The blistering sequel to the instant New York Times bestselling Nemesis by Brendan Reichs.
Noah Livingston knows he is destined to survive.
The 64 members of Fire Lake's sophomore class are trapped in a place where morals have no meaning and zero rules apply. But Noah's deaths have trained him-hardened him-to lead the strongest into the future ... whatever that may be. And at any cost.
Min Wilder knows that survival alone isn't enough.
In a violent world where brute force passes for leadership, it's tempting to lay back and let everyone else battle it out. But Min's instincts rebel against allowing others to decide who lives and who dies. She's ready to fight for what she believes in. And against whomever might stand in her way.
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[MEGACOM SYSTEM OVERRIDE INPUT—ACCEPTED]
[USER—GUARDIAN . . . ACCEPTED] [CODE—
[BEGIN PROJECT NEMESIS PROGRAM PHASE TWO]
We went there to kill them all.
Fire and blood. Blood and fire.
I stalked through the midnight-dark woods, making as little noise as possible.
Kyle was beside me. Akio a step behind. We stole through the bare trunks like smoke, stepping lightly in our snowshoes, a pack of hungry wolves scenting prey. The target was still a foot- ball field away and a hundred feet downslope, but experience had taught me to be wary.
I’d been killed twice that week already, ambushed both times. Had no interest in another death. Resetting in new places had been disorienting. Unnerving. The rules had changed, and I didn’t know all the new ones yet. But I’d learn.
Reaching the tree line, I dropped to a knee and freed my boots from the snowshoes. An icy wind smacked me in the face, tingling my cheeks and scraping my nose like sandpaper. I peered down the plunging mountainside before me, a barren stretch of slope barely dusted with white despite deep drifts piled up on both sides.
A full moon hung low and huge in the sky, glowing like a candle. Squinting, I could see our objective: a log cabin at the bottom of the run—simple, rough-hewn, topped by a cedar-chip roof and a stone chimney. Soft yellow lamplight spilled from two blocky windows. Inhaling, I caught faint traces of burning pine.
I shook my head, nearly snorted in disbelief.
These classmates were cocky. They’d planted a double line of tiki torches that stabbed up the center of the slope. Angry orange f lames danced in the heavy gusts, ref lecting off the fro- zen landscape, creating pools of shadow and light among the encroaching trees.
The kids inside probably thought the torches made them safer. They didn’t.
Echoes of their laughter had risen all the way to our base at the mountaintop chalet. I was living in the same suite the black-suited man had once occupied, back in the real world, be- fore it died. Stepping out onto the ice-covered patio, I’d heard voices. Tasted wood smoke. Spotted the f lickering pinpricks a mile away.
I clicked my tongue at the memory. This cabin was firmly outside of downtown limits. An expansion into my territory. They were testing me. Mistake.
I glanced right, across twenty yards of open ground to a thicket on the opposite side of the slope, searching for the second prong of my strike force. This empty stretch would’ve made an excellent moguls trail. My father had earmarked it for development—a project that would never happen, in a future that would never be.
Did time mean anything now? Did it exist inside the Program?
It’d been three weeks since the Guardian revealed the true nature of our existence. How the planet had been destroyed by a series of cataclysms, our physical bodies burned to crisps. That the sixty-four members of Fire Lake’s sophomore class were all that remained of humanity, existing as digital lines of code in- side a supercomputer buried deep underground.
Some couldn’t accept it. Couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of being nothing more than ones and zeros. They walked around like zombies, or hid. A few even defied the Program, questioning its purpose. Refusing the Guardian’s instructions, as if things were somehow up for debate.
Idiots. The Program was purpose. The last hope of our spe- cies. It was the greatest gift anyone had ever received. To rebel against it was madness. Heresy. The smartest minds on Earth had crafted a single way forward for a few lucky souls. Who were we to question its dictates?
I’d been murdered over and over back in the real world, never knowing why, wracked by the pain and humiliation of thinking I was crazy. But I’d had it all wrong.
I was being trained. Prepared. I’d been chosen to lead the human race. I was special, to a nearly paralyzing degree. The hell I’d give the middle finger to the defining achievement of all human existence. The stakes were way too high.
During the chaos at Town Hall, I’d been momentarily con- f licted. The Guardian had disappeared back inside without fur- ther instructions. But I’d rallied quickly, focusing on what we’d been told. We had to sort ourselves. There’d be winners and losers. I needed to dominate the situation. And the first step was to carve out my own space.
So I did. Shooting Ethan had changed everything, for everyone.
Shooting Ethan? You mean shooting Min.
I flinched. Felt a heaviness in the pit of my stomach, even as I gritted my teeth.
She’d made her choice. Had given me no choice.
Min had rejected the Guardian, ignoring what we’d been prepared for. Everything we’d suffered through, our whole lives, as beta patients for Project Nemesis. She’d refused to see the truth—that the Program was our salvation. We had to follow its plan.
I’d been so angry. So frustrated and disappointed. I’d shot Min to make a point. To her and everyone else. This was our world now. Min would reset and be perfectly fine. The old rules didn’t apply. The Guardian’s rules were all that mattered.
It’s not like I’d enjoyed it.
After the massacre, everyone had scattered. I’d retreated to my father’s ski resort atop the northeastern slopes, the most defensible spot in the valley. To my surprise, several classmates had followed. People who understood the truth as I did.
The Program was everything. It required conflict. We would provide it.
But you don’t even know why. You’re flying blind.
I shook my head sharply to clear it. Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to stamp out a nagging voice that was determined to weaken me. My failures in life—the sad puddles of self- recrimination and doubt that had hounded me for years—were trying to sabotage me here, but I rejected them. I was strong now. I’d stay strong. Spineless Noah Livingston was dead.
Movement across the gap. I spotted Zach, skinny and moon- faced, standing upright and exposed, and waving like a human archery target. Behind him Morgan and Leah were motioning for him to get down, but he ignored them, even shaking off Morgan’s outstretched hand.
Smart girls. I should’ve put one of them in charge instead of
Zach. Too late now.
Not all of my followers were brilliant. Zach had even killed himself once, just to see what it was like. Moron. Suicide had to be against the Program, and was therefore unthinkable. I was fully committed to winning this phase, whatever that meant. And right then, it meant giving the people down in that cabin a really bad night.
I lifted a single fist overhead, then made a chopping motion and pointed at our target. Zach straightened, scratching his cheek, but Leah f lashed the okay sign. Her father was a National Guardsman, and her family owned the quarry at the western edge of the valley, which was why I’d chosen her for this mission. She had experience with flammables. Lifting two plastic canisters, Leah shoved one into Zach’s stomach and began picking her way downslope. Zach stomped after her, with Morgan bringing up the rear.
“Let’s go,” I said to Akio and Kyle, keeping my voice firm.
I didn’t relish what was coming, but I wasn’t agonizing over it. And I could never show weakness in front of the others. They had to believe I was the scariest thing on the mountain. Or else why would they follow me? Who’d follow the Noah Livingston from life, a guy who never stood up for anything?
Heat rose to my cheeks. Min shamed me, brought out all of my failings. All of the things I couldn’t afford to be in this world. Would my f laws always haunt me, even here?
This was a mission. Feelings didn’t matter.
Not here, not in this virtual proving ground we inhabited. I was doing what I was supposed to do.
Akio’s soft features tightened as he handed a fuel canister to Kyle. He didn’t want to do this, but could be counted on to follow orders. Fine by me. His conscience was irrelevant so long as he did his part. Akio had been the first to join me. If I trusted anyone, it was him.
Kyle smiled darkly. He was looking forward to the carnage, and I didn’t care about that, either.
Snowshoes hidden, we crept down the mountain, sticking to the trees as we mirrored our teammates on the opposite side. Zach quickly became a disaster—stumbling through the fro- zen underbrush, snapping branches and grunting in annoyance. Morgan hissed at him, but he ignored her warning, stepping out onto the slope to avoid a patch of pricker bushes.
I shook my head. I shouldn’t have included him, but I’d asked for volunteers and he’d spoken up first.
The wind sighed down to nothing. The night was as still as death, and nearly as cold. No birds. No chirping insects. Every sloppy footfall echoed down the icy hillside between the bordering woods, setting my teeth on edge. Zach drew level with the first pair of torches, casting a long black shadow that arrowed sharply back up the mountain.
A clicking sound.
Leah and Morgan froze.
Zach stomped a few more steps, then stopped abruptly, glancing back over his shoulder.
Shots rang out. One. Two. A half dozen.
Zach dropped like a puppet with its strings cut, a dark stain spreading on the icy ground beneath him.
Leah dove behind a round-bellied oak and rolled, her thick braid whipping like a bicycle spoke. Morgan’s body jerked as more cracks boomed up the mountainside. Then she slumped onto her butt, blubbering, glossy liquid spilling from her mouth.
Out on the slope, Zach’s body shimmered and disappeared. Leah was up and running, ignoring her fuel canister and
Morgan’s grasping hand as she bolted deeper into the forest. Three figures in dark ski jackets lurched from the shadows. Af- ter a cursory glance at Morgan, they tore after Leah, fanning out in an attempt to encircle her. Behind them, Morgan toppled over and stopped moving. Seconds later she vanished.
Two dead, another outnumbered and on the run. I didn’t care.
These people weren’t friends. The idea was nonsensical. As far as I was concerned, every kid in Fire Lake was my rival. I’d work with those I needed to, but I’d never lose sight of the goal. I had to win. I had to follow the rules and complete the phase.
Killing without knowing why? How is that strength?
"Enough," I hissed, startling my companions. Cheeks burning, I schooled my face to stillness. Doubt was poison, and I was letting it infect me at the worst time possible.
Dr. Lowell. Principal Myers. Sheriff Watson and all the others. Even Black Suit. They'd dedicated their lives to Project Nemesis, planning every detail. All so we had a chance to go on. I had to fulfill their vision. I had to live up to the faith they'd placed in me. I had to make the Program proud. Plus, Morgan and Zach would be back in the valley in a matter of minutes.
Kyle and Akio were backing away from the slope, preparing to bolt. I snapped my fingers, freezing them in their tracks. "Our scouts counted ten people," I whispered. "Three just went after Leah. Our job got easier."
Akio shifted, a hand shooting up to rub the back of his neck. Kyle swallowed, gave me a shaky thumbs-up. I turned and set off downhill, not watching to see if they followed. I knew they would.
We ghosted the remaining distance, sticking to the woods on our side, avoiding the flickering torchlight. I stopped in a copse of pine trees directly across from the cabin. The single window facing us was dark, perhaps a bedroom. It made for a clean approach.
A freezing gust swept down from the snowcapped heights, rattling branches and leaching the heat from my skin. I rubbed my flaking nose. Scanned for any sign we'd been seen. God, it was cold. But not for long.
I led them across open ground, past the line of torches to an ancient, billowing cedar standing beside the cabin like a sentinel. Just then the front door opened. We dove to the ground, crawling under the cedar's low-slung branches. Flattening onto my stomach, I held my breath, one hand creeping toward the pistol in the back of my waistband.
Derrick Morris stood blinking in the doorway, his silhouette unmistakable, skyscraper-tall and haloed in yellow light. He was woefully underdressed in jeans and a short-sleeve T-shirt. I don't think he was even wearing shoes.
"Lars? Charlie?" he called. "What the hell are y'all shooting at?" Derrick listened for a moment, rubbing his dark skin to ward off the chill. Then he shook his head, muttering to himself "Trigger-happy derps, always popping off." The door closed. Voices rose within, but no one else came outside.
I eased up into a crouch. One of Ethan's top lieutenants was here, and he wasn't paying close enough attention. No guards. No lookouts. I guessed those people were all chasing Leah up the mountain. The rest weren't taking any extra precautions, even after hearing shots fired. We'd teach them quite a lesson.
I swiveled on one knee, tapped the canisters in my companions' hands, then pointed at the cabin. Spun an index finger. They nodded-one excited, the other scared to death. But they both moved forward, slinking toward the dark side of the house.
No shouts of alarm rang out. The door stayed firmly shut.
Akio and Kyle split apart, hugging the outside walls as they circled the building, dousing its wooden foundation with liquid. Then they scurried back to my position under the cedar, tossing the now-empty canisters aside.
On his knees, Kyle dug into his pocket and withdrew a book of matches. Leering darkly, he started to rise, but I stopped him with a hand to his chest. Kyle frowned, then nodded and sank back down.
I was in charge. I’d light the fire.
Crawling from beneath the branches, I gave the cabin a final inspection, every sense on high alert. It was time to finish the job.
I strode directly for the front door, making no effort to dis- guise my approach. Passing a woodpile, I snagged a long, thick branch, twirling it in my hands as I mounted the porch.
The door had a wide, refrigerator-style handle. I ran the branch through the opening until it extended all the way across the door frame. I paused, then stepped down and grabbed another tree limb, doubling the barricade.
No one came to the door. I almost laughed. A dark part of me was tempted to call out and give them a far-too-late warning, but I resisted the urge. The Program wanted results, not grandstanding.
I walked down to the yard. Grabbed a torch and carried it back to the house.
The wind dropped like an accomplice. The forest held its breath. Time stood still.
Because it was still. Time was as dead as me.
I tossed the torch at the base of the doorway. Felt the bone-deep concussion of fire being born as it raced along the fuel-drenched logs. Orange tendrils sprang up around the foundation, encircling the cabin, eating hungrily into wood.
The door began jerking inward as flames engulfed it, but the branches held. Then fists began to pound, rising in intensity as shrieks erupted to match. I stepped back into the yard, removed my father’s Beretta 9 mm, and racked the slide. The wind re- turned, and a furnace blast of dry heat struck my face, forcing me to retreat a few more paces.
Smoke billowed. Enveloped the house in a whirly black fist. The screaming reached a crescendo. The branches finally splintered and the door flew open. I fired into the inferno, emptying the Beretta’s magazine. I quickly reloaded, but no one emerged. No one even got close. I put the gun away and watched the fire rage. Heard Akio throwing up behind me.
Six at least. Maybe seven.
Then I felt something . . . twist in my head. An electric charge that snapped and sizzled, matching the conflagration reflected in my eyes before vanishing as quickly as it came.
Kyle was yelling something, but couldn’t get close. The cabin burned like a Roman candle, entrancing me. Then Akio raced forward and grabbed my arm, covering his face with a sleeve as he pointed toward the trees. I nodded as if coming awake. We should leave. Everyone inside was surely gone, transported to one of the four reset zones, waiting to rejoin the Program’s version of reality.
This was a minor victory. A slap on the wrist. A warning. My head felt thick and gummy. The front of my parka was a melted ruin. But the screech of breaking glass snapped me back into focus. Shrugging free of my companions, I trotted around to the rear of the cabin, dazed and confused but determined to finish anything left undone.
A girl had launched herself through the back window in a desperate attempt to avoid the f lames, but it was clearly too late. The fire had left her unrecognizable. Breathing raggedly, she lay on the ground, her hands making red lines as she pawed at the snow.
The girl’s eyes opened. She stared up at the sky with a silent plea. Then her head lolled, and a lock of gleaming black hair spilled onto her ruined cheek.
My heart stopped. The air left my lungs. I lurched forward, one hand shooting out as bile climbed my windpipe. Then I noticed the girl’s melted leather boot with a smiley-face sticker on its heel. I gagged, coughed hard.
Not Min. But I knew who it was.
Something shifted inside me. A hairline crack. Water seeping into stone.
I swallowed, fingers trembling as I dropped my hand and squeezed it into a fist. I stood there, frozen, breathless, waiting for the body to disappear. Guilt—sharp and stinging—exploded within me. Burning like that must’ve been excruciating.
I tried to brush the thought aside. This girl would wake up unharmed in minutes, alone in the woods without a scratch on her. She’d have done the same to me.
Piper. Her name is Piper Lockwood.
Piper’s eyes found mine. We’d never been close, but she’d sat two rows in front of me in English Comp. She’d tap her toes under her chair when bored, stickered boot heels smiling back at me.
The rift inside me deepened. Cracks spread like spiderwebs. No. I wouldn’t go back. I’d worked too hard to bury my demons.
But her body was still there, still quivering, still slumped atop a pile of dirty leaves. Her hand spasmed. A silver ring had melted around her pinky finger. The smell of roasted meat filled my nostrils, and I nearly emptied my stomach.
My teeth dug into my bottom lip. A cloud slipped in front of the moon, swamping the yard in darkness, leaving only the f lames to whisper what we’d done.
My hand rose. Two shots rang out.
Akio gasped beside me, staring at Piper’s now-still body as tears cut tracks down his ash-covered cheeks. “She didn’t . . . This wasn’t . . .” he stammered, his chin dropping to his chest.
I put a hand on his shoulder, somehow freed by his show of weakness. It clarified things like a magnifying glass. This was a different world, with different rules. Only the strong would survive, and that meant doing hard things. I had to be vigilant against my own inadequacy. “It’s okay, man. It’s best to send people along quickly.”
So why’d it take you so long?
Akio nodded, staring at his boots. He wasn’t cut out for this. Then a new wave of energy struck me, dwarfing the one from before.
My scalp tingled. Electricity ran up and down my limbs. It filled me. Remade me.
Suddenly I was back in the park beside town square, playing basketball with my friends. Ethan and I were on the same team for once, and we were passing circles around the Nolan twins. The air was crisp, the sky so blue it felt unfair. A slight breeze swept up off the lake, ruff ling my hair and tingling my sweat- slicked skin. I knew I was on fire, couldn’t be guarded. That no one could stop me that day. Ethan knew it, too. He threw me the ball, backing up to give me room. I dribbled through my legs, wobbling Mike, then stepped back and shot over his out- stretched hand, the ball sliding through the net like prophecy. Ethan lifted me up and we whooped like idiots. I glanced over and saw Min sitting on the grass with Sarah and the other girls, her eyes rolling as she shook her head at us. My smile grew ten times wider.
The scene—memory?—winked out, but the elation remained.
I drank in the sensation. Felt galvanized, head to toe. I stared at my hands, flexing and unflexing my fingers. I was so close to the Program I could weep.
Fire and blood. Blood and fire.
Program wants? Program gets.
This was my world. Or it would be soon. “Guys?”
I glanced over at Kyle, who was chewing on his thumb, his face lit up by the bonfire raging behind us. He pointed. “Why’s she still here?”
I turned. Stiffened. Piper had stopped moving, but hadn’t vanished.
My blood ran cold, a dark corner of my mind jabbering for attention. Piper was still lying on the frozen ground. She wasn’t miles away, restored and repaired, waking up with only a bad memory for her trouble.
She wasn’t moving. Or breathing. She refused to fade away. Inside me, something snapped. Surety dissolved like a sandcastle at high tide.
Piper’s scorched body defied me like an accusation. The truth was inescapable.
Someone inside the Program hadn’t reset.
You’re a murderer.