Book: Dropship: A Near Future Thriller
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Forsaken Mercenary Book One
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I knew they were no good the minute they tried to walk in. That was why we didn’t let them. In the time since I had taken over as head centurion of the Half Moon, we cleaned up. We kicked out the corrupt workers skimming money off each night’s pull. We handled anyone who thought causing trouble at the club would be a good idea.
Within a month, the place was already pulling in more guests than before. We made examples of anyone still stupid enough to cause trouble.
Recently, a new nightclub opened up in the city of Dome called Red’s. Usually, I didn’t worry myself about competition. I just controlled what I could control. The only issue now was that Red’s was sending muscle over to cause trouble on a nightly basis. This was the third night in a row when a group of thugs was trying to get into the Half Moon. Not on my watch.
“Sorry, we don’t serve your kind here,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest at the entrance to Half Moon. My centurions were backing me up: Carl, Vasily, and two others on shift.
There were five of these hired thugs in front of me. They were all big guys, not necessarily muscular but large-framed and intimidating, or so they thought. A slender man with dark hair gave me a smile. He shrugged as if he didn’t know what I was talking about.
“Come on, there’s no reason to discriminate against us,” he said with a sideways grin. “We just want to have a good time.”
“Discrimination has nothing to do with it, brother,” I told him. “You could be any race, ethnicity, creed, or gender, and I still wouldn’t let you in.”
“Ahhhh, come on,” he said. His voice was calm, but I recognized the violence in his eyes.
We stood in the entrance to the club. As such, we were already drawing a crowd of onlookers both inside and outside the doors.
“Listen,” I told him, matching his easy way of speaking. “I know you work for Red’s. I recognize one of your boys from two nights ago when he started trouble here. I guess he didn’t learn his lesson.”
The thug in question was a short guy with a bulging belly. His left eye was swollen shut from where Carl had laid into him the night before last.
“Knife, left boot,” an unfamiliar voice warned.
We all looked over to see an older man with pepper-gray hair in a long brown overcoat. He looked at me then down at the boot of the guy I was talking to.
“Well, it looks like we have a problem,” the man in front of me said. Ignoring the old man, he reached into his left boot, pulling out a thick blade made from some kind of plastic. The scanner would have caught it if it had been metal.
“No problem,” I said, rolling my neck around my shoulders. “Just a mistake on our part. We let your kind walk out of here the last few nights. Now you’re going to be carried.”
I thought that was a cool thing to say, but the hired thug in front of me didn’t seem to think I was witty. His smile faded as he slashed down toward me with his knife.
I was ready. I bolted forward, tackling him with enough force to take him off his feet and carry us both through the doors of the Half Moon. I didn’t just slam into him and let him fall backward. I carried him off his feet then used torque to hammer him into the ground right inside the doors.
Patrons yelled as they moved out of our way. The outside of the Half Moon was actually just a wide hall intended to hold a line. On the far end, a row of ascent cylinders allowed our customers access to the rooftop-club.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see my centurions going to work fighting the rest of the thugs. I wanted to move to help, but first things first. The guy under me was regaining his breath, trying to mount an assault with the knife still held in his right hand.
No way, I told myself.
I sat on top of his chest, grasping the wrist of his hand and holding the knife with my left, and laid five blows into his face with my right. That same warm feeling of adrenaline filled my chest. My heart beat a rapid pace. I fought the feeling of satisfaction at what I was doing.
It wasn’t like I enjoyed doling out pain, but if I was honest with myself, when I was fighting, I felt the most alive. Like this above all else was what I was born to do.
I reached back for another strike. The guy’s face was already bruising over. He lay limp beneath me.
The scream woke me from my thoughts. I looked to my right, where Carl had stumbled backward and fell. One of those plastic knives stuck out of his right leg.
I jumped to my feet, moving to help.
The guy over Carl pulled out his weapon with a twist. A manic glare filled the thug’s eyes.
Carl gritted his teeth. He tried to stand, leaving his face open for another strike.
I ran faster; it was a short distance. Still, I was going to have to throw everything I had at this jump or Carl was going to be passing for a space pirate with a patch for the rest of his life.
The knife came down on Carl just as I tackled the thug. We went down together. I underestimated my opponent’s ability to adapt to his new station. When we landed, he sliced at the right side of my rib cage.
His blade came back sticky with crimson blood. Searing pain crossed my senses. I knew I was wounded. I also understood right now was not the time to stop and look at the wound or pause to understand how much pain I was in.
I rose to my feet faster than my opponent. He tried an overhand stab this time. I caught his wrist in both of my hands. One thing that had been ingrained into me in whatever past life I led was that when you were in a fight, you controlled the weapon. I followed these instincts, twisting the arm so far around that ligaments broke and tendons tore.
The guy holding the knife cursed in pain. He went down to the ground head first. I twisted his arm straight back behind him before smashing my boot into the back of his skull. He slumped into the ground unconscious.
Just to be sure he wouldn’t be a future problem, I tore the knife from his limp grip.
I turned back to see the rest of my centurions cleaning up the remaining thugs. Only one was still on his feet. Vasily was taking care of that with a flurry of body blows.
The last hired muscle sank to the ground a moment later.
Cheers from those watching inside and outside of the Half Moon filled the hall.
I leaned down to give Carl a hand. “You still with me?”
“I’m better than that,” Carl said, rising to his feet with a look of shame. “I’m better than that in a fight. He took me by surprise with that blade, that’s all.”
“He missed any major arteries,” I said, glancing at Carl’s wound. I didn’t know how I knew that, but I did. Just like I knew water was wet and a kick in the balls wasn’t a joking matter. “You’ll be alright as soon as they close up that gash.”
“You too,” Carl said, nodding toward my right side where the blade found my own skin. “You need to get that checked out.”
“I’m good, I’m good,” I said, placing a hand over the wound I had already forgotten about. “It was barely a scratch.”
“Didn’t look like a scratch,” Vasily said, coming up to us and looking down at my wound. “A call’s already been put through to the local praetorians. They’ll bring a med team as well.”
“Yeah, good work,” I told the mountain of a man. “Vasily, you stay here with Carl and get pressure on his wound. Like you said, the prats will be here in a hot second.”
I moved through the gathered crowd back into the club. More shouts and slaps on the back came my way.
“Hey, where you going?” Carl asked.
I didn’t turn to answer. I couldn’t have if I wanted. I needed to check on something even I didn’t understand.
I made my way through the Half Moon, keeping my hand close to the cut. My tight-fitting black long-sleeve shirt didn’t leave room for much hope of hiding the wound.
I knew I should be feeling more pain at the moment. That knife had cut deep. The pain came when the injury first occurred but left just as quickly as my body worked on the problem.
A few seconds later, I crossed to the right side of the Half Moon. There was a second level full of offices and our own private bathroom for the staff.
I went inside, making sure to lock the door behind me. The comm unit we all wore inside of our ears was going off like crazy. There were reports of praetorians arriving on scene and a med unit on the way.
I ignored the chatter for the time being. I made my way to the wide mirror, removing my black shirt as I did so. The bright bathroom lights showed my muscular body covered in tattoos.
Right now, this wasn’t my focus. I looked at the wound on the right side of my ribs. Like I thought, it cut deep. I could see bone or maybe it was my imagination. Whatever the case, I knew I should have been in more pain. Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t feel like a kiss, but neither was I in the type of agony I knew I should be in.
The bleeding had already stopped. I didn’t know why, but for the last five years, I could remember I healed fast, way too fast to be any kind of normal.
I first discovered this when working at a bar called Zero Gravity. I was one of the centurions there, and one night, a bottle caught me from behind. It shattered against my skull. There was a flash of pain, but that was it. When the fight was over, I felt the gash in my head. The bleeding stopped nearly instantly. The next morning, there was barely a scrape visible.
It was a secret I didn’t understand but one I knew I needed to keep. I had enough questions about my past. I didn’t need more people digging into it.
My eyes traveled to the one tattoo they always did. That menacing wolf on my left shoulder. The one that looked like he was going to jump off my skin and take a bite out of me. He glared at me and I glared back.
A tentative knock on the door broke me from my stand-off with the tattoo.
“Mr.—Daniel?” a woman’s voice asked.
I recognized her voice. It was Donna, the head bartender who was in charge of that side of the business.
“Daniel, there’s a med team here if you want them to take a look at you. Carl said you got stuck pretty bad,” Donna said.
“No, no, I’m okay, barely a graze,” I lied through the door. “I’m good. Thanks, though. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Daniel,” Donna’s voice almost became motherly despite her not being much older than me. “If this is some kind of thing to prove how tough you are, I can assure you that you already have everyone at the Half Moon impressed. Or if you don’t want to get tagged in the med database because you’re running from something, at least let me take a look at it.”
“You some kind of doctor or something?” I asked.
“You don’t get to where I’m at in a bar without seeing your fair share of blood spilled,” Donna said. “I have our first aid material with me. If you won’t go see the med unit, at least let me take a look.”
“You’re not going to go away until I let you take a look, are you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Nope,” Donna answered.
“All right,” I said, going over to the door and unlatching the lock. “But just for a second. I’ll let you see I’m okay and then we have to get back to work.”
“Deal,” Donna answered.
She walked into the bathroom with me. All six feet of her with her long red hair and longer legs that made more than one customer go crazy. True to her word, she held a sealed case in one hand. It looked like a small backpack.
Her eyes danced around my shirtless form, coming to rest on my tattoos and then my wound.
“Well, we’re not getting any younger,” I said, motioning for her to give me the med case. “Come on. Let’s wrap it up and be done with it.”
Donna nodded, tearing her eyes away from my tattoos and giving her full attention to the wound. She opened up the med case going for the antibacterial foam first and then the skin spray.
“Well, I guess you weren’t trying to be a tough guy after all,” Donna said, eyeing the wound. “It really doesn’t look that bad. It’s hardly bleeding.”
“See.” I shrugged. “Barely nicked me.”
“Well, this might sting a little,” Donna warned, spreading the antibacterial foam over my wound.
“Where’d you learn to fight like that anyway?” Donna asked as she worked on wiping dry the remaining antibacterial foam. “I mean, I’ve seen a lot of centurions come through here, but none who don’t even hesitate when a blade is drawn, much less go on the attack like you did.”
“Listen, I appreciate the concern, but if this is going to be an interview, then—”
“No, no, I’m sorry,” Donna said, reaching for the silver cylinder can of skin spray. The mist of new skin felt cold and tingly on my side. “I’m guessing you don’t want to talk about the tattoos either, huh?”
“Not really,” I said.
“You know, you remind me a lot of my dad,” Donna said in a sad kind of way. “Pushing people away, not ready to share. After my mom died, he was never the same. Always kind to me and there for whatever I needed, but he refused to open up to anyone else.”
I knew Donna only cared. She was one of the good ones. The honest fact was that I wasn’t sure if I had lost anyone. Opening up to someone now meant exposing the truth of a past I didn’t even know.
“All right,” Donna said, taking a step back. She admired her work. “I’m not going to win any awards for style, but at least it’s not infected and stopped bleeding.”
I looked down at her job. It wasn’t half bad.
“Okay.” Donna picked up the conversation again when she saw I wasn’t going to say anything. “I’ll go now. You can hide out while the praetorians finish if you don’t want them to see you.”
Donna smiled at me and turned to go.
“Hey,” I said, searching for words I didn’t have. “I’m not good with thank yous. Haven’t really had a lot of opportunities to use those words.”
“You just used ‘em. You did great.” Donna winked at me and left me to my thoughts.
I breathed a heavy sigh of frustration. Donna probably thought I was a cold jerk, but better that than get her involved in whatever I had been a part of in my past.
I gathered my torn shirt and made my way to my office. It was nothing more than a small cube with the essentials of a desk and chairs. A small closet sat in the corner where I stowed a change of clothes for this exact occasion.
I reached into the closet, pulling out a duplicate black long-sleeve shirt. I placed it over my head as I headed out the door again. I wasn’t afraid of talking to the praetorians. I was on file with the Galactic Government with a bogus identity I paid a back alley contact handsomely to create.
It was the healing thing I was concerned about. Now that that was taken care of, I could go put on a fake smile and impress the local praetorians.
Music at the Half Moon came from a band playing old-school blues on the stage opposite the main doors. Sure enough, Carl received medical attention while Vasily and the other centurions gave testimonials to the praetorians.
The conflict was one of those things where you didn’t rat out the other guy. Our boss Mr. Tomb would want to handle this his way. If he did get the praetorians to visit Red’s, it would be his decision, not ours.
“And then when they refused to leave, we made them leave.” Vasily shrugged as he reported to the praetorian. “It’s as simple as that.”
The praetorian in question jotted down notes on the back of his left vambrace that glowed golden with a holographic display.
“Really? That’s all?” he asked, looking at me as I approached. “This is the third night in a row we’ve had a call and you all have no idea what could be going on?”
I recognized the tall man. His name was Captain Asher. He was in charge of this district. I was pretty sure he was clean. Meaning he was off Mr. Tomb’s payroll but who really knew these days.
“Mr. Hunt,” Captain Asher said, looking at me. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Well, I do work here,” I said with a grin. “Captain Asher, you know the drill. Whatever you need, you get.”
“Oh, I know the drill.” Captain Asher scratched the underside of his chin. “So no formal complaints reported against these men? Maybe their employer? Red’s?”
“Red’s?” I looked at Carl with mock bewilderment on my face. “Carl, did you know anything about these guys being hired by Red’s?”
“What?” Carl looked up from where the med tech bandaged his injured leg. “Red’s? No way. Those guys are our friends.”
A couple praetorians got a chuckle out of that one.
A harsh look from Captain Asher and they lost the grins on their faces.
Captain Asher was an imposing man without the mustard yellow armor he wore or the blaster strapped to his back. With these elements, he could be downright intimidating if he chose to be.
“Mr. Hunt, a word?” Captain Asher moved to the side.
“I understand you’re just doing your job here,” Captain Asher said, narrowing his dark eyes. “However, you and I both know situations like these will only escalate until it’s not brawls with knives but lives lost with blasters, maybe even small explosives. If you want to do the right thing here, I need you to file a formal complaint against Red’s. You and I both know those thugs were hired by them. Give me a formal complaint. Let me go over there and check it out.”
I almost wanted to. I almost gave in. I wouldn’t consider myself a good guy, but here was one in front of me asking for help.
“Sorry.” I shrugged. “Whether you believe me or not, I really am. But I can’t file that complaint you want. It’s not the way things are done here.”
Captain Asher gave me a hard nod as if he knew I wasn’t going to give him what he wanted this entire time.
He moved along, gathering his team and any last-minute statements being given. Within the next fifteen minutes, they were gone and the club was back to business as usual.
It wasn’t until my mind was free of the events that I remembered the old man who warned me of the knife in the thug’s boot. I searched the club for him without luck. There was something about him. Not in his voice or even in his appearance per se, but in his eyes.
I knew those eyes somehow.
Add that to the ever expanding list of things you can’t remember, I growled to myself. You’re lucky you even know your name.
The rest of the night passed without another altercation. In the early hours of the morning, the club shut down and I was on my way home.
I shrugged deep into my own black coat. The air was a bit chilly even under the double layering of domes that protected our city and allowed us to live on the moon.
Earth was a distant memory. After humans used up its resources, we tossed it to the side like a used napkin and made for the heavens. The moon was our first stop, colonizing the planet and creating massive domes to live inside. Smaller domes popped up in their larger counterparts. We called these cities.
I lived in the largest of these moon cities, a city that was appropriately called Dome.
I walked back to my place to help clear my mind. I didn’t mind walking. It was a simple act in a complicated world. At this hour, there were still people out and about, but the normal press of morning traffic was lost in these early hours. High-rise buildings with neon lights sat on either side of wide streets. Crafts zipped this way and that. Vehicles on the moon had taken to the air instead of dealing with the normal press of people traveling the streets.
The Half Moon, owned by Mr. Tomb, sat in the wealthiest section of Dome. My living space was on the opposite side. As I walked, it was clear to see the new shiny buildings giving way to much older, much cheaper living spaces. Vendors appeared on the streets as I made my way to the poor section of Dome.
These vendors called out their wares, everything from hot printed meat pie to cold hard drinks. I didn’t want either at the moment.
I wound my way home to my poorly maintained apartment building. Inside was fairly quiet. The drab walls, the worn floor all pointed to my simple living. I didn’t need much. Just a single-bedroom apartment with a place to shower and lay my head.
I knew something was wrong as soon as I turned down my hall. It was well lit with a flickering light at the end. What caught my eye was the door to my apartment.
My door stood cracked open two doors down on the right. Immediately, my right hand reached behind me for my hand cannon. The MK II was an old-school weapon built for one purpose: to eviscerate whatever I pointed it at. When humanity had upgraded to blasters, I preferred to stick with the dependable weapon.
My MK II produced enough stopping power to penetrate any helmet or armor. Tungsten steel bolts acted as ammunition for the weapon.
Right now, that MK II felt like an old friend. I pointed it down the hall, slowly walking to my door.
Instinct kicked in and I examined the hall in front of me and behind me. It was empty for the moment. Movement from the far end of the hall caught my eye. A door to the left opened and a short older woman stepped out. She took one look at the MK II in my hand then stepped backward into her room once more.
I paused at the entrance, trying to discern if whoever broke in was still inside or had already left.
“I’m not going to bite, Daniel,” a familiar voice said from within. “You can open the door. I’m just here to talk. You can lower that relic in your hand as well.”
The voice belonged to the older man I had seen in the club earlier that night. The same one that had warned me about the knife in my opponent’s boot.
I sure as heck didn’t lower my weapon. Slowly, I edged the door open and pointed my weapon inside.
“Danny, I’m here to talk,” the older man in my apartment said through the door. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”
I didn’t know the man at all, but something told me he was telling the truth. Both hands on my weapon, I entered my living quarters. It was dark. A red glow came from the tip of the cigar in the man’s mouth. He puffed at it, the glowing red tobacco shining bright as ever.
I took a moment to make sure he was indeed alone. It wasn’t difficult to see he was telling the truth. My apartment consisted of a single large room outside of the bathroom to my left. In front of me was my small table and kitchen area. To my right, my bed pressed up against the wall.
I went to the light pad set into my wall and pressed it. The room filled with illumination a moment later.
The man sitting at my table was indeed the same elderly gentleman who warned me about the knife in the thug’s boot earlier that night. His face was wrinkled and beaten with age, his eyes twin stones of chocolate brown. He wore a trench coat, both hands in front of him on the table.
I guessed this last part was more to put me at ease than anything else.
“Who are you?” I asked, deciding on this question first. There were a dozen of them I wanted to ask. “You’re speaking to me like you know me. How do you know me?”
“You really don’t remember a thing, do you, Daniel?” he asked, looking at me past the barrel of my weapon. Most people would squirm under having a hand cannon pointed at them. Not this man. “How far back can you remember?”
“I asked you first,” I said, unwilling to divulge information to a complete stranger. “Who are you? How do you know me?”
“My name is Wesley Cage and I work for a private organization that employed you in the past.” The man lifted a hand to the cigar in the corner of his mouth. He let out a long, slow puff of smoke. “I was your point of contact, Daniel. I sent you and the others out on your missions.”
“Others?” I asked, wondering if there were more people like me, whatever I was. “How many others are out there?”
“Seven in your graduating class, but there have been others since then,” Wesley said. “How long back can you remember?”
“Five years.” I readjusted the grip on my weapon. So far, Wesley seemed like he was telling the truth, but there was no real way of knowing. The fact was, I didn’t trust anyone who could break into my apartment on a whim.
“Five years,” Wesley repeated. “Five years ago, we sent you on a mission. We lost contact with you. We thought you were dead until news reached us and the company decided to investigate.”
“Company? What company?” I asked.
“All in good time, Daniel,” Wesley said, leaning over the table with the smoking cigar in his hand. “One more question from me first. How did you remember your name? How did you know?”
“I woke up from whatever it was that happened to me more dead than alive,” I answered, recalling the events surrounding my first memory. “There was a single piece of paper in my pocket. It had a name and a number on it. Daniel Hunt, number one. That was it.”
Wesley slowly nodded as if he understood it all.
I was starting to get pissed because I still didn’t understand any of this.
“Can we put the weapon down now, Daniel?” Wesley asked with a shrug. “If you were going to kill me, you would have done it by now. Plus, I’m the only link to the answers you want.”
“Yeah, well, what if I don’t want those answers?” I said, keeping the weapon aimed at his head. “What if I don’t want to know?”
“I have a business proposition for you,” Wesley said, placing the cigar into the left corner of his mouth like it belonged there. He spread his arms wide then pointed into his trench coat. “May I?”
“Go ahead,” I said. My finger squeezed the trigger of my weapon. Any false move and he’d have a crater for a head.
Wesley slowly reached into his trench coat with his right hand and pulled out a large tan envelope. He placed it on the table in front of him, looking to me expectantly.
We stared at each other for a moment.
“Daniel, you really don’t remember a thing, do you?” Wesley asked, almost cracking a smile. “It’s good to see you.”
“Yeah, well that makes one of us,” I said, nodding with my chin toward the envelope. “If that’s not filled with answers, I’m not interested.”
“It’s not answers, but it’s the promise of answers,” Wesley said. “I’ve been authorized by the company to give you a way back in if I found you. Inside the envelope is a mission. Complete the mission and you’ll get all the answers you never knew you wanted.”
It seemed silly to keep the weapon on him any longer. He was right. He could have tried to kill me a half dozen times by now. So far, he’d been nothing but mysterious, not dangerous.
Slowly, I lowered the MK II to my side. I stared at the envelope for a few more seconds before moving to examine it. My hand hovered over the envelope for a second.
“I feel like this has been a one-sided conversation so far,” I said, looking into Wesley’s eyes. “You want me to read what’s in this, then tell me the company you work for.”
“The company we work for,” Wesley corrected. “Immortal Corporation is their real name. They have smaller offshoots and ghost shells set up, of course, but I’ll shoot you straight, Daniel.”
I didn’t think Wesley was lying, but that didn’t mean I was satisfied. Instead of pursuing the line of questioning, I lifted the envelope off the table and tore it open. There was paperwork in there along with a handful of pictures and a circular silver disc the size of my thumb. The first thing that caught my eye were images of what was left of Earth and a Galactic Government dropship.
I put two and two together before even reading the paperwork.
“Nope, not interested,” I said, tossing the envelope and its contents back on the table. “Find someone else.”
“Same old Daniel.” Wesley grinned after taking another puff of his cigar. “Did you even read the assignment?”
“Don’t have to,” I said, shaking my head. “Pictures of Earth and a dropship to get there? I may have lost my memory, but I didn’t lose my sanity. Earth’s a pit of insanity and death. Has been ever since the exodus when humanity took to the moon and beyond. I have no desire to go there.”
Wesley drummed the fingertips of his right hand on the table. I could tell he was debating something with himself.
“Daniel, this may be hard for you to believe, but you and I were once friends. You and I are friends and you just don’t remember.” Wesley pointed to the pictures and files on the table. “This is your way back to answers. This is who you are. You have to understand that to some extent or another. You know how alive you feel when you fight. How you’re a little bit faster, a little bit stronger than you should be. How you heal quicker than anyone else. You are different, Daniel. Pretending you’re something that you’re not isn’t going to change those facts.”
“So I was some kind of experiment for this Immortal Corporation we worked for?” I asked, running my tongue over the inside of my teeth. “I’m some kind of assassin sent out on missions?”
“You’re an asset deployed in the field serving a much greater plan.” Wesley shook his head. “I know it’s hard to believe, but we’re the good guys here.”
“There are no more good guys,” I said. “Just varying shades of bad.”
“You’re wrong there,” Wesley said, being sure to slowly rise from his chair to show he was making no move to engage. “If I tell you any more, you won’t have a reason to go on the mission and rejoin the pack. I want you back, Daniel, but that is a decision you’ll have to make for yourself. Accept who you are or go back to life as a centurion at a bar. If you decide you want answers, there’s a dropship headed for Earth at 1200 tomorrow. Be on it.”
Wesley moved toward the door.
I didn’t stop him.
“If I was crazy enough to do this,” I said, not turning to look at Wesley before he left. “What would the mission be?”
“A simple intelligence-gathering mission,” Wesley said.
I couldn’t see him, but I could tell there was a smile on his lips.
“There’s a rebel faction calling themselves Phoenix on Earth,” Wesley said. “We need to find out what they’re up to. There’s a small disc inside the envelope. It’s a new piece of tech Immortal Corp is working with. You should check it out. It mounts on the back of your right ear.”
I didn’t say any more. Honestly, I had no idea what I was going to do.
Wesley took his cue to leave. His boots sounded down the hall of my level. I just stood there for the time being, weighing the pros and cons of my dilemma.
What to do, Daniel, what to do? I asked myself over and over again. You wanted answers for these past five years, now here they are. In front of you is the path to finally get them.
I went to my door and locked it before returning to my table. I placed my MK II on the table in front of me and pored over the documents. It didn’t hurt to look. There were more pictures of Earth, the dropship to Earth, and the militia unit I’d be connecting with if I decided to go, and more info on the rebels calling themselves Phoenix as well.
The information was blurry here, but it seemed like Phoenix had found some kind of weapon on Earth. It seemed straightforward, but I knew things like this never were.
I picked up the small circle of steel inside the envelope. On one side, tiny little spikes protruded from the base. I hated that I felt excited. I wanted to go, I realized that now. Not just because I needed answers. Wesley was right. Something in my DNA urged me to run free. I wasn’t meant for a life as a centurion, even though I was good at it. I was meant for something more and I felt that.
“In and out,” I said to myself out loud. “Dropship to Earth, on the ground for a few days gathering intel, and then I’m back with all the answers I probably don’t want and some I do. How hard can it be?”
I made my decision at the table that night to go. If I knew what was in store for me through the coming days, I would have burned that envelope there and then.
I didn’t really sleep that night. The early hours of the morning were spent on more debating, more thinking of what I was going to do. After five hours of sleeping and a few more of tossing and turning, I got up. I headed for my kitchen and the smart glass window that turned from dark to clear on command. I touched the pad to transform it now.
The glass in front of me turned from dark and smoky to clear a second later. The slums of the city of Dome spread out in front of me like a complicated maze of buildings and stores.
I didn’t hate the place. It was the only home I remembered. But it wasn’t really home and that was the thing. I got dressed, grabbed a protein pouch and the contents of the envelope, and headed out. I wanted to make a stop before I hit the docking yard.
Wesley hadn’t given me much to go on the night before beside promises of answers and facts I couldn’t know were accurate since they couldn’t be checked. The single piece of information he did provide was the name of the employer, Immortal Corp.
I headed out of my apartment with nothing more than the clothes on my back, the MK II tucked into a back holster, and the envelope Wesley provided.
Dome was the largest city on the moon and as such had installations set up called data centers where lower class citizens like myself could go for information. The data center closest to me was nothing more than a roof with lines of data monitors in rows. They were set up back to back to allow easy access. More than half of them were being used now. There was everyone here from kids who wouldn’t be out of their teen years looking up trending videos to the homeless who used the monitors to see what food banks were open and when.
I snagged an open monitor at the end of the line, where I pressed the new search button and typed in “Immortal Corp.”
The search bar came up empty, of course. I didn’t know what I expected to find. It wasn’t as if an organization like this was going to display their master plan to the public.
I decided to go a different way and instead typed in Wesley Cage. This time, I was rewarded with a hit. Wesley Cage had been a major in the Galactic Government, or GG, before retiring. Highly decorated, he led a mission on anti-terrorism and was awarded the galactic star along with a myriad of other medals.
The list went on and on about his achievements. After his time serving in the Galactic Government, the screen was short on information. I did another search and turned up not so much as an address or an article mentioning him again. It was like after his time in the Galactic Government, he disappeared, a ghost.
I stood at the monitor ready to type something else in but not really knowing what. I had already searched for my own name multiple times with no luck. I was ripped from these thoughts as my eye caught the clock in the corner of the screen. It was 1100 hours. I had an hour left to make it to the docking yard if I was still going.
I turned from the monitors, making my way toward where the dropships congregated. Dome was alive with the hustle and bustle of the day. Buildings rose up to our domed roof that kept us safe from the outside elements of space.
The roads were crammed with people. Any vehicles traveling in this section hovered a good twenty yards overhead, zipping this way and that through the canyons of buildings.
Well, if you’re going to use that tech he gave you, this would be the time, I thought to myself. Better get used to it now before you go on this crazy trip back to Earth.
I fished inside the envelope for the metal circle and pressed it into my skin right behind my right ear. The tiny spikes coming from the disc didn’t feel great as it latched on.
I worked my jaw up and down, grimacing from the pain.
How is this thing supposed to work? I thought to myself. There was no instruction manual and even if there had been it wasn’t like I was going to take the time to read it.
I reached back and played with the piece of tech behind my ear. When my right thumb landed on the metal piece, a faint hum filled my head. A woman’s voice spoke to me a moment later.
“Hello, Daniel Hunt, my name is X1097854107890,” she said. “I will be able to assist you on your mission.”
I looked around quickly to any woman who was beside me. A tall blonde to my left gave me a strange look as I gawked at her. A brunette to my left wagged her eyebrows like she wanted me to say something to her.
“Sorry, did you say something?” I asked the brunette.
“I don’t know, handsome,” she said, batting her eyes. “What did you want me to say?”
“No, that’s me,” the other female voice in my head said. “X1097854107890.”
“What is this? Some kind of dream or something?” I asked, blinking and working my jaw around my mouth. A metallic tang puckered my taste buds.
“Did you say I was in your dreams?” The brunette flushed. She looked worried for a moment then laughed. “Well, buy a girl a drink first before you go laying it on so thick.”
“No, I’m speaking to you through a neural link,” X1097854107890 answered.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is—” the brunette said, but the female voice inside my head spoke over her.
“My designation is X1907—”
“Okay, I get that, but that’s way too long of a name,” I said, still looking at the brunette, even though I was speaking to the voice inside my head. “That’s not going to work. We’re going to have to change that.”
“Well, that’s rude,” the brunette said with large eyes and an open mouth. “I’ve never been insulted about my name before. My mother gave me this name and I—”
I should have seen the slap coming a mile away. If I wasn’t talking to a voice inside my head debating whether I was going crazy or not, I would have.
The brunette slapped me across the right side of my jaw and walked away. She hit me pretty hard too, could have had a future as a centurion with a little training.
Others walking up and down the street beside me smiled or laughed. I didn’t really care. I was trying to figure out what was happening.
“So you’re a robot inside my head?” I asked, making my way over to a building and lowering my voice. I leaned against the cool concrete waiting for an answer.
“Not so much a robot as an Artificial Intelligence. An AI,” the voice answered. “My designation is X190—”
“Yes, yes, I get that,” I said, interrupting the voice before she could string along the insanely long line of numbers. “Can we just call you X for the time being?”
“That is acceptable,” X said.
“So you’re in my head?” I asked. “You can read my thoughts?”
“Yes and no. You’ll have to actually speak out loud to me. I have the option to use an external speaker on the intel disc or I am able to send you my message via your cerebral cortex,” X explained. “I can also send you images straight to your pupils, allowing you to see anything you wish.”
“So you’re like a computer in my head?” I asked, trying to sort everything out. “Can I remove you whenever I want?”
“Yes, your thumbprint has the ability to remove the intel disc from behind your ear once it recognizes your print,” X said. “You can only put me in stasis mode. I’ll activate when I hear my name being said.”
My mind was reeling with the implications this new tech brought. I had heard of AIs being used on Mars, but nothing like this existed on the moon as far as I knew. The closest things we had were self-driving shuttles and robots the wealthy here could buy to serve them.
“You can work like a computer like being able to search for whatever I ask?” I inquired of X.
“That is correct,” X said.
“Run a search for me on Immortal Corp,” I said. “I want to know everything you know.”
“I’m sorry, that search is restricted,” X said.
“Restricted like you won’t or you can’t bring up data on it?” I asked, feeling annoyed.
“I am unable to bring up any information on the desired topic,” X said. “I do apologize.”
“You can let me see whatever I asked for?” I asked X. “I mean, if I wanted you to send an image to me?”
“That is correct,” X told me.
“Search Earth and let me know everything you know about it from its collapse to current day,” I said, beginning my trip to the docking yard once more. “Most importantly, what it looks like now.”
“Understood,” X said. Immediately, images popped to life in front of my eyes. In the bottom right corner of my view, a window popped up, cycling through images as X explained the history of Earth’s collapse.
“Almost a thousand years ago, Earth’s resources were tapped dry. The soil had been drained of nutrients essential to growing crops. The waters were poisoned by contamination. Widespread panic seized the globe. The Galactic Government was formed, sending travelers to colonize first the moon, then Mars. There have been reports of more colonies being set up on farther planets, but these reports can neither be confirmed nor denied.”
I listened to X repeat the information I was aware of. I wove my way in and out of the press of people going to and from their daily routines. The portion of information X told me next was what I really needed.
“With ninety percent of people choosing to leave the Earth, only ten percent wanted to stay behind,” X explained. “This group ranges from religious sects claiming man’s ascent to the stars is heresy to those unwilling to leave their home planet. Earth now has become a dangerous wasteland with even more dangerous inhabitants. With a limited government structure on Earth, things have digressed into a feudal system where warring gangs and tribes lay their stake to sections of the land.”
Images of these gangs led by warlords came in and out of my view. The image in the right hand corner of my vision was difficult to get used to. Anytime I focused on the picture, I was in danger of running into someone or tripping over a piece of refuse in the street.
It would take some time getting used to.
“Can you look up a rebel group called Phoenix?” I asked.
“Phoenix is a group of privately funded individuals who desire to see a new Earth reborn,” X explained. Images of men and women working in labs crossed my vision. “They believe that they can revive Earth to its former greatness. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
This was just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I wanted to know more. I was about to have X run a search on Wesley Cage to see if I had missed anything, when we made it to the ships’ docking yard.
There was a heavy praetorian presence here. The Galactic Government didn’t mess around when it came to on and off moon travel. One giant dome spread out above us like the sky itself encasing smaller domes that made up our cities.
The larger dome would open like a curtain being pulled back to let in a dropship, then close behind it. Next, the smaller dome of our city would open to allow the dropship to dock.
The dropships themselves were midsize rafts with twin thrusters on either side of their short wings and a ramp that opened in the rear. Flat black, they were painted with the symbol of the Galactic Government, a black feline creature with large fangs protruding from its upper jaw.
The docking yard was protected by a humming electric fence of bright glowing blue energy. The energy lines ran parallel to one another about every six inches.
A line formed at the gate, where a unit of praetorian guards, or prats, checked travel information from everyone entering.
I moved to get in line, searching for the boarding pass included in the envelope Wesley left for me. As I did so, a small armored vehicle touched down on the ground near the gate. The armored unit was a prison transport. I’d seen them before come and pick up drunks from the Half Moon. The small ship came to a stop with a slight jerk. Plain dark steel was marked with the Galactic Government sigil and wording that read Galactic Government Prisoner Transport on the side.
I watched along with everyone else as four prats dismounted in full armor and opened the rear of the vehicle. The largest man I had ever seen stepped out. He had to be close to seven feet tall with enough muscle to make any bodybuilder jealous. A scar ran down the left side of his face.
He looked at the crowd gathered at the gate of the docking yard with a sinister grin. “Anyone who doesn’t want to die should leave now.”
“You,” he said, fixating on me. “You want to die?”
I didn’t say anything. I had known others like him before. I ran into a lot, actually, in my line of work. This kind wanted to get into your head and toy with you. The best way to handle them was to stay quiet and let them lose interest. That or beat them unconscious and throw them out of the bar.
“That’s enough, move!” one of the prats said to him, pushing him toward the docking yard.
The man sneered, shrugging in his bright green uniform. His hands and feet were both shackled. When he walked, a distinct tinkling sound came from the chains.
I had no idea who he was, but people around me seemed to.
“Is that the Reaper?” a middle-aged man with glasses in front of me asked his companion. “I heard he made it to the moon somehow and he was caught, but I didn’t know he was in Dome.”
“I heard he managed to smuggle himself into a dropship coming from Earth. He murdered the entire crew and everyone aboard. Landed the dropship himself then escaped into the city,” the man’s companion answered. She was tall and middle-aged with a short coat and skirt.
I watched as the group of four prats took the bulky man through the gate and toward one of the waiting dropships.
While I waited in line, I took the opportunity to test out X.
“X, tell me what you know about the Reaper,” I said in a low tone.
“The Reaper is a code name for Aleron Jacobs. Aleron is a well-known warlord on the planet Earth with hundreds of followers,” X explained inside my head. “He is wanted on numerous counts, including murder, theft, and grand theft of a Galactic Government dropship.”
X went on to list a full slate of wrongdoings by Aleron. I was about to tell her I got the point, when it was my turn at the gate. I handed my boarding pass to a waiting prat, who looked me up and down. Like the other praetorians at the docking yard, he wore mustard-colored body armor with the Galactic Government symbol on his left shoulder.
The body armor covered the praetorians from their feet to their necks. They had helmets with dark visors that came down over their eyes in a shallow V shape. The praetorian I spoke with at the moment had his helmet clipped to the right side of his belt with a magnetic fastener.
He gave a snort, looking over my pass, then handed it back.
“Any weapons on you?” he asked. “Blasters, blades; anything like that? You can take them to Earth with you. You’ll probably need them there. You just can’t carry them on the ship. I’ll need to confiscate them and stow them in a locker. You’ll get it back when the ship touches down.”
I knew they were going to search me, so I decided to be honest now. There was no point of lying if they were going to find it anyway.
“I have a blaster,” I said. “I’m going to reach for it now.”
The prat nodded.
I wanted to make sure I explained exactly what I was doing. The last thing I needed was for a trigger-happy praetorian to think I was trying to draw on him and get riddled with blaster rounds. As far as I knew, I had never been shot. I wasn’t sure if whatever healing factor I possessed would be able to recover from that.
Slowly, I reached around my back and pulled out my MK II. I handed the weapon to the prat carefully.
The praetorian gave out a low whistle as he admired the weapon.
“I haven’t seen one of these outside of a museum,” he said as he admired the weapon. “It’s still fed by a charge pack, right? I mean, it uses actual rounds, not blaster fire?”
“No blaster fire,” I answered. “Just good old-fashioned tungsten steel.”
“Hey, what’s holding up the line?” a woman’s voice interrupted us. She was average height with a strong build. Blond hair shaved on the right side of her head came down in braids on the other.
“Sorry, Captain,” the prat admiring my weapon said in a rush of words. “Just finishing searching this passenger.”
As he said these words, a blue light came out from one of his vambraces, washing over me in a bright light.
“He’s clear,” the prat said, looking to his superior.
The woman eyed me up and down like she was some kind of enhanced hound that could smell trouble.
“Listen, I have enough crip going on in my ship at the moment transferring the prisoner back to Earth,” she said, raising her eyebrow in my direction. “I don’t need any more.”
“No trouble here,” I said.
“Really?” she answered. “There’s nothing but trouble on Earth or haven’t you heard?”
“I’m just on a business trip,” I said, only half lying. “I’ve got no desire to cross the Galactic Government.”
“Good,” she said, motioning me to the side so the other passengers could be checked in. “You don’t remember me, but I know you. I’ve been to the Half Moon a handful of times. I’ve seen you in action. You’re good—better than good. You know what you’re doing in a fight like I’ve never seen before.”
She let those words sink in. I knew what she was getting at. She knew I knew. Still, I wasn’t going to engage her in that line of thought.
We stared at each other for a moment. She wanted me to say something about my fighting ability. Instead, I extended a hand. “Daniel Hunt.”
“Captain Zoe Valentine,” she said, accepting the handshake. Her eyes told me she knew exactly what I was doing. That she was just going to let me get away with it.
“Well, Daniel Hunt, you can load up in the Fury .” The captain pointed to a dropship on the far left side of the docking yard. “We’ll be wheels up in twenty, just as soon as we get everyone boarded.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking my cue to go. I crossed the dockyard, where a half dozen dropships waited. Some were being repaired while others were refueling. Dropships were not only the main means of transportation between Earth and the moon, but also the way the Galactic Government traveled around the moon itself.
In front of me, the four prats accompanying Aleron Jacobs to the dropship were just about to board via the open rear ramp of the Fury .
Technicians employed by the Galactic Government ran this way and that. Sounds of power tools, and the subsequent shouting over them, filled the cool air.
I was halfway to the ship Captain Valentine pointed out when I heard the first sirens wail. These weren’t ambulance sirens or a faint bleep of an alarm signaling some kind of malfunction. These were heavy-duty praetorian alarms.
My senses went on high alert as more shouting filled the yard. I wheeled around. Instinct told me to reach for a weapon that was no longer at the small of my back.
A rust-bucket of a hovercraft came into view loaded with individuals armed to the teeth. Weapons fired from the craft, painting those below in angry red bursts of fire.
Civilians ran screaming for cover. Prats attacked the hovering vehicle with their own burst of yellow weapons fire. I dove toward the dropship closest to me.
Twin heavy cannons on the assaulting hovercraft kept the prats under cover. Four ropes were thrown off the sides of the hovercraft. Masked individuals came propelling down.
As all of this was taking place, I caught a motion to my right. Aleron Jacobs had seized the opportunity to battle against his praetorian captors. Even chained and outnumbered four to one, he was managing to give them hell.
The mountain of a man slammed his head into a prat’s helmet. Blood gushed down his face, but he succeeded in knocking the prat back. He used his shackled hands like a single club, striking out from side to side.
My heart picked up speed. The animal that lived inside me, that loved to fight, pulled at the end of his leash, ready to be let loose. Not just ready, begging to be let loose.
The four attackers propelling from the hovercraft were down now. They ran hunched toward Aleron while the hovercraft pinned the prats in the yard down with a steady stream of fire.
Are you going to just hide here like some kind of victim? I asked myself. Is this who you are?
The truth, of course, was I really had no idea who I was. One thing I knew was who I wasn’t. I wasn’t the guy who hid when danger erupted. I was the danger.
A heavy thumping noise accompanied by crackling tore me from my thoughts.
A single prat moved from the safety of cover. I recognized Captain Valentine’s build and the white cloak she wore behind her armor. On her right shoulder, she carried some kind of military rocket launcher. Bright yellow bursts shot toward the hovercraft in the air.
The woman was psychotic. To leave her place of safety and walk out into the open in the face of twin machine guns was a death wish.
The ship returned fire, trying to maneuver out of the way of her blasts. The hovercraft’s red rounds found the captain. They splashed against a PPS she wore somewhere on her body. The Personal Portable Shield was good at turning a few energy blasts but not made to be sustained for long-term damage.
Red blaster rounds sizzled and sparked across her shield. The yellow globe around her protected her for the time being.
To the captain’s credit, she didn’t need a lot of time to bring down the hovercraft. Her third shot proved fatal as it caught the cockpit, sending an explosion rocketing through the air. Black smoke billowed toward the lower of the two domes.
The hovercraft spun out of control, coming to a crashing halt with another explosion. The sound was deafening. My ears rang. My eyes watered from the smoke.
While this show of insanity captured my attention, another fight took place on the opposite side of the yard. The four insurgents heading for Aleron succeeded in overpowering the prats guarding him. One of the insurgents lay dead with a second limping.
The other two were in the process of freeing Aleron from his restraints. Four prat bodies lay at their feet.
“Reaper!” Captain Valentine screamed through some external comm on her helmet, allowing her voice to carry over the sounds of the blazing hovercraft. She pressed a button on the back of her left vambrace before starting her run at Aleron. “Reaper!”
The button she pressed closed the rear of the Fury . Aleron and his gang wouldn’t be escaping that way.
Aleron realized too late what was happening. He roared in rage, picking up one of the blasters on the ground beside him and opening fire on the captain alongside the rest of his men.
For the second time that day, Captain Valentine’s PPS protected her from the incoming fire.
Who are you? I asked myself again. Hiding while others fight for you, is this who you are?
I stopped thinking about it and moved into action.
I sprinted from my location, choking on the black fumes coming from the crashed hovercraft. Although the hovercraft had come to a final resting spot a good twenty yards from my location, the smoke wafting from the wreckage began to cover the entire yard.
I ran as quickly as I could, sprinting to a place behind Captain Valentine so I too could take safety behind her shield. On the run, a blaster round clipped my right leg near the shin.
I grunted in pain, saving myself from a fall. I found myself behind the captain a moment later as she pressed forward.
For the time being, it was only her and me. The smoke covering the yard hid us from any other praetorians who might come to help. I had no doubt they would be there in minutes, but who knew who would be left standing in that time.
Captain Valentine had dropped her heavy weapon while closing the rear of the Fury on her vambrace. She drew her military-issued sidearm and went to work on her enemies.
Aleron and the three insurgents that remained hosed the captain’s PPS. In return, Valentine didn’t stop her sprint forward. She fired shots at the group, taking one of the insurgents with a headshot and another in the chest.
Her already weakened shield sparked. I ran close enough behind her to hear a loud beep come from the shield unit. That was the warning she was out of juice. In five seconds, the shield would lose power.
Captain Valentine was smart enough to know this and redoubled her efforts to lend speed to her attack. I kept up with her easily as we moved in.
Right before we collided with Aleron and his last standing rescuer, two things happened. One, Captain Valentine’s weapon clicked dry. Two, the personal shield protecting both of us bleeped off.
I wasn’t sure if Captain Valentine knew I was behind her or not. Whatever the case, she went straight for Aleron, crashing into him with a vicious right superman punch from her gauntleted fist.
I didn’t think about strategy at the moment. I just reacted. The last black-clad insurgent seemed surprised to see me. He lifted his weapon to fire again. I didn’t give him the chance.
I batted his weapon to the side, coming down across his jaw with a right hook. He staggered back. I wrenched the weapon from his hand and slammed the butt into his face.
My target went down hard. I moved over to look behind me where Aleron and the captain battled it out like two legends meeting on the field of battle for the first time.
Aleron had both hands around the captain’s helmet, trying to wrench it from her head. Captain Valentine allowed him to do so, taking the opportunity to focus in on his left hand, more specifically, one of his fingers.
A sick snap reached my ears as I moved in to help. Aleron howled in pain, coming back with a broken finger on his left hand. He did, however, succeed in ripping the captain’s helmet from her head.
“You elitists think the Earth will be silenced?” Aleron spat a wad of blood on the ground next to him. He flexed massive muscles under the tight-fitting prison uniform. “You think the Galactic Government cares about you or me or any of us?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.” Captain Valentine looked over at me for the briefest moment before circling the man known as Reaper. “All that matters is that you’re going back to Earth.”
Aleron looked at me for the first time with disgust. “And who are you? Some misguided soul that thinks he’s doing the right thing?”
“Just a guy trying to get to Earth,” I said. “Right now, you’re not making that easy.”
Aleron smiled then hurled the captain’s helmet at my head. I ducked out of the way. In that time, he turned toward the captain and dealt her a series of blows that left her staggering.
Despite the onslaught of strikes Aleron doled out, Captain Valentine was no victim. Massively outsized by Aleron, she gave as good as she got. It only took me a few seconds to dodge the helmet and leap forward. In that time, the two combatants traded a series of blows that left Aleron’s right eye swelling. Blood dropped from Valentine’s split lip. She sank to her knees from a kidney shot.
Despite the protective armor she wore, the sheer force of Aleron’s blow colliding with her was enough to do damage.
Aleron’s knuckles were bloody and skin came off them as he sacrificed his hands to strike Valentine’s body armor.
I made my move, jumping on Aleron’s exposed back. I placed my left forearm under his chin. My right arm wrapped around his head and I squeezed.
I wasn’t exactly a dainty flower myself, but compared to Aleron, I hung off him like a short cloak. Aleron clawed at my arm around his throat. He tried to reach backward to pry me off but couldn’t get the angle.
Instead, he fell backwards, slamming his impressive weight on top of me. Stars exploded in my head as the back of my skull made contact with the unforgiving tarmac of the docking bay yard.
Although I was barely able to fight off unconsciousness, I refused to let go of him. Aleron staggered to his feet one more time. He was slowing now. He had one more hard slam in him and that would be it. If I could hold on one more time, I had him.
We would never have to figure out who would have won in that scenario.
Captain Valentine was back on her feet, holding a fallen pulse rifle.
For a second, I thought she was going to place the barrel in the center of Aleron’s chest and kill him right there.
Instead, she slammed the butt of the weapon into Aleron’s right thigh, sending him down to a single knee. She hammered him again in the stomach and a final time in the nose. A wet crunch followed her last blow.
The giant known as the Reaper toppled forward.
I finally released my hold, panting on the ground beside him.
“Thanks,” Captain Valentine said, wiping a bloody mouth with the back of her right hand. “I mean, I had him right where I wanted him, but thanks.”
“Right,” I said, lifting myself from the ground. I felt the back of my head where a sticky wet substance told me my skin had been split open when Aleron slammed me to the ground.
“You need a medic to come check you out?” Captain Valentine asked, motioning to my shin where my pants had been scorched.
“No,” I said, doing my best to position the pants leg to hide the wound underneath. I knew it was already healing. “The round barely scorched my pants, that’s all.”
This seemed to be enough for the captain. She had enough on her mind without insisting I go see a medic. A moment later, a squad of praetorians jogged through the smoke. Their weapons were up, ready to engage. When they saw it was only the captain and me standing, they pointed their weapons at me.
“Stand down,” Captain Valentine ordered. “He helped me take out Aleron. I want Aleron secured again along with anyone who tried to save him that survived. I need a report on our own wounded and that hovercraft to be extinguished now.”
I let Captain Valentine dole out her orders as the prats jumped to obey. I had to give it to her; the woman wasn’t just a fighter, she was a leader in every sense of the word. When she spoke, prats jumped to obey, a true testament as to the respect they held for her.
Within the hour, the burning hovercraft was extinguished. With the arrival of another squad of praetorians, the wounded were taken care of and those still alive that attacked us, secured.
There were only two survivors from the attack. Aleron himself and the insurgent I had put down. The insurgent was taken away for questioning. Aleron was secured again and loaded into the Fury . Despite our attackers’ greatest efforts, Aleron was still going back to Earth.
We were allowed to board a few minutes later. The inside of the dropship consisted of three sections. The cockpit in the front, the passenger seating area in the middle, and a cargo section in the rear.
Prats directed us to the seating area where four rows of side-by-side seats awaited us. All in all, the dropship was able to carry forty-eight passengers, more if people crammed into the cargo area.
With very limited runs to and from Earth, this dropship was full. Aleron was kept sedated now. Not four but six praetorian guards with Captain Valentine herself overseeing them sat next to the big man.
When I walked inside to take my seat, the captain waved me over.
I didn’t really want to engage her in conversation. Not that I didn’t like the woman; to the contrary, I found myself admiring her. It was the line of questioning that could occur in a conversation I wanted to stay away from. Questions like where I learned to fight, how my leg was feeling, and others could get me in a lot of trouble.
Still, I took the offered seat next to her with a nod.
She was about to say something when the comm unit in her ear squawked to life. She lifted a finger, gave me a quick smile, and answered whoever was speaking to her.
I didn’t listen in. I really didn’t want to know. I had enough on my plate without adding more and getting on the Galactic Government’s radar.
I busied myself watching the people board the dropship. I had never been in one myself. In the last five years I could remember, I lived a pretty confined life here on the moon. I lived in the city, went to work, and when I did find time to myself, tried to keep my mind off all I didn’t know.
I went to the gym to exercise, read, and watch films. Part of me was trying to be as ordinary as possible, even though I knew I was anything but.
The people who piled into the dropship ranged from workers in overalls and helmets to a large contingent of praetorian soldiers out of their mustard yellow body armor and in their uniforms of the same color. A handful of people dressed in business attire and no kids. There wasn’t even anyone in their teens. Earth was a place to be avoided at all costs. Only those who absolutely had to go there did so these days.
“First time on a dropship?” Captain Valentine caught my attention with her question.
“That obvious, huh?” I asked.
“That obvious,” she said with a grin. “I guess that isn’t too surprising. Most people are trying to get off Earth these days. The dropships I run are half praetorians to work the prison yards and half workers hired by the elite to search Earth for anything valuable, scavengers.”
My eyes turned to the men and woman in dark stained overalls and scarves. I’d heard of the rich hiring the poor to do their dirty work.
There was an idea floating around that there were still valuables left behind on Earth, rare artifacts of a time long ago. Collectors of antiques hired the poor to go and hunt for them through the dirt and grime that made up Earth.
A man on the far end coughed into his hand. It was more of a hack, really, that sounded painful at the best.
“Parts of the Earth are contaminated, but buyers pay double for scavengers to go into those parts,” Captain Valentine said with a grim nod. “It’s a cruel galaxy we live in these days.”
“Esteemed passengers of the dropship Fury, this is your captain speaking,” a male voice crackled over the speakers built into the interior of the ship. “Please secure your harnesses. The rear ramp doors will be closing momentarily.”
I moved to secure my own harness. A V-shaped belt came over my head. It snapped into another harness that ran up from my crotch area.
The Fury was at max capacity. All the seats were taken. People sat shoulder to shoulder securing their belts and preparing for the trip. For the first time, the inside of the steel container felt small. It was like the walls were pressing in on me as the cargo ramp closed.
“You don’t get space sick, do you?” Captain Valentine asked, securing her own harness over her armor.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “We’re about to find out.”
It turns out I did get space sick. Not like throwing up, sweating in my seat, but queasy stomach, and I had to make a mental push to ignore the truth about our travel. The truth was we were crammed into a tiny ship making the run from the moon back down to the Earth.
The dropship quivered and shook as we took off. Allowed to run free, my mind would come up with a hundred scenarios where the ship broke apart and we were sent into the coldness of space with nothing more than our harnesses for safety.
I refocused my attention on anything other than these facts and controlled my breathing. My eye caught something shiny hanging off Valentine’s neck. She caught me looking and reached a hand into her armor. She came back with a gold locket shaped like a heart.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to stare.”
“Trust me, I know the difference when someone’s checking me out as opposed to just looking at what I’m wearing.” Captain Valentine chuckled. “It’s a locket with a picture of my daughter inside.”
Valentine opened the locket up for me to see. There was a picture of a little brunette girl smiling inside. I didn’t really get to see kids much in my line of work. She seemed cute and it felt like the right thing to say.
“Cute kid,” I said. I searched for a follow-up question. Not finding one, I settled on, “What’s her name?”
“Chesha,” Valentine said, turning the locket in her hand so she too could see her daughter. I imagined it was something she had done dozens of times before. “Thanks. She’s probably at school right now.”
Valentine’s words were soft, almost sad. I could tell without having to be a detective that something was off. Turns out I didn’t have to push for more info. Valentine felt like sharing. The dropship buckled again and I found myself all ears if it kept my mind off the ride.
“Things didn’t work out with her father,” Valentine explained, caressing her daughter’s face with her thumb. “He took off, wanted nothing to do with us. Found a new family to love instead. Chesha’s on Mars right now. I knew if I couldn’t be with her, then I wanted the best for her. I only get to see her a few times a year.”
“I know this doesn’t help, but I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “That must be rough.”
“Yeah,” Valentine agreed, looking at the image of her daughter one last time before closing her locket and dropping it back in her armor. She shook her head, replacing her look of sadness with a wild grin. “But what are you going to do, right? I work my tail off in the GG to make enough to provide the best for her on Mars. I see her as much as I can. There’s not much else for me to do at the moment. In a few more years, I’ll have the rank to request a transfer to Mars, then I can be with her.”
I sat quietly, thinking about how much love Valentine had for her daughter. I could hear it in her voice, practically see it in her eyes. Had I ever loved anyone that much? Had I ever had children?
“Sorry for putting that on you.” Valentine mistook my silence for judgment. “How about you, you have any kids? A family stashed away somewhere?”
“Nope, nobody,” I said, wondering if that were true. I had no memory of any children or a significant other. The only inkling I had of ever being in a relationship with someone came from a dream. A dream I had not often enough.
“Well, who knows.” Valentine chuckled. “It might be your lucky day. I heard the Earth is full of single eligible ladies looking for a moon daddy to better their lives.”
I couldn’t help but grin. Captain Valentine was all right in my book. I had only known the woman a short time, but in that time, I felt like I had a good grasp on who she really was as a person.
I’d bled with her, laughed with her, and now she opened up about her family. Something told me I could trust the woman.
“You know much about Earth?” I asked. “I mean, the goings on and the structure it’s taken?”
Valentine shrugged. “I know enough. Prisoner transport detail doesn’t leave me on Earth long before I’m back again for another run. What do you want to know?”
I looked around the inside of the Fury to make sure no one was listening. That was particularly difficult when we sat so close to one another. There were conversations going on all round us. Scavengers discussed their latest finds while corporate men and women engaged one another in talking about the latest strategic business moves.
I lowered my voice an octave.
“Have you ever heard of a group calling themselves Phoenix?” I asked.
Valentine’s face was enough to tell me she hadn’t. “Can’t say that I have. What are they? Some kind of gang or organization set up on what’s left of Earth?”
“Something like that,” I answered realizing I couldn’t go much further with this conversation if I didn’t want to start lying to her.
At that moment Valentine was called away by a prat to her left. She excused herself and went to handle questions he had on disembarking and taking Aleron to the penitentiary accurately named the Hole.
I was left to my own thoughts once more. I really wanted to talk to X, not only to find out more on my mission, but to test the AI out and see what else she could do. There was no way to do this without seeming completely crazy and talking to myself out in the open.
My eyes traveled across Aleron, who sat opposite me. His bulk barely fit in the harness. He was still larger than some of the prats next to him, who were decked out in the full armor of the Galactic Government.
He wore a brace on his left arm near his elbow. The clamp fed him a steady dose of a sedative to ensure there wasn’t another mishap like there had been earlier that day.
I found myself thinking of the trip I was on again, the way the dropship rattled and rolled every so often.
It’s only a few hours to Earth, I reminded myself. It’s only a few hours to Earth. Come on, you’ll charge into a fight without a weapon, but you’re worried about a little turbulence?
I calmed myself to the point where I was able to close my eyes and relax. The sounds of the chatter around me and hums from the engine began to lull me to sleep. I thought in slumber I would find respite from my worries. I was wrong.
I found myself on a building top in a city I didn’t recognize. The twin domes overhead told me I was on the moon, but the moon was a big place. I scanned the dark horizon in all directions seeing nothing I recognized.
What I did see was brilliant display of stars overhead. They were so bright, and there were so many of them, I was lost to the wonder for a split second.
I wasn’t in Dome, that was for sure. Maybe one of the smaller outlying cities on the far side of the moon.
I tried to remember how I got there and came up blank.
“You going to just stand there or are you coming along for the ride?” a rough voice asked to my left.
For the first time, I realized I wasn’t alone. A hard man with a weather-beaten face and patch over his left eye checked the weapons he wore on his back and side. His salt and pepper hair was held back from his face with a grey bandana. The stubble on his chin stood out like tiny quills.
A sword handle poked up from his right shoulder. A blaster strapped to the outside of his left thigh. I knew I knew this man but couldn’t come up with a name or how I knew who he was.
He checked a rope secured to a belt around his waist. Gloved hands tugged at the secure knots once, twice, and then a third time.
He looked up at me, fixing his one good eye on me.
“Well, come on, mijo ,” he said in a not unfriendly voice. “We have a job to do. Oracle is going to give us the green light at any moment now. Check your gear.”
“Right, right,” I said, looking down at my own belt and rope. One end of the dark rope was tied to the thick belt I wore, the other to a series of pipes that sprouted from the top of the building’s roof. I carried a blaster on the right side of my hip. Not just any blaster. The familiar shape of the MK II met my eyes. A knife in the inside of my left boot and a heavy rifle on my back completed my gear.
“You good?” the older man asked. “Got to get your mind right. Now’s not the time to be thinking of her. It’ll all work out.”
I nodded, not knowing who “her” was in the slightest but understanding I should know. Something scratched at the back of my mind. Repressed memories ached to be found and realized.
I was on the verge of remembering something. I could feel it coming to the surface like a swimmer too long underwater reaching for new air.
“Pack, this is Oracle,” a female voice said in my ear, ripping me from whatever revelation I was about to have. “You have the green light to engage. Hostiles are heavily armed. You are weapons free.”
“Roger that,” the older man next to me said. “Preacher, out.”
Preacher? I repeated to myself in my head. That was his name. I did know him. Somehow the name fit like I had known it all along.
Memories of a past with the man washed over me like a tidal wave. I remembered training with not only him but others. In the memories now, I couldn’t see their faces, but I saw their forms. They weren’t just friends; they were more like family. Brothers and sisters bonded by a common past.
“We’ll take them by surprise at first, but don’t expect to get more than half of them before they realize what’s going on,” Preacher said, doling out his rope in front of him as he walked backward toward the edge of the building. “I’ll clear the right side, you take the left.”
I moved robotically, following Preacher to the edge of the building. I made sure my rope wasn’t tangled or caught. Looking down off the edge gave me vertigo. I hadn’t realized exactly how far we were up. The building we stood on had to be more than fifty stories high.
I was grateful for the lack of wind. The primary dome overshadowing this section of the moon and the secondary dome protecting this city saw to that.
“You good?” Preacher asked me with a raised eyebrow. “You seem off. Now’s not the time for doubt. We need you laser focused.”
“I’m good,” I lied.
“All right then, in three, two, one,” Preacher gave the countdown slowly as if he were relishing the words.
I felt the excitement of a fight building in my chest and I knew he felt the same way.
On one, he jumped backward off the ledge of the building, trusting the harness and rope would hold him.
Here we go again, I thought to myself. A grin cracked my lips as I did the same.
In my dream, I jumped off the building face toward the glassy levels of the structure. I saw my own reflection as I passed. The rope went taut three stories down.
Preacher worked like a true professional. As soon as the rope went taut, he pulled his blaster from the side of his hip, firing on the windows. The glass shattered into hundreds of pieces, allowing him to swing inside the building.
I was a step behind, removing the rifle on my back and doing the same. I squeezed the trigger, sending a trio of rounds through the window. A moment later, I too was inside.
The interior was unlike what I expected. The structure looked like an office building to me. I expected to see desks and chairs, maybe cubicles or a meeting room with a long table.
Instead, it seemed this section of the building was someone’s private office. Not just a private office, but the largest office I had ever seen. There was enough room for couches, a separate seating area, and even a small bar set inside the room to my left.
More than a dozen black-suited men and women jumped to their feet as Preacher and I stormed through the windows.
Shouting erupted as those in the room reached for their own weapons. Preacher took down three of them in as many strides as he crossed the room. The blaster in his hand fired just as soon as he lined up shots.
I slammed the butt of my pulse rifle into my shoulder, aiming down the barrel and following his orders. I cleared the left side of the room, sending targeted bursts from my weapon at anything that stood in my way.
Preacher was right. We were through half of their number before they managed any kind of offense of their own.
Preacher waded into them without regard for his own well-being. In seconds, he was close enough to pull the sword from over his shoulder. It hummed with a dull red glow.
Those still on their feet regrouped enough to aim their own weapons at us. They carried an assortment of hand cannons and heavy close quarters blasters.
Preacher chopped two more down with his sword. The blade cut through them like wire through butter.
The room was alive with screams and sounds of weapons fire. Before I could warn him, one of the dark-suited men caught Preacher with a round from his heavy rifle.
The force took the older man off his feet, sending him to the floor.
“No!” I shouted, zeroing in on the man who blindsided Preacher. I sent two to his chest and one to his head. He went down.
My rifle clicked dry a second later, but the room was clear. Death lay before us at our feet. A few moans reached my ear but not many. In under a minute, we had cleared the room.
I unhooked myself from the rope securing my belt and ran to Preacher. To my surprise, he sat up on his own power. A meaty hole on the left side of his body showed where the round had scorched his body armor.
He caught the look on my face then raised a signature eyebrow.
“You’re not the only one who heals quick,” he said with a grin. “It doesn’t feel pretty, but I’ll be fine. Armor should have turned the worst of it. I was just too close to the blast. That would have shredded a normal man. Help me up.”
I extended a hand, fixated on how Preacher had used the word “normal” as if it were a word that had no business in the same sentence as us.
Preacher regained his feet, examining the remains of our victims. He walked over to those still moaning, ending their lives with swift blows from his blade. He recited a prayer under his breath I thought was familiar.
“Lord, we send these souls into your hands. You are the ultimate decider on who is worthy or unworthy. I am your servant, you are my judge,” Preacher said as he finished the gory work.
“Report,” the same female voice asked in our earpieces.
“Oracle, room is clear,” Preacher answered.
“The mission parameters have changed,” Oracle said over the line. “There’s an item of value in possession of the group and we need you to retrieve it. Across the hall, there is an office. On the far wall is a safe behind the picture. I need you to bring me the contents of this safe. You should hurry; extract will meet you on the roof in ten minutes. The local praetorian force has already been informed and they will arrive soon.”
“Roger,” I said, moving to obey.
Preacher was a half step behind me as he exited the room. I slammed a fresh charge pack into my weapon. The doors opened into a deserted hall. Just like Oracle explained, there was a set of double doors on the opposite side of the hall.
Preacher looked to me with the sword still in his hand.
He jerked the door open and went in low. I followed, aiming my weapon higher, to not catch him in the crossfire should I need to put a target down. That was all they were to me, targets.
This room was more what I expected from an office building. A long room showcased an impressive oval table in the middle with high-backed chairs all around.
On the far side of the room, a picture of a man I didn’t recognize hung on the wall. It looked hand-painted, expensive. He stood with a regal look on his face gazing down on those who would be gathered at the table.
The room looked clear.
Preacher sprinted over to the far side of the room despite the wound on his side. He didn’t seem to notice or care. A trail of blood followed behind him.
Moving quickly, he removed the painting from the wall, revealing a thick steel vault door. The vault sat in the wall with a space to X-ray your hand as well as a digital key code and retinal scanner.
Preacher didn’t bother with any of this. The blade in his hand that glowed a dull red was more than it seemed. Without hesitation, the man called Preacher plunged the end of his weapon into the dark steel.
I thought for sure the blade would snap. The weapon wasn’t that thick to begin with. The sword reminded me of pictures of katanas I had seen in books.
To my surprise, the blade bit deep into the steel vault door. Super-heated droplets of metal oozed from the puncture as Preacher grunted. He forced the blade around in a large circle.
As I watched him, movement caught my eyes. One of the high-backed chairs on the opposite side of the table moved ever so slightly. I checked the hall behind us to make sure we were still alone then moved to the opposite side of the table.
I held my rifle, ready to fire on whatever I might see. I was ready for anything except for what was actually there. A kid no more than eight or nine looked back at me with wide eyes.
He was well-dressed with dark hair and eyes. He swallowed hard. Hunched down on the ground on his knees, it was impossible to see him from the opposite side of the table.
“Almost got it,” Preacher said, still maneuvering his super-heated blade through the vault steel door. “Give me another minute.”
Preacher said this without looking back.
The boy and I just stared at one another. In my dream, I knew certain things. I knew I was a killer. I knew Preacher was as well despite his chosen name. I knew we didn’t wear masks, which meant we left only bodies in our wake, no survivors.
I’d like to think Preacher would let the kid live, but I couldn’t chance it. Years of training told me to kill the kid. A voice in my head yelled at me to comply.
We just stood there staring at one another. It wasn’t until I saw tears run down the little boy’s face that I snapped out of my internal debate.
While hard-wiring told me I needed to kill anyone who saw me, something stronger told me there was still a way for the kid to get out of this alive.
I lifted my right pointer finger to my lips and motioned for him to scurry under the table.
He looked confused.
Again I gave him the universal sign for quiet and then pointed under the table.
Preacher muttered something under his breath. Still with his back toward us, he worked on the vault.
The kid finally nodded and slowly made his way to the underside of the table. Not a moment too soon.
“Eureka!” Preacher said as a heavy thud met my ears. He stepped away from the fallen vault door and looked at me. “We’re in.”
His grin disappeared to a frown. “Why aren’t you watching the door?”
“It’s clear,” I said, moving back to the doorway, not giving him an answer. “It’s clear. Grab whatever’s in there and let’s go.”
Preacher scanned the room with his one good eye, searching for something he missed. When he didn’t see anything, he shrugged, grabbing the contents of the vault and headed to join me at the door.
In his hand, he didn’t hold credits, rare stones, or an ancient artifact. He held a small data chip no larger than his thumb.
We both looked at each other, then down at the data chip.
“I don’t even want to know, mijo ,” Preacher said, pocketing the piece of intel before heading out into the hall. “Let’s get back to base.”
“Oracle,” Preacher said into his comm unit. “We have the goods.”
“There’s a flight of stairs down the hall to your right that will take you to the roof. Evac is there waiting for you now. Hurry, the local praetorian guard is arriving on scene now. You’ll have a few minutes before they reach you.”
“Roger that,” Preacher said, already heading down the hall. The trail of blood that followed him had stopped. I couldn’t get a definitive reading on his wound, but it was clear it was healing.
I followed behind, refusing to look back in the room to make sure the kid was safe. If Preacher caught me interested in something under the table, who knew if he’d go back to check.
I wish I could have seen more. I wish I could have observed so much more of a past I didn’t know. It wasn’t in the cards. The next moment, I was jolted awake to find myself in the dropship. The captain’s voice had woken me from my dream.
“Passengers, we’re entering Earth’s orbit. Please stay seated. It’s going to get a little bumpy.”
That warning was the understatement of the century. Our descent was more than a little bumpy. The ship rocked back and forth. The fact that there were no windows in the steel case made me grip my harness even tighter as we descended.
Once again, I tried to think of something, anything to keep my mind off the events around me. Like why did I have such a vivid dream now? Was it just a dream or some kind of memory of the past? It felt so real. Too real to just be shrugged off.
The dropship jolted, shaking the interior of the craft like some hoodlum shaking a can of spray.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are taxiing to our final stop in the city of New Vegas. Please stay buckled in until you see the rear doors open,” the pilot’s voice said over the comms.
“Listen, I’m not sure what you’re really up to here, and to be honest, I don’t want to know,” Captain Valentine said in a hushed whisper. “But you had my six back there and that’s not something I take lightly. You need something while you’re on Earth, I’ll see what I can do, no promises. My comm line is 127.452. You think you can remember that?”
“127.452,” I repeated. “I got it. Thank you.”
Valentine nodded sharply then turned to address her men. That was it, I guess.
The rear cargo door to the dropship opened. A couple of prats waved us out. I made my way with the rest of the group from the interior of the ship. It had to be somewhere around dinner. Now that it was done being all twisted up, my stomach reminded me how hungry I really was.
The hot Earth air reached my lungs. I winced in the dying light of the day. This was another first for me. At least that I could remember, I had never been on Earth.
I felt a little bit heavier, maybe even a little bit slower. That could be my imagination. On the moon, the domes set in place were equipped with gravitational stabilizers to keep us anchored on the ground. They were designed to mimic the same gravitational pull on Earth, making travel between the two a seamless experience.
The other passengers aboard the Fury streamed around me in a wave of bodies eager to be on their way. I saw Captain Valentine assume command of her praetorians, who dragged an unconscious Aleron Jacobs between them to a waiting vehicle.
The landing area for the dropships wasn’t much to look at. The dropships themselves didn’t need much in the way of runways. There were three other crafts besides the Fury waiting in the black paved landing area.
Cracks in the pavement matched the surrounding buildings. A heavy praetorian presence covered the area with defensive structures ranging from electric fences to watch towers sporting the latest tech in turret warfare.
Anti-vehicle missile turrets were placed every few yards as were multiple checkpoints into the facility. It was clear the GG was not messing around when it came to the safety of their installation in New Vegas.
I took all of this in as I walked to the exit clearly marked for me with a series of signs. Not that I would have been confused, anyway. The stream of travelers unloading from the dropship were heading that way now.
A group of praetorians handed back to each traveler his or her weapon previously confiscated for the trip.
One of the praetorians scanned me with a blue light on the back of his vambrace. It told him which weapon I had surrendered for the trip. He reached behind him to a large open container that sported an assortment of blasters and bladed weapons.
I was impressed to say the least. These scavengers and even the few men and women dressed in business attire didn’t mess around.
I accepted my MK II, grateful to put it in its place at the small of my back, and went along my way.
A city had grown around the Galactic Government installation, offering travelers to and off planet a variety of services from printed food to lodging and even gambling. I made my way down the streets examining the storefronts. They were all single- or two-story buildings with neon signs enticing passersby.
Unlike the moon, the streets weren’t crowded. Like the moon, nothing green grew here. The streets were all cracked pavement, the buildings old brick or cement. From what I could see of the land beyond, it was harsh desert terrain.
I took advantage of the momentary silence to reactivate X.
“X, you there?” I asked, still getting used to the idea there was an AI attached to my neck.
“Yes,” X responded. “How can I help?”
I looked over my shoulder, knowing I was alone but not able to shake the feeling I was being watched. I ducked into a tight alley between two single-story buildings on my right. The alley was empty beside a few dumpsters well overdue needing to be emptied.
“I want you to run a search for—for Daniel Hunt in your databases,” I said, pushing out the words. I doubted it would give me anything, but I had to try. If the dream I had was any indication as to what I had been, then I needed to know.
“Searching,” X answered.
“You didn’t kill the kid,” I said quietly to myself. “At least if that dream was real, you didn’t kill the kid.”
“I have found twenty-eight Daniel Hunts alive today,” X answered in a chipper voice. “I have also pulled files and photos. Would you like me to display them for you?”
“Are—are any of them me?” I asked.
“Unfortunately not.” X actually sounded disappointed. “I take it by your voice pattern you want one of them to be you, but none of them are. I have a nine-year-old Daniel Hunt living on a private colony on Mars, another Daniel Hunt aged fifty-eight working as a cook on the moon. Another—”
“You can stop there,” I interrupted her as X played photos of the different Daniel Hunts in the small square viewing area in the lower right side of my vision. “If none of them are me, then I don’t need a rundown of all the others.”
“I am sorry, Daniel,” X said. “I understand you must be disappointed. I can read the hormone levels in your bloodstream. Is there something I can do to cheer you up?”
“Not unless you can give me answers to my past,” I said with a sigh. “Who I was. What am I?”
“That doesn’t seem to be within my parameters, however, I can help you complete this mission so you can receive such answers,” X said, trying to console me.
“Look at me,” I said, shaking my head. “On Earth, in an alley talking to an AI attached to my freaking head.”
“Daniel Hunt,” X said in a soft tone. “I do believe that Wesley Cage will give you your answers when you complete the mission. For what it’s worth, I think you’ll have your answers soon.”
“Thanks,” I said, wondering if X was programed to reassure me to make sure I stayed in line with the mission.
I stood in the alley remembering the dream I had in the dropship along with the words some street fortune teller told me a month before. She didn’t know me at all but had insisted my fortune was tied to brotherhood, the moon, and the one who bows to it.
If my dream was an actual memory, maybe, just maybe this Preacher character was part of a brotherhood.
“Daniel, the next part of our mission is to meet our contact at the Side Diner down the street,” X chimed in. “If we hurry, we’ll still make the meeting.”
“Right,” I said, shaking my head clear of the questions I had no answer to at the moment. Instead of dwelling on them further, I moved back onto the street.
Earth, or what was left of Earth, was a strange place. This was one of their most thriving cities. New Vegas was founded around the Galactic Government’s landing point on Earth. Still, it seemed deserted compared to the moon colonies.
There were no hovercrafts or flying automobiles here. A handful of old school vehicles traveling on the ground were the only means of transportation I could make out. A few more people walked to and from their destinations and that was it.
Everyone was quiet. Those driving the vehicles kept their heads on a pivot as if they expected trouble any minute. The ones who walked did so in a hurry.
No wonder everyone wants to get off Earth, I thought to myself. This place has gone to hell in a handbasket.
“The designated meeting place is two blocks up on your left,” X said. “We’ll be just in time to meet our contact there.”
“Any idea who he or she is?” I asked.
“Nope, just that they’ll know who you are,” X said. “Didn’t you read the directions Wesley Cage left you in the envelope?”
“I read the important stuff, kind of glanced over the rest,” I said.
X’s silence almost made me laugh.
“Not very efficient or orderly,” I said for her. “Does that bother you? I mean, do you even get bothered by those things?”
“I know I am an Artificial Intelligence, but I have been created to feel the broad range of emotions that humans do as well,” X said, offended. “I mean, at least I am led to believe that I feel the same things you do.”
“Look at us,” I said with a heavy sigh. “I can’t remember my past. You don’t even know if you’re feeling emotion.”
“Yes,” X said as if she were shaking her head. “We both seem to be at a disadvantage.”
X almost sounded as if she was going to say more, but we arrived at the designated meeting place. A two-story building with flaking paint and a fluorescent sign that read Side Diner .
I stepped inside the shabby interior. There were windows all the way around the exterior of the place. Booths and tables lined the room with a reception area and bar against the far side of the room.
Like the city of New Vegas itself, there wasn’t much happening here. I counted a total of three other patrons. Two sat in a booth to my right, another at a table in front of me.
A middle-aged man grinned at me from a podium and waved me inside.
“Welcome, friend,” he said with a nervous smile. “Sit anywhere you like.”
I walked over to a booth on the left side of the room away from the others. The old green cushioned seat was cracked from years of use. Even the table itself seemed stained with the hard use of time.
The man walked over from his podium carrying a one-sheet plastic menu. His hair was oily, plastered to his head with some kind of product. His glasses slid off his nose as he looked down at me, handing me the menu. His hands trembled.
I didn’t have to be a detective to understand something was very wrong here.
“How—what can I get for you, sir?” the man said, swallowing hard. As soon as he asked the question, he brought out a worn paper pad and a stub of a pencil. He didn’t wait for me to speak. Instead, he began writing in his notepad furiously. The way he angled his body blocked out the view from the three other guests in the room.
“How’s the coffee?” I played along. My senses were on high alert. I didn’t want to tip my hand to the others waiting in the diner. If there was trouble, the best thing I could do was play it cool now and get a jump start when things went down.
“Oh, always hot and ready,” the man said, clearing his throat. “I’ll give you time to look over the menu and grab you a cup.”
Before he left, he quickly ripped off the top sheet of the pad he wrote on. He let it drop onto the table in front of me.
He turned and left a moment later. His eyes said everything he couldn’t. The white piece of paper in front of me said the rest.
In quick scratches the note read, The other three have weapons. Get help.
I drummed my right hand on the table like I didn’t have a care in the world. I picked up the menu and note together, hiding the message. My eyes looked over the plastic-coated sheet of paper that talked about printed food and fake meat.
I didn’t see it. I was already thinking about the odds of me pulling my MK II faster than the three in the room would be able to draw on me. I liked my odds.
Before I came to a conclusion on the matter, the man closest to me slowly rose from his table and turned my way. He was younger than I first thought. Couldn’t be out of his early thirties. He wore a long coat with a dark shirt and pants underneath.
Surprisingly, a ready smile reached his lips as he walked over to my table. Both his hands were in plain sight for me to see.
“Mind if I take a seat with you, friend?” he asked, that same ready smile still plastered on his lips.
“If I said no, would that stop you?” I asked.
“Fair point.” His grin spread even wider, revealing straight white teeth underneath. He sighed, sitting in the booth opposite me as if he were weary and had been for a long time. “My name’s Jax. We should probably start there.”
“Okay,” I said. “Jax, what can I do for you?”
“Well, this is the part where you introduce yourself and we shake hands or something,” Jax said, placing both of his hands on the table to show me he meant me no harm, at least for the moment.
The air in the diner was so tense, I could cut through it with a knife.
The diner worker with the bad comb-over popped his head out of the back. When he saw Jax sitting at my table, he gave a huge inhale and made his way back into the kitchen.
Jax looked over at the booth where the only other two in the diner sat, a man and a woman with hard stares of their own. He jerked with his head toward the kitchen. The man nodded, getting up from his seat and going to the rear of the diner.
“I don’t think he’d be dumb enough to try and get the attention of the prats here in New Vegas, but you never know.” Jax shrugged. “People’s level of stupidity surprises me on a daily basis.”
“I’m Daniel,” I said, choosing to give him my real name as opposed to making one up. There was a chance this could be my contact.
“Daniel.” Jax said the word like he’d never heard it before. He ran a hand through his black hair then scratched the stubble on his face. “Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, what are we going to do with you?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. I didn’t think Jax actually wanted one either.
“You see, our situation here has changed in the last few hours,” Jax went on to explain. “It’s not as easy as picking you up and letting you do whatever it is you do anymore. I’m going to need more proof that you are who you say you are.”
His words were friendly enough, but his eyes were ones I was becoming to recognize. The Preacher in my dream had that same eye. It was the eye of a killer.
“What kind of proof do you need?” I asked, staring him straight in the eye. My hands were also on the table. I already decided if he went for a weapon, I’d have a better chance reaching across the table and grabbing him than going for my own weapon at the small of my back.
Before either of us could make a next move, the door to the diner opened. In walked an older woman and who I guessed might be her granddaughter. Right behind them, a pair of praetorians still wearing their body armor followed.
“Well, this is about to get a lot more complicated,” Jax said under his breath.
I watched as the hunched older woman walked over to a table with the much younger woman and the two took a seat. The younger woman had long dark hair and gave me a smile. She was pretty.
I grinned back, keeping an eye on the pair of praetorians. They didn’t seem to sense anything was wrong. The men carried their helmets in their hands. They chose a booth on the opposite side of the room right behind the table where the women sat.
The doors to the kitchen opened. I expected to see the man who sat me and wrote me the note, the one with the bad combover and glasses. What I saw instead was the man Jax had sent into the kitchen to follow him. He changed his appearance, rolling up his sleeves. He wore a white apron and a ready smile.
The hard-edged man with the hat who entered the kitchen had undergone a transformation, turning him into a grinning waiter.
He came back with menus in his hands and the white paper pad the actual waiter carried before. He went to the women, first dropping off the menus and taking their drink orders. Next he did the same for the pair of prats.
I couldn’t hear everything he said, but he was good. In another life, the guy could have been an actor playing on holo films from here to Mars.
“Luke’s a professional,” Jax said to me with a grin. “We’ll be alright as long as no one does anything stupid.”
“Listen, I appreciate all the cloak and dagger,” I said, finding myself getting bored with whatever game I walked into. “But I’m here on business to meet a contact. Are you that contact or not?”
“I am,” Jax said, leaning back in his seat. “But I’ll need proof you are who you say you are. Like I said, things for us have changed here.”
“How so?” I asked.
“We’ll get into details once I know for certain who you are,” Jax answered. “I don’t have a lot of info on you. None, really. You’re a spook. The one identifying trait I did receive from our mutual employer is that you have a wolf tattoo on your left shoulder.”
“I have a lot of tattoos,” I told him. I knew I should be feeling more tense, maybe more out of sorts at this point in the conversation. The strangest thing was that I felt calm. Like I could handle myself even in this stressed situation with so many unknowns. I waved over to Luke, who was bringing drink orders to the diners. “When you have a moment, can I grab a caf, please?”
Luke gave me a dirty look then a half nod. “Right away, sir.”
“You think this is all a game?” Jax said again with his easy grin. “I like you, Daniel Hunt. I mean, I really like you. Most anyone else would be needing a change of pants right about now. But not you. Who are you?”
“If you find out, let me know too,” I said. “So let’s say I do show you my tattoo. I am who I say I am. Won’t that bring attention to us?”
“Just two buddies sitting down sharing a few jokes and showing off their latest ink?” Jax shook his head. “We’ll be fine. So let’s see it.”
I slowly nodded, shrugging off my black coat. The press of my MK II against my back reassured me it was a quick grab away.
I rolled my short-sleeve up on the left side of my arm, revealing a series of tattoos I never remembered getting.
I knew they crossed my entire body like some eccentric savant had written down code while under a drug-induced bender. Try as I might, I had never been able to decipher the words, numbers, or symbols.
On my left arm alone, there was a series of numbers that didn’t make sense to me. That led to my shoulder, where a fierce wolf snarled in rage.
I turned my shoulder for Jax to see. At the same time Luke came back with my caf. The latter placed a heavy cup on the table in front of me. They both studied the tattoo.
Luke looked at Jax for direction.
“We’re good here,” Jax said under his breath. “It’s him. Tell Kayla to pack up shop. Meet us at the rendezvous once you’re through here.”
“Got it,” Luke said, moving away to service the other diners in the room.
As soon as Luke moved away, he gave the rest of the diners an unobscured view of my tattoo. Before I could roll down my sleeve, an ear-piercing shriek filled the room.
The older woman who had come in with who I guessed was her granddaughter fell off her chair. She screamed something again in another language, pointing to the tattoo on my arm, her face a mask of pure terror. She held out a wrinkled finger that trembled. She pointed at me, and more specifically, the tattoo on my shoulder.
Needless to say, she captured everyone’s attention in the diner. The praetorians put down their menus, looking in my direction. The woman named Kayla looked at Jax for direction. I noticed Kayla’s hand concealed under the table in front of her.
Luke was behind the greeting podium, no doubt a weapon in his own hand.
“Shhh, shhh,” the young girl with the older woman tried to console her. “Chita, Chita, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“El diablo de noche ,” the older woman said over and over again. Her eyes were glazed over as if she weren’t even in the room with us. It was like the image of the wolf conjured nightmares of a past she had suppressed for so many years.
“El diablo de noche, el diablo de noche .”
“What’s she saying?” one of the praetorians asked, standing from his booth. He held his pulse rifle, sensing something was very wrong. He wasn’t pointing it at anyone yet, but that wasn’t far from being my reality if something didn’t happen quickly.
“Chita, Chita, calm sea.” The younger girl placed an arm over the older woman’s shoulder, trying to comfort her in her moment of terror. She looked up at me, shaking her head and trying to understand. “She’s calling him the devil of the night.”
Everyone in the room looked at me. I was halfway from pushing my shirtsleeve back down. I finished the act now.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” I said, being honest. I was torn between running to the old woman right now and getting answers from her. It was clear she recognized my tattoo. If she did, then maybe she had answers to my past. On the other hand, I needed to play off the moment if I wanted to avoid bloodshed. As grinning as Jax seemed, I didn’t think he would take well to a line of questioning from our praetorian friends.
The praetorians looked at one another for consensus.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, sir,” the young woman apologized for Chita. She helped Chita back into her seat. “My great-aunt gets confused sometimes. She’s had a hard life.”
Jax looked at Luke then Kayla.
“Hey,” I said, grabbing his attention. I shook my head. “We’re good here. The old woman’s just confused. There’s no need for anything to go down here.”
Jax looked like a penned animal in the corner of his cage. He glanced at me then at the two praetorians.
The old woman rambled on again in her tongue I couldn’t understand. She was animated with eyes wide like she was looking into the events of her past. Her arms waved in the air in front of her. Her tone was dark, menacing even.
“What is she saying?” one of the praetorians asked.
“She’s not making sense.” The younger woman frowned, shaking her head. “She says she’s seen that symbol before. A woman came to her village in the outskirts of the Badlands. A woman with that same tattoo slaughtered an entire family. She was immortal, undying.”
Both praetorians looked back at me. One of them reached two fingers to the comm in his ear. He was a second away from calling for backup.
My eyes widened. I understood what was about to happen.
Jax nodded to Luke.
“No!” I had time to shout across the room before all hell broke loose.
Kayla rose from her booth carrying a compact repeater. Luke lifted a newer hand cannon from behind the greeter’s podium, both leveling them at the praetorians.
Jax just sat there.
I pushed myself from the booth, already pulling my own MK II from its snug place in my lower back.
Luke managed to get a pair of rounds off before I slammed into him. The room exploded in weapons fire. Blaring rounds of lasers went off, echoing in the large diner.
I couldn’t see much. I was busy putting Luke down, but I knew I had to be quick. Not only did I not want the old woman’s blood on my hands, but she had answers. Answers she would take to her grave if Jax had his way. His kind left bodies in their wake.
I slammed into Luke, lifting him off the floor before driving him down again. I heard his head crack off the hard tile floor before he slumped unconscious.
The room reminded me of some kind of crazy disco club on the moon, the ones ravers attended that went all hours into the night. The praetorians sent their yellow blaster rounds in controlled bursts while Jax and Kayla returned fire with their red laser weapons.
I heard the young girl screaming, then she went silent. I rose from my spot over Luke’s unconscious body, leveling my weapon at Kayla. One of the praetorians was already down for good; a head wound exposing brain matter made that clear. The second praetorian’s armor saved him from the worst of the fire. Blood pooled from where two armor pieces met on his right shoulder.
The younger woman and Chita were silent, each lying in a pool of their own blood.
I didn’t hesitate when I rose from over Luke’s unconscious form. I aimed my weapon right above Kayla where a wide-shaded lamp hung above her. I squeezed my trigger, sending the lamp and light on her in a shower of sparks. The lamp hit her and she went down.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jax rise with a hand cannon in his hand. He didn’t point it at me but instead at the bleeding praetorian.
“Enough!” I shouted, aiming my weapon at Jax’s head. “That’s enough.”
“You really going to shoot me?” Jax asked, not taking the barrel of his weapon away from the injured praetorian.
“That depends,” I answered. “Are you really going to shoot him?”
The praetorian worked his way up to a seated position, propping himself up against the booth he sat in moments ago ready to enjoy his dinner. He eyed his blaster that lay a few yards to the left.
“Don’t do it,” I said, filling the tense silence. “Neither of you. Don’t do it.”
“We’re supposed to be working together,” Jax said, finally taking his eyes off the praetorian and looking at me. “We’re not enemies here.”
“None of us are,” I said, looking at each man in turn. “None of us are. Wrong place, wrong time, that’s all this is. No one else has to die.”
“No one beside them?” the praetorian said through a mouthful of blood. He motioned with his eyes to the still forms of the two women. “You both are going to be hunted down for this. You won’t be safe anywhere. No matter how far you go. Into the Badlands or beyond. Killing praetorians is unforgivable.”
“He’s right,” Jax said. “He’s seen our faces. He knows who we are. We can’t let him live.”
“There has to be another way,” I said, refusing to let Jax murder this man. “I have no love for the GG, but murdering people in a diner is something I didn’t sign up for.”
“There is no other way.” Jax hesitated the slightest bit.
“That hesitation in your voice tells me there is,” I said. I decided to throw caution to the wind on this one and use the ace up my sleeve. “X, it’s time to go to work. Can you just talk using the speaker in the implant so these idiots don’t think I’m talking to them?”
“Of course,” X said, filling the room with her voice. “How may I be of assistance?”
The praetorian and Jax looked at one another, confused.
“I need a way to wipe someone’s memory,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty; it just has to be quick.”
“Understood,” X said. “There’s a specific narcotic that will wipe someone’s memory for the past twenty-four hours. I can give you the ingredients needed. They shouldn’t be hard to acquire in a city this size.”
“That’s the way out,” I said, looking at Jax.
“We don’t have time for this,” Jax said through gritted teeth. “You don’t know what’s happened to the mission in the time we were told of your arrival.”
“Yeah, well, that’s going to have to wait,” I said with no room for debate in my voice. “We get this guy patched up. We drug him, then we’re out.”
Jax took one look at me. He realized I wasn’t going to budge. “Let me at least get him tied up. Luke and Kayla can help with this crazy good will mission of yours.”
“Agreed,” I said, lowering my weapon as Jax made his way to the wounded praetorian. He secured the prat’s hands, then gathered both the prats’ weapons. The whole time, he muttered under his breath how he was working with some kind of saint.
“X,” I asked. “Can you check for vitals?”
“The younger woman is gone, but the older of the two seems to still have a slow heartbeat. Her wound is fatal. She’ll be gone in seconds.”
I made my way over to where the two woman lay still on the diner floor. I felt sick as I stepped over the younger woman’s body. She hadn’t known what she was walking into that day at the diner.
Sorrow descended on me. In a way, I was glad it did. I hadn’t killed her, but I felt responsible for her death all the same. If this level of sorrow said anything about who I was in my past life, maybe I had managed to hold on to a little bit of my humanity yet.
I knelt next to the old woman, who looked up at me through cloudy eyes. A blaster round had taken her in the gut. X was right, she was almost gone. I didn’t know how I knew that, but I did.
The old woman’s eyes that had looked at me with so much terror before now stared at me in silence. I took her right hand in my own. Gnarled joints and curved nails fell into my own calloused palm.
“Chita.” I used the name for her I heard the younger woman use. “Chita, what village did you see el diablo de la noche in?”
I couldn’t be sure she understood me, then I had a revelation. “X, can you translate my request?”
“Certainly,” X said. She asked the woman in the foreign tongue.
Chita looked at me with eyes partly full of wonder, partly fear, and all hate. She answered my question so faintly, I barely heard her. The next minute, she was gone.
“What did she say?” I asked X, releasing the woman’s hand.
“She said there is a city called Cecil in the Badlands to the north,” X said, sounding thoughtful and almost confused.
“What else?” I asked. “What else? Was there more?”
“She said there is a war in you she sees.” X said these words slowly as if she were trying to make sense of the woman’s last words herself. “She said don’t let your past decide your present.”
I sat back on my heels, stunned. I was in a pool of the two women’s blood. At the moment, I didn’t care. I felt numb. Prior to this day, I had beaten up and thrown out my fair share of people. I had never held someone’s hand as they died or been so close to dead bodies that I could remember. At least not in the last five years.
There were two parts of me that waged war inside at the moment. The side that was comfortable with death and the side that felt sick inside about seeing the innocent slain.
“So what’s this grand plan of yours?” Jax asked, having secured the remaining praetorian and roused Luke and Kayla. “We’re going to drug up our prat friend here on happy pills so he doesn’t remember any of this and then walk out of here? There are bodies everywhere.”
“No,” I said, shaking myself from my moment of silence. I rose to my feet, going over to the door of the diner. I turned off the lights, locked the door, and turned the sign hanging from one of the windows from open to closed.
I looked at Kayla and Luke, who glared at me and then Jax, who for everything that just happened to us, still had that amused gleam in his eye. He almost looked excited.
“This is what we’re going to do,” I said. “You three are going to get X what she needs to create the drug and then we’re going to get out of here.”
“And X is this voice coming out of the side of your head?” Jax craned his neck to try and get a better look. “I never get the first generation of new tech these days; too many bugs. What is it anyway? Some kind of robot?”
“An AI and that’s not important right now,” I corrected Jax before X could. “Right now, we get the ingredients for the drug and we get out of here. X? You’re up.”
“The mind wipe should be easy enough to make with some of the ingredients carried in the medical kit praetorians are already equipped with. In addition, we’ll need Pherasinthomine and Tescatolerine,” X explained.
“Seriously, X,” Jax said. “Stop making up words to confuse us.”
“She’s not,” Kayla said, massaging the spot on her head where the lamp hit her. If her stare could turn people to stone, I’d be a statue. “Pherasinthomine is a narcotic. I think I have some in the tank parked out back.”
“And you weren’t going to share?” Jax asked.
“I wasn’t going to use it.” Kayla shrugged. “I found it and was going to sell it for something while we were in town if I got the chance.”
“Well, that’s part of it,” I said. “How about the test-testcol—whatever it is.”
“Tescatolerine,” X repeated.
“What about that one?” I said. “Where do we find that?”
“Any halfway decent store should carry it,” X answered. “It’ll be expensive.”
“We’re well-funded.” Jax nodded to his two associates. “Hurry up. The sooner we can get these drugs pumped into the praetorian, the better.”
Kayla and Luke nodded then took off through the back door.
It was dark outside now. The lack of street lamps bathed the street in blackness. The stars overhead and the neon signs on the buildings were the only thing that gave the street outside any kind of light.
Anyone looking into the diner would have to get close and squint, but they might be able to see the bodies in the center of the room. Apparently, Jax and I were thinking the same thing. It was a small miracle that no one else had strolled in during this whole ordeal.
“I’ll put the bodies in the back,” Jax said with a sigh like a kid who didn’t want to clean his room.
I didn’t offer to help. I had something else that I needed to do.
While Jax cleaned up the diner, I moved toward the wounded praetorian, who had kept silent. I wanted to talk to him about the state of things and how this was all going to work if he was calm.
I never got the chance. Motion out of the corner of my eye told me someone was at the door. The glass door trembled as a heavy hand knocked on it. The praetorian and I traded looks. He opened his mouth to yell for help.
I slammed a heavy boot into the side of his head. He fell unconscious. Jax was just disappearing into the kitchen dragging the two bodies. The third body, the praetorian who hadn’t made it out of the fire fight, slumped at the foot of the row of booths pressed against the windows. There was no way someone from outside could see him or the unconscious praetorian next to him, or so I told myself.
Already standing, I had a clear view of a man’s figure outside. He was middle-aged and a bit overweight. A curled mustache sat on his puffy lips. He banged again, this time harder. Before he could press his face to the glass to look inside, I made my move.
MK II in my right hand secured behind my back, I opened the door with my left.
I wasn’t the actor Luke had been at playing waiter, but this guy didn’t know me from Adam. I let the door open slowly with a fake smile on my face.
“I’m sorry, sir, we’re closed for renovation at the moment,” I said, doing my best to sound believable. “You can come back next week.”
“Next week?” the portly man repeated as if I had just told him his world was crashing down around him. “I’ve been coming to the Side Diner for years. I come at the same time every day for dinner. This is unacceptable. Where’s Hector? He’ll know me.”
The man tried to look over my shoulder, narrowing his eyes into the dark diner.
“Sorry,” I said, maneuvering myself in front of him again. “Hector’s out because the chemicals we’re using in here aren’t exactly user friendly, if you know what I mean. But like I said, we’ll be done next week and you can come back.”
“What company do you work for?” The man looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “You’re not dressed like any worker I’ve ever met.”
I had a split second to make my decision. I wasn’t going to kill the guy, even though I wanted to at the moment. He was too nosy for his own good. I could keep trying to lie my way out of it or maybe pull him in and we could use some of X’s mind-wiping cocktail on him as well.
It turned out I wouldn’t have to do either.
Jax popped his head out of the door from behind me. He sucked in a long lungful of air, like a man who had just broken the surface of the water after a deep dive.
“Oh, man, those fumes are toxic,” Jax said, gulping in the cool night air. “I mean, we really have to get HR on this. We need better equipment.”
I stepped back from the door, taking in Jax’s new appearance. He had donned a white apron, a pair of large blue gloves that came up to his elbows, and a hairnet. He didn’t exactly look like the typical renovation worker, but it would have to do.
“Oh my,” the man outside said, taking in Jax along with me. “Toxic fumes, you say?”
“Yeah,” Jax said, gripping his stomach with one hand. “Anytime I’m around it, it gives me runs for a week. I grew a third nipple from the long-term side effects. Want to see?”
“No, no that’s quite all right,” the man said, taking a step back as if Jax were contagious. “I’ll—I’ll come back sometime next week.”
“Are you sure?” Jax said, looking down his shirt and reaching a hand in. “That third nipple is around here somewhere. Where was it again?”
The man was gone, all interest in dinner lost at Jax’s appearance.
I closed the door, not knowing what to think. I locked it behind us.
“Where do they find you guys?” I asked.
“Don’t judge me.” Jax waved a finger at me. “You needed the help. He was getting too comfortable with questioning you. Another minute, and you would have dragged him inside, not to kill him, but to give him some of that knock-out juice.”
I didn’t confirm or deny Jax’s assumption, even though he was right.
Jax went back to work in his apron and gloves, taking the dead praetorian to the back kitchen. Before he did so, he unclipped the man’s belt with the medical kit X would need once the rest of the supplies arrived.
The praetorian I knocked out was just coming to, massaging his jaw.
“Why are you doing all of this?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“I mean, you’re clearly not one of them. I saw you trying to stop them. You’re insisting on saving my life.” He shook his head with a grimace. “I don’t get you. Them I get. Earth is full of soldiers of fortune and hitmen nowadays, but you, what’s your story?”
“I’m trying to figure that out,” I told him.
It was obvious he didn’t understand what I was trying to say. He grimaced again, looking down at his left shoulder, which still bled profusely.
“You were just at the wrong place at the wrong time,” I said. “I can help patch you up to stop the bleeding if you tell me what to do.”
He looked at me as if he were trying to figure me out then gave up and nodded toward a square case on the belt by my side. “That’s the med kit. In there is a syringe full of Quick Heal, that will stop my bleeding and kill any infection.”
“Got it,” I said, following his instructions. I found a large syringe loaded with what looked like a tube of blue glue. It reminded me of a small caulking gun more than a needle.
“That’s it,” the praetorian said, nodding over to his injured shoulder. “Stick it in and press down on the plunger.”
“Whatever you say,” I said, going over and jamming the end of the Quick Heal into the open wound. The blaster round had found its way between his chest armor and shoulder armor. The synth suit he wore underneath was no match for turning a blaster round at close range.
The man grunted in pain as he received the injection.
I pressed down on the plunger as instructed. A thick foam fizzled and erupted from the injury. It bubbled over the wound, ending the bleeding.
I jerked the item back, evoking another grunt from the praetorian.
“Thanks, I think,” the praetorian said with a grimace.
“Yeah,” I said, tossing the used-up Quick Heal to the side. I hoped he would be more talkative now that I had set him straight. “You’re going to be okay. Before this all ends, I need something from you.”
He looked at me as if he were expecting this.
“Have you ever heard of a company called Immortal Corp?” I asked, holding my breath. It was a shot in the dark, but one I had to take.
“No, what’s that?” he asked.
“Never mind,” I said, bottling my disappointment and moving on. I wanted to get this line of questioning done before Jax finished in the back. “How about a group calling themselves Phoenix?”
The praetorian’s eyes opened wide. “You’re—you’re with Phoenix?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. At least now we were getting somewhere. “But I need to know anything and everything I can about them.”
The praetorian licked his lips and shook his own head.
“I don’t know much and that’s the honest truth,” he said. “You saved my life today and I’m going to be able to go back to my wife and little boy because of that. I’m going to shoot you straight and tell you what I know.”
I waited in silence for him to continue.
“There are rumors about a group here on Earth that have been working in the shadows,” he said, speaking slowly trying to gather his thoughts. “I don’t know what they’re trying to create, but word is that they’re dangerous and that whatever they are doing is going to bring about a change.”
“What kind of change?” I asked. “Where are they?”
“I wish I could tell you more,” the praetorian said. “I really do. But I don’t know. No one does really, or if they do, they’re not talking about it. Last I heard was that they’re a small rebel group poorly funded but with operatives on both the Earth and moon.”
“No idea on their objective?” I pushed.
“Just that they’re working on something big,” the praetorian said. “I don’t know what that means for us, but people seem scared when their name comes up.”
I sat silent besides the praetorian, lost to my own thoughts. Memories tugged at the back of my mind just out of reach. Images just below the surface teased at my mind almost like déjà vu.
Why was I having these thoughts now? Had I been on Earth before? If I believed the old woman, at least someone like me with the very same tattoo had been to Earth. Were there more of my kind, whatever I was, and like Preacher, the man in my dreams?
These questions and more cascaded across my thoughts.
Heavy footfalls from the rear of the diner woke me. Kayla came back with a small pack of red vials. By the look on her face, it was clear she still hadn’t forgiven me for cracking her across the head with the lamp. I didn’t blame her.
“Well, let’s ask that AI in your neck how we do this,” she said, placing the vials on a table. “These praetorians have been gone too long. Sooner or later, someone is going to come looking.”
“She’s right,” Jax said, stepping out of the kitchen’s swinging doors. “We should hit the road. Staying here any longer is going to only bring on more problems.”
“Luke?” Kayla asked into an earpiece hidden by her brown hair. “ETA?”
Everyone in the room paused to wait for the response only Kayla and Jax would be able to hear through their earpieces.
“He’s coming through the back door now,” Jax said a moment later. “Let’s shoot this prat up with the happy juice and get out of here. We have larger problems waiting for us.”
I followed X’s detailed instructions mixing the liquids and injecting the cocktail into the praetorian’s neck. After that, he passed out hard. We dropped him off just outside of New Vegas. He would come to in a few hours not having any idea of how he got there.
I could relate to how that felt. It wasn’t fun. At least he was alive. Eventually, the bodies would be found in the diner and an investigation would begin, but that would take time. We would be long gone by then.
The vehicle we rode in wasn’t an actual tank at all, just a heavy-duty vehicle with the same name as the heavy artillery unit the GG used in combat.
The vehicle was old and rusted with a driver and passenger seat in the front. A square enclosed rear section had two benches that faced one another on either side of the walls and a pair of double doors in the back completed the simple yet effective vehicle.
The inside smelled like oil and gas. I liked it. There was something comforting and memorable in that odor.
Kayla drove with Luke in the passenger side seat. Jax and I sat in the back of the bumpy ride as we made our escape from New Vegas.
Jax was just staring at me from across the narrow walkway, his dark features nearly hidden all together in the shadows.
“Do I have something on my face?” I asked.
“Nope, just a big question mark, that I’m beginning to think I don’t even want to figure out,” Jax said from across the way. “You’re an enigma wrapped in a mystery, Daniel Hunt.”
“Welcome to the conversation,” I said. “But enough about me. You mentioned there being a problem between when you were told I was coming, and when you met me at the diner. That’s why those innocent people had to die. So I could show you my tattoo and prove to you who I was.”
“Hey, don’t you put that on me,” Jax said, leaning forward. The light streaming in from the windshield caught the right side of his face. “How was I supposed to know that old lady would recognize your tattoo? I mean, what are the odds of that? What does that tattoo mean anyway?”
Before I could open my mouth to make up a lie, he raised his hands palms open toward me.
“You know what?” Jax asked. “I don’t even want to know. You and that relic of a hand cannon of yours can keep all your secrets. The sooner we finish this mission, the better.”
“Our mutual employer has hired us to do a job and all was running as planned until yesterday when a new player entered the game,” Jax explained. “You do know what you were sent here to do, right?”
“Assist you in gathering information about a weapon a group called Phoenix is developing here on Earth,” I answered. “I’m here to get the information and get out. That’s it.”
“Well, yeah, but you do realize what the information is, right?” Jax screwed up his face. “I mean, not what it is, but that it’s not a what, but a who.”
My face gave my thoughts away.
“Yeah, man,” Jax said with a grin as he leaned back into his seat. “We’re kidnapping a scientist working with Phoenix. That’s the information you were sent here to gather.”
Why doesn’t that surprise me? I asked myself. Sent to godforsaken Earth to gather not files or a data chip but a person.
“Oh, yeah, and the rabbit hole goes deeper,” Jax said as if he were enjoying telling me the story. “Yesterday, we were ambushed. There were five of us who were sent here to grab the scientist. Now you understand why I needed proof that it was you at the diner. I’m not taking any chances.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Well, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be here talking with you,” Jax said. “I’d be out killing them. If I had to guess, they were locals here on Earth. They weren’t trained well, but there were a lot of them. Some clan or tribe got wind of Phoenix’s activity. They’re probably trying to swoop in before we can to grab whatever they can.”
My mind worked on overdrive, processing the new facts.
“You work for Immortal Corp?” I asked, realizing there was a strong chance he did so. How much he knew was another story.
“Oh, you bet,” Jax said. “Vacation days, great medical plan, and retirement package—the works.”
“I’m being serious here,” I said.
“Yeah, we work for them, but we’re hired contractors just like you, sent to do a job,” Jax said. “Outside of the name and a contact, I don’t know squat about them. They’re more of a mystery than you and that’s saying a lot.”
“Your contact from the company.” I pressed the line of questioning already guessing the answer. “Older guy with a trench coat, cigar in his mouth?”
“That’s the one,” Jax said. “Only thing I know about Immortal Corp is what I hear in the business. They show up from time to time needing soldiers of fortune or hitmen. They’re a buyer on the market for people with skills like you and me, but other than that, they might as well be Santa Claus.”
“Well, I guess none of this really changes anything,” I said. “We still need to grab the scientist and get him where?”
“Man, they really told you less than they told us,” Jax said with a laugh. “I didn’t think that was possible. I have a channel to contact once we grab the scientist. They’ll give us the place and time for the pickup. Right now, we’re headed west to our base. We’ll be there in about four hours’ time if you want to grab some shut-eye.”
My stomach rumbled, telling me I had missed dinner. I tabled that idea for later as I pieced together the events of my day. The fight with Aleron Jacobs seemed like it had been yesterday.
I made myself as comfortable as possible in the swaying rear section of the vehicle and shut my eyes. To my surprise, no dreams came for me amidst the rocking of the heavy tank.
Sometime later, I was woken by the sounds of the vehicle coming to a stop. I blinked my eyes open to see a dark interior of the vehicle. Jax was just rousing from his brief moment of slumber as well.
“Home sweet home.” Jax yawned and stretched before he rose to his feet and opened the rear doors.
It was still dark outside, but the light from the moon and stars was more than enough to see by. Kayla brought the vehicle to a stop outside of a shabby single-story barn. A depleted house stood forty yards to our left. No lights on in the windows.
“Luke, check the perimeter and make sure all is how we left it,” Jax instructed. “Kayla, take the tank inside the barn.”
The two moved to obey.
I heard the orders being given, but my mind was elsewhere. I had never seen the moon from Earth or at least I had never remembered seeing the moon from Earth. Looking up at it now, and at the hundreds, maybe thousands of stars twinkling in the cold night air, made me remember how truly small I really was.
“I don’t want to interrupt whatever reflection moment you got going on right now,” Jax said, joining me. “But we should get inside. The night should have covered our approach, but these are unfriendly lands. If the roving gangs don’t catch us soon, the muties will.”
“All right,” I said, taking one last long look at the clear night sky.
Kayla was just hopping back into the tank and steered it inside the open barn. The inside of the structure wasn’t much to look at. A wide open space with a narrow loft above. Jax and his crew had some supplies set up in the rear of the barn and that was about it.
The smell of old straw and musty hay told me I knew it well. So many memories or shadows of memories struggled to be realized deep in my subconscious. It was like once I was in the dropship and now back on Earth, my memory was being jogged.
Luke joined a minute later, reporting that all was well.
Kayla moved the tank inside and closed the twin sliding doors to the barn while Jax opened a pair of lanterns that bathed the room in a bluish white light.
“We should knock out for a few hours then head out to finish this thing,” Jax said to his team. “We’ll sleep and plan during the day. It’s too dangerous to travel then anyway. We hit them when it gets dark again. If all goes well, in twenty-four hours, we’ll be calling our employer to come pick up their gift.”
“I’ll take first watch in the loft,” Luke volunteered.
Kayla was already moving toward the rear of the barn toward a sleeping bag in the corner.
“I’ll take second watch if you’re okay with third,” Jax asked me.
“To be honest, I’m wide awake,” I said. “Let’s go over the plan before you turn in.”
“Seriously?” Jax asked me like I was an overeager kid ready to go on a vacation that didn’t start until the next day.
“Seriously,” I answered.
“All right,” Jax said with a shrug. He went over to a flat circular object on the ground. It rested to the left of the barn.
Jax pressed a few buttons, and a moment later, a holographic map popped into existence. The faint green light of the map showed where we were with a red dot.
There was a water mass to the west of us. Another dot to the east read New Vegas under it. North and south were a whole lot of nothing.
The way I studied the map must have given away what I was thinking.
“Don’t get to Earth much, huh?” Jax asked.
“Break it down for me,” I said, motioning with my chin to the map. “Where are we headed?”
Jax pressed a few more buttons at the base of the projector, zooming in on our position.
“We’re here.” He pointed to the red dot then moved his finger north. “A two hour drive through mutie territory will take us here, to where Phoenix has set up some kind of small forward base. We believe that is where the scientist is performing his experiments.”
“You keep using the word ‘mutie’,” I said.
“Uh, yeah, muties as in mutants,” Jax looked at me like I was crazy. “Oh, come on, tell me you’ve heard of mutants.”
“Sure, but I’ve never come across one,” I answered. “Animals, right? Or at least what used to be animals. Beasts now deformed and changed by the wasteland Earth has become.”
“That’s right,” Jax answered. “Weird things that pop up out of nowhere. I don’t know how they survive. They come in all shapes and sizes. The soil on Earth is dead, the water poisoned, but still these things find a way. They carry diseases of all kinds with them, so if you get bitten, there’s a good chance you’re already dead.”
“How big are they?” I asked, gauging the threat. “Do they hunt in packs?”
“Like I said, there are all different kinds out here.” Jax shrugged. “Little weird guys no larger than your hand to the hounds that used to be some kind of coyotes. They’re the ones you have to watch out for.”
I nodded once more, going over the simple plan again. I liked simple. What I knew was that no plan went exactly right. We would have to improvise on the move.
“Well, I’m going to pass out,” Jax said, pointing at the map. “You’re free to check it out if you like.”
He left, going over to the rear of the barn.
I stayed, moving around the map of Earth in front of me. It was so strange to think the entire planet was dead. I had heard stories of what Earth used to be. It used to be a living, breathing being full of life. Green forests, jungles, and oceans with crashing blue waves.
None of that remained. I changed the way I viewed the map, moving to real time images of the planet. Deserts stretched out. Cities were more like fields of debris. The waters in the oceans were poisoned, most of the lakes and rivers dried up. Food came from printers that used chemicals and man-made products.
The water that was able to be drunk had to be run through a filtration process, and even then, it didn’t taste great.
“So sad,” X sounded in my head.
“How could they have not seen the planet’s resources being used up?” I wondered out loud.
“Multiple factors led to the downfall of Earth,” X explained. She refreshed what I already knew to be true. “Overpopulation coupled with not providing for the environment. That with the rise of the Order. When the world united to quell that rebellion, it was already too late.”
I shook my head, looking at image after image of the dead planet.
I wasn’t sure how long I stood there, but before I knew it, I heard Luke waking Jax to take his shift. Mine would be coming next and I could use a few more hours of shut eye.
I went to sleep thinking of the skeleton of a world Earth was now. Instead of sprawling out on the floor, I chose to retake my place on the bench inside the tank. I stretched out and was asleep in minutes.
I couldn’t be sure of how long I was out, at least a few hours. Some sixth sense woke me as I heard footsteps—no not footsteps, something like paws treading on dirt ground so faint, I wondered how I heard it at all.
The back doors of the tank were open, giving me a view of the giant sliding doors to the barn.
I sat up listening. I even held my breath in case that extra silence would help.
Just when I was thinking I should go back to sleep, the sound came again. Something walked by the barn doors.
Instinct led my hand to reach for the MK II at the small of my back. I withdrew it, already pointing it toward the door.
There was no denying it now, there was definitely something there. Multiple bodies moved on the other side of the thin barn doors. Heavy sniffing like the sounds a large dog would make echoed into the room.
Someone’s footsteps on the other side of the tank joined the noses.
“Hey, Daniel, wakey, wakey. It’s your turn to go on wa—”
I slammed a hand over Jax’s mouth as he turned the corner of the tank. I pointed my MK II at the doors.
Immediately, Jax lost the look of confusion on his face.
Another heavy sniffing sound came through the door. This time, the door rattled. Something on the other side was trying to get in.
Suddenly, the single chain around the two door handles with the rusted padlock didn’t seem like enough.
I removed my hand from Jax’s mouth. Both my own hands cupped the grip on my weapon as I stepped off the tank.
“Muties,” Jax said, lifting his own weapon from the holster at his side.
“X,” I breathed. “Are you able to tell what we’re dealing with here from the sounds they’re making?”
Dawn was just approaching, casting weird shadows under the doors of the barn. The golden light sent images of thin legs and hurried movements.
“Sounds and our location point to it being a pack of mutated mongrels indigenous to these parts,” X answered. She sent a series of images to me via a sliding screen in the bottom right hand corner of my eyesight.
Four-legged animals that looked like nightmare dogs reached my eyes. Dark brown fur hung off them in clumps. They didn’t look like they could weigh more than a hundred pounds. Their rows of teeth and red eyes gave me pause for only a moment. If they bled, I could put them down.
A second later, the sounds stopped. The huffing and manic tracking back and forth in front of the barn was gone. An earsplitting howl shattered the silence around us. Then nothing.
Jax and I looked at one another with a shrug.
“What was that?” Kayla asked as she and Luke came around the corner with their own weapons. “Muties?”
“Muties, but they must have smelled me and realized they didn’t want any of this,” Jax said, holstering his weapon and patting the handle. “My musk must have—”
“Wait,” I said, lifting a hand for silence. “Do you hear that?”
There it was again, the distant sound of vehicles. Engines, and more than one.
“Oh no,” Luke said with an exhausted bated sigh. “What now?”
I holstered my weapon, making for the loft. A rickety wooden ladder carried me a story up before letting me off in a short loft area with piles of musty hay.
Once again, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed the smell, as if it brought back happy memories to my troubled mind. Instead of dwelling on this, I went to where two metal rivets came together in the side of the barn. There was about an inch worth of space for me to look out. Dust kicked up about a mile out as a line of vehicles raced toward our location. They were a series of dune buggies, dirt bikes, and one large bus.
I squinted, trying to make out more details, but that was it.
“What do you see?” Jax shouted up to me.
“We’re going to have company in a few minutes and they’re definitely not the GG coming to check up on us.”
“A gang,” Kayla said from below. “We should go now.”
“Go where?” Jax asked. “We make our attack on Phoenix tonight. Where do you want to go?”
“We should at least wait to see what they have to say,” Luke chimed in. “Maybe they want to trade or something.”
“Yeah, trade us our lives for everything we have,” Kayla said with a scoff. “We need to get out of here now.”
“Too late,” I said from my spot. “They’re here.”
I watched as a dozen smaller vehicles swarmed around the bus like ants on a larger insect’s carcass. They came to a stop right outside our barn. I was surprised to see the large mutated dog-like animals go to the men and women on the vehicles like pets.
That’s how they found us, I thought to myself. That’s why those animals left a second ago. They were called back.
All together, I counted about two dozen armed riders and a handful of the mongrels.
I made our way from the loft to the bottom floor. I took the lead, going to the barn doors and peering through a rust-induced hole in the thin steel door. A man, if I could call him that at all, stepped off the bus.
Every vehicle they drove from the bus itself to the dirt bikes looked as though they would fall apart at any moment. Rust stained the outside while worn tires with little to no tread pushed the machines forward.
An assortment of weapons from newer pulse rifles stained with dirt to old-school weapons I had only heard of armed the group. A few of the gang members even had handheld weapons like swords and knives.
The man stepping off the bus I guessed was their leader. He was short and fat with a belly that protruded over his belt. He wore a leather vest with spikes on the shoulder pads.
He would be comical if we were in any other situation.
“Hello in there,” he said in some kind of accent I never heard before. “We already ambushed you once and killed half your number. Give yourselves up and all that sweet tech you carry and maybe we’ll let you live.”
I squinted through my narrow view of the outside morning, taking in our odds. Not that great. We were outnumbered at least six to one, not including the mongrels that paced back and forth in the group.
“That’s the son of a brum that killed Charlie and Scott,” Kayla growled. “No way we surrender, no way.”
“They’ll kill us if we do,” Luke agreed.
“You two get the big guns from the back.” Jax joined me at the doors, looking out. He hunched down, finding a slit where two steel sheets came together unevenly. “We’re not giving them anything.”
I took a step back, thinking about our odds. I would probably be okay. I could take a few injuries and still be breathing at the end of this. The others wouldn’t be so lucky. Outnumbered like we were, chances were they all weren’t going to get out of it breathing.
What are you going to do? I asked myself. Are you the kind of guy who lets people die in his wake?
The honest truth was I didn’t know. Being on Earth amongst the killing and dying touched something so deep inside of me, I knew it had to be what I really was.
I was more than okay with the killing and that scared me.
“Come on, come on, children,” the short rotund man outside chided us like we were little kids who didn’t want to come out to play. “I’m starting to get impatient here. You won’t like me when I get impatient.”
“Let me go talk to him,” I said before Jax could yell something inappropriate back. “Maybe I can get us out of this somehow.”
“Yeah, right,” Jax said, standing up from his peephole. “And the GG is going to save us and escort us to Phoenix, we’ll grab the scientist, and all will be right with the world.”
“What do you have to lose?” I asked. “If he won’t see reason, then you get the fight you want anyway. Talking to him, at least we have a chance to get out of this alive. If we fight, odds say one or more of us go down.”
Jax rubbed the stubble on the underside of his jaw. He clearly wanted to fight but understood the wisdom in my words.
“At the very least, me talking to him buys you the time to set up shop with whatever weapons you plan on using,” I pushed. “Come on. Five minutes.”
“Five minutes, while we set up the big guns,” Jax agreed. “You got five minutes.”
I nodded, moving over to the twin barn doors. They had their handles wrapped with a thick chain that had seen better days.
Jax tossed me a ring with one key on it and a dirty rabbit’s foot that smelled like death.
I grabbed it out of the air, looking at it like it was going to come alive and bite me.
“Where did you just pull this out of?” I asked, scrunching up my nose.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Jax said with a wink.
“That’s disgusting,” I said under my breath as I undid the lock.
“Don’t shoot!” I yelled through the closed doors. “I’m coming out to talk.”
“Come, come, and speak to Papa,” the little man coaxed. “We will strike a deal. Papa will give you a great price for your life.”
I finished removing the chain from the door. I opened the left side of the sliding barn door just enough to fit through.
I holstered my weapon on the way out, blinking in the early morning light.
“Oh, he’s pretty,” one of the women yelled at me.
Someone else whistled.
A gale of catcalls assaulted me as I took a few steps from the barn door. I heard Jax close them behind me.
The mongrels in the group growled, revealing rows of razor-sharp teeth.
An emblem I didn’t notice before coated the side of the bus door as well as a few vehicles. Some of the gang members wore it like a patch on their jackets as well. A white scythe curving down on a grey background.
“Calm down, calm down,” Papa said to the roaring crowd. “We have business to attend to.”
He looked me up and down, playing with a hoop earring in his right ear. He didn’t look dangerous, but I knew looks could be deceiving. I met his eyes, not challenging but not willing to back down either.
I wasn’t sure how far my healing ability would take me in a fight against two dozen armed combatants. Maybe I could take a round or two? Maybe I could take ten. I really didn’t want to find out.
“X,” I whispered. “Their gang symbol. Who are they?”
The catcalls from the group were still dying down enough to mask my question.
“Oh dear, that’s not good,” X said. “Brace yourself, Daniel. This is going to get worse before it gets better.”
“The sign of the scythe belongs to the Reaper gang, one of the largest here on Earth. We actually ran across their leader yesterday on our trip down, Aleron Jacobs,” X said in a hurry. “They are rumored to be one of the most violent gangs in the area with their number estimated in the hundreds. Be careful, Daniel.”
That was all I had time for. Papa started again.
“Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with this fine morning?” he asked as if we were about to be best friends.
“My name’s Daniel,” I said without hesitation. “May I call you Papa or do you prefer another title?”
“Oh my, and a gentleman with manners as well, Daniel,” Papa said, taken aback. “Papa is fine and I didn’t see you with this group when we ambushed them last. Where were you hiding out?”
“New recruit,” I said, only half lying.
“Well, it is not your lucky day,” Papa said with a sigh. “You should have not fallen in with this mercenary group. You see, we’ve been tracking them for a while now. We’re about to take all they have and maybe even their lives. If you’re with them, then you are guilty by association, you see.”
“I understand,” I said, hoping that the card I was about to play would hold some weight in their way of doing things. “I understand the Reapers lost their leader recently. I know this because I met Aleron yesterday morning.”
Deep inhales of breath all around me erupted from the group. Many exchanged worried glances from one to another.
I knew I struck a chord. Whether it was the right chord to be struck at the moment had yet to be seen.
“Be careful of the lies you say next,” Papa said. His demeanor quickly changed from warm and cordial to menacing. “You’ve lied already. I will not abide another.”
“No lie,” I said. “I came in yesterday with him on the dropship Fury .”
Papa glared at me. I could tell he was weighing my words, trying to tell by instinct alone if I was lying or not.
“You’ve got some courage flowing in your veins or maybe you’re just stupid or both.” Papa reached behind his back and drew out a bright silver blaster. It was easily the cleanest thing in the entire group of men and women. “If you’re lying to me, I’m going to shoot you in both legs then let the mongrels have you.”
“No lie,” I said, forcing myself to take slow, even breaths. “The GG had him under an army of guards. They’re taking him to the Hole here on Earth. Thought you’d like to know the escape plan set in place for him didn’t work. There were too many praetorians there.”
I left out my part in the whole fouled escape plan as well as Captain Valentine’s name. They didn’t need those details.
Papa kept the weapon on me but diverted his attention to a scantily clad woman who came over to him, whispering something in his ear.
Papa nodded then lowered his gun.
“All right,” Papa said. “It sounds like what you say you saw actually did happen yesterday. We didn’t know he was still taken to the Hole. Thank you for the piece of information. That, however, does not buy you a free pass.”
The moment where I thought maybe the information would buy me a shred of good will came and went. Papa lifted his weapon at my head again.
“Tell your friends in there to come out and join you with their hands up,” Papa said. “I’ll take everything you have, and since you’ve given us intel we didn’t have before, I’ll let you live.”
Not a bad deal, I thought to myself. I’ll miss my MK II, but I can find another. You’re not kidding anyone. This was never going to end in peace. This could always ever end one way.
As if to punctuate my words, a low thrum came from inside the barn doors.
“Daniel, if you can hear me,” Jax yelled through the closed bar doors. “Duck!”
What happened next was pure insanity. I don’t know what kind of weapons Kayla, Luke, and Jax had been referring to as the “big guns,” but they didn’t disappoint.
I had just enough time to dive to the right and out of the way from the slew of fire. Bright red blaster rounds punctured the barn door so intensely, it looked like a steady hose of weapon fire soaked the Reapers at our door.
Before any of them could react, a quarter of their number were cut down. Screams of pain rose to the sky along with a decent number of curses I didn’t even know existed in the English language.
I rolled out of the way, coming up on my belly with my MK II in my hands.
I took two more with headshots before the Reapers began to return fire. A round slammed into the ground to my left another in front of me. A scorching hot sensation ripped into my left shoulder.
I roared in pain as the dust and dirt around me kicked up into my eyes.
It’s not going to kill you, I told myself. It’s not going to kill you.
With a thunderous bellow, the tank slammed through the closed barn doors which were nearly cut in two from the amount of rounds being fired through them.
The tank came rear end first with Jax firing what looked like a rotating multi-barreled weapon from the open back doors of the vehicle.
Kayla drove, slamming her foot on the brake as soon as they came parallel with my location.
“Get in!” she screamed over the roar of the weapons.
I was in no position to decline the ride. I scrambled to my feet, going in front of the tank and to the side door where Luke had his upper body poking out the passenger side window.
He cradled a heavy repeater rifle in the crook of his left shoulder. He sent concentrated bursts of red hot rounds at the scrambling Reapers.
When he saw me approach, he opened the door, retreating into the interior of the tank to make room for me.
I knew a normal person would be terrified right now. Most people would probably be petrified with fear, unable to move around the battlefield with lightning speed while sending off shots of their own. I guess I wasn’t most people.
In seconds, I was in the tank, closing the door behind me. Just as the door was about to close, a flash of thick wrinkly skin and patchy hair took hold of me. One of the mongrels gripped my right boot, trying to pull me from the supposed safety of the vehicle.
“Hold on!” Kayla yelled over the sounds of the fight. She slammed the tank into drive and put her foot all the way down on the gas.
Luke had moved to the rear, helping Jax whatever way he could with the large weapon. Kayla had her hands full, keeping the tank upright, which left me to deal with the mongrel hanging off my leg.
The animal was heavy. It used the bulk of its body to wrench backward, trying to pull me from the vehicle. I grabbed the dashboard and seat I was in to try and keep myself anchored in the vehicle. My MK II fell from my hands on to the floorboards of the tank.
Agony lanced up my left foot as the mutated beast clenched down even harder. I grunted in pain, striking out with my right foot to the creature’s twisted nose. With each blow I landed, I let out a rush of air. On the third strike, I was rewarded with a snap.
The mongrel whined and lost its grip on my boot. A second later, it was gone.
We were screaming down a patch of empty road now, Papa and the Reapers giving chase. There were far fewer of them now. The mongrels that remained weren’t fast enough to keep up with the vehicle traveling at all-out speed.
I slammed the door closed, retrieving my Mk II from the floor. I looked out the window to see about ten vehicles giving chase. An assortment of dirt bikes and buggies screamed toward us. Despite the scene, I took heart. We had already cut their numbers in half.
The constant firing from the rear of the tank finally ceased.
“The multi-gun needs to cool down!” Jax screamed over the roar of the tank around us. “Keep them off us!”
Jax and Luke, in the rear of the tank, opened up with their rifles. I twisted around in my own seat, sticking my upper body out the window like Luke had done before.
I slammed a new pack into my MK II and looked for targets.
Two dirt bikes to my left caught my eye as a hail of incoming rounds peppered my side of the tank. I turned toward them, letting off a volley of rounds that struck one of them in the leg and torso. He went down in a ugly crash of body and machine.
I moved toward my next target in time to see the woman lift her own heavy pulse rifle at me and open fire.
A round hit me in the chest, burning through my clothes. I grimaced as I accepted the pain. Instead of concentrating on the discomfort, I lifted my weapon, letting out a long breath. I chose my line of fire and squeezed the trigger on my MK II.
The round caught her center mass, sending her sprawling to the hard dirt ground like her counterpart before her.
Whether they were called back or gave up, it didn’t matter much. The Reapers let us go. One second the tank was a magnet for weapons fire and the next we were alone on the road, tearing toward the north in this godforsaken country.
Jax and Luke were still in the back of the tank. I moved to sit down in the seat, looking down at my torso. The round that hit me while I lay on the ground before I even got into the tank was already healing. The most recent round I took to my torso still burned. A pile of charred flesh ran crimson with my blood.
Kayla’s face was a mask of horror. She lifted her own blaster from the holster at her side and pointed it at my head. “What are you?”
“I wish I knew.” I sighed, slumping in my seat.
“I mean it!” Kayla screamed. “What are you? One of those Cyber Hunters, a Warlock from the south?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. I saw it in her eyes a moment too late. She was wound up tight. Adrenaline-laced fear masked her face. We hit a bump in the road and whether she meant to press the trigger or not, I didn’t know.
The last thing I do remember was hearing the sounds of the weapon as the round discharged from her blaster, connecting with my face.
I stood in a room filled with machines, tubes, and white-coated scientists. This wasn’t a dream that I felt like I had any control over, rather a dream that I was reliving like it happened before.
A kid I recognized as a younger version of myself was strapped to a standing table. He was scrawny, maybe even sickly. He, I, or however I was supposed to think of him, couldn’t be out of his late teen years.
The group of doctors or scientists went about their tasks. They compared notes and smiles with one another as they nodded.
The room was massive with white tile underfoot and high, bright light overhead.
There were so many pieces of equipment lined up against the walls and in rows, I had no idea what I was looking at.
A woman caught my eye. Not stunning in the classic sense but pretty. She had short, dark hair. A light blue synth suit hugged her body. It was clear she didn’t belong there.
She looked confused, even as she stared around the room in wonder. Like me, none of the doctors in the room took notice of her. It was like they didn’t see us at all.
She wandered around the room, open mouthed. When she finally looked over at me, she hurried to my side.
“Daniel, is that you?” she asked.
Her voice was unmistakable. It was X.
“X?” I asked. “I don’t understand what’s going on. Am I dead?”
“No, I don’t think so, at least,” X said, shaking her head. “I think we’re in one of your deepest memories. The blow to your head must have been enough to bring this memory to the surface.”
“How are you here?” I asked. “I didn’t know you could walk into my dreams.”
“I shouldn’t be able to,” X said, apparently trying to understand what was going on just like I was. “The same blow that brought back these memories must have linked us, allowing me to be here.”
X was going to say more, but before she had the opportunity, one of the doctors came over to the younger version of me. The doctor carried a datapad in her hand, looking down at the scrolling numbers. Her face was rimmed with a pair of brown-framed glasses.
“Daniel, I want you to know that it is not too late to turn back,” she said, giving younger me an almost sad smile. “You’ve been brave and there’s no shame in saying you’d like to stop the testing.”
“No,” I heard younger me say. “Keep going. I don’t want to be like this anymore. I can’t take it.”
“Depression, anxiety, loneliness—those are all very human traits,” the female doctor in front of me said with another of those sad smiles. “There are other ways to find help.”
“No,” I told her again. “You don’t know what it’s like to not have purpose, to think about killing yourself because you’re so alone. I don’t want to feel like that anymore. I want my life to mean something.”
“Your life already does mean something, Daniel,” the doctor said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “But I do understand. We will go ahead with the procedure.”
I was having a hard time trying to understand how the sad, lonely kid in front of me could have been my past. It was like night and day. I had almost six inches on the kid and a good eighty pounds of muscle on him.
My personality was also nothing like that of the younger version of me. I hadn’t suffered from depression or anxiety, at least not that I could remember in the last five years.
Sure, loneliness was a thing, but I thought that was normal for someone who woke up in the gutter one day on the moon with no idea who he was. Who wouldn’t feel lonely at times?
“We are clear to begin Pack Protocol, phase one,” the doctor said to the others in the room.
I leaned in closer to grab a name on the card hanging from her neck. It read Doctor Sandra Patmos .
She ran a slender finger across her datapad as the other doctors in the room moved to obey.
“This—this was you?” X asked.
“I guess so,” I answered. “I guess it was.”
Red warning lights started to cycle on and off in the room along with a siren that wailed from speakers set into the wall. The floor below where younger me stood strapped to the standing table began to sink lower as the table moved into a horizontal position.
I saw the fear in younger me’s eyes, but that version of myself didn’t say anything. He was set in his ways to see this through to the end.
A small, square, space just large enough for the table to lie parallel with the floor opened up in the ground. A glass shield slid into place so we could see the younger version of myself clearly.
“Daniel, can you hear me?” Doctor Patmos asked, speaking into her datapad.
“Yes,” younger me answered through the speakers in the walls. “I can hear you.”
“Good,” Doctor Patmos answered. “We’re going to begin now. If at any time you need to stop, all you have to say is the key phrase. You remember the key phrase, right?”
“Bow to the moon,” younger me recited like a mantra. “Bow to the moon.”
“Very good,” Doctor Patmos said. “We are about to begin. In three… two… one.”
Blood-red gas filled the lower chamber as X and I looked on in horror. Younger me was lost in the haze of the red stuff altogether. All we could hear next was the screaming.
Half scream, half roar escaped the chamber below. The sound was almost animalistic in nature.
“Daniel, Daniel, speak to me,” Doctor Patmos said, worried. “Daniel, we can stop if it’s too much. Daniel—”
“No!” my younger self said from somewhere in the red haze. “No, I can take it! Keep going! I can take it!”
Doctor Patmos swallowed hard then pressed a few buttons on her datapad. The mist in the chamber intensified for a moment then began to clear. The form of my younger self came back into view, but this time, I looked different.
I was a few inches taller and carried more muscle across my body. Something else was different too. I couldn’t really put my finger on it just yet.
The red gas was sucked away by tubes in the wall before the glass shield opened and younger me was right back where we began.
The doctors in the room marveled at younger me as I stood in front of them, breathing hard. A thin layer of sweat covered my body.
“Did—did it work?” younger me managed to ask.
“Well, let’s see,” Doctor Patmos said. She went over to a steel tray, lifting a sharp scalpel. “This may hurt.”
I watched as Doctor Patmos made a thin incision in the left forearm of my younger self. The younger version of myself winced, then we all watched and waited.
We didn’t have to wait long. Seconds passed before the thin stream of blood stopped altogether. Doctor Patmos used a white swab of gauze to wipe off the blood. There was nothing there. No tear in the skin, no hints that trauma to the area had happened at all.
“We—we did it,” younger me panted in excitement. “We did it.”
“You did it, Daniel,” Doctor Patmos said with a wide smile. “You did it.”
I watched as the doctors helped younger me off the table and on my feet.
“You—you wanted all of this to happen?” X thought out loud. She looked at me with confusion on her face. “You volunteered to be part of the Pack Protocol, to be part of Immortal Corporation?”
“I—I guess so,” I said, trying to fit so many broken pieces together like a shattered vase with superglue. “This isn’t the past I ever thought I’d see. I imagined macabre experimentation or some kind of school where they trained elite soldiers. Not this, not a group of caring doctors.”
“Remember, this is just a portion of so many years of memory you have yet to recover,” X said. “You can’t be more than nineteen in this memory. If you are in your early thirties now, then there is more than a decade of memories still lost to you. We’ll find them, Daniel. We’ll figure this out.”
My head hurt from trying to figure out so much at once. In front of me, the doctors were going over a more detailed examination of younger me’s body.
“You sound like you want to help me,” I said, looking over at X.
“I do,” X said. “Whether you believe me or not, I do.”
“Why?” I asked. “You don’t owe me anything.”
“Maybe that’s the way I was programmed.” X shrugged, looking down at her hands and legs. “Maybe because this is the first time in my existence you gave me my very own body. I mean, even if I only exist in this body in your head, it’s still mine.”
X twisted to the side, admiring her body.
I tried not to look at her curves. It just didn’t seem right on a few different levels.
“This is how you imagine me,” X said with a grin and a raised eyebrow. “I live in your consciousness, so this is how you have chosen to see me.”
“Yeah, well, no one’s perfect,” I said, trying to change the subject. The dull ache in my head began to intensify like it was about to split in two. I held my skull in my hands, as if that was going to help.
“Daniel, Daniel, are you okay?” X asked, rushing to my side. I felt her hand on my back. “Daniel, talk to me.”
“It’s my head. It feels, it feels like I took a blaster to my skull,” I said.
One second I was deep in a memory and the next I was lying on the floor of the tank. I couldn’t see Kayla and Jax arguing, but I could hear them.
“Tell me again why you killed the asset Immortal Corp sent us to help with the mission,” Jax asked. “Please explain to me so I can tell them when they contact us next.”
“You didn’t see what I did,” Kayla insisted. “He took a round to the head like nothing. I didn’t mean to shoot him. I had my blaster on him and we hit a bump in the road.”
“Oh, hi, Immortal Corp, you all-powerful shadow entity,” Jax said, pretending to contact them. “Oh yeah, about that asset you sent us, we accidentally killed him when we went over a bump in the road.”
Jax and Kayla’s voices went on. I didn’t move, not yet. The pain in my head was still there, only now beginning to dull.
Well, I guess that answers that, I said to myself. You’re able to take a round to the head and still live. Are you immortal?
Of course I had mulled over this same question many times in the past with no definite answer. I still didn’t have one, but it seemed I was a step closer. I wasn’t sure if I was immortal, but I could take massive trauma to the torso and head and still live.
Luke jumped into the back tank via the open rear doors. He peered over me, looking into my open eyes.
“Hey, guys,” Luke asked Jax and Kayla who sat in the driver and passenger side seats of the tank, still arguing. “Um, guys?”
“What?” Kayla and Jax asked at once.
“Did he always have his eyes open?” Luke asked, peering down at me.
“Boo,” I said, unable to help myself.
Luke jumped backward with a squeal more befitting a young child than a grown man. He stumbled out of the rear of the tank.
I sat up, pressing a hand to the side of my head. The pain was subsiding now, but it seemed like the side of my head was still open. A sticky sensation ran over my hand as I drew it away again. It was covered in blood.
“What the—” Jax said, getting cut off by Kayla.
“How are you alive? I shot you. You should be dead,” Kayla said as she and Jax entered the tight confines of the rear of the tank. “How are you still alive?”
“This is crazy,” Luke said, standing up at the rear of the tank where he fell off. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had pissed himself. His face was a mask of shock. “I need answers.”
“Yeah, buddy,” I said, rising to my feet. “Welcome to the club.”
I told them what I knew, which wasn’t much at all. When I finished, they looked at one another for consensus.
“I feel like I’m taking crazy pills,” Jax said, shaking his head.
“How long was I out?” I asked.
“You mean dead?” Luke asked. “You mean how long were you dead?”
“Maybe he was never dead,” Kayla said, shaking her head. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but what if he was just knocked out this entire time?”
“How long?” I asked again.
“A few hours,” Jax answered. “Wait a minute, so can you even die at all?”
Three pairs of eyes looked at me for an answer I didn’t have.
“I don’t know,” I said. “When I get hurt, there’s still pain involved, but it ends quickly. This wound to my head is the most serious injury I’ve had so far.”
We sat in silence, all lost to our own thoughts.
“So what now?” Luke asked. “What are we supposed to do now?”
“Nothing’s changed,” I said. “We finish this thing tonight like we planned. We grab the scientist and radio in for pickup. That’s it.”
“Everything’s changed,” Kayla said, eyeing me like I was some kind of immortal god. “We left half our equipment in the barn when we fled from the Reapers. Also, the Reapers aren’t exactly known to be the forgiving types. Yeah, we out-ran them, but this is their territory. They’ll be back with reinforcements soon.”
“Then we accelerate the plan,” I said. “We hit Phoenix now instead of the middle of the night.”
All eyes turned to Jax, who had been quiet in a very unlike Jax way. He gave a heavy sigh. “Reapers chasing us, wanted by the GG, and now we have some kind of super soldier working with us. Why does this kind of stuff always happen to me?”
“Is that a yes?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s a yes,” Jax said, scratching his head. “We’re only a few miles out from the Phoenix’s base now. We’ll go over the plan and adjust for a daytime snatch and grab. Kayla will deck us out in what gear we have left.”
We all nodded. The group still gave me strange looks, but it seemed as though they had accepted that I was part of the mission and this insanity was almost behind us. If all went well, we’d be going our separate ways in a matter of hours.
“Phoenix is supposed to be holed up in a canyon not far from here,” Jax explained as we all crowded in the tank. He brought up the same holographic map we looked at last night. This time, it showed a simple two-story building out in the middle of nowhere. “We’ll have Luke on an overwatch position while Kayla and I sneak in from the rear. We’ll use Self-Heal Man over here to cause a distraction at the front. Report says they’re only lightly guarded. This rebel group doesn’t have a whole lot of resources, so we should be met with light resistance, but nothing we can’t handle.”
I ignored the comment, studying the plan. It was a good plan if not a bit bold. But I liked it. It would get us in and out quickly, and right now, all I wanted were the answers promised me. Coming to Earth had awoken so many new feelings in me, I was having a hard time focusing on the mission.
“We don’t have much left in the way of ammunition, but we’ll make it work,” Kayla said, going over to the tank’s right wall and opening a series of clasps I had missed. The steel sides of the vehicle slid down, revealing a variety of weapons inside a secret compartment.
My eyes glanced over grenades, a sniper rifle, and a few other weapons I didn’t recognize.
Luke lifted the sniper rifle off the wall, checking its sights. Jax and Kayla helped themselves. I really didn’t need much beside my MK II. I did pick up a few of the grenades and a knife that caught my eye, serrated on one side and sharp on the other.
“Here,” Kayla said, handing me a pair of charge packs for my MK II. “I know you’re a fan of the old-school weapon, but these modern rounds can save you in a pinch.”
“What are they?” I asked, accepting the pair of packs.
“Explosive and gas,” Kayla said, pointing to each as she said the words. “Make sure you don’t mix up the two.”
“Got it,” I said, removing the pack of tungsten rounds I had in the weapon now and switching it out for the explosive ones.
“We’ll go the rest of the way on foot,” Jax said, jumping out of the tank. “We’re far enough off the road now where no one will find the tank. If anything goes wrong, we meet back here. Daniel, that AI of yours able to tune in to your frequency?”
“I am,” X answered through her external speaker.
“Great,” Jax said. “Tune to channel 2571.29.”
I followed Jax as Luke and Kayla also exited the vehicle and we closed the doors behind us. Luke went right to find high ground while Kayla and Jax took off to the left to flank the building. I continued forward right up the gut.
I was left to my own thoughts for the moment, studying the terrain. Like everything else, it was dead. Nothing green grew, only dust and dirt.
Sporadic buildings sprouted up here and there, most in rubble and various states of disrepair.
Earth was nothing more than a staging ground for piles of rubble that used to be people’s homes and places of work.
“It’s sad, isn’t it?” X asked.
“What is?” I questioned.
“How a world so alive with hope and life at one point has turned into this,” X answered. “Daniel, I think I may have some answers for you. Answers you might not want to hear.”
I kept one foot in front of the other, my boots crunching against the sun-dried landscape of the area around us.
“From the dream?” I asked.
“Yes,” X said. “It’s not much. It doesn’t give you anywhere near the answers you want, but it’s something. I ran through the database for a Sandra Patmos and got a ping.”
“Go ahead,” I told her, wiping sweat from my forehead. “I’d rather know.”
“Doctor Sandra Patmos graduated from a prestigious college founded on Mars called Atheon University. She has dual doctorates in gene manipulation and genetic engineering. Everything I can find about her says she’s an intelligent, law-abiding citizen until about twenty years ago when she dropped off the face of Mars.”
“Like they faked her death or something?” I asked.
“Not even that. She just disappeared,” X answered. “No reason why, no obituary or updates since, just gone.”
“Any family?” I asked.
“None,” X answered.
“I don’t get it,” I said with a frustrated sigh. “That memory you shared with me. We saw younger me being cared for, and they even offered to stop the tests multiple times. It’s not the Immortal Corp I envisioned. They genuinely looked like they wanted to help me.”
“I agree,” X said. “Whenever things took a turn for the worse, it must have happened after that memory. There is a chance I might be able to induce another memory the next time you sleep.”
“You can do that?” I asked, not yet sure I wanted her to.
“Normally no, but the trauma you took to your head while I was inside seems to have linked us on a deeper level,” X said. “I might be able to, no promises.”
I took a moment to think about her offer. This section of the ruined city I found myself in was open with multiple fallen buildings and absolutely no shade. The harsh rays of the sun beat down on me without mercy. Not so much as a bird in the air or a rat on the ground could be found.
“I’m sure I’m going to find things I’d rather not see the further I dig into the past,” I said. “Even that kid in my memories, that younger version of myself…you heard the doctor; he was a mess. He suffered from depression, anxiety, and he looked weak.”
“Your past doesn’t have to define who you are today,” X answered. “You don’t have to accept my offer now, just think about it. I know being told one thing or reading it from a file is very different from me going in and touching memories, to have you relive your past.”
“I’ll think about it, X, thanks,” I said.
“Thank you, Daniel,” X said. “I have never been given the opportunity to see myself in a body before. That has always been a dream of mine.”
We walked the rest of the way in silence. The canyon where Phoenix had holed up was coming up quickly. I made sure my MK II was equipped with the charge pack carrying the explosive rounds, then placed the other two in my jacket pocket.
My job in all of this was the easiest. All I had to do was go in and cause trouble. I was good at that.
“In position,” Luke said via the comm channel. He panted like he had run the entire way. “I see two guards at the front. The ground starts to slope down here into the canyon. Be careful.”
“We’re almost there,” Kayla answered. “Two minutes.”
I squinted to see what Luke was talking about. I had stayed off the main road to avoid being seen until everyone was in place. Up ahead, the cracked ground seemed to curve down and to the right.
“How are you going to play this, Daniel?” Jax asked. “Are you going to try and talk him to death like you did Papa?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Haven’t planned that far ahead.”
I heard Kayla snicker over the open channel.
“Well, whatever you decide, you should decide soon,” Jax said. “We’re approaching the rear of the building now. Two more sentries out back. It’s a two-story building. We can expect at least another four guards inside along with the doctor. We’re ready on your go.”
I placed my MK II back in its holder at the small of my back. No sense spooking the guards until I had to. I was confident enough in my ability to be able to reach behind me and draw before anyone could get a round off at me.
It wasn’t like they were going to kill me either. Not even if they shot me in the head. That thought brought my left hand to the side of my face that was completely healed now. Not so much as a loose flap of skin.
“X, you think I can die?” I asked.
“I think all created things can die,” X said after a moment of silence. “Your way just might not happen by blaster or blade. Drowning, decapitation, poisoning, maybe— these are all ways to go that would take your healing ability out of the equation.”
“Sweet images. Thanks, X,” I said.
“You know I’m here to serve,” X answered.
I sensed a hint of sarcasm in her voice, and to be honest, I liked it. The more and more I got to know X, the more she was beginning to feel like a real person and less of an AI.
I finally crested the road ahead of me, where it dipped down into the canyon. High rock walls lined the street here. It was a perfect place for Phoenix to set up shop. There was one way in and one way out.
Just like Luke said, there were two guards in front of a two-story building. This building, unlike the other, seemed to have fared better. The roof was sagging. The whole building had been painted white one day long ago. Now it looked more like a dull cream.
The guards caught sight of me just as soon as I crested the hill. They pointed their weapons at me, already reporting my location.
“This should be fun,” X said in my ear. “Try not to get hit in the head again.”
They wore black body armor with matching black pulse rifles. The only things setting them apart from another gang in the area were their clean clothes and updated weapons.
I lifted my hands into the air as they approached, sighting down the barrels of their weapons.
“No. Just one that we can see. Keep your eyes open,” one of the men said into a comm piece that hung around his neck.
They both wore sunglasses and plain hats.
“No entry here,” the other guard told me as they approached. “Whoever you are, find another way around.”
“Do you guys know the way to New Vegas?” I asked them, doing my best at looking confused. “I swore I was supposed to go north, but maybe it was east.”
The guards looked at one another, confused.
“Keep them talking,” Jax said into my earpiece. “We’re on the move now.”
“Listen, I don’t know who you are or what kind of drugs you’ve done to make you think that you’re on the way to New Vegas, but you need to go now,” the guard on my left said. “No more warnings. Go now or I’m going to put you down.”
“No need for that, friend,” I said, making the decision that I would try and take them out without killing them first. They seemed like nice enough guys.
“Easy, maybe he’s just lost,” the other guard said, confirming my need to disarm them without killing them. He relaxed the hold on his weapon but didn’t turn it away from me.
They kept their distance, which was smart. Even as fast as I was, I couldn’t guarantee I could get to them before they filled me with holes, which wouldn’t feel great, but at this point, I doubted would kill me. I didn’t want to test the theory.
“Listen, guys,” I said, walking forward, my hands still out on either side of me. “I really have to go to the restroom. Do you at least have one in that building I can use?”
Both men jolted as I walked forward, aiming their weapons at my chest.
“That’s far enough,” they shouted as I came within five yards of their position.
I was close enough now to make a move.
“You need some help?” Luke asked via our open channel.
“Warning shot,” I said out loud.
The two men in front of me lifted their eyebrows at the same time as a loud explosion ripped through the silence. A chunk of gravel at the men’s feet exploded on impact.
I made my move, sprinting up to the pair of guards. I grabbed the one on the left, positioning myself behind him with a chokehold. This presented no clear shot to his counterpart.
“We’re under attack, need—”
That was as far as the second guard got. I pulled the MK II loaded with explosive rounds from my back and aimed it down at our feet in the space between us.
“Daniel, I don’t think that’s a good—”
I’m guessing X was going to finish the sentence with the word “idea,” but we would never know.
The explosive round hit the pavement feet in front of me. The sound was deafening as we were all thrown back from the explosion. Chunks of asphalt and dirt flew into the air.
I used the guard in front of me as a shield. That helped with the debris but not the force of the impact. The explosion lifted us both off our feet, hurling us into the air and a good ten yards in the opposite direction.
I slammed into the ground, coughing, the air knocked out of me like I had been hit in the chest by a sledgehammer.
My ears were ringing. I pushed the guy I used as a shield off of me. He was still breathing, which was more than I would say for the pair of guards running from the rear of the building.
As soon as I saw them raise their weapons and open fire, Luke took them out with a pair of headshots.
They fell to the ground dead.
I sat up, examining the wreckage around me. The two guards I was responsible for were still breathing. They weren’t going to wake up happy, but at least they were alive.
I took a closer look at them now. They both wore matching patches on their hats. How I missed it before, I had no clue. The patches were of a white bird on a red background.
“You’ve got some deep-seated issues, man,” Luke said as my hearing came back. “You got a death wish or something? I mean, I guess you knew you’d live through that, but still.”
“Yeah, we all got our issues,” I said, dusting myself off.
“We’re inside,” Jax said over the comms.
The sounds of weapons fire erupted from inside the two-story house. I ran for the door with my MK II still in my hand. I switched out the charge pack in my weapon, going with my traditional tungsten rounds.
More yells and weapons being discharged came from the house.
I hit the door at full sprint with my left shoulder. The door groaned but held. I reared back with my right foot and sent it crashing into the spot right next to the door handle. That was it; like a reluctant neighbor granting me access, it swung open.
Inside, the place looked worse than the outside if that was even possible. Tattered furniture with a stained rug met my eyes, along with a hall that opened up leading into the rest of the house. More sounds of fighting reached my ears from above.
I moved through each room carefully, watching the corners with my MK II in front of me. The hall ended with a stairwell to the right and a kitchen area to the left. A body lay on the stairs, a Phoenix guard.
I made my way up the steps, only to hear it was over before I could get there.
“Kayla’s hit, but she’ll be all right,” Jax said over the comms. “Luke, you secure the perimeter and let us know if anyone’s coming.”
I reached the top of the steps, turning right then left. Jax was bent over Kayla, who bled from her right arm.
Another dead Phoenix guard lay sprawled out on the hall floor. A pool of blood ran from his face.
“I’ll be alright, just patch me up,” Kayla grunted.
Jax did just that, reaching for a med pouch by his side. I stood sentry over the two, examining the second floor. We were in another hall with doors to either side of us that were already open and one down the far side of the hall that was still closed.
“Rooms here are clear,” Jax answered my question before I could ask. “The door on the far end is the only one we haven’t checked. Let’s hope the scientist is in there or all this is a bust.”
I stalked down the hall, slamming my boot into the closed door. This one gave right away. An older, balding man with glasses looked up at me from behind a keyboard. Fear and panic raced across his eyes as he went back to work frantically typing a series of codes into the monitors.
I was about to order him up when I heard something like an animal scream to my right. I looked over just in time to see a young woman swing at me with what looked like a folded chair. I stepped back, allowing her momentum to carry her forward. I placed a boot on her rear end and pushed more than kicked her over.
She fell in a heap of brown hair and anger.
“Enough, you two. Hands in the air or I start shooting,” I said.
I had no intention of killing them, but they didn’t know that.
The scientist at the keyboard made one final stroke then lifted his hands into the air. The woman, on the other hand, didn’t look like she was giving up without a fight. She lifted herself off the ground to stand in front of the old man.
She was a picture of a Valkyrie incarnate. Dark black hair fell down her face in a curtain. She balled back a fist, not caring that I held a blaster on her, and threw it with all of her force.
I dodged the blow, wondering if the woman was some kind of mental case.
“You leave him alone!” she roared, coming at me again.
“Monica, Monica, no, please,” the old scientist pleaded with her like a father trying to talk down a child. “You’ll make this worse. It’s done now.”
“No, no. They can’t do this. They can’t just come in here after all these years of work,” Monica said, coming at me again. She had her back to the open door. Kayla came in behind her, clubbing her in the back of the head with the butt of her rifle.
“No, Monica!” the older man said, lunging for the woman, who hit the ground unconscious. He cradled her in his arms like a father.
I saw the resemblance now. The same weather-beaten skin that had started off fair, the same square jaw and green eyes. She was his daughter.
“Please, please, I’ll give you whatever you want,” the scientist said. “Just leave her out of this. She doesn’t know anything I can’t tell you myself. And I will tell you everything if you spare her.”
“Save your breath, old man,” Jax said, entering the room behind Kayla. He pried a folder from his chest underneath his body armor. He pulled out the picture of the scientist we were supposed to capture and placed it right next to the man’s face. It was a match. “Professor Warden, you’re coming with us.”
“Whatever you say, but please put pressure on the back of my daughter’s head. She’s bleeding. Or let me do it,” Professor Warden pleaded. “She has nothing to do with this. I will give you whatever you want.”
“You don’t have to give us crip,” Kayla said, moving over to him with a secure tie. She placed both his palms together and placed the clamp over his wrists. “We’re just the delivery boys. We’re taking you to the people who want to know what you have to say.”
I don’t know if it was the pain in the man’s expression or the ferocity in Monica’s eyes as she fought for her father. Either way, I went to the woman and sat her up. I reached for a semi-clean handkerchief on the table in the room and held it to the back of her head to stem the flow of blood.
“Thank you, thank you,” the professor said, swallowing hard.
Jax handed me another secure tie with an intrigued look. “So the immortal man has a heart.”
“Jury’s still out on that one,” I said, securing the woman’s wrists. “Let’s just make that call and set up the rendezvous.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice,” Jax said, stepping back out into the hall to make the call.
I got a good look at the room for the first time. It was shabby like the rest of the house. Two tables with computer equipment on one side of the room. Two more tables on the opposite side with—I had to blink twice to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
X confirmed I wasn’t losing my mind.
“I see it too,” X whispered, her voice full of wonder. “I see it too. What—what does this mean?”
You know things have gone to hell when the AI in your head is asking you for direction, I thought to myself.
“What are you looking at all googly-eyed?” Kayla asked, turning to follow my line of sight. “You look like…”
I’ll never know what Kayla was going to say I looked like. Instead, she let her voice trail off as she caught sight of the miracle on the far side of the room. The green leaves of the tiny plant were the greenest I could ever remember seeing.
On the moon, we had plants, but not like this. The man-made plants from the printers tasted like plastic. They were greenish-grey at best. This…this little wonder stood in its pot, vibrant and full of life.
“What—what were you doing here?” I asked, unwilling to take my eyes off the plant for fear it would vanish and I would wake up from a dream.
“Creating a better future for mankind,” Professor Warden said. “Ensuring a future on Earth.”
I didn’t say out loud that I was told Phoenix was creating a weapon, but by the look on Kayla’s face, she had been told the same lie. It was obvious Immortal Corp didn’t want anyone to know what they were really after.
It was easier to send us after a rebel force in possession of some diabolical weapon. We could understand that, even justify it in our heads a little. We could be the heroes for once, bringing knowledge from some terrorists back to be used for another purpose.
But this, this was something else entirely.
Kayla walked over to the plant, mesmerized. She reached out a shaking hand, barely caressing the edge of one of the leaves.
“We were—we were told that you were creating a weapon,” Kayla said, spilling the beans. “I mean that Phoenix was creating a super weapon.”
“In a way, they’re not wrong.” Professor Warden looked tired, exhausted even. He sat in the middle of the floor, his head hanging toward the ground. “Men will always seek to manipulate power where they can. Bringing life back to the Earth is power if someone is able to control and charge for it.”
“You were on the computer when I walked in,” I said, tearing my eyes away from the plant. “You sent the research somewhere, didn’t you?”
“It does no good to lie to you now,” the professor said, lifting his eyes from the ground. “I did. I relayed all my information to my contact, who will take it to the rest of Phoenix. Hopefully, they’ll be able to bring life back to the Earth before anyone can stop them and monetize the gift of life.”
“This could change everything,” Kayla said, licking her lips as she looked at me, shaking her head. “How—how did you do this? Can you do it again?”
“The ‘how’ is a longer conversation than we have time for, no offense,” the professor said.
Monica moaned and shifted a little.
“Try us,” I said.
“The Earth is dead because man was selfish and took and took and took from Mother Nature without replenishing. What I have done is managed to isolate the proteins that construct—”
“You’re right,” I said. “I’m just going to stop you there. I don’t understand what you’re saying. Try again, but in English this time around.”
“He created a super seed. A plant strong enough to endure the harsh soil by itself until it can soak in enough water and sun to sustain its growth,” Monica said, lifting her head from her chest. She stared daggers at Kayla and then me. “And you barge in here like terrorists and you’re going to take it all.”
“We didn’t know,” Kayla said, still in shock. “You have to understand we were hired for a job to capture a scientist. That was it. This—I mean what you’ve managed to do is something people have been trying to accomplish for hundreds of years.”
“Yes sir.” Jax walked into the room. His right hand was on his weapon. His left hand held the small speaker dangling by his mouth. “I see it. Yes, sir, I understand.”
Jax let the microphone drop to his throat. He looked at the plant the same way we did. His eyes couldn’t have been bigger.
“Well, what are we going to do?” Kayla asked.
“Nothing,” Jax answered. “We’re not going to do anything different from what we were before. We take him in. We get paid. End of story.”
“Jax.” Kayla shook her head. “Jax, no. This is different; this isn’t just another op. This can change history. This can change the world.”
“It’s not our fight,” Luke said over our comm channel. “Let it go. I was on the call with Jax. They’re going to make us rich, Kayla. They’re going to give us more credits than we could hope to spend in a dozen lifetimes. No more killing, no more ops, no more dropships, running from gangs, or sleeping on floors. We did it, Kayla. This is it.”
“I get it, I get it,” Kayla said, almost pleading. “The money is amazing, but there are some things you can’t put a price on. This doesn’t belong to us. This belongs to everyone.”
“How about you?” Jax said, looking at me. “What do you say about all of this?”
“I’m regretting holstering my weapon right about now,” I said, stretching my finger at my side. I looked out the window to my left. There were only dirty slits from an ancient blind to see through. I knew Luke was out there but had no idea where. “Where’s our friend Luke?”
“He has you in his sight right now,” Jax confirmed. “This doesn’t have to go bad if you two will just continue on mission. We’re almost out of this. Our evac spot is two miles to the north. Two miles and this is all behind us. Don’t do this.”
I looked at the professor then at Monica. The former was looking at me and Kayla hopefully. The latter stared righteous hate at Jax. Not for the first time, I was struck how beautiful she was, even in her moment of rage.
So what are you going to do, Daniel? I asked myself. What kind of person are you? Money will come and go, but if you throw this opportunity away, there go your answers as well.
“I’m taking the professor,” Jax said, slowly stepping forward. His weapon was still pointed down, but I knew it could be on either one of us in a moment. He reached for Professor Warden and pulled him to his feet. “We’re going now. If you two want to keep the plant and the girl, be my guest.”
I was faced with an impossible situation. Go along with Jax and get the answers to my past I so desperately needed or give the Earth and countless generations to come a real chance. The only chance they might ever get again.
The ball of fire in the room with us known as Monica made the decision for me. I didn’t know if she was crazy or brave, but I liked it. Hands tied in front of her, she lunged from her seated position at Jax.
Two things happened next. Kayla lifted her weapon at Jax while he did the same, ignoring Monica at his back for the time being. They fired on one another.
I threw myself deeper into the room, hoping to get out from within Luke’s sights. At the same time, I reached for the MK II at my back.
I didn’t hear the shot that struck my chest so much as felt the wind knocked out of me. A tear of pain ripped through my torso, sending me skidding toward the rear wall.
I lost the grip on my weapon, struggling to breathe. The fight in the room was intense but short-lived. Kayla went down but not before Jax took a round to his left shoulder.
Monica clawed and slashed at him with her nails, even taking a chunk out of his ear with her teeth. Jax howled in pain, striking her across the face with his weapon. For the second time, she went down, stunned.
The professor was screaming, but he wasn’t a fighter. He wasn’t so much trying to beat Jax as he was trying to get to his daughter. A bleeding Jax pulled him from the room a moment later.
I saw all of this through the fog of pain. Unconsciousness ran dark lines around the perimeter of my vision. I tried getting to my feet but failed. I couldn’t breathe.
I looked down at the wound in my chest, understanding why. The entrance hole Luke’s round made was laced with superheated plasma. My entire chest was a molten mess. I could see organs and bones amidst wreckage of charred flesh.
Then I smelt myself burning. The stench was like someone lighting garbage on fire then adding a good helping of hair on top of that.
I wasn’t sure how long I was out. It felt like minutes but could have been longer. When I was finally able to sit up, Monica was doing the same across the room. Kayla hadn’t moved from her prone position.
“Daniel, Daniel,” X said inside my head. “Easy, your body will heal from this too. Just be calm for a moment while your body does what it was created to do.”
I ignored X’s suggestion, the stubborn side of me pushing out the voice of reason. I crawled over to Kayla, rolling her over.
Half of her head was gone from the spray of rounds Jax fired on her.
I sat, not knowing how to feel. Kayla and I weren’t exactly friends, but in the moment that counted, we found ourselves on the same side. Unlike me, she had paid the ultimate price, a price that I might not ever be able to pay.
Monica was on her feet. She walked up next to me then slumped down, looking at Kayla. Her lip was split open from the backhand Jax gave her. Tears filled her eyes, but she refused to let them fall.
“So much hate for something so simple,” Monica said, shaking her head. “All my father wanted to do was to help.”
We both looked up at the tiny plant sitting in the ceramic pot on the table in front of us, its bright green leaves splattered with a spray of Kayla’s blood. Dark red droplets fell from the leaves like water after a spring day shower.
“You’re hit,” Monica said, looking at my chest. “You’re hit really bad.”
If she knew the half of it, she would be freaking out at the moment. The way I knelt next to Kayla, my jacket hid most of the damage. My body was already halfway done healing itself as well. No more bones or organs could be seen, just the charred flesh.
The relentless force known as Monica got to her feet. “I need to go after my father. They can’t be too far ahead of us now. I can catch them.”
“Catch them and do what?” I asked, looking at her bleeding face.
“Do something, whatever I can,” Monica said in anger. “Someone has to do something. If not me, then who?”
Her words held a bite to them that struck a chord. Here was a clearly untrained individual willing to put herself in harm’s way to try and do what she knew was right. What deep down I knew was right. I just didn’t want to admit it.
I stood up, pulling the knife from my boot.
Monica shied away for a moment.
“Don’t lose that courage now,” I told her, reaching down and slicing the hard plastic of her bonds. “We’re going to need it by the gallon before the day is over.”
Once I freed her, Monica immediately went for Kayla’s weapon. She hefted it like she was going to ram a door with it.
I picked up my MK II from the ground, holstering the weapon. I returned my knife to its sheath.
“You know how to fire that thing?” I asked her with a raised eyebrow. “It looks like you’re going to use it to shovel coal in a furnace.”
Monica gave me a dirty look that evaporated as soon as it appeared. She shrugged. “I don’t, but how hard can it be? Point and shoot, right?”
“Tight in your shoulder,” I said, taking the weapon from her and showing how to hold it. “Finger off the trigger until you’re ready to kill someone. Aim down the barrel and squeeze the trigger. Don’t pull.”
“Shoulder, finger off, and squeeze,” Monica said, nodding as I handed her the weapon. “Let’s go.”
Before we left the room, she grabbed an empty backpack in one of the corners and carefully placed the plant inside. I had so many questions, I didn’t know which one to ask first. Right now, they would have to wait.
I took the lead with Monica following behind.
“X,” I said out loud.
Monica moved beside me to give me an inquisitive stare like I was losing my mind. I was getting that a lot these days.
“AI,” I said to a confused Monica, pointing to the chip behind my ear. “X, I need you to use maps of the area to tell me the best landing position for a dropship. Look north, two miles out.”
“Understood,” X said out loud.
“You have a computer in your head?” Monica asked, bewildered.
“AI. She gets touchy when you call her a computer,” I answered.
“I do not get touchy,” X said via her external speaker so Monica could hear. “I just prefer to be called by a more accurate term. I don’t call you an animal.”
“That might be more appropriate if you did,” I said with a grin.
“No argument there,” Monica said under her breath.
“Oh, glad you two are getting along so well,” I growled. “X, the location?”
“I’ve cross-referenced a few maps of the area and found a suitable landing spot for a dropship exactly two miles to the north. I’m plotting a course now.”
A moment later, a map in the bottom right side of my eye popped open. It showed the terrain and a path leading to the spot X had marked, ironically not with an actual X but a circle.
The sun was still high overhead, just beginning its descent behind the horizon. This wasn’t the time for it, but my stomach didn’t care. It rumbled so loud, Monica could hear it.
Our path led through the canyon and out the other side. Mounds of dead Earth rose on either side of us as we followed the path.
“So what are you?” Monica asked, studying me from where she walked on my right. “You some kind of super soldier or something? I’ve heard rumors that private organizations are doing experiments on humans these days. Reports from Mars confirm it.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“While I’m not a doctor of medicine, I understand you shouldn’t have been able to get up from a round like the one that hit you in your chest,” Monica said, shaking her head. “It doesn’t even look like you’re wounded at all.”
I followed her gaze to my ripped shirt and the new skin underneath. My body had already healed itself completely. Maybe that was why I was so hungry. Healing like that had to take energy.
“It’s complicated,” I said.
“Well then, uncomplicate it,” Monica pushed.
“I lost my memory five years ago, woke up like this with no answers,” I said, trying to figure out how to land the plane. “All I know is Immortal Corp played a part in whatever I am now. I’m trying to find answers.”
“Immortal Corp?” Monica asked with a scrunch of her brow.
“Yeah,” I said. “Have you heard of them?”
“My father mentioned them once, in passing,” Monica said. “They offered to fund his work, but he declined. They wanted patents and exclusivity on whatever he found. He wanted to share his work with the rest of the galaxy, not hide it away.”
“So Phoenix isn’t a terrorist group at all,” I mused out loud.
“No, is that what they told you?” Monica asked in shock. “We’re a small group trying to bring the Earth back. We have private financiers on the moon as well as Mars that keep our work going.”
“And you fit into this because you work with your father?” I asked. “Are you like his assistant or something?”
“When my mother passed, I was still young,” Monica said. “He’s all in this god forsaken world that I have left. I’ve helped him realize his dream for a new Earth, and now, right at the finish line, it’s about to be stolen from us, from all of us.”
“But he said he sent the information off before we barged in,” I said. “Phoenix has what they need to create more plants, don’t they?”
“They do, but I don’t know how effective the instructions will be if they’re hunted down and killed for it,” Monica said. “If this Immortal Corp finds out that Phoenix has the plans, then I have to guess they’ll do anything to be the sole proprietor of the super seed.”
I massaged my temples as I ran through the various scenarios in front of me. There were too many options, too many variables to take into account.
The whole thing was more politics than I wanted to wrap my head around. I hated politics.
“Do you hear that?” X asked, using her external speakers.
“Hear what?” Monica asked.
I picked up on the sounds a moment too late: shifting of rocks on the ledges to either side of us. My MK II was in my right hand a second later. I aimed it up at the edges of the canyon. They rose about ten feet high on both sides of the road.
“Well, well, well, lucky boy, what do we have here?” Papa’s voice reached my ears before I saw him. A moment later, he, along with an army of Reapers, appeared on either side of the canyon. “I was hoping we’d run into you again.”
Monica lifted her weapon to the other side of the canyon. My back touched hers.
“Don’t shoot,” I told her. “They’ll listen to me. They did once before.”
“You know these guys?” Monica asked incredulously.
“Kind of,” I said, studying the army of Reapers that surrounded us. It was clear they reinforced their ranks. Apparently, I had underestimated the power and reach of the Reapers. They had recovered, sent out a call for more soldiers, and set an ambush in the space of a single day.
The sun was just about to lower over the canyon walls now. For the hundredth time, my stomach told me I needed food. I even felt a little lightheaded.
“If you remember our last conversation, I gave you reliable information,” I said, lowering my weapon to my side. “It wasn’t me that started firing on you. It was the people I was working with. People I hunt now.”
“Mmm hmmm.” Papa slapped his rotund belly. “You’d say anything to save your skin right now.”
“I would, but that doesn’t mean what I’d say isn’t true,” I answered. “I have more information that could help not just you, but the Reapers in general.”
“What are you doing?” Monica asked. “There’s no reasoning with the Reapers. Do you know who leads them?”
“Yeah, I actually ran into him the other day,” I said.
Before Monica could answer, Papa spoke again. “You’re right. You told us where our leader was being held. That intel turned out to be good. We’re going to use that. What else you got?”
“Now we’re talking, Papa,” I said with a grin. “What if I could tell you I knew where the Reapers could get their very own dropship?”
Papa’s mouth dropped open. He looked to either side of him, conferring in whispers with his captains.
I took the time to get a better handle on their numbers. I’d guess no more than forty soldiers with an assortment of weapons ranging from rusted rifles to shiny new blasters. They were hard-eyed and ready. These were their elite crack soldiers, ready to kill at a moment’s notice.
“Keep talking,” Papa said, slapping his belly again. “You missed your calling in life. You should have been a negotiator.”
“Papa, I swear to you there is a private company coming to pick up two operators not two miles from this location,” I said. “If we go now and hurry, we can catch them. We can capture that dropship and the Reapers will be the only gang on Earth with their very own aircraft.”
There were inhalations around Papa as those gathered went wide-eyed with grins. Even Papa seemed to drool at the offer.
“You’ve got them,” X said in my head. “I did a quick search, and to our knowledge, no other gang on Earth has ever managed to capture a dropship. Push a little bit more and you’ve got them.”
“Imagine it, Papa,” I said, lifting my hands wide in a circle, taking in the sky. “You, you will be the leader who brought the Reapers their greatest weapon and dare I say it? Dare I say you are the one to use it to set Aleron Jacobs free from his imprisonment in the Hole?”
Excited chatter rippled through those gathered now loud enough for me to hear.
“Yes, yes we can do it,” someone said.
“He’s lying to us,” another voice added.
“He wasn’t lying before,” a third voice said.
“Enough!” Papa lifted his hands for silence. He slapped his rotundness again to emphasize his words. “We will let you take us to the dropship, and when we find it, we will let you negotiate its surrender. If anything is not exactly as you say, we will shoot you in the back along with your girlfriend. Agreed?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Monica said. I was actually surprised she had remained quiet this long. “I’m not his girlfriend.”
“Girlfriend, wife, complicated relationship, significant other—it doesn’t matter.” Papa shook his head. “It has been decided. You two will lead in the front vehicle and we will follow.”
Monica looked like she was about to yell at him again. This chick was crazy.
“Okay, you have a deal,” I said. “We have to hurry if we’re going to make it.”
Papa nodded then turned to his crew to issue commands.
“I hope you know what you’re doing here,” Monica said.
“I was about to say the same thing,” X added.
“Seriously, how have you remained alive this long?” Monica asked.
“He’s hard to kill, remember?” X asked. “Or else we’d be dead ten times over by now.”
“That’s enough, you two,” I said, only half joking. “We have an attack to plan.”
Papa wasn’t kidding. He placed Monica and me in the front vehicle that turned out to be a rusted bulldozer. Not only did he put us in the front vehicle, he put us in the giant shovel at the front of the bulldozer.
It was clear he meant business. If anyone was going to die during the coming altercation, it was going to be us first.
Seeing the Reaper horde was truly a sight. This time, they didn’t come with a few quads and dirt bikes. They had trucks, cars, and of course, the bulldozer we rode in. We weren’t going to be sneaking up on anybody.
Papa himself drove the bulldozer with a handful of his soldiers hanging off the rigging.
The sun’s rays warmed my face. The wind brushed past my hair like a mother I never knew tenderly stroking my scalp.
Despite this madness, despite the insanity of the situation, I felt a sense of peace, even excitement. I understood this wasn’t normal, but what was normal anymore?
I could take a blaster to the skull and a sniper round to the chest and shake it off like a punch.
I looked at Monica, who rode in the bulldozer scoop alongside me. She couldn’t heal like I did, but the woman was fearless. Hard-eyed, she stared into the horizon, her weapon slung over her shoulder.
“What?” she asked, looking at me. “Am I bleeding again or something?”
I couldn’t help but keep thinking she looked like a Valkyrie. I didn’t know why. It was not like I’d seen a Valkyrie in real life or that they had even existed. Something about her, about her spirit just spoke to me on a level I couldn’t understand.
“No—I mean—you are but—you’re fine,” I said, trying to end the conversation that I hadn’t even meant to start.
“Smooth,” X said in my head.
It wasn’t like I could say anything back without tipping off Monica that I was arguing with the AI in my head.
I moved away from these thoughts, concentrating on what we needed to do next. I really wasn’t worried for my own safety. Monica, on the other hand, could get seriously hurt. If we were going to get her father back alive, it would take some serious luck.
You get that professor back, you trade in all the answers Cage promised you, I reminded myself. You kiss your answers goodbye, maybe forever.
That was the cold hard truth and one I didn’t want to think about. I still wasn’t exactly sure what kind of man I had been before, but I had hints that I wasn’t a saint.
I couldn’t change the past, but I could choose who I was today. What kind of person I wanted to be in this moment and the moments going forward.
“There she blows!” Papa yelled from his post in the driver’s seat.
I squinted, looking into the sun but focusing past it. Sure enough, not one but two of the giant dropships sat on the horizon. In front of them, three figures sprinted to meet them. Jax and Luke dragged the professor behind them.
“Your intelligence was good again, Daniel son,” Papa cackled. “I’ll keep you around to be my spy from now on. We get those dropships and you’ll be a Reaper for life!”
I didn’t waste my time trying to talk to Papa now. The madman was cackling away with glee. There were whoops and hollers from the rest of the Reapers riding alongside us in their own vehicles like some kind of doomsday herd of mechanical animals.
“Let me talk to them!” I shouted back to Papa. “Let me talk to them before you kill everyone. Maybe I can get you a dropship without anyone having to be hurt.”
“And if you can’t, then we kill everyone?” Papa asked.
“Sure, why not, Papa?” I yelled back. Truth be told, if I failed, then a small war was about to break out.
“Daniel son, I like you. You bring Papa good luck. You like a taller whiter son I never had.” Papa laughed again and slapped his belly. “Okay, okay, you talk and get us a dropship. If you can’t, then we kill them.”
Papa started making hand signals to the rest of the group and yelling orders for them to stand down.
Monica gave me a hard stare as I turned back to deal with the situation in front of us.
“What?” I said.
“You know they’re not going to give you a dropship.” Monica raised an eyebrow. “What do you have up your sleeve or are you making this up as you go.”
“More or less,” I said, not really answering her question at all.
“More, more or more less?” Monica pressed. “On second thought, don’t even answer that. I don’t want to know. Just promise me we’ll get my father back safe.”
“I promise I’ll do everything in my power to get him back safe,” I said.
That seemed to be enough for Monica. She moved her eyes from me to the scene in front of us.
Lucky for Jax and Luke, they reached the temporary safety of the pair of dropships before we got into range. In front of us, I recognized Wesley Cage in his brown trench coat and cigar. Beside him was a large man with dreadlocks in a sleeveless shirt.
Behind them was a squad of armed soldiers who wore black armor complete with black helmets and visors.
True to his word, the Reapers held back and only Papa edged forward in the bulldozer.
I held my left hand into the air, signaling for peace. My right hand held my MK II just below the edge of the bulldozer scoop where they couldn’t see it.
We came to a halt twenty yards from Cage and the grinning man with dreadlocks. Cage gave his own men a signal. They lowered their weapons. Jax and Luke looked worn out, a confused and worried Professor Warden supported between them.
They stood behind the line of dark clad soldiers.
“There he is.” The man beside Cage couldn’t contain himself. “At the head of the Reaper clan, no doubt. Good to see you, Danny!”
I knew I should know him. I knew I knew him somehow, but exactly how I couldn’t tell. The way he looked at me like a brother told me we had a deep history. When I didn’t return his enthusiastic greeting, his face fell.
“Danny, it’s true, then? You don’t remember anything?” he asked, crestfallen.
“I told you,” Cage said. “It’s still him, just without his memory.”
“Look at me, Danny. Don’t tell me you don’t remember this.” The man turned to the side to reveal his left shoulder. In the light of the dying sun, I saw it. The same tattoo I wore on my own shoulder. Not something similar, but the exact same menacing wolf that looked like it wanted to jump right off his skin and take a bite out of me.
Pain lanced through my skull. Memories I couldn’t place came to me in flashes. Bright brilliant images so fast, I couldn’t focus on a signal more than a second. I saw myself training with this man as well as a group of others. I saw myself on an alien landscape firing my weapon, my hands dripping with blood. I saw us laughing at a table with a group of others.
“I don’t, I don’t know,” I said, fighting the pain in my head. I tried not to flinch or show that this man was getting to me, but he was.
“Spiritus non possunt occidere nostri ,” the man said, taking another step forward. “That was—that is the motto of Pact Protocol. We recited that like a war chant before missions.”
“Don’t let him get in your head,” Monica whispered. “Don’t let him get to you.”
Her voice brought me back from the brink.
I shook my head free from the flashing memories, focusing on the here and now, not the past or who I had been.
I made sure the gas rounds were slapped into the butt of my MK II before I jumped off the bulldozer scoop to the ground below.
“I don’t know what that means,” I told the man.
“It’s Latin,” the man said. “It means ‘Can’t kill our spirit’.”
“Can’t kill our spirit,” I repeated. For some reason, that phrase brought a smile to my face. “Can’t kill our spirit.”
“Spiritus non possunt occidere nostri ,” the man said with a smile. “Come home, Danny. Let us explain everything to you in a place that makes sense.”
“Maybe,” I said, now recovered from the shock of the images racing through my mind. “But first, we take care of all of this.”
I waved my opened hand at the soldiers in front of me and the Reapers behind me. The moment was super-charged for violence.
“What is it that you want, Danny?” Cage asked. Reaching into his trench coat, he brought out a cream folder. “Here are all your answers. Everything we have on you, every file of Pack Protocol and its members. You made good on bringing me the scientist and now I’m making good on my end of the deal.”
“Made good.” Jax laughed.
Luke spit on the ground next to him.
“Either way we have the scientist and that’s all the matters,” Cage said, not even bothering to look at the men.
“Things have changed,” I said. “You told me Phoenix was a group of rebels with a super weapon.”
“And I didn’t lie.” Cage lifted the cigar from his lips with his free hand. He blew out a long puff of smoke. “If not a weapon, what would you call the ability to alter mankind’s future? These are perilous times, Daniel. Reports of aliens at the edge of our galaxy. Colonies popping up now beyond Mars and now the ability to plant and grow food in dead soil. This means more than just Earth. If this all works, we’ll be able to grow food on the moon, on Mars, and beyond.”
“And you control all of that, huh?” I asked. “You decide who gets that information. Who eats and who doesn’t?”
A memory flashed through my mind. It was a younger version of myself: skinny, hungry, other kids with me that looked the same. I couldn’t focus on it. I moved on.
“Not me,” Cage said with a sad shake of his head. “I won’t decide any of it. I’m a mercenary just like you, Daniel. We’re hired to do a job. We do the job and life goes on.”
“I can’t let you take him,” I said.
Cage actually looked crestfallen. “I was worried you were going to say that, Danny.”
“Same old Danny,” the man next to Cage said. “You haven’t changed a bit, whether you know it or not. You were always the best of us. The one with a shred of a conscience left.”
“He’s not coming, Echo,” Cage said to the man next to him. “You know what to do.”
“Danny, I know this is hard to understand, but this is going to be for your own good.” Echo pulled out some kind of heavy blaster from a holster at his right thigh. I’d never seen the model before.
My own hand tightened on my MK II.
“Nobody has to die today,” I said, already knowing they weren’t going to accept my insane offer. “I’ll go with you, but you leave the scientist and a dropship.”
“We can’t do that,” Cage said. “Danny, as much as I would like to, we can’t do that. We answer to others as well.”
Echo took a step in front of Cage to shield him from what was about to come next.
“Get the scientist on board,” Cage said, already turning to go. “Lift off in five.”
I stared into Echo’s eyes as if we were partaking in some kind of childish game where the loser blinked first. I let him win that game and lifted my weapon instead.
I was a hair faster getting my weapon up and firing a round that hit Luke in the forehead. Lucky for him, it was a gas round and not a real bullet. The round bounced off his head, leaving a bloody mark. He fell to the ground, unconscious. The round spun on the ground, hissing a green gas in every direction.
Echo had his weapon up in the time it took me to aim and shoot, and sent off a shot of his own. The wide square barrel of his weapon threw a square net at me that buzzed with electricity. All of this happened in the space of a single second. I had no time to react. I barely registered the fact that the net was reaching for me before it wrapped me in its painful embrace. I tripped backward, my hands pinned to my sides.
The angle at which I chose to fall allowed me to keep firing at the ranks of the Immortal Corp soldiers. I emptied my clip of gas rounds into the squad of soldiers, ignoring the pain that sent my body in spasms.
The air erupted in weapon fire and shouts as the Reaper’s joined the fight led by Papa’s bellows. The Immortal Corp soldiers moved forward, hacking and coughing in the smoke while still trying to pick their targets as the Reapers rushed in.
As soon as I ran out of gas rounds, I was able to concentrate on exactly how much pain I was in. The net covered me from my ankles to my chest. It was made of some kind of metal and wrapped me so completely, there was no give in its painful embrace.
A purple current ran through the net at a steady tempo. The net sent a shock through my body every other second that felt like a million tiny needles slamming into my skin from all angles.
“Rawww!” I roared in pain as I tried to free myself using every ounce of strength I could muster from my fatigued body. It was no use. I was too tired from lack of food. The cables the net was made from were too strong.
“Stop struggling,” Echo told me as he approached, pointing his weapon at me. “I don’t want to have to set another electro net on you. That would really suck.”
All around Echo, the fight took place with red and blue laser fire being traded back and forth between the Reapers and Immortal Corp.
“Dad!” I heard Monica scream from somewhere to my right. I glanced up in time to see Monica look at me, then to where her father was being pushed aboard one of the dropships and back to me again. She had the stock of her weapon pressed against her shoulder, sighting down the barrel just like I told her.
I thought for sure she was going after her dad. For whatever reason, she pointed her weapon at Echo and let loose with a barrage of fire. Her aim was horrendous, but she managed to land a round on Echo’s left shoulder as well as the weapon he carried.
He grunted in pain, a bloody mess of meat taking over where his shoulder had been a second before. Likewise, his weapon smoldered and sparked.
Echo snarled, lifting his weapon at Monica, and fired.
“No!” I yelled, trying in vain to worm my hand down to my boot where my knife rested. It was easier said than done with getting shocked every other second.
My cry was unneeded. Echo’s weapon was out of commission. It sent a shower of sparks when he pressed the trigger.
Monica pressed her advantage, lifting the weapon to her eye line again and firing once more. The woman had balls, I’d give her that much. Even now faced against Echo, she walked forward as she fired, pressing the attack.
Her aim was once again horrendous. I started to wonder if she wanted to hit Echo at all. One round hit him in the chest but didn’t make it past his body armor. Another round slammed into his left thigh and sent him to the ground.
Echo grunted, reaching for a small blaster tucked into his own boot.
Monica pressed her weapon’s trigger again, only to get a dry click in return.
My hand clasped the hilt of my blade. I sawed like a madman, trying to get through the steel threads.
“I think—” X said in my ear. “I think—” She was cut off as another wave of electricity coursed over my body. “I can send out—a short burst to—fry the electrical—component. It’s going to—hurt.”
“Do it,” I said through gritted teeth.
In front of me, Echo lifted his weapon to kill Monica.
The ball of fury, even with her weapon that was out of ammunition, swung for Echo’s hand. The weapon smashed his fingers, making him lose his grip on the blaster.
Echo was pissed now. Gone was the ready grin on his lips and easygoing personality. He grabbed Monica’s empty rifle, ripping it from her grip, and slammed it into her stomach.
Monica doubled over.
Echo smashed his foot into the left side of her ribs, sending her skidding a few yards in the opposite direction.
“Hold on,” X said.
A roar more like a howl escaped from my lips. I didn’t even know I could make the sound. X sent a shockwave of pain even more intense than the net itself through my body. From head to toes, my frame spasmed in the electric net.
I thought for sure I was going to pass out.
A second later, the white-hot pain stopped. Whatever X did, it worked. The net surrounding me ceased sending electric shocks through my body, freeing me to solely concentrate on working my knife through the thin net cords.
Echo was on his way back toward me from his brief altercation with Monica.
I don’t know how she was still moving. Her ribs had to be bruised, maybe broken. Monica crawled toward Echo, wrapping his left foot in both of her hands like a little kid trying to keep a giant from walking away.
No, no, don’t. Let him go, I thought to myself as I sawed the net around my leg. He’s going to kill you!
Echo looked down at Monica’s battered body. He shook his head as if he were actually sad about having to kill her.
“With a fighting spirit like that, you would have made a great mercenary,” Echo said. He lifted a heavy boot to slam into the back of her head.
The last wire snapped, freeing me from my bonds. I was still too far away to save Monica.
On a whim, I threw the knife through the air end over end. Instinct more than knowledge sent the piece of steel hurling through the air.
The blade sank hilt-deep in Echo’s throat. He grabbed the blade, pulling it out with one hand while the other covered the wound that gushed blood.
It didn’t kill him, but it stopped him from crushing Monica’s skull. Instead of slamming his boot down on her head, he stumbled backward.
Echo said something I couldn’t understand as his blood seeped from between his fingers. I already knew he could heal like me. The tattoo on his arm, memories bubbling to the surface confirmed this.
He was far from dead, maybe just a little pissed as he held his wound shut while it healed. But the distraction was enough. I sprinted toward him, ready to throw my body in the way if it meant saving Monica.
I slammed into Echo as hard as I could. All two hundred and thirty pounds of me rocked Echo off his feet. He was just as tall as I was and maybe more muscled, but the force I gathered was enough.
We crashed into the ground with me on top of him. Monica was still conscious enough to tell what was happening and let go of his foot just in time.
Hitting Echo felt like running into a wall. Landing on him didn’t feel much better.
He slashed out with the knife, burying it in my belly.
I tried to ignore the pain but it was too much to ignore this time. We fought on the dirt ground, struggling for position. The sounds of the fight raged all around us like we were in the very middle of a warzone.
In a sense, we were. I hadn’t been able to check on the status of the fight since it began, but I could hear the howling of the Reapers and the military-like orders being shouted by the soldiers of Immortal Corp.
These thoughts took a backseat to my current situation. Echo fought his way on top of me, pressing down on the knife.
“You’re making this harder than it has to be, Danny,” he finally managed to say now that his throat had stopped bleeding. “We’ll fight forever or until one of us tires first. By the looks of it, it’s going to be you. When was the last time you’ve eaten?”
I didn’t have energy to waste on speaking. The only thing that I could do now was try and rip the knife out of my stomach.
Echo pressed the blade further in.
“Just give up and be the mercenary you were always meant to be,” Echo said with a look that nearly made me do just that. “You’re not a good guy, Danny. Not with the blood we’ve all spilt. Stop fighting for this cause and just come home. Just accept what you are. You’re a killer, and you always will be.”
The pain in my gut grew as he twisted the knife even deeper. Trying to out-muscle him seemed to be a losing battle. He was on top of me. He was using very little of his own energy to keep me pinned. Instead, all he was doing was resting on the knife to keep me in place.
Instead of trying to push him off, I knew my only hope was to roll him to the side.
I gritted my teeth and threw every ounce of effort into turning my body to the right.
Anger boiled over me like a newly erupted volcano. Not anger at Echo for stabbing me. Anger that somehow deep down I knew he was right. I knew that for a long time I hadn’t been one of the good guys. I knew it like I instantly knew my name was Daniel when waking up without another clue as to who I was, that I was a killer. I held on to the hope now that maybe, just maybe there existed absolution for someone like me.
I opened my mouth long enough to let out a heavy grunt before twisting my body to the side and pushing Echo off.
Both of us were covered in blood as we regained our feet and prepared to engage again. The sticky crimson liquid was mostly mine. I looked down to see the blade of the weapons still sticking into me like a needle in a pin cushion.
Prying the knife free was an act of self-control, but I still couldn’t help yelling in pain as the blade slipped free.
“You’ll be fine,” Echo coached me as he moved in to attack again. “Nothing some rest and food won’t fix. Now where were we?”
I was exhausted like I’d never felt before. I felt that I needed to eat for my body to keep on healing at the rate it was getting punished. The loss of blood had me weak on my feet.
Echo’s grin as he approached told me he was not feeling these effects at all. For the first time, I wondered if this was a fight that I could even win.
Come on, Daniel, I told myself in my mind. Come on, look at Monica. She never gave up. She never let you down. What are you going to do now? What are you going to do right now?
I grabbed the handle of the knife, pointing the blade down in my right hand. I didn’t know if I could beat Echo, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying. I wasn’t the kind of guy that backed down when others needed me, and for that, I was grateful.
Echo lunged at me with a wicked grin.
I saw Papa coming out of my peripheral vision. More like saw a hunk of rusted yellow bulldozer approach out of nowhere. Papa rolled over Echo like he was a speed bump. One second Echo was coming for me, the next Papa in his bulldozer stood in front of me, crushing Echo underneath.
The bulldozer was so close, I could reach out and touch it.
“You looked like you needed help, Daniel son,” Papa said with a smile, slapping his belly. “Reapers help Reapers. Welcome to the clan. Oh, and thank you for our dropship.”
Part of me wanted to look under the bulldozer to see what was left of Echo. The other part of me knew it wouldn’t be much. Papa had hit him at full speed before coming to a skidding halt. I wasn’t squeamish, but neither did I want to look and see what happened to a body after being hit by a bulldozer.
A wave of fatigue hit me and I reached out with my left hand to steady myself.
“You don’t look so good,” Papa said, jumping off his bulldozer and supporting me with an outstretched hand. “You need rest.”
I shook my head free from the idea of rest. Monica had risked her life to help me and I was going to make good on my promise to save her father.
The sounds of heavy turbines reached my ears a moment later. I looked up to see one of the dropships lifting off the ground. Weapons fire from the Reapers still on their feet peppered the craft. The small arms fire wasn’t strong enough to do any serious damage to the dropship.
I looked around the battlefield for Monica. I couldn’t find her. I moved to the other side of the bulldozer to get a better view of the carnage. The battle was brief but bloody. Half the Reapers lay dead or wounded with a decent number of the Immortal Corp soldiers down as well.
There was no sign of Jax, Luke, Monica’s father, or Cage.
I caught sight of Monica a moment later. She pointed her rifle up at the departing dropship, tears in her eyes. It was as if she were lost in a trance, torn between an unbearable decision.
“Hey,” I said, walking up beside her. “Hey, you okay?”
“What do I do?” she asked without looking at me. “If I shoot, I could hit my father. He’s on the ship. If I do nothing, he’s gone.”
That question was answered for her a moment later when the dropship disappeared into the night.
Around us, the Reapers were hooting and hollering, celebrating their win and the spoils of war. There was none of that joy in Monica’s eyes. She looked tired, sad, even defeated.
“You came and helped me when you could have been trying to get your father,” I told her. “Why? Why would you do that?”
Monica finally tore her eyes away from the night sky. A determination lived there I had never seen before. She gripped the stock of her weapon so tight, the whites of her knuckles showed.
“Because you needed help and I was right there.” Monica swallowed hard. “I didn’t know if I could free my father in time, but I knew I could help you. Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Sorry,” I said, closing my mouth and blinking a few times. “I—that’s just a foreign concept to someone who’s been on his own for so long.”
“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with this galaxy these days,” Monica said with a heavy sigh. “Everyone’s just been looking out for themselves.”
“I’ll get—we’ll get your father back,” I corrected myself. “I’m going to make good on that promise.”
“Oh, I know you will,” Monica said with a sad grin. “I didn’t just get the crap kicked out of me for nothing.”
The rest of the night was spent exploring the inside of the newly acquired dropship and the wealth of supplies within.
Our part in the raid was enough for every Reaper to welcome us into the clan with open arms. As far as they were concerned, Monica and I were the sole reason they now controlled a dropship of their very own and enough high-tech weapons to arm a large portion of their clan.
Monica and I sat and ate with Papa just inside the open rear hatch of the dropship. We broke into some printed food packets that would have tasted horrible had I not been so hungry. I powered down one that reminded me of meat and noodles, then another with chicken and vegetables. I went for a third that had something like beans and more meat in it before coming up for breath.
Papa and Monica stared at me wide-eyed as I tore open the silver packages of printed food.
“Sorry,” I said, saying the word and not really meaning it. “I think my intake of food is directly tied to my ability to heal. I need the calories to build my body back.”
“You a strange man,” Papa said, slapping his belly. “But I like it. You heal quickly. Something like nanite technology?”
“I wish I knew,” I said around another mouthful of food.
Unlike me, Monica had opened a container of printed food and was poking around at it with her utensil as if she weren’t sure if she should eat it or put it in the dropship’s fuel tank.
Papa motioned to the backpack she had not taken off for the full duration of the fight. The same backpack that held the small plant.
“You keeping your change of clothes in there or something?” Papa asked, curious. “Why were you two chasing those two dropships anyway?”
“Just my personal items in the bag,” Monica said, playing off the question probably better than I could have. “We were after the dropships because they were taking my father away. Daniel agreed to help me if I paid him.”
Papa looked over at me for confirmation.
“The money was good,” I said with a shrug, picking up the lie Monica fed him. “All I did was change sides.”
The best lies were those mostly true. This one was no different. Papa seemed to understand the call for money and nodded along with my words.
“Earth is a brutal place,” Papa said, his eyes searching the area outside the dropship where his Reapers gathered the dead. They made two separate piles, one for their fallen brethren and the other for the black-clad Immortal Corp soldiers left behind.
To my frustration, all the Immortal Corp combatants were dead. I had half hoped to interrogate one. A part of me now didn’t even want to know about my past. The more I learned about my past, the less I wanted to know. Echo had made that clear enough. I was a killer.
“Come, come.” Papa rose to his feet and waved us forward. “Before we rest this night and celebrate our victory, we must put the dead to sleep.”
I looked over at Monica. She shrugged, grabbing her ribs with a wince as she rose to her feet.
“You need to get that looked at?” I asked.
“Probably,” Monica said, shrugging on her backpack. “But it can wait until after this ceremony. Then we need to get going.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I think you mean where are ‘we’ going,” she corrected. “You owe me.”
“Right, where are we going?” I said.
“We have to link up with Phoenix,” Monica answered. “They need to know what happened here. They’ll also be the best bet of getting my father back.”
“Right,” I said out loud.
Are you really going to go through with this? I asked myself in my head. Yeah, you said you would help her but waging a war with Immortal Corp by linking up with Phoenix, a rebel force by GG standards, seems a bit much.
I didn’t have time to answer these questions as I rose to my feet and followed Monica from the dropship.
The Reapers arranged their dead facing skyward, unseeing eyes open, looking to the heavens above. The Immortal Corp soldiers lay in a similar state in a separate square grouping.
The Reapers that remained were solemn. A pair went around splashing gasoline on both groups of the dead.
“As is our way and the way of our kind before us,” Papa said in a booming voice, “So too shall this way be the way of our own. To send our brothers and sisters to the life beyond by setting their eyes on the heavens and their bodies in flames. Go well, Reapers, and know you will not be forgotten.”
On that signal, a pair of Reapers stepped forward lighting matches and throwing them on both groups of dead warriors. The dead Immortal Corp soldiers burned alone to the side without anyone caring to watch.
The Reapers all gathered around the ones they knew. For some tears fell, others were grim with the harsh fact of death looking them in the face. A moment of silence descended on the group before Papa started a song I was sure I’d heard before.
The song rose soft and sweet, drifting on the nonexistent wind. Soon other Reapers were adding their voices to the song. A moment later, those who remained were singing, besides me and Monica.
I was surprised when Monica even opened her mouth to sing the words. Her voice was nearly lost with the others, but I heard it, soft and sad. Her eyes never left the flames in front of her.
“Dust in the wind,” she repeated.
When the song came to an end, the group stood there a moment longer before Papa interrupted the quiet.
“As is our custom, we respect the dead and send them off, but understand it is because of their sacrifice we live today,” Papa shouted, lifting his arms in the air to a cheer from those around us. “It is time to celebrate our victory!”
Another massive roar came from the Reapers, hooting and hollering as they lifted their voices to the night sky above.
“Today, we earned a massive victory not only for the Reaper tribe but for the eventual freedom of our leader, Aleron Jacobs,” Papa shouted. “With this dropship, we cement ourselves as the strongest tribe in our sector. To thank for this, we have Monica and Daniel, who not only told us how to capture the dropship but fought alongside us!”
Handclaps, smiles, and even a few slaps on the back reached us.
I smiled along, trying my best to look grateful, when all I really wanted was to get out of the situation altogether. The last thing I needed coming out in the open was that I was the reason that their leader was in the Hole to begin with.
“Daniel, Monica, will you do us the great honor of joining the ranks of the Reapers and call us brothers and sisters?” Papa asked.
I looked toward Monica for an answer, although I suspected we were in it too far now to back out.
Monica nodded with a smile. If it was genuine or not, I couldn’t tell. “I will.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Then Brother Daniel Son and Sister Monica, from this day forward, may you be known as our own and any Reaper in the future you may call friend.” Papa leaned down and patted his hands in a section of the ashes that were beginning to form from the fire. The corpse ash caked his hands like some kind of thick, chalky powder.
I watched on in half horror, half amusement as Papa smeared the corpse ash all over Monica’s face. The chick was a trooper. She stood stock still. Monica didn’t even flinch, but the way she jammed her lips closed as well as her eyes told me she was barely keeping it together.
The only thing that kept me from laughing outright was the fact that I was up next.
Papa came to me, rubbing the dead ash all over my face. I told myself it was just mud. When my brain refused that explanation, I tried lying to myself, telling myself it was mostly dirt.
Papa’s hands finally left my face. He turned back to the Reapers present, lifting both our hands into the air with his own.
A last cheer went up from the Reapers.
“Now let us truly celebrate this moment with lives remembered, a dropship gained, and allies made,” Papa said. “Oh, and the traditional branding ceremony where we brand the Reaper symbol into the flesh of our new members!”
It turned out Papa was just joking about that last part, which was great news for me. I wasn’t sure what the rest of the Reapers would do when they saw my skin heal from a brand mark.
Sleep that night was deep and steady. No nightmares or memories from my unremembered life. We slept in the back of the dropship, Monica on a bench with her backpack beside her and me on the ground.
The next morning, Reapers were already up and working as the sun rose. Even after a night of festivities, these hard men and women were up and working yet again. A portion of me was actually warming up to the idea of being a Reaper and calling these people allies.
They were a bit rough around the edges, could probably use a tip in personal hygiene, but they were loyal, and in a world like ours, loyalty meant everything.
I woke before Monica, stretching and going out to relieve myself. I was a bit of a celebrity among the Reapers now. Apparently, Papa let it slip that my knife wound from Echo had healed extremely quickly. He called me gifted and I was lucky that, among this bunch, that meant something good instead of labeling me as a freak.
I traded nods and smiles with other Reapers who were already going about their morning routine. I made for the bulldozer on the outskirts of the dropship where Papa had used Echo as a speed bump.
I was about to walk on the opposite side of the hunk of metal and unzip my pants to take a piss when I saw it. A hole, large enough for a man to crawl through, had been dug out from the bottom of the bulldozer. Drag marks over the dirt eventually faded and were lost to harder terrain.
“X?” I asked.
“I’m seeing it,” X answered.
“That should be impossible, right?” I asked. “Even if he had an accelerated healing ability like my own, that bulldozer pulverized him.”
“What once should have been impossible, these days are only a memory of the past,” X answered. “Look at yourself as an example.”
I stood there for a moment, trying to fathom how Echo was still alive. The fact was that I needed to relieve myself, so I continued to go about my business.
“Oh, X,” I said at the last second.
“Don’t worry,” X answered. “I have a feature that allows me to turn off remote viewing. I have no desire to see certain things you do.”
“Right,” I said.
“I can also turn off and reactivate once you call my name,” X answered. “While you finish, I can take the time to scan the area to see if there might be anything of importance to us.”
“Great, thanks,” I said, beginning to whistle a little.
Just enough time had passed for me to zip up, when X sounded in my head again.
“Daniel, ten yards in front of us and to the right, there is the edge of an envelope. It’s half burned with a blaster bolt going through it, but I believe it is the same envelope Cage had with him,” X told me in a rush of words. “The same one that has the events of your past.”
A cold sweat hit me. Not for the first time, I was faced with knowing who I was, what I had done. A weight had been lifted off my shoulders when Cage put the folder back in his coat. I thought the information was gone for now.
Like a robot, I followed X’s instructions ten yards in front of me and two to the right. Her intelligence was correct. There was a corner of an envelope sticking up from the ground in a soft section of dirt.
I leaned down to pick it up. My hands shook like I had never experienced before. On the moon, I’d fought my way out of brawls without breaking a sweat. I entered gunfire and tough situations like I was built to do just that. Then why was I having such a hard time with facing my past?
I tugged the corner of the envelope free from its resting place in the ground.
X was right, it was burned from the back corners to the center of the envelope like a blaster round took it and lit it on fire.
I had seen Cage tuck it back in his coat before he turned to go. A man like that wasn’t careless. A man like Cage didn’t make mistakes. He had to have dropped it, but why? For me to find? For this very reason? Was he trying to help me?
All these and more questions piled one on top of the other like unpaid bills at a struggling man’s doorstep. I took a long breath then opened the envelope. A few papers fell out as well as the edge of half a picture. The picture was a group of smiling people.
At least, most of them were smiling. About halfway through, the picture disappeared into burned edges. I only had the left-most half of the picture. I saw myself, young, with a heavy grin on my lips. Behind me was the man I recognized in my memory, the man I called Preacher in my dream. He had a hand on my shoulder and a stern but not unfriendly look on his face.
Next to him was a woman I had never seen. She had red hair and an arched eyebrow like she knew a secret about you she found amusing. Sitting below her was another woman. This woman gave a genuine smile toward the camera. Full lips and large eyes gave her an attractive look.
She sat next to me with her hand in my own. It was clear we had some kind of past, but one I didn’t remember. We were sitting too close to be friends. Our fingers interlaced with one another.
I tried in vain to remember her, to no avail. In the image, we wore normal clothes. Long pants with a variety of shirts. We looked almost normal.
“X, can you scan these people’s faces and see if you can find out anything about them?” I asked.
“Certainly,” X answered. “I ran their faces through face recognition software and only one of them came up. The woman sitting on your left, the one holding your hand, died five years ago.”
A sick feeling hit my gut along with a wave of sadness I didn’t understand. I had no memory of the woman, but the picture said we cared for each other on some level, a level deeper than just friendship. Were we dating, officially going out, something more?
“What was her name?” I asked. “How did she die?”
“Jasmine Adams, age 30, died when a hover car malfunctioned and crashed on Mars,” X answered then paused. “We can be almost positive that isn’t the truth.”
“I know,” I said. “It looks like a cover story for her death. We can’t even be sure if that’s her real name.”
“Hey, did you find something?” Monica asked, walking over to me from the dropship.
“Just half-charred papers on who I might have been,” I said, showing Monica what I found.
“I don’t know if I thanked you for choosing my father over finding out details of your past,” Monica said, moving her eyes from the documents in my hand to my own. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, well, you chose helping me with Echo over trying to save your father, so I guess we’re even,” I answered.
“You really can’t remember anything?” Monica thought out loud. “What is the first thing you do remember?”
“I woke up on the moon in some back alley gutter,” I said, shrugging. “The only thing I remembered was my name for some reason. That was it.”
“I’m so sorry,” Monica said, shaking her head. “I can’t imagine what that’s been like.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said, tucking the document in my inside jacket pocket to examine later. “What we need to do now is find a lead on your father. Maybe on the road to freeing him, I’ll get my answers.”
“Phoenix has a hidden installation a few days’ ride from here,” Monica said, digging the toe of her boot in the soft earth in front of us. She drew a line from the indentation she made to one farther north.
“Now that we’re Reapers, we should have an easy go of it,” Monica thought out loud. “We’ll just have to watch out for the muties along the way.”
“We’re Reapers,” I said out loud, dwelling on that idea and letting it sink in.
“Yeah, they had one heck of an initiation process.” Monica searched my eyes with a mischievous look of her own. “I could have sworn Papa got some of that ash in your mouth on purpose.”
“He did,” I said, spitting into the ground beside me at the thought. A phantom taste of dirt and death haunted me. “But what was I going to do?”
“Nothing,” Monica agreed. “I was just happy they were okay with us washing it off before bed. Imagine if we had to sleep with dead people ash masks?”
I caught Monica’s eye and we both cracked a grin then full-out laughed at the thought. It was one of the more morbid jokes I’d had, but what else was I going to do? It was one of those times life got so ridiculous, you just had to laugh about it.
“You two lose it or something?” Papa asked, walking up to us. “Get touched by the mind worm or soaked by the sun too long?”
“Well, I don’t have worms last time I checked,” I said, “but we were thinking of getting on the road before the sun got too hot today.”
Papa looked sad.
“Don’t worry, Papa.” Monica placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure we’ll see you again.”
“Of course.” Papa lost his sad expression and replaced it with a normal smile. “I’m sure fate has more stories in store for us in the future. In the meantime, you take these.”
Papa handed us black cords to wear around our necks. Each one had a scythe fashioned out of bone. The pieces were small, no larger than my thumb.
“You tell other Reapers in the area you are one of us. Even wearing our colors might not be enough at times. But these will get you through any difficulty you might have with our tribe,” Papa said.
“Thank you,” I said, accepting mine and placing it over my head. “Do you think you’d be able to part with a vehicle? Maybe some supplies?”
“Thanks to you, we have more supplies than we need.” Papa grinned, slapping his belly. “Once I fly in with my new dropship, we’re going to be the topic of conversation everywhere.”
“You’ll be the belle of the ball,” Monica said with a grin.
Papa seemed to like that. He hurried off shouting orders for two dirt bikes loaded with provisions to be made ready for us.
I thought the hardest part of my time on Earth was over now. Reapers, mercenaries, and Immortal Corp had all been met and dealt with. I was wrong.
I was beginning to realize I had special talents at my disposal. For example, riding the dirt bikes came naturally to me. My past life was allowing me to not only remember the skills I possessed, but also put them into real time application.
Like a bear waking from its hibernation, so too these abilities were coming into play. The dirt bikes weren’t just old; they looked ancient. Although the outer plastic and rubber pieces of the dirt bike looked held together by tape and glue, the engines purred like mutated kittens.
Each bike was painted grey with a white scythe emblem on the front of the bike. Papa assured us this would be enough to let us pass in the eyes of most roving Reaper bands. If we got stopped, we had only to show them our necklaces.
Word would travel quickly of the strangers who aided the Reapers in securing their own dropship.
A pair of grey helmets with the Reaper emblem was offered to us. I was surprised when Monica mounted her dirt bike without pause. She hit the kick stand with the back of her boot, securing it in its locked position, and donned her helmet like a true professional.
“What?” she asked, looking over. “It’s a rough Earth out there. I’ve ridden dirt bikes since I was little.”
With farewells to the Reaper band and a warning from Papa about the muties up north, we were off.
I followed Monica through the deserted landscape that used to be called California sometime long, long ago. The worn down buildings weren’t even really buildings anymore. Most of them had come down a long time ago. They were more like mounds of rubble than four walls with a roof.
Monica took us via a route that would keep us out of any major cities. It was better to be cautious than fast.
We drove the entire day, only stopping twice for breaks to relieve ourselves and for food. By the time the sun started to set again, my butt was killing me. Don’t get me wrong, the seat was cushioned, but after hours of riding on the bike, even the most cushioned seat can feel like a stone slab underneath you.
I was more than grateful when Monica finally called a stop. With the sun down, we had been riding with our headlights piercing the darkness for the last hour. We pulled our bikes off the worn road to a small hill fifty yards to our right. The hill was just large enough to conceal ourselves as well as our bikes.
I checked the extra gasoline containers Papa provided for us. We still had another full tank of gas in them. As long as Phoenix wasn’t another full day’s ride away, we’d make it.
Monica doled out more of those printed food packs while I stretched. It seemed my healing capability also took time to get some of the soreness out of my muscles.
“Do you want meat surprise or special spaghetti?” Monica asked me, showing me the packs of food.
“What?” I asked, peering at them through the dark. “Do they really say that?”
“Nope, but I bet they taste like it,” Monica answered.
“I’ll take meat surprise,” I said.
Monica tossed me the bag and we sat down for our meal.
Either the printed food packets or PFPs were getting better or I was just getting used to them, because mine didn’t taste half bad.
“You think it’s weird we didn’t see anyone today?” I asked tilting my head back and letting the rest of the food slide into my mouth from the bag. “I mean, I didn’t even see any muties on the road besides that dead one we passed that looked like a rabbit with two heads.”
“Actually, that’s pretty normal these days,” Monica answered. “I’m surprised we’ve seen this many people out here, to be honest with you. Before you and those mercenaries showed up, we’d been out here for months working alone.”
“You mind if I see it again?” I asked, motioning to her backpack. “Sorry, that sounds kinda weird.”
“On a dead planet with no life, that doesn’t seem weird at all,” Monica said, unzipping her backpack and taking out the tiny plant. She poured a healthy dose of water into the plant’s soil before handing it over to me. “I unzipped my backpack at that first stop we made to give her some sun.”
“Her?” I asked.
“Sure, plants are alive too, so why not?” Monica said. “It’s the closest thing we have to a pet.”
“What did you name her?” I asked, marveling at the tiny miracle. I rotated the plant around, examining it from every side.
“No, you’re just going to laugh,” Monica said.
“We can laugh together,” I answered. “Maybe we all need to laugh a little more.”
“I’m not arguing with you there,” Monica said, clearing her throat as if she were about to make a royal declaration. “In your hands, you hold Eleanora Pickard Truthmore the Third.”
My eyes popped open. I looked from the plant to Monica and back again. I tried not to laugh, but it just came out anyway like bubbles from some forgotten spring.
“What?” Monica feigned indignation, but she was smiling too. “What’s wrong with that name?”
“I mean, besides the fact that you gave your plant the title of some ancient ruler on Mars?” I laughed. “I was expecting you to say something like Cutie or Little Guy.”
“Those names are so unimaginative,” Monica said, looking at the plant in my hands. “She needed something special. She is special.”
“Agreed,” I said, admiring the plant again. My mind did somersaults mesmerized by how something so small could mean so much to so many people.
We sat in silence for a moment, each lost to his or her own line of thought.
“The world is about to change,” Monica said almost to herself. “Not just the world, the entire known galaxy. Imagine jungles on the moon? Forests on Mars? That’s what you’re holding in your hands right there. My father’s work will change so much.”
“It still seems too good to be true,” I said. “It still feels like a dre—”
My next words were cut off as something large dove down on me from the night sky.
Instinct more than anything else made me duck. Something incredibly large rushed past my head. The stench it left in its wake was horrific. I reached for my MK II at the small of my back at the same time Monica grabbed for her pulse rifle beside her.
“Mutie vultures,” Monica said, keeping low. “They usually stay farther up north this time of year. I wonder what’s brought them down here.”
I scanned the sky, looking for more of the creatures. The night sky was only illuminated by the stars and moon that were partially hidden by the dark clouds overhead.
Multiple dark shadows circled above, getting lower and lower.
“We need light,” Monica said as she rushed to start a fire. “We’re going to have to fight them off anyway. If someone is around here, they’ll hear our weapons. A fire isn’t our biggest problem anymore.”
A scream split the air. Something between a scream and a squawk from overhead as the mutated birds shrieked for god knew what.
“I should be able to activate a kind of night vision to enhance your eyesight, although my guess is you already have better sight than most,” X sounded in my ear.
“Any help you can give at the moment would be useful,” I answered, making sure the charge pack I had in my MK II were the regular tungsten steel rounds. “Even a rundown of what we’re dealing with here would be helpful.”
I was blinded a moment later. My eyes burned then itched. I had to fight back tears. One second the scene before me was dark with the only light coming from overhead. The creatures were wraiths in the dark, large black flapping figures.
The next, my vision turned a shade of gold. I could see again, but everything was tinted by the color. I looked skyward to take in our enemies, who were growing in sound.
More and more of the mutated vultures were calling to one another and more and more of the birds answered. There had to be five or six of them overhead now with more coming.
“This species of mutated vultures can grow up to fifty pounds with a wing span of eight feet,” X said in my ear. Images popped up in the lower right hand corner of my vision. Pictures of the nightmarish birds cycled by. Some of them had humps on their grotesque bodies while other had two heads.
I looked at the scene above. Sure enough, two of the creatures screaming into the night had dual heads calling out as one. More and more birds joined them. Their numbers swelled to ten and still they called for more.
“They hunt in packs,” Monica said as she used a lighter to ignite a small collection of our garbage and some surrounding refuse. “They’ll call and call for more of their kind, working themselves into a frenzy before they attack.”
“Wonderful,” I said, putting my back to Monica to shield her in case they decided to swoop down on her before she had built the fire.
“Ideas, besides just shooting them all down?” I asked.
“They’d just pursue if you tried to drive off on your dirt bikes,” X said through her external speakers. “The best bet is to engage them and kill them before they do the same to you.”
“She’s right.” Monica used a portion of the gas in the extra gas can to raise the small fire to a healthy height. “Once I get the fire going, we should take them out. The flames will mess with their vision if we stay beside the fire. They have trouble seeing during the day.”
I busied myself aiding Monica as we grabbed anything in the area that would burn, which wasn’t much.
All the while, I kept my gaze skyward. Being able to see at night was amazing. Not just being able to see at night, but the gold hue on everything, was beautiful in and of its own right.
Soon we had a small fire crackling beside us that should last a few minutes. It would have to be enough. While we worked, the mutated vultures overhead were also hard at work. They made their screams through dry throats, creating enough noise to make me wince. If anyone was around in a few miles’ radius, I was sure they would be able to hear the noise.
The flapping cacophony of wings was growing as well. A tornado spun around us as their number grew. More than a dozen mutated birds flew in a tight circle overhead, at any minute preparing to pounce.
I knew most of the bird was wingspan and feathers; they still looked gigantic in the cool night air.
Before Monica or I could form a plan, the birds attacked. As if they were part of one shared hive mind, they communicated their plan to one another and dove. Sharp beaks and angry talons reached for us.
Monica and I had answers for that.
My MK II punched through their bodies like a pen stabbing through a single sheet of paper. Monica added to the attack with her pulse rifle peppering red shots through the night air. More screams and squawks reached my ears as we put down mutated bird after mutated bird.
Monica wasn’t the best shot, but what she lacked in precision, she made up for in sheer volume. Her rifle lit up the night sky like a light show.
One of the dead birds landed on me, knocking me to the side. Another bird took that opportunity to dive on Monica. It reached out with its gnarled claw scraping Monica’s left arm from her shoulder down to her elbow.
As if they could smell blood on the wind, the rest of the macabre birds dove down for the kill.
Monica screamed in pain, turning to aim her weapon at the creature.
I was already on it. With one shot, I sent a tungsten round through one side of the center mass of the bird and out the other. It spasmed in the air then fell hard to the ground in a poof of feathers.
The scent that came with the creatures was rancid. There was no time to think on that at the moment, not with the remaining creatures dive-bombing Monica. Through my golden vision of the birds, I unloaded on them with a speed I had yet to discover.
As soon as my charge pack clicked dry, I allowed the pack to fall out of the bottom of my weapon. At the same time, I grabbed an extra charge pack from the belt at the rear of my back and slammed it into place.
The transition was made in a split second. My finger hugged the trigger over and over again until there was nothing left of the birds besides a pile of molting feathers.
Monica’s mouth fell open. She looked at me with an expression of surprise and something akin to fear.
“How—how did you do that?” she asked. “I thought I was a goner for sure. You—you killed a dozen of them before I could aim at one and send out a shot.”
“I—I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “Training, I guess.”
“Yeah, that’s one word for it,” Monica said, looking all around her at the carnage that lay at her feet. “That was amazing.”
“I just reacted,” I said, trying to think of a reasonable explanation myself. “You were in trouble, they were about to tear you apart. I just reacted.”
We took a moment to soak in the scene around us. Monica couldn’t take a step in any direction without fear of stepping on one of the birds. The smell, something like rancid meat, made my eyes water.
“You’re hurt,” I said, finally feeling the adrenaline begin to ebb. I pointed to her left arm where the tear penetrated her jacket and shirt underneath.
Monica picked her way through the pile of dead birds. It seemed her adrenaline was beginning to subside as well. She winced as she removed her jacket and rolled up her sleeve. The talons of the vulture had cut deep. Three brutal slashes ran down her upper arm. A steady flow of dark red blood oozed from her wounds.
“There’s a med kit in my pack,” Monica said, gritting her teeth against the pain. “In the back pack where the plant is.”
I ran to obey, grabbing the small med kit. Apparently, medical care was not in my wheelhouse. I understood the need to clean and wrap the wound, but that was it. I thought of the Quick Heal I used on the praetorian at the diner, but there wasn’t one available.
“X,” I said, returning to Monica. “Any thoughts?”
“There is an antibacterial solvent in the med kit that will make sure Monica’s wound does not get infected,” X answered via her speaker so we could both hear. “The gauze roll included will have to do for now. Perhaps the Phoenix facility we are headed to will have more appropriate medical care. If the wound gets infected, we’ll have a new host of problems to worry about.”
“We’ll be there tomorrow,” Monica said, wincing past the pain. “You need me to move closer to the fire so you can see what you’re doing out here?”
I forgot Monica had no idea about my apparent night vision courtesy of X.
“No, I’m good,” I said, amazed at how fast I had gotten used to the enhanced night vision. “X is helping me out with seeing at night.”
Monica’s eyebrows shot up, but she didn’t say anything.
I busied myself opening the container of antibacterial solvent. It came out of a small tube. It was clear and gel-like. I squeezed the tube down Monica’s wounds, watching her wince but never flinch.
“So how does a scientist like you grow up so hard?” I asked.
“Excuse me?” Monica half laughed. “I think there’s a compliment in there somewhere.”
“I mean, you clearly know what you’re doing and talking about when it comes to recreating plant life, but I’ve seen you get hit, tied up, kicked, and now slashed, and you don’t miss a beat,” I said as I used a clean piece of gauze from the med kit to smooth the gel over her wound. “I thought you intellectual types were supposed to trip on your own feet.”
“Yeah, well, that might have been the stereotype a long time ago, but anyone who’s still on Earth knows how to survive.” Monica shrugged. “I lost my mother when I was young. I think that helped toughen me up probably more than it should have. I knew it was just me and my dad. We have to be strong out here. Anything else, and we’d be dead.”
I nodded along with her words, taking a new roll of gauze and wrapping her wounded arm in it. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“That some kind of mercenary mantra you have?” Monica said, looking down at the work I was doing on her arm.
“Something like that,” I said. “Honestly, I don’t even remember where I first heard that. There.” I stood back, admiring my work. “I’m not going to win any awards, but it’ll do.”
“Thank you,” Monica said as I packed up the med kit. “I don’t know if you believe things happen for a reason, but I do. I’m glad I met you when I did, as strange as that may sound.”
“You mean when I was about to come in and take both you and your dad in?” I asked. “That’s a harsh hand for fate to deal you. I mean, we still need to get your father back.”
“Yeah, but what if it hadn’t been you and Kayla?” Monica asked. “I could be with my father right now. Our life’s work captured along with us. At least this way, we have a chance.”
“You’re one tough cookie,” I told Monica. In my time as a bouncer, I had known men twice her size with less spirit. “Let’s hope you’re right with the whole fate thing.”
“In the meantime, when are you going to stop dodging the information you’re carrying in your jacket?” Monica asked, already turning to go back to our camp. “It doesn’t make things any less true if you don’t look at them.”
“I’m not putting it off,” I said defensively. “I just haven’t had a chance to sit down and look at it yet.”
“Mmm hmm,” Monica said, still not looking back. “We should put this fire out then relocate camp for the night. We made enough noise to wake the Necromancers around these parts.”
“I’m not putting it off,” I mumbled to myself. “I can look at those documents whenever I want. I just haven’t had time.”
“Am I supposed to believe that lie as well?” X asked in my head.
“Not you too,” I said.
Monica and I spent the next hour extinguishing the fire she built then relocating camp to a spot a few miles down the road on a bluff that overlooked the road.
I told Monica I’d take the first watch. She was out like a light. Faint snores cut the silence a moment later.
Most of the documents you found were destroyed anyway, I told myself. You can try and read it, but you’ll only get bits and pieces.
I sat with my back at a rock, looking out over the destroyed landscape. My vision was still golden, allowing me to see at night. Like an employee reluctant to do his task, I reached into my jacket pocket for the envelope.
I pulled out the picture of the four of us beaming up at the camera. If my dream had been right, I knew Preacher stood behind me in the image, his one good eye making him easily recognizable.
If X was right, then the woman holding my hand was already dead. The last person in the picture besides me was the woman with red hair. Something jogged my memory, something someone had said.
In the diner when I first arrived on Earth, the older woman named Chita, who spoke a different language, said she recognized the tattoo on my shoulder. She said a woman visited her village to the north, in the Badlands, and slaughtered an entire family. The woman had bright red hair.
What were the odds that the woman in the picture and the woman mentioned in the diner were one and the same?
If I were Monica, I’d call it fate, but I wasn’t ready to jump on that fate wagon quite yet.
Reluctantly, I took my time opening the charred remains of the file and brought it out. Thanks to my ability to see at night, I didn’t need a fire or any kind of light.
I looked at the picture one more time then moved to the half-burned paper.
Quickly, I realized it wasn’t what I thought. It wasn’t a report or a file on me or others in Immortal Corp. It was someone’s entries into a diary or something very close, their notes on a study.
Pack Protocol has been given the green light. The other scientists and I are very excited to begin. The test trials we ran have been nothing short of miraculous. To be able to alter the very human DNA itself is something I have only dreamt of.
With Immortal Corp funding our efforts, there is no end to the possibilities we will be able to explore. Our initial plan is to enhance each subject in similar ways as well as different means.
We have been provided seven volunteers to begin with. If testing goes as planned, we may be given mor—
The report was burned and ended there. I flipped to the next page. My heart raced as more and more details of a past I didn’t remember came to light.
I met the owner of Immortal Corp today. My word, what an intimidating figure. I wasn’t given a name, only told by my contact that the owner would be visiting today. I was told not to worry about giving him a report. He had been keeping a close eye on our project.
I had the feeling he was there to see our facility and progress for himself more than anything else. He had a retinue of bodyguards with him. Something like you would expect to see the governor of Mars with.
Anyway, it’s back to work. We’ve been experiencing massive progress with our first test specimen. A young man named Daniel Hunt. He’s—
The page once again ended there. There were only two pages left for me to read. With shaking hands, I moved to the next.
Seven different test subjects with the same main abilities. We have managed to speed up their metabolism in a way that a super healing factor now makes them heal much faster than the normal human.
All the test subjects are faster and stronger as well. This is where the similarities end. As they continue to evolve, we will be able to see new and exciting traits manifest themselves over time.
Take number six, for example. Her abilities have manifested like the others, but she also has the capacity to blend into her surroundings. It is truly remarkable to see her work. This is the first major difference we have seen from the rest of the subjects.
I am very much looking forward to seeing how the rest of the testing goes and what other abilities manifest themselves. Subject number one has—
I gritted my teeth. It was like the author was intentionally cutting off when I needed answers the most. I took a long breath then moved to the last page.
The longer I work on the Pack Protocol Program, the more I get the sense that all is not as it seems. When I joined, I was told Immortal Corp was a private company under contract for the Galactic Government.
I was told that what we did here would save thousands of lives as we prepared the next generation of super soldiers for the GG. There has been no visit from the GG, nor have they been mentioned since.
I’m led to believe that Immortal Corp is going to use these subjects not as soldiers for the GG at all but rather as mercenaries for their own agenda. What worries me further is the amount of aggression found in number seven. He started out like the others, but—
“Seriously?” I whispered to myself. I read and reread the information in my hands, asking the same series of questions. The one that kept pushing its way to the surface was the same.
Why would Wesley Cage bring me this? Why would he let me read anything other than what painted Immortal Corp in good light if he wanted me to come back? Maybe he didn’t want me back. Maybe he was trying to help me understand what Immortal Corp really was.
I spent the rest of the night thinking about this. I knew X was only a call away, but I wanted to be alone. There was so much I was still trying to figure out, and in that moment, silence was nice.
There was no one shooting at us, no running, no immediate danger. I looked over at Monica, who slept on her left side. She used the one blanket she had as a pillow, her jacket the only thing protecting her from the cool night air.
I rose to my feet with my own blanket in hand. It wasn’t much, just a thin thing provided by the Reapers for our trip. I tiptoed over to Monica and placed the blanket on her.
She mumbled something, then continued her deep stay in dreamland.
I went back to my spot with my back against the large rock and kept watch.
Halfway through the night, I woke Monica, then slept myself. Sleep was too short but at least free of dreams.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try and dream about my past or just sleep. The decision was made for me as Monica shook me awake.
“Wakey, wakey,” she said, nudging my shoulder. “Hey, when you woke me up last night, I had both blankets. Would you know anything about that?”
“I have no idea.” I shrugged, rubbing sleep from my eyes. “Maybe it was fate or something.”
“Yeah. I’m pretty sure fate doesn’t work like that.” Monica grinned. “Come on, breakfast and let’s hit the road. Four hours of hard riding and we’ll reach the Vault.”
“The Vault?” I repeated, getting to my feet and stretching.
“The code name for the Phoenix facility on the west coast,” Monica answered. She busied herself grabbing two more printed food packages and tossing me one.
I caught it, realizing I was still in night vision mode and had no idea how to turn it off.
“X, a little help?” I asked.
“Concentrate on wanting to turn off your night vision and blink twice,” X answered. “Make that choice in your mind’s eye and you’ll be able to turn it off and on yourself.”
I obeyed, pushing everything else out of my mind besides the want to see without the added aid. I blinked twice, and just like that, my normal vision was restored.
Instead of golden outlines and light in front of me, the sun rose in the east, casting warm rays on the landscape.
“Did it work?” Monica asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, opening my package of food. I didn’t really care what it was at this point. All the printed food was beginning to taste the same. I just needed it for the calories.
“Let’s get going,” Monica said, scarfing down her breakfast.
The tone she used, the way she looked around told me there was something wrong.
“Those mutie vultures from last night still have you worried?” I asked.
“Not so much that as, well, do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched?” Monica asked. “I don’t have any proof. I didn’t see anything or anything like that, but just before I woke you up, I got a weird feeling like we were being watched by someone.”
“I don’t feel anything, but that doesn’t mean you’re not right,” I said, searching the area around us. “Let’s get moving. The sooner we get to your people, the better.”
Monica nodded before going over to her dirt bike.
The next four hours, my senses were on high alert as we crossed the empty terrain on the way to the Vault. Like the previous day, we didn’t run into a single soul. The closest we got to anything living was a pair of birds circling high overhead.
I couldn’t tell if they were mutie vultures, but I kept my eye on them. They never got close enough for me to have to seriously worry about a confrontation.
True to Monica’s words, in just under four hours of riding, we rounded a corner leading to a mountain trail. We picked our way up the zigzagging path that crossed back and forth on itself, cutting through the mountain.
In no time at all, we were high up inside the range. Everything here, like the rest of the world, was dead. Rocks and dirt made up the mountains with the occasional dead brush and ancient wood.
I followed Monica through the trail to a place where the road took a hard left between two high mountains. A shack sat right in front of us overlooking a steep cutoff where a cliff face fell a hundred yards straight down.
Past the shack, I saw a magnificent view of a colossal body of water I knew to be the ocean. To my knowledge, I’d never actually seen the ocean before. Still, the large body of water could only be one thing.
“First time, err, first time you remember seeing it, right?” Monica asked.
“Yeah,” I said, tearing my eyes from the scene and refocusing on the shack in front of us. “This is the Vault?”
The shack didn’t look like much. In fact, it looked like it could fall in on itself at any moment. Four sides made of flimsy steel and a steep roof with a chimney coming out of it made up the structure.
To be honest, it didn’t look like more than a large outhouse. The walls were rusted and I’d be surprised if more than four people could fit comfortably inside.
“It’s not much to look at, but looks can be deceiving,” Monica said. “We can go in a minute, but if you can’t ever remember seeing the ocean before, we should stop to take a look. We might not get another chance.”
She’s right, I thought to myself. In a world like this, tomorrow is promised to no one. Even to a self-healing science experiment like me.
We really didn’t need to say anything. Together we drove our bikes right past the shack in the middle of the mountain range and looked out over the land between us and the ocean beyond.
There were no oceans on the moon. Maybe that was what made it look so amazing in my eyes.
As far as I could tell, the most water I had ever seen at once was in an indoor pool. The massive body of water in front of me now was something truly beautiful.
“It’s a shame what we did to it,” Monica said, not taking her eyes from the ocean herself. “We poisoned it until it couldn’t give back. Nothing living swims in there now.”
I really didn’t have anything to say. Monica said it all.
We stood there for a moment longer before I shook my head free of the thoughts crashing through my mind.
“It’s still beautiful, just in a different way,” I said. “Maybe it serves as a reminder now. Of what we did. Of what we will continue to do unless someone stops it.”
“Right,” Monica said, wheeling her dirt bike around to the side of the shack. We dismounted and walked to the front door.
I followed. As far as I could tell, there was one way into the shack and one way out. Not even a single window provided an alternate means of entrance or exit.
The door was a sagging hunk of steel.
Monica rapped twice, then once, then twice more. The sounds of her knocking drifted inward.
“I’m going to vouch for you and they’ll accept you, but you have to understand they may be wary of strangers,” Monica said. “Just be prepared for that.”
“You got it,” I said with a grin. “I’ll win them over with my charm.”
Monica actually cracked a real grin. “Sometimes I forget you know how to joke. Most of the time, you’re really serious.”
I was about to say something when a man’s voice from the other side asked a question. “If the land of the blind is ruled by the one-eyed king who rules the planet of the one-eyed men?”
“The child with green eyes will lead them to their future,” Monica answered the challenge question.
There was a loud click on the other side of the door. The steel barrier in front of us swung open.
The room was pretty much what I expected. We walked into a small single chamber area with a metal fireplace to our right and a desk laden with monitors in front of us.
There was enough room for Monica and me to stand but just barely. With a click, the door closed behind us.
The floor was shabby with a dirty rug, the walls plain except for a worn picture of grassy fields and trees beyond on the left wall.
What caught my eye wasn’t the table in front of us or even the army of monitors on the table, it was the man hunched over the monitors. He wore glasses or goggles—I couldn’t tell which—that made his eyes double in size.
He rose from his seat with a crooked smile. Walking around his desk, he embraced Monica with a brotherly hug.
“Monica, when we received the data from you, I was sure we had lost you,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “We tried to get hold of anyone on the radio, but there was nothing. We sent out a team and they came back with reports that it was a massacre. I knew when they couldn’t find you or your father’s body that you were still alive somewhere.”
“Thank you, Thomas,” Monica said with a sad smile. “I’d probably be dead or kidnapped at the moment if it wasn’t for Daniel.”
Thomas looked me up and down warily before extending a hand. “If it’s what Monica says, you can count us as friends,” Thomas said.
“I’m here because I told her I’d help and I believe in what you’re doing,” I said, accepting the man’s hand. His grip was loose. I had to make sure not to crush his palm.
“What happened to your father?” Thomas looked at Monica after releasing my hand. He shook his own palm as if he were trying to regain feeling in it after our handshake. “Is he alive?”
“Taken by Immortal Corp,” Monica answered. “We have to get him back. I need to talk to the commander as soon as possible. But our work was still a success. Not only did he send you our information, I have the first successful specimen with me.”
Monica took the moment to remove her backpack and take out the plant inside.
Thomas’ already large eyes went even wider. A look of pure wonder and joy lit his face. I found myself lost in the moment all over again.
For something so alive and green to exist in the galaxy, it seemed like a true miracle.
“The commander, everyone working for so long to see this little plant live will be so excited,” Thomas said with a wide smile. “I’ll activate the lift and get you down below to the base.”
“Lift?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah, you didn’t think this shack was the Vault, did you?” Monica said with a wry grin. “The Vault is a multi-level bunker built into the side of the mountain. We have an army. A small army, but an army.”
I should have known something was about to go wrong. We had made it to the supposed safety of the Vault. All seemed well, too well.
A red flashing light built into the side of the chimney I hadn’t noticed began to blink off and on.
“What’s that?” Monica asked.
Thomas took a look at the screens on his desk.
“Probably nothing. We have the random mutie that wanders into our zone and trips an alarm. It’s—” Thomas’ mouth dropped open as he examined the monitors closer. “Get down!”
Instinct kicked in. I tackled Monica, covering her with my body as best as I was able. The side of the shack with the chimney attached to it caved inward.
A truck’s hood poked through the wall. Whoever was in it slammed the truck in reverse and was gone a moment later. I stood up, drawing my MK II. I switched charge packs to the small explosive rounds.
The truck driver reversed the truck back a few yards, taking the side of the shack with him. I had my first clear view of our attacker.
“No,” I said out loud. “It can’t be.”
Echo sat in the driver’s side seat. His face was one half fleshy skull, the other new pink skin. The most disturbing part was the grin on his lips, half of which weren’t even there.
I aimed my weapon at the impossible man in front of me. With his left arm, he stuck a compact pulse rifle from the window and opened fire.
I stood in front of Monica, squeezing the trigger of my weapon. Like a madman, Echo drove the truck forward, firing wildly as he did so. I landed three rounds before Echo slammed the truck into the shack again.
With two of my rounds, I hit him in the chest and head with explosive power. With the third, I took out the front of the truck. What was left of the vehicle crashed into the house just far enough to strike my torso and knock me over.
The shack filled with dark smoke from the vehicle. I looked around to see what had happened to Monica and Thomas.
Struggling to my own feet. I saw Thomas, a bloody mess, sagging over his desk, his body riddled with rounds from Echo’s blaster.
Monica was just behind me. She was on the ground, unconscious. I moved to her, dropping to my knees. The heat of the burning vehicle was not enough to stop me from checking on her.
She was still breathing, no wounds on her visible other than a knot growing on her forehead. When the truck hit me, it must have also pushed me into Monica, sending her against the far wall.
“You’re a killer, Daniel,” Echo said behind me. “You’re one of us. You’re coming home.”
I sat on my knees with my back toward him, my MK II still in my right hand.
“Bulldozer didn’t kill me, those explosive rounds of yours aren’t going to kill me, you’re not going to kill me,” Echo continued. “I do owe you for those, though. Some of us don’t heal as fast as you do. It’s going to take me another day or two to grow back this new skin.”
“There were seven of us,” I said, still on my knees with my back to him. “Pack Protocol.”
“Ahhh, so your memory’s coming back to you, then?” Echo seemed pleased. “I knew you’d come around.”
“Who was the woman in the picture?” I asked. “I saw a picture of us. Preacher was behind me, a woman with red hair next to him and another woman holding my hand. Who was she? Who was she to me?”
“You want answers, then you know where to go to get them,” Echo said.
I stood, slowly turning to look at him without raising my weapon.
Echo was a sight to see. Half his face was gone to begin with. Now he was missing flesh on his chest and arms where my rounds struck him. His clothes were still smoldering from the blast.
“I’m taking you in,” Echo said, rolling his neck from side to side. “As alive as you are now or in pieces.”
“You can try,” I told him. That same feeling of excited anticipation I used to get before a fight on the moon washed over me. I could tell Echo felt the same way. A twisted grin came over his face.
I lifted my weapon, but Echo anticipated the move. He kicked out with a right leg that broke the grip on my MK II. His kick took him off balance for a split second and I made my move.
Tactical strategy went out the window. For some reason I couldn’t tell, the idea that Echo had all my answers and was unwilling to tell me infuriated me. Not just all my answers specifically; the answers about the woman whose hand I held in the picture.
Instead of trying to exchange blows with him, I tackled him, lifting him off the ground. I carried him through the decimated side of the shack to the mountain side.
Only when we were outside did I slam him down with everything I had. I landed on top of him, striking his face over and over again with my fists.
I was lost in some kind of red haze of anger I had never felt before. Some animal rage pent up inside me was finally let loose.
I’m not sure how many times I struck him, but by the time I was done, my fists were covered in his blood. My chest heaved with the exertion.
I looked down at the face in front of me, still one-half mending flesh over a white skull and the other Echo’s face. He turned his head to the side to spit out blood.
“When are you going to get it?” Echo asked with an eye roll. “We can’t kill each other. We’ll do this all day until we’re both blue in the face. Besides, wouldn’t you rather just come with me and we can talk about your fiancée? I can tell you what happened to her. I mean, you said you saw the picture, right?”
When Echo said the word “fiancée,” images flashed through my mind of the woman in the image. She was smiling with me and laughing. I remembered kissing her. My chest exploded with emotion as my head did with the memories racing through my mind like some kind of giant herd.
Echo took the opportunity to buck up with his hips and turn, sending me falling into the dirt behind him.
“Daniel, you need to focus,” X said in my head. “I’ve tried to stay quiet to let you concentrate, but you’re overloading your brain at the moment. Too many memories at once.”
“I know,” I said, gritting my teeth and trying to be in the here and now, at the same time waiting just as much to have a moment to remember. “How do I do that?”
“Let the memories pass as you concentrate on what you need to do right now,” X coached me. “You’ll be able to take as long as you want with them later.”
It was a sick joke. Here were the memories I’d been craving for five years, only to be ignored and pushed to the side like a piece of furniture you’re embarrassed to have at your house.
Echo and I both rose to our feet. He rolled his shoulders, shaking his head. That grin came back to his lips. “Your head get scrambled or something when you remember your past? Man, they really did a number on you.”
“Who?” I hated myself for asking, but I needed to know. “Who did this to me?”
“Immortal Corp,” Echo said as if it were the most obvious answer in the world. Your fiancée, her name was Amber. She was the first to have second thoughts on what we were doing. Immortal Corp put her down. I put her down.”
I felt sick. More memories of sorrow and loss, emotions more than actual scenes erupted like a volcano inside of me.
“Rawww!” I rushed forward, doing my best to channel the anger I felt into something productive. Right now, the most productive thing I could think of was putting Echo down for good. I wasn’t sure how I was going to kill him, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying.
We went at it, trading blows like the trained professionals we were. Echo hammered me in the face and the stomach. I tasted the familiar tang of metal as blood filled my mouth.
Every other second, I was pushing memories out of my mind, reminding myself there would be time for that later. Right now, I had a job to do.
I dodged a right jab, catching Echo by the arm and tossing him over my hip. Echo rolled into a standing position and came at me again. He lifted his right leg in a high kick, aiming for my head. I managed to duck under it and sweep out his stationary leg with my own.
Echo hit the ground hard, this time unable to recover quickly. We were both getting fatigued. Sweat covered my brow to the point it was starting to run into my eyes. The cut in my mouth was already beginning to heal.
“They wiped your memory too,” Echo said, stopping my advance and giving himself time to recover. “Immortal Corp, I mean. They knew you’d go after them once you found out what we did to Amber. You were too much of a wild card. You loved her too much. Compared to what you and Amber shared, your loyalty to Immortal Corp meant nothing. You had to be put down.”
More images, an ambush, a bloody fight, then nothing.
In the second it took me to process and push aside these new memories, Echo was on me again. This time, instead of trying to put me down with blunt force, he snaked his right forearm around my throat, taking a position behind me in a rear naked choke as he squeezed.
I clawed at his arm, but the hold was in deep.
“I didn’t do it for Immortal Corp. I did it for us, for the Pack,” Echo said into my ear. “I did it for us. I know you can’t see that, but she was going to blow the whole thing wide open to the Order. I had to.”
Oxygen was flowing to my brain slower and slower. I sank to my knees, looking around me for anything that might be able to help get me out of the situation. Then I saw it. A section of the shack Echo had run his truck into. There was a steel support bar sticking out from the ground at the perfect angle.
“I am sorry I had to do it, but I would do it again if it meant keeping the rest of us safe,” Echo said in my ear like I was some kind of priest and he was confessing his sins to me. “You’ll come around. You’ll come around, brother.”
I had seconds before unconsciousness wrapped its fingers around my brain. I knew that. Again I turned to the anger swelling in my chest to fuel my movement.
“Get up. Come, Daniel. Get up!” X yelled in my head. “You can do it. I know you can. I know who you are. You’re the guy who doesn’t stay down. This isn’t you, Daniel. Get up!”
There was no more breathing. My vision was already beginning to fade. Without oxygen to my brain, my body wouldn’t be able to function.
Somewhere in the background, I could hear Echo going on and on. At the moment, my focus was singular. I rose to my feet, positioning both of our backs to the metal bar sticking out of the ruined shack.
With every fiber of strength I had left, I poured it into my legs, forcing us backward first at a walk, then a run.
Echo must have thought I was just trying to slam him into the shack behind us. Instead of fighting me, he just went with me, expelling less of his own energy. He concentrated all of his effort on maintaining the lock around my neck and pressing harder.
The metal support bar skewered us both. I pressed back as hard as I could, falling on it at a run. It tore through Echo’s chest first and then my own.
Finally, the big man behind me stopped confessing his sins to me and gasped in pain.
Anyone who has experienced real suffering knows that true agony comes from within. Physical pain was something that felt dull compared to the recent memories of the dead woman I loved.
The hold around my neck fell away not a moment too soon. I looked down at my chest where the piece of metal ran through me.
The bar was thicker than I once thought, the size of my forearm and L-shaped. It was hard to breathe, not just because I was still regaining my breath, but there was a freaking bar sticking out of my chest.
Like a dog with a bone, I refused to give up. I grabbed on to the end of the metal rod and slowly pulled myself forward.
The pain was searing white, almost debilitating to the point I didn’t want to move. My breath came in ragged gasps, but I knew I had to recover before Echo. If he was right, then my body would heal before his.
I let out a roar of pain as I slid myself free of the metal beam. I was about to fall on the ground when I felt hands grab and support me.
Monica looked at me then to the hole in my chest.
“Jeez, I can’t leave you alone at all. I get one concussion and you decide to turn yourself into a shish kabob,” Monica said, looking over at Echo.
I followed her gaze. The bar went completely through Echo to the point where his whole weight rested on the metal beam. He wasn’t moving, but I knew he wasn’t dead. A man that could get run over by bulldozer didn’t die with a single beam through his torso.
As if to prove my theory correct, Echo lifted his head, ready to spout more painful memories. I wanted to know it all, but for the time being, I had enough.
“And around and around the wheel goes,” Echo said, trying to find his feet underneath him. “I can tell you more. I can tell you about the Hydra mission. The monsters we fought to keep—”
I laid into his left temple with my right fist, sending him spiraling into unconsciousness.
“Thanks,” Monica said. “I was about to do that myself.”
Instinct told me the three of us weren’t alone. From the landscape around us, from behind rocks and the shack itself, armored soldiers dressed to blend into the terrain advanced on us.
There were dozens of them with helmets wearing the symbol of a white burning bird on a red background.
“Let me talk to them,” Monica said, lifting her hands into the air. “My name is Doctor Monica Warden. We’re here with results from the latest tests. I need to talk to the commander.”
The soldiers surrounding us still pointed their weapons at us, but they seemed torn at gawking at the hole in my chest and what Monica had just told them about a successful round of testing.
“Put your weapons down,” a strong male voice said from somewhere within their lines. A man walked forward as the soldiers obeyed. He was tall with suntanned skin and a white beard that reached the center of his chest. His eyes were hard but kind, if such a combination could exist.
“Commander, I—” Monica started.
“We saw it all through the monitors.” The commander stopped her before she could finish. “We should have gotten here faster but the main elevator to the Vault was pinned shut by that truck in the shack.”
For all the madness taking place in front of him, the commander didn’t seem fazed. Even the hole in my chest and Echo’s skeletal figure didn’t shake him.
“Let’s get you two in to the medical team,” the commander said. He extended a hand in my direction. “Commander Shaw.”
“Daniel Hunt,” I said, accepting the offered hand.
“Once you see what you’re about to see, there’s no going back, Mr. Hunt,” Commander Shaw said, looking at the wound in my chest. “Do you understand that?”
“I do,” I said, glancing over at Monica then at Echo. “I’m not going back.”
“I’ve heard whispers of mercenaries like you.” Commander Shaw released my hand. “I’m happy to have you on our side if what you say is true. I will let you know that if you try anything, I will not hesitate to gas you, incarcerate you for the rest of your life, or suffocate you. However I need to put you down, I will.”
“I get that,” I said. “You won’t have to worry about me.”
“Good,” Commander Shaw said. “Monica has already vouched for you and that goes a long way. On top of that is what you did here and my own good judgment. You get a chance to be part of history, Mr. Hunt. Don’t ruin that.”
For a second, I felt like I was a kid being told to behave. I guess Commander Shaw didn’t want an answer because he looked back over his shoulder and began barking orders as if he were reading them off a list in his mind.
“I want first team to get that vehicle out of the shack and repair the structure. See that Thomas gets the burial he deserves. Second team, see to it that our skewered friend here stays sedated and heavily chained while we get him inside the Vault and to his new cell.” Commander Shaw looked over at me and Monica as the Phoenix rebels jumped to obey. “Let’s get you two inside.”
Around us, the rebel militia was running to do the bidding of their commander. The truck was wheeled back and a steel circle found underneath the dirty carpet of the shack.
Commander Shaw and Monica stood on the piece of metal that nearly took up the entire room. I joined them. A moment later, we were descending into the ground itself.
Exhaustion washed over me, along with the memories I so desperately needed to sift through. Right now, I had to focus on the next step. It wasn’t every day that a rebel force invited you into their home.
Lights ran in a straight line in the walls around us, illuminating our descent. The platform moved smoothly down until we were a good four or five stories below the shack.
The lift finally stopped, letting us off on a long, wide hall once again brightly illuminated. A pair of guards saluted the commander then gawked at my chest.
The hole had closed up but was still healing, showing a variety of bones and flesh.
I ignored them, moving down the hall with Monica and the commander. A “T” intersection with a pair of double doors in front of us and halls leading off to either side stopped our forward progress.
The commander moved to a pad by the doors, punching in a four-digit code. The doors hissed open, inviting us onto a viewing balcony overlooking a massive work floor.
My mouth dropped open at the same time I realized Phoenix wasn’t just a small rebel group, they were an organized military power.
Workers ran to and fro in the massive room. On the right side, cases and rows of weapons and armor sat ready for deployment. On the left were columns of new vehicles ready to be deployed. In the very far back of the room, I saw colossal suits of armor that looked like mechs.
“You have mech suits here?” I asked, not able to help myself.
“We have much more than that,” Commander Shaw said with a wide grin. “You’ve met us at a very interesting time in our existence. We’re on the brink of war.”
I let a long blow of air escape my lips.
“You okay?” Monica asked.
“Second thoughts?” Commander Shaw asked with a raised eyebrow.
“No, no second thoughts,” I said. “I’m not going back to those people who made me what I am. I’m just taking it all in.”
“It’s a lot.” Commander Shaw nodded. He looked over at the backpack Monica still wore. “We received your father’s transmission. He sent us the latest information on Project Eden. He was taken?”
“He was, by the Immortal Corporation,” Monica said, removing the backpack from her shoulders. “I need to go after him.”
“We will,” Commander Shaw answered. “Just as soon as you two get rested and equipped to go out again. May I see it?”
Monica unzipped her backpack, taking out the little plant that had been through so much, including being crushed, sprayed with blood, and transported in a backpack. Commander Shaw, this man who had clearly seen combat in his time, this hard-nosed leader started to cry.
He took the plant in both calloused hands. His tears fell down his cheeks without the sounds of sobs. If he was ashamed to cry in front of us, he didn’t show it.
“So many years, so many people who have sacrificed everything for this.” Commander Shaw ran a tongue around the inside of his mouth. He swallowed hard. “Now it’s here. You and your father did it, Monica. You did it.”
“We did it,” Monica corrected. “Without the funding, the time, the protection we needed to carry out the experiments, this would have never happened. We did it.”
Commander Shaw just nodded. He handed back the plant, clearing his throat.
“This is just the first step,” Monica reminded him. “We have to test to make sure we can replicate the result. We’ll need more time to ensure we can execute our plan not just on one plant but on entire forests, jungles. This is just one plant. We need trees and—”
“But it’s a start,” I said.
Both Monica and Commander Shaw looked at me as if I were going to continue.
“We’ve got to start somewhere,” I said with a shrug.
“Yes we do,” Commander Shaw said with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s time to get to work.”
The rest of the day was spent taking a much needed shower, eating real food, and getting sleep. As I ran through the motions of each step, I played through the memories that seemed more like distant dreams.
I remembered her. I remembered Amber. I remember the pain. I relived the pain as I lost her again and again and over again. I knew I shouldn’t dwell on it. I knew it would eat me from the inside out, but I had to explore these memories as far as they would take me.
I loved her. We were going to get married. I remembered her internal struggle with what we were doing. Immortal Corp told us over and over again we were making a difference for the better.
When Amber asked too many questions and stepped out of line, they had Echo kill her. I wasn’t there. I don’t even remember how they did it or if I got to see her body.
For as many memories as I did recover, there seemed to be twice that number I still needed to find. Only one person could give me those.
After a night full of waking dreams, I went down to see him. The Vault was massive, extending twenty stories into the mountainside and the ground below. The prison block was located on a lower level tucked away to the rear of the structure.
I received permission from Commander Shaw to speak with Echo. His cell was a ten by ten with a clear shield wall carrying a hint of blue. In the cell, there was a bed and toilet, that was it.
“He’s going to try and mess with your mind again,” X warned me. “Maybe even lies. I don’t want you to get hurt, Daniel. Your body will heal, but these emotional scars will last a lifetime.”
“Thanks for caring,” I said, trying to figure out where I sat with the AI in my head. “I don’t have a lot of friends, so thanks.”
“I don’t seem to have anyone besides you,” X said. “I don’t anticipate going back to Immortal Corp anytime soon.”
“You and me both, X,” I said. “You and me both.”
The time for our conversation was over. One of the Phoenix guards nodded to me while she pressed a flat panel on the side of the wall next to Echo’s cell that turned off his noise dampeners.
Echo sat on his bed in a white uniform. I couldn’t see his chest, but his face was still a mess. Most of the skull was healing over with flesh, but the skin was still missing. He was right. He did heal a lot slower than I did.
He looked at me, just shaking his head.
“You think any of this matters?” he said, lifting his hands into the air and looking around his cell. “You think you’ve won?”
“How’d you kill her?” I asked.
“What?” Echo said.
“You said Immortal Corp sent you to kill Amber. How did you kill her?” I repeated. “We’re not that easy to put down.”
“Why do you want to know?” Echo said, as if he were suddenly feeling a trap. “You trying to put me down for good?”
I suddenly realized Echo would never tell me. This line of questioning was going to get me nowhere. I needed to switch tactics and find out as much as I could before we left to rescue Monica’s father.
“You should take more interest in those tattoos you have all over your body,” Echo said with a shrug. “They might mean more to you than you think.”
“Or you can just tell me,” I said.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Echo said, shaking his head. “I could be persuaded to give you more information if you let me out of here.”
“Not happening,” I said. “I’ll figure this out on my own.”
“You think you’re out of the woods, don’t you?” Echo said, standing from his bed. He took a step forward toward the see-through shield containing him in his cell. “This is just the beginning. You think the GG, other private companies, the roving gangs on Earth are going to sit by as soon as the word of plant life reaches their ears? Phoenix is up against more than they can handle.”
“Sweet of you to be concerned about us, but we’ll find a way,” I said.
“There are more corporations out there besides our own that have bank accounts with more digits than there are names for,” Echo said with a sneer. “They’ll come with their hitmen, their assassins, their cyborgs. They’ll come for you and the people you love and you’ll lose them all over again.”
I felt heat flush my face. My fist clenched.
“It’s what he wants,” X reminded me in my head.
I took a minute to compose myself.
“Spiritus non possunt occidere nostri ,” I told him, remembering the phrase he repeated like a mantra to me. “Isn’t that what you said? Can’t kill my spirit? Let them come. I’ll be waiting.”
I realized coming to see Echo was a bad idea from the beginning. He wasn’t going to tell me any more.
I was about to leave, when the entire room went pitch black. A second later, blue emergency lights kicked on, powered by some back-up generator.
“They’re already here!” Echo yelled like a maniac. His voice reverberated through the room. “You have no idea what’s coming for you!”
Daniel Hunt will be back in the next book in the Forsaken Mercenary Series , Absolution . Until then, stay informed by joining our Pack in the “Jonathan’s Reading Wolves” Facebook group and get the latest news on the project.
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Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe
Absolution (Coming Soon)