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.
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.