate until we know more.” He gave me a serious look that stopped me dead. “Wouldn’t want to start a panic. I’ll be back at first light. You, Raek, and you, Vynce.” He looked at us and his face hardened. “I am going to need your help. Raek has some of the sharpest eyes and ears in town. I’ll grab Merck and his son Roderik in case there’s trouble. They’re bearish boys, brutes in a fight.”
Made sense he’d bring his Resistance buddy. It took a special breed to stand up to the vicious Global Democratic Republic, or GDR as we liked to call the BS world government. We’d had two executed in town almost a year to the day.
With that, he said goodnight and headed out.
Sleep? How could anyone think of sleep at a time like this? Vynce and I were wired and stayed up late, hushed whispers and dark tales.
CHAPTER 2: ADVENTURE
Bam. Bam. BAM.
What was that? Had the elites decided to eradicate us at last? I launched from bed, sneaking a glance in the living room.
Vynce looked up from the couch, laughing. “Kevo’s an idiot! Stupid junkie plugged into the Neuroweb and forgot to activate his sound fields.” At least there were only a few worthless VR users in our town.
Calm down, Raek, it was a dream…
From the other room, Vynce laughed again. Typical Vynce, always relaxed and joking. Why couldn’t I be more like that? Instead, here I was, terrified, close to pissing myself, and we hadn’t even left.
A knock. Mr. C opened the door and let himself in. He wore a rugged brown jacket and hand-me-down denims, a massive hunting knife on his hip, and, along his back, a thirty cal. A rubbed raw blade was tucked into his black hiking boots.
A second later, Mr. Ilt and Roderik stepped through the doorway. Both wore leather vests over their thick bearish fur, massive handmade crossbows over their shoulders and a pistol at each hip. Mr. Ilt had a machete as well… Dang, I should have gotten ready earlier.
Mr. Ilt’s right arm was bare from the forearm down, a tiny seam below his elbow. It was a prosthetic, a good one too. How the heck could he afford that?
“One second!” Vynce checked himself in our one mirror and shoved things into a bag.
Mom and Elly came out of our one bedroom, making things even more crowded.
“Morning, Preta,” Mr. C said with a smile. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s fine, Roge. Wanted to see the boys off.” She looked at us, her face cast in iron, and subjected Vynce and I to ‘the stare.’ “You two take care of each other. And listen to what Roge and Mr. Ilt say.” Her eyes burned my forehead until I looked down. “They are in charge, no exceptions. I’ll see you boys home for supper. And be careful.” She pulled us close, hugging each in turn. “You never know what could happen,” she added with uncharacteristic apprehension.
We escaped the cramped house and before I knew it, we’d reached the edge of the woods and drew our weapons. Everyone turned to me and Mr. Ilt said, “Lead the way, Raek.”
“Give me a chance to get my bearings.” I sniffed, staring at the trees. It was a lot different during the day and the forest must be dozens of square kilometers. My nose wasn’t that good. But I couldn’t let them down.
Why was this so—Wait! I recognize this stump. I tripped on it last night. Closing my eyes, I turned. “Here. This way!” I flew down the path before someone yelled, and had to pause to let the others catch up.
An hour later, we walked into the still clearing. “This is it,” I whispered as if my voice might bring the beast back. But where was Bruce? Running to the spot where he had lain, I sniffed. What happened? “He was here. See the blood on the grass?”
Mr. C and Mr. Ilt tiptoed over and knelt beside me.
“Bastard came back, I guess,” Mr. C said, eyes clouded, face drawn.
From off to the side, Roderik said, “There’s something over here! Looks like drag marks.”
Sure enough, specks of crimson littered the ground, the grass flattened in the most unnatural way. The huge dog had been dragged. What could do that?
Mr. Ilt patted his son’s shoulder. “Boys, stay sharp. It might be nearby.”
We all froze, our eyes flicking to the foreboding trees. Was it out there?
“I don’t hear anything,” I said, more to myself than anyone else. Everyone knew my ears were some of the best in town, and didn’t comment as I led on.
Thirty minutes later, we found the body, the rotting scent growing stronger and more sickening with every step. We cleared the undergrowth and saw Bruce, what was left of him at least.
Everyone recoiled and Mr. C let out a gasp, his face contorting. It was awful. Half the hindquarters and a large portion of the torso were gone. Flies buzzed everywhere, making it impossible to think straight.
No one dared mention the six claw marks.
For once, my nose let me down. We couldn’t find a trail. No footprints, no scents, nada.
After a while, Mr. Ilt said we should head home.
Roderik tried to protest, but his dad said, “Some battles aren’t worth fighting. Besides, there’s enough pain and suffering for us animotes as it is. No point getting killed out here and making things easier for the elites.” He gave Mr. C a knowing look.
Mr. C nodded. “We may not have a vote, but we have numbers. One day things will be better.” His voice trailed off, a distant, sad look in his eyes I’d seen many times before, one all animotes knew too well: frustration, sadness, a scarce hope.
Heading back, my mind wandered. It had been like this since The Experiments. At least that’s what people said. In those days, humanity was united—not as a civilization—but as a species at least. All the races could even breed together! I couldn’t wrap my head around that.
Something made me jump, and I clutched my knife. It had been Grandpa’s before those drunk cynetic cyborgs blasted him. He died a few years back, a rough patch between animotes and the GDR. I was too little to remember him.
Before I knew it, we were home.
The door opened and Mom’s voice jolted me. “Raek, are you okay, baby? You’re shaking.” Her strong arms enveloped me in a warm, better-than-anything embrace. “It’s okay. You’re home now. You’re safe,” she added, her voice soft and soothing. “Can I get you some cocoa? Vynce? What happened?”
“We’re fine, Mom. Raek’s shaken up, that’s all. We found Bruce. The beast got him again. Raek was right: six claw marks.” Vynce let that sink in.
“I’m fine, Mom.” I wasn’t, but had to be a man and put on a brave face, collapsing on the grungy blue couch in the corner. “I was thinking about Grandpa.”
Mom’s eyes narrowed. “Your Grandpa was a brave man, and a fool. He stood up for what he believed in but he never should have gotten involved.” She shook her head. “He was always trying to fix the world. But sometimes, baby, you can’t. You boys remember that. Keep your heads down, don’t cause trouble.” Her eyes bore into me. “I lost my daddy already, and your father disappeared too. We have a good life here. I worked hard to give you kids a good life. Don’t you dare throw that away.”
“We know, Mom,” we answered in unison, rolling our eyes as she looked away. We’d heard this speech a million times. Most town kids had. The GDR was notorious for its extreme punishment. Dissent was discouraged at all costs. Rebellions were bad for business, especially for enhancers and cynetics. Emulates were less worried. When you lived forever and could change bodies, nothing mattered. They’d win either way, and profit, regardless what happened.
But cynetics and enhancers didn’t have that luxury, hence the rivalry.
Mom saddled me with dinner duty, and I hated cooking. It smelled like meatloaf. “Always meatloaf.”
“Be glad we have any meat this month,” she said. “They raised land rents, again. The kids at the Center would kill for meat, even loaf.”
That was the worst part about Mom’s job—not long hours or low pay—but always hearing about the animote kids at the Center. “You should be thankful…” Always some variation of that.
At school the next day, Vynce and I were rock stars. Everyone stared as we passed. Even teachers talked behind our backs. They must have heard what happened. I hated the attention, but Vynce was in his glory. I heard him recounting what happened at least three times. The guys clung to his every word, groaning and wincing and high-fiving at the gory details while girls shrieked. One girl actually squealed. Pigish of course, a bit plump with light pink skin and a snout of a nose. Rumor was she had a tail, but I’d never seen it. Probably a rumor.
My band buzzed as I got into class. It was GDR-issued, made for school and monitoring. All of ours were. We could never afford them otherwise. The teachers used them to measure engagement, tracking: heart rate, blood pressure, movement, stress levels—all our basic biomarkers to see how lessons affected us.
Professor Fitz sat, folding his tall, athletic body into the mass-produced chair. “Did you finish your assignments?” He set the—tiny in his hands—black briefcase on the cheap linoleum and leaned back, an amused look on his striped face as his silver eyes surveyed us with a warm smile. “Bring them to my desk and I’ll pick two of you to present.”
That was the one annoying thing about Professor Fitz, he liked paper copies for some reason. Printing was a pain. Who used paper?
I walked to the front, carrying my printout and hurried back to my seat.
Don’t be me, don’t be me.
“Raek, will you go first?”
Really? I shuffled back to the front of the forty-student room, stomach doing flips as I fought to stay calm. Pointing to my project, I waved my wrist towards the floating screen by the wall. My band registered, and my project appeared.
They were all looking at me. I stared at the ground. “I decided to research the first space micro-colony, Armstrong I.” I flicked my finger and a grainy hologram appeared alongside the floating screen. “The colony was designed to test a human’s ability to live in small scale structures outside Earth’s orbit for five years. The astronauts needed to be self-sufficient, restocking every six months.” What next? I wrung my hands before remembering and flicking my wrist. Phew.
Newspaper reports from November 5th, 2032 appeared. Scientists Create the Perfect Drug, End Aging at Last.
“We all know what happened next.”
Another flick. The next paper, early 2033. Mysterious Disease Decimating Europe, Asia And North America. Six months after that, New York Times Final Edition – Stay Safe, Good Luck.
Another flick, mass graves, carts of emaciated, hollow-eyed bodies emaciated. Then war and famine… Back to the Armstrong I.
Things went better after that until I looked up. Everyone was quiet, listening for once. Crap. Why’d I look? It was going so well… Deep breath.
“Thanks to the stability of the GDR and economic growth the last few decades, we’re nearing a point where humanity might once again consider the stars. Well, not animotes…” I added before anyone laughed. “But for cynetics, emulates and maybe even enhancers. And I for one, hope to one day see the stars, to live in a place where we’re equal and free. Maybe space is that place. Umm, the end…”
I turned to Professor Fitz, holding my breath. He was smiling to himself. “Let’s give Raek a hand, everyone. Good job, Raek. Thanks for sharing. And… oh, wait. We’re out of time. You’re dismissed. Remember, one of you will have to present tomorrow, so be prepared.” My band buzzed, time for Manufacturing.
Mrs. Olup’s class never held my attention, and before I knew it, my wrist buzzed. Time for lunch. As long as she didn’t check today’s biomarkers. Didn’t need the importance of good grades and a safe factory job speech again.
Mom didn’t have much schooling, times were even tougher and she’d needed to help put food on the table. Speaking of… Wow, was I hungry. On the way, I bumped into Toras. I hadn’t seen him since he bailed yesterday.
He elbowed me. “Man, tell me what happened? Everyone’s talking about it. That’s Toras for you—rabbitish in general—direct and to the point. Guess that’s the rabbit in him, like the big ears.
“They’re saying you saw the six-clawed beast,” he whispered. “They’re saying it’s a multi-species splice: a bear, a wolf and a tiger—a genetic freak.” He spoke faster and faster, brown eyes burning with a need to know.
The rumor mill was crazier than I’d thought. I tried to downplay it but he asked again.
He smacked the table and smiled. “I knew it!”
“Shhh! Don’t go telling everyone,” I said in a hushed voice as we sat at our usual table—the wooden clunker in the corner with our initials carved into the center. Mikey had chosen it years ago and we’d never deviated. “Mr. C and Mr. Ilt don’t want to cause a panic.”
Where were Mikey and Pavel? I scanned the cafeteria, if you could call it that, the makeshift thermal tarp covered area, the most the school could afford. Nothing.
“The usual?” I asked as he pulled out a small, recycled biobox, eager to change the topic.
He nodded and popped the top, dipping a cucumber into the guac.
Ugh. I’d go crazy with just veggies. Across from us, Elly was sitting with Vovi, as usual. Vovi’s little sister Merie walked towards them and I chuckled.
We were talking about the weekend when Pavel and Mikey appeared, the two, a funny pair, as always—Mikey’s long blond mane and solid physique next to tiny Pavel, whose big eyes never missed a thing.
“Is it true?” Mikey asked before he’d even sat. “Come on, Raek. Spill.”
“Sort of.” I told them everything. At the end, they were all riled.
“You guys hear the news?” Toras asked without warning. What news? My ears perked up. “Emulates gained the upper hand in the Lower Government. Polls are in, web’s saying they’ll outrank the cynetics sixty-to-forty next term. Dad was watching the WNN last night.”
Pavel’s round eyes narrowed to slits. “So what? Sure, things might change in the cities, new policies and all, but out here… You think they care? We can’t vote. Think anything will change?” He shook his head. “Besides, Board’s three-to-two for the emulates. That’s where the real power is. By the way, did you guys finish the Housing project? I needed help with—”
The alarm sounded.
CHAPTER 3: A PIN DROP
Not another inspection. Ugh. I fought to stay straight-faced, doing my best not to look at Pavel as he winced, hand going to the scars snaking across his back.
The Education Department liked to show up unannounced and cause trouble. It was the government’s way of keeping animotes less advanced. They didn’t want us learning anything that could cause problems, only things core to the jobs they needed us to do.
So recent history wasn’t taught; no advanced math or science either. Sure, we studied the classics and knew the basics of the Bioplague and The Experiments, but most of that was from parents and rumors. Too controversial and radical, at least for animote students.
The air speaker blared, a voice exploding everywhere at once. “RETURN TO YOUR CLASSROOMS! WALK SINGLE FILE. NO TALKING, NO EATING, NO DRINKING. SIT DOWN, DO NOT SPEAK. READ UNTIL YOU RECEIVE ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTIONS. TEACHERS, REPORT TO YOUR ASSIGNED EXAMINATION ROOMS FOR QUESTIONING!”
We rose without a word, hurrying, no one daring to be last. We’d seen what happened to Pavel a month ago.
Back in the cramped room, we sat with our heads down, books open, all fifty of us. You could have heard a pin drop; the silence was deafening. I’d started my manufacturing homework when the door opened. Next to me, a sharp intake of breath. That was Myrtha, the teacher’s pet—always on her best behavior, best grades in class. I couldn’t stand her.
“Attention, everyone.” Ms. Hetly stood, taut arms crossed her little body, a dull red sweater over her shoulder. She brushed a shaking hand through her auburn hair and tried to put on a smile. “We’ll be having a visitor today, so be on your best behavior.”
She swallowed, eyes flittering around the room. I didn’t know if anyone else noticed little things like that, but I always did.
A man stepped in. He was tall, tan and what Elly would call handsome. Slicked-back blond hair and a comic book square jaw spoke of engineered enhancer heritage and his shoulders said he could handle himself in a fight.
We locked eyes, and I felt something emanating from him. A cold indifference, maybe? No, that wasn’t it. He looked away and it hit me. Scorn.
He sauntered to Ms. Hetly’s desk and made himself comfortable, a smug superiority plastered across his perfect face. Jerk.
Keep your head down, Raek.
Ms. Hetly turned. “Open your books to page ninety-seven. I hope you all did your homework.”
Books clattered and pages flipped. Not a peep. I snuck a glance at the enhancer but couldn’t see what he was doing. He was typing away at a shimmering, 3D holographic display and looked bored.
Really? I felt a tinge of envy. If our school had more funding, we wouldn’t be stuck with these old-fashioned, out-of-date paper books for half our halfass classes. But who was I kidding?
Grandpa explained it once, “If animotes had access to the same information and tech and upgrades as elites, think we’d be happy as laborers and underlings? Course not, and we’d catch up. That’s dangerous for them elites. Information’s power, boy. Never forget that.”
I was just glad we could access the internet again. The sixties must have been horrible…
Ms. Hetly glanced at the newcomer. “Pavel, read the first problem and choose a partner to solve it with.”
Two rows over, Pavel stood, quivering. Poor guy. His big eyes flicked between Ms. Hetly and the newcomer before tapping Myrtha on the shoulder. Good choice. She went rigid, like she might cry or hide behind those huge ears of hers.
The two walked to the front of the silent room. I was safe, at least for now…
“Analyze the following,” Pavel read, enunciating each word. He didn’t look up, far from his usual cool. “You’re working in a verticalized solar cell facility following the clean energy collapse. Which of the following…”
I got distracted and before I knew it, they’d finished a three-tiered sorting system with some notes about increased worker hours. They turned to Ms. Hetly, eyes wide.
The man was pounding away, staring steely-eyed at the three of them.
“Well done. You can go back to your seats,” Ms. Hetly murmured, her voice a few octaves above normal.
The enhancer lifted a threatening finger. “One second.” He took a full two minutes to finish a note before turning his attention to Pavel. Pavel shuffled his feet and looked at the floor.
“How do you like school?” he asked.
“I like it well enough.” Pavel bit his lower lip, still staring at his feet.
“Well enough? What do you want to be when you graduate? And look at me, boy, when I’m talking to you!”
A bolt shot through Pavel, the jerk of marionette strings pulling him straight, his feet back, chest out. He looked at the man. “I’d like to be an engineer, sir.”
“An engineer, huh?” The man smirked. “That requires university. Your kind doesn’t do higher education.”
“I know, sir. I thought, I could learn it on my own and try to apply, convince ‘em. You know?” Pavel said in an excited voice.
“No, I don’t know,” the inspector replied icily. The man’s hard eyes narrowed further. “Can you spell it out for me? Which part of the law did you think you could convince ‘em to break?”
“Um, well, I didn’t—”
“I think what Pavel is trying to say, sir,” Ms. Hetly cut in, “is that he has big dreams and wants to contribute to society. Right, Pavel?”
“Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir. That’s—that’s what I meant.” Pavel looked away, flushing.
“I don’t buy it. Remember your place.” The enhancer sneered. “You’re dismissed, all of you. Get out!” He turned to Ms. Hetly. “Not you, Pelly. You stay here with me.”
His voice gave me chills as we rushed for the door.
CHAPTER 4: AUTUMN
Autumn was my favorite season, but it always ended too soon. This autumn was no different, except for the attack. The months flew by, but people were on edge. Even good old Mr. Trew seemed stressed. Elephantish, I’ve heard. But it’s hard to tell. A lot of folks are like that, their human DNA is dominant. But if you see someone on the street without a fancy evosuit, they’re animote. We could never afford that kind of awesome tech. I’d seen holograms of elite kids messing around: the suits absorb impact, prevent burns, even stop a knife.
They weren’t faked either. I checked. That was a big problem for a while, before The Experiments. Scientists researched AI back in those days. The Bioplague changed all that. When the GDR formed, it clamped down on AI research. Said it was for our protection, but it was about power. AI could change everything. They didn’t want that.
We even had to watch Terminator in school. All. Six. Of. Them.
Mom’s voice shattered my sleep. “Wake up, Raek! It’s time for school!”
Had I been dreaming? Crap, I fell asleep. I’d wanted to practice more warehousing examples before today’s test.
There was a knock at the front door. By this time, I was dressed and ready.
“It’s Pavel!” Mom yelled. “Did you study for manufacturing?”
Crap. “Yes, Mom,” I lied, not making eye contact as I slipped out the door.
Pavel was waiting on our dinky doorstep, anxious to leave. The weather was beautiful with a rich red sunrise and warm breeze.
“Ready, princess?” He elbowed me in the ribs and earned a jab for his snark as we hurried to avoid being late.
At school, something felt off. A crowd of parents milled about the entrance, talking to a group of restless teachers. Gloomy, nervous energy hung over the place.
We heard snippets of conversation. “What’s all the commotion…”
“Have you seen…”
Pavel and I looked at each other.
Ah, Professor Fitz. If anyone could tell us what was going on, it would be him.
“Professor Fitz, Professor Fitz!” I ducked through the crowd and dodged a huge bearish dad to get to him, grabbing his arm.
Professor Fitz looked terrible, heavy bags under his dark eyes that reminded me of a Neurowebber. From the looks of it, he hadn’t slept. His beard was unkempt, his hair disheveled, and even his signature microfiber shirt had wrinkles.
“Professor Fitz, what’s going on?”
“Raek, Pavel, I’m glad you two are okay,” he said, tone grave. “There’s been an attack. By the elites, Merie Mram. She was a year or two younger than you boys. She was found dead. It looks like elites, the cynetics.”
I gasped. Merie? Vovi’s sister? Vovi was always at our house. Jeez, little Merie…
“You boys should go home. We don’t need anyone else getting hurt. School is canceled today. I’ll see you tomorrow, unless the search takes longer.”
He stepped closer, giving each of us a glare Mom would be proud of. “And don’t even think about it, Raek. You either, Pavel. This is a job for adults.”
Actually, it was a job for the police, but they could care less.
His eyes narrowed further. “I don’t want to see either of you in those woods. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” we said automatically.
“Linus, get over here!” someone shouted.
“I have to go, boys, and so do you. Go home, and stay home.” With that, he turned in the direction of the caller and disappeared into the crowd.
Elly tapped me on the shoulder and I jumped. For a second, I thought she was Vynce—they had the same eyes and nose, plus her hair was back in a bun. “Jeez, sis, a little warning would be nice.”
“Thank goodness I found you, Raek,” she said, talking fast, her voice high. “Have you heard? We need to go home. Now! Oh, Pavel,” she added, noticing him. He turned bright red. Pavel was even more embarrassed around girls than me, especially Elly—not that they’d ever be able to have kids or a future, him, owlish, and her, wolfish.
“Let’s stick together, Raek, and find Vynce. Pavel, you can walk with us. Come on.” With that, she turned and scanned the crowd.
We got home fine, but it took longer than usual. We were excited and nervous, and must have checked over our shoulders a dozen times. It had been a long time since anything like this had happened.
Accidents and occasional run-ins were one thing, but murder—cold-blooded murder—didn’t happen often. Even with the mixing in the cities, violence was rare thanks to extreme punishment. Out here though, there was nothing. Kiag was a small animote town, one of thousands. We knew everyone.
Outsiders were another story, hothead cynetics and emulates in particular. They’d grab a maglev, zoom a hundred or more kilometers and be here in thirty minutes or less to bother our women without consequence. At least that’s what parents said when they thought we weren’t listening.
I was deep in thought when Vynce punched me in the shoulder. “You listening, dude? What do you think?”
He must have been standing there all along. “I think we should help find Merie’s killers,” I said. “Those bastards can’t get away with this.”
Elly appeared in the doorway. Crap. “Shh.” If Elly heard, she’d rat us out.
“I want in,” she said, as if reading Vynce’s twin mind and knowing we were up to no good. “Merie is Vovi’s sister, and I want in. Vovi too. Tonight?” She scratched her button nose and twirled her golden-brown curls—her nervous tell.
No way. My jaw dropped. Vynce looked just as shocked.
“Yeah, tonight,” I answered for both of us. It felt good to be the impulsive daring one for a change. And Elly always looked out for me.
We talked timing before looking at each other. No one said a word. If we got caught, we’d be dead. Mom would kill us. She was a tornado when she went off, destroying everything in her path.
The afternoon dragged on. I couldn’t concentrate on my Political Theory homework. I should have done it last night, but forgot. Then again, it was propaganda BS, at least that’s what Vynce said. He’d heard that from one of his friend’s dads.
Mom called dinner. Sweet potato soup, again. Ugh. If we were mouseish, it wouldn’t be a problem, but the bland, earthy aroma was embedded in our biofabbed walls after countless nights of the tasteless medley. Always potatoes or soup or veggies, the cheap stuff. Meat was a rarity. In a world where half the population had cheap, high quality, lab-grown meat, you’d think we could afford some too. And we could, if it wasn’t for the town tariffs. Plus a hunting permit was out of the question, way too expensive, and Mom wouldn’t risk much poaching.
During dinner, Mom gave us the spiel—the be careful and don’t do anything stupid spiel—as we stared into our orangey, day-old soup. Somehow, I kept a straight face.
After eating, Mom left with the leftovers and we put our heads together before Elly went to make cocoa.
“Wow, cynetics. It’s happening,” Vynce murmured once she was out of earshot.
“I know. We probably won’t find ‘em though.” I hoped we didn’t. They must have gone home…
His eyes lit up. “We might though, we’d be heroes.”
I didn’t care about being a hero. “I just want to stop those guys, those pigs.”
A noise. I was supposed to be keeping lookout. I didn’t smell anything but sprinted outside to be sure.
It was dark out, pitch black. The Moon was a sliver of itself in the night sky. The cold night air gave me a rush, fur on the back of my neck rising as the wolf in me readied itself.
Mom took forever paying her condolences. They weren’t close, but that’s how Mom was. She helped everyone.
Fifteen minutes later, I headed in. Elly was at the table, two virtual screens open, typing fast. She was smart, always had been. Not much of an outdoorsy girl, but boy did she love her books, the exact opposite of her rebellious twin. While Vynce hated school, Elly had read all thirty physical books in the three closest libraries, even though they were boring governmental ones.
Two hours to kill. What could I do? I had to burn this nervous energy in the pit of my stomach.
The web. I hopped on our family’s one computer. It was an old clunker, 2050s or 2060s at best, and couldn’t handle the VR Neuroweb. Probably a good thing, might be too tempting.
Blinking twice and raising my eyebrows, it verified my secure sign in and decrypted my account.
What was I looking for?
“Show me the news.” Nine glowing screens appeared filling my view. The story at the top right caught my eye and expanded, others floating to the side.
Animote Rebels Involved in Firefight with DNS.
Interesting. Did they have video?
‘This is Grahme Yipel reporting live from Faelig. Today, the Department of National Security (DNS) raided the apartment of a group of known animote terrorists. While details are sketchy, officials report the terrorists were targeting several large schools and hospitals. The damage would have been catastrophic.’
The camera panned to a small apartment filled with munitions and explosives, even a couple bulky anti-aircraft guns. ‘An anonymous tip allowed officers to apprehend the suspects before the attack. We won’t be seeing these traitors any time soon, other than the execution… And we have a short message from Minister Fury himself.’
It cut to a lofty wood-paneled office, a statuesque hard-eyed man with charismatic intensity sitting at a mahogany desk. He radiated power and there was something familiar about his abyss-black eyes. It gave me the creeps.
He stood, now even more imposing. ‘Remember, helping or harboring possible fugitives is a capital crime punishable by death. If you see or hear anything suspicious, contact your local DNS office. It is our job to keep you safe.’ His icy stare engulfed the camera and Grahme jumped back in, signing off after a foreboding silence.
I was skeptical of reports like these. We’d seen enough banned dystopian films—thanks to Mr. C—and read enough contraband sci-fi to know propaganda, violence, and government control went hand in hand. Either way, most of the story was bogus. The rebels—at least how they’d always been described to me—would never hurt kids. Bombing a school, no way. Sure, children might be injured blowing up government buildings or a police station, but a school? I didn’t buy it.
That led to a rabbit hole.
Vynce tapped my shoulder, scaring the daylights out of me. “I’m ready, I’m ready.” I gave him an angry look to hide my fright and took a few deep breaths. That was one thing about a real computer versus a band connection; the sound field. Somehow, focused sound waves shielded you from all but the loudest of outside noises. Great for concentration and flow.
He smirked and nudged me in the ribs. “Good. Hope you put your big boy panties on.”
I rolled my eyes. He liked to play tough, but I could take him. That was new. Before I’d turned sixteen, I’d been a lot smaller. Vynce had always won when we brawled. But I’d gained ten centimeters and five or ten kilos the last twelve months. Now we were both about 185, although he was a dork and would stand on his tiptoes to say he was taller.
Everything was ready. Plates were cleaned, dishes washed, and Vynce had stopped watching his Zone Five reality show—some survival thing elites loved where animotes competed for a job in Caen.
I listened for Mom’s rhythmic breathing. She was out cold. “We’re good. Let’s go.”
We headed out.
It felt like the night I’d found Bruce and I had a bad feeling about this. “Where’s Vovi?” I asked.
“We’re meeting by the school,” Elly said. “She thought it would be safer, behind the old field.”
Smart. Wooded enough to avoid attention but not so thick with pines we couldn’t find each other.
We took one last look at each other before setting off, creeping down the winding, unplanned street. It was quiet, dead quiet. No one was out and all but a few homes were dark. It was one of those nights. No one wanted to be out.
Towards town, things picked up, adults coming back from a long day searching. A noise made me jump into the bushes, pulling Elly and Vynce with me. Thirty seconds later, Mr. Ilt and Professor Fitz’s voices appeared, walking back from the Black Forest.
“…makes me so mad!” Mr. Ilt barked. “Those bastards, how’d we not find ‘em? Think they took a lev back already?”
“Patience, Merck, we’ll get ‘em. I’m as angry as you. We all are. It could have been anyone. We’ll give ‘em what they deserve. Besides, maglevs only come once a day.”
Professor Fitz’s voice shocked me, got me excited too. Was my Science History teacher a secret badass? Wouldn’t have guessed that. They passed us and he said, “So, we covered the northeast up to the Furnace, and Roge and Frank checked the northwest beyond the crypt. I heard someone did most of the southeast. Just leaves the southwest for tomorrow, and making sure they don’t backtrack.”
They agreed to meet at sun up and headed off in opposite directions.
I’d been so intent listening, I hadn’t noticed the other adults leave. All at once, we were alone.
“Ready guys?” I asked.
We were, sort of… but it was getting cold on the frozen earth anyway, so we hurried off.
At the field, a snap pulled me from my reverie. It was Vovi, I could smell her. Reptiles had an interesting scent, a bit scaly… wet… I don’t know, like snake’s skin? She was here, somewhere.
She activated her band’s field beam, illuminating the clearing and signaling us. We did the same, and all checked again to make sure we’d deactivated GPS. Didn’t need Mom finding out.
Vovi was bundled in three fluffy layers, and her face had an eerie greenish glint in the light. “I was worried you wouldn’t come.”
“What are friends for?” Elly hugged the short girl. “Besides, it’s not like we’re going to catch ‘em, just find ‘em so the adults can, right? That’s not so bad,” she added, as if trying to convince herself.
“We should get going,” I said.
Vynce nodded, and told Vovi what we’d overheard. “They didn’t search the southwest yet,” he said. “We should start there.”
“And stick together,” I added.
Walking to the start of the forest, I couldn’t shake the feeling this was an awful idea. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. “Keep your light fields off until we’re further in,” I said. “Someone might notice otherwise.”
“We should have weapons out too,” Elly said in a hushed voice, her eyes jumping at every little noise. “You never know.”
We grabbed our knives while the girls unhooked staves for a few practice swings. Everyone looked as terrified as I felt, but no one said anything.
Once we’d worked out the jitters, we set out.
We’d been walking ten or fifteen minutes when there was a crash. I didn’t jump this time, but the girls did. After we recovered, we looked at each other as if to say are we really doing this? When we didn’t hear or smell anything, we continued, but not before spreading out to cover more ground. The wind howled an eerie whooshing. My stomach was in knots. My gut sensed danger.
What were we doing?
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