01: Unfamiliar Terrain

Al Collins stared out the window at the clouds floating by, tapping his fingers against the table. He didn’t know why, but he’d been unable to concentrate all day. His mind felt clear, but preoccupied. Each time he tried to focus, he’d start fidgeting. Sighing, he turned back to his studies.

Sitting at the kitchen table, he studied the newest issue of American Journal of Physics. A college sophomore on summer break, he’d developed an interest in science while taking the harder beginning classes required for more advanced subjects: Calculus, Statistics and Introduction to Physics. There was something about the subject and associated fields which fascinated him, and he’d declared his major soon after. He wasn’t terrific at the math, but loved learning how things in the universe functioned. Fascinated by the concepts, he aimed for a career in the sciences but was undecided on a field of study. His sister, just graduated from high school, planned to attend the same university in the fall.

Trying to unravel the math, a wave of concern washed over him. It swept his fleeting concentration away like a tsunami, leaving the debris of confusion and bewilderment behind. Somehow, he sensed Be, his sister, was facing extreme danger. Understanding it wasn’t logical he knocked on the table for good luck and tried to ignore it. Yet, no matter what he did, he couldn’t rid himself of the sense of doom washing over him.

He glanced upstairs. “Mom, do you know where Be is?”

It took her a second to respond, walking through the back sliding-glass door. “No. I wanted her to help planting the new bulbs, but haven’t seen her all day. By the way, why can’t you call her by her name? ‘Be’ seems ... disrespectful.”

“Damn, where is that girl?” Al pushed his books aside, taking out his phone and dialing her number. “It’s a private name I only use at home.” He heard her distinctive ring-tone rising from the couch in muted testimony to her absence. Growling, he leaned back, closing his eyes. His fears might only be paranoia, but he’d only know if they didn’t pan out.

“I’m not sure using such names is appropriate. It’s childish and belittling.”

“She doesn’t object. When she complains, I’ll stop.” A vision of her hurrying through a deserted warehouse district appeared before his eyes, shadowy figures flittering in the background behind her. He recognized the region. He drove through that area of Great Platts often on his way to school. The city had fallen into disrepair and the industrial section became the neutral turf between two gangs: neutral meaning they attacked whoever entered in their effort to control the territory.

He jumped to his feet and headed for the door. “If you hear from her, call me. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t risk it!” His mother’s mouth hung open at the strange declaration, before deciding to search Betty’s room for clues to where she’d disappeared to. Not knowing Al’s concerns, she didn’t have much to go on.


Dusk’s long shadows disguised surfaces, providing cover for those with malicious intent. Betty glanced behind her. The intermittent streetlights, concrete walls mottled with age, flaking plaster disguising graffiti painted across every exposed surface made it difficult to spot anyone. She knew the area was a bad neighborhood, with few residents and a host of abandoned buildings, but didn’t think she had a choice. She’d hoped to cross it before encountering trouble, but wasn’t so lucky. Now she had two intimidating men tailing her, each wearing gang colors, with no safe refuge in sight. The setting sun cast the entire street in eerie shadows.

Betty swallowed, clenching her fists and trying to hurry without showing fear. She was relieved to be nearing an intersection where she could hopefully find help, but she doubted it. There were few residents or open businesses in this blighted area, and no refuge from those following her.

Reaching the corner, a figure stepped around the corner, surprising her. She gasped, clutching her chest and falling back.

“Relax!” he said. “Come on. We can’t afford to waste time. We need to move before it’s too late.”

“Al? Where the hell did you come from? How did you know where to find me?”

He took her elbow, leading her across the intersection. “Do you want to talk, or get out of here?”

“I’ll vote with my feet, but I still want to know.”

They walked at his faster pace. He seemed to be casually strolling, but she was forced to rush to keep up. Approaching a dark alley, he steered her down it. Betty wrinkled her nose, reacting to the stale scent of urine, chemicals and rotting refuse. Given the lack of light, it was difficult to make out what lay ahead, but she didn’t see an exit.

“We’ll be trapped.”

“Don’t worry,” Al said, breaking into a run. He hurried her past two doors, stopping at the third and reaching for a door handle.

“It’ll never—” The door opened without any complaints. He pushed her though, pulling it shut behind her and throwing the lock before looking for something to block the door with.

“How did you know the door would be open? Have you been here before?”

“Never even been in this area,” he said. “I don’t know one street from another.”

“Then how did you... ?”

Bracing a heavy metal slab against the door, he grabbed her elbow and rushed her across the room and into the connecting hallway. “Don’t speak,” he whispered. “They won’t know where we went, but might hear our voices.”

Unable to forestall her curiosity, Betty started to protest when they heard the metal door rattling, echoing down the empty passageway.

“Where the hell did they go?” a faint voice shouted. Al raised his finger to his lips as they hurried on.

“I don’t know any more than you do,” yelled a closer voice. “Try busting down the doors. They’ve got to...” The rest of the conversation was lost as distance intervened.

Her brother directed her into a stairwell. She glanced skeptically at him. Without answering, he motioned her up. With the memory of the two gang members hunting them, she didn’t argue. However, she had no clue why they weren’t searching for a way out.

They kept ascending. Betty would hesitate on each floor, and Al would nudge her to continue. They soon became winded. She’d been walking all day. Still, he kept pushing. On the Eleventh floor, panting, she turned on him, whispering in an angry voice.

“Where are we going? If we remain ... in the building, we won’t escape.”

Recognizing she was worn out, he paused, allowing her to catch her breath. “We’d never get away taking that approach. Once they figure out we entered the factory, it wouldn’t take long to cover the exits. This is our only option.”

“But what’s your plan? Wait them out? Hope they get bored? And why would they care about us so much? What makes you think they won’t just leave now that an easy target has slipped away?” Her eyes roamed the dilapidated structure through the scratched door. “If we can’t get out, what’s to stop them from searching floor by floor?”

He held his hand up, silencing her as he listened. Hearing nothing, he continued.

“They won’t stop. They’re out for blood. I’m guessing they’re looking to use us as a warning to others. They’ll follow us, and after they rob us, they’ll slit our throats. We either go upstairs, or we die.”

“How do you—” She waved her hands, abandoning her line of thought. “All the more reason to find a way out!”

He pushed her onwards again. “Just keep going,” he insisted.

They continued up until reaching a door wedged in place. He moved her aside, and slammed it with his shoulder while holding his hands against the metal to diminish the sound. The door popped open, revealing the roof.

“Shouldn’t we go back down and find somewhere to hide?”

He shook his head, taking her hand and leading her to the edge of the tar roof. “It wouldn’t do any good. There are too few places to hide and our breathing would likely give us away. This is the best option.”

“What is?” she demanded, surveying the roof for alternative escapes.

Reaching the cement embankment, they stopped.

“Okay, this is the rough part. You need to run fast, push off the ledge, and jump as hard as you can.”

She opened her mouth to protest, but he was already gone, backing up and running full speed towards oblivion. He leapt high and soared over the intervening fourteen story drop to the pavement below. He maintained his height momentarily, and then dropped. He landed hard on the far side and rolled, leaving patches of skin behind.

When he stood, he held his arms out. She backed away, shaking her head.

“I can’t make that leap!”

“You can. I’m sure of it, but you don’t have a choice. Don’t give yourself time to doubt. You’ll make it.” As she considered his words, he mumbled, “I’ve seen you make it across.”

She glanced back the way they’d come and took five steps back. Biting her lip, she ran at her top speed and jumped off the ledge. Waving her arms, she watched the abyss below beckon while the welcoming safety of her brother’s arms maintained their distance. At first she hung in midair, but then began falling. It soon became a race between life and death, with gravity winning.

She slammed into the wall, her legs dangling over the railing, desperately trying to hold on as Al grabbed her by her armpits and dragged her up. She bit her lip to keep from screaming, terror coursing through her body, grit sticking to her sweat-soaked clothes. When he pulled her safely across, she curled into a ball, wordlessly sobbing. Her brother walked to the edge and glanced at the dark alley below.

Returning, he took her arms and lifted her. “They didn’t see us. As I expected, they’re only guarding the entrances, never expecting us to find another way out.”

She stumbled, her knees as solid as Gumby’s. “How did you know all this? How’d you know about the open door, how many exits there were and that we could jump to safety?”

He directed her into the stairwell. Once inside, he felt more secure speaking. “There’s an exit on a side street a fair distance from the other building. They shouldn’t check it, but we need to move fast. If they grow bored, they might search for where we disappeared to. Hopefully, they’ll examine the first building floor by floor, which will keep them busy for hours. That’ll give us time to get away.”

“I’m glad you have a plan, but it doesn’t answer my questions.”

Al sighed, leaning against the wall, glancing at the ceiling. “Frankly, I’m not sure. All I know is suddenly I’m seeing things. I ... anticipate what’s going to happen.” He stood, grasping her arm again as they resumed their descent. “When we met, I instinctively realized we had to take the alley. I could feel which door to try. As we entered the building, I could visualize what would occur if we exited via the front door. I don’t understand where I got this new superpower, but it sure came in handy.”

“As unreal as it sounds, I can relate. I’ve had a similar experience which just began today.”

“Pray, do tell,” he said, intrigued. Her stiff responses bothered him. It was as if she was afraid she’d blurt out the wrong thing if she was more open. This was a long-time conflict between them. Although they were incredibly close, she’d be a loving sibling one moment, and distant the next. He realized they had a complex interplay, largely governed by their parent’s disapproval of how close they were, but he didn’t have time to worry what she may be hiding.

“This whole thing started because I felt driven to find something. I knew where to go, but not what I was seeking or how far it might be. Clearly, it was further than I could walk in a day.”

“I’ll tell you what, if we get out of here, we’ll start out fresh in the morning. I’ll drive you. We should make more progress starting from scratch.”

“I don’t know. It seems today was a huge investment to throw away, especially if it’s not there tomorrow.” She turned, regarding him. “Talking about recent superpowers, you’re describing intuition. You might be considered an ‘intuit’, someone who anticipates things.”

“Terrific! Talk about the least exciting superpower. ‘Stop, evildoer. I’m Intuitive-man! I can guess you’re about to shoot me!’ It’s worse than bringing a bow and arrow to a battle with indestructible androids.”

“Hey, I liked Hawkeye. He’s cute.”

“He’s lame, as is an ability to anticipate trouble. All it does is help avoid fights, rather than helping you win.”

“Not everything is solved by fighting. You saved me without a fight. Besides, you were outnumbered and have no fighting experience.”

“This was a one-time thing. I’m not sure I’d do it for anyone else. So what about you? If I’m an Intuit, then you must be a Seeker. You aren’t the only one who gets to invent new terms for unknown things.”

“Yeah, we just need to discover what I’m seeking. It might be just as dangerous as what we’re fleeing.”

“I doubt it. If it was, you’d sense it. Does it feel risky?”

She stopped to consider it, closing her eyes for a moment. “No, it feels good. Secure, like it’ll make a significant difference to our lives.”

“Our?”

She waved her hand, dismissing her word choice. “You know what I mean. It doesn’t seem threatening.”

“Which doesn’t imply we won’t encounter dangers between you and it.”

Reaching the first floor, he held his finger to his lips, silencing her. Carefully opening the door, he glanced out, and then motioned her to follow. This building wasn’t much better than the last, but there was more junk inside: stacked boxes, crumbled refuse, drifting papers and abandoned furniture covered in dust. As Betty waited, he peered out the front door. Seeing no sign of their pursuers, they ran quietly for another three blocks until they reached his car, parked in another dark alley. Once he unlocked it, they climbed in.

“You’re lucky your car wasn’t stripped,” she said as they strapped themselves in.

He patted the dashboard. “Nah, I’d never betray Rosie. Like the other things, I knew when I parked she’d be safe here.”

“Well, I suggest Rosie get us out of this rat hole.” Instead of listening to her own advice, she paused, staring at him with a look he couldn’t extricate himself from. “Thanks for saving my life.” Leaning in, she pressed her lips against his, maintaining it for several moments. Al, unused to such signs of affection between them, shifted his hands uneasily, unsure what to do. She released him and leaned back, cocking her head as she regarded him.

“What?”

She shook her head, smoothing her outfit, filthy from their plight. “Nothing. I was thinking of something else. Let’s get out of here.”

“We’ll be fine from here,” he said, pulling into the street, turning towards home.

“Now we need to decide what to tell Mom and Dad.”

Al turned, grinning. “I think it best we not mention this. I’ve already scared Mom, so just tell her you lost track of the time. Say I’m taking you shopping tomorrow.”

“Visiting the mall with your little sister? That’s a bigger sacrifice than risking your life saving me.”

“Tell me about it.” He glanced at her attire. “Though it may not be a bad idea to pick up something before we return home.”

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Story tagged with:
Science Fiction / Space / Nanotechnology / AI /