There were bodies around him when he woke. Over him, under him, cold and stiff and wet and putrid. The air hung heavy with the stench of death. He tried to move, but one arm was twisted behind him, broken. A flare of pain pulsed behind one eye and his body jerked, some essential command glitching inside him. The flare turned into a ball of heat that sent him under again.
He woke once more. Then died again. Maybe a dozen times. He lost track of how often he felt his heart stop beating and tumbled down into that tunnel of light. After a while he cursed the code that kept snatching him from death, begged his body to let him go, to stop bringing him back from the darkness. He longed for the moments the void enveloped him and the pain disappeared. But his prayers went unanswered.
He began to fight once the bones in his arm were strong enough to wrench it under him and the spasms in his muscles slowed. No room in his mind for what had happened. For what she’d done to him. Only the desperate need to escape the crushing weight of death and to feel fresh air on his skin again.
He pushed through the bodies. He was in a pile of them. Bones and blood and hair around him. There was a green algae coating him, sweet-smelling, feeling like soap on his skin. Something hacked to consume the dead, break them down into biomass. He retched, clawing his way up though the mound and into the light, focusing on the sound of his own breathing, of birds in the distance, and of the steady rushing of water nearby.
When he was out he crawled to the water, crying when he reached the stream. He was underground, in the caves. He knew this place from when he was a boy. Plunged his face into the water, gulping, scrubbing, choking away the filth. It must have been a week, and his thirst was overwhelming. He ran his hands over his face, seeing a haggard man staring back from the water’s surface. He’d come close to death before and survived, but never like this. He was alive – the code in his panel had made sure of that – but he felt that something inside him had died. Something remained in the mound of bodies and he knew it would stay there forever. He would never be whole again.
That’s what she did to him.
He rested and drank water, his panel glowing bright in the cave’s darkness. He kept replaying his death in his mind. Her face, her eyes. The strength he’d nurtured in her had been turned against him like a sword. He kept searching the memory for a hint that she’d known the truth somehow – that she’d guessed the Panacea they’d sent out would be running in his arm. It was flawed, sure, but it was strong enough to save him. Did she know he would be resurrected? She must have known he’d live. But then why would she have let him be piled in with the dead? Thrown into a cavern so roughly his arm had broken with the fall. He scoured his memory of her face, but all he could see was the girl he loved sentencing him to die.
His grief burned into anger, then into hollowness and finally into despair. He’d done everything for her and it hadn’t been enough. Never enough. Not for her, not for anyone. He had been less than enough for his entire existence. Abandoned. Discarded, and now killed. He rose on shaking legs and staggered through the caverns, guided by the dim vision of one eye and the glitching feed from his mask.
The tunnels beneath Entropia were empty except for a handful of pigeons. He stumbled through them, following his memory of the caves. When he neared the entrances to the supply tunnels that normally bustled with people, he paused and let a pulse slip from his mask. Low flickers rose in his vision. The apartments in the city were unusually quiet. He walked through the supply tunnels and down of the hallways that led to the park. The few people he passed weren’t Entropia’s genehackers, and they barely glanced at him. They were dirty and thin. Some were huddled in corners, shaking, or shouting furious nonsense at the walls. He reached the edge of the park and stopped as the flickers his mask was casting into his vision brightened into a blaze.
They were all gathered there – everyone who had remained in the city. Thousands of dirty people. Entropia’s genehackers had left, that much was clear. Gone to some better, cleaner place full of hope. The only people who had stayed in the desert were those with nowhere else to go – the Lurkers he had helped cure.
And cure them he had, but that didn’t mean they were okay.
He drew in a breath, scanning the crowd. Jun Bei had abandoned them just like she had abandoned him. Left them reeling and lost. They were broken and needed someone to help them heal. She wouldn’t be that person – he’d been wrong about her this whole time. She wasn’t the light that would guide the world into a bold new future. She didn’t understand what needed to be done. The sacrifices and hard decisions that a leader would have to make.
But he did.
He walked into the park, looking at the people, sending out another pulse from his mask. Jun Bei deleted her Panacea to stop it being used as a weapon, but she hadn’t thought to remove it from the arms of the Lurkers she’d tested it on. It was still running there, like it was in his own arm – encrypted but vulnerable. She’d told him that she would have to add more protections before she sent it out to the world to stop people taking it for themselves.
Mato stepped into the sunlight, code tumbling in his vision. The Panacea’s encryption was strong, but it would fall. The code would be his just like it should always have been. He looked around at the tragic, ruined people in the park. They needed help, and he would soon have the cure that would wipe their pain and misery away. And not just theirs – he could wipe it from the planet if he set his mind to it. He didn’t need her. He could forge a better, more elegant world on his own. One without conflict or death, without war or loss or suffering. He could save everyone, and in return he’d ensure that they would never abandon him like she had. They’d follow him, trust him, and give him the respect he deserved.
He scanned the park, sending out a pulse, trying to calculate how many of the Lurkers were there. Pigeons soared above him, casting pinpricks of light into his vision. Their calls echoed from the atrium’s curved walls. His scan showed a few thousand Lurkers remaining in the city.
It wasn’t much of an army, but it was a start.