As I’m pressed against the coarse brick of a millennia old building, the ground vibrates underneath me. It is the force of hundreds of thousands of machines as they walk between the towering skyscrapers, under blinding billboards, and over steaming grates.
I shouldn’t be here. The chirping of a mechanical language reminds me of that.
But I keep coming back, though. Day after day, week after week.
Even though fear knots my stomach so tight that I struggle to breathe.
I have to be here.
So, I take a slow, deep breath and clench my hands into a fist so tight that my nails dig into my palms. The pain centers the ground as it twists and turns under my feet.
“Let’s go,” I whisper, waving the small group forward and into the crowd of machines.
The cyborgs chatter to one another with rigid and unnatural voices and in a language I don’t understand. Occasionally, I’ll catch pieces of English, but those words are square and empty. That’s the first clue that these “humans” aren’t real—they lack emotion. As much as they try, each word sounds too forced and flat.
We weave through the crowd, carefully disguised with blinding neon clothes and pressed wigs. Like the cyborgs, each of us carry purses and press fake tablets against our chests. I even poke at the screen of mine to further mimic the technological mass that schools around us, lost in their own individual worlds.
My best friend Linux walks beside me. His disguise is a pair of teal green slacks, spotless despite the fact that we’ve been climbing through tunnels and crawling across filthy alleyways. His matching teal shirt has bright yellow squares on it, and surprisingly enough, he blends in perfectly. Only his black, messy hair stands out.
I cut my eyes at him through my wig. He looks ahead then back at me, panting slightly from the uphill climb.
We’ve reached the top of the city.
Druxy sprawls out before us: skyscrapers and streets as far as the eye can see. It’s a limitless cityscape. The ground rolls on forever, completely flat. I don’t know what’s past this, but I know what I’ve been told. Our world has become one big never-ending megacity.
Underground, hundreds of miles of abandoned sewer and water pipes lie, snaking in and out of the river, around the corners, and through the darkest shadows of the city. The access holes litter the city. The tunnels teem with life, though—my life, my family, my friends. They’re why I’m here. They need me.
Regardless of how scared I am, I’m tasked with leading three other Luddites—the name taken by us humans who resist technological takeover—out of hiding in search for one thing: supplies. Without the medicine and weapons we bring home, the Luddites may not make it through the month.
I glance down at the string of numbers written on my hand as we continue.
“32456982 & 457123”
Not that I need to write them down. I’ve had those fourteen digits memorized since my brother Cyrus gave them to me.
I pull my sleeve over my hand and repeat the numbers under my breath.
On my left stands building number 32456980, which means I’ve got two more to go. Here, the crowds are thinner. We are out of the business district and moving into the residential district.
“This is it,” I mumble to Linux. He nods, walks up the steps, and kneels down. The rest of us huddle behind him with our backs shielding him from sight. “Pick it fast.”
Linux doesn’t look up at me. “Please be patient. Eden. It’s not easy.”
I risk looking down at him, where he’s typing away at a display with incredible speed. “I know, I know, but if we get caught—”
“Then, we set off the grenades. They can’t take us to the Anthros if we’re dead.”
A strangled laugh sneaks out of my mouth, and the girl next to me jams her elbow in my ribs. As dismal as it is, Linux has a point.
“They’d probably still try,” I mumble, “and even if I’m dead, they can use my body as a shell.”
That’s one of the most terrifying things about the machines: their ability to use humans either living or dead. Of the three types of machines, only two are true threats to humans. Service machines have been around for centuries, but they have changed drastically over time. They’re harmless and mindless, created to do one job. The cyborgs are a lesser threat, using our bodies as hosts for the mechanics that strengthen them. They don’t need a living shell to house their programming, but they prefer one.
Then, there’s the Artificials. By definition, they’re robots like the service machines, but they seem to have some sentience to them. Created for the sole purpose of hunting down humans and protecting the city, they’re ten times stronger than humans and cyborgs combined and nearly invincible. The Artificials rule my nightmares and flashbacks. They took everything from me.
Linux suddenly sits up straight. “Got it.”
As he ushers us past him, I notice another crack in the lenses of his glasses. He constantly has to push them up because the arm is bent out of shape. The lenses are another story all together. I’m surprised he can still see out of them. When I found him, wandering the streets of Druxy alone, he was nearly blind. Cyrus dug the glasses out of a scrap metal yard. Linux has to squint to see small print, but he knows complaining won’t do any good. Especially considering how lucky he was to get those in the first place.
I weave through the small group to the front and listen to the footsteps fall silent behind me. The door slams shut, sealing out all natural light. For a second, I’m even more blind than Linux. Then, the automatic lights click on, bathing us in dim yellow light.
Silver boxes are tacked from floor to ceiling around us with barely enough room to walk one behind another. I check the corners for cameras but see none. The Artificials have done a good job masking their surveillance tech in this warehouse.
“Alright. Let’s split up.” I scratch the edge of my wig. “We’re looking for any crates of weapons, medicine, or nonperishable food. Cyrus said this is a weapons storage; so, we probably won’t find food. You can still look for weapons, though: knives, outdated guns, grenades, things like that.”
At my command, the people spread out in different directions.
I walk straight, one hand grazing the smooth metal. They are cold to the touch; goosebumps dance up my arms. Barcodes are printed across each silver cube, right above an electronic lock screen. I quickly translate the serial numbers into words.
5671 is medicine.
4562 is clothing.
3476 is weapons.
Every serial number around me starts with the last pattern, but they’re too new. Rust hasn’t even set in yet. None of them hold anything remotely helpful. I scan over spare machine parts, wires, nuts, bolts, and unused computer chips.
Seven boxes down, I find a box of weapons and call Linux over.
“Anything good?” He stands on his tiptoes and peeps into the box as I root through it.
“Artificial extensions,” I mumble. “We can’t operate any of this stuff.”
I pull a long, white gun out of the box and aim it at the ceiling. Linux’s face twists in confusion, and he raises his hands to cover his head once he realizes. My finger is already wrapped around the trigger. I squeeze, but nothing happens.
“See? It needs a power source.” I toss the gun back in. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t carry a battery in my pocket.”
Linux nods sadly, pats me on the arm, and then walks back into the maze as someone else calls his name.
“Look for boxes that seem prehistoric!” I call after him.
Several rows later, my search comes to a jerking halt. A rusting copper box catches my eye. The serial code starts with 1121.
Without so much as a second thought, I type in Linux’s master code with confidence and watch the red light on the display turn green. I pull the lid aside and peer into the musty space.
It’s not smart to dig in random boxes. More often than not, they’re set to silent alarms that summon the Artificials. How many runs have I been on where someone accidentally trips an alarm? Yet, there’s something about books. A passion, a craving. I never can say no. Ever since my father taught me how to read, I’ve loved reading.
There’s something about the papery smell, a mixture of wood and ink. The letters pressed into each page and come to life like moving pictures in my brain. When I’m surrounded by nothing more than circuits, wires, never-ending daylight, and the abyss of the underground, the stories, poems, and histories I read make me feel human.
Ignoring every warning going off in my head, I stick my hand into the box.
Suddenly, an ear-splitting siren fills the room. A string of obscenities is screamed somewhere across the room. I heave a rather large book out of the box and jump to my feet.
“What happened?” one of the other runners asks as she runs over to me. I look between the box, the book, and her face. Did I do this? My chest pounds.
“I tripped an alarm!” Linux comes screaming around the corner, holding a box lid in his hand.
Thank God. It wasn’t me.
“We need to go,” I snap. “The Artificials answer alarms in about thirty—”
The door behind us is blown off its hinges. Wood fills the air, and light floods the room. I cover my head, lunging for Linux. He’s already moving, though, an ingrained response.
“Seconds!” I finish in a half-scream.
Linux and I dive behind the nearest crates, and the other two members of our crew hide across from us. We draw whatever weapons we’ve been given for our mission. Luckily, Artificials don’t carry weapons that kill, just paralyzers. We carry grenades and old handguns. While they shoot to capture, we shoot to kill.
Before I can even begin to aim at the machines, illuminated blue bullets zip through the air like flies. They buzz gently from the electricity coursing through them. Each one crashes into the metal boxes, and electricity crackles through them. The bullets tremble then die out, leaving nothing more than a black spot.
“Get them out!” I bark at Linux. How he hears me over the sound of sizzling metal, I don’t know. Luckily, though, he does. With a short nod, he sprints across the gap towards our partners and starts leading them to the back door. I watch them with my weapon pressed against my chest— a tiny green grenade.
By now, the room is filled with Artificials. The hiss of hydraulics and sharp mechanical speech fills the gaps left by the humming paralyzer bullets.
If I throw this and I’m too close, I’ll be blown to shreds. So will everyone else in the building. It’s too small of a space. Plus, we’ll lose a potential supply source later in the collapse. My best option is to run. That way I can come back later for the supplies.
Cramming the grenade back into my pocket, I stand and sprint towards the backdoor. As bullets pepper the air behind me, I lunge past Linux and our two partners, rolling onto the black pavement of the alley. Several blue bullets sear the ground around me. I feel the heat of one as it lands beside my ear.
Rolling over onto my hands and knees, I watch as Linux attempts to herd the other two scared people out the door. Once outside, the girl stands and looks back at the two Artificials nearest us. They watch her with black, bottomless display screens.
The scream leaves my lips half a second too late. Before I can grab her pants leg and jerk her away, paralyzer bullets rain down on her. Waves of electricity dance across her skin. Her body seizes up, and she collapses on the ground. Her body rolls towards me, eyes frozen open, forehead creased in shock, mouth poised in an unfinished sentence.
A memory erupts in my stomach. My parents. Fear and horror were etched in their statuesque faces on the day they were harvested by the Artificials. The edges of the girl’s hair burn, and the smell of my own father’s coarse beard comes rushing back. Tears well up in my eyes. I force myself to look away before I get sick.
The memory of that day is almost two years old, but it stings like a fresh cut.
I don’t see the second boy fall, but I do hear him. I’m too scared to look up.
Was anything about the two of them remarkable? Was the girl unusually tall or skinny? Was the boy a redhead? Did either of them have a strange birthmark? I can’t remember anything peculiar about them, but I’m not sure I want to. Being special means you go to the Anthros. Being normal means you get harvested— the process of dying to become a cyborg’s host body.
Which is better— death or prison?
Something slams back into me, and I’m thrown back onto the pavement. Gasping for breath, I shove the weight off me and start to scramble towards my feet. Linux finishes the job for me by yanking roughly at my arm.
“Up! Let’s go!” he barks, slamming the door shut. More bullets slam into the solid surface. Electricity spiderwebs through it and leaves black char marks behind. As he grabs my hand, I glance back down at the bodies. We should take them home, but the time we’d be spending dragging their bodies would be wasted. it’d be like turning ourselves in to the Artificials.
As much as I hate to, we have no choice but to leave them behind. So, we sprint away, clutching each other for support.