Chapter One - "Dakota"


The morning alarm sounded before sunup, as it did every day without  fail. That was one thing you could say about the Mek: they were reliable,  like clockwork — the most advanced clockwork anyone had ever seen.  Their machine composition was so intricate that the military scientists  charged with figuring it out during the ten-year war had barely begun to  scratch the surface of what made them tick before it was too late. And  now those precious secrets, obtained at such great cost and once thought  the only hope of turning the tide, were lost forever. Obliterated by the  Mek in the days after the war, along with the rest of human history and  learning.

The alarm was a shrill, modulated tone, designed by the Mek to  cause the greatest possible discomfort to the human ear. They had  studied human anatomy and neurology well, both during the war and  after, to maximize their every advantage over their enemy, and those  efforts paid off in every detail, including this one. The alarm was  essentially a sonic weapon that immediately brought on piercing  headaches and nausea and didn’t cease until everyone in every barracks  hut was out of bed and dressed and lined up outside for the morning  head count. From the alarm’s first sounding to the time it was shut off  was usually less than a minute. Few could tolerate it any longer than that.  So there was no dawdling, even on the part of those too sick or infirm to

be out of bed at such an hour. Others would haul them to their feet,  dress them, and carry them outside if they had to. Anything to stop that  sickening sound.

The alarm roused everyone except Dakota, who was already  awake. She woke early every morning and dressed ahead of the alarm,  then lay on her bunk, her eyes adapting to the dark, staring at the slats  on the ceiling above. She had memorized every splinter and gnarl in the  wood by now. What else was there to do? She wished she could sleep  through the night, but some perpetual, indefinable itch at the back of  her mind would inevitably wake her in the pre-dawn hours and keep her  awake while she listened to the snoring of the others, or sometimes the  cawing of a distant bird outside.

And now the alarm drove a metal spike through her skull and  twisted her stomach into an agonizing knot, and she was immediately on  her feet and moving quickly across the barracks to her brother Sam’s  bunk. He was sitting up, groggy from waking and wincing in pain from  the excruciating sound. Most others in the barracks were by now already  out of bed and hurriedly dressing, but Sam was slower than most.  Weaker.  

“Sam, come on. Let’s go.” Dakota put her arm around him and  lifted him out of bed. He swayed unsteadily on his feet as she helped him  dress; Sam was missing his right arm below the elbow and it wasn’t easy  for him to do it alone. Anyone who held up the head count and the  cessation of the alarm would be in for a hard time at the hands of their

barracks mates for the rest of the day, so Dakota always made sure that  never happened. He was a few years older than her, and for years  together, running and hiding before the Mek finally captured them and  brought them here, he had protected her, kept her alive. Now, together in  this township, she did the same for him. She was all he had.

Some fared better than others in captivity. The strong ones  survived, and the weak ones, who were quickly identified by the Mek as a  waste of rations, were “recycled” — that’s what they called it — for fuel  instead. Sam was somewhere in between. He had once been so strong —  a tower of strength and resilience that Dakota had come to admire and  had tried to emulate. For as long as she could remember, she had looked  up to him. But these past few years in the Mek township… they had  taken something essential out of him. Hollowed him out.  

Humans were not built to be prisoners, Dak, he had told her over and  over, when they were still living in abandoned farmhouses and sewers  and half-destroyed apartment blocks, constantly moving from place to  place, trying to stay hidden. If it comes to it, I’ll take care of us both. Better to  die free than live in a cage. Back then he always carried a pistol with two  rounds in it that he’d saved for just that purpose. But when that time  finally came, when the Mek drones surrounded them in an open field  with no hope of escape, he couldn’t bring himself to put a bullet in his  little sister. Instead he just fell to his knees and sobbed. And they were  both taken and brought here.

In the years that followed Sam became a living monument to what  he had always told her. Humans were not built to be prisoners. Dakota’s heart  broke for him as she watched, each day reducing him to a little less than  he was the day before. He lost so much weight that Dakota scarcely  recognized him as the strong, fit man he once was. His uniform coveralls  hung baggy and shapeless on his skeletal frame. His eyes grew sunken,  his skin pallid. At night, she would often sit by the side of his bed and  watch him sleep, and at times he looked to her like a dead man ready for  burial.

When Sam lost his right arm a year ago, in an accident with a steel  press while working in one of the township factories, that might well  have been the end. But Dakota, who was fortunate to have been working  just outside at the time and heard the cries, rushed in and saved him.  Tied off the wound and cauterized it using the factory tools at hand,  then carried him back to the barracks to care for him. She worried he  was already as good as dead — the Mek considered a one-armed worker  an inefficient expenditure of rations, and normally they would have  recycled him the same day — but Dakota pleaded with the Mek  supervisor to spare him, offering to split her rations with him until he  was well enough to be productive again. Coming from anyone else, such  a plea would have fallen on deaf ears, but Dakota had proven her worth  to the township as an engineer and problem-solver many times over, and  so — in a rare and ultimately pragmatic show of mercy — they allowed  her brother to live.

Sam never again returned to full work. In the Mek’s eyes, he was a  cripple, capable of only menial chores and unworthy of a full ration of  food. So to keep him alive, Dakota continued to split her rations with  him — to this day.  

But the toll that these past years as a slave laborer had taken on his  body wasn’t the worst of it. It was what it had done to his spirit that  crushed Dakota the most. All the fight had gone out of him. His quick minded improvisation, which had saved them from Mek detection time  and again during their years as fugitives, and the gleam in his eye as they  sat by night around makeshift fires and he told her stories of humanity’s  valiant last stand against the Mek… all that was gone. Only this  emaciated shell remained.  

Twice she had caught him close to ending his own life, once with a  sharpened piece of metal he’d snuck from the factory, and later with a  bottle of some dire Mek chemical stolen from a maintenance shed. Both  times she managed to talk him down, persuade him to keep living, if not  for himself then for her, because he was all she had in this whole  miserable world, and if he left her, who knew how long she would last  before she followed. But she knew that despite his promises, the greatest  threat to his life was not a Mek or another accident, but his own  deliberate hand. So she continued to keep a close eye on him. Often,  while he was supposed to be working the gardening plot or ferrying  supplies, she’d catch him just staring at the horizon, or at nothing, and  she’d know what he was thinking. She’d make her way over as quickly as

she could — before a Mek watcher could get to him first, to give him a  low-voltage jolt to spur him back to work — and give him a smile or a  touch of her hand, some reminder that he hadn’t yet lost everything.  

Now she finished helping him dress, and together they joined the  line of workers quickly filing out of the barracks into the floodlit night.  Dakota hadn’t seen the true dark of night, the stars in the sky, for years,  blotted out as they were by the Mek light towers that blazed from dusk to  dawn, keeping the entire township awash in stark fluorescent light that  made everything in the world look artificial, antiseptic, alien. There were  shutters on the barracks doors to keep the light out so workers could  sleep, but out here in the open it barely seemed like night at all, at least  not the kind Dakota remembered. Still, it would be sunup soon, and  then the lights would shut down and stop humming, and there the blue  sky of day would be, the sun and the clouds.  

Not even the Mek could take that away.

She stood still beside her brother, waiting as the Mek drone moved  from one end of the line to the other, scanning each face, making sure  that everyone who checked into the barracks hut the night before was  still present and accounted for. Only when every drone surveying every  hut was satisfied did the morning alarm fall silent. Everyone exhaled in  relief, their headaches and stomach pains abating, then at the sound of  another alarm, this one a short but unpleasant electronic squawk, they  made their way to the canteen huts for their breakfast ration, the Mek  drones registering and recording their every move.


By the time breakfast was over and everyone was reporting to their work  assignments, the sun had just started coming up, breathing light and life  into the day. There was a cool breeze, and Dakota took a moment to  stop and close her eyes and feel it waft over her, the briefest sense

memory of freedom. Then she heard the telltale clik-clik-clik of a Mek  drone approaching and got moving again before it could jolt her. Most everyone in the township worked to serve the Mek. They  toiled in factories and foundries and on assembly lines, turning the metal  ore and other raw elements that arrived by automated convoy from other  townships into the refined materials and components the Mek used to  build more of their cities, build more of themselves. But Dakota was  different. She worked to sustain the township itself. Her specialty trade  was everything. She fixed the plumbing when the pipes froze in winter or  the toilets backed up, she patched fried electrical panels to keep the hut  lights on, she decontaminated the water supply when it became  undrinkable, as it so often did from the Mek’s toxic exhaust chemicals  leaching into the groundwater, she kept the barracks huts’ dilapidated  heating and ventilation systems running, she repaired broken windows  and leaking roofs… basically everything that needed to be done to keep  the Mek’s slave labor force from freezing to death or dying from  poisoning or dehydration.  

Still, many did die. There was no township doctor, no one old  enough to have that kind of training or experience, and people

frequently succumbed to illnesses and injuries that would have been  routinely treatable before the war. The Mek could easily have provided  medical facilities based on their vast knowledge of human physiology,  but somewhere along the way one of their impenetrable algorithms had  calculated that it was more efficient to tolerate the mortality rate than to  expend resources to curb it. There was, after all, a never-ending supply  of people to replace those who were lost. New workers arrived in the  township via Mek prison vehicles on a regular basis.  

Dakota was an exception in that regard. Though no human was  truly valuable, she was considered less expendable by the Mek than most,  as she had come to know every quirk and foible of the township’s run down utilities, better even than the Mek themselves, and if she were to  die then many more might follow before she could be replaced. More  than the algorithm deemed acceptable.

As she went about her day, she was always careful to not let Sam  out of her sight for too long. He’d recently been moved to an outside  gardening detail, tilling crops that helped supplement the worker food  supply, so she too tried to stay outside as much as possible, making  busywork for herself if necessary. The Mek watchers would jolt her if  

they thought she was procrastinating, but today was easy. A barracks hut  roof had sprung a bad leak, letting the rains in. Dakota might have  needed only the work of a morning to patch the leak, but she had  convinced a Mek supervisor that it would be more efficient to re-shingle  the whole roof, and further convinced the Mek that it would take her at

least two weeks — twice her actual estimate. She wanted to be up there  for as long as possible, not only because it gave her a good view of Sam  and his garden plot, but because she liked it up there. Being up off the  ground, closer to the sky above, felt to her like a sort of freedom, even  though the roof of the hut wasn’t even as tall as the township’s perimeter  fence, which could be seen in the distance, towering over everything, an  ever-present reminder that even the briefest feeling of freedom was an  illusion.

“Need a hand?”

Startled, Dakota almost hit her thumb with her hammer. She  turned to see Runyon standing on the ladder she’d used to climb up here,  peering over the edge of the roof at her. He was one of the youngest  workers in the township, eighteen or nineteen she guessed, although  she’d never really given it — or him — very much thought.

“Thanks, I’m good,” she said, turning back to the shingle she was  working on. After hammering a few more times she got the feeling she  was still being watched and turned again to see Runyon still there on the  ladder, looking at her. She glared at him, and this time he seemed  embarrassed and looked away.

“Do you need something?” she asked curtly.

“Finished with my detail early, thought I might help.” There was a  quaver in his voice, like he was nervous, though Dakota couldn’t imagine  why. All she knew was, the last thing she wanted was someone to help  her make this work go faster.

She turned back to her work again. “Go ask a supervisor, I’m sure  they’ll find something for you to do. Or just wait there — they’ll find  you.” And true enough, there was the sound of a Mek observer  approaching at roof height, closing on Runyon. Its sensors had detected  him out of place and inactive, and even now Dakota had no doubt it was  charging its electrified prod to jolt him.

She was surprised by what Runyon did next. He should have raced  back down the ladder, but instead he stayed a moment longer even as the  drone drew closer.  

He spoke quickly. “There’s story time at the rec hut tonight, right  after dinner ration. You should come. I’ll be there. Will you come?” Before Dakota could answer, the drone moved within just a few feet  of Runyon, a moment from jolting him, and he slid down the ladder and  raced back to his assigned area. She shook her head, took another roof  nail from the box, and went back to work as the drone turned and  moved away.