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1. RUDE AWAKENING
The voice was far away. A girl’s voice, she could tell. A little girl. And it sounded worried.
She heard other things in her hazy delirium—dull, booming thumps that might have been explosions. Something shattering. And other sounds—strange, distorted and electronic, but familiar enough to stir fear in her.
The cry yanked her painfully out of the dark. Light poured in as her eyes blinked open.
The sky was directly above. It was midafternoon, bright and sunny. Pieces of buildings and other things drifted past—windows, gutters, old billboards she couldn’t read, the top of a rusted school bus. It was as though she were floating underneath them all.
Then she figured it out. She was being carried. Through some kind of city ruins.
The world shifted again as someone set her down and rested her against something hard and rough. It felt like a wall, brick maybe.
More sensations came back. Pain in her head, a searing burn on her left leg, just above the knee. Her vision sharpened. Sounds took on clarity—and they were all terrifying.
An explosion flared up and rocked the ground from the other side of the wall. Yellow bolts of light sizzled through the air around her, ripping into other buildings she was just now noticing. A drugstore, a gas station, a post office, all of them crumbling and falling apart where they stood.
As Mira Toombs’s memory returned, she remembered where she was and why.
She’d stashed an emergency kit in these ruins years ago, inside an old school. Supplies for the Strange Lands, if she ever needed to go there on her own or in a hurry, and she’d convinced Holt and Zoey to help her find it before heading to the Crossroads.
The good news was that they’d found the pack. A black canvas bag with a strap that fit around her waist. It was still there, she could see the red d symbol embroidered on its front flap. The bad news was that, right as she’d found it, they had shown up.
Assembly walkers. The frontline troops of the alien armada that had conquered the planet almost a decade ago, and who had been obsessively pursuing them for more than a month.
She hadn’t had time to see what kind or how many before the plasma bolts sent her to the floor and everything went dark, but judging by all the heated death flying through the air right now, there were a lot of them.
“Mira!” The voice was masculine this time. One she recognized and depended on. She felt hands on her, one of them turned her head to the left, and when it did Holt Hawkins came into view.
Mira smiled, still groggy. He looked the same as always.
His thick, wavy hair messed up and unkempt, but somehow still intentional in its look. Tall and well built, with brown eyes that never seemed anything but confident, no matter how crazy the world got. Even now, in the middle of this chaos, there was a calculated awareness of everything going on around them that somehow made her feel safe. He was one of the few that ever had.
“Mira! Can you hear me?” More plasma bolts flew by.
Mira made herself focus, quickly brushed the red hair out of her eyes. “How’d you get us out of there?”
“Wasn’t easy,” Holt replied. “You’re a lot heavier than Zoey.”
“Thanks a lot,” she said tartly.
“Mira!” It was the little girl’s voice from before. Mira felt tiny arms wrap around her from the other side, and she looked down.
Zoey’s head was buried under Mira’s arm, the little girl’s eyes peeking out through her blond hair. It always felt wrong seeing Zoey in a place like this, in the middle of something life threatening. A little girl, barely eight years old, didn’t belong here. Yet here she was.
Next to Zoey sat something else, its chin and paws across the little girl’s legs, its beady eyes staring right at Mira. She felt her usual loathing at the sight of it.
“You…” she said.
Max, Holt’s stinking cattle dog, growled back at her, but that was nothing new. The dog still saw her as Holt’s prisoner. But as long as Mira didn’t have to touch the thing, she was fine having it around. Holt had trained Max well, and he had his uses.
Zoey flinched as another explosion rocked the ground.
“We have to get out of here,” Holt said. “Can you move?”
“I think so.” She felt the wound on her leg and grimaced. It wasn’t bad, the plasma bolt had only singed her, but it stung nonetheless. “What are you thinking?”
“I have … kind of a plan.” He wasn’t entirely convincing. “We gotta find a residential neighborhood.”
The corner of the wall exploded in shards of plaster. There was a series of loud thuds on the roof above them, and Mira craned her neck to look up.
Staring down at them, a silhouette against the bright sky, was a powerful and terrifying machine. As she’d guessed, it was an Assembly walker—but of a type, up until a month ago, she’d never seen before.
Green and orange, like the ones that had chased them into the Drowning Plains; three legs, a tripod, lithe and agile—but it was different, too. It looked more heavily armed, with blocky equipment on its back. Also, it looked newer. Its armor and colors were unscratched.
LEDs flashed on its body, and its red, blue and green–triangular, three-optic “eye,” the same one all Assembly walkers had, whirred as it focused down on her.
Mira stared back at it, frozen in fear.
“Come on!” she heard Holt shout as he yanked them up.
A mass of metallic netting fired from the walker above and slammed into the ground, barely missing. It was clearly meant to snare them.
“At least they’re not trying to kill us,” Holt yelled—and then ducked as a stream of plasma bolts sparked into the ground all around him.
“You were saying?” Mira shouted back.
As they ran, strange noises filled the air. Trumpet-like sounds almost, but electronic and distorted. They seemed to echo from everywhere, answering each other back and forth.
Max raced past, charging after Holt as he dodged another blast of plasma.
“Mira!” Zoey shouted behind her. The little girl was falling behind, her little legs unable to keep up. Mira lifted Zoey onto her back and ran after Holt.
Holt headed for a row of crumbling houses nearby, but the walkers were everywhere. She could see them in the streets, leaping between old buildings or cars. They were surrounded.
As they ran, Mira saw Holt’s hand slip into his jacket pocket. A second later, a sphere of yellow energy crackled around him briefly, then disappeared.
Mira’s eyes widened. Had she just seen what she—
Mira ducked as plasma fire whizzed harmlessly by and sparked against what was left of a delivery van. They were out in the open, the walkers shouldn’t have missed. But somehow they had.
Mira kept running, following after Holt and Max.
Zoey screamed as a tripod leaped into view behind them and gave chase, its cannons beginning to hum; but before it could get close, an errant stream of plasma bolts slammed into it, sending it spinning and crashing to the ground in flaming debris, a victim of friendly fire.
Mira kept running with Zoey, weaving in and out of old cars, headed for the houses just ahead. She caught Holt, and together they rounded the side of an old, badly leaning billboard—and came skidding to a jarring stop.
In front of them stood another Hunter.
The thing sprung toward them … and the decrepit billboard chose that moment to come crashing down. Holt shoved Mira and Zoey out of the way as the structure collapsed in a shower of wood and steel, and buried the tripod where it stood.
When the dust cleared, Mira checked Zoey. She was fine. So were Holt and Max. Mira looked at Holt with suspicion.
“How are you—?” Mira began.
Holt grabbed Zoey before she could finish, pulling her onto his back as they all started running again. Another flash of color, orange, flared around him, and Mira’s heart sank as she saw it.
There was no denying it now. The colors. The improbable outcomes that kept saving them. The Chance Generator was in Holt’s pocket, and he was using it.
Ahead of them she saw what Holt was running for. The exterior garage of a ruined house; a small, barely standing building that still covered what remained of an old, rusting pickup truck.
Holt ran for it as fast as he could, carrying Zoey with him, and Mira followed. Max must have figured it out, too, because the dog dashed ahead and bounded into the back of the truck.
Mira felt the heat of plasma fire as she ducked inside the garage.
The truck was in bad shape, a hulking piece of metal with broken windows, but, miraculously, it had four working tires.
“Zoey, get inside,” Holt told the little girl as he sat her down. She climbed into the old truck, over to the passenger side.
“This is the plan?” Mira asked skeptically.
“If Zoey can get it running, yeah,” Holt replied. “Might outrun those walkers.”
“This thing couldn’t outrun a beached whale!” Mira yelled.
“Do you have a better idea?” he asked.
Mira frowned at him. She didn’t.
“You’re driving.” Holt headed for the truck’s rear.
Mira moved for the door, jumped inside. “And what are you going to do?”
“Whatever I can.” Holt jumped into the rear with Max. More of the trumpet sounds outside, coming closer. “Zoey, do it!”
Zoey looked at Mira from the dirty passenger seat. Mira nodded back. “Hurry, honey. If you can.”
Zoey smiled. She closed her eyes and concentrated. “I can.”
Nothing happened at first. The little girl just sat motionless on the torn seat, breathing in and out. Then something flickered around her hands, faint at first, then it grew. A layer of wavering, golden … energy. There was no other word for it. It moved and throbbed, almost in slow motion, like frozen fire, spreading from Zoey’s hands, up her arms and toward her shoulders.
Mira stared in shock, feeling her pulse quicken.
Holt had mentioned this, the light, but it was all new to Mira. She’d missed Zoey doing her thing at Midnight City. She had been lost at the time, and the little girl had saved her. Another of her powers, the most important one. Zoey could stop the Tone. Block it somehow, make you immune to it. It was still mind-boggling to think about.
Mira watched the energy slowly envelop the girl, knowing they were running out of time. If Zoey couldn’t get this thing going, they were as good as—
Mira jumped as the truck suddenly shook. Golden energy bubbled up from underneath the hood, as the engine, impossibly, came back to life and rumbled loudly. The dashboard sparked once, twice—and then the old analog gauges all floated into place. Static hissed from the aging radio.
Mira looked at the controls, stunned. She remembered riding on her father’s lap as a kid, steering the family wagon in a parking lot. It had been all the driving experience she’d gotten before the Assembly came. She hoped it was enough.
Mira yanked the driveshaft down and stepped on the gas. The truck jumped forward … then jolted to a stop.
“Parking brake!” Holt yelled behind her.
“Where is it?” Mira frantically studied the interior of the truck.
“Where the parking brake usually is!”
“It’s been awhile for me, okay!?”
The garage shuddered as the entire rear wall was ripped away by one of the alien machines. It trumpeted angrily, a horrible mix of electronic tones and static.
“Mira!” Holt shouted, pushing back as far as he could. Max barked wildly.
Mira found the brake, a hand lever on the floor, and shoved it down. The old truck lurched forward violently, roaring out of the garage.
The Hunter behind them let out a sharp, surprised sound and jumped after them.
As the truck bolted forward, it plowed through the garage’s door frame—which was enough to bring the entire thing down like a house of cards. Mira watched in the dusty mirrors as the tripod was buried underneath a massive pile of wood and refuse. Another one down, but there were plenty more.
Nearby, new walkers gave chase, their three spiked legs pushing them forward with dizzying speed.
Next to Mira, Zoey sat, eyes closed, the golden energy pulsing all around her.
The truck shook badly as it caught a curb, slammed back down, and skidded onto the road. Ahead of them, coming fast, was an obstacle course of old cars and other debris … and the Hunters were still closing.
Mira gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white.
* * *
HOLT HELD ON AS the battered truck lurched forward. All around him the street began to whiz by. A street full of hazards.
The vehicle reeled left suddenly, barely avoiding an old burned-out car. Then it yanked back to the right, around a pile of debris. Holt went rolling, crashed into the side of the bed and grabbed Max as he flew past, barely keeping him inside.
“What the hell are you doing!?” he yelled, holding on.
“Would you rather I hit everything in front of us?” Mira yelled back. “Because that would be easier!”
Distorted trumpets sounded from behind them as the two Hunters chased after them. Holt ducked as they opened fire, yellow plasma bolts spitting from their cannons. Mira screamed as the rear windshield exploded.
Holt looked around the truck bed. It was full of junk, pieces of trash, about a dozen old cans of paint … and two large crumbling, wooden crates. He gave them an experimental push. They were full of something heavy and metallic. It would have to do.
“Try to keep us moving straight!” Holt shouted as he moved for the tailgate.
He grabbed it, but it was rusted shut. He’d have to kick it open if he—
Holt lunged backward as a gleaming silver spear point punched straight through the tailgate, almost impaling him.
Eyes wide, he looked up and saw a metallic cable running from the harpoon back to one of the Hunters. When he’d spotted the green-and-orange walkers, he’d thought they looked different. Now there was no doubt. They’d upgraded, and Holt had no desire to find out what other new tricks they had.
The walker drew back the cable with a powerful yank, and ripped the tailgate completely off. It slammed onto the street and skittered backward on the asphalt in a shower of sparks.
The tripod jettisoned the cable, leaped over the tailgate and kept running.
“Thanks for the help,” Holt said. He reached in his pocket, and when his hand closed around what was there, he felt the same sense of comfort he always did.
The Chance Generator was an old abacus, an ancient counting device, but it was so much more: a major artifact from the Strange Lands, with the ability to increase the luck of anyone who used it. It had saved their asses in Midnight City, and it was saving their asses right now.
Holt pushed more beads up to the top, and a sphere of red flashed around him. Every time he pushed more of them up, the effect intensified. Which meant he had to be careful. He’d already used it a few times, and the artifact only had so much power per day. If it ran out of juice before they escaped, they’d be in a lot of trouble.
He got behind the crates, shoving them toward the edge of the truck bed. They were falling apart, but somehow stayed together just long enough to tip off the back. They exploded on the street and sprayed their contents everywhere, most of it scrap metal—springs, nails, bolts, aluminum shavings, broken tools, exploding all over the road.
The walkers ran right into it.
For one brief moment, they lost their footing on the metal bits and pieces, their legs splaying wildly. That was all it took. They tipped over and crashed into an old water truck, plowing right through it in a shower of metal, dust, and black liquid. They didn’t get up.
“Yeah!” Holt yelled in triumph—but it was short lived.
More tripods vaulted down from nearby buildings, charging after them on the street.
Plasma bolts sliced the air and slammed into the truck, tearing the rear end to shreds. The vehicle listed dangerously as Mira tried to stay in control. “Holt!”
It was a short, unsuccessful battle.
They skidded left, twisting and grinding toward a pile of old cars, and crashed straight into them. Mira screamed. Holt grabbed Max as the impact tossed them forward along the bed and into the back of the cabin.
Holt hit hard. The world went fuzzy. Somehow he found the edge of the truck bed, pulled himself up and out of the wreckage, and slumped down on the ground.
“Holt!” Mira yelled as she scrambled out with Zoey.
“Having fun yet?” Holt groaned as tried to get to his feet. Mira frowned, helped him move. More plasma fire seared the air, and they pressed their backs against the ruined truck. The Hunters would be on them in seconds.
Holt looked around, trying to find a way out, and saw something down the street, a block or so away. It looked like a large concrete drainage ditch that vanished into a dark tunnel, probably an old runoff exit. If they could reach it, the entrance might be cramped enough to keep the tripods from following.
Reaching it was the problem. It was open territory between here and there, and there was no other cover. They had to run for it. They didn’t have any—
On either side of them tripods burst into view, lunging into firing positions.
Holt instinctively focused on one in front of the others. It was marked differently. Its green-and-orange color pattern was bolder, more commanding. New armor or not, Holt had seen that walker before. Twice. And it was even more frightening now.
From the Hunter came a flash. A mass of metallic netting flung forward, hissing through the air toward them. Mira screamed. Holt tried to cover them.
Something big, bright, and powerful landed between them and the walkers with a thunderous crash.
The net slammed into it and bounced off.
Holt and Mira stared at it in shock. Another walker—but different.
It was big, much larger than the Hunters, and it had five massive legs arranged around a blocky body. There was no discernible weaponry, but a shimmering field of clear energy circled it, like some kind of protective barrier.
There was something else.
This walker, unlike every other Assembly machine Holt had ever seen, had no colors.
It was just bare metal, as if its paint had been stripped away. The machine gleamed in the afternoon sunlight.
Its three-optic eye shifted and focused, bore into them. Then it emitted a strange, deep rumbling sound, and leaped powerfully into the air, soaring over them. It shook the ground when it hit. Three more Hunters skidded to a stop in front of it. The boldly marked one trumpeted in anger, missiles and plasma bolts flashing out.
The ordnance sizzled and exploded as the machine’s flickering energy field absorbed them, protecting them but each impact sent it reeling back a step or two.
The silver walker charged forward, slamming into the tripods like a battering ram, sending them crashing through the wall of a grocery store.
Whatever the thing was, it had drawn attention away from Holt and the others.
“Um, if there’s more to this ‘plan,’ we should probably make it happen right now,” Mira said.
She was right. This was their chance. Holt whistled two short notes and Max darted forward. He got Zoey up and moving, and they all raced after the dog. Behind them came more explosions, thuds, and distorted electronic sounds.
Max barreled into the concrete structure and Holt rounded the corner right after him. Then his eyes widened at what was there. It was a tunnel, alright, just like he’d guessed—but it was huge, about twenty feet in diameter, disappearing into the darkness beyond.
“Damn it,” he said under his breath. The tripods could easily follow them through this. It wasn’t an escape at all.
The huge silver walker landed with a bone-jarring thud on the ground right outside, its multicolored eye instantly finding them.
Zoey grabbed Max’s collar, stopping him from charging the machine. Holt instinctively pulled everyone behind him, pushing them farther inside the tunnel.
More plasma bolts slammed into the walker’s shield. It was flickering now. It looked weaker. The thing hesitated a second more, studying them intently—then it rumbled and rushed right at them.
“Back! Get back!” Holt shouted, pushing everyone down, trying to get away from it.
The silver walker slammed with incredible power into the concrete overhang of the tunnel. The whole thing cracked and sprayed dust, then fell apart in a fury of fractured sound.
Holt shoved the others to the ground as the entrance collapsed in on itself, sealing away the daylight and the battle raging outside—and leaving them trapped in a thick cocoon of darkness.
Copyright © 2013 by J. Barton Mitchell