Ch. VII, p.3

“It was high quality armor… Superior rifles, too… The only thing I can think of is that they left the rifles as a show of respect.” On a hunch, he lifted the man’s arm and rolled back the sleeve. Tattooed just above the wrist, on the inside, was a capital “A,” a sun suspended in the triangle. Suddenly, he remembered where he had seen those jackets before. “Apex… Sherrad, what was in those crates?”

“Nano Machines and…”His face lit up with understanding. “Apex members aren’t allowed to use high-technology. These men were killed as an example…”

“Agreed.”

“And there was a fifth, too. Over there,” said Sherrad, pointing near a cluster of bushes back the way he had come. “He didn’t have a jacket or a rifle.”

“Must have been their leader. Probably the one who ordered the drop.”

“Yeah. His eyes and tongue were cut out. Knife wounds all over the upper body.”

“He bleed to death?

“Bludgeoned. With a rock. His face was still in better condition than these guy’s. Maybe we can get an I.D. on him in Idest.”

“Worth a shot.” Dom stood and looked around the clearing again. “We should go. We can make it back to the city by nightfall if we hurry.”

“What about the goods? The nanomachines are unmarked and unregistered.”

And he had thought things couldn’t get any stranger. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, completely. These have got to be custom manufactures.”

Nanomachines were rare. Unmarked, unregistered nanomachines with any level of value were unheard of. But if anybody found out… they were as good as dead.

“We’ll take as many stacks as we can carry,” he said, “leave the guns, and dump the coordinates in Idest. We’re going to need this to barter with the doctor.”

It was a reckless decision and he knew it—there was no way they would pull this off clean. But his body was shaking with excitement. He had missed the rush.

. . .


In dream…

A gray road extends in either direction. To his left, he sees a gray-lit forest, dark trees hanging over the cold asphalt. To his right is a city, illuminated brilliantly with strafing spotlights and garish neon signs climbing high up the tall clusters of buildings. Cold steel and dark windows cast an imposing visage, and he can detect a faint aura of electric blue, emanating from an unknown source.

He looks forward and back—interminable darkness shrouds the land, rising into towering mountains far in the distance. There are only two ways he can go, and the next thing he knows he is headed for the forest. Its ashen trees provide some small comfort that the city cannot.

The road passes by quickly, sided by a mélange of images: more trees, ashen grass, rocks, a dully sparkling ocean, flowing into a great, crescent shaped dip in the cliff side. But the country landscape is uninteresting; color has been drained from the world. Or maybe it was never there in the first place, merely imagined because he was told that it existed.

Seagulls caw and a salty wind blows through his hair. He stops and folds his arm over a wooden fence, watching a flock of sheep graze unhurriedly, flitting their stubby, puffed up tails side to side, and occasionally raising their heads to take a look around with a drowsy eyed air of indifference.

A quaint home adjoins the pasture: two windows, a thatched roof, a crumbling step up to the door. It doesn’t look like anyone is home. Somehow, he doesn’t feel alone.

He continues along the road, soft dirt and pebbles shifting beneath his feet. Presently, and quite suddenly, to his mind, he finds himself arrived upon a split in the road. One path leads far into the distance. Inexplicably, he knows where it ends—in another city. The other path is dark… ‘Why is everything so dark?’ But there is a mysterious attraction about it, too. And he cannot resist.

He takes twenty one steps down this new path, the forest reclaiming more of its space the farther he travels, and turns to find that the world has disappeared behind him.

“That is what decisions are,” says a girl’s voice beside him. “If you haven’t made a choice, then a world of possibility exists. But when you do decide, you are as much choosing to eliminate other options as you are to engage in a specific action.”

“What choice did I just make?” he asks.

“To go forward without the distraction of any further free will.”

He looks down at the girl. She is no older than eighteen; she leans on one arm, legs tucked comfortably under her body. He feels ancient next to her.

“Here,” she says.

She holds out an apple. He realizes that she got it off the ground, and that it is fallen from a great tree that looms overhead, brimming with luscious fruits. It makes a strange sort of sense, that this girl—her skin, gray, her dress, ragged, and her hair hanging in dark, dirty knots around her eyes—would prefer the fallen apples; they are like her, outcast from a plentiful society.


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