An ocean of neon-colored lights and cement sprawled out behind them. Above, artificial stars flickered. Ahead, the rhythmic marching of the border patrol aligned perfectly with a pair of racing heartbeats. Hidden away in the shadows were two figures, cloaked in black and staring at the edge of their small iron world.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” one of the figures whispered. He took the hand of the other figure, the metal of his arm cold against her skin. “What if there’s nothing out there for us?” The woman glanced over at him. The artificial starlight couldn’t penetrate the shadows of her hood, but he could imagine the calm smile she would give him.
“If it’s all a wasteland like they’ve said? It can’t be any worse than the city.” A guard marched past them, and they fell silent. On his hip he carried a wicked blade, and a back holster sported a gun. All sense of humanity was shielded by the helmet he wore, which shadowed his features and reflected the sparse yellow light above them.
After the guard passed them by, the man rose. In silent agreement, the woman positioned herself in a crouch, ready to sprint. She watched as her companion walked out of the shadows and flicked his hood back. Nonchalantly, he approached the guard.
"Detective Ren Pierce." The words, practiced and familiar, were casual yet commanding. He offered his non-metallic arm to let the guard scan the chip embedded within the skin.
The guard studied the identification photo: shoulder-length white hair, icy blue eyes, a cybernetic arm. All matching.
"Detective Pierce, what can I do for you at so late an hour?" Ren tucked his hands into his pockets, and the woman began creeping towards the wall.
"Well," he began professionally. "There was an illegal drug trade done near your apartments. I'll need to ask you a few questions, get your biometrics-"
"My biometrics? Detective, you should already have them on file." Ren glared. "We have what we think are your biometrics." He rolled his eyes, discreetly checking his companion's progress. She was nearly at the door. Giving the guard a wry smile, he looked back. "We both know the tricks the government wants us to perform these days. Who are we to deny the council a show?"
The guard hesitated, then sighed and held out his hand. “Alright, Detective, but-” He was cut off as an alarm blared. While the guard looked frantically around, Ren glanced up and cursed under his breath. The security cameras. There was nothing he could have done about them; all they could do was hope it was dark enough that it wouldn’t pick up Sidra’s signature.
Hoping hadn’t been enough.
The biometrics. Ren needed them to open the gate. If he didn’t, Sidra would be caught and… No, he wouldn’t let that happen. He lunged forward and tackled the guard to the ground, unsheathing the wicked blade at the other man’s hip. Using his cybernetic arm, he slammed the hilt into the guard’s head. The helmet caved beneath the blow and the man fell limp. Pounding footsteps sounded behind them. Reinforcements were coming. Ren half dragged, half carried the guard to the black terminal near the door. He slammed the man’s limp hand down on the smooth screen and waited anxiously. Gunshots. The terminal was still scanning.
“Come on, come on.” Another alarm joined the first as an electric bell chimed once. The door began to open. Voices joined the chorus of discordant noise, ordering him to freeze. He looked over at Sidra’s shadowed form and met her eyes.
“Go,” he mouthed. Without waiting to see her response, he turned and dove for shelter from the raining gunfire. Sidra watched him for a fraction of a second before ducking under the still-rising door. Straightening her back, she burst out into a run. Behind her, she could hear shouting, gunshots.
Ahead of her, a steady stream of crisp, cool wind challenged her to turn back. It pushed the hood off of her head, and her dark waves half-obscured her vision. She didn’t know how long she had been running.
Eventually, with burning lungs and aching legs, she had to slow to a walk. The sounds of fighting were long behind her, and all was eerily quiet. Resounding loudly throughout the tunnel, her labored breathing was the only thing she could hear.
It wasn’t until someone was nearly behind her that she heard the footsteps. Without turning to look back, she began to run again. Her long strides lasted only a few bounds before her weary body settled into a panicked stumble. Her foot caught on something, and she collapsed onto wet earth. The running behind her slowed to a stop and she felt a form kneel down beside her. Someone helped her sit up, one warm hand in her right and a cold metal one in her left.
“Sidra,” came Ren’s voice. “It’s alright…” She looked up at him and their eyes met. A long red line marred his cheek, and a trickle of blood slowly dripped from it, but he smiled. “Just a bit further, come on.”
Standing, they wearily continued their journey down the tunnel. Roots began to poke up from the earthen surface and they could hear water dripping into puddles. Ahead, they noticed a shift from the pitch black of the tunnel to a silvery green of the outside world. The pair stepped out of the city and stared out at the world in front of them. Buildings had crumbled long ago and the moss and vines that had overtaken the remnants of civilization seemed to glow in the moonlight. The ruins sprawled on for miles, nearly completely covered in verdant plant life. Trees had twisted their branches up towards the clear heavens as if in silent veneration. Ren and Sidra could hear the distant calls of creatures they had only ever seen in cages. The air was free from the acrid pollution of the city, and its freshness burned the pair’s lungs.
“It’s real,” Sidra whispered. She turned back and studied the expanse of darkness that was the city. In the silence, she could hardly imagine the deafening noise that had ever flowed through the streets. She couldn’t imagine the artificial colors that crowded her vision. Ren didn’t turn to look back. He stepped further away from the city, grass reaching up far past his ankles. In his eyes, the moonlight reflected a silvery blue.
“The sky, Sidra. Look up.” She did, and her breath caught in her throat. Sprawling above them was an expanse more infinite than anything they could imagine. It was not peppered by weak yellow light bulbs, but filled with swirls of color: blues, whites, pinks, all dancing amidst a sea of dark indigo. Hanging low in the sky was the silver face of a full moon, its grand light unable to outshine the glittering blanket it was nestled in.
They stood there until the moon sank low below the horizon and the fires of morning painted the sky. Ren finally tore his gaze away from the sky and looked at Sidra. “We can’t go back,” he whispered.
Smiling, she turned to him. “Why would we want to? We’re free, Ren. Like the stars above, we’re free.”
Keira Steinberg is a senior at Kankakee Valley High School and the winner of the Fall 2022 High School Writing Contest.