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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.

–Dean

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.

No.

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.

The Outsider – Chapter 3

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 3

The rest of my escape from the Badlands was just as stressful as my encounter with the dropship, but I managed to make it out to the extreme edge of the area before the rising sun forced me to set down in a more traditional canyon, complete with running water and an overhang that was deep enough that I was frankly surprised it hadn’t collapsed hundreds of years earlier.

Making it that far without being spotted by the ants was a tremendous accomplishment, and it boded well for my continued survival, but I still wasn’t completely out of the woods. With my fighter shut completely down, and the running water barely more than a whisper, there was nothing to prevent me from being able to hear as various different ant aircraft patrolled the Badlands right up to my position inside the canyon.

I had managed to luck into cover that was as good as anything I could’ve realistically hoped to find, but once the camouflage netting had been deployed, there wasn’t anything else I could do to better my chances of survival. Everything now depended on something out of my immediate control.

If another thick bank of clouds rolled in within the next day or two, then I figured I had a good chance of making it out of the search grid, but if that wasn’t the case then everything would come down to what the ants decided to do, and how badly they wanted to find me. If they brought in even more aircraft, or seeded everything within three hundred miles of the crash site with micro-drones or infantry-manned listening posts, then my odds went right down to zero.

As hard as it was to think about anything other than the weighty mass of soldiers and equipment trying to find and kill me, I knew that dwelling on my situation would just drive me crazy. Instead I spent a few minutes setting up special solar cells capable of deriving a trickle of electricity even from the ambient light under the overhang, and then ran the fuel intake line out to the stream so that I could draw in at least a small amount of hydrogen to offset the massive quantity of fuel I’d burned up first fighting and then fleeing from the Society’s military personnel.

The solar cells and the intake hose both represented risks, but I did my best to disguise them from casual observation, and then rigged a hammock under my fighter’s wing and went to sleep. I considered unplugging the optical processor Sadie had given me before I’d left the enclave, but just like I had half a dozen times before, I left it plugged in and just hoped that I was making the right decision.

Leaving the processor plugged in meant that there would be a small, ongoing draw against my fighter’s power systems, which I didn’t like. Still, unless I ended up stuck on the ground for a lot longer than I was hoping, it was unlikely that the processor would draw enough power to make any real difference in my situation. The bigger concern was the fact that when I’d first plugged it in I’d received a message encoded on my field of vision telling me that it was important I not unplug it.

I still had no real idea what was going on there other than the fact that my neural computer had to have been involved in some form or fashion in order for my field of vision to be used as some kind of high-tech message board. The thought of some external entity hacking into my neural computer—a feat that was supposed to be impossible based off of everything Tyrell had ever told me about the security protocols he’d woven throughout even the earliest versions of his technology—was probably the only thing scarier than the idea of my neural computer slowly breaking down because Tyrell had injected me with some kind of defective version of the nanite technology.

Having nanites with an expiration date on them meant that I wasn’t going to be immortal, and that it was only a matter of time before my neural computer stopped responding to my orders, but at least under that scenario I would have a block of time where I could still try to make a difference in the war against Alexander. If, however, someone had somehow hacked into my neural hardware, then there was no telling how long I had before they turned my hardware against me.

Having spent my life growing up hearing about all the ways that nanites were capable of extending life, it took very little in the way of imagination to envision all of the ways that those same microscopic machines could destroy my cells and organs. I wasn’t eager to die, but in some ways that was the best-case scenario I was up against. To my knowledge, nobody—not even Tyrell—had ever really sat down and tried to figure out just how much damage could be done by someone’s nanite hardware if it were co-opted by some kind of external force, but as far as I was concerned the sky was the limit.

I’d never gone into any kind of in-depth discussion with Tyrell regarding how much of a tap my neural computer had into my senses, but it was reasonable to assume that it was monitoring a lot more than just adrenaline levels inside my body, which meant that it was theoretically capable of storing all kinds of information that I might not want shared with anyone else, information that could get Brennan killed if it fell into the wrong hands. Just as concerning was the fact that my nanites were capable of bypassing and rerouting nerve impulses as they traveled down my spine. The technology drastically increased my reaction speed, and I would have died several times during the last few months without it, but there was nothing to say that the same protocol couldn’t be used to bypass voluntary nervous impulses altogether and instead force my muscles to react solely to impulses sent by my neural computer.

It was a tossup whether I was more horrified by the thought of becoming some kind of computer-driven zombie, or that of leaking classified information to Alexander’s people, but one thing was sure. If the optical computer had come from anyone other than Sadie inside the enclave, I never would have left it plugged in after that message had popped up in my field of vision.

Even knowing it had come from her, I was still questioning my judgment at not having powered it back down, but I was positive that Sadie would die before she would willingly work for Alexander’s people. Unlike Hector, who had lived a life of privilege the likes of which even most franchised citizens had only been able to fantasize about, Sadie had been forced to scratch and claw for everything she had in spite of producing the technological foundations for something that had the possibility of changing society for the better every bit as much as the introduction of self-contained nanite technology should have.

On the way she’d acquired a deep distrust bordering on hatred of the entire administration, regardless of which face Alexander happened to be wearing during any given presidential term, and as a result I just couldn’t believe that she would knowingly do something to hurt me now that she knew I was actively working against Alexander.

The operative word being knowingly. As much respect as I had for Sadie—who was as smart as anyone else I’d ever met, save possibly Brennan—I had to entertain the possibility that she’d either made a mistake or been tricked into doing something that would somehow injure me.

All of which pointed to the smart play being unplugging the prototype optical computer she’d given me, at least until I could get back to Brennan and the others so that Brennan could take a look at the processor. Only if I were to be honest with myself, I knew that Brennan was unlikely to be able to make much better of an evaluation of Sadie’s technology than I could. Brennan was brilliant, but no seventeen-year-old was capable of knowing everything about all possible disciplines of science and technology. Even if that hadn’t been the case, it wasn’t like Brennan had access to the kind of cutting-edge equipment that Sadie had used to create her processor in the first place, all of which meant that if he started poking around inside her creation he was just as likely to short out something critical and ruin the processor as he was to get to the bottom of what was happening to me.

Given that I was still mostly of the opinion that Tyrell had stuck me with a defective neural computer, it was a lot easier to leave the processor on, quietly drawing power to no apparent purpose, than it was to risk destroying something that Sadie had entrusted to me. Especially since I was pretty sure that she’d done so with the belief that her creation could change life as we knew it on our little planet where Alexander had invested so much time and energy into strangling back to levels of barbarity that were an affront to everything billions of men and women had tried to achieve before the Desolation.

I might still end up regretting leaving Sadie’s processor on, and I could still envision a day when I might decide to unplug it in spite of the warning I’d received, but that day was still somewhere in the future. Once all of my preparations had been made and there was nothing else I could do to increase my odds of survival, I climbed into my hammock and did my best to catch up on all the sleep I’d missed out on leading up to the dogfight that had gotten me into this mess in the first place.

I passed the next forty-eight hours in much the same manner as I’d been expecting to. I slept during the day and tinkered with my fighter at night to the best of my limited ability with no illumination other than the stars and the moon. For nearly anyone else that would’ve been an impossible task, but my nanites’ ability to implement a lowlight vision protocol meant that the lack of illumination wasn’t nearly the hurdle that my general lack of expertise was. Fortunately, my fighter had incurred no significant damage, so my tinkering really was nothing more than an attempt at passing the time.

I lost count of the number of times that I woke from a deep sleep because some ant aircraft had gone tearing across the sky close enough that I could hear its engines, but as best as I could tell Alexander’s people hadn’t managed to localize me on the night of the dogfight, which meant that they were covering an awfully big area. Given enough time, they would still eventually find me unless something changed—or they just gave up—but it appeared that they had elected to deploy their available people and micro-drones closer to the crash site.

Knowing what I did of Alexander, his people weren’t going to give up, but I kept telling myself that I was going to be okay, that I’d made them spread themselves out enough to buy myself time for my circumstances to change. It was true, but that didn’t stop me from going to sleep each time convinced that I was going to wake up with the business end of an assault rifle pointed at me from only inches away. I could feel the net getting tighter with each passing hour, but my luck held out much better than I’d had any right to expect. Not only did I avoid the unpleasantness of waking up to a detachment of elite ant soldiers, I managed to arrange the solar panels in such a way that I added several hundred miles’ worth of hydrogen to my fuel tanks. Even better, I didn’t have any problems with my neural computer during that time, which felt like a vindication of my decision to leave the optical processor plugged in.

As good as all that was, the best piece of luck to come my way was a heavy cloud cover that rolled in as the sun started to set on the second day. In fact, the appearance of clouds so soon after I’d been driven to ground felt like such a stroke of good fortune that I was reluctant to take the logical next step.

After having nearly been shot down and then being forced to navigate some of the most treacherous terrain on the planet at night—all while being chased by dozens of fighters—I didn’t feel like trusting anything for fear that it would turn out to be some kind of massive cosmic joke. I knew I was being irrational even while I was pessimistically assuming that the clouds were going to magically disappear as soon as I fired up my engines, but there was at least a sliver of validity to my concerns in spite of that.

I couldn’t escape without heavy cloud cover of exactly the sort I’d seen as the sun had dipped below the horizon, but its presence didn’t necessarily mean that I was home free. In order to make it safely away from the ant search grid, I needed more than just a dense cloud cover, I needed one that stretched for hundreds, or possibly even thousands of miles in the direction of Brennan’s territory—or at least in a direction that would let me get further away from the ants.

Not only that, the densest, most extensive cloud cover in the world wouldn’t do me any good if there was a squad of ant commandos camped just out of sight where they would have no problem hearing my fighter as I warmed up the engines and took off. I needed a very specific set of circumstances, and none of those criteria were things I could investigate from my current position pressed up against the canyon wall.

I considered trying to scout the surrounding territory in an effort to confirm or deny the presence of ant military personnel, but discarded the idea almost immediately. I was good in a fight, but I was no wilderness expert, which meant if I left the shelter of my hiding place I was much more likely to be the one spotted rather than the one doing the spotting. Even if that hadn’t been the case, there was nothing I could do to confirm the presence of any micro-drones.

Knowing the chronic shortage of intelligence hardware faced by Alexander’s people, part of me was convinced that he wouldn’t have deployed so many of the tiny high-tech spies on a hunt for even a target as potentially valuable as me, but I had no way of being sure of that. The ongoing refusal of the people in charge of external intelligence to provide us with even half of the drones we’d requested in order to maintain surveillance on the territories we were responsible for during my time in the department didn’t actually mean that Alexander hadn’t been maintaining some kind of strategic reserve that could be used in this kind of situation.

If he did have drones and was willing to deploy them in an effort to find me, there certainly hadn’t been any lack of opportunity for them to have been deployed. Any one of the dozens of aircraft that had flown overhead since I’d landed my fighter could’ve easily dropped micro-drones without even slowing down, which meant that any scouting effort I might make was worthless without specialized jamming equipment that I didn’t have.

That thought drew a chuckle out of me as I realized that my lack of jamming equipment wasn’t the real reason I couldn’t go out and look around. Even if I had the equipment I couldn’t have used it without telling Alexander’s people exactly where I was, which meant that my options had narrowed down to just two.

I could either take off and hope that there were no micro-drones in the area—at the same time that I prayed the cloud bank would persist for long enough to get me well outside of the search grid—or I could stay where I was in the hopes that circumstances would change for the better.

The more I thought about leaving, the more risks I could see with pursuing that option. Even if I managed to take off without being detected, even if I managed to evade detection as I flew away from my current location, the cloud bank would eventually dissipate, and when that happened there was no guarantee that I would be able to find a hiding place as good as the one I was currently using.

If I made it a thousand miles before being forced to go to ground again, then I wouldn’t need as good of cover, but if I only made it a handful of miles, then anything less than the kind of concealment I currently enjoyed would probably result in me being found before the next sunset. Even despite all of the time I spent asleep during the day, it had been obvious to me that the ants had continued to expand their search grid as additional assets had poured into the area, which meant that anything less than putting a significant amount of distance between them and me—or finding an incredible hiding spot—was just going to get me killed.

I felt a shadow of the trepidation that had caused me to freeze up when the dropship had nearly found me, but I managed to push my fears aside rather than giving in to them. For all of the risk involved in moving, it was still the better choice. There was a very real possibility that I would take off and find out that there was a detachment of troops or a group of micro-drones in the area, but the only thing I could be sure of was that the longer I stayed where I was, the more likely it was that Alexander would manage to get some kind of asset in place to hear my departure.

Staying was making a bet that Alexander would grow tired of the hunt before he found me—that or possibly that Brennan and the others would launch a significant enough attack to force him to reallocate his assets—but I wasn’t the kind of person who was comfortable depending on someone else to get me out of a scrape, and counting on my enemy to make a mistake was even worse. I was going to take off as soon as it was fully dark, and I knew it.

It took me nearly an hour and a half to pull off all of the camouflage netting and pack it all back into the storage compartment inside the plane’s fuselage, and another half an hour to retract the tube running from the fuel tank to the stream, but once those tasks were done and the ultra-efficient solar cells had been stowed away, there was no longer any reason to delay taking off.

I climbed back into the cockpit of my fighter, ran through an abbreviated preflight checklist, and then took a deep breath before turning on the main engines. After so many hours working in near silence with my chameleon protocol masking even my thermal signature, the two massive turbines sounded impossibly loud, but I was hoping that their quiet rumble would go unnoticed as long as I didn’t throttle them up too far.

I nudged my aircraft into the air using far more counter-grav than I normally did on takeoff so that my engines stayed at something barely more than an idle, and continued to move at a very low speed for the next hour and a half as I attempted to slip unnoticed through the perimeter Alexander’s people had established around the crash site.

Every second of the flight was stressful, and well before I’d been in the air for an entire hour I lost count of the number of times radar pulses hitting my fighter alerted me to the presence of enemy aircraft, but once again my luck seemed to be holding out far better than I’d had any right to expect. In spite of that, the temptation to throttle my engines up to Mach 2 or Mach 3 was a constant weight on my mind.

Every minute that passed while I was moving along—barely faster than what an old-style Jeep could’ve managed—represented a missed chance to put dozens of extra miles between me and Alexander’s forces, but I kept reminding myself that I was almost certain to run out of cloud cover before I ran out of darkness. In spite of that, I continued to get more and more nervous as the night continued to wear on, and my struggle regarding what to do only got worse once I started getting indications that I might be beyond the perimeter that the ant military people were maintaining.

By the time I’d been flying for an hour and a half, only the fact that I’d been wrong multiple times regarding my belief that I was free and clear was keeping me from throttling up even more than I had, and by that point I was moving along at more than a hundred miles per hour. I continued debating whether to risk accelerating to near supersonic speeds as I hugged the terrain below me.

Everything I’d managed to accomplish up to that point would go out the window if I was detected, and if I’d been the one in charge of the ant forces I probably would have set up sentinels outside of the perimeter along the direction of travel I’d been headed when that first pilot had found me, but I’d been flying for nearly twenty minutes without any kind of radar contact to indicate that there were still ant aircraft in the area.

I did some quick math in my head, trying to figure out how many square miles I’d added to the search grid in the hour and a half I’d been flying so far, and then decided that no matter how much distance I’d traveled, there would still be a chance that it wouldn’t end up being enough. Even traveling at a low altitude with my turbines throttled down so far that they probably weren’t perceptible for anyone on the ground, there was still a chance that I would be detected. If nothing else, someone looking up from below could still conceivably pick me up on the infrared range, and if that was the case then you could argue that I would be better off moving at a higher speed so that they had less time in which to register my presence.

I gritted my teeth and then pushed my speed up to something just barely over seven hundred miles per hour. I still had a long flight ahead of me.

The Outsider – Chapter 2

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 2

The next couple of hours were some of the most stressful of my life. I had no hope of beating multiple experienced pilots at one time, which meant that I had no choice but to try to make a run for it. Unfortunately, all of the advantages I’d come up with during my first air-to-air combat experience weren’t going to help me with that.

I was back to facing a situation in which the hardware being used by my enemies was exactly equivalent to my own aircraft, and all of the impressive capabilities of my nanites were unable to sway the outcome in the slightest. The contest was going to come down to nothing more than experience and native intelligence. I was less than confident that my intellect was going to be superior enough to overcome the experience and numbers deficit I was up against, but I had no choice but to try.

The ant fighters had adopted high-altitude approaches in an attempt to give themselves the greatest visibility possible, which meant that there was a chance they hadn’t seen me yet. Counting on the cloud cover to at least temporarily mask my thermal emissions, I dove down dangerously close to the ground and proceeded to fly a nape-of-the-earth course that should, with a modicum of luck, make it impossible to distinguish my tiny radar signature from all of the ground clutter at my extremely low altitude.

Under other circumstances I would have given myself at least even odds of surviving, but the ants doubtlessly knew the exact location where their fighter had been shot down, which meant they were headed right at me, coming in from multiple directions. My survival was going to hinge on whether I could put enough distance between myself and the spot where I’d shot down the ant pilot before his reinforcements arrived.

Increasing my speed was dangerous for more reasons than just the possibility of crashing into a mountain. I’d used up an uncomfortably large percentage of my fuel reserves during the high-speed maneuvers that had been required to avoid being shot out of the sky, but even that wasn’t as much of an immediate concern as the fact that increasing my speed would drastically increase my thermal emissions. Despite that, I pegged the throttles and simply did my best to stop my increased speed from either resulting in a crash or pushing me up to an altitude where I would be more easily detected.

I aimed for a gap between two of the incoming planes and hoped that I was making the right choice. There was a much bigger gap along the original course I’d been flying, but I was betting that was the direction that would receive the heaviest scrutiny once the ants arrived at the crash site and realized that I’d managed to slip away.

The closer physical proximity of the planes in the direction I was currently headed would increase their probability of detecting me, but if I could luck into the right set of terrain features there was still a chance that I would be able to evade detection. It wasn’t much of a chance, but it was better odds than I would have going up against half a dozen fighters at one time.

I spent a couple adrenaline-filled moments thinking that just maybe I was going to manage my escape, and then one of the intermittent radar contacts that I suspected were the ant fighters peeled off and headed in my direction. The urge to panic was almost overpowering, but I’d spent an awful lot of time—both before and after I’d left the enclave the first time—learning not to lose my head even in situations that were the next best thing to impossible.

I brought up the best data available in my fighter’s databanks regarding the nearby terrain, and ran through a revised situation analysis. The ants had obviously seen something that they thought bore investigation. I was willing to bet, based off of the vector the pursuing plane had chosen, that I’d momentarily shown up on radar with a clear enough signature for them to register my presence, but in the grand scheme of things it probably didn’t matter whether they’d actually picked me up or were headed my direction in response to some other spurious contact. The most important thing was that they were only investigating a tentative contact. They didn’t know that they’d found me or they would have sent a lot more than just one fighter out to my position.

Ant fighters had tremendous data storage capabilities to go along with their impressive computing abilities, but standard operational protocol was to only load in truly high-resolution data for the area that a given aircraft was expected to operate in. The dropships contained higher-quality maps of the entire world, and I suspected that the mobile command centers probably were equipped with every scrap of geological and geographical information that Alexander’s people had ever managed to acquire, but my fighter was severely lacking when it came to topographical maps of this particular area.

I had maps, of course, but they didn’t have anywhere near the resolution I would’ve liked given what I was about to try. It was going to be chancy without more data than I possessed, but I couldn’t afford to just continue on as I had been or the fighter headed my way would eventually get close enough to pick me up on its thermographic sensors.

I momentarily considered just pegging my throttles again and making a run for it, but I knew that was a losing proposition. I wouldn’t have any problem staying ahead of the six or seven fighters that had just reached the crash site and were only now fanning out in a computer-driven search pattern, but my aircraft being just as fast as theirs wouldn’t save me in the long run, not when Alexander’s people were probably already vectoring additional assets into the area.

If I ran now I was just as likely to be intercepted by some strike fighter that hadn’t shown up yet on my sensors as I was to be able to make a break into open sky. Even worse, if I did somehow manage to avoid being intercepted during the first couple minutes of my flight, once I was running flat out like that there was no hope that I would be able to fall off the sensors of the planes pursuing me.

I couldn’t keep running indefinitely, and even under the best-case scenario, once I was forced to land my plane my odds of survival would go down dramatically. It was one thing to hide from the ants on something as large as a continent or even the entire planet, but it was something else altogether to evade their search efforts inside a grid that was only a few dozen miles across. The best camouflage in the world would only go so far to hide my presence, and even my chameleon protocol probably wouldn’t be enough to keep me hidden once Alexander’s people brought in dogs to help them look for me.

Even if I somehow went to ground and evaded capture, that would just leave me stranded out in the middle of nowhere with no hope of ever making it back to Brennan and the others. No, making a run for it wasn’t an option. I needed to use stealth and guile if I was to have any hope of ending this encounter on terms I could live with. I was just fortunate that the cloud cover hadn’t dispersed yet, or even stealth and guile wouldn’t have been an option.

I’d been so focused on trying to avoid running into something while traveling so quickly at such a low altitude that I hadn’t paused to register just how much the terrain had changed. Somewhere in the last couple of minutes the mountains I’d been flying through had changed to something much more like desert Badlands than any place I’d ever visited before.

A quick check of the limited topographical data I did have seemed to indicate that the uncommon rock formations went on for more than two hundred miles in every direction, which was the first good news I’d received since I’d realized that I’d taken too long to blow up the ant fighter that had intercepted me. If I could lose myself in the Badlands, there was a better than even chance that I could continue to evade detection until another heavy bank of clouds rolled in and gave me a reasonable chance of leaving the ant search grid behind permanently.

I dropped my speed by more than half as I switched from a more traditional flight mode to something that directed nearly all of my vectored thrust straight down, and then I moved down into the maze of rocks that I was hoping would serve to hide me from the other fighter.

It took me only seconds to realize that I’d bitten off more than I’d been expecting. The flight earlier through the canyon with an enemy fighter shooting missiles at me every few seconds had been a difficult test of my piloting abilities, but it had nothing on my current situation.

The rocks I was trying to navigate around were packed in much more tightly than I’d been expecting, and that—combined with their irregular shape—was playing havoc with my short-range radar imaging systems. That would’ve been bad enough, but I was also realizing that a strike fighter in a purely vertical configuration was a very different beast than one which was driving most of its thrust aft and using its control surfaces for the bulk of its maneuvering.

I’d used the thrust vectoring capability of my strike fighter on previous occasions, of course, but never for such an extended period of time, at such a low altitude, or when so much precision was required. Contrary to my expectations, switching to vertical takeoff and landing mode in order to bring the fighter down in a particularly tight landing spot was nothing at all like what I was trying to do now.

Not only did the controls feel different than what I was used to, it turned out that I’d severely underestimated the amount of difficulty involved in controlling the fighter’s momentum. When the fighter was moving at speed—either in a forward direction, or ascending or descending—the flow of air around the hull had a natural stabilizing effect that was completely absent when dealing with an almost stationary hover like I was attempting.

Each movement I took to skirt around the fuzzy radar overlay representing the rocks in my path had to compensate for any and all momentum I’d generated up until that moment, and there were several times when it was all I could do to avoid sending my fighter skidding into one of the monoliths I was trying so hard to navigate around.

There wasn’t anything I could do about the difficulty of controlling the fighter at such low speeds but hope I survived long enough to get the hang of it, but there was definitely something I could do about my other problem—assuming I was willing to deal with the increased risk of crashing. It took only a second to decide to proceed, and after taking a deep breath and attempting to bring my aircraft as close to stationary as possible, I flipped off my radar array.

Between the clouds and the lack of moonlight, there wasn’t a lot for the night vision components of my fighter’s sensors suite to work with, which drastically increased the odds that I was going to eventually slam into something, but the difficulty I’d had getting my radar array to map my surroundings was probably a blessing in disguise.

Ant technology was as cutting-edge as anything else that had ever been seen on the face of the planet. I knew that my fighter had been confining its radar pulses to a very narrow band in an attempt to prevent the incoming fighter from being able to confirm my presence, but the only sure way to make sure that a stray radar pulse didn’t give me away was to shut the array off altogether, something that I probably wouldn’t have thought of if my hand hadn’t been forced.

I switched on the thermographic vision mode and overlaid the result on top of what I was getting out of the lowlight systems with a thirty percent transparency, but that didn’t help nearly as much as I’d been hoping. In theory, the rocks’ vertical orientation would mean that they would gather more light from the setting sun than the ground beneath them, but it had apparently been dark for too long. Most of the excess heat had been bled off—probably hours earlier—which meant that I was getting only the barest extra bit of information for my trouble. If I was going to fly through the dangerous maze of rocks, then I was going to have to do so on nothing more than what my lowlight imaging systems were able to provide me.

Reminding myself once again that all of my other options were even more dangerous and insane than flying into the tangled forest of monoliths, I gritted my teeth and resumed the forward motion that I’d bled off only seconds before. I was going to have to move even more slowly than I’d been planning on, which meant it was going to be all the harder to lose myself far enough inside of the Badlands to prevent the rapidly approaching ant aircraft from finding me.

Less than two minutes later the Society pilot got close enough that I once again started picking up his radar pulses as he scoured the area in an effort to flush out whatever radar ghost had caused the others to dispatch him in my direction. The radar pulses were unequivocal proof that I had another very dangerous pilot almost within striking distance of me, but paradoxically seeing them come through calmed me down.

There was still a risk that I would be detected, but the sheer paucity of pulses registering on my sensors told me that my plan had a chance of succeeding. The tangled warren of rocks around me was absorbing the vast majority of the other fighter’s radar pulses, which meant that it would be almost impossible for the ant pilot to localize my fighter unless he was already right on top of me, and if that was the case I would have much bigger concerns than the vanishingly small radar signature of my aircraft.

If anyone got that close to me, they would probably pick up my thermal signature before anything else, a fact that seemed to argue I should be setting my plane down and powering off all of my systems, but I knew better than that. Without compelling evidence that I’d made it out of the area, the ant fighters were going to focus their search on the region immediately around the crash site I’d left behind me.

A properly concealed and powered-down strike fighter was usually very hard to find in the dark, but there was as added complication this time. Even once I powered off my turbines, it would take time for them to cool down to the point where they wouldn’t stand out to anyone who got close enough to get a clear view of me with any kind of thermographic sensors.

I had to keep moving if I was going to have any chance of surviving to see the next night.

I kept expecting to adjust to my situation, for the adrenaline to peak and start receding, for the shakes that kept threatening to impair my piloting ability to disappear, but it was as though the ants were operating from some kind of script designed to make sure that I would never regain my equilibrium. Every time I began to think that I’d made it far enough away from the crash site to have escaped their search grid, a renewed set of radar pulses would hit my systems, putting me on notice that the ant fighter I’d been playing hide-and-seek with still hadn’t given up and moved on to a new section of their grid.

Each time my onboard computer warned me of an incoming fighter I desperately scanned my surroundings for a spot with enough of an overhang to shield my thermal emissions from overhead view, and then backed myself up as tightly against the rock face as I could in an effort to prevent myself from being seen. Once there, I was always faced with the conundrum of whether to just shut my fighter down or continue hovering dangerously only inches from a collision that would ruin my fighter and result in me being stranded smack-dab in the middle of an ant search effort for however long it would take for them to find and capture me.

I always started out with what I felt like was the minimum safe distance between my fighter and the rock I was hiding under, and then invariably as the radar pulses getting through the labyrinth of rock got closer and closer together—signifying that the ant fighter was closing in on my position—I found myself slashing my safety buffer again and again in desperate hope that I would be able to skate through one more search undetected.

My piloting abilities improved more rapidly than I would’ve believed possible—driven more by necessity than any innate talent on my part. Hovering only one small gust of wind away from destruction as I tried to balance the thrust vectors from my turbines so that my fighter would remain stationary was a special kind of hell, made all the worse by the fact that I had nothing to distract me from the steadily dropping hydrogen levels inside my fuel cell.

The prospect of running out of fuel before I managed to lose myself in some quiet corner of the globe was another reason to set down my plane while I waited for the other aircraft to move off to some other section of the Badlands, but I could never quite manage to convince myself to give up my dangerous hover. If the ants found me, I was going to have next to no chance of successfully making a run for it as it was, but shutting down my engines would take that small chance and completely eliminate it. Once all of my systems were offline, it would take precious minutes to fire everything back up—time I wouldn’t have if I was detected—and I couldn’t bring myself to give up my ability to fight back, however futile the fight was likely to be.

I’d been slowly moving through the Badlands in fits and starts for more than an hour and a half when it happened. An increase in the number of radar pulses striking my aircraft signaled that I had another enemy pilot coming around to investigate my section of the Badlands, and I was faced with the problem of finding a safe haven capable of screening me from detection.

There were two likely locations visible from where I was at that moment, and a third that I’d passed less than five minutes previously, which was much more in the way of options than I’d ever had before, but in some ways having options just made things harder. All three of the potential hiding spots would serve about the same when it came to screening me from being seen by someone flying directly overhead, which wasn’t to say that any of them would completely conceal me, but that was only one of the concerns I needed to be cognizant of.

It took me only a split second to eliminate the hiding spot I’d passed by on the way to my current location. There was a lot to recommend it, but the enemy fighter would be moving many times as quickly as I could hope to manage in such close quarters, and the last thing I wanted was to be caught flat-footed out in the open because I didn’t make it to shelter in time.

The other two locations were similar in a lot of respects except for the fact that one offered better concealment from a searcher moving north or south, while the other was superior with regards to evading detection by someone moving along the east-west axis. I queried my computer, hoping against all odds that it would be able to give me a clear answer regarding the direction from which the other aircraft was approaching, but the radar pulses coming in to my sensors were still far too fragmented for my systems to make any sense of them. By the time they’d bounced off of metallic particles inside the rock around me a few times, there was nothing in the way of usable data, which meant that the only way I’d have any chance of localizing the enemy fighter would be to switch back over to active sensors—which was the one thing I definitely couldn’t do.

It was a simple decision, the kind of thing that could have been decided by flipping a coin if I’d subscribed to that method of decision-making, but for an instant I completely froze up. I’d made any number of more difficult and dangerous decisions getting as far as I had into the Badlands, but I was suddenly incapable of deciding between even the simplest of possibilities.

What I was feeling was disturbingly similar to when I’d frozen up during the initial assault on Cutter’s territory, which had implications much further-reaching than I wanted to consider. I’d been telling myself that I’d only locked up during the assault on Cutter’s territory because I’d been through nonstop fighting for days, and I’d been forced to eliminate a target up close and personal rather than executing him with a single pull of the trigger.

I’d taken a lot of comfort from that analysis of my actions, and even more solace in the fact that I’d managed to spend so much time inside the enclave before having to kill anybody. In some ways, I’d thought that my successful elimination of the tactical response team inside the Icebox had indicated that I’d recovered from the posttraumatic stress that had caused me to freeze up the first time, but that apparently wasn’t the case.

For three long seconds that felt like an eternity, I hung almost motionless above the ground—completely visible to anyone flying in on several different vectors—and then something inside of me changed. Moving with a calm detachment that had escaped me since even before I’d started my lethal game of hide-and-seek with the ant reinforcements, I slipped my fighter in underneath the overhang that provided the best cover for anyone traveling along a north-south axis, and powered down to the point where the bottom of my aircraft was only inches off of the ground.

It was only then that I realized what had changed. I hadn’t suddenly made some kind of mental breakthrough; the white noise that I’d used to finish out the assault on Cutter’s territory had returned. I knew that the detachment I was feeling was temporary, and that its reappearance would worry me once I’d had time to regain my normal emotional state, but in that instant I didn’t care about any of that; I was just relieved that I was going to be able to function long enough to have a chance of surviving yet another reconnaissance pass.

If I’d been the slightest bit less detached from my emotional state, I probably would have missed the external changes that had taken place since the last time I’d had to suffer through an ant flyby. The frequency of radar pulses I was picking up were continuing to rise, but at a much slower rate than I’d been anticipating, which probably meant that the other pilot had elected for a much slower vector than he’d been using previously.

There were only a few reasons an ant fighter would be approaching at such a slow speed and none were good when it came to my chances of long-term survival. The simple fact that I’d continued to encounter radar contacts after so long indicated that the ants were still looking for me, and they’d either picked up something to tell them that I’d headed into the Badlands, or their computers had tagged the Badlands as a location with a high probability of being where I’d gone to ground.

I’d been hoping that this far into the search the ant tactical computers would have vectored most of the ant fighters out in an ever-expanding grid to reflect the fact that each passing minute theoretically gave me more time to run and evade the search, but either the ants had dedicated a lot more in the way of assets and manpower to the search than I’d been expecting them to, or someone was convinced that I hadn’t ever made it outside of their initial search pattern.

Either way, I didn’t like my chances now that they had switched over to such slow flybys. Not only would that give the computer in each fighter more time to gather and analyze data, it would also give the pilots themselves more of an opportunity to take a serious look at the terrain they were flying over. Society computers were remarkable, but there were still decided limitations to what they were capable of doing without human intervention. I rather doubted anyone had thought to tell their cybernetic henchmen to start looking for overhangs like the ones I’d been using to evade detection so far, but it was only a matter of time before that happened, and a pilot flying slow enough to take in the sights was much more likely to add that particular wrinkle to his computer’s parameters than one who was buzzing along at Mach 3.

It wasn’t fair to say that I was worried—the static between my ears didn’t allow for anything like that—but as the approaching fighter continued to get closer and closer, the white noise that had been cushioning me from my emotions started to fray a little around the edges. That only became more the case as a low rumble filled the air around me, and nearby rocks started to shake off of their temporary resting places on the nearby monoliths.

I’d briefly worried earlier that my leaving the engines of my fighter on would result in somebody detecting me simply because they would be able to hear the turbines running, and for a split second those concerns resurfaced and I was forced to remind myself that no fighter—even one chock-full of ant technology—was going to be able to hear my fighter over the sound of their own engines. In fact, it defied belief that I’d been able to pick up as much sound as I had over my own engines unless…what I was hearing wasn’t a fighter after all.

It was only a few seconds later that I was able to confirm my fears. As I worried about the possibility that I was going to lose a turbine if one of the falling rocks hit one of my blades, a full-on assault dropship came slowly drifting over the top of my position.

I found my fingers moving over to activate my weapon systems, and I had to force myself to stop from bringing them up far enough to begin using active sensors. I probably should have anticipated that Alexander’s people would deploy more significant assets to the area than just strike fighters and fighter-bombers, but somehow I’d never even considered the possibility that I would be dealing with anything other than smaller aircraft like what I was flying.

Realistically, given the security risk that I represented, and how eager Alexander had to be to get his hands on the hardware I had tucked away inside of me, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that he’d ordered the Society’s last remaining mobile command center to make its way this direction, which meant that I’d been operating under all kinds of mistaken assumptions. A mobile command center would allow the ant aircraft to refuel without going all of the way back to the enclave, and if Alexander was willing to order it down below the cloud cover, it would provide much better sensor coverage than anything else inside the ant military machine.

Not only that, the presence of dropships might indicate that somebody had ordered the deployment of troops, which would further complicate my task. It was always possible that the dropships had been drafted into service simply as a way of increasing the surveillance envelope, but if I was wrong about that and somebody had thought to scatter soldiers at strategic points throughout this area, my odds of surviving had just taken a significant hit.

Ant ground troops didn’t typically carry any weapons capable of bringing down something like a strike fighter simply because there had never been any need for them to worry about such a high-tech threat, but they wouldn’t need guns to sign my death warrant. My only way of escaping revolved around being able to sneak out of the area, which was hard enough when all I had to worry about was satellite surveillance and low-altitude flyovers.

Any troops looking for me wouldn’t even need to get close enough to see me in order to call in all of the firepower they would ever need to shatter my fighter into tiny scraps of metal and turn me into unrecognizable bits of charred organic material. All they needed to do was get close enough to hear me, and I would be a goner.

Powered down to minimal levels like I currently had them, my turbines didn’t make a ton of noise, but they would still be much harder to hide than any of my other emissions, and I once again considered powering completely down as the dropship’s bottom turret slowly moved into view.

I’d spent enough time inside of a similar turret to have a pretty good idea of the capabilities being employed to look for me, and my hope that I would be able to see Brennan again took another beating as I realized that those superior sensors were paired with an individual who had no need to concentrate on anything else. The gunner wasn’t responsible for flying the dropship, or communicating with central command, or any one of a dozen other things that might cause someone to miss some tiny scrap of data pointing directly at my hiding spot.

The only reason I hadn’t been found already was that the turret was pointed in the opposite direction, but I could already see it slowly rotating about its axis, which meant it was only a matter of time before all of that surveillance equipment—both organic and otherwise—would be pointing in my direction. I had a very limited window of time in which to take action, or my options would begin narrowing even further.

Fight-or-flight instincts that had been hard wired into my DNA tens of thousands of years before the first caveman had learned how to control fire were screaming for me to do something while I still had a chance to influence the course of events, and I found myself drifting downward in an effort to line up a shot capable of bringing down the dropship.

I knew the odds of succeeding were nearly as slim as my odds of surviving to see the sunrise, but I was never going to have a better chance than I had right at the moment. I still had a full complement of radar-guided missiles and half a dozen heat-seekers, all of which would continue on in a straight line if they failed to acquire a target.

I could conceivably fire off several missiles at this range and count on hits even without switching to active targeting, but if I was going to take my shot then there was no reason to hold back on anything that might improve my odds of destroying the dropship.

Once I pulled the trigger it wouldn’t matter if there were any active emissions, if I destroyed the dropship before they could transmit a warning to the rest of the ant assets in the area, or if I just missed altogether. No matter what else happened, the ants would know exactly where I’d been at the time that I took my shot, and they would vector in every remaining aircraft into an ever-tightening perimeter that I would have almost no chance of escaping.

Firing on the dropship was as good as committing suicide, but failing to shoot didn’t guarantee my survival, and might very well mean that I wouldn’t have a chance to take anyone with me before I came under fire.

Survival instincts warred with the tattered static that had allowed me to react dispassionately to everything so far, and I couldn’t have said in that moment which force inside me would come out on top. Trading my life for the lives of the dropship crew felt like a terrible outcome, but it was far superior to simply dying unavenged. Even more importantly, I knew that the losses Alexander had sustained so far had to be putting incredible pressure on his empire, both militarily and economically.

The mobile command centers had been linchpins of the Society’s strategy for maintaining control over the globe for longer than I’d been alive, and losing two of them had to have reduced Alexander’s ability to respond to perceived threats among the grubbers. With the destruction of at least two of the mobile resource-extracting units added into the picture, it would take decades at the very least for the Society to replace their losses so far, which meant that dropships like the one hovering in my sights had to be picking up the slack, a task for which they were ill-suited.

Even if Brennan and Tyrell failed in their attempt to bring down the enclave, it was entirely possible that they would take Alexander’s eyes off of the rest of the world for long enough that some other grubber city could begin to mount an effective resistance. In that kind of future, even one dropship more or less could have a fundamental impact on the course of history. There were compelling reasons to sell myself as dearly as possible and all of my training and experience cried out against dying to no purpose, but in the end my desire to see Brennan was stronger than anything else.

Instead of opening up on the dropship with missiles and guns in a maelstrom of destruction that would guarantee that I would never see Brennan again, I brought my fighter back deeper inside of the overhang where I’d hidden myself. I’d made my decision only moments before the turret on the dropship finished turning in my direction, but I was fairly confident that I’d managed to react in time. Now it was just a question of whether or not my concealment was good enough.

Working with exquisite care and an almost glacial slowness now that I was back in the position where I’d started, I ramped up the counter-grav even further, trying to pair it with additional decreases to the thrust I was vectoring almost straight down. It was a small change in the grand scheme of things, but it meant that there was even less dust and other debris whipping around underneath my fighter. It might even mean that someone looking straight at me could mistake what they were seeing for just another random dust devil, but all of that would be a moot point if they actually caught a glimpse of my fighter.

I was already dangerously close to the bottom of the overhang, but I nudged my plane up an additional few inches, hoping the entire time that I would be able to avoid slamming any of my control surfaces into the unyielding rock. Placing myself so incredibly close to the rocks both above and behind me was nearly as dangerous as taking a shot at the dropship would’ve been, but I had no choice if I wanted to remain unseen, and even as it was, there was no guarantee that I would manage to escape detection.

My world narrowed down to the rock above me and the video feed from the camera on the back of my plane. I was so focused on avoiding a disastrous collision that I almost didn’t notice when the dropship reversed course and started coming back in my direction.

The growing rumble from the dropship’s engines would’ve been enough evidence of what was happening all by itself, but someone had decided that I merited a front-row seat, so I got even more than that. As the gunner in the belly turret realized that getting closer hadn’t done anything to give him a better sight line into my little alcove, he must’ve gotten on the com to the pilot, because the dropship proceeded to undertake a series of extremely dangerous maneuvers in an attempt to wedge itself down far enough into the canyons to give the belly gunner an unobstructed view.

I listened as the engines on the dropship thrummed unevenly. It was hard to say for sure what was going on, but inside the theater of my mind I could easily see the dropship as it wobbled from side to side in an effort to drop the last few critical feet the gunner was no doubt demanding, but in spite of the other pilot’s best efforts, the belly gun never dropped quite far enough for me to be able to see it. That still wasn’t a guarantee that the gunner hadn’t been able to see into the alcove far enough to pick out the bottom of my plane, and as he flipped on a pair of incredibly bright spotlights, I thought for sure that he’d seen something on his thermographic display, but after several seconds he turned the light back off and the pitch coming off of the dropship’s massive turbines changed.

The temptation to drop down slightly in order to give myself more margin for error was almost overpowering, but I wrapped what was left of the white noise tightly around me and forced myself to maintain my position. It was fortunate that I had, because a few seconds later the gunner cut loose with a long salvo of cannon fire that ricocheted around inside of my alcove. I was sure some of the bullets had come within inches of tearing through my aircraft fuselage, but if I’d followed the urge to drop back down to a more comfortable spot inside of the alcove, then my fighter would’ve doubtlessly been shredded.

For a moment I thought that the gunner had seen me, and that the dropship was going to hover there a short ways off from my position and use armor-piercing rounds to cut into the rock around me until they finally managed to bring the alcove down on top of me, but after several seconds the gunner ceased firing and another change in the rumble from the dropship’s engines indicated that they’d begun moving away from me again. The gunner hadn’t seen anything, so he’d fired into the alcove in an attempt to flush me out.

I forced myself to remain in position for thirty seconds before exiting my alcove and flying off at right angles from the course the dropship had just taken. As tempting as it was to assume that I’d seen the worst the ants could muster, and that my little alcove was safe, I knew better. The dropship was eliminating as much ground as possible from the search pattern, but there was every reason to believe that they would send someone else to take a closer look at any terrain feature that had triggered such close scrutiny by the dropship. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t really matter whether the observers they sent were infantry or another fighter. Either way, if I was still there when they arrived I was as good as dead.

The Outsider – Chapter 1

Author’s Note: So much has happened during the last 2 years since I last posted here. I want to do a post about everything that’s happened, but I’m choosing to prioritize writing over telling you about what’s happened to me since we last talked.

In that vein, I’m going to start posting chapters out of The Outsider for you all to tide you over until I get the book released.

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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.

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Chapter 1

If the ants had been really worried about their enemies obtaining true powered flight, I would have died with the first missile sent my way. As it was, Alexander’s engineers had long since abandoned the idea of needing an actual pure interceptor in their aircraft lineup, which meant the ant pilot who’d detected me, in spite of the clouds and my aircraft’s low radar cross-section, was using the wrong tool for the job.

I thanked my obsessive-compulsive tendencies for the fact that I even recognized the warning tone that sounded as soon as the computer sensed that a hostile aircraft had locked on to me with radar. I’d spent a lot of nights trapped on the ground unable to fly due to clear skies, but if I’d been like most people I wouldn’t have chosen to spend those days and nights reading all of the manuals stored inside my strike fighter’s flight computer. Without that, I wouldn’t have recognized the sound of a radar lock from an incoming ant missile, and I probably wouldn’t have reacted quickly enough to get the antimissile chaff launched.

Even with all of my preparation, I was a poor excuse for a pilot in comparison to the Society’s well-trained and much more experienced personnel, and it was nothing short of a miracle that I hit the right button to deploy chaff as I ramped both my throttle and my counter-grav up as high as they would go. It was the kind of maneuver that would’ve been pure foolishness in a twenty-first-century aircraft given that old-style planes had always been slower climbing than descending, but Hector had made counter-grav so efficient that most of the old rules had been thrown out the window decades earlier.

The radar-guided missile flashed by underneath me, moving at several times the speed of sound as it bored through the cloud of reflective aluminum my fighter had deployed to spoof its targeting systems, but even that success was only going to buy me a few moments of continued survival. The ant pilot who’d taken the shot at me wasn’t going to just turn around and go home because he’d been unsuccessful with this first missile, and unless he was even more arrogant than I was expecting, he would have radioed in the fact that he’d found me even before he fired off his missile.

If that was the case, then Alexander’s people had doubtlessly scrambled a number of additional strike fighters, which meant that I had only a short time in which to either evade or destroy this guy before I would be both outnumbered and outgunned.

I still hadn’t figured out exactly where the enemy fighter was, so I took the only evasive action I could think of that might buy me time in which to find him. I backed off of the throttle on the turbine that controlled the left side of my aircraft for just a split second, but that was all it took to flip my fighter upside down, at which point I pegged the left throttle again and cut my antigravity back down to nothing.

A quick juke upwards like I’d done to avoid the missile was the fastest way to change direction because it was a much less complex maneuver, and it had the benefit of being less scary because it put additional distance between the pilot and the ground, but nothing could match the sheer velocity obtainable when a fighter was upside down and had gravity augmenting the considerable thrust produced by the main engines going flat out.

An old-style altimeter would’ve been counting down the altitude at a rate that would have sent most pilots from that time into cardiac arrest, but the digital readouts that were standard equipment for a Society-fighter were even worse in a lot of ways. Rather than just spinning down towards zero, my altimeter was flashing at the same time that it displayed a time to impact with the ground in seconds that was already down to the low double digits.

That would’ve been bad enough, but this was the first time that I’d ever explored the full acceleration that my aircraft was capable of. The momentary thrust upward had involved just as much in the way of brutal acceleration as I was facing now that I was inverted and screaming towards the ground, but it hadn’t lasted anywhere near as long, and I was starting to realize just how much difference duration was going to make.

I’d learned plenty about the human body and its tolerance—or lack thereof—for extreme acceleration during my jump training back before I’d left the enclave the first time. Unfortunately, that had been nothing more than a surface understanding of the forces involved. I’d been more than happy to just take it on faith that the Society’s engineers hadn’t made any mistakes while calculating how much deceleration a nanite-infused body was capable of withstanding when jumping from high altitude in a grav chute. Tyrell had mentioned the need to avoid blacking out during high-G maneuvers when he’d oriented me on the dropship’s controls, but even that hadn’t really sunk in like it probably should have.

In my defense, even the highly maneuverable dropships in service with the ant military weren’t capable of exceeding my tolerance for acceleration in most circumstances, but I still probably should have clued in faster than I did once I buckled myself into the much more maneuverable strike fighter that I’d used to sneak into the enclave. As it was, my field of vision narrowed down to something less than forty percent of what I was used to before I realized just how much trouble I was courting.

The altimeter still said I had plenty of time in which to pull out of my dive, but that was all going to fall by the wayside if I blacked out before pulling up.

I still had no idea where the enemy fighter was, but I couldn’t afford to remain upside down any longer—even if righting myself might result in my opponent getting close enough to shoot another missile at me. Some half-forgotten fragment of training caused me to tighten up all of the muscles in my legs and midsection in an effort to force blood back up into my brain, but even that was nothing more than a stopgap, and I forced my head around to where I could see the terrain to my left.

It wasn’t promising—not with how close I’d drifted to the mountain during my descent—but before I could check the other direction a new warning tone told me that the other fighter hadn’t just stayed with me, they’d gotten into position to take another shot. The warning tone was similar enough to tell me that I was up against another missile—this time a heat-seeker.

It was stupid to count on my enemy being an idiot—unless I was hoping to die the first time I came up against someone who knew what they were doing—but that was exactly what I’d been hoping for. The Society’s radar tracking missiles were top-of-the-line in every respect, but there was only so much they could do against the stealth technology built into the aircraft I was flying. They remained in general use by the enclave because they were ideal for destroying surface targets that didn’t produce substantial amounts of heat, but in this situation they were nowhere near as dangerous as the shorter-ranged heat seeking missiles that my opponent had opted for with his second strike.

Given the shorter range and higher velocity of the missile currently screaming toward me, I had even less time in which to react, but fortunately I now knew exactly where the antimissile countermeasures were located on my control panel. I slapped the button to release half a dozen white-hot flares out of the back of my fighter, and then cut power to my right turbine for the split second required to rotate my aircraft ninety degrees around its long axis.

It was an insanely dangerous maneuver given that I had no idea if I was about to slam myself into the side of another mountain, but I had no choice if I wanted to avoid the missile headed my way. The flares were doubtlessly good, but the missile wasn’t going to lose track of me unless I changed course in a violent enough fashion to make the flares a more alluring target.

An instant after I rammed the throttle on my right turbine forward again, not just one, but two missiles went slicing through the space I’d just been occupying and slammed into the mountain on what had been the left side of my aircraft.

The projectiles had been moving so quickly that I’d gotten only the barest glimpse of their trajectory, but I was pretty sure I’d correctly plotted their vector, and even if I hadn’t seen exactly what I’d thought, it was incredibly unlikely that my enemy had fired the missiles from a lower altitude.

I changed directions yet again, this time moving horizontally like a traditional airplane in an effort to let the blood work back up into my brain before I passed out. I didn’t need anyone to tell me how unlikely it was for me to come out on top in a fight against an experienced pilot given that I was getting most of my learning on the job, but I had one advantage that just might be enough to get me out of the fight both alive and with my fighter intact.

I’d never taken advantage of the directional thrust aspects of ant technology in such a violent manner, and as I nearly drifted into an outcrop of rock several hundred feet off of the ground, I was faced with the understanding that just because I changed thrust vectors didn’t necessarily mean that my aircraft instantly moved only in the direction I was applying thrust.

In spite of having leveled off and returned to a more normal trajectory, my fighter had continued to drift in the direction I’d been going before, and only the fact that the engineers had designed it with exactly that kind of circumstance in mind allowed my aircraft to avoid being ripped into thousands of pieces from the force of air moving laterally across the wings and control surfaces. Flying was an inherently three-dimensional activity, but this was even worse than that. I was sliding through the air every time I changed my thrust vector, and even now that I was moving forward my velocity still wasn’t enough to provide the lift required to completely overcome the downward momentum that had come so close to blacking me out just moments earlier.

It was the worst kind of circumstance in which to be trying to access a new nanite protocol, but I did my best to do so in spite of sliding through the air like some kind of drunken buffoon on ice skates. I navigated command trees with lightning-fast speed, as I tightened my legs back up and swerved my fighter around, desperately trying to shake the other plane off my trail.

I’d tried at least a dozen times previously to map all of the different commands my neural computer was capable of understanding, but it seemed like every time I went back into the command trees, I found additional options that hadn’t been there the last time I’d needed to access my abilities.

I knew that the protocols I’d mapped so far weren’t going to give me the advantage I needed—which meant that, other than tasking roughly half my nanites to increase my reaction speed, I was free to ignore all of the familiar protocols and just look for something new.

After his initial failures to hit me, the ant pilot took a more conservative stance, but even just firing one missile at a time, he managed to get three more shots off at me as I juked and deployed countermeasures for everything I was worth. I avoided all three shots by the barest of margins, flinching each time one tore past me and exploded against some unsuspecting terrain feature, but I managed to buy myself enough time to realize that there was one protocol that I shouldn’t have been so quick to discount.

The ground below me was rising sharply, but I still managed to split my focus enough to activate the oxygen transport protocol I’d used in my assault on the second mobile command center we’d destroyed at the same time that I pulled back on the stick and ramped up my counter-gravity.

I had no illusion with regards to my nanites’ ability to enrich my blood with oxygen, and what it would let me get away with. With my nanites serving as oxygen carriers in the same way that hemoglobin worked inside the blood, there was every reason to think that what blood made it up to my brain during high-stress maneuvers would be able to better oxygenate my brain, but that would only take me so far. If I pushed to the very edge of my fighter’s capabilities, I would still go unconscious despite all that my nanites could do.

It wasn’t the magical solution I’d been hoping for, but between that and my superior reaction time, there was at least a chance that I’d evened the playing field enough to compensate for the other pilot’s advantage in experience and training.

The extra power I was feeding into my counter-gravity module wasn’t enough to make me completely weightless, but it had gone a long way toward reducing my fighter’s apparent weight and I was now climbing at a sharp angle without any noticeable loss in speed—something that was especially important because the ground ahead of me was rising at an even faster rate than it had been when I’d first started climbing.

With a tiny part of my concentration I was still running through the mental command trees that my neural processor had made available to me—desperately hoping that I’d somehow missed something—but most of my attention was now on the task of flying. I analyzed and discarded dozens of possible actions as I continued hurtling toward the mountain range in front of me, but nothing offered up a good enough chance of surviving the next few seconds given how close the enemy fighter had gotten.

Even ant sensors could only do so much to give me an accurate view of what I was up against while flying in such heavy darkness, but the holographic display in front of me was indicating that I only had a couple more seconds’ worth of altitude before I would hit the bottom of the dense cloud cover that I’d been hoping would let me sneak past the Society’s satellite network undetected.

That presented one of the more intriguing options that I’d come up with so far. In other circumstances I probably would’ve tried to simply climb up into the cloud bank and lose my pursuer inside the obscuring effect of all that water vapor, but I wasn’t confident it would do the trick when I had a hostile fighter following so close behind me. If I was even a little bit off in my estimation of the thermal sensors’ ability to track me, I would end up with an endless string of heat seeking missiles hurled my way without even being able to tell where they were coming from.

I needed something more substantial to put between myself and the other pilot, but I came up blank until the lowlight overlay on my display flashed into place and highlighted a long, dark ravine running between two of the mountains. I shifted my course to one side, moving laterally to avoid another missile a split second before it would have disintegrated my fighter, and then pointed the nose of my aircraft directly at the ravine.

The wonders of ant technology had equipped my fighter with special imaging radar that had much more in common with bat sonar than it did with the old two-dimensional radar systems used during the twenty-first century, and the computer processors inside my aircraft were more than capable of rendering the three-dimensional images in real time. When you added in the low-light overlay that was being layered onto my heads-up display I was able to see almost as well as I could have in broad daylight, but flying into narrow, twisting terrain that I’d never explored previously would’ve been suicidal even at a much more sedate pace than I was using at that moment.

The only thing that gave me any hope of pulling up in time to avoid being turned into a massive fireball if the ravine ended unexpectedly was my fighter’s thrust vectoring technology, but even that wasn’t a perfect get-out-of-jail-free card.

All the antigravity technology in the world wouldn’t do anything to change the fact that a multi-ton fighter moving at the better part of Mach 2 was going to continue forward and slam into a cliff in spite of my best efforts if I was even a fraction of a second too slow in responding to the readout from my radar pulses.

I entered the ravine a couple of heartbeats later, and was forced to throw my fighter hard to the right only a split second into the canyon in order to avoid an outcropping that had been invisible until the last instant. I gave my turbines a tad too much throttle in the process, and felt my right wing scrape against some of the scrubby vegetation that was all but invisible on my radar overlay.

Even a couple of inches’ difference in how far I’d gone to the right could have resulted in disaster. At the speed I was moving even the slightest impact between my wing and the edge of the ravine would have sent me cartwheeling into the rock face, and I finally understood something Tyrell had muttered the first time I’d run the piloting simulator on our dropship.

Flying—even in something as agile as an ant dropship or strike fighter—wasn’t just about figuring out how to make the aircraft go in a specific direction. Any properly trained idiot could send a variable thrust aircraft up, down, or in any other direction, but it took a real pilot to put an aircraft exactly where they needed to be at exactly the right moment.

Every instinct I’d been given as a result of the hundreds of thousands of years my ancestors had spent with their feet safely planted on the ground was screaming at me to slow down and take this particular obstacle course at a speed I had some chance of surviving, but I forced myself to keep the throttles pegged as I whipped the fighter through three dimensions in a way that I would’ve said was impossible even just fifteen minutes before the first missile had torn past me.

I lost count in the first thirty seconds of the number of times that I nearly collided with something solid enough to shatter my vehicle, but somewhere along the line I got out of my own way and started reacting on instinct. It was paradoxically easier to maneuver my fighter when I had both throttles pushed all the way up. If I’d been flying through the ravine during broad daylight without anyone chasing me, I would have been constantly changing my velocity and the amount of thrust I was vectoring in an effort to avoid approaching any one obstacle too quickly, and in doing so I would’ve added an extra layer of difficulty into the process of piloting the fighter.

This way, the odds were lined up even more heavily against me, but I no longer had to worry about how much thrust to vector at any one time. Now the equation for getting around each obstacle flashing towards me was reduced to a simple question of which direction to vector my thrust, and how long to do so.

Just when I thought that I had things figured out, and would be able to leave the other pilot behind, the ravine narrowed down by at least twenty percent. I had a split second in which to juke to the left to put my fighter more squarely in the center of the increasingly narrow ravine, and then the other pilot apparently decided he wasn’t going to get a better shot than the one he had at that moment.

The intermittent warning tone signaling that I was being alternately locked up and then lost by the other fighter’s radar targeting system had blended into the background noise to the point where I could barely even make it out unless I made a concerted effort to pick it out of the rest of the alarms screaming at me, but the blare of heat seeking missiles headed my way was something that I no longer needed to think about in order to execute the appropriate response.

I slapped the countermeasures’ release with the kind of speed that even most ant pilots would’ve killed for, but that was only one part of the equation. I needed to break off in one direction or the other if I was going to have any hope of generating a miss, but unlike all the rest of the times I’d been shot at, there were no longer any good options for evasive maneuvers. There was no room to go left or right, down would send me careening into the rock skimming only a few dozen feet below me, and forward would do nothing to get me out of the danger zone. My only remaining option was to go up, up into the clouds that would rob me of the lowlight visual overlay that had been the only reason I’d been able to make enough sense of the mapping radar to navigate safely for as long as I had.

With a flick of my wrists I rotated both thrust vectors so that they sent me howling upwards, but unlike the last time I’d performed that maneuver, I angled my vector backwards at the same time as my vision once again narrowed down to a tiny tunnel a fraction of its normal size.

All of the benefits conveyed by my nanites and all of my efforts to tense my muscles up to the point where the blood inside my body would have no choice but to circulate up into my brain weren’t enough to allow me to maintain the acceleration indefinitely, but I didn’t need to maintain it for forever, just for longer than my enemy.

My sensors conveyed the sound of missiles slamming into the mountain at some point while I was still climbing skyward, but I wouldn’t have even given that a second thought if not for the fact that my heads-up display pinged a spot below and more than a thousand yards ahead of me as being the likely location of the enemy fighter. I reacted instantly in spite of a tiny voice inside me that was screaming that it was impossible for my fighter’s computer to detect another aircraft through such dense cloud cover.

The other fighter hadn’t taken enough damage to begin showing up on my radar, and the pilot had chosen to climb with his nose to the sky in order to both camouflage his heat signature, and to ensure that his weapons would be pointed in my direction.

Everything I’d ever learned about piloting, technology, and combat told me that there was no way for my cockpit computer to have correctly calculated the position of the other fighter when I had so many things working against me, but I acted on the information regardless of all of that.

Instead of vectoring my thrust to move my fighter laterally or vertically through the air, this time I bought a page out of my opponent’s playbook and vectored all of my thrust behind me as I used my control surfaces to send myself barreling straight at the point in space where the other fighter was supposed to be located.

More than a century and a half before I’d been born, air-to-air combat had already progressed to the point where most kills were made at many times the effective range any unpowered munition could hope to reach. In fact, my suspicion was that the large-caliber rotary cannon installed in the nose of my fighter had been included more as an afterthought, or to humor the more sadistic of the ant pilots who liked to close to within knife range in order to execute the grubbers they’d been tasked with destroying, but the reason that the cannon had been included was far less important at that moment than the fact that it was there.

None of my missiles had any prayer of striking the enemy fighter—even assuming it was where my computer had indicated it should be—but this was precisely the kind of situation where an unguided set of ballistic projectiles might actually prove useful.

Even in just the brief instant between when the computer had painted a probable location for the other fighter, and when I got my aircraft headed forward and down instead of up and back, the other plane had doubtlessly managed to move dozens—or possibly even hundreds—of feet along whatever trajectory it had been sustaining up until that point in its climb, but I couldn’t just let an opportunity to inflict a killing blow fly past me—no matter how remote the odds of hitting my target.

I dove toward the spot where I expected the other fighter to be, and triggered a long burst of bullets that cut through the air with a visible line of tracers for a few dozen yards ahead of me before the line of fire vanished into the clouds. Up until that moment I hadn’t fully appreciated just how many rounds the strike fighter’s rotary cannon was capable of putting into the air at one time, and the shock as my downward motion slowed perceptibly as a result of so much weight being flung in the opposite direction was more than a little unexpected.

The turret I’d manned so many times in the dropship was capable of filling the sky with fire, but even that technological marvel hadn’t been capable of matching the rate of fire I’d just seen out of my fighter. Part of that was because the turret ran a pair of guns so that neither of them had to have quite as short a cycle time in order to put the same number of bullets into the air at one time, but it was mostly the simple fact that the dropship’s main weaponry had been capable of switching out to multiple different types of ammunition. When you could use flak rounds to drastically increase the footprint of your fire, it was a lot easier to hit something as small and agile as a strike fighter, or even a missile. That was even more the case when you considered the fact that dropships were inherently a much more stable firing platform.

Strike fighters—especially when gunning for something as small as another fighter—had neither of those luxuries, and the ant engineers had responded by ensuring there would be no possible way for a target to fly past the nose of a strike fighter and use the space between rounds to avoid being destroyed. Based off of just how much my strike fighter slowed down when I pulled the trigger, I wasn’t sure there actually was any space between the bullets.

I had no idea how much lateral separation would be required to stack bullets that close together, but it wasn’t something I was likely to ever find out without much better photographic equipment than Brennan and his people were ever likely to get their hands on. The most important thing was that I knew if my wildly moving nose had passed across the enemy fighter for even just a split second the bullets from my cannon would have torn a massive hole in the other aircraft.

The lack of any kind of explosion told me that my enemy hadn’t been where I’d been expecting to find him, and I started to lose hope in the split second before the two of us passed within mere feet of each other. It was the kind of feat we never could have replicated in a million years, and even as the other aircraft flashed across my field of view I half expected to have my fighter come apart around me, but somehow the two aircraft squeezed by each other without actually coming into direct contact.

I slung my fighter around with a reckless disregard for what the G forces were going to do to me. No experienced pilot would’ve countenanced that kind of risk, but impossibly, my gamble paid off—or at least it seemed to pay off initially. Not only did I get my nose around so that it was pointed at the other aircraft, I did so without blacking out.

Our frantic maneuvering had brought us both into an area where the cloud cover was just thin enough for me to see the other fighter at the insanely short distances we were dealing with, but even more importantly, I was finally at an angle where my infrared sensors were picking up the heated exhaust coming out of his engine. I was never going to get myself into a better position—now I just needed to find a way to avoid being shaken off of his tail before I managed to shoot him out of the sky.

A new pitch in my left ear alerted me to the fact that my targeting systems had locked onto his thermographic image and were ready to hand the lock off to my complement of heat seeking missiles. I thumbed the selector on the stick over to heat seeking mode, and then—mindful of the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to resupply myself with munitions at any point in the near future—fired off a single heat seeking missile.

As I cut the power to one of my turbines and slammed my controls over in an attempt to stay on the other pilot’s tail, I realized that I’d both underestimated his resourcefulness and overestimated my ability to deal with the acceleration I was subjecting my body to. The ant pilot reacted to my missile with all of the speed of someone who was running a top-of-the-line set of nanites and who’d practiced getting out of this kind of situation over and over until his actions had become reflexive in a way that I was still hundreds of hours away from achieving.

He launched a set of three flares to confuse my missile as he banked his aircraft into the kind of vicious turn that no lesser jet could’ve ever hoped to match. My missile ran into one of the flares with exactly the kind of showy but useless pyrotechnic display that I should’ve been expecting under the situation, at which point I realized my other mistake.

I’d already banked in an effort to maintain my superior position even before my missile exploded uselessly, but I hadn’t fully appreciated just how difficult it would be to keep my opponent in sight once my vision began tunneling down as a result of my brain being deprived of vital oxygen. It was the logical progression of everything I’d observed up until that point, but somehow I’d missed seeing just how difficult it was going to be to actually gun down the pilot I’d engaged.

My plane was every bit as fast as his was, which meant there was no advantage there for him to exploit. We had the same power-to-weight ratios, and neither aircraft was more maneuverable than the other. I was even willing to wager at that point that my nanites gave me an edge when it came to withstanding the titanic stresses being inflicted on our bodies with every violent turn or dive, but there was simply no way to catch something that I couldn’t see.

As soon as I began banking in an effort to follow the other plane, it abruptly changed direction and streaked across my disturbingly tiny field of view before I could react to the evasive maneuver. Now that I understood just how drastically the capabilities of strike fighters exceeded the limitations of our bodies, I could see that the advantage—at least at this range—was always going to rest with the person being pursued.

That wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d been part of a force with superior numbers, but I wasn’t. I couldn’t afford to hang around uselessly trading positions with my enemy while dozens of other Society assets moved into place so that they could box me in and safely destroy me from dozens or even hundreds of miles away. I might be able to successfully evade the first dozen or so missiles sent my way by this guy’s reinforcements, but eventually I would run out of flares and it wouldn’t matter how good a pilot I was, nobody could continue generating endless misses against computer-guided munitions without some kind of countermeasure to even the playing field.

I couldn’t break away from the other fighter without giving him the kind of distance he would need to lock me up and eventually shoot me out of the sky, but by the same measure I couldn’t afford to let the fight drag out for much longer—not if I wanted to make it back to see Brennan and the others.

Even as I realized just how difficult a predicament I was in, another warning tone sounded, indicating that the other fighter had somehow managed to get around behind me again.

I now understood just how easy it was to lose an enemy fighter in that position, and what followed over the next several minutes was an intricate ballet that had more in common with the flight patterns of dragonflies or hummingbirds than it did with any other flying organism. We didn’t just dive, climb, and bank. We each used the vectorable thrust provided by our cutting-edge fighters to execute aerial maneuvers that I hadn’t even realized were possible before that flight, but neither of us could manage to lock the other up tightly enough to land a killing blow.

Our attempts to knock each other out of the air were consuming precious seconds I couldn’t afford to lose, a fact I was so focused on that I didn’t initially realize that we’d both dropped down below the cloud cover once again. I contemplated trying to lead my opponent into the side of the mountain—or lure him far enough down that he would end up in the trees—but against someone as experienced as my opponent, those two options were even less likely to succeed than my attempts to get close enough to use my rotary cannon once again.

I needed some other equalizer, but I was fresh out of ideas.

“I fully recognize that you’re the only thing keeping me in the fight at this point, but it sure would’ve been nice if you could’ve provided me with something more than souped-up reflexes and slightly better oxygen transport up to my brain. Another couple minutes and it’s going to be too late for me to get away from the reinforcements even if I do manage to knock this guy out of the sky.”

Talking to myself was a rather dangerous habit that I’d fallen into at some point since I’d left Brennan’s territory, but I couldn’t get too worked up over my lapse. It wasn’t as though there was anybody else inside the cockpit with me, and even if there had been it wasn’t as though I was giving away anything important.

The fact that we’d dropped down below the clouds meant that the lowlight imaging sensors were getting enough to paint a much more coherent picture of both my enemy and our surroundings, but even at close range, I couldn’t see him well enough to anticipate his maneuvers, which meant that the extra visibility wasn’t going to be enough to save me. Even as I started to push the idea out of my head in the hopes that doing so would make room for something else, I realized that I was overlooking something potentially critical.

I couldn’t see the other fighter’s control surfaces well enough to predict which way it was going to move when the other pilot attempted to lose me, and even if I had been able to see, it was unlikely that I would be able to register and react to what I was seeing quickly enough for it to make a real difference in my attempts to close with the other aircraft, but I already knew that there were dozens of ways in which my fighter’s sensors were superior to my merely human senses.

In theory, it would be possible to program the fighter’s computer to not only watch for and register the subtle, quick movements of the other airplane’s control surfaces, but also to use that information to predict the direction the other plane was going to go before it even had a chance to really change direction. It was a logical progression of the kind of things ant technology was already doing, and the only reason I could come up with for it not having been tried before was the simple fact that the ant military had never been forced to fight enemies with similar capabilities to what they had.

If anyone from Alexander’s camp ever figured out what I was about to do and replicated my technique it would further solidify their control of the skies, but I had no choice but to try. I salved my conscience by telling myself that if I failed nobody was ever likely to recover enough of my fighter to piece together what I’d been working on in the moments leading up to my defeat. I pushed all other misgivings to one side and set about trying to modify my computer’s operational protocols while still avoiding the other fighter and keeping myself from slamming into any inconveniently placed mountains.

Someone like Hector—or even Craft—probably could have put together a rudimentary prediction algorithm in the course of an hour or two that would drastically increase the effectiveness of the Society’s strike fighters for this kind of combat, but they would have the luxury of both working without distraction and programming using a standard ant data console. I had neither of those advantages, which meant that my odds of succeeding—especially in the limited timeframe available to me—were vanishingly small, but I had no choice but to proceed the best I could using the fighter’s vocal recognition heuristics.

“Computer, are you capable of registering movements in the other fighter’s aerodynamic control surfaces?”

“Affirmative.”

“What about the thrust vectoring, can you see what’s happening there as well?”

“Affirmative.”

The strike fighter’s computer was better than anything I’d worked with before leaving the enclave the first time, but it obviously didn’t have the resources of the unit I’d experimented with inside the dropship we’d stolen only weeks earlier. It wasn’t going to win any prizes for improvisation, but at least so far it seemed to be registering my speech without any errors, which was better than I had any right to expect given that I’d never practiced with it and therefore prevented it from adapting its speech recognition files to my particular voice and manner of speech.

As the enemy fighter managed to once again get behind me and begin locking on with his thermal targeting system, I threw my fighter around in a corkscrew maneuver that ended with an abrupt reversal in direction that broke the other fighter loose, but which didn’t do anything to help me figure out just how exactly I was going to frame my request in a way that would have any chance of getting me what I needed out of my computer.

Without any better idea, I decided to just blurt out the request the same way I would have phrased it for Brennan or Tyrell.

“Computer, can you predict which way that fighter is going to go—in real time?”

“Question not understood, please rephrase your request.”

I would’ve screamed if it would’ve done me any good, but I didn’t have the concentration to spare—not considering that my opponent had already managed to reassume his position behind me and begin closing the gap between us. I made as if to climb back up into the clouds and then reversed my course at the last second and dove straight down, causing him to overshoot me.

It was becoming more and more apparent to me with every passing second that my effort to reprogram the targeting computer inside my fighter was doomed to failure, but I had no other real option but to continue trying. The other pilot’s greater experience and training was coming more and more to the fore and in spite of my best efforts I was spending much more time with him behind me instead of having him in my sights.

In all likelihood the engagement was going to be settled before any of the reinforcements arrived, but there was still a chance that the computer—working from the much less precise instructions I could provide while flying the fighter with both of my hands and my feet—would be able to jury-rig something workable where my limited programming knowledge would otherwise have failed.

“Computer, use the same flight pattern modeling and physics you currently use to predict the flight of this aircraft to model the probable flightpath of the other aircraft currently engaging us.”

My dodge had once again managed to break the other plane’s target lock, but it took him even less time than usual to reestablish his place behind me, and as I finished speaking a hail of red-hot tracers tore past my fighter only a handful of feet away from the spot I’d just vacated. As the hyper-velocity slugs sliced past me, the lights on my control panel momentarily dimmed and I thought for sure that some of the bullets had managed to hit my plane.

I juked again, hoping beyond hope that I still had enough control to keep my aircraft in the air. A quick check of the holographic readouts showed that everything was once again at full power, and that none of the aircraft’s internal sensors were reporting any damage.

“Command executed. Modeling program is currently predicting the flightpath of the other aircraft in this airspace with a seventy percent accuracy.”

In the shock of having come so close to being shot out of the sky, I’d forgotten all about the last command I’d issued my fighter’s computer, but fortunately it had continued working on its designated task while I’d been keeping us both in one piece. Even better, I didn’t seem to be experiencing any noticeable lag as a result of drastically increasing the computing load of a system that had been engineered to model only the flight of a single aircraft.

I yanked the stick to the side, and back, nearly blacking out from the effort of getting back around so that I was behind the other plane, and then I implemented the last phase of my plan.

“Computer, display the most probable flightpath for the other aircraft, and update the projection on a constant basis.”

There was a moment of silence where I was left to worry that my order had not been understood, and then the heads-up display in front of me added a glowing golden line signifying the most likely route that the pilot in front of me was going to take at any given moment. I was almost certain that the information being displayed so seamlessly before me was coming at a ruinous cost to the computational node I was depending on to keep my own aircraft in the air. That was concerning, but my chances of survival without some kind of extra edge weren’t good. Hopefully the processor would hang together just long enough for me to end the fight once and for all.

The computer’s prediction wasn’t perfect, but for the first time I could remember the other pilot was starting to have some difficulty shaking me now that I was behind him. The predictive algorithms only bought me a fraction of a second before the other fighter started to move, but that brief instant was enough to let me begin maneuvering in response. Even better, my computer was proving much more skilled than me at taking the other fighter’s momentum into account, which meant I was overshooting my target less frequently than I had been before.

A particularly violent evasive maneuver finally managed to get me off of the other pilot’s tail, but even that wasn’t as dangerous of a development as it had been previously. Rather than just trying to passively track the other fighter—a task that was all but impossible given the lack of both our radar cross-section and any kind of significant heat trail once I was no longer directly behind the other aircraft—the predictive algorithms seemed to be allowing my fighter to focus its efforts on a much smaller volume of space, and that was paying unexpected dividends.

With my holographic display clueing me in to both the likely location of my opponent and his probable course, it was stunningly easy to turn the tables on him once again. I simply maneuvered hard to the left, and then as soon as he had started turning in an effort to follow, I reversed direction and climbed back into position while he was still trying to figure out where I’d gone.

I had just acquired an incredible advantage, but it still wasn’t enough to guarantee my victory, and as I watched him avoid two more heat seeking missiles fired in close succession, I realized that I’d failed to anticipate two problems with my approach. The first issue was that there was no way for my computer to accurately anticipate what was going on with the counter-grav unit inside of the other fighter.

Without any good way to know just how much the other aircraft’s apparent weight had been modified, it was all but impossible to accurately predict how quickly the other pilot was going to climb or dive, but in a lot of ways that wasn’t as much of an issue as the other wrinkle—which I didn’t even realize was a problem until the predictive line headed one direction and the fighter headed off on a completely different vector.

My computer was trying to display a range of information through a methodology that was better suited to a binary kind of outcome, and I was making bad decisions as a result.

“Computer, display the probable flightpath not as a line, but rather as a gradient of probabilities.”

I was greeted with another moment of silence, but this time the controls to my fighter momentarily froze, and I realized just how far I’d over-tasked my computer with my most recent request. I had an instant in which to worry that my order had sent it into some kind of endless recursive loop and then my heads-up display repopulated.

I was now faced with a wonderful two-dimensional simulation that showed not just one, but two different evasive paths in gold with the most likely routes a markedly brighter color that faded as the simulation moved outward along the probability gradient. My edge had just become a towering advantage, but it wouldn’t allow my missiles to be any more effective than they had been only moments earlier.

I ran a quick calculation based off of what I remembered from my perusal of the fighter’s technical manuals and came to the conclusion I’d been suspecting all along. I didn’t have enough missiles to deplete the other fighter’s supply of countermeasures. I could continue sending missiles after the other pilot in the hopes that he would make an error and fail to avoid one of them, but that would leave me under-gunned at some point in the future and drastically reduce the usefulness of my strike fighter.

There was a lot to be said for ensuring I survived now and worrying about the future at a later date, but I couldn’t justify the expenditure of missiles given how badly I suspected Brennan and the others were going to need every available resource we could scrounge up in our fight to overthrow Alexander. Instead of continuing to futilely lob irreplaceable missiles at a superior pilot, I concentrated on narrowing the distance between us, reeling in the other fighter in an effort to get him close enough for me to be able to dispatch him with old-fashioned bullets.

Given the parity in our aircraft, there was no way for me to simply throttle up and run the other pilot down, so I was forced instead to gain ground in smaller increments by anticipating his evasive maneuvers and picking courses that wasted less thrust and velocity. I made steady progress, but it was a frustrating exercise that was made all the worse given that my most pessimistic estimates had the Society’s reinforcements only moments away from arriving.

As bad as that was, I was even more concerned by the fact that as I got closer to the other fighter it became increasingly harder to stay on his tail. The decrease in range meant that I had even less margin for error when the other pilot broke in one direction or the other, and while I’d managed to avoid losing him, the acceleration profile I was having to pick in order to do so was starting to take its toll on me. I’d come full-circle. In spite of all of my ingenuity and fortune in finding a way to offset the other pilot’s superior training and experience, I simply couldn’t sustain high enough G-forces to close with the other pilot.

The ‘historical sight’ on my heads-up display was designed so that it would show me where my bullets would land given my current speed and motion, which should have made landing a shot against the other pilot child’s play, but I just couldn’t get the sights to rest on the other aircraft for long enough to justify pulling the trigger and potentially wasting some of my limited supply of ammunition.

We continued snaking across the sky, moving in unpredictable spurts of acceleration that I knew had to be taxing the other pilot’s abilities nearly as badly as they were my own, and then—just when I thought all hope was lost—it happened. Something inside of my head pulled me back into the neural computer interface which was responsible for selecting nanite protocols.

I tried to resist the distraction, worried it was going to get me killed, but before I pulled completely back out of the interface, I realized that there was a new protocol that hadn’t been there only minutes earlier. I reflexively reached to activate the new protocol, and then stopped myself as I realized that there was no guarantee this new protocol was going to be the magic bullet I’d been so desperately hoping for.

In fact, the odds were heavily against the protocol having anything to do with the kind of changes that would be required to improve my ability to fly my strike fighter, and if I diverted the nanites away from either of the two protocols I currently had in effect, there was a good chance that I would lose my hard-won progress closing the distance between my aircraft and the other fighter. It was another risky wager built on top of a foundation that consisted of nothing more than desperate gambles, but in the final analysis I couldn’t afford not to re-task my nanites. I already knew that what I’d done up until that point hadn’t been getting the job done, and I couldn’t afford to just gamely hold on and hope that the other pilot would finally make a mistake.

I re-tasked half of my nanites away from the other two protocols and waited for what felt like an impossibly long five seconds before the new protocol started to take effect. Between one instant and the next my chest seemed to shrink to the point where it couldn’t contain my racing heart. I was almost convinced that I was having some kind of heart attack until the black borders around the outer edge of my vision started to recede once again.

I’d had no idea how my nanites could possibly make any difference in my fight against oxygen deprivation, but my neural computer had somehow hit upon the perfect solution. Faced without any way to use the microscopic robots to carry more oxygen to my brain, it had instead chosen to amp my circulatory system up nearly to the point of failure in order to ensure a more plentiful supply of blood to the single most important organ in my body.

I could only guess at the actual changes that were involved in the protocol I was running right then, but I suspected that there was more to it than just supercharging my heart. The sharp pain just beneath the point where the blood intended for the rest of my body exited the left side of my heart and headed downward certainly seemed to indicate that my nanites had somehow impeded at least some of the flow down into my other organs, but even if my racing heart was the only side effect of the protocol, I knew I couldn’t afford to waste any time. Managing to shoot down the other pilot would give me nothing if doing so resulted in some kind of cataclysmic failure of my overworked circulatory system.

I took advantage of my now superior acceleration resistance, and ratcheted down the distance separating me from the other fighter at a rate that would have had to be seen to be believed. All of the other fundamental variables inside the equation hadn’t changed. Our fighters were still completely matched in every way, but with both the ability to predict my opponent’s most likely course, and a resistance to blacking out that was far in excess of anything that should’ve been humanly possible, the other pilot never even had a chance.

He executed one mind-numbing evasive maneuver after another, but I no longer lost sight of him when that happened, and no matter what kind of acceleration he subjected himself to, I always had that little bit of extra capacity which made it so that I would be able to match him without blacking out.

I’d known going into the fight that my opponent was superior to me in nearly every way that mattered, but I hadn’t truly understood how good a pilot he was until those final moments. For him it no doubt felt as though I’d worked some kind of black magic partway through our fight. If his cause had been just the slightest bit less unjust I would have felt sorry for him as his evasive maneuvers continued to get increasingly more punishing with every passing second.

The other pilot executed aerobatics that I had a hard time matching even with all of my current advantages, and which I was confident were completely beyond my ability to reproduce, but I stubbornly maintained my position in his blind spot and continued closing the distance between the two of us as he tested every aspect of my abilities, looking for a weakness.

He was now well within range of my rotary cannon, and in spite of his best efforts the historical sight on my heads-up display continued to inch ever closer to his aircraft. It was only a matter of time now, and I found myself having to consciously rein in my desire to pull the trigger. In spite of the steadily mounting pressure for me to conclude the fight and get out of there before the ant reinforcements arrived, there was nothing to be gained by rushing the shot—especially not as unpredictably as he was moving.

As the holographic sights finally lined up on the enemy fighter, and my finger started to tighten on the trigger, the other pilot must have sensed that he was about to be executed. He threw his fighter into the most brutal change in direction yet, and maintained the punishing gravitational forces far past the point that was prudent, but it wasn’t until his plane started spiraling to the ground that I realized he’d finally overexerted himself and lost consciousness.

Part of me felt like I should feel a surge of elation as I tightened my finger and sent several hundred rounds screaming through the space between us, but all I felt at that moment was a kind of exhaustion that had very little to do with what I’d just put my body through.

The other fighter exploded in a white-hot ball of fire that momentarily lit up everything for more than a mile, and I didn’t need my sensors to tell me that the pilot who’d put up such a stunning fight hadn’t ejected.

I turned my aircraft, putting it back on the course I’d been flying previously—one that headed generally in the direction of Brennan’s jungle base while still masking my ultimate destination—and then instructed my nanites to release the protocol that had sent my heart into overdrive.

In spite of the length of time it’d taken to resolve my dogfight with the ant pilot, I still thought that I’d successfully managed to conclude things before the ant reinforcements arrived. I thought that I was home free.

Right up until my onboard computer indicated that it was picking up multiple radar contacts.