In a midweek reading slump? Here’s a top pick from our YA collection. Soul Hacker by Sarah Rosinski.
About the Book
In a ruined world, mankind survives in a society of interconnected high-rises that values intelligence above all else. Anna has earned an esteemed position working in genetic science, but yearns to share her comforts with her low-level sister.
When Anna gets caught smuggling restricted goods to her sister, a law enforcement official coerces her into stealing classified lab materials. He offers her a chance to escape the restrictions of her high-level life, and she follows him into an underground biohacking community with a revolution on its agenda.
Layers of lies are exposed, and Anna is certain there is no one she can trust, especially not her own inner-voice. Nothing but the truth will anchor her soul, and following that truth means she’ll risk everything for the love that captures her heart.
THE ELEVATOR DOOR OPENED, revealing a crowd of nearly three hundred dark-haired people crossing into Level 3. Most were midlevel citizens on their way to market, but Anna could pick out a few other high-level visitors like herself by their bright clothing and accessories.
Some talked loudly with one another, others read the daily news on the overhead screens, but everyone rushed through the high-rise vestibule toward the border-security checkpoints. Visitor’s day came only once a month for three hours, barely enough time for Anna to sprint to the designated meeting spot through the corridors and skyways that connected the skyscrapers of City 6. She never had enough time to visit with her friend Marcus.
She took her place in one of several lines to wait for her turn at the first checkpoint, the X-ray machine that would scan baggage. She slid a thumb beneath the thick strap of her backpack, adjusting the weight on her shoulder. An older woman shrieked twenty feet to her left. A guard had inspected the contents of her wheeled crate. The commotion drew the crowd’s attention, and Anna used the opportunity to slip from the orderly line and into a group past inspection.
The few apples and nectarines weighed heavy in her backpack. She held it close to her body. She’d smuggled supplies to Marcus twice already but hesitated this time. The risk of being caught increased with each drop. No doubt a day would come when she’d never hear from Marcus again. But his message had been urgent. Her sister, Rebecca, was not recovering as they’d hoped. If only she could find a way to visit Rebecca in person. The fresh fruit tucked into her backpack was the best she could find. She hoped it would be enough to make a difference.
Anna shuffled forward, following the crowd in front of her. At the next checkpoint, several border guards stood behind glass windows, scanning passes and approving entrance into Level 3. People moved with robotic precision, no exchange of words or facial expressions. They’d need to pass the thermal scans, then have a guard verify their igentity passes.
Anna pulled her igentity pass from a zippered coat pocket, ready to have it inspected by whichever guard would be available next. Igentity passes were more than identification; though each had a person’s photo along with administrative numbers and codes, there was also a symbiotically enhanced microchip that synced with each person’s DNA. No one could simply borrow another person’s pass and get through the border.
As she approached the guard, she paused at the wide red line on the scuffed laminate floor and glanced at the thermal scanner mounted on the ceiling in front of each guard’s glass cubicle. Any measurable increase in heart rate or body temperature would signal a guard’s attention, and he’d hold her for questioning. The signal flashed green, and she moved a few steps forward, then slid her pass to the uniformed man behind the glass. Her eyes flitted to him for a split second. He stifled a yawn and his eyes were glazed. He’s bored. Good.
He scanned her pass, and her holographic image appeared on the computer screen beside him, verifying her igentity. Anna kept her long brown hair wrapped in a loose bun and wore an older set of dark gray government-issued clothing she’d had since transition school. Few high-level occupants bothered to descend for visitor’s day and didn’t keep old transition-school clothing for such a purpose. Anna didn’t blame them. She wouldn’t visit either if it weren’t for Rebecca.
The guard returned her pass without as much as a nod, and Anna made her way through a dimly lit corridor where several people in tattered clothing jostled for position. Same people. Same destination. She didn’t need their services. She didn’t need anyone to carry her backpack or give her a ride in a rickshaw. She needed them to get out of the way.
One called out, “Miss, miss, you want—”
Anna tuned them all out and zigzagged around them as she hurried through the corridor toward the main entrance.
The corridor opened into a glass-walled courtyard, which was constructed exactly the same as all the common spaces within Lapis Tower and every other interconnected high-rise in City 6. Through the skylights she could see the skybridges that connected each high-rise like fragile veins in a system of organs. City 6 supposedly looked no different from any in Unalaska, but still, she’d like to see for herself one day.
She squinted in the brighter light of the courtyard. The mass of people here swelled as hundreds of men and women hustled to do quick business transactions before the markets closed. Wheeled stands, trading everything from gently worn clothing and jewelry to opiates and nootropic supplements, crowded the square. People in this neighborhood probably needed the opiates, but the smart drugs were only a diversion. Did they really think they could ever increase their intelligence using nootropics? Even if they could, the final test scores in transition school had already placed them into their career. There was no advancing in social class once the test scores were final.
Though low-, mid-, and high-level workers shared the same skyscrapers throughout the city, secured borders on Levels 3 and 6 separated the classes, with enclosed skybridges the only connection between high-rises. Thankfully occupants from her social class had the liberty to descend to Level 3, if they chose, on visitor’s day, but no citizen from a lower level was permitted to visit a higher level. Poor Rebecca was stuck on Level 2 along with the majority of the population.
A few trees in massive pots flanked the entrance of the courtyard. Hanging banners warned citizens not to touch the soil or remove leaves. One read, “Leave Plant Care to the Botanists.” She reached behind to adjust the weight of her pack, thankful the botanists had stopped the blight consuming the greenhouse orchards. It would be devastating if the city lost another species of fruit-bearing tree.
Stoic border trackers patrolled inside the courtyard. Their dark uniforms and watchful eyes made her skin tingle, even though she’d cleared the border-security checkpoints. An adrenal response to anxiety. A few deep breaths would calm her racing heart. Nothing she couldn’t hide. She glanced up at the raised watch station. The commander, his uniform decorated with three gold stripes on the sleeve, kept steady eyes on the peddlers as he had every month since Anna began visiting Level 3.
She lowered her gaze and moved beyond the watchtower, matching pace with the crowd. Once through the square, she picked up speed and headed to an older section of Level 3, not slowing when she stepped onto the people-mover as it glided beneath her, propelling her two times faster than walking alone. She passed anyone who slowed her down. Her bag bumped into a young man as she sped around him. “Sorry,” she said. He didn’t seem bothered.
She passed several more trackers on her way to the place she and Marcus had planned to meet. Their black uniforms and neuro-guns established their authority. The interconnected skyscrapers of City 6 were relatively safe, but there were daily disturbances on the lower levels. Humans had not yet evolved to live peacefully with one another in caged conditions.
She pressed on, walking nearly two miles in twenty minutes with the aid of the people-movers, crossing through two skybridges into Zircon Tower, then Alexandrite Tower. She arrived in the section within the vast Alexandrite Tower that permitted bicycles. There were three bicycles left at the stand. She pressed her thumb on a small pad, leaving a digital thumbprint with the attendant, then cycled off down the ratty carpeted corridor to her meeting with Marcus.
Riding through this particular housing district of Level 3, where four or five people shared each tiny unit, was the worst part of her visits. The musty smell of century-old building and the odor of gases from the biodigester hung thick.
Finally, she crossed over the last glass-enclosed skybridge, one of few that offered a view of anything other than the neighboring skyscraper. She stole a glance at the murky ocean before pedaling onward.
When the narrow corridor opened to a large dirty-tiled plaza, she slowed. Several units had been converted to storefronts, some used for trading goods, some for gaming, and some for passing time.
She parked the bicycle in a rack near the entrance of one unit where the doors were permanently propped open. A potted red geranium struggled to flower in the artificial light just outside the door. Paint peeled from the walls.
A few men glanced her way when she entered the room but turned back to their own business, probably uninterested in whatever a high-riser was doing in a place like this. They could see she wasn’t one of them, no matter how she tried to appear. Several others talked softly across tables.
Anna shoved her backpack into the far end of a booth. It wasn’t as risky to smuggle goods from upper levels into Level 3 as it would be for Marcus to smuggle down several floors and through security on Level 2. The contents of the backpack were nothing more than a few fresh fruits and notebook paper restricted to Levels 4 and up—not weapons or religious items—but there would still be consequences if she were caught. She hated risking her hard-earned position with NeoGen Lab. The lead technician, Darion, could have her removed if he discovered her involvement in even minor criminal activity. If it weren’t for Rebecca, she would never attempt such foolishness, but smuggling these supplies was the closest she could get to her sister.
Marcus arrived minutes later, dropped an empty backpack on the floor next to Anna, and sat down with a soft hello. He’d matured in the past five years since transition school. Lines around his eyes showed that life hadn’t been easy for him, even though he’d been placed in the medical-science program. He could’ve been placed in the medical zone on Level 10, caring for the needs of the elite, but he’d chosen to serve the lower levels.
“How is she?” Anna asked.
“Physically better,” he said.
He pulled a tightly folded note from his jacket pocket and passed it discreetly across the table. Anna palmed it before tucking it into her own pocket. It would be a request for next month’s drop.
Marcus was an attractive man, but it was his selflessness that endeared him to her. He was the type of man she wanted caring for her sister.
He brushed sandy-brown hair from his eyes. He badly needed a haircut and a shave. “It’s more mental now.” He feigned a smile as he tugged the sleeve of his beige jacket. The drab color did nothing to brighten his merciful blue eyes.
Anna’s stomach clenched. If her sister continued to show signs of mental instability, it would mean a transfer to the subterranean caverns of Level 1, a place where no outsiders besides trackers had authority to enter. Her sister would disappear into the madness of the criminal and deficient.
“She’ll be all right, Anna,” he said, the lines around his eyes deepening. “This will help.”
Fresh fruit would be a treasured addition to the government nutrition packets, but how could so little possibly assist her sister’s mental condition?
Marcus caught the unasked question. “It will give her hope.”
“Hope?” Anna said cynically. “Hope for what?” She looked around at the people nearby. They sat with slumped shoulders, voices low. No one here had hope.
“She’ll know you care,” he said.
Anna leaned forward. “Do you still love her?”
When Rebecca was chosen for the selective-reproduction program, Marcus had promised he’d find a way to assist the senior medical staff with her prenatal care and deliveries. Did he still have the same feelings for Rebecca as he had back in transition school?
A soft blush appeared on his cheeks. “I didn’t transfer to serve in the lower levels for nothing.”
Anna pushed a few stray hairs behind her ear. “Have you heard anything about your application?”
“Nothing yet, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t approve.”
“Are they still watching?”
Marcus nodded. “That will never stop, but if we are approved for marriage, it will eventually decrease. Let’s take this one day at a time, Anna.”
If Rebecca didn’t show mental improvement in the next six months, any hope of her life improving as Marcus’s wife would disappear.
No one spoke freely of the trauma women faced in the reproductive program. Now that Rebecca had reached twenty years old, the reproductive program had cast her aside as if she were no better than refuse on its way to the biodigester. Thankfully Marcus had set up a living space for her in the Medical Solutions zone where he worked.
“She’s lucky to have you, Marcus.” Anna reached into her pocket, feeling for the folded note.
The alert signal rang throughout Level 3. One hour left until the border closed for the evening. She picked up Marcus’s identical empty backpack, said goodbye, and promised to see him next month before darting back toward the border.
The bicycle remained right where she’d left it, unlocked, leaned against the rack. No one dared steal in their community; they’d be whipped if caught.
Less the burden of smuggled goods, her bicycle ride toward the border eased both physically and mentally. She reached the skybridge and paused this time to look out over the landscape. From Level 9, gray haze dominated the view, but here the smog thinned enough that she could see the ocean. She dismounted the bicycle and pushed it slowly toward the edge, weaving through the other riders and pedestrians who hurried across. She steadied the bicycle with one hand and pressed her forehead against the cool glass. The ocean stretched out, dark green with a shot of pink where the sun reflected on the horizon. Waves roiled with ashen foam.
Anna tapped the cool glass with her fingertips. She’d never known a life beyond the boundaries of glass and steel, yet her heart yearned for the freedom to run along the edge of the water.
By the time she reached the main courtyard, the crowd had diminished and the marketers were packing up. The Level 2 peddlers at the entrance to the corridor were already gone, leaving just a few trackers behind to close down the border for the night.
Anna reached into her jacket pocket for her pass. It wasn’t there. She ran her fingers over the open zipper of her pocket. Had it been open the entire time she traveled through Level 3? Had she just now unzipped it? A flush of heat rose from her chest into her face. She checked every pocket twice, shaking her head. No. It couldn’t be gone. She dropped to the floor, searched hopelessly for a clue to where it might be, and then checked Marcus’s empty bag to be sure.
The trackers standing along the walls stirred. The watchtower commander approached. She stood and straightened her shoulders, ready for the coming rush of confrontation.
Anna’s 4-D holographic image hovered on the computer screen as she waited in the sterile investigation room. She sat on a cold steel chair, her heart thumping, trying to guess what questions the commander would ask. Several minutes passed, and the tracker entered the room, carrying a sealed package and a small mechanical device, which he set down next to the computer. He wasn’t wearing his weapon and jacket; it made him seem different.
Anna could barely breathe.
The tracker opened the package and prepared a DNA swab. “Open your mouth.” He swabbed the inside of her cheek, their eyes meeting for a beat.
His brows were thick over intense blue eyes. His dark hair was neatly combed. She saw sweat stains under his arms.
“Again,” he said, holding the swab near her mouth.
He took two more samples from different areas inside her cheek before placing the evidence in the mechanical device. The machine whirred as it decoded her DNA, and within seconds, a second identical 4-D image appeared on the computer screen. Her igentity match.
The tracker took a seat in the chair opposite her and folded his arms. He observed her closely for so long she had to look away.
“Anna of NeoGen Lab, Level 9, City 6, you should be more careful with your pass.” He tossed her igentity pass to the center of the table.
How dare he scold a higher-level citizen? She should keep quiet and leave without a comment, but his tone left her feeling scolded. She stood and reached across the table to retrieve her pass.
“Sit down,” he ordered.
Anna froze mid-reach, stunned by the bite in his voice. Heat burned in her cheeks. She wouldn’t pass the thermal scanner without triggering the alarm now. She sat down again, willing her twitching left eye to calm down. “You have no reason to detain me,” she said, her voice forcefully subdued.
He leaned back on the steel chair and stared at her for several disconcerting seconds. Is he measuring my pulse? She clasped her hands in her lap and fixed her vision on the igentity pass lying on the table. She couldn’t hold his gaze. It would be more beneficial to feign submission anyhow.
“Where do you go when you visit Level 3?” He leaned forward in his seat and rested his forearms on the metal table.
Anna couldn’t tell him the truth, so she said nothing. He would know if she were lying.
“Trading for… jewelry? Or… opiates?”
She sensed his sarcasm. She didn’t wear jewelry and the clarity in her eyes proved her clean.
“Anna of NeoGen, your pack is empty.” He reached to the floor and lifted the empty backpack he’d confiscated earlier. He shook the pack. “But I did find something interesting.” He placed the folded note on the table next to her pass.
Anna’s stomach flipped. He’d already read it, but Rebecca knew enough not to use names or say anything that would identify the writer or the intended reader. The air in the room grew stale, the investigation suffocating.
“Who do you visit on Level 3?” he asked.
Trackers received training to watch for cues, body language, that would reveal if she were lying. She’d answer him only what he asked and no more.
“I met a friend.” She sat still, steadying her breath as she’d learned to do with mindfulness training.
He drummed his fingers on the steel tabletop. “And this friend is…”
“Marcus, of Medical Solutions.”
He cocked his head. “A friend from the science program?”
“Yes.” Her eyes flitted up to meet his, then lowered to the table again.
“A Med/Sol employee without clearance to the upper levels?”
“Yes. He chose to serve the lower levels.” Anna felt as if every breath was under examination.
He leaned back and scratched at the whiskers on his chin with three well-manicured fingers, still watching her breathe in and out for several seconds. “I’ll verify his track. If it checks out, you can go.”
He left the room. The coolness of shifting air as the door closed behind him felt good on her hot skin. She fixed her eyes on the items on the table, wanting to grab them and bolt out the door, but she waited for the tracker to return before moving an inch. She didn’t want another wrong move to delay her release.
He returned in full uniform with a thick black neuro-gun secured at his hip. He picked up the pass and the note, slipped them into his breast pocket, then motioned for her to follow. He returned her jacket and backpack, observing closely as she pushed her arms through the sleeves and repositioned the empty pack on her shoulder.
Now, several minutes after curfew, the border-crossing area was completely dark save for the dim lights lining the floor. He grasped her upper arm and escorted her down the dark hallway to the elevator. The tracker punched in his access code, and the lift buzzed to life, lights flickering. The elevator smelled of mildew at first, but then the ventilation system kicked in. Hairs that had fallen from her bun tickled her skin as the purified air flowed over her.
A feminine computerized voice said, “Good evening, Commander Troy. What is your destination?”
“Level 9, floor 114.”
The elevator ascended, but floor 114 was not her floor. Anna shifted from one foot to the other as she pulled at the strap of her backpack. “I live on—”
Troy gave her a pointed look, lifting a finger to his lips. Thirty or forty seconds later, the elevator doors opened with a low ping.
He took her upper arm again and walked her down the hall.
Anna resisted, but it only tightened his grip. “Where are you taking me?”
He guided her along without answering. Another tracker in the hall stepped out of the shadows. He saluted as they passed. Commander Troy headed for a door that opened to the darkened stairwell of the building. He drew her closer, and they started upward, each step in sync. After the first flight, she could hear him breathing heavier, and on the second landing, he released her arm. They climbed at a slower pace. Where was he taking her? Her heart thumped. She could still feel the impression of his harsh fingers on her upper arm, even though he wasn’t gripping her anymore.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said as if something tasted bad.
She pulled herself along the railing. “What are you going to do?”
The only light in the stairwell came from emergency lamps that glowed at the exits to each floor. The clean scent of disinfectant was evidence that a sanitation worker had recently mopped the staircase.
“I’m going to help you, and in return… you help me,” he said.
Why would someone with complete access to the entire high-rise need anything from her?
“NeoGen’s research,” he said.
They were both breathing heavier now, and Anna’s legs were feeling the strain of the climb. “It’s classified. Not even I know exactly what we are researching. I can’t get—”
“You can find a way. Do you think I don’t know exactly where you went on Level 3? I know what you dropped with your friend.” He stopped her at the bottom of the last set of steps. “Smuggling is criminal activity even if it is only fruit and paper. I don’t think the Primary Investigator would appreciate having a criminal in NeoGen Lab. Do you?”
He must have deliberately discontinued the investigation, asking only the protocol questions for the sake of records, but withheld information for himself. “No,” she agreed, still trying to quiet the drumming in her chest.
They continued up the steps to floor 117, where he opened the stairwell exit and again gripped her arm until they reached her unit.
At her door he leaned in close. “I’ll find you.” He pulled the igentity pass and note from his breast pocket. He pressed them into her hand before disappearing down the hall.