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.
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.”