Author Archives: Dean

The Society Chapter 1 (Re-read)(No Spoilers)

I haven’t posted an update for nearly two months, but that was because I was so busy re-reading the books. I’ve got a bit of a lead now, so if I try to release notes from a chapter every week or so, I should be able to stay ahead of things.

Here are some of my notes from Chapter 1. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, but please don’t post any spoilers for someone who might be reading along. I’ll make another post for spoilers.

I’ve said it before–I try to write the kinds of books that I enjoy reading. Writing a book was part bringing to life an idea and part discovering where an idea was going to go as I wrote it.

I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I really enjoyed reading the bit before the start of Chapter 1, told from the point of view of someone from the Society. I don’t know if it grabbed anyone else, but it has me really excited to re-read this book.

I was also shocked when I saw the copyright date. 2014 seems like so long ago. It looks like I published it in July of 2015, but apparently I did the bulk of the writing roughly 8 years ago. In some ways, it feels like it was just yesterday that I was writing it. In other ways it feels like a lifetime ago. So much has happened since then.

It was fun to contrast the opinions that the ‘grubbers’ and ‘ants’ have of each other. It feels like people in the U.S. have continued to get more and more entrenched in their positions and vilify each other. It was bad enough eight years ago when I wrote this. I feel like it’s only gotten worse since then.

In hindsight, it feels like I went back and forth in this chapter as to how much information the people in the city had about Skye’s people, and what they were up to. That’s unfortunate, but hopefully it’s not too much of a distraction for the reader.

I really like writing super-powered people. Skye’s take down of the two enforcers was quick and brutal, much like you’d expect from someone who received military training, but I love that she hesitated afterwards. It’s one of many little signs that her programming is probably not as complete as her superiors think it is.

If this is your first time through The Society, what aspect of this book are you most looking forward to?

Jun 2022 Update (Back to Writing)

I’ve received some very kind emails and comments lately from some of you, both expressing your love of my books and wondering how things have been going.

I’ve struggled with what to say, so I’m going to keep it brief, and if you want more details, please let me know in the comments. I’m happy to add additional details by way of comments if there is something that you all want to know.

Everyone is healthy. We weathered all of the COVID lockdowns without getting seriously ill or losing our employment, which was a blessing on many levels. I’m very busy with the day job, and things are often stressful, but I don’t seem to be in danger of being fired anytime soon, so I feel more fortunate than many.

I’m going to commit to doing all of the work to get the next A Broken World book off to the editor this year. I haven’t talked to any of my editors–some of them may not even be interested in doing any editing for me at this point–so I can’t promise a specific release date, but I’ll get my part done so that the book can move to the next stage and be one step closer to being released.

I’ll try to check back in here as I complete milestones. It’s been long enough since I touched the series that I’m going to need to re-read it. Maybe I’ll post some thoughts about each book as I go and we can have discussions in the comments. Is that something that you’d all be interested in doing? Please let me know in the comments.

Some of you will be excited to hear that I’m advancing Skye’s story. Others will be most interested in knowing when you’ll get another Reflections book. I’m afraid that I can’t make any promises there at this point. This next release will impact probable timelines. My hope is that it does well, and that will light a fire under me to get more books released around my other commitments.

And with that, I’m headed to bed.

All the best,


Mailing List Update

I made some changes recently to the mailing list signup process. I went back to a Google groups approach. It has the benefit of being free, and I suspect that the emails sent out via Google groups have a much higher probability of making it in front of you all than the service I’ve been using.

If you have problems signing up, please drop a comment here on the blog, or shoot me an email and I’ll see what I can do to fine-tune things.

Things at the Murray Household (Apr 2019 Edition)

Another quick update post so that you all have an idea of what’s going on at the Murray house.

I really appreciate all of you who reached out with kind words after my last email. I really wanted to respond to each of you individually. That hasn’t proven to be something that I could do, but I’ve read each of the emails, and it was really heartwarming to hear from so many of you.

Given that I can’t reach out to you all individually, a blog post seems like the best way to update as many of you as possible.

I believe I let you all know that I was fired in October. I found another job in November, went to three months of training, and then started doing actual computer programming again.

Unfortunately, the company I was working for wasn’t able to land the new work they thought was going to materialize when they hired me. In March, all of the employees of the company were laid off. I was on a project at the time, so I was the last one to be let go.

I had some advance warning that something like that might be coming, so I started networking in Feb, and then actively looking for another job when the rest of the employees were laid off.

While nobody likes to be laid off, I feel fortunate on a few counts. Firstly, I was fortunate in that I was the last one let go, so I’ve had 3 extra weeks to look while still working that the rest of my coworkers didn’t get.

Secondly, this parting was much more amicable. It’s also a lot less devastating when you see it coming than when it blindsides you.

Lastly, the advice I got from a family friend that I should try and get into the ServiceNow ecosystem seems to have been really good advice. I haven’t landed a new job yet, but I’ve had quite a few interviews and second interviews. The percentage of applications turning into interviews that I’ve been seeing is fairly unprecedented in my experience, and speaks to the strong demand for talent in the space and the relative scarcity of people with the needed skills.

As far as the allergies go, we seem to have gotten the baby to a baseline diet where he’s not having problems. It’s really limited, and we haven’t had much luck yet adding additional foods to Katie’s diet, which is rough for her, but it’s progress.

With our oldest, Katie did a ton of research looking for foods that were less likely to cause Daughter #1 problems, and then we put her on a very restricted diet as well. We got her to a baseline where she was doing really well, and then she got sick with some kind of viral bug and her symptoms flared back up.

On the writing side of things, I’ve been experimenting with Facebook ads again. I’ve got a small spend that is roughly break even each week, but haven’t managed to replicate the 2015 experience and scale it up to where it is bringing in significant numbers of new readers.

We’ll keep pushing forward with our fingers crossed and see where we end up.

The Outsider Sales Results

I promised to let you all know how the release of The Outsider went, and enough time has passed now for the dust to have settled, so it’s time to fulfill that promise.

Since the release of The Outsider until the end of Feb 2019, I’ve sold 66 copies and grossed $220.

I have to be careful or these posts come off as complaining rather than just sharing information, but to me a post like this begs for some level of analysis.

Obviously, A Broken World hasn’t been as popular as the Reflections series, but I saw similar problems with the last few releases in the Reflections universe, just on a different scale.

Given that the other books in the series have sold at least 10 times as many copies as The Outsider has, I have to believe that my biggest problem with the release of The Outsider was people who know and love the series not finding out that there was another entry in the series.

The initial hope so many years ago was that my mailing list would help side-step that problem, but I think that the various email providers have continued to get more and more aggressive about filtering stuff out of peoples’ main inbox as the email spammers have continued to get more aggressive.

It’s possible that I can still find a way to get through to the readers who would purchase the book if they knew about it. That will be my next focus so that I can get to the point where the release of a book is back to at least paying for my editing costs.

The Outsider Chapters…

I’m so sorry to any of you that came here looking for the chapters of The Outsider that I promised you. With everything that we had going on here at the Murray house, I knew that I was going to struggle to make it onto my blog every week and post each week’s chapter, so I carved out a couple of hours and scheduled all of the posts at once.

I’ve been operating under the assumption that WordPress published all of the posts on schedule, but when I logged onto by site this morning to post and update I found out that they are just sitting in the blog queue with ‘missed schedule’ next to each of them.

I’ve used that functionality other times without problem, so I’m not sure what went wrong this time, but I’ve gone ahead and pushed the other 6 chapters live. Again, apologies for missing that there had been a problem.


The Outsider – Chapter 7

Author’s Note: With the release of The Outsider on the horizon, I’m posting a new chapter each week here for my readers to enjoy. You can find Chapter 1 here.

Escaping the Society’s high-tech enclave the first time cost Skye both her mother and her innocence.

Going back required the betrayal of Brennan and everything Skye loved.

Now Skye is back on the outside. She’s on the run, isolated and hunted by new horrors that threaten the entire world.

The fate of humanity hinges on Skye finding Brennan, but doing so while being chased by the entire might of the enclave’s military may prove too costly, even for Skye.


Chapter 7

It took a couple of minutes for me to see to my wounds, pull my shoes back onto my battered feet, and then reorient myself with regards to what I remembered of Cutter’s building, but soon enough I was able to begin creeping through darkened hallways. I once again had my pistol out, relying on the darkness to make it difficult for any Society micro-drones to recognize it as an ant-issue weapon, but I was still hoping to avoid having to use it before I made it to Tyrell’s throne room.

Even with the admittedly significant wounds I’d taken so far on this mission, I was still a match for—or even the superior of—any single enforcer, but it would only take one shout to muster dozens of enemies against me, and now that I was inside the building there would be nowhere for me to run.

In spite of all of my fears that Tyrell would have posted guards inside the stairwells to block off the vulnerabilities we’d exploited in order to put him in power, I didn’t run into anybody until right outside of Tyrell’s throne room, and the fact that I’d been expecting guards there meant that I was able to sneak a peek around the corner to case out the situation without them seeing me.

A number of tiredly flickering torches up and down the hallway ensured that there weren’t any shadows in which to hide, which meant that I was left with undertaking a direct assault, exactly the kind of thing that I’d been hoping to avoid. Once again wishing that I’d thought to get my hands on some kind of silencer before being forced to leave the enclave, I leaned around the corner in an attempt to confirm that Tyrell’s guards were in fact Cutter’s people, rather than some of the junior guardsmen Brennan and the others had managed to sneak into Cutter’s territory along with Lexis and the other noncombatants.

It was hard to be sure given the poor quality of the lighting and the distances involved, and even if that hadn’t been the case I wasn’t confident in my ability to recognize all of Brennan’s people by sight. I was fairly sure that the guard closest to me was too old and rough-looking to be one of our people, but I wasn’t that confident when it came to the other guard, which meant that I didn’t want to just charge in guns blazing and hope that someone from our side didn’t get caught up as collateral damage.

I debated how direct an assault I was comfortable with, and then after a few seconds simply stood and stumbled around the corner into the open with my left hand up as though shielding my eyes from the torchlight, and my right hand down at my side so that it looked relaxed while ensuring that my gun was mostly hidden behind my own body.

“You’re not supposed to be in this corridor.”

I shook my head as though having a hard time understanding what the closest guard had just said—either drunk or impaired by something even more potent—and slurred my words. “Do you know where Vikram is? I’m supposed to be with Vikram, but I seem to be lost.”

I giggled in an effort to sound as nonthreatening as possible, and hoped that neither guard would be able to make out the blood on my clothes against the black fabric. Vikram had been one of the few enforcers I could remember from my time in Cutter’s territory, a big guy who’d spent most of our brief exchanges leering at me, so I assumed it was a safe bet that he usually had a girl or two in his room on any given night, but apparently being part of Riker’s power bloc had turned even more dangerous than I’d expected after Tyrell got rid of me.

“Vikram has been dead for weeks. Who are you?”

Even as he spoke, the enforcer closest to me lifted his weapon, a war ax that seemed like a poor choice for someone expecting to fight inside such close quarters, but he might as well just have been holding a broom for all the good it did him. Somewhere between my having made it into the building and that moment, my nanites had started working again, and they’d shifted back to a more standard set of protocols so gradually that I didn’t even notice anything had changed until another jolt of adrenaline hit my system and my heart began racing again.

Between one step and the next I abandoned the stumble I’d been using and shot forward with all of the speed and grace I could’ve asked for. My first round took the closest enforcer between the eyes, which meant he dropped with the kind of instant suddenness that only occurred when the brain abruptly stopped sending signals out to the rest of the body, but in spite of how quickly he dropped, I’d already made it to his body even before his shoulders hit the ground.

The sound of my gunshot—loud enough to wake almost the entire building—was still echoing through the corridor as I made it to the doors and fired two shots so close together they almost sounded like one. Bullets slammed into the long bones in the second enforcer’s leg a couple of inches below his knee, and he was suddenly as safe as I could make him without wasting the time required to knock him out. He could scream and he could crawl after me, but screaming wasn’t going to do anything to alert anyone who hadn’t already heard not just one but three gunshots in the last couple of seconds, and he wasn’t going to be able to wield his sword with any effectiveness while on his hands and knees.

I blew past the doors into the throne room with my head on a pivot, trying to verify that Tyrell hadn’t stationed any guards where they would be able to ambush me even before I made it to the corridor leading into his personal quarters. Moving through a world that seemed to be stuck in slow motion, it took just over three seconds for me to cross the throne room and hit the set of double doors there with my shoulder.

I’d known even before I collided with the door that it was going to hurt to run into all of that metal, but I’d already re-tasked some of my nanites to strengthen my bones, and unless I was prepared to risk being locked out of Tyrell’s personal quarters I didn’t have the option of taking a less aggressive approach. Even so, the crunch as my left shoulder hit the door hurt badly enough that it was all I could do to carry forward with my plan to turn my fall into a roll.

I was fortunate on two accounts—first that the enforcer just inside the door hadn’t finished barring it before I slammed into it, and second that I’d known both enforcers would be right on top of me once I was inside the corridor. If I hadn’t rolled when I did, the razor-sharp sword that sliced through the air just above waist height would have cut me in half, but I did—in spite of the agony I experienced as both my side wound and my broken left shoulder protested the action—which meant that I came up behind both enforcers before they could react to my unexpected behavior.

I shot each man once, four inches below the knee, and then used their pain and surprise to allow myself to close and pistol-whip both of them into unconsciousness. I’d debated just shooting both of them a second time, but I didn’t really expect to be able to brute-force my way past the final door and I figured that it was better to save my bullets given how likely I was to need them in just a moment.

Lifting the heavy metal bar into place once I’d pushed both doors closed again was every bit as agonizing as I’d been expecting it to be, but fortunately Tyrell wasn’t feeling adventurous and chose to remain cowering inside his quarters rather than coming out and attacking me while I was most vulnerable.

I could hear yells coming from somewhere outside the throne room and it seemed almost as though the entire building vibrated with the sound of running steps, but now that I had something substantial between myself and the rest of the world, Tyrell’s remaining men were much less of a concern than they otherwise would’ve been. Moving now with only a shadow of my normal speed and grace, I walked over to the last remaining obstacle between Tyrell and me, and put four closely spaced shots into the door right around the handle.

Fully aware of the fact that Tyrell was the third or fourth most dangerous person on the planet behind Alexander and Megan with their insanely high nanite loads, I kicked the door open and threw myself into the room hoping that I was moving fast enough to avoid being shot if Tyrell had smuggled some kind of firearm into the territory with him. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the wrong thing to do.

Tyrell was waiting in the perfect spot to engage me in hand-to-hand combat as my momentum dissipated, and he took advantage of everything his nanites had to offer in his opening attack. Tyrell’s fist moved so fast that even with my nanites augmenting my time sense I still almost couldn’t follow his attack, but somehow I managed to slide my head out of the way at the last moment, and then it was my turn to attack in spite of being off balance and unprepared for this kind of fight.

I slammed my left foot forward, connecting with Tyrell’s shin in a blow that would’ve probably broken the leg of almost anyone else, but Tyrell simply grunted and responded with a punch to my shoulder that I was only partially successful in avoiding. The same lightning-fast reflexes that had carried me this far were still in effect, and I moved with the kind of speed that even I hadn’t realized I was capable of, but my shoulder was a much bigger, less mobile target and even trying to ride the blow out was a losing proposition given just how much damage my joint had already sustained.

I howled in pain as I dropped down to one knee to avoid his follow-up blow, and then it finally clicked for me that in spite of my superior training there was no way I could hope to beat Tyrell with only one arm. As Tyrell drew his right foot back to deliver a kick that I had no doubt would knock me unconscious, I reached forward with my gun and shot him in the other foot.

I’d been hoping to avoid bringing my pistol into play simply because any time I pulled the trigger there was a chance that I would kill somebody in spite of any intent to simply wound, but as they always did, bullets proved to be the equalizer I needed. Tyrell lost his balance for just long enough that I was able to lurch to my feet, slamming my right shoulder into his midsection as I shot him again, this time midway between his knee and hip.

The one and only time I’d ever gone up against Tyrell before, he’d had the advantage simply because his nanites had been several generations ahead of mine, but if I’d had any doubt about his determination those doubts wouldn’t have survived his response to being shot not just once, but twice. In spite of the incredible pain he had to be in, Tyrell bounced right back.

Unfortunately for him, I knew exactly how to exploit his lack of mobility. I ducked down beneath his punch and slammed the butt of my pistol into the back of his knee with enough force to bring him down in spite of everything his nanites could do. Based off of what I’d seen up to that point, I figured that Tyrell would come at me again if given the chance, but this time I was ready for him and he froze as soon as he felt the muzzle of my pistol against his forehead.

“There are a lot of people depending on me, people whose welfare you’re concerned about. Think very carefully about what you’re going to do next.”

The voice still mostly belonged to Cutter, which was no surprise given how much was riding on the ants not figuring out that Cutter had been replaced by Alexander’s mortal enemy, but the cadence and word choice were one hundred percent Tyrell. I was even pretty sure that Tyrell had taken liberties with his vocal cords, instructing his nanites to morph Cutter’s voice back slightly closer to his own natural sound.

It was an astonishing display of quick thinking, and even in spite of my distrust and borderline hatred for Tyrell I still couldn’t help but be impressed. In the final analysis, though, it was as unnecessary as it was dangerous. Tyrell didn’t need to remind me of the link the two of us had, not when he’d picked his first line of defense so perfectly. I couldn’t kill him without endangering Brennan and the others, but there was nothing to say that I couldn’t make a concerted effort to convince him otherwise.

Moving with speed that prevented even him from trying to take advantage of the opening I was creating, I moved the barrel of my pistol over a fraction of an inch and pulled the trigger, creasing the side of his head with a bullet at the same time that the discharge of white-hot gunpowder seared Tyrell’s skin.

“I think that you’re underestimating just how much I hate you. You nearly beat me to death.”

If our positions had been reversed there was a very real chance that I would’ve attacked, risking almost certain death in an effort to bring Tyrell down before he could kill me, but Tyrell was much more controlled than that. He blinked away the blood running down his face and slowly shook his head at me.

“I would point out that you could have easily blinded me just now, but it’s obvious that you’re not thinking rationally enough to appreciate just how stupid you’re being, so instead I’ll just say that the operative word in your last statement is ‘nearly’. I could have indeed killed you if that’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t. I smuggled you out to people who could take care of you, and then I went back to making sure I got the job done, the job you were supposed to be helping me with, not making it almost impossible.”

“I should’ve known that you would find a way to turn this around and claim that you were the wronged party. If there’s one thing I should know by now it’s that your ego knows no bounds, Cutter.”

My emphasis on his assumed name wasn’t lost on Tyrell any more than it would’ve been for me if I’d been the one kneeling on the floor with the hot barrel of a large caliber pistol pressed up against my forehead, but if anything, Tyrell seemed to be enjoying the circumlocutions involved in talking without mentioning anything we didn’t want the ants to know.

“It’s not about me, it’s about the job. I have things I need to do in order to keep other worse things from happening—all of which you very well knew when you signed on to help me. Your job was to make sure that I was able to do my job, but instead you went off and put me in an untenable position in a misguided attempt to save some poor kid who probably wouldn’t make it to see his next birthday—regardless of anything you or I did or didn’t do. I thought the people depending on you meant more to you than that.”

“Is it really just that easy to you? Can you honestly just stand by and condemn all those people to death without a second thought? You know as well as I do that Riker was dirty—if you didn’t at the time, then you figured it out shortly thereafter—it’s the only explanation for you having purged the rest of his people.”

I was on dangerous ground and I knew it. The man Tyrell was pretending to be wouldn’t have thought anything about killing dozens or even hundreds of people if that was what was required to keep him in power, but I wasn’t as good at thinking on my feet as Tyrell, and there were things that I needed to say, things that were important enough to me to even risk unmasking Brennan and the others.

“Nothing about what I do is easy, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has to be done. I’m trying to build something here, something that is more important than the life of some peasant boy, which I thought you of all people would understand, but it’s become obvious to me that you’re just as weak as your mother. If that wasn’t the case, you would’ve realized that you weren’t doing that boy any good by interfering with Riker’s plans.”

I was suddenly sure that there was more to Tyrell’s words than there appeared to be at first glance, and a cold wind blew through me. “What did you do to him? What did you do to that boy?”

“I did what had to be done, what you made me do when you turned him into a focal point for every rebel inside this territory. You spared him from losing his eye, but I’m not sure he would thank you for that if he was still around to say anything.”

It was all I could do not to pull the trigger on my gun and blow Tyrell’s brains out the back of his head, but as much as I hated him at that moment, I still needed him if I was going to have any chance of finding Brennan and the others. Instead of shooting him I pistol-whipped him and then stuck the gun back against his head once he’d gotten back to his knees.

“That’s better than you deserve, but I can’t afford to kill you right now, not while so much hinges on your survival. Don’t get me wrong though, some day when you’re less irreplaceable, I fully intend on seeing to it that you get the same fate as that boy you killed. Now tell me how to find the people I’m looking for.”

Tyrell slowly reached up and wiped blood away from the corner of his mouth. “I was warned that you’d become more than a little unhinged, but I didn’t think even you could be this far gone after such a short time. You can’t honestly think that I’m really the bad guy here.”

Almost in spite of myself, I took up some of the slack in my trigger, leaving nothing but a few ounces of pressure between Tyrell and death. “I’m not going to ask again. Tell me what I want to know or I’ll kill you and take my chances looking by myself.”

“And how am I supposed to do that, exactly? You want me to just say the words out loud and hope nobody important overhears?”

“I don’t care how you convey the message so long as you convey it without saying anything you’re not supposed to say. Write it down, draw a map—I don’t care what it takes, I just want you to tell me what I need to know so that I can go protect him.”

Tyrell looked up at me—still wearing Cutter’s face—and there was something in his eyes that almost would’ve convinced me he was telling the truth if I hadn’t seen firsthand just how good he was at lying to people.

“You and I aren’t so different. I put on a show because that’s what someone in my position has to do, but I didn’t like killing the boy any more than you would have. I gave him a clean death because that was what was required to protect a different boy, one who means even more to me than he does to you.”

“I know that you’re stalling, but I’m not stupid enough to let your guys break down the door and come save you. If I hear those doors come down, I’ll shoot you whether I have what I came here for or not.”

“Actually, I’m not stalling. I’m just trying to explain why I’m giving you another chance in spite of everything you just did to me. Try not to hurt her, Steve.”

The Outsider – Chapter 6

Author’s Note: With the release of The Outsider on the horizon, I’m posting a new chapter each week here for my readers to enjoy. You can find Chapter 1 here.

Escaping the Society’s high-tech enclave the first time cost Skye both her mother and her innocence.

Going back required the betrayal of Brennan and everything Skye loved.

Now Skye is back on the outside. She’s on the run, isolated and hunted by new horrors that threaten the entire world.

The fate of humanity hinges on Skye finding Brennan, but doing so while being chased by the entire might of the enclave’s military may prove too costly, even for Skye.


Chapter 6

In spite of an ongoing fear that some freak combination of atmospheric conditions would keep me stuck at Brennan’s old base for months, eventually a sufficiently dense bank of clouds rolled in and I was able to take off and head toward Cutter’s territory. After my previous encounters with ant fighters, I spent the entire flight worried that someone would spot me and I’d be forced to engage in another dogfight, but my trip was as uneventful as it was tense, and all too soon I found myself faced with the question of where to land and how to get to Tyrell.

As much as I would’ve liked to just park my fighter on the top of Tyrell’s headquarters building, doing that would virtually guarantee that some ant analyst would figure out everything that we’d spent so much effort trying to keep secret. I’d known from the start that I would have to park somewhere in the wilderness outside the city, but the real question was how far away to go. I didn’t want to land close enough that one of Tyrell’s foragers would stumble upon my fighter, but by the same measure, if I landed too far away it would increase the chance that an ant patrol would see me as I was hiking to the city. Just as important, landing further away from the city would leave me that much further from safety if things went sideways while I was talking to Tyrell.

In the end, I decided to make sure that none of the city’s inhabitants would be likely to find my aircraft, and parked my fighter between a pair of massive trees that were almost a full day’s hike from the city. The trees were both large enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that they’d been alive since shortly after the Desolation, which was important mostly because it meant that my fighter would have extra cover from any kind of orbital surveillance. I pulled out my camouflage netting and used it to protect the fighter from being seen by anyone approaching from a lower altitude, but decided to forgo both the solar panels and the refueling hose.

I didn’t particularly like passing up a chance to refuel my fighter, but figured it was more important to make sure I would be able to take off at the drop of a hat if the need arose. In a worst-case situation, I could probably get by if I had to leave the camouflage netting behind, but the same couldn’t be said of the solar panels. Without them, I would have no way of replacing my fuel reserves, which would be the end of any hope of meeting back up with Brennan.

Of course, deciding against deploying the solar panels had one other ramification that I hadn’t considered when I’d first started roughing in my plan for how to corner Tyrell. Without solar panels the draw from Sadie’s optical processor would be a significant expenditure of resources. That wouldn’t have concerned me too much, but I had used up a significant amount of hydrogen making the trip up from the jungle, and I had no way of knowing how long I would be stuck inside the city.

After a couple of minutes of debate I decided that I just couldn’t risk making it back to the airplane with some kind of pursuit hot on my tail and finding out I had only an hour or two worth of flight time. I reached for the power feed into the processor, half expecting another warning to pop up in front of my eyes, but this time nothing happened until I actually disconnected the cable.

Keep the processor with you.

“What, no demand that I leave you plugged in slowly sucking down all of my hydrogen? I thought unplugging you was going to cause a catastrophe.”

Several additional seconds passed without any kind of response, and I turned to go, fed up and fully intending on leaving the processor behind, and then I got another message.

Please, Skye. Take the device with you. It’s important.

I hesitated, torn between my natural paranoia and my trust in Sadie, but in the end half-formed fears that the optical processor was simply a disguise for some kind of high-tech explosive weren’t a match for the bond I’d felt with Sadie during the short time I’d been inside the enclave. Sighing over the extra energy expenditure that lugging the cube across the better part of sixty miles was going to require, I slipped the device into the unobtrusive backpack I’d carried away with me from the enclave.

The trip into the city proved both more and less difficult than I’d feared. The terrain was every bit as untamed as I’d been expecting, but I didn’t run into any major natural barriers, which meant that I didn’t have to make the kind of extensive detours that would’ve been required if I’d found a ravine or major river along the route I’d selected.

Offsetting that stroke of good fortune was the fact that I was much more tired than I’d realized. I probably should have spent twenty-four hours recovering from being up all night first flying and then deploying camouflage netting, but after having made it so close to the city I hadn’t been able to bring myself to stay with my plane any longer than absolutely necessary.

I’d been hoping that my nanites would be enough to see me through one day’s journey before needing to sleep again, and it turned out that I was right, but I hadn’t anticipated just how much it would take out of me to travel that far without sleeping. An equally concerning issue was the fact that I didn’t have a big enough container in which to bring eight or nine hours’ worth of water.

Even nanites couldn’t keep me pressing forward if my blood became so thick that it wouldn’t flow through my veins, so I had no choice but to stop and drink every time I came across a stream or pond. I was fairly confident that my nanites were capable of filtering out any of the bacterial or viral pathogens I might take in that way, but I was a lot less confident of my safety when it came to their ability to deal with the heavy metals and other toxins that had no doubt leached out of the nearby city and contaminated the water.

Inside the city, most of the warlords and gangs drank water collected from artificial cisterns deployed at the top of most buildings. It wasn’t a perfect solution, and there were still cases of heavy metal poisoning among even the elite of any given territory, but it was dramatically better than what I was exposing myself to by taking in groundwater. If my neural computer hadn’t been malfunctioning so badly, I would’ve assumed that it was capable of filtering everything out without any input from me—much like back when I’d been initially injected with nanites—but there was no telling if that was actually the case and I hadn’t managed to find a protocol that seemed like it would do the trick.

I was still getting used to the idea that having Tyrell’s nanites in my body might mean that I was capable of living forever—assuming that I hadn’t gotten a defective version from him—but if I developed some of the symptoms of toxic exposure I’d seen while moving through Piter’s territory, immortality could end up being more of a curse than anything else.

I consoled myself with the idea that whatever damage I took as a result of the water I was drinking would probably be at least partially reversed by my nanites if indeed it somehow turned out that it was possible to put my malfunctioning neural computer back to rights, and then pushed my worries to one side the same way I was doing with the exhaustion that had gotten worse with each step I’d taken since leaving my fighter.

I’d been worried at different points along my trip that I wouldn’t make it into the city before the sun set, but the lack of obstacles encountered along my way meant that I had no issue arriving at the outskirts of Cutter’s area before falling temperatures would have forced me to activate my thermal chameleon protocol in an effort to remain undetected by ant patrols.

Instead, I was faced with a completely different issue. I had no real idea how to sneak around inside rural terrain like what I was dealing with. I wasn’t even particularly good at sneaking around inside the city, but at least there I knew what to look for when it came to things that could make a lot of undesirable noise. Lurking around on the outskirts of the city like I was doing put me at a real disadvantage when it came to trying to avoid Tyrell’s foragers, and it didn’t take me very long to realize that the only reason I hadn’t been spotted during the latter stages of my approach was that all of his people had been busy hurrying back to the city in an effort to avoid being caught outside in the dark where sadistic ant soldiers might decide they were fair game for long-range target practice.

As much as I wanted to avoid moving around the forest with nothing more than my chameleon protocol and lowlight vision to keep me from hurting myself, I just couldn’t justify trying to sneak past all of the different work parties in the nearby fields until after it got dark. Instead, I found an empty spot between two fallen tree trunks, and settled in for a wait.

After everything else I’d done in the course of betraying the Society—joining Brennan’s group of rebels, and then sneaking back inside the enclave in a vain effort to find Katya—it kind of felt like holding still for a couple of hours while I waited for the work parties to go back to their homes should have been no big deal, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I desperately wanted to go to sleep, but I knew that would be an unacceptable risk given just how much activity there was along the perimeter of Tyrell’s territory.

Engaging my chameleon protocol would probably be enough to keep me safe from Alexander’s people if I happened to sleep until after the sun had already set, but it wouldn’t do anything to prevent me from being found by one of the patrols I could see slowly walking around the perimeter of the fields. Even if I successfully fought off my ever-mounting exhaustion, there was still no guarantee that staying awake would prevent me from being noticed by one of Tyrell’s people, but at least if I was awake I would have a chance of fighting back before I was surrounded.

Assuming that I was willing to use the pistol I’d brought with me from my fighter, there was even a pretty good chance I could mow down a small group of enforcers before successfully disappearing into the city, but I was hoping to avoid anything like that simply because of the extra attention it would draw to Cutter’s territory among Alexander’s intelligence people.

After my most recent set of experiences with Tyrell, I actually wouldn’t have been all that heart-broken if he ended up in Alexander’s hands, but Alexander capturing Tyrell would have much further-reaching consequences than just Tyrell being killed. It would drastically reduce the odds of Alexander ever being overthrown, but more importantly to my way of thinking at that particular moment, it would put Lexis, Tiny, Spunk and the others in an incredible amount of danger.

In spite of my almost crippling exhaustion, I managed to hold out until the sun was well below the horizon—hoping that doing so would allow most of Cutter’s people to fall asleep for the night—and then an extra helping of adrenaline arrived to keep me functioning as close to peak efficiency as could be expected given everything that I’d put my body through since leaving the enclave. I double-checked that both my chameleon and facial modification protocols were working, and then crept out of my hiding place and started working my way deeper inside of Cutter’s territory.

Unsurprisingly, Cutter had chosen to locate his headquarters closer to the rich perimeter land that had been the source of most of his wealth, so I only had to sneak for a couple of blocks, but even so I nearly stumbled upon a pair of Tyrell’s sentries. Neither of the guards were anybody I recognized from Brennan’s territory, so I was saved from having to decide whether or not I trusted anyone who’d been with Tyrell for the last several weeks enough to come out in the open and tell them who I actually was.

Instead, I leaned back further inside the doorway where I was hiding and started re-tasking my nanites. I still needed to hide my real face, but now that I was inside the city proper there was no longer any reason to mask my thermal signature, and since any ant satellites looking down from above would just assume that I’d come out from deeper inside the building, I was in about as good a position to shed my chameleon protocol as I was likely to come across.

Lacking anything that would allow me to spoof human eyeballs the same way I’d become accustomed to evading ant technology, there was a limit to just how much my nanites could help me. I ended up selecting a fairly typical combat loadout that would increase my strength and speed, as well as improving my reaction time, and then quietly started forward.

I’d debated trying to find a way around Tyrell’s guards, but the odds of managing something like that given just how little I knew about Cutter’s territory weren’t good. Tyrell had had weeks in which to get comfortable with the lay of the land, and he’d had Cutter’s existing security protocols from which to start with, which meant that any obvious route into the headquarters building would be guarded by at least one or two teams like the pair of enforcers in front of me. Unless I was prepared to try to assume the identity of someone inside Tyrell’s inner circle—much like I’d been forced to do inside the enclave—I was going to have to take out a few guards to get within arm’s reach of Tyrell.

Given just how anxious I was to find Brennan again, and my worries that Tyrell might be only days away from pulling out of Cutter’s territory to ensure that Alexander couldn’t track him down if I’d been captured and interrogated, there was only one possible course of action.

Apparently Tyrell either hadn’t been willing to shake things up too drastically yet, or he just hadn’t been successful instilling what Jax would’ve maintained was the minimal level of professionalism out of any group of guards. The two men in front of me had rigged an improvised table next to their fire pit and were tossing multicolored stones in some kind of gambling game.

I’d been surprised at just how many fires had started up during the short time since I’d begun my infiltration of the city. Almost anywhere else that kind of profligate expenditure of fuel would have represented a major luxury, but given just how much lumber flowed through Cutter’s territory it shouldn’t have shocked me that his men found ways to skim off bits and pieces in order to ensure that their guard duty was more pleasant than it otherwise would’ve been. Still, it was the kind of thing that Jax never would’ve tolerated. The tiny fire was keeping them warm, but it was also destroying their night vision, and if the road where they were sitting had been any less cluttered I would’ve been tempted to try to use that blindness to slip by without having to engage them.

Being careful to shield my eyes as much as possible from the light coming off the fire, I took another look at the scrap metal littering the road in front of me, and then suddenly realized that I was stalling. I didn’t have the training to pull off the nonviolent option, but something inside of me was resisting the idea of going into another fight.

Anytime I faced off against another human being—especially the kind of hardened killers who ended up as enforcers—there was a chance that I might be the one who didn’t walk away from the encounter, but I didn’t think that was what was going on. Even allowing for the fact that I would be attacking two armed men with nothing more than my bare hands, I was confident that the element of surprise would be enough to see me through to victory.

No, the real risk was that I would end up killing one or both of my opponents. I’d had several weeks alone with my thoughts since the last time I’d had to kill someone, and I didn’t seem to be suffering from any of the signs that had preceded the other occasions when I’d been unable to do what needed to be done, but that wasn’t necessarily a guarantee. Even if I didn’t freeze up while taking down these two guards, I suspected that each additional person I killed put me that much closer to freezing up at a later date.

Almost without realizing what I was doing, I reached to the deepest recesses of my being and started to conjure up the white noise that I’d used to take down Cutter, but I knew that wasn’t the answer either. As seductive as it had been to operate without any of the guilt or other inconvenient emotions that had given me so many problems, the white noise inside of my head didn’t do anything to eliminate the consequences I had to face once my emotions reset back to normal.

Even more dangerous, I already knew that I was capable of doing almost anything once my conscience had been turned off, which meant that using the static as a crutch now could make things infinitely worse in the long run. I needed to do whatever I was going to do without falling back on the alluring, emotionless state that some part of me was so eager to engage again.

I pushed the emotionless static back down to wherever it had been living during the first seventeen years of my life, took a couple quiet breaths to steel my resolve, and then there was nothing to do but act.

Moving before I could lose my nerve, I pushed off from the ground with all of the force my nanite-infused muscles were capable of generating, shooting forward with the kind of speed that wouldn’t have been possible for me even just a few months previously. The nanites I’d been injected with by the Citizen-President had been impressive, but they were nothing compared to what Tyrell had given me—at least when it came to raw performance.

I’d started low, both as a way of staying out of sight, and to put my center of gravity far enough forward to permit the kind of brutal acceleration I’d just undertaken, but it took only three steps for the force of my muscles to have almost completely counteracted the pull of gravity, and I was standing almost straight up when I reached the first of the enforcers. My target must have heard me coming, and he was remarkably quick for someone without the advantage of nanites. He managed to make it to his feet and come almost all the way around to where he was facing me, but he didn’t get his weapon into play, which meant that he was woefully unprepared to deal with me.

A host of possible options for dealing with my first target flooded my mind in the split second I had to decide how I was going to take him down, but in spite of the myriad of techniques at my fingertips, very few of them were the kinds of things that I was willing to use. Taking down someone my own size was one thing, but defeating an opponent who was both bigger and stronger than me was an entirely more dangerous proposition.

There were any number of vulnerable points on the human body that could be exploited to take down the biggest person with only moderate amounts of force, but most of those techniques wouldn’t allow my target to walk away at some point after the battle was over. My instructors would have probably chosen to crush his throat, or, failing that, to use his natural momentum to snap his neck, but I dismissed both of those options without a second thought.

Destroying his knee would prevent him from following me in much the same way that blowing out his elbow would stop him from being able to come after me with the massive club he was trying to get into play, but neither of those options would stop him from yelling for help, which meant they were just as useless as breaking his neck would be.

All the other ways I could think of to incapacitate an opponent so that they couldn’t raise some kind of alarm were more brute-force methods, which meant that they would be much more difficult to employ against someone so strong. I had enough momentum that simply charging in would probably knock even someone so big to the ground, but what I really needed was a way to focus my offensive energy down to something just short of lethal.

My foot came down to take my fourth step and then all of a sudden I had the solution I was looking for. This time instead of pushing horizontally off of the broken pavement underneath me, I thrust my foot straight down and launched myself explosively into the air for the brief second before my other foot made contact with the enforcer’s leg.

An uninformed observer could’ve been excused for thinking that I’d somehow messed up an attempt to shatter the enforcer’s knee, but my attack was all wrong for that. I hit much higher up on his leg on his quadriceps muscle, and my force was still primarily downward rather than horizontal or lateral. I was already ascending with the kind of speed that would’ve made an athlete in the citizen-games back in the enclave jealous, but pushing off against the enforcer’s leg only added to my momentum.

I used one hand on the enforcer’s shoulder and the other on the top of his head to both guide my course and take advantage of the way my actions so far had thrown off the enforcer’s balance, causing him to bend slightly at the waist. A split second later my right knee slammed into the enforcer’s chin with the sort of concussive force that would’ve probably killed a lesser man.

I could feel a bone-deep ache in my knee that told me I was going to be sporting an impressive bruise, but it still almost wasn’t enough. The massive muscles along the enforcer’s neck and shoulder strained to both preserve the integrity of his spinal column and cushion the impact between his brain and the front of his skull, but in the end no human—even an augmented human like myself—could have shrugged off such a titanic impact.

The forward motion I’d carried into my attack sent my enemy backwards in what felt like slow motion to me, and I was momentarily tempted to simply ride him to the ground, but his partner—although half a beat slower in reacting to my presence—already had a weapon out, and was moving in my direction.

Pushing off of a moving platform was bad enough even when the platform represented something with enough weight and inertia to absorb whatever it was I was trying to do, but I had no choice. I kicked off of the enforcer I’d just finished neutralizing, and hoped that he was heavy enough to provide at least a little bit of ballast for me to push against.

If I’d gone with the natural instinct to throw myself up, or even horizontally, I probably would’ve gotten my throat slit, but instead I’d decided to throw myself forward, and I felt the second enforcer’s knife go whipping past, mere inches above my back, right before I hit the ground and converted my forward motion into a roll.

I came to my feet still carrying enough momentum that my feet went skidding across the pavement, but I couldn’t just ride things out and let gravity and friction slow me down. I grabbed the edge of a nearby building and used it to change directions a split second ahead of yet another attack by the enforcer, and then I was back in control of myself and it was time to go on the offensive.

My second opponent was dangerously competent with his blade, but he seemed to suffer from the same overconfidence that I’d encountered so many times among the enforcers of one warlord after another. He assumed someone so small, who was obviously not carrying a weapon, couldn’t be a threat because that was what decades of experience had taught him. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, he still wanted to take care of me himself rather than yelling out for help like he was supposed to.

I didn’t know if he thought I’d just gotten lucky in taking out his partner, or if things had all just happened too quickly for him to process the fact that he’d just lost his backup, but either way it was my job to neutralize him before his brain could catch up to his reflexes. I moved forward as though planning on trying to punch him, and then sprang backwards as soon as I was convinced he’d taken the bait.

My tactic was especially dangerous against someone who was both quick and who had nearly a foot more reach than I did, but I was just enough faster than him to be able to watch as his knife sliced through the air mere centimeters from my eyes, and then it was my turn. I plucked his wrist out of the air with my right hand, fully aware that I didn’t have enough body weight to do much more than slow him down, but even that was enough to put a significant amount of strain on his elbow given how far he’d extended his arm in an effort to cut me.

By itself, the force generated by my hand on his wrist and the rotation of his body away from me wouldn’t have been enough to do anything important, but right at the instant when his momentum was about to jerk me off of my feet, my left hand slammed into the back of his elbow with enough force to break the arm of a three-hundred-pound gorilla.

I had only the tiniest fraction of a second between landing my blow and the point when the pain I’d just inflicted on him would force an involuntary scream out of the enforcer, but I’d known that even before I’d started my attack and I jabbed my fingers into the base of his throat as I went hurtling by him. Contrary to all of my training, I’d hit him in the base of the throat in an effort to avoid killing him, but I suspected right at that moment he would have probably rather been dead.

Between his shattered elbow and the gagging pain as he tried to breathe, it was hardly surprising that all of the fight went out of the second enforcer, and it was the easiest thing in the world to plant, spin, and lash out with a kick that knocked him unconscious before he could even fully register what had been done to him.

I temporarily rerouted additional nanites to my muscles with the sole purpose of increasing my strength, and then dragged them both back over to the table where they’d been gambling and leaned them against it as though they’d just fallen asleep on watch. Less than a minute and a half after I’d landed my first blow, I disappeared back into the darkness, intent on working my way ever closer to Tyrell’s location.

I’d been worried that I would come across another guard post or two before making it to the headquarters building, but things remained quiet until I was within sight of the pair of guards stationed on the side of the headquarters building closest to me.

In spite of the growing pressure to act before someone stumbled across the two guards I’d neutralized, I forced myself to stop and analyze the situation before committing myself one way or the other. It wasn’t entirely a surprise that the guards Tyrell had chosen to guard the headquarters building were a grade or two above the ones he’d tasked with securing the back side of his territory. In fact, the real surprise was probably that I hadn’t been spotted and brought in by whoever he’d assigned to guard the locations where he stockpiled the riches his people were harvesting from the surrounding wilderness. If it had been me, I would’ve split my very best people between the warehouses and his borders with rival gangs and warlords, and used whoever was left over to watch everything less critical.

Apparently he’d decided that the headquarters building didn’t fall into the less critical category, which meant that—all other things being equal—the odds of my being able to successfully rush this pair of guards were substantially poorer than they’d been during my last altercation. When you added in the fact that one of these guards was packing an antique firearm, and neither of them was suffering from night blindness as the result of spending half of their time looking into a fire, I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for a direct confrontation.

I considered trying to bluff my way into the building posing as a prostitute, but in the time that I’d been watching so far there had been a remarkable lack of any kind of traffic in or out of the building. Either all of the pretty girls inside of Cutter’s territory were already holed up in there with the rest of his enforcers, or Tyrell had increased the penalties for breaking curfew to the point where the enforcers had started going to the girls rather than the other way around.

If I’d had a silencer for my pistol I would have just shot both guards and taken my chances that the presence of a state-of-the-art firearm might be noticed by some intelligence analyst back in the enclave, but since that wasn’t an option I resigned myself to attempting the only other method of entry I’d been able to come up with.

Being careful to remain safely hidden in the shadows, I backtracked and then came at the headquarters building from a different angle that I believed would allow me to approach without being seen. It took much longer than I would’ve liked, and I continued to worry that someone would stumble on to the guards I’d knocked unconscious, but apparently Tyrell’s curfew had some benefits where I was concerned. I was able to work my way to the corner of the building without being seen by anyone, at which point there was nothing else to prevent me from proceeding with my plan.

I re-tasked my nanites once again, focusing on strength to the exclusion of everything else, pulled off my shoes and stowed them inside my backpack, and then reached up and sank my fingers into the gap between the bricks that made up the first fifty or sixty feet of the outside wall. I hadn’t ever done any kind of extensive climbing, but my training meant that I was at least familiar with the key concepts enough to keep my weight centered as much as possible over my legs rather than always trying to lift myself up using my arms.

I fell into a steady—if slow—rhythm as I made my way up the bricks, pausing and testing each hand or foothold before I committed my full weight to it. I would find a spot a foot or so above where I was currently standing, test it out, and then use it to raise myself up to where I could reposition my hands, before starting over again with the other leg.

If I’d been trying to climb the building when it had been brand-new I probably would have struggled to fit my toes into the narrow seams between the bricks, so I was grateful for the frequent spots where one or more bricks had fallen free from the building’s façade. Even so, my gratitude didn’t stop me from being conscious of the fact that I had more to worry about than just the possibility that one of the bricks I was holding onto might come loose at the worst possible time. My slow, cautious progress was some assurance against that catastrophic event, but there was nothing I could do to mitigate the chance that my weight would be sufficient to cause a massive section of the brickwork to peel away with little or no warning.

I attempted to stay focused on the task at hand, but in spite of my best efforts I couldn’t completely distract myself from visions of falling to my death as forty or fifty square feet of brickwork gave way around me. By the time I made it to the top of the brickwork my pulse was racing far more than simple exertion could account for, and my worry was having other, even more concerning, effects. In spite of the boost my nanites were providing to the muscles all through my legs and arms, I was starting to feel the onset of fatigue that I knew was brought on by my inability to relax my muscles when they weren’t supporting my weight.

Free climbing up the side of the building with a backpack full of everything from an experimental optical processor and a handgun to fruit I’d gathered earlier in the day and my shoes would have been a challenging enough activity under the best of circumstances, but the excess tension inside my body was burning up reserves I no longer had to spare and making it feel like I was climbing with an extra seventy or eighty pounds strapped to me.

Even with my nanites tasked with providing me with lowlight vision amplification, I hadn’t been able to make out the details higher up on the building, but it had been obvious that all of the windows on the floors covered by the brickwork had been barricaded over with everything from scraps of structural steel to chain-link fence. I’d been hoping that making it up to the top of the brickwork would provide me with a way inside the building—or failing that at least make the climb easier—but that turned out not to be the case.

The metal that Cutter’s predecessors had used to cover up the windows as the exterior glass had succumbed to the ravages of time tended to provide better handholds than the brick, and for the most part seemed to be sturdier, but now my size was working against me because not all of the barricade material ran horizontally. Each time I came across a window that had been sealed off with vertical bars I was forced to work myself up the bars through what amounted to brute strength in an effort to get high enough that I would be able to strain and stretch to grab hold of the ledge forming the bottom of the next floor.

I would have spent more time moving horizontally in search of an open window, but what had looked like a minor design feature from the ground had ended up being much more important than I could have anticipated. Whether because it improved the overall stability of the building, or simply because the architect had liked the aesthetics of it, there were large vertical steel beams running up the length of the building, and they were thick enough that I didn’t have any confidence I would be able to work my way around them in order to get to the windows on the other side.

On the plus side, staying close to the beam on my right meant that anyone looking up from below wouldn’t be able to see me unless they were either directly below me or off to my left, but the vertical pillars meant that I was confined to a narrow band of twenty or so windows on any given floor. Given that going down would be both more dangerous than going up and a sign of capitulation, I had no choice but to keep climbing until I found an open window or made it up to the very top of the building so that I could take the stairs back down to Tyrell’s quarters.

If I could have found a way to drop the fruit in my backpack and even Sadie’s processor without being forced to lose both my shoes and my pistol, I would’ve done so, but I was pretty sure that any attempt at unzipping my backpack to fish around inside of it would result in me falling to my death, so I kept on, silently cursing my lack of foresight.

I lost track of time shortly after I left the crumbling brickwork behind me, so I had no idea how long I’d been climbing or how many floors I still had to go. I considered half a dozen times trying to get my neural processor to begin a stopwatch of some kind in the corner of my vision, but abandoned the idea each time for fear that knowing how long I’d been on the building would just make things harder for me.

Somewhere along the way, about the time that I came up against a window where someone had thought it would be humorous to weld lengths of metal such that they stuck out from the window like spikes, the muscles in my right leg started to give out. I thought for a second that the spikes might prove to be a chance to rest and recover my strength a little bit, but when I reached up, intending on using one at the bottom to pull myself up onto the next level, the spike broke free of the window and I nearly lost my grip with my other hand.

For one impossibly long second I hung there, feet dangling over empty space as my right hand started to tear free of the structural steel I was holding onto. I ordered my hand to lock its grip in an effort to buy myself time for my furiously scrambling left hand to find something substantial enough to bear my weight, but the muscles were further gone than I’d realized, and all the adrenaline in the world was no longer sufficient to force them to support my entire weight.

I thought I was dead, and then, just before my right hand gave way, my left managed to grab hold of a different piece of structural steel several feet lower down. My left hand was out of position to support my weight until after I’d dropped nearly two feet, and during the split second of freefall before the biomechanics were once again working in my favor, I again fully expected to die.

The logic seemed inescapable to me. My right hand had seen roughly the same amount of wear and tear as the left one had, and it had proved unequal to the task of supporting my weight from a much smaller drop. I had every reason to think that the added force from dropping two feet would peel my left hand off the building and send me falling to my death, but somehow my grip held and I found a pair of footholds before the simple passage of time overcame whatever strength still remained in my left hand.

I’d been through a lot during my training inside the enclave and even more since I’d left, but I couldn’t remember another time when I’d come close enough to death to leave me physically nauseated like I was there on that ledge, shaking from a combination of exhaustion, fear, and adrenaline as I desperately tried to come up with a solution to the predicament I had gotten myself into.

The leg that had been already at the point of failure before I’d tried to make it up to the spikes was now violently shaking, slamming back and forth into the bar in front of me as muscles that had been stressed beyond their breaking point strove to comply with the desperate demands of my will. I leaned in close to the window, trying to put as much weight as possible on to my left foot, which had a better foothold that allowed my right calf to take a bit less of the load, but I knew I was approaching the end of my endurance.

Moving—continuing to climb—when I was in such a state of exhaustion was at least an order of magnitude more dangerous than it had been before, but I couldn’t afford to remain where I was. Every second I stayed there motionless on that ledge took more out of my left leg than it added to the rest of my appendages. My only hope was to continue climbing and make it to some kind of real sanctuary before my muscles finished giving out.

I wedged my right arm inside the building, curling it around one of the vertical bars in a dangerous display of trust on a single point of failure, and then leaned back out again, scanning first the windows on my level and then the ones both above and below me with a vain hope that I’d somehow missed an opening big enough for me to be able to work inside the building, but there was nothing of the sort.

Even worse, the level above me didn’t have just one window full of spikes. Every window inside the narrow corridor established by the vertical pillars was kitted out in the exact same fashion. My only hope of survival lay on the other side of that floor—possibly a dozen or more floors higher up—but in order to get there I was going to have to manage the trickiest bit of climbing I’d seen yet.

If I couldn’t count on the spikes to support my body weight, then I was either going to have to work my way around them—shifting my center of gravity dangerously far away from the wall in the process—or break them free one at a time in order to stay closer to the wall. Neither option was particularly good and part of me was tempted to stay where I was and continue debating the relative merits of the two approaches, but I knew that was just a different kind of trap. I had to act as soon as possible or I would lose the mental fortitude required to make the attempt at all.

Still without any idea how I was going to make it over and past the improvised spikes between me and the upper levels, I forced my still-trembling legs into motion and started regaining the precious inches and feet I’d lost only moments before. As always, the reach up from the level below to the structural steel that made up the floor above was a dozen times worse than climbing from the bottom of one level to the top, but I knew it was nothing more than a taste of what I had ahead of me.

As I was moving, I decided to try to use the vertical support to my right as an aid to get around the spikes. Still—even despite a century and a half of exposure to the elements—it hadn’t rusted enough to really provide anything I could call a good foothold, and using it was going to push my center of gravity out to a dangerous extent, but it was the lesser evil, and I knew there was no way I could use brute strength to rip each of the spikes out of my way.

I managed to get my hands up above the floor on the spike level, and hold on for long enough to bring my left leg up even with the bottom of the floor. It wasn’t an ideal move, but it was just enough to let me reposition my right knee up onto the same narrow band of structural steel that was now supporting my left leg.

I eyed the steel spikes pointing outward from the building one last time as I wished that there was a way to trust that the rest of them were stronger than the one that had given way under part of my weight, and then turned so that my left leg was hanging out over empty space for an instant before I was able to wedge it squarely against the inside edge of the vertical pillar that was now on my left. My muscles were still telling me in half a dozen different ways that they didn’t have much left to give, but at least the awkward contortion I’d just assumed stressed them in different ways.

I used my left leg to hold myself suspended for just long enough to reposition my right so that my foot was now standing on the top of the structural steel making up the floor to the level I was battling so hard to get past. I repositioned three more times over the next minute and a half, moving with exaggerated care to ensure that none of my hand- or footholds would give way and put a lethal amount of force on the remaining appendages, and managed to gain several additional feet of elevation, when it happened.

My legs both gave out at almost the exact same instant as I asked for more than they could give. I had a split second in which to react, and I did the only thing I could come up with that had a chance of keeping me from plunging to my death. Rather than holding onto one of the steel bars around me with my hands, I jammed my right arm through the bars and then wrapped it around the bar just in front of me in an effort to shift the load of supporting my body weight onto my skeletal system and the connective tissue holding the bones in my arm to the rest of my body.

It wasn’t a conventional climbing maneuver, but I knew from my experience earlier that my arm was capable of standing up to that kind of punishment—at least in the short term. That wasn’t what had me worried. The real danger was that either the bar I was holding onto—which represented a single point of failure—would give way, or that as I slid down it that I would get caught on one of the spikes and sustain a more serious injury than just a bunch of pulled ligaments and strained joints.

I was right to be worried on both accounts. My right arm successfully held against the forces involved, but my slide back down toward the bottom of the bar was arrested after only a split second by a painful impact with a jagged piece of metal that cut into my side with alarming ease. The pain was intense enough that I nearly threw up, but even before I’d had a chance to adjust to the change in my situation, I felt the bar shift slightly in relation to the network of scrap metal it was welded to.

Even with the lowlight vision protocol I had my nanites running, it was still too dark to make out exactly what was going on with the top of my bar, but a quick look downward—one of the very few I’d allowed myself up until that point—confirmed my fear that there was nothing for my feet to latch onto in an effort to get me up off of the spike in my side.

I pushed aside an irrational urge to laugh hysterically at the fact that I’d finally managed to find a spike capable of supporting my entire body weight only after it couldn’t do me any good, and tried to use my left arm to pull myself up far enough to get myself free. It was the reflexive action of the creature who hadn’t yet adjusted to reality. In a lot of ways I was no different than the enforcer I’d mentally criticized such a short time earlier. My intellect already knew that there was no way I was recovering from my latest mishap—the rest of me just hadn’t caught up with that fact yet.

Maybe if I’d been starting fresh without the exhaustion weighing me down, or the blood I’d somehow lost along the way without realizing just how much of a beating my feet had taken during my climb, I could have levered my body up the couple of feet I needed to get new footholds off of nothing more than the strength of my left arm, but there was no way it was going to happen now.

I probably would’ve tried to just hang there dangling over the abyss until my arms and legs had managed to recover sufficient strength to resume climbing, but given how loose the top of my bar seemed to be, it was very unlikely that I had that kind of time before it was going to give way. I would have been bitter over the fact that I’d ended up tying my life to the only bar I’d found so far that was so far gone, but realistically even if that hadn’t been the case I probably still wouldn’t have been any better off.

I could feel the blood from my side trickling down into the waistband of my pants. It’d already soaked through the spots on my shirt where the cloth touched the skin, which meant that I was losing blood too quickly to have the kind of time my muscles were going to need in order to recover. Maybe if it had just been my feet bleeding that wouldn’t have been the case, but as it was, every passing second was robbing me of both strength and the nanites I’d been relying on to get me even as far as I’d managed so far.

I reached up with my left hand once again and tried to haul myself up by brute force, but my muscles were simply too fatigued. The realization that I was doomed had finally started making it out, dispersing itself through my being sufficiently to mute the fight-or-flight instincts that were screaming for me to do something to save myself.

I relaxed the muscles in my battered body, vaguely planning on waiting in an effort to somehow pick out the ideal moment when my arm would have been given the maximum time in which to recover before the blood loss and my steadily decreasing nanite load would offset any possible gain, but part of me knew that my plan was nothing more than a convenient fiction. In spite of everything, I was still lying to myself.

My right side was pure agony and the corresponding arm wasn’t much better. The pressure being applied to the narrow band where my appendage pressed up against the bar keeping me alive had gone beyond bruising several seconds earlier, and it was tempting to just let go and experience at least a few relatively pain-free moments of existence before I slammed into the ground.

The decision hung on the edge of a knife for a moment and I honestly couldn’t have said what I would have decided if not for a sudden shift in my internal landscape. Between one heartbeat and the next my neural computer re-tasked my nanites so severely that it almost seemed as if I could feel them moving around inside of me, desperately racing to reach their new duty stations.

The throbbing strength I’d felt in my muscles—even past the exhaustion that had turned them limp—evaporated, leaving me with nothing more than my natural strength to rely on, but as bad as that was, it was only the beginning. My heart suddenly kicked into overdrive much like what I’d experienced during the dogfight, and even my worry about how much more quickly I was now losing blood had to take a backseat to the concern that the beating my neural computer was dishing out to my heart would cause it to explode in my chest.

I couldn’t have said whether my sudden bout of lightheadedness was the result of too much or too little oxygen, but either way it was interfering with my ability to think. I probably would have just continued hanging there, rapidly bleeding to death, if not for the fact that a line of text flashed across my field of vision.

Climb now, Skye. You have a very limited window.

I shook my head drunkenly like a fighter who’d taken the beating of her life. “It’s no good. Without the strength augmentation I’ve got nothing left to give.”

Only silence greeted my protest, but somehow that one reminder of my peril was all I needed to goad me into action. Still convinced that I was wasting my last few moments of consciousness, I reached up with my free hand and grabbed a hold of the nearest sizable chunk of metal.

Somehow, around my racing heart and malfunctioning brain, I’d completely lost track of the state of my muscles other than to have honed in on the fact that the strength protocol still hadn’t reasserted itself in spite of near-constant orders on my part.

That was still the case as my hand closed around the handhold I’d selected, but I finally noticed that something else had changed. My muscles weren’t any stronger than they normally were without my nanites, but somewhere along the way my left arm had transitioned back from being a limp noodle hanging off the end of my shoulder. My grip was strong, and when I gave an order each and every muscle responded with a willingness to contract that I hadn’t felt for nearly a dozen stories.

I pulled with my left arm, trying to raise my body up off of the spike stuck in my side, but in spite of all of my conditioning I simply wasn’t strong enough to pull my body weight up with nothing more than the muscles in one arm. I’d hoped that the renewed surge of adrenaline coursing through my body would be enough to allow me to achieve something I’d never managed during my training, but no matter how hard I strained I couldn’t bring my body up high enough to pull myself off the spike.

Then, in a flash of insight I realized that I was approaching the problem all wrong. Rather than pulling myself up with my left arm, I simply trusted that it was now strong enough to bear my entire body weight, and let go with my right.

Even as I did so, part of me was convinced that I would fall to my death. Hanging was at least an order of magnitude easier than trying to climb upwards, but it defied belief that my left hand could still have enough strength to hold my entire body weight after the energy I’d just burned up trying to perform a one-handed pull-up.

There was a split-second of pain as the spike tore free of my side—which was probably the other reason that I hadn’t tried just dangling before then—and then miraculously I was dangling by nothing more than my left hand. Conscious of just how quickly my strength was going to vanish—because of blood loss, if not sooner from renewed muscle fatigue—I set about trying to get my right hand into play enough to lever myself up to where I could find a couple of footholds.

The pain as the edges of the wound in my side pulled away from each other was once again enough to fill the back of my mouth with bile, but I didn’t make any effort to re-task my nanites. I was on my own for this, but I hadn’t anticipated just how hard it was going to be to use the blood-slicked spike for my intended purpose. Even under normal circumstances I would have moved slowly in an effort to ensure that my right hand wouldn’t slip and send me to my death, but the combination of pain and weakness along that side of my body meant that I seemed to be moving with glacial speed.

I kept expecting for my hand to give out as the muscles once again were pushed beyond their ability to clear out lactic acid, but that never happened, and as I finally got my right foot up to the foothold I’d been eyeing, I realized that my left hand and arm felt just as fresh as they had when I’d started out. It seemed impossible, but the next couple of minutes as I carefully worked my way up past the spikes on that level proved that I wasn’t imagining anything. Somehow my body was managing to clear out all of the waste products that resulted in muscle fatigue as fast as I was generating them.

I still wasn’t out of danger given that I fully expected my heart to explode inside my chest at any moment, and no one appendage was strong enough now to lift my entire body weight, but for the most part, climbing was now easier than it had been across the dozens of stories I’d traversed before my neural computer had spontaneously re-tasked most of my nanites.

As I continued to climb, moving one anchor point at a time in order to spread out as much of my body weight as possible, I was still worried about how much blood I was losing, but even that problem dropped in importance a couple minutes later as I finally found a window with gaps between the bars that were far enough apart for someone my size to slip past.

I still had to find Tyrell and survive making him tell me where Brennan and the others now were, and even after that I would have to survive the hike back to my fighter—potentially with Tyrell’s enforcers hot on my heels—but as I ripped cloth away from the bottom of my shirt in order to tie up the nasty gash in my side, I finally felt like just maybe all of that might still be possible.

The Outsider – Chapter 5

Author’s Note: With the release of The Outsider on the horizon, I’m posting a new chapter each week here for my readers to enjoy. Chapter 4 was so short that I decided to post Chapter 5 ahead of schedule. You can find Chapter 1 here.

Escaping the Society’s high-tech enclave the first time cost Skye both her mother and her innocence.

Going back required the betrayal of Brennan and everything Skye loved.

Now Skye is back on the outside. She’s on the run, isolated and hunted by new horrors that threaten the entire world.

The fate of humanity hinges on Skye finding Brennan, but doing so while being chased by the entire might of the enclave’s military may prove too costly, even for Skye.


Chapter 5

I spent more than two hours after I landed my plane trying to disprove my initial impression, but I hadn’t been wrong. After thoroughly exploring the large cave where we’d stored our captured dropship, I ventured out into the jungle in spite of the danger of doing so while it was still dark outside. I kept hoping to find something that would indicate Brennan and the others were simply gone on some kind of mission and that they would be back within the next few days, but instead I found more and more evidence that they’d pulled out and had no intention of returning.

If I’d been the kind of person to give up when faced with an impossible situation, I would have simply dropped down into the decomposing organic material on the floor of the jungle and waited for starvation to claim me, but for whatever reason something inside of me—the same thing that had forced me to keep going when faced with having to carry Brennan out through several dozen blocks’ worth of hostile territory—forced me to keep fighting. Fully aware than any serious injury could be deadly in spite of my nanites—given that I had no backup to come looking for me—I carefully picked my way back to the cave and strung my hammock from my fighter’s wing so that I could catch up on a little bit of sleep while waiting for the sun to rise.

A lot of the plants were still weeks or even months away from maturity, but there were a few quick-growing varieties of vegetables that were far enough along that it looked like I would be able to harvest some of the larger plants within the next little while if it got to the point where I could no longer support myself by foraging out in the jungle.

With several days of hunger gnawing at my system, it was tempting to binge on the fruit I harvested during the first few hours I was awake, but I forced myself to take things slow. I would harvest a little bit of food, and then eat it a few bites at a time over the course of an hour before harvesting more and resuming eating.

I knew what I was doing was smart if I wanted to avoid making myself sick, but it felt like an incredible waste of time to be spacing things out so much. Then again, it wasn’t as though I was operating against some kind of set timeline. I would leave when another bank of clouds rolled in and not a moment before. Nothing I did on the ground was going to speed up the arrival of bad weather in the slightest, and until my body had had a chance to digest the food, I didn’t have strength for anything too strenuous.

Once my physical needs had been seen to, I repeated what was becoming a very familiar process, and deployed my fighter’s solar panels so that it could begin splitting off hydrogen from the trickle of water it was pulling in from a nearby pond. I debated forgoing the camouflage netting given just how deep I was inside the canyon, but in the end went ahead and deployed it as well, just in case.

Once that was done, there was very little for me to do but worry and try to come up with some kind of plan that had a chance of reuniting me with Brennan. Ironically, the very thing that I’d been counting on to keep our operations hidden from Alexander and all of his resources was now working against me. A planet was an almost impossibly big place in which to hide something as small as a couple of dropships and a few dozen people.

When you added in the fact that I didn’t have any of the massive intelligence resources that Craft was using in his search, and that I was just one person, my odds of finding Brennan and the others without some kind of external help were almost nonexistent. Even without the restriction of only being able to fly on cloudy nights, I could conceivably wander around for the next two hundred years without finding any trace of Brennan.

If Brennan had been injected with Tyrell’s nanites and I hadn’t been so worried about the possibility that my nanites were malfunctioning, maybe I would have chosen to play a longer game. In a world where both Brennan and I were immortal, there was some validity behind the idea of letting time work for me, but that wasn’t the situation I was up against. Every year that went by was irreplaceable, time that Brennan would never get back, and it was only after I’d left to go back to the enclave that I’d started to realize just how important time spent with him was to me.

No, I needed to find him as quickly as possible, which meant that I really had only one course forward. I didn’t know where Brennan and Jax were, but I did know where Tyrell was—at least for the time being. The plan had always been to eventually abandon Cutter’s territory, and it was even possible that Brennan had already decided to do exactly that as a way of ensuring our people couldn’t be captured in the event that I’d been tortured into giving away everything I knew, but I didn’t think that was the case.

Abandoning the jungle base that we’d all put so much time and effort into building up had no doubt been a hard call to make, but I could see the logic behind making sure that Brennan and the two dropships didn’t fall into Alexander’s hands. Tyrell was probably just as valuable as both the dropships put together, but without him the odds of Lexis and the others surviving more than a few weeks were pretty terrible. My bet was that after a pretty heated debate Brennan had finally agreed to leave Tyrell in place as a way of protecting Brennan’s noncombatants and ensuring a steady supply of food to replace the crops that everyone had been forced to leave behind.

That meant that I still had at least one link back to Brennan, but there was no guarantee how long Tyrell would remain inside Cutter’s territory. The logical thing to do would be to get him and everyone else out as soon as Brennan and Jax managed to establish a sufficient source of food somewhere else, which meant that I needed to get to Cutter’s territory as soon as possible if I was going to have any chance of joining back up with Brennan and Jax.

Unfortunately, there were holes in my plan big enough to fly a dropship through. Even if I was right, and Tyrell was still pretending to be Cutter, the odds were pretty heavy against him knowing the location of Brennan’s new base. If it had been me, I probably would’ve left Tyrell in place in his current position, but I wouldn’t have given him information he didn’t absolutely have to know for fear that he would somehow fall into Alexander’s hands and let something slip that would sink the rest of Brennan’s people.

Even if Tyrell was still in Cutter’s territory, and knew where Brennan’s new base was located, that still didn’t mean he was going to be willing to tell me what I wanted to know. I’d been through a lot since Tyrell had beaten me nearly to death, but none of those experiences had made me any less suspicious of his motivations. If nothing else, the ongoing erratic behavior I was seeing out of my neural computer would have been enough to sustain my suspicions—even without learning just how wrong Tyrell had been about almost everything he’d told us about Alexander.

I didn’t just need to find a way to talk to Tyrell, I needed to do so in such a manner that prevented him from making another attempt on my life. I was more than ninety percent confident that the only reason he hadn’t outright killed me back in Cutter’s territory was that he’d been trying to maintain deniability with Brennan. Given that Brennan and the others had probably expected me to die inside the enclave in a futile attempt to find Katya, there wasn’t going to be any reason for Tyrell to hold back this time. Given the resources that he commanded with his Cutter persona, unless I did everything just right it would be far too easy for Tyrell to have me killed and then dispose of my body without any real risk of his actions ever making it back to Brennan.

All of those fears and more preyed upon my mind as I spent the next two weeks waiting for a change in the weather. It took longer than I would’ve liked to get my plane refueled, but in some ways I was sad when my flight computer indicated that the fuel tanks were at capacity. It was good to know that I would have plenty of range if I had to make a run for it in the event that Alexander’s people somehow managed to find me, but it also meant that I had one less thing to keep me busy while I waited.

I continued a regime of training designed to keep up my muscle strength and endurance, as well as making an effort to cultivate a few of the smaller vegetable fields, but those were both physically demanding activities, which meant that even with the edge provided by my nanites there was only so many hours a day I could dedicate to those particular diversions. I tried to fill up the remaining hours with other productive tasks, and played with the full range of my neural computer’s available protocols looking for a new edge that could help me survive the next time I found myself up to my neck in trouble, but even that wasn’t enough to completely distract me from the fear that I would never see Brennan again.

Through it all, Sadie’s optical processor continued humming along in the background, eating up much more in the way of power than I would’ve expected for a device that by all indications should have been the next best thing to hibernating. During one of my late-night worry sessions—after a windy day that had conspired to put my solar panels in shadows for much longer than was normal—I noticed that my fuel tanks were down by two-tenths of a percent, and acting on a hunch I had my flight computer analyze the optical processor’s power consumption since I’d plugged in.

Given what I’d seen with regards to my fuel consumption, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find out that Sadie’s invention had been steadily drawing greater and greater amounts of power ever since I’d plugged it into my fighter, but the information didn’t exactly fill me full of comfort. Based off the data my flight computer had pulled together, it now looked like the processor had maxed out the amount of power that could be transmitted over the standard cable I’d used to connect it to my fighter.

That wasn’t necessarily going to be a problem from a logistical standpoint unless I ended up with several more days where my solar panels brought in only a fraction of their normal energy, but there was something more than a little unsettling in knowing just how much energy the processor was now drawing. Despite its apparent lack of activity from the outside, it was obvious that something was going on inside of that cube of metal, plastic, and glass.

There was no indication that Sadie’s invention was actively working against me given that I hadn’t had a visit from Alexander’s people at any of the three layover points since I’d left the enclave, but I still almost unplugged the processor then and there. I even went so far as to reach for the power cable running into the cube, but just before I could unplug everything, a new line of text popped up in front of my eyes, this time in the very center of my field of vision, much bigger and with higher contrast than anything I’d seen previously.

Unplugging the device will have catastrophic results, Skye.

“Who are you, and how are you interacting with my neural processor?”

I didn’t really expect an answer, but after what felt like forever with no indication that whoever had sent me that line of text had been able to hear my questions, I couldn’t help but try one last thing.

“Is that you, Sadie?”

There was no response for several seconds, just long enough to make me feel like an idiot for talking to someone who couldn’t hear me, and then I got a single word in response.


I expected that to be the end of things, but a second later a question flashed across my vision.

Why are you risking so much to get back to Brennan?

I was so shocked that it took me a second to respond. “I never really stopped to think about it in those terms. When it comes to Brennan, I guess I haven’t felt like I needed a reason—Brennan is the reason all by himself.

“That probably sounds stupid. I’ve nearly died several times since I left the enclave the second time, and after the way I treated him the last time we saw each other, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be willing to talk to me if I do manage to find him. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense, but all I can say is that I’ll risk just about anything to try and make things right with Brennan.”

Several seconds passed without a response, and I started to worry that I’d just given too much away to whoever was responsible for the glitches in my neural computer.

“Who is this? It’s past time for you to just tell me who you are and how you’re doing this.”

No matter how many times I asked for additional information, or threatened to go through with my plan to unplug the optical processor, I got no further response, and was forced to go back to my hammock without understanding what had just happened. I couldn’t bring myself to unplug Sadie’s processor, but I was filled with an inexplicable dread that plugging it in had been a grave mistake.

The Outsider – Chapter 4

Author’s Note: With the release of The Outsider on the horizon, I’m posting a new chapter each week here for my readers to enjoy. You can find Chapter 1 here.

Escaping the Society’s high-tech enclave the first time cost Skye both her mother and her innocence.

Going back required the betrayal of Brennan and everything Skye loved.

Now Skye is back on the outside. She’s on the run, isolated and hunted by new horrors that threaten the entire world.

The fate of humanity hinges on Skye finding Brennan, but doing so while being chased by the entire might of the enclave’s military may prove too costly, even for Skye.


Chapter 4

Several hours later, I crossed over a decent-sized lake with a canopy that was thick enough to hide my fighter, assuming I could get it down in between the tree trunks. I considered holing up for a few days in an effort to make sure that the ants hadn’t been following me—that would have been the safest course—but in the end my desire to see Brennan and the others was just too strong. After years of relative isolation from my peers inside the enclave, a dangerous mission out into Brennan’s city where almost anyone who knew my real identity would have immediately tried to kill me, and a very uncomfortable, lonely excursion back to the enclave, that cold, hungry week in the mountains had finally pushed me to the edge of my limits. I wanted the comfort of other human company—preferably humans who would be excited to see me.

I slung the nose of my plane around and adjusted my course so that I was headed toward Brennan’s secret base rather than along the false course I’d been flying to try and disguise his location. I did so with my heart in my throat, but contrary to all of my fears the flight to Brennan’s base was uneventful. Time moved in strange hops, where things that should have taken no time at all seemed to drag on for hours, and other longer tasks seemed to stutter by almost too quickly to register. It was nerve-wracking, but I didn’t run out of cloud cover, and I only got pinged by radar once or twice per hour, which was a pretty good indication that Alexander’s people weren’t trailing me in an effort to find Brennan’s location.

As I crossed the last few miles to the cave we’d used as a base while launching our attack on Cutter’s territory, I was shaking from a combination of fear and hunger, and my flight computer was constantly warning me that we were almost out of fuel. I was half expecting to have both engines shut down and be forced to try to glide into whatever open space I could find, but ant aircraft were relatively robust, so I figured there was a decent chance that my fighter could avoid any kind of significant damage, and as long as I wasn’t seriously injured I would at least be able to walk the last mile or two to our base.

Fortunately, my luck seemed to have taken a turn for the better and my engines only started coughing once the entrance to the cave came into view. After all of the other, more complicated, flying I’d done since the last time I’d seen Brennan and the others, it was a simple matter to cut the power to my engines down to minimal levels and then come into the cave primarily on counter-grav. In spite of the way my skills had grown during the last few weeks, I was still plenty aware of just how much could go wrong when bringing an aircraft in with so little directional thrust.

The landing required so much of my attention that it wasn’t until after my plane was safe on the ground that I realized the cavern around me was empty.

In spite of all the odds against me, I’d managed to make it to Brennan’s base only to find out that he and the others had moved on without me.