I’d like to thank those who have aided me in the preparation of this novel. To my mother and editor, Barbara, for her always insightful input. To my father, Derek, for passing his love of video games onto me and answering many of my science and tech questions related to the book.
To my beta readers who provided very valuable comments on earlier drafts: Claudia Pileggi, Julian Russell, Karine Weber, and my sister Carolyne.
I’d also like to thank my high school film teacher Ancil Deluz for his insight on the relationship between entertainment and society.
The tires screeched as Miller rounded the bend, another stretch of desert road looming in his headlights. He watched the speedometer tick past eighty and felt his heart pound so fast it hurt, an invisible vise tightening around his chest. Miller’s mind, however, was more preoccupied with other concerns. His eyes darted to the rear-view mirror. The night was black and empty behind him.
He knew they wouldn’t be far behind. There was no way they’d let him make it back to the city, he was too much of a liability now. He needed somewhere to get off the road and hide. But side-paths were few and far between, and they would undoubtedly check all of those within a twenty-mile radius. He swore under his breath.
Then, about half a mile up ahead, an oasis of light appeared at the side of the road. A lone red pickup was refueling at one of the pumps beneath an overhang with a big sign in cursive, neon red letters: Road Runner’s Gas & Diesel. A sense of relief started to come over Miller, but he knew he was far from out of the woods.
His rental car didn’t even begin to slow until he whipped into the gas station, narrowly missing the tail end of the pickup and sharply coming to a stop in one of the three parking spaces in front of the convenience store. Without turning off the vehicle, he threw the door open. A quick glance over his shoulder as he stumbled out of the car yielded no sign of any pursuers, so he quickly slammed the door shut and made for the store entrance. He heard the driver of the truck shout “Watch your driving, asshole!” but he barely registered it as he grabbed the handle and swung the glass door open.
A chime sounded as he entered and the sales clerk behind the counter, a lanky man with long hair and glasses, looked up from his phone. “Can I help you, sir?”
“No, no, I’m fine,” Miller managed to get out. His hands were shaking, his clothes were covered in desert dirt and dust, and there was a nasty cut on his forehead. He realized he was probably attracting unnecessary attention, but he didn’t care at the moment. Crouching by a rack of potato chips, he cautiously peered out the front window.
The woman with the pickup was cleaning her windshield with a squeegee while she waited for the pump to finish. The road beyond her was empty. Miller took several deep breaths, trying to regain any semblance of calm.
Any progress he made vanished as a pair of headlights appeared off in the distance to the east, the same direction he had come from. His heart beat faster again and he felt the urge to retch. As the vehicle drew nearer, he could see it was a black sedan, a mid-2010s Chevy Malibu.
It was them. There was no mistaking it.
Miller felt himself sink lower to the floor. His eyes were now perfectly level with the bottom of the window.
“Excuse me, sir?” he heard the clerk say.
The Malibu was now approaching the gas station, appearing to decrease its speed as it did so. Abruptly, Miller ducked down so that his entire body was out of sight. He felt his chest heaving in and out with each deep breath.
They might already be out there. He could picture the black car pulling into the spot beside his. Then the driver’s door would open and–
He couldn’t wait any longer. He had to look. Immediately, Miller poked his head up and took in the view outside. The Malibu was nowhere in sight. Looking to the right, he saw a pair of rear lights disappearing off into the night down the road.
A massive sigh of relief escaped him. He nearly collapsed to his knees. The bastards either hadn’t seen him or had just figured he wouldn’t have stopped here. He didn’t have much time though, they might come back. Just as Miller headed for the door, the clerk suddenly appeared in front of him.
“Excuse me sir, what’s going on?” he said.
“None of your business.”
“Sir, have you been abusing substances?”
“Sir, I don’t think you’re fit to drive.” Out of the corner of his eye, Miller saw the guy reaching his arm out to grab him.
In a flash, he whipped out the pistol he’d concealed in his jacket and aimed it squarely at the clerk. “
The man threw his hands up. “Okay, okay, take it easy…”
The clerk finally clued in, taking several big, reverse steps toward the counter. Miller didn’t waste another second. In a flash, he turned around, pushed through the door, and dashed to his car. He didn’t stop to see if the woman with the truck saw he had a gun. Miller opened the driver’s side door and scrambled inside, frantically fumbling with his seatbelt. He threw the car into reverse and gunned the engine. The sedan shot back out onto the main road and turned with a squeal of its tires. He shifted it into drive and revved forward, speeding off into the west.
Inside the store, the clerk wiped sweat from his brow as he dialed a number on the landline phone. After a moment, a voice answered with: “This is 9-1-1, please state your emergency.”
Miller didn’t pay any attention to the stop sign and careened straight out onto US-93’s southbound lane. Fortunately, there was no one else out here in the middle of nowhere, not at this time of night. From here it was mostly a straightaway back to civilization. The damn rental didn’t have automatic lane assist, so he had to keep one hand steady on the wheel as he pulled out his phone. Miller entered his passcode with his right hand, glancing up at the road every few seconds just to make sure he didn’t veer off.
Swiftly, he opened up the dialer, went to recent calls, and tapped on Lewis’s name. He brought the device to his ear, staring intently ahead at the endless stretch of asphalt while the barren desert passed in his peripheral. The phone kept ringing.
“Damnit Lewis, answer your fucking phone!”
His eyes darted around the landscape, taking in what he could see. The moon was a week away from being full, but there was still enough illumination to get a glimpse of the Mojave. It wasn’t flat out here; there were hills and rises all around, even mountains off in the distance. He wished he could enjoy it, but he hadn’t come here to play tourist.
A pre-recorded message of his friend’s voice began to play. “Hi, you’ve reached Desmond Lewis at the
Miller opened his mouth, prepared to speak, but an automated message began saying: “At the tone, please leave a detailed message…” He grunted and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited for it to finish its aggravating spiel. Finally, it ended.
The phone beeped.
“Alright Lewis, I want you to listen to me very carefully. I’ve stumbled onto something, and it’s big. I don’t know if I have much time before they find me, but if anything happens to me I want you, no matter what you do, to stay away from–”
It happened very quickly, so quickly Miller was surprised he was able to take it all in. A pair of headlights launched out at him from the left side of the road just up ahead. He jerked the wheel to the right as hard as he could. The highway was raised up here, and a guardrail separated the pavement from a steep hill that went down about twenty feet. The front of Miller’s car plowed into the railing at an angle, the impact causing his thumb to press down on the End Call icon before the device slipped free from his hand entirely. The next thing he knew, there was a hideous screech of metal as the railing gave way, scraping along the sides of the car as it kept going. The wheels lost contact with the ground, and for a moment the entire vehicle sailed through open air. Miller felt himself float upwards, suspended by his seatbelt.
Then the car hit the ground.