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An excerpt from The Distributor

A silver tower rises above a wall, a beacon to the young man venturing towards it through cliffs and sand.
Chapter One: The Outpost. A young man in ragged clothes sits in a run-down tent, fiddling with wires as he tries to make his new invention work.

Chapter One
The Outpost


Thirty kilometers today. Rocky terrain slowed me

down, but if my projections are correct, my supplies

should last until Madison City. It was after sunset

when my resolve wavered. I’m ashamed to write it,

but I looked back. Once.
— Claude’s Journal - 085.09.04

Holding my breath, I soldered the last aluminum radial onto my new antenna. An electric pop and the stink of burnt rubber issued from the mess of wires covering my lean-to tent’s sand floor, but the antenna held. I withdrew my trembling fingers from the web of bright metal that I’d spent a week of work, all my remaining water chits, and countless hours of sleep deprivation to build.

Please. Please let this work.

I flipped open my leather computer bag’s flap to let in more air and started redirecting power from my backup ground radar to my shiny new antenna. Energy sizzled up the aluminum mast, and for a moment the smell of ozone overpowered the stench of dried urine oozing in from the slums outside. On reflex, I grinned and glanced around for someone to share my victory with, but nope—still all alone in my ratty lean-to.

Clearing my throat, I tugged my green and black display out of my bag and checked it for new water sources, wells, or anything.

A few blips appeared on my monitor’s map, marking the local cisterns and the landowner’s well on the hill—water sites my old scanner had already identified. My heart pounded. The supplies I’d
wasted building this antenna, the hours, they couldn’t be for nothing. 
Not now.

A few faded dots appeared near the west edge of town, but those were just static outliers from the Distributor’s jamming signal. The interference those pigs vomited over the Barrens obscured half my map.

I shook the monitor. “Sands and stones, come on!”

Another headache hit. I reeled, trying to collect my thoughts. How long had it been since I’d had water? A day? Two? Before that I’d been rationing. My throat ached like I’d swallowed a fistful of sand. When the tent finally stopped spinning, my scan still showed nothing.

To hell with it.

I cranked my signal amplifier to maximum power. My computer’s hum intensified to a squealing whine, and the stink of hot electronics flooded the lean-to.

I huddled over my display, cradling it. “Give me something. Please just—”

Smoke. A hint of it. I jerked upright. No. Not smoke, burning solder. Oh sands, no, no, no!

I lunged for the amplifier and turned it off a breath too late. My gorgeous new antenna drooped, wobbled treacherously, and began to melt.

Cursing, I grabbed for it on reflex. Big mistake.

Hot agony lanced up my arm. I howled and reeled back, my head rocketing into my lean-to’s torn canvas roof. My antenna swayed once and collapsed into a melted heap.

The bubbling remains of my masterpiece cooked the sandy floor into glass, and the acrid smell of my own burnt hair joined the reek of smoke. So much for finding water.

I contemplated my own stupidity at hitting my solder’s melting point and slumped beside my computer as it automatically switched to its backups: an old antenna—little more than a coil of wires—and my salvaged, ground-penetrating radar unit. Just to spite me, my display cheerfully reported the known wells within its much smaller scan radius. I glowered at it for a minute before I noticed that something was very, very different.

The Distributor’s jamming signal had vanished. Ranks of hidden outposts, weapons caches, and vaporizer banks glowed brightly in the area of the map where the gray jamming haze had lain. Over the years, the Distributor had branched out from their headquarters—a walled city in the far west. That jamming signal hid an infrastructure that gave them absolute control over the water supply and, hell, nearly everything else out here in the Barrens.

Now, something had exposed their network. This was wealth. This was Distributor secrets laid bare. This was . . . not possible. I verified the scan’s integrity. Then, I verified it again, but everything checked out. Sands, I’d struck gold.

I crouched over my computer, isolating the highest value sites. Halfway through saving all the scan logs, a thought struck me. Did something do this or was it someone? Dad had the technical knowhow to trigger an outage of this scale in his sleep. Could he be punishing the Distributor for stealing his tech? It’d be his style to pull something huge like this. Maybe I was closer than I’d thought.

I shook my head. I couldn’t do this now. I had money to make. I stood, stuffed the still-smoking wires back into my computer bag and looped its strap over my shoulder. Hardly anyone in this part of the Eastern Barrens knew a damn thing about computers or any other tech left over from the Last America. I was probably the only person who’d seen the signal drop for thousands of kilometers, and that made me valuable.

A broken Distributor transport caravan or an abandoned cache would tempt the most careful of the crew bosses, and I’d just uncovered fully stocked outposts. I needed to find a boss with enough guts and water chits to pay me for my discovery.

I threw back my lean-to’s tarp door and hurried outside.

After traveling halfway across the Barrens and back, all the crappy little slums in the crappy little settlements started to look the same. From a distance, they were a brown scar of refuse and encampments staining the endless sea of pale dunes, and up close, they were worse.

I squeezed my arm over my mouth, to hold off the stink of dried shit, and hurried through the winding footpaths between the slum’s faded tents. Most of the desiccated souls living here looked more like sunbaked corpses than people. Their heads were always bent, as if counting every grain of sand passing beneath their blistered feet.

Sure, I might look as worn and exhausted as them with my faded jacket hanging off my bony shoulders like it had been thrown over a scarecrow. And yes, if I smiled, the outline of my skull stood out beneath the remains of my sharp features, but I was still different from all of them. I refused to stare at my feet. I looked up. I looked up at the bastards that turned a profit from the endless drought, those twisted souls that made a fortune from the suffering in the slums.

The landowners’ cabins and fields dotted the hills a few kilometers away. I always wondered if they kept their small fields and bony livestock in view of the slums just to taunt us with the Distributor’s gifts. My fists tightened as I marched through the tents toward the circle of old buses in the center of the slums. I’d sell my information to buy gear and a few more months of life here in the Barrens, and that could give me time to chase this new lead on Dad. He had to be behind this somehow.

I just needed a crew boss willing to pay for my discovery. My hands shook as I sidled up to a long bus that had once been painted yellow. I hoped this gamble wouldn’t kill me. Crew bosses could be . . . temperamental.

I hoped Ivanovna wasn’t feeling grouchy today. I’d worked with her when I’d arrived in town a year ago, but she hadn’t contacted me for more work after those first jobs. Since then, she’d risen to become the biggest boss in the slums. 

I took a breath and knocked on the rusted bus’s back bumper.

The rear door snapped open and a pair of beefy enforcers, wearing armor hewn from leftover cars, looked down at me. I half bowed and lifted up my leather computer bag. “I’ve got something your
boss will want to see.”

They folded their arms and said nothing.

Taking the hint, I took a tentative step back. Another boss might hear me out.

A sharp female voice echoed out from inside the car. “If you’re wasting my time with another foolish invention, you will not survive the visit.”

“No . . . I wouldn’t . . . um . . . you’d kill me?” Man, I was a real charmer.

Her enforcers smirked and hoisted me inside. Even coming from the dim afternoon light, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the near darkness of Ivanovna’s bus. She’d covered the windows with hunks of plastic to presumably keep out prying eyes, and a heavy cloth stifled the light attempting to stream in through the entrance.


Ivanovna bent over an old wooden door laid sideways to form a table. Heaps of hand-drawn maps splayed out before her.

Her broad shoulders filled out the heavy cotton clothing that she wore like armor. Tension pulled her angular jaw tight, and she seemed a twitch away from drawing the ancient but well-maintained pistol on her hip. Her sharp eyes flicked up to meet mine.

I flinched and blurted out, “I . . . I’ve found something.”

She pointed to the center of her desk. “Proof.”

“Of course.” I tugged the monitor out of my computer bag and laid it in front of her, pointing to the coordinates of the hidden outposts and caches.

She studied the screen silently before she walked to the far wall where more maps hung and brought one over to her desk. Using a pencil, she marked the spot on the map where my data suggested the best stocked outpost would be. She gave me an incredulous look.

The mark sat in the middle of a random patch of dunes among kilometers and kilometers of emptiness. My stomach fluttered. “I know it seems a bit . . . far-fetched, but the data I found is accur—”

She barked out a cold laugh. “Liar.”

“It’s what I found.”

“You said the same thing when you sold me a ‘working’ artillery mortar you found in the scrap pile.”

“I . . . it worked. You just didn’t have ammunition for it.”

“Who has ammunition for a mortar, Friedrich?”

“I . . . well, um yes. But please, Iva, this is a rare opportunity.”

She folded her arms and frowned at me. “What makes you say this outpost has the most resources?”

I took a slow breath. “Not resources exactly, but value. There are other places with more food and water, but that’s the only military installment I found. There’ll be guns there. Distributor-issued assault rifles.” I didn’t mention that they’d also have a huge computer terminal that I could use to intercept thousands of Distributor messages, a computer terminal I could visit days later, after Ivanovna’s team did all the dirty work of getting rid of the guards. The Distributor had to be involved with Dad’s disappearance, and there might be records of what happened.

“The jamming signal going down like this. It doesn’t happen, Friedrich.” She scowled at me and took a step forward. “You wouldn’t lead me into a trap, would you?”

My voice squeaked out closer to a falsetto than I preferred. “Me? What would I gain . . .”

She raised her eyebrows.

Sands and stones, I hated these negotiations. I ached to be back in my lean-to working on my electromagnetic pulse device or another idea I’d had for a radio interceptor or well, anything.

An enforcer laid a hand on my shoulder. A whimper escaped my lips, but Ivanovna shook her head. “I’ll do this job, but Friedrich will come with us as our greaser.”

“I’m honored.” I gave as good of a bow I could manage beneath the enforcer’s grip. “But ten water chits are more than enough—”

“You’re coming.”

“You already have a greaser.”

“True, but if this is a trap, it will explode in your face first.” She sighed and waved a conciliatory hand at me. “Besides, you are the better greaser, and Distributor doors don’t open for anyone, you understand.”

I didn’t know whether to be proud or terrified. I hadn’t been on a raid for months, and I’d wanted to keep it that way. I’d much prefer picking over the cache days after the fighting was done. “I don’t think I’d be much use . . . I mean, what if another team gets there first or worse, the Distributor shows up. I’m an engineer. I can’t fight.”

“Then you’ll die learning.” She pointed at the enforcers standing beside the door. “Round up the grunts and the rest of the team. We leave at midnight.”

I’d made it halfway across the bus before Ivanovna’s voice echoed behind me. “No! You stay.”

I froze and walked back to Ivanovna’s desk. She pointed to a small chair in the corner of the room. I sat down with my head bowed and watched the evening light streaming through the bus’s door dim.

After a while, someone outside played music, and a crisp breeze carried the rough notes out into the dunes. There was laughter as the morning laborers came back from their work at the landowner’s estates and settled down for dinner. I remembered laughter.

I’d had an OK life for a while. Dad and I used to work on his engineering projects in a corner of our encampment while Mom and Collette read a few books they’d salvaged from the dump. That
was before Dad disappeared.

He’d left to save the Barrens by spreading the news of his technology— a device that could extract water from the air. He never came back, and we got so thirsty that Mom and Collette sold the only thing they could in town. Things stabilized for a few months, then some bastard landowners convinced them that working the oil pits in the Black City was better than the work they were doing every night.

I’d begged them not to go; they were all I had. I told them that the Black City paid landowners to trick people into working the pits. They didn’t even deny it. They just said the Black City would give them shelter and as much food and water as they could want while they worked. How bad could that be?

Mom left first, then Collette. I hadn’t needed to hack into a Black City terminal to find out what had happened to them. The moment they began their pilgrimage, I’d known where it would end. They left to die with dignity and some comfort. Why should I be surprised that they got their wish?

Ivanovna stormed off to rally her troops from the slums, leaving me alone with a skeleton guard. Night set in, the crisp air grew cold, and the laughter stopped outside. I bent my head in the drafty bus and waited, trying to stop remembering.

Ivanovna and her enforcers pulled me outside just before midnight. A couple of sand sleds manned by her grunts waited at the edge of the slums. The “sleds” were only strips of sheet metal with grips attached, but the grunts crouched dutifully in front of them, ready to drag their leaders across kilometers and kilometers of dunes.

The grunts weren’t much younger than me, but they were doing the worst kind of work for a crew boss. I couldn’t blame them. They had a hell of a choice: to die slowly of thirst in the slums or find a crew and potentially die fast on a mission. It was a bit too close to the choice the Black City gave its pilgrims for my liking, but on the crews, they at least had each other.

A few of them nervously joked while I stood alone next to one of the sleds. After all these years, I’d hoped I’d be used to being the lone engineer.

I watched them laugh together. I’d made the right choice, hadn’t I? Grunts became enforcers in time, and enforcers could start families. But engineers? What had I accomplished besides refusing to trade my life for water, community, and a future? Not much.

No! I wouldn’t start pining for a comfortable place to rot. That was all my home had ever been. I needed to focus on finding Dad now. Who knew, Dad and I might figure out some kind of life, but a home . . . well, that idea had died before Mom and Collette left for the oil pits.

The grunts’ conversation stopped, and they started prepping the sleds. Ivanovna and her enforcers climbed aboard, and the grunts started pulling them up the nearest dune. I marched behind them. I could work with Ivanovna, but I didn’t have to join her in using slummers as transportation. That’s how the Distributor and the landowners stayed in power. They kept us so busy enslaving one another that we never thought about who the real masters were.


After a five-hour trek through dust and darkness, we reached a dune across from the bunker’s coordinates. There was no sign of the Distributor’s outpost.

I spent a few desperate minutes searching before I finally saw a softly glowing pin pad embedded in a nearby dune. Sand had mostly buried the bunker, but I could just discern its domed structure giving the dune a steeper slope than normal.

We waited for a half hour, ensuring no one would surprise us after we went in. It was practical, but intolerable.

Finally, Ivanovna punched my arm, and we scrambled to the entrance. Ivanovna pushed me toward the glowing red pin pad. “Do your work, greaser.”

Half her enforcers surrounded me while the others watched the grunts. She probably trusted them as little as me. Trying not to look at the moonlight reflecting off the enforcers’ polished gun barrels, I faced the pin pad.

I plugged my COM cables into the pad’s backup inputs and fired a series of number combinations into the door. When I checked the glowing process bar on my monitor, it had hardly moved. Not good. Frowning, I yanked the keyboard from my computer bag and typed a few hurried commands to speed things along. Behind me, Ivanovna frowned and prowled forward. “Don’t tell me I’ve brought my whole crew here for a greaser who can’t open doors.” 

I forced steadiness into my voice. “Oh… yes… well, there seems to be something blocking me here. The security is . . .” I typed more commands, looking for a firmware exploit. “It’s better than I’ve ever seen.”

Ivanovna leaned closed to me and whispered in my ear, “This door opens, greaser, or I dust you.”

I figured that some clever banter might help diffuse the situation, so I replied, “Please . . . ack.”


Scowling, she pointed toward the pin pad and stepped away. I resumed the hack with shaking hands. The whole crew watched me, but Ivanovna scanned the horizon, worry in her eyes.

It was a stronger firewall than I’d ever seen. What the hell was in this outpost anyway? The Distributor wasn’t this obsessed about protecting their weapons. I was halfway through sending another batch of combinations against the pin-pad’s processor when the circuit boards in my computer bag popped loudly. I looked down. The wires next to my thigh smoked.

A spark caught my pants and a flame guttered to life. I was on fire.

I screeched and flopped in the sand to smother the flame. Then, I ripped my COM wires free of the pin pad. Immediately the sparks flying from my computer bag died down.

Sands and stones, the system had power spiked me.

Behind me, the enforcers and even the grunts smirked. Ivanovna folded her heavily wrapped arms across her chest. I supposed my shout hadn’t sounded as masculine as I’d intended.

I spun back to the pin pad, desperate to crack it before Ivanovna decided that I was unfit for the job. The system must be sending an amperage spike down their COM plugs every few minutes, so I needed to speed up my decryption cycle or try something different . . . something new. I typed like a fiend.

To hell with just cracking the pin-pad’s code. I was the best engineer in the Barrens. I’d bypass the pin pad all together and crack the system powering it: the door controls.

I pulled the little device’s code base, and halfway through typing another command, I noticed a green line of code flick across my monitor as the download progressed.

Def door_monitor(boolean open)

That was it. I hammered that command into the door’s terminal, talking in a tumble of words. “Ivanovna, get ready. Quick. I only have a second.”

Ivanovna made hand signals, and the enforcers shoved the grunts up to the outpost’s entrance. The grunts looked terrified. They were just kids, clutching hunks of sharpened plastic or metal
in their hands, but they dutifully huddled shoulder to shoulder.

I typed out a few final methods to emulate the door open command and slammed my thumb into the keyboard. It was an ingenious work-around. I grinned and waved my hand with a flourish.

Ivanovna seized my shoulder and shoved me backward. I yelped and hit the sand hard. “Wha—”

Gunfire roared from inside the bunker as a line of guards in crisp Distributor uniforms opened up with automatics.

Bullets dropped the three grunts closest to the door. They’d stood where I’d been working.

Another grunt in the second row took a slug to her forehead. The grunts behind them, the higher ranked ones, hefted their companions’ still moving bodies and held them up as shields. Maybe they weren’t such a great little family after all. One of the grunts in the front who’d survived the first shot squealed as more bullets thumped into his torso.

I wanted to vomit.

One of the back-row grunts, a bone-thin survivor, ducked beneath a body he was propping up and buried his hunk of sharpened plastic into a guard’s neck. Blood sprayed across the small line of defenders, breaking their ranks. More grunts lunged forward with hand-carved blades.

I looked away.

There were only five Distributor guards stationed at the bunker, and before long the grunts had overwhelmed their superior weaponry with sheer numbers and rage. When the sounds finally died down, I found Ivanovna looming over me.

“I am surprised. A Barrens boy like you shouldn’t be squeamish.”

I glared at her.

“I do what’s necessary to survive.” She studied me, folding her wrapped arms. “Is there a problem?”

I shook my head and tapped my knuckle on the bunker’s wall. “You are what they made you into.”

“So, I’m a Distributor puppet to you? Another landowner?”

I shrugged and stood, trying not to make eye contact as I made for the bunker’s entrance.

“Who taught you to be a greaser?” Ivanovna gave me a sidelong look as she leaned against the bunker’s curved walls.

“I’m an engineer, not a greaser.”

“But who taught you?”

“My dad.”

She nodded slowly as if thinking something over. “That door was no joke. My team could use a greaser or an engineer or whatever it is you call yourself.”

The words were out of my mouth before I could filter them to sound at least partially logical. “I’ve got to keep looking . . .”

She raised her eyebrows and let out a slow sigh. “People die, Friedrich. No need to join them. We could use you. We would make things easier for you.”

My face heated up ten degrees. She might have taken it as an insult, but I couldn’t help it. I dusted myself off and marched through the squat door into the bunker without another word.

The interior was bigger than I thought. Bare concrete walls rose into a dome far above my head, and mountains of supply boxes lined the walls each stamped with the mark of the Distributor: a shining tower over a circular city.

In the Distributor’s typical efficiency, five beds and a washroom sat in a compact corner of the space. Faded pictures of families covered the walls near the bunks and sink, and some of the smiling faces in the photos matched the five corpses of Distributor guards bleeding on the floor. Something twisted in my stomach, the Distributor’s world had taken my father, and now it robbed some of its own families of their fathers. My fists tightened. I’d end this . . . somehow.

Blood from the dead guards and the dead grunts mixed in a pool on the concrete floor. One of the enforcers ran the sharp edge of a knife through the widening pool of blood, probing for something. I nearly threw up again, but I forced myself to take slow breaths. I couldn’t waste the water.

I paced around the room, looking for any computer terminal that might contain Distributor information or communications. I was foolish to hope, but when my dad left, he’d been planning on selling some tech that worked very similarly to the vaporizers that the Distributor started using to collect water across the desert. Couldn’t be a coincidence.

A commotion rose among the enforcers. The blade caught on some seam in the concrete floor.

More enforcers shoved the grunts outside while others started wiping blood off the floor. As they worked, a few lines appeared along the smooth treated concrete: a trap door.

The crew produced crowbars at lightning speed and within a few moments, a square hole had been opened in the floor. Blood dripped over the edges into the darkness below. Ivanovna looked at me and smiled. “If this is a trap. You will be the one to find out.”

“But I . . .”

She let her hand fall to the pistol on her hip, and I got the message. Maybe I should have been a bit more polite when she’d asked me to join her team. Trying to ignore the stench of death and the blood pattering around me, I ducked into the trap door.

My foot found the rungs of a steel ladder. The air cooled as I descended, and in a few moments, my heels struck cement.

I drew a small light out of my bag, wired it to one of my batteries, and looked around. Polished barrels and rifle stocks glittered around me. More boxes, hundreds more, expanded out of sight. I called up to Ivanovna, “Found your guns.”

A whoop rose from the enforcers above me.

With the squeak of skin on metal, Ivanovna slid down the ladder and landed beside me. She yanked a rifle from the row and inspected its action. With a brisk nod she motioned for the enforcers to join her.

Her men flowed around me, ripping through boxes and hauling out water packets, food stuffs, and ammunition. They formed lines, bringing the spoils back to the sleds. But something else held my
attention: a computer terminal.

Three monitors sprouted out of the machine’s smooth steel casing at eye level, and behind them hummed a floor-to-ceiling server stack. This wasn’t a basic Distributor terminal. This was art.

I pressed my hand against its warm fan outlets, feeling the machine’s power.

Ignoring the crew’s commotion behind me, I plugged my tiny computer bag into the terminal and searched for a way to crack the login. Was someone calling my name? Ivanovna maybe? Didn’t
matter. I’d never seen a machine like this.

My fingers twitched across my keyboard as I ran a decryption method. If I could unlock the device, all of its secrets would be laid bare. It was a little trickier than the entrance, but I had a whole lot more time.

After a few minutes of work, the monitors came to life. A web of network connections flashed across the screens as the machine started, and for a brief moment, I glimpsed the breadth of the Distributor’s power. Hundreds of Distributor computing nodes spanned the Barrens and beyond, thousands of vaporizers’ onboard computers pinged their hosts as they sucked water from the air, and all that flood of information rushed back to a hub, a massive core data bank that drank it all in. Stunned, I typed a command to start stealing as much data as I could when all the screens except the middle went black.

Tiny lines of text appeared on the center monitor:


—Admin: So, there are some engineers
of caliber in the Barrens after
all. Excellent. Now, listen well.
—Admin: My team has been slaughtered,
and they suspect I’m hiding
here. They know I’m trying to stop

My mouth fell open, and I read the messages twice more to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. Hands shaking, I typed back.

—Port1217: Stop who?
—Admin: Good. You are there.

—Port1217: Stop who?
—Admin: These Distributor rats,
obviously, so help me and plug your
largest hard drive into your terminal’s
master port.
—Port1217: Who are you? Why—
—Admin: No time. Do it.
—Port1217: Done.
—Admin: Good, I’m starting the upload.
—Port1217: But what are you sending?
—Admin: The Distributor’s entire
code base. Give those bastards hell
for me.
—Admin: Something is wrong here.
They’re planning something, and
it’s no dinner party. Find out what it

My drive buzzed at a breakneck speed, and the corner of the screen showed terabytes of data flooding into it. The terminal’s fans squealed trying to keep up with the flood of information.

—Admin: I’ve got to keep moving and
get the code base to others.
—Port1217: Others?
—Admin: I didn’t go through the
trouble of wrecking the Distributor’s
jamming signal to only send
this payload to one person.
—Port1217: But the Distributor,
they’ll come for me.
—Admin: Obviously.
—Admin: Do not leave until the
download completes.
—Admin: Luck.


I hesitated before replying, a hopeful thought flashed into my mind. I felt stupid for even imagining it, but I was desperate. My fingers fidgeted over the keyboard for a few seconds, heart pounding. Then, I wrote what I’d been afraid to hope for years.

—Port1217: Dad?

My gut twisted as the chat display vanished from the monitor, and a progress bar took its place. The download was only 5 percent done.

“Friedrich!” Ivanovna shouted, her voice still sounding distant. “What’s wrong with you! Come now!”

“What?” I finally turned. Ivanovna frowned down at me from the trap door’s opening in the ceiling. All her grunts and enforcers had gone. She waved at me to come. “Distributor troops. Our scouts spotted them a few kilometers away. They’re coming fast.”

“I . . . I can’t.”

Ivanovna glanced at the computer terminal, its blinking status lights casting a flickering, lurid glow across the dark basement. She lowered her voice and for a moment, I thought I heard something close to compassion in her gravelly tone. “Just let go, Friedrich. This is a fool’s way to die.”

I shook my head and turned back to the computer.

She muttered a curse, tossed me a bag of water chits—my pay, and disappeared.

I pocketed the money, sat in the basement’s silent darkness, and waited on the download.

Within minutes, the rumble of engines and voices broke the desert’s stillness. Leaving the download to process its final packets, I crept to the trapdoor and peeked into the domed room. No one had come in yet, but shadows moved along the walls. I heard a voice with a southern drawl call over the chaos, “Kill on sight, boys.”

Suppressing a whimper, I seized the hinged slab of concrete that covered the trapdoor and slammed it shut over my head. There had to be another way out. Distributor architects were too careful not to have some redundancy in an outpost like this.

The basement went dark, save for the faint glow from the computer terminal. By the time I rushed back to it, the download was complete.

I yanked my hard drive free and stuffed it back into my computer bag. Footsteps thudded on the roof above me, and I hurried through the dark maze of boxes away from the trap door. I used my
small LED to light a path.

I hadn’t gone ten steps when I heard metal scraping against the trapdoor. Cursing, I disconnected my light’s battery, plunging myself into darkness.

I kept one hand in front of me as I crept through the black. This underground bunker seemed much larger than the living space above, but I pressed on, searching for an outer wall. There had to be another way out.

Light flashed behind me. The trapdoor opened.

I ducked behind a stack of wooden boxes. When I saw what was inside, I seized some water packs and foodstuffs. Without the sleds to carry me out, I’d need some supplies for the journey. In a half
crouch, I kept walking.

A bent shadow blocked the light from the trapdoor, and a feeling of dread erupted in the pit of my stomach. Something was wrong with that shape, but something felt strangely familiar about it. A voice in the back of my mind whispered that I should call out. My instincts screamed that I was now being hunted by something far worse than a rifle-bearing soldier.

I rushed down the corridor at a near sprint until I collided with the curved exterior wall. I didn’t make much noise, just the clatter of the gear in my computer bag and a short grunt, but that’s when the footsteps started.

It wasn’t more than twenty meters behind me. The shuffle and thump of someone walking with a limp grew audible over the clamor of the Distributor’s men upstairs. It was getting closer.

There was something horrible in the drag, thump of those footsteps. The air felt thick, and a wave of dizziness assaulted me. Panic drained all logical thought. It wasn’t the fear of death, it was the fear of being eaten.

I scrambled along the basement’s outer wall, fingers sliding across the rough concrete. I probably made more noise, but I had to get out of this damned pitch-dark bunker.

My fingers met a cold steel circle in the wall. Ignoring the still-approaching footsteps, I cranked the porthole open. Powdery sand flooded into my open mouth, knocking me back. I gagged and coughed out a cloud of dust. More dust poured out of the open porthole as I struggled to my feet. A sliver of the hazy morning sky appeared above a wall of sand. I whipped my gaze to the darkness where the footsteps still approached.

I hadn’t imagined the dune would cover this much of the outpost, but my instincts screamed that it would be better to take my chances pushing through the barrier of sand than let those footsteps catch up with me. It wanted me to stay. It wanted to meet me. Something in my mind knew that with a terrified certainty.

I cast one look over my shoulder. Two pinpricks of blue light glowed not ten meters away. Sands and stones, were those eyes? I smothered a terrified squeal, took a massive breath and pushed
into the wall of sand.

Dust poured over me. I shut my eyes and clawed for the gap at the top of the porthole, that sliver of light. My feeble muscles trembled, straining to pull myself through the waterfall of sand and away from those eyes. Sand pressed into my ears and nose. I couldn’t breathe. Blinded, I tasted salt and grit between my teeth. Repressing a howl, I got footing on the bottom of the porthole
and pushed through.

I flopped out of the dune, spat out a mouthful of sand, and took in a huge lungful of the dusty air. The sun was moments from rising, and the whole desert glowed a soft blue.

There was no sign of Ivanovna’s crew, so they must have successfully made their escape.

Shouts echoed to me from the far side of the dune. A commotion rose up by the entrance. They knew I’d escaped.

Soldiers tromped up the hill toward me. I slid down the dune’s far bank and dashed into a valley where a few rough bushes tangled together.

I dug a trench beside one of the bushes, crawled inside, and threw sand over myself, leaving only my nose above ground. More afraid of that limping figure in the darkness than the guards, I prayed that the wind would quickly cover the signs of my excavation. Sand sifted into my ears, muffling shouts and booted footsteps. From what I could gather, they thought I’d followed Ivanovna’s crew. That was fine by me.

Motors cycled up, and most of the Distributor cavalcade rumbled off. I didn’t count as many motors as I’d heard when they’d rolled in, so some had stayed behind.

I waited until I hadn’t heard footsteps for an hour before I dusted myself off and crawled out onto the dunes. Once I’d crept a half kilometer or so away, I bent my head and sprinted until the sun was high in the sky.

The heat weighed me down like an iron blanket draped over my shoulders, and I used up half the water packs I’d pulled out of that storage box in the first two hours.

I passed a field of Distributor vaporizers and realized that I must still be in the restricted area. In the sunlight, those narrow metal spikes rose like bone fingers grasping up out of the sand. Like my dad’s prototype, the Distributor’s vaporizers drew moisture from the air by heating it up with a microwave magnetron housed in their spherical domes. Then, they would reliquefy the water vapor through a series of condensers housed in the vaporizers’ narrow bodies. Buried pipes pumped water back to the Distributor for proper allocation.

I always guessed that those Distributor bastards had stolen my dad’s tech, and after today . . . had Dad been on the other end of that communication? Revenge for theft would give Dad a good reason to leak the Distributor code base, and the other facts lined up. Dad had been gone for months before vaporizers appeared, and those vaporizers were the skeleton on which the Distributor’s muscle and power hung. I sighed and glanced up at the burning sun. Or maybe
I was just theorizing to distract myself from heatstroke. Who knew?

I was about a half kilometer away from the slums where I’d been staying when I smelled the smoke. The air reeked of charred meat and ammonia.

I crested the last dune separating me from town.

A huge, twenty-car Distributor caravan circled the slums. Troops marched between rows of lean-to’s, dragging people out of tents and burning their shelters behind them. A pack of slummers
had been corralled into a circle at the center of town. Around them stood hulking forms whose features I couldn’t clearly make out, but from their huge proportions and simple, stained tunics, I could guess they were Distributor Silent Men.

The buses at the center of town burned while more of the slums went up. The landowners’ cottages were untouched, though the landowners speaking with the troops fidgeted nervously. One of the buses popped and crumpled in on itself. Could Ivanovna and her crew have gotten out in time? I tried not to look at the patches of sand stained with blood, or the bodies lined up beside the still living townspeople. I ducked as low as I could and crept backward.

I’d never heard of the Distributor attacking so viciously even if one of their protected caravans was attacked. I laid a hand on my hard drive and shuddered. What the hell would I find when I looked through their code?

The next town was a few days out. I needed to move if my supplies were going to last. I turned my back to the smoking settlement. My fists clenched. I’d make the Distributor pay for Mom and Collette and Dad and Ivanovna and all the blood staining the sand below. Bracing against the stinging wind, I bent my head and marched back into the dunes.

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