• “They’re back!”

    Jack stayed were he was as the others moved to greet the missing group that had finally arrived. Keeping his eyes on the fire at his feet, he listened as several cheerful voices greeted family members who had gone missing. Everyone in both groups looked a little worse for wear, and Jack was no exception. They had all been two months on the run, most of that through deserts with limited supplies. All of them were covered in dirt from head to toe, smelling of body odor and camp fire smoke. Every last one of them was sunburned, cut, bruised and most of all, tired. Jack didn’t raise his eyes until a heavy bag kicked up a cloud of dust and gravel to his right and Kevin sank down across from him, a smile on his face. “Some reception they gave us huh?”

    Jack didn’t say anything but just stirred the fire. “Where were you, Kevin?”

    Kevin chuckled slightly until he looked over to see Jack’s expression, making his cheerful one falter and vanish. “Is there some problem I don’t know about, Jack?”

    “Where did you take them?”

    Jack looked up when Kevin didn’t answer, meeting his eyes for a moment. While they looked at each other, Kevin’s features darkened. “We went for supplies.”

    “What were you thinking?” Both men were on their feet now and quickly drawing the attention of the rest of the group. “I was thinking about them, Jack. You can’t lead us over uncharted territory unprepared.” Jack actually laughed, and then motioned around the area they were in. “It’s the middle of the U.S. Kevin, the area is hardly uncharted.”

    “Leading us through open ground is dangerous!” Kevin yelled.

    “You leading them back to that city just put them and the entire group at risk.”

    “What is your problem, Jack?” Jack took a step back to breathe, running a hand through his hair before he looked back at Kevin. “You’re my problem; your stupid act just put the whole group at risk. I’m in charge and I don’t want the deaths of any more people to be my fault again.”

    “Again, what do you mean again?”

    - + - + - + -

    Jack remembered that fateful moment sixteen years prior to this whole mess, just before the invasion. Jack had sat drinking his morning coffee, watching the news on the small T.V. set they kept in the kitchen. His three-year-old was playing with his food in the booster seat pushed up to the table next to him. “Eat your food, Cody.”

    “Today in the United Nations, the announcement of the first ever fully functional human-like artificial intelligence…” Jack looked up from his crossword puzzle to watch for a few seconds as the reporter discussed with the inventor just what these robots were capable of. “What do you think, Cody: think they’re pretty impressive?”

    The three-year-old only pointed at the screen. “Ro-Ro, Dada.” Jack smiled at him as he picked up a Cheerio and placed it into the toddler’s mouth. “Yeah, I don’t think they’re that impressive either.”

    A year later, Jack remembered, everything had changed. Right out of what sounded like a science fiction novel, the robots had taken over, world-wide. Next always came the scene that would haunt him forever… “Take Cody and go, I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.” Jack handed Cody through the busted car window to his wife before he started to climb out. She ran off down the road with their son. As soon as he was free of the practically crushed car he turned to reach in and grab the backpack from the rear seat. But he stopped when he heard the whirr and click of gears behind him. “Halt, hands on your head.”

    Jack froze; placing his hands on his head as he slowly backed out of the car window and without being told, knelt on the ground. His eyes closed as he felt the end of a gun dig into the middle of his shoulder blades. “Identification: Jack Connelly, twenty-three. Failed in apprehending subject’s spouse, Rachel and son, Cody. Where have they gone?”

    Jack felt his throat constrict, and he clenched his eyes tighter together as the gun dug further into his back, shoving him forward. Bigger then the fear of dying at the moment was the horror that arose when he heard himself reply. “Canada.” Jack stared at the ground as all those memories flashed through his head once again.

    - + - + - + -

    Everyone else watched him in silence waiting for his answer to that triggering question. A moment later he cleared his throat to break the silence and push the subject aside. “Never mind, just forget it.” As he moved to walk away, Kevin grabbed the front of his jacket and forced him to turn around. “Hey, you started yelling at me remember? I’m not going to forget something like that. If you are going to start yelling at me for putting the group at risk and then say something like that you sure as hell owe me an explanation.”

    Jack barely looked at him as he smacked his arm away. “I don’t owe you anything.”

    He got about fifteen feet away before Kevin’s voice stopped him in his tracks. “Who died, Jack?”


    “Who died? Obviously somebody died and obviously it was your fault.”

    Jack slowly turned around to look back at Kevin through the gap in the crowd of people. “Shut up, Kevin. You don’t know what you are talking about.”

    Kevin didn’t budge. “Oh, don’t I? You do something reckless, Jack? Did you get someone killed? Is that why you are on my case all the time, because you feel guilty?” The whole time Kevin had been talking Jack had been walking back and he shoved Kevin backward hard. “I said shut up.”

    Kevin only smiled in triumph. “I’m right aren’t I? You got someone killed.”

    Just as Jack grabbed the front of Kevin’s shirt to throttle him, another voice came out of the crowd of spectators. “Kevin, knock it off. Jack, let him go. You don’t need to sink to his level.”

    Every one looked over at the girl who had spoken up. A girl named Arie watched as Jack let go and then only followed after him when everyone else had gone back to doing their own things. She caught up to him easily and then sat down on a slab of rock to sit next to him. “You, want to talk about it?”

    Jack only shook his head as he looked out over the desert landscape, the campfires behind them, leaving heat to their backs and the cold desert air on their faces. Arie had been in charge of the refugees when they first ran into Jack. After a couple of weeks she had relinquished her leadership over to him, although it was common feeling that she was second in command. “You sure? It doesn’t help to keep things like that to yourself. It will only eat you alive. Like a coyote, or a mountain lion. ”

    Jack looked toward her although she wasn’t looking at him anymore. “What?”

    She shrugged before looking at him. “Just making sure you were listening. Come on Jack, talk to me about it. I promise you’ll feel better once you get it off your chest. I was a doctor after all; emotional stress is just another kind of disease.”

    “You weren’t a doctor; you studied diseases as a hobby for fun. You worked in a bookstore.” She had told him that fact shortly after they had met and he had wanted to know about everyone in the group. She waved it off as if it was nothing more then a minor detail. “Don’t change the subject. Come on, lay it on me.”

    “I would rather not.”

    “Too personal, huh?” Jack turned to walk away but she moved into his way. “Okay, you’re not taking this seriously. Please tell me what happened. I really can help if you’ll let me.”

    Jack only looked down at her as she looked up at him, her dark brown hair pulled back into a pony-tail from her tanned and dirt covered face. “Come on Jack. Just talk to me about it.”

    Jack sighed in defeat, not sure how to start as he walked back over and sank back down on the rocks they had been sitting on before. “Kevin had it right. I got someone very close to me killed. It’s been hard to forget and even harder to forgive myself. I still have nightmares about it.”

    Arie walked over and sat down, pulling her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. “Who was it?”

    He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a picture, handing it over to her. There was little use for a wallet out here but Jack found it hard to part with. “My wife Rachel and our four-year-old son, Cody. During the invasion of the city we got separated.”

    Arie looked at the picture for a while, her thumb lightly rubbing over the face of the little boy sitting on the Jack’s lap his wife’s arms wrapped around his neck from behind. Then she handed it back over to Jack. “So, what happened?”

    “They took off and I was going to meet up with them later. But I got caught almost immediately.”

    “Then, how did you cause their deaths? If they got away…”

    “I’m not sure they did.”

    “Oh.” Jack sighed and was quiet for a while, not really comfortable with talking about his family. Arie was patient with him and simply waited quietly for him to continue, watching his face as he looked out over the desert landscape, “So, it’s possible that they got away.”

    “But I gave them away…” Arie stopped looking at him; a little confused Jack pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it to her. Catching the small glass bottle before it hit the ground; Arie turned it over to look at the label. “Oracle?”

    Jack nodded, “It’s a drug, used by the robots. The name Oracle comes from the Latin word ‘ōrāre’ meaning to speak. They inject it into the base of the neck and it makes you talk. You’ll tell them the truth about anything.”

    Arie turned the bottle over in her hands looking intently at the clear liquid inside. “You know Jack, if they gave you this, then it isn’t your fault. You had no choice…. What’s wrong?”

    Jack had turned away again using the back of his hand to wipe his mouth. “They didn’t give it to me…”


    “They didn’t give me the drug, they didn’t have to.” She was shocked, looking down at the bottle in her hand again. Something that was so small suddenly felt like a rock and felt cold as ice. Jack’s confession had sent shivers down her spine. Jack had told them without any extra incentive the whereabouts of his family. Out of what, fear? “That’s why you carry this isn’t it? So you’ll remember.”

    Jack sighed again and held out his hand for the bottle. “I shouldn’t forget about something like that.”

    Arie looked down at the bottle in her hands one more time before her fingers tightened around it. She looked at him once and then threw the bottle away before Jack could stop her. The glass was barely visible in the fading light and the firelight before it came down and shattered against the rocks, wetting the rough surface of the rocks with the liquid inside. Jack seemed to freeze the moment the glass shattered, staring wide-eyed at the shambles of the broken bottle. “Why did you do that?”

    She made a motion of dusting off her hands as if they were covered in dirt before looking at Jack. “What would the rest of the group say if they knew you were carrying around a drug that the robots use?”

    “I would never use it on any of them.”

    “I know that, but they wouldn’t. Do you honestly think that any of them, especially Kevin among them, are going to understand that you are just carrying it around as a reminder of what you did? Now usually, I’m pretty understanding about people’s privacy when it comes to personal issues. But unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of thinking like that anymore, Jack.

    “Our personal feelings don’t get to come into account anymore, because when you are in a position like we are, every thought and decision affects everyone else. Our pasts no matter how horrible, or what we did in them, don’t matter anymore.”

    Jack was speechless as he listened to everything she said. He looked back at the group as they laughed, enjoying one of the rare moments when there was no immediate threat looming over their heads. For now there were no helicopters or sirens, as far as they knew, anyone on their trail tracking them down. For now they could rest. Arie untied the long sleeve shirt from around her waist and pulled it on to ward off the cooling night air. “I’m sorry about what happened with you and your family, Jack. Maybe what Kevin did was a little reckless and dangerous. But what he did had to be done and we needed the supplies. I know that you’re scared. One day we’ll turn around and there the robots will be and all our running will have been for nothing. We all get that feeling from time to time.”

    Jack closed his eyes, feeling for the first time that day, the return of the exhaustion he had been feeling all week. “I just don’t want to let them down.”

    Arie smiled, reaching up to put her hand firmly on his shoulder. “You won’t, you are a good leader Jack. They all trust you with their lives. I trust you, or I wouldn’t have stepped aside to let you take charge. I’ll tell you something else, Jack. Even though you feel guilty about your family, I know they wouldn’t blame you.”

    She let go then, letting her hand trail down the side of his arm before heading back toward the fires to get warm and join the others. She only stopped to look back when she heard Jack call out behind her, “Arie… Thank you.”

    She smiled warmly back at him. “You’re welcome, Jack.”