The sentries on the perimeter must see me, and the man in the watchtower, too, but no shots are fired, no order is given to take me down. I barrel toward the end of the runway like a bullet singing down the muzzle of a gun.
They can’t catch you. How can they ever catch you?
The processor embedded in my brain made the calculations before I even hit the ground, and has already relayed the information to the thousands of microscopic drones assigned to my muscular system; I don’t have to think about speed or timing or point of attack. The hub does it for me.
End of the runway: I leap. The ball of my foot lands on top of the concrete barrier for an instant, then pushes off to launch me toward the fence. The razor wire rushes toward my face. My fingers slip into the two-inch-wide gap between the coils and the top bar to execute a backward roll over the top. I fly over it feetfirst, back arched, arms outstretched.
I stick the landing and accelerate again to full speed, covering the hundred yards of open ground between the fence and the woods in less than four seconds. No bullets chase me. No chopper revs to life to follow me. The trees close behind me like a curtain being drawn, and my footing is sure on the slick, uneven ground. I reach the river, its water swift and black. My feet seem to barely break the surface as I cross.
On the other side, the woods give way to open tundra, unmarred miles stretching toward the northern horizon, a boundless wilderness in which I’ll be lost, undetected, unmolested.
I run for hours. The 12th System sustains me. It reinforces my joints and bones. It bolsters my muscles, gives me strength, endurance, nullifies my pain. All I have to do is surrender. All I have to do is trust, and I will endure.
VQP. By the light of a hundred bodies burning, Razor carved those three letters into his arm. VQP. He conquers who endures.
Some things, he told me the night before he died, down to the smallest of things, are worth the sum of all things.
Razor understood that I would never leave Teacup to suffer while I escaped. I should have known he was going to save me by betraying me: He’d been doing it from the beginning. He killed Teacup so I could live.
The featureless landscape extends in every direction. The sun falls toward the edge of the cloudless sky. In the bitter wind biting my face, my tears freeze as they fall. The 12th System can protect you from the pain that afflicts your body, but it’s helpless against the pain that crushes your soul.
Hours later, I’m still running as the last light leeches from the sky and the first stars appear. And there is the mothership hovering on the horizon, like a lidless green eye staring down. No running from it. No hiding. It is unreachable, unassailable. Long after the last human being crumbles to a handful of dust, it will be there, implacable, impenetrable, unknowable: God has been dethroned.
And I run on. Through a primordial landscape unscarred by any human thing, the world as it was before trust and cooperation unleashed the beast of progress. The world is circling back now to what it was before we knew it. Paradise lost. Paradise returned. I remember Vosch’s smile, sad and bitter. A savior. Is that what I am?
Running toward nothing, running away from nothing, running across an empty landscape of flawless white beneath the immensity of the indifferent sky, I see it now. I think I understand.
Reduce the human population to a sustainable number, then crush the humanity out of it, since trust and cooperation are the real threats to the delicate balance of nature, the unacceptable sins that drove the world to the edge of a cliff. The Others concluded that the only way to save the world was to annihilate civilization. Not from without, but from within. The only way to annihilate human civilization was to change human nature.
I CONTINUED RUNNING into the wilderness. There was still no pursuit. As the days passed, I worried less about choppers swooping in and strike teams dropping down and more about staying warm and finding the fresh water and protein I needed to sustain the fragile host of the 12th System. I dug holes to hide in, built lean-tos to sleep under. I honed tree branches into spears and hunted rabbit and moose and ate their meat raw. I didn’t dare make a fire, even though I knew how; at Camp Haven the enemy had taught me. The enemy had taught me everything I needed to know about survival in the wilderness, then gave me alien technology that helped my body adapt to it. He taught me how to kill and how to avoid being killed. He taught me what human beings had forgotten after ten centuries of cooperation and trust. He taught me about fear.
Life is a circle bound by fear. The fear of the predator. The fear of the prey. Without fear, life would not exist. I tried to explain that to Zombie once, but I don’t think he understood.
I lasted forty days in the wilderness. And, no, the symbolism wasn’t lost on me.
I could have lasted longer. The 12th System would have sustained me well past a hundred years. Queen Marika, the lone, ancient huntress, a soulless husk gnawing on the dried bones of dead animals, uncontested sovereign of a meaningless domain, until the system finally collapsed and her body fell apart or was devoured by scavengers, her bones scattered like unread runes in an abandoned landscape.
I went back. By that point, I realized why they weren’t coming.
Vosch was two moves ahead of me; he always had been. Teacup was dead now, but I was still bound to a promise I never made to a person who was probably dead, too. But probability had become meaningless.
He knew I couldn’t abandon Zombie, not when there was a chance I could save him.
And there was only one way to save him; Vosch knew that, too.
I had to kill Evan Walker.
I’M GOING TO KILL Evan Walker.
The brooding, enigmatic, self-involved, secretive bastard. I’m going to put his poor, tortured, human-alien hybrid soul out of its misery. You’re the mayfly. You’re the thing worth dying for. I woke up when I saw myself in you. Oh, puke.
Last night I gave Sams a bath—the first in three weeks—and he damn near broke my nose, or I should say rebroke my nose, since Evan’s old girlfriend (or friend with benefits or whatever she was) broke it first by slamming my face into a door behind which was my little brother, the little shit I was trying to save and the same little shit who nearly broke it again. See the irony there? There’s probably some symbolism, too, but it’s late and I haven’t slept in, like, three days, so forget it.
Back to Evan and the reason I’m going to kill him.
Basically, it boils down to the alphabet.