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Michael and Sara raced down the hall, pushing workers out of the way. More robots joined in the pursuit, their metal feet clanking on the floor as they gave chase, all the while shouting their commands to halt. Even some of Michael’s co-workers hollered after him, telling him to give up, to give in, to blend in. One man even reached out, anger marring his features.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the man snapped. “Have you lost your mind?”
Scowling, he wrapped strong arms around Michael, to pin him in place, but Michael jerked wildly, slipping from the grip. In one fluid move he curled his fingers into a fist and punched. He’d never hit a man before, and was struck by how painful it was. Nevertheless, it did the trick. Surprised, the co-worker sprawled to the ground, his nose busted.
Michael stood over him, then regarded his shaking hand, exhilaration pumping through his veins. He laughed, elated, until Sara tugged on his arm, grinning as well. “Hurry!”
They did. Michael saw a side door up ahead that would take them down the fire escape to the floors below, but as they were about to reach it, anther monitor emerged. It pointed at Michael, its feminine voice deeper and agitated, “STOP!”
Michael and Sara slid to a halt as the robots closed in, blocking off every avenue of escape. Sara clung to him, trembling, and Michael worried what their fate would be. At the very least, they would be forever separated from each other, re-stationed in two cities on opposite ends of the country.
But the likeliest outcome was that they both would be liquidated for their rebellion.
“I’m sorry, Sara,” he shouted over the increasingly loud commands to get on the ground and submit.
“Don’t be,” she said, looking into his eyes. “For a moment, we were free. Truly free.”
He smiled and realized that, if these were his last moments on Earth, there was only one thing left to do.
He leaned down and kissed her. She cupped the back of his hair, pulling him closer, melting into him. Michael wrapped his arms around her, determined to never let her go.
A loud crash shattered their kiss. Michael parted from Sara and turned to the glass wall at the far end of the hallway, looking out over the city. Presently, a hovercar sat parked in the hallway, broken glass littering the carpet, and one robot pinned underneath the heavy vehicle. In the cockpit—
Rip undid the hatch on the vehicle and stood, crowing. “C’mon, little brother, get a move on, will ya!”
Michael laughed out loud, clutched Sara, and made a run for the hovercar. Monitors reached out for him, their cold metal fingers clamping the air around him, missing him by inches.
A phalanx of androids swarmed them, but Michael helped Sara into the cockpit as carefully as he could. One droid secured his arm and Michael kicked at it, roaring in rage and adrenaline. He wouldn’t go back! He would be free!
He stamped with his foot until the robot let go, its neck spurting sparks where Michael had broken it. He scrambled into the hovercar as Rip pulled away. One of the droids leapt through the broken window, sailing through the air and landing squarely on the hovercar’s hood.
Rip floored the engine—somehow he must have rewired the controls and shut off the automatic pilot—and swerved, trying to dislodge their unwanted occupant. “Thing won’t budge!” Rip grunted, jerking the yoke, but unable to lose the mechanical parasite. “You’re gonna have to go out there, dude!”
Michael gulped and looked to Rip. “What?”
“Go on! You were born for this!” Rip guffawed, then reached up and jettisoned the canopy lid. Hard winds pummeled them and Sara screamed, strapping herself in, clinging to Rip’s tattooed arm as he drove. His long, braided hair whipped in the gusts, and he just howled in laughter.
Michael felt like he would vomit, but steeled himself. Ahead, the robot’s fingers punched holes in the hood as the thing pulled itself up slowly. Straining, the mechanical beast reached out with a clawed hand, relentless in its pursuit.
“Scribbler Morrison, Michael A,” the woman’s voice remained calm, even as the robot struggled to hold its grip. “Return to your designated station immediately. Failure to comply will result in your liquidation.”
“Michael!” Sara squealed.
Michael grit his teeth and wobbled to a stand in the cockpit, slammed by winds. “I’m done taking orders!” he roared, the ferocious gale stealing his words, but not his passion. Letting loose a roar, he dove forward onto the speeding car, grappling with the robot. The monitor used its free hand to swat at Michael, and he took a hard slap to the face, but he would not let go.
He rose up on the monster, yanking at it, trying to dislodge it, to save Sara. A wild, uncontrollable rage coiled in his gut, swelling to consume every nerve. It powered his fingers as he tightened his hold on the robot’s neck. Wires popped loose, sparks shot out, and Michael grimaced, snarling now. “Die!” he spat, cold inside. So wonderfully cold and numb to pain and fear and worry and doubt.
Rip was right. He was a killer. An animal, caged for far too long.
He savagely ripped the monitor’s head off and heaved it over the side of the car. Sparks spurted from the neck stump, and the robot’s body twitched, loosened its fingers, and slid off the hovercar like so much useless junk.
Michael held onto the car as it sped on, breathing heavy, but cooling. He faced Rip who offered him a hearty thumbs-up. “Always knew you had it in you, Mike!”
Michael sneered, feeling powerful—indomitable. Godlike.
Then he saw Sara watching him, apprehensive. His rakish grin softened and faded to a frown.
* * *
They rode in silence for the rest of the trip once Michael pulled himself back into the cockpit. At last they left behind the city, finally reaching a lush landscape of green, teeming with real, organic life.
Michael and Sara held hands as they soared over the mysterious forest, quietly savoring the sight. Michael only spotted a few homes out here, small cabins hewed from stone and straw, with pleasant smelling aromas wafting from their chimneys. At once he was struck with terror. Where would they live? How would they eat? Surely they’d have to eat animals. The monitors forbade meat, keeping their human drones on a strict vegetarian diet. Michael realized he would have to hunt, to kill. Learn to cook, to clean. Everything.
But he would, he was sure of it. With Sara at his side, he could face any obstacle. He’d scared her when he lost control against the monitor, but he wouldn’t lose control again. He would protect her, clothe her, feed her.
“You’re safe now,” he told her, patting her knuckles.
She warmed, snuggling close.
Rip announced, “I think this is far enough,” and settled the hovercar in a soft grassy field. Michael and Sara hopped out of the cockpit and knelt down on their hands and knees, feeling the grass. Sara laughed and tore a handful of it out, holding it under her nose. “Smell it!” she said. “It smells wonderful!”
Michael did and agreed. Next, he unstrapped his boots and dug his toes in the grass and soft dirt, finding it cool and refreshing. Rip, meanwhile, just leaned on the car, crossing his arms, a bemused smirk on his whiskered face.
With his merriment finished, Michael stood, dusting off his pants, sheepishly.
“Got that all out of our system, did we?” Rip asked with a mocking smirk.
Rip shrugged, then looked back to the horizon, shielding his eyes against the light as though he were searching for something. “No problem. Don’t worry—there’s plenty more to see.” He sighed. “Yep, there we go.”
Sara stood now, moving closer to Michael, interlocking her fingers with his. They held close, joining Rip in watching as the sheet of paper from yesterday came into view, rustling on the light breeze. At length, the paper touched down on the ground and stilled. Rip presented the paper to Michael with an accomplished bow. “Your chariot awaits.”
Michael snickered, then looked to Sara. “What?”
Rip rolled his eyes. “You think I busted you out of that joint just so you and Red, here, could go live in some cave out here in the boonies? Ha, you got bigger things ahead of you, Mike.”
Michael released Sara’s hand, inching closer to the paper, captivated by it; by the colors that danced on its surface: The rainbow from his dreams. In his heart, he heard the whispers, the call, urging him to step into the paper, to join the light and find his destiny. “What is it?” he whispered, tempted to run and dive right into the paper, if such a ridiculous notion were possible.
In a suddenly reverent tone, Rip said, “Just the door, Mike. To take you to all the worlds in the multiverse. See, this dimension of yours—as crappy as it is—is only one in a billion. You think the Wilds is impressive? Wait ‘til you visit the underside of the Mountain of Or! You just touch the cave walls, and they sing.”
Michael took a step back, holding Sara’s hand again. “B-But, I’m not ready. I can’t.”
Rip rubbed his eyes, and groaned. “I was afraid of this. Look, dude, this life ain’t for you. I told you that. My Boss has chosen you. We’ve got things to do, little brother. You think those robots were bad? That’s just the tip of the iceberg! The whole multiverse is nothing but order and rigidity, instituted by a God whose only desire is to bend you to his way of thinkin’.” Rip spread his hands wide, clenching them into fists. “You and me, we were made to rebel, brother. To tear down the rules—the walls keeping the worlds separated. Chaos, little brother! We gotta make some beautiful Chaos! Set the captives free!”
Michael frowned. In his soul, Rip’s words made perfect sense, as though he’d always been waiting for this day, secretly desiring someone to say these terrible things to him. But he feared their meaning and the reality of what he was being called to do.
He shook his head, feeling dizzy. “No, I can’t. I’m not… It’s too much. I want to stay here.” He held Sara closer. “With her. We’re just getting started. We’ve been dreaming of this our whole lives.”
Rip quieted, his eyes narrowing. Darkening. “Don’t do this, Mike,” he said, his voice like gravel. “You’ll regret it. See, my Boss? He don’t take too kindly to rejection. He’s got a lot invested in you. You felt it, dangling on that car up above the city, wrasslin’ with that robot. That’s Rage, little brother. It’s a gift; makes you strong. But it comes with obligations. You take off like a stray, he’s gonna tighten the leash. Make you heel. And it won’t be pretty.”
Michael swallowed hard, his throat dry. Shaking, he extended a hand for Rip to shake. “I-I appreciate everything you’ve done, but my answer’s ‘no’.”
Rip eyed the offered hand, then snarled, touching the tip of his tongue to a canine in concentration. He grumbled and reached behind his jeans, retrieving a crude, homemade knife with a lion’s head carved in the handle. “I didn’t wanna have to do this, Mike. You Morrisons were always my favorite.”
Michael’s eyes widened as Rip lunged with the blade. Cold hate bloomed in his stomach, injecting into every muscle, every nerve. Instantly, Michael danced out of the way of the knife, catching Rip’s blade hand and turning it up. Rip loosed an anguished grunt, and dropped the knife.
Michael glanced to Sara. “Get in! Quick!”
Sara nodded and scurried to the hovercar, climbing into the cockpit.
“We’ll find you!” Rip hollered. “We’ll find her!”
Rip twirled with his free hand, slugging Michael hard in the stomach. Michael doubled over in a cough as Rip groped through the tall grass, grabbing his knife. As soon as he retrieved it, Michael hurried and swung a leg, catching Rip in the side. The older man cried out and toppled over onto the soft earth.
Michael hurried to the car and got in. He powered the engines to life, the thrust motors pressing down on the grass as the hovercar lifted off the ground. Rip stood, out of breath, holding his side with a pained expression. “You can’t run from us!” he shouted over the roar of the wind, waving the blade at the air. “You can’t run from what you are!”
Michael grimaced at the man. “Watch me.”
They left Rip behind, ascending into the sky. Sara looked to Michael, small and fearful. “Where will we go now?”
He smiled at her. “Wherever we want.”
Copyright 2015 Greg Mitchell
Tune in on Monday, March 16 for the conclusion to the Hooded Man's tale!