Chapter 2: Home Stretch

My eyes adjust to natural light, faced at a concrete wall extending left. Warmth. The roof between interior hallways; housing for unnecessarily tall sets of stairs. By count through blocks A-H, eight more of these long structures should decorate this roof. All attaching to the gigantic dome. Out of the V shape is an enormous gap about a half-mile long. Gap, hallway, interior yard center; interior yard center, stairs, cell block, chow hall. Interesting layout.

A city rests in the distance, precisely twenty-seven miles away. Skyscrapers and the clear dome surrounding can be seen. Gharis City, my past home. At the gap’s end, over the chow hall curve, I glance left. Blinded by the setting sun nearing desert horizon. Confirmation guards have been fooling us with the time. No way I was running that long. The breakfast bell only rung about two hours ago. Heat from the concrete burns through my shoes. A sign to keep moving. The hallway I exited has no door to get back inside.

Great, now what?

No reason to gander over the edge. The chow hall curve seems to match up well. Nothing less than death should lie over the side. Just for kicks and clarity, I inch close. Stare past the tips of my feet. A concrete slope leads to another drop. A steep drop. The slope can be cleared with a very careful spider crawl. What’s beneath will be the bigger, steeper problem that I don’t mind not unraveling the equation to. The slope is circular to the left and right; I’m marooned on a waterless island. Over my left shoulder, one difference from this hallway exterior is a roof access structure above. Maybe leading to air transport? The double door at the end must have stairs inside. Likely to a platform for prisoner transfer. Jackpot! Flying isn’t my strong suit, or any other suit in my arsenal, but if an aircraft is the only way, today’s training day. How hard can it be? I’m at freedom’s doorstep, and for the life of me, someone’s going to answer, or else the house is coming down. I take a couple of lengthy steps back, spinning and rushing the return trip.

Very lightly, the prison shakes. I freeze. A shock? A tremor? A quake? Not once since the war. Above to my right, the Alpha is breaking air from a jump over another hallway. Within a second, crashing downward through the outer wall ahead. I leap and roll left, avoiding airborne debris and metal from a now destroyed staircase. During landing, the Alpha slides nearer. Reaches out with its pincer to snatch me. I jump toward it. Land flat on the ground and scurry between thick, metal hooves. It takes a step backward in turning. Almost crushing me as I throw myself away from the impact. Behind it, I hurriedly bolt for the broken wall. Intent to reach the helipad diminishes on sight. The stairs are too badly damaged.

Mechanical joints are moving. My waist twists to lock eyes. A spark from the shoulder weapon oozes a rocket. Unable to avoid it, I twist into a slouched position and cover my face. The rocket voyages at the damaged wall. Strikes. Demolishes any climbable remains and forces me backward into a temporary hover. From the explosion, I am breathless. A tumble onto my stomach stops me. Ears whining. Can’t clearly see. Struggling to maintain consciousness; missing that meal isn’t working in my favor. Should have bitten the lunch in the break room. With destroyed stairs, I’ll need a new way up.

Heavy vibrations approach. My blinking eyes aren’t visible. I haven’t moved, hoping to feign unconsciousness. Air from the hoof gusts through my hair at the halt. Pincer reaching down, I quickly roll under. It lifts a leg. I spring to my feet. The slamming hoof misses. It lifts the other. I cartwheel into a backflip behind the mech before another slam. Its right leg sticks straight out, rotating its entire body on the left’s ankle joint. A back handspring dodges the fast-swinging hoof. Then a wide squat dodges the next. I can’t run laps with this thing all night. How can I escape something this size outside?

Dumb ideas arrive fast; measures of survival instincts kicking back on. Armed or not, no one can take an Alpha. Perhaps, a pretend escape over the ledge will make it go away? Abandoning logical options, I swoop a broken metal step and sprint toward the slope. Severe vibrations rock the prison, as the mech follows, firing more rounds. I hop off the ledge and swing the stair under myself. Ride the slope like a sled on snow. Behind me, in pursuit, the Alpha storms out too. A clear underestimation by how it attempts to catch itself. Then stumbles into an uncontrollable barrel. Pieces of mech begin breaking off. Falling in the only direction gravity will allow. Hands gripped at the step’s sides, I tilt and shift, trying my best to avoid huge chunks of scrap. Failing, big pieces flop around and over me. Dodging with my actual body becomes necessity. The slope is coming to an end. The mech digs pincers and hooves at the concrete, now scrounging chunks of rock. Minorly slowing itself. If I don’t manage to slow more, I’ll plummet to my death. I shift the step diagonal, attempting to brake. Not working. Nor for the wildly digging mech with parts just too smooth to hold. I carefully leverage upward like I’m surfing and dive toward the mech. Land on its foot and savagely climb to reach its head. The mech’s feet reach the edge first, gradually sliding off. I clutch one of the thick wires connected on its leg, holding myself in place. Somehow wedging the ledge, I am left dangling from the wire. Science doesn’t have to tell me we’re going over any second. The Alpha has no fingers to maintain steady grip. Pincers are inching. I gaze below, like an idiot, at the stupid choice’s result. The slope has been replaced by a drop of about eight hundred feet, into a small outreach of concrete. We did not appear this high from the top. I instantly begin to regret this decision.

Instead of hoping for wind to blow us up, I climb toward the ledge where my life would be in my own hands. On its back, before I could jump, the Alpha loses what little hold it had. We sink fast. The mech is wall carving and digging to slow itself; thriving, until a hoof gets caught in a dug piece with nothing to grab. Unintentionally falling away. Wind breaks harshly against my back. The Alpha is rotating slow enough for worry. On the wrong side of pressure, I’m about to become a pancake in seconds. Hanging for dear life, continuing to rotate backward. Then to a dive, picking up heavier speed. Then almost reaching a belly flop. The Alpha smashes on its chest plate. An awkward landing bashes my head on the mech’s back, to a tumble up and off. Darkness temporarily replaces my eyes. Returning to bouncing off the mech’s arm and hitting the concrete on my side. Instantly losing sight again.

Sounds of sparking wires wakes me. Need to lie still for a moment. Make an effort to regain full focus and conscious. Vision clearing, I’m lying on my back facing sunset. I wasn’t unconscious too long because the sun is still setting. A single shade darker than earlier. I try to sit up, ceasing in a cringe at the throbbing ache in my left arm. It took a bad hit when I crashed. A multicolored scrape rests on the same shoulder. Mixture of blue from the cloth, my pale skin, dirt, and light blood. My arm isn’t broken, and the ache is… bearable. I use both arms to fully sit. A tickle on my forehead that feels like thickened sweat attracts attention. I wipe the back of my hand across. Blood but not much. It’s going to be dark soon. I need to reach the city.

Gharis lights up like a beacon at night. On such flat land, anyone can find it for a hundred miles out. Come one, come all. Not getting there tonight isn’t an issue. I’m concerned with lack of nourishment. A twenty-seven-mile journey through desert with no food or water. I refuse to make the headline:

“Woman Dies of Starvation, After Escaping
Prison and Besting Alpha! Ha-ha!”

Someone will investigate. A vehicle and hijack possibility. Also possible, an escort of prison guards or Regulators will be present to search for the winner. Underwhelming odds. The broken Alpha is sparking. Down, but maybe not out? If I can get it active, using it would be a faster way to reach Gharis alive. I start by inspecting damage; horrible condition, more than just a few screws got knocked loose during the tumble and chest plate plummet. Luckily, not on its back where the circuit panel is. Don’t see myself rolling this boulder over to gain access. In this heat, anyone would faint at the initial push. Wouldn’t stop my attempt either. I stretch minorly in order to work out my own body kinks first. Then mount, beginning repair labor.

Smuggling days as a Runner granted some wiring experience. My mind can’t picture this being any harder than hot-wiring a vehicle. Simply pair things together until results spark an action. Mostly survival instincts. Of course, vehicles don’t have weapon systems and kill orders, but it won’t be all strange. I trace wires to proper areas I’d prefer to function, keeping locations in mind. Rip burnt wires. Disconnect a huddle of wires from what I believe to be the tracking and targeting system. Reroute to replace burnt ones. Use my last good wire to power the green circuit board. Conclude with a couple more remaining. Toggle every switch from left to right to left. Finished.

The Alpha automatically powers on, springing to its feet and throwing me off. I hit the ground hard, winded again, taking a defensive stance in recovery. The fall has me broken, nevertheless I can’t recuperate while being confronted. The mech spins around. Points its left and right weapons at my face. No dodging that. I unleash a deep sigh. The targeting repair didn’t work, so to speak. I don’t have firepower to battle this thing head on. No one does. I gradually raise my hands just above my head until another terrible plan emerges. It won’t take excessive action if I surrender. Calculating current conditions of the threat, me, shouldn’t trigger response at all.

The Alpha starts circling to my left; assessing and analyzing. I don’t make sudden moves, not even with eyes watching the machine. Losing peripheral sighting, I tilt my head a touch. Focusing ears on movement. Zzz psh, pause, Zzz psh, pause, Zzz psh, pause. Thus, concludes a full circle, to the exact initial step. Complete assessment. Analysis. My eyeballs raise, curious as if its acute shaped head could change expression and provide positive or negative feedback. Accepting of a minor headache by lifting my brows too high. It faces right, away from the sun. A panel on its leg slides up to reveal a pulser rifle and pulser pistol. The Alpha stands in place. A loud, dramatic sigh. Opened mouth and chest exhalation expresses itself. The repair did work. An assessment to check if I was armed or a threat, which I’m not. I approach and grab both weapons. Place the rifle at my back. A cyber strap appears, attaching the weapon to my torso. From over right shoulder and under left rib. Meeting at my chest and fitting tightly. An ultraviolet colored strap that utilizes itself when a weapon is at specific body parts and angles. Secured, and detaches when the specific user reaches and touches the weapon for quick, untangled use. Effective in combat, by comparison to primitive models that hung loosely, dangling the weapon dangerously and freely. Every pulser has one, able to toggle a cloak for tactical purposes upon connection. I place the pistol at my thigh. Deactivate both ultraviolet glows by simply tapping the strap. The mech places a pincer forward. Handshake goodbye? Does it know I need a ride? I approach. It lowers the pincer to my feet. I board, walking toward its shoulder. Being raised at its waist. I climb and take a seat next to its head. Can it comprehend verbal instruction?

I delay a command, “Gharis… City?”

The Alpha begins a rapid walk across the open gap. Concrete for about sixty feet from the prison wall, sprinkled with gradients of blown desert. Then becomes the full entree. This is going to be a long ride. I know for certain Alphas can’t return communication, but other classes can. The more deadly of two, and overall soldier of four. Half an hour out of prison and my first ally is the most dangerous creation in New World existence; for now, a travel ticket. Who knows what else could be done with this thing? Says a lot about my character. Questions and a problem will arise, marching to the southern gate perched on an Alpha mech’s shoulder. I’d have to ditch it beforehand.

I ask, “Can we go any faster?”

The Alpha excels past request of just faster. I brace tight, almost falling during the speed boost. Grip the shoulder plate with both hands and pin to it. Face beaten by the breeze. Forcing the lowest possible squint, barely seeing where we’re going. Brushing through desert sands quick enough to kick whirlwinds. I patrol our surroundings. Eyes widen, relaxing at the prison. A faint shine is over the roof. Higher than I was. Glistening like sunshine on a rippling ocean. Unstable. Moving and getting brighter? The light shifts sideways, unmasking an attack helicopter. Swinging hastily in our direction. I doubt it’s ironic. A bad situation already casting where it’s not wanted.

I yell, “We’ve got company.”

Its head spins completely backward. Not a beat skipped at sprinting. The helicopter nears, suddenly spouting artillery from above. Dangerous tubes that go boom. The Alpha makes evasive maneuvers against incoming missiles, keeping up at a turning pace. Guidance systems collaborating. Could be tailing heat signature. Armaments in a machine like this produces plenty. There isn’t proper seating on an Alpha in event of a bumpy ride, or tense situation with missiles exploding in proximity. I concentrate forward and spot a distant grove, left of Gharis City’s southern road. I’ve been through it enough times to memorize how to get lost. Not close enough yet for worry to vanish.

“We can try losing them in the grove!”

As it won’t fit, by we, I mean me. Likely at maximum capacity, the Alpha maintains speed. The pilot is desperate. Shooting gunpowder bullets and missiles in unison. I drop forward into a spin. Cling onto the damaged chest plate. It can’t avoid the aerial assault with a visitor hanging on, clutching me with supportive pincers. Loads of piercing bullets and a couple of missiles make contact, resulting in a drastic speed decline. I feel heat. The Alpha is critical. Struggling to maintain the run, and very close to the grove. My only means of helping are heat rounds; more lethal than shock. New-tech rifles and pistols use both in smaller doses, compared to the Alpha, as not to be fatal. Heat ceases bleeding, external and internal, by burn. Intent to immobilize, preserving a target’s life. Dialing back, the helicopter fires another missile.

“We got one more incoming!”

I need to do something. Another hit, and the blast could also kill me. Even surviving, a run from here without getting cut off doesn’t scream possibility. Would an attempt to detonate the missile do good? I’m not using gunpowder bullets, but heat rounds may suffice against the shell. Oozing a spiraled smoke trail in passing, the missile closes in. I release one hand from the chest plate. Firmly clutch tighter with the other. Equip the rifle and aim over the Alpha’s shoulder. Rest for controlled spray, incapable of steadying with rhythmic bouncing. Tug the trigger. Small heat rounds purge the barrel. Thanks to necessary galloping, accuracy is very off. Multiple punctures do nothing. Too close for comfort, an urge to bail advances. The missile explodes. Success brightens the dim sky and my day. Blending with the sunset until black smoke expels into an expanding circle.

I express excitement, “Yes!”

The explosion shelters the sky between us and the helicopter. Sucking the dark cloud’s center inward, a second missile pierces. My defense is pointless against an unavoidable impact. Only yards from the grove, a run will happen regardless.

The Alpha scoots a pincer under me and springs forward, shooting me outward at the sea of trees. A forceful push causing dizziness. I feel the rifle depart from my hand but not my back tearing wind. Listening to wind in my ears but deaf to the explosion in my eyes. A soar between grove trees. I hit the ground, tumbling wildly over grass. At risk of breaking a bone, unwilling to halt myself. Perception resumes with bad timing. My body abruptly stops when my back smacks a tree. So hard my ears articulate the sound. So loud I can’t hear the painful exhale. Am I broken in half?

Ahead, the fire-wrecked Alpha glows. Far enough away to not spark a bigger fire. Close enough to be beautiful. Not shattered into tiny pieces; unsalvageable for my proceeded use and not going anywhere by itself. Alphas are nearly impossible to destroy, perhaps being the first recorded in history. If not riding passenger, that attack helicopter wouldn’t have stood a chance. It buzzes away, slashing through air high above. Giving up so easily? Belief the explosion engulfed me? Deceived behind the smoke cloud, naked eyes didn’t witness the pitch.

Now I have to walk. Bummer. Once the noisy helicopter fades silent, I recover. Dust the thin, distressed bodysuit. Feeling a pulsated back ache. Easing tension, response with light massage. A transfer of hurt spreads body wide.

Fight it, you’re too disobedient.

Eventually Regs will arrive to examine wreckage for my corpse. A good idea to be much farther when they do. I limp the grove toward Gharis City’s dome.