STRANGE HIGHWAYS, Science Fiction- Gardner Browning
Word Count: +50k, still in progress
Trekking a ghostly highway across a Void Land of hostile vagrants, mercenary Luna Briggs must save the man she loves from the death dealer he has become before he claims the power of a forgotten artificial intelligence and engineers an army of killers.
Strange Highways captures the hostile journey of the Road with the techno-thrill of Robopocalypse.
The Road – 2006- Cormac McCarthy. About the grueling journey of a father and his young son over a period of several months across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed industrial civilization and almost all life.
Robopocalypse – 2011- Daniel H. Wilson. Not far into our future, the dazzling technology that runs our world turns against us. Controlled by a powerful, artificial intelligence known as Archos, the global network of machines on which our world has grown dependent suddenly becomes a deadly foe.
Beyond the skyline of Karma City, a ghostly highway knifes across the Void Lands, a lawless backcountry of drifters and scavengers. Down this lonesome road, Jameson Shoals is a man on the run, desperate to keep the woman he loves, Luna Briggs, safe from the death-dealing alternate consciousness overtaking him. Brighton.
Controlling Jameson’s mind and body, Brighton murders his way to dominance across the Void Lands seeking the ruins of Echo City—once a prosperous center of super-science, that now only few remember. Brighton, however, believes he knows the city’s location and with its abandoned technology, he can engineer a brood of hive-minded killers to supplant mankind. One night, while Brighton sleeps, Jameson deploys a cunning plan hoping to grant Luna the edge to survive the Void Lands and stop Brighton.
As Luna and her allies—a scientist and a gun-slinging lawman—pursue Brighton, truths surrounding Echo City’s dark past emerge. Buried in its ruins, a powerful artificial intelligence waits for its chance at freedom. Will it surrender its technology to Brighton? Can Luna save the man she loves and prevent the engineering of an army of killers; or will she be lost down the Strange Highway like all who’ve come before?
All at once, his eyes became aware of the skeletons surrounding him.
They lay along the curbs, slumped on the porches, hanging out of windows, face-down in the bushes. Many wore remnants of clothing with clumps of hair still clinging to their skulls. They didn’t need faces to tell their stories. Some of the skeletons lay on top of one another, with limbs entangled. Fighting. Others froze in huddled mounds behind fences and sheds. Hiding. He found the ruins of a burned car with the blackened bones of the driver scattered all over the vehicle. He passed several skeletons laying with boney hands gripping rusted guns. Killers. Suicides.
Brighton chose homes at random and kicked open the doors. Each one was a tomb. The dead lay in their beds, crumpled on the stairs, or behind locked rooms. Dust filled their empty eye sockets and the permanent brown stains on the walls, ceilings and floors foretold ancient bloodshed.
Having spent most of the night and all of the morning walking, his body called for rest with sore feet, aching legs and stiff back. Choosing a ranch style house with an intact roof and doors, he forced his way inside and walked into the living room. The floorboards creaked as he approached the armchair in the center of the room. There sat a man of bones wearing an old fedora. His necktie hung in ribbons and not much remained of his jacket. The bone-face seemed to stare at this intruder.
“Good day, sir,” mocked Brighton. “Forgive my unannounced visit. You see, I’m very tired and need a place to rest a while.” He leaned forward pretending to hear a voice from the skeleton. “How rude. You want me to leave? Where is your wife, sir? Surely she’d be happy to have a dinner guest…I’m sorry…what did you just say?” Brighton straightened, looming over the remains of the dead. “How dare you!”
With a backhand swipe, Brighton knocked the skeleton from the armchair. The bones scattered across the room. He snatched up the fedora and dropped it on his head, then plopped down onto the rotting chair. A plume of dust blew from the cushions and he fanned it away, laughing softly, amused by his little game.
He leaned back and closed his eyes, thinking of Jameson. “Come out and play a while, old friend.” Jameson’s consciousness rose to the surface of their shared mind. Brighton could feel his presence. “What’s wrong, Jameson. Nothing to say?”
“Yes. You have nothing. No gunmen. No collateral. And worse, no food or water.”
“Look at this place, you fool. Do you know where we are?”
“This is not Echo City.”
“No. But close. These human remains are two hundred years old. They all went crazy. Malady. We are on the threshold of ground zero, the epicenter of the original outbreak. I can smell it.” He inhaled slowly, nose curling in disgust. “Worry not over provisions, Jameson. I’m sure there’s plenty worth scavenging in this dead place.”
“I’m surprised you’re so confident. The truth is, you don’t know where to go. You’ve lost track of Luna and now you know that Albert is on your trail and you bet he’s got a syringe full of Quell. And what about those goddamn robot things? You have no idea what they are. That’s a new variable, a wild card. You’re scared.”
“Those androids could have only come from a place of super science. Thus, Echo can’t be far.”
“That’s an assumption, worm. Making assumptions means making mistakes.”
Brighton rubbed the corners of his eyes. “I don’t know why I bother letting you out of your cage. All you ever do is piss me off.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Jameson, you know the adage ‘dead men tell no tales.’ Indeed, that’s a load of shit. The dead have said a great deal and their bones will lead me to Echo City. I’m not following a highway any longer. It’s a trail of death that guides me. There’s more death in the Void Lands than anything else. I can’t lose.”
Gardner Browning is a multi-published science fiction and fantasy writer. He was the recipient of the 2014 New Hampshire Writer's Project "Readers' Choice Award" and two of his novels were featured in an international English literacy program. His most recent novel, KARMA CITY, was published by Del Sol Press in 2019. Browning works as an assistant editor for the Algonkian New York Pitch Conference.