Category/genre: Adult Sci-Fi Dystopian Biopunk
Author: J.E. Purazzi
Editor: Sione Aeschliman
Original version here.
When Menrva, a geneticist in the subterranean city of survivors known as Bunker, responds to a call from help from Cowl, her former best friend, and Bas, a renegade cyborg, she makes a vital mistake and places all three of them in danger. As they struggle to escape City guards, cyborg soldiers, desperate scavengers, and ravenous aliens, they find in each other something they never expected: family.
During a battle, an attacking cyborg manages to overcome her programming just long enough to deliver a cryptic message. The trio is forced to decide if they will risk death - or worse, capture - to seek out the truth about the City, or if they will fight only for themselves.
This fast-paced, gritty first book of the Malfunction Trilogy introduces a future caught between destruction and oppression, where it is unclear whether the ends justify the means.
Chapter One: Comeback
Menrva Penniweight leaned over the touch screen on her work surface and tried to ignore the diminutive woman that hovered over her shoulder. “We aren’t on speaking terms.”
“So who am I supposed to talk to about these samples?” Leslie Abella said.
Menrva frowned and turned to Her mother. She wasn’t an impressive looking woman, despite her reputation for getting into positions of power. Standing only a few inches taller than Menrva, her petite frame filled out her ironed lab coat in a perfect hourglass shape. She’d pulled her thick black hair into a tight bun over her honey-toned skin and dark eyes.
It was she that Menrva most looked like. The only sign left of her father was her curly hair.
“You are welcome to give me any samples you need to, but I don’t want to socialize,” Menrva said, snatching the sample from her mother’s manicured nails.
“I thought I taught you to be polite,” Leslie said.
“You didn’t teach me anything, Mother.” Menrva twisted the vial in her hand and studied the contents. “Wrecker?”
“That is your area of study, isn’t it? Of course, I might be wrong since apparently I’m not allowed to have any real information about my only daughter’s life.”
Menrva sighed. “What am I looking for?”
“I need a count on the stem cells in the sample and a comparison to an average Wrecker.” When Menrva raised an eyebrow, her mother added, “This isn’t all Wrecker, it’s something...different.”
“Different how?” This wasn’t the first time Menrva had gotten a request like this. In fact, the whole lab seemed to less focused on their research on Wreckers lately. They had even pulled a few of the scientist off for other studies, though she hadn’t heard anything about what those projects were. It was strange. Wreckers had always been a priority.
Leslie smoothed her hands over her lab coat without answering and turned to walk through the enclosed lab. The workstations were now empty, leaving only blinking machinery and pale blue light filtering from multiple screens. In the center of the room a glass cylinder held the corpse of the alien in question. It was by this display that Leslie paused, picking her cuticles as she scanned the contents through narrowed eyes. It was an intimidating creature, even torn open and floating in fluid. Easily ten feet in height, this one was on the small side. If the models they used in the Sims were accurate, it looked vaguely like a bear or even a gorilla, though a second set of arms made the comparison a weak one. The most jarring feature was probably its face. Though most of its body was covered in short, velvety black hair, the exoskeleton lay exposed in places. As a result, its head looked not unlike like a fanged human skull.
“If you can’t help me with the sample, just tell me,” Leslie said. “There are other people who can do your job, you know.”
Menrva rolled her eyes, hoping that her attitude was visible. “I’m the only geneticist specializing in Wreckers that we have in the Hub. If you had someone else, you would have given it to them. The fact that you are here means you’ve already exhausted your resources.” It felt good to shove that back in her face. Menrva didn’t like the fact that Leslie was here, even if she was forced to humble herself a bit to ask. But as much as Menrva wanted to leave her hanging, Leslie could always get what she wanted by using the City to apply some pressure. Her work was too important to them. “I’ll add it to the list.” Menrva said.
“I need it before the end of the day tomorrow. We have some potential breakthroughs on my formula and I can’t stall my entire operation just for you.”
“I’ll add it to my list,” she repeated, placing the vial in a protective case.
Leslie took a few steps towards the door, her simple shoes tapping loudly on the tile. She paused for a moment at the threshold and looked back at Menrva.
“You know, your father—”
Menrva raised her hand, cutting off the words before they came out. “Just because he’s dead, doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven him. So don’t bother trying to use him to manipulate me.”
“You used to love him, you know.” Leslie said, not even bothering to hide the accusation in her tone.
She still loved him. Just because she was angry didn’t mean she loved him any less. It also didn’t mean that Leslie loved him any more.
After another moment of silence, Leslie took the hint and closed the door, leaving Menrva in the silence of the lab. She stared at the screen in front of her for a moment, trying to focus on the trail of gene markers. It was pointless. She knew herself well enough to know how hard brain work was when she was frustrated, and Leslie was nothing if not frustrating.
In another thirty minutes she’d planned head to the gym anyway. She could just leave early and get in some extra time to work off the emotions before bed. Half of her sandwich from lunch was waiting for her in the fridge to give her an extra boost after the workout, but she might have to cut her usual rotation short again. The cafeteria had been short on protein lately. Even beans and nuts were harder and harder to get.
She saved her work with the flick of her fingers across the touchscreen—it would be there tomorrow, just as it had been for the past nine years—and turned out the lights.
Menrva was often the last person in the lab. Nobody wanted to be the one to switch the lights out and turn their back on the suspended alien body afterwards. It may have been dead for at least a century, but it didn't make it any less terrifying to be alone with in a dark room.
Shuddering, she half-sprinted to the door like a child running back to bed after a midnight bathroom trip. It seemed justified. After all, this wasn't an invisible monster under the bed, it was one that had devoured over three-quarters of humankind and wanted more.
Double checking the door to make sure it had locked behind her, she turned down the lonely hallway. A glance up at the screens that plastered the ceilings in the wealthy city center showed sunset playing across every pixel overhead, a typical sight. The color was a vivid contrast to the endless white corridors.
After ten minutes slipped into her pod and sighed deeply, breathing in the familiar 'home' smell. Menrva closed the door, shrugged out of her lab coat, and dropped it onto the counter. No need to worry about a mess; she would be putting it back on in eight hours or less.
"Whoa, I know you've missed me, but no need to jump the gun."
Menrva gasped and spun around. It was a voice she knew well, and one she hadn’t expected to hear again. One she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to hear again.
A man of about her age sat on her couch, a sly grin hung on his youthful face. He was short and willowy with pale skin. A pair of mining goggles parted his wispy, baby-blond hair. His standard-issue track suit was torn and crusted with black dirt that stood out stark against their surroundings.
"Cowl. Cowl Coven?" Menrva said. "What the hell are you doing in my pod? They will kill us both if they find you here."
Chapter Two: Reacquaintance.
Cowl stuffed down a rising tide of irritation. Menrva stood at the door, her dark, round eyes narrowed until they nearly blended into her tanned skin. She probably was right to be surprised or even irritated with him showing up, but it wasn’t fair to get offended so quickly.
It was strange, how much age could be put on in three years. Her curves were more pronounced now on her short stature, making her formerly sporty build look more feminine. If it weren’t for the shocking pale blue of her formerly dark hair, she would have looked gorgeous.
Cowl grinned, trying to ignore the odd feeling that crawled into his stomach. “Nah. You don’t have anything to worry about. They won’t touch you. Made it big as a geneticist, I hear.”
Did her eyes just narrow more?
“I like the place,” he continued when she didn’t say anything. “What happened to the guy you were with? What’s his name?”
“You’ve been missing for three years.” Menrva interrupted, her voice steely. “You'd better be able to sum up why you are here in about five seconds because that's how long you have before I call the guard."