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.
I spent more than two hours after I landed my plane trying to disprove my initial impression, but I hadn’t been wrong. After thoroughly exploring the large cave where we’d stored our captured dropship, I ventured out into the jungle in spite of the danger of doing so while it was still dark outside. I kept hoping to find something that would indicate Brennan and the others were simply gone on some kind of mission and that they would be back within the next few days, but instead I found more and more evidence that they’d pulled out and had no intention of returning.
If I’d been the kind of person to give up when faced with an impossible situation, I would have simply dropped down into the decomposing organic material on the floor of the jungle and waited for starvation to claim me, but for whatever reason something inside of me—the same thing that had forced me to keep going when faced with having to carry Brennan out through several dozen blocks’ worth of hostile territory—forced me to keep fighting. Fully aware than any serious injury could be deadly in spite of my nanites—given that I had no backup to come looking for me—I carefully picked my way back to the cave and strung my hammock from my fighter’s wing so that I could catch up on a little bit of sleep while waiting for the sun to rise.
A lot of the plants were still weeks or even months away from maturity, but there were a few quick-growing varieties of vegetables that were far enough along that it looked like I would be able to harvest some of the larger plants within the next little while if it got to the point where I could no longer support myself by foraging out in the jungle.
With several days of hunger gnawing at my system, it was tempting to binge on the fruit I harvested during the first few hours I was awake, but I forced myself to take things slow. I would harvest a little bit of food, and then eat it a few bites at a time over the course of an hour before harvesting more and resuming eating.
I knew what I was doing was smart if I wanted to avoid making myself sick, but it felt like an incredible waste of time to be spacing things out so much. Then again, it wasn’t as though I was operating against some kind of set timeline. I would leave when another bank of clouds rolled in and not a moment before. Nothing I did on the ground was going to speed up the arrival of bad weather in the slightest, and until my body had had a chance to digest the food, I didn’t have strength for anything too strenuous.
Once my physical needs had been seen to, I repeated what was becoming a very familiar process, and deployed my fighter’s solar panels so that it could begin splitting off hydrogen from the trickle of water it was pulling in from a nearby pond. I debated forgoing the camouflage netting given just how deep I was inside the canyon, but in the end went ahead and deployed it as well, just in case.
Once that was done, there was very little for me to do but worry and try to come up with some kind of plan that had a chance of reuniting me with Brennan. Ironically, the very thing that I’d been counting on to keep our operations hidden from Alexander and all of his resources was now working against me. A planet was an almost impossibly big place in which to hide something as small as a couple of dropships and a few dozen people.
When you added in the fact that I didn’t have any of the massive intelligence resources that Craft was using in his search, and that I was just one person, my odds of finding Brennan and the others without some kind of external help were almost nonexistent. Even without the restriction of only being able to fly on cloudy nights, I could conceivably wander around for the next two hundred years without finding any trace of Brennan.
If Brennan had been injected with Tyrell’s nanites and I hadn’t been so worried about the possibility that my nanites were malfunctioning, maybe I would have chosen to play a longer game. In a world where both Brennan and I were immortal, there was some validity behind the idea of letting time work for me, but that wasn’t the situation I was up against. Every year that went by was irreplaceable, time that Brennan would never get back, and it was only after I’d left to go back to the enclave that I’d started to realize just how important time spent with him was to me.
No, I needed to find him as quickly as possible, which meant that I really had only one course forward. I didn’t know where Brennan and Jax were, but I did know where Tyrell was—at least for the time being. The plan had always been to eventually abandon Cutter’s territory, and it was even possible that Brennan had already decided to do exactly that as a way of ensuring our people couldn’t be captured in the event that I’d been tortured into giving away everything I knew, but I didn’t think that was the case.
Abandoning the jungle base that we’d all put so much time and effort into building up had no doubt been a hard call to make, but I could see the logic behind making sure that Brennan and the two dropships didn’t fall into Alexander’s hands. Tyrell was probably just as valuable as both the dropships put together, but without him the odds of Lexis and the others surviving more than a few weeks were pretty terrible. My bet was that after a pretty heated debate Brennan had finally agreed to leave Tyrell in place as a way of protecting Brennan’s noncombatants and ensuring a steady supply of food to replace the crops that everyone had been forced to leave behind.
That meant that I still had at least one link back to Brennan, but there was no guarantee how long Tyrell would remain inside Cutter’s territory. The logical thing to do would be to get him and everyone else out as soon as Brennan and Jax managed to establish a sufficient source of food somewhere else, which meant that I needed to get to Cutter’s territory as soon as possible if I was going to have any chance of joining back up with Brennan and Jax.
Unfortunately, there were holes in my plan big enough to fly a dropship through. Even if I was right, and Tyrell was still pretending to be Cutter, the odds were pretty heavy against him knowing the location of Brennan’s new base. If it had been me, I probably would’ve left Tyrell in place in his current position, but I wouldn’t have given him information he didn’t absolutely have to know for fear that he would somehow fall into Alexander’s hands and let something slip that would sink the rest of Brennan’s people.
Even if Tyrell was still in Cutter’s territory, and knew where Brennan’s new base was located, that still didn’t mean he was going to be willing to tell me what I wanted to know. I’d been through a lot since Tyrell had beaten me nearly to death, but none of those experiences had made me any less suspicious of his motivations. If nothing else, the ongoing erratic behavior I was seeing out of my neural computer would have been enough to sustain my suspicions—even without learning just how wrong Tyrell had been about almost everything he’d told us about Alexander.
I didn’t just need to find a way to talk to Tyrell, I needed to do so in such a manner that prevented him from making another attempt on my life. I was more than ninety percent confident that the only reason he hadn’t outright killed me back in Cutter’s territory was that he’d been trying to maintain deniability with Brennan. Given that Brennan and the others had probably expected me to die inside the enclave in a futile attempt to find Katya, there wasn’t going to be any reason for Tyrell to hold back this time. Given the resources that he commanded with his Cutter persona, unless I did everything just right it would be far too easy for Tyrell to have me killed and then dispose of my body without any real risk of his actions ever making it back to Brennan.
All of those fears and more preyed upon my mind as I spent the next two weeks waiting for a change in the weather. It took longer than I would’ve liked to get my plane refueled, but in some ways I was sad when my flight computer indicated that the fuel tanks were at capacity. It was good to know that I would have plenty of range if I had to make a run for it in the event that Alexander’s people somehow managed to find me, but it also meant that I had one less thing to keep me busy while I waited.
I continued a regime of training designed to keep up my muscle strength and endurance, as well as making an effort to cultivate a few of the smaller vegetable fields, but those were both physically demanding activities, which meant that even with the edge provided by my nanites there was only so many hours a day I could dedicate to those particular diversions. I tried to fill up the remaining hours with other productive tasks, and played with the full range of my neural computer’s available protocols looking for a new edge that could help me survive the next time I found myself up to my neck in trouble, but even that wasn’t enough to completely distract me from the fear that I would never see Brennan again.
Through it all, Sadie’s optical processor continued humming along in the background, eating up much more in the way of power than I would’ve expected for a device that by all indications should have been the next best thing to hibernating. During one of my late-night worry sessions—after a windy day that had conspired to put my solar panels in shadows for much longer than was normal—I noticed that my fuel tanks were down by two-tenths of a percent, and acting on a hunch I had my flight computer analyze the optical processor’s power consumption since I’d plugged in.
Given what I’d seen with regards to my fuel consumption, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find out that Sadie’s invention had been steadily drawing greater and greater amounts of power ever since I’d plugged it into my fighter, but the information didn’t exactly fill me full of comfort. Based off the data my flight computer had pulled together, it now looked like the processor had maxed out the amount of power that could be transmitted over the standard cable I’d used to connect it to my fighter.
That wasn’t necessarily going to be a problem from a logistical standpoint unless I ended up with several more days where my solar panels brought in only a fraction of their normal energy, but there was something more than a little unsettling in knowing just how much energy the processor was now drawing. Despite its apparent lack of activity from the outside, it was obvious that something was going on inside of that cube of metal, plastic, and glass.
There was no indication that Sadie’s invention was actively working against me given that I hadn’t had a visit from Alexander’s people at any of the three layover points since I’d left the enclave, but I still almost unplugged the processor then and there. I even went so far as to reach for the power cable running into the cube, but just before I could unplug everything, a new line of text popped up in front of my eyes, this time in the very center of my field of vision, much bigger and with higher contrast than anything I’d seen previously.
Unplugging the device will have catastrophic results, Skye.
“Who are you, and how are you interacting with my neural processor?”
I didn’t really expect an answer, but after what felt like forever with no indication that whoever had sent me that line of text had been able to hear my questions, I couldn’t help but try one last thing.
“Is that you, Sadie?”
There was no response for several seconds, just long enough to make me feel like an idiot for talking to someone who couldn’t hear me, and then I got a single word in response.
I expected that to be the end of things, but a second later a question flashed across my vision.
Why are you risking so much to get back to Brennan?
I was so shocked that it took me a second to respond. “I never really stopped to think about it in those terms. When it comes to Brennan, I guess I haven’t felt like I needed a reason—Brennan is the reason all by himself.
“That probably sounds stupid. I’ve nearly died several times since I left the enclave the second time, and after the way I treated him the last time we saw each other, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be willing to talk to me if I do manage to find him. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense, but all I can say is that I’ll risk just about anything to try and make things right with Brennan.”
Several seconds passed without a response, and I started to worry that I’d just given too much away to whoever was responsible for the glitches in my neural computer.
“Who is this? It’s past time for you to just tell me who you are and how you’re doing this.”
No matter how many times I asked for additional information, or threatened to go through with my plan to unplug the optical processor, I got no further response, and was forced to go back to my hammock without understanding what had just happened. I couldn’t bring myself to unplug Sadie’s processor, but I was filled with an inexplicable dread that plugging it in had been a grave mistake.