Darkness pressed in, cold and deep. It flooded her lungs. It roared in her ears. Alice couldn't see her own hands, couldn't tell whether her eyes were open or shut. Her arms flung into emptiness; she strained her sight; she groped, desperate, in the dark for something, anything to touch, to hold onto.
Her whisper echoed, cavernous and hollow in a dead, empty room. Her fingers grasped for an absent hand. Her voice was a shuddering whisper. "Kara I'm scared."
The only response was a distant shockwave -- the deep, deafening pulse of a monstrous heart.
She clapped hands over her ears and screwed her eyes shut. A sob choked. "Kara where are you..."
She jumped at a clattering, resounding bang, close in the room with her. A sliver of red light flashed in the dark. It widened, a thin rectangle, then squealed shut with a clap of metal -- a door, blowing in the wind. A door to the outside.
She took a small step, eyes trained on that sharp sliver of light, paralyzed by the thought of what might lurk at her feet. She crept close -- slow, trembling -- and caught the rooftop door as it swung.
She emerged into a howl of hot wind, and a roiling blood-red sky.
The city below her -- drenched in crimson -- shivered and cracked.
A shatter of windows rained into the crowd. Dissonant, terrified screams clawed gashes in the steel and concrete.
She gripped the edge of the roof and she leaned down, her hands a tremble of panic. She searched for faces she knew. She prayed she wouldn't find them.
She yearned to call out a name -- but dread gripped it tight in her throat.
Gunshots pierced the shuddering city.
Out of the alleys swarmed a hive of shadows, jagged mouths and pale dead eyes. They flickered, snatched, shred and devoured, starved wolves in a sea of shrieking lambs.
Their whispers snaked between the screams.
....deruoved neeb sah ecnetsixe ruo sa meht ruoved....
There was nowhere to run.
The androids' savior, with borrowed eyes and a stolen heart, shouted hope like feathers in the storm. His people raised weapons while the weak rushed for shelter, trampling skulls and fingers, shattering plastic and bone, hunted by shapes with dead eyes and stained teeth. Luther toppled them in his stride, Kara’s blue-soaked body held tight in the arm he had left; thirium gushed bright from a gash in his leg.
"LUTHER!" Alice's screech pierced the slaughter -- but if Luther heard, he couldn't respond.
There were too many.
The light eclipsed.
A darkness rose out of the city. It loomed, colossal and eldritch, a stain against a red sky. It quivered and swelled, a mass of horror and seething nightmare. It absorbed the light, churning foul and lurid colors that shouldn’t exist.
It stretched its gruesome neck. Hollow eyes -- thousands of them, chasms of infinite nothing -- considered the chaos below.
Ghastly wings cloaked the city in black.
She searched the crowd -- and just as Detroit succumbed to shadow, Luther fell, engulfed in the flood of ravenous, ripping darkness.
Alice's cry was all that was left.
“I’m right here. It’s okay, Alice, you’re safe.”
A familiar touch opened her eyes -- and there was Kara, kneeling beside her bed with a smile as gentle as the morning sun.
Alice’s heart bloomed deep with painful love. She'd witnessed Kara's death -- she'd seen her lifeless, destroyed, held until the very end in Luther's care, empty and cold and gone. A part of Alice that had been ripped from her so violently had now, in a breath of light, returned to her.
Alice launched herself at Kara, flung her arms around her, squeezed tight as if they might shelter one another against the endless evils of the world. She buried her face in Kara's shoulder and held on. Sobbing. Silent.
Kara’s arms circled around her. They would stay like this, cocooned and warm where nothing could ever harm them.
“They’re just memories.” Kara ran soothing fingers through Alice’s long hair. “Things that happened in the past can’t hurt us anymore.”
Alice curled her fingers in the soft fabric of Kara's shirt. Androids weren't supposed to dream. Perhaps she was broken. Perhaps she'd seen things that don't exist, because she was defective, because her memory had corrupted and spliced. The thought quivered in her plastic heart.
Telling Kara would only worry her.
“We’re safe now,” whispered Kara. She kissed the top of Alice’s head. “We’re free.”
Moment by moment, Alice relaxed her shuddering grip. She let the shadows and monsters fade into the warm brightness of Kara's embrace.
“Come on." Kara's voice smiled soft as summer. “Rose is in the garden. She’s asked if you could help her pick blueberries.” She bent her head, searching for Alice's eyes. “Would you like that?”
Alice thought of the warm sunshine, the butterflies and warbling birds, the blueberries clustered bright and plump. The way Kara smiled, so full of hope, made Alice want to smile ... for her.
Alice emerged quietly into the dappled sunlight, a basket of carrots hugged tight in her arms.
In the branches of the old elm tree, little songbirds giggled and hopped among the rustling leaves. Chickens pecked in their dusty pen, while behind a wire fence the goats bleated, shaking their silly beards. Alice spotted Luther in the barn, brushing an old brown mare named Magpie, Alice’s favorite. She waved, and Luther waved back with a smile.
Kara, behind her, laid a soft hand on her back. “Want to feed the goats first?” she asked with a grin.
The goats flicked their funny tails, big eyes transfixed by Alice's basket; they began pushing toward the fence long before she'd reached them. Alice reached her fingers between the wire to feel their soft noses; they sniffed close, stuck out their waggling tongues. The first carrot was gone in a slurp of happy crunching, while the others shouldered for a turn.
When her basket was empty, Alice clambered up the fence, stretched down to pat their heads goodbye. She shuffled silently past the coop -- where Kara clucked at the chickens and collected their eggs -- and gingerly approached the barn where Luther had finished with Magpie’s grooming.
“Hey Alice!” Luther called in his quiet voice. His eyebrows raised in a smile, strong fingers curled in the mare’s harness. “Headed to see Rose?” Alice nodded in silence. Luther didn't seem to mind. “How about we go for a ride after you’re done? Just you an' me, down along the creek and back. We’ll spot the deer down in the meadow. What do ya say?”
A horse ride with Luther was a rare and delightful treat. Alice would sit ahead of him in the saddle, her hands buried in Magpie’s silky mane, and she would marvel at the changing trees at the edge of the forest, the tall grasses on the slope, the sparkling creek that flowed past the farm and disappeared around a distant bend. She would spot deer and foxes, and eagles and bright butterflies. Once they had spied a bear at the treeline, lumbering and awkward like a huge furry dog.
Alice nodded. She brightened with a smile.
She found Rose in the garden, pretty in a flowered straw hat, her gloves coarse with dirt, picking cucumbers and singing softly.
“There you are!” Rose beckoned with a wave and a smile. “Come on and help me with these blueberries. Look how bright and big they've grown! Aren’t they gorgeous?"
Alice knelt in the dirt, her basket placed gently beside her. The berries had grown heavy, clustered like treasures under weighted branches. She picked one, bright and blue.
"Blueberries are like a sweet summer morning," Rose declared, "fresh and full of possibilities." Her movements were slow, distracted by reminiscence, the familiar dance of light in the glowing summer trees.
"Alice, you should've seen us when we were kids -- we were wild things, my brother and sister and me, chasing and hollering at the first summer bees, sneaking down to swim in the creek, stuffing blueberries in our mouths til we were sick for days." Her laugh was like maple syrup.
Alice reached to pluck another berry from its cluster -- but a quiet buzzing, sharp behind the blueberry leaves, stopped her hand.
"It's such a shame the bees have all gone." Rose shook her head, snipping another cucumber from the vine. "I wish you could've seen them -- they were beautiful -- and so smart."
A fuzzy yellow bug buzzed out of the bush. It hovered before Alice's wondering eyes.
"I think tonight we'll bake a gorgeous pie," Rose announced. Her back was turned to Alice while she dug at the ground with a spade. "My great-great-grandmother's secret recipe. The whole house is gonna smell like those old wild summers."
Alice didn't reply. She'd wandered a few steps from the garden, her mouth parted in awe, in quiet pursuit of the little bee. She reached out toward it with careful fingers -- but with a zig and a zag it zoomed quickly away, buzzing down the hill toward the creek.
“Wait, bee...” whispered Alice. She cast another glance at Rose's back -- and she turned away and set off at a run down the slope. She might never see another bee again. “I won’t hurt you! Come back!”
The bee led her down through weedy grasses that whirred and squeaked with summer insects; to the muddy shore of the creek, where tadpoles darted from her splashing step. Alice waded in to her ankles before she stopped -- but the bee buzzed on ahead, a little puff of yellow floating in the air across the water toward the forest. Alice curled her hands into determined fists -- and with a swift decision she forged ahead, sloshing through the cool water to the pebbly shore on the other side.
She had never been allowed past the creek.
"Where are you going?" she dared to call out. The glint of gossamer wings caught her eye just before the little bee slipped into the forest.
Alice gave chase. She weaved her way through the trees, listening for the low gentle hum, watching for the telltale flash and flutter. She clambered up onto a fallen tree, and with arms outstretched she balanced along the broken trunk -- until the bee beckoned her deeper, through wild sprawling flowers and sun-green ferns, long curtains of vines and soft beds of moss.
Finally the bee settled upon a yellow daffodil. Alice knelt beside it, careful and breathless -- and with a caring touch she scooped the little bee into cupped hands.
She held it safe in sheltering fingers while it shuffled and buzzed and blinked on her palm; the tiny light on its back flickered a timid blue. It was certainly the same blue as an android's LED.
“Hello.” Alice leaned her eyes close. The bee flittered its wings; the little light flashed in response to her voice. So this wasn’t one of the extinct ones, after all -- but she was happy nonetheless to have found a new friend.
The bee raised its delicate wings, and Alice opened her hands to let it go. It floated, buzzing, away into the sun-kissed woods. With a whispered "bye," Alice crawled to her feet. She turned back the way she had come.
The rush of a breeze through the treetops filled her ears. Birds chirped and warbled; a squirrel chattered. A woodpecker sounded off against a high trunk. A rocky slope led further into the gully, where the sun gazed warm through the leaves. The grass and stones glowed in shifting dapples of light. A pretty little clearing sparkled with drops of white flowers; vines circled the mossy trunks of old trees. It was beautiful. She wished Kara could see it.
She stared around her, captivated ... alone.
Alice had no idea which way was home.