Sleep eluded her that night. After arriving home, she’d packed her rucksack with the few items she thought she’d need for the journey. At 0300 hours she found herself at the table drinking a cup of tea and touching the books for one last time. A few belonged to the library, but they’d not be returned now. It didn’t matter anymore, she thought.
Although the post office was only a ten-minute walk from her quarters, she left at 0330 to leave herself plenty of time. The air was bitter cold and the sky a swath of empty black space above her. She started down the hill.
Passing a narrow side street, she heard an odd sound of metal scraping on concrete. She increased her pace, but it was too late. He stepped out in front of her, as if he’d sprung from the fetid city air itself.
She shook a little as the adrenaline flowed into her limbs.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she said, her voice rising. “Do you hear? There’s nothing you can take from me.”
He laughed, moving toward her now, his eyes burning, his harsh voice ringing in her ears. The horrors of that night flooded her senses. She felt her legs weaken.
She took a step back and remembered Ana’s silver cylinder. She pulled it from her pocket and pushed the button in. A scorching white light poured from the other end. She aimed it at the destroyer’s face and he shrank away. In the starkness of the light, she saw the skin on his face bubbling with blisters. She kept the light blazing into his face as long as she could make herself stay there, until at last he was on his knees, howling with pain. There she left him, in the middle of the street, with no one around to hear his bitter cries.
She rushed down the hill into the center of the city. As she approached the post office, she could see dark figures moving around on the loading dock. Ana appeared out of the gloom to greet her.
“You’re shaking,” she said. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“It was him, wasn’t it? Did you use the light?”
“Yes, but how did you know?”
“The destroyers are on the move. Somehow they discovered our plans to leave. I suspected he might be out on the streets tonight, but I didn’t want to alarm you.”
“But why should they care that we’re leaving? Why must they act this way?”
Ana shrugged. “It’s in their nature. But we can talk more about it a little later. Right now we’re queuing up to head out.”
Several loaded cargo bikes stood in the parking lot. Ana explained that each rider would leave separately with a cadre of quidams, also on bikes, to provide support and protection. In between these departures, small groups would leave on foot. Though it was early and the city quiet, the quidams believed that a large procession could attract the attention of any destroyers still out prowling the streets. The caravan would stay connected through the use of primitive handsets, powered by batteries that had been conserved since the change.
Two quidams divided the group into sections, each of which was given a departure time and instructed to stay together until then. Her assigned unit included Ana; Marta, the woman in the dark fatigues; Jed, the young boy from the gallery; and an older man with a long grey beard named Stan.
As the first riders prepared to leave, Ana told her what she knew of the destroyers, with some help from the others.
“They’re basically corrupted orb programs, if an orb is indeed a program…the verdict is still out on that. Something breaks inside them, and they become hard-wired for destruction. Some say the break results from the excesses of the orb lifestyle: sedentary work and leisure, materialistic obsessions, detachment from nature, telescreen addiction. All of these could be contributing factors. One day they just snap.”
“But how do they learn to change their features?” Lydia asked. “That’s not something any orb can do.”
“That we know even less about,” Marta replied. “Some of us believe there is a darker force working among the orbs, using them for its own purposes.”
“Some of us know it for a fact,” Stan muttered.
Lydia looked for him to continue, but he would say no more.
The time soon came for them to leave. They were the last remaining unit in the queue. Ana jumped up onto the loading dock and bolted the rear door.
“Just in case,” she said. “The less the orbs know, the better for us.”
It was nearing 0500 hours and Lydia noticed the day’s first shift in light spreading toward them across the sky. They crossed the street and moved down the sidewalk, staying close to the road. The danger of automobiles had long passed; it was the alleys that now held threats.
Within a couple of hours they’d reached the highway overpass. Grey light continued to seep through the sodden sky, illuminating the decaying hulks of the city. Ana’s radio crackled on her hip and a voice announced that the first rider had crossed the city line. Muted cheers rose from their little band.
By noon they also had crossed that line and were trekking along a farm road leading away from the city. She marveled at the open space around her. It seemed endless in every direction. Here was not utopia, though. The vegetation lay stunted from the rain, with few signs of remaining life. Abandoned cars stood silent on the shoulder, or even in the middle of the road. Toxic fluids leaked from beneath them, and many had already been ransacked for scrap metal and other parts.
It’s so quiet out here, she thought. Even after most of the city’s workings had ground to a halt, there had still been constant noise. It was as if the orbs could not function without a continuous tapestry of sound playing behind them. She’d long ago lost touch with the concept of silence.
As if on cue, Ana’s radio broke into her musings. The first couple of cadres had arrived at the target destination and begun preparing camp. Another cheer rose from the group, a little louder this time now that they were on safer ground. She turned and gazed back in the direction from which they’d come. Only glimpses of the city’s worn silhouette showed through the haze. Soon it would be gone from her view altogether. She guessed that she’d never see it again and that felt strange.
Tonight would be the first night she’d spent away in a longer time than she could remember. She was excited and nervous. Her life with these people would not be easy. But their resilience and resolve bolstered her newfound confidence in her own spirit. She felt she needed that support, though maybe not forever. The world could change again in a moment; she saw its fragile nature now. But it also might stay the same for another thousand years. Either way, she knew only a fraction of the remaining time belonged to her. Right now that was all she had, and perhaps, she thought, she needed nothing more.
END OF PART ONE