The oppressive hack of rotors whistling above me began to subside along with the ragged beating of my heart. The last vestiges of searchlight fade from the evening sky and the concurrent darkness rushes in to blanket the forest in heavy silence. Third patrol this week, and they were getting longer.
I wait another hour on my stomach in the undergrowth, making sure there isn’t another sweep, then I gingerly pick my way out of the rubble, boots deftly finding footholds in the ivy encrusted steel and concrete. Black stains of moss crawl down the walls with ivy intertwined as reinforcement.
I vault to the bunker’s roof, taut muscles heaving me up efficiently, and then I proceed to climb the nearest pine (obviously artificial, nothing could grow in an atmosphere like this). Its thick wood smelt of smoke and maple (somehow) and its thin limbs acted as a layman’s ladder for those who were reckless enough, me being one of them. Upwards a weaved, scaling five, ten, fifteen stories until finally, I burst out of the trees. I surveyed the area and vestiges of drone smoke trails that smelled of sulfur.
Astraea was in the sky, a twin planet next to the sinking sun, both of which were framed by clouds—low hanging, wispy, numerous—that promised rain, and a sharp temperature drop.
I let the sharp wind bite into my cragged and angular face, whipping the mud-brown around in my dark hair.
I look at the sunset, accompanied by the lighting of the entire horizon, appearing as though oil had been brushed into the stratosphere, which it had. The industrial district on Estrida was on the horizon, and dark orange clouds of refined tungsten-sulfide rose into the air. From my lofty perch, I could even see Altek Laboratories—or as we few left liked to call it—The Printer. Soldiers who didn’t eat, sleep, or rest were manufactured day and night.
I wink once with my right eye, and a small blue interface appears in the corner. I had hacked the device years ago. What used to be a systemic tracking device is now a godsend. Untrackable access to the internet? Priceless in these days.
I do a system check, then train my eye to Altek and pull up the rotation information I had gathered from hours of painstaking recon. Tonight was the night, but I was nervous as hell; this was the first time I had done a raid so big. The digital clock in the corner of the blue screen read 9:32. I shake my hands and take a small breath, then descend back below the canopy, dropping through emerald leaves and dark umber to the forest floor.
10:23 I’m just as prepared as I was twenty-three minutes ago. I’ve triple checked each latch on the force distribution vest, each strap on the gravity boots, every thread of the carbon-fiber displacer, each screw on the plexiglass facemask, and each pin on the EMP grenades; all of which had been stolen for this exact mission. Though the equipment wasn’t our only advantage; the rain, as predicted by Hurricane, would interfere with the backup generator, giving us an extra fourteen seconds without security cameras—in other words, the difference between life and death. But Exo was the one who should have been worried. If he hadn’t managed to “borrow” the VOID (Vanadium Oxydisulfoton Implosive Device); a fancy name for a chemical bomb that essentially vaporizes everything, regardless of material or mass. He should have procured it from the military facility in the Science Division, and if we didn’t have that, we’d have to trash years of planning.
I head out, running through the forest, trying to burn off energy. With the boots, the strides turned into leaps, and I remark (silently of course) in delight. These are amazing!
I jump laterally, pushing out from a small pine, soaring over empty air. I tuck into a roll, feeling—and more importantly—hearing nothing. They worked as Hurricane denoted.
I continue towards Altek, sleek as a shadow, and quieter too, colors blurring to the side of me until finally, I see Exo’s predetermined meeting place: Bunker 35. Based on the steel booted footprints outside, barely an indentation in the ground, a patrol had come around a good three months ago. Any further back than that, and it would have been washed away by the rainstorm. Any sooner, and the boot shape would be different; The Factory had a manufacturing change for the machines, and there was supposed to be another stripe. We still had a good couple days before the routine sweep, and by then we’d be long gone. I hope.
10:33. Stepping into the bunker, I see more recent footprints, a couple of weeks old, and I uncover the foliage, revealing an old communication set. Hurricane—her real name Nova—had been here earlier. Ducking back out of the bunker, I go to retrieve the generator I had placed in the crook of a tree, and I easily jump up and grab onto a branch to steady myself. Smoothly detaching the hidden solar panel from our power source, I untie the bowline knot surrounding the generator affixing it to the tree, then retie the knot and begin to lower the generator, wrapping the rope around a thick branch to relieve the pressure. It meets the ground with a light thud, and I jump down after it, landing in a light crouch. I hook up the generator to the system, and it boots up, showing me the time.
10:41. I hear a crack behind me, and I panic, diving for the cover of a tree, expecting a hydraulic powered shaft to come hurtling towards me, but I don’t hear the telltale rush of air. Within a fraction of a second, I launch up ten feet, latching onto a tree with an iron grip. I pull one of the EMP grenades off a belt, but before I can pull the pin and throw it, I hear a feminine voice.
“Stop! It’s me, it’s just me!” The voice is distinctive, the vowels short. Instantly recognizing it, I launch myself off the tree to land in front of the voice’s owner.
“Four minutes early!” I retort sharply.
“Oh, come on. I just wanted to drop by to check on some things. Besides, so are you.”
I take a moment and sigh, then turn my head and beckon with a gloved hand.
“I brought the generator down. Come and get it set up, we have to go soon.”
She nods, suddenly grave, and strides past me, hurrying up to the Com Set.
Her stage name, Hurricane, denoted to her prowess in causing absolute chaos. She was a Blue Sector rebel who used to live in a human concentration camp some hundred miles out. One of my first raids, I had released as many slaves as possible, and she decided to follow me. 5’ 4”, 28 years old, brown shoulder-length hair, stark blue eyes. Her father—now dead, of course—had been fascinated by technology; ancient, new, regardless. His daughter shared said fascination, and now she was a fantastically accomplished hacker (at least for a human).
She boots up the programs, initiating a series of commands I can’t begin to understand. After looking over a few information packs compiled by a database, she sends me a connection invite through the chip. I quickly accept, watching her confirm the connection over her shoulder as she taps the microphone. Used to the custom, I walk away, then hear her whisper into it.
“Loud and clear.”
“Alright, good to go.”
I jogged back and she turned, saying, “Last week I finished jacking and smuggling the location outline, so I’ll upload that now. You should have position tracking on the majority of the factory soldiers.”
“I’ll probably need it tonight,” I say drly, giving her a weary smile.
10:46. “Hey. It’s Jonathan,” I hear quietly from behind me. A small part of my brain panics, but then rationality reasserts itself in a few milliseconds: Exo.
“Late,” Both Nova and I say at the same time, and we turn around, seeing our long-time partner.
We all laugh, a somehow uplifting yet painful sound. A chorus that’s too loud, to drown out something else.
I refocus, suddenly apprehensive, “Did you get it?”
“What, that bomb thing?” He says with a grin. “Who do you think I am, some four year old, not taking care of my responsibilities?” He gently swings around his backpack, lifting a black object out of the padded front zipper compartment. “So, what d'ya think?”
“About you having the mental age of a four year-old, or the weapon of mass destruction in your hand?” I smirk.
We all laugh, hollow, rattling, but honest, at least; a small condolence.
“I’m gonna connect you, alright?” Nova says to Exo. She types in a few more commands; I see Jonathan stare into space in front of him. He does the same check I did and then comes back, gravity boots crunching along the dead bracken. Exo proceeds to explain that the bomb has a trigger, and he shows me the device. A small black rectangle. He displays how to take the cover off, which is simple, but impossible to do by accident (probably a good quality for a bomb to have).
Eventually, we gather behind Nova, looking at characters on the screen. I don't know why we do it; they mean nothing to us.
I turn my attention outwards, trying to hear distinct signs of specific animals; doe, a little more than ninety pounds, sixty feet south; fox, or racoon, maybe, with her litter, no more than thirty feet east; brown finch, based on tone and pitch, forty feet off the ground. I check the equipment again, readjusting the latches, straps, and zippers, and course, everything is in place.
I realize that this may be the last time I ever hear the barn owl soaring over us again, or the stream some hundred feet north, so quiet it seems like a memory.
Or the soft laugh of a group of friends, sitting some three feet away; west.
10:51 “If we want to meet the shift change, we should set off now,” says Jonathan.
“I know,” I say with little enthusiasm. “I know.”
“Time to head out, boys,” Nova remarks with a smile; of course, it doesn’t touch her eyes. This was the most dangerous thing we’d ever done.
Did we even know why we were doing it? Why did we throw ourselves recklessly into the face of death? Was it for the resources? A weak justification. The peace after, at least until they started producing more patrols? Not a chance. We knew how to hide, at least long enough to die at a solid age. Was it recognition? Yeah, we really want to be well known. All the people who look up to us, just a plethora of supporters!
No. It was because, at heart, we can’t sit still. It kills us, we humans; at least the stupid ones. We desire, we search, we strive...to be better. We are animals at heart, broken, cornered, caged animals. And we don’t like being in cages. We will escape, even if it means death, to taste freedom. We escape because it means death. Because maybe, in the end, when we die, we can stop. We can allow ourselves to drift away.
Damn, I'm sounding like a philosopher; was it really this bad?
10:59 Exo and I slinked through the forest and made it three hundred feet from the border, where there was a wall of graphene-enhanced nuclear plasma. Essentially everything-proof, including being protected from our little bomb. Twenty feet high, barbed wire at the top, security cameras lining it. Oh, and also the giant automatic machine guns mounted on the top. Fortunately—or unfortunately—this was the easy part.
Now, you may ask why we didn’t decide to toss the bomb over, walk five kilometers away, and then press the button? Well, there is one slight problem with that idea. Literally nothing would happen. A pressure density field and
de-oxygenator were installed. Essentially, they make it so it’s impossible to create any sort of fire, due to lack of said oxygen. Of course, this solves many problems for our enemy: it makes it hard for people to get in, there are no explosions, and any accidents will result in zero collateral damage. Even more, most explosions can’t even be detonated for a few minutes if this field is disabled, as atmospheric pressure takes time to reassert dominance. Here’s where the plan comes in.
I shake myself out of lethargy, then give Jonathan a crooked smile. I launch myself up into the branches. Grabbing onto a sturdy base twenty feet up, I haul myself onto it, then proceed to pick my way across the treetops. We make to get as close as we can, and I look to him and we put on the plexiglass masks. They were almost 100% efficient and allowed one to survive on a single breath for around an hour.
We would have ten seconds of invisibility with the displacer. Well, not actual invisibility. Our human footprint—temperature and makeup—would be impossible for machines to detect from far away. But they didn’t last very long; five seconds on the dot, then almost two minutes to generate energy to activate it again; even then, you only have about three uses before you have to recharge them manually. I know, technologies these days are picky.
We make eye contact, and I hold up three fingers, counting down. Intense vertigo washes through me, and my skin turns electric. When it gets to zero, we both activate the displacer with an interface command, then vault off the tree, sailing down over the shortly harmless turrets on the wall to the preselected destination. The distance had been correct, and the velocity carried us over, five feet from the wall, this time on the other side of it. We landed on top of the concrete box surrounding the gate opening mechanism. It has raised edges, and we both roll to a hard stop, lying flat on our stomachs. Even though the shifts should be changing, we didn’t want to be in sight when the displacer wore off. The timer in my head turned to zero, and another one started for a minute and fifty-eight. We wait for the sign of a siren, but none comes.
11:02. The window is closing. Not behind schedule, but we could be doing better.
With a moment’s hesitation, I drop over the side, instantly surveying the area. I see everything we planned for. The air vent we would be breaking into, the cameras which would be disabled by the EMP, and the rain that covered the manual outage.
The vast expanse of concrete suddenly seems daunting, but I take a breath. We wait for the last thirty-six seconds, and then activate the displacer again, dashing out from cover, rain beating against the ground with its fists.
Four. Halfway there, barreling ahead at a dead sprint with the gravity boots.
Three. My legs pound against the ground, and I hear the soft tapping of Jonathan behind me.
Two. I pull the pin with my left hand, tossing the EMP grenade towards the cameras.
One. An almost visible shockwave pulses out, and the lights within fifty feet all go black.
Zero. Not wasting a second, I run up the small wall, bashing in the vent with a kick. I slip inside, and I hear it swing closed. When Exo comes in, he doesn’t run into me. Knowing that by now, everyone—or I guess, everything—was aware something was wrong, we scurried through the ventilation; left, straight, right, straight, up, straight, down. We had arrived. I pull up the interface and see that there’s already a progress bar on the passcode door underneath us down the hallway. Nova at work.
Suddenly, I hear clanking underneath us, and we both freeze up.
“Division T-919, assess facility shortcoming: surveillance system in block C7.” I turn to Exo, performing a hand motion from the sign language we’d invented. Each letter had a symbol, and certain words had motions associated with them. I used the motion for the word “time”, a check mark shape with the thumb and forefinger, bringing the thumb to the other finger, then cocked my wrist and made a fist, indicating urgency. After, I held up two fingers and half of a third for numbers, then making the first motion again but with the forefinger down, meaning minutes.
We only had two and a half minutes.
I pull up the infiltration status, and it’s 79% complete. It’ll be tight. Getting out of here in one piece is looking more and more difficult. My mind races for a solution.
A minute and twelve seconds.
Our original plan was to have three people, two for infiltration, one to set up a remote jamming signal on the information tower in the complex; this information could be transmitted to Nova, who could use the data to take control of a few other systems in the area, preparing a better escape route. We didn’t have enough time.
Forty-four seconds. With the hack at 97%, we were almost ready. But we couldn’t get the data and destroy the factory. And if we took the data alone, we’d be dead by the end of the week, no matter what we did to try to escape. Hunted to the end.
I signaled Jonathan, then quickly translated, “Don’t get data. No time. Prime bomb. Give me control. Then leave.” It looked like he was about to protest, but then he saw the notification about the hack. Done.
Eleven seconds. “What about you?” He signed.
“We’ll see,” I replied, trying for a smile. I stifled a tear instead. It was what had to be done. He handed me the detonator.
“Love you, man. See you on the other side.” Bringing his right hand to his chest, three central fingers extended. Pointing towards me, then making a circle connected by his thumb and forefinger, stretching it out into an oval. He pointed to me again, then made a flat hand and bent his thumb under it.
Five seconds. I activated the displacer, and we both dropped from the vent. Running to the control door, heaving the wheel and pulling it open, I rush to the interface, doing the set motions to disable the pressure seal. My hands type furiously, and soon, the pressure begins to dissipate, taking time to fully erase its presence from the concave force of nature.
Crashing footsteps run down the hallway, and the echos display distance. I look behind me, and Exo is just finishing priming the VOID, and the pounding is getting louder.
Two hundred feet. He steps away and looks to me, and I sign “Vent.” He nods, and I get down on one knee underneath it.
One hundred feet. I make a lock with my hands, and he runs at me. I thrust him up, pushing with my legs, and with the boots. He manages to reach the vent, barely, scrabbling inside.
Fifty feet. He puts down a hand as they round the corner. Sleek metal, efficient joints, brilliant minds. Terror seizes me. I jump, launching myself up while reaching for his hand, and we make contact.
A hiss of air, and in an instant, his hand is ripped away from mine, and I feel explosive pain in my chest, letting out a silent, inward scream. Five shattered ribs. I would’ve been dead if not for the vest. I fly backward, ten, twenty feet, then crash to the cold floor with a jarring thud. I activate the displacer, and with its half charge, or a minute and sixteen seconds, I know I only have two seconds. Without looking to my adversaries, I take one giant leap into the control room, heaving the door shut and sliding the deadbolt.
Two I pull out the detonator, breaking the seal and priming the mechanism.
Dark thoughts and happy memories brush past my mind, painting a picture of the life I’d lived. Sadness infiltrates the landscape, just as do joy and fear and rage.
Dumb, huh? Interesting what impending doom does to the human mind.
One I send a group broadcast, something we promised not to do, but I knew they were smart; they would survive. It said a simple word, of course encoded; “Goodbye.” Zero ------
The machines instantly see me, and I huddle behind the door, counting the seven seconds down that it would take Jonathan to get out with the emergency jets we had installed into the gravity boots. He should have enough time to use the displacer by then, avoiding the machine gun. Who knew if it mattered? Maybe I’d die before seven.
Six. Pounding on the door, and voices yelling outside.
“Open this door upon pain of death; you have violated Altek Protocol.” It sounds like smooth steel; grinding, yet oiled.
Four. A punch comes at the door from the other side, denting it; the lock squeals in protest, and I see a crack on its surface. Only one more.
Three. Another punch, this time shattering the lock. A hand shoves its way into the door, and it reminds me of a scene from one of those ancient disks we managed to find, called movies—at least based on the data Nova had gathered—they were small and round, and they played a specific scene from somewhere else, usually over dramatized.
We saw humans in them, and lots of them, and they were... normal. Walking in the streets. So different from how we’ve always been. How long ago had we safe? Five hundred years? A thousand? How long has it been since we could go outside without being made a slave. There were also a few ones with these monsters in them, and the portrayal was strikingly accurate.
Well, doesn’t matter now.
Two. I unhook a EMP grenade from the bandolier, and pull the pin, throwing it out the door, hearing an intense explosion. With the new models of machine, I had maybe earned a quarter second at most, maybe a little more.
One. The hand on the door tightens and pulls, the door crying for mercy. The hinges scream, and finally, it rips off, revealing the lieutenant, resplendent in its hardened titanium shell.
Zero. I rip off the oxygen mask.
Thoughts of two faces rush through my head; my dead parents.
And then come Nova and Jonathan with the stupid old movies, and the bad jokes, and the rare smiles, and time spent in the canopy, all of us wondering why the stars had to be so far away. Damn, I'm gonna miss you guys. "Bye,” I whisper, and maybe, just for a moment, a grin finds its way onto my face.