The fence stood forty feet tall, towering along the landscape, dividing here from there. I don’t know what I expected to find, but with wires tightly drawn between mammoth pylons, this was not it. I expected solid cement with armed guards roaming along the ground. For a barrier that kept mankind from entering the Outlands, it was less than impressive.
“I expected, more.”
Lilith leaned against the RV, eyeing the fence that made me think there must be something I wasn’t seeing. For the woman to hesitate, there must be synthetics in hiding or perhaps guards in underground bunkers waiting to surprise us. The bold Lilith I had grown accustomed to was almost docile. I never thought I’d miss her aggressive nature.
“They don’t need more. The wall doesn’t intend to keep people out. It’s more of a warning, a strong suggestion that going on the other side could mean the death of you.”
“So, of course, we’re going.”
“You haven’t backed out yet.” I raised my eyebrow at the comment. Had Lilith expected me to beg for my old life? Did she think I would run in tears when the going got tough? I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, but I surprised myself. Even in the face of death, my thoughts had been about moving forward. I regretted nothing.
“Can we get the RV through?”
She shook her head. “The wires are like my knife. Metal with a honed edge. It’d cut right through the body. And then there’re the lasers.”
Lilith almost chuckled. “You realize they put these into place to keep us here, but more importantly, keep them there. The Free Republic doesn’t want Outlanders coming back into the country.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t thought of it that way. It made sense. But who remained on the other side of the fence other than the Children tucked away in Troy? I didn’t dare ask. I feared she might tell me of another boogeyman.
“We need to get moving. Whoever has been following us isn’t going to be far behind. I want to see—”
“Wait, there’s somebody following us?” This was the first I was hearing of it. Synthetics? The church? The Network? I realized we had far more potential enemies than we did allies. The only person who had come to our aide was Pill-R. Sure Halo and Francis offered us backup, but the way Lilith spoke, I feared they were too close to turning us in. Even if they lived, Lilith was not high on their list of comrades.
“The arms dealers. The pier, even the enforcers in Detroit. Haven’t you wondered how at every turn somebody has been dogging our heels?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.” For days I had been in survival mode. We moved from one disaster to the next, and thinking about the big picture seemed trivial compared to not being shot. But as she spelled it out, somebody seemed to be just behind us at every turn.
“Who do you think it is?”
Lilith shook her head. “Somebody with resources. They sent Marines. They accessed the enforcers. Whoever it is, they’re somebody with influence.”
Lilith gave a slight shrug. Now that she planted the seed, I tried to going through each encounter. I thought cameras or drones had captured my face and a bit of deductive reasoning had them breaking down the doors to capture me. But what if there was somebody driving them? Commanding them to hunt me down? The Valentine of Chicago had made it clear that he wanted me to undertake this mission, even supplied me with Lilith. Why would he want me stopped?
“It’s not the Church,” I said.
“I don’t think so. I think the Valentine will disavow me. But I don’t think he’d want to stop you, at least not yet. You’re on a mission on his behalf. He wants something out of this. I just haven’t been able to sort it out. Not yet.”
If Lilith hadn’t figured out what the Valentine wanted, that had me worried. That left the military and the network. There were too many variables. I didn’t want to dwell on it. We had ground to cover and some part of me wanted to see Troy, that is, if they didn’t kill me on sight.
“Let’s go,” I said. Backpack nestled against the small of my back, I started walking down the broken road. Grass had grown through the cracks, giving away that nobody had been here in years. There was something beautiful about the decay of mankind and the persistence of nature reclaiming what we stole from it. At the rate we were going as a species, the Earth might reclaim more than we suspected.
We walked with a purpose. I noticed that as we went, my feet dragged, heels scrapping on the asphalt. However, Lilith’s feet hardly made a sound. The need for stealth gave away her nerves. I watched her feet, mirroring the way her heels touched the ground. I awkwardly followed, but even she took note, looking back and giving me a slight grin.
“Know where your next foot will go before you place the one before it.” I paused, froze mid step as I tried her tactic. I found that with her guidance, I was moving almost as quietly as she. “Keep your eyes forward, but make note of the pavement in your peripheral.”
Was she transitioning from mentor to protector? Up to this point, she had destroyed every threat we encountered. She fulfilled her role with vicious accuracy. But if I could contribute, even a little, perhaps the burden would shift from her shoulders. I couldn’t match her speed or her strength, but I could make myself less of a target.
“Why a knife? I mean, why not use a gun? It seems a weird choice when everything is shooting at us.”
“How has that done for them?”
“Point made.” Her cockiness had originally irked me. Now I found it well earned. When a single woman with a knife could down some of the most brutish synthetics ever made, she had my respect.
She pulled the knife from her hip and handed it to me. “What do you see?”
I had gripped it multiple times, but I hadn’t taken time in battle to inspect the weapon. The handle was almost as heavy as the blade. The serrated side was difficult to see, as if it were disappearing in and out of sight.
“It’s balanced. It’s also, difficult to see? Am I seeing that correctly? The edges are hard to look at.”
“The edge of the knife is exactly one atom thick. It can slice through just about anything. It was given to me by my mentor.”
“You had a mentor?”
She paused, letting me catch up to her. “I wasn’t born with these skills. Matter of fact, I wasn’t much different from you when I first joined the Network.”
Did she just compliment me? I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. But thinking of Lilith taking orders from somebody older than her was a hard pill to swallow. Her isolation and refusal to speak of herself with only the occasional breadcrumbs made a partnership almost impossible.
“Put a pin in that conversation. The knife, a gun with your skill would be even more dangerous.”
“A gun isn’t a weapon. The bullet, laser, sonic burst, whatever strikes the person is the actual weapon. They’re detached, unpredictable in the heat of a fight. This knife, however,” she took the blade from me, careful to avoid the metal, “it is an extension of my arm. It’s no different than my hand. I control it. I like control.”
“I haven’t noticed,” I made sure the sarcasm dripped from the comment.
“It won’t jam, misfire, or require ammunition. It is a simple tool.”
“I get it.” Okay, so I only kind of understood what she was saying. But I made a note, when in doubt, in the heat of battle, make sure I was in control. Were these moments of education how her mentor bestowed wisdom onto her? Was he as cold and distant as her? I tried to imagine the man who could teach somebody like Lilith. I wanted to meet him, to see if he was like a wayward father or if he was a militant commander.
Lilith held out her arm, stopping me in my tracks. “How fast can you run?”
“I ran track.”
“Good,” she knelt and tightened the laces on her boots. “You’re going to need to run like your life depends on it.”
“What the hell?” On the pylons, I saw them, mounted turrets with double barrels pointed at us. I understood why there were no men manning the fence. “You didn’t say there would be cannons.”
“Did you hear me say it would be easy?”
“Dammit.” I followed her, tightening the laces on my sneakers. It had been a while since I ran like I wanted a scholarship trophy. I kicked my foot behind me, grabbing my toes and stretching my legs. Lilith might slaughter robots or generate shields, but she was about to find that a mere human could smoke her.
“How fast are they?”
She pointed to a tree lying on the ground. “You need to get to there. Once we’re that close, they can’t hit us. I’ll get us through the fence and then we’ll have to run out of range. Do you have the stamina?”
“Try and keep up,” I smiled at her. For once, I knew that I could excel. Lilith might have supernatural abilities, but I had skill.
“You’re more fun when you’re cocky.”
I started. I didn’t care about stealth, I needed speed. I kept the cannons in my sight as I stole glances at the road. I leaned forward, using my entire body. Short steps, sure, toes gripping the asphalt. I tried reaching the zone where the world fell away and all that remained was me, my muscles, my breathing, my feet.
I swerved to the left. The ground behind me to the right exploded in a shower of gravel. The tree was almost a quarter mile away, but for a distance runner, that was child’s play. I leaned to the right as the cannon fired again. Whatever artificial intelligence was being used didn’t seem to have predictive reasoning. How many shots before it calibrated and tried to assume my next steps.
The road tore away in a thunderous bang. I had no idea where Lilith might be following. I trusted she’d survive. Perhaps she’d need a shield to deflect the cannon, but me, all I needed was concentration.
The cannon fired twice, trying to compensate for my speed. I veered further right, a small leap off the road, and I was running in the tall grass. The road blew apart where I had been, and I pushed forward. The tree Lilith had signaled as the limitation of the cannons was within reach. I could make it. I would make it.
A volley of blasts fired. I slowed, turning left and skid. I fought to stay upright as grass and soil flew into the air. I was smarter than a machine. I was random. It couldn’t handle zigs and zags that had no pattern. I turned right and pushed harder than I had in years. My body craved oxygen as I held my breath. The tree was nearly within reach.
The tree exploded. I closed my eyes and jumped through the debris and caught my foot on the edge of the crater. I let my body go limp as I rolled along the ground. I bounced back to my feet and hobbled forward. I had lost my speed and if they tracked me again, I wasn’t sure any amount of fancy footwork would save me.
They fired again. I turned to see Lilith diving through the air. Sailing between two beams of blue light, she tucked and somersaulted. She struck the ground and bounced, rolling onto her back. We both froze, waiting to see if she had been right bout the cannons. Seconds passed, and neither cannon fired.
“I win,” I laughed.
“I let you win.”
“Lilith, you’re such a liar.” I helped her to her feet.
We approached the wall and the smell of burning ozone became overpowering enough my eyes watered. I had thought only the wires separated us from reaching the other side. From one pylon to the next, a field of light shimmered between the wires. It wasn’t obvious at a distance, but the wires served as conductors for a force field.
“We’re not just going to jump through?”
“Yes we are.” I was about to object when Lilith held up her hand. She was about to summon whatever supernatural ability allowed her to generate the shields. I thought it’d be an impressive show, like with the enforcers, but she extended her fingers and the light formed at head height.
“When I say, go.”
It started with a slight hum and quickly turned to a hiss. Lilith’s shield violated the barrier, cutting through it with ease. Ease until I saw the strain on Lilith’s face. I had no idea what it took to summon something that defied the laws of physics. I imagined it was like recalling the ability to play the violin, but as the sweat bead along her forehead, I knew it was a greater struggle.
She shh’d me. I bit my tongue, letting her concentrate. Could she feel the barrier pushing back? Did some part of her brain know that it was doing the unthinkable? I had to wonder if it was more involved than I initially thought. For a moment, I felt thankful for being a mere human.
The shield continued to spread until it created a circle. Once it closed, it hovered in the air, blocking the light from the pylon. I didn’t wait for the okay, I jumped through as if I were a stunt woman in a movie. I hit the ground and spun about as quickly as I could. She opened her eyes, and I nearly gasped. Her iris vanished, replaced by an electric blue. Under different circumstances, I would say it was beautiful.
She carefully slid one leg through the hole, moving with care. One leg through, she ducked her head, careful to keep her thighs from touching the plasma. Once she was through, her hand dropped, and she let out a low moan. The force field collapsed, and the light from the pylon disintegrated her shield. Just like that, we were in the Outlands.
“We made it.”
Lilith dropped to her knees, taking deep breaths. I worried she was about to pass out and we would be out in the open with no way for me to carry her and dodge motion sensing cannons.
“Are you okay? Does it hurt? What can I do?”
“Slight headache. I’ll be okay, I just need a moment to rest.”
“You’re not going to pass out like before?”
I stopped asking questions when she glared at me. “Get thrown against a wall and let me know how you’re doing.”
Okay, I deserved her judgement. “I deserved that. But to be fair, you’re the first Child of Nostradamus that I’ve ever interacted with.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll meet more soon enough.”
Troy. I wondered if it would be a Nirvana, a safe space where Children worked together to build a better society? Or perhaps having all that power at your disposal just mean the problems were nastier? She hadn’t told me anything about her former home. I didn’t need to ask. Her lack of details generally meant it was dreadful news.
I couldn’t handle more dreadful news.
“All right,” she got to her feet. Cracking her neck, she stretched her arms and prepared for another mad dash through the gauntlet. “Do you think you can beat me twice?”
“It’s not even a fair wager…”