Want to learn the fate of Runner 17 after the events of The Winds of Change? Well, here you go. So, that being said, major major spoilers for Book 1 and 2 here. If you haven’t read the first two novels yet, you probably won’t understand what’s going on here.
Oh, and in case you missed it, here’s Chapter 1: The Queen of Saud
The Battle for Langeles is out October 17th!
Here it is! Warning Major Spoilers Ahead in This Chapter
Dreams of a Runner
Submission. Like a toy truck pulling a horse trailer, there was no way forward. The wound, open again, gushed. His eyes betrayed him, opening and closing and opening again. He marked the number of breaths, acknowledging that there were only a few more left. The only smell, that of iron and blood.
He released his helmet. It made no difference now, the suit no longer filtered air, was no longer keeping him cool. The fever burned, white-hot pulses through his body. He wanted open air during his death.
A long shadow cast over him. It caught the heat of the air and mingled, swirling and changing. Death was here. It had come in person. Of course, it would. He blinked and tried to focus. It took everything he had. He was deaf to all things, blind to most, and felt the dedication to his idol of persistence wane.
He whispered, “Persist above all…” he laughed and coughed, devolving into a choking, rasping, white-hot pain in his gut. Half of a groan escaped his lips; the other half died in mingled pain.
But, he had to tell Daniels. It was the only thing he was holding on to.
Then a tapping, the shadow pressed a heel against him, jostling his body. He was limp, only able to stare up at the semi-shielded face of the foot’s owner.
A moment of audio pierced the silence, but just barely.
“Are you alive, alive, alive, alive?” The words echoed.
What the Runner said next was garbled liquid. He thought it might be a female voice, but he wasn’t sure. Maybe the bastards were right; maybe it was Gaia. Maybe Gaia was Death, the reaper of all things.
Then the face in the shadow illuminated. A hallucination probably, but a strange one. It was the young girl, the inspector from the docks… Jade. No, not Jade, not this time. Her name was something else this time around.
“Hang on. Help was on the way.” The voice was different.
He blinked, and the face of the young girl was gone, replaced with another female Runner. Her face was weather-worn and aged. He didn’t recognize her but wondered how he could confuse Alexa and this woman.
Another shadow approached. And another. And another. Many stood above him now. They circled like conspirators in the night that held their daggers, ready to plunge him into his ultimate end. Then they were angels greeting him into the gates of heaven or demons into the gates of hell. Runner 17 couldn’t be sure, and it took so much effort to make a decision now, a decision that ultimately wasn’t important. With all of his effort, his eyes closed; they stayed closed for a long time.
His eyes are opening to a thick dark fog. It is a hot evening, and he glances at his alarm clock. It is 4 a.m. He looks at the calendar and recognizes the date: October 17th. The date seems somehow familiar, but he can’t trace it. He rolls up into a sitting position and tries to clear the sleep out of his eyes. It will not leave. He stands up and glances around the room. In the corner, in a makeshift bed, sleeps his son Joseph. He can tell his son is sleeping; his breathing is heavy, and there is no movement.
The only sound around is the rustling of leaves in the wind.
A moment of lucidity strikes him. Had it all been a dream? A nightmare? Had all that running around in that heavy suit in the middle of barren wasteland been a mere construct of his mind? Had he dreamt of a life so many centuries long in just a few hours?
Out of instinct, he reaches down towards his chest where the puncture wound in the dream had been. Relief. Already the images and sounds of the dream are fading.
Joseph is turning over; he is still sleeping, the blankets tangled between his legs. He is attempting to kick them off him but fails. Joseph never did like being covered. His breathing deepens.
The wind’s song is interrupted.
It is a far-off noise, but a potent one. Something urgent, some knowledge of what that noise is stirring in him.
There again, something internal is screaming at him, begging him to remember the information from the vault in his mind. He is peering out the window of a shabby old house. He is looking for the source of the noise. There is nothing but empty silence, a silence filled with potential terror and fright. He doesn’t hear any animal noises, and something about that is bothering him. Awareness trickles in. Then like a dam bursting, the flood. All the knowledge of the origin of the noise is consuming him.
Thud, Thud… Thud, Thud, Thud.
It is a whole series of noises, the sound of the air compressing and releasing from somewhere high up, from somewhere above the atmosphere. But the noises are still far off. He knows that for certain; if those noises are up close, you can hear the sound of metal and glass and concrete blasting into a billion pieces.
He knows what he must do. He needs to get Joseph to the underground shelter. A sense of purpose fills him, makes him whole again, despite the loss of his wife. They must get to shelter. It was what she would have wanted.
The shelter is only a few blocks away, but he knows that a few blocks might as well be a thousand miles when the High Altitude Drones (or the H.A.D.) rain death down on your city. For a brief moment, he is wondering how the people of China feel when the American H.A.D.s are demolishing their city. Do they feel the same sense of paralyzing fear, the same utter terror as the thudding and the sound of small explosions creep ever closer? Do they look to the sky and when they see a bird, do they feel a wave of terror? It must be so, for pain raining from the sky invokes a universal agony.
“Joseph, the H.A.D., we have to go now.” He tries to keep his voice steady, but like his body, it was shaking.
He is waking his son violently. Louder now, “Wake up. Wake up. We have to get out of here.”
Joseph’s eyes are opening to the sound of his panicking father’s voice, and then he hears the thuds. Every kid in the world knows this noise now, they hear recordings of it, see footage on the internet, and it is the stuff of every child’s nightmares. It is the subject of all great 6-year-olds’ crayoned masterpieces. Joseph is only 6, but he has the comprehension of a battle-hardened veteran and the same post-traumatic stress. Childhood and play are a thing long in the past, to a time before climate refugees, before world war, before the billions of tiny mistakes that were coalescing into one source of ultimate destruction of every human being on the planet.
He jumps up. “Dad, where are we going?” His voice is ragged and tired. The child-like whine is still audible. “The shelter is several blocks away.”
“It’s okay Joseph, as long as we move quickly, we’ll be okay. The drones are still far off.”
Joseph doesn’t argue, but he sees his father’s terror frozen on his face. Joseph has already lost his mother to the H.A.D., and instinctively his father knows that Joseph thinks he may lose his dad as well.
“It will be alright Joey, let’s go, the shelters are shielded, they’ll keep us safe.”
The shelters aren’t really shielded, but they are hundreds of feet below the ground, where the space drones cannot reach. Once you enter the shelters, already a dozen meters below the surface, you climb into one of a series of elevators that take you a hundred meters lower. Once you exit the elevator, you walk or run for nearly a kilometer before coming to the shelter entrance. The shelters are a few hundred meters in size and have several dozen rooms. Each shelter can accommodate a few thousand people for as long as a month. Every city has a few shelters, but the need for them is gradually decreasing as the populations across the planet fall under the weight of the H.A.D. and the endless wave of natural disasters.
Thud, Smash, Thud, Smash, Slam, Crash.
A cacophony of noise takes hold of the father and his son. The noises are intermixed with screams, shouts, and hard slaps of sneakers on concrete.
Joseph’s eyes widen with fear, and his father picks him up, grabs only a picture of his mother and runs out the door. He is holding the boy close and silently vows that nothing will make him let his child go. He will not lose Joey, too.
He has come so far since he quit his stockbroker position, and Joseph has changed his life in the blink of an eye. When he learned that Jade was pregnant, he was angry at first, but once he saw the ultrasound, he wept healing tears. This child was his medicine; he was what is saving his soul from monstrous greed and the pain of his mistakes. He is grateful for the change, but now he is in danger of losing everything.
Others are running toward the shelter. The sound of their footfalls are masked by the onslaught of thudding and the sound of breaking steel and glass as the devastation migrates across the city.
Some have children, some have companions, but so many are alone now. Loss is a trend. Humanity is crumbling under the weight of the Third World War. A billion are dead already.
The H.A.D. hits the building behind them and to the left. An energy pulse flattens a building, and the force of the explosion knocks everyone within a few hundred meters to the ground; they are scrambling to stand. Dogs on ice. Fresh scrapes and bruises mark their body and blood is trickling down 17’s left cheek.
17 is in his EnViro suit again. He picks himself up off the hard cement and then lifts Joseph and continues running for the shelter. Joseph doesn’t seem to notice the change in his father’s attire. Terror is with him. A fresh streak of urine is making its way down the front of the boy’s pants and the front of 17’s EnViro suit. They are twins in this way, variations on a theme. Divided only by time.
They run hard, and they make it to the entrance to the shelter. The metal door swings open and the pair enters one of the elevators. The door closes. There is safety for a single breath. At that moment, the thud echoes directly overhead, even through the metal and earth. Time freezes and 17 knows exactly what is happening. He is staring long and hard at little Joey. He wants to tell the boy so much; he wants to trade places with him. 17 knows how this will end. He will wake up several days from now in the hospital, but Joseph will not wake. He will live a little longer in a coma, but one night he will simply fade.
In slow motion, the pressure from the energy blast pushes the elevator down. 17 can hear the cables snapping, the sharp metallic clicking of each one giving way; he hears the metal above bending to the will of the H.A.D. He feels his body descending faster from the force of the blast. He is reaching, grasping ever so slowly out to Joseph, grabbing his son and pulling him close. This time he will change it, this time it will be different, this time the little boy will live, and the father will die. But it is futile. It is a memory. Unchangeable.
17 rages. He is screaming at the top of his lungs in his EnViro Suit, but no one hears him, not even Joseph. His screams cannot penetrate the protective insulation of the helmet. The world tinges red, red like his rage, red like a garment, red like a veil.
His suit is a prison, a curse, a crucifixion, like the lashes felt by his African ancestors in an age of slavery. But his bondage is eternal; he cannot die. Only the unending persists. This is his punishment for participating in the greed that brought the world to its knees.
Tears of red stream down the dark skin of his cheeks.
He must break the cycle. One day soon, he will give his life to try and do so. He must do his part.
17 woke in a medical alcove. The fluid drained. If he had been able to, he would scream, but still, the stem-cell-based fluid was in his lungs, and he choked and coughed. It had been a long time since his semi-dream state returned him to that part of his history. Perhaps it was the bodies outside Langeles that reminded him of his own terrible loss.
The doctor pressed a button that lifted the alcove to a 45-degree angle. His lab coat was a novelty these days. Doctors were all but extinct with the Alcove, but a few still studied the medical sciences. The doctor had a well-manicured beard of brown and red and large, owl-like eyes.
“So you return to the land of the living, do you? Daniels is right; you are unkillable.”
17 grunted. He found the words distasteful. His long life felt like a curse. What was his purpose? Why the hell was he still alive after all this time? He had changed his life, given up the ways of greed and lust. He had donated most of his many millions to the Climate Refugee Alliance, and his reward? His reward was losing both his wife and son. What purpose could he possibly have now? The 1300-year-old wound was open again for the first time in centuries. It throbbed with every beat of his heart.
He pushed it all back down. All of it was for another day, another time, he couldn’t dwell on the pain; dwelling on the pain is how he had ended up a Runner in the first place. His choices in the first days of migration were born in grief. Addiction consumed him in those days, and he had hurt so many who stood between him and his private narcotic oblivion.
17 glanced around the room. The other alcoves were empty. It was a good sign he wasn’t too late to do something. He thought of Langeles, of that crazy female runner, of her mention of the trap and the Children of Gaia, and suddenly he had one burning need.
“I have to speak with Daniels immediately.”
“Runner 17, do you know how rare it is for anyone to survive with a ruptured EnViro suit out in the Barrens in the middle of the day? Not to mention your open wound and significant blood loss? Do you know how many toxins are flowing through your blood right now? It’s going to take days in the alcove to restore your body properly. You cannot get out of this alcove.”
“Then why did you revive me?”
“To monitor your brainwave activity and nerve responses. They were functionating in a way I have never seen before, not even with you. Something is going on with that chip in the base of your skull, and I was concerned that I would not be able to bring you back to full consciousness. But you will be returning to the alcove shortly now that I see you are your usual difficult self.”
“Dammit Doc, none of that matters. I need to see Daniels, now. The entire city is in danger. If I can’t get out, bring him down here.”
The doctor sighed. “Daniels is very busy, what with Saud so close and those Langeles ruins.”
“This is about that, it’s important. I need to see him right now.”
“I will bring someone down from security to relay your message.”
“NO!,” 17 shouted. It caused the doctor to jump. “I’ll only speak with Daniels.”
The memory of the female Runner screwing up and slipping info about the spies hidden in the city was fresh in his mind. Daniels was the only one he could trust. He didn’t like the grumpy prick, but there was no way in hell the cranky bastard would ever betray the city. In that fleeting moment, it occurred to him, that despite everything else, he and Daniels had that much in common. Perhaps Daniels had his own curse, his own debt to pay. The AI had told him he too had a lifelong assignment.
“Very well, I’ll request Daniels’ presence, but I have to say I doubt he would come down here. He doesn’t like you very much, you know.”
17 laughed a little, “What, you don’t think I know that? You think I’m stupid? Daniels doesn’t like anyone. Just get him down here, tell him the safety of the city depends on the information I have, and it’s for his ears only.”
The doctor, standing tall over 17’s medical-grade alcove, eyed him carefully. 17 could tell that he was trying to gauge the seriousness of his request, trying to determine if 17 was playing a game. 17 locked eyes with the man and did not break his gaze. Then he saw the doctor’s face relax, it was only slight, but it was enough. After only a few more moments of hesitation, he went to the other room to send the transmission up to security.
17 shivered, why had the memory resurfaced now? He had always tried to keep himself from thinking about that awful night with his son, but every once in a while, it crept up on him. The H.A.D. had wiped out an entire section of the city that night, and only a few hundred had survived. It was an echo of the American bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, a repeat of history. There were no nukes used during the Third World War, at least not on Earth, but except for radiation damage, the H.A.D. were just as terrible.
Jade, his loving wife, had met him when he was in the midst of his wild nightly orgies. He had purchased an alcove with his extensive wealth and used it to lure women up to his large apartment. Their courtship was long, and despite her disgust at the way he had treated women, she befriended him. For months they spoke as friends, all the while eyeing one another, feeling their closeness grow. Then, one night, they found themselves in each other’s arms. 17 had vowed to love her then, and when they found out soon after that she was pregnant, he decided to give up everything and retire from his life to spend his days raising Joseph and trying to put right what he had helped make wrong.
Then the Third World War began. The Larger cities had prepared. Some even had anti-H.A.D. shielding. The island of Manhatten was already elevated and employed an early form of the EnViro shield to protect it from the massive floods that had taken over most of the coast. 17 had left Manhatten, though he never did sell his apartment, for the suburbs. Time and again he had told himself if he had only stayed in the city with Jade and Joseph, they may have all made it to Migration and 17 may have never become a Runner. But they had chosen to head west, toward one of the smaller towns in upstate New York. They wanted a fresh start. If only he had been able to bring Joseph or Jade to an alcove, but the military had confiscated all of them for use for their soldiers, and only military hospitals had access.
His injuries from that night were absolute. He didn’t know what the doctors had done to him to keep him alive, but the elevator incident was the first time he had survived death. Since then, he had survived countless close shaves, always managing to survive where others didn’t. But why? It wasn’t just that he was lucky, he seemed to be able to survive wounds most others wouldn’t.
He reached for the back of his neck and touched the chip for a moment. The AI was in there, and he wished, not for the first time, that he could query it outside of the suit. In truth, the AI was his only consistent companion for the long centuries.
Something in his memory flashed for a moment; the face of Dr. Solidsworth, the crazy old architect. He was in the hospital in Manhattan when he recovered from the H.A.D. attack. Why was his face standing out all of a sudden? Dozens of doctors had seen him during that time. There was something about a form, about permission, about an experiment. Something about the fact that 17 wasn’t going to make it. They had done something to him, what was it?
A gruff voice echoed just outside of the hallway. Daniels and the Doctor entered.
“What the hell happened to him?” Daniels asked.
“He was hanging on to the edge of life. Parts of his EnViro suit had melted and fused with his flesh. There was no way to remove the suit without repairing the tissue damage first. Once again, and as I say all too often, Runner 17 is lucky to be alive.”
Daniel’s expression didn’t change, but his gaze drifted to 17. The alcove was filling with its healing solution. 17 would be under in a few minutes, unless they paused the procedure.
“I hear you are refusing to talk to anyone but me. What the hell do you want?”
17 was direct and blunt, “Ask everyone else to leave. We can’t trust anyone here.”
Daniels considered. What could 17 have to say to him that would require privacy? He recalled Patton’s corpse and the attempt on his life. Perhaps 17 wasn’t full of shit; maybe he had another piece of the puzzle.
Without turning his head, without breaking his gaze with 17, Daniels said. “You heard him. Get out.”
The Doctor didn’t argue and left the room quickly, latching a few cupboards on his way out. The door shut behind him with an audible click, indicating the lock was secure.
“AI, secure privacy in this space.”
“This room is now secure.”
“Now what the hell do you want?” Daniels hoped he had something to contribute. Otherwise, he might be tempted to shock his ass for a good long minute.
17’s voice was a bit hoarse. “It’s about a group that calls themselves the Children of Gaia. They are the ones responsible for Langeles, and they are probably planning an attack now.”
Daniels ground his jaw. “Where did this information come from?” Daniels found himself a chair and rested his tired body. He’d been on the clock for 29 straight hours. If he didn’t get some rest soon, he’d start making mistakes. A few hours in an alcove would probably do the trick, the body revitalized nearly twice as fast inside one.
17 told Daniels everything about his outing. He started with the piles of bodies in the ruins of Langeles. He told Daniels of the encounter with ‘Akif of the Rih and how he apparently was on some kind of hit list. He detailed his encounter with the Runner from the Children of Gaia, the bits and pieces he remembered from their adventure on that storm sail and about her claim that the ruins of Langeles were nothing more than a trap. Daniels kept his expression flat the entire time.
“You’re not lying to me, are you, Runner?” Daniels demanded.
“What possible motivation do I have to lie?”
“Spite, bitterness, a general dislike for me and the city, the usual shit.”
“If that were the case, I wouldn’t tell you shit; I would let it all burn. But Daniels… the children in the ruins,” 17 swallowed hard, and his voice shook. Daniels could see the anguish in the man’s face. “I can’t let that happen to the children in this city. I’ve… it’s… Fuck, they are monsters, Daniels. All those people, just… all those people.”
Daniels unclenched his jaw, and for the first time, he saw something almost… human, about 17.
17’s voice lost all weakness. Rage replaced it. “Let me back out there. Let me track them down. I can do it. I can put a stop to this insanity. Arm me and let me out there. With a combat suit, I promise I will kill that bitch and every other member of those cultists.”
The anger was wild in 17, and Daniels felt a hint of nervousness. He had seen 17 in combat a few times, he was fierce and powerful, but he wasn’t sure he had ever seen his eyes flare with white-hot rage before. Daniels saw a deep passion in him and recognized that passion in himself. He was certain at that moment that 17 had lost something or someone, that the ruins had reminded him of. 17 wanted vengeance, he was sure of it.
“We both know you need to heal before we can even consider something like that. Besides, sending you out blind into the Barrens is no way to stop these assholes. I… have… some information as well…”
Daniels looked into 17’s eyes for a moment. He searched for a reason to trust 17. His guts told him that this was a man he could trust, but his years in security and dealing with the Runnercore and 17, in particular, suggested that he revoke that trust. 17 deserved the truth, he deserved to know what was happening. If his information proved correct, 17 might have just saved the entire city from a terrible trap. The real question, of course, was convincing the Senate. For that, they needed more information, and for that, he needed 17. He might even have the Runner testify to the Senate.
Only two Runners had ever testified before the Senate in the past, and they didn’t believe either. The Senate knew that many Runners were their enemies, and some of them held personal vendettas against either themselves or the government that had sentenced them to a life in a Runnercore. But if there was a trap, if there was a serious danger to the city, and Daniels was convinced there was, then they needed some other evidence.
Daniels stood, went to the control panel for the alcove and paused 17’s submersion. Then he sat back down.
“There have been some unusual events around here as well,” said Daniels.
Daniels told 17 of the murder and the strange ritualistic paraphernalia surrounding the body. He told him of his testimony to the Senate and the heightened state of security. He mentioned that Senator Lightfoot had some knowledge of the Children of Gaia in history and so they did appear to be a real organization.
When Daniels finished, neither of them spoke for a long few minutes.
“You see, Daniels, the Children of Gaia are already here. They’re setting the trap. We have to stop them.”
“We need more intel, the Senate won’t buy any of this based on the word of a Runner, and you know that.”
“Then let me go get some.”
“Not yet. Other things are happening. We just received a request for a vid screen meeting with Saud. It’s only a few hours away. After that meeting, I’ll know a lot more.”
“There’s something else. I forgot to mention it before, but somehow it seems important too. The AI in my suit, it’s… well, it’s sentient,” said 17.
Daniels shot a glance upward and stared deep into the lines and scars of 17’s face. “Something strange is happening with the city AI as well. None of the engineers have been able to figure out what’s going on.”
“It’s alive, that’s what’s going on.”
“It’s a machine; it can’t be alive. I’m sure it’s the Children of Gaia. They are messing with our computers.”
Daniels ground his jaw again. This wasn’t some science fiction novel about machines; this was the real world. In the real world, AI could have intelligence to a great degree, but being self-aware is something else entirely; centuries of experiments had suggested that self-awareness was not possible in machines.
“My AI saved my life, it helped me to combat that female Runner. Why in the world would the Children of Gaia want that?”
“Maybe they want you to go back to the city. Maybe they want you to convince us there is some trap. Maybe they have something else in mind.”
“You don’t spend much time out there, so you don’t know what it’s like. As much as that damn AI irritates the shit out of me, I respect it. It has saved me countless times. I don’t think this is something the Children of Gaia would want or expect. In so many ways, they are against technology. Their only desire to use it is to find ways to destroy us. Creating a fully aware Artificial Intelligence doesn’t seem in their best interest.”
“You’re assuming that the AI has become truly aware and it’s not some trick.”
“I don’t know how you fake something like true awareness. Do you?”
Daniels was silent. He thought back on his recent interactions with the AI. The only thing he knew for sure is that he didn’t trust the damn thing now. He had hated it before, but now there was a tinge of… what? Was it fear? No, it was just a damn machine. It couldn’t hurt anyone, but he knew that was a lie. The AI controlled an enormous portion of the city systems. Sure, people could do a lot manually, but that was assuming there were enough human beings trained in every single little task, and Daniel’s wasn’t sure that was the case anymore.
Daniels stood and walked to the control panel.
“I have some people monitoring everything the AI does. For now, we should only be concerned with the Children of Gaia. Look… I’ll come back and let you know what happens with the Senate. For now, get some rest and heal up. I have a feeling we’ll need you soon.”
Daniels didn’t give 17 the chance to respond. He simply pressed the button to close the medical alcove, and 17’s body submerged in the fluid.