Authors: Gregg Rosenblum
To Mac and Beatrice Menschel, and
Max and Gertrude Rosenblum, without whom I
(and therefore this book) wouldn’t exist.
NICK LED KEVIN AND CASS BACK TO WHERE THEY HAD STASHED THEIR
packs outside the City. It seemed like a lifetime ago. He thought he’d need Cass to find the exact location, but he was the first to see the broken branches that marked the hiding spot. It was still incredible and strange, after all those years of blindness in one eye, to be able to see with such clarity.
Their packs were unopened and dry. Nick opened his pack and checked the contents. A bedroll. A spare pair of socks and underwear. A copy of an old-fashioned paper book,
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
, that he had found in his family’s emergency shelter. A sweater that his mother had knit for him, from their neighbor’s wool. He brought the rough fabric up to his face. It smelled like dry leaves and campfire smoke—it still
smelled like his Freepost, which no longer existed, thanks to the bots.
They shouldered their packs, then climbed back onto their scoots. The road this close to the City was in good enough shape for them to ride on. Soon, though, they found themselves slowing down more and more to weave through the cracks in the pavement and the brush and tree limbs and occasional burned-out vehicle scattered across the road.
Nick was thinking that it was almost time to ditch the scoots, and then Kevin nearly flipped over his handlebars hitting a rock, and that decided it. Nick climbed off his scoot, dumped it behind the rubble pile of a destroyed pre-Revolution building, and headed into the trees. Kevin and Cass followed close behind.
The trees were too thin to be a proper forest, especially with the road and pre-Rev buildings so nearby, but still, when Nick stepped off the road, feeling dirt and grass under his feet and surrounded by green, he took a deep breath and felt a small knot of tension in his stomach release. Without warning he felt so tired, like he just needed to sit down. He stopped so abruptly in his tracks that Kevin stumbled into his back.
“Sorry,” Nick said. He didn’t move, gathering his strength. Kevin gave him an odd look and nudged him on the shoulder.
“Come on,” Kevin said. “Keep moving. The bots are probably back online by now.”
Nick winced, even from Kevin’s soft push. He was still
hurting all over from the explosion in the mainframe room, and the ride out of the City on the rough road had made things even worse. Kevin was right, of course. They had to put some distance between themselves and the City. The mainframe backup would probably be running by now, which meant that the bots would be operational again—and coming after them.
As if on cue, an all-too-familiar hum rose from the south, filling his chest. “Down!” he said, hitting the ground and crawling to deeper cover. Kevin and Cass were on the ground just as quickly, scrambling for the trees.
The noise grew louder and louder. Nick rolled onto his back and watched the sky. The painful hum reached its peak as a warbird flew overhead, passing to the east of their hiding spot. He watched the black bot fade into a speck. Everything he had been through in the City—re-education, getting a bot eye, his mother not recognizing him, feeling certain he was about to die—it all struck him at once. He lay there, letting it all wash over him, then forced his racing emotions under control and pushed himself to his feet. Kevin and Cass were already standing, waiting for him.
“You okay?” asked Cass.
“Fine,” said Nick. “Let’s get farther from the road. Bots are obviously back online. We’re going to have to find that Freepost to the north to meet up with Lexi and Farryn. . . . We can’t wait for them on the road anymore.”
Cass frowned, then nodded. She had to be thinking the
same thing, Nick knew. There were so many ifs . . .
Doc was able to safely get their chips out . . .
they escaped the City in time . . .
they made it far enough to get to forest thick enough to shield them . . .
they managed to survive in the woods when they had lived their entire lives in the City . . .
they were able to find this northern Freepost. It was going to be a miracle if they saw Lexi and Farryn again. Cass took the lead, followed by Kevin. Nick sighed and began walking after his brother and sister. The only good thing about being bruised and cut all over was that he couldn’t pick any one spot to focus on. When everything hurt, it all sort of canceled itself out, as long as you didn’t think about it too much, or get shoved on the shoulder by your little brother.
They walked in silence, pushing occasionally west into better cover as they continued mostly north. Nick was happy to let Cass lead—she knew what she was doing in the forest. They all did, of course—they had been hiking through woods pretty much their entire lives. They moved almost without sound, picking their way carefully through the undergrowth without thinking about it. Even Kevin, who at the Freepost had complained his way through every forestry hike, moved quietly.
The only problem with Cass breaking a trail was that she sometimes forgot that the people behind her weren’t as small or athletic, and she’d set too aggressive a pace. But she was going slowly by her standards, which Nick realized with a bit
of embarrassment was an unspoken concession to his beat-up state.
Cass froze, held her hand up, then dropped silently to the ground. Nick hit the dirt, his heart beating wildly. Ten feet ahead of him, Kevin also flung himself down, on a patch of grass.
“What is it?” asked Kevin. Cass shook her head angrily and put her hand over her mouth.
Bots on the ground?
Peteys? Sphere bots? Are we really going to be recaptured so quickly?
He was more angry than afraid. There was no way he was going back to re-education. No way he was going to let the bots take Cass or Kevin.
Cass was ten feet past Kevin, tucked under a bush at the crest of a small rise that they had been climbing. He desperately wanted to crawl to her, to see what they were facing, but she was holding her palm up, facing them, signaling
Wait. Don’t move.
She was intently watching something down the far side of the slope. Finally, Cass glanced back at them and waved her hand toward her, then patted the ground.
Come, but slowly. And stay low.
Nick crept along the ground toward Cass, moving as fast as possible without rustling the undergrowth. After what seemed like minutes but was probably only twenty seconds, he reached Kevin and Cass at the crest of the slope. Unconsciously holding his breath, he tucked himself under the bush next to his brother and sister and peered down the hill.
Fifty yards away, at the far end of a clearing, stood two men. Nick let his breath out in surprise and relief. “Humans,” he whispered, realizing just how tensed he had been to see bots. The men wore camouflage gear and would have been difficult to see if they had been still. But they were pacing slowly up and down and speaking to each other, gesturing with their hands, their voices too low for Nick to make out what they were saying. They both had buzz-cut hair. One was heavily muscled, with a barrel chest, and the other was thin, with long arms and legs that made him seem much taller than the first man even though they were nearly the same height. Over their shoulders were slung long rifles, dull black barrels with scopes and small power supplies at the butt end.
“See the energy cells?” whispered Kevin, reading Nick’s mind. “Energy bursters, or maybe just energy-propelled bullets, but definitely military gear.”
“I know. Shut up,” said Nick.
“Could probably knock down a tree with one shot, if they went full burst,” said Kevin.
“Be quiet,” hissed Cass.
“We should find out who they are,” whispered Kevin. “They’re not bots, after all.”
Cass glared at Kevin and put her hand over his mouth. He slapped her hand away, rustling the bush. The thin man snapped his head in their direction, his rifle suddenly in his hands. Nick, Kevin, and Cass hunkered down deeper into the
bush. The man took a step toward their hiding spot. His partner now had his rifle in his hands as well and was scanning the woods carefully, the muzzle sweeping the trees.
The thin man paused, listening, still facing the siblings’ hiding spot. Nick stared down at the man and thought about what Kevin had said, that one full burst from the rifle would knock down a tree. Should he stand up, introduce himself, before being killed, mistaken for game? Kevin was right—these were humans, after all, not bots. But then he thought of the hermit with the knife they had confronted, what seemed like so long ago. And the true believers, back in the City. No, not all humans were allies. He lay still, putting a hand on the backs of both Cass and Kevin, ready to yank them to their feet and get them running if need be.
The thin man took another step toward their hiding spot, squinting, seeming to be looking right at them. Nick tensed and tightened his grip. The man paused for a long moment, his rifle aimed at their bush, before he finally let his rifle drop and slung it back over his shoulder. He shrugged at his partner, who also lowered his weapon. The big man nodded toward the woods, then headed into the trees to the west. The thin man glanced once more in their direction, then turned and followed, disappearing after a few moments.
Nick continued to lie still, his hands pushing down gently on the backs of Kevin and Cass to tell them not to get up. After a few seconds, Kevin rolled over, pushing Nick’s hand away.
“You almost got us killed!” Kevin said.
“What are you talking about?” said Nick. “And keep your voice down. They may still be close.”
“I mean,” said Kevin, more quietly, “that we almost got mistaken for squirrels and shot for dinner.” He stood up, brushing dirt off his shirt and pants. “They were people,” Kevin said. “In the forest. All we had to do was stand up and let them know we weren’t squirrels or bots.”
“What if they shot us anyway?” said Nick. “We have no idea who they were.”
“They were people!” said Kevin. “With guns. Guns that could take down bots. They were probably a patrol from this Freepost we’re trying to find, and they would have taken us right to it.”
“Maybe,” said Cass. “Maybe not. It wasn’t safe. We don’t know anything about them. We have to be careful.”
“So now we’re hiding from bots
people?” said Kevin.
“People with guns, yeah,” said Nick.
Kevin shook his head in disgust and stomped off.
“Stay out of the clearing!” Nick called to Kevin’s back. Kevin, about to step into the open space, hesitated, then pushed through the trees to the right, staying in tree cover, pushing branches angrily out of his way.
“Come on,” said Cass to Nick. “We’d better catch up to him before he does something stupid.”