Book: Breaking Through
The Forgotten Prince
Book One of the Second Star Series
© Copyright 2014 by Josh Hayes
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form, except for brief quotations in reviews, without written permission from the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Editing by Samantha LaFantasie
For more information on the author visit: http://www.joshhayeswriter.com/
For my wife, Jamie.
She never doubted. Not once.
An alert icon flashed in Lt. John McNeal’s Optic as his friend heaved for the third time. John wondered exactly how many times the human body could throw up before it turned inside out and as Mark Keen’s body slumped down again John decided that he was glad he hadn’t had the chicken.
North Atlantic Union Food: #157 on his Top Ten Reasons to get out of the service. Well, it had started out at ten anyway. Sixty-six days and a wake up then he’d be out, free to pursue his own path, not fighting for someone else’s. If he survived that long, and judging by Mark’s condition, the odds were not in his favor.
“Dude, I’m pretty sure your stomach is supposed to stay in there,” John said, putting a hand on his friend’s quivering back. Mark groaned and spit repeatedly into the bowl, tiny chucks of half-digested food floated in the rust colored water. John grimaced then leaned forward and flushed.
He opened the alert and the real world burred around him as he focused on the small, semi-translucent, notification box expanding over his vision. Bold black text scrolled across the powder blue box. He cursed when he’d finished reading. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Mark spit again and groaned. “What?”
“What do you think?” John closed the alert message, refocused his vision and backed out of the stall.
“So much for a relaxing evening…” Mark pressed the heel of his right hand firmly into his forehead, his voice nothing more than a raspy whisper.
John put a hand on the frame and shook his head. “Not sure relaxing is the word I’d use.”
“Don’t those assholes know we have a title to take back?”
John chuckled, “Oh, yeah, ‘cause you’re in great shape for Spades.”
Mark frowned at him, his eyes bloodshot and droopy. “Hey, I’m always in shape to throw cards down.”
Bravo Flight’s After-Dinner-Spades game was something of a legend around the NAU Fighter Carrier Lincoln. The games usually lasted well into the early morning hours, and generally attracted a healthy audience. Known for his outbursts and charismatic play style, some said Mark’s shit-talking was better than his actual skill at playing cards.
“Sure you are.”
Mark started to retort but a painful cough cut him off. He grimaced and rubbed his neck.
“You want me to call the medics?”
John shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
The latrine door swung open, banging hard against the counter that ran along the wall opposite the stalls. A woman, dressed in the same black flight-suits as the two men, leaned across the threshold. Shoulder length raven hair shimmered and flowed weightlessly around her face. “You get it too?”
“Hell yes, we got it.” John said.
Mark slid back away from the toilet and leaned against the hard plastic wall, “What? Who’s that?”
The woman motioned to the stall. “He okay?”
“Oliver,” John said, trying to keep the smirk off his face.
“Of course, it is.” Mark said, face buried in his palms.
John turned to the woman and nodded sideways at his sick pal. “I’m sure Princess here will be fine. Had some bad chicken.”
Laurie Oliver grinned, “Well, you might want to tell Her Royal Highness that Salinger will flip a lid if you two aren’t in Pre-flight ASAP.”
“Fuck Salinger.” Mark groaned.
John gave him a doubtful glance. “I’ll be there. Not so sure about him.”
“Yeah, well, hurry up, would ya. I’m not in the mood to deal with CAG’s shit today, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am, Captain, ma’am.” John gave her a mocking salute, which she returned with a raised middle finger, then disappeared. “Come on, man, let’s get you to Sick Call.”
“Not a chance.” Mark spit in the toilet again and used it to push himself up. His hand slipped on the vomit stained porcelain and he fell back against the blue walls. John stepped forward to help steady his friend, who immediately waved him off and said, “I got this.”
John had to hop out of the way as his friend half-fell, half-stumbled out of the stall. Mark slowly zombie-walked across the bathroom’s tile floor and slapped the faucet on one of the sinks. Water splashed over the fake granite countertop as he pushed his head underneath the cold water and rinsed his mouth out. After scrubbing his face with his hands, he stood and pulled several sheets of paper towel out of the dispenser and dried off.
“You might want to think about changing,” John said, pointing at the stain of the front of Mark’s flight suit.
Mark twisted back and spit into the sink, “Why is it always us? I don’t think Alpha Flight has run half as many ops as we have.”
John raised an eyebrow. “Have you not met our Commander?”
“Ugh.” Mark ran a hand through his hair—what hair he had. Both men sported the clean-cut, military high-and-tight, which refused to go out of style. Reason #5.
“So… sick call?”
Mark closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “I think the worst of it—”
He gulped, his cheeks puffed out and eyes filled with dread as he bolted for the stall. The door slammed back against the inside wall and the sound of slashing water and heaving made John thankful he’d had the meatloaf. There were only a few things the NAU Air Force actually got right, in his opinion, and the meatloaf was one of them.
John leaned back against the counter. “You know, pretty soon you’re going to have to find someone else to hold hair back.”
The toilet flushed and Mark emerged from the stall, glaring at John with contempt. After a second he straightened, rolled his neck and said, "Feels like I've been hit by a truck."
"Looks like it too."
Mark shuffled back over to the sink and washed his face and hands while swishing some water around his mouth. After a few seconds of spitting, he looked up into the mirror. "Son of a bitch, I just got this back from the cleaners."
John laughed. “Come on, we'll swing by the room and get you a new one on the way to sick call."
Mark turned from the mirror and pulled more paper towels free. "I told you I'm fine."
John pointed a finger at the stall his friend had just stumbled out of. "Do you not remember almost ripping the throne out of the floor just now? I'm pretty sure the CAG will understand why you didn't make OPS. Hell, I might even be able to skate out as well, someone’s gotta take care of Princess Chuck-a-lot.”
A finger came up. “I’m fine.” He wiped his mouth a final time and tossed the towels in the wall-mounted trash bin. “And no way is that son of a bitch getting another point on me, a touch of nausea isn’t going to keep me out of the air today.”
“You call that a touch?”
Mark waved him off and headed for the door, "Screw that, man. Let's go, we've got some flying to do."
The latrine door bounced off the counter as Mark stepped into the corridor beyond. John caught it on the backswing and slid out after him, shaking his head in frustration. Mark had always been the stubborn one, and in the six years since they’d met, John hadn’t seen any indication that that would ever change.
Mark was a military man through and through, and would either retire when they forced him to or die trying to get there. John, on the other hand, had bigger aspirations for his life, which didn't include fighting in pointless wars so that people, who made a lot more money than he did, could continue to make more money. If anyone deserved a piece of the pie, it was him. He’d sacrificed enough for the corporations.
Of course, he hadn’t always felt this way. When he’d first signed on he’d been the epitome of gung-ho and he’d taken the “service before self” motto seriously, until he learned what military service really meant: service to the highest bidder. Kudos to his recruiter though, he’d made it sound like the most badass thing he could do with his life. How could he say no to fast jets and faster women?
Should have listened to Dad…
"You're not going to like it, John. I know you." Arthur McNeal had said. "I'm telling you, son, this guy is full of it. The Top Gun, Iron Eagle days are done and gone."
The reference had been lost on John, artifacts of a by-gone age. Besides, what could Dad really know about it? He’d stuck out his hand with a grin and said, “I bet you, you’re wrong.”
The five hundred dollars he owed his Dad, tucked safely away in his sock drawer, seemed to laugh at him every time he looked at crisp new bills. John already knew what Arthur would say, could already see the look on his Dad's face as the bills changed hands. Maybe he could just mail it.
Their dorm room, which housed eight pilots, was considered luxurious by most military standards. Bunks, stacked two-high, lined each wall and a row of wall-lockers spanned the width of the room at the rear of the compartment. A long table, with benches on either side, sat between them. A large red “B” was painted long ways on the tabletop, surrounded by signatures of all the pilots who’d ever served in Bravo Flight.
The rest of their flight-mates were already sitting in Pre-Flight, probably taking bets on how pissed the Commander Air Group was going to be when Mark and John showed up late…again.
Mark shuffled around the center table, littered with half-empty cups and plates. John grinned as Mark held his breath as he moved passed his plate. Seeing the remains of his chicken dinner made Mark groan. A towel lay, draped across the far-end, soaked in what had been Mark’s drink from dinner. He’d knocked it over in his mad dash for the latrine.
Mark popped open his wall-locker and started peeling off his soiled suit. Beside him, Laurie Oliver’s locker hung open. Mark, who went to great lengths to convince everyone he didn’t have a thing for her, made a show of not looking.
John felt a twinge of irritation in his right eye and blinked hard. He cursed and pulled a small dropper from his pocket.
“Eye’s bothering you again?” Mark asked, pulling off a boot.
“Always.” John leaned his head back and squeezed a drop into one eye. He clenched his teeth together and held his breath.
“You’d think they’d be able to give you something that didn’t burn like hell.”
“Oh come on now, there has to be a little torture in everything they prescribe.” John squeezed a drop into his other eye and blinked both, working the fluid around. The Opti-Gel the doctors had given him did help with the irritation, but he could do without the half-second of burning that came with it.
John watched, through a blurry haze, as Mark tossed his vomit-stained flight suit into a corner and yanked from the wall locker. He jammed his arms and legs into the suit, then zipped it up.
“I swear to God, if this is another drill…” Mark dropped down on to the bed and pulled on a boot.
Mark pulled the laces tight and muttered something under his breath.
“Huh? What was that?”
John laughed as Mark pulled on his second boot. “Hey, buddy, you’re preaching to the choir, man.”
“What is this, like eight days in a row now?”
“Something like that.”
“Bullshit,” Mark repeated as he moved across to the small sink at the foot of the bunks. He grabbed a tube of toothpaste off the small refrigerator underneath and squeezed some onto his toothbrush. “You know,” he stuck the brush in his mouth and scrubbed, then said through gritted teeth as tiny specs of white paste splattered onto the round mirror in front of him, “Charlie Flight doesn’t have to put up with this bullshit.”
“Oh, here we go again…”
Mark spit, “No, I’m serious, have you seen their flight logs?” He paused to rinse, spit, then pulled a disposable towel from the dispenser next to the mirror and wiped his mouth. “I saw Johnson’s Snitch last month and he logged almost half of what we did.”
“Johnson’s an idiot and you can’t—“ John’s alert icon flashed again. He gave the message a quick glance and then dismissed it. “Come on, we got to go.”
They arrived in Pre-Flight five minutes later and moved silently into their seats at the back of the room. Mark took the seat at the end of the row and tried his best to look like he hadn’t just turned himself inside out. John slid into the seat next to him and caught Oliver giving them an amused smirk from across the room. She was pretty, he had to give Mark that. Those eyes. Dark brown, mysterious and sexy, and he wondered why Mark hadn’t just bitten the bullet and gone after her.
Three rows of seats filled the small rectangular briefing room, each row on its own level, descending from the back to the front of the room. The seating arrangements of the Flight weren’t assigned, per se, but every pilot had their own seat. The eight pilots of Bravo Flight sat in their usual seats throughout the room, all listening intently to the Commander Air Group, Lieutenant Colonel Salinger, who was already well into Pre-Flight. The Colonel made it a point to stare down the two tardy pilots as they shuffled to their seats.
“…opposition forces have moved into position here,” he turned to the holographic display behind him and indicated a location the map floating along the front of the room. “Intel has received information that the Quardief Revolutionary Guard has already taken control of these towns here and here.” He pointed to each location in turn with a pointer.
Mark leaned over and whispered in John’s ear, “Iceland again?”
John shook his head without taking his eyes off the holo-display. This would be the third time this year the Quardief had moved against the North Atlantic Union, their determination was admirable; their tactics however, were not. The two previous incursions had been met with overwhelming force by the NAU—some would say, too much force—which had completely decimated two entire brigades. Not to mention the local citizens caught in the middle.
The image flickered and changed, replaced by high-resolution satellite surveillance of the area in question. Red and orange marker lines identified armed assault vehicles and troop positions. Someone whistled and Salinger nodded. “Exactly right, Quardief is not messing around this time. He has also apparently made some friends in the EU and while they might not be Falcon 3’s, but they’re better than nothing.” Another image materialized in the upper left hand corner of the display. John recognized the body style immediately: Vulture Class mid-range fighters.
Salinger moved across the floor, through the image, and moved up behind the podium on the left side of the room. “All Union battle groups have been put on Alert Five Status, and we have pulled the first duty.” The image flickered again, returning to the stylized battle map. A red square appeared around a small section of the map and the letters PT1 flashed above it. “The Grindavik Spaceport is our primary responsibility. This is where our Intel people think he will attempt to strike first. As one of the primary shipping hubs for the hemisphere, it cannot be allowed to fall into Quardief hands.”
A hand when up on the other side of the room and someone said, “Excuse me, sir.”
Salinger’s eyes lingered on the holo-display for another moment before turning to the pilot sitting in the front row.
John leaned forward, saw who it was, and grinned. He turned to Mark and whispered, “Oh, this is going to be good.”
“What is it, Lieutenant Masters?” Salinger asked.
“I was just wondering, Sir, but isn’t Grindavik under ISC jurisdiction? Shouldn’t it be their guys flying out to save the day?”
A murmur of voices rippled through the briefing room, neighbors leaned close to one another to whisper and point. Damn straight, John thought, then leaned back, crossed his arms over his chest, and waited for the show. He’d been thinking the exact same thing; Master’s had beat him to the punch.
Master’s had a point after all; IntraSolar Colonial controlled anything and everything that had to do with travel between the planets, included shipping to Earth. The age of commercial competition had passed away when the 2037 Monopoly Bill passed, making it legal for highly successful corporations to wipe out their competitors. When ISC came online after the First Solar Expansion it quickly found a niche and worked hard to secure and protect it.
Salinger adjusted his white uniform shirt, pulling the sides back with his fingers so that there were no wrinkles on the front. His black slacks, which had a bright yellow stripe running down the hem, were perfectly tailored and sat just so on his patent leather shoes. The Colonel, rarely seen out of his “Blacks” uniform, always seemed to make the uniform look perfect. John absentmindedly reached down and tried to smooth out a crease on the leg of his flight suit.
“What an astute observation, Lieutenant Masters, I’m pleased to see that someone pays attention during these little briefings of mine. I was beginning to think that I was talking to a room full of zombies.” Salinger stepped out from the podium and stroked his chin methodically. “And yes, you are correct, Lieutenant, the Grindavik Spaceport is under Colonial jurisdiction, however, the townspeople and city the port is located in are not. Those people, which happen to be Citizens of the Union, fall under our jurisdiction, and as such, it is our duty to protect them.”
“Of course it is, Sir.” Masters replied.
“I take it you have another theory, Lieutenant?”
“Oh, well, Sir, I just think it’s funny that we military types are always called in to protect the assets of corporations that could give two shits about us. Hell, I’ve never even met anyone from Colonial before. I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit of their bankroll, too.”
“A very patriotic sentiment, Lieutenant Masters.”
Masters snickered. “Sir, patriotic doesn’t put food on the table.”
John knew what was coming next and whispered to Mark, “Great, here comes the Kind-and-Country speech.”
“Indeed,” the CAG said before pursing his lips. “However, the distinction of serving this great Union is about more than simply putting food on the table.” The map and mission briefing vanished from the holo-display, replaced by the spread dragon wings and shield crest of the 354 Air Battle Group. The emblem rotated slowly in the center of the room as the Colonel spoke.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, you are sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the North Atlantic Union and to follow the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. Sometimes those orders require us to do things that we don’t necessarily agree with, but we must do them all the same. The people of the Union expect our unit to be the Tip-of-the-Sword and expect the best out of each and every one of you. We are a part of the best and most capable and effective combat force in the world and I expect all of you to start acting like it. If any of you,” he starred directly at Masters, “have issue with that, I expect to see your transfer papers on my desk in the morning.”
Mark burped and John gave him an “are-you-kidding” look. John thought he might be looking worse now than he had in the latrine. Mark gave an apologetic shrug and put a hand on his stomach, sweat beaded on his forehead.
Salinger, who hadn’t noticed, said, “Now, the mission profile is as follows…”
John sat back and only half-listened. Masters had been right, the military operated solely at the beck and call of the mighty corporations that ran the planet. The on-going conflict between the Union and the European Alliance, over ownership and mining rights throughout the solar system, had plunged the world in to a state of constant conflict. It was a war for profit, not of principles, and what good did any of the fighting do him or any of the other regular citizens caught in the middle?
None. None at all.
Sixty-six days and a wake up, then he’d be done with it all for good. Maybe he could talk his dad into only taking half.
Thirty minutes later, Bravo Flight was airborne, and according to the Mission Clock on John’s heads-up-display, they were fifteen minutes from Contact One. Data scrolled across his Optic, showing him status indicators for the rest of the Flight. The mission profile called for their flight of eight Falcons to split into groups of four, Bravo-1 and Bravo-2, then approach the main engagement area from separate directions to provide air support for the battalion of NAU Marines moving in from the North.
All things being equal, the Vulture Class fighters were nowhere near the same league as the Falcons of Bravo Flight, but one thing John had learned over the years was things were not always equal. Not to mention the highly motivated Quardief forces weren’t known for their polite tactics. Winning was winning, and it didn’t matter to them how they did it.
Inside the cramped cockpit of the Falcon, John felt at ease, as if the fighter wrapped around him like a security blanket. Too bad, it wasn’t comfortable as well. The freedom the Falcon provided him was almost overshadowed by the fact that that its cockpit verged on claustrophobic. The most advanced fighter on the planet didn’t even have a cup-holder.
As they passed waypoint 3 an alert flashed on the left side of his Optic, they were on schedule. He silently cursed as the faint twinge in his eyes returned. It had taken almost six weeks for John’s eyes to adjust to the Neural-Optic Display Lenses, almost three times longer than normal and only because he constantly had to apply the soothing gel. He’d had to adjust his prescription three times since, and had a feeling that he’d be adjusting again soon. He pulled the small dropper from a pouch on his tac-vest and squeezed two drops in each eye.
The tiny combud in his right ear gave a quiet beep and Mark’s name appeared on his Optic, blurry in his gel-soaked vision. A green dot blinked lazily as his friend’s voice came over the private channel, “Goddamn, man, my stomach is killing me.” His voice was hoarse and scratchy.
John tossed the gel into the small compartment beside him and twisted around to look at Mark’s fighter. His black flight-helmet bumped against the headrest and he had to twist his neck awkwardly to see his wingman’s Falcon. “You doing all right back there?”
Through a haze of holographic images, Mark’s fighter held position twenty meters behind John’s; it’s sleek matte-black stealth-skin a stark contrast to the bright blue sky around them. The Falcon’s distinct forward-swept wing design and the computer assisted controls made the craft extremely maneuverable and agile.
“That dramashit ain’t working. Should have just taken the shit Doc gave me.”
John laughed, “Dramamine. And that trust me, that stuff Doc gives out is worthless. My Dad used to live off Dramamine.”
“Whatever, man, my stomach feels like its twisting inside out again. I—” A gut wrenching heave cut him off, followed by an onslaught of several shorter dry heaves and groaning.
“Damn, dude,” John’s stomach turned at the sound of his friend’s retching. “I wouldn’t be alone with any of the maintenance guys when we get back.”
“Aww, man, it’s in my suit.”
“Or the dry cleaners…” Another status light flashed on his Optics, their time to contact was now under fifteen minutes. “You need to RTS, man.”
“No, I’m fin—” another dry heave came over the com and John winced.
“Fine?” John countered, “You just lost your shit all over yourself. You barely made it off the flight deck, man. I should have stopped you then.”
“What are you now, all of the sudden, some kind of killjoy?”
“No, I’d just rather not send you home in a box today, brother.”
Mark coughed hard, then cleared his throat, “John, I—“
“No arguing this time, you’re going back. That’s an order.” As soon as he’d said it, he regretted it. As Flight Lead, it gave him the authority to make such a call, but somehow it still made him feel like an ass.
The radio was quiet for a few moments then Mark said, “We’re going to have a talk about this when you get back.”
John winced and twisted back to look at his partner. A second later Mark’s voice came over the regular channel, “Bravo-Control, this is Bravo-One-Two, I am experiencing some technically difficulties with my aircraft and am requesting an RTS, copy?”
“Bravo-One-Two, Control, copy that. Are you declaring an emergency, over?”
“Negative, Control, I am not declaring an emergency. I am experiencing intermittent communication signals with the rest of Bravo flight and my sensor suite appears to be glitching.”
“Very well, Bravo-One-Two Return to Station granted, approach on Bay Three and declare on the Outer Beacon.”
“Roger that, Bay Three. Bravo-One-Two, out.”
John keyed the private channel, “Mark, I—”
Without another word, Mark’s Falcon pulled up, then banked away in a tight arc. The thrusters fired hard and the Advanced Ariel Fighter accelerated back along their course at close to 900 kilometers an hour.
The Ops Channel crackled again, “Bravo-One-One, Command, declare your status, over.”
John sighed and switch to the tactical channel, “Bravo-One-One, status is green. Will stay on mission.”
“Confirmed, Bravo-One-One. Continue with mission as profiled.”
“Roger that,” he said and closed the connection. He was not looking forward dealing with Mark after the mission was finished.
Oliver’s icon appeared and her voice came through on a private channel, “What’s up?”
As Lead-Two, Laurie Oliver was in command of the Bravo Flight’s second element. Her flight of four was coming around from the North and would meet up with John and his two remaining fighters at Contact Point One. Curving blue lines showed John the positions of both teams near the top of his Optic.
“Oh, nothing, probably just a bit of food poisoning, he shouldn’t have been up here in the first place.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him sick before.”
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure he just chucked all over his dash. I sure am glad I had the meatloaf, holy shit, talk about lucky.”
“No kidding, I wonder what the hell?”
John shrugged, and then felt stupid, she couldn’t see him so the gesture was useless, “Don’t know. All I know is I’m going to do my best to avoid him for a couple days.”
“Pissed off, huh?”
“You could say that.”
“Well, don’t be too hard on yourself. If he didn’t need to be up here, he didn’t need to be up here. Better he be pissed than be a liability.”
“True,” John said.
Oliver added, “Besides, this shit’s going to go down the same way the last assault went down. They’ll get within a few kilometers and realize they aren’t quite ready to go head-to-head with the Marines and call it a day.”
The mission clocked flashed to amber in his Optic as the timer dropped under ten minutes.
“I hope your right.”
Oliver’s tone was that of a mother talking to her children. “Of course I’m right, aren’t I always?”
“Well…” John briefly considered arguing the point, but only briefly. Debating anything with Oliver was about as fun as stubbing your pinky toe on the couch.
“Exactly. I’m always right. So, let’s kick the shit out of these rejects and get back in time to see Keen’s reaction when CAG puts him on the inactive list for blowing chunks all over his fighter.”
John laughed. “That’s about the best advice since my dad told me not to sign up for this shit duty.”
“Shit is right. See ya in a few.”
“Copy that.” The channel closed and Oliver’s icon vanished.
John tapped a key on the console in front of him. Immediately information from the tactical computer was shunted to the left side of his Optic. Status readouts from his onboard weapon systems scrolled down his vision. The two 20mm auto-cannons mounted in the nose, armed with 5,000 rounds of explosive tipped ammunition, began their warm up cycles. Mark VII Phantom Air to Air missiles shifted their targeting computers to stand-by and the racking arm moved in to position.
There had been a time when strapping into the cockpit of such an advanced fighter was the ultimate adrenaline rush, now it seemed old-hat. That, and adrenaline wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Not to mention the fact that dog fighting in real-life was nothing like what it was depicted as in the holos. Something else his father insisted on reminding him of every time he called home.
Most air battles were won or lost before the enemy was even in visual range. Out of the eight pilots of Bravo flight, only two had actually seen combat and after hearing multiple versions of the same stories several times over, John had decided that most of their “heroic adventures in aerial combat” were bullshit. What some pilots called “knife fights in a phone booth” very rarely ever happened.
Dog fights in the modern age played out on computers and optical displays, miles apart from each other. John could control almost every system the Falcon employed through his Optics. While the on-board computer controlled some aspects of flight, piloting the aircraft was left in the hands of the people that sat behind the controls. Flight controls and fire control were the only things the engineers—and more importantly—the pilots, refused to trust to the Optics. To his knowledge, there hadn’t been an Optic system failure yet, outside of controlled testing, but given enough time the odds were always stacked against you.
Even minus one flight member, John’s team of Falcon’s completely outmatched the aging Vultures. Each one of their fighters could track up to ten independent targets and feed that information directly into the targeting computer with zero input from the pilot. He could sleep through the engagement and still come out on top. It was entirely likely that the enemy wouldn’t even detect him until his Air-to-Air’s were screaming up their tailpipes. Hell, if he wanted to, he could get within visual range and open up with the auto-cannon. It would make things a little more interesting anyway.
A single alert tone sounded, and a red status light blinked to life in the center of John’s Optic. He immediately checked the clock, and frowned, still over five minutes until they reached the engagement area. He tapped a button on the console in front of him and was puzzled at the computer’s response.
The comms channel opened, “Bravo-One-One, Bravo-Command, status check, over.”
John thought there was a hint of concern in the female controller’s voice. “Bravo-Command, One-One, my status is green. I think my sensor suite may have just hiccupped.”
The Falcon’s Navigation and Identification Display screen next to his left hand flickered and several random indication signals flashed on and off. “The Nav-ID seems to be experiencing some kind of interference from something. Can you confirm?”
There was a moment of silence and John imagined all the sensor techs, back in Command and Control, tossing papers aside and spilling coffee on their khakis. The computer systems on board were state-of-the-art, and short of direct contact with the most advanced electronic countermeasures in use, nothing should have been able to cause that kind of interference.
“Bravo-One-One, negative. Internal systems are showing green here. We’re connecting to—Stand by.”
Something at the back of John’s throat tightened, when someone says, “stand by,” the information that follows is not generally pleasant. He flipped a switch on his flight controls and combat systems began to initialize. Going “fangs out,” in his opinion, was the only way to “stand by.”
Another alert tone sounded and several amber diamonds flashed on his Optics. The Falcon’s computer identified the new contacts as Vulture Class Fighters, closing in on John’s flight at maximum velocity. He immediately ordered the computer to prioritize targets and the diamonds flashed to red as the computer locked on.
“Bravo-One-One to Bravo Flight, I have identified 5 enemy contacts, confirm.” A chorus of affirmatives came back over the group channel.
Oliver’s acknowledgment came over last, “One-One, Two-One, I confirm. Be advised I’m still approximately eight minutes out.”
John pushed the targeting solutions to his secondary display, focusing instead on the approach angles of the two Flights. Five versus three weren’t terrible odds, considering the difference in firepower, but going into a fight under-strength wasn’t ideal. “Copy that, Two-One.”
His Nav-ID screen flickered again, and this time his Optics faded as well. “Whoa.” He brought up a diagnostic panel and halfway through the quick scan his instruments flickered again, causing the diagnostic to fail.
“Bravo-One-One, I’m experiencing multiple system glitches up here.”
“One-One, we are picking up some kind of directed electrical interference in the area.”
John’s private channel beeped and Mark’s icon appeared, “John, are you okay? What’s going on back there?”
John started the diagnostic again and frowned, “Hold on, Mark. Command, you can’t give me anything more than directed electrical interference? Are we talking about an ECM attack or what?”
“Unknown, One-One, we are bringing additional relays on-line to assess.”
“No offense, Command, but this is a pretty shitty time to be assessing. If this is some kind of attack we are out matched already.”
Oliver’s voice came over the com, “John, what the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know, Laurie. Your guess is as good as mine. Something is causing my systems to interrupt. Mark, are your systems being affected?”
“No, I’m showing green across the board.”
“Bravo-One-One, our relays are picking up localized electromagnetic disruptions in your quadrant, are you sure there isn’t anything else out there?”
The red diamonds at the top of his Optic were the only contacts the computer was tracking on passive sensors. “The only contacts on passive are the Vultures, still four hundred miles and closing.”
“Bravo-One-One, please switch to Active and confirm.”
He let out a slow breath, letting his frustration abate before answering. No doubt, Salinger would be listening to the com-traffic and was not in the mood to hear one of the CAG’s radio discipline lectures again. Unknown situation or not, the CAG was not above reprimanding someone even if they had just been in a fight for their life.
“Bravo-Two-Three, did you copy last?” the female voice repeated.
“Roger, One-One copies.”
Reluctantly, John switched his sensors suite over to Active and watched the readout on the Optic display. Standard procedure during flight ops was to operate with passive sensors only, they weren’t as accurate as active sensors but they didn’t light you up like a Christmas tree on your enemies RADAR systems either. After all, what good was flying an ultra-stealth, $137 million dollar aircraft if you’re going to broadcast your exact location to the entire world?
It took several seconds to complete a full scan of the area, and when the computer finished processing the data the results were displayed in the center of his Optic. John keyed the com channel and said, “Bravo-One-One, Command, active sensors detect no—whoa.” The Nav-ID display flickered again then went completely blank. Green lines streamed across his Optic and random letters and numbers began to scroll at random. His targeting computer hiccupped again and all five contacts flashed then disappeared.
“Command, I just lost targeting.”
“Bravo-One-One, we’ve just lost connection with your flight computer, attempting reconnect now. Flight Control advised the interference is localized. Do you have visual on anything out there?”
John let up on throttle, bringing the Falcon to a crawl. He twisted inside the cramped cockpit and scanned around him, unsure of exactly what he was looking for. “Negative. Nothing out here but water and air.”
“Roger that, One-One, we have a Keyhole Sat-Link coming on-line now.”
His optics flickered again and the green lines vanished. For a second John thought the interference had abated, only to have the entire display vanish without warning.
“Bravo-One-One, Bravo-One-Three, I just lost my Optics and Navigation.” Scott McKenna’s frantic voice came through John’s com with a disturbing amount of static.
John cursed as he tried to reset the system. “Scott, get the hell out of here!”
“Bravo-One-One, Keyhole is registering some—.” Static filled his com.
“Command, say again. There is what?”
John felt the stick in his right hand go slack. “Shit.” He jerked it side to side, the aircraft did not respond. A brilliant flash of light brought his attention to the airspace in from of him and he sucked in a deep breath of air. “What in the hell?”
A master alarm sounded and status warnings on the remaining active displays, on the console in front of him, began to flash urgently. The Falcon’s backup RADAR flashed a contact warning at five miles, and then the entire system failed.
John’s hands flew across his controls, but his eyes were transfixed on the most spectacular event he’d ever seen. He barely had enough time to register the warning before the clear blue sky of the North Atlantic ripped apart before him.
A deafening crack rolled over him as orange, red and purple lines lashed out across the sky. An enormous black hole, encircled by brilliant pulsing colors, opened up before him. Yellow bands of energy cascaded out from the horrific sight in ever expanding bands of lightning.
Master alarms, which had been screaming their insistent warnings, went silent and the rest of the Falcon’s onboard systems began to fail one after another. Green status lights on the avionics panel winked out and sparks shot out of the artificial horizon and altimeter displays. John heard the whine of the turbo-engines cycle down as they lost power.
“Son of a bitch!” Fingers flew over the controls, trying to get the Falcon’s systems back online. As he struggled with the controls, an eerie quiet fell over the cockpit. Had he not been gliding toward a terrible pulsing black hole, it might almost have been peaceful. After several seconds of working the controls there wasn’t anything else he could do.
The North Atlantic Union Pilot Training Manual—which is actually several manuals—has almost two entire volumes dedicated to emergency fight procedures. The majority of student pilots, including John, started Flight School with the assumption that actually learning how to fly is going to be the hard part. After hours of sitting in his dorm room, head in the books, John—along with the rest of his classmates—knew that the hardest part about flying was remembering how to fix everything that could go wrong during flight.
On the first day of Emergency Operations, his flight instructor had said, “A system failure in a fighter isn’t like having a flat tire while driving on the highway; you can’t just stop and pull over. The smallest failure during flight can get you killed if you don’t know what you’re doing. So pay attention! What I’m going to teach you over the next few weeks will quite possibly save your life someday.”
Three weeks of studying emergency checklists had almost been enough for John to throw in the towel but by the time he’d taking the written and practical exams he knew them all by heart. After the seventh or eighth hundred-step-checklists, that were obviously written by people who’d never flown a plane before in their life, they all basically said the same thing anyway: figure out what’s wrong and fix it.
Oddly enough, the procedure for a catastrophic system failure during flight was the most simple:
Step 1: Grasp Emergency Ejection Seat Release Handle.
Step 2: Pull Emergency Ejection Seat Release Handle.
Step 3: Hold on tight.
John reached between his legs, found the handle and pulled, wishing he’d had the chicken after all.
Several tiny explosive charges went off at once and the canopy blasted away. Cold air rushed against John and a half-second later two small rockets, underneath his seat, ignited and launched him into the air. Intense pain shot through his body as he jerked upwards. He had a fleeting thought of his spine snapping in half and all of his internal organs compressing into a single mass of goo and told himself not to pass out.
The roar of the seats rocket boosters faded and the sensation of weightless came over him as a series of audible pops behind him signaled the seat’s automatic parachute deployment. He felt a strange calm wash over him as the blue and white-striped canvass billowed out above him. Below him, his Falcon twisted and rolled over itself as it dropped away from him toward the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. He wondered how long he would survive in those icy waters.
Becoming a member of the Martin-Baker Fan Club wasn’t exactly something you received praise for, but its members wore their badges of membership proudly. Those that lived through the initiation, that is. There was no NAU Official ribbon or award, and the only official documentation you received for your efforts was a ten-page survey from the ejection seat manufacturer asking how well their seat performed. John made a mental note to add life raft to the list of improvements on the next model.
An earsplitting thunderclap shook him and he twisted in the seat. Behind him, the black hole had expanded to well over a kilometer in diameter. John took hold of the steering cables for his chute and maneuvered himself around to face the thing. It was an awesome sight, whatever it was radiated an impressive amount of power. Strands of purple and orange lightning continued to lash out from the outer edge, popping and cracking in the cold air. John could feel the static electricity building and realized that he was drifting toward it.
He pulled hard on the chute’s chords to turn away from the rift, only to realize that he was still being pulled back toward it, as if gravity had shifted. He cursed and worked the chords again so he was facing it again. He studied the sky around him, looking for any sign of his fellow pilots and saw none.
There was a quick flash of light in the center and another ribbon of energy pulsated out, expanding as it went. As the ribbon grew it left behind hundreds of little specs of light that flashed and blinked yellow and amber against the black. The ribbon twisted and flexed as it passed over the rim of the rift, then broke into thousands of individual strands, which began to dissolve as they drifted aimlessly through the air.
Another thunderclap reverberated across the sky, the entire mass of energy seemed to flex as something shot out from the center. It was small, comparatively speaking, a thin trail of smoke billowed out behind it. Several yellow and amber ripples cascaded out from where it had come through, as if it had plunged through a pool of still water. It spun and twirled through the air and began to fall away in a long arc. Another crack echoed out from the rift and what came through next made John’s blood run cold.
He recognized the cockpit almost immediately and as the aircraft emerged he could identify the other major parts, but it wasn’t like any other aircraft he’d ever seen before.
At the front, a rounded cockpit was attached by a thick collar to the main fuselage, an elongated curved body similar to that of a passenger jet, which stretched back forty feet and ended in a flat tail section. Two support struts jutted out from the front end of the fuselage, not quite wings, and John could see flames and smoke pouring out of the end of the one on the far side of the craft. The opposite strut held what looked like an engine, identical to what had preceded the craft through the rift just seconds before. Two smaller engines, near the back of the main body, twisted on their own struts, working desperately to keep the aircraft aloft.
The craft started falling away from the rift as soon as it came through, listing badly to the far side. A second later the rear of the craft exploded in a brilliant fireball, flaming debris streaked out through the air. The force of the explosion threw back end up, bulkheads buckled and snapped. The two rear engines pulled away from their supports and rocketed away. The remaining engine screamed and the craft began to twist counterclockwise as it flipped over.
It continued to twist, ever faster as it fell away from the rift and even without knowing anything about the mechanics about the craft, John knew it was fatal. He expected the cockpit canopy to blast off and see whoever was piloting the doomed craft to come shooting out, but it never happened. He watched as the craft spun and fell helplessly, to join his own Falcon in the depths.
The rift pulsed again and another thunderclap reverberated out, the pressure wave that washed over John was enough to make his teeth rattle. Expanding bands of energy rippled out from the center in rapid succession then quickly dissipated when they broke the outer rim. John held his chute steady and waited for whatever was going to come through next.
Another energy band rippled out, but instead of reaching the rim and dissipating, this one slowed and came to a stop about three-quarters of the way there. It pulsed and twitched there for a moment then slowly reversed direction and flowed back toward the center of the rift.
The sensation that gravity was shifting intensified and John felt himself being pulled toward the pulsing terror.
“Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.” John pulled desperately on the cables, trying to change his trajectory but it was useless. He was no longer drifting toward the waters of the North Atlantic; he was being pulled into oblivion.
The entire mass of the rift flexed outward briefly then shrank down in on itself. Bands of brilliant colorful energy began to cascade inward from the periphery and John felt air rushing passed him as the image of a toilet flushing flashed in his mind. As the pulses quickened he realized he too was being pulled ever faster. A roaring cacophony of wind and thunder blasted his senses as he approached the rift.
Every hair on his body stood on end as radiant energy from the rift flowed through him. There was no way to tell how close he was. Even though it was shrinking, it was still the only thing he could see. Small white dots blinked in and out of existence on the surface, breaking up the darkness.
“Oh my God.” He couldn’t hear himself over the rushing wind as he realized what he was falling into.
His chute shot passed him in a tangled mass of fabric and wires. Electricity shot through his body, and he screamed as he was pulled out of his world and into another.
Daylight was replaced by night as he passed through the rift. Every inch of his body buzzed with electricity and his stomach turned. As he slipped into darkness, the tingling and nausea vanished, replaced by weightlessness. He twisted in the seat and saw daylight shinning back at him, as if some giant flashlight hung in the night sky.
Pulsing bands of energy rippled and cascaded over the surface, contrasting heavily with the darkness surrounding. Brilliant shafts of light shot out from the center and began to spin around as the rift closed in on itself. A loud cacophony of wind and thunder blasted John as he fell away, growing ever louder as the rift twisted closed. Light flashed briefly out from the center, and it whistled out of existence.
John hung weightless in the night sky for what seemed like an eternity then felt himself begin to fall down away from where the rift had been. He twisted around and caught a glimpse of the bluish hue of a full moon, hanging on a backdrop of unfamiliar stars. A bright orange moon, partially hidden behind the first, shown brilliantly, almost over-shadowing its little brother.
Wind buffeted his parachute and it whipped around him, tangling around his arms and legs. He grabbed and pulled at the fabric, trying to free it but knew it was pointless; the chances of his chute opening again were slim to none. He reached down, feeling for the reserve chutes release handle. All he needed to do was pull and—
John caught a glimpse of the platform and knew immediately there was nothing he could do to avoid it. A fifty-foot wide octagonal slab of white composite. His body torqued hard against the straps as the seat slammed down on the platform. He flipped over sideways as the chair slide across the platform, a blur of alternating red and yellow diagonal stripes raced passed.
Pain shot through his body as the seat flipped and slammed him down again. John frantically grasped at the strap-releases as the seat flipped him back onto his back. Gloved fingers managed to find the left clasp, which clicked as he pulled.
John looked up from the clasp and saw short railing coming up fast in front of him. There was barely enough time to register blinking the red and orange marker lights before he bounced over the railing and flew over the edge.
He screamed as he flipped head first into the night air, arms and legs flailing helplessly. The platform disappeared and somewhere in the back of his mind, John registered the zzzzztttt of the parachute dragging across the edge of the rail. It caught and wrapped around the rail that ran along the edge of the platform.
A loud twang echoed through the cool, still air as the parachute cords pulled taut, jerking John against the remaining three straps of the harness. His momentum carried him, and the seat, underneath the platform. Panic rushed through him as lines twisted, and he spun helplessly around. A latticework of support struts and rails appeared around him, connecting the platform above him to a main structure beyond.
John felt his momentum reverse, and held his breath, waiting for the chute to rip or the cords to snap. They held, and after a few moments of swinging back and forth, the seat swayed to a stop, leaving John feeling like a baby in a $300,000 bouncy chair.
He reached up, popped the clasp of his helmet and pulled it off. He clung to the helmet’s chinstrap and it bounced against his leg as he let out a long sigh of relief. To say that he was in good shape would have been a misnomer, but he was alive, and that was the only thing that mattered to John McNeal. A quick inspection of the cords showed some of them had frayed in the landing.
A cool breeze whispered through the skeleton of crisscrossing supports and columns that descended from the underside of the platform. A small catwalk ran along the perimeter of the structure beneath him, disappearing into a maze of piping, tanks, and pressure vessels.
John gazed at what looked like an old industrial complex. Most of the off-white paint, that appeared to have had once covered every square inch, was peeling off, and rust was beginning to eat away at the steel supports. In some places, makeshift patches covered connection joints, and even those were beginning to fall apart.
Floodlights lit various sections of the complex, allowing John to see that the disrepair wasn’t just limited to the structure around him. Clusters of cables snaked around many of the support struts, disappearing below long gantries into the main complex beyond. Smaller cables spliced off the main lines, some ran up to the platform above, and some simply hung lose, swaying back and forth in the wind.
The main complex consisted of several large processing stations, clustered in a central group surrounded by piping, cables, and more latticework of support structure. The main rectangular structures extended high above the platform John hung from, and another 200 feet below. The nausea returned as he traced down the edge of the main cluster of structures and saw there was nothing underneath.
At first, he thought his eyes were playing a trick on him, and after several seconds of staring, he still couldn’t believe it. The factory was floating.
The darkness made it hard to say exactly how high he was, but the orange glow of what looked like a city told him it was high, ten or fifteen thousand feet at least.
“Get yourself together, John, can’t hang here forever.”
Above him, a cluster of several power cables ran along the length of the struts but none of them were in arm’s reach. The thought of climbing up his parachute terrified him, but short of making a jump for the catwalk below him, he didn’t have very many options. His other option was to unstrap and hope his reserve chute hadn’t been damaged, and that option didn’t appeal to him very much either. Slowly, he reached up and pulled on one of the cords, it held.
“You need some help, Mister?” a voice called to him.
If ejecting out of his fighter and being pulled through a terrifying rip in space hadn’t scared the piss out of him, the voice had. His body flashed warm, he lost his grip on his helmet, and it disappeared into the night. “What?”
He jerked back around, searching for the voice, and spotted two figures looking up at him from the catwalk. His heart pounded against his ribcage. “Uh…”
The two figures regarded him silently. One was noticeably taller than the other, though both looked to be in their early twenties. The taller one stood with one foot on the guardrail in front of him, black pants tucked into his boots. A dark green jacket, partially zipped up, covered a dark grey shirt. The shorter one wore black pants, similar to jeans, and a burgundy jacket. Blonde hair curled up in all directions from underneath a black knit hat rolled up above his ears.
The shorter one leaned forward and whispered something in the other’s ear. The taller one laughed and shook his head, “No way. Never seen one come through that way before.” He motioned to John. “Besides, you think they’d be able to make a much more graceful entrance.”
“You know how desperate they are getting,” the shorter man said, stepping back and crossing his arms.
The tall one turned back to John and shrugged. “How ‘bout it, you a Rat?”
“What? I, uh, I don’t…who are you?”
He adjusted the pack strapped over his left shoulder and said, “Actually, Buddy, we were just wondering the same about you.”
“This is not smart,” the shorter one said. He looked nervously back over his shoulder. “They’re going to realize what happened any minute now.”
“I—”A loud twang echoed through the air and John’s stomach came up into his throat as one of the parachute cords snapped. The ejection seat dropped several inches before the remaining cords snapped taught. He grunted and grasped desperately at his harness straps as he bounced to a stop.
After swallowing his lunch for a second time, he said, “Look, I don’t have any idea who or what a Rat is, and I don’t know how I got here, but can we talk about this when I’m not hanging by a thread a few thousand feet in the air?”
The taller one considered John for a moment then took his foot off the rail and pulled the pack off. The shorter one caught his hand as he reached to open the pack. “What the hell are you doing? How do you know he’s not with Him?”
“Come on, Tom, you saw him come through, same as me.” He pointed above them with the jerk of a thumb.
“Doesn’t mean a thing.”
“Just look at him then.” He pulled a coil of rope out the pack and stood, “Does he look like a Rat? He’s obviously scared out of his mind.”
John wasn’t sure if he was scared out of his mind or not, but he knew he would much rather be standing on the catwalk and not getting ready to fall to his death. He winced at the twang of another chord snapping. “Uh, guys…a little help here?”
Tom stepped back and waved a frustrated arm through the air, “So, what, he just appears out of nowhere and were just going to help him, just like that? What if this is some kind of trap or something?”
“Hey,” the tall one warned, “you know the Rules. You don’t like it you can take it up with her later.” Without waiting for a response, he turned and heaved the rope into the air.
John snatched it out of the air and was about to thank him when a loud WRAAAH pierced the still night air around them. The loud, obnoxious wail reverberated through the maze of the factory, echoing off its structures. John almost lost his grip on the rope and cursed as the siren blasted a second time.
“Damn it, come on!” Tom grabbed the other’s arm and pulled.
“Wait!” The tall one snapped back and began pulling the other end through and around the rail in front of him, “Come on, man, let’s go. Swing over, we’ll pull you up.”
John looped the rope around his arm, but had serious doubts about whether or not Tom was actually going to participate in the process or not. Then again, it wasn’t like he had a whole lot of options; he could either take a chance on his relief chute or trust these two would pull him up. He gave the rope a tug. “You guys ready?”
Another blast from the siren drowned out the response, but both men had taken up positions on the rope, ready to pull.
“Please, let this work,” John prayed then unclipped the harness.
The metal clasps of the straps clicked together as he dropped from the seat. Memories of the County’s Annual Dunk-tank Fundraiser flashed in his mind. Someone had just hit the release with a well-thrown baseball, but instead of landing of a pool of cold water, he dropped into the cool, open air and swung underneath the catwalk. The rope twisted tightly around his arm, it burned as if someone had lit it on fire. He hung briefly at the apex, twisting around in the air, and then swung back.
The two men above pulled hard, hand over hand, and then seconds later, John climbed over the rail and onto the catwalk. He dropped to knees and began painfully unwinding the rope from around his arm. After pulling the last of the rope free, he massaged it gently, trying to ease the pain.
The tall man reached to help him to his feet, and said, “Name’s Michael.”
John took the outstretched hand and answered simply, “John.”
The siren blared again.
“Come on!” Michael shouted over the siren. “We’ve gotta go!”
Tom was already fifteen feet ahead of them when Michael turned and chased after him, boots clanging against the metal grating. It only took a second for John to make up his mind before he was racing after them.
The catwalk made a ninety-degree turn and continued around a vertical support column. After another forty feet, they came to a set of stairs that took them down to another level. Tom leapt forward, grabbing either side of the rail and launched himself down the flight of stairs. He landed, rolled back up to his feet and kept running.
“What is he, some kind of gazelle?” John shouted, as he and Michael took the stairs two at a time.
“Not sure…what a gazelle is…” Michael answered between breaths.
They pulled themselves around another turn and came to a second flight of stairs. This time John attempted to copy Tom’s leaping technique, and regretted it almost immediately. He misjudged the left rail and missed his grip. Instead of swinging out over the stairs, he fell hard midway down and rolled painfully to the bottom. He slammed hard onto the metal walkway, knocking the wind out of him. Michael almost tripped over him, but was able to jump over at the last minute. It took him several steps to stop, then came back and pulled John to his feet.
“Get up, man! We don’t have time to—”
A bright light flashed into existence around them, turning night to day and a voice boomed around them, “You are in a restricted area, stop where you are or you will be shot.”
A deep thumping of engines reverberated around them as a long, sleek craft appeared in the air next to them. Two large multi-directional engines swiveled back and forth, keeping the craft steady. The two men froze, John still only halfway to his feet as hot jet wash from the engines blasted them. Two gun turrets folded out from recesses on the fuselage, just under the main struts, and aligned themselves on Michael and John.
Tom skidded to a stop outside the reach of the spotlight and pulled his pistol. The roar of the engines muffled the report of the weapon and the bright spotlight vanished in a shower of sparks. Tom continued to fire as the other two dove for cover, his rounds causing small eruptions of sparks over the skiff’s surface. The craft banked sharply then pulled away from the gantry, gun turrets blazing.
Michael landed on top of John, as bullets whizzed over them, pinging off the metal around them. Michael rolled off John and got to his feet, simultaneously drawing his own pistol and returning fire. “Get up!” he yelled over the cacophony of gunfire, sidestepping toward Tom. “Come on, move!”
As John pulled himself to his feet Michael took off at a full run. A minute later they came to another platform, similar to the one John had crashed into but only half the size.
Tom moved to the edge and peered over the side. “It’s going to be close.”
Michael bent over, hands on his knees. “I know.”
John walked around him in a wide circle, hands on his head, trying to get a good breath. His heart raced. He’d been shot at before, more times than he could count, in fact, but he’d been strapped into his Falcon every time. Being shot at like this was a completely different experience; one he didn’t care for. He felt so helpless.
“Shit!” Michael shouted, spinning on his heel.
“What?” Tom asked.
“I left the pack.”
Tom nodded toward John, “You think you can handle two?”
“Don’t have much of a choice, do I?” Michael said, shaking his head.
“Handle what?” John asked.
Michael ignored him. “How long?”
“If Tim didn’t screw anything up,” he paused to do some mental math, then said, “ten minutes, fifteen max.”
“All right.” Michael stood and moved up beside Tom. “We should still be able to make it.”
John had stopped pacing, and eyed the two men suspiciously. “Uh, guys, what exactly are we discussing here?” Because it sounds like something, I’m not going to like.
Michael turned. “Getting the hell out of here, man.”
Michael sighed. “Look, I know this doesn’t make any sense right now, but believe me you don’t want to be here when they come back.”
“Who?” He asked, making no effort to hide the apprehension on his face.
The still night air erupted into roaring daylight as another skiff shot into the air above them, its searchlight scanning around to find them. The light panned over them twice as it banked around and this time there was no warning. Michael was already moving when the guns opened up, grabbing John by the flight suit and yanking him toward the edge of the platform. Hypersonic projectiles slammed into the white and red painted composite behind them, sending sparks and tiny shards of platform bursting into the air.
“Wait! Wait! Wait!” John’s cries were ignored, as Michael hurled him off the platform and into the cold night air.
John screamed until he ran out of air, took a deep breath, and screamed again. His vision blurred and his eyes squinted against the force of the chilly air. Wind buffeted violently against him as he strained to flatten himself out, his arms and legs flailing uncontrollably around him. After a second or two, he gained control of his body, falling spread eagle; perfect position for parachute deployment. Not that it mattered. Even if his backup chute hadn’t been damaged, it wasn’t going to do him any good sitting back on the catwalk.
The voice of his Jump School instructor barked in the back of his mind, “The human body can fall through the air at up to 120mph! If you ignorant asses do not learn to operate this equipment properly and efficiently, your precious little baby-faces will be nothing more than soup when you slam back down onto God’s green Earth, and I am not going to scoop your filthy bodies off the pavement so mommy and daddy have something to put in the urn over the fireplace. So listen up, and listen good…”
John wondered who would clean up the goo his body left behind after he slammed into the surface of whatever world this was. He squinted his eyes against the roaring wind, trying to see anything around him. In the darkness of this strange place he might not have been falling at all, if not for the wind he could’ve imagined himself floating. He tried to make himself relax. After all, it wasn’t the fall that killed you, it was the sudden stop at the bottom.
“Stay just like that!” Michael shouted, reaching down and grabbing the back of John’s flight suit.
As Michael adjusted his grip, John twisted around and shouted, “Are you fucking crazy?”
A yellowish-green glow pulsed under Michael’s clothes. Ripples of light flowed outward along his limbs, from a central point on his chest. Small bands of energy stretched out along his arms and legs, to his wrists and ankles. Several smaller, thinner lines snaked off from the main bands and wrapped themselves around his body, as if his very veins were alive with some kind of energetic light.
“This might feel a little weird.” Michael shouted, reaching out with his other arm.
John felt a slight tingling sensation begin to wash over his body, from his shoulders all the way down to his feet and out to his fingers. As Michael pulled himself closer, the sensation grew stronger. Michael wrapped one arm around John’s chest and pulled him in tight.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Despite being right next to John’s ear, Michael still had to yell, “You’re going to have to trust me!”
“Trust you? You just threw me off a building!”
“I need you to climb on my back,” Michael said, oblivious to John’s terror. The fact that they were plummeting to their deaths didn’t seem to faze him. Great, John thought, they saved me from falling accidently to my death to join in their group suicide.
“What good is that going to do?” John argued, briefly resisting the man’s muscling.
“Please, John, now is not the best time for explanations.”
The two men twisted in the air and after several tense seconds of maneuvering John managed to move around to Michael’s back and wrap his arms tightly around the man’s chest. Michael’s face was a mask of concentration as he worked, and the yellowish green pulses began to accelerate. The tingle flowing through his body increased to the point that John knew he was going to be sick. Not only was he going to die clutching onto another man’s body, he was going to do it with vomit all over his face.
“Okay, hold on,” Michael said.
He felt the tingling sensation dissipate, and after a few seconds, John realized that they were slowing down. The cool onslaught of air rushing against them abated and after several seconds John was able to look around without squinting.
“Later,” Michael answered. Every muscle in his body seemed tense and focused. “This is tricky enough as it is.”
John craned his head around to look below them. The orange glow had transformed into separate orange lights, lined up in a grid-work that stretched out for miles. A city. To the right the mass of lights broke up and and became sporadic, until they ultimately faded into darkness. High cliff faces shown in the pale moonlight, beginning as coastal bluffs then curving down past the city where they turned into tall, jagged mountains that disappeared into the night.
Light from the twin moons gave surprising detail to the ground below. The city lights ran along the shoreline to their left, where it melded into a wide plain. Several large boats moved slowly through the dark waters below, heading out toward the horizon and in toward the large harbors of the city.
The city reminded John of many coastal metropolitan areas back on Earth. Tall high-rises lined the water, radiating warm colorful lights into the darkness around them. The buildings grew shorter the further the city stretched away from the coast, with the exception of several lone skyscrapers that rose sporadically out of the city and seemed out of place with the buildings surrounding them.
To their right, most of the city was almost devoid of light. What minimal light there was came from the odd streetlights that still worked, and even those were starting to flicker. Further on, the only light came from fires lit on roofs and in the middle of abandoned streets.
An alarm sounded and a small display unit on Michael’s wrist flashed a warning.
“Shit.” Michael said, checking the readout.
“Our flight is going to be cut a little short I’m afraid.”
The alarm sounded again, and the weightlessness John had been feeling began to fade as their decent began to quicken.
Michael’s voice was calm and focused, “Tom, get over here.”
John glanced around frantically, and Tom appeared on their right-hand side, coming down from above them. “What’s up?”
Michael motioned to his wrist display, “Down to ten percent.”
Tom glanced down at the city below, then back to Michael, “You see where we are don’t you?”
The alarm beeped again.
“No choice.” Michael pointed to a cluster of taller buildings in the distance ahead of them. “The closer we can get to the Conray Building the better off we’ll be. At least that will put us near the outskirts.”
Tom seemed to consider that for a second and then said, “Goddamn Dusters.” He reached into his cargo pocket and brought out a small, fist-size device. After punching in a series of commands, he slipped it back into his pocket and sealed the closure. “Beacon’s up.”
“John, you’re going to want to hold on.” Michael warned.
The tingling sensation vanished and they dropped through the air.
John’s grip on Michael tightened as they dropped. His screams were lost amidst the roaring wind that slammed against them. He squinted hard, as Michael tried to keep them more-or-less on course. Every few seconds the yellowish green lights would pulse, adjusting their trajectory.
Tom flew off into the night in front of them, becoming a mere blur of light as he twisted through the high rises ahead. He sailed between two identical buildings, his glow reflecting off the few remaining windows. The majority of the windows had been knocked out long ago, fragments of mirrored glass, leaned out of their frames at odd angles.
A sign on the right tower read, “EEN MEDIA GRO,” dark shadows were all that remained of the missing letters. The remaining ones hung precariously off the side of the building, waiting for their turn to break loose and plummet to the dark streets below. It seemed like everything about this place was either dead or dying.
Michael adjusted their path again, following Tom through the lifeless towers. They both stood thirty stories tall, but were relatively short compared to the towering monstrosities that lined the coast. Even then, they still loomed over their shorter brothers and sisters, whose average height was only five or six stories.
After passing through the twin towers, Michael lined them up on what looked like a main thorough-fair, a wide four lane avenue that stretched out for miles in both directions. Broken down wrecks—what must have been cars or trucks—lined the street on both sides, in burnt and smashed piles of metal. They passed over what might have been a bus, a long rounded frame three times the length of any city bus John had ever seen with twice as many wheels.
The alarm beeped again as Michael adjusted their glide path. This time when John felt the tingling return, he was grateful for it. The feeling of weightlessness returned and a calm relief came over him. It was short lived.
“Okay, John,” Michael said, a hint of trepidation in his voice. “This is going to be a little rough. You’re going to have to jump off when we get low enough, make sure you move, I don’t want to roll over you.”
“Oh, great,” John said, looking over the other man’s shoulder, trying to judge where he would land.
They dropped several more feet in a matter of seconds, and Michael adjusted their approach again so they were gliding parallel down the middle of the street. Michael held them steady and gave John the go-ahead.
“Here goes nothing,” John muttered, and let go. He slid off Michael’s back, and a second later, landed on the pavement below. Pain shot through his legs as his feet slammed down and immediately fell forward into a roll. He slid to a stop after several feet, and dust he’d kicked up washed over him, making him cough. He covered his mouth and then looked up in time to see Michael touching down a few feet away. The glow was already fading as Michael came to a stop and turned back toward John.
“I need to get me one of those.” John said, brushing himself off.
Michael grinned, “Tell me about it. You okay?”
John glanced at the buildings around them and said, “Yeah…yeah, I think so.”
Dull orange light from two street lamps illuminated the area, throwing long shadows down the avenue. A pile of burnt, twisted metal lay in a heap to John’s right, all that remained of what looked like a four-door car. A thin layer of dirt and grime covered everything; every now and then, a gust would blow clouds of dust across the street. Trash and chunks of composite from the surrounding buildings littered the ground.
“Sorry about the landing.” Michael shrugged and pulled open his jacket, “Rig’s only built for one.” Underneath his dark green jacket, a mechanical harness was strapped around Michael’s torso and waist. An upside-down triangle was the centerpiece of the rig, strapped to his body just below his chest. It glowed a dull yellow.
“Not a problem,” John said, getting to his feet.
Tom appeared next to them, floating effortlessly down through thin air. When his feet touched pavement the pulsing yellow and green lines slowed and eventually faded all together. He was focused on the rooftops surrounding them, “We need to get moving.”
“I know.” Michael was checking the display on his wrist. “Could you tell how far we were off?”
“A few miles at least, Capital Building is that way.” He pointed off to his left.
Michael glanced up and down the street, then checked the small display on his wrist. “Damn. There’s no way we can make the back-up rendezvous from here, they’re going to have to come get us.”
Tom scanned the surrounding rooftops, “Yeah, if the Rats don’t find us first.”
Michael nodded, then motioned into the air above them. “Check it out.”
“Right,” Tom answered, pulling a flap of his jacket aside with his left hand and tapping the triangular harness control with the other. Bright yellow energy rippled out along the harness-lines wrapped around his body, followed by the alternating green and yellow pulses that increased speed as he lifted off the ground. John watched him fly off, wondering just what kind of technology these people were capable of.
He caught sight of one of the gaping holes, blasted out of the building next to him then realized there were several jagged holes in several buildings. As he took in his surroundings, it reminded him a war-zone. Bullet holes scarred walls and traced lines across the sidewalks and street. Dark shadows of fire damage stained the faded walls around the blast holes and open windows and doors.
“Jesus.” John’s voice was a whisper, awed by the destruction around him, “What happened?”
“War, man,” Michael said, “and this is the good part of Old Town.” He motioned for John to follow.
“You’re kidding?” John said matching Michael’s pace.
“Over in Sector Three, you can barely tell there was ever a city there.” He shrugged. “Kind of sad, when you think about it. They were the first to stand up against the Regency and they were decimated because of it.”
They stepped around a large blast hole in the pavement, the light from the streetlamp above refracting in the water puddled within. “The Regency?”
Michael spread his arms wide in reverence. “The change for the people.” He declared in a mocking tone, then continued levelly, “Such bullshit. I never understood why so many believed that crap. Hell, they still do.” He motioned to a large blown out section of building as they passed. “This is the change we got: years of civil war and death.”
John considered the jagged opening. “I know the feeling.”
“Is this what it’s like on the other side, too?” The disappointment in his voice was almost depressing.
“No,” John answered, shaking his head. “It’s not this bad—well, not where I’m from anyway. But there are places.”
“I think I’d like to see that side someday.”
“I hope—whoa!” John yanked his pulser from its holster on his right thigh and had it leveled without thinking. “What the fuck?”
Michael started and pulled his own pistol, spinning around to where John was pointing his. Two haggard looking people were standing in the entryway to what could have been a luxury hotel at one time. Even though they were partially hidden in the shadow of a twisted awning, protruding awkwardly over the sidewalk, John could see their clothes were dirty and torn. Dark smudges on their faces were a good indication that they hadn’t showered in weeks. Maybe even months. The shadows cast by the streetlight above gave them an eerie, ghost-like appearance.
Almost as soon as the two men noticed them, they vanished, silently retreating into the interior of the building.
“Damn it,” Michael cursed and jammed his weapon back into its holster on his waist.
John held his pulser steady, eyes focused on the doorway. “What?”
“Dusters,” he said, “Come on, we need to get off the street.”
John lowered his pulser slightly, but hesitated. He glanced at Michael, then back to the entrance. It remained empty. He was still trying to come to terms with being in another world, and not understanding what was going on around him was unsettling. The fact that he didn’t know this man added to his frustration. Could he really believe what he was saying? He didn’t have any reason not to. After all, on the face of everything he had saved his life. Saved him from what, was the question.
“You coming?” Michael asked.
He checked the empty doorway for a third time, lowered his pulser, and then started after Michael. They continued up the street for another block, then turned onto a wide alley that ran the length of two six-story brick buildings. The alley was in worse shape than the street, lined with trash, both loose and bagged; the smell of waste stung his nostrils. They made their way around an old rusted-out dumpster, overflowing with years of discarded waste, and came to a T-junction where another alleyway branched off in both directions.
Michael stopped in the intersection and contemplated which turn to take. A soft clicking echoed through the alley as several small animals scurried away from the intruders.
John grimaced and covered his nose, trying to block out the putrid smell. “Look, I know this is probably not the right time, but I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this whole thing. I take it Rats are bad, but Dusters are bad too?”
Michael chuckled. “Well, that depends. One-on-one Dusters are just a nuisance, but get them together in big groups and you could be in for some trouble. It’s the Rats you’ve got to watch out for. They’re well-equipped and extremely motivated.”
“Motivated to do what?”
“To get paid,” Michael replied, turning right and motioning for John to follow.
“What do they sell?”
“Well, they’ll sell anything they can make a profit on, but they make most of their money on people.”
“What like slaves?”
Michael gave a half-hearted chuckle. “No, I’m sure the poor souls that get picked up would prefer that to what actually happens.”
“So what then?”
“Huh?” Michael asked.
“What happens to them?”
“No one knows exactly. Genetic experimentation, alteration, no one ever comes back. Of course, the Regency denies everything, and condemns the kidnappings, but everyone knows they’re behind it all. Nothing happens here without their say-so.”
The man sounded sincere, but it all seemed too much for John to believe. Then again, why would this man lie to him? He could have just left him on the platform to deal with whoever they were on his own.
John felt something brush up against his leg. He jumped to his feet, and cried out in surprise, pointing his pulser at the trash covered alley floor. “What the fuck!” he cursed, heart racing.
A small creature, about the size of a possum, scurried along the wall squealing wildly as it moved away. Covered in thick brown fur, six leathery legs propelled it along the filth-covered pavement. A long spiny tail stretched out behind it, a small pointed snout was the only indication of a head.
Michael shushed him from across the alley. “Relax man, it’s just a gigret.”
John scoffed at him. “Yeah right. Relax. Sure.” He took a few steps back and watched as the animal disappeared into a pile of trash.
Michael stifled a laugh. “Come on.”
They had made it another fifteen feet when the sound of muffled gunshots echoed in the distance. Michael cursed and pulled his gun. John, suddenly very aware that his Optics weren’t providing him with any data, followed suit, and they both crouched low on either side of the alley.
“What is it?” John asked.
Michael raised a finger to his lips in response, eyes scanning ahead. More shots rang out, closer than the last, and John thought they had a higher pitch to than the previous shots. Smaller maybe.
Several more gunshots rang out, even closer than the last. John immediately started looking around for some sort of cover; however, the trash-filled alley provided no such comforts. They were sitting ducks, and he wondered if the other man realized that as well.
He was about to say as much when several rounds slammed into the top of a building ahead of them. Plumes of dust and composite shot out into the air and tiny bits of shrapnel rained down into the alley.
“What the hell are they shooting at?” John asked, moving beside Michael.
Michael craned his head to look around the dumpster, and after a second pointed down the alley ahead of them. “There.” A figure flew across the alley, a mass of yellow and green lines arcing through the air. It touched on the side of a seven-story building, taking long focused strides across the dark grey composite.
Tom jumped a gap between buildings and the composite behind him erupted in small explosions that snaked along the wall after him. Puffs of debris spat out into the air behind him, filling the alley with a dusty haze. He took two long strides then pushed off, launching himself through the air and across the alley.
He flipped over and landed feet first on the building above them, John craned his neck hard to see. Tom was pointing back the way they’d come. “Get the hell out—”
A roaring blast of engine wash silenced the rest of his warning as light spilled into the alley ahead of them. The skiff flew sideways over the rooftops, its spotlight searching back and forth. Its presence turned the quiet alley into a maelstrom of wind and trash.
Michael and John fell over each other, scrambling to get away as the skiff advanced. Tom pushed off the building above them. Bullets slammed into the grey composite walls where he’d landed, only just missing him. After a few steps, John and Michael gained their footing and took off at a full sprint back the way they’d come as Tom flew across the alley above them.
The spotlight swung down to focus on the two fleeing men, and just as they reached the intersection, the alley floor erupted behind them. John lowered his shoulder and plowed into Michael sending them both tumbling sideways into the alley, out of the line of fire. A path of small eruptions chewed down the middle of the alley as the skiff shot past them; hot exhaust blasted their huddled bodies as it flew by.
John pushed himself to his feet, spitting dirt and dust from his mouth. The skiffs engines roared behind them, he knew they didn’t have much time. He reached down and pulled Michael to his feet, desperately searching for a way out. The alley stretched out ahead of them, but lead only to the orange glow of the street.
Something dropped out of the air in front of them. “Move!” Tom screamed then charged down the alley.
The skiff crossed over the alley above them, engine exhaust turning the alley into a tumultuous gale of hot wind and dirt and trash. A blast of hot dust and air slapped across John’s face, his eyes jammed shut but he kept moving. His feet caught against something solid and he let out a started cry as he toppled forward. He landed hard on his side as the skiff crossed over and disappeared above another building.
John felt hands grabbing ahold of him and heard Michael’s voice beside him scream, “Tom!”
John felt himself being lifted off the ground and moved quickly to get his feet underneath him. He coughed hard, wiped dust off his face and saw Tom stop just shy of the street. He’d lost his knit hat at some point, his blond hair whipped wildly in the wind.
“How many grenades you have left?” Michael shouted.
An eyebrow rose. “One…why?” He made the connection a second later, and said, “You’re not serious.”
“It worked at Holbridge.”
“Yeah, but that was…”
Michael waved a hand through the air. “It’s the same principle.” He leaned over, hands on his knees. “We can’t keep running like this.”
Shadows danced out in the street as the skiff turned to come back around. Tom glanced from the Michael, to the street, then back again. He shrugged, “What the hell. You want left or right.”
“This is not how I saw this night going.” Tom pulled a small round object from his belt and turned toward the street. He glanced back over his shoulder and said, “Don’t be late.”
After a long calming breath, Tom slapped his harness and leapt out into the street.
John was about to ask Michael to explain what Holbridge meant when he felt Michael’s hand on his back, shoving him forward, out of the alley. “Go!”
John stumbled and cursed, wishing these men could do something other than shove him around without warning. He felt lost and helpless, and for someone used to being in control, it was a horrible feeling. Michael stepped around him, turned to the right and raced up the street. John cursed again and sprinted after him. He glanced back over his shoulder and watched as Tom shot across the alley, the skiffs blinding light tracking him up the side of a red brick office building.
The loud exhaust from the engines muffled the gunfire and Tom launched himself into the sky as bullets chewed into the composite behind him. He moved fast and disappeared into the night. The cannons fell silent and searchlight panned around trying to reacquire him.
John and Michael had made it half a block when the searchlight fell over them. As shadows danced in front of them, Michael pointed across the street and shouted, “Split!”
John performed the unrehearsed maneuver with machine like precision, operating in full survival mode; years of military training pushing him hard. He reached the far side of the avenue a second later, a glance to his right saw Michael working hard to keep pace. It was impossible to keep a straight course on either side of the avenue. Dodging around burnt out wrecks and countless years of discarded rubble slowed their progress significantly, but it was these same hazards that played a big role in their survival.
Blasts from the cannons echoed behind them and pavement and rubble began to disintegrate around the fleeing men. The CHOOF CHOOF CHOOF of the cannons was the only thing that John McNeal was conscious of as he zig-zagged down the street. He passed what could have been a cafe, dodged around several rusted and broken metal chairs and tables, tipped over and piled up on themselves, and bolted into the another alley without looking to see where Michael had gone. Loud metal twangs ripped through the air behind him as projectiles chewed threw the long forgotten furniture.
After shouting for John to cross the street, Michael had continued on, searching desperately for cover. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw John dodge into the alley and watched as several metal chairs were thrown into the air by the onslaught of auto-cannon fire. He definitely wasn’t in as good of shape as John, but he did have one slight advantage. He bounded forward, over a fallen streetlight; its decorative accents bent and twisted, and saw his escape.
An alley, almost directly across from where John had made his turn, separated a plain storefront and a tall office building, just ten feet ahead. An old flatbed transport truck, sitting on three bare and twisted axles, spanned the side walk just outside the alley. He made a quick calculation, stutter-stepped then jumped for the back of the bed. As his feet touched, he coiled down and as he pushed off, slapping the rig as he sprung into the alley.
Seconds after entering the darkness of the alley, the truck behind him ripped apart. Twisted metal and chunks of composite exploded into the air. His leg erupted in pain as a searing piece of shrapnel tore into his thigh and flipped him through the air. At the same time, his rig began to fail, and his momentum carried him almost twenty feet back into the alley before landing hard on the ground. He rolled and slid through loose trash then slammed against a rusty storage container.
In the avenue, the cannons went silent and the skiff’s engines whined as it moved to pursue. The searchlight cut through clouds of dust rising into the air, looking for targets. The skiff had closed about half of the distance when Tom dropped out of the night sky above it.
He touched down just behind the clear bubble of the cockpit, where two men in black uniforms worked the controls, intently focused on the avenue ahead. Hunters completely oblivious to the fact that they had just become the hunted. He moved quickly over to the right side intake port, pulling his last remaining grenade from its pouch on his belt. He jammed his thumb down on the arming button an orange light appeared on the top of the device.
Two more steps and Tom was within arm’s reach of the whining turbine. He took a second to scan the street below, then opened his fist. The orange light flashed red. He counted to three and dropped the grenade. As soon as it left his hand, he threw himself off the skiff and into the air. The grenade denoted a second later, ripping the engine apart. The shockwave flipped Tom over in mid-air, knocking him off course and toward a cluster of antennas and communications equipment affixed a roof ahead of him. He clinched his teeth and twisted his body hard to the left, missing the thin piece of aluminum by a matter of inches.
Behind him, the skiff flipped sideways over itself, the remaining engine screamed against the strain. Chunks of composite fell from a gaping hole in the building next to it as the fireball curled into the air. Smoke poured from the wound, as debris streamed away in long arcs. Time seemed to slow as the skiff twisted and then fell. The remaining engine screamed and whined until the skiff smashed down into the pavement and exploded in a brilliant fireball.
A third explosion sent large bits of fuselage soaring down the avenue in both directions. Anything even remotely flammable immediately went up in flames or simply disintegrated in the immense heat. The twisted frame of a small car launched through the crumbling facade of a long abandoned storefront, sending a cloud of smoke and dust belching back into the street. The fire from the wreck bathed the block in a dull orange glow as thick black smoke billowed over the rooftops.
Back in the alley, John coughed hard and pushed himself to his knees. A burning piece of scrap bounced down the street pass the alley. He pushed himself up to his feet and carefully made his way to the corner. He felt the heat from the wreck as the fire snapped and cracked to his right. He moved out into the street, and ahead of him, movement caught his eye. He reached for his pulser but stopped when he realized what it was.
Michael moved slowly, supporting himself against the peeling wall next to him. He was limping, and the grimace he made with every step told John everything he needed to know. He jogged over and saw Michael holding his thigh, blood streaming through white-knuckled fingers.
“Shit,” John said as Michael leaned his shoulder into the wall, taking as much weight off his injured leg as he could. “How bad is it?”
Something popped, and John ducked reflectively. Small bits of flame leapt out of the fire and into the air. Red and orange flames completely engulfed the wreckage.
“I’ll live,” Michael answered through gritted teeth. He carefully took his hand away, fingers soaked in hot, sticky blood. It oozed down his pants leg and splattered onto the dusty pavement.
John shook his head, “We need to get it wrapped up.” He bent down and unzipped the pocket on his left thigh, “Here, I’ve got—”
“I’m fine…” Michael argued after inhaling a painful breath.
Tom touched down just behind John, and moved around so he could see what he was looking at. “Oh shit, you’re hit.”
Michael motioned to the wrecked flatbed where small wisps of smoke were curling into the air. “Damn shrapnel caught me.”
“Can you walk?” Tom asked, glancing back over his shoulder, admiring his handiwork. Several more balls of flame spit from the wreckage.
“At least let me stop the bleeding,” John argued. He produced a small plyform wrap from his survival kit and pressed it up against Michael’s thigh. Holding it firm, he pressed a small button and two wide bands slipped out from either end to wrap around his leg. It only took a second for them to deploy, and after sealing together, they compressed, applying pressure.
Michael groaned. “Shit, that hurts.”
“It should stop the bleeding, but you need to get the wound treated soon. I do a fairly good battle dressing with my kit.” John held up the small kit for Michael to see.
He shook his head. “We need to get moving.” He motioned to the burning skiff. “His friends won’t be too far behind.”
Tom stepped back onto the avenue. “Where to?”
John looped an arm around Michael’s shoulder, and together they moved out of the alley and around the destroyed flatbed truck. Michael winced, then saw the skiffs burning carcass. “Damn. Much better than Holbridge.”
Most of the flames had died away, but smoke continued to pour out of gaping holes in the twisted metal. John hadn’t seen anyone emerge from the wreckage, and decided that he hadn’t really wanted to. He’d seen what fire could do to the human body, and wasn’t interested in reliving the experience.
“Yeah, Tim’s going to have a shit-fit,” Tom bragged.
Michael took another step and sucked in a painful breath. “Speaking of which…”
Tom glanced down at his wrist, shaking his head in disgust. “Good question.” He made his other hand into the shape of a gun and jerked it at the blank wrist unit. “My Wristie decided to walk the plank.”
“Well,” Michael said, “the more distance we put between us and the skiff the better. Finding cover is number one. Number two is getting into a position to signal your brother without getting picked up by the Rats.”
“Right,” Tom said, “Come on.”
They’d made it two blocks when Michael became very heavy. His eyes fluttered and his head bounced as they walked. John adjusted his arm and lifted the man higher onto his shoulder. “Come on, buddy, stay with me.”
“I could really use a stiff one right about now,” Michael said. His words slurred together as if he’d already had four or five too many.
“I make a mean vodka-cranberry,” John told him with a grin.
“What’s a vodberry?”
“Cran-berry. It’s a fruit,” John explained. “Kind of tart, not too bad with gin either.”
Michael laughed, then winced. “Ow. I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it.”
As they maneuvered through two wrecked cars, Michael’s foot caught on a piece of twisted metal and almost brought the pair of them crashing down.
“Shit!” John grunted, stutter-stepping to keep them from slamming down onto the ground. Michael quickly wrapped his arms around John’s neck, gasping with the effort. John fought hard to keep his balance. “Got ya.”
Michael held his breath, eyes closed, every muscle tensed against the pain flowing from his leg.
Tom, who’d been scouting ahead, turned back to them. “You okay?”
John adjusted his grip again then worked to stand up. Michael let out a slow breath and nodded. Tom glanced at John, shaking his head. John said, “We need to get him off that leg.”
“Agreed,” Tom said, scanning the surrounding buildings.
Ahead the avenue took a wide left turn, disappearing around what looked like a large department store. Despite the decaying appearance, John thought it shared the same larger-than-life presentation as its counterparts back home. He had little doubt that, in its prime, the store would have rivaled any of the high fashion retailers on Earth.
The exterior was a very post-modern set up, with high steel beams curving up and back to the composite structure four stories up. Along the bottom half of the facade the glass had long since been shattered. However, some panes remained in the higher sections. The outlines of several massive letters ran along the top of the glass storefront, and even though some were missing, John easily read, “LANDEN & KOTCH.”
After a moment of consideration, Tom said, “There.”
Twin metal doorframes hung on their hinges; the glass they’d once held covered the ground around them. The entrance stood between what had once been two large display windows, where sun-washed mannequins lay in broken pieces on either side. One of the faceless heads was twisted at a right angle to the rest of the body; its arm lay detached from its torso.
As John and Michael worked their way across the street, Tom jogged ahead to grab the empty metal frame. The frame creaked on its hinges, but refused to open. Tom had to give it two hard pulls before it finally relented and gave way. Glass crackled and popped under their feet as John helped Michael through. Tom let go of the frame and followed, the door stayed opened.
Inside the store was dark; the only light spilled in from the street behind them. John waited for his Optics to kick in and bathe his vision in a dull green, but nothing happened, making him feel very small. The mild irritation they caused seemed worth having to constantly apply the OptiGel. He thought about the tube he’d used not an hour ago, sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic. For the first time since, he wondered if he’d ever get back home.
As they moved farther into the dark interior, John strained to reach his miniHD light, tucked in a cargo pocket on his flight suit. He pulled the light free, balancing awkwardly to keep from toppling over, and clicked the light on.
White light cut through the darkness of the store in a tight beam, motes of dust floating lazily in the air seemed to blink at them. The lobby was an open-air design, a vast empty space three or four stories high. Numerous display counters sat empty throughout the store, separated by short false-wall dividers and shelving racks. At the back of the store, a balcony ran the length of the building, overlooking the main floor. Several mannequins stood behind an opaque railing, featureless human shapes staring back at them through the darkness.
As they moved farther into the store, the vast emptiness amplified every sound they made. Careful footsteps echoed through the darkness, and John was sure that anyone within a mile of the store knew where they were. Glass and dirt crunched under foot as they walked. John panned the light around the store, thinking the entire thing was like a ghost town.
He didn’t see a small can laying on the floor, and sent it clanging across the floor. The trio froze and John’s light snapped down to track it as it rolled noisily across the dusty floor. Tom jerked around and glared angrily at John, who was trying his damnedest to hide his embarrassment. His cheeks flushed red, and he fought the urge to curse. He flipped Tom “the bird” instead. Tom shook his head and returned to scanning, gun in hand, sweeping the barrel the back and forth in the darkness.
Michael coughed then said, “What do you think?”
Tom scanned around for another moment, then said, “It’s not ideal.”
“Hell, this whole night isn’t ideal, Tom.”
Tom considered his friend for a moment, sighed, then nodded. “Okay.” He holstered his pistol and moved back to help John ease Michael down.
They propped him up against a dusty wall of a counter. Michael gritted his teeth as he adjusted himself, trying to straighten his leg out in front of him. Dust and dirt had mixed with the blood, creating a clumpy residue on his torn pant leg. “Damn that hurts,” Michael said, gingerly prodding his leg.
Tom knelt down beside him. “Rats got worse.” He pushed Michael’s hand away. “Don’t touch it.”
John knelt down beside him and unrolled his survival kit. He fingered through its contents. “Stopping the bleeding is one thing, we need to make sure he doesn’t lose the leg. We need to get a look at the wound.”
John reached forward and disengaged the plyform. The bands released and retracted silently into the small unit.
A soft click echoed in the darkness, John looked up to see Tom leaning over Michael’s pant leg, the gleaming blade of a knife in hand. He slipped the blade into the torn fabric just below the plyform and carefully cut down the length of the pant leg. “Oh, man, that looks bad,” Tom said pulling the fabric away from the wound.
Michael grimaced. “Damn.”
A jagged piece of metal, stained with blood and caked with dirt, stuck a few centimeters out his thigh just above the knee. His skin was discolored below the plyform but most of the bleeding had stopped. Dirt and grime mixed with blood creating a thick mess in and around the wound. John bent over and made a quick inspection. “Well, it didn’t go all the way through, so that’s a good thing. Probably lodged itself in the bone.”
“Damn,” Tom muttered, “I thought you’d just been shot. That’s nasty.”
“Looks worse than it feels,” Michael admitted.
“Probably would have been better to get shot,” John said. “Not at whole lot to think about with bullet wounds, especially through and throughs. But with shrapnel…”
Tom scooted forward. “Well, let’s get it out of there then.”
John held up his hand. “Hold on, let me check it out first. We might not want to take it out yet. Not without knowing we won’t do more damage.”
Tom pointed a finger at John. “Hey, man, I don’t know you, and I’m nowhere near trusting you. If you think I’m just going to let you mess around on my friend here, think again. How do I know you’re not going make it worse? Do you think I’m just going to sit back and let you kill him?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” John said, sitting back on his haunches. “If I’d wanted to kill either of you, don’t you think I’d have done it already?”
“Guys…” Michael raised a hand. They ignored him.
“I don’t think anything. If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t even be here. We’d be well on our way home, close to a cold pale and warm bed, not scrambling around in the dark hiding from Rats and Dusters. We should’ve left you up there.” He motioned skyward. “Let you deal with them all by yourself.”
John had enough. “Hey asshole, it isn’t like I just woke up this morning thinking I’d come crash your party. I didn’t choose to be here, and if you think I’d rather be here than back in my own world, think again. The fact is I’m here now and I’m dealing with that, which is less than I can say for you. So, you can either keep bitching or,” he pulled a grey squeeze tube from the kit and held it up, “we can fix your friend here. Your choice.”
Tom regarded him with stone-faced contempt. The muscles in his jaw twitched and just as he was going to answer, Michael reached up and put a hand on his arm.
“Tom,” his voice barely a whisper, “its okay, let him work.”
John didn’t wait for permission and inched closer to the damaged leg. He unscrewed the black cap off the top of the tube and said, “This might sting.”
John held the tube over the wound and gently squeezed, pushing a light blue gel out over the wound. Michael hissed and slapped the floor as the gel worked its way around the wound, dust puffed up from between his fingers.
“Damn it! You call that a sting?”
“That means it’s working,” John assured him, then realized how much he’d just sounded like his father.
“What the hell is that?” Tom asked, snatching the tube out of John’s fingers. He turned the tube over, reading the label, “SaniGel 2.1% - NAU Bionics.”
John resisted the urge to throat punch the smug son of a bitch. Instead, he took a long breath and said, “Standard issue Sanitizing Gelatin, best field cleanser you can have. Hurt equals work.”
“Must be working hard,” Michael said through gritted teeth.
It only took a few seconds for the entire wound to become enveloped; the gel glistened and rippled over Michael’s skin as if it was water pooling on the ground. The gel began to bubble white around the edges of the wound as it pulled contaminants out of the skin. The entire surface rippled and bubbled for almost a minute, until eventually, the blue gel had completely faded away, turning white and hardening to a malleable putty.
John took the tube back from Tom, replaced the cap and slid it back into its pouch. He unsnapped another section and produced a small, single-use injection pod. He popped its cap off with his thumb and said, “This will help with the pain.”
He pressed the injection pod hard into Michael’s leg and held it there for a few seconds. Michael grunted and John chuckled. “Trust me, once this stuff kicks in, you won’t be complaining. If it’s one thing the NAU does right, it’s their pain killers.”
Michael’s grimace disappeared, replaced by surprise as the medicine worked its way through his system. “Oh, wow.”
“I know,” John said tossing the injector aside.
“You feel okay?” Tom asked.
“Oh, man, that’s amazing. What is that stuff?”
“Bio-neural inhibitor,” John said. “Not sure what’s in it. It works, that’s all I ever cared about.” He slapped Michael’s shoulder. “Does wonders for the pain, doesn’t it.”
Michael gave Tom an unbelieving grin. “Holy shit.”
Tom kept his tone neutral as he said, “Can you walk?”
Michael reached down and prodded his leg again. “Yeah, I think so.”
John unwrapped a wide pressure bandage. “Here.” He laid it out on the floor next to Michael’s leg. “This organic wrap will keep the entire thing stable and protected until we get somewhere to actually fix it.”
John reached down to slide the wrap underneath Michael’s leg and was surprised when Tom lifted it. He was about to thank him when a rustling near the back of the store startled them. John’s light snapped up and he swept the length of the back wall. “What was that?”
“Shhh.” Tom rose up to the balls of his feet and moved around the end of the counter.
John brought the light back down the length of the balcony and had the strange feeling that there were more mannequins up there than had been a few minutes ago. Something else was different too, but he was having a difficult time putting a finger on what it was. He panned his light over a small group of them, and just as he realized what that something was, he heard Tom curse under his breath.
They weren’t mannequins.
The light hovered on a group of four people, standing in a tight cluster near the left side of the balcony. They stood unmoving, faces covered by strange mechanical masks, shrouded in shadows cast by the hoods pulled over their heads. Oversized, mirrored goggles covered their eyes, and long, filthy dust-colored jackets hung loose around their still frames, giving them an ominous appearance.
“What the fuck?” John whispered, glancing over at Tom.
“Duster Clan,” Michael explained, “we must have walked right into one of their Enclaves.”
Movement at the edge of the light caught John’s attention, and he moved the beam just in time to catch a glimpse of another cloaked figured disappearing around a corner. When he brought it back to the group of four they had disappeared as well. “Shit.”
“What now?” Tom asked, taking a knee.
Michael used the counter to pull himself up, grunting from the effort. “Sure would be nice to know where your brother is right about now.”
“I’m going to kick his ass when he gets here,” Tom muttered.
“Where’d they go?” John asked, his light still trained on the balcony.
“Enclave is probably above us,” Michael explained. “That was just a scouting party. Word will spread fast between the Clans, though. Nothing stays a secret out here for long.”
“And that’s bad for us?” John started putting the survival kit back together.
Tom moved around the counter and toward the back of the store. “If the Duster’s know where we are, the Rats will know soon enough.”
“I don’t get it. The Dusters help the Rats?”
“The Dusters don’t help anyone,” Michael said. “Only thing they care about is their Dust connection; hence their name.”
“Bunch of junkies,” Tom muttered. He made his way carefully around several display stands, to the back wall. After giving the balcony a guarded glance, he moved underneath it. He put his back against the wall and made his way along it toward a lone door at the far end. It stood open slightly. He eased up to the threshold then listened for any movement beyond.
Michael motioned for John to follow and started after, limping carefully on his injured leg. He winced at the first few steps, then held his breath and forced his way silently across the floor. John moved to help him, but Michael immediately waved him off. “It’s okay, man. I can do it”
The bandage had hardened around his leg, but was still malleable enough that it flexed and stretched with his movements. After several awkward steps, he’d figured out how to move so that his limp was barely noticeable. He put a hand on the back wall, and leaned against it for support.
John gave the balcony a final glance, then followed the two men underneath it. His eyes stung, aggravated by the dust filled air. He backed up against the wall and reached reflectively into his pocket before remembering his Gel was at the bottom of the ocean. He cursed and squeezed his eye shut, trying to work tears over the lenses.
“You okay?” Michael asked.
John rubbed one eye gingerly with his the palm of his hand. “It’s just my Optics.” Michael gave him a confused looked then John shook his head. “Bad genes.”
After several seconds of rubbing and squeezing, John finally decided that if he ever got back, the NAU would just have to break down and supply him with a replacement set. It had taken John almost thirty minutes to get his first pair onto his eyeballs, and almost double trying to take them off. He’d inherited his father’s aversion to having things around his eyes. He gritted his teeth, held his eyelids open and worked each lens out in turn, tossing them unceremoniously onto the dirty floor. His eyes still itched, but he knew it would only be a matter of time until they didn’t.
He panned his light over the store, the beam reflected off broken glass and metal shelves, expecting another skiff to show up anytime and blow them away. The thought made him feel helpless. It occurred to him that this was what refugees back home must’ve felt like, as he patrolled the skies of contested zones during his many peacekeeping missions. It was an eye opening experience.
Tom turned away from the door and whispered, “You sure about this?”
Michael gazed back out through the store, pale moonlight streaming in through the decaying facade. “Without knowing exactly where Tim is, moving through the streets is dangerous,” he said, finally. “We were extremely lucky last time.”
“He’s got to be close,” Tom countered.
Michael shook his head. “It’s too risky”
“And this isn’t?”
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” he admitted, “but we’ll have a better chance against a handful of junkies than we would against the Skiffs.”
Tom wasn’t convinced. “I don’t know, if we…” He trailed off and both Michael and John followed his gaze outside.
White light silently swept down the building opposite them and came across the street toward them. A thunderous blast of wind and sound followed as another skiff roared down the avenue outside. Clouds of dust blew through the store in the wake of the engines, and all three men turned to shield themselves from the onslaught.
“Go!” Michael yelled, shoving Tom forward.
Tom drove his shoulder into the door and forced his way into the corridor beyond. Michael hurried through next and as John turned to follow he saw six silhouetted figures dropping down on the street outside. Soldiers.
A small silver canister sailed through the open glass display windows and clattered across the floor before bouncing off a counter in the middle of the store. A second later, it popped and thick smoke began pouring from both ends.
John ducked through and slammed the door shut behind him. “We have company.”
“Up!” Michael motioned to the flight of stairs at the end of the short corridor they’d entered.
Tom was already moving, taking the steps two at a time. John grabbed Michael’s left arm, threw it over his shoulder and pulled him along. They’d gone up three flights when they came to the first door. Without hesitation, Tom kicked his foot forward. It burst open, slamming hard against the wall.
They stood at one end of a long corridor, lined with several open doors on each side. A small figure darted out of a one doors, across the hall and through another without giving them as much as a cursory glance. He couldn’t have been any older than ten.
Dirty clothes and boxes of junk flanked almost every door and bags of trash rested against the wall, waiting to be collected. Power cables snaked through the piles of junk, branching off into each room. A deep humming resonated through the corridor from some unseen generator. Every few seconds the pitch would change and the already dim lights would flicker.
“We need to keep going,” Michael said.
John held up the light for Tom. “Here.”
Tom eyed it for a moment, then took it and clicked it on.
They moved down the hall, carefully checking the rooms on either side as they passed. Tom moved with knowing purpose, light in one hand, pistol in the other, clearing each door in turn. He might have been an asshole, John thought, but he was no slouch in the tactics department. He held Michael’s arm firmly in place and followed closely behind Tom.
In the first room they passed, two old men sat on wooden crates looking at the intruders with worried apprehension. Bright white hair, which frizzed out in all directions, reminded John of the look cartoon characters got after being zapped with 50,000 volts. They looked malnourished; their skin pulled tight over bones and weakened muscles. Boxes filled with junk were stacked atop more boxes overflowing with more junk, and lined every wall in the room. The two beds on either side looked suspiciously like desks covered with ratty blankets.
The rest of the rooms they passed were similar to the first; filled with junk and barely enough room for two or three people to sit, let alone sleep. Every single person looked like they hadn’t and a decent meal in weeks. John counted twenty in all, ranging from barely ten to well over sixty or seventy. There was no sign of the masked people from the balcony.
The corridor took a ninety-degree turn after the final room into another, shorter corridor. Heavy power cables curved around the corner and snaked down the short distance to a room several feet ahead on the left. The only other door stood at the far end, closed.
Tom stopped at the corner then motioned for John and Michael to move pass. They made their way pass the open door, catching a glimpse of a large thrumming machine, vibrating excessively. A dirty face, eyes wide in fear, peered over the generator at them, watching them intently.
Tom moved to follow just as the first soldier come out of the stairwell, his bulky body armor making his movements jerky, almost mechanical. Bright orange flashes filled the dimly lit corridor as bullets spat out of his rifle. The report reverberated through the corridor as plaster and paint erupted out of the wall behind Tom as he dove for cover.
He lost his grip on the light and it went sailing through the air. His knees hit first, sending a painful jolt through his body as he twisted his body to keep from face planting onto the floor. Palms slapped down hard, and he used his momentum to push himself back up.
“Go! Go! Go!” Michael shouted, pushing John forward.
John reached the door and tried the handle. Locked.
“Kick it!” Tom screamed, moving back to the corner. He fired off three rounds blindly around the corner and pulled back abruptly. Gunshots rang out and plaster blossomed out of composite walls, filling the corridor in a thick cloud of dust.
John put his back against the wall, gritted his teeth and launched a powerful forward kick. His boot connected with the door, expecting it to shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. It didn’t. The wood cracked and bowed around his foot, but held fast.
Tom fired off three more shots. “Come on!”
“Son of a bitch!” John shouted and backed up for a second attempt.
Several more gunshots rang out, their cadence different from the rest and a fraction of a second later the wall at the end of the main corridor exploded.
The blast sent Tom sprawling backwards; he came down hard on his back, the impact driving all the air out of his lungs. For a second John thought that he was dead, but Michael was already pulling the dazed man to his feet.
The thunderous cacophony dwindled away as sounds muted around him. A painful ringing drowned out every other sound, and when he shouted it sounded like he was underwater. “Come on you bitch!”
His foot slammed into the door. He felt it give a little, but remained closed.
Behind them another silver canister bounced silently off the destroyed wall and landed up right between a chunk of composite and a shredded bag of clothes. As John’s foot came forward a third time, the ends of the canister popped open and smoked poured into the corridor.
His kick was solid, the door burst open and all three piled through into another stairwell. With no plan other than survival, John raced up the first flight, taking them two at a time. He spun quickly around the landing and continued up the next flight. Michael was right behind him, using the rail to pull himself along and Tom followed closely on his heels.
After passing four landings, none of which had exits, John was beginning to wonder where they would end up. “Any clue where we’re going?” he shouted over his shoulder as he rounded the fifth landing.
“Does it matter?” Tom shouted back.
It was hard to argue his point.
They passed two more landings before coming to the first door. An old sign, hanging awkwardly in the center, read, EXIT. A heavy chain secured the metal crash bar to the handrail mounted on the wall next to it, a chunky padlock dangled between. Neither the chain nor lock looked like they’d been touched in years.
“Yeah.” John said, drawing his pulser. He aimed and fired a single dart into the body of the lock. The crack of the lock blowing apart was louder than the soft whistle of the pulser. The chain rattled as it fell from the door and without wasting a second, John kicked the crash bar.
The door swung wide, slamming back against an exterior wall. It opened up to what appeared to be an expansive rooftop-parking garage. Moonlight shown on the long abandoned lot, littered with long abandoned cars and trucks of all sizes, all stripped down to their frames.
The three men spilled out of the stairwell and stopped short, all realizing the same thing, there was no escape here.
“Oh, this is great. Just great!” Tom snarled.
The rooftop lot was wedged between the Landen and Kotch building and another windowless high-rise, a hundred feet away. They’d exited near the street side, where several stories below the avenue disappeared into the forest of buildings. Skiff engines thrummed somewhere behind them, shadows danced on the street below as the craft hovered on the opposite side of the tall department store building.
Michael moved first. “Come on.”
A wide alleyway separated the parking garage from a plain composite building that rose up another two or three stories. It was hard to tell without actually having any windows to judge levels. They dodged around several wrecks, and as they neared the alley-side, the skiff engines changed pitch, powering up.
“They know,” John said, peering over the edge, looking for anyway off the roof.
“No shit,” Tom said. He had his pistol trained on the door and slowly walked backward, around the hulk of a long passenger car. It sat on old rusted-out axles, angled diagonally across the faded lines of the stall.
Several feet away from the car, the bulk of a six-axle passenger van lay on its side. Considering the rest of the lot, John thought that the spot would provide them the most cover, such as it was. Passed the van, a ramp descended into the lower levels of the garage. The thought of making a break for it occurred to him, but he knew, even with a head-start, they’d never make it to ground level before they were sandwiched in by the skiff and armed Rats behind them.
“We’re going to have to fight them off here. Catch them all coming out the door,” Michael said, slamming another magazine into his pistol. He knelt down behind the front wheel well of the car and checked the rest of his magazines. Only two left.
Tom took up position behind at the rear, keeping his pistol leveled and ready. “And the skiff?”
John peered over the rail again. “Can’t we just…”
A series of muted pops brought their attention back to the stairwell. Several silver canisters arched out of the darkness and bounced across the empty pavement. They rolled apart and exploded in rapid succession, brilliant flashes of white light and thunderous claps of sound filled the night air. John dove behind the overturned van and landed in a ball. Gunfire filled the air, joined by pangs of bullets hitting metal. Chunks of composite blew out of the ground around them.
John crawled up to the front edge of the van and saw several armed figures emerging from the stairwell, rifles blazing. He extended his pulser then fired off a quick barrage of darts. At least a few of them found their targets, slamming into one of the armed figures and throwing him backwards. Rifles panned, blasting away at the new threat. John scrambled back for cover as bullets slammed into the ground in front of him.
The skiff appeared around the far side of the Landen and Kotch Building, coming around in a wide arc. Its searchlight panned around and locked on the Michael and Tom. They hunkered down in the shadow of the car, but John knew the wreck offered no protection to the skiffs heavy cannons. Sitting ducks. If he didn’t so something now, they were dead. He was up and moving before he knew what he was doing.
John sprinted away from the overturned van and fired wildly behind him. He’d made it ten feet when the light found him, engines whined as the skiff turned to face him. He angled around another car and flinched as the auto-cannons opened up. Composite erupted as bullets chewed into the ground behind him. He leapt over the hood of a small compact car, hit the ground beyond and rolled sideways. His hand slammed against the ground, and his pulser popped out and skidded away down the ramp. The path of destruction continued past the car for another five feet before the guns went silent.
He scooted up behind the car, cursing himself for being so stupid. He peered over his shoulder and was nearly blinded by the searchlight.
Great plan, John.
More gunfire rang out, quieter than the skiffs cannons. John realized it must have been Michael and Tom. Apparently, the skiff also made the connection and the light panned away, leaving him in darkness. Purple and orange after images danced in his vision.
“Get up, you asshole!” he ordered himself. He took a deep breath and moved for his pulser. He snatched it up and moved back up the ramp, where the two men blindly fired over the car at the Rats. He saw two more had fallen, sprawled out awkwardly behind their comrades.
The searchlight centered on them, and John saw the skiffs turrets lining up. Their expressions told him they knew as well. He had to help them and knew there wasn’t anything he could do. He brought the pulser up anyway and fired.
As he brought the pulser back down against the recoil, a blast of orange and blue energy shot through the air, slamming into the front of the skiff. The air around him seemed to electrify and sizzle and every hair on his body stood on end. The searchlight blinked out of existence in a shower of sparks as bands of colored energy blossomed out from the impact. From somewhere across the alley a continuous stream of energy pulsed into the skiff.
“What…” John whispered, the pulser in his hand fell to his side.
Engines roared as the skiff’s front end lifted in the air. The stream of orange and blue vanished briefly, and as the skiff attempted to bank away, a second blast slammed into its side, sheering the right side engine strut clean off. The engine shot high into the air, leaving a twirling trail of smoke behind it, as streamers of energy played across the skiffs fuselage. The remaining engine screamed under the strain.
Michael and Tom scrambled away from the torrent of destruction, as the stream of energy cut down the side of the skiff. They’d made it halfway to John when the skiff exploded in a massive fireball. The shockwave sent the men sprawling and sent large pieces of debris spinning into the air. The fireball rolled up and away, dissolving into the air above the skiff as it plummeted down and slammed into the ground below.
A second explosion engulfed the skiff and the two wrecked cars on either side. The streamer of energy, which had followed it down, vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. John ducked, avoiding a flying piece of twisted metal that bounced off the ground behind him and clattered down the ramp. Slowly, he stood back up and took in the view in disbelief.
“Holy shit,” He muttered, moving around the small car, now littered with bullet holes. He jogged up to where Michael and John were pulling themselves off the ground. “You guys okay?”
Several gunshots rang out before they could respond, and all three dove for cover. Bullets zipped by overhead and Tom slapped the ground. “Shit!”
“Do these guys ever quit?” John shouted, trying to see where the gunfire was coming from.
Michael slapped his last magazine into his pistol. “Rats don’t know the meaning of the word.”
Another energy blast shot out from the far rooftop, and the air popped and sizzled around them as the super-heated bands of energy tore through the three remaining soldiers. Blood curdling screams filled the air as limbs were sheared off and holes tore through bodies. The energy stream traced a line through the men and reduced the doorway behind them to a gaping hole. After several seconds, the beam vanished in a buzz of static, leaving them in darkness.
Silence fell around them, save for the crackling and popping of the fire which had engulfed the skiff, and all three stared at each other in amazement. Very slowly, they all got to their feet and brushed themselves off.
John took in the carnage around them, still trying to process it all. “Who…”
Michael pointed and John followed his gaze to the edge of the building across the alley. A shadowy figure appeared at the edge, something propped over one shoulder.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Tom said.
The voice was high-pitched, like that of a young teenage girl. “Hey!” she called. “You boys want to quit screwing around down there, my Pale’s getting warm.”
The girl leapt from the roof and glided down through the air like a bird, arms spread wide. The short jacket she wore billowed out behind her like a cape.
“Damn it, Sis. You scared the shit out of me!” Tom pointed an accusatory finger at her as she touched down lightly on the pavement.
The boots she wore were oversized, and the orange and white-striped socks sticking out of them ran all the way up over her knees. A layered red and black skirt was pinned to her right side by a holster that hung loosely around her hips. Her jacket hung open, its sleeves rolled up to just under her elbows, a dark red shirt underneath. Burnt orange hair stuck out from either side of her head in stumpy pigtails, and a grin that spanned from ear to ear covered her pale face.
John didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone clash as much as this girl. She was pretty, but in the schoolgirl way that made him almost embarrassed to think so. Realizing he was staring, he looked away and failed to make it seem natural.
“Who’s this?” she said, nodding to John. She lifted the weapon to her shoulder again and stepped toward them. It looked like three shotgun barrels attached to each other, arranged with two large bore barrels below the single. Multi-colored cables wrapped back around the length of the barrels to the main body, three-quarters of the way down the weapon. It was about the length of a large automatic machine gun. A pistol grip extended below the main body, and a second from a rail underneath the barrel assembly. She held it by a steel A-frame that served as the weapons butt-stock.
“Came through the Portal,” Tom explained. “Care to explain?” He motioned to the weapon.
“Huh? Oh, my latest toy,” she said holding it out for them to see. “I call it a tribarrel.”
Tom scratched the back of his head. “Clever. Where’s Tim?”
“He’s coming,” the girl said, reaching for something on her belt. “What happened to your Com?”
Tom gave John an irritated look. “Lost it.”
She followed Tom’s gaze and considered John for a moment, then spoke into the device in her hand, “Tim, hurry your ass up. We don’t have all day."
The voice that answered her was barely audible over the static, “I…oming … oks...you ha…company.”
“Oh, come on,” she said, slamming the small com unit against her leg. “Tim? What’s going on?” she shouted into the comm.
She shoved the com back into its pouch on her belt. “Shit.”
Michael slumped back against the car. “You know I could really use a drink right about now.” His voice was slurred and drawn out.
“Michael!” The girl tossed the tribarrel at Tom, who stepped back surprised, barely managing to hold on it.
“Watch it, Sis!”
She ignored him and knelt down beside Michael, examining the bandages around his leg. “Are you okay?”
“Who, me?” Michael said with a smile. “Never better, I’m super-good.” He motioned to John. “Thanks to him.”
The girl glanced at John for a moment, then glared at Tom. “What happened? It was supposed to be a simple in and out.”
Tom waved the butt of the tribarrel at John. “He happened.”
Way passed caring, John simply held out his hand and said, “John McNeal, Day-Ruiner Extraordinaire.”
She raised an orange colored eyebrow. “Stupid looking outfit you got there, John.”
“Well, call the fashion police and lock me up.”
Michael’s head wobbled lazily. “I feel funny.”
The girl put a hand around the nape of his neck, steadying him. “What’s wrong with him?”
“It’s the betadyphanol I gave him,” John explained. “It’s got a pretty good kick to it.” The girl gave him a questioning look and he said, “Pain killer.”
“We’re going to get you outta here, okay,” she told Michael, looking straight into his eyes. Michael returned her look sleepily, his eyes unfocused. She pulled the com out of her pocket again. “Anytime now, Stupid.”
Tom chucked. “You know, he really doesn’t like it when you call him that.”
“I know,” she said with a grin.
A deep reverberating thrum washed over them as another skiff appeared overhead. It flew across the garage and out over the street, then made a wide arcing-turn back toward the small group. John was surprised when they weren’t subjected to violent engine-wash as they had been from the last two. Instead of powerful blasting engines, these were wrapped in very distinct energy bands; green and yellow lines wrapped around the casings pulsed rapidly in sequence. The distinct thrumming grew stronger as the skiff descended.
“About time,” the girl said, moving to help Michael to his feet.
The pulsing slowed as the skiff neared the surface of the lot, rotating around so its side was facing the group. Through the clear windshield, John saw the pilot adjusting his controls to keep the skiff level. A mirrored visor, attached to a grey helmet, covered the top half of his face, a microphone extended down in front of his lips.
The front rose up slightly, stopping its decent, and the skiff came to a hover several inches above the dirty concrete. Two hatches on either side of the main fuselage folded up and away, revealing a small cargo area. A small hatchway separated it from the cockpit at the front of the craft.
Something clanged off the skiff’s hull and a rock bounced off the concrete below. Angry voices drew the group’s attention to the crumbling remnants of the Landen and Kotch exit. Several people had fanned out from the gaping hole in the side of the building, contempt and hatred spread across their faces. One of the old men from the first room they’d passed stood at the far end, hands wrapped around a tall cane for support.
Another rock sailed through the air. John had to duck out of the way. “Son of a bitch! What is their issue?”
“We destroyed their home,” Tom replied, propping the tribarrel over his left shoulder. He pulled out his pistol and fired off several shots at the crowd. Puffs of powder and specs of composite exploded into the air just ahead of the angry mob.
“You guys waiting for an invitation?” a male voice crackled from an unseen speaker on the skiff.
The girl, who was already pulling Michael across the roof, shouted, “A little help here.”
John stepped forward and grabbed ahold of the man’s other arm. They pulled him to his feet and walked him the fifteen feet to the waiting skiff. Tom followed close behind, sporadically firing back at the angry mob. Several more rocks, and whatever else the mob could find, were lobbed through the air, bouncing harmlessly off the skiff. Several long pipes clattered on the ground around them.
As they reached the open compartment Tom’s gun clicked empty. “Oh, great, fantastic.”
The girl shifted Michael’s weight, tried to life him up on the hard metallic floor but didn’t have the leverage. He giggled as she moved her arms underneath his.
His head slumped sideways and he replied with a grin, “Don’t tickle.”
“For shit’s sake.”
John turned to Tom, “Hop in, we’ll lift him up to you.” The look Tom gave him was pure contempt. “Come on!”
A baseball-sized rock flew past them, inches from the girl’s face. She jerked her head back. “Damn it, hurry up and get in there!”
“If we could get moving sometime soon, that would be great,” The pilot called back from the cockpit. He had twisted around in his seat to watch them load up through the hatch.
Tom cursed and moved around them. He tossed the TriBarrel up into the compartment and jumped in after it. With Tom pulling, they lifted Michael’s body up and in, then both John and the girl followed him in.
“Let’s go!” Tom shouted as he pulled Michael toward one of the benches at the back.
The thrumming of the engines sped up and the skiff began to climb. Tom and John lifted Michael into a seat and strapped him in. The compartment doors folded down and sealed with a hiss, as they lifted higher into the air leaving the angry crowd below.
The compartment was about thirty feet long and half that wide. A row of four seats ran along the back bulkhead with two groups of double seats, separated by the cockpit hatch, at the front. Wires and cables snaked around ceiling of the compartment, attached by ties and what John thought was tape. The whole thing looked like it had been pieced together with spare parts.
John moved across to one of the window seats at the front and strapped in. The girl took the one next to Michael as Tom moved to stand next to the hatch. He grabbed ahold of a cluster of cables running along the ceiling and leaned through the opening. “Thanks for not taking your time, or anything.”
“Hey, you’re welcome. I’m here for you, brother.”
“Oh, man,” Michael said, drawing out the “oh” like an off-key musical note, “I’m going to be in so much trouble.”
The pilot leaned around to look back at him. “Is he okay?”
“He’s alive,” Tom said. He reached into a compartment above the seats and pulled out several bottles of water. He tossed one each to Michael and the girl, then twisted the cap off his own and took a long drink.
The girl caught hers in one hand, took a drink, then wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her jacket. “What happened, Tom?”
Michael tried to take a sip of his but only managed to pour a quarter of the bottle down his shirt. “Fell down.”
Tom shook his head and glared at John. “Came through the Portal after the Snatcher went up.”
“Oh, wow, really? From the other side? Cool.”
“Glad I could make your day,” John replied. He considered asking for a bottle of his own, then decided against it. He wasn’t about to show any weakness in front of these people.
Tom moved across and held his own bottle to Michael’s lips. As he took a sip, the skiff banked and the bottle slipped up into his nose.
“Ow. Easy Tom, that hurt.” Michael snatched the water bottle out of Tom’s hand.
Tom muttered an apology, and moved back across to compartment to sit across the hatch from John. He strapped in, crossed his arms and starred out the window next to him.
“Rats found you guys pretty quick,” The girl noted. “Even with the beacon it took us twenty minutes to track you down.”
Tom shrugged and flipped a thumb in John’s direction. “Wouldn’t’ve been off course if we hadn’t had to bring him along.”
“Hey, go fuck yourself all right,” John said.
“You know the rules,” Michael said. He tossed his bottle to John. “Here.”
It was a horrible throw, and John almost fell out of his seat trying to grab it. “Thanks.”
“Yeah,” Tom replied, his gaze fixed on the buildings flying by outside. “I know them.”
“How’d he even get through?” The girl asked.
John felt like he’d just broken his mother’s favorite lamp and now Mom and Dad were discussing his fate. “Hey, you know I’m right here.”
Michael reached down to his injured leg. “Hey man, you wouldn’t have any more of that great stuff would you?”
“I do,” John answered, after taking a drink, “but unless you want to turn into a zombie for the next few days, I’d advise against it.”
“So, how did you do it?” Michael asked.
John scoffed. “Do what?”
The girl rocked her head side to side. “You know, come through the Portal. It’s been years since anyone has come through, you know.”
“Watch it,” Tom warned.
She shrugged. “What? He’s here now.” She glanced back to John. “So…?”
John sighed. “Look, all I know is this giant-swirling-electric-black-hole-thing appeared out of nowhere, my Falcon went bingo then I was sucked through and ended up here. You’re saying it’s some kind of portal?”
Michael nodded. “That’s what we call it.”
“What’s a bingo?” the girl asked.
“My fighter crashed.”
“And, that’s it.” John held his hands out palms up. “I have no idea what happened or how I got through whatever it was, much less what the hell is going on right now. I don’t even really know who you people are.”
“You don’t need to,” Tom muttered.
“Tom,” Michael said.
“Ahh.” He waved an irritated hand through the air, then sulked like a child who’d just been told he couldn’t go outside and play.
The girl shook her head. “She’s going to be pissed.”
Tom let out a knowing laughed. “You think.”
“She knows the Rules, and so do both of you.” Michael pointed a finger at them both in turn. “You might not like it, but this is happening.”
John held up a hand. “Hey, so, I know that I’m not in-the-know around here, but is there some kind of rule that prevents you from telling me what the hell is going on? I mean, can you tell me where I am at least?”
Michael and the girl exchanged reluctant looks, then he turned to John and shrugged. “Well, honestly, there are a lot of names for this place. I don’t have any idea what people from your side call it, but we just call it, Neverland.”
Second Star continues in:
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