Book: Master



Master

Master





Master

Animus™ Book Seven

Joshua Anderle

Michael Anderle


Master



This book is a work of fiction.


All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.

Copyright © 2019 Joshua Anderle and Michael Anderle

Cover Art by Jake @ J Caleb Design

http://jcalebdesign.com / [email protected]

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing

A Michael Anderle Production

LMBPN Publishing supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.

The distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109

First US edition, May 2019

eBook ISBN: 978-1-64202-314-5



Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Origin: Alexander Laurie

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Author Notes - Michael

Books by Michael Anderle

Connect with The Authors

Master Team


Thanks to the JIT Readers

Nicole Emens

Kelly O’Donnell

John Ashmore

Jeff Eaton

Jeff Goode

Larry Omans

Joshua Ahles

If I’ve missed anyone, please let me know!

Editor

The Skyhunter Editing Team










To Family, Friends and

Those Who Love

to Read.

May We All Enjoy Grace

to Live the Life We Are

Called.


Chapter One

K aiden sat on a bench in the carrier terminal and scowled at the slight downpour. The rain wasn’t exactly a surprise in the northwest, even with the regulation of the biospheres. What was odd was how late the carriers were running. The one he waited for should have been there ten minutes earlier.

He had hoped that by arriving the night before the year was supposed to start he would have an easier time getting in and setting up, but man, the trip from his last gig back to Seattle had been rough. The piece of junk dropship he’d traveled on had rattled all the way, and his head had bobbed around like it was in an old paint shaker.

Of course, that had exacerbated yet another headache coming on that he had hoped to avoid. He grimaced and fumbled in his pocket for a strip of tablets, popped one out, and tossed it in his mouth, chasing it with a large swig of water from his canteen.

“Are you all right, partner?” Chief asked.

“I have another of those headaches. They’re not as regular now but every now and then, one sneaks in. It’s more annoying than anything else.” He slid the strip into his pocket and took another sip of water.

“Considering those are probably the result of the whole mind integrating with a virtual space thing without the assistance of the right gear, it’s actually quite amazing that’s the only problem you have.”

“I can tell when you’re fishing, you know.” Kaiden chuckled. “Do you want me to give you props about that still?”

“Hey, I understand if you’re disappointed. I’m curious what a human brain looks like as soup too.”

He laughed. “Asshole, you know you would have disappeared along with me if that was the case.”

“Either that or I would have got a bitchin’ pool,” Chief quipped.

Kaiden shook his head, but a smile crept onto his face. “I do mean it, even if I’ve already said it plenty. Thanks, Chief, you really came through there.”

The EI appeared before him. “There’s the good stuff. A little more humility would be nice to go with it, but I’ve realized I should take what I can.” He twirled and his eye jiggled up and down as Kaiden stared at him. “Uh, why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know—weirdly, like you only now see me for the first time and I look like the disembodied head of your childhood pet.”

“That’s specific,” he muttered and shrugged. “I don’t know, but for the last little while, you’ve looked…more real when I see your avatar bouncing around.”

“I’ve looked like this since you got the upgrade,” Chief pointed out. “I guess the fun in the Animus really knocked some things around in there, huh? I haven’t noticed, to be honest. It’s usually a pigsty anyway.”

“No, I mean…before, I could see you but it was obvious you were artificial—like a high-end video game model—but now you look… Well, you still look weird since you’re a floating orb with a cyber eye, but more like you could actually be something I would bump into.” He raised a hand and swiped it through the EI.

“Hey,” Chief shouted and floated back while he shifted from a bright green color to an angry red. “Watch your hands, buddy.”

“I only wanted to check. Maybe I am being weird about it,” he said with another shrug.

“You think?” The red faded a little.

“You also sound cleaner. Are you sure Laurie didn’t beef you up or something while I was out?” Kaiden asked.

“Nah. Your mind wasn’t in the best condition to do anything like that. Maybe when the device was reactivated, it smoothed things out. You haven’t exactly allowed the professor to do all the tune-ups he wanted to do.”

“Ironically, I think I’m more willing to do that now, considering we don’t really know what could have happened with you or the device. Laurie rooting around my brain seems preferable to simply letting remnants of the Animus and Gin’s virus possibly float around.” He tapped his fingers on the bench and stared at the stars. He obviously couldn’t see it from where he was, but the station Gin had been cremated at floated around somewhere up there. “I still think about that bastard now and then. Hopefully, he’ll disappear eventually.”

Chief adjusted his color from red to a light-blue and drifted closer. “Don’t sweat it, buddy. He didn’t get ya, and you’ll be ready for the next one.”

“Damn straight,” Kaiden vowed. He glanced at a few carriers that had arrived at virtually the same time. “Finally.” He sighed, stood quickly, and adjusted his backpack before he snagged the two bags on the floor. “At least I’m traveling relatively light this year.”

“I still say you should have brought your gear with you. If you plan to take gigs, it’s better to have it close by so you can suit up and go.”

“After Gin’s infiltration, security is almost draconian this year. Even with Wolfson’s intervention, there’s no way I can bring in rank-five armor, a rifle with disintegration capabilities, and a pistol with rapid-fire lasers.”

“Do you still have that static pistol from year one?” Chief asked.

“Yeah, but I won’t be able to carry it anymore. Wolfson has it locked up and I can only use it at the range and in training.”

“Bummer.”

“It’s all right.” A carrier pulled up beside him and the loading areas opened. He tossed his bags in and made his way to the door, which slid open as he arrived. He displayed his Nexus ID and the driver nodded. Kaiden took a seat in the back and shifted into a comfortable position while a few others boarded. “I got that pistol when I was an initiate because I was paranoid and had never known a life where I didn’t constantly have to be ready to fight.”

“Do you feel differently now? Even considering everything that happened?”

“Yeah. I know I have people looking out for me now.” Rain pattered on the window and he watched the drops slide across the glass. “And if there is anyone else gunning for me now, I’ll be ready for them. That’s why I came back.”


Master

Juro Sasaki stepped out of his transport and one of his bodyguards volunteered to carry his case. When he held a hand up to decline the offer, the guard nodded and stepped in front of him to lead. He took one last look at the ship and checked his reflection in the glass before it flew off. His hair was still combed back and his dark suit meticulously aligned. He ran his fingers along a crease on his purple shirt and nodded as he tweaked it into place. The ship moved away at the same moment that he looked around him.

He and his three guards made their way to the center of the platform. One of his colleagues, Jensen Pope, walked to the same destination from the opposite platform wearing a crisp dark-blue dress shirt with grey slacks. He broke into an affable smile when he noticed Sasaki.

“Good to see you stop by, Juro.” He punctuated the greeting with a swift nod. “I missed you at the last meeting.”

Sasaki closed his eyes briefly. There wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the councilman’s attitude, but the laid-back demeanor Jensen displayed always unsettled him. This was important work—work that needed to remain a secret. Having such a potentially loose-lipped person on the organization’s council was a problem in his eyes.

Then again, he had been selected over Zubanz, and he at least was alive. In that respect, he showed he was worth their leader’s commendation.

“Hello, Jensen,” he responded after only the barest hesitation. He, his guards, and Jensen stood in the center of the platform. “I see you have no retainers.”

“Unlike most of you, I don’t really have much of a profile. I’m not important or powerful enough to have people after my head quite yet,” he replied and slid his hands into his pockets as he took a step closer into the circle. “I’ll have to get a recommendation from you when the time comes.”

The scanner wasn’t visible, at least to the naked eye, but Juro could almost swear he could feel it float over him whenever he was this close to the other man. “Considering the recent developments, I would suggest you hire some protection as soon as you are able to. We are not as deep in the shadows as we once were.”

“Are you talking about that Gin thing?” Jensen asked. He drew one hand out of his pocket and clicked an emblem on his lapel. “He might have babbled somewhat, but really, who will believe a crazy?”

Juro followed his companion’s movements as the man pinched a pin on the neck of his suit. A light buzz was instantly silenced. “There are already people who suspect there is something amiss.”

“Aren’t conspiracies like that always?”

He scoffed. “We operate under the guise of a conspiracy that has been known about for years and uphold their values as well as their name. Not all conspiracies might be true, but they start from somewhere.” The platform they were on began to shift and they adjusted to accommodate the motion. “And if Gin did talk, he potentially told someone who was already looking into us.”

“If everyone is so paranoid about that, shouldn’t we simply kill them? It’s not like Dario isn’t always looking for an excuse,” Jensen pointed out as the hiss of locks opening sounded around them and the platform slowly descended into the tower below.

“That might be a possibility, but for now, we can continue to move unobstructed as we currently do,” he stated as the platform lowered and the panel above them closed. “It is easier to move as a ghost.”

“You can’t touch anything, though,” his colleague countered with a shrug. “Unless you’re talking about a different kind of ghost.”

He gave him a sideways glance. “I believe you are taking the metaphor too literally.”

“I might be. It would help if you didn’t always speak that way, you know,” he retorted. His smartass backtalk was another reason Juro didn’t care for him.

The platform reached its destination and the doors opened into an opulent room with several sculptures bathed in artificial light. Various terminals surrounded an enormous screen and a large table stood in the middle of the room. Jensen stepped in quickly but Juro raised a hand and pointed silently to direct his guards to take their positions. They nodded and obeyed, and he walked toward the table while he made a quick scrutiny to determine who was already present.

Damyen Orlov, the headmaster of the Russian Ark academy, waited quietly near one of the sculptures. Yadira Lobo, one of Mexico’s delegates to the World Council was currently in discussion with Xiulan Lin, the CEO of a Chinese medicinal company. Jensen walked over to greet Nolan Pocock, one of the generals in the UEA. Six of them had already arrived, which meant that four were either on their way or would participate remotely.

Over and above those four was the leader of the Arbiter Organization. Juro hadn’t seen him in person in months and he had hoped he would deign to appear today. It seemed a valid expectation considering this meeting heralded the start of their upcoming plans. Unfortunately, it appeared to not be enough to entice him, so he would be the one to chair the meeting.

He placed his case on the table and took his seat. “I shall begin this meeting shortly,” he announced crisply.

“Even without the others?” Jensen broke away from his conversation with Nolan to look at the chairman. “If you’ll simply send them a message with the details of our discussion, can I sign myself up for the list?”

“They will attend the meeting through hologram and have been warned,” Juro stated coldly and looked around the room. “Our leader is not fond of those who do not take their place here seriously. I’m sure you have all heard what happened to Ms. Sharrow?”

Jensen grimaced. “Yeah, Adela…”

“She shouldn’t have spent all that time primping and used it to advance the mission instead,” Yadira said dismissively. “I can understand why she’s gone.”

“We lost a lot of funding, though,” Damyen said as he took his seat. “Her trust still helps with funding the academy, however.”

“Her finances still further our goals,” Xiulan stated. “The leader made sure of that before he sent Dario to terminate her.” She looked at Nolan. “Speaking of finances, I would like to know how mine was spent. Have you secured the party?”

Before the general could speak, Juro held a hand up. “That is one of the matters we are here to discuss. Now, if you would all take your seats, please, we can proceed.”

The group gathered at the table and he glanced up when three holograms appeared. Chana Rosenfeld, Oliver Solos, and Qiana Karimi materialized in their seats.

“Good of you to join us,” he greeted with the smallest trace of disapproval at their tardiness. “That only leaves—”

The door to the room opened once again and Thomas Thorne entered hurriedly. He adjusted his oculars and bowed. “My apologies for being late.”

“You are right on time, Professor Thorne. We are about to begin.”

Thomas nodded and moved quickly to his chair. “I have exciting news on my project. We have made a great breakthrough—”

“We will hear it soon enough.” Juro interrupted the flustered professor before he could launch into his explanation. “For now, I wish to begin by speaking about recent events.”

“A pointless exercise,” Qiana huffed. “We are all well aware of the current issues.”

“It’s standard, Mrs. Karimi,” Oliver countered. “It’s merely so we are all aware of what the leader is looking into.”

“Where is he, then?” she asked. “My time is precious—all of ours is. I’m sure I could get more done working on my end than attending these pointless meetings. Not to mention the day to day affairs in my company.”

“How has the buyout progressed?” Juro asked, leading her off her possible protest and into a more meaningful focus.

“The sale completed last night, but I still have many legal issues to—”

“And you know the sale wouldn’t have been as smooth without his help,” he said and effectively cut her off.

She fell silent and looked at the chairman after a moment of thought. “I am aware of this, yes.”

“That wasn’t meant as an insult, but I wanted to point out that we all benefit from his help. The least we can do in appreciation is to acquiesce to his wishes and act professionally.”

“The end goal is more important than all our individual problems anyway,” Damyen added.

“Do you have the Animus system updated at your academy?” Nolan asked.

The headmaster nodded and smiled widely. “We will be on an equal footing with the Nexus academy before too long. Once we have the updates and the incentives in place, I’m sure we will be the premiere Ark academy in only a few years.”

“So the fallback plan is proceeding as planned. Very good.” Juro nodded.

“Fallback plan?” Karimi asked. “I was led to believe this was instrumental to the mission.”

“It is important, yes, but the plans have shifted. Which is the point of this meeting.”

“Not so trivial, eh, Karimi?” Jensen teased and received a glare in response.

“No need for pettiness, Jensen,” Chana scolded.

Juro focused on Nolan. “I want to begin by asking about the progress of your assignment, General.”

“It is well underway,” he stated and glanced at the screen. “Activate…open project Y2K.”

“Named after the fear of system failure from the late nineteen-hundreds,” Xiulan mused thoughtfully. “Cute.”

“I’m glad you approve,” he said with a nod as details of the mission appeared on the screen. “To answer your question from before, Ms. Liu, I have indeed procured the party. In fact, they are already on their way to the target.”

“I still think we could have gone with someone else,” Oliver related. “With as much money as we side-lined for this mission, we could have simply bought a mercenary company.”

“Yes, very stealthy,” Jensen said and rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Stealth isn’t much of an option here,” Nolan reasoned and changed the screen to an outline of a building. “Ramses Corporation’s building has top-notch internal security systems. In addition, the device is secured within its own protected room and container. In the time allotted, there is no conceivable way we would be able to find the correct team to circumvent the security and still be able to access the room to steal the device unseen.”

“Which is why we went with the EX-10,” Chana continued. “They have proven themselves effective at wet work and infiltration. Also, they have a reputation for stealing new tech around the system and on Earth and selling it on the black and underground markets.”

“Because the last time we had hired help, it went so well,” Damyen muttered and glared at his colleagues.

“Don’t look at me,” Oliver snapped. “I didn’t vote to go with Zubanz’s scheme.”

“Admittedly, I gave the okay because I knew he felt bad about being passed over,” Jensen confessed.

“You were the one who took his potential position,” Yadira noted, “and he merely schemed to look good so he could usurp it.”

“And look how that turned out.” Jensen chuckled.

“You expected him to die?” Damyen asked.

“What makes you think that?” he responded. “I honestly thought it had a chance, but I’ll admit that I also expected Gin would simply take the money and run.”

“A failure for one of us, even a lower ranking member, is a failure for the organization,” Karimi stated.

“I’ll make a note of it, but don’t act like I was the one who sabotaged it,” Jensen muttered.

“Moving past this prattle, when can we expect them to begin, Nolan?” Juro asked.

The general changed the screen to show the interior of a ship with ten people in dark armor aboard. “I’ve kept a watch on our contractors. They will arrive on Earth in a day, after which they will prepare and initiate the mission on Friday evening.”

“Very good, we shall reconvene then to watch it play out,” the chairman said with a decisive nod. “Once they have the device, we shall be one step closer—even if it is a small one—to preparing for the invasion.”




Chapter Two

L aurie moved from the mainframe terminal to one of the servers where he opened a holoscreen to look within and scan the code. His gaze darted around the screen and glanced repeatedly at the mainframe terminal. His purpose was to triple-check the integration process of the Animus pods and smooth it with the necessary adjustments. Unfortunately, he had to go through this entire bay of servers and check on the BREW OS. Granted, it wasn’t so much its own OS at the moment as it was the Frankenstein-like replacement it had been for the last few months.

Cyra and the others had all concurred that it was fixed and his plan had worked. It hadn’t honestly been his plan—it was the last ditch effort of a desperate man—but it happened to work. Still, despite its apparent success, he had always known there would be more to do once the BREW had combined with the Animus.

The problem was that he hadn’t yet worked out what it actually all meant. The Animus now functioned faster than ever before. Those who had gone into the system in trials over the last few weeks reported quicker syncing and more realistic sensations—even if their descriptions were as inane as “the smell of the dust is heavier.” If anything, given the magnitude of the original problem, they were lucky it worked at all. The so-called upgrades were merely a bonus. But were they? Had he not paid enough attention to the deeper parts of the Animus? Was there another virus lurking there, waiting for the opportune moment? Had he allowed the creation of a back door into their mainframe?

When he’d first begun his investigation, he had expected to complete it in a couple of weeks at the most. He was confident in both his abilities and his system, but as he worked methodically through the various components, what should have been pride in the remarkable capability of his creation became paranoia. Perversely, it was initiated and fueled by the simple truth that he found nothing out of place— in fact, it was vastly improved. There should have at least been traces of junk code or peculiar commands, nothing serious but enough to dust away and clean up. An entire system didn’t simply get infested and actually work better than ever after desperate technical triage.

The doors to the mainframe room opened but Laurie didn’t look up. He had a good idea who it was. Either Cyra coming to check up on him or—

“Laurie, it’s past midnight,” Sasha pointed out and his shoes tapped on the floor as he approached. Another set of taps confirmed his fears—Sasha and Cyra. Oh, joy.

“You know I am accustomed to working long hours, Sasha,” he replied as he closed the holoscreen and walked to another server.

“Yes, but not for this long,” his visitor stated.

“You’ve worked nonstop for weeks, Professor,” Cyra said, her concern evident in her voice. “We can see it in your face—you’re gaunt and there are bags under your eyes.”

“A quick trip to a purifier center will fix the latter problem,” Laurie muttered. “As for the weight I’ve lost, I plan to enjoy a great selection of cheeses, meats, and fish along with a generous serving of wine to celebrate having everything back in order.”

“And when will this celebration take place?” the commander asked.

“Are you hoping for an invite, Sasha?” he asked. The tone made a vague attempt to be humorous but it was negated by the ragged edge to his voice. “I’ll be sure to let you know. For now, I have one more thing to do before I turn in.”

“That’s something you’ve said the last few times I’ve checked in on you,” the other man retorted. “And from what Cyra has told me, you’ve given her the same excuse. Either you plan to do more than one thing, or your one thing takes hours.”

“How is that an issue?” Laurie demanded, his tone edging toward irate. “My main function here is to overlook the Animus. I’m merely doing my job.”

“Sir, we’ve updated the system at least five times in the last three months. That’s more than double what we’ve done in a year for over a decade,” Cyra protested. She reached hesitantly to place a hand on her boss’ shoulder. “Everything is in order, Professor. You’ve examined it extensively and I’ve done the same. Not only that, the techs at this academy have combed through the entire system. Everything is in place.”

“That’s what concerns me,” he replied and moved briskly to another system. Cyra stared at him in confusion and Sasha approached with a small frown.

“Do you think this is too good to be true, then?” he asked.

“Be hopeful but cautious,” Laurie said and opened another holoscreen. “That is a simple piece of wisdom from my father. In science—and specifically, technology—you can plan and execute as flawlessly as you are able, but we are naturally flawed beings trying to design perfect creations. It’s not a realistic goal but we strive for it anyway.”

Sasha and Cyra exchanged a hasty glance and the commander nodded in an effort to reassure her while the other man rambled.

“My point is that there is a time when your hope should be overridden by your caution. This was done too well. The BREW device integrated within the Animus too perfectly.”

“You do know that the BREW device was created by the Tessa company? One of our contacts and a valued partner,” Sasha reminded him.

“True, but Gin had it for at least two months from the day of his infiltration and massacre to his speculated intrusion into our school.”

“You believe he could have done something to it? He had above par hacking abilities but nothing that could have—”

“Did you have a look at the cracked EI he used? The one that could shut down any device or power line simply by looking at it?” Laurie questioned sharply. “He might have built it, but I know of several underground hackers who could fashion such a thing. Imagine what he could accomplish if he allowed one of them to tinker with the BREW. Hell, maybe he had a sub-routine developed within the BREW itself. It’s certainly possible.”

“He was obsessed with his objective, Laurie. He might have wanted Nexus to suffer in some form or fashion, but Kaiden was his primary target. Otherwise, there were better ways to use the device—Laurie?” Sasha reached out when the professor began to stagger. Cyra ran forward quickly as he fell and the commander caught him, “Are you all right?”

“I’m a little…I’ll be fine,” he muttered and tried to force himself upright. “There are still things I need to do before the Academy opens tomorrow.”

“You’ve done enough,” the other man stated firmly with a quick look at Cyra. “Can you go over the system and activate a quick check? Make sure it’s working for the first tests?”

“It won’t be a problem,” Cyra promised. “Please make sure the professor gets some rest.”

He nodded and slung one of Laurie’s arms around his shoulder. “Let’s go, Laurie.”

The professor muttered something, but it was too low to be heard. He allowed his companion to support him to the elevators that would take them to the lobby of the Animus Center. “They will be all right, won’t they, Sasha?”

The commander frowned as he considered the question. “You’re more rattled than you’ve let on.”

“I’ve spent years thinking of my achievements, Sasha, and never once thought of the potential consequences or the fact that they can be used against me,” he admitted. His gaze remained fastened on the floor. “Even after the Neurosiks incident, I chalked that up to someone reaching above their station, trying to emulate me without having the talent. But this time, it was my own hubris at fault. And I wasn’t the one to pay for it.”

“No one holds this against you, Laurie—not me, not Kaiden, and not even the board, and you know at least two of them hate you.” The elevator stopped, opened, and they walked across the lobby and out onto the Academy plaza.

“Where are we going?” the professor asked.

“I’m taking you to transport to send you home.”

“Take me to my office. I have a bed there,” he requested.

“All right, but you had better use it.”

“As much as I might wish to continue working, I admit I feel rather faint now. I don’t think I could crawl back at this point.”

“That’s good to know.” They reached the side of the R&D department and Sasha held his hand against a portion of the wall. It glowed blue for a moment before a section opened to reveal another elevator. They stepped in and it took them silently to its only destination—Laurie’s office. Once inside, they moved through to his private quarters behind his desk and the man eased himself down on the bed.

Laurie sighed and fixed his gaze on the commander. “You didn’t answer my question—will they be all right?”

Sasha looked down, a little hesitant. “I know this has been troubling and it is a promise we have broken.” He finally met his colleague’s gaze. “But I have sworn to every student who returns that we will see this through. They will be watched over and this won’t happen again.”

“Ever again,” Laurie agreed and turned wearily onto his side. “Do you think that about Kaiden too?”

“Of course.” He nodded, but as soon as the other man’s question left his lips, Sasha could hear rhythmic breathing. He was already asleep. “But you should know that Kaiden is exceptionally adept at finding his own trouble.”


Chapter Three

K aiden hung back a little while the other students stepped off the carriers. He immediately noticed that some of them stared or gawked at him and raised his hand to indicate that he was aware of the attention. They hustled away quickly, talking amongst themselves. He sighed regretfully. Last year, they had stared at him in awe due to his scores. Now, word had spread that he was the reason Gin had attacked. It wasn’t totally true, of course, but enough so that he was now the subject of gossip.

“Does it feel good to be back, partner?” Chief asked. The ace studied the academy grounds to give himself a moment to move past his irritation.

“Yeah, even if it’s because I still have a lot to prove.”

His name being shouted caught his attention, even above all the voices talking at once. This one was unmistakable, mostly because he called him “mate.”

“Flynn, is that you?” he called back and searched the crowd. He finally located the shaggy blond who gestured demandingly a few yards away. He waved with real enthusiasm when Flynn, Marlo, and Julius’ group made their way over.

“Hey, Kaiden, how was your break, mate?” the marksman asked.

“Fairly good. I kept busy, even with the extra time this year.” He couldn’t help a grin as he took in all the cheerful faces. “You know, it seems like there are fewer people here now. Even the new arrivals seem less than last year.”

“It’s to be expected, right?” Otto reasoned. “I’m actually impressed that so many stayed, and the new arrivals are actually on par with what they were before our first year.”

“There are less Tsuna, though,” Julius noted.

“I guess they will address that at the assembly,” Kaiden reasoned. He hoped that didn’t mean the Tsuna would cut back on sending students in the long term.

“We don’t have an assembly today—at least it’s not on the schedule,” Marlo stated and peered at the tablet in his hand.

The ace frowned. “Really? Then when do we—”

“Kaiden! Flynn!” Amber made her way over with another girl beside her. The stranger had long blonde hair and wore a technician’s jacket.

“Hey, Amber, I wondered why you weren’t with your partners here. I could see Flynn getting anxious,” Kaiden joked and waved in welcome. He looked at the other girl. “And who might this be?”

“I was about to introduce her.” Amber stepped aside and gestured at the new arrival. “This is Indre. She’s my cousin and transferred here from the Ark academy in Britain.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” His greeting was immediately echoed by Julius, Otto, and Mack, who also introduced themselves.

“The pleasure is mine. Amber has told me a lot about you, Mr. Jericho,” the girl stated politely.

“Are you an initiate?” he asked.

“No, I’m a master as well.”

“They don’t worry so much about the formalities here,” he quipped with a smile.

“Wait, does that mean you want the underclassman to address you as mister?” Flynn asked and received only a wry grin from his friend in response.

“Sorry, we ran a little late and had to finish some last-minute paperwork,” Amber explained.

“It’s all good.” Kaiden studied the newcomer with casual interest. “A technician, huh? What class?”

“Agent,” she replied.

“Agent? I don’t think I’ve worked with one of those,” Julius admitted.

“They are a rare group. Most techies go into the operator or hacker class. The agents are like the yang to an infiltrator’s yin. They are excellent hackers who also work out in the open, akin to spies,” Otto informed them.

“Neat. It looks like Chiyo might finally have someone to talk shop with,” Kaiden noted.

“Everyone knows it was lost on you.” Chief’s little dig accompanied his sudden appearance in front of the group, which made Indre step back in surprise.

“Hello again to you too, Chief,” Amber said cheerfully and grinned at her cousin. “It’s all right. That’s Chief, Kaiden’s EI.”

“Oh, right.” The girl nodded and relaxed. “You did tell me he was special.”

“Howdy, new girl, and you better believe I am,” the EI proclaimed as he twirled dramatically.

Amber chuckled at his boisterousness before her gaze focused on the crowds around them. “I don’t see the others.” She took out a tablet. “Hey, Luna?”

“Yes?” A light blue nymph EI with wireframe wings appeared. “Would you like me to find your other friends, Amber?”

“I think I might have mentioned it before, but that is a nauseously cute EI for what we usually do,” Kaiden commented wryly.

“Hey, I ain’t complaining. Besides, not every EI can have the swagger I have,” Chief stated.

“You are a damn ball.” Kaiden deadpanned and stared at the EI as he turned and glared at him.

“It looks like you don’t need to, Luna,” Amber stated as she smiled and waved. “I see them coming over—hey, guys!”

“What’s up, fellow masters!” Luke shouted. He walked toward them with Cameron, Raul, Jaxon, Silas, and Izzy.

Que Pasa. ” Cameron shook hands with Flynn. He fixed a brief, stern look on Kaiden that he returned before he smiled and offered a fist that the ace knocked with his own. “It looks like the gang is getting back together—the good ones at least, except you, Kai.”

“Keep talking that shit. See if I back you up the next time you have a team of droids coming after ya,” Kaiden warned sarcastically. “It’s good to see all of you. Now, we’re missing my typical partners in crime.”

“Genos notified me that he was on one of the last carriers to leave. He should arrive shortly,” Jaxon informed him. “He also mentioned that Chiyo was with him.”

“Really? She’s usually here before any of us during the start of the set-up days,” Kaiden commented.

“Heya, who’s the new girl?” Izzy asked and focused on Indre.

Before the newcomer could speak, Kaiden answered. “Indre, Amber’s cousin, agent, transferred from another academy.” He looked suddenly sheepish. “We have a big group. It’s better to give them the dotted list.”

“Hey, Kaiden. Chiyo said to meet her and Genos at the AC, hall 1200,” Chief informed him.

“What? Why there?”

“She said you’ll find out about now.”

Before he could voice his confusion, he received a message from Head Monitor Faraji requesting every third and fourth-year student to go to the Animus Center. He looked around as his companions glanced at tablets, EI pads, or oculars. They had all apparently received the same message.

“Well, that didn’t take long,” Silas commented.

“What do you think is going on?” Amber asked.

“My guess is it’s like it always is when we are called to the AC.” Cameron shrugged. “A test or mission.”

“So soon?” Izzy asked.

“It’s better to get it out of the way,” Marlo ventured cheerfully. “I’m sure there are still some who are skittish about the whole thing, even though they returned.”

“We would make a good example to show the initiates and advas that everything is all right,” Julius added.

“So, guys, what are we waiting for?” Mack challenged and the group turned to him. “Let’s get over there and show them the masters are leading the charge.”

“Well…I had actually hoped we could all get together before going to the introduction ceremony,” Flynn said.

“I had a message from Chiyo saying her and Genos are already at the Center, hall 1200,” Kaiden revealed.

“Already?” Amber looked surprised.

“She must have had a tip-off,” Izzy suggested. “Or, you know, best hacker in our year.”

“Then we should join her,” Jaxon stated and gestured at the dispersing crowd. “And soon because the halls will fill with other students rather quickly with two years going in at once.”

The ace nodded and jogged away. Chief floated behind him for a few steps before he disappeared. “Meet ya there!”


Master

As Kaiden entered the hall—not yet full, thank goodness—he took a moment to catch his breath before he jogged quickly over to Chiyo and Genos who were talking with Faraji at the front of the hall. “Hello, all you beautiful people.”

They turned to him and smiled. “It’s good to see you, Kaiden,” Chiyo said warmly. “I hope your break went well.”

“Just peachy, really.” He folded his arms and leaned back to study Faraji who wore a new white-and-gold coat. “So, head monitor huh?”

“Yeppers,” she exclaimed and showed off her coat. “Zhang decided to move back to R&D. He wanted to get back to overlooking the Animus the old-fashioned way and gave me his recommendation, and I am now your new HM.”

“It’s nice to know you will watch over us, Akello,” Chiyo stated.

“Does this mean I can convince you to give me extra synapse points?” Kaiden asked jokingly.

Faraji frowned but her eyes twinkled. “That’s not how it works, and you know it,” she huffed. “Besides, you already get a bonus, don’t you?”

“I could always use more,” he said with an offhand shrug.

“What point is there in extra points if you do not actively use them?” a voice asked from behind Faraji. Kaiden peered past her to see Sasha working on the Animus console.

“Oh, hey, Sasha. I didn’t see you there.” He walked up to the commander, who turned and offered a hand. The two men shook. “How’s it looking now?” he asked and motioned to the console.

“Laurie and his technicians have worked night and day since the incident to make it better and safer than before. You have nothing to worry about,” the older man promised.

“I wasn’t worried. I have a back-up after all.”

“Just because I can create separate planes of existence in the Animus doesn’t mean I should,” Chief said and appeared over his shoulder. “Ever since the last time, I keep tasting purple.”

“What the hell does that even mean?” the ace demanded before he blinked with real surprise. “Wait—you can taste?”

“There are my favorite hacker and Tsuna,” Luke bellowed and Kaiden turned to see the group walking in. “Don’t worry, Jax, you are my favorite ace.”

“Wait, what about me?” he chided sarcastically.

“Besides me, you’re my favorite soldier,” Luke declared and held up a fist.

Kaiden chuckled and bumped it. “So, the red ribbon. I’ll take it, I guess.”

“You have some stiff competition,” Luke replied.

“Akello! Look at you,” Izzy said enthusiastically. “Head monitor.”

“I look good in this coat, don’t I?” She laughed. “As much as I would like to brag more, we have to get started.” She pressed a button on her tablet and a camera drone activated behind her. It immediately elevated to hover and turned to film her. “That’s for everyone else. You guys pay attention, all right?”

The group nodded as Sasha walked up beside Faraji, who immediately began to speak. “Good morning, students—masters and victors, as I should address you. I am your new head monitor and I have been instructed to greet you and begin your assignments for the start of the year.” She looked at Sasha. “I know this seems sudden, but the technicians of the academy, working personally with professor Laurie, have applied themselves all this time to improve and fortify the Animus.”

“I know you may be shaken and that we might have lost at least part your trust, but I promise—as a member of the academy board—that we will do our best to make sure another event like last year’s will never happen again,” Sasha vowed.

“In turn, we ask you to step up and show those younger than you—the advas who weren’t at the Animus center and the new initiates—that they have nothing to fear,” Akello continued. “We will run a siege mission with two teams of eight on each side. You may choose the teams if you wish or you will be randomly assigned. Also, you will go in together as a gesture of solidarity and show anyone who wants to darken the light of this academy that we will not cower from them.”

“Damn straight,” Kaiden whispered. He focused on his friends and counted quickly in his head. With the new girl, they had exactly two teams of eight. This would work out well. He walked past Akello so he was in range of the camera and took a place beside the pod. “Good speech, Head Monitor, but I prefer action.” He looked at his friends and waved them over. “Come on, guys. Let’s get to kicking each other’s ass!”


Chapter Four

W hen Kaiden synced into the Animus, he was surrounded by ornate black walls, a beautiful floor, and two statues featuring some sort of angel or fairy figures. A little bewildered, he glanced at his team. Chiyo, Genos, Marlo, Amber, Flynn, Otto, and Indre looked as confused as he was.

“Did we…uh, get sent into the wrong map?” he asked and frowned as he studied the idyllic interior of the building they were in. “It seems a nice enough place here, considering how much it’ll be busted up.”

“Nope. It’s a replication of a corporate building in Vancouver,” Chief explained. “They are a medical corporation—the foam that saved your ass back when Gin stabbed you? That was one of their creations.”

“I’ve never been here, but my mom worked for them for a time. Eden’s Bounty,” Amber confirmed.

“Opening objectives,” Chiyo announced and folded her arms as she read the screen. “We are the defenders in this round and must protect an experimental serum in the main labs from being stolen. We do that either by taking it and escorting it to the transfer pod in the basement of the building or by eliminating all hostiles on the attacking team.”

“Well, I know where my votes will go,” Kaiden quipped.

“Not to make it seem like you’re easy to read, mate, but I’ll guess option B?” Flynn asked and opened a loadout screen.

Kaiden followed suit. “Oh, certainly. I prefer a good deathmatch to an escort mission anyway.”

“In this case, Kaiden does have the right idea,” Otto admitted. “Those transfer pods take forever to set up. Even with Chiyo and I together, the prep work would take a long time.”

“I could help too,” Indre offered. “Granted, as an agent, I’m more trained to use fancy gadgets and all that, but…well, I’m still in the tech division.”

Otto nodded but threw his hands up. “I appreciate it, but even with three techs, that might cut the time down to around ten minutes. That doesn’t include the time it would take to get the serum, make our way to the basement, and load it up, all while having to deal with the attackers.”

“That’s also not including what they might do to sabotage us in the meanwhile,” Amber pointed out. “On their side, it’s Jaxon, Silas, Izzy, Raul, Cameron, Luke, Mack, and Julius. They don’t have any tech, but Cam and Raul specialize in traps, and they have two heavies compared to our one.”

“Heh, one has a hammer and the other plays with pretty lights.” Marlo chuckled and closed his loadout screen and his cannon appeared in his hands. “I can take them both.”

“We also have Jaxon, Silas, and Izzy—all great soldiers with Julius to back them up and heal them,” Chiyo added.

“Or buff them,” Otto replied. “Julius is a biologist. He does more than simply stitch work. I’ve seen Mack plow through dozens of grunts when Julius injects him with that violet juice of his.”

“So your mom’s not the only one with special serums, eh?” Kaiden said jokingly to Amber.

“Do you think that stuff is as good as the K-brew?” she retorted.

“So that’s the official name now?” He looked a little smug. “Anyway, the blue stuff is great for recovery, but I certainly don’t feel like mowing down a battalion while I’m on it.”

“That’s a surprise—something that can actually calm you down.” Chiyo snickered and Kaiden rolled his eyes behind his visor.

“So what’s the plan?” Flynn asked. He held his rifle behind his shoulders and cocked his head expectantly.

“According to the map, we have about ten minutes before they reach their landing zone. After that, however long it takes them to infiltrate the building,” Genos estimated. “I suspect it won’t take long unless they aim for a very obtuse route to confuse us.”

“Here’s an idea.” Marlo threw Kaiden a challenging look. “They have an ace in Jaxon, and we have an ace here in Kai, so why don’t we put the two of you head to head? See who’s the better leader.”

The group responded with various muted mutters and mumbles and Kaiden could hear Chief giggle in his head. “Oh, screw you guys.”

“You’ve said it yourself, Kaiden. You’re more of a lead by example guy, not a tactics and strategy guy,” Flynn reminded him.

“I’ve been working on it,” he said defensively.

“It only took a couple of years,” Amber muttered.

“Ha-ha…and it’s not like I haven’t saved our asses with my plans before,” the ace grumbled. “I, for one, am plenty happy to go with Marlo’s suggestion.”

“Hey, I’m willing to give it a shot,” Flynn confirmed. “But know that if it goes tits up, that’s all on you.”

“I’ll take it and show you there’s a reason I got this class.”

“Favoritism?” Otto interjected.

“Favor… What? How does that make sense? Ace is one of the hardest classes.”

“It is also a class usually exclusive to those who go through the proper channels,” Chiyo countered.

Kaiden pointed at the infiltrator. “Says the woman who got here via invitation?”

“Indeed, but one of merit, not a bar fight,” she stated simply.

Kaiden held his finger up, then used it to tap on the side of his helmet. “Okay, granted, but I’ve learned recently it wasn’t exactly like that.”

“It is now eight minutes until they make their landing,” Genos notified the group.

“Enough grandstanding. Can we have some orders here, oh great leader?” Flynn asked.

Kaiden pounded his fists together as an idea coalesced rapidly in his mind. “Right, okay, let’s see… Well, I’ll work with the fact that they have two heavies and Cameron—who, let’s face it, is about on par with me when it comes to destructive habits.”

“Yeah, I’d agree,” Amber admitted.

“I’ve only worked with him a couple of times, but that seems to be the case.” Otto nodded.

“I doubt a full stealth attack is in the cards, so let’s work on fortifications. Who chose traps or reinforcement gadgets?” Flynn, Marlo, Genos, and Indre held their hands up. “Good on you. The rest need to plan ahead.”

“I notice you didn’t raise your hand, Kaiden,” Chiyo pointed out.

He folded his arms and opened his visor to glare at the infiltrator. “You know, you’re being awfully cheeky this year.”

“The year has only started.”

“It is quite the uptick.”

“Keep going, Ace,” Flynn ribbed.

Kaiden nodded and refocused on the group. “All right, Sir Longshot, get up top and find a position. Give us an early reading on their progress when they start heading our way.”

“The map doesn’t provide an exact location for their landing area, but it seems to be in the western quadrant,” Genos advised them.

“That’s better than nothing.” Flynn put his rifle away and looked around with a small frown. “Does anyone know where the express elevators are in this place?”

Kaiden and the rest of the group pointed to the left. Flynn was apparently the only one who had not seen the elevator lobby. “Right. I’ll get going now.”

“Make sure to set up a mine or something if you have it up there in case one of them escapes that way,” Kaiden called. Flynn held a thumb up and departed. “All right, Marlo and Genos, secure the area around the objective. Set up traps, walls, or whatever you have, then get back here.”

“Do you think they’ll go for a frontal assault?” Chiyo asked as the two departed.

“Most of them will, at least. They might split up but we can use the opportunity to eliminate them when they get here.” Kaiden turned to the remaining four members. “Okay, Chiyo and Otto, go do your thing and bring on any interior defenses. Make sure they can’t get into the system to download maps or anything like that.”

“On our way.” Chiyo nodded. “It’s not very imaginative, but thorough and well thought out. Points to you, Kaiden.”

“What about me?” Indre asked and pointed to herself as Kaiden walked to the front entrance.

“And me?” Amber added.

“Amber, you stick with me for now, in case Marlo and Genos don’t get back in time and we have to hold the ground by ourselves for a while,” Kaiden answered as he placed a couple of thermals near the door.



“You know I can fight too, right? I am a battle medic, so battle is literally in my title,” she huffed.

“Yeah, I’ve seen you do it and you’re good at it too,” he confessed as he drew Sire and primed it. “But you’re also our only medic, period. We have plenty of fighters but no one else has the ability to heal themselves.” Kaiden checked his pouch.“Especially considering I forgot to get healing serum injectors like a damn moron.”

“Fine, I see your point,” she admitted. “What about my cousin?”

“Indre, I won’t lie, I’m a little confused about what an agent really does,” he admitted and approached her. “Can you give me the bullet points?”

She nodded and rubbed the back of her helmet awkwardly. “Uh…right, well, like I said, we are in the tech division but are more akin to spies. We work out in the open to retrieve objectives, locate targets, find information, that sort of thing. We are trained in armed combat, martial combat, and in the use of vehicles in combination with tech skills. But what makes us different from our scout counterparts in the soldier division is that we are also trained in the use of gadgets.”

“Um, we all use gadgets,” he said and held his shielding device up.

“We use a whole lot more, trust me, and they have many uses and are more specific.”

“Well, what do you have?”

She straightened and pressed a key on her gauntlet. “Well, this, for one.” A pod burst up from the back of her armor. He walked back a step when it erupted and a winged drone appeared. “This is a defense drone. I have another one as well, but that’s for recon.”

“That’s cool, but it feels like you’re stepping on engineering’s toes, though,“ he said, his attention fixed on the drone that circled them.

“These are based on a decker’s design. I don’t have the know-how to properly use most droids like an engineer does.”

“That’ll help the numbers. What else do you have?”

“I have tesla mines and emp grenades, a hacking device that lets me hack into most devices with only moderate security, tracking devices, a stealth generator, a soldering tool… Oh, also flashbang lights in my helmet.”

“What is—gah! ” Kaiden yelped as two extremely bright lights flashed from two small points in Indre’s helmet.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I have them on voice control,” she apologized and switched them quickly to manual. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah…I just need a couple of minutes. Everything is white,” Kaiden said and shook his head in an attempt to restore his equilibrium.

“That’s about as much time as we have left,” Amber warned. “They’ll be landing soon.”

Kaiden nodded and blinked in an effort to regain his normal vision. “Indre, do you think you can set up some of those mines at the entrance?”

“I have five. How many do you think?”

“Let’s go with three. Even if I messed this up, my guess is that they will still pass through, even if it’s only to escape.”

“I’m on it. And…um, again, I’m sorry.”

He simply nodded and gave her an okay symbol with his hand as she ran off. Amber walked up to him.

“She’s really good if a bit eager,” she said in a somewhat conciliatory manner.

“I already figured that. She wouldn’t have been able to transfer otherwise.” Kaiden rubbed his eyes and closed his visor. It darkened to help him adjust to the light.

“Do you think we’re ready?” she asked and checked her equipment once more.

The ace rested his rifle on his shoulder. “Oh, definitely. I only hope I can see it go down.”


Chapter Five

T hey should have been there by now. Enough time had elapsed since the other team had dropped into their position, yet the attackers still seemed to be lurking somewhere as if waiting. Marlo and Genos had finished their preparations and were returning to the lobby to rejoin Kaiden, Amber, and Indre. Flynn was still on the roof but hadn’t seen a damn thing. Chiyo and Otto were settled into the security room, where they worked their techno-magic to bring more of the systems online. She had warned that there actually weren’t that many interior defenses outside of initiating a full lockdown, which could backfire on them if they were already inside. Kaiden asked her to turn on any turrets or trip alarms available but to keep the lockdown off for now.

“I still don’t see anything,” Flynn confirmed once again. “I’ve checked all quadrants now, in case, but there’s not a soul out there.” He was silent for a moment. “Actually, they didn’t load in any people or anything. It’s a blank city out here—a few lights and a light fog at night. Honestly, it’s disquieting.”

“They won’t bore us into giving up,” Kaiden said and leaned nonchalantly against a wall. “I would recommend you go ahead and come on down. My guess is they are getting ready to attack soon.”

“We haven’t detected them at all. What makes you think that?”

“Remember, they have Izzy with them. She’s a scout and that’s part of their whole deal—to find the best routes to their team’s objective. My guess is all this downtime is partly because they took a roundabout path to get here so they didn’t tip us off,” Kaiden explained.

“You could be right and I won’t complain. I’m starting to feel less like a lookout up here and more like an easy target,” Flynn acknowledged. Kaiden could hear him putting his rifle away.

“I recommend taking the stairs,” he advised.

“What? Why’s that? I’m nearly twenty stories up.” Flynn yelped.

“If something goes wrong or the power gets cut and explosions go off, do you really wanna be stuck in the elevator?” he asked.

There was a pause on the marksman’s end. “It is a fast elevator—”

“Hey, man, if you wanna roll those dice, be my guest. Lord knows I’ve made stupider decisions.”

The marksman sighed heavily. “It’ll take me a while to get back to you.”

“For now, meet up with Otto and Chiyo. We should be good down here if they attack from the front,” Kaiden suggested.

“Well, that all depends on whether or not they strike with their full force, sir,” Genos interjected.

His cheerful “sir” made Kaiden whip his head around. “Sir?”

“You are acting as our leader this mission, and kin Jaxon said I should practice traditional greetings and titles from now on,” the Tsuna explained.

The ace frowned but then shrugged. “It’s not a bad idea, I guess, but don’t worry about that around me, Genos. I won’t go into the military so it’s a pointless gesture.”

He nodded. “Understood, friend Kaiden.”

Kaiden chuckled. “That’s a much better title. So, what were you saying?”

“I merely noted that if they come at us with their entire team, we would be outnumbered by three.”

“That should even the score in that case.” Kaiden nodded to the explosives and mines around the door. “Plus, you know your kin. He’s one of the best aces in our year and I doubt he would risk everything with a full-frontal assault.”

“I doubt he would as well,” Genos agreed. “However, without a proper tech or engineer on his team, I’m sure he has realized he’ll at least need to make a diver—”

A rumbling sound distracted both of them and they looked around quickly. Marlo held his cannon up as Kaiden pushed himself off the wall and the entire team drew their weapons. “So they’re finally getting things started, huh?” Kaiden whispered.

“What’s that sound?” Indre asked. “It doesn’t sound like a machine.”

“Big quake sound? Got some rumbling down there?” Otto asked over the comms.

“Yeah, are you familiar with it?” the ace asked.

“You might wanna hold onto something, Mack is charging up,” he warned.

“Charging up for what?” He received his answer almost instantly. A bright flash outside the lobby’s windows heralded a cascade of light that surged toward them. The group fell back as the radiant flare shattered the entrance. Kaiden gestured wildly to Genos and Amber and they all fell prone as the thermals he had placed in front hurtled overhead. “Get down,” he ordered Marlo and Indre. She threw herself down quickly but Marlo stood firmly in place as one of the explosives detonated. The heavy was unaffected, but his left shoulder pad and gauntlet cracked slightly.

Kaiden spun toward the sound of boots racing their way. He drew Sire and charged a shot as a figure vaulted with a flash of bounce jets. Luke hurtled into the attack with his hammer raised over his head. Before the ace could fire, a large white blast rocketed from behind him and swept into the approaching titan to halt his charge. Kaiden looked at Marlo, who readied another shot with a nod of approval. The ace smiled and fired his fully charged weapon into the distance to scatter the approaching team. The effect was momentary, however, as their advance did not stop.

The defenders readied themselves hastily as the attackers began their strike in earnest. The ace made a rapid head-count and identified only six members on the opposing force. He had no way to know whether the other two were out of his range and perhaps prepared for an ambush or were somewhere else entirely.

“Flynn, get to the techs as quickly as you can. They are finally attacking but two of them are unaccounted for,” he ordered before he turned to his group. “The rest of you”—he began to charge another blast—“let’s get them!”

Genos and Indre immediately complied with a concerted barrage from their machine guns. Marlo fired another blast before he switched his cannon to beam mode and took point. Kaiden held his fire, waiting for one of them to enter through the now damaged archway of the lobby. Silas, recognizable by his green and black armor was the first and the ace squeezed the trigger before his target could take another step. The attacker dodged the shot nimbly and lobbed a thermal at Kaiden and Amber. The ace lurched forward, snatched it off the ground, and flung it back, but Jaxon managed to shoot it in mid-arc. It exploded close enough to knock Kaiden back.

Luke charged once again but tripped one of Indre’s mines. Electrical surges enveloped his frame, but he apparently had mods to deal with that because his stride barely slowed. Marlo pushed forward and thrust a shoulder into his heavy opponent, who staggered back. He recovered quickly and raised his hammer to attack before Indre leapt in front of him and activated the flashbang lights in her helmet. The hammer descended for a power-strike, but the sudden flash disoriented him enough that it pounded into the floor alongside the smaller agent. She sidestepped the blow but the force was enough to cause her to stumble. Luke immediately pressed the trigger on his weapon and a kinetic blast activated to hurl her away and force Marlo back.

The defenders’ demolitionist recovered and fired his laser at the titan. A dome appeared instantly around Luke as Mack stepped behind him and formed a shield to protect his teammate while he recovered. Marlo continued to fire his beam directly at the protective barrier in an attempt to overpower it, but it held firm.

Genos raced toward the shield, holstered his weapon as he ran, and retrieved a grenade before he activated a setting on his gauntlet. The hand section transformed to become a four-pronged device that he thrust into the barrier. A small section distorted and opened enough for him to throw the grenade in. The ordnance erupted and hundreds of small nanos swarmed free to attach themselves to Mack and drain his power. The protection began to disperse and Marlo and Genos directed a fusillade against it with their weapons to hasten its demise. Luke, who had recovered by this point, activated the shield on his gauntlet and ordered Mack to retreat.

Kaiden noticed that Jaxon, through all of this, had remained amazingly calm. He broke away from their fight to assist the two heavies. Indre had fallen back and, together with Amber, engaged Silas and Cameron. Kaiden narrowed his eyes when he saw Julius hurry across to help Mack. The ace lined a shot up and fired and the blast struck the biologist in the ribs. Unfortunately, the man had already fired some kind of dart at Marlo which honestly seemed more amusing than anything else. No way would that even scratch his armor. Rather than impacting the suit, however, it lodged in a section of the demolitionist’s underlay between his waist and pelvis. There was no way to know whether it was blind luck or if the biologist was that damn good a shot, but the large man stiffened for a moment before he fell heavily as if his cannon had suddenly become an anchor to weigh him down.

The ace ordered Amber to help Marlo as Jaxon doubled back to assist the wounded Julius. He snagged one of his two remaining thermals and threw it at the pair. The biologist pushed the Tsuna back and rolled on top of it. The explosion finished him, but the team leader was safe—at least until his adversary could ready a shot.

Something thudded into the side of his helmet and the blast from his gun pounded the floor and thrust him upward. Shards of his armor spun around him as he focused and realized that Mack was his attacker. The titan had also been caught in the blast and while his shields might be down, he was still a heavy and an impact like that only seemed to make him wobble a little. Kaiden landed and Mack immediately drove in with another punch.

The ace dropped his rifle and dodged the strike, grabbed his opponent’s arm, and flipped him across the floor. The huge man landed with a solid thud but immediately moved to draw his hand cannon. Kaiden kicked his rifle back into his hand and fired. He only held the trigger for a little over a second each time to deliver a barrage of slightly charged shots at the downed vanguard. Finally, the giant stilled and his body vanished.

He turned to the ongoing battle behind him and was greeted by a blast to the chest, courtesy of Silas’ shotgun. Kaiden grimaced as the enforcer lurched forward to finish him but his gun was snatched from him and crushed by the vice-like grip of the claw on Genos’ gauntlet. Kaiden whipped Debonair out and fired three shots at the enforcer. His target dodged them easily but wasn’t quick enough to avoid the rapid-fire assault from Genos’ machine gun. The bullets eventually battered through his armor and he joined the other fallen members of his team.

“Are you all right?” Genos asked and proffered a hand.

Kaiden took it and the Tsuna hoisted him up. “I’ll be fine, we need to— What’s Marlo doing?”

The demolitionist issued some kind of orders to Amber and Indre and seemed hurried and intense. His armor was mostly compromised, and even with the medic’s help, he obviously hadn’t regained whatever strength he’d lost from Julius’ sneaky shot. His cannon had begun to glow, and the vents of the weapon were shut. The ace had seen Genos do something like that enough to know what that would inevitably lead to, which meant the Tsuna certainly did as well.

The mechanist helped Kaiden hastily behind a pillar. Luke scrambled to retreat with Cameron and Jaxon, but Marlo dropped the cannon and grabbed the titan’s boot. He used the weight of both himself and his remaining armor to slow his adversary enough to prevent his escape before the explosion. Clearly panicked, the trapped man tried to activate his bounce jet, but a single shot destroyed it before it could do what was required. Luke shook his fist at Amber, who simply waved at him as she and Indre left the lobby through a door to the inner hallway.

The cannon overheated and the power core overloaded before it erupted in a massive explosion. The two heavies were engulfed in the blast, and Kaiden and Genos dropped and braced against the pillar as an anchor as the debris rained around them. When the chaos finally settled, the ace surveyed the now empty hall with bemusement. “Damn, that was quick thinking on Marlo’s part.”

“We should thank him next round,” Genos agreed and held a hand up to his helmet. “Friend Amber and new friend Indre, are you all right?”

“Yeah, we’re good Genos,” Amber answered. “I don’t suppose Marlo—”

“There’s no way to repair what just happened, no,” Kaiden answered quickly.

“The big oaf. Hopefully, he doesn’t pull stuff like that in reality. He is too competitive.” She sighed, the sound tinged with both respect and irritation.

“You can rag on him later. For now, we have to—”

“Kaiden, I detect two people in the stairs heading up to the third floor,” Chiyo informed him.

“That was quick. Slow them if you can,” he muttered and scrambled to his feet. “I don’t suppose you figured out where the missing ones are yet, have you?”

“Maybe. I’ve picked up something in the vents,” Otto stated. “It’s only slight movement, and I thought it was from all the ruckus but I have a small read. Do you think that might be them?”

“I would bet on it,” the ace said and gestured to Genos to move closer. “If so, it looks like they have split up to go after the objective. Let’s put a stop to that, shall we?”


Chapter Six

K aiden, Genos, Amber, and Indre dashed to the stairs. They wouldn’t risk using the elevator either and needed to pursue the fleeing Cameron and Jaxon to stop them before they reached the target location.

“Chiyo, where are they now?” the ace asked.

“They are on the ninth floor, but they aren’t heading to the objective. That’s on the tenth.”

“What? So where are they going?”

“It looks like they are heading to another stairwell on the opposite end of the floor,” she informed him.

“What the hell?” He scowled and stopped on the stairs beside the door that led to the fifth floor to think things through for a moment. It was possible that two of the team tried to lead them on a chase while Izzy and Raul crawled through the vents toward the objective. As a tracker and a scout, they were the logical choices on the opposing team to locate the prize, grab it, and run. But that wouldn’t constitute a win. They still needed to take it back to someplace, right?

“Chief, the other team doesn’t win if they only have the serum, right?”

“Nope. At least one of them has to make it back to the pad with the objective for it to count as a win,” the EI confirmed.

“Then there’s no point in trying to do that while we still have control of the interior defense and also outnumber them.” He looked at the group who had gathered around him. “I think this is another ploy to try to whittle our numbers down.”

“You think they will still try to win this by elimination?” Indre asked.

“Maybe. But it’s more likely to try to swing the numbers and the map in their favor, which means the techs are probably in trouble.” Kaiden contacted Chiyo. “Which floor are you on?”

“Fifth, you can look on your—” Kaiden cut her off quickly.

“Flynn, where are you?”

“Fourth floor, opposite the stairwell,” the marksman advised him. “Do you want me to intercept our friends?”

“You got it. We’ll try to get there as fast as we can.” The ace turned his attention to Genos. “Do you mind backing the techs up?”

“Of course.” The Tsuna nodded and immediately eased forward to open the door. A small black orb ejected in an upward arc from a device on the ground. “Get back!” he shouted.

The ace whipped out his shield device and activated it a second before the orb exploded and blew him, Indre, and Amber back into the wall. Genos, unfortunately, was annihilated. Kaiden cursed. He should have thought about a trap rigged by Cameron.

“Sorry, Genos,” he whispered, as he stood slowly and helped the battle medic and agent to their feet. “Flynn, there’s a change of plans. Ignore my last order and help protect Chiyo and Otto. Genos was eliminated by an explosive trap.”

“Cam?” his teammate guessed.

“It looks like it. He is a bounty hunter, so traps and junk like this are his thing.” He sighed and looked at his remaining team. “They might have trapped each stairwell door. It could be why they are doing all that running around.”

“Let me check,” Indre said. She adjusted a knob on her helmet beside her visor and looked upward to the floors above them. “Maybe not all of them, but most of the doors above do have traps on them.”

“Wait, you have an x-ray visor?” Kaiden asked.

“Pulse. It detects functioning equipment and their power levels and energy signatures in waves similar to a motion sensor,” she explained. “I apologize. I should have thought to run a search before we pursued.”

“That’s why we train. It’s better to make a mistake here than in the field,” he responded and pushed his irritation aside. “For now, we need to focus on finding and eliminating Jaxon and Cam before they lock us down.”

“Even as a bounty hunter, Cameron has a limited number of gadgets at his disposal. I doubt their master plan is to simply trap us in the stairwell,” Amber pointed out.

“Agreed, although if we did happen to blow ourselves up, I doubt they would say it wasn’t the plan. Cam, at least, would take credit,” he mumbled. “If they aren’t going for the objective right away, then what are they doing?”

“Kaiden, they are back on the first floor now,” Chiyo stated.

“What? How did they get down so fast? Did they use the elevator?”

“They did, but they dropped down the shaft rather than using the elevator itself. I lost them for a few moments or I would have let you know sooner.”

“Lost them? Did they take out the sensors?” Amber asked.

“You can have your EI control the power in your suits to send out very small waves of energy. It depletes your reserve shields, but it makes you briefly invisible to sensors for a short time,” Kaiden explained.

“That sounds useful. Is it something you learned in the ace workshops?”

“It’s something Genos taught me. My guess is he taught it to Jax as well.” He vaulted over the railing of the stairwell onto the floor below. “Let’s catch up. My guess is they have gone down there to give themselves space or to try to flank us.”

“What about the serum?” Indre asked. “Shouldn’t we try to protect it?”

“The traps and reinforcements Marlo and Genos set up should hold them off. Even if they get in through the vents or some other way, they will probably have to leave by the normal route, which will buy us time. But if they are targeting the techs, we need to make sure we still have the numbers advantage, and we are currently only up by one.”

The trio raced down the stairs and Kaiden contacted Flynn once more. “Flynn, are you at the—”

“I’m with Chiyo, yeah,” he answered.

“Apparently, I’m not here,” Otto grumbled. “I’m purely a figment of my own imagination.”

“I’m looking at the screens with them. Cam and Jax constantly appear and disappear. We can’t identify a pattern.”

“And the other two?”

“It looks like they are in the vents all right. Chiyo was able to scan individual points on the outside of the building and found one of the alarms was blocked off. It’s probably one of Raul’s doodads and is easy to fix but you have to know to look for it.”

“I’ll flush them out,” Chiyo advised crisply.

“The vents have defenses?” Kaiden questioned.

“No, but I will lower the temperatures. They will either freeze in there or use the power of their suits to warm themselves. When they draw on the heat, we can target them and find their location,” she explained.

Kaiden turned back to his teammates. “Did you get that?”

Amber nodded. “Yep, it’ll get a little frosty.”

“I’ll begin no—” The lights in the building fizzled and shut off as the team burst through the door to the first floor and halted immediately to look around. “What happened?”

“The power is off. There’s a secondary generator but it can’t power the whole building, only emergency systems,” Chiyo advised them.

“The power unit is on the first floor, isn’t it?” he asked.

“It is. That must have been Jaxon’s target.”

The ace gestured for the other two to follow him. “We’ll head that way now. Do what you can but don’t hang around unnecessarily. You’re sitting ducks there with the defenses down.”

“I’ll keep them safe, Kaiden,” Flynn promised.

The trio on the first floor sprinted to the power station while the hackers and marksman prepared for the inevitable clash with the infiltrators. Neither side had a clear advantage yet, so the outcome could go either way.


Chapter Seven

“ I s there anything else you can do?” Kaiden asked the team in the security room. Flynn sent an inquiring look at his companions. Otto shrugged while Chiyo shook her head. “Without the power, I’ll have to divert what little emergency backup we have to individual nodes.”

“For example, we are locked in this room unless we unlock the console to the door personally,” Otto explained and pointed at the exit.

“You might wanna move on that. We don’t wanna be stuck in this small space if the other two decide to drop by,” Flynn ordered. The other man nodded as he pushed from his chair and crossed quickly to the console.

“We’ll try to intercept the assault party, but Cam and Jax are more slippery than I gave them credit for,” the ace confessed. “Can you guys make it to the objective and wait for us there?”

Chiyo opened a holoscreen to display a map of the building. “We do have a route. It’ll take some time as there are two locked gates between here and there, along with having to traverse the stairs.”

“Use the elevator,” Kaiden said.

“Uh, Kai, I think we’ve established that the power is out.”

“The shaft. Use the elevator shaft, smartass,” he chided with a hint of amusement in his voice. “Hopefully, they didn’t trap that, and it could be faster than having to unlock the doors and disarm the traps along the way.” Quiet muttering followed on his side before he spoke again. “We’ll go dark from here. Best of luck.”

“Same to you, mate,” Flynn acknowledged, signed off, and looked at Otto. “How does it look?”

“The door’s open,” Otto confirmed. He straightened and drew his pistol. “My EI confirmed there are no traps outside this door. I don’t think they have the layout of the building down yet. Otherwise, you would think they would have swung around by now.”

“Either that or they could be using the time to acquire the serum and get a head start,” Chiyo pointed out.

Flynn readied his rifle and pressed a button to shorten the barrel. “I’ll take point.”

“And I’ll guard the rear,” Otto confirmed.

“Which means I’ll be responsible for taking care of any problems along the way,” Chiyo noted.

“I hope Kaiden is right with this. Using the elevator shaft could be faster. There should be maintenance ladders or platforms in there we can use to reach the tenth floor,” the marksman reasoned.

Chiyo drew her sub-machine gun. “Then let us be on our way.”


Master

The trio crept down the hall, alert for any movement and their ears tuned for a rustle or thump to alert them to any unseen dangers. Thus far, they had encountered nothing to delay them.

They reached the elevator lobby and Chiyo used one hand to fiddle with what appeared to be a keypad. “There should be a latch here to crack open the doors… Ah, here.” The doors parted slightly and she inserted her fingers into the slit to gain purchase and shove the doors to either side and open them completely. She peered cautiously into the shaft. “There’s a small platform on the right that leads to the edge. We’ll have to walk around the gap to reach the ladder on the other side.”

“Understood. Ladies first,” Flynn said and turned to watch the hallway behind them.

The infiltrator stepped carefully onto the platform and inched her way along the small walkway toward the ladder. “MJensene, I am reading an anomaly,” Kaitō informed her.

“Of what?” she asked as she finally grasped the ladder and held on.

“An energy reading—small, like it is only activating. A weapon, I would think, coming from behind you in the hall.”

Chiyo swung to look beyond Otto and Flynn who kept watch at the entryway. She saw nothing, but her EI wouldn’t alert her if it was something inconsequential. Did he confuse the energy signature for… No, the vents. “Kaitō. Scan!” Her visor displayed the scanning field and, sure enough, a small red light appeared approximately twenty-five yards down the hall. “Flynn! They are above you,” she said and pointed at their target.

The two teammates fired immediately and the ceiling shattered as two armored figures fell and dropped several small orbs as they did so. “Chiyo, go!” Flynn shouted.

The orbs erupted—flashbangs, she realized as she ascended the ladder hastily. Her teammates looked away from the bright lights. Their opponents released follow-up fire and Flynn rolled out of the way of the shots, but not before his leg and boot were clipped. He registered the distinctive airborne whoosh as Raul’s little guided rockets launched from his gauntlet. He went to warn Otto to avoid them, but the other technician actually moved into the center of the hall and raised a hand.

Flynn muttered a curse as the missiles hurtled toward his teammate and waited for the certain impact. He frowned in disbelief when they slowed rapidly before their propulsion shut down completely. Otto snagged one as the other bounced off the ground and flipped down the elevator shaft. The marksman held his breath as he waited for an explosion. After a few silent moments, his head accepted that it wouldn’t happen.

Otto took shelter behind a wall as Izzy fired again. He flipped the rocket and closed his hand to activate it once more before he launched it at their adversaries. This time, the explosion met the expectation.

“Nice one,” Flynn shouted as he spun around the corner and fired a short volley. The assault caught Raul while he recovered from the rocket blast. The tracker clutched his clavicle instinctively in reaction to the pain, which left his chest unprotected. The marksman took the opportunity and sank a single well-placed shot into this perfect target. He smiled as the body sagged. He’d gloat about this for a while during their get-togethers, he thought smugly, but his satisfaction faded when he noticed the body had not disappeared. That and Izzy was nowhere to be seen.

Another noise—definitely something airborne—caught his attention and Flynn spun toward it. He expected another rocket but there was no evidence of one. The sound drew closer, but it seemed to echo almost like it was in a tunnel. His eyes widened and he looked up at the vent, but it was too late. Raul’s hunter drone swooped from the opening and fired to hurl Flynn onto his back. He pushed himself up quickly and froze when he saw Raul on his feet.

“What the hell?” he gasped. “I shot you right in your chest. You don’t have any shields to—”

“Yeah, I do,” the tracker said, his breath ragged. “Shields are generated between the plates of my armor instead of outside it. They aren’t as strong but are less likely to be detected. Still, they are good enough to survive a couple of shots from your stunted barrel—agh!” He winced and rubbed his chest. “It hurts like hell, though.”

“I can give you some quick anesthetic,” Flynn challenged and raised his rifle. The drone delivered another successful shot from behind that almost forced him to his knees. Raul snatched up his own rifle and aimed it his opponent. “You're more of a pain at the moment, to be honest.”

The marksman rolled out of the way of the decidedly unsteady shot, drew his pistol, and fired at the tracker’s leg to cripple him. Flynn looked back to where Otto lay on the floor, literally assaulted by Izzy, who hammered relentlessly at his helmet. Her weapons lay on the floor nearby, and the red light on them indicated a malfunction of some kind. The hacker must have sabotaged them somehow, although he probably regretted it given the fury of the woman’s attack.

The drone banked for another pass, and Flynn activated his stealth generator to instantly vanish.

“That won’t help. I already tagged you,” Raul declared smugly. He pressed a switch on his gauntlet and the mechanical fired a guided rocket that searched for its target’s signature.

It sailed across the hall and the marksman reappeared as it neared his position. “I’d hoped for that,” he shouted and, as the rocket was about to strike, rolled under it. The missile narrowly missed his head and sank into the ground behind Izzy before it erupted. The force knocked her off Otto.

Flynn now had enough distance. He hefted his rifle and extended the barrel, increased its power, and took aim. A single shot penetrated Raul’s helmet and he fell instantly to lie unmoving in a huddle. The marksman smiled.

“You didn’t have enough shielding to survive this time,” he gloated before an odd beeping distracted him. He looked to the side and froze. The drone hovered near his head and an orange light on the hull turned red and blinked rapidly. “Oh, for fuc—” The mechanical exploded, and Raul’s last little trick took Flynn with him.

Otto lowered his hand and muttered his frustration. Damn, he hadn’t been fast enough. Granted, he wasn’t exactly stable and suspected that the scout’s beating had rattled his head somewhat. He needed to catch up to Chiyo before—

A blade pierced his back and he twisted to see Izzy behind him. “You’re tenacious, aren’t you?” He winced and avoided the urge to breathe too deeply.

“Yeah, and you’re way harder to put down than I thought you would be,” she admitted with a grunt. She slung an arm around his throat and pulled him back, deeper into the blade. “I always thought techies were the squishy sort.”

“We like to let you think that,” he said as he struggled against her grip and clenched his teeth when the blade buried even deeper. “It allows you to underestimate us.” He initiated a quick-command from his HUD that activated Izzy’s armor locks. Her gauntlets and chest armor released and fell to leave her in only her underlay.

“What the hell are you—oof! ” She gasped when he elbowed her in the stomach. He immediately drew his own blade and turned to strike, but she caught his hand in mid-air and twisted it to force him to the ground. She fell to her knees with his blade in her hand and drove it into his throat. He disappeared almost instantly.

She rubbed the sore spot on her stomach. “I’ll make a note to change my thinking about you techies,” she mused as she retrieved her armor and strapped it on while she studied the elevator shaft. “Especially since I have one more to go.”


Chapter Eight

I zzy checked her weapons, which seemed to be fully functional since Otto had disappeared. She slung her machine gun onto her back and holstered her pistol. Cautiously, she approached the elevator shaft and retrieved a small orb that she activated. The scouting drone lit up and floated in readiness. She directed it up the shaft, wanting to see if Chiyo had left her any surprises. It read that the shaft was empty but saw that the tenth-floor elevator doors stood open. At least she had a destination. She had the drone continue to look for her opponents as she scrambled onto the narrow walkway and shuffled carefully to the ladder. She should feel more confident since Chiyo didn’t have her toys to defend her, but something told her she was walking blindly into a trap.


Master

“They aren’t here anymore.” Amber sighed with real frustration.

“I suppose they’re probably already headed back up. This is getting boring and annoying really quickly.” Kaiden huffed his irritation as they exited the power room.

“Did you guys feel those shakes?” Indre asked. “Do you think there was a fight upstairs?”

“Possibly. We may be dark but they can still send a notification.” He scrolled quickly through his messages. “So far, I have nothing, so they are either all dead, in which case— Oh, hell.”

“What?” Amber asked.

“Take a look at the squad. Flynn and Otto are down.”

“Dammit,” she cursed. “Where’s Chiyo?”

“She’s still alive, but I can’t pinpoint her position unless I— Okay, there’s a notification. She’s trying to contact us…one sec.” He opened the comm link and her signal appeared to reveal her position on the tenth floor. “Chiyo, we’ve just left the power room. They weren’t there.”

“I know. They are on the fourth floor and heading this way. I’m in the lab with the serum. I found a computer and rerouted what power I could to activate it. I can see them but can’t do anything about it,” she explained. “Flynn and Otto are down. I can see Izzy but not Raul. I guess they took him out before they were eliminated.”

“Hold on. We’re on our way,” Kaiden promised and glanced at Indre. “If we take the stairs, I could use what’s left of my shield to block another explosive, but I’d rather keep it ready for the inevitable fight. Do you have something we can use to deactivate Cameron’s traps if we run into any?”

She ran a hand across her belt. “Those traps are mechanical devices, not electronic hardware or software, but I do have something that will help. It won’t deactivate them, but it should pause them long enough for us to get out of the blast zone.”

He nodded and sprinted toward the stairs with his teammates on his heels.


Master

Chiyo focused on the screen and watched as events unfolded. Kaiden and his team made it into the stairwell and fortunately, it wasn’t the same one Jaxon and Cameron were in. She grimaced. Maybe unfortunately was more appropriate. They could deal with them while she faced Izzy, who had almost reached the lab. The defenses Marlo and Genos had set up wouldn’t hold for long. All they’d had were a couple of small static turrets and a reinforcement shield around the door. While they might work to slow a head-on assault, once Izzy noticed them, she would find a way around them.

Should she wait for the scout to come to her? She could find somewhere to ambush her from, but for all her talent in tech, she was barely an above-par soldier. Izzy was a trained combatant, not some grunt she could mow down. While her adversary wouldn’t expect a direct assault, that would be because it was simply a fool’s plan to even try to face her in combat. She would have to end it quickly for any surprise advantage she might have to bring success.

She narrowed her eyes when she noticed a small orb that flew around Izzy as she crept up to the corner of the hall before the entrance. Chiyo looked more closely at what she soon identified as a scouting drone. They were a common tool in a scout’s arsenal to help with surveillance and her opponent seemed to have no reservations using it now. Izzy peered around the corner and immediately saw the defenses. She leaned back and issued orders to the mechanical and it ventured off to the other side of the hall. It seemed obvious that the scout believed Chiyo couldn’t see it and so felt it was safe to use to help her find an entrance or even Chiyo herself.

The infiltrator smiled. She might have found her advantage.


Master

Izzy looked up in search of an access point. She had been certain from the beginning of this match that the vents wouldn’t be a safe route, but they had at least provided a place where they were able to hide while they set everything up. Jaxon and Cameron would be there soon, and she and Raul were supposed to have located the lab and have the serum ready to go by then. Well, it was one out of two at this point.

She looked at the screen in her HUD that displayed the drone’s vision and ordered it to look for other ways to enter the lab or to alert her if it saw anything, Chiyo had to be around there somewhere, although it was more likely that the infiltrator was already in the lab. She peeked around the corner again at two turrets placed on the ground—the little zappy ones, by the looks of it—along with a shield that obstructed the entrance door. They must have been left by the defenders as they ran off their own power source. Shutting down the building's power did nothing to disable them.

If worse came to worst, she could destroy the turrets. But demolishing the shield to access the door would be a pain, and she certainly wouldn’t be able to be stealthy about it. She received an alert from her drone to report a door, slightly ajar, with a compromised console. It must have been what Chiyo used to access the lab.

She readied her machine gun and approached cautiously, took a deep breath, and stepped around the corner with her senses on high alert. Her drone hovered at the far end of the hall with a crossway between it and her. She recalled it having to look in either direction as it moved ahead to check for hostiles. Izzy pushed forward and grabbed the mechanical along the way, shut it off, and put it away.

When she reached the place where it had found the door, she stopped and frowned. There was nothing there. Confused, she rewound the footage in her HUD and it displayed a blank wall as well.

The drone reactivated and flew out before she even had time to register the startling reality. It knocked her gun out of her hand and she was pelted with laser fire from behind. Her armor cracked and shattered to leave the shielded lining the only thing that kept her from collapsing. When she turned, Chiyo vented her sub-machine gun calmly.

“You saw me coming, huh?” she asked and inched her hand slowly toward her holstered pistol.

“I did, yes.” The infiltrator nodded, closed the vent, and aimed the weapon at her. “Nice try, though.”

Izzy drew her pistol, but she wasn’t fast enough. Chiyo released another hail of fire that successfully eliminated her opponent. The scout vanished and the drone faded along with her. Chiyo spun as Jaxon and Cameron turned the corner, their guns trained on her.

“A pretty risky move for you, Chi, to run around in the open like this,” Cameron commented and adjusted his rifle to aim at her head.

“Indeed it is, but the benefits outweigh the risks.”

“And how’s that?” he asked.

“There’s more room for my teammates to move out here than in the lab,” she explained before an explosion on the far side of the hallway provided a much-needed distraction.

Her adversaries twisted to look back and Cameron chuckled. “Yeah, about that… I don’t think they will be—” A slamming sound drew their attention back to where she’d stood a moment before “Uh…joining us.”

“They are coming. We need to get back to the lab entrance,” Jaxon stated and whirled to race back the way they’d come.

“What about her? Shouldn’t we follow?” Cameron asked from a few paces behind him.

“My guess is she has her own way in. We can deal with her if she actually attacks us, but we are outnumbered two to one now. Our priority must be to take the objective and go.” They reached the entrance, where the turrets charged in readiness to fire. Cameron obliterated them before they could, while Jaxon placed a charged explosive against the shielded doorway and turned the knob. The duo jogged quickly around the corner and flattened themselves against the wall. The charge detonated to splinter the shield and the door behind it for good measure. The bounty hunter entered first and grinned when he saw the serum. He smiled and hurried forward.

“Be quick. Kaiden and his group will be upon us soon,” Jaxon warned.

“Didn’t you hear that boom?” Cameron asked as he shattered the glass protecting the vial within and grabbed it. “Do you think they lived through that?”

“They lived through the other one, correct?” Jaxon asked.

He grunted as he handed it to the Tsuna, who stowed the prize in a container on his leg. “All right, point to you, but I still think—” The ace held a hand up and pointed to the corner of the lab. Cameron followed the gesture and glanced back at Jaxon, who held his gun up. He nodded and gave his team leader a thumbs-up.


Master

Kaiden, Amber, and Indre turned the corner and stared at the entrance to the lab. The walls around the entrance as well as the door lay shattered and ruined. Chiyo had told them Jaxon and Cameron were already in the lab and had probably taken the serum by now, but he hadn’t seen them. The infiltrator was guarding the only other entrance, so they had to still be there.

A message on his HUD confirmed that the serum had been taken. He approached the lab cautiously and scrutinized the entrance for traps but found nothing. It was very likely that Cameron had finally run out, at this point.

He froze when he took a few steps into the lab and heard the distinctive sound of a machine gun about to fire. A hasty glance revealed Jaxon in the top corner of the lab, balanced on a stack of crates and about to mow him down. Indre hurtled into him and shoved him out of the way. The shots plowed into her and she immediately disappeared as Amber called out to her.

The ace twisted to see Cameron in the opposite corner, preparing to fire. He dodged the first shot successfully, grabbed Amber, and hauled her against him as he activated his shield. Jaxon released a fusillade at it, but the barrier held through the assault. The bounty hunter snatched a thermal from his belt.

“Get down!” Kaiden ordered. She nodded and dropped prone as he deactivated the protective dome and fired at the explosive in his adversary’s hand. It detonated and Cameron vanished. He picked the shield device up and sprinted across the lab to avoid Jaxon’s barrage. There wasn’t much room to maneuver in there.

Amber scrambled to her feet and fired at the Tsuna ace, who leapt down from his perch and vented his machine gun. He drew his pistol and sparks flashed as he held the trigger down. In a surprise move, he kicked a stool at the battle medic to knock her back, then aimed his pistol and fired. An arc of electricity struck her and she dropped her gun when she spasmed from the shock. Jaxon closed the vent on his gun, strode toward the immobilized battle medic, and drew his blade. He drove it brutally into her visor and she instantly disappeared.

Kaiden growled as she faded and fired a charged shot from his rifle. His adversary pounded a fist against his chest and a shield shimmered in place over his armor to absorb the blast. It shattered but he used the cover of the bright flash to take aim and fire. His shots struck home in his opponent’s shoulder and chest and forced him to his knees. Kaiden retrieved his last thermal and threw it over the desk he had shuffled under toward the other ace. The firing stopped for a moment while the target retreated to safety.

Cautiously, Kaiden managed to get up, but as soon as he did so, another barrage was unleashed at him. He cursed and sprinted across the lab, but it was too narrow and too cluttered, and he couldn’t build up enough speed to avoid the spray. The bullets impacted along his ribs and leg, and while his armor protected him to some degree, it wasn’t enough. He toppled but released another charged shot that his adversary dodged easily. It exploded against one of the crates that had hazard symbols painted on the sides.

It erupted and Jaxon catapulted halfway across the room. The Tsuna recovered quickly and seemed unaffected by the blast. He vented his rifle and charged his pistol as Kaiden tried to rally and stopped short when a bolt of electricity enveloped him. Normally, a partially charged shot like that wouldn’t have been enough to slow him, but his armor had already been severely compromised before the fight began. His assailant’s shots destroyed whatever shielding he’d rebuilt in the meantime and the electricity now surged through him and seared the wounds he already had. Pain flared relentlessly beneath the unremitting charge.

He gritted his teeth and managed to activate the shield device once again as he toppled. The Tsuna released a barrage against the shield with his machine gun. It definitely wouldn’t hold for much longer.

“Kaiden, prepare to take the shot,” Chiyo ordered over the comm.

For once, he didn’t backtalk as he might have been tempted to do. In his condition, he could either force himself to do that or prepare to fire. There was no way in hell he could do both. He struggled to his knees, pulled Sire’s trigger, and focused on the glow as it charged. His shield flickered as it weakened, now close to breaking. Jaxon strode closer and continued to fire before his weapon suddenly ceased. A red light blinked warningly on the side.

Kaiden smashed the shielding device and the dome dropped. He fired at the approaching Tsuna, who was only a few feet in front of him now. The charged shot pounded home and continued through him. The opposition’s team leader disappeared and Kaiden dropped his rifle as the world went white.

Objective complete. Defender’s Win.

Switching Sides.


Chapter Nine

J uro Sasaki stood in the darkened room and watched the screen intently. Their team had made their landing in Portland and now proceeded to their ship, which would take them to San Diego to begin their mission. He wondered idly how they would fare. The Ramses corporation had its own security measures, but they shouldn’t present much of a problem on their own, not for this reputable team. However, there was the matter of the company’s contractors. While they weren’t exactly a powerhouse or unified force, they were plentiful. It might prove difficult to make an exit when it was blocked by a mountain of cadavers.

A door opened to his left and he looked over to see Jensen yawn and scratch his chin, a hot cup of coffee in one hand. “You’re still here?” he questioned and turned to face the councilman. “I was not aware you decided to remain.”

“Eh, the next get together is at the end of the week right?” he asked and sipped his coffee. “I thought I’d stick around and overlook some of the day to day stuff. I’ve been somewhat haphazard when it comes to learning the nitty-gritty details.” He took another sip and nodded at his cup. “Do you want some? I can make another pot in a couple of minutes.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” Juro said dismissively and returned his attention to the screen.

“So you already sent them out, huh?” Jensen asked. “I thought they were going to prepare until the next meeting.”

“I was told by Nolan that the team informed him they were ready to go. There are no security updates or changes in the guard schedule coming up anytime soon at Ramses that would increase their chances, so now was as good a time as any. I allowed them to depart early,” he explained.

“You might want to send a memo out. I imagine at least a few of the other members would like to watch it go down,” the other man pointed out.

“I will once they properly commence their attack. For now, I’m merely making sure nothing happens along the way.”

Jensen nodded, finished his beverage, and placed the cup on the table before he leaned back against it. “I may have only seen you a few times at these shindigs, but even I’ve noticed you’ve grown more apprehensive about these missions and the like for a few months now. Is something going on I don’t know about?”

A number of things, yes, but those would wait for now. “For years, our missions have been a minor part of our overall goal. We focused on preparations and putting the right pieces in the right places. It was a difficult time in its own way, but at worst, it only cost us time and a few assets. We always accomplished our goals, even if it wasn’t necessarily in our preferred time frame. Now, we are in the phase where we have to be more active and complications have arisen during these missions where our success is not guaranteed. We’ve failed a few times already.”

“You’re still hung up about the Gin thing, huh?” his companion inquired and clapped a hand on the Zaibatsu leader’s shoulder, who eyed it stiffly but didn’t shake it off. “It’s all good, mate. Honestly, it’s not like it was your fault. You remained a veritable Switzerland there, while I should probably take a beating for agreeing to it.”

“I know of at least a couple of other members who would be happy to deliver,” Juro said dryly. Although the councilman chuckled at this, he removed the hand. “In that particular case, I had hoped it could be salvaged. We merely wanted to test the Nexus defenses and potentially recover the EI. Still, we achieved one out of two, in fact—we have an unexpected boon as Dario was able to trace the man who created the cracked EI that allowed Gin to manipulate electronic systems with such ease.”

“Will you have him make a new one? What makes you think it’ll work?”

“He’ll make a new one and it will be better. Dario assured me he would personally oversee this hacker’s work and be sure it is done,” Juro assured him coldly. “As for the EI, if nothing else, we can recover it or eventually have it destroyed if it comes down to having to play our hand.”


Master

Laurie woke and blinked wearily to focus on the familiar surroundings. He grimaced, a little stiff from sleeping on the couch in his office. He pushed himself up and frowned at Cyra who worked on his computer.

“Cyra?” he asked and yawned briefly.

“Good afternoon, Professor. It’s nice to see you finally got some sleep.” She sounded cheerful but didn’t look away from her work.

He shifted to lean back on the couch and stretch his arms. “I…vaguely remember Sasha taking me to bed. How did I end up here?”

“You woke up a few hours later—well, maybe not all the way. You were sleepwalking around the office and talked about needing to replace hardware and update things. I couldn’t get you back to your bed but I was able to persuade you to lay on the couch,” she explained.

“Sleepwalking? I haven’t done that since I was a child,” he recalled with real surprise. “How long was I out?”

“In total about twelve hours. It’s nearly four in the afternoon.”

“Are the students here already?”

“The first years are doing normal basic stuff, downstairs is full of the initiates getting their EIs, the second years are in their workshops, and third and fourth years are at the AC.”

A small chill rippled through him at that, but he tried his best to ignore it. He stood and walked over to his desk to look over Cyra’s shoulder to see what she was working on. She seemed to be studying a list of technician students.

“Is something on your mind, Cyra?” he asked.

“I’m looking for potential apprentices. Actually, I sent in a form to the board to request the permission to teach a small group of students,” she revealed.

Laurie was definitely surprised. He circled to the front of the desk and sat on one of the guest chairs. “Really? When was this?”

“A few days ago,” she replied casually.

“I don’t remember you telling me.”

“I did, and you muttered, ‘uh-huh, all right’—although, to be fair, you were preoccupied and working off four hours of sleep in thirty hours. So, yes, maybe I should have snapped my fingers to make sure you actually paid attention.”

“What made you request this? Has it been granted?”

“I’m still waiting on the verification, but one of the councilors stated that if I sign on as a volunteer and make the class a non-credit elective, it’s almost a certainty that it will go through. As for the why…I guess it’s my way of coping with everything that happened at the end of last year—the compromising of the system, the chaos, losing Raynor. I would have been out of my depth without Chiyo’s help.”

Laurie tightened his lips at Raynor’s name. “Right, Raynor. In all my fuss to work on the Animus, I never took the time to think of him.”

“You paid for his funeral and sent your well wishes to his family,” Cyra reminded him.

“That’s the least I could do for his years of service. I guess what I’m saying is I never…mourned him, really.”

She stopped typing and lowered her head slightly. “I know most of your conversations with him seemed to be strictly business. He was a somewhat stoic man, but he admired you.”

Laurie was silent and shifted his hand to adjust a pushed-up sleeve before his fingers toyed fretfully with the hem of it. “I…he was a great man, as was Egon. A wonderful infiltrator and a brilliant technician respectively, but I suppose I feel a sense of guilt in not getting to know them as people. I have to say I don’t know many of those in my employ as people. I can list a few facts and maybe some personal quirks. But besides you and one or two of my colleagues, I can’t say I know many people all that well, despite my many years here.”

Cyra mulled this over. “Before you made the Nexus academy your main focus, was it the same at your corporation?”

“You mean my father’s corporation—even during the two years I was ‘in charge,’ it was still under his guiding hand.” Laurie sighed. “It’s part of the reason I chose to come here and to stay, but to answer your question, it might have been worse there. To be frank, the only reason I know more about you is because you seem inclined to share, even during the times when I only half-listened.”

“I am something of a social butterfly,” she agreed with a soft smile. “In addition to that, I never pegged you for an introvert, Professor.”

“I can’t say I have either, although some call me mysterious or a shut-in on occasion. I always said that part of it was for the flavor—the great scientist always hidden away working on the next great advancement. The downside of that, of course, is the hidden away part.”

“From the world?”

“Even merely those around you… I might be rambling.”

“The attack really shook you. It seems like I’m stating the obvious, but I’m not sure you actually admit that to yourself.”

The professor shrugged. “Of course it did. It rattled all of us. Our seemingly impenetrable barrier was breached, a psycho wandered our halls for who knows how long, killed three of our staff, and nearly destroyed both our system and one of our students in one strike. I suppose, along with the fear, it was the fact that I feel responsible. I designed both the barrier and the Animus and thought them impervious, certainly to any known weaponry or tech. To see them fall to a man with some fancy gadgets and a little technical know-how is…humbling.”

Cyra stood and walked over to Laurie, who looked at her with tired eyes. She leaned over and hugged him—another surprise. With one last tight squeeze, she released him and fixed him with a firm look. “You aren’t as aloof as you might think, and don’t begin to hate yourself because of this. Chiyo told me Kaiden is fine and that he himself said he wouldn’t let this set him back because that would mean Gin wins in the end. I’m not saying you will get over this in a snap, but don’t let it keep you down.” She chuckled as she slipped away. “One of the reasons I like working for you is your flashy personality. I hope to see it again soon.”

A small smile crossed Laurie’s face as she exited the room. He had a lot of work to do, but for now, he needed to take a little time to fix a few things for himself.


Chapter Ten

K aiden was ported to the inside of a dropship with Chiyo and for a few seconds, they were alone. Before he could ask where the others were, multiple flashes of white appeared around them and materialized into their teammates.

“Back to it, then?” Flynn asked and stretched.

“Try not to get blown up this time around.” Marlo chuckled.

“Eh? That’s how you got taken out.”

“Yeah, but I sacrificed myself for the good of the team. You died due to special awareness,” the demolitionist pointed out. “It’s kind of ironic for a marksman, isn’t it?”

Before Flynn could retort, Amber stepped in. “It was a nice gesture, Marlo, and you eliminated Luke in the process. But you have to remember the only reason you couldn’t run away was because of a little prick from Julian.”

The demolitionist sighed and opened his loadout screen. “I really had hoped to gloss over that.”

“No such luck, buddy.” She chuckled.

“It was good to see the two of you end it,” Otto stated to Kaiden and Chiyo as he studied his own loadout. “You got it down to the wire in the end, didn’t you?”

Kaiden watched as the formally defeated teammates casually picked out their loadouts, scratching the back of his head. “Uh, hello?”

The rest of the team looked his way. “Yeah, what’s up, Kai?” Amber asked.

The ace glanced at Chiyo, who simply shrugged and opened her own loadout screen. “Uh, I guess I’m surprised it switched around so fast. Where were all of you? Chilling in the pods all this time?”

“We didn’t get kicked out when we fell,” Genos explained. “They sent us to a lobby room. We watched the rest of the match from there and conversed with our friends on the opposite team.”

“By the way, Chiyo, Izzy said she’s coming for you personally,” Otto informed her.

“I’ll be ready,” she promised.

Kaiden gripped a railing above him as the transport increased speed. “I guess we’re on our way for real now,” he muttered. “Hey, Chief, is the map setting the same for each team?”

“For the most part, yeah,” the EI confirmed. “Some of the floor layouts will probably change, and the destination of the objective will change for sure. Otherwise, the defenders who are now attackers will have an unfair advantage.”

“Considering that is a common thought, we might as well give them that too,” Indre grumbled.

“What was that now?” Kaiden asked.

She looked at him and shrugged. “Oh, only a… Well, back at my old academy, we actually ran siege missions a lot in practice. It was one of the most popular mission types, but it was a common argument there that the defending team always had a significant advantage.”

“Why’s that?” he asked. “For the last couple of years, I usually ran retrieval, bounty, and survival missions.”

“Normandy Academy has a smaller student body, and their Animus systems are a few updates behind since the ones here have to be tested and cleared before they are sent out to the other Ark academies,” Amber explained. “That means a smaller mission pool. The result is that they run the same missions over and over.”

“Right, and of course, it definitely felt a little repetitive from time to time, especially in siege, since a winner isn’t declared until one team wins both defense and attack,” she explained. “Aside from that, it was as much a battle of endurance as skill, I suppose.”

“Well, I don’t feel like spending all day on a single mission, so let’s do our best to knock this out here and now.” Kaiden folded his arms and waited for his team to respond.

“I certainly agree,” Genos said finally when the others didn’t immediately respond. “However, considering how close the last match was and that they might have the advantage now, perhaps another plan would be advisable? We have nine and a half minutes until landing.”

Marlo and Amber both nodded.

“Things got a little screwy last time. Do you want another shot?” Flynn questioned the ace.

Kaiden tapped his finger on his arm and the rhythmic click of metal filled the momentary silence. “Give me a minute here. The only thing I can think of is that we shouldn’t go for a full-frontal assault.”

“Well, at least that shows you are thinking about it,” Amber pointed out. “Although I suppose it didn’t go too well for Jaxon’s team when they tried it.”

“It wasn’t a bad idea,” he responded. “Distract us with an attack while Raul and Izzy either went for the objective or eliminated our support.”

“They almost did too,” Chiyo reminded them and glanced at Otto and Flynn. “I need to thank both of you for defending me.”

“I’m glad it worked out,” Otto replied and rubbed his chest ruefully. “Although I could have done without the beating. That Izzy girl has a temper.”

“I wish I could have gotten both of them,” Flynn grumbled and shifted his helmet slightly so he could eye Marlo. “As the big guy mentioned, I had an explosive problem.”

“Speaking of which, was Jaxon’s gun jamming problem your doing?” Kaiden asked Chiyo.

“It’s a simple solution for energy-based weaponry—a quick-command allows me to convince the tech that allows the weapon to concentrate the energy to believe there is a malfunction which will make it overheat,” she explained.

“An old staple for any hacker in the field,” Otto added. “It only works for a few seconds and you can’t use it on more than a few guns at a time, but damn if it isn’t helpful.”

“I can certainly agree with that.” The ace nodded. “I guess it’s been a while since you and I fought side by side. You usually have your own things to do or get nice and cozy in the security or central station. I forget how handy you are in the field.”

“It was certainly more exhilarating for me than I expected,” she admitted. “I suppose I’ll have to attempt to be more directly involved on occasion. I guess I have become too comfortable as the support.”

“You’ll probably get your chance this time around too,” he assured her and she eyed him warily. “I think I might have something to work on.”

“Do you have a plan now, friend Kaiden?” Genos asked. He closed his screen and his machine gun was replaced by a mid-sized cannon. Marlo gave his silent approval with a clap to the Tsuna’s shoulder as he walked up to the ace.

“Well, yes, but you might wanna hear it before you get too excited—especially because you guys will do all the heavy lifting,” Kaiden stated.

“Just because you won the last match doesn’t mean you get to kick your feet up this time around, mate.” Flynn chortled.

“If worse comes to worst, I might be, but not during the match,” he said, cryptically. “I thought about how the last mission went down—assuming I was correct about Jaxon’s plan—and it wasn’t bad. But I think we gave it to him harder than he had planned during the attack, considering he lost four guys to our one.”

Flynn elbowed Marlo and did damage to himself against the heavy’s armor. He scowled and rubbed his arm. “We still managed to bring it around for the most part.” His tone sounded a little pained.

“He’s a good leader and a better tactician than I am, at least when it comes to plans that don’t focus on myself,” Kaiden stated honestly.

“That’s normally how it goes, yes.” Amber chuckled.

“The thing is, do you really think Cameron, Raul, Izzy, or anyone else on their side could have done something like that?” he asked, his expression challenging. “Not to make assumptions—okay, with Cameron I might—and all of them might be good soldiers, medics, whatever. But still, I doubt they could string us along like that and nearly even up the score through all that pressure.”

“It is one of the big boons of working with a proper ace,” Otto commented.

Kaiden looked at the infiltrator, about to retort but changed his mind. “I’ll ignore the subtext there. What I’m getting at is that no matter how good you might be individually, everyone can be overwhelmed. It takes skill and clarity to win something like this. We all have one of those, but for those who made it to the point where the power was cut off, we barely held onto the clarity.”

“Darkness does do well to even things up,” Flynn agreed.

“But we all had our objectives and we followed through and kept communication active. My guess is that they would be a little more frayed in that situation.”

“So we should simply rip them off and do the same thing?” Marlo questioned.

“If you can find the power and cut it, it couldn’t hurt—unless you aren’t prepared for that, in which case, rework your loadout while you still can. But what I’m actually getting at is we need to go with the old strategy of cutting the head off the snake. And I will be a little presumptuous this time and actually say that it’s Jaxon in this case.”

“So you’re saying we should focus on eliminating him?” Flynn asked. “That’s a tall order. Sure, if he’s on his own, you might be able to mano-a-mano with him like you did, but even you almost slipped up before Chiyo stepped in.”

“I’m aware of that, thanks, Flynn,” he said and rolled his eyes. “And yeah, trying to take him out while he has a full team might be more than we can accomplish while trying to keep our own numbers up. So I have a plan to try to take him out one way, and if that doesn’t work…” The ace looked at his team and brushed his hand over his thermals. “The captain goes down with the ship and all that, right?”


Chapter Eleven

T he attackers watched their transport take off and fade into the distance. Kaiden and Flynn walked to the edge of the building they had landed on and studied their target in the distance. “It really stands out, doesn’t it?” the ace mused, his expression pensive as he studied the modernist building in the distance, aglow with yellow and white lights.

“Man, if I had known it basically glowed like a big ‘attack here’ sign, I might have cut the power myself.” The marksman chuckled, drew his rifle, and looked through the scope. “I don’t see anything in the windows on this side. The buildings between block the lower levels, though.”

“I doubt they would simply loiter in plain view. That’s asking for a shot to the head,” Kaiden pointed out.

“We should head over there. It’s only two klicks away,” Chiyo suggested and the team members nodded agreement.

“Everyone has their orders. Indre and Genos are with me.” He looked at Flynn. “When you finish your little job, let me know and I’ll send a ping so we can meet.”

“I’ll be done soon. Be ready to breach when I contact you, but I doubt it’ll buy us very much time.” Flynn noted, stepped onto the edge of the roof, and leapt off.

“Have a little more confidence, Aussie,” the ace snarked over the comms before the marksman went dark. “Is everyone else ready?”

They nodded. Genos and Indre stepped beside Kaiden while Marlo, Amber, Otto, and Chiyo each took turns to jump. Chiyo paused and looked at Kaiden. “Are you sure about this?”

“You’ll do great,” he promised and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Besides, plan b will only happen if Flynn fucks up. Although in a tight situation like this and not knowing the variables, that’s more of a possibility than I might think, I suppose.” He shrugged and drew his rifle. “Ah well, I’m always willing to put some skin in the game if need be.”

“Admirable, but in the future, you should work on plans that aren’t so needlessly sacrificial,” she stated plainly.

“Hey, you should tell that to the big guy who’s waiting for you down there in case you’d forgotten,” he retorted and pointed down.

Chiyo nodded silently and stepped off the edge. He watched them jog away before he turned to his teammates. “All right, it’s our turn. Let’s get into position before Flynn throws a fit from boredom.”


Master

The trio circled the building to a smaller one adjacent to it, broke in, and climbed the stairs to the roof. Kaiden barreled through the locked roof door and burst it open, a bemused grin plastered on his face when he saw Indre flinch slightly. “Not really an agent move?” he asked.

“Sometimes, but we’re usually running away from something if we do something that loud,” she answered.

“I recommend growing accustomed to such volumes, particularly if you will join us on more missions,” Genos suggested helpfully.

“So you’re not really a stealth team?” she asked.

“Oh, we use stealth and subterfuge often enough and even finished a mission without being detected so…well, we have a few notches there,” he bragged as he opened his network list.

“A few notches out of how many attempts?” she asked and glanced at Genos who looked away—not to avoid her gaze but to take a moment to think and put the large numbers together.

“Can your grapple make it that far?” Kaiden asked and gestured toward the target building.

“Huh? Oh, sure. This is close enough.” Indre paused beside Kaiden and fiddled with the pack on her back. A device dropped from within and into her hand. She raised it and clicked a button, and a large bubble formed above her to lift her off her feet.

“Uh, that’s not a grapple,” Kaiden protested and narrowed his eyes at the odd device.

“I never said it was a grapple. I merely said I have a device that can traverse between rooftops,” she clarified and began to float away. “I’ll be right back. Let me know when I can start—”

“Hold that thought.” The ace held a finger up. “Flynn just pinged me. It seems he finally disable the scramblers on the other side, so you are a go.”

Indre nodded and drifted to the other rooftop. Her teammates waited while she placed a device on the skylight and the glass shook for a moment before it dissolved into a puddle, “I do have to admit, she has some cool toys,” Kaiden acknowledged and shook his head as he turned his attention to the bubble-like device. “Others seem a bit goofy, though.”

“I’ll have to consider expanding my gadget options.” Genos sounded thoughtful. “I prefer to choose those that allow me to manipulate machinery I might run into, but other more practical or specialized equipment could also open opportunities I hadn’t considered.” He looked speculatively at his teammate. “Perhaps we could add a few more notches, eventually, with such options?”

“It could always be worth it to change things up, but are you saying you don’t like the way we do things?” he inquired.

“It would be a…welcome change to occasionally have a quiet mission,” the Tsuna admitted.

“Guys, I’m in. I’m sending the Zeppelin your way,” Indre informed them over the comms. The floating device drifted toward them.

“That thing is called a Zeppelin? Man, they’ve really scaled down in the couple of hundred years since they were relevant.” He snickered. When it arrived, he offered it to Genos who took hold of the grip without any apparent caution. He landed easily on the building and sent it back.

As Kaiden reached for the Zeppelin, he received another ping from Flynn and turned on his personal link. “Are you in?” he asked as he took hold and allowed his unusual transport to carry him across the gap.

“Yeah, I’m in the stairwell. Where are you?” the marksman asked.

Kaiden landed and handed the device to Indre who pressed and held a button. The Zeppelin powered down and the bubble on top deflated. He dropped through the skylight into the empty hallway below. “Top floor. We just got in, so let me check in with Chiyo and see if—”

“Kaiden, are you there?” the infiltrator interjected.

“Oh, good timing. I was about to call ya.” He drew Debonair and scanned the hallway before he motioned for Genos and Indre to follow him into the building. “What’s happening on your end?”

“We’re on the ground floor near the lobby, and there’s no sign of the other team,” she informed him. “I found a help terminal and downloaded a map from it.”

“Send it our way,” he ordered as he edged carefully to a corner and peered around it.

“I can do one better. Let me contact Indre.” Kaiden looked back at the girl and gestured to his head. Indre shook hers worriedly, which confused him until he realized he was pointing to his head with his pistol. He gestured with his free hand to reassure her and used it to tap his helmet to signal to her to turn her comm link on.

She nodded and activated it on her HUD. “Hello?”

“Indre, this is Chiyo. Do you happen to have a signal oscillator on you?”

Indre held up her arm to her face and the console on her gauntlet turned on. “I do not, but I think I know what you’re after. Give me a minute.” She tapped a few keys. “I sent out a signal. Can you or Otto—”

“He sees it. Kaiden, you should see some new dots on the map screen,” Chiyo informed him.

“I still need the map, Chi,” he stated flatly.

“Here, take a look.” A map popped up on his visor with red dots on two different floors.

“Are these the defending team?”

“Yep. We were able to track them using their personal tracking signals. They shouldn’t have left them on.” She laughed

“Technically, we did too,” Kaiden pointed out.

“They don’t have a technician on their team,” she countered. “Although they seem aware of that disadvantage. My guess is some of them are defending the security station while the others are either waiting for us or are defending the floor the objective is on.”

“Which one is Jax?” he asked. The dots weren’t marked with who was who, only a series of numbers.

“I’m working on it,” Otto said. “It should be up… I have a few of them cracked and it shouldn’t take me much longer to get the rest.”

Among the few was Jaxon. Kaiden holstered his pistol and drew his rifle. “We have our target. Flynn, do you have him too?”

“Yeah, I see him. Twelfth floor,” the marksman confirmed. “I’ll definitely get there before you do, so I’ll scope it out while you get your ass over here.”

“I appreciate it. We’re on our way.” The ace signed off and looked at his two teammates. “Fingers crossed guys, and if things go south, do your best, all right?”

“Of course,” Genos promised, while Indre nodded.

“When we have some free time, drinks are on me,” he vowed as he pressed his rifle to his chest. “Now, let’s get our mark, shall we?”


Chapter Twelve

F lynn snuck along the edges of the top of the room, snaked between the rafters and bars that supported the lights, and peered at the group below. Luke, Mack, Raul, and Silas patrolled the area. Well, maybe patrolled was a little too formal. This was more like loitered.

If it wasn’t for the fact that they seemed to wander aimlessly around, he would have sworn it was a potential trap. It was logical to assume it was, but he honestly didn’t see how. He scrutinized the surroundings but couldn’t identify anything of note. This seemed to be a storage area of some kind.

In terms of their objectives, it honestly made no sense at all. The invaders had targeted the serum, exactly like the other team had, but it certainly wasn’t in this room. It also didn’t seem like an obvious place to set up a blockade or a particularly defensive position. For one thing, it was out of the way and you didn’t have to move through it to get to the next floor, but maybe there was a way to get to the objective’s location through there?

He readied his rifle and searched for Jaxon, then took a moment to adjust the map in his HUD to an isometric view of the room. The Tsuna’s dot was close to Luke’s but when he looked and still couldn’t locate him, he frowned. Was the map bugged? He was about to retreat when he caught a hasty glimpse of the black-and-blue armor. Moving stealthily, he eased along the railing and into a different position where he was hidden by a large machine.

“Kaiden, I have eyes on Jaxon,” Flynn murmured in a low tone and flinched when Raul looked up. Thankfully, he hadn’t looked for him but merely stared absentmindedly into space. What the hell was going on? Did they really think they had this in the bag or something?

“Good. We’re almost there, coming in on the ceiling,” Kaiden informed him.

He lowered his rifle. “I’m already up here. Where are you coming in from?”

“The vents, what do you think?” The ace chuckled. “We thought that was a better option than going in the front door, why? How did you get in there?”

“There’s an office door on the thirteenth floor that opens onto these railways over the room below,” he explained.

“Well, shit, that sounds more convenient.” Kaiden grunted with what might have been exasperation and Flynn now picked up the discomfort in his voice. “What are they doing?”

“Honestly? I have no bloody idea,” he muttered and took another look through his scope. “They are all just standing around. I thought for a moment they were waiting for us, but this seems to be a weird place to do it. Unless there is another way into the lab through here or something, we would have no reason to come here if we weren’t explicitly gunning for Jaxon.”

“He might have counted on that and chose a location where they have a lot of room to maneuver,” the ace hypothesized. “I don’t blame him. Fighting in that cramped lab was a pain in the ass.”

“Let’s get this done before I get too paranoid,” Flynn muttered and aimed carefully. “I have the shot. Tell me when.”

Something rattled in the background and Kaiden mumbled, “I’m about to drop down, but it’s a straight drop. I don’t think we can all do it silently, so go ahead and fire. We’ll enter and begin to fight amongst the confusion.”

“Got it. Preparing to fire,” he said as he eased the bottom of the gun against the railing to steady it and leaned over, his aim centered on Jaxon’s helmet. “Firing.”

In the second before he pulled the trigger, silver flared in his scope. The shot fired, but it was blocked by Luke and his personal shield.

“Shit!” Flynn cursed and lurched back to get out of range. The walkway beneath him shook and he was thrown onto the floor as a bright blue light surrounded him—Mack’s energy, he realized. The walkway collapsed and some fell on top of him.

Kaiden dropped from the grate followed by Genos and Indre. He fired a charged shot at Jaxon, who kicked a table in front of him. The blast impacted that and erupted but the Tsuna ace retreated unharmed.

Genos fired his cannon and a stream of energy collided with Luke’s shield. Mack charged at him and Indre, who tossed a mine a few paces in front of him. It activated and released arcs of electricity, but the vanguard’s shields were almost at full power and he barreled through it without difficulty. The agent flung herself to the side to avoid him. Genos was able to erode Luke’s shield, but he had to dodge Mack’s attacks before he could focus on the titan.

Raul intercepted the ace as he pursued Jaxon and took a few shots at him with his rifle. Kaiden turned and fired at the tracker, who bounded above him and jumped between several stacks of crates.

“It’s not working out like you thought, huh?” Raul yelled as he fired another shot. His target spun and dropped to one knee behind a machine.

“What are you talking about?” he shouted back and charged a shot.

“Kaiden, they have our trackers,” Chiyo informed him. Raul fired another volley to keep Kaiden pinned.

“What? How?” Kaiden asked and fired blindly around his defense in an effort to force the tracker to move. He stood quickly and sprinted to another defunct machine while his adversary reloaded.

“My guess is that either Raul or Izzy set up a trap and when we sent out the ping to get their locations, they got ours as well. Otto and I are trying to shut them out, but for now, the only quick solution is to turn ours off.”

“Dammit.” The ace huffed his frustration. He vented his rifle and drew Debonair to fire behind him at Raul. The tracker was too far away for him to get a good shot and moved easily around the blasts. He fired back and clipped Kaiden along his waist. It wasn’t a serious wound, but the impact was enough to cause him to stumble. The man’s rifle wasn’t a powerhouse, but he hadn’t seen him vent it yet and even from long range, it still packed a punch and traded penetration and force for range and capacity.

Kaiden took shelter behind the other machine and closed the vent on his rifle. He looked tentatively around the opposite corner to assess the situation. Mack and Silas had targeted Genos and Indre battled Luke. He knew Jaxon had to be around there somewhere, but where was he hiding? And where the hell was Flynn?

He froze at a distinctive whoosh above him and scowled at a drone that definitely headed his way. His response was instinctual and he swung Sire to bear on the mechanical, but a single shot obliterated it before he could fire. Startled, he looked at Flynn, who slid in beside him. “Trust me, you want to take that thing out asap,” he advised.

“Nice shooting,” Kaiden complimented him. “Do you see Jaxon?”

“I caught a glimpse of him along the way. He’s heading to the other side of the room.”

“Do you think he’s running away?”

“He might be going to reinforce the other team. What do you think?”

“I’ll get his attention before he leaves the party,” the ace vowed a second before several laser shots forced them prone. Both shielded their heads with their arms. “As long as you deal with your old buddy here!”

“You got it. I’ll show him that he shouldn’t have come back for round two,” Flynn promised, rolled a short distance, and stood hastily to take aim and return fire.

Kaiden pushed himself up and held Sire’s trigger down as he launched forward to intervene in the fights happening in the center of the room. He fired at Mack, whose shields protected him from damage, but the force still staggered the vanguard. Genos dodged a gun whip from Silas and kicked the enforcer with enough force to drive him back.

The Tsuna retrieved a pronged device and thrust it against the vanguard’s chest. Mack batted him aside and drew two hand cannons to aim one at Kaiden and one at Genos. He fired but lacked accuracy, and the ace was able to weave through the shots as his teammate pointed at the device he’d attached to their attacker before he rolled out of the way of the volley. Kaiden moved close enough to thump a fist against the device and ducked as Silas fired an aimed shot. The blast struck the enforcer’s teammate in the chest instead of their opponent. Mack was hurled back as Genos’ dampener activated to drain the vanguard’s shields.

Silas holstered his shotgun and swung a punch at Kaiden. The ace almost dropped his rifle in his attempt to grasp his assailant’s arm. The enforcer ducked back quickly and drove a knee up into his opponent’s chest. Kaiden stumbled, holstered his rifle, and spun to face his attacker, who now brandished a knife in his hand. He managed to side-step the first thrust but his opponent flipped the blade and twisted to slice along his quarry’s chest armor.

He immediately followed with a driving tackle that thrust them both back a few feet. The ace yanked out his own blade and hoped the man would fall for his bluff. When Silas turned and barreled into another assault, Kaiden activated his shield. His attacker couldn’t halt the momentum of his swing and his blade impacted the barrier and bounced back. He dropped the shield, immediately delivered a roundhouse kick, and drew Debonair while in motion.

The enforcer had barely regained his balance when Kaiden fired several shots. Silas sprang backward and hauled out his shotgun. Before he could fire, a beam seared into him from the side to drive him back and melt his chest plate. The ace glanced quickly at Genos, who lowered his cannon and nodded at him. He waved his thanks and bounded toward Luke and Indre.

Kaiden reached the titan a split second before the giant crushed the downed agent. He activated his heat blade and vaulted up to slice through the bounce pack on his back. Luke twisted and his armored foot descended in a powerful thump that narrowly missed crushing his adversary’s leg. More importantly, he exposed his ruptured pack to Indre, who scrambled up and placed a shock mine on the damaged jets.

It detonated in an eruption of electricity that fried the systems inside Luke’s armor.

“You got this?” Kaiden asked as the titan hobbled around in an effort to reset his system.

“I can keep him distracted, at least. It’ll be easier now that we’ve short-circuited his balancers,” she confirmed.

“When you have the chance, regroup with Genos and Flynn and then get out of here and join Chiyo. She and her group are heading for the other team of defenders,” he instructed.

“So you are going with the MAD idea, huh?” she asked.

“I wish it could have gone cleaner, but I won’t take the chance that they combine forces and drag this out.” He shrugged. “Assuming he didn’t already run off.”

A shot struck Indre in the back and she toppled against the ace and knocked them both down. He looked up to see Jaxon prepared to fire again, rolled over, and activated his shield to block the shot. “Go!” he ordered. Indre nodded, pushed to her feet, and moved to assist Genos.

Kaiden held onto his shield device as he stood and smiled when he saw Jaxon select a shock grenade. That would drain his shield faster, but he didn’t intend to stick around long enough for it to be a problem. He attacked the Tsuna ace, who threw the grenade as he’d expected him to do. It detonated and his shield began to flicker, but he hastily removed his own grenade container, this one full of thermals. With the entire cylinder held firmly in his hand, he dropped the shield. Jaxon stepped back to take aim, but Kaiden drew his blade and covered the distance between them too quickly. He feinted boldly with the knife and the Tsuna grabbed his hand as Kaiden swung his other arm at his adversary.

Jaxon dropped his rifle and grasped that one as well, but as he tried to push him away, Kaiden dropped his knife and snatched his arm to drag him closer. He couldn’t see his face behind his helmet, but he saw his opponent register the container of grenades and look sharply at him, the recognition obvious in his body language despite being encased head to toe in armor. Kaiden pressed the switch. The ordnance detonated at virtually the same moment and engulfed the two combatants.


Master

In one blink, he was surrounded by fire. In the next, he was in what appeared to be a rec room with a large monitor screen in front of him. He looked down to see he was dressed in a simple black underlay, his armor gone.

“Do you really believe that was necessary?” Jaxon asked. Kaiden looked over to see the Tsuna in a light blue underlay, minus his infuser, with his hands clasped behind his back. He could almost feel himself giggle in response. The Tsuna’s tone was short and he obviously tried to retain his calm, commanding demeanor, but he could tell he was more than a little pissed.

“Well, you wouldn’t stand there and get shot so I had to compromise,” he pointed out. Jaxon huffed and walked up to the screen, which was split in two. One focused on Genos, Indre, and Flynn in the storage room and the other observed Chiyo and her team in battle with Izzy and her defenders.

“Do you think they can last without their leader and best member?” the Tsuna asked as he watched the chaos unfold.

Kaiden noticed several tables, one of which held a chess board. “I’m gambling that mine can better than yours.” He took a seat at the table. “So, what are your thoughts on that risk?”

Jaxon fixed his opponent with a long, hard look before he focused on the monitor for a moment and made an odd noise—a mixture of pops and garbled grunts. The ace guessed that was Tsuna for conflicted cursing.

Finally, he joined him at the table and sat across from him. “I believe in my team as you do in yours.”

“A good leader should. Even I know that’s basic.” Kaiden chuckled and tapped a finger on the chess board. “I already promised my team that drinks were on me if we won. Do you wanna make a bet that if yours succeeds, I buy a round for them?”

Jaxon leaned back in his chair with his arms folded. “What would you like if I lose?”

“That’s a good question.” He took a moment to think it over. “How about the next time I have a mission, you tag along?”

“That seems a rather steep exchange,” the Tsuna protested. “I thought you preferred to work alone?”

“Most times, but it’s more about being able to finish early. I won’t skimp you, of course. You’ll get a cut.”

Jaxon thought for a moment and closed his eyes. “I do not have a mercenary license.”

“Depending on the gig, you only have to pay a fee and get a temporary waiver. I’m only asking for a low-level mission, nothing more than a night,” he explained. “Besides, this only matters if you lose. All these concerns make it seem like you really think it’s a possibility.”

The Tsuna ace opened his eyes and narrowed them in defiance. “I merely want to be prepared. It is a possibility, but I request that if my team loses, you will run at least three missions with me.”

“Uh…that’s fine, but why the change?” Kaiden asked. “Do you need a training buddy?”

“That is one benefit, but I also want to train you in proper ace technique,” he explained. “From this scrimmage, I see you have progressed to some degree, but you could use refinement.”

“You do realize I beat you before the swap, right?”

“And you realize that was a mixture of fault on my part and Chiyo’s assistance?” he countered.

“So you caught that,” he muttered.

“I am not so idiotic as to overheat my weapon in the thick of combat,” he pointed out flatly.

“All right, fine, you're on.” Kaiden proffered a hand, which Jaxon took. They both directed their focus to the screen. Genos’ team ran through the building and Chiyo’s team continued to engage the defenders. “So how do you think this will pan out?”

“It’s hard to say, currently. I suppose the big issue right now is who retains control of the security station.”

He chuckled and his hand hovered above the line of pawns. “It might be Chiyo’s happy place, and we could make use of it with two techs,” he began as he moved a pawn forward on the board. “But I doubt they would risk losing it. Chiyo was feeling feisty anyway.”

“Is that so? I’m glad to see your relationship has finally progressed to that level,” Jaxon stated, his gazed fixed on the board.

“Wait, do what?” he asked.

The Tsuna chose a pawn of his own and moved it two spaces forward. “Your awareness needs work as well,” he muttered without looking up. “Your move.”


Chapter Thirteen

K aiden took his opponent’s knight and was momentarily distracted when Marlo bulldozed into the hall with Chiyo’s team and fired a large blast that forced Izzy and her group to back away. “Until your heavies catch up, it looks like this just swung in my favor,” he noted.

“You and Genos drained Mack’s shields but they will recover.” Jaxon slid a rook forward.

“It’s not such an easy fix for Luke, though,” he pointed out and moved another pawn. “Considering I took out his bounce jet and Indre was able to shock his systems.”

“How is the newcomer?” the Tsuna asked. He seemed torn between the need to consider his next move or watch the monitor.

“She’s certainly good. I can see how she was able to transfer here, but she’s a little…I don’t know, faint? Uptight? She’s not used to what goes on in our group.”

“As a whole or only your antics?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m still a bat out of hell and all that, but hey, it’s year three. At this point, I think I’ve proven that it doesn’t hurt to add flair to the military thing.”

“Even when we graduate, we never stop learning, Kaiden,” Jaxon explained and used his rook to take one of the other man’s knights. “There is always something new to discover, both in battle and in strategy.”

“I bet you never thought I would blow myself up simply to eliminate you, though. You didn’t see that coming, did ya?” Kaiden scooted his king one position to the left.

“I did not, no, but tell me, how many times do you think that will work in reality?” his companion prodded but frowned as Silas attempted to sneak up on Otto and didn’t notice Flynn preparing a shot.

“I see it working really well…once,” Kaiden admitted.

“I can agree with that, as I am sure you can agree that we all need to start using the Animus properly. The first two years allowed us some leeway, but from now on, we shouldn’t use strategies that exploit the system.”

“You obviously know I run gigs outside of class, so it’s not like I make a habit of suicidal runs,” he countered and looked up when he heard a sniper shot from the monitor. Silas fell and disappeared. “One up on my end.”

“It is your advantage for now, but my team’s backup is arriving,” Jaxon pointed out. Silas appeared in the room. “Hello, Silas, fine work.”

“Damn sneaky-ass Aussie,” the enforcer muttered and rubbed the side of his head where he had taken the strike. “God, that stings. The Animus oscillation has really kicked up now.”

“It’s still better than the alternative, right?” Kaiden reminded him, his attention focused on the other player, who moved his other knight silently in preparation to take a pawn.

“I need to run more scrims,” Silas bemoaned and flopped into a seat at the table beside where the two men sat. “I’m godlike on normal missions, but my awareness has suffered for it. Mercs and bots don’t normally hit as hard or as fast as we do.”

“Nor are their tactics usually more than run and gun, another thing we should work on—to increase the difficulty to provide better training,” Jaxon agreed and tapped the board to tell Kaiden to move.

“Well, masters get a whole selection of new maps and missions in the package, so we’ll have the opportunity,” Kaiden reminded them and leaned over the board to decide his next move. A large explosion sounded from the monitor, and the three turned to look at the screen. Two flashes of white light heralded the appearance of Marlo and Mack in the room.

“Do you know how to do anything but point-blank shots, man?” the vanguard fumed.

Marlo folded his arms and stood his ground. “You shouldn’t have tried that shield explosion. All that light made you look like some sort of anime character powering up.”

“I use it to knock people away and give me and my team some space. It usually works well until someone shoves a cannon barrel in my face.”

“Hey, you found a flaw in your strategy,” the demolitionist returned smartly as he sat on the couch and kicked his feet up. “Use it as a learning experience.”

Mack shook his head and gestured at the chess board. “Are we not enough entertainment?” he asked and jerked a thumb toward the screen.

“We’re multitasking,” Kaiden said cheerfully. “We have a bet going, so we are very interested in the final winner.”

The vanguard huffed and scowled at the screen. “You’re up by one still, but my team should use that explosion as a diversion to regroup.”

“It appears that they are,” Jaxon agreed. He moved a bishop into place before he stood and approached the monitor. “But they are also fracturing. Locate Chiyo Kana.” The screen changed to show Chiyo and Indre running through the halls. “But it appears Kaiden’s team used the disruption to their advantage as well.”

“Huh?” Mack stepped beside him and frowned at the two women, who were headed directly to the lab. “Damn, when did they get the position?”

“We had the maps almost immediately when we entered the building,” Kaiden informed him.

“Those were the basic floor maps. They shouldn’t have had the position of the objective,” Silas interjected.

“You were all fighting in or near the security station, right?” Kaiden asked. “My guess is you tried to stop our techies from gaining access to the defenses and whatnot, but what’s the point of that if they would simply try to take you all out there?”

“It would appear that Chiyo simply accessed the system to find the location of the serum during the fighting,” Jaxon explained. He sighed as he returned to his seat. “Unless someone intercepts them soon, they will be unchallenged in taking the serum and escaping. It will be our loss.”

“You had a good fight. Check,” he said and cornered his opponent’s king with his knight.

The Tsuna looked at the screen once more. “Izzy seems to have caught on, but I don’t believe she will make it in time,” he admitted and used his bishop to swiftly capture the other player’s knight.

“Man, Chiyo is hauling.” Kaiden chuckled as the two entered the lab and snatched the serum. “Izzy and Raul are going to intercept, but Flynn will be in the way.” He moved one of his rooks.

The two women didn’t head to the stairwell or elevator. Instead, they raced to the end of the floor, where one of the windows had been shattered by Flynn’s earlier distraction. Indre handed Chiyo the zeppelin and sent her out of the building.

Jaxon sighed. “Even if they made it to the floor right now, they would not be able to catch them at this point.”

“Maybe one of yours will have a lucky shot,” Kaiden suggested.

The Tsuna chuckled. “Luck might be kind on occasion, but if you rely on it, you have already lost the second most important part of the battle.”

“I’m guessing breathing is the first?” Silas asked.

He nodded. “It would be rather hard to fight otherwise.”

The group laughed as Chiyo sent the zeppelin back to Indre and sprinted to the extraction point. Jaxon took his seat once again and made his final play. “Checkmate.”

Kaiden stopped laughing and looked down with a puzzled look. “What… When did—ah, hell.” He grunted and leaned back so far his chair almost toppled. “Well, damn. I thought it would be poetic to end on a double win.”

“Another small lesson, Kaiden,” his opponent responded and watched Chiyo make it to the finish line. The mission complete banner scrolled for the winning ace, while Jaxon received a mission lost warning. “Learn from your mistakes and take what you can get.”


Chapter Fourteen

T he groups awoke back at the academy. Kaiden’s team exited the pods and congratulated one another, while Jaxon’s group were less enthusiastic. Most of them immediately apologized to the Tsuna. He assured them it was not their fault and that he should have been more prepared for the difficulties they encountered. They grinned when he promised they would exact revenge next time.

“Man, are you guys done already?” Faraji asked and hurried to the group.

“Yeah, weren’t you watching, Adv—uh, Head Monitor?” Kaiden asked.

“I heard that slip,” she chided and brandished her tablet. “I’m watching over five matches simultaneously, not an easy feat.”

“You should have known we would be the most interesting one, though, mJensene,” Flynn boasted.

“Great. Kaiden is rubbing off on some of you.” She sighed and glanced at her device. “And he had the winning team. I had kind of hoped this would be a more humbling experience for him.”

“I heard that slip,” he echoed with more sarcasm.

“That was intentional.” Faraji grinned and turned to Jaxon’s team. “Looking over the stats, you fought well but just missed it, huh?”

“Maybe not ‘just.’ They started to get quite a lead on us when Jaxon was taken out in the second round.” Izzy sighed. “We couldn’t really hold it together and were caught up in simply trying to thin them down. I didn’t realize they had made a run for the objective until it was too late.”

“Well, it’s something to work on next week,” she declared. “As the losing team, you will have a make-up exam next Friday. You’d better win that one or you’ll have to run catch-up missions for a solid month.”

“We will be victorious,” Jaxon vowed and fixed his team with a challenging look. “I will be sure to prepare. Promise me the same.”

“Of course.”

“On it.”

“We’ll be ready.” He nodded at the affirmative responses from the group before he walked over to Kaiden and held his hand out. “I suppose that means you win our bet.”

Kaiden shook his fellow ace’s hand. “I’m glad you’re such a good sport about it.”

“It was fair play. I’m sure you would act accordingly if the positions were reversed.”

“Bet? What bet?” Cameron asked.

“No need to worry, Cameron, it was simply a friendly wager,” Jaxon informed him and clasped his hands behind his back as he turned his attention back to the other ace. “I actually look forward to it, on some level. Do you have any idea when you will want to collect?”

“For now, not really. I cleared my schedule since the year was only beginning and all,” Kaiden explained. “I’ll let you know—maybe a rain check of a couple of weeks?”

“Currently, my only obligation is the makeup exam next week. I’ll keep you informed if that changes.”

Akello cleared her throat and the group turned to her. “Normally, these missions go on for a while. A winner is usually best three out of five unless a team wins both defense and attack back to back.”

“Got that down,” Marlo stated smugly with a thumb against his chest.

“So what do we have to do now?” Kaiden asked. “Another mission? Workshops?”

“We’re easing the returning students in for the first week. Your workshops don’t begin properly until tomorrow.” She checked her tablet. “It only took you three hours and fifty-two minutes to finish,” she said with a low whistle. “I guess the rest of the night is yours.”

There were audible sighs of relief, and Kaiden considered what to do with his unexpected free time when someone tapped on his shoulder. “Are you still getting those drinks?” Indre asked.

His team waited expectantly and he looked out of the windows in the hallway of the Animus center. It was still light outside, so they could definitely get into town before nightfall and enjoy themselves.

“You know what? Let’s do it,” he exclaimed and included the opposition team in his nod of agreement. “I’ll even get a round for you guys—a toast to putting up a good fight.”


Master

Laurie looked up from his work when the doors to his office opened to admit Wolfson, dressed in his security uniform with a new eyepatch over his lost eye. The professor sighed. The giant didn’t usually arrive unannounced and hardly ever without Sasha beside him, but the commander didn’t seem to be in attendance. His mood had just started to pick up, too, he thought glumly as he resigned himself to what he assumed would be a disagreeable interruption.

The doors closed behind the large man who marched to the desk. The professor removed his hands from his keyboard and rested his chin on top of his interlocked fingers. “How can I help you, Head Officer?”

Wolfson chuckled and folded his arms. “I don’t think I’ve heard you address me by my title in years. Something must have really knocked the wind out of your sails.”

“Are you suggesting this is a house call?” Laurie inquired.

“A check-up. Sasha filled me in on your current…eh, mood and I thought I’d see it for myself.”

“So it’s for personal amusement, then?”

The large man removed a large bottle from the pack strapped to the back of his waist. “It can be amusing after a few drinks.”

“I have work to do, Wolfson,” Laurie said dismissively. “Besides, you know you and I don’t exactly share similar tastes.”

“True enough, but you have a rather abundant liquor cabinet and I’ve found a few common pleasures.” He spun the bottle and placed it on the table. His host looked at it and raised an eyebrow. Bliss Fire Vodka. It was true he had a smaller bottle of it—normally for when he wanted a night to be forgotten rather than enjoyed. Then again, maybe that was what Wolfson was there for. And he was in enough of a mood to indulge.

He flicked his gaze to the giant and Wolfson smiled when he saw the moment of acceptance reflect in his eyes. “Come on, let’s have a chat then,” he ordered and crossed to the couch before he turned the monitor screen on. Laurie sighed, stood from his desk, and joined the former sergeant in the entertainment area once he’d retrieved a couple of glasses.

Wolfson took them and began to pour while he spoke. “I heard you're taking the incident really hard.”

“I am—harder than I thought I would,” Laurie admitted. It wasn’t exactly a conclusion even he could avoid at this point.

“Good.” The security head stated plainly and handed him a half-filled glass. “And before you get snippy, no, I am not trying to dig the screws in. But it’s really good to see that something can get through that ego of yours and make you see the light, however dimly.”

“You mean before the alcohol makes it blurry again?” He scoffed and took a quick sip. His lips twitched on contact and the small amount of vodka was enough to scald his throat, but it wasn’t too unpleasant, he admitted with some surprise.

“That kind of light can only be ignored temporarily, not forgotten—at least not by someone like you.” Wolfson filled his own glass to the brim, placed the bottle on the table, and leaned back against the sofa. “I might call you a fool, but that’s only because you get on my nerves. I know you aren’t really one deep down. You won’t forget this experience.”

Laurie took another small sip. “It was the most—” He coughed from the shock of the alcohol. “The most humiliating and frightening moment of my life. Of course I won’t forget it.”

“You weren’t in the crosshairs, Laurie,” his companion pointed out and took a large swig of his glass with no apparent negative effects.

“It doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected, Baioh,” the professor snapped. A little vodka slopped out of his glass and onto his lap with the sudden jerk of his hand. “Yes, I wasn’t in any danger—well, my reputation perhaps, but that is not my concern.”

“Really now?” Wolfson asked slyly.

“Despite your low opinion of me, my ‘arrogance,’ as you might call it, is earned, or at least I thought it was. But I was shown that neither I nor my inventions are sacred or out of the reach of others. Still, I can deal with that. What I can’t deal with is the fact that my oversight could have led to the deaths of so many. It nearly did Kaiden in. And then there’s what happened to you and your officer.”

The giant inhaled deeply and fiddled absently with the strap on his eyepatch. “You’re worried about that, huh?” He took another long drink. “I guess it is a good thing I stopped by, then.”

“What do you mean?”

Wolfson turned to face the professor. “I lost a good man and an eye, but I’m the head officer, Laurie. Don’t you think I should take the blame for letting Gin in here in the first place?”

His companion shook his head firmly. “He got in because he took Egon’s appearance and his credentials—another security system I helped design and maintain. I should have—”

“At the end of the day, Laurie, that wasn’t something we could have planned for,” his companion chided. “Look, I know I’m not a whiz like you are, but I know the details now. He used a device we didn’t even know existed—something that can replicate features and DNA readings perfectly. If we couldn’t even imagine something so sophisticated, we couldn’t have anticipated that it would fall into the wrong hands.”

“Isn’t that what you're supposed to do in security? Think of possible scenarios—the worst scenarios—and plan for them?” Laurie asked.

“It would be great if you could do that one hundred percent of the time, but it doesn’t work like that. If you could, you would make a better version of the dome around us every few months and me and my team wouldn’t even need to be here.”

“I… Well, you have a point there, but I still feel I could have done something,” he responded, his demeanor one of real dejection.

“You did, idiot. You helped save Kaiden and you and those ladies fixed the Animus and made it even better. From where I stand, you took a bad situation and flipped it.”

“I’m not certain of that, to be brutally honest. I’m still trying to understand all the details of the new system. I can’t help but wonder if I might have complicated things even further. It was a suggestion made in haste and without forethought.” He scowled at his almost untouched drink. “And, of course, we haven’t heard from the lab that created the BREW. I doubt they will be happy that we’re using it without their permission.” He took another sip that was almost a gulp and grimaced at the fiery trail that almost stole his breath.

“Do you think they will raise a fuss when they lost it in the first place? They could be held liable given their tech attacked our system. If nothing else, I’m sure we won’t hear a peep from them. They’re probably too piss-scared that we’ll bring action against them.” Wolfson chuckled. “All these doubts I hear, Laurie, are the words of a man who was knocked off the summit. You felt accomplished and on top of the world. Now that you slid down a few steep cliffs, you wonder if it was all for nothing. Maybe you were merely lucky or perhaps your accomplishment wasn’t as great as you believed it was.”

The professor said nothing. Honestly, he could even debate it because his visitor’s words held more truth than he would have liked. He began to wonder if he preferred it when he simply saw him as a muscle-bound barbarian.

“It wasn’t a wash. I feel for those we lost and I mourned Officer Hancock and paid my respects at his funeral. The bright side is we dealt with Gin and Kaiden got his piece out of it as well.” Wolfson drained his glass and reached for the bottle to fill it once again. “I’m not saying I think sacrifice is worth it. I’ve made decisions like that before and none of them ever sat right. But not every victory will feel like a real win, especially in the fights you didn’t know were coming.”

Laurie returned his attention to the officer. “How do you make it feel that way, then?”

“You focus on what succeeded and who’s still here,” the giant stated firmly. “You pick yourself up and climb to the top, and this time, you hold firm to your spot.”

He let the words sink in. The screen, which had acted as white noise thus far, ran a news broadcast that crept into his head. “Currently, Ramses Technologies’ building is being cordoned off to prevent access by the public. They say it’s due to upcoming renovations, but some witnesses have said they saw and heard gunfire coming from the building…”


Chapter Fifteen

T he indoor lights of the Emerald Lounge were dimmed and jazztronic music drifted soothingly in the subdued ambiance. Flynn left the bar with two drinks and walked to the upstairs lounge to hand one to Amber.

“You know, this place isn’t bad at all,” Otto commented and selected a morsel from the appetizer platter.

“I didn’t think that the three of you never actually came here with us before.” Kaiden leaned against the railing, his drink in hand.

“To be fair, we haven’t been back in quite some time,” Chiyo reminded him.

The ace frowned as he took a moment to think. “Huh, I guess not. I stop here so often when I’m moonlighting that I never really thought of the last time I was here simply to hang out.”

“So that bartender…he’s one of your handlers?” Jaxon asked and studied Julio curiously.

Kaiden nodded and twisted to look at the Emerald Lounge’s proprietor. “I think he prefers the term ‘dealer,’ but yeah, same difference.”

“He’s also a great hook-up,” Flynn said and raised his glass in a casual toast. “He’s handed out free drinks, so you’ll probably only spend like thirty creds all night.”

He chuckled. “Try not to abuse it too much. I think he still feels somewhat guilty about what happened with Gin last year, and the whole infiltration incident probably kicked a lot of that up again. He’s most likely trying to make amends in his own way.”

“He’s rather sympathetic for a man whose job it is to send others into dangerous situations,” Jaxon noted.

“Technically, his job is to run this place. The other gig is only for special occasions,” Kaiden clarified.

“Speaking of Gin…” Luke began as he stood and raised his drink with a dramatic flourish. “Let’s bid a final good riddance to him. I don’t know where they dumped his body so I can’t piss on him, but I feel we should still wrap things up.”

“He was cremated and probably either binned or dusted into space.” The ace raised his glass in response. “I won’t offer cheers to that bastard, but I’ll cheer for everyone who helped fix his mess, including Chiyo.” He nodded to the tech with a smile. “And, I guess, to that boisterous ball of fun in my head as well.”

“Finally, acknowledgment.” Chief appeared and hovered over the table. “It sounds so sweet.”

“You seem rather excited about all this, considering you like to brag about how great you are.” He chuckled and took a slow sip of his drink.

“It’s called dropping hints,” the EI retorted, and his eye shrank and furrowed in obvious disapproval.

“Might I ask what that is you are having, friend Amber?” Genos inquired and pointed to her drink.

“This? It’s a cocktail, Magenta Sunset.” She held it up to display the dark pink color with purple swirls that seemed constantly in motion. The drink shimmered under the light. “Do you want some?”

“I don’t mean to take any of yours. I am not used to earth alcohol but I wanted to try some.” He looked both intrigued and hesitant.

“Do Tsuna have an alcoholic equivalent on Abisalo?” Silas asked Jaxon.

“To some extent. The juices of some of our fruits can cause a state of befuddlement that affects each Tsuna differently. Some enjoy the feeling but others simply get headaches.”

“That’s about dead on.” Cameron chuckled and finished off a part of a flauta.

“I have enjoyed these new foods we are eating as well,” Genos said and made a focused selection from the tray. “Particularly these—the melted insides are very satisfying. What are they?”

“That’s escargot, Genos,” Raul explained. “Cooked snails with spices.”

“I am surprised to see you trying so many things,” Chiyo said with happy wonder. “But you should be careful. Even according to the latest information, the embassy is still trying to determine everything a Tsuna can eat that’s Earth-based.”

“Seafood is usually safe with them though, right?” Marlo asked. “Snails are technically surf, so maybe that counts?”

“I’ll be right back,” Amber said as she pushed from the table and headed downstairs.

The ace glanced at Jaxon. “You seem a little stiff still. Is it not really your thing to hang out in lounges?”

His Tsuna counterpart shrugged. “I’m enjoying the company of friends and I am happy to do that anywhere. My apprehensive body posture is because of the day's events. Whenever I lose or fail a mission, I prefer to immediately set to work training and fixing my mistakes if I am physically able. Celebrating a loss is an odd feeling.”

Kaiden knocked the back of his fist playfully against the Tsuna ace’s shoulder. “You aren’t celebrating a loss. We are celebrating a new year and, I guess, the fact that the Animus still works.”

“And me still, right?” Chief asked and floated to hover closer to them.

“You’re really taking it all in tonight, huh?” Kaiden snarked and rolled his eyes.

“I noticed that you didn’t seem to participate very much in the match,” Jaxon recalled and gestured at the EI. “Are you having trouble performing since the hack?”

“I’m not sure I like the implications there,” he warned. “Do you doubt my power?” He flared up his lights and caused most of the people in the room to shield their eyes.

“Hey. Cut the brights, Chief,” Amber whined. She held another Magenta Sunrise in her hand and walked over to hand it to Genos. “Here, try one.”

Jaxon placed a warning hand on the mechanist’s arm. “Kin, perhaps you should not—”

“Hey, let the little scamp enjoy himself. It’s nice to see him let go a little,” Chief chided and twirled to face Jaxon. “And to answer your question, I’m fine…for, uh, the most part. I’m under doctor’s orders—professor’s orders—to not dick around too much in the Animus until I get the okay. And yeah, there have been a few hiccups since Kaiden and I were separated that still kick up on occasion—”

“You have an odd definition of ‘fine,’” Jaxon interrupted, his tone flat.

The EI and Tsuna stared at each other for a moment. Jaxon blinked while Chief’s eye scaled from large to small for a few seconds. “Kaiden blew you up, remember that,” he snapped sharply and disappeared.

Kaiden chuckled. “You’re gonna disappear on him like that?”

“Quiet you. He’s oddly intimidating.”

He grinned as he watched Amber egg Genos on to take a sip. The Tsuna peered at the contents of his glass as if trying to find the courage, and the ace couldn’t help but smile to see things peaceful for once.


Master

A long while later, the group was still relaxing, although Otto and Julius had left about a half-hour before. Chiyo and Amber knelt beside Genos, who sprawled uncomfortably on the floor. Jaxon finally noticed his kin’s current condition and hurried over with a concerned frown.

“What happened?” he asked.

“We’re honestly not quite sure, really,” Amber confessed. She held a hand against the Tsuna engineer’s head. “He seemed fine but suddenly collapsed.”

“Friends…I don’t feel so good,” Genos muttered miserably.

“I think we can see that. You look almost purple right now,” Chiyo stated in a worried tone.

Jaxon knelt and examined the other Tsuna. “The inflamed skin…shakes in the arms.” He ran a finger above Genos’ infuser. “Perspiration darkened…chemical poisoning.”

“What? From the alcohol?” Amber asked.

“No, alcohol has no real effect on us as it does you, but you said it was a cocktail, correct? Those are comprised of a number of ingredients. What did this have?”

“About three types of rum, lime juice, grape juice, grenadine, and some bitters,” Kaiden answered as he joined the group around the unhappy Genos. Amber and Chiyo gave him puzzled looks. “What? I told you I hang around with Julio. He talks shop from time to time.”

“Grenadine, that flavoring syrup?” Jaxon questioned. “That is one of the things we can’t imbibe.”

“What, pomegranate juice?” Amber asked. “I thought most Earth fruits were okay with Tsuna?”

“Most American bars use the artificial version of grenadine for the color,” Chiyo explained. “In this case, those artificial dyes are actually a mild poison for Tsuna, particularly those with weak stomachs.”

“Friends, I will not perish this night,” Genos promised, albeit in a halting and somewhat wilted voice.

“Uh, will he actually be able to live up to that?” Kaiden asked. A few others now crowded around them.

“He should be taken back to the Academy or a nearby hospital that is equipped to handle Tsuna ailments,” Jaxon declared firmly.

“There is one here in Seattle. That’ll be quicker,” Amber suggested.

“No, it is all right. We should continue the merriment,” Genos pleaded.

“There isn’t much merriment to be had when a good friend is in pain,” she said gently.

“I’ll hail a shareride and take him in. You guys keep going,” Chiyo offered. She grasped one of Genos’ arms and slid it over her shoulders.

“Are you sure?” Kaiden asked.

“Of course.” She nodded. “I’ll look after him and I’ll let you know how he fares.”

“Thanks, Chi.” He clapped a hand on Genos’ shoulder. “Do you need anything for the road, buddy?”

“Bring me the snails,” he requested weakly.

The ace glanced at the table. The only thing remaining of the escargot was the shells. “You…uh, ate them all, Genos.”

“Oh…that is not fortuitous,” he mumbled as Chiyo and Amber helped him down the stairs.

“Do you think you should go with him?” Kaiden asked Jaxon.

“I will see to him later. I wish I had thought to check the contents myself. Genos has shown more eagerness to try learning more about Earth as the years have gone by, particularly food. That eagerness has cost him a little…clarity.”

“Plus, Chief kind of guilted you into it,” Kaiden reminded him.

“Don’t bring it up again,” the EI pleaded in his head.

Kaiden smirked as Jaxon gestured with his head to the floor below. “For now, though, I’ll stand by while you deal with your onlooker.”

“Do what?” He immediately swung his gaze to the bar.

“You haven’t noticed?” Indre asked. “That guy down there in the red coat has eyeballed you for most of the night.”

“In the interested in killing you kind of way?” the ace asked. His gaze sifted through the patrons and finally settled on a tall but thin man in a large red coat. He sported a shaved head and a small black mohawk, and currently sat at the bar talking to Julio, but his repeated glances at him definitely indicated more than casual interest. Whatever the proprietor had to say included various gestures toward him.

“He certainly seems interested in something,” Flynn confirmed as he stepped beside them. “Will you go see what’s up?”

Kaiden nodded and handed the marksman his drink. “It doesn’t look like he wants trouble. If that were the case, Julio would probably deal with it himself.”

“A gig maybe?”

“There’s a good chance of that. I’ll be back.” He strolled down the stairs and weaved through the other patrons and tables on his way to the bar.

“Kaiden. You finally picked up on the vibe, eh?” Julio asked as he approached.

“You could simply contact me. I’m literally less than a hundred feet away.” He fixed his gaze on the stranger. “What’s going on?”

“I’m trying to hash out the details, but you have a potential gig.” Julio pointed to the man. “This is Rok, a member of the Fire Riders.”

“Fire Riders?” The name rang a bell, one that brought his mission to the Amazon to mind. “Lazar…that was Lazar’s gang, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, a good man.” Rok nodded. “Although I only met him a few times. Technically, I’m part of Fire Riders West, a branch of the gang proper. But he did good work getting the gang as a whole to step in line.”

“Yeah, I remember him talking about it,” the ace recalled. “I’m sorry for the loss. He actually died while we were on a mission together and saved my life holding off the guy after me.”

“We were filled in. His tags are actually on the wall of our new HQ in Detroit,” the man stated. “I ain’t here to make you feel guilty. I don’t think anyone really holds you responsible. Shit happens, and from what that bounty hunter told the other top guys, he went down fighting. That’s all any of us can really hope for.”

“Yeah, at the very least,” Kaiden agreed and took the seat beside him. “If you're not here for payback or anything like that, can I ask why you’re looking for me?”

“Technically I wasn’t looking for you specifically. I had word from another sector that there’s something big going down right now at a company owned by one of our contractors.”

“Ramses Technology, in San Diego. Apparently, there’s been some sort of break-in,” Julio related.

“A big company has relations with a gang?” the ace asked rather incredulously.

“It’s actually more common than you would think, especially on the west coast,” the barkeep stated.

“It’s an ace in the pocket idea. Terrorist organizations and hacker cells have emerged and become really organized since the new century began, and most companies have realized that simply having normal security details and systems isn’t enough. You gotta have something to surprise the baddies when something really goes down, someone who will play dirty like them,” Rok explained.

“And something is really going down right now?” Kaiden asked.

“Hell yeah, and it’s bad from what I hear,” the man confirmed. “So bad that the company has raised the alarm to level four. We come in at level three—well, us and another gang, the Skyway Kings. At level four, Ramses busts the coffers open and tells us to end the threat by any means necessary. For us, that means hiring as many good guns as we can get and throwing them at the problem.”

“There a level above that?” Kaiden asked.

“Level five is the fuck it solution.”

“As in fuck it, blow it up?”

“On point.” The man chuckled darkly.

“Rok is one of a few dozen scouts running around right now to get help.” Julio leaned on the bar. “They couldn’t get anyone to bite in Portland and found some in other Californian cities, but they need more.”

“What kind of trouble are ya’ll dealing with?”

“Believe it or not, it’s only ten guys,” Rok revealed. “But they are well-known ball-busters, the EX-10. I don’t know what the hell they want with this place—they usually stay up in the stars—but whatever it is, they are dead set on getting it. We’ve already lost more than a couple of dozen guys and they have almost the whole building to themselves at this point. We need manpower.”

“How many and how much?” Kaiden asked bluntly.

“At this point, all we can get, and we’re offering three hundred thousand credits a head and a million-credit bonus for each one you take down too.”

The ace whistled. He’d earned more in the past, but the current bonus could end in a ten-million-credit payday. It definitely was worth thinking about. “How long do you expect this will last?”

“Once we get into that building, we can probably wrap this up by tonight if they don’t bounce before we can reach them,” Rok replied. “Despite the losses before, we realized that this wasn’t simply a simple flush mission. We’ve played it smart and erected a barricade to defend ourselves while we prepare to strike. We don’t only wanna throw bodies at this. These guys are trained and dangerous and we’re more likely to piss them off than wear them out. Julio here has told me you’re one of his best. That’s why I’ve stared at you for a good chunk of the night. I’ve waited on the call before asking you properly.”

“I didn’t notice, but my friends did,” Kaiden admitted.

“Friends? Are they like you?” The man’s gaze drifted to the lounge area. “Do you think they would want some spare creds too?”

“They are all good but don’t have their equipment on them. I have mine stored at Wrecker Armaments and they can airdrop them for me, but—”

“Go see if they want to do it,” Julio interrupted. “I’ll take care of the equipment.”

The ace chuckled. “That’s a nice offer, Julio, but there are ten guys up there and all have different specs and classes.”

The proprietor smirked. “Go talk to them and bring the ones who wanna join you to the back room.”


Master

The entire group filed into the room. Rok waited beside an entrance Kaiden didn’t remember seeing before. “Where’s Julio?”

“Inside,” he said and pointed to the new entrance. “Do they know what’s going on?”

“Someone’s shooting up a building you’re supposed to be defending and you need some help,” Cameron summarized. “We all agreed to at least hear you out, but we also don’t have our gear. Mine still getting repaired after a gig I ran with my uncle.”

“Julio has that covered. Go take a look.”

The team exchanged glances, curious as to what was in store. Finally, the ace shrugged and stepped through the doorway and down a set of stairs that led below the public area.

Once they reached the bottom, guided by glowstrips, they encountered another closed door. Kaiden knocked. “Julio, are you there?” he shouted.

“Yeah, hold on. I’m getting set up,” the man shouted in response, his voice slightly muffled. After a few seconds, he yelled, “Open,” and the door slid wide. Kaiden’s jaw dropped, as did the others’ when they surveyed the room stocked with a few dozen armor sets and a multitude of guns, gadgets, blades, and other weapons.

“What do you think?” the proprietor asked and stretched his arms wide to indicate his treasures.

“What the hell do you have all this for?” the ace asked as the group clustered and peered around in astonishment.

“Some are leftovers from my gang days. Others are here because I’m still something of a collector,” he said casually. “You always had your own gear, so I never felt the need to have you take a look around.”

“Why is this under your bar?”

“Remember what happened to the last owner?” Julio asked.

“Suspicious death, probably by someone he owed debts to,” he recalled.

The man nodded. “This was originally a vault where the last guy stored private riches and expensive ingredients. I modified it with my own riches to be prepared in case the debt collectors came after me.” He looked up and shouted so the group could hear. “If you accept the gig, you can all use anything you want in here for a flat fifty thousand credit fee, as long as you return them. I’ll simply take it out of your earnings for the evening.”

Kaiden smiled and turned to look at his friends. “So, who here wants to make spending money for one night of work?”


Chapter Sixteen

“ S o we’re keeping this a secret, right?” Marlo asked as the group followed Rok to the transport area.

Kaiden looked at the ten members of the group, all now outfitted in Julio’s gear, which looked quite pricey. The heavies, of course, looked like they normally did—miniature walking mechs. “Yeah, I think we’ll be able to do this nice and quietly.” Kaiden snickered sarcastically.

“You say that as a joke, but we are trying to keep this under wraps,” Rok stated as they finally ascended to the top of the building. Two dropships began to descend as the team funneled through the door. “Just in time,” Rok shouted in an effort to be heard over the loud engines of the aircraft. “Each ship can hold twelve, so I guess all of us will pile into one.”

“Who’s the second ship for?” Cameron asked. Rok pointed across the rooftop to a huddle of seven other mercs who waited for their transport. “Another contact was able to find a little more help in the area.”

“Seattle has way more mercs than I would have thought,” Izzy remarked.

“They could be from Tacoma,” Raul suggested.

The dropships opened their entrances slowly. The two groups boarded their respective ships rapidly. The team members each found a seat along the sides of the ship, but Rok simply walked to the far end and snagged one of the railings above him. “All right, is everyone comfortable?”

“Define comfort,” Silas muttered, stuck between Luke and Mack and their wide heavy armor.

“Can you breathe?” Rok asked him, and the enforcer nodded. “Good, keep doing that—my little piece of life advice, which is free. As for the rest of you, let me bring you up to speed. Once these ships climb to the troposphere, it’s only a twenty to twenty-five-minute ride to our destination.”

“Start by telling us more about these guys who took over the facility,” Kaiden suggested. “You called them the EX-10?”

“Yeah, a small mercenary group composed of ten members, all of them former members of infamous gangs, terrorist groups, and other mercenary companies,” he explained.

“Ten guys were able to take control of a large company building by themselves?” Jaxon inquired.

“Yeah, and they have been able to shut us out and keep us from getting in for hours now,” the merc confirmed. “Physical security was light, and they were able to get in without tripping any alarms. If it weren’t for the silent alarm activated by one of the official security officers, they would probably have been able to get in and out with whatever they are looking for without any difficulty or resistance.”

“That silent alarm was sent to the Fire Riders and Skyway Kings?” The ace glanced quickly out the window to confirm they had finished their ascent. The dropship immediately righted itself and cruised toward their drop point.

“Yeah, it alerted any other security personnel in the building of the attack and sent out an alert to us—well, us being the gang members in the immediate area. They went in running and ready to gun, but by this point, they had already set up shop, locked the doors down, and activated any Guardian droids ready and able in the building. Those who did get inside before the lockdown…well, from what I was told, they haven’t reported in for the last couple of hours.”

“I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this was accomplished by only ten mercs,” Luke admitted and turned to Mack.

“Do you mind not moving around so much?” Silas grunted and adjusted his position when Luke’s elbow jabbed into his armor. It didn’t hurt, obviously, but made things more uncomfortable than ever.

“As I said, these guys are pros. They might have left their previous employment in other companies, but it’s not like those skills simply disappear,” Rok pointed out. “But as I also told Kaiden, the guys there are close to breaking in, but they are also trying to keep the prying eyes of the public from figuring out what’s going down.”

“Under the orders of the Ramses company?” Kaiden asked and the merc nodded. “You would think they would be more concerned with kicking those intruders out than with their public façade.”

“That’s a common problem with all companies. I’m sure that’s not a shocker,” Rok said dryly. “Also, you know what some of those people are like. They hear something dangerous is in progress and have the bright idea that it would make for a cool experience, only to get too close and have their head blown off. In a situation like that, the company would probably have to deal with litigation and liability and shit. No one wants that.”

Cameron chuckled. “I’m not exactly sympathetic to megacorps, but you do have to argue that ‘he was obviously an idiot’ should be an acceptable defense.”

“What can we expect once we get there?” Jaxon inquired. “It would be easier to formulate a plan if we know what the current situation is.”

Rok took a tablet from his coat, activated it, and studied the information. “Right now, they have created a barricade outside the building in the plaza area, where they are currently pinned down by two snipers and small waves of droids.”

“Snipers?” Marlo asked and glanced at Flynn. “It looks like you’ll get to measure up against some of your own.”

“I guess I will see how I stack up, but I gotta say”—he pointed to the rifle on his back—“I think I could shoot the wings off a fly with this. I haven’t seen a rifle like this even in the Animus. It has a great scope, fire rate, plus the power of the shots, and amazing impact that fires almost silently. The only downside is the capacity—four shots, and they are kinetic rounds so you gotta reload manually.”

“What rifle is that?” Kaiden asked.

Flynn drew the weapon and studied it. “Terra Sovereign model—I think Julio said it was called an Icono two?”

“Icono? As in Iconoclast?” The ace looked a little startled. “I thought that line was discontinued after the first model. There was controversy that the designer was in the pocket of a hitman and created it to his specifications.”

“Is that right? Then why does Julio have it?” Flynn asked, the mirth in his voice evidence that he hadn’t really thought about that himself. After a few seconds of awkward silence, he looked slowly at the rifle. “This probably isn’t legal to lug around, is it?”

“To be fair, none of you have licenses for your equipment so this is all basically suspect,” Kaiden admitted. “But you should all assume that a good chunk of what you are using is probably evidence of any number of things.”

“Another reason for you guys to get in there and get this done as quickly as possible,” Rok reiterated. “You’re all Ark academy students, right? You run training sims like this all the time, so it should be child’s play for you.”

“We actually ran a scrim today that was quite similar,” Jaxon concurred. “However, this is on a different scale, and we’ll face a scenario I don’t believe any of us are familiar with.”

“Not to mention this will be for keeps,” Mack added.

Indre adjusted one of her gauntlets. “This has been a rather interesting first day for me.”

“No doubt.” Cameron chuckled. “I should add, though, that even for us, this isn’t exactly normal.”

“Continuing from where we left off, is the front entrance the only way in?” the Tsuna asked.

“No. There is a back entrance they are also working on gaining access through, but that way is also locked down. They are trying to cut into it, but the entire section has almost a dozen emergency doors. If they can make it in, it’ll be slow going, even without the threat of attack,” Rok stated.

“So our primary concern is simply getting in.” Jaxon tapped his infuser, which fitted unevenly along the neck of his suit.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay with that, Jaxon?” Kaiden asked and indicated the infuser. “Without the protection a Tsuna armor set offers, that infuser is an easy target.”

“I’ll keep it in mind, but even if it is destroyed, I have a backup.” He pointed to the container on his leg. “Three vials of cooling liquid will keep me going for a couple of hours, maybe more since the sun is not in the sky.”

“Just be careful. If your infuser breaks while we are inside, it’ll be difficult to extract you and take you to a hospital.”

“I thank you for the concern, but I think that’s a warning for everyone here too,” Jaxon stated and gestured at the others.

The group looked at one another, his vague warning a clear indication that now would be the time to mention any worries or to pull out, but they maintained a stoic silence.

“To those in the back, brace for the descent,” the pilot warned over the intercom.

Rok nodded and finally sat before he dropped the safety bar. Everyone else followed his example except for the heavies, whose armor would keep them grounded. The dropship increased speed as they made their descent toward Earth. However, after a relatively smooth couple of minutes, a loud explosion jarred the vessel and the ship banked hard to the left, knocking a few of the group against one another.

“What was that? Did something on the ship blow up?” Raul gasped.

Rok looked at a monitor on his left. “No, the readout says it's fine. That came from something else.”

“The other dropship was blasted out of the sky,” the pilot informed them “I’m avoiding the debris at the moment.”

“What?” Rok demanded. “What fired at it?” He shouted into the speaker, clearly agitated.

“We’re under attack by another ship,” the pilot responded. “It’s another transport, but its weapons are fighter-class.”

“Dammit, that might be the ship the EX-10 used to get here,” Rok muttered. At another loud rumbling, everyone braced.

“Drop us,” Kaiden bellowed. “This is a Comet model dropship, right? They can drop the cabin.”

“We’re too high,” Rok countered. “And what’s to stop the other ship from simply obliterating us?”

The ace grunted and forced the safety bars from his shoulders. He strode to the entrance and held the railing as the ship bobbed and jerked. “When this ship gets low enough, tell the pilot to jettison the cabin. I’ll go out and deal with the enemy ship.”

“Are you insane? How will you land?” Cameron protested.

“I’ll use the ship,” he responded.

“That’s not a good plan, dumbass,” the bounty hunter retorted.

Kaiden ignored him and looked at Rok. “You said all ten of those mercs are in the building, right? So either the ship is automated or it’s controlled remotely. Either way, it won’t be able to react as quickly as if it were piloted. I’ll take care of it.”

“Kaiden this is—” Jaxon began before Kaiden interjected.

“I brought you guys here, to begin with. What good is it if we are all taken out before we even begin?” He caught Izzy’s gaze. “Hit the button to close the door when I’m out, all right?”

She nodded. He drew Sire and thumped a fist against the switch. The cabin door slid open and sucked him out. He turned as the air around him rushed by and confirmed the location of the enemy ship. The pilot of their aircraft had gained some distance, but the other vessel was still in pursuit. He’d timed his exit well and would intercept his target which powered toward him without slowing.

“Chief, prepare battle suite,” he ordered.

“You’re taking a risk doing something like this while I’m not quite together yet,” the EI warned.

“You know what you signed up for. Come on now.” He chuckled as he took aim and prepared a shot.

“I’d prefer to discuss options when we’re not about to die,” Chief complained. “Battle suite initiated.”

Time seemed to virtually come to a standstill as Kaiden flipped and took aim at the ship’s cockpit. His rifle had almost fully charged, but with his other hand, he extracted a thermal from the grenade container and activated it before he lobbed it at the ship. It exploded directly beneath the left side of the hull and the ship tilted in an effort to avoid more damage. This exposed a coupling on top of the ship. He fired and his shot destroyed the connection. The ace holstered his rifle as the craft began to drift downward. He floated directly above it and clawed at a crevasse in the hull to hold onto. His gloved hand couldn’t find purchase, so he drew his blade and pounded it several times into the vessel until it sank deep enough for him to hold onto it.

“Deactivate suite,” Kaiden ordered. “Chief, can you take the systems over?”

“You destroyed the stabilizer,” the EI pointed out.

“Yeah, but it’s still good enough that we can use the ship to ride close enough to the ocean and bail to safety,” he explained.

“You plan to bodyboard the ship?” Chief fretted, although he didn’t seem as incredulous as Kaiden would have expected. No doubt he was now accustomed to his crazy shenanigans. “Screw it. If the ship is automated by its own systems rather than an EI, I should have no problems.”

“Get to it with as much speed as you can,” he instructed and the round avatar disappeared. He hunkered down as much as he could when the ship began to pick up speed as gravity took control.

“I’m in. Now, what am I doing exactly?” Chief asked.

“Shut the jets off, open the drifting gear to slow it down a little, and coast it as much as you can toward the ocean. Get as close as you can to the coast without hitting shallow water,” Kaiden explained.

“It looks like the others had the same idea. Their cabin crashed into the ocean outside La Jolla Cove.”

“Well, don’t crash into them obviously.”

“It would have been funny, though.” The EI chortled with dark humor. “Opening drift gear. Hold on, partner, we’re going in.”

The ace tightened his grip as the commandeered ship continued to drop toward the water at marginally less speed than before. Chief banked it as much as he could while he activated the front jets in incremental bursts to right the vessel. The ocean approached quickly, and at the last possible moment, the ace yanked his blade out and released the hull to fall away as it splashed into the water. He pulled his legs and arms to his chest as he plunged in immediately after.


Chapter Seventeen

“ A ny progress, General Pocock?” Juro asked as he entered the main chamber once again. He could almost answer the question himself, considering how taut the general’s jaw was and how tightly his fists were balled on his sides.

“There is not much to report at this moment, Juro. One section of the team is reinforcing the building, while another is dealing with the outside threats,” he explained. His gaze darted between the screen and the councilman as if a sudden moment of progress would miraculously happen as they spoke.

He nodded and took a moment to study the screen himself. The team was apparently still pinned down. When he held a hand up, the system scanned him and he motioned to the corner to change the camera view to one in the main lab. “Are they still working on extracting the device?” he questioned when he identified two members working on a console.

“They have made progress—much quicker than before, considering they no longer have to worry about trying not to be detected,” Nolan explained.

Juro looked coldly at him. “We’ll discuss their actions once they return. As of right now, I’m simply concerned with their progress.” He noticed that the general had yet to relax. “Are you concerned that they will not complete the mission?”

“They will. I’m merely concerned with the damage,” Nolan explained. “Once it gets out who they are, perhaps the blame will simply shift to them. They are known for robberies like this, after all. But the issue is that they are also known as…well, as mercenaries. People will look into who they did this for.”

“We will have preparations in place to avoid investigation.” He attempted to calm the general, although the man’s nervous attitude concerned him. “But that is a simple issue you know we can handle. You seem to be worried about something more than that.”

“Perhaps he’s anxious about the verbal thrashing he’ll get from Xiulan.” Jensen chuckled and turned in his chair. “I wouldn’t worry about that, General. She spits venom, but she doesn’t inject it. She works in medicine, after all.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Maybe that would actually fit with her motif, though.”

“No, it’s…the leader is here,” Nolan stated. The statement made both men stiffen immediately, and Juro finally noticed the lackeys around the room who scrambled to get everything into place or to find their positions.

“When did he arrive? Why wasn’t I informed?” he snapped and caught one of the grunts by the neck of his shirt.

“He only arrived about seven minutes ago, sir,” the man stammered. “It was unannounced. We didn’t expect him to come until next month. We would have told you otherwise, I promise.”

He hissed through his teeth and thrust the idiot away from him. “When will he arrive? I’m sure he’ll want a full report on our activities if he hasn’t been keeping track himself. I need to—” The door to the elevator opened and cut his statement off.

Juro, Nolan, and Jensen tensed as Dario stepped out, smiling as always. A figure behind him leaned against the railing of the elevator but pushed off slowly and followed, each step measured and every movement calm and collected, a grim counterpoint to Dario’s more jovial presence.

“Good day, ladies and gents,” Dario greeted as his alert gaze swept the room and settled on the screen. “It’s a little somber in here, isn’t it? How’s the mission progressing?”

Juro and Nolan looked at each other and the councilman nodded. This was the general’s department. The man stepped up and coughed, then cleared his throat. “It’s proceeding. We were able to launch the mission in advance of schedule. However, there have been some complications.”

The leader stepped passed Dario and focused intently on the screen as he spoke. “Will it affect the retrieval of the emitter?” he asked, his tone low and a rumble in his voice. It was neither stern nor angry, but there was an edge of command to it, almost threatening despite the simple question.

“It shouldn’t, Mr. Rayne,” Nolan assured him. “These are professionals, despite their background. I have heard nothing but positive reports from their former employers, even if they all stated they were somewhat more…boisterous than they had hoped.”

The leader nodded and finally glanced at the general. This was only the second time Nolan had seen him in person. Narrow, piercing grey eyes were accentuated by tanned skin and a scar traced along the corner of his forehead and down to below his left eye. His dark hair was slicked back and allowed to brush at the bottom of his neck. The thin lips were set in a contemplative line as if he were measuring his thoughts.

“I’ll leave it to you, General. Keep me updated on the progress,” he stated and turned to leave. After only a few steps, he twisted his head slightly. “Is it only the three of you here tonight?”

Juro stepped forward. “Xiulan Liu has stayed here as well, working on other projects. The rest of the council will reconvene at the end of the week. If you wish, I can summon them here. I’m sure all of them would like to see you after so long.”

“It is fine,” he demurred and held a hand up. “There have been some developments on my end—plans have changed, but I need to get things in order. For now, there is no need to call an emergency meeting. But by the next official one, I will prepare an explanation. Please excuse me, Sasaki-san.” With that, he proceeded to the elevator on the opposite side of the room and disappeared within.

His departure was followed by an audible exhale from the three members, which drew a quick snicker from Dario. He walked over to Jensen and rested his hands atop his chair. “Don’t feel too bad that he didn’t call on you, buddy. Like he said, he has things on his mind.”

“If you can believe it, I’m not at all cross,” Jensen admitted and rubbed the back of his neck in a gesture of discomfort. “Actually, I’m relieved.”

Juro, after catching his breath, turned to the leader’s personal assistant. “Dario…er, Mr. Adesso, when Mr. Rayne said plans were changing, does that mean our current plans are void?”

Dario shook his head firmly. “Not in the slightest. If it were that severe, he would certainly tell you. We’d be wasting time and resources otherwise.” He slapped his palm against the chair’s headrest in rhythm to amuse himself. “Merrick is looking at things from a new perspective at the moment. There is no cause for worry right now. The goal always takes priority, but we’re playing in the dark so we have to consider change when necessary.”

“This won’t cause any delays, will it?” Nolan asked. Juro glared at him and couldn’t help the thought that perhaps, if he were truly concerned about that, he would do more about the current situation.

The visitor raised a hand and tilted it from side to side. “Eh, perhaps, but we won’t slow down, not while in this phase. I’m sure all of us are tired of that by this point.” His hands snaked down to Jensen’s shoulders and the man flinched visibly. “That’s one of the big reasons we are all here, right? We’re tired of the bureaucratic nonsense of trying to save the world, eh?”

“From something none of us are sure we can even take on,” Nolan muttered. He’d suddenly become rather depressing, hadn’t he?

“Maybe, maybe not, but we’ll damn sure try,” Dario said. His odd cheerfulness never faded, despite the seriousness of the discussion. “It’s also why I plan to enjoy myself until whenever the supposed end times are upon us. What do you say, Jensen? Do you care for a little fun after the next meeting?”

The man laughed nervously, conscious of the trained killer’s hands still on his shoulders. “What do you have in mind?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of something by that time—probably something graphic, though.” He patted Jensen’s shoulders and moved away toward the elevator. The other man breathed a sigh of relief that he tried his best to conceal. “I’ll be heading out.” Dario pressed the button and the doors opened soundlessly. He walked in and turned to face the group. “That looks like a good show. I want a good seat. I’ll be back for the next meeting.”

“Understood,” Juro acknowledged.

“Wait, you’re going to the Ramses building?” Nolan asked. “Will you participate?” Juro wanted to throttle the general. Why try to stop the killer if that was what he wanted to do?

“Only as a spectator. These EX-10 are potential recruits, after all. I should be there to present them with the opportunity if they succeed.” He smiled but there was nothing warm or reassuring about it. “Or I might have to do other things if they fail. You never know.”

“What about Mr. Rayne?” Juro asked. “How often should we update him?”

“I’m sure he’ll call you if he gets curious.” Dario stared at the three men as he waited for the doors to close. “You should all calm down. He doesn’t bite… Well, maybe if you piss him off, but that’ll be worse than a bite.” He raised a hand and waved his fingers as the doors were about to shut. “Toodles!”


Chapter Eighteen

K aiden surfaced with a gasp, wiped his visor as best he could, and looked around him. The last droplets from the ship’s impact pattered into the water as the tail end of the vessel sank. Some recovery or dive team would make a killing off that.

“Hey, Kaiden, are you dead?” Cameron asked over the comms.

He held his hand to the side of his helmet. “Yeah. These comms have great range to reach the afterlife. By the way, hell is real, so you might wanna start making life changes.”

“Ha-ha. Where are you?”

Chief activated his night vision as he scrutinized his surroundings. “I see you. I’m several hundred yards from your position.”

“Hurry up and get over here. Rok said he found the jet activation and it should have enough juice to make it to the coast.”

“I hope my stabilizer mods don’t crap out. Otherwise, I’m basically wearing my own coffin,” he muttered.

“Maybe you should have thought about that before your little show,” Chief snarked. “Although I gotta say, it’s a pity you don’t have a camera. That would have been a cool shot to put on the network of you riding that ship.”

“It’s probably best we keep this under the table for a while,” he pointed out and contacted Cameron again as he began to swim. “How are the others? And you, I guess.”

“Everyone seems all right—a little rocked from the drop, obviously, except for Silas who I think had Marlo fall on top of him. He might actually be dead.” Cameron chuckled. “Oh, no, he’s still kicking. That would have been a bad way to go for him but hilarious for us. As for me, I hope I’m put on Jaxon’s team considering your lack of moral support.”

“So you’d rather have a pat on the back than me saving your ass? I’ll make a note of that,” Kaiden threatened cheerfully. “Also, what’s this about teams? I thought we would go in as a group.”

“Something Jax is rattling on about right now. Get in here and we can figure it out,” Cameron said and signed off.

“So, do you wanna make a bet?” Chief asked.

“About what?”

“Is the hard part over, or has it only begun?”

“It would be rather boring if the most climactic thing was the commute here,” he responded dryly and quickened his pace to swim closer to the floating cabin. “Don’t tell the others this, considering my reputation as not the best at speeches or fuzzy feelings, but I’m worried I might have signed them up for something too big for them.”

Are you serious?” The EI sounded aghast. “Get your head out of your ass. Think of the things you’ve accomplished as a group.”

“You mean in the Animus?”

“You’ve done a handful of gigs and think you’re suddenly better?” he chided. “Just because it was the Animus doesn’t mean it makes them fake accomplishments. You’ve taken on hordes of mercs and droids, taken over pirate vessels—hell, you and some of those guys in there took on a Sauren and beat him. And double hell, you fought a mechanical Kraken.”

Kaiden laughed. “Yeah, I guess I had the leftover jitters. It’s time to shake that off,” he vowed. “You know, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I almost forgot about the Kraken. That was still the weirdest mission I think I’ve ever done.”


Master

The ace dropped into the Cabin, helped down by Luke and Mack. “All right, what did I miss?” he asked and shook in an effort to dry himself even a little.

“Your Tsuna buddy has a plan,” Rok informed him from where he worked the controls. “The crash caused something of a malfunction and I had to reset. I’ll get this hunk of junk moving in a moment.”

“All right, what are you thinking, Jaxon?” Kaiden asked as he drew Sire to inspect it.

“It is speculation, currently. We will have to wait and see what the situation is once we reach the plaza,” he began and adjusted his infuser. “But as Rok told us, there are two possible entrances. I believe we should split into two teams and attack both. That will force the enemy within to separate to deal with both groups.”

“The front is protected by bots and the mercs, and the back way was locked tight, wasn’t it?” Kaiden frowned in thought as he opened the vent on the rifle to drain any water from it. “I would think we would need all of us to successfully break into one of them.”

“You have to remember, it ain’t only us going in there,” Flynn added. “There’s whoever is left of the Fire Riders and Skyway Kings, along with whatever jobbers they could recruit while we were coming in.”

“As long as they weren’t blown out of the sky like our unfortunate buddies back there,” Luke pointed out.

“Yeah. Apparently, that ship has given them some grief,” Rok said without turning from the console. “I had a message about that, by the way.”

“Great timing on their part,” Kaiden replied sarcastically.

“All we know right now is we need to reach the barricade they set up in the plaza. Rok will lead the way since they want us to use a path that won’t be seen by the public,” Cameron explained.

“Uh, you guys fell from the sky. The other ship—or others, rather, as I assume there were a number of ships—were blown up in the sky, and I literally rode a ship into the ocean,” he pointed out. “I think being discreet is out the door at this point.”

“I’m not sure it would have been an option for very long anyway, but orders are orders for now if you still want your cut of Ramses’ war chest,” Rok replied. “Now get a hold of something. We’re heading in.”

“All right.” He grasped one of the railings above him. “Just say wh—shit! ” he cried and tumbled as the jets activated and the cabin hopped along the water toward the coast.


Master

The group made their way up the hill. Kaiden, Raul, Cameron, and a few of the others rolled their shoulders or stretched their legs to loosen the stiffness. “It’s not the most dignified entry, skipping into battle like that,” Raul muttered.

“We’ll make it up by taking these guys out with style,” Kaiden vowed and looked at Rok. “How much farther?”

“Can’t you hear the shots?” he asked. The sounds of battle were unmistakable—shots, laser fire, the explosions of droids, and pained cries all reminded them that they would join in soon. The ace motioned for their guide to continue and Rok raced up the hill to a line of trees. He halted and used one as cover to peer around it. “This is my stop. I was supposed to bring you here, but I’m not actually fighting myself.”

“That’s fine by me, but do you wanna take a chance that they didn’t send one or more of them out here to potentially flank the barricade?” the ace asked.

A shout in the distance preempted a reply. Kaiden peered over Rok to where two men took positions with launchers. One was able to fire a blast, but the other took a shot through the head and his partner soon followed. The blast made impact but didn’t seem to damage the building.

“I think they have more than enough to occupy them,” Rok reasoned dryly.

“Well then, thanks for bringing us in,” he said and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Eliminate these clowns, and you’ll have my thanks and your creds,” the man added belligerently. The ace nodded and motioned for the group to follow. They surged onto the plaza, having to step over bodies and droid parts along the way. A couple of Guardian droids noticed them from a distance and swung to fire. Kaiden and Jaxon each took aim and obliterated them before the mechanicals could actually shoot.

“Get down—snipers!” one of the gang members shouted. Kaiden and Jaxon flung themselves into a slide. Looking a few floors above him, Kaiden could barely make out the muzzles of rifles a few windows apart, aimed directly at the duo.

A purple field surrounded them as the marksmen fired and the bullets pounded ineffectually against the bright barrier. “Nice job!” the ace shouted at the vanguard.

“Get to the barricade,” Mack stated and gestured with his head. “I wanna keep my energy up for the push.”

“On it.” They had drawn the attention of more Guardian droids and these now fired at the shield. The group sprinted behind the safety of the barrier as Mack pushed forward slowly, charging the shield. He formed the dome into a wall and launched it forward. It hammered into a group of droids and he clapped with satisfaction.

A shot struck home in his helmet to burst his personal shield and dent it. The vanguard stumbled and slapped a hand to the area affected by the shot. “Cheeky mother fu—” At another shot, he held up a small shield which burst from the impact and caused him to step back once more.

Kaiden, Jaxon, Silas, and Cameron all took positions and fired to cover their teammate so he could join them behind the barricade. The group was forced back when another wave of droids emerged from the entrance.

The ace ducked and immediately noticed a pair of unfamiliar boots. He looked up at a woman with short red hair dressed in red armor with no helmet and only a lit-up visor over her eyes.

“Are you the group Rok told us about?” she demanded.

“Shouldn’t he have sent you a message?”

She opened her mouth to speak before a beep distracted her and she held her hand up as she read the message on her visor. “Dumbass,” she muttered and frowned and shook her head, then returned her attention to Kaiden who now stood and beckoned his group to join him. “I’m Zena, one of the captains of Fire Riders West.”

“Captain, we’re out of exp—hurk! ” A man’s shout from the other side of the plaza terminated abruptly when his chest literally burst from a sniper shot.

Zena shook her head, sighed, and opened her arms in a sweeping gesture. “Welcome to Ramses Technologies, powering the future,” she said in a mock tour-guide type tone.

Kaiden studied the bodies littering the plaza. “Is the future powered by souls?”

“It’s powered by whatever these guys are so damned interested in, potentially. We haven’t actually identified what that is yet,” she stated and folded her arms in disapproval. “What I wanna know is if you guys can help us get in there so we can take these bastards out.”

The ace looked at his team, all ready and armed, and Jaxon stepped beside him. “Believe it or not, we’ve been trained for this particular type of occasion.” He vented Sire to emphasize the statement.


Chapter Nineteen

“ S o, are you feelin’ better yet, Laurie?” Wolfson asked, a slight slur to his voice.

Laurie looked lazily at the head officer. “Perhaps not better, but I will say I’m having trouble…remembering my problems clearly.”

The large man laughed. “That means we are on the right path, at least.” He took another generous swig.

“More information has been discovered concerning Ramses Technologies,” the reporter on the monitor stated, although the newsfeed had become mostly background noise for the pair. “Just moments ago, several ships seemed to have been blown out of the sky and two crashed into the Pacific. Several witnesses claim they saw a figure holding onto the top of one ship before falling away, but that cannot currently be confirmed with footage.”

Wolfson nodded to the screen. “What do you think is going on over there?”

Laurie shrugged. “Ramses is a company focusing on robotics and defensive technologies. A few of the weapons our R&D department constructed are based on their designs. My guess is a scavenger team has decided they wanted a big haul and thought they would be a good starting point.” He chuckled but with disbelief rather than humor. “It might have been better to go for a tac-sec facility. At least they will simply shoot you.”

“A lot of weird robots on the inside ready to fry an intruder’s insides?” his companion guessed.

“I’m sure they have some, but they have other security measures. Many of those west coast companies contract to gangs for added defense. It keeps the city a little cleaner and they are generally cheaper when you need the numbers. They, of course, probably have no qualms about sending a message to anyone who’s dumb enough to go after their employers. Considering it’s basically an open secret, most gangs see an attack on one of their contractors as an insult to them personally.”

“It seems like they tried to keep it quiet before but I don’t think they’ll be able to keep that up,” Wolfson commented between generous sips.

“Indeed, I’m rather surprised they haven’t dropped a barrier at this point to keep the riff-raff out of the—”

“This just in. A barrier has started to form around the Ramses building,” the reporter stated with breathless haste.

“Finally, they begin proper protocol.” Laurie chuckled and waved his glass for Wolfson to fill it. “I guess they won’t have to worry about the intruders making a quick getaway.”

“What if that wasn’t the reason they finally turned the barrier on?” the other man asked as he poured the remaining liquid in the bottle into the glass.

“I mentioned that erecting a barrier in situations like this is standard, right?” Laurie took his glass and turned back to the screen. “What else could they be trying to do?”


Master

“Dammit, now we’re stuck in here.” Zena cursed, waved her arms, and motioned for her men to fall back. “Get to defensive positions and dig in.”

“It works for us. We hadn’t planned to leave until we had some bodies. We get bonuses,” Cameron stated with more than a hint of cockiness.

She spun to face the group. “If you can accomplish that, props to you, but for now, it’ll be rather hard to accomplish that when we can’t even get inside because of—” Another sniper shot made them all flinch instinctively. This one was apparently not aimed at the group or the gang members. Instead, it struck a robot in the perfect place to make it overload and cause a huge eruption about forty yards away. Kaiden scowled as a couple of bodies dropped.

“Dammit!” Zena cursed and slammed her fist into her palm in frustration

“We’ll have to deal with that little issue before we calculate the fees,” Kaiden decided. He folded his arms and looked over his shoulder. “Flynn, do you think you can take them?”

The marksman peered over the barricade and attempted to get a good look at the enemy snipers’ positions. He tapped the chin of his helmet as he considered the odds. “The best choice at this point would be to flush them out or make them run off. That way, we can at least close in.”

“And make some room for Jaxon and his team.” Kaiden looked at the Tsuna ace. “I’m obviously assuming you still want to go with your plan?”

“I still think it best, but I would like to know the situation with the rear entrance,” Jaxon replied.

“It’s about fifty different ways of fucked right now,” a boisterous voice called. The team turned to see a man in medium blue armor stride toward them. He struggled to remove his helmet that was now shattered on the top with pieces of the visor missing.

“And this is?” Kaiden asked and gestured to Zena.

“This is Desmond, one of the captains of the Skyway Kings, the other gang on Ramses payroll,” she explained. “He and a group went to check on the situation at the other entrance. I guess you didn’t have much luck?”

“It’s still sealed, all right, but not because we don’t have the equipment to get in,” Desmond clarified as he finally managed to pry his helmet off.

“I would have thought that as contractors for the company, you guys would have codes or access keys that would make entry no problem,” Indre reasoned.

“It’s under emergency lockdown. We do have codes for clearance, but they’ve already changed the keys—fast work too. Something like that should take at least a few hours and the first of our teams arrived within minutes of the alarm going off,” the gang captain revealed and shook his head in irritation.

“You have the cutters and jaws over there, don’t you?” Zena asked.

“Yeah, but those things take time to set up, and right now, me and my girls and guys are under siege by bots. We can’t get a breather to make the time to get them going.” He huffed and scowled at his damaged helmet.

Zena shook her head. “How many bots do they have? I thought we had attracted the most attention and kept the bots away from you.”

“Ramses does have a large robotics division with a warehouse onsite. My guess is that they have an extensive inventory,” Indre stated thoughtfully.

Kaiden looked at her in surprise. “You simply know this?”

“I’m a techie. Ramses is a big company and is featured in blogs and conventions all the time. It’s basic for people like me,” she replied.

“You wouldn’t happen to know a way to shut them down by perchance, would you?” Jaxon asked.

Indre moved her hand behind her and the cylinder on her back glowed before the midsection and bottom spun for a second and something dropped into her hand. It looked like a gun, but the front was a large disk. “This is an overclock emitter. It sends a signal to bots that issues thousands of simple junk commands to between five and twelve bots at a time, depending on their system. The downside is it takes time for it to scan a droid and figure out its systems, and it only works on others of the same type. For other mechanicals, I have to reset it and scan again.”

“It’s helpful, but that won’t deal with the larger problem,” Kaiden pointed out.

“Keep it for the fight. It would appear we will have to deal with this in the more traditional manner.” Jaxon turned to Desmond. “Captain, do you plan to return to the rear entrance?”

“Yeah, but I came back to get help.”

“We will be that help,” the Tsuna replied. “I and a few of my friends will join you and keep the droids off your back while you and your team begin to break in.”

“Only a few?” the captain asked incredulously. “Are these the only guys to arrive since we tried getting backup?”

“Rok brought these guys in. He said they are Ark academy guys—big shots,” Zena explained.

“They haven’t seemed to have done much since they got here,” the man muttered.

Kaiden stepped forward. “One, we just got here and two, we took their ship out on the way in. That’s probably the reason why we are the only ones here right now.”

“I did wonder where that blasted thing ran off to,” she muttered. “It would fly over and pummel us from above, but it went missing over the last hour.”

“All right, if you’re supposed to be some sort of group of super-soldiers, show your moves,” Desmond demanded. “I was only able to sneak around the side of the barricade, but I’m sure the bots saw me leave. It’ll be crawling with them if we use the same route.” He pointed along the plaza to where the bots seemed less in number. “The plaza is relatively clear, and it would be faster to get to the rear if we cut across, but with those snipers—”

“I’ll deal with them,” Flynn said as he drew his rifle.

“You sound more confident than earlier,” Kaiden noted.

The marksman flipped a thumb at Mack. “The big guy is back on his feet and we have a plan. Sit back. This’ll be the last easy moment you have before we head in.”

The ace simply stepped aside and waved an arm to indicate for them to proceed. Flynn looked at the vanguard, who nodded and began charging his energy. The marksman turned a knob on his rifle’s scope, removed the magazine, and replaced it with one from his belt that had a red line on the side. He slipped it in and nodded to Mack who smashed his fists together and charged into the plaza.

He was immediately beset by Guardian droids, but he simply barreled through them and thrust them onto their backs with energy-enhanced blows from his fists. Flynn snuck in behind him as the vanguard created a rectangular shield that began as a light-blue color. As he added more energy, it shifted to dark-blue, through violet, and reached purple. He glanced at his teammate, who dropped to one knee and took his position. Shots were fired instantly from above as the snipers tried to overwhelm the shield. The barrier was kinetic, however, so the force of their shots only increased the charge.

Mack bellowed a challenge as he stepped back and pounded against the shield. It rocketed toward the building and impacted in an explosion of glass, metal, and rock before it fell. Flynn took the window of opportunity and fired two shots, one at each sniper. They wouldn’t make it, Kaiden thought. The enemy had barricades of their own with energy barriers on top of them to boot. Unbelievably, the energy dissipated in the same moment that Flynn fired. His shots penetrated the barricades with ease, followed by a spray of blood from one before the body toppled over the edge.

He drew Sire quickly and Jaxon hefted his machine gun. It seemed both aces had the same idea. The other sniper had been able to avoid the assault. He charged a shot while Jaxon and Flynn fired at the retreating foe. The sniper lobbed a grenade and a large plume of dark smoke erupted from it. Kaiden fired and it careened through the window and exploded to disperse the smoke, but no body or bodily fluids confirmed a kill.

“Well, that’s one down, at least.” He sighed and glanced back as Marlo and Luke rushed out onto the plaza to assist Flynn and Mack. “Is that enough of a demonstration?”

Desmond and Zena’s mouths were agape. The man shook his head and managed to regain his composure. “Right. Hurry on in before they can reinforce again.”

“I don’t think they’ll come back, but they are possibly preparing the defenses within,” Jaxon advised and focused on his fellow ace. “Who’s with whom?”

“You don’t have any thoughts?”

“If you go in from the front, I would think you will encounter the heavier resistance, so take who you need.”

Kaiden slung his rifle over his shoulder. “I don’t think you’ll have an easy time either, once they catch on.” He considered his teammates. “There are eleven of us in total, so not an even number. I’ll take the extra and we’ll split it that way.”

“Agreed.” Jaxon nodded.

“I’ll take the heavies, Flynn and Cameron.”

“Me? How nice of you to notice my abilities for once,” Cameron snarked.

“Before you get too uppity, I’m doing Jaxon a favor. We’ll run this loud and they need as much subtlety as possible for as long as they can. You’re the loudest bounty hunter I know,” Kaiden retorted.

Cameron waved him off as Silas, Amber, Izzy, and Indre joined Jaxon. “Ready to go?” the Tsuna asked Desmond.

The man dug in a crate and retrieved a black helmet that clashed with his suit but fitted when he put it on. “Let’s do this. Try to be careful with the goods once we get inside.”

“My friend there effectively destroyed the entire front of the building. Delicacy is out the window at this point,” Kaiden pointed out and gestured to the shards of glass and rubble in the plaza.

“That’s usually how things go when we get called in,” Zena confessed. “But in this case, he’s talking about the equipment. If we lose some…well, it’s better than losing all. But the stuff they use to make it isn’t all safe, so you might create more problems if you simply blast indiscriminately.”

“Understood. Fair warning.” Jaxon nodded, glanced at his team, and nodded at his fellow ace. “Ready?”

Kaiden brandished his rifle. “Best of luck, keep in contact, and let’s take these guys out and make some creds.”

“We shall see you soon. Lead well,” the Tsuna declared quietly.

He nodded and motioned for Cameron to follow. “Let’s break.”


Chapter Twenty

A s Desmond and Jaxon’s team sprinted across the plaza, Kaiden and Cameron vaulted the barricade and joined Flynn and the heavies on the battlefield. The droids were retreating by this point. There only seemed to be a little more than a couple of dozen, and they were systematically destroyed by the heavies who attacked with no holds barred. Kaiden had actually forgotten their sheer power as they were usually relegated to defensive positions on their Animus missions. But man, give them the space to work and a group of targets, and they could make it rain parts.

He fired a few shots, but the remaining droids withdrew into the building, probably to lie in wait as an ambush force. The ace confirmed that Zena was rallying her gang members. “Guys, can you hear me?” he asked to get their attention over the comms.

“We hear you loud and clear, buddy.” Mack hooted and drove his fists together. “Are we ready to bring it to them?”

“It’s nice to finally get out there and smack some heads.” Luke laughed as he crushed a Guardian droid’s head under his heavy armor’s boot. “You don’t really think about it while running around in the Animus, but man, there is a difference beating something in the real world that the sims simply can’t equal.”

“I know, right? That’s one of the best parts of—” Kaiden shook his head to regain his focus. “Uh, right. Listen up. You guys and Cameron are on my team. I switched us to a personal link for communication.”

“I follow,” Flynn answered and continued his vigil on the building. “I don’t see the other sniper at all. I switched to thermal vision, so even with a stealth generator, he wouldn’t be able to hide. I guess he’s creeping around inside.”

“We’ll keep a watch,” the ace assured him and vented his rifle. “For now, prepare to go in hot and heavy. The Fire Riders will be joining us.”

“What about the other guys? Are the Skyway Kings holding back?” Marlo asked as he adjusted his cannon.

“They will circle and try to break in from the rear. Jaxon and his team will handle that,” Kaiden informed them.

“It looks like they’re ready, Kai,” Cameron stated and thumbed behind them.

Zena approached with about three dozen grunts behind her. “Is this all you have left?” the ace asked.

“All who can still fight,” she confirmed. “The others are either too injured or…well…” She motioned at a few of the bodies. “You guys are the big guns—literally.” She pointed to Flynn’s rifle.

“That works. They probably still have a fair number of bots to throw at us and traps set up. You guys should be able to deal with that no problem.” He turned to study the building for a moment. “We’ll rush in, eliminate anything in our path, and your team can take over from there while we hunt the EX-10 guys.”

“I can’t say I like being relegated to clean-up duty but considering the other option and the losses we’ve taken, I’m a little more willing to drop down a couple of notches,” Zena admitted.

“Speaking of clean-up…” Cameron looked around. “You definitely won’t be able to sweep this under the rug so you might wanna call someone at Ramses and tell them they’ll need a press release.”

“I’m sure they are already looking into it. The board members can simply say the building was under attack and the problem has been taken care of and then spin it to say they promise to always protect the city and maybe court some sympathy at the loss of life.” Zena looked at Kaiden. “Assuming we can catch these guys.”

“We’ll get them. Count on it.” He tapped a hand on Cameron’s shoulder and pointed ahead toward the building. His teammate nodded and reloaded his machine gun. The ace walked in front of the heavies and took a deep breath as he placed his rifle against his chest. “Get ready,” he ordered and his team tensed in preparation to breach the building.

“I have at least thirty signatures inside, partner,” Chief informed him. “That’s only on the ground level. It looks like there might be more ahead and above, but with that many droids all together, it’s too jumbled even for me.”

“Fish in a barrel and all that. But keep a look out for the big bads. They are the main focus.”

“As in the creds bonus?”

“Creds piñata.”

“Oh, God, please no.”

“Jokes adapt.” Kaiden chuckled darkly. “Let’s get this done.”

The group surged into an aggressive attack with Kaiden, Cameron, Flynn, and Marlo firing as they entered the building. Luke leapt up and landed hard to crush a pair of Soldier droids. The mechanicals returned fire, but Mack created a simple barrier that stopped the lasers easily. None of their current adversaries seemed to use kinetic rounds, which made this a one-sided fight.

It rapidly became an even more dominant one-sided fight when the Fire Riders followed and hails of bullets and lasers swept through the massed enemy. Kaiden glanced at Zena, who motioned for them to go.

“All right, guys, break left. Mack, make sure to give a signal to let the Riders know you’re dropping the shield.”

“You got it,” he shouted. The ace and the others dashed into the hall on the left, but he quickly realized he didn’t know where he was going.

“Dammit, no map. Does anyone see an elevator or stairway?”

“I always have to pick up your slack,” Cameron taunted and a map appeared on Kaiden’s HUD. “Rok gave it to us while we waited for you to swim to the pod.”

“You could have sent this to me before now,” he grumbled.

“Yep, I could have. Now, where to, great leader?”

Behind them, Mack jogged to catch up. Kaiden slowed slightly as he studied the map. He traced the path to the stairway. “Whatever they are here for, they are probably headed to the development lab. That’s where all the new and shiny stuff is worked on, so that’s where we’ll go.” They found the stairway easily enough, but the door was locked and reinforced. “What the hell? Did they reinforce the stairway door? That seems like a hazard.”

“This place is in infiltration lockdown, not an emergency,” Marlo observed.

“That means this would be a lockdown where they sit and wait for cops to show up rather than evacuating,” Flynn added.

“Cops, gang members on the payroll, same difference,” he muttered and his gaze settled on the elevator lobby down the hall. “What about the elevators?”

The marksman shrugged. “They are definitely locked and wouldn’t be working anyway.”

“That might be to our advantage. Let’s have a look.” The group hurried forward to confirm that the elevators were deactivated and locked, but the doors weren’t reinforced like the stairwell. “Luke, take a whack at it.”

“Literally?” the titan asked. He grinned, stepped away, and swung his hammer back.

“Of course.” Kaiden stood aside with the others.

Luke grunted as he pounded his hammer into the doors. The metal dented and bent and he looked at the ace, who nodded. He tightened his grip on his hammer and put more power into the next swing. The blow severed the doors completely to reveal an empty elevator shaft.

The ace peered in and nodded when he saw the elevator way up top. “I can’t see a maintenance ladder, so I guess they have their own wires or something for repairs instead.” He glanced at his teammates. “I know Luke has a bounce pack, but what about you two?”

“We have them.” Marlo nodded and turned to show his off. “I know this isn’t the armor we use in the Animus, but bounce packs are basically standard for all heavies except super-cheap models.”

“There’s no use in getting fancy stuff if you aren’t willing to spend the creds to get decent armor.” Cameron chuckled. “You won’t live long enough to use it much.”

“Marlo, drop in here and see how high you can get up there,” Kaiden ordered.

“Um…all right.” He bolted his cannon to his back, stepped into the shaft, and crouched slightly before he thrust up and activated his bounce pack. He hurtled up dozens of feet before he plummeted back to the floor.

“How many floors?” the ace asked.

“I made it barely over the seventh.”

Kaiden tapped the side of his helmet. “The lab is on the eleventh floor, but the power system is on the seventh. If we fiddle with that a bit, we might be able to disengage some of these reinforced doors and make it the rest of the way.” He nodded and looked at Marlo. “Jump up again and shoot out the door, then we’ll go in from there.”

“That sounds good, but how will you, Flynn, and Cameron get up there?” the demolitionist asked.

“You’ll carry us.”

“You can’t climb on our backs. The jets would burn through your armor,” Mack pointed out.

“I know. I was being literal,” Kaiden stated.

There was an uncomfortable silence as the group avoided eye contact. “Are you serious?” Luke asked at last.

The ace didn’t respond but they could tell he wasn’t joking. Flynn sighed and knocked a hand against Marlo’s chest. “Just be gentle, big guy.”

“You know, between this and the bouncing dropship entry, this is less like an exciting adventure and more a tragic comedy.” Cameron sighed. “Let’s get this done. I wanna find someone to shoot.”


Chapter Twenty-One

“ W e never speak of this again,” Cameron threatened as Mack lowered him to his feet.

“I ain’t saying a damn thing,” the vanguard promised and flexed an arm. “Did you have to hold on that tight? I felt it through the armor.”

“Oh, bullshit,” the bounty hunter growled.

“Quiet, you two. Let’s keep things on the silent side now that we’re on our own,” Kaiden instructed.

“Not to mention that we don’t know the specifics of the other team,” Flynn pointed out.

“Rok was fairly cryptic on that front,” Marlo agreed. “We don’t have any info on them at all?”

“I’ve looked around the Net. These guys are all ex mercs and most have different specialties except for the two—now one—snipers. There isn’t very much personal information, though. They were part of illegal merc companies, and it’s not like their files are readily available,” Chief informed them.

“No video, pictures, or reports at all? We’re only trying to anticipate what sort of blade, laser, or whatever is coming our way,” Luke inquired.

“It’s kind of hard to stay a shadowy cabal when everyone knows about you. There’s some info about them from a company bust that had contracted them before, but nothing more than that there’s ten of them and they generally worked between earth and the rim of Tsuna Space and focused on stations. The only specifics were that they are trained in multiple weapons types and there are a robotics expert and an assassin. Also, two heavies.”

“Well, that’s something,” Kaiden muttered. “As long as we keep an eye out for anything coming our way, we should be able to—”

“Hey, did you guys feel that?” Cameron asked. The floor thumped and a few of the lights above them flickered. Something was definitely headed their way.

“Are we running or gunning?” Mack asked and the energy of his armor flared.

“I’m ready for a real fight,” Cameron said and checked his machine gun yet again. “I say we hold our ground.”

“This could be a trap,” the ace pointed out. “We still haven’t run into that other sniper.”

“I’m keeping an eye out for him, but we don’t know all the tricks he could be capable of,” Flynn admitted.

“Kaiden, I read some large energy outputs,” Chief interjected.

Kaiden began charging a shot. “Be on your guard. We’ll have to deal with at least a few of these guys so might as well face them as they come.”

The group stood poised and prepared to fight when two forms turned the corner. Both were massive, their armor far larger than any of the heavies on Kaiden’s team. One wore dark-red armor with a domed head and black visor. Two large canisters on his back were connected by a tube to the gauntlets on each arm. The other wore solid black armor, more ridged and with an almost cube-like head with a red visor. This one was held a massive chain gun.

“Oh, that looks painful,” Cameron exclaimed.

“That gusto left rather quickly,” Kaiden quipped.

“Do you wanna charge in there? I’ll follow, I promise,” the bounty hunter retorted.

“I’m not sure about the one with the chain gun, but I’ll take care of big red there.” Flynn raised his rifle and fired at the canister on the left. The bullet struck but bounced off and ricocheted into the ceiling. “Oh, well, that’s a problem,” the marksman ventured nervously.

“We need to—” Kaiden didn’t finish his statement as the chain gun began to whirl. Mack rushed out to form a shield and quickly powered it up seconds before the bullets rocketed to slam into the barrier. Cracks began to appear almost immediately. “Luke, prepare to reinforce him,” Kaiden ordered.

“I’ll do it, but my shield ain’t nothing like his,” the titan reminded him as he stepped beside his fellow heavy.

“At least I get one last compliment before we die,” Mack said but his voice sounded strained as he tensed with the effort to maintain his shield against the assault. The red enemy heavy walked forward and pointed both arms at the group. A jet of flame sizzled toward them from his gauntlets. Luke erected his shield but he hissed in pain, clearly audible over the comms.

“Are you all right?” the ace asked worriedly as he, Flynn, and Cameron returned fire, only for their shots to sink into Mack’s shield. “Mack?”

“It’s a dissonance shield so absorbs energy and lessens impact,” he shouted, then grunted again and he took a step back as the chain gun EX-10 began to advance. “It’s the only way to keep it up right now,”

“My shields aren’t good against elements,” Luke added. “I can block the brunt of the flames, but the heat is burning my armor.”

Kaiden retrieved his shield device, but as he went to help the other two, he saw Flynn turn and point. “Kaiden, look—” The ace spun and activated his shield as two shots fired and impacted the still-forming barrier.

“Sniper!” he yelled. Flynn took aim and returned fire but hit nothing.

“This guy is a better runner than a marksman,” he shouted angrily.

When Kaiden turned back to his teammates, he did a double take. Mack literally glowed and a trail of light flowed from him to Marlo’s cannon. “What the hell did I miss?”

“Something new. This cannon is great. I really need to get the details from that bartender,” Marlo shouted merrily. “I’m adding my cannon’s energy to Mack and it’ll keep the shield up a little longer.”

“Only a little, though. We need a plan here,” the vanguard warned.

“I have something, but I need some space,” Luke stated.

“I’ll take over.” The ace swung his shield into place as the titan deactivated his and fell back. He was right, the flames didn’t actually touch him, but the heat was intense as it blazed into his barrier. He glanced back to where Luke knelt on one knee and fiddled with his hammer. “What are you doing, Luke?”

“I’m about to bust through. Both of you drop your shields when I say so,” he yelled.

“Are you insane?” Mack protested. “My shield is the only thing stopping these assholes from turning us into a trypophobe’s worst nightmare.”

“Wait until the very last second or throw it at them or something. I only need a second.”

“Are you sure?” Kaiden asked worriedly. His shield was about to disintegrate, and he didn’t want to be in the way of the flames.

“Yeah. Sure—super-sure,” Luke affirmed but didn’t sound entirely reassuring.

The ace acknowledged to himself that he couldn’t complain because he didn’t have a plan at all that wasn’t defensive. He and Mack exchanged a wary glance and they nodded to one another. “Give the word,” he said as calmly as he could.

Luke stood and several purple lines formed along the head of his hammer. He held it in both hands and took several steps back. “When I’m about to hit the floor, back up.”

Kaiden’s shield was at its limit, and the vanguard was almost on his knees. “Let’s do it.”

Luke roared as he charged and raised his hammer. The ace dropped his shield and rolled back as Mack changed his barrier to hard light and thrust it forward as he fell back. The shield shattered at the same moment that Luke’s hammer connected, and a large plume of purple energy erupted to hurl the bullets and flames back as it surged toward the mercs. The flamethrower raced forward and punched it, and both he and his teammate were knocked back.

“What was that?” Flynn asked, bewildered.

“A kinetic wave—a mod for melee weapons,” Luke explained as he drew his hand cannon. “Lesson later, shoot now.”

They released an immediate fusillade at the enemy and the chain gun merc took the shots and activated his shield. His teammate recovered and ran off—as fast as a heavy could, at least—while the other man covered their retreat.

“Oh, you ain’t getting away now,” Mack challenged and raced after them. Luke and Marlo followed.

“Wait up,” Cameron shouted but Kaiden caught him by the arm. “What are you doing?”

“They can handle them. We’ll go after the sniper. None of us are safe with him sneaking around unchallenged,” he explained.

“Can you guys take care of him?” Flynn asked and his teammates turned to look at him in surprise.

“While you do what exactly?” Cameron inquired.

“That sniper wasn’t who I saw earlier,” he explained.

“There’s another one?”

“It looks like we got lucky, then,” Kaiden noted acerbically.

“Yeah, thanks for that, but I saw a figure at the edge of the hall in the same direction our heavies ran off in. They will probably try to take them out given they are the most powerful ones here.”

“Did you get a look at what they are carrying?” the ace asked.

“I’m guessing it’s their assassin. I saw a blade but she was using a stealth generator like the sniper, so I only caught a thermal sight.”

“She?” Cameron asked.

“Yeah, definitely female. As well as looking out for her, I can eliminate that flamethrower merc this time.” Flynn retrieved another magazine, this one with a teal line on it. “I got a little cocky before, but this will take care of him.”

Kaiden looked at the mag and back at Flynn. “Go on. Cam and I will take care of the sniper.”

The marksman changed the magazines and nodded before he activated his own stealth generator and left. Cameron shouldered his machine gun. “I’m getting this kill, all right?”

“They might be worth more creds alive,” Kaiden pointed out as the two moved on.

“Maybe more creds but less peace of mind.”

He chuckled and shifted Sire to a more comfortable position. “You might make a good bounty hunter in the future, but you won’t be a rich one.”

“But I’ll have a hell of a tally,” he promised.


Chapter Twenty-Two

B y the time Flynn caught up to the heavies, they were already engaged with their EX-10 counterparts in what looked like a large office. This time, however, they seemed to have gained something of an advantage rather than simply being pinned down. Mack and Luke battled the chain gun wielding merc, who couldn’t create enough space to properly prepare to fire his weapon. Marlo faced the flamethrower, who definitely put up more of a fight. His blasts of fire were something the demolitionist couldn’t easily deal with, and they seemed to not affect the merc himself. He released his fiery attacks at close quarters and didn’t bother about blowback. Marlo’s energy bolts didn’t seem like he actually tried to do much damage but rather to make room for himself or force his adversary to back away.

The marksman scrutinized the room but found no readings of the assassin he had seen. Despite this, he was sure she was still in there somewhere. He glanced hastily behind him but saw nothing and shrugged impatiently. There was no point in stressing about something he couldn’t see. He had better hurry with his other objective or his paranoia would put him in a bind. He flipped a switch above the trigger guard and pressed down lightly on the trigger. A soft whir emitted as the bullet within began to charge. He knelt and activated his comms. “Guys, this is Flynn. Get ready to defend yourselves.”

“We’re kind of doing that already,” Mack shouted and pounded his fists down to spark a barrier as the merc brandished a hand cannon in his left hand and fired while the right hand began to heat the chain gun.

“I’ll create a substantial explosion in a second—more of a problem than whatever you’re dealing with, I would think,” Flynn explained and aimed at the flamethrower’s containment unit.

“How big exactly? I need to know how strong a shield to make and don’t wanna waste power unnecessarily.” The vanguard retreated slowly. Luke kicked the chaingunner back and slammed his hammer to the floor to release another kinetic wave at the flamethrower to drive him away from Marlo.

“Play it on the safe side and make it quick. I have the shot right now and don’t wanna lose it. I don’t think I have more than one of these.” Flynn steadied his rifle and prepared to fire.

Mack held his arms up and dark-blue light flowed into a shield. It expanded slowly in front of the team. The chaingunner barreled toward them while the flamethrower recovered.

The marksman released a single concentrated breath as he fired. The bullet left the barrel and a trail of teal light flowed around it, whistled over Marlo’s shoulder and through a gap in the shield that closed immediately behind it, and punched into the flamethrower’s canister as he raised his arms to deliver another blazing attack. Sparks spat and hissed as the bullet melted through the metal. A violent explosion of flames engulfed the merc and the team’s vision was temporarily blinded by a vivid white light.


Master

Kaiden and Cameron pressed against the wall on either side of a two-door entryway.

“Are you sure he’s in here?” Kaiden asked the bounty hunter.

“I ran the data Chief got on the sniper’s specs through my EI’s tracking software.” Cameron pointed to Kaiden, whose HUD changed to a green color. He then pointed inside and the ace saw a figure through the doors highlighted by a startlingly bright yellow. “I just gave you a look at the world through my eyes.”

“There’s a lot of green,” Kaiden noted dryly.

“Old money used to be green in color, at least here in the US, so that works for a bounty hunter,” he admitted.

“Okay, it looks like he’s on a ledge or railing above.” He checked his gear one last time. “We gotta get up there or get him down. He has the advantage as long as he’s up there.”

“That’s a good point and I already thought about that.” Cameron retrieved a small disk from his belt. “I need to borrow something.”

“What’s that?”

“Tell Chief to get inside.”

Kaiden regarded him suspiciously, and the EI appeared and peered at the disk. “I would say I’m claustrophobic, but I’ve been shacked up in Kaiden for nearly three years, so I’ve adapted.” He looked at Cameron. “But what am I doing, exactly?”

“You can hack into systems automatically, right?” the bounty hunter inquired.

“Yeah, but his are locked off. To have a chance, I would have to get in quite close, and Kaiden’s device only allows me to be cast from about thirty feet.”

“I figured that.” Cameron held the disk again up. “This is a workaround.”


Master

“Is everyone still breathing?” Marlo asked when the explosion finally subsided.

“Hopefully, only the ones who matter,” Flynn said and coughed roughly.

“What was that, Flynn? The last time you tried that, the bullet simply bounced off.” Luke turned to look at the marksman as Mack lowered the shield.

“Quasar bullet. It basically has a powerful energy nucleus inside that coats the outer shell, can pierce almost anything, and has a hell of an impact.”

“It’s risky to shoot something like that in such a confined space,” Mack pointed out.

“Better than shooting it in the hallway, although I admit I almost forgot I had it. Julio tossed it to me before we stepped out.” He removed the magazine and replaced it with a normal one. “As for the danger, I hoped you would be able to deal with the nuisance and protect me all the while.”

“Man, we get no respect from you non-heavies, huh?” Luke chortled and shouldered his hammer.

“What? You get all the respect. I trusted you with my life,” Flynn said defensively. He folded his arms and grinned at the still smoking room. “I guess that takes care of them. Now, we can look for the assassin.”

“What assassin?” Marlo asked.

“The one who was leading these guys over— Wait. Look back.” The team complied to see the chaingunner walk out of the smoke, his gun shattered. He hurled it to the ground and held his fists up. The gauntlets expanded as electricity coiled around them.

“Stubborn bastard,” Luke muttered. “We’ll finish this. Go look for your assassin.” The titan charged the merc, who stopped his attempt to inflict a hammer blow with a punch to the chest. The gauntlets came together on impact and the force catapulted the titan away. Mack stepped up and grabbed him, but both slid back a good few feet.

“That was a little harder than you thought it would be.” Mack raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll give him that hit.” Luke grunted, regained his balance, and activated the kinetic charger on his hammer. “He won’t get another. Are you coming?”

“I’m right behind you,” the vanguard confirmed and both spun into a concentrated assault. Mack created a simple barrier to block a punch as Luke swung at the merc’s head.

“Get in there and help them,” Flynn said to Marlo. He held his rifle up and flipped the switch down.

“Will you be all right with an assassin running around?” the demolitionist asked.

“I’ll look for her myself, but after that shot, I gotta let my rifle cool down,” he explained. “This guy looks tough, but against the three of you, he doesn’t have a prayer. Finish him and let’s get on with it.”

“You won’t have to wait too long.” Marlo chuckled, primed his cannon, and moved to join the others.

As Flynn watched the heat reading on his rifle decrease, he drew his pistol. “You aren’t that clever, you know.” He whirled and fired. The bullet drilled into the wall, but a shimmer indicated a cloak.

“Or maybe you’re simply cleverer than I had believed,” a soft but venomous voice replied. The assassin decloaked and regarded him coldly, a vibroblade in one hand.

“Or it might have been me seeing your shield break in that blast. Pick your poison,” the marksman challenged and held his pistol up.

“You knew I was here, and you let your backup run off?” she asked, curious as to the marksman’s intentions.

“Kaiden and Cam are tracking the other sniper. I need to make up for the lost target,” Flynn explained and tilted his pistol a little to one side. “You’ll do.”

“Cute. You do know who we are, correct?” she asked as she crouched a little lower and poised with her blade ready for a fight.

“Yeah, extra creds.” Flynn fired several shots but the assassin dodged them and moved in close. She attempted a swipe along the marksman’s chest but he blocked it by holding his rifle up. “Nice try. Don’t think that because I’m a sniper, getting in close will give you the advantage.”

The assassin parried and kicked viciously to thrust him back. “And don’t believe that tactics as simple as that will give you the advantage either.”

He regained his balance, paused, and pressed a button on the side of his rifle to shorten the barrel. “All right then, but let me show you the tricks of the Nexus Academy.”


Chapter Twenty-Three

“ W e’re three doors in and still haven’t made a dent,” Desmond fumed and actually threw his rifle to the ground.

“Keep your calm, captain,” Jaxon said and placed a restraining hand on the man’s shoulder. “We have made progress and are inside the building now.”

“The last alert we received indicates that the intruders are headed to the main development lab. That’s ten stories above us.” He folded his arms and glared at the ceiling. “Judging by how long it took us to get through the doors and assuming that we don’t run into any traps or roadblocks, it’ll still take a few hours before we get there. They could be gone by then.”

“The other team is making progress, and the Fire Riders are still securing the building. If they made an escape, we would know,” Izzy stated.

“Perhaps there’s another route,” Indre suggested. “You have an access card, right?”

“I already told you, they changed—”

“Yes, but would you mind letting me have a look?” She held a hand out. Desmond cocked an eyebrow but shrugged, dug into his pouch, and handed her the key. She flipped a screen up on her gauntlet, slid the card into a slot, and tapped on the keys below the screen. “I won’t be able to access top-level rooms or areas, but this is a multi-staged access system, and your access card is a top-level one.”

“It only activates during emergencies,” he corrected her. “They don’t trust us enough to let us walk around with one.”

“Good thing this is an emergency,” Indre retorted. “Well, good, in this case, is a little subjective.” A green light lit her screen and she ejected the card and returned it. “Got it. This will let us access lower level security areas but run through numerous codes and cross-check them with the card’s signal.”

“I believe I follow.” Jaxon turned to Desmond. “You can continue to make your way through the doors. We will use another route.”

“I thought you would be our guards,” the Skyway Kings captain protested.

“The droids seemed to have fallen back. Either they are running low, or they are withdrawing to deal with the other teams. As you said, these doors are taking some time to break through. As long as we make a more aggressive target, you will be left alone.”

“Going off to bait, huh?” Desmond acknowledged. “Noble, I suppose.”

“I hope we will be hunters,” the Tsuna replied. “Indre, can you make a path to the lab through areas we can access?”

“I can make a path up about four floors. From there, we’ll probably have to check door by door,” she explained.

“It’s a start.” Jaxon nodded at Desmond. “Do you have any complaints?”

“As long as you make progress and keep any of the EX-10 from coming after us, we’ll keep up our push,” the man vowed.

“We will keep them from succeeding, we promise.” He pointed to the agent. “Lead on.”


Master

“Let’s cut through here.” Indre knelt, removed a cable from her gauntlet, and attached it to the card reader. In only a few seconds, the door unlocked. The team stepped into what seemed to be a suite of some kind with a tall ceiling and large windows that encompassed the entire wall to the left. A few couches were scattered about and an ornate desk and chair stood in the center.

“It looks like one of the bigwig’s offices.” Amber squinted and peered at some of the art on the wall across from them.

“We probably shouldn’t mess with anything around here. Everything looks pricey,” Silas stated but he’d barely spoken when something rocked the building. The group staggered and Jaxon supported Indre whose small frame put her at a disadvantage. “What was that?”

“It sounds and feels like the other team hasn’t bothered to keep everything looking nice,” Izzy replied.

“That definitely sounded like it came from this floor, we should—” Jaxon stopped as something rolled toward them. His eyes widened and he shoved Indre aside and raced to the object, snatched it up, and hurled it away before diving back as far as he could.

The orb exploded and the team shielded themselves from the blast. The Tsuna scrambled closer to his teammates when droids fell through the ceiling above. “We’re under attack,” he warned, although the truth of that was obvious to everyone there.

Silas and Izzy stepped forward to fire at the Assault droids while Amber extended a hand to help Jaxon to his feet. More orbs, these glowing white, rolled along the floor. The ace fired a volley to destroy them before they detonated while the entire team focused on eliminating the droids. A large red bolt careened into Izzy from across the room.

“Izzy!” Silas cried and turned to fire at where the shot had come from.

“Assist her,” Jaxon ordered Amber, who nodded and hurried to comply. He adjusted the vision of his HUD to reveal three figures on the other side of the room that definitely had life signs.

“Jaxon, watch out.” Indre pushed forward and fired her machine gun into what appeared to be empty air and a figure in light-gray armor with a long blade in one hand dropped to the floor. The attacker activated a shield device before he landed and dashed toward Indre, whose lasers barely dented his shields. The ace intercepted the attack, flipped his blade from his belt, and used it to parry the sword. He pointed his machine gun into the attacker's chest through the shield. When he fired, the swordsman ducked and several small orbs hurtled free. The Tsuna pushed away from his adversary and yanked Indre into a frantic dive as the smaller devices exploded above them.

“He’s a slippery one,” a voice hissed.

“From the looks of that infuser, he’s a Tsuna,” another gruffer voice replied.

“A Tsuna? I haven’t blown one of those up yet.”

Silas barreled past the swordsman and attacked the man who had fired on Izzy and obliterated two droids along the way. The man emerged from the shadows and fired a blast from a shotgun. The shot shattered the enforcer’s shields but he maintained his charge and thrust aggressively into a position close enough to shove his own weapon into the enemy raider’s stomach. He pulled the trigger and destroyed the merc’s shield. The man grunted and kicked him back, but he recovered quickly and continued to push forward and fire. His opponent ducked and let his armor take the barrage as he pounded his shoulder into Silas. He spun and fired and the shots cracked the enforcer’s chest armor and catapulted him to the floor where he rolled instinctively to the left to avoid a falling droid.

“Silas, get back,” Jaxon commanded. The other merc remained in the shadows and bombs were strung liberally at every available place on his armor. He held a tablet—probably the one controlling the droids or at least the ones that surrounded them. The ace selected a grenade of his own and lobbed it at him. The merc didn’t move but simply pressed a button on the tablet and one of the droids flung itself on top of the explosive. It all seemed pointless, however, as no explosion followed.

“Ha, a dud. Pathetic. Your toys are nothing like mine.” The merc yanked a couple of grenades from his belt and threw them at the team. Indre pointed her emitter at them and the lights on the explosives flickered out.

“Thermals have an electrical core, a simple thing to take care of,” she boasted and gestured with the emitter.

“You have your own toys too, then?” Their adversary stepped into the light and his comrades stood beside him as four more droids joined them from above. The engineer held another bomb and tossed it carelessly up and down. “Neat, but they don’t compare to mine.”

“Bombs are not toys.” Jaxon held a trigger device up and the crazed merc eyed it curiously. “They are weapons—crude perhaps, but if you do not respect your weapon, you are as likely to fall to them as your opponents are.” He pressed a small button and the bombs hung on the merc exploded. The swordsman and raider were hurled aside in the blast and the remaining droids were destroyed.

Silas hefted his weapon and surveyed the carnage. “What did you do?”

“That grenade I threw wasn’t a dud. It was filled with nanos that obey simple commands. Genos uses them often in the Animus and taught me how to use them.” The ace raised his machine gun and advanced on the other EX-10 mercs. His team quickly fell in behind him, their weapons at the ready.

“You are outnumbered. If you surrender, we will let you live. If not, we will be forced to—” The sentence was cut off by a furious, bone-chilling roar that echoed through the entire floor.

The raider laughed. “That’s nice of you.” He pushed himself up. “It’s a pity our friend won’t offer you the same deal. He’s fine with simply letting you die.”


Chapter Twenty-Four

K aiden and Cameron pushed into the room and the sniper immediately fired several shots. They were protected by the ace’s shield but the device failed after only a few strikes, and they raced behind a pillar for protection.

“Hurry up and do your thing,” Kaiden instructed.

Cameron nodded, spun out of cover, and skimmed the disk directly at their adversary, who obliterated it with ease. Several spikes launched from the shattered device and scattered around the room. Two landed near the merc, one in the wall to his left and the other on the floor of the hanging walkway.

The man glanced briefly at the barbs and frowned at a small blinking light on their back ends. Before he could identify the cause of this, his vision was blocked by a large sphere that filled the screen of his helmet.

“Hey there, buddy. Do you mind if I take a look around?” The sniper’s visor began to short out and his generator and shielding powered down. “I might have messed something up. I’m not really sorry about that—or this.” The intrusive sphere flashed, then glowed brightly to blind him. Frantic, he attempted to rip his helmet off to escape the pain that flared in his head.

He managed to remove the headgear and grunted as he retrieved his weapon and searched for his targets. A quick blur of red drew his aim to Cameron, who now appeared on the opposite end of the walkway. He fired and the bullet drilled through the bounty hunter’s helmet. A small smile crossed his lips at the shot but immediately faded when the hologram dissipated. Before he could react, he was ensnared in a net that began to constrict around him. He struggled to breathe as he toppled over the edge of his high perch.

Kaiden and Cameron approached the downed sniper, and the bounty hunter held a hand out to stop his companion. “My plan, my gadgets, my bounty,” he stated plainly.

The ace shrugged acquiescence. “I guess I won’t argue. Chief, are you done yet?”

The EI returned to Kaiden’s helmet.

“Yeah. I have the location of the other mercs and the codes for the lockdown as a bonus.”

“All right. I’ll go help Flynn and the heavies. Catch up when you're done.” He paused and looked back at the bounty hunter. “Nice job, Cam. I don’t say that often so don’t let it go to your head. And don’t take too long. We have more to do.”

The ace jogged away and Cameron approached the downed sniper and drew his pistol. The merc twisted to stare at his adversary with fury in his eyes. The captive already held a blade in his hand and tried to cut through the net.

He knelt and pressed the pistol against the marksman’s neck. “You won’t even let me enjoy this, huh? You really are annoying.” He sighed as he pressed the trigger, the man’s head stiffened before it thumped back onto the floor. Cameron removed the pistol and grinned at the dart in the sniper’s neck. “I wanted to splatter your brains against the walls, but I won’t kill the helpless. Maybe I should have let you cut through the net.”

With another heavy sigh, he stood and scowled in the direction in which his teammate had gone. “I should have told him to wait up. Oh, well, maybe the next fight will be more satisfying.”


Master

The large merc pounded a fist into Luke’s hammer, but the titan activated the kinetic mod, which knocked the man to his knees and destroyed his gauntlets. Mack released a burst of energy and Marlo fired his cannon. Both attacks careened directly into the enemy heavy and catapulted him across the room.

Flynn jumped back as the assassin continued to swipe at him with her lethal blade. He fired two shots but she dodged one and deflected the other. The marksman inclined his head to avoid his own bullet, which impacted the wall behind him. She was damn fast, he’d give her that.

The heavy merc careened into the wall and the impact drew the attention of Flynn and his adversary. Seconds after his collision, the building shook violently, obviously from an explosion.

The assassin scowled when a red light flashed in her HUD to confirm the death of a teammate. “Sid is dead? Dammit.” She assessed Dudley and Blaiz coldly. One was dead and the other a lost cause at this point. They needed to regroup.

She activated a smoke bomb while Flynn was distracted, but as soon as the smoke billowed, he turned and fired. The slugs rocketed through the smoke and struck the wall and he muttered a curse. The damn woman got away. He hoped she wouldn’t make a habit of it.

He hurried to join his teammates where the heavies had gathered around the other merc. The man slumped awkwardly and his shattered chest sparked ominously from damaged wires that protruded.

“That’s not normal armor. It shouldn’t spark from the chest like that,” Marlo stated.

Mack applied shields to his arms, dug into the chest, and pulled back to rip the armor open. They peered at a scrawny man in a white one-piece jumpsuit inside.

“What the hell? This was a mech?” Luke leaned on his hammer and shook his head in real disbelief.

“A mini-mech, but it looks that way. They did look bigger than normal,” Marlo agreed. The vanguard grabbed the man by the front of his suit and hauled him out as he struggled against the relentless grasp.

“Let me go,” he demanded and kicked and flailed as captor held him up.

“So, if this guy is in a mech suit…” Luke turned his attention to the flamethrower, walked over, and raised his hammer to pound it into the chest. It cracked open and a sputtering cough issued from inside. The titan shook his head in disbelief once again and rested his armored foot on the helmet. “Hey, get out of there,” he demanded and raised his foot in preparation to stamp down.

“Stop that,” the man inside shouted. “You almost killed me already. Give it a rest,”

“How many guys have you killed today exactly?” he retorted.

“Aren’t you a soldier? Don’t you have to bring us in alive?” the merc in Mack’s hand protested.

Marlo chuckled and wagged a finger around the trigger of his cannon. “Nah. We’re mercs so we only have to bring you in. Breathing ain’t required.”

“Most of your body ain’t required, honestly,” Mack added cheerfully and held up his free hand that glowed with white energy.

“You might wanna think about that, mate,” Flynn warned and hefted his rifle in both hands to rest it across the back of his shoulders. “We’re already rocking illegal armor and weapons and might not wanna do anything that’ll have the cops looking for us.”

“Aren’t we within our rights to handle this how we see fit?” Luke asked.

“The gang members can. They are the ‘security’ here, but if we kill these guys, we might have to say the Fire Riders took them out to be on the safe side.”

“Didn’t you kill that other sniper?” Mack reminded him.

“Yeah. I’ll let the gangs claim that, but if they do that for all of them, it means they get the bonuses,” the marksman responded.

“And that means fewer creds,” Marlo muttered. He scowled at the dents and chips in his armor and sighed. “I doubt Julio will give that deposit back.”

“I don’t think it was a deposit. More like a rental fee.” The group looked up as Kaiden walked in, his thumbs looped into his belt. “What’s going on here?”

“We’re wrapping up,” Luke said and raised his leg to drive it into the flamethrower’s helmet. When he ripped the headgear off, the now unconscious man’s head leaned to the side.

“Do we still need info?” Mack asked and held his other hand closer to the merc, who moved his head away.

“Nah. Chief has the location of all the other mercs. It looks like one is at the lab and the rest are on the other side of the building.”

Mack shrugged and let the energy fade. The merc breathed a sigh of relief before the vanguard leaned back, socked him hard on the jaw, and dropped his unconscious body unceremoniously into a motionless heap.

Marlo walked over. “Does that mean Jaxon’s team is dealing with the others?”

“Possibly, but they haven’t messaged me for reinfor—”

“Kaiden, we need back up!” the Tsuna exclaimed over the comms.

“Well, damn. What’s going on?”

“Something’s coming our way, and we’re dealing with two other mercs already.”

“That doesn’t sound like too much for ya’ll,” the ace teased and squinted at a dot that moved like a bat out of hell toward the other team’s position.

“I heard a roar—a Sauren roar,” Jaxon stated.

That held Kaiden’s attention. He glanced at the group. “Go and help them. They are on the other end of this floor.”

“Where are you going?” Flynn asked as the ace turned away.

“I’ll take Cam, and we’ll catch the guy in the lab and finish this. Make sure not to die so you can enjoy the spoils.”

Flynn gestured to Luke to join them as they jogged out of the room to help the other team.

“Hey, Kaiden,” Cameron called from down the hall and slowed when he saw the ace approaching. “What’s going on?”

“We’re heading up. The others will help the other team.”

“All right, but how will we get up? The stairs are still locked down unless you can use those codes.”

“I already tried but the stairs to the main console are locked. We’ll go through the elevators again.” He increased his pace toward the lobby.

“Okay, but how will we get up?”

“You have a scorpion wire, right?”

“Yeah, but I can only drag myself up. I can toss it down to you when—”

“Nope. You’ll drag me up there with you. Let’s go.” He continued his brisk walk as the bounty hunter stopped for a moment and sighed.

“Jets. My next purchase is a jet,” he muttered before he hurried to catch up with the ace.


Chapter Twenty-Five

“ S o this break-in is still happening, huh?” Wolfson muttered and no longer swigged as liberally from the bottle.

“It appears so,” Laurie said from where he curled into himself on the couch. “It honestly hasn’t been very interesting since they brought the barrier up, though. Only talking heads for the last hour.”

“We can change the station,” his companion suggested.

“Or we can talk. I feel more up to it,” the professor admitted with a yawn.

“What about?”

“We’ve focused on me for so long, I haven’t heard much about you. How are you feeling, Wolfson?” He placed his empty glass on the table beside him.

“You’re one of those emotional drunks, are you?” Wolfson sighed. “I ain’t got nothing going on.”

“Oh, come on. You have to be a big softy under all that barrel-chested talk,” Laurie teased and spun in place to drape his legs over the top of the couch so his head almost touched the floor.

“Now, I’m beginning to think this was a mistake,” the head officer grumbled.

“Breaking news. We have new information from the Ramses situation,” the anchor declared. “Just before the barrier initiated, we were able to sneak a small camera bot into the area. It seems to have been destroyed, but what it recorded has been received and pieced together. Here’s some footage from the battle zone.”

The lighting was rather dim, but it showed the view of the cam bot as it drifted through the forest and entered the plaza. It revealed gang members fighting against Guardian droids with the violence edited out.

“Cover up all the good stuff, huh?” Wolfson chuckled. “It looks like things aren’t as under control as Ramses would like the public to think.”

“I’ve always thought companies that develop technology that would attract interest from deplorable types should build their headquarters in private locations and away from populated areas,” Laurie stated in a disapproving tone.

The cam bot closed in on a blockaded section, where a woman talked to a group of people in different colored armor. Wolfson leaned forward and studied the figure in black for a moment before he bolted to his feet and narrowly avoided flipping the table. Laurie squawked when he was almost upended by the man’s precipitous action.

“What’s gotten into you?” he demanded and righted himself.

“Laurie, that’s Kaiden.”

“What?” the professor exclaimed and peered at the monitor. “Pause,” he ordered. The screen froze and he studied the armored figure with narrowed eyes. “Are you sure?”

“Positive. I helped build those weapons myself, and that armor is the suit I gave him last year,” the giant confirmed.

Both men seemed to have sobered instantly. Laurie looked at the head officer, his expression grim. “Get Sasha in here.”


Master

Jaxon parried a blow from the swordsman, flipped his blade, and caught it with his other hand before he lunged into a strike. His adversary dodged the attack, drew a pistol, and fired from under his arm. One bullet struck Indre in her shoulder and the other knocked her submachine gun out of her hand before she could take a shot.

The merc launched a flurry of swipes and the Tsuna dodged or parried each time. Unfortunately, he was losing ground and the enemy’s blade grew closer and closer. Indre lobbed a static mine, but the man slashed it in half before it landed. He then speared the blade into the floor and used it to propel himself up to drive a powerful kick that catapulted Jaxon into the wall. The assailant landed lightly and immediately fired two shots that caught Indre in the chest and hurled her to the floor.

“Indre!” Amber shouted with real worry and Izzy waved at her to go as she and Silas kept the enemy raider occupied. The battle medic retrieved her stim-ray and activated it immediately as soon as she was within range.

“I’m fine,” the agent grunted and propped herself up on her hands. “I’m lightly armored, but this isn’t merely stylish plastic I’m wearing.”

“Don’t push yourself. I’ll have you back in shape in no—” The swordsman leapt into the attack, his blade poised above him as he drove aggressively toward them. Amber dropped her stim to draw her pistol, but their assailant was tackled from behind by Jaxon, who immediately shoved his blade between the armor plating of the man’s arm. The merc grunted and dropped his sword but uttered no cry of pain as the blade dug deeper into his flesh. He thrashed in an attempt to free himself from the Tsuna’s grip. Jaxon pummeled his fist into the man’s helmet and both the helmet and the armor on the aces’ hand cracked from the force of the blows.

The merc finally caught his captor’s hand and flipped them both. He drew his knife and struck at his opponent’s head but Jaxon leaned to the side and the blade stabbed into the carpet. Indre and Amber fired simultaneously and the assailant rolled off the Tsuna and activated his shield device. The lasers from the girls’ small sidearms did little to drain the protective barrier and he recovered his blade and made his way across the room. Jaxon hurried to retrieve his machine gun.

“You should use this time to escape instead of pissing about,” the raider declared as he threw a static grenade at Silas. Izzy dove in front of him, snatched the grenade out of the air, and lobbed it back. It detonated and sheathed the merc in a crippling claw of electricity.

“Are you talking about the Sauren?” Silas asked as he raised his shotgun and fired directly at the merc’s chest. The impact shattered his armor and drove him back into the wall. “A couple of us here have taken on a Sauren. I doubt yours is stronger than ours was.”

The man sat and he wheezed and coughed before he uttered a hoarse laugh. “Ours is a Xin-Tei. If you know how fearsome a Sauren can be, imagine what one is like when he’s willing to do what they won’t.”

Another roar sounded far louder and much closer, and it was immediately followed by a massive rumble as the wall beside the downed merc collapsed. The EX-10 Sauren appeared in the hole and stood at least eight feet tall with a long tail, dark scales, and chipped talons that were still lethally sharp. It wore armor of modern design, but this seemed bolted onto the skin with no underlay. A curved helmet and visor with a gap in the middle revealed a snarled jaw and long teeth—longer than Silas remembered Raza having.

“It looks like you won’t have to imagine.” The raider chuckled and stood slowly. “He’ll simply show you, but try to last a couple of minutes, at least. He came all the way here for ya.”

The Sauren immediately targeted Silas, who managed to evade the reptilian alien’s claws. The enforcer was at a disadvantage as his shotgun needed to cool. He opened the vent as Izzy raced forward and threw a flashbang. Their adversary simply spun and smacked it and her with its tail to knock both away. Silas activated his gauntlet and the rings along the arm opened. The massive beast struck again and he met the attack with a punch, but even with the added force of the impact mod on his gauntlet, he barely managed to stop the attack. It was very evident that he hadn’t hurt the alien or even marginally driven him back.

With a savage hiss, the Xin-Tei caught Silas’s arm and tightened his grasp to break the gauntlet. He hauled the enforcer closer and speared his claws viciously through the man’s armor and into his chest.

“Silas!” Izzy screamed as the Sauren drew back his other arm to behead the enforcer. Jaxon stopped him when he leapt onto the monster’s back, shoved his machine gun against the back of the massive head, and fired. The shots destroyed the back of the helmet almost instantly, and blood spewed from the beast, but it merely growled and jumped back to bludgeon Jaxon between him and the wall. The ace dropped his weapon, but the Sauren released Silas as well.

The enforcer tried to stand and Izzy hurried over to him, draped one of his arms over her shoulder, and helped him to Amber. The raider merc smiled and aimed with his shotgun. “I don’t think so,” he said conversationally but froze when a disc landed at his feet. “What the hell is—” The mine activated and another wave of electricity engulfed him, this time without the help of much of his armor to protect him. He stiffened and collapsed to writhe and convulse from the sustained charged release.

“Nice job, Indre!” Amber called as she helped Izzy with Silas. “Go on and help Jaxon.”

“I’ll help too. Just patch him up.” Izzy drew her rifle and spun away but hesitated when the swordsman attacked with his weapon at the ready. She wasn’t fast enough to dodge but held her rifle up, and the sword sliced through the rifle but slowed enough for her to skip back and avoid the strike. Amber drew her pistol and fired, but the merc activated his shield again and continued his advance. Izzy drew her repeater and targeted the shield as the man drew closer. She paused for a moment when Indre appeared, raised an arm, and launched two rockets from her gauntlet.

Their adversary scrambled back and was able to slice one of the small rockets in mid-flight, but the other struck his shield and deactivated the barrier. The lights on his armor turned off as well.

“Those were small EMP rockets. They have a limited detonation range, but he won’t be able to attack so freely now,” the agent explained as she readied her submachine gun.

“Let’s get him before he comes back,” Izzy declared and moved closer to the merc.

The man’s interest in them had waned, however, and he now focused on where Jaxon battled the Sauren with his back to him, exposed and vulnerable. He dashed over, his sword held ready for a vicious strike to bisect the Tsuna.

“Jaxon! Get out of the way,” an unexpected voice cried in warning. The ace, who still had no idea of the danger behind him, ducked instinctively and flung himself to the side. His reaction avoided the swordsman’s attack. Both the Sauren and the merc were engulfed by a wave of purple energy, followed by a bolt that pounded into the beast and erupted. The Xin-Tei howled in pain as much of its armor cracked or shattered.

Luke, Mack, and Marlo barged into the room through the hole in the wall. The swordsman flipped to his feet and prepared to attack, but his blade was shot by someone behind them. It shattered, and some of the shards embedded themselves in his armor.

Flynn walked up from behind the heavies and waved to Amber. “Miss us?”

“Great, there’s more of you.” The raider grunted and snatched a grenade launcher from his back to aim it at the new arrivals. He fired, but Mack simply held a hand up and the explosive bounced against the barrier and left the team untouched. “Sit your ass down!” the vanguard yelled as he hardened the shield and punched it to thrust it forward. The barrier hurled the merc back into the wall once more and he slid slowly to the floor.

“You dare scar me?” the Sauren shrieked and stood tall. He drew what at first looked like a stick, but it opened into a long staff with three scythe-like blades on either side. “Kill you. Kill all of you. Claim heads as trophies.”

“Are the translators acting up or are this guy’s speaking skills lacking?” Flynn asked with vague amusement.

Luke held his hammer up as Mack surged with energy, and the two raced toward the raging Sauren. Jaxon focused on the swordsman, who tried to draw his pistol and fire, but Flynn shot it out of his grasp and left a neat hole in his hand to go with it. The Tsuna punched the merc in the stomach, grasped his helmet with both hands, and pounded it into a pillar before he spun and delivered a powerful kick to his head. The enemy impacted hard in a clumsy sprawl and one hand rose wearily before he finally collapsed.

The Sauren swiped viciously at the approaching heavies with his tail. Luke activated his bounce jet and vaulted up to shatter the ceiling, which seemed to confuse their adversary. Mack used the opportunity to grab the tail and swing the Xin-Tei around once before he launched him into the nearest pillar. The alien opened his mouth to roar in fury, but the protest died in his throat when Luke plummeted down on top of the massive creature. He hissed in response and swung his weapon with unexpected speed. Although it looked crude, the blades were edged with miniature vibroblade razors that cut easily through the titan’s armor. Luke backed away enough for the Sauren to force him off and the colossus turned to the other heavies. Marlo’s cannon had finished charging, and the last thing the beast saw was a long shaft of energy.

The beam powered into the Sauren and burned through his remaining armor and scales, and the force of it drove him through the unopened window and destroyed part of the wall around the aperture. The Xin-Tei roared defiance as he fell to the plaza below and the sound cut off abruptly. Luke and Mack looked over the edge and to where smoke rose from his unmoving body.

“Damn. He ain’t coming back.” Mack chuckled.

“Do you think he’s dead?” Luke asked.

Jaxon joined them. “For now, he’s incapacitated, at least. If he is still alive, he shouldn’t be nearly the same problem as he was before. Even a Sauren’s regenerative ability is limited against blasts like that, especially when the flesh under the scales is burned.”

“He was something of a disappointment, don’t you think?” Luke asked the Tsuna. “Compared to Raza, he was way tougher, but for some reason, he held back on us.”

“I think so as well,” the ace agreed and studied the felled Sauren thoughtfully. “I think Raza would believe he was a disappointment too, although for different reasons. If he is alive when they take him in, he will be sent back to the Sauren homeworld.”

“He was one of the traitor Sauren, right?” Silas asked as he hobbled over. “He’ll probably wish he was dead considering how they deal with them.”

“It’s good to see you back on your feet,” Jaxon stated. “It looks like they are all taken care of so for now, we need to press on. Where are Kaiden and Cameron?”

“Already ahead of you. They went on to take care of the last guy in the lab,” Flynn explained.

Jaxon nodded and focused on his team. “Is everyone all right?”

“Ready to go.” Izzy nodded and delivered a playful punch to Silas’ shoulder. “Even he should be okay, even if he has a penguin walk right now.”

“You ain’t leaving me behind.” Silas grunted and hefted his shotgun.

Jaxon nodded as he vented his weapon. “Then let us join Kaiden. It wouldn’t be gracious of us to not see this to its conclusion.”


Chapter Twenty-Six

“ I s there anything you can give us before we head in, Chief?” Kaiden asked as he and Cameron approached the development lab.

“Whoever is in there hasn’t moved an inch since we got the signal. Either they’re meditating on how amazingly this has fucked up for them, or they’re working on something.”

“Like what?” Cameron asked and rechecked his weapon.

“My guess is they either came here for data or some sort of gadget. They will have to bypass something to get either,” the EI explained.

“No other signals?” Kaiden inquired.

“No. Counting the ones we’ve dealt with so far, I guess there is one missing, huh?” Chief surmised. “She’s not showing up on the map, so I guess she caught on.”

“The assassin Flynn was after,” Cameron recalled. “He obviously didn’t get her.”

“Be on your guard. We don’t wanna deal with any more surprises tonight.”

“What should we do if she shows up?”

“Do you mind taking care of her?” the ace asked.

“Not at all. It’s good practice. Assassin fishing is a fairly normal gig in my future,” the bounty hunter admitted. “But don’t you wanna have a go?”

“My tally has been nothing but droids tonight, and my guess is this guy is the head honcho.” He shrugged as he approached the door. “I might as well pull my weight, right?”

“What if I want a go at him?”

“You’ll have a shot, assuming the other one doesn’t show up,” Kaiden pointed out. “Besides, I called dibs.”

“Like that matters,” his teammate complained.

“Too late, I have dibs.” The ace kicked one of the doors in and a loud clang echoed in the room when it fell. The two walked in, their weapons ready, but they wouldn’t need to initiate a search of any kind. In the center of the room sat a man with tanned skin and long silver hair in a long coat with no helmet, who typed at a console—a pyramid-like device—protected by a shielding field. He paused and turned to reveal someone who appeared to be in their early thirties with blue eyes. If he was shocked or angry, he hid it well. A smile crossed his lips as he laid one hand on the console.

“Do you mind keeping the racket down? I’m almost finished here,” he requested. Kaiden fired a shot just to his left and destroyed a sizeable chunk of a machine in the back. The man looked up casually. “That seems unnecessary.”

“Are you the leader of these EX-10 guys?” the ace asked.

“More a general manager than a leader,” he stated and stepped away from the console to stand before them with no apparent concern.

“Either way, are you aware that we’ve eliminated most of your friends?” Cameron asked and adjusted his sights.

“Friends would also be a little inaccurate, but yes, My compatriots do seem to be mostly incapacitated. Kudos. You’ve been a real pain,” he muttered flatly as he pressed a button near the console and the shielding for the device deactivated.

“You came here for that?” Kaiden sounded incredulous. “It seems like way too much effort for what looks like a piece of post-modern art.”

“I’m not that interested in it, but it’s not for me,” he explained and regarded them casually with his hands clasped behind his back. “We’re here to get it for someone else—normal merc business, really.”

“Well, our missions are in something of a conflict, then. We’re here to stop you, and only one of us can get paid,” Cameron retorted.

“Agreed, and it looks like I’ll need capital for rebranding and to recruit new team members.” He moved his hands from his back to reveal two large pistols.

The Nexus duo’s fingers rested lightly against their triggers. “You’ll need it for funeral expenses if you don’t surrender,” the bounty hunter threatened.

“I don’t understand mercs like you. Honestly, you're screwed at this point,” Kaiden observed. “Is it a point of pride or something? Going down in a blaze of glory?”

“More simply, choosing the path of least resistance in this case.” He spun the guns in his hands. “I escape, die by you, or die by my employers. They aren’t a real forgiving bunch.”

“Kaiden, I’m in,” Chief declared. The man spun to see the EI’s avatar on the console screen.

“Bring up the shield and lock him out,” he ordered and the shield appeared once more.

“Kaiden?” the man wondered aloud. “You wouldn’t happen to be Kaiden Jericho, would you?”

“Have I already got a reputation in the mercenary world?” He chuckled. “I could blush.”

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Cameron shot back.

“You certainly do have a reputation. I was told to be on the lookout for you,” he stated, then frowned unexpectedly.

“For me? Why?” Kaiden asked, but the thought left him as his HUD fizzed and blurred, and pain crept into his mind. “God, not now.”

“What the hell’s going on with my readout?” Cameron yelled and shook his head.

“Chief?” Kaiden asked as he held a hand to his helmet in a futile attempt to stop the pain.

Something is…screwing with me. My connection to the console is breaking up…” Chief informed him, his voice mixed with static.

“That would be the device I’m here for. It’s a disruption device. Basically, it’s a large EMP emitter once fully activated,” the man explained. He held a hand under his chin, his gun tilted to the side. “Even when not fully powered, it emits small waves unless covered by that special shield there. It shouldn’t last long, but long enough.” He brandished his guns quickly, and Kaiden and Cameron readied to return fire.

“Guys, above you,” Chief shouted.

They instinctually jumped to their respective sides as something fell from above. A woman in armor drove two blades into the floor. She flipped away when Kaiden tried to kick her. Cameron fired his scorpion wire to wind around her leg, but before he could pull it taut, she used her knife to sever it.

“It looks like you weren’t able to undo my work all that much,” the man noted, as he checked the console. He looked at the assassin. “Let’s finish them, then we’ll grab the device and go.”

“What about the others?” she asked.

He shrugged. “You were the only one I ever really cared about.”

“Agreed, Bastion,” she all but purred and drew a rifle.

“Move,” Kaiden ordered as both mercs began to fire. He frowned, his field clouded by his malfunctioning HUD. “Chief, can you clear this up?”

“I’m having a little trouble myself,” Chief exclaimed.

“My head is pounding too. I don’t get it. I was fine all day.” He rolled behind a large metal machine, but it wasn’t the safe cover he had hoped for as the assassin’s shots melted through and barely missed his ribs. The ace spun out and returned fire, but the woman dodged easily. Cameron was pinned down by the man’s assault. The merc’s pistols must have been heavily modded as they fired extremely fast and obliterated everything in their path.

The ace winced as his headache worsened and he fumbled for a static grenade. “Don’t do it,” Chief warned.

“Why not?”

If that thing erupts too close, it might mess with that shield or the console controlling that thing and who knows what would happen? It might make the situation worse.”

“Dammit.” He swore and released the grenade as he darted across the room to find a position from where he could fire without danger of hitting the device.

Cameron kicked a table that slid toward his attacker but the man simply vaulted onto it, flipped over, and continued to fire. The bounty hunter finally made some shots, but they were met by a shield around the merc. “Of course,” he muttered and broke into a zigzag run to avoid the blasts.

“Kaiden, this guy has a barrier. We need to find something to break it or turn it off,” he informed him over the comms. His evasive maneuver afforded him a brief glimpse of his partner’s predicament. “Not going too well for you either?”

“It could be better.” He winced, his voice faint over the link. “Chief says to not hit the device. Something that sensitive could be trouble if we damage it.”

“They don’t seem so concerned about that.” Cameron dropped and slid beneath a stack of boxes that were blown apart by Bastion’s shots.

“I can’t contact the others. Even you’re almost all static,” Kaiden replied.

The bounty hunter grunted as he leapt onto a crane and used it to reach a walkway above. “We need to retreat and find a better position. Otherwise, this is merely a shooting gallery for them.”

“Like hell. You heard him. If they have the chance, they can grab that thing and run,” the ace countered.

“If we can’t shoot them, what do you wanna do? I can’t even hit mine. My gun doesn’t have the power to punch through in only a few shots.”

“But mine might, and you’re better trained to fight quick targets,” Kaiden pointed out. “Let’s play this like we had originally planned. I still have dibs, after all.”

The idea clicked and Cameron chuckled. “All right, go and do your thing.” He aimed over the railing and released a volley of shots at the assassin. The sudden ambush caught her off-guard and her barrier vanished as she returned fire. She tried to activate her stealth generator, but one of the shots clipped it and, in a quick blast of smoke and electricity, it was rendered useless.

The ace charged a shot and used the distraction provided by his teammate to scramble over a table and take aim at Bastion. The man was still focused on Cameron’s assault on the assassin, but instinct made him glance up. He turned to fire and managed one shot before Kaiden slid down and fired. The merc’s shot careened uselessly, while his opponent’s blazed a sure course to its target. Bastion curled his arms defensively when the blast struck his shield. It shattered with enough power to set his coat ablaze and topple him to land hard and he beat at the flames.

But before Kaiden could make another shot, his mind was wracked with another surge of pain. His HUD filled completely with jumbled numbers and letters and colors flashed to increase the disorientation. “Chief, turn the HUD off.”

“I…ne…t…canc…” Chief’s garbled reply indicated that the disruption was building too severely.

“Kaiden! Get up. He’s coming back to—shit!” Cameron’s walkway fell from under him, its supports destroyed by some well-placed shots from the assassin. He plummeted and flailed unsuccessfully to grasp his rifle as it spun barely beyond his reach. The breath punched from his lungs as he landed with a hard thud, but he pushed himself up quickly and drew his pistol. The woman’s rifle shot destroyed the handgun, melted the armor on his glove, and scalded his hand as well.

The ace looked up. Bastion stood above him and aimed with deliberate intent. No words were exchanged, merely a barrel in his face and a finger about to pull the trigger. He grimaced and his mind searched beyond the pain for something—resignation, perhaps, but that somehow seemed too final. The expected end never came, however. The merc was assaulted by a fusillade of lasers and bullets and Cameron’s assassin would have lost her head to the swing of a hammer if she hadn’t managed a hasty leap to avoid it.

Jaxon and the rest of the team stormed the room and the Tsuna raced over to help him up while Silas hauled Cameron to his feet.

“That pyramid thing—get the shield back to full power,” Kaiden ordered.

“Indre!” Jaxon shouted.

She nodded and ran to the console. “Give me a minute.”

“Cavalry’s here, huh?” Bastion muttered. He scrambled to his feet, blood dripping from his chest and arms, and the assassin made it to his side. “You need to get out of here.”

“You plan to take them on your own?” she asked.

“I doubt it’ll end that nobly,” he muttered and placed a drive into her hand. “Besides, it leaves you to deal with our benefactors. That’s a bargaining chip.”

She paused and glanced at the drive before she nodded. “I’ll get you out.”

“I’ll hope for the best but expect the worst. Go!” he ordered. She nodded and raced away. Jaxon fired after her and Kaiden made an attempt to, but his headache had worn him down. She vaulted to a shelf and from there, to a walkway above. The Tsuna’s shots narrowly missed her each time, and she made her way effortlessly into a vent above.

Jaxon looked at the vent for a moment before he returned his attention to Kaiden. “Are you all right?”

“Having a hell of a migraine would have been a bad way to go,” he replied and finally managed to stand. “Thanks.”

“I have it,” Indre declared. The shield powered up and the difference was almost instantaneous. Kaiden’s HUD cleared and Chief appeared once again.

“That thing can go straight to hell,” he grumbled.

“What should we do about him?” Jaxon asked and aimed at Bastion, who continued to bleed out but remained standing.

“Don’t mind me. I’ll just be on my way,” he stated, although he was barely able to remain upright much less walk.

“You’re done,” Kaiden stated. “Don’t be an idiot. I don’t mind pulling this trigger.”

He almost did when Bastion tried to raise one of his pistols, but his hand trembled and fell. The shield was in place and they were far enough away from the device now. He lowered his rifle and Jaxon looked curiously at him. With a small shrug, he took the shock grenade he’d wanted to use earlier and activated it, then dropped it at Bastion’s feet.

The EX-10 member looked at it, then at Kaiden with contempt in his eyes. It detonated and he cried out in pain before he fell to his knees and from there, into an ungainly sprawl.

“One got away,” the Tsuna noted.

“We took care of nine of them and secured the device they were after, so it’s still a win.” Kaiden sighed and sat on the floor to rest. “I doubt she’ll come back to try to finish this on her own. Once we report back to Zena, the cops are sure to come and clean up. We did our job.”

“I deactivated the lockdown,” Indre advised them.

He replied with a thumbs-up before he pried his helmet off and looked at Jaxon with a weary smile. “How was your first taste of merc work?”

The Tsuna holstered his machine gun, removed his helmet, and tucked it under his arm, “I’ll certainly admit it was interesting.”

“But you prefer the Animus?”

“The Animus will always be a simulation of the real thing to prepare for events like this. I will say that it is nice to see the results of my training in action.” He looked at Kaiden and gave him the Tsuna two-finger salute. “It was an honor to work with you.”

“So can I call you for the next one?”

He dropped the salute and turned. “Perhaps, but that should be something you can handle, right?”

Kaiden laughed. “Yeah, but I’ll make sure to let you know if I get a good one that requires your special touch.”


Chapter Twenty-Seven

S asha walked into Laurie’s office, where both faculty members watched the monitor in front of them intently. “I’m here. You made it sound urgent.”

“Sasha,” the professor exclaimed and twisted on the couch to face his visitor. “Kaiden is at the Ramses Tech building. I think he might have gone with some of the other students. Wolfson checked the active students on campus, and some of his group haven’t checked in after leaving earlier. The Ramses building is under attack by some group, and he’s in the thick of it.”

The commander removed his oculars, folded them, and slid them into his pocket as he eyed the professor warily and appeared plainly befuddled. “And? What do you want me to do, exactly?”

Laurie paused, surprised by his nonchalance. “You’re not surprised? Worried?”

He shook his head and noted the empty glass with droplets of vodka still within. “He’s done merc gigs since last year if you recall, so it shouldn’t surprise you either.” He circled to the other side of the couch and studied Wolfson, who watched the news intently. “Are you as concerned about your apprentice?”

“I’m not worrying about it like Laurie is, no,” the large man stated and took a generous swig from the bottle. “I know he can handle himself. But I’ll admit I was caught off-guard to see him on the news. I’m not sure what’s going on right now as we haven’t had an update since we first saw him.”

The screen changed from the constantly repeating footage back to the head anchorman, “Breaking news.”

“They really like saying that, don’t they?” Laurie muttered and slumped in his seat.

“The situation at the Ramses headquarters has been resolved. The barrier has gone down and the infiltrators are being escorted out by San Diego officers and the off-site security employed by Ramses. We go to Tod Howard who is speaking with one of the leaders of the group. Tod?”

“Thanks, Nola,” a man with neatly groomed brown hair and a winning smile stated. “I’m here with Zena, a leader of the Fire…um, off-site security team who helped contain the situation.” He held the mic to her face. “Can you introduce yourself and tell us what happened?”

“You already have the details,” she said flatly and obviously wanted this to be over. “We were called in and dealt with the situation, but I should note that we had a lot of help. In fact, the infiltrators were taken out mostly by some other off-site assistance.”

“I understand there were some unfortunate casualties on both sides,” Tod hinted.

Zena nodded and folded her arms. “Yes. We were forced to eliminate two of the hostiles, and we lost many good men and women, but they sacrificed themselves to stop these terrorists, and they will be—”

Wolfson turned the volume down and looked at his two companions. He leaned back and smiled. “So, does that mean Kaiden and his group were the ones to take down most of the baddies?” the giant asked.

“Are they all right? She said there were casualties.” Laurie fretted and tugged nervously at his sleeves.

“They are fine. If there was an emergency situation or they were killed, their EIs would have sent a message back to the Academy,” Sasha said and opened a holoscreen. “I see no such messages, and their signals are tracking normally. In fact, they seem to be heading back by ship considering how fast they are moving.”

“Wonderful,” the professor said with a sigh of relief.

“They are masters now, Laurie, and can handle something like this. Otherwise, why are they here?” The commander turned to leave the room but fixed his colleague with a firm look. “And you should know, it’s because of your work that they have grown so much.”

Laurie allowed the statement to sink in before a truly happy smile settled on his face as he flipped his hair back. “Of course, that’s the best way to use my genius, after all. To help the future greats.” Sasha nodded and began to leave, and he added quickly, “Including you, once.”

The other man stopped at that and nodded quickly. “Yes indeed. It even gave me a new course.” He turned to stare into the professor’s eyes. “Now, remember that feeling as you work. From now on, what you can accomplish will help you move away from your failures.”


Master

Xiulan entered the meeting area yawning and stretching her arms and almost immediately, she could sense the despondency in the room. Nolan hung his head, Jensen had turned away from the screen and now tapped his fingers wearily on the table, and Juro sat stoically beside him, his eyes closed in thought.

“What’s wrong with all of you?” she asked and approached quickly to look at the screen that displayed the marks that indicated they were tracking someone. “What’s this? Are these the EX-10 members?” She frowned and looked more closely. “Two dead and seven incapacitated? You started the mission and it failed already?” She stared at Nolan and sucked in a breath through her teeth. “Some great team you commissioned. That’s credits we will not get back.”

“I am fully aware of the situation, Xiulan. And I shoulder the blame. I should have done more to prepare for eventualities,” the general said, his voice low with a hint of real remorse.

“You will be fully compensated, either financially or with political assistance,” Juro interjected.

Xiulan folded her arms and her gaze darted from one man to the other. “That’s all well and good, but what will the other members think? What about the leader?”

“Trust me. He knows what happened,” Jensen muttered.

“I certainly do.” The group all turned as Merrick walked down the eastern hall toward them. Xiulan—the only one unaware of his presence before now—almost jumped at the sight.

“Mr. Rayne, I didn’t know you had arrived.” She turned to a grunt who was noticeably eavesdropping. “Why wasn’t I informed?” she snapped.

“Probably because you were asleep,” Jensen remarked. “He only came in a couple of hours ago.”

“It is a pity this didn’t bear fruit. Having the prototype would have sped things along,” Merrick stated. He walked to the head of the table and turned to look at the summary onscreen.

“You seem to be taking this quite well, sir,” Juro noted.

He nodded, looked back, and offered a surprisingly reassuring smile. “I knew there was no guarantee we could secure the device, but the specs were saved on the drive they used to hack into the console—something we can still make use of if Dario can retrieve it.”

“Is that why he left almost as soon as he arrived?” Jensen asked.

“Most likely, but I can’t say I always know what goes through his head at times,” Merrick replied. “Besides, we won’t be able to take our target if we rely purely on tech. The Gin incident proved as much. They are quite resourceful, even when hamstrung like that.”

“Was this some sort of test, sir?” Nolan questioned.

The leader chuckled softly and the other members of the organization exchanged glances, not sure if they should be relieved or worried. He finally turned to face them fully. “No, I don’t think I need to test your resolve or allegiance at this point. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. But do learn from it, at the very least the fact that for all our power and influence, nothing is a certain victory. Which is why we must always plan for any eventuality and adjust our strategies to improve our chances, even if we hold ourselves back in the name of keeping ourselves mostly secret for now.”

“You sound a little like you’re back at your old job there…sir,” Jensen said and added the honorific quickly to try to mask the casual nature of his statement.

Juro stepped in. “You mentioned the target. So it’s been finalized that this is Nexus, then?”

Merrick nodded. “My old Academy has its place in our goals. Even with the other academy we are setting up, there are troves of tech and resources we need from the original Ark Academy. And if we restart the ascension project, we need the point of origin to start with.” He looked at the council, his expression stern. “But before that, we need to secure more power, both politically and otherwise. Which brings me to the next part of our agenda.”

“Should we call the other members in first?” Juro asked.

The leader held a hand up to stop him. “I have only the basics of the plan and everyone will have to play their part for it to succeed. But for now, I could use a few fine friends to listen and help me bring it to fruition. We can sort out the details with the others once we have them.”

“What do you have in mind, sir?” Xiulan asked.

He sat, took a small pad from his coat, and placed it on the table. When he activated it, several holograms of a building with information windows next to them appeared. “We have powerful allies and groups under our sway, but we could always use more, considering that for now, it is us against the world. It will take too long for them to come to our side naturally. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t have sought to restart this organization,” Merrick explained.

A trace of anger tainted the last sentence, although they couldn’t tell if it was from disappointment or regret. “We will focus on bringing these key players under our influence. Most can be taken through buyouts or partnerships—easier options and less likely to attract attention considering how many companies have been traded in recent years. But a few will need more personal measures.”

“What do you need from us?” Nolan asked.

“Only your talents and patience,” he stated calmly and focused on one hologram in particular. “These…we’ll call them problem prospects, each has their complications, but we will need them going forward. It might take longer than we wish, but the reward of having them in our pocket when we begin the takeover will be worth it.”

“You seem to be keenly interested in that one there,” Jensen noted and gestured to the hologram.

The leader nodded and stared at it for a moment longer before he returned his focus to the other members. “That is one of the primary targets. During the next meeting, we will prepare for its takeover and what will be required, but I hope that by year’s end, the Mirai Zaibatsu will be in the Arbiter Organization’s capable hands.”


Master

The EX-10 assassin wandered the hillside. She had abandoned her armor already as the added defense was of less consequence than keeping a low profile. First, she had to find a place to hide, then a way out of the city. The ship provided to them had been destroyed, but there was still the vessel they came to Earth on. The stealth drive was superb. No one had seen their arrival, and it could easily fetch her if she could get within range for her beacon to call it.

Wet snaps made her freeze in place—the telltale sound of sticks being stepped on. Her instincts kicked in and she braced for combat, her blade in hand. Her visitor, however, didn’t seem as concerned.

A man stepped into the clearing. With combed-back black hair, easy-going gray eyes, and light skin, he looked to be in his mid-thirties. He wore a fine suite that was surprisingly clean for a man who walked around in the forest. “Yvette, right?” he asked casually and his hands slipped into his pants pockets.

She didn’t answer and simply watched him closely. He shrugged. “I get it. I might have it wrong—you assassins don’t really have names anymore, merely a list of aliases that probably blur together after a while.”

“Who are you?” she demanded, but she didn’t give him a chance to answer before she surged forward to sink her blade into his throat. Surprisingly, he didn’t retreat. Instead, he stepped forward quickly and snatched her blade arm with a suddenness that was alarming. She dropped the blade quickly, snatched it with her other hand, and tried to continue her attack. Once again, she was blocked by the man who calmly captured her free hand as well. She struggled against him, but he didn’t budge and his calm smile remained on his face.

“Give a man a second to respond, would you?” he asked with what seemed to be genuine amusement. “I’m usually proud of my game, but even I need a little breathing room.”

“Are you a bounty hunter?” she demanded.

“Nah. I could have been, though. I’m Dario Adesso. I represent Umbra Holdings,” he explained.

“Umbra holdings?” Yvette knew that name—their employers, the ones who sent them there, to begin with. “We knew that was a front. Who are you really? Bastion knew something about you. He was worried—and he was usually never worried about anything.”

“He sounds like a smart guy. It’s a pity he failed. I’m sure he could have been of more use.” Dario kicked her away and she caught herself before she fell and tensed in preparation for a follow-up attack, but nothing came.

“You are right. Umbra is merely a shell. The insides are much more interesting.” Dario beckoned her with one hand. “I hope you have something for me?”

Yvette stood and opened her underlay to remove the drive Bastion had given her. “He said you would want this—that it’s a bargaining chip.”

“Bargaining for what, exactly?”

She was quiet for a moment, the drive clasped tightly in her hand. “I would guess for my life.”

“That’s quite possible, but it is a little difficult to make a bargaining chip out of something that was part of the agreed objectives. It doesn’t seem very professional of you,” he pointed out, his tone almost sing-song.

“Do you intend to kill me?” she asked. “He said that if we failed, there would be repercussions.”

“That depends on you,” he stated. “Let me be frank. You failed, yes, but you do at least have the specs and you made it out, which indicates that you have better instincts than your teammates.”

“I only made it out because Bastion let me go,” she explained.

“Honorable as well as smart. There could be a place for him with us,” Dario noted.

“You can rescue him?” she asked and her tone hitched with surprise and hope.

You can save him. We’ll help, of course,” Dario clarified and extended his hand. “But that assumes you are willing to help us.”

“You’ll take in a failure?” she asked suspiciously.

“We’re quite good at developing potential. Our leader specializes in it. And don’t be so morose. You’ve survived this long in a blacklist merc group. Obviously, you have talent.”

Yevette collapsed her blade and tossed the drive to Dario. “Very well, but I’ll do this for Bastion, not simply to be a new puppet for your company.”

“My dear, we’re more than merely a company,” he related and tucked the drive into his pocket. “And we are here to make sure no one will be simply a puppet.”


Chapter Twenty-Eight

“ D amn, this stuff is great.” Mack sighed happily as the K-brew coursed through his system.

“First time, and you’re hooked,” Cameron agreed and stretched lazily.

“I guess so, considering Kaiden’s used it so much its name comes from him,” Julius noted and grinned at his vanguard teammate.

Kaiden leaned back in the medical bunk, his eyes closed as he listened to jazztronica music and let the world slide by. Several thumps on his chest yanked him from his happy place. He opened his eyes wearily and removed his aural clips when he saw Genos and Chiyo staring at him. “Howdy. How are you feeling, Genos?”

“Much better. My apologies for succumbing to the cherry poison juice,” he said and rubbed his hands together a little awkwardly.

“Good to hear.” He turned to Chiyo, who looked decidedly unamused. “What did I do? I was gone all night.”

“Why didn’t you let me know?” she asked, her arms folded. “I could have assisted you.”

“I wanted to know the same thing,” Otto muttered and glared at Mack who shrugged.

“It happened too fast. You guys were probably already almost back at the Academy,” the vanguard pointed out.

“And you were helping Genos,” Kaiden added, but Chiyo glowered in response. “Look, I really didn’t think it would be so intense. I was actually lucky these guys were around. Otherwise, I would have been overwhelmed. Honestly, I thought it would be an easy romp for good creds.”

“We got some good creds all right.” Luke sighed and sat on the edge of his bed. “It’s a pity we have to spend at least a third of it on repairs.”

“Only a third? I have to spend nearly half,” Silas complained and held his chest as he winced. “That Sauren wrecked my armor.”

“Welcome to the merc life.” Kaiden chuckled. “Although if you want another go, you should get licenses. Now, we only have to hope no one noticed.”

“I saw you on the news,” Genos informed him.

“Do what?” He cringed.

“While we waited around for Genos to recuperate, the news was on in his room. They had footage of all of you while you were in the plaza,” Chiyo informed him.

“Damn. We were able to sneak out before the officers entered and hoped we got away without being seen at all,” he grumbled.

“We should be all right, though,” Flynn reasoned. “We had no trackers, and that’s not our personal armor. It was Julio’s.”

“Yeah, pass the buck, why don’t you?” Cameron chuckled. “Kaiden’s armor is registered, though.”

“I have a license so I’m good,” he assured them. “Julio should take care of the details if anyone goes looking for the contract to see who else was on the list. Also, I’m sure the Fire Riders and Skyway Kings will say you were their members if they try going that route.”

“You might be right there, but what about at the Academy?” Chiyo pointed out. “If anyone else noticed it, they could see where your EIs were at the time of the break-in.”

“No one will think a group of students was dealing with something like that,” Kaiden said and waved her off.

The doors to the medbay opened. “Are you sure about that?” she asked.

“Pretty sure.” Kaiden leaned up to see who had entered. From the way eyes widened amongst his group, it must have been someone important.

“Hello, dear Kaiden,” Laurie said cheerfully as he stopped beside the bed.

“Laurie. It’s been a while. How have you been?” He was genuinely happy to see the professor after so long.

“Much better than I have been in quite some time, admittedly,” he said with a contented sigh and smiled at the group around him. “Have I missed something interesting?”

“You’re Professor Laurie? The man who created the Animus?” Indre asked. The ace realized that most of his friends had never met or even seen the professor. To them, he was still the enigmatic genius who created the system they used almost every day.

“Last time I checked, I am indeed. Amongst other things, of course, but I suppose that’s the one most people are interested in—my greatest invention.” His smile faltered slightly. “Although—and I intend to tell the whole academy this at the next gathering—I want to say to all of you that I will never let what happened last year ever happen again. You have my word, and thank you for your trust.”

“I never thought I would hear you say something so sappy, Prof,” Kaiden responded and earned a slight glare from Chiyo. He smiled and held a hand up. “It’s all good, Laurie. We’re here, and you can make a hell of a virtual construct, although there isn’t a lot of competition there, I admit.”

Jaxon stood, walked over to the professor, and saluted him. “I saw the advancements my teammates and myself have developed in only two years in action. We couldn’t have done that without your help.”

“You’re very kind.” The man bowed slightly before he straightened and focused on Kaiden. “That action wouldn’t have been the Ramses situation last night, would it?”

The ace’s cheerful expression faltered and his gaze traveled slowly to look at Jaxon, whose salute dropped as he shook his head. “My apologies. I wasn’t thinking.”

“To be fair, it’s the first time I’ve seen you make a mistake like that. You’ve had to deal with my idiocy more than once, so I can let this slide,” Kaiden assured him and shook his head. “After all that time making up a bar fight story.”

“I already knew. Wolfson and I saw you on the news last night,” Laurie informed them.

“I told you,” Chiyo interjected.

“Don’t worry about anyone else looking into it. I only knew because Wolfson recognized your armor and weapons. Sasha should take care of it if something does potentially arise,” the professor pointed out, his tone encouraging.

“Sasha knows too, then? I’m sure I’ll have to deal with that later.”

“Perhaps, but rest for now. You had a rather intense first day,” Laurie advised. “See me when you feel better. Until then, I simply wanted to stop by and see my favorite student.”

“I don’t think I have a lot of competition on that right now,” Kaiden joked. “But I’ll take it. I meant to swing by anyway. Where you off to?”

“I’m checking up on the mainframe. Cyra has been leading a team to take over the maintenance, but I think it still needs my personal touch.” He stepped back. “Rest well and try to enjoy your time more. If you keep doing gigs like this, I’ll think you’re growing bored.”

“Far from it. I’m having a great time but can always use a little extra spice now and then. I am from the south, after all.” He chuckled.

Laurie bowed as a farewell. The group watched him leave the medbay before they talked excitedly amongst themselves.

“Hey, Chiyo,” Kaiden called, and the infiltrator turned to look at him. “I really wouldn’t have left you behind if I knew what was going down. You would have been a great help.”

“Bring me on the next one, then?” she asked.

“I’ll look into getting you a temporary license and see if I can find a gig that makes use of your skills. I don’t want you to come along only to twiddle your thumbs. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be bored.”

“Definitely not, but I would like to see what your life is like,” she admitted.

“I promise to get it done.”

“What do you have to do to get a merc license?” Cameron asked. “I might look into getting one myself.”

“Don’t you have a bounty hunter’s license already?” Kaiden asked.

“Yeah, but with different criteria. I have to shadow my uncle and dad for another year before I can go solo. But I can get more hours on my card doing merc gigs,” he explained. “I’ve thought about doing it already, but since I would get my license around the same time I would graduate, I figured it was kind of pointless.”

“But now you have the fever?” The ace grinned.

“I wouldn’t mind looking into getting one,” Silas added.

“Really? You were injured worse than all of us, mate,” Flynn reminded him.

“That’s only a reason to get better,” the enforcer declared.

“So I guess most of you are looking for another go?” Kaiden asked.

The team that had worked the mission looked at one another and nodded. “It looks like it. I’m down for another round when you need some muscle,” Luke affirmed.

“I’ll make sure to keep a lookout but be prepared for a lot of paperwork. The licenses are more tedious than difficult to get,” the ace admitted and fell back on his bed.

“Do you intend to simply sleep through your second day?” Chief asked and materialized in the room.

“Nah, I’ll get to my later workshops, and I’m sure I have an earful from Akello coming my way when I head over to the Animus Center.”

“So you’re gonna take it easy for a while, then?” Flynn asked.

Kaiden looked at the ceiling before he grinned at his friends. “You gotta take the time when you can, right? Who knows what’s coming next?”


Origin: Alexander Laurie


Chapter One

I f there was a more ironic sound than joyous laughter after saying good-bye to a dead body only an hour before, Alexander Laurie couldn't think of one. He walked the halls of the memorial home in an irritated frame of mind. The fringe members of his family and his father’s many, many friends and admirers gathered in the main chamber to reminisce. They traded stories and memories of Laurie’s mother over what would be a foolish amount of liquor, followed by a stupid number of foolish acts. In the morning, they would all suffer from a stupid-ass hangover with a grand amount of fool's tears and exotic cursing.

Ah, but to toast to the life of a woman so great and well-lived. She had, without doubt, conquered life with zeal and traversed the world to see sights most people only dreamed of and lived the pleasures of an adventurer. But that’s all they spoke of—her exploits, never who she was. Laurie respected his mother, certainly, but that wasn’t the way he would remember her. He would remember her for her kindness and her warmth, and the fact that she always encouraged his talents and inventions instead of simply treating him like the future of the company.

Like his father did. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Laurie turned into another hallway and the voices from the chamber grew quieter and quieter. If he were honest, a part of him wanted to join the crowd. He had many fond memories of his mother from his childhood, a strong woman brimming with courage and humor. She encouraged his study of the arts as much as his scientific pursuits. He recalled going into the Eventide Forest with her on many weekends simply to take in the scenery. They would go sailing in the Pacific Ocean and fish in Lake Chelan. She would always offer her time to hear him discuss his theories and future inventions, even as ludicrous as some of them were and little more than obvious flights of fantasy. But she always made them seem possible, that they could come to life not only in his mind but by his hands. That he could finally get out of his father’s shadow.

A large crash and hooting laughter snapped him from his thoughts. He turned briefly to look back in the direction of the main chamber and saw two men joking with each other and heading his way.

“Excuse me, young man, do you know where the restroom— Oh my, Alexander?” The older of the two gawked. “I wondered if you were here. I didn’t see you during the funeral.”


“You did arrive rather late, Oscar,” the other man noted. Laurie knew Oscar Remington and Alfred Rosewood, a couple of his father’s associates. Oscar was a CFO to some real estate enterprise and Alfred was in charge of the company that oversaw the Seattle biodome. Neither could really contribute to the work his father did. Alfred could benefit from it as the biodome’s redesign was one of his father’s first projects, but Oscar was merely some wealthy so-and-so and a potential connection in the business world, nice enough but a little loud.

“I suppose I did…” Oscar trailed off and wiped his lips. “My apologies. I wouldn’t miss a chance to say goodbye to Adele—a wonderful woman. I’ve heard many tales of her adventures. She had a fascinating life.”

“Thank you,” Laurie said half-heartedly. He might have meant it but could as easily have simply said it to be polite. Either way, they didn’t deserve his ire.

“I’ve heard that you’re working on something quite special right now, Alex,” Alfred said and stepped beside the young scientist. “A virtual reality program?”

“I am, although it’s fair to say I’m only developing it right now. I don’t have official funding.”

“Then it’s only you and a small team doing the work despite the odds to further the company and bring humanity further into the future,” Oscar declared in a grandiose tone.

“Yes, a very small team of one,” Laurie muttered. “I have made great progress. I have a working—”

“I’ve also heard that you’ve developed the next EI update,” the man interrupted, and his words slurred a little. “That has the general public talking. It’s been over a year since the EIs had a proper upgrade. Everyone is waiting with bated breath.”

Laurie sighed and shook his head. “I was pulled from that project. The state of the upgrade was… My father said it was not necessary for the general EIs. It might have more function for the professional models but—”

“Damn shame, but don’t let it get you down,” Oscar bellowed. At this point, Laurie was sure that he wasn’t listening and merely spewed niceties as they came to him. “You are the son of Jonas Laurie. Destined for greatness, you are.”

He remained silent and simply nodded quickly. The man smiled and clapped Alfred on the shoulder. “Let’s head back to the hall, Rosewood. I could use another drink.”

“What about the restroom?” his companion asked as the two walked off.

“Do you need to go? I’m fairly certain I saw it this way.”

“No, I don— Very well.” The two wandered away and Laurie turned and strode to the end of the hall. He threw open the doors to the library—which he suspected was only there because they didn’t want an empty room in the building. But it would make for a good hiding place away from the riffraff.

“Looking for some solitude, huh?” a voice asked. It appeared his assumptions of solitude were mistaken.

He looked at a man with slicked-back black hair and an athletic figure with tanned skin and a sharp smile. The stranger replaced a book he had looked at and approached him to proffer a hand. “A pleasure to meet you. My name is—”

“Merrick Rayne, Chancellor of Nexus Academy.” Laurie finished for him and regarded him curiously. “You knew my mother?”

“I accompanied her on a few of her travels—at least when she needed some ‘professional’ help.” That comment could have meant several things, but Laurie knew his mother preferred to work alone or with a small team of long-time friends. The fact that he had never known she had worked with this man meant she must have gone on journeys more dangerous than she let on.

“You don’t wish to partake in the festivities?” Laurie questioned. Merrick dropped his hand and tucked it behind his back. “I have said my goodbyes. At social events like these, I’m not much fun to be around, let’s say.”

“I follow. I usually enjoy such parties and I don’t mind a little debauchery but doing so after burying a parent is…tasteless.”

Merrick looked at the young scientist with concern. “Are you doing all right? I know it's rough but trying to hide in dark corners like you're the elephant man isn't the healthiest way to deal with tragedy.” His sympathy sounded genuine and weighed heavily in his voice. “Besides, I heard a number of people asking about you during the funeral.”

“I can't say I know most of them, who are my father’s friends and family I haven't seen since I was a kid. It’s simply not my kind of a ball.” He sighed. “I have nothing against them, but I'm not here to lend an ear to anyone who wants to tell me why they were Mother’s best friend or, possibly worse, why my father is so great.” He studied the chancellor. “Are you one of the two?”

The man chuckled and moved his hand from his back to reveal a small tablet. “I was actually waiting in here for the proceedings to end. I wanted to talk to you personally, Alex, about business.”

“Me? Really?” he asked, rather surprised. “Is it something to do with my mother?”

“No, nothing cryptic like that,” his companion assured him. “As chancellor for the Nexus Academy, I’m always looking for ways to develop our students and to further improve our curriculum.”

“I’ve heard about the new OS the academy is demoing. How have the results been?” he inquired.

“Well enough. They have allowed us to teach at a much faster pace and expand the classes and try new teaching methods. But I must admit, I am already looking at something that is far more interesting to me.”

“And what is that?”

Merrick offered him the tablet again. He took it, looked at the screen, and his eyes widened. It was a file on his project. “Where did you get this?”

“Does that matter?”

Laurie frowned and tossed the tablet back. “Yes, indeed it does. I have my files secured, so I need to know what I overlooked if you were able to access to it.”

“A smart observation. I received it from your father,” he admitted and returned the tablet to his back pocket.

“My father sent it to you? What for? He has a literal list of doubts about the project.”

The chancellor nodded. “I’ve gathered as much. I think he might have sent it to me by accident in a bundle of files that had overviews of potential projects we could use at the Academy. My guess is since he still has it on his system somewhere, it means he hasn’t given up on it.”

“Well, that’s certainly a more optimistic outlook than I have,” Laurie muttered.

Merrick eyed him cautiously. “How far have you gotten on it?”

He looked at the chancellor with both caution and hope. Caution because he didn’t know what this man wanted from him but hope at finally meeting someone who seemed genuinely curious and interested in one of his personal projects. “I have the system in place on a small scale—no more than one at a time—but the integration and sync ability could be smoother.”

“You’ve worked on this yourself, right?”

“For eight years, since I was fifteen. Getting the virtual reality plane into a state that wouldn’t immediately crash took five years on its own,” Laurie admitted.

“What do you think could be done if you have free reign with a real budget and a team of top technicians under your command?” the man asked, leading him on.

“So many things. I could connect different people to the same plane, have the sync smoothed, and increase the learning adaptability,” he hypothesized, his brow creased in thought.

“Could you do it for hundreds of people at a time?” Merrick asked.

“Hypothetically, yes, but that would require time and maybe some workarounds until I have a proper handle on the tech’s possibilities.”

“Interesting.” The chancellor stroked his chin thoughtfully. The noise outside began to increase and the people in the main hall seemed to rush out into the building. “It appears to be wrapping up.”

“Does that mean you have to go?” Laurie asked, his voice tinged with regret.

“For now, yes, but I have the information I need.” He withdrew a card from his chest pocket and handed it to the younger man. “I believe what you are working on could be of great benefit, Laurie. The capabilities, in theory, are amazing.”

He took the card carefully, almost as if he expected it to blow up in his hand. “I’ve preached that for years and I’ve been told the resources to see it come to life—if it can at all—would be too much.”

“But you’ve got it to work, right? Even in a primitive form?” Merrick asked and he nodded. The man smiled as he crossed to the chair he’d sat on and retrieved his coat off the back. He shrugged into it, then took a hat from the stand beside it and placed it on his head. “I need to finish putting things in place, but I want to see what you have made, Alex.” He turned to the scientist. “I suppose I should say Professor. You are certified.”

“It doesn’t mean much if I don’t put it to use.” He stared at the card. “When are you available?”

“I need to convene the board of the Academy, but I should be ready in three days.”

He nodded and slid the card into his pocket before he stood a little taller with a wide smile on his face. “I shall see you then. In three days, you’ll see my greatest creation. Project Animus.”


Chapter Two

“ T hank you for coming.” Laurie greeted Merrick, who nodded as he walked into the warehouse. He removed his coat and studied his surroundings. A large pillar stretched from the ground and almost scraped the top of the warehouse about thirty feet up.

“You worked on this alone?” the chancellor questioned as he scrutinized the scale of the machine.

He took the man’s coat and approached the console on the side of the pillar. “To be fair, the pod was already made, albeit as a large energy cell for one of my father’s space station projects.”

“This is an energy cell?”

“One I restructured. It saved me months of work.” He placed the coat over the chair at his workstation. “Obviously, I know this isn’t practical. My initial thought was that a larger chamber would allow up to six or possibly seven people to enter at once. I’ve been in the early stages of downsizing it to focus on the energy capacity and sync rate for individual pods. I would also need to make a central mainframe that could connect them all together and work on a power source that could spread over a wide area without sacrificing output.”

Merrick chuckled as he sat. “It appears you were thinking along the same lines that I was even before we met.”

“I was being realistic. New inventions and advances are no use to anyone if they are kept in a basement—or warehouse in this case.” The young scientist looked at the gigantic pod and frowned. “And I certainly doubt that anyone would be able to make use of something that is this massive. It’s something of a hard sell.”

“Too true, but that can be righted in time.” The chancellor looked away from the pod to focus on the professor. “As long as everything else is in place?”

Laurie smiled and stepped quickly up to a console on the side of the pod and activated it. The device and warehouse lit up when lines of light traced around the pillars and dozens of lights above turned on. “Would you care to step inside?”

His visitor tensed and looked dubiously at the pod “I don’t need to get scanned or anything? It’s safe to simply walk in?”

“The ID system takes place inside the chamber.” He pressed another button and a large door slid open to reveal a room within. The floor lighted up in five extending circles. “I will scan your physical body and create an avatar, and to properly sync up with the system…” He leaned forward and pressed a key. A drawer opened and he removed two devices spread like a trident with curved ends. He attached one of these to his forehead and it clamped onto the top of his head.

With a reassuring smile, he walked over and handed one to the chancellor, who took it and examined it curiously. “What is this exactly?”

“In short, it’s a device that resonates your brainwaves with the pod’s sync waves to allow for integration,” Laurie explained and pressed a finger on the device that began to glow with white light. “It’s what allows for the integration and lifelike experience. Although I should say that right now, it’s only a workaround. I’m working on a secondary project that will not only allow a smoother experience but won’t require unnecessary devices.”

“What secondary project? Is it something I should know about?” Merrick asked.

“It has to do with my research and potential upgrades to the EIs. I can elaborate later.” He stepped inside the pod and beckoned to the chancellor to follow. “For now, let me show you the world of the Animus.”

The man was concerned. While he had expected to experience Laurie’s creation, he’d thought the young man would at least demonstrate it first before having him step in. But he had to admit, the professor’s enthusiasm was quite infectious. He placed the device on his head and stood to walk calmly into the pod. Laurie flipped the switch and the door closed, leaving them with only the lights on the floor for illumination. A white grid traced up and down, and the chancellor looked curiously at it.

“That’s the scan I told you about,” his companion explained and made himself comfortable on the floor. “I recommend getting into a relaxed position. As long as we’re in the Animus, our bodies will be in a suspended state. It’s nothing to worry about, but once we return… All I can say is that I had a hell of a charley horse when I went in standing.”

Merrick lowered himself to the ground. He tried to hide it, but it was clear he was still rather apprehensive. “So, when do we…um, sync in?”

“You’re ready, then?” Laurie asked and his smile widened.

“As much as I can be, I suppose.” He looked around the chamber. “I’ve used virtual reality before, but that was merely a device that simulated different experiences. There was always the feeling that you had one foot in reality.”

“You can always exit once we’re in if you’re worried. Simply say, ‘command: exit,’ or press your fingers against your temples for a few seconds,” the professor explained before he took a deep breath. “Activate Animus.”

Merrick stiffened a little and waited for something to happen—the lights to flash or the room to swirl—but he barely noticed the only thing that did happen. The lights on the floor pulsed lightly and a faint hum of machinery was the only other evidence of change. But soon, he felt a sensation that was similar to drifting to sleep. He blinked, closed his eyes, and shook his head. When he opened them, he sat in the middle of an empty street in a metropolis.

He jerked in shock and arms caught him from behind. “Steady there, Chancellor,” Laurie warned and helped him to his feet.

“Where are we?” he asked in bewilderment.

“Nowhere, in particular. I only have about three maps created so far, all generic. I decided that the city was more impressive than a desert or flowery field.”

Merrick stooped to feel the roughness of the street and walked over to a nearby store. It was empty, but he caught his reflection in the mirror. Everything was in place. Even a small birthmark on the left side of his neck was there.

“This is… This is real?” he asked.

“As real as you believe it to be.” Laurie approached the chancellor and quickly pressed two fingers into his chest. He caught him off-guard and pushed him back.

The man grunted in annoyance and was about to ask him what he was doing, but the significance dawned before he could get the words out. He’d actually felt that. “You can feel pain in here too?”

“It wouldn’t mean much if you couldn’t.” The young man opened a holoscreen, and after he’d pressed a few keys, a rifle appeared in Merrick’s hands. He examined it with real interest—a Terra Sovereign model.

“I looked into your history and hope you don’t mind. Your great grandfather was the founder of the company, right?” Laurie questioned.

“He was. One of my cousins will take over soon. I don’t have much stake in it currently,” he explained.

“But you can use their wares, can’t you?”

“Of course. I am a soldier, even with my current position,” he confirmed.

“That’s good to know. Show me.” The professor fiddled with something on the screen and pointed to the left. Merrick’s eyes widened as a Soldier droid appeared with a rifle aimed at him. His instincts kicked in and he rolled under the shot and fired to blast one of the droid’s legs off. It toppled and he raced up to it and pounded the butt of his rifle into the side of the mechanical’s head twice. He cracked it with the first strike and crushed it with the second.

“You’re not going to simply shoot it?” Laurie asked and looked at the destroyed droid.

“You don’t want to waste a kinetic round, and you don’t want to overheat your energy-based weapons when it’s unnecessary. That’s basic combat advice.”

“Right. I suppose the SXP system won’t be of much use to you without prolonged training,” he mumbled, mostly to himself.

“SXP?” The chancellor backed away when the droid disappeared in a flash of white light.

“It’s the advancement system, where the Animus project really shines.” He flipped the screen and showed it to Merrick. “The more you train in here, the more SXP or synapse experience points you accumulate. The more the user learns and practices, the more they advance in a subject. Eventually, they gather enough points to unlock a vast array of abilities that they can then apply their points toward to learn those abilities instantly.”

“That… That sounds incredible.” He was genuinely awestruck.

“It is, in theory.” Laurie sighed. “So far, I’ve only been able to make it work on specific abilities—ones the user is already familiar with. Translating skills into practical uses is a little difficult when they know next to nothing about it. On top of that, the SXP system is a little…tricky right now. I’ve had trouble getting certain abilities to work, and the accumulation of SXP is rather slow.”

“But you have a starting point?”

“I do.” He focused on the chancellor and smiled. “So tell me, Mr. Rayne, with what you’ve seen and the prospects for the future, what do you think of my project?”

“I think it’s incredible.” He looked around the city again “The potential is limitless. What you have created here, Alex, it is the future of the human race, not only business or sciences.”

“Finally, someone sees my greatness.” The young man chuckled. “You seemed to insinuate a fair amount the other day. What are you offering me now, Chancellor?”

Merrick looked at the professor, who had certainly found his ego now. But given what he had made, it was certainly deserved. “I want to bring you into the Nexus Academy. We have recently unshackled ourselves from the World Council and have a surplus in our resources. I want to make this our next priority, with you at the head.” He shouldered his rifle and walked up to Laurie to proffer his hand. “Are you interested?”

Laurie flipped the screen again and pressed a button. The buildings around them began to vanish and the streets crumbled and drifted into the air. “We should finish this back in the real world,” he said, although Merrick glimpsed a small tear falling from his eye. “Just so I know that I have finally accomplished something that is mine alone.”


Chapter Three

T he next three years flew by for Laurie. He left his father’s company and took over the Nexus’ R and D sector, newly constructed after their parting with the WC. In a year, with the help of over a hundred technicians, engineers, and other assistants, he was able to get a mass model version of the project prepared—now with project dropped from the title and simply called the Animus.

In the beginning, it was impossible to get volunteers from the student body to test it. Some thought it was too good to be true, while others were merely frightened at the possibility that a machine could mess with their minds. They only had fifty pods for the first few months, all in the R and D building, but it didn’t take long for word to spread of the simulations. By the time they had about a dozen more pods ready, they had to schedule up to a week in advance simply for a trial.

From there, they expanded to a hundred pods, and the first two floors of the Animus Center were built to house them. Laurie was also able to finish his EI upgrade, a unique model for the Nexus students to better help with the Animus integration. Soon, the word of the academy’s new tech spread, and submissions increased almost fivefold. As much as he loved the reputation he had gained, he now found himself constantly courted by other companies and academies. Ironically, the attention he once desired so much was now something of a hindrance, both because he constantly dealt with messages and calls that interrupted his work and because he could tell it was hollow, for the most part. They merely wanted access to the new genius. He had little patience for those who should have seen it long before now.

Granted, he did have some sense of loyalty to the Academy, and specifically to Merrick. He was the man who finally saw what he could contribute, who saw the genius hidden in the shadow of another genius. There was no valid reason to abandon them, with the added plus that the Academy would be the best proving ground for his next ideas and gadgets.

But that was Laurie’s experience as a technician. What about as a person? That had, unfortunately, fallen by the wayside. He had developed a habit of staying within his own office and lab more and more. This was partially due to being able to run free with whatever flight of fancy called him, but also because he wanted to avoid all the new runarounds that constantly bothered him. Finally, feeling a little claustrophobic, he decided to take a walk one night. It was a decision that would result in him meeting a man who would affect his life more than he let on—and if he felt charitable and was a teensy bit drunk, he would admit he’d righted his course as well.


Master

Laurie sat on the edge of the fountain and focused on the stars. He could hear a few students in the plaza some yards away, but most seemed to have turned in for the night. It was pleasant to get some fresh air after nearly two weeks of being cooped up, and it had been even longer since he’d had a night on the town. He should call up a few old friends at some point, but he wondered if they still wanted anything to do with him. A couple of them hadn’t actually talked him to since he left for the Academy years before.

“Pardon me,” a low, studious voice said. Laurie glanced at a well-groomed young man, who wore dark oculars even though it was night. He was probably only a few years younger than himself, he realized. “I might be mistaken, but you are Alexander Laurie, are you not? The creator of the Animus system?”

He offered the student a smile and noted the rank on his coat. “I am indeed, good sir. You seem to be a marksman adva by the looks of it.” He then noted the bronze circle armband. “A special case as well?”

“Yes, rather special in my circumstance.” The student sighed. “My name is Sasha Chevalier.”

“It sounds French, but you speak with a rather German accent and yet are more tanned than I’ve seen anyone from eastern Europe.”

“Genetics is a rather wild thing, isn’t it?” he asked sarcastically. “I merely wanted to make your acquaintance. I’ve used your system rather frequently over the last two years. It’s been an incredible experience.” He offered a hand.

Laurie, amused, stood and accepted the handshake. “I’m glad you think so. I’ll be sure to put your glowing praise on the box when I make a commercial model.”

“Do you see practical uses outside of learning?” Sasha asked.

“I think that’s only the beginning.” He tapped his chin and his lips twitched as he considered the possibilities. “Although, I suppose I must admit I can’t see one that won’t turn it into a virtual community or some sort of gaming system.”

“That does seem a diminished use of the Animus.”

He nodded. “Hmm…you’re right, but the Animus will probably be out of my control one day. I have to think about the future and all that.”

Sasha nodded and followed the professor’s example to gaze into the night sky. “Might I ask what brings you out here?”

He sighed. “Honestly, I simply wanted to get out for a while. I’ve kept myself so busy lately that I haven’t seen the sun in weeks. It’s obviously night, so that won’t happen, but I prefer the moon anyway.” Laurie studied the adva and noted a fresh cut on the back of his hand when he adjusted his jacket. “Did something go wrong in field practice?”

“Practice?” Sasha frowned at the injury. “I suppose that was deeper than I thought. The gel should have made the mark fade by now.”

“You soldiers are a tough bunch, but you should be concerned about injuries. They might get infected, and we don’t know what something like that would do in the Animus. You would still feel the pain at least,” Laurie warned.

“Thank you for your concern, Professor.” Sasha held one hand over the other to hide the cut. “But I’ll be fine. I’m accustomed to pain.”

“Your teachers should be more careful.”

This drew a laugh from the other man. “I don’t think that would be helpful to soldiers. It’s not like the enemies we will face in our future will be as considerate.” He looked at the professor and the dark shades changed to clear and revealed silver eyes. “I didn’t get this here, anyway. I’ve been doing side work during my free time.”

“Side work?” Laurie questioned. “A part-time job or something? It seems an intelligent move, a way to have extra credits for personal fun to relax away from the academy life—which must be a job in and of itself.”

“You would be right. But I have my own reasons outside of simply having liquor money.” He tilted his head, his expression speculative. “Out of curiosity, Professor, are you any good at hacking?”

He eyed the adva, not sure whether to be alarmed or intrigued. “That’s a rather random question. I’m capable, certainly, and spent time during my teenage years learning the craft. I don’t practice it as heavily as I once did. Admittedly, I went through something of a teenage rebellion when I decided to start hacking in the first place. My father’s private files were my end goal, and that took much longer than I thought it would.”

“But you succeeded?” Sasha asked.

“Eventually. I’m still rather proud of that moment. Although my father eventually caught on, he might have known to begin with and merely allowed me access to get me to stop. But if that was the case, he could have made it easier.” Laurie tapped his chin for a moment, then flicked a finger into the air as if something just came to him. “Ah, I’m sorry. I was caught up in nostalgia. Why did you want to know?”

“Merely curiosity, for now—making small talk.” The young man shrugged casually. “It seemed better than talking about the weather.”

The professor chuckled. “I would certainly agree with that.” He redirected his gaze to the stars. “I’ve been so busy, I’ve really taken for granted how pretty the world can be. I should improve the textures in the Animus now that so many are using it—make sure they have more beauty to look at amongst all the training.”

“That sounds rather nice, Professor,” Sasha agreed.

He placed a hand on the adva’s shoulder. “Please, dear Sasha, call me Alex.”

“It seems too personal for me,” he responded but offered a comforting smile when Laurie's hand shook and he wondered if he’d overstepped his bounds. “I’ll keep it formal, Mr. Laurie.”

“I’m not old enough for that yet.” The man huffed and blew some hair out of his face. “Meet me in the middle here—how about Laurie?”

His companion nodded. “That sounds fine. It was a pleasure to meet you, Laurie.”

“Likewise, Sasha.” They lapsed into silence, both simply enjoying the scenery before they said their goodbyes a short while later. The young professor had a sense that their meeting had somehow been serendipitous, and time would prove him right as the marksman would soon have a request of his new acquaintance.


Chapter Four

“ P rofessor?” Laurie looked up from his monitor and at the assistant who hovered, waiting for him to respond.

“Yes, Moira? Did something crash again?”

She shook her head. “No, sir. Everything is running smoothly with the mainframe update.”

“That’s good news. I’d rather not have to explain why the Animus keeps changing the sky to shades of pink.” He chuckled and folded his hands on his desk. “What can I help you with, my dear?”

“A student wishes to see you,” she said quickly.

He cocked an eyebrow. “A student? I don’t remember an appointment.”

“You don’t really make appointments, sir,” she reminded him and walked up to his desk to hand him a tablet. “He says he spoke to you before. His name is—”

“Sasha!” His caution vanished when he saw the picture on the tablet. “Go ahead and bring him in. It’s rather nice of him to drop by.”

She nodded, took the tablet, and hurried out of the room to summon the adva. Laurie stood and hurried around his desk to grab one of the chairs in the room and drag it closer. He made a mental note that he needed to add more furniture for visitors, rare though they might be.

He had barely resumed his seat when the doors opened once again, and Sasha entered. “Thank you for seeing me, Professor.”

“It’s nice of you to come by. I had a good feeling about you, so I’m glad to see it was mutual.” He motioned to the chair and the other man nodded and sat. “What can I do for you? If it’s about some of the oddities in the Animus, we’ve had some hiccups uploading those new textures and maps I mentioned the other night. We’re getting to it, but it will take a couple more—”

“No, it’s not about that,” his visitor interrupted. “I’ve had a pleasant experience in the Animus and haven’t run into any of these ‘hiccups’—at least not yet.”

“Oh, good, so it’s not widespread,” Laurie said thoughtfully, then remembered his guest. “What are you looking for, then?”

“Actually, I hoped I could get your personal help,” the marksman stated.

“Personal? In what way?” Laurie crossed one leg over the other and leaned back. “Are you looking for experience in the technician field?”

“That might have been helpful a couple of years ago, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time to brush up. Having a talented technician’s assistance would be better for me.”

He smiled. “Compliments are a good way to start. What do you need looking into? Do you have it on you?”

“No, it’s a few cities away—in Redmond.”

Laurie tapped his fingers on his arm and frowned a little as he considered this. “Redmond? Do you want me to make a repair run for a family member or something?”

“No, but that’s a kind offer.” Sasha retrieved a tablet from his coat. “Do you remember those side jobs I mentioned? I have one coming up tomorrow night and I could use your help.” He slid the device across the desk. Laurie caught it and looked at the screen. “I know it’s rather sudden, and I wouldn’t have bothered you if I could find someone else. But to properly take care of this, I need someone skilled in both hacking and knowledgeable in modern tech.”

“This is a gig contract,” the professor observed and fixed the other man with a startled look. “You’re a mercenary?”

“From time to time, and for the right price.”

“Well, it’s certainly more exciting part-time work than anything you’ll find in town, I suppose.” He set the tablet down and steepled his finger together in thought. This was certainly an unexpected development.

“I realize this might be something you are not comfortable with, but although we might not know each other very well, I respect your skills. I would honestly prefer to work with someone I’m at least somewhat familiar with rather than trying to find a random dark hat I can hire for a reasonable price.”

“That’s rather pragmatic of you.” Laurie looked at the tablet once again. “I will agree, it’s not something I’m accustomed to. Even with my skills and talents, are you sure you want someone like me with you? I wouldn’t be much help in a firefight.”

Sasha drew a deep breath and adjusted his oculars. “Actually, I’m rather surprised you haven’t simply kicked me out already.”

“I’ve been looking for a reason to get away, even if only for a night,” he confessed with a wry laugh. “And I’m always interested in new things. But that brings me back to my usefulness in this mission. I don’t have much combat experience—and by much, I should clarify and say none.”

“I wouldn’t want to risk the Academy’s lead professor in something violent,” Sasha promised. “I’m not sure how much you read, but we aren’t breaking into a merc compound or anything.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Laurie said with a melodramatic sigh.

“I simply need to break into Vista Corp and download some data.”

He instantly sucked that breath back in. “Vista? That won’t be a brisk walk, Sasha. Not to mention that they are partnered with—”

“Your old company? Yes, I’m aware of that.” The marksman removed his oculars and placed them on the desk. “Do not take that to mean I’m trying to exploit you. If you do not wish to accompany me. I’ll understand.”

“Even so, you must realize telling me this is a rather large risk. What if I decided to inform security of your intentions?” he countered.

“I would have to relocate you and keep you unconscious until I finished my gig and fled the state before informing anyone of your location,” Sasha stated flatly.

Laurie blinked at him and his heart beat faster in real concern.

“That was a joke, Laurie,” his visitor added finally after a long, tense pause. The professor exhaled a loud breath of relief.

“Oh, good—that got too real for a moment.” His tone was both jolly and uncomfortable.

“If it makes you feel better, this is a contract by Vista themselves,” Sasha explained and caught Laurie’s attention again. “It’s to determine the effectiveness of their new security measures, both in the building and in their system.”

“I see. Well, that means my ass is covered if it fails.” He focused on the ceiling as he tried to make sense of it. “You said this will happen tomorrow night?”

“That is correct.”

Laurie nodded, his mind made up, and smiled at his companion. “If you don’t mind babying me, this sounds like it could be fun.”

“I’ll be sure to watch over you, but as I said, I hope I’ll do most of the groundwork. Once I get into the system, I can use a drive to transmit the system information to you, and you can work from a safe distance,” the marksman confirmed. “Once we get to the main office, we should be in and out within three to four hours if all goes well.”

“I’ll come up with a good excuse for my absence.” The professor leaned forward on his elbows. “When do we depart?”

“Meet me at the carrier station at six. We’ll take the carrier out, and I’ll have transport ready to head to Redmond.”

“So, that means we should be done by eleven or midnight?”

“Most likely,” Sasha agreed.

“Wonderful. Afterward, I have to take you to a bar I’ve wanted to try in the area. Drinks will be on me in celebration.”

The man gave him an odd look before a small smile formed on his lips. “I look forward to it.”


Chapter Five

“ A re you almost done, Sasha?” Laurie asked. He kicked his feet up onto the console in the cockpit of the transport and frowned at the screen.

“Possibly. I will give Vista credit. For what their security lacks in difficulty, it makes up for in tediousness.” The marksman sighed, and faint footsteps echoed over the comm link. “Hold up for a moment—another guard.”

“You can’t simply go around?” he asked, opened the top of his water container, and sipped slowly. “I do feel rather bad that these gentlemen are involved in all this.” A shot cracked over the link as Sasha tranqed the security officer and the professor sighed. “I suppose that’s a no.”

“I’m sure they’ll be compensated,” his partner replied and grunted as he holstered his pistol. Laurie watched the screen that fed him video from Sasha’s ocular cam. The adva moved the officer’s body and placed it inside a closet before he made his way out and over to a door. Working quickly, he removed the plate that covered the scanner and began to rewire it.

“I don’t see why you needed me. You seem quite capable of dealing with their defenses,” he pointed out, his boredom lacing his tone.

“This is basic soldier training, although I don’t know for how much longer. Vista, along with several other top corporations, has begun to set new standards in security. Rigging things like this will probably be a less reliable way to break into places in the near future.”

“Well, I’m sure the future technicians will pick up the slack,” Laurie commented.

“That’s the hope. No man is an island, as the old saying goes. Everyone has their part to play.”

“True enough, but watching you has given me an idea for a future EI upgrade. How useful would it be for all students to have an EI with at least basic hacking ability? Obviously, they wouldn’t be able to work on advanced systems and would still need the help of their partner, but I could see—”

“Hold that thought for a moment, Laurie,” Sasha requested as the door opened and allowed him entry. He scanned the room quickly to confirm that no one waited within before he walked over to a wall of servers. It took a moment to examine each of their ID numbers in search of a specific one. “Here—ID-04df1. This should have the file I’m here for.” Sasha inserted a drive into a slot. “This will transmit the system to your interface. You can—”

“My turn to tell you to hold that thought.” The professor removed his feet and sat forward. He cracked his fingers and opened a holo-screen, his motions brisk and business-like. “This is my forte, after all. I know what to do— I can’t do anything.”

“Do what?” the marksman gasped.

“The screen doesn’t read anything. Are you sure you plugged it in right?” he asked and peered at the different open channels available—a simple task considering he was reading none at the moment.

“The light’s on and it’s plugged in, yes,” the other man muttered and sighed heavily. “Either a part of the new update was specifically made to jam such devices, or the one I have isn’t a high enough level to bypass the clearance.”

“I should have thought to bring my own—although mine has a special ID, and that would make it much easier to trace.” Laurie huffed, “Any ideas?”

“I don’t wish to call this off, not when we’re this close.” Sasha scowled silently at the other side of the room. The only thing visible was a wall, but the direction he looked in was directly at the transport. “Laurie, have you done your stretches today?”

He looked at the screen and blinked in bewilderment. “Do what?”


Master

Laurie cut across the back lot, his heart beating rapidly. “Are you sure no one is around?”

“No one conscious. I’m cutting back the same way to make sure our path is clear,” Sasha confirmed.

The professor finally reached the door his teammate had directed him to, tapped the panel with a finger, and it opened immediately. “It seems the jammer I gave you is still up and running.”

“You should have more confidence in your creations, Professor.” Sasha chuckled.

“Are you teasing me during a time like this?” Laurie protested and immediately clenched his teeth and reminded himself to keep his voice low.

“I promised to keep you safe, right? The plan might have changed, but that promise has not.”

He sighed as he ducked inside and peered furtively down the hall for even so much as a silhouette. “You keep up your end, and I’ll keep up mine.”

“Are you talking about getting the data or the drinks?”

“Both, I suppose, but I’m more interested in the drinks. I’ll need a bottle after this.” Sasha tried to stifle a laugh. “This is funny to you?”

“I suppose, in an ironic way. I’ve grown quite used to this life, but it’s amusing to hear someone experiencing it for the first time.”

“I’m thrilled that I could act as your entertainment for the evening,” he grumbled, turned the corner, and bumped into something.

He almost yelled before a hand covered his mouth. Sasha held a finger to his lips before he lowered his hand. “You could have told me you were here already,” he protested fretfully.

“I agree.” The marksman turned away. “Let’s go. Everything is clear along the path. All that’s keeping us here is however long it takes you to get the data.”

“Then we’ll be done in no time,” he promised with a raised fist. “Now lead on, soldier.”


Master

The two reached the server without incident. Sasha stepped back from the machine and directed his companion to approach. The professor did so, but instead of activating his holoscreen, he folded his hands behind his back. “Aurora, would you kindly get that little file for us?”

Sasha almost jumped when a feminine figure appeared. Her body shifted between several colors and faded in and out. “I shall do my best, Professor.”

“You're using your EI?” The marksman seemed more than a little dubious. “Are you sure she can get in without setting anything off? EIs are only programmed for—”

“Are you honestly going to explain to me how EIs work?” Laurie demanded. The other man stared blankly at him for a moment and then shrugged his reluctant acquiescence. “I know, this is supposedly a new system, but do remember Vista does work with my father’s company. I still keep track of what they work on.”

“And you specifically developed commands for your EI to circumvent them?”

“Obviously, I need to keep my EI at the edge of new advances. It’s a matter of pride,” he stated.

“In that case, why not simply lend me the EI before I went inside?”

“If I did that, what would be the point of me being here?” he asked and turned to face the adva.

“To add the atmosphere, perhaps?”

Laurie snickered. “A decent save. But the main reason is that she’s linked only to me. I cannot transfer her. In fact, the failsafe I have installed would destroy her in that situation. And to use her from a distance, I still need to tinker with some of her settings. But since I’m here now…” Laurie pointed to the server where several lights changed from red to green. “I’ll admit, even with my prowess, we may have been here longer if I did this myself.”

Sasha approached the server and slid the drive in once again. “The transfer function may be bunk, but it should still work as a storage unit.”

“Correct. I read the drive’s internal storage. What files do you need?” Aurora asked, her form now only a head.

“They are marked VSP-01 through VSP-101,” Sasha answered she nodded and disappeared.

“I will transfer them now.”

“VSP?” Laurie asked and leaned against a table.

“Vista Security Practice. Junk files I have to send back to the contractor to show that I got in.”

“I see. Will you tell them about my assistance?”

The adva shrugged, drew his pistol, and fired over the professor’s shoulder. Laurie spun as the dart struck a guard in the neck. The man struggled on his feet for a moment before he collapsed without a sound. “When did he get here?”

“You left the door open.” Sasha crossed the room quickly, grabbed the body, and slid it inside before he closed the door to the room. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear him walk up. I don’t think an alarm was tripped, though. He probably thought someone forgot to close it, which works out for us.” He dragged the inert man under the table Laurie leaned against and clapped. “As for your question, I didn’t intend to, both to not get you involved and because it shouldn’t matter. They wanted to see if their new security was up to snuff and it wasn’t. Should it matter that a big part of this was because I was assisted by one of the leading minds in the tech field?”

“I see. It makes sense.” The professor nodded a little regretfully. “A pity, though. I would have loved to hear my father’s reaction to this.”

“You could always leave a calling card like many other hackers do,” Sasha suggested.

“I’m finished, sir. Ejecting drive and leaving the system.” The drive clicked free and Sasha took it and placed it in his jacket pocket. Within seconds, the lights on the server case returned to normal.

“Well done, Aurora,” Laurie congratulated and smirked at his companion. “To you as well, I suppose.”

“I’m humbled,” the adva responded dryly, but a smirk of his own appeared. “So, drinks, then?”

The professor pushed off the table. “That sounds lovely. Time to unwind after all that hard work.”

“A little running counts as hard work?” Sasha asked as the two left.

“I’m counting the last few months, actually.”


Chapter Six

“ Y ou’re a marksman, right?” Laurie asked and took another sip of the drink Sasha had suggested but coughed once again from the intense flavor.

“Have you forgotten already? Perhaps you should slow down somewhat.”

“Please, I can handle my liquor. I merely thought that maybe it’s not the best use of your talents.”

Sasha downed the last of his drink and flipped the glass. “What makes you say that? I wasn’t able to show off my long-range abilities in there.”

“Perhaps not, but you showed a cool head, the plan was well thought out with the exception of the little hiccup, and you were able to get some use out of me, even with no field experience on my part. You would make a great leader.” He took another sip, but it was cut short by a cough. “God, what is this again?”

“Bliss Fire Vodka, a personal favorite.” The adva knocked on the table to tell the bartender to get him another. “At least when the point is inebriation rather than merely relaxation.”

“I can agree with that.” Laurie coughed once more and scowled at his glass. “But it does have a rather addictive flavor. Anyway, what do you think? As an adva, you still have one last chance for a class change before the end of the year.”

“I’ve thought about it. I was recommended to change after winning the initiate finals last year.”

“That was you, wasn’t it?” Laurie nodded as he thought back “You set the division test score and were the leader of the team that took out my Master EI in the Death Match.”

“The faculty calls it that too?” He chuckled.

“It’s stuck, certainly. I was rather impressed. I should have recognized you the first time I saw you.”

“I prefer to keep my distance from people. It’s been a problem before,” Sasha admitted, and a melancholy tone tinged his voice.

“You did all that trying to stay under the radar?” The professor finally finished his drink. “So you either aren’t infallible, or your definition of discreet is rather broad.”

“Or I’m simply that good, winning when I don’t even try to,” he retorted.

“Or you’re willing to put aside your personal objectives for the betterment of the mission or your team. Another sign that you're destined for greater things,” Laurie challenged.

“Winding back to that, are you?” The man sighed as the bartender brought him another glass which he took and raised in thanks. “After this, you should try a Peacemaker——another favorite and less intense.”

“I think it’s time I choose the next round.” The professor beckoned to another bartender. “So, what do you think?”

“About the change to ace?”

“Ace? I was saying leader.”

“It’s going through a name change next year, or maybe this year.”

“Two glasses of Azure Dream, please,” Laurie asked the bartender before he turned his attention back to his companion. “Really? I haven’t heard much about that.”

“I overheard a workshop teacher,” the adva replied and downed his drink quickly to prepare for the next one. “I would think as a faculty member, you would be aware of such things.”

“I try not to bother with the things that don’t immediately involve me.”

“And yet you helped me. Perhaps you are as willing to put aside your personal feelings to help another.”

Laurie ran a hand through his hair, the gesture almost impatient. “Ha-ha, nice try. I helped a promising student, and it was an excuse to get out and show my skills.”

“Your inventions aren’t enough proof, and show your skills to whom, exactly? I’m the only one with you. Trust me, the guards won’t remember a thing.”

“Fair point,” Laurie grumbled.

“And on top of that, I’m only a promising student to you? You sound much older than you appear. I thought you were only a few years older than me.”

“I am. I think—how old are you?”

“Twenty-one. You?”

“Twenty-five, turning twenty-six at the end of the year.”

“You should act your age more,” Sasha suggested. The bartender returned and gave them each a glass of light-blue liquid. He looked curiously at it, but Laurie simply picked his up and took a sip. After a moment, the adva followed suit and took a small sip. It was light with a flowery scent but tasted like sweetened spring water—an odd chaser, but it was pleasant.

“Well, I suppose I didn’t want to be presumptuous,” the professor finally responded. “But you do seem a nice sort, even with your odd career.”

“I won’t do it long. The military will probably be my future once I’ve graduated,” Sasha replied. “As for my thoughts, you’re eccentric but a much more agreeable man than your enigmatic scientist reputation makes you appear.”

“Why, thank you…I think.” Laurie swirled his drink. “So, friends then?”

“You’ve helped me break into a top-level corporation and treated me to drinks. I think that checks off enough boxes.”

“And you’ve treated me to a good time as well, albeit more physical activity than I’ve had in some time.”

Sasha chuckled and took a larger sip, and they both looked at a monitor to see a news report of a military captain and a Sauren war chief side by side at the embassy. “That’s a large man. He’s almost as big as the Sauren,” Laurie exclaimed

“That’s Captain Wolfson if I recall correctly,” Sasha told him. “That Sauren was the leader of a hunting party that attacked one of our outer laboratories. I heard they had a fight that lasted quite some time—days, according to the rumors.”

“And yet he now stands in the embassy, and we welcome them with open arms.” The professor looked a little bemused.

“The captain was actually instrumental in getting them to accept. Besides, from what I know of the Sauren, we’d rather have them on our side than simply roaming the galaxy as a potential threat,” Sasha explained and switched his glass for water. “Besides, they seem to get along well with the Tsuna, and they had animosity between them for some time.”

“Perhaps we shouldn’t judge an alien on looks. I met a Mirus the other day. They are quite interesting despite the whole telepathy thing being rather unnerving,” Laurie admitted.

Sasha continued to watch the screen before he asked quietly, “Why are you suddenly so interested in me being a leader?”

“Hmm?” His companion set his glass down carefully. “I suppose it’s partly projection on my part.”

“How so?”

The professor leaned forward and looked the adva in his eyes. “I know what it’s like to be relegated to the sideline. I’m sure you are a great sniper, but that merely seems to be one of your skills. You have the potential to be so much more. It may not bother you now, but I would like to see someone like you achieve greater things.”

Sasha was quiet after his new friend’s explanation and let it sink in. “I…appreciate the thought, Laurie. Thinking it over, I suppose I’ve simply accepted my place at the Academy. I didn’t have dreams of joining it like many others, so I guess I never gave it much thought and along with my own baggage…” He wanted to keep going, but the words failed him.

Laurie laid a hand on his shoulder. “Even if the alcohol loosened your tongue, don’t feel you need to explain everything now—or at all,” he said quietly. “But think about it. I know you will graduate in a couple of years and we may part company, but I would like to know that you achieve a future that will lead to great things. That is one of the main reasons I created the Animus, after all.”

“For others to achieve their goals?”

“For others to achieve things they didn’t think possible.”

The adva smiled, raised his glass of Azure Dream, and offered a toast. “I’ll make sure to live up to that.”

The two men clinked glasses. “See that you do. I’ve achieved mine. But I still think I can achieve so much more.”

Animus On Audio

Kaiden and friends are now available in audio at Amazon, Audible and iTunes. Check out book one, INITIATE, performed by Scott Aiello.


Master


Check out book one at Amazon


Author Notes - Michael

May 28, 2019

THANK YOU for not only reading this story but these Author Notes as well.

(I think I’ve been good with always opening with “thank you.” If not, I need to edit the other Author Notes !)

RANDOM ( sometimes ) THOUGHTS?

Another year, another trip to one of the big 4 publishing con’s, this time it’s Book Expo held in New York City, NY USA.

(I’m presently typing this from seat 15C on an American Airlines Boeing 757.)

We are staying at the Stewart hotel, which is just a few blocks from the Krispy Kreme donut store at Penn Station (next to Madison Square Garden - I get those places confused all of the time.) I fully intend to walk over there and buy some donuts.

It’s for research ;-)

Commenting on this reminds me of a meme I saw in our SLACK group from Eileen a few weeks ago that went something like this:

“Is eating a donut cheating on my diet, or is going on a diet cheating on my donuts?”

I prefer to believe that dieting is cheating on my donuts.

So, dieting is also cheating on my Coca-Cola addiction AND my pizza addiction. I think I need to stop cheating so much w/ the ‘diet’ no matter how sexy it is.

How about THAT for a random thought?

Also, I’ve read the first four chapters of the NEXT Animus book and I have to (personally) admit it was one of the best first chapters I’ve read in a while. That’s totally a personal opinion, but I enjoyed them quite a bit.

Seems Kaiden gets Chiyo involved, and it just gets more fun from there.

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS

One of the interesting (at least to me) aspects of my life is the ability to work from anywhere and at any time. In the future, I hope to re-read my own Author Notes and remember my life as a diary entry.

Somewhere in the skies above Texas, USA.

Just left Texas (Dallas / Fort Worth airport) and probably close to Oklahoma soon.

Thank god we don’t have to worry about Oklahoma sky pirates. I’ve no idea why THAT thought popped into my head, but now I am starting to think about it as a possible story idea. Would that be a Steampunk type book?

Hmmmm

So, I’m heading to New York for Book Expo, the Audio Publishers get together at the Boat Basin, (our second year) and a batch of meetings with different companies.

Once upon a time, I thought that being important meant having a lot of meetings. Now that I have lots of meetings, I cherish the thought of being important ... without lots of meetings. I don’t know if that means that others in the company will take over the meetings or I just figure out how to skip the meetings myself ;-).

“Where did Mike go?” Judith turned her head, trying to see over the people that were taller than her. “He was right here!”

“That’s the second time he’s ghosted us today,” Steve sighed. “Next time, I say we tranq him.”

<Now I have a visual of me, splayed out on the floor of the huge convention center with a tranquilizer dart stuck in my butt.>

FAN PRICING

$0.99 Saturdays (new LMBPN stuff) and $0.99 Wednesday (both LMBPN books and friends of LMBPN books.) Get great stuff from us and others at tantalizing prices.

Go ahead, I bet you can’t read just one.

Sign up here: http://lmbpn.com/email/ .

HOW TO MARKET FOR BOOKS YOU LOVE

Review them so others have your thoughts, tell friends and the dogs of your enemies (because who wants to talk with enemies?)… Enough said ;-)

Ad Aeternitatem,

Michael Anderle

Books by Michael Anderle

For a complete list of books by Michael Anderle, please visit

www.lmbpn.com/ma-books/

All LMBPN Audiobooks are Available at Audible.com and iTunes. For a complete list of audiobooks visit:

www.lmbpn.com/audible


Connect with The Authors

Michael Anderle Social

Website:

http://lmbpn.com

Email List:

http://lmbpn.com/email/

Facebook Here:

https://www.facebook.com/OriceranUniverse/

https://www.facebook.com/TheKurtherianGambitBooks/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/320172985053521/ (Protected by the Damned Facebook Group)


home | my bookshelf | | Master |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу