Chapter 21:

Twenty One

Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable


 “I’m going to need you to step out of the car, Milena,” Erin requested. Bookmark here

“Why do you keep calling me that?” Maya begged. “Stop. Please.”Bookmark here

“Dear, it’s your real name.”Bookmark here

The sound of their conversation drowned amid merciless rumbling. A vehicular horde crashed against Milton like thunderous waves, threatening to submerge him under an ocean of flaring pistons and carbon plating. A motorcycle surfed along the sea of cars. It launched itself from one of the roofs and jammed its scalding spinning tires into Milton’s jaw.Bookmark here

The violent impact should have crushed any human face and cooked it beyond recognition. Instead, Milton snapped his neck forward with superhuman strength. The front tire buckled and burst, while the rest of the motor contorted and splintered into composite fragments. The bike tumbled backwards and crashed through the windshield of the closest car. A fountain of glass sprayed into the air.Bookmark here

“What is he?” Maya breathed, watching Milton wrestle against the half dozen cars pinning his body in place. The scorch marks from the busted motorcycle streaked from cheek to cheek and revealed another strip of silver alloy hiding behind incinerated synthetic skin.Bookmark here

“Do you really want to stay and find out?” Erin scoffed.Bookmark here

Milton flexed and shoved his elbows in both directions. The two cars rammed against his torso lurched back in protest. He next thrust his left knee into the van pinned to his abdomen. The van staggered backwards. The front bumper caved into the machine’s interior until it smashed against the radiator. Bookmark here

That gave Milton the free berth he needed to vault onto the legion of cars. He bounded from roof to roof, with each step leaving behind heavy dents. He launched himself from one of the cars closest to Erin, legs tucked and fists arched back. But before he even got within striking distance of her, a rusty school bus crashed into him midair.Bookmark here

The impact spun him out of his trajectory. He barreled into the asphalt and tumbled along the bridge pavement like rocks skipping on a pond. Ripples in the form of cavernous potholes cracked open the road. The school bus pressed the attack, jolting over the man-sized crevasses Milton left behind. As he tried to sit up, the bus pounded Milton’s head into the passenger door of another car. The bus retreated, if only for a moment, then revved forward and smashed his face in again.Bookmark here

On the third collision, the bus faltered and stopped.Bookmark here

“Stubborn machine,” Erin swore. She breathed a deep sigh. “Milena. You either trust me or you don’t. If you trust me, get out of the car right now.”Bookmark here

“But I don’t trust you,” Maya glared. “Why haven’t you pulled me out yourself?”Bookmark here

“Let’s just say I’m forbidden from doing so,” Erin grimaced. “And what, you think I’m going to run you over like your ‘manager,’ over there?”Bookmark here

“A lot of people seem to want me dead tonight.”Bookmark here

“I won’t...I can’t force you to do anything,” Erin admitted. “I really can’t. So if you would like to leave with that thing, I’ll be forced to deal with it and then leave you alone on this bridge. But if I fail. If it survives and escapes with you, the you that’s sitting here right now will be dead by morning.”Bookmark here

The school bus wobbled, feckless groaning from its sputtering engines. With a wild scream, Milton clutched the bus by its honeycomb grille and tore open the front compartment. Carbon sheets and composite metals burst from the wound. Oil poured from fractured valves. The fractured hood snapped off while the engine and radiator ruptured and died in a cloud of sparks and steam.Bookmark here

“What’s it going to be?” Erin hummed. “You going to drive away with Mr. Road Rage?”Bookmark here

Maya hated these decisions, the cruel calculus of who to trust in a world with no one to believe in. Mysterious strangers, masked home invaders, and now a beautiful but enigmatic woman awaited her on one end. On the other, stood the manager who had overseen her entire career, who demanded absolute loyalty from his disposable asset, who had shielded her from those masked men, who now appeared in this monstrous and terrifying form. Was there a middle road, she thought? No, there was nowhere to run.Bookmark here

Was Milton just trying to protect her? No, Maya decided. What was all that earlier about wiping her memory? Maya tried to recall what that meant, but nothing came save for echoes, residues of memory. Her body floated in a tank, murky silhouettes speaking in scientific nomenclature. They said something about starting over. Bookmark here

These were memories Maya could trust. They inspired raw horror and alarm at the world across the bridge, the world Milton was bound for. It was a terror so pronounced that Maya’s memories had perforated the edges of her mind and seeped into the very contours of her being. She would remember these ephemeral flashes from some lost part of her life, perhaps forever. Maya looked back at Erin, chose to believe in the tenderness in her eyes, and pressed her hand on the passenger door. A taxi rolled up to greet her with its doors ajar.Bookmark here

Meanwhile, Milton broke free from another pack of interlocking cars and turned back on the offensive. Most of his business outfit had been torn clean off. His weapons lied scattered around. Whether it was his cheeks, elbow, or torso, the silver alloy shimmering beneath his skin showed visible dents and burns.Bookmark here

But these hollow wounds accomplished little to slow Milton down. With a ferocious kick, he punted one of the sedans off the bridge. With his arms, he hefted another nearby car and batted away a trio of motorcycles converging on him. Bookmark here

He swung and released the bruised and battered vehicle into more incoming traffic. The approaching cars staggered backwards, tires screeched as other inbound vehicles swerved to avoid a pile up. In that moment, Milton spotted a brief gap between him and Erin, still standing next to his car.Bookmark here

Milton snarled and bolted forward, shoving aside any remaining vehicle that tried to get in his way. Erin, on the other hand, appeared unconcerned. She gazed at Milton with such an unsettling casual apathy that it unnerved him.Bookmark here

She knows she’s about to get pulverized right, he wondered. He decided to call whatever kind of suicidal bluff this was, hurdling to cover the remaining distance between them. With his right arm clenched and wound up, he hurled the full force of his right fist towards her.Bookmark here

Then, Erin disappeared. Milton didn’t know if she had sidestepped his attack with unprecedented speed, but his fist instead collided with the van that had been idling behind her. The integrity of the van collapsed from the impact. Tires burst from their sockets. Windows shattered into thousands of sharp glass shards. The van flew backwards, crashed through the protective guard rails, and plummeted into the icy lake with the rails still wrapped around it.Bookmark here

Erin stood at an impossible distance from Milton, several dozen yards from where he was standing. She was once again surrounded by her fleet of cars. She cast him a near imperceptible grin, a grin that she knew he alone could detect.Bookmark here

That’s when he noticed he could no longer sense Maya’s heat signature in his car. Bookmark here

“Where is she!” Milton bellowed at Erin’s indifferent expression. He rushed to his car window to ensure his sensors hadn’t made a mistake. He frantically scanned the ocean of vehicles around the vicinity of the bridge.Bookmark here

How many cars were fleeing the scene? Too many of them to chase down individually. She must be hiding her with dummy cars. Which car harbored a human heat signature? Nothing showed on the scanners. His white knuckles clenched the frame of the door, contorting the hinges. An annoying hum somewhere in the distance broke his concentration. Milton dialed back his long range auditory sensitivity to squelch the distraction.Bookmark here

“Safe from you,” Erin leered with satisfaction. The distant irritating hum elevated to a moderate roar. “She’s under Cloud’s protection now. Over time we’ll figure out how to deprogram the damage you’ve done to her. Maybe she’ll even one day live a normal life, but rest assured. You will never see her again.”Bookmark here

“You think your old rusty cars are going to stop me?” Milton shrieked. That’s when he realized. The burgeoning rumble. It was coming from above him. Erin began to laugh.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry, but I have to correct you,” Erin giggled with maniacal delight. She clapped her hands and recited, as if delivering an infomercial. “This is Erin's automated taxi service. We have a wide variety of vehicles to suit our customers’ needs. Sedans, bikes, buses, vans, even air taxis for your long distance adventures!”Bookmark here

Erin’s jubilant façade faded. The roaring crescendoed to a metallic scream. The sharp nose of the private jet pierced Milton’s body before he could understand that a plane had dropped in under the cover of darkness. The wings of the plane cracked and shredded off when they struck the stone arches above the bridge. Bits of rubble and debris rained on the asphalt. Bookmark here

At speeds that broke the sound barrier, the fuselage scraped through asphalt until it met concrete. At that point, the chassis crumpled against the surface like a crushed soda can. Shattered glass and metal fragments spewed from the crash site. Tight rivets that held the fuselage together cracked apart. Finally, the engines burst and unleashed a firestorm of ignited kerosene, consuming the crushed aluminum body in a hellish inferno.Bookmark here

Erin watched all of this unfold, heard the roar of crackling flames, the screeching and groaning of twisted metal. The rest of her fleet retreated from the fiery carcass. Their headlights dimmed and disappeared into the dark. When all but Erin herself remained, she muttered words only two defeated individuals on the bridge could hear, and then vanished into thin air.Bookmark here

⁂⁂⁂ Bookmark here

The night has gone horribly wrong, Miles thought as he fled through unfamiliar alleys and backstreets.Bookmark here

It all started when that monster tore apart his squad. She shrugged off the initial hail of bullets like droplets of rain. Before his squad could even finish reloading their second magazines, she eviscerated them with blades formed by the same adaptive nanites that shielded her from lead projectiles. The few who survived her onslaught broke ranks and fled. She was hunting them as Miles escaped.Bookmark here

In desperation, Miles dialed number after number until he finally found a StateSec superior who gave him clearance to deploy more agents to suppress this menace. However, when his reinforcements arrived on scene, the sound of ringing phones echoed throughout the streets. He heard it in the apartments above his newly assigned agents, behind the cash registers of twenty-four-seven convenience stores, and finally in the middle of the stampeding crowds ransacking the city.Bookmark here

Damn her, Miles cursed. The size and scale of the Clouds network. That she had infiltrated StateSec was unfathomable. How did she do it? What resources did she possess? Why were they all listening? And to think the agent I assigned to spy on her would turn out to be a traitor herself!Bookmark here

His own phone rang with the command issued by Clouds. It was a covert effort years in the making to infiltrate the online vigilante group. Milton burned with shame at his pathetic attempts to dismantle it from the inside. In the vast ocean of calls, as one by one citizens rose to Helena’s clarion call, Miles’s insubordination transformed into harrowing isolation.Bookmark here

When the unified ringing halted, a large bulk of the rioting crowds dispersed, as if magisterial hands guided them off the stage like puppets in a stage play. Most who remained banded together and turned on the agitators who insisted on continued burning and looting. Outnumbered and uncoordinated, the remaining rioters soon dropped their weapons and conceded.Bookmark here

Miles possessed no qualms mowing down however many members of Clouds decided to stay on the streets, even those identified with Edge tokens. His higher ups retained the authority to instate and enforce a curfew, by brutal force if necessary. In fact, he ordered the purging to begin. But before a single shot could be fired, his remaining agents laid down their arms and surrendered.Bookmark here

StateSec agents weren’t the only ones hefting weapons. From apartment windows and balconies, his agents found themselves flanked by high school and university students armed with composite bows and old couples wielding hunting rifles. Bartenders emerged from their dive bars armed with double barrel shotguns and antiquated revolvers.Bookmark here

Well armed Clouds paramilitary members hidden in disparate crowds converged on the StateSec wolves among the chaos. Milton knew it was over when dotted crimson lasers tagged the rest of his agents. The way Clouds covered themselves in shadow and pounced when his agents were most distracted, it mirrored the textbook techniques taught in StateSec’s training regimen.Bookmark here

Miles cursed again. Ivanova’s doing, no doubt, training a bunch of amateurs.Bookmark here

As his agents laid down their arms, a legion of automated vehicles flooded into the city streets. One by one, Miles watched helplessly from the cover of a nearby dumpster as his agents were cuffed and led into the backseats of driverless sedans and vans. The injured were loaded and carried onto the larger buses. Miles’s only chance now was to survive the night unnoticed.Bookmark here

None of it was supposed to happen this way. Where was the starlit sky, the galactic vessels bearing down on the city? Judgment was to be cast on the mechanical impure by the descendants of Mr. Stearn. Bookmark here

Where, Miles agonized. Where are the disciples of Mr. Stearn? Shouldn’t they be here, drawn to the Edge’s distress beacon? Don’t his scriptures lambast the scientific advancements of the inhumane? Or did the Old Ones not exist. Were Miles’s prayers and hopes destined to be met with inexplicable and inescapable silence?Bookmark here

“Men’s curiosity searches past and future,” Miles closed his eyes and recited from the original archives. “And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint. Saint Stearn...”Bookmark here

When he opened his eyes, two silhouettes stood waiting at the end of the alley. One was the shadow of the blue haired traitor, her amber goggles glinting under an old street light. The other was a rather large feline, who stared at Miles with wide threatening emerald eyes.Bookmark here

“End of the line, Miles,” the traitor dared to speak to him.Bookmark here

“Third time’s a charm,” Miles muttered. Once more he brandished his sidearm. Once more he trained it on a forehead with murderous intent. And once more, he pulled the trigger.Bookmark here

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