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.
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.