This is chapter 17 of my novel, Foreign. I publish a new chapter each Friday at noon. If you’ve missed any previous chapters, check out the archives by clicking here. Don’t forget to subscribe to my blog (in the upper right corner) so you can get each chapter delivered right to your inbox! If you are enjoying what you’re reading, spread the word. Enjoy!
“We, uh, we may have an issue.”
“There’s no need to hide anything from me, Zidaine. I can read it on your face.”
“Alright, sir. It’s the probability quotient. It’s registering at its lowest value since we’ve begun.”
“58.6 percent. Sir.”
– From the office of the Secadoma
Mark’s eyes opened to a craggy amber flicker in front of him, dancing across his field of view. Blinking a few times, he regained clarity in his vision and recognized the dancing shapes in front of him. He was staring at flames burning on the ground while his face must have been laying on the ground on its side.
He rolled forward onto his stomach and noticed that there was considerably more light to his left. His body in a push-up position on the ground, he craned his neck to his left. There were the remains of their taxi, ablaze. Pieces of flaming shrapnel lay strewn about. There were no signs of movement anywhere.
He leaned back so that he was no longer laying down, but kneeling before the firey grave of his best friend.
I never thought it would be like this.
Mark couldn’t believe that he had been mad at Justin during their last conversation in the taxi. He thought he could still hear some of those last words Justin had said. They sounded so real. It was haunting. Like Justin was still talking to him.
“Maarrrk. Mark. Where are you?”
Justin’s words almost sounded like they were coming from a physical location, not just inside Mark’s head, almost like the fire was calling out to him.
“Mark? Are you out there?” The fire was calling to him.
And then it dawned on him. Justin was still in the wreckage! Mark rose to his feet and sprinted straight toward the fire. It was a giant blaze and just standing a few feet from its edge, Mark felt nothing. “Justin! Are you still in there?”
“Mark? Dude, is that you outside? I’m stuck in here,” Justin answered.
“I’m coming in there to get you out.”
“How? everything’s covered in flames.”
“I’ll be fine. I think our suits protect us from the heat. I’m coming in.” Mark approached the fire. Multiple new warning lights started flashing in the bottom left corner of his visor. He ignored them. “Where are you?” Mark asked.
“I think I’m still in the cabin, but my arm’s stuck between the seat and the roof.”
As Mark examined the hunk of burning metal, he couldn’t recognize any distinguishing features of the vehicle. However, there was one accumulation of wreckage that looked more substantial than the rest. He hoped Justin was inside there. Nothing else looked possible to have a human inside.
“Keep talking. I need to hear your voice so I can find you faster,” Mark commanded.
Justin called out, “I’m over here.”
To his relief, the sound came from the pile Mark was headed toward. He walked up to the edge of the pile, flames encompassing him. It was surreal to be so deep inside the fire without being harmed. “Ok. I’m right outside, but I don’t see any way in yet. Do you see anything from your view that could help?”
“Try going around to the over side. I think you’ll find an opening where the windshield was.”
Mark climbed through the wreckage and eventually got around to the other side. Justin had been right. He had made it to the front of the vehicle and could see in through the shell of a windshield. Everything glowed red hot like embers; the air wrinkled due to the heat waves. Peering in through the front window, Mark could see the front seat from where he had been ejected, right beside the pilot’s seat still with the glowing skeletal remains of the pilot. All the flesh and clothes had been burned away. Just like that atomic bomb scene from Terminator 2! Right behind the pilot’s skull, Mark could see Justin’s left arm, wedged between the top of the seat and the ceiling. Justin’s once black suit had taken on a dull reddish glow from the extreme heat. The situation did not look promising.
“Mark! I can see you! How bad does it look?”
“Hang on. I’m coming in to get you out. Don’t try to move until I get in there.”
Mark got down on all fours and carefully crawled through the windshield. He went between the two front seats and found himself crouching next to Justin who was sitting with his back against the driver-side wall of the car, with his left had held in place above him.
“Any suggestions?” Mark asked?
“I’m thinking that the pilot’s seat is probably the most likely thing to move. I just can’t get any good leverage with my legs.” Justin said.
“I can see that. Well maybe if I kick with both of my feet you can get your wrist free. Sound like a plan?” Mark asked.
“Yep. Go for it.”
Mark situated his body so that he was doing a crab walk, ready to kick forward with both of his legs. “Ok. On three. One, two.” He cocked his legs back, “three.” He delivered one swift blow to the seat back. Due to the intense heat, his feet actually kicked straight through the weakened seat. The outcome wasn’t what Mark had intended, but its effect was the same. The seat caved in and freed Justin’s arm.
“Thanks. I thought I was screwed. My suit’s been yelling at me with warnings for too long.”
“I bet!” The ceiling right above the seat cracked and started to cave in. “We better split. I think your arm and that chair were holding this whole thing together.
They dove forward, and grabbed onto the dashboard to pull themselves from the falling wreckage. Mark got out first, and right as Justin pulled his leg past the pilot and out the windshield, the whole cabin caved in.
With the hull of the aircraft smashing behind them, they managed to stand up back on their feet. Arm in arm, they supported each other as they climbed out of the burning wreckage. Standing safely to the side of the crash, both of their suits held a dull red glow.
“I hate to say this, but I think we need to get far away from here fast. I’m surprised nobody’s here yet. Can you run or walk?” Mark checked with Justin.
“Yeah. I think I’m fine. A little shaken up, but I think I’ll survive. I don’t think anything broke,” he said, out of breath from the whole experience. “How about you? One second I saw you in the car with me, and then you were just gone. I thought you were toast!”
With a slight heir of pride in his voice, Mark simply said, “I’ll survive.
“Great. Then, I let’s follow your advice,” Justin suggested.
They left the crash scene at the pace of a brisk walk, hoping not to be too conspicuous. As they rounded the nearest corner, the noticed how truly dark this place was. Away from the warm glow of the burning vehicle, the glowing Tielsuits stood out against their almost black surroundings. They found themselves in a narrow alleyway between two immense buildings with very few windows allowing light to pour out. There wasn’t any air traffic immediately above them. The closest vehicles softly whirred past them, at least a good mile overhead. Nobody was out walking around, either on the ground where they were or on any platforms further above them.
“Corti, where exactly are we?” Mark asked.
“You are currently walking east, adjacent to the Tielshot main production facility, near the second floor entrance.”
“You mean we are only one floor above the base of Upper Tielmetra?”
“You’re walking on the base, but you are near the second floor entrance of the Tielshot main production facility.”
Justin asked, “How close are we to the eastern edge of the city?”
“3.3 miles on foot, but technically you are only 2.6 miles away from the inner edge of the wall.”
“That’s so doable!” Justin said.
“It will have to be,” Mark added, “So do we just keep heading straight down this alley?”
The dark, deserted pathway stretched ahead of them for at least a quarter mile. The two friends walked in silence. However, it didn’t take long for both of them to notice the squeak in Justin’s suit as he walked.
“Your suit didn’t always sound like that, did it?”
“I dunno. I don’t remember hearing it before, but then again, weren’t we always in noisy environments?” Justin noted.
“Yeah, but still, I think we would have noticed that. It’s impossible to ignore. Ask your suit if anything is wrong.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot I could do that. Yeah, now that you mention it, there is a flashing red light in the right corner of my visor.”
“How long has it been there?”
“This is the first time I noticed it.”
Mark rolled his eyes.
“Dude, lay off! Everything was red inside that crash!” Justin asked Corti for a status report.
“The outer titanium layer withstood temperatures maxing at 2257 degrees Celsius. Though the Tielsuit is designed to maintain structural integrity for significantly higher temperatures than 2000 degrees, it was only designed to hold up for very short amounts of time, no more than 30 seconds. Your suit was subjected to 2000+ degree temperatures for 6 minutes and 41 seconds. Some structures directly underneath the outer layer expanded beyond their capacity due to the excessive heat. These expanded components rub against each other when you walk. That is the sound you hear when you bend your right knee.”
“That blows. So what does that mean? Is there anything I can’t do because of it?”
“Absolutely avoid all high temperature zones until you are able to return this Tielsuit to the Imperial Guard Repair Center,” Corti concluded.
Justin whistled. “Fat chance at that. How’s your suit holding up?”
“I’ll find out. Corti, what’s my suit status?”
“All functions are nominal. However the Tielsuit received substantial impact forces on the left shoulder pad, torso cover, and ankle brace. I cannot guarantee that your body will be protected from physical injury if you sustain additional impacts in these areas. In order to ensure maximal Tielsuit performance, you should have it inspected by a professional.”
“So basically, we can’t do any more crazy shit in these things.” Justin summarized.
“Let’s hope we don’t have to…” Mark shrugged.
They continued walking down the corridor, Justin’s suit squeaking with each step. Not too many steps later, they both heard something ominous. Faint siren sounds from above and behind emerged from from the silence. Panic set in and they both ran for the end of the alley. If they were spotted in the alley, they’d be like fish in a barrel, nowhere to go.
“Corti, where do we turn at the end of this straightaway?” Mark hollered while running full-bore.
“Turn left and continue in that direction for two hundred feet.”
As they reached the end of alleyway, they found the T junction and turned to their left. After just a few paces, Mark noticed that they were under an overhang. They had just run to a building that jutted out over the alleyway. Mark was thankful for the extra cover. Looking ahead, pacing out about two hundred feet, he grabbed Justin and froze.
“We can’t run out in that! We’ll be totally exposed!” he whispered.
“Yeah, but where else can we go? We obviously can’t go back,” Justin countered.
“I suppose so. I think we are relatively covered here. Let’s hang tight and see what unfolds.
The space where Corti had directed them was a giant courtyard. If anybody were looking for them, they would completely stand out. The sirens were no longer faint. They had to be coming from vehicles that were no more than a city block away. It sounded like they had discovered the crash. All the noise seemed to be coming from one place, like they weren’t searching for anything any more.
“Dude, we’ve gotta get out of here while we still can!” Justin said.
“Are you crazy? Can’t you hear how close they are? Who knows how high those things are out there? If they have the right vantage point, we’ll be running out right in front of them. We might as well put a target on our backs.”
“Well we can’t just sit here and wait for them to come get us, either. What do you think they’re doing over there? It’s not like they’ll just go put out the fire and leave. They’ll be here before we know it.”
“Shut up! Look!” Mark pointed out at the courtyard. A bright spotlight appeared in the middle of the open space. It started a sweep around the entire area.
Meanwhile, the sirens off in the distance to their left changed in pitch. One remained the same while another rose higher as it came closer to Mark and Justin, like a doppler effect. Before long, the source of the searchlight crested the wall of the courtyard. What amounted to a flying black tank came into view, hovering above the courtyard, scouring the area with is mounted light. The whole area was washed in red lights as they strobed from the top and bottom of the aircraft. It hovered noiselessly. The only sound marking its presence was the piercing noise of the siren.
It hovered in the air, both sides of the hull folded up, exposing a squad of twelve guards in Tielsuits. The aircraft descended into a position so that the Tielguards could exit more easily. Each guard was armed with some type of weapon they had never scene.
“Dude, we gotta book it… Now.” Justin turned around and sprinted in the opposite direction, under the cover of the overhang.
Will this crap ever end?
Mark got up from his crouch and followed after Justin without any type of plan.
How did they find us so fast? It was like they knew exactly which direction to search!
While running after Justin, Mark asked Corti about heat detection and whether or not Tielsuits could see infrared.
“Of course,” she answered. “Every Tielsuit comes equipped with multiple visor filters for detection of the full electromagnetic spectrum. You can detect X-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet waves, and infrared in addition to the normal visual range.”
“Add the infrared filter to my visor,” Mark directed.
Of course! Why didn’t I think of this earlier?
Everything became clear to him immediately. Even though they were wearing black suits, running through dark alleys at the bottom of Upper Tielmetra, Justin’s figure shone like a white ghost in the night before his eyes. In addition, every step they took left a dim, but obvious footprint on the ground. Their suits still must have been hot enough to leave a trace of heat on whatever they touched. All the guards had to do was follow their footprints. It would only be a matter of time.
“Are there any active factories with accessible entrances close by?” Mark asked Corti as he met up with Justin at the end of the long alley. They could only turn to the left and continue down another similar stretch.
“There are 8 manufacturing plants that meet your criteria within a square mile.”
“Do any of them use high temperatures in their manufacturing process?”
“Of course. 3 of them do.”
“Great. Tell me how to get to the closest one without directing me back the way I came.”
“Certainly. Turn right at your next opportunity, in 100 feet.”
Mark sprinted to catch up to Justin at the corner where they were supposed to turn. “Over here! I have a plan.”
They turned to their right and headed down a more open pathway, between two more large buildings.
“As you run to the end of this building on your left, you will find Tieladium Smelting Company right across the alley. Its main entrance will be directly in front of you,” Corti directed.
Running straight down the overlong corridor (why are these building so damn big?), they could hear the siren from the Tielguard aircraft approaching from behind. Its red lights illuminated their way. Getting inside the smelting plant would be their only chance of loosing the authorities. Their chances would still be slim even if they did make it inside.
The siren grew louder at their backs. The guards had to be right up on their back, but Mark wasn’t about to turn around and check.
Why aren’t they shooting at us?
Justin could tell they were getting close, too. “Where we headed, man?”
“Just follow me.” Mark assured.
The searchlight zeroed in on the two of them just as they found the junction in front of the Tieladium Smelting entrance. Mark didn’t quit. They were too close. Without slowing down, he ran straight into the door while opening it all in the same motion.
A wicked, sulfuric smell affronted them as they stood at the entrance of Tieladium Smelting Company’s main refinery. Booming sounds reverberated throughout the enormous building, as thick slabs of metal were pounded and purified. These were accompanied by a myriad of other sounds like the hiss of cooling metal and the grind of cutters shaping the metal.
“I’m way too outa shape,” Justin gasped, doubling over.
“Me too. But we can’t stay here. Come on. We gotta blend in.”
All Mark could see was a giant orange-white haze because he still had his infrared sensor running. He and Justin were in a gigantic metal refinery. Wide enough to fit a few jumbo jets in area, the building went up as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of workers clad in variants of their own Tielsuits to protect them from the heat were scattered throughout the main floor where they had entered. If they could get far enough into this place, it would be the perfect place to lose their tails, but they had precious little time to get very far, maybe sixty seconds at best.
“Ok, whatever we do, we can’t run. We have to act like we work here,” Mark said. He led Justin up a nearby staircase that led to a catwalk over the first vat of molten metal.
Walking up the stairs Justin had to ask, “How did you know this place was here? And why did we need to get here?”
“Think about it. There was no way those guards could have randomly found us so quickly. I asked Corti if our suit had heat detection. Turns out all Tielsuits have it. Our suits were still super hot from being in that crash. Everything we touched left traces of our heat on it. We led them straight to us,” Mark explained.
“That’s genius, man!”
Mark continued, “I knew we couldn’t outrun them forever, but in here we’ll blend in with everybody else. I had Corti find the closest hot manufacturing plant. They won’t be able to track us, and hopefully that’ll buy us some time to figure out how to get to the city perimeter.”
At the top of the stairs they turned onto the catwalk, heading out over the giant pool of metal. A few workers stood a station of controls, examining the condition of the metal as it churned in the huge holding tank.
“You’d think they’d make a more sturdy walkway for people who have to constantly be around this stuff,” Justin said.
“Who knows? Maybe they don’t care if people fall in?” Mark guessed.
As they passed by the group of workers, the main entrance door opened again. Twelve Tielguards systematically entered the room, and stood by for orders from a superior. Neither Mark nor Justin heard or saw their entrance, but they kept their pace, almost above the second molten pool.
There were four large smelting pools on the bottom floor. At the end of the second pool the catwalk met up with a larger control center than the first. It was more heavily populated, and Mark thought he saw a stairwell leading up from it.
“If we can find out where all these workers leave from, we might have a shot of walking right out with them unnoticed,” Mark hoped aloud.
They finished crossing over the second pool and entered into the central control room for the first level. Walking into the doorway, Mark glanced back toward the entrance in order to see if their pursuers had followed them. In the midst of all the activity in the room, he didn’t see them heading up the staircase they had ascended only moments earlier.
Inside the control room, Mark estimated forty workers were tending to various tasks and another five or so were en route to somewhere. A pair of workers entered the room at the back through the staircase. Mark and Justin made way for it, unsure of where it would lead, but sure that it was their only current option.
Walking up the first flight of stairs out of the control room, they had a better view of the lower level. Doing the best they could to carry themselves like everybody else, Mark finally saw the Tielguards near the control console above the first pool. It looked like they were questioning a few of the workers. Every ounce of Mark wanted to spring up the stairs, but he knew that running would only give their position away.
Instead, he looked up to see where they were headed. For the most part, all he could see was a lot of stairs. He guessed at least ten stories of stairs with nothing around them.
These people have all this technology and they still use stairs for places this big? Come on!
The stairs looked like they eventually disappeared into a ceiling that covered the entire room. They would just have to wait and see what was above. The distance between the first and second molten pool was larger than what they had to cover in the remaining stairs. So unless the guards started running, Mark and Justin would get to next level before the guards entered the staircase. Mark still wondered why they weren’t running, though.
Maybe they are trying not to alert us to their presence?
While climbing the staircase, they could see the other half of the main bottom floor. The four molten pools only occupied the front half of the ground floor. In the back half were thousands of shaped molds. Mark supposed that the molten metal would somehow drain into particular molds where it would solidify and be ready for shipping. But shipping to where? The city’s enclosed.
Seeing that these two steps were not the whole process, Mark assumed that above them must be where other things are done to the ore.
As they neared the top of the staircase, they saw four large tubes that came from the ceiling above and fed into each of the molten vats beneath them. Periodically they could hear an avalanche of metallic chunks falling through them, presumably contributing to the large pools beneath.
Nearly exhausted by the climbing, they finished the last case of stairs and entered the second floor control room. This one was even larger than the first, almost like a central hub to the entire process. The bustling room consisted of four main quadrants with supervisors overlooking statistics and giving orders to subordinates. Mark could clearly see monitors that displayed the two locations they had just left. There were two other areas of supervision as well. One looked like a sorting station and the other seemed to be percussive line. There was an exit across the room. They walked straight to it.
Outside the control room they found deafening noises from countless massive hammers smashing an endless supply of charcoal colored rocks that came in various sizes. Further down the conveyor belts, a crowd of workers stood by, sorting the more pure metal from the chaff. They left the chaff on the conveyor belt while throwing the metal into funnels that all fed into the tubes which eventually ended up in the molten vats downstairs.
Above and along the conveyor belts was a series of more catwalks with managers ensuring productivity on the line. Spaced throughout the catwalks were robotic arm operators who used the mechanical appendages to lift the larger chunks of ore off the lines. In the center of the matrix of walkways was another staircase that ascended up to the ceiling above. Mark intuitively walked toward it and Justin followed.
“Are we just going to keep going up these stairs forever?” Justin complained more than questioned.
Mark’s reply wasn’t all that confident. “They have to have an end somewhere. These people have to come in and out from somewhere. They can’t just live in this furnace. Besides, I don’t know what else to do. Let’s hope there’s something different in the next room. From the looks of that main control room, I think there are only four main sections, and these two are the last ones. So let’s hope that there’s some kind of exit above us.”
They were dismayed to discover that this staircase looked taller than the last one. That was bad for two reasons. The first, more obvious one being that they would have to climb even more stairs, with the second being that if both them and the guards kept their same pace, the guards would be able to see them at the top of the stairs.
While climbing above the chaotic clamor below, Mark thought of something. “What if they’ve locked this place down because they know we’re in here?”
“I dunno. But you’re probably right. I don’t see why they wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be too hard. It would just be a matter of time before they’d find us, I guess.”
“But then again, if they had the place locked down, then why would they be following us? Wouldn’t they just tell everybody to leave through a certain exit where they could screen for us?” said Mark.
Justin disagreed, “Nah. Think about how giant this operation is. They wouldn’t shut the whole thing down just to find us. They probably can’t without some crazy authority. And I haven’t heard anybody talking about any lockdowns or anything, not that I’ve been listening too much.”
“Now that you mention it, not many people have been talking at all. Maybe because it’s so loud in here. We’re probably yelling right now and we don’t even realize it.”
“Holy crap, this is a ton of stairs!” Justin pointed out as they where about three quarters of the way up.
Almost in agreement, Mark stopped to catch his breath for a moment. They surveyed the room beneath them. The workers on the lines resembled ants compared to the large robotic arms and the compressors that crushed down the metal. Amidst the crowd of tiny workers a formation of twelve figures emerged from the main control room.
“That’s our queue! Come on.” Justin said, spurring Mark even further up the stairs.
Continuing on their upward journey, Mark looked down below again. Sure enough, the formation was following their lead, walking along the catwalks toward the staircase. Mark was convinced they had sped up a bit. Or were they just slowing down?
“How do they know where we’re headed? We could have been any one of those workers down there on one of those lines.” Mark said, exasperated.
“Beats me. But I don’t wanna have the chance to ask them.”
The stairs that seemed to never end finally did came to an end. Relieved, Mark and Justin entered a floor that appeared completely different than the previous two. It didn’t look like any work was happening on this floor. The stairs ended in a central lobby area, where people were hanging out, some looking like they had just finished work while others looked like they had yet to begin.
The circular lobby had six different paths leading out from it like spokes, similar to the design of the cosmetics floor in the Confident Male they had visited so recently.
Several of the paths led to mundane places like a cafeteria, or an ironically titled “human resources” area until Mark remembered that his suit was translating everything for him which continued to inspire awe.
After circling around, Justin finally found the words they had hoped to find: Exit.
Walking as fast as possible without making a scene, they both headed down the large hallway that lead to their hopeful freedom. Fate looked to be on their side because there were so many people who were walking out the door. It either must have been the end of a shift, or this place must have always been busy. Above the thirty-foot tall exit doors was the Tieladium Smelting Company logo with a slogan that read “Crafting tomorrow’s resources today.”
Outside the building, they saw a large platform crawling with people and hordes of transportation picking people up and dropping others off. The only way off the platform appeared to be through boarding an aircraft.
Among the swarming cars and shuttles was a Tielguard flyer, just like the one they had seen earlier.
“Just keep walking toward one of the transports. I think we blend in better than we realize.” Justin cautioned.
Mark was adamant. “I’m not taking another taxi. That’s what got us in this mess in the first place.”
“Fine. Then what do you suggest? We jump back down to the bottom street?”
They were amazed to see how far they had climbed inside the building.
Among the multitude of aircraft, Mark saw what looked like a small version of a TMT. The sign on it read “Industrial Park Routing Station.”
“Over there.” Mark point to the transport. That’s our only way out of here. Let’s hurry before we miss it.
Of course it’s all the way on the other end of the platform!
They pressed though the immense crowd as quickly as possible. Crossing through the stream of people, they struggled to get near the transport before it closed its doors. The stationary Tielguard vehicle activated its searchlight and began a sweep of the crowd.
No! Not now! We’re so close!
They continued their same pace for fear of aiding their pursuers in their search. Mark prayed that the TMT doors would remain open just a while longer. He had no idea how long it had been waiting already.
Just a few more seconds.
The searchlight was on a collision course with them.
They stepped into the TMT just before the door slid closed while the light continued onward with its sweep. Overcome with relief, Mark and Justin let their bodies fall into their seats, feeling safe… at least for the moment.
For chapter 18, click here.