Genepool sample

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Chapter 1

“It is human nature to be flawed.”

     I like the phrase. It’s quaint and old-fashioned, but those who truly believe its meaning were buried centuries ago. The idea is undeniably endearing, the sentiment is touching, yet the concept is embarrassingly outdated.

     Over time, advancing technology has caused a shift in our expectations, to the extent that imperfections are no longer tolerated. What was once acceptable is now repulsive. What once would have sufficed is now obsolete. The world’s perceptions have changed, moulded by the success of our inventive endeavours. Society is such now that flaws are no longer endearing; they are no longer touching; they no longer have any place in humanity. Flaws are to be avoided. They are to be removed. To be flawed is to be simply inferior.

 

City Archives, Founder Valery, Journal 19.

 

Anya tapped on her Slate and the text vanished. It was an old passage but it was one that never failed to make her feel uneasy. Anya didn’t really know why that was. Everything Valery said was accurate. As usual, she had summarised decades worth of Gem psychology in a matter of sentences.

     “Anya!” Her trainer’s voice cut through her core.

     “Yes, Kena?” Anya turned her head to watch as he approached, striding across the training grounds towards her.

     “Enough reading,” said Kena. His voice was tinged with disapproval. He stopped directly next to where she was sitting and folded his arms. “You’ve done enough work on Knowledge to last you a lifetime. Don’t you think it’s time to work on something else?”

     Anya flushed. “But my Knowledge score has dropped. It’s my strongest Strand, I…”

     “Think about the bigger picture,” Kena said, cutting through her protestations. “I hardly need to remind you that there are seven Strands, and not just the one.”

     “Yes, Kena.”

     He smiled, displaying his brilliant white teeth. “Good. It’s time to work on your Strength. Dale is waiting for you on the sparring ground. You’ve got time for one more round before you go home. He should give you a run for your money.”

     “Great.” Anya didn’t even bother trying to hide her annoyance. “Just great.”

     Ignoring a sharp look from Kena, she got to her feet and skulked over towards the sparring ground. Dale was more likely to give her a black eye and a couple of bruised ribs than a run for her money. She knew that her best chance of winning was to utilise her speed and agility, but Dale was stronger than she was and their duels usually ended up with her flat on her back, nursing a bruised ego. Still, she had one advantage. She hated Dale’s guts. And somehow the emotion always made her perform better in sparring.

     Kena caught up with her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Anya. I don’t mean to be harsh. I’m just pushing you. You’re doing well. I’d be surprised if you don’t make Tier 2 as a minimum; Tier 1, with a bit of luck.”

     “Thanks.” Anya smiled, genuinely cheered by his words.

     “Don’t mention it. I can’t say that for everyone here,” said Kena. He shot a pointed look backwards.

     She followed his gaze and flinched. Kena was looking directly at Harvey. Poor Harvey. He hadn’t a hope of doing well in the Trials. His Knowledge and Ambition scores were awful, although he would score higher on Beauty. His parents had obviously placed high value on that when choosing his genes. He had olive skin, perfectly chiselled cheekbones and a wry smile that made her blush. Anya sometimes thought about talking to him, but what was the point? Friendship didn’t help you do well in the Trials. Hard work, training and dumb luck did. At least, that’s what her mother said. It didn’t exactly fill her with confidence.

     As it turned out, Dale couldn’t be beaten by sheer hatred alone. Still, at least her humiliation didn’t last long. Dale floored her in minutes, manoeuvring her skilfully to the undignified position of flat on her back. As she lay gasping for breath, he couldn’t help a slick grin from sliding across his face.

     “Nice try, Anya.” His lips shifted into a smug, self-satisfied pout.

     Anya seethed, longing to punch his smugness out of line. Only she didn’t. She channelled Beauty instead. “Good job, Dale.” Anya clambered to her feet and smiled widely enough that her cheeks formed into pink dimples. Her deep blue eyes lit up, peering out at him through long, dark lashes. It worked like a charm. Dale’s face coloured and he looked down at the floor. When he looked up, she was already halfway out of the Training Centre. Anya looked back at his confusion and smiled. Every time. Yet her smile was fleeting. Her trainer, Kena, had struck a nerve. He was right. A concerted effort on Knowledge alone wouldn’t serve her well in the long run. She needed to broaden her focus.

     There were seven Strands in total; seven Strands of Survival. The Strands were the essential qualities that helped you progress in The City. They represented the core skills that humans have used for centuries; the traits and qualities that they have long used to survive and rise up above other, inferior species. Strength. Courage. Resilience. Beauty. Ambition. Ingenuity. Knowledge. Each Strand was as important as the other. Each one complemented the other. And Anya needed to master all seven. That was her goal. In a few years, she would be taking her Trials, and her performance would dictate her Tier. It was imperative that she perform well to stand any chance of staying in Tier 2.

     Her current life in Tier 2 was only one Tier short of perfect. The houses were large and the jobs earned vast amounts of Credit. The food was rich, the clothes luxurious and the slaves more efficient. Besides, blue wasn’t exactly a bad colour. It was infinitely better than some of the lower Tiers. The Gems in Tier 7, the lowest Tier, had to wear orange.

     Anya shuddered, thinking what her life would be like if she was downgraded there. Tier 7 was a cramped maze of small houses, all painted a powdery, sickly peach. The food was bland, the jobs earned little in the way of Credit and the clothes were scratchy and coarse. Being downgraded there would ruin everything; not just for her, but for her parents too. If Anya failed the Trials and dropped Tiers, her parents would go with her, as per The City rules. They would lose their life of luxury; everything they had worked for. And it would all be her fault.

     However, there was another implication of being downgraded; one that made the prospect of disappointing her parents pale into insignificance. Anya desperately wanted to be a geneticist. Many of the other Tier 2s in her training group she knew focused on the Strands of Strength or Beauty. She didn’t care two jots about those. She loved Knowledge. She dreamed of exploring the intricacies of the human body; revelled in the prospect of creating and employing new technologies. Being downgraded would shatter that dream. The privilege of working as a geneticist was strictly reserved for Tiers 1 and 2.

     That wasn’t exactly surprising. It wasn’t enough to say that genetics was important in The City. It was more accurate to say that genetics actually was The City. Anyone who was anyone owed it to good genes. Everyone in The City had their genes altered before they were born, creating a new, improved genome. Their genes were torn apart, manipulated and reformed to the parent’s specification. At least, as much as their Credit allowed.

     Anya knew that her parents had paid handsomely for the best genes when she was first conceived. While dazzling intelligence, survival instincts and attractiveness were never absolutely guaranteed, a large bank account and selection of the best genes made it much more likely. Being in Tier 2, Anya’s parents already had the luxury of possessing desirable genes themselves. This, combined with a large transfer of Credit, meant that Anya’s genome was stuffed with the latest recommendations in gene sequencing. After all, Anya was a Gem. Her genome wasn’t flawed, it was a masterpiece. It was a collection of carefully selected and interlinked genes, creating exactly who she was today. Every single one of those genes had been individually examined and its worth considered, measured against the multitude of possible alternatives. The thought made her feel a bit better. A good genetic profile would significantly help her chances in the Trials.

     She began wending her way home through the labyrinth of streets and houses that made up Tier 2; treading the same paths as she did each day; the route now so familiar that thinking was no longer required. Dale’s face swam back into her mind and the memory of his dazed expression made her smile.

     It wasn’t long before Anya noticed that something wasn’t right. She stopped and peered at her surroundings in confusion. With the exception of a snooty looking Tier 2 woman in an unnecessarily tight dress, the Tier 2 streets were practically deserted. She frowned. That was unusual. The City streets were usually bursting with life, filled with traders flogging their wares, groups of friends congregating in excited groups; shop owners enticing customers inside with glittering smiles and the promise of a cut-down price. The familiar sea of blue-clothed, Tier 2 Gems was strangely and unnervingly absent. Anya gave an involuntary shudder. Somehow the large, pale blue houses and shops seemed even more imposing when faced with quieter surroundings; the glass sculptures, marble entrance halls and high, arching roofs appearing even more unnecessary when there was no one around to appreciate them.

     Nevertheless, silence never lasted long in The City. Soon, as was inevitable, the stillness was invaded by a familiar sound. As she walked deeper into the heart of the Tier, the air began to hum with the distant rise and fall of thousands of voices. Anya’s heart sank as she realised that she was nearing the Central Square. It sank still further when she spotted the corner of a jostling crowd poking out from one of the side streets. Another execution. It had to be. Nothing else drew crowds this big. She stretched onto her tiptoes and craned over the hordes of people, looking into the open expanse of the square beyond. Her suspicions were confirmed.

     A group of City Officials, or Greys, as they were more commonly known, were shoving two figures towards the centre of the square. The figures were both young men. They were thin and gaunt, with grubby clothes and wide, frightened eyes that peered out from deep eye sockets and hollowed cheeks. A small diamond stone gleamed in the centre of each of their foreheads, marking them as Nomods.

     Anya’s mind automatically went back to Valery’s text. Flaws. Valery was right. The City didn’t tolerate many flaws, and Nomods were about as flawed as you could get. They were the inferior species; the outcasts. They were said to be weak and stupid, no better than animals. Anya thought they at least looked like people, just a bit smaller and uglier. She decided to stop that train of thought. Considering Nomods as people was the kind of thinking that got you into trouble. “Bury your thoughts deep and your opinions deeper.” That’s what her father always said, and he was usually right about those sorts of things.

     “Hello, Anya.”

     She turned as an unexpected voice sounded from somewhere next to her. A man was waving at her through the crowds. The man was dressed in blue, as was everyone else in Tier 2.

     He smiled, waving at her with forced enthusiasm. He was handsome, with a mop of styled dark hair and cut-glass cheekbones. Anya didn’t wave back. She didn’t recognise him, though she knew that the man probably recognised her because of her parents. That was mainly down to her mother, Lucenia, who spent her time acting as a professional social butterfly. Lucenia was an unrivalled master of small talk and an exceptional hostess, careful only to invite the most influential and glamorous Tier 2s into her inner circle.

     Anya was more like her father. She preferred solitude and quiet any day, despite her mother’s best efforts to change her. She and her mother were so dissimilar that Anya sometimes wondered if she had any of her mother’s genes at all. Then again, that might not have been too far from the truth.

     “Anya!” The strange man was shouting again. “Give my best to your mother,” he yelled, struggling to be heard above the roar of the crowd.

     Anya rolled her eyes. She should have guessed. The man was one of her mother’s millions of admirers; a member of the army of Beauty worshippers. She ignored him and pointedly looked away, focusing her attention on the crowd of Gems who were clogging the streets in front of her.

     The murmuring had now grown to fever pitch. The crowd had swelled in number and were now suffocatingly large, pushing forwards with near hysteria. Anya blinked, feeling almost dazed, then shook her mind back into focus. What was she still doing here? She hated executions. She needed to leave. Now.

     She tried to shove her way back towards the smaller streets but the route was firmly blocked. It seemed as if the entirety of Tier 2 were here. Everyone was jostling for the most advantageous position, desperate to obtain the best view of the condemned prisoners.

     “Caught stealing scraps right from the master’s table,” she heard a man say.

     “Nomod scum,” the woman next to him jeered, shaking a manicured hand in the direction of the two sorry figures.

     Anya’s eyes widened. It didn’t seem fair. The punishment was so grossly disproportionate to the crime. Rage pulsed through her veins. She felt a sudden urge to rush forwards; to topple the Greys off their raised perch and cut the prisoners loose. Except she couldn’t.

     She shook her head, taking in a long deep breath and cast any feelings of sympathy aside. Thoughts like that were dangerous. Her teaching on this subject had been as clear as glass. The prisoners were Nomods. They weren’t deserving of anything, even her compassion.

     The Nomods were now positioned high on the platform, legs quivering beneath their emaciated frames. As she watched, the Greys stepped away and took their positions, readying themselves to fire. 

     Several Gems around her began stamping their feet. Anya winced. Why did they have to do that? Her heart was already thudding in her chest. She tried to slow it down. Courage. The roars of the crowd grew louder. Resilience. Anya clamped her hands over her ears, but the sound was too loud for her to block out. Strength. Her heart was beating faster and faster, racing in time with the sound of pounding feet. Then the light blazed and the screams came. Then it was over.

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Chapter 2

 

Anya stared blankly at the floor. It was eight years ago to the day, but her senses remembered everything. The feverish pushing of the crowds; the fear in the eyes of the doomed Nomods; Valery’s text gleaming brightly on her old Slate.

     Eight years seemed a long time ago now. It was, really. In that time, The City had changed. Back then, Nomod executions had been relatively rare. The Nomod population had been subdued and obedient. They had toed the line, accepting of their lot in life as slaves. They had stayed out of sight and out of trouble with their genetically superior masters. If only things were still that simple. They weren’t.

     As the years passed, the Nomods had begun to fight back; revolting against their forced enslavement. Riots and arson were now commonplace in The City streets. Windows were smashed; shops were looted; lone Gems were attacked by Nomod hordes that were too cowardly to take them on single-handed.

     Not that the Nomods’ attempts were usually successful. The riots and attacks were mainly short lived. The Greys handled the perpetrators with icy efficiency. Barely a day went by without a Nomod execution somewhere in The City. Thinking about them made Anya shiver, though she wasn’t remotely cold.

     Her mind went back to the two executed Nomods from eight years ago and she felt bile seep into the back of her throat. She never could stomach an execution. She had barely avoided two on her way to work today. Anya shook her head. Dwelling on the past was never a productive use of time. She made a conscious effort to force all thoughts of Nomods deep into the darkest corners of her mind; with only limited success. Her mind had a tendency to wander, particularly if she was bored. Speaking of which, she checked her watch and frowned. It was now half past eleven. Myra was over half an hour late. That was out of character. Her teacher was usually unfailingly prompt, the total opposite to her in fact.

     Scarcely believing that Myra wasn’t here, Anya strode across the room and peeked inside the adjacent laboratory, though she had checked there already. It was empty. Obviously. She shook her head and closed the door. What had she expected? That her teacher would materialise out of thin air?

     As a geneticist, Myra spent most of her waking hours in the laboratory. She almost never used her office, in which Anya currently stood. Anya didn’t blame her. The office’s whitewashed walls were bare and uninteresting. The room’s only furniture was an unnecessarily large desk and two matching chairs. The chair’s backs were shaped like teardrops and swept up towards the ceiling in a brash attempt at elegance. Both the desk and chairs were formed of crystal that had been shaped into intricate shards of blue and white. They were big, showy and impractical. Everything Myra hated.

     In fact, the room’s only redeeming feature was the view. The back wall, the only wall that wasn’t white, was instead made entirely of glass. It provided spectacular scenes over the Circadium and The City beyond.

     At a loss for anything else to do, Anya decided to take a look. She and Myra worked high up in the Genetics Quarter; the exact location being the twenty-third floor, Biomedical Genetics Unit. While their location made the elevator trip a few seconds longer, the view was more than compensation. Anya could see far into the distance, miles into the complex network of houses and streets that made up the seven Tiers.

     In contrast, the Circadium directly below her was a vast, open expanse. The extensive, circular area was located in the very heart of The City and was home to some of its most important buildings, including the Genetics Quarter and the Trials Centre to the North. As such, the Circadium was always a hubbub of activity. As Anya stared down, her eyes were met with a kaleidoscope of colour. Gems from all seven Tiers strode over the gleaming white tiles. There were several in rich Tier 3 green and even more in the red of Tier 5. There was even the occasional flash of grey as a City Official strode by. Pods sped around the Circadium outskirts, ferrying Gems to and from the buildings and back into the Tiers that lay beyond the Circadium edges.

     Anya watched as a queue began to form outside the Trials Centre and felt an instinctive rush of pity. She knew what the candidates would be feeling. Fear. Nausea. Blind panic. She looked down at her mark hand, gazing at the band of bright blue that encircled her left wrist. It was the tattoo that marked her as a Tier 2. Relief flooded through her every time she looked at it. She didn’t think that feeling would never fade. The joy. The elation. The knowledge that she hadn’t totally buckled in her Trials; well, not until close to the end. But by then she’d done enough to stay in Tier 2, much to the relief of her parents. Her Trials had been almost two years ago, though the memories of her ordeal were still painfully clear.

     Her eyes then wandered from the blue band to her inner wrist. Somewhere beneath the surface, inserted deep between her tendons, lay a small metallic capsule. When properly scanned by an official, it revealed her Tier number and her genome. This identified her as Anya Audentia; Tier 2, geneticist in training and damned proud of it.

     Anya had entered the genetics programme straight after her Trials. Myra had seen her potential immediately and had taken her on as her apprentice. Anya had been thrilled. The great Myra Delaqua; a Genetics Quarter legend; the Myra who had revolutionised the approach to removing cross sectional linkages in genetic mutations, thus making the entire process of removing bodily mutations that much easier.

     As it happened, Myra had also turned out to be an enthusiastic and generous teacher. She had carefully honed and encouraged Anya’s skills as a geneticist. While Anya didn’t know if Myra would call her a friend, she thought she had probably earned Myra’s respect and trust. Genuine friendship was scarce in the higher tiers. Ambition and Ingenuity didn’t exactly go hand in hand with niceties. That meant that friendships without ulterior motives were rare. When selecting genes for their children, many Gems abandoned characteristics of kindness and compassion in favour of the seven Strands of Survival. After all, they were what the Trials were based on. Anya sometimes thought it was fortunate that variations in gene expression meant sometimes what you got with your child was slightly different to what you had ordered. It was a dangerous opinion to have, and was one she kept firmly to herself. Just as her father said. “Keep your thoughts deep and your opinions deeper.”

     Lastly, Anya turned her attention to her palm. A familiar symbol gleamed back at her, tattooed in black ink on her skin. It was her Fyrax. Every Gem in The City chose one of the seven Strands to wear on their mark hand after their Trials were over. Anya had chosen Knowledge, represented by earth. The small symbol on her palm was a perfect square with a smaller square cut out of the centre. Each of the seven Strands was linked to one of the elements; a part of the world around them that was, in turn, vital for human survival. Anya liked the connection. It seemed fitting that the elements were connected to the raw qualities that humans needed to survive them.

     For many, their Fyrax was the Strand that they felt represented them best as a person. Her mother had chosen fire. Fire was matched to Beauty, whereas her father had selected wood for Ingenuity. They were good choices. Her father was nothing if not inventive; a shrewd businessman and a wise investor, while her mother spent most of her waking hours preening in front of a mirror, much to Anya’s disgust.

     For others, their Fyrax was based on the area they performed best in the Trials. Perhaps they had showed great Courage in stone or had managed to get through water, proving their Resilience. Or perhaps they had mastered air, proving their limitless Ambition. But for some, their choices just seemed to be wishful thinking. Anya knew a boy in her training group who had chosen Strength; metal, as his Fyrax. She had once given him three broken ribs, a fractured nose and a bruised ego. Where was he now, she wondered? Tier 5 maybe? It was a shame. His parents had been nice.

     She thought back to her old classmate Harvey and instantly blushed. Harvey, with his angel face and his easy smile. She wondered what Fyrax he would have chosen. Beauty, probably. She hadn’t seen Harvey since her Trials. He would certainly have been downgraded, along with his parents. Tier 4, if she were to take a guess. He hadn’t been completely useless. His Knowledge score even before the Trials had been woeful but he’d been tipped to score higher on Beauty and Resilience. She hoped at least he hadn’t ended up in Tier 7.

     Her eyes flickered back up to the window to take a look. The dingy orange slabbed walls of Tier 7 lay in the western part of The City. They were a grim contrast to the slender blue tinted buildings of Tier 2 that lay to the east and the gleaming white palaces of Tier 1 to the north. Anya had never been to the lower Tiers. She’d had no need. Besides, upper Tier Gems didn’t tend to mix socially with the lower Tiers. Associating with lower ranked Gems was one sure fire way to become the scorn of The City’s social elite. Not that Anya cared one jot about that.

     Tearing her eyes away from Tier 7, she looked back down at her watch. The time read 11:35. Still no Myra. A strand of mahogany hair strayed down and tickled her cheek. She blew on it hard, before giving up and flicking it crossly away. Was everything going to be irritating today? Her patience was now dangerously close to snapping. Where the hell was Myra? Idle waiting was a waste of her time. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have anything else to do today.

     Despite her better judgement, Anya considered her to-do list. Not a good plan. It was growing unmanageable. She still hadn’t completed the report of Myra’s previous client; a rather haughty Tier 3 man with a colonic tumour, and his treatment had been completed weeks ago. Myra was starting to nag, anxious to get the report filed. But as ever, admin was never Anya’s strong point.

     And then, the inevitable. Her patience snapped. Anya slapped her hand down on the desk in frustration. There was a crack as the surface dented beneath her fingers. She winced. Sometimes she forgot her own strength. Still, at least Myra wouldn’t care about the desk. She’d probably think it was an improvement.

     Anya sighed and withdrew her hand, regretting her brief outburst. If she were being honest, her frustration had nothing to do with Myra’s tardiness. Myra’s request to meet her was, in truth, rather mysterious and she was anxious to find out more.

     The mystery had started yesterday morning. Myra had been inexplicably missing from the Genetics Quarter. She hadn’t attended her usual morning meeting, and had then missed an appointment with a client. She hadn’t even turned up to look through her treatment requests, as she always did in an afternoon. Anya had searched high and low, but Myra had been nowhere to be seen.

     It wasn’t until late evening when Myra had finally returned. She was clearly troubled, yet had offered no explanation for her absence. Anya had tried to tease an explanation out of her, with limited success. Myra said only that she thought she had made an important discovery, but needed to check her records in order to be sure.

     Despite Anya’s protestations, Myra had refused to say anything more about it. Finally, likely worn down by Anya’s questions, Myra had agreed to meet her at 11 o’clock this morning, with the promise that she would have more answers. It was all very strange. Anya couldn’t help but be worried. Keeping secrets wasn’t in Myra’s character.

     11 o’clock had come and gone. Still Myra was nowhere to be seen. The suspense was unbearable. Anya glanced back down at the desk, sorely tempted to put a second dent in its surface. Not a good idea. Myra always chastised her for her impatience, and damaging her property was hardly going to help her cause. Instead, she took a seat in one of the back-breaking chairs and resorted to twiddling her thumbs; a nervous habit that her mother had tried to beat out of her on more than on occasion.

     By the time it hit 12 o’clock, Anya’s unease was reaching breaking point. Myra’s daily schedule was always meticulously planned and executed to perfection. For Myra, punctuality wasn’t an option; it was an obligation. Despite her attempts to remain calm, Anya felt herself begin to panic. What if something had happened? Something bad. She instantly checked herself, trying to control her thoughts. Anya knew that she was prone to overthinking and often allowed her imagination to run free. Myra was a very busy woman. The most likely scenario was that she’d been held up with a client or was in a meeting that had overrun. Yes. That was it. Best not jump to conclusions.

     It was 12:05 when the office door finally slid open. Myra stood just inside the doorway. Anya jumped to her feet, then stopped dead. She barely recognised the woman in front of her. Myra looked a complete mess. She was breathing hard, as if she had been running. Her smooth, dark skin gleamed under the bright lights of the office and sweat dripped off her forehead in thick beads.

     “Myra. What...?”

     “Anya. Thank you for waiting.”

     “What kept you?”

     “I’m sorry I’m late.”

     Anya frowned. Myra’s voice was unusually formal. It was as if she were addressing a client rather than someone that she worked with every day. As Myra came closer, Anya noticed other things too. Her eyes were wide and scared. They stared at her from above cheeks flushed red from exertion and lips that were visibly trembling. Her long black hair hung in limp strands around her shoulders, the remnants of a prim bun just visible at the back of her head. This Myra was worlds away from the perfectly presented, elegant woman she was used to working with. Something was clearly wrong. Very wrong. As she neared, Myra seemed to sense her gaze and smoothed back her hair. Not that it did any good.

     “What’s happened?” said Anya. “You look terrible.”

     “Thank you for pointing that out.”

     “Sorry.”

     “You’re lucky I’m not easily offended.” Myra lowered herself into one of the chairs. She stumbled, transiently losing her balance as one of her legs buckled beneath her, before she managed to settle a secure seating position. Her manoeuvre was made more challenging because she seemed to be clutching an object nestled inside her trouser pocket. Whatever it was, it was small, but Myra was holding it as if her life depended on it.

     There was something else too. The bottom three inches of Myra’s blue linen trousers were caked in a strange red chalk. Or was it mud? Anya wasn’t sure, but she’d never seen anything like it in her life. The City was sparkling clean, free from anything that wasn’t artificial and man-made. It would be. Any natural plant or animal life had been removed centuries ago.

     “Are you okay?” she pressed. “What happened to your clothes?”

     “Relax.” Myra held up her mark hand, displaying the band of blue encircling her wrist. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

     Anya sat in the second chair and grimaced. The chair was as uncomfortable as it looked. “Myra, you don’t look fine.”

     “So you keep saying.”

     “Has something happened?”

     “Patience, Anya. You know I’m not going to be rushed.”

     “Yes, Myra.” It took Anya a great deal of effort to keep her voice calm, and even more effort to stop herself from standing up and demanding that Myra tell her immediately what was wrong. Anya knew that patience wasn’t exactly one of her strong points, but Myra was clearly only going to talk when she was ready. Honestly, Myra was about as stubborn as she was. It was her only real shortcoming; the only flaw they hadn’t quite managed to edit out of her genome. Myra was otherwise unfailingly wise, irritatingly practical and had a seemingly endless pool of knowledge.

     Like Anya, she had chosen Knowledge as her Fyrax. Most geneticists did; at least the ones who were serious about it, and Myra had Knowledge to spare. She was now one of the leading experts in Directly Operational VEctor Technology, more affectionately known as DOVE. It was a relatively new technology, having only been in use for the last fifty years. In that time, it had revolutionised biomedical genetics, which was Anya’s chosen field of work.

     DOVE was a clever way to edit and remove unwanted material from the human body. It involved programming immature human stem cells to target and destroy abnormal cells that had invaded the body. And Myra’s skill was unequalled. She could do anything. If a Gem had a tumour, Myra would destroy it. If someone had an infection, she would engineer a cure. Illnesses were quickly and efficiently destroyed. Anya shared her teacher’s fascination. Historically, tumours and diseases had often been fatal. Now they were nothing more than a nuisance.

     “Lewys is dead.” Myra broke the silence, taking her off guard.

     “What?” Anya covered her mouth in shock.

     Lewys was a good-looking man with an easy smile and a jovial swagger. He’d held a junior position in Nomod Distribution. Tier 4, if she remembered correctly. He’d always worn those stupid, purple flared boots. Even she could tell they were hideous. Her friend Bonnie had referred to them as “actually offensive to my existence” on more than one occasion. Lewys had a habit of turning up where he was least wanted and poking his nose into other people’s business, yet he’d seemed harmless enough.

     Anya had last seen Lewys two days ago. He’d arrived at Myra’s laboratory looking like utter hell. Myra had whisked him away for immediate treatment but Anya hadn’t thought he was in any real danger. No Gem had died under Myra’s care in years.

     “What happened?” she asked hoarsely.

     “He was a fool.”

     Anya blinked. “A fool?” She wasn’t sure if she’d heard correctly.

     “Yes,” Myra confirmed. “He decided to branch out of his comfort zone.”

     “And?”

     “He found himself in more illegal territory.”

Anya closed her eyes. Surely Lewys wouldn’t have been so stupid. And yet. “Somacism?” she asked meekly.

     “Exactly.”

     Anya groaned. That meant Lewys would be the third Gem to die this year alone. Somacism was a festering stain on The City’s history. If what Myra said was true, then Lewys was more of a fool than she’d realised.

     “Did he suffer?” she said, suppressing a shudder.

     Myra shook her head. “Not at the end. I distilled a vial of opiate to numb the pain. It was all I could do. His body was breaking down.”

     Anya immediately felt sick. In The City your genome was carefully chosen by your parents before birth. Chopping and changing the genetic make-up of a few cells was simple. Changing the entire genetic make-up of a fully formed adult was a minefield. It was also very illegal.

     Some hundred years ago there had been a concerted effort by City geneticists to perfect the process. They had called it “Somacism.” Several high-profile geneticists had spent years researching ways it could be done, trialling their attempts on young Nomods. There were countless failures and only a handful of successes. For some reason, the thought of those experiments made Anya feel ill. Not that it really should have done. As the lesser species, Nomods were completely disposable. No one cared if they lived or died, but Anya still thought something about it felt wrong, though she’d never admit it to anyone.

     “Could you tell what part of his genome he’d tried to change?” she asked.

     Myra’s face remained impassive. “No. His genome was like jelly. I couldn’t see anything of use.”

     Anya nodded. That was hardly surprising. Somacism had been banned many years ago. Inevitably, inspired by the research in the Genetics Quarter, a black-market trade had flourished in The City streets. Copy-cats had tried to re-create the Somacism process. The results had been catastrophic.

     The perpetrators had promised Gems everything they wanted; from smoother skin and greater strength, to quicker thinking and lightning speed. Most of the attempts had been on Gem children, their parents desperate for them to perform well in the Trials. It was a tragedy. Most had died screaming. Anya remembered seeing images of the twisted, mutilated bodies in the Archives; the bloody remains of attempts that had gone so catastrophically wrong.

     Despite extensive research, no one fully understood the Somacism process. It was volatile and unpredictable. In her world, that was equivalent to a death sentence. But for some reason, people still tried it; desperate to improve themselves. This time it had been Lewys’ turn.

     “Poor Lewys,” she said, genuinely meaning it. Lewys had been an idiot, but he hadn’t deserved to die.

     “It was his own fault,” said Myra sharply, before seeming to regret her words. “But I’m sorry I couldn’t save him.”

     “Was that where you were yesterday? With Lewys?”

     Myra ignored the question. “There’s a meeting today,” she said. “Lewys is the third Gem to die from trying Somacism in the last eight months. People are becoming reckless.”

     Anya frowned. “A meeting? Why?” Somacism wasn’t common, but as far as she was aware there had never been a formal meeting about it. People just had to not do it. It really wasn’t that complicated.

     Myra gave her a knowing smile. “You already know what I’m going to say to you.”

     “I know.” Of course she knew. The phrase had dogged her for the last year. “You follow the logical sequence of events…”

     “…and the answers will find themselves,” Myra finished. “Think, Anya. What’s different about Lewys’ death?”

     Anya considered the question. The other Gems who had died were mostly from Tier 1 or 2. They had also held high positions in Coding and Embryo Development. They would have known the intricacies of Somacism already. On the other hand, Lewys had been a low-grade employee in Nomod Distribution, and by all accounts his work had been about as good as his fashion sense.

     “Lewys didn’t have the brains to tie his own shoelaces, let alone attempt Somacism,” she said eventually. “At least not on his own.”

     “So?”

     “Someone helped him, or did it to him.”

     “Exactly. That also means it’s probably someone in a higher Tier; likely someone we know.”

     That was concerning, though not entirely unexpected. Somacism was usually attempted by someone in the upper Tiers; someone with the training and intelligence to know where to start.

     “Is that what you were checking yesterday?” said Anya. “Who it was?”

     Myra shook her head. “I haven’t the faintest idea who did this to Lewys, Anya. But I intend to find out.”

     Anya nodded slowly, absorbing Myra’s words. She was becoming increasingly unsettled by her teacher’s demeanour. She had expected Myra to be shocked after Lewys’ death. She might even have expected regret. But not this.

     Myra was doing a good job of trying to hide it, yet the signs were unmistakeable. Her eyes were darting wildly around the room, as if checking to see who was listening. Her every movement was jittery. Her palms were sweaty and her hands were trembling on her lap. Myra wasn’t just shocked, she was terrified.

     “Myra, what’s going on?”

     Instantly, Myra concealed her hands under the fabric of her dress. “What do you mean? I’ve just told you.”

     “You seem worried.”

     “Naturally, I’m worried, Anya.”

     “There isn’t anything else going on.”

     “Of course there isn’t.”

     “So what’s the dust on your trousers?”

     Myra stiffened. “It was raining outside, nothing more.”

     “But…”

     “That’s enough, Anya!”

     Anya recoiled, surprised by her teacher’s outburst. She was becoming more troubled by the second. Anya knew that anyone dying from Somacism was bad news, but it wasn’t anything Myra hadn’t dealt with several times before. Lewys’ death would have been a shock, and it was disconcerting that another high-profile geneticist was probably dabbling in Somacism, but Myra hadn’t reacted like this when any of the others had died. Not even close. A geneticist called Andra had attempted Somacism and died just under a year ago. Andra had been the closest thing Myra had to a friend. Myra had reacted to her death with nothing less than her normal calm and poise. Andra had been a Tier 1, and really should have known better.

     “Myra, your hands are shaking,” she said bluntly.

     “I’m fine!”

     “But you seem so tense.”

     “A man has died, Anya.”

     “You barely knew him.”

     “I said enough, Anya!” Myra got to her feet. “What’s got into you? Remember your place. I’m your teacher; your superior. You’re my apprentice, nothing more.”

     Anya fell silent, shocked by her teacher’s outburst. Myra never shouted at her, even when she was being a spoiled brat, which happened more than she cared to admit.

     Myra closed her eyes, sensing she had gone too far. “I apologise. I didn’t mean that.” She sank back down into the chair.

     “It’s okay. Were you close to Lewys or something?”

     “No, I wasn’t. He was a fool. Anya, I have work to do. I didn’t expect an interrogation. I came here to tell you that the meeting about Lewys is at 1 o clock, and that I expect you to attend.”

     “What?” Anya was surprised. “Am I allowed? I’m only your apprentice.”

     “I haven’t asked officially, but I consider it important that you come. Just blend in and keep your eyes open.”

     “For what?” Anya asked, though she had a hunch where Myra was going with this.

     “Anything. Look at the people. Use your instincts. Watch their body language; the way they respond to the discussions. Someone in that room knows exactly what has happened to Lewys, I’m sure of it.”

     Her hunch was correct. “You’re asking me to spy?”

     “Not at all. I’m only requesting that you employ your excellent powers of observation.”

     “Understood.”

     “Oh, and one more thing,” Myra added breezily.

     Anya’s heart sank. Myra was trying to sound nonchalant. She always took that tone when she was about to tell Anya something she wasn’t going to like. “Dale will be there.”

     There it was. “Great,” Anya grumbled sourly. “Just great.”

     Dale was apprentice to a geneticist called Arram, who also happened to be his father. Dale was, using the technical term, a first-class moron. When they had grown up together in Tier 2, Anya had spent most of her time with Dale debating whether she would rather shove a bucket of water on his head or kick him in the stomach. Despite being one of the most obnoxious Gems she’d ever met, Dale had done so well in the Trials that he had been upgraded to Tier 1. His mother and father had, as per The City rules, been upgraded with him. Since then, both Arram and Dale had been a nightmare. Arram had done well for himself and had become head of Genetic Regulation, one of the biggest departments in the Genetics Quarter. Dale had simply strutted around like the arrogant peacock he was. Anya had never met Dale’s mother. She imagined a mousey, timid sort of woman who cowered between the mass of testosterone that made up her husband and son.

      “Try not to kill him. I know that will be a challenge,” said Myra, sounding almost sympathetic.

     “I can’t guarantee anything.” Anya sounded as deadly serious as she felt.

Myra laughed and gave her a warm smile, seeming like her normal self again. Just for a moment. Then her smile faltered and the moment passed.

     “I’ll see you later,” she said, her tone suddenly brusque. “I’ve got some clients to catch up on.” She paused for a moment and placed a hand on Anya’s arm, before moving quickly towards the door. The gesture was probably supposed to be reassuring. It was anything but.

     Anya stood motionless, replaying the last five minutes in her head. Myra hadn’t once confirmed where she had disappeared off to yesterday. She also hadn’t explained the stains on the bottom of her trousers. The City was immaculately clean. It was a maze of pure, polished brick, glass and metal. There was no mud or dust anywhere. So what had Myra been up to?

     But something else was bothering her even more. She worked with Myra every day. She knew her quirks and mannerisms as well as she knew her own. Something odd had just happened; something that had never happened before. And it had happened twice. First when Anya had asked if there was something else going on; second when she had asked Myra about her trousers. There was no doubt in Anya’s mind. Myra had just lied to her.