Book: Vendetta: A Near Future Thriller
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I sat down hard on the lower half of the coffin lid, the black mask with the Order symbol clenched in my hands, but I had already forgotten about the piece of cloth altogether.
I was more concerned about what it meant. Amber, my Amber was alive or at least had been alive for a time. No body now didn’t necessarily mean she was alive today.
The cold Mars air elicited puffs of steam from my lungs. I sat there for minutes, hours; I didn’t really know.
“The woman from the Order,” I croaked when I finally found my voice. “X, call that channel she left us.”
“Daniel,” X said. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. With the loss of your memories and the emergence of all of these facts, it’s been nothing but ups and downs.”
“Get to the point,” I growled, not sure X deserved that, but at the moment, it was all I had to give.
“I’ll dial the channel the Cyber Hunter gave us, but they could tell us anything,” X said, finally revealing what she wanted to say the whole time. “You have to find out for yourself. And I’ll help you figure out the truth. I—I just don’t want you to get hurt more than you already have been.”
“Thanks,” I managed. “Now call them.”
X opened up the line using the channel the Cyber Hunter had given us. Back in the Badlands when we visited Sam in Cecile, she had paid us a visit, sparing the former Pack Protocol member and giving us a channel on which to reach her.
The line buzzed inside of my head more than it rang. X was linked to me via a cerebral chip behind my right ear. She had proven herself invaluable time and time again since we’d started this crazy journey together.
Even with my advanced healing, I would have been dead ten times over if it wasn’t for her. She didn’t deserve the way I talked to her.
You’ll have to apologize for that, I told myself as the channel buzzed. She’s been nothing but kind to you.
The buzz finally came to a stop. My heart leaped in my chest. I thought for a moment that there might be someone on the other end of the line.
I tried to call before with no luck.
Instead of a human voice, an automated greeting reached my ears.
“User is unavailable,” the robot voice informed us. “If you wish to leave a message, you may do so at this time.”
“No, I don’t want to leave a message!” I screamed into the night.
I lost it. I wasn’t proud of my actions, but everyone has a breaking point. This was mine. The woman I loved was ripped from me. I went through mourning and now this. Now she might be alive or she might have been saved, just to die all over again.
I slammed my right fist into the dirt wall beside me over and over again. Inside the grave, standing on the coffin, I was just able to see over the edge of the ground above me. I was still alone.
The dirt wall made for one heck of an opponent. I didn’t hold back punching both fists into the wall now, over and over again. Hard-packed sand and dirt flew into the air around me.
The knuckles on both my hands opened up, adding a spray of blood to the sand cascading around me. The pain was welcome. Nothing compared to the internal anguish I felt. The frustration boiling inside me demanded an outlet. If that outlet came with pain, then all the better.
My lungs ached and burned. Air came in deep heavy gulps. By the time I was finished, an indention had been made into the dirt wall a meter deep.
I must have looked like a zombie emerging from his grave. I was filthy from the sweat of both digging up the coffin and my outburst. Dirt clogged my ears, sprinkled in my hair, and streaked down my face.
The skin on my knuckles was already beginning to heal. Blood smears ran down my hands. I grabbed the black Order mask that was as filthy as I was.
I spat on the ground next to me, heading towards the gates of the cemetery.
“We have an incoming call,” X said, ignoring the fact I had just annihilated the dirt with my hands. “It’s Captain Valentine.”
“Oh crip,” I said out loud. I was supposed to meet her at the Hall of Power in Athens. I was just waiting for a call. This far out in Elysium, I wouldn’t make it back in time. “Put her through.”
“Daniel, are you ready with that alien proof of yours?” Captain Valentine asked.
“Yeah,” I lied. “I’ve got it, but it might take me a minute to get back to Athens.”
“Where are you?” Captain Valentine’s voice lowered an octave.
“Elysium at the moment,” I answered.
“Elysium!?” Captain Valentine asked. “What are you doing there? We have a meeting right now. It doesn’t matter. I can send a dropship to pick you up ASAP. Daniel, don’t make me feel like a fool here.”
“I’ll have X send you the coordinates,” I said, looking down at my right hand where I still held on to the bloody Order mask. “I’ll be there. I’ll have Immortal Corp send the alien body.”
“You better,” Captain Valentine clicked off the channel.
“X, can you—”
“Already on it,” X said before I could finish the sentence.
“About earlier,” I said. “I’m sorr—”
“You don’t need to apologize,” X cut me off again. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. If you needed to let off some steam, I get it.”
I was making my way to the entrance of the cemetery when the noise of shouting reached my ears.
The groundskeeper who had offered me the shovel to dig Amber’s grave up sounded angry.
“Hey, you kids get out of here,” he yelled. “This isn’t some kind of amusement park. Have some respect for the dead.”
“What are you supposed to be?” a kid’s voice I didn’t recognize asked. “Some over-the-hill wanna-be security guard?”
“I’m the groundskeeper here,” the man answered. “No, you are trespassing. The cemetery is closed.”
I could tell the confrontation wasn’t going to end with words.
“X, how much time do we have until the Galactic Government dropship arrives?” I asked.
“Flying top speed from Athens, even if they left immediately, they wouldn’t get here for another fifty-eight minutes,” X answered. “We have time.”
“More than enough time,” I said, jogging back to where I had left the borrowed groundskeeper’s shovel and Amber’s dug-up grave. “I think he’ll forgive me for not putting back the dirt right away.”
I lifted the shovel and made my way to where the shouting moved to physical violence. Just outside the groundskeeper’s small shed, a group of boys not out of their late teens surrounded the elderly man. There were five of them jeering and smiling.
The most outspoken of them shoved the groundskeeper to the ground hard.
“You know who my father is, tubby?” the kid asked. He wore a dark hoodie and long pants. “My father’s the mayor in this city. You know what that means? It means I get a free pass in doing whatever the crip I please.”
I came up over the slope in the ground, revealing myself to the group of troublemakers. The groundskeeper rallied to his feet. He was the only one that didn’t see me. His back was directed my way.
“Okay, okay, if that’s the way you want it,” the groundskeeper said, dusting himself off. The fabric of the pants over his right knee was scraped and dirty from the fall. “I used to be quite a brawler in my day. Even beat off a bully or two. Who wants some first?”
The group of thugs took a step back upon seeing me. I didn’t blame them. I knew what I looked like. Dirt covered my face courtesy of the sweat I’d spilled. My hands were stained dark red with my own blood.
The groundskeeper thought they were taking a step back from him. It bolstered his courage.
“That’s right,” he shouted, wagging a finger at them. “What’s more, I’ll call the GG down on this place. I ain’t afraid. Daddy or no daddy, I’ll see to it that you get what’s coming to you.”
Now I was the first person to admit that looks could be deceiving. Who knew? Maybe that groundskeeper could in fact take the five assailants in a straight-up fight.
“That’s right, back up, back up then, young guns,” the groundskeeper said with pride, still not realizing I stood behind him with a shovel in my hand.
“Who are you?” the son of the mayor asked me, finding his voice first. “You some kind of grave robber?”
“Something like that,” I said.
The groundskeeper wheeled around, surprised to hear my voice. He cracked a grin when he saw me.
“I told you I’d bring back your shovel,” I said, about to toss it to him. “Almost forgot.”
“Something tells me you might need it a few minutes longer, stranger,” the groundskeeper said with a twinkle in his eye.
I eyed the five teenagers in front of me. They were well-fed kids probably about ready to go to college or maybe in their first year. A few of them looked like they could be athletes on a professional team.
The last thing I wanted to do was throw fists with some kid. Worse, I didn’t want to cause them any permanent harm.
“Go home,” I told them. “You heard the man; the cemetery’s closed.”
“You didn’t answer me,” the one with the mouth said. “Who are you?”
“I’m a guy having a really bad day,” I said, moving to stand in front of him. We were so close, I could reach out and touch him now. “Don’t give me an excuse. Go. Now.”
“You hear that?” the kid asked his friends with a laugh. “Mr. Dirt here says it’s time for us to go. But I don’t feel like going, do you guys?”
“Nope,” a chorus of voices answered.
They circled me like a pack of predators ready to go in for the kill.
The kid with the daddy for a mayor took a step back with a smile on his wide lips.
“So what’s the plan here?” the groundskeeper said, lifting his fists into the air and shadow boxing with a few clumsy jabs. He almost tripped over his own feet. “You go low, I go high?”
“What?” I asked.
“Okay, you go high and I go low, then,” the groundskeeper said. The small actions he took while warming up left him breathing heavily.
“You just take it easy,” I told him. “I’ll handle this.”
They came at me from all directions, feinting in and out, jeering. I stood still until I could actually reach one of them. The first unlucky kid to come within striking distance of my shovel took a steel spade across his face.
I hit him with the flat side. I wasn’t trying to kill them, at least not yet.
I must have struck him harder than I thought. The tool vibrated in my hands on contact. A hollow thud reached my ears before I pivoted in an upward arc to land the head of the shovel between the legs of the next kid.
I hit him in the balls hard enough to elicit a high-pitched whine from him that didn’t remind me of any sound I had ever heard a human make. He grabbed his privates and fell to the ground in a heap.
The other three kids were smart enough now to try and tackle me at once. One grabbed my shovel while another applied a chokehold on me from behind.
The kid with the father in the government balled up a fist and sneered at me, “Oh, I’m going to enjoy this.”
“You and me both, kid,” I wheezed with a smile.
My response must have caught him off guard. The kid was coming in for a punch then pulled back when I grinned at him.
I released the shovel from my grip, letting the guy who was wrestling it from me have it and sent him falling backward.
The one in front of me with the daddy connections started throwing punches. To his credit, he did a good job striking my face and chest. Why he started hitting my chest was beyond me. A few chest blows wasn’t going to take anyone out of the fight.
I let him have his way while I concentrated on the monkey on my back. The guy on my throat was pressing down hard, making me choke. That pissed me off a little. I reached behind me with my right arm and found his ear.
I didn’t mean to tear it off completely, but I guess I was caught up in the heat of the moment. I felt it give and a warm splash hit my hand.
The kid fell off my back cursing and yelling in pain as he tried to press his torn ear back into his head like that was going to help.
“What the crip!” he shouted, writhing on the ground. “He tore my ear off! He tore my freaking ear off with his hands!”
I caught a right across the jaw and a left in my eye.
The other one, who wrestled the shovel free from my grip, came at me now. He swung wildly, allowing me to easily duck under the blow. As fate would have it, he hit the mayor’s son full in the face with the flat side of the shovel.
Blood exploded from his nose as he staggered back.
“Here, you shouldn’t be trusted with that,” I said, jerking the shovel out of the kid’s hands in one move. In another quick motion, I turned the shovel and brought the end up into his chin.
A loud crack sounded as he slumped to the ground.
“Hot dog!” the groundskeeper cheered, looking at me with wide eyes. “Hot dog, mister, when that woman came to me in my dreams and talked about you, she never mentioned any of this. What are you some kind of secret agent or G-man?”
I ignored the praise of the groundskeeper for the moment going over to where the mayor’s son clamped a hand over his broken nose. Blood covered his otherwise clean hoody.
“My dad—my dad is going to get you,” he sputtered, half in fear and half in anger. “You don’t know what you just did. You signed your death warrant. He’s going to bury you.”
“Get out of here,” I told him. “Don’t ever come back or it’ll be you they’re digging a hole for next.”
The kid seemed to have run out of stupidity, because instead of words, he staggered to his feet. Those able to help their friends did so as they exited the cemetery, leaving a trail of blood in their wake.
Something caught the corner of my eye, something to the right of the cemetery behind one of the headstones. I saw it for only the briefest of moments. It looked like a person dressed all in black. I couldn’t tell if it was a woman or man.
“Did you see that?” I asked, looking in the direction with my neck craned. I remembered too late I had night vision mode now with the aid of X. I blinked, concentrating hard to see in the night. Everything went a golden hue, allowing me to see as if it were as bright as day. There was nothing there.
“Oh, there are all manner of spirits here, and no shortage of the macabre,” the groundskeeper said with a shrug. “They come and go as they please. But you, my friend, you are something special. I was ready to hop in, but you looked like you had them. Your face okay? You’re bleeding.”
I touched a hand to my hairline. It came back sticky with blood.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, handing the man back his shovel. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” the groundskeeper said, accepting the tool. “Shelly did good for herself.”
“You name your shovels?” I asked.
“Of course, and not just my shovels; all my tools,” the groundskeeper said with another crazy grin. “We’re a little family here.”
“Whatever floats your boat, old timer,” I called, heading for the cemetery gates.
“Hey, all fooling aside, you should be careful. If that kid was telling the truth, the mayor of Athens is not a pushover,” the groundskeeper warned. “The Drakes are a powerful family here. You best watch your back.”
“Will do,” I said, throwing a hand over my shoulder.
I walked out of the cemetery, jumping the locked gate like I had when we entered.
The vehicle we had “borrowed” to get here in the first place waited for us outside. But I had a ride coming for me. In hours, I’d be in the Hall of Power with an alien invasion to explain.
X and I waited outside of the cemetery in silence. The best thing about X was she was as comfortable with the silence as I was. Neither of us felt compelled to carry on a conversation for the sake of passing the time. Each of us was lost to his or her own thoughts.
“Hey, X,” I asked. “What would you do if you could do anything? I mean, if you weren’t assigned to help as an AI.”
“What do you mean?” X asked.
I could already tell she was dissecting the question, analyzing it from every possible angle.
“You know, if you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?” I clarified. “First thing that comes to mind. Don’t overthink it.”
“Well, I guess I would help you. You’re my friend,” X answered. “Besides, I like to help. That was what I was created for.”
“Right but let’s say there’s an alternate universe where you didn’t know me and you weren’t programmed to want to help, then what would you do?” I asked.
X was silent for a long time.
“I guess—I don’t know,” X said. She sounded disturbed by the idea that she didn’t immediately have an answer for something. “Common answers would be to practice some kind of art I enjoy, maybe travel, relax, but I honestly don’t know what I would do. Maybe I never will.”
“If you ever want out of this, you give me the word,” I told her. “I mean, I’m in a mess here. If you wanted out, I understand.”
“Stop,” X said. “If I wanted out, I’d just sent an electric pulse that would fry your brain and then I’d be free.”
“You can do that?” I asked, my eyes going wide.
“Maybe,” X teased me. “Seriously, I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. You’re a good man, Daniel. We’ll figure this out. Plus, we’re on the eve of an alien invasion. Who doesn’t want a front row seat to that?”
A praetorian heavy assault vehicle rolled down the deserted street. It looked like an armored truck capable of carrying a complete platoon of the foot soldiers of the Galactic Government.
They stopped at the stolen vehicle up the street and shone powerful lights on the exterior of the vehicle.
“Think we should run?” I asked. “If they link that stolen vehicle to us?”
“No way they can,” X answered. “I mean, running might be a good idea, though. In your current state of dress, you look like a zombie.”
A second later, it was too late. The Praetorian vehicle spotted me and shone one of the bright searchlights on me.
I blinked under the brilliance of the searchlight. I lifted a hand to shield my eyes.
The vehicle rolled up to me.
The passenger side tinted window of the assault vehicle rolled down. A praetorian with hard eyes and buzz cut eyed me.
“You got an ID chip on you?” he asked, taking note of my MK II. “You have a walking permit for that weapon?”
“I’m with Immortal Corp,” I answered. “Waiting on a dropship from Captain Zoe Valentine.”
Both the driver, who I couldn’t see, and the passenger broke out in a roar of laughter.
“You here that, Odie?” The driver of the vehicle leaned over in his mustard colored armor to take a look at me. “He’s waiting for a dropship to pick him up.”
“You high on stim or something?” Odie asked me, finishing his laugh. “You better have an ID chip and permit or you’re going in.”
“Wait, wait, let him tell us more,” the praetorian driver said, tears coming out of his eyes. “Let me guess, you’ve seen aliens or are involved in some kind of secret government conspiracy.”
“You boys are going to get a kick out of this one,” I said with a shrug. “Yeah, aliens are coming to kill and enslave humankind in six days. They’re starting with Mars first.”
Another gale of laughter exploded from the vehicle. This time, Odie even lost it like his counterpart, wiping away tears from his eyes, he was laughing so hard.
“Oh boy, well, crazy, you’re going in for at least a night in the tank until we can get you sorted,” Odie said. “Hands in the air away from the weapon.”
I lifted my hands as ordered. “Can you at least check out my contact? Captain Zoe Valentine? She’ll tell you all you need to know.”
“All right, all right,” Odie said, stepping down from the vehicle with his partner. The driver trained a rifle at my chest while Odie walked behind me. “Let’s get you nice and cuffed and weapon free and then we can talk to this captain or Santa Claus or whoever else you want to call for help.”
My adrenaline spiked. I couldn’t get taken in. As it was, I was already late for the meeting at the Hall of Power. If I went with the praetorians now, who knew how much longer it would take?
Lucky for me and the two prats about to cuff me, the distant hum of a dropship met our ears.
The pair of praetorians searched the sky. Both soldiers pointed their weapons at the approaching bird.
“Tapping into the Galactic Government channel now,” X said in my head.
“Praetorian Unit 2571,” a female voice spoke over the open channel. “This is Captain Zoe Valentine under the order of the Hall of Power and Colonel Jonah Strife. You are ordered to stand down. The asset you are apprehending is coming with us.”
I had never enjoyed being called an asset that much. Come to think of it, I had never wanted to be picked up by the GG either.
Both Odie and the praetorian driver lowered their weapons and looked at me in awe.
“Yes, ma’am,” Odie answered into his earpiece.
The noise level increased as the dropship landed in the street beside us. Wind buffeted us back as the ship came to a rest. The rear ramp opened. Zoe Valentine exited in her armor.
I had forgotten how much of a warrior she actually looked like. Some people were deceiving in who they were or what they did for a living. Not Captain Zoe Valentine.
She walked with her head high. Her helmet was attached to her belt with a magnetic lock. The roaring saber-tooth, emblem of the Galactic Government, branded on the left shoulder of her armor with pride. One side of her head was shaved while the other came down in a long braid.
Both Odie and the praetorian with him saluted.
Zoe returned the salute. She came over to me with a scowl on her face.
“What in the name of Frum happened to you?” she asked, looking at the praetorians with a suspicious stare. “They rough you up?”
“No, I, uh—I fell into a hole,” I lied.
“Some hole,” Zoe said, looking at my bloody knuckles and filthy face. “Well, come on. We need to head back to Athens ASAP. The Hall of Power is waiting.”
The ride back to Athens from Elysium was short. Zoe gave me a damp cloth to clean up as best I could. I had recovered my MK II from a speechless Odie before we left. The Order mask was tucked securely in my pants pocket.
“So aliens, huh?” Zoe asked as I wiped my face with the damp cloth. “Still sticking to that story?”
“Not a story,” I said, sawing back and forth in my seat in the dropship as the craft hit a bump of turbulence. “I wish it was all a lie.”
“Yeah, me too,” Zoe said, pursing her lips. “I was ready to write you off as a stim head when I contacted the major about it. So happened you aren’t the only one speaking about aliens on the far side of Mars. Witnesses say a Way settlement was attacked by them and some big wigs in legislation were also whispering about a coming threat.”
I didn’t tell her, but I knew where the extra pressure was being applied. Enoch and those in the Way settlement we had helped to defend were back in the city spreading the word.
I guessed the big wigs Zoe spoke of were Immortal Corp’s own inside assets in the Galactic Government pulling strings to get the brass to listen.
“I’m still not sure how far this will go,” Zoe said with a shrug. “They’ve agreed to a meeting but mobilizing the Praetorian Corps is another thing all together.”
“It’s a start,” I answered above the whine of the ship’s engines. “You believe me now, right?”
“I don’t know how I can’t,” Zoe said with a long sigh. “I saw the images. If you can present a body of one of these aliens, I think I’m going to have to believe you. But what do they want? Why us?”
I remembered back to my conversations with the Voy interrogators. I reached a hand up to my throat, feeling the phantom pain of the doctoid they used as torture. The small insect had burrowed into my skin and attached itself around my throat. I was surprised I hadn’t had nightmares about that yet.
“Our colonization of the moon and Mars sent warning signals out to the galaxy,” I explained. “Apparently, that means we reached a sufficient level of intelligence for them to come take a look. They want us for a work force, nothing else.”
“How many?” Zoe asked as the dropship reduced speed and began our descent. “What’s the size of their force on Mars?”
I thought back to the thousands of Voy I had seen, the way they grew them in those sacks. Truth be told, I didn’t have an exact number.
“A lot,” I emphasized. “Thousands, maybe more.”
We rode the rest of the way in silence. I could see the wheels turning in Zoe’s head as she thought about tactics, how much we still needed to know, and what the fallout of a battle would be.
The dropship came to a soft landing and the rear doors opened. Zoe led the way from the dropship, motioning me to follow.
I had never been to the Hall of Power. I knew it was the headquarters of the Galactic Government where all the politicking and bureaucracy existed. To be honest, I had never been much for politics. It seemed like a lot of arguing with words and emotion. If I felt really strongly about something I’d rather just use my fists.
The landing area was a massive outside circular pad with stone columns on the border. Giant banners with the Galactic Government sigil of a saber-tooth tiger with an open mouth were displayed every few meters.
Even at this hour, there were GG pilots jogging to and from dropships, containers being loaded and unloaded, and men and women at work.
I received a few inquisitive stares, but nothing that stopped our progress. Salutes were traded between Zoe and a few of those we passed, but nothing more.
We followed a long walkway also lined with stone pillars to a building guarded by a pair of praetorians. Unlike most praetorians, these wore black armor with a gold emblem of the GG on their left shoulders.
Zoe showed them a data chip with permission to enter. They traded looks then eyed me before one of them motioned to my weapons.
“You’ll have to leave that with us if you want in,” the female guard said. “You can pick it up here later. No weapons inside the Hall of Power.”
I would have argued if I thought that was going to do anything. The look in the guard’s eyes told me any kind of verbal sparring would be an act in futility. I handed over my MK II.
When Zoe and I walked into the building, a silver light scanned us for weapons. Since we were both clean, no alarms sounded. We continued on our way.
Everywhere I looked, there were guards stationed, some in the traditional mustard-colored armor like Zoe, others wearing the black body armor.
“What’s the black armor mean?” I couldn’t help but ask Zoe as we traveled through the building made of marble floors and stone walls.
“They belong to a special military branch of the GG called the Shadow Praetorians,” Zoe explained. “An elite group that really knows how to take it to the enemy.”
The answer was sufficient to satisfy my inquiry. We turned a corner, where not to my surprise, another pair of Shadow Praetorian waited in front of a set of wide double doors. Standing with them was Wesley Cage.
I think it was the first time I had seen the man without a cigar in his mouth. He sported his normal trench coat and this time wore a uniform underneath. I recognized the design. It was an old Galactic Government dress uniform equipped with enough medals to make me wonder how it stayed up at all and didn’t tear from the weight.
“Glad you could make it,” Wesley said, eyeing me seriously. “You find what you were looking for?”
“Not even close,” I answered.
Zoe went over to the praetorian guards, exchanging a few words with them. It gave me the opportunity to dig into my pocket and come back with the bloody Order mask.
“This is all that was in the grave,” I said with a hard stare. “Tell me you didn’t know.”
“I didn’t know,” Wesley affirmed, looking me dead in the eye. “After we deal with the Voy threat, things at Immortal Corp are going to have to change. I understand that now. Are you able to see past your hate and do what we need you to do right now?”
I clenched the mask in my right hand so hard, it shook.
“I am,” I growled through gritted teeth. “But I’m done with these games. I’m going to find her if that means taking apart Immortal Corp from the top down.”
“You have no argument from me,” Wesley said with a hard nod. “Jax and Angel aren’t going to stop you either; heck, they might even help you. Immortal Corp isn’t the same company we started with. Somewhere along the way, the Founders lost who they were.”
“You two ready?” Zoe asked, coming over to us. “We’re about to be let in. Try not to make me look like a fool for helping set this up.”
She looked at me when she said that last part.
“Why are you looking at me?” I asked, shoving the mask back in my pocket. “Wesley’s here too.”
“Because I am looking at you,” Zoe said.
Before we could exchange any more words, the doors in front of us opened. I rubbed the weariness from my eyes as we walked in. I had no idea what time it was, but I knew it was late.
The chamber we walked into was square with high ceilings. In front of us was a panel of seats with five men who sat in crisp mustard yellow uniforms. Like Wesley, they had a myriad of medals pinned to their chest.
At the side of the room were more Shadow Praetorian standing at attention. In the center of the chamber was a table with what looked like a long body in a silver bag.
The walls, floor, and ceiling were white stone, all the furniture in the room a dark brown. The table and seats they sat on were actual wood from the old world.
Zoe saluted them then took a step back against the wall. Wesley and I were left alone in the center of the room with the Voy body.
The five men in front of us measured us with weary eyes.
The man in the center was clean shaven with a haircut close to his scalp. His dark eyes maneuvered around me, then Wesley.
“I’ve ruled this out of being any kind of hoax or fake news,” the man said in a gruff, matter-of-fact tone. “Immortal Corp has a lot of pull and that’s the only reason we’re all here. Mr. Cage, I understand you served in the Galactic Government as an officer and made a name for yourself in your day. I recognize your name, sir. Thank you for your service.”
“General Armstrong,” Wesley said with a salute. “Thank you and thank all of you for taking this meeting. I understand it is anything but protocol to meet like this with a civilian corporation.”
“Well, let’s get on with it, then.” General Armstrong didn’t even bother to ask me my name or address me. “Word is you’ve come in contact with foreign invaders who pose a threat to our way of life here on Mars.”
“That’s right,” Wesley said, moving over to the long bag on the table in front of us. “I understand it’s a lot to swallow. We have proof. I’m sure you’ve already seen the images we had sent over. Inside this bag, we have an actual body. One of our top operatives has also come face to face with them and engaged them. Daniel Hunt can answer any questions you have.”
The general didn’t look amused. He eyed me with a long stare.
“The only reason we’re here at all is because there are too many factors calling for this meeting,” General Armstrong stated. “I mean, aliens is a big pill to swallow. We’re here because Immortal Corp is a huge contributor to the Galactic Government. Let’s just be honest.”
General Armstrong rose to his feet. He was shorter than I would have guessed. He walked from the table to where the alien lay in the bag.
“I’ve already come to terms with what we’re dealing with here, but let’s look the devil in the face, shall we?” General Armstrong said.
The other four other officers in the Galactic Government joined us around the table.
Wesley unzipped the bag, opening the cover for all to see.
The alien stunk with some kind of chemical solution designed to keep the body from decomposing. The stench hit my nostrils so hard, I could taste it.
Well, here we go, I thought to myself. Hold on to your medals, boys. It’s about to get weird.
As expected, there were a few sharp inhales and more than a few swears muttered as the officers of the GG looked at one another for answers. The only person who didn’t have a comment to make was the general himself. He viewed the body, hard-eyed and impassive.
The Voy alien was on his back with both sets of arms crossed over his body. Its skin was a creamy white. All six eyes were open, staring unseeing into the ceiling. The black eyes looked like huge marbles.
“Daniel.” Wesley nodded over to me. “Perhaps some accounts of how they operate first hand?”
“Right,” I said, looking at the general. “The Voy soldiers are fast and stronger than most humans. They’re grown, not born. They carry an assortment of weapons ranging from rifles to swords. They aren’t the best shots, so they use their long-range weapons to cover them while they cross the ground quickly and get on top of you with their hand-to-hand weapons.”
“How many?” the general asked.
“Thousands,” I answered. “Maybe more. They have small ships and artillery that look like rockets. Probably other artillery I haven’t seen. We have six days to surrender to them or they promise to kill three-quarters of our population and enslave the rest.”
“Supposedly they came here looking for a workforce,” Wesley said, filling in some of the blanks. “We don’t know where they’ve come from or how many other species are out there, but I’d guess there are more, a lot more.”
“We’re going to need to study the body,” General Armstrong said. “How many people know about this?”
“Of course, the body is yours,” Wesley agreed. “As far as we know, the only people who know outside of Immortal Corp and the Galactic Government are a group of Way settlers who were attacked.”
“I’m going to have to make a call,” General Armstrong announced. “If you’d wait outside for a moment?”
“Of course,” Wesley acknowledged.
I followed Wesley back out into the hall. The doors closed and we waited with a pair of Shadow Praetorians.
For one of the few times since I had known the man, Wesley actually looked troubled.
“Should I even ask?” I said.
“Just a hunch that things aren’t going to go as we planned,” Wesley confided, pursing his lips in thought. “They didn’t look shocked in there. I mean, they were as surprised as anyone when seeing the body, but they already knew and accepted aliens existed. They had an answer for us before we walked into the room.”
“So what now?” I asked. “This was all for show, then?”
“Probably just confirming what they already knew and waiting to see if we had any new info,” Wesley said.
The doors to the room clicked open. Zoe stuck her head out and motioned us inside. She didn’t look happy.
We entered again and the doors shut behind us. Wesley and I moved to the middle of the room with the alien body. General Armstrong and his panel of officers had retaken their seats at the table in front of us.
“As far as we’re concerned, this meeting never happened.” General Armstrong eyed the two of us. “Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” Wesley said.
“Sure,” I agreed.
“Good.” General Armstrong leaned over his table, clearing his throat. “You have to understand something, a person is smart. People in a paranoid, scared, and uninformed mob are dumb. This gets out, we’ll have mass panic in the streets of our major cities. The official stance of the Galactic Government is that aliens don’t exist.”
“And unofficially?” Wesley asked the question I had wanted to.
“Unofficially, we’re in a war,” General Armstrong said. “I have orders to send in a covert team and assess the enemies’ strength. If it’s like you say, and they can’t be reasoned with, then we take the fight to them before they can get to us. We’ll bomb the hell out of them without the public ever knowing. We’ll chalk it up to testing equipment on the far side of Mars.”
I let out a huge sigh I didn’t know I was holding. This wasn’t the best case scenario; the best option would be for the Galactic Government to declare war and bring all their military power on top of the Voy.
This was the second best option. At least they believed us and were doing something about it. I understood the need to not panic the public. If they could do what they said they were going to do, then maybe things weren’t as dire as I thought.
“Immortal Corp stands ready to assist anyway we can,” Wesley answered. “We’ve been there engaged with the enemy. Let us help.”
“The Galactic Government is more than capable of a recon mission,” General Armstrong responded. “Captain Valentine will act as your point of contact should we require any further intel.”
“I understand,” Wesley said with a sharp salute. I picked up a tightness in his voice. There was something going on here I wasn’t quite sure of. I knew enough about Wesley now to understand when he was holding back.
“Very good.” General Armstrong rose from his seat with a salute of his own. “Captain, will you please see these men to their dropship?”
“Yes, sir,” Zoe replied with a salute. She moved from the side of the room toward Wesley and me.
I’d never been in the military, so I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to salute as well or if that was reserved only for those who had served.
Everyone else is saluting each other, I thought to myself. What the heck, why not?
I started to lift my right hand to my forehead while straightening my back.
“What are you doing? Put your hand down,” Zoe whispered in a growl.
I turned the motion into a clumsy act of running my hand through my hair as we moved to go.
“I don’t know what the protocol is here,” I whispered back as I followed her out of the room. “Not like I was given instructions or anything about salutes.”
Zoe just looked at me and shook her head.
We walked out of the room together and followed Zoe back into the hall.
Wesley wore an uncharacteristically disturbed expression on his face. He was always the quiet type but never looked worried. I’d seen him face an alien threat with a puff of his cigar and a twinkle in his eye. The perplexed appearance he wore now gave me the chills and not in a good way.
We followed Zoe in silence as she led us through empty halls. The only other people in the Hall of Power at the late hour were guards and the random civilian working ungodly hours to meet whatever deadline they had waiting for them.
The tension only grew as we traveled. Wesley with the worried look on his face, Zoe straight-backed and silent.
“So I’m sensing we’re not happy with the outcome here,” I said, trying to break the ice. “I mean, what’s not to like? The GG goes in to take a look and bombs our alien friends to kingdom come. Am I missing something?”
Zoe didn’t break her stride or turn around.
Wesley motioned to his right ear with his fingers then pointed to the ceilings.
“They’ll take care of it just like they said they would,” Wesley answered. “No need to worry; we did our civic duty. They can take it from here.”
It was obvious I was missing something huge, but what it was I couldn’t be sure. Wesley’s silent heads up about listening devices in the Hall of Power made me bite my tongue until we could speak freely.
Zoe led us outside to a different landing area where an all-black Immortal Corp dropship stood ready and waiting for us.
“Your weapons will be waiting for you in your ship,” Zoe informed us.
“Let’s go ahead and fire up the engines. Lower the rear ramp; we’re here,” Wesley said into his ear piece.
The pilot must have already seen us coming. No sooner had Wesley given the order than the ramp doors began to open and the thrusters fired.
“We should be able to talk freely now,” Wesley said, raising his voice just a little to be heard over the sound of the dropship’s engines. “Captain Valentine, I don’t want to put you in a compromising situation. You can leave now. Thank you for your help.”
Zoe looked at both of us, furious. I thought for sure she was going to hit one of us. I’d bet money it was going to be me.
“My daughter is here on Mars,” Zoe snarled through gritted teeth. “She’s the only thing I have left that’s good in this godforsaken galaxy. She’s here because Mars was supposed to be safe. It was supposed to be the best place for her.”
I knew when to bite my tongue. Apparently, Wesley also knew when we had said enough.
“We’re not asking you to do anything that you’re not comfortable with,” Wesley said. “You owe us nothing.”
“But I owe my daughter everything,” Captain Valentine answered. “We can’t talk here. I’ll contact you as soon as it’s safe.”
“What are we so worried about?” I asked just loud enough to be heard over the engines. “You don’t think they’ll take out the Voy like they said they would?”
“I think they’ll do whatever it takes to cover this whole mess up and grab as much alien tech as they can along the way,” Wesley divulged. He looked over at Zoe. “Is that about right?”
“They won’t risk mass panic. It’s not their way.” Zoe nodded with determination in her eyes. “They’ll strike, but it may be too late by then. They’ll scout and try to talk with the Voy first.”
I finally understood what was bothering both Zoe and Wesley. The Galactic Government was interested in making contact and bartering with the aliens for tech, all while keeping the truth hidden from the public.
The danger in this was they didn’t know the Voy like I did. There would be no bartering or friendly communication to be had. The Voy would enslave us or kill some then enslave the rest. Those were the only two options as far as they were concerned.
The clock was ticking on the invasion and the GG were late to the party.
A pair of praetorians walked around the corner of the outside parking lot a hundred meters to our left. Odds were they were only on a routine patrol of the grounds.
No one in our trio was willing to take the chance.
“I’ll contact you when it’s safe,” Zoe repeated, making her way back to the building. She hesitated for a moment then called over her shoulder. “Be careful. If they want to keep this hidden and Immortal Corp are the only ones that know…”
Zoe let her voice trail off before she moved on.
I followed Wesley into the rear of the dropship. The ramp doors closed behind us.
We made our way to the seating area in the craft just past the cargo hold. Just like Zoe told us. Our weapons were tucked nicely in the seats waiting for us.
“We’re on board. You can lift off,” Wesley said into his earpiece.
The pilot obeyed, slowly taking the dropship into the air.
Wesley and I took seats across from each other. The older man took a cigar out of his inside jacket pocket.
“You think they’d really make a move against us?” I asked. “You think they’d try and take us out?”
“I think politics are a messy bag of lies and half-truths,” Wesley allowed, producing a lighter from his pocket and torching the end of his cigar. Thick wafts of smoke rose into the air between us. “I think Captain Valentine was right. They see an opportunity not to just keep things quiet but grab some advanced tech in the process. Who knows? Maybe even some powerful allies.”
“No way the Voy will settle for anything less than us in chains or in the ground,” I said.
“I know that, you know that, but they don’t,” Wesley answered.
“So what are we going to do?” I asked.
“We can’t rely on them to do what needs to be done,” Wesley stated as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “We take the decision from them and make the hard call.”
“Immortal Corp versus the Voy Empire?” I asked incredulously. “You sure that’s going to go our way?”
“No, we can’t do it alone,” Wesley acknowledged. “With the GG out, we only have one other course of action.”
I held my breath, waiting for his answer.
“We call a meeting of the Corporations,” Wesley finished. “You can ask the Order firsthand what happened to Amber. We can—”
Wesley stopped himself mid-sentence. His eyes drifted toward the line of square windows that sat open in the dropship wall behind me.
I turned, expecting the worst. All I saw was a city of lights below us and the Mars desert approaching.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Feel the dropship turn?” Wesley asked, pressing a finger to his ear. “Charles, where are we going? We’re supposed to be heading back to Immortal Corp.”
I wasn’t sure what Charles’ answer was to Wesley, but it was enough to bring the man to his feet. Wesley sprinted for the pilot’s cabin, ripping the door open so violently, I thought he was going to tear the thing off its hinges.
I followed close behind with my MK II in my right hand.
The cabin was empty.
The dropship had been piloting itself. I looked out the front window to confirm the worst. The ship was heading outside of the city and descending as it went.
Wesley jumped into the pilot’s chair grabbing the controls and checking the many gauges in front of him.
“Wheel’s locked,” Wesley grunted as he tried to force the ship to ascend. “They’re controlling it manually.”
“The GG really hates us that much?” I asked, taking a seat in the copilot’s chair. I also grabbed the wheel and tried forcing it back. I knew next to nothing about piloting a ship, but I understood right now that up was a very good idea.
“Together, we pull together,” Wesley said, looking at the wheel in front of me. “One, two, three!”
My hands shook. I gripped the wheel so hard. It was a simple handle shaped like a wide curvy W. I used my arms and arched my back, trying for the life of me to get the ship to bend to my will.
I could hear Wesley grunting from his seat.
Outside the window, I could see we were just clearing the city limits. The Galactic Government was taking us out of Athens for an impromptu trip to our graves. I could practically see the headlines now. “Dropship crash outside of city limits due to system malfunction.”
“X, any idea here?” I asked.
Wesley popped out of his seat and ran from the cabin. I didn’t even have time to ask him where he was going. I figured he might have a plan.
“We’re locked out and being controlled by remote,” X answered. “Scanning the ship now. There are explosives set to go blow on engines one and two if we try to override the system. Rear hatch will lock, as will the two emergency exits if I try to get involved.”
“We might not have an option here,” I said. “If you do take control of the ship and the engines blow and we get locked in, can you land this thing?”
“It’ll take me too long to try and take control of the dropship,” X answered in a rush of words. “The security system the Galactic Government uses isn’t impossible to infiltrate, but it would take me much longer than the two minutes we have.”
“Two minutes?” I repeated.
“That’s how long I anticipate until we are far enough from Athens that the GG will make us crash,” X explained.
“They’re gone,” Wesley said jumping back into his chair. “Chutes are gone.”
“X can get us access but the engines will blow and we’ll be locked inside,” I caught Wesley up. “She won’t be able to take control of the dropship once she’s done that. Can you land this thing?”
“With your help,” Wesley responded without hesitation. “Buckle up. X, make it happen.”
“Yes, sir,” X shouted over her external speakers. “Hold on!”
I fumbled with the belt that came up between my legs like a V. I attached it to the harness that came over my head and shoulders connecting it to my chest. You’d best believe I tightened that sucker as much as I could.
“I hate flying,” I said to no one in particular. “Just when I wasn’t getting space-sick anymore.”
“We have control,” X warned us.
A pair of explosions rattled the dropship as the engines erupted on either side of our craft.
The hard Martian ground was racing toward us. We had cleared the city. If we struck the ground at this speed with our nose down, I had no doubt we were about to become a smear.
“Daniel, I need your head in the game,” Wesley yelled as the dropship rattled and creaked like some ancient house about to cave in on itself. “Hand on the steering wheel and ease her up, slight pressure to start.”
I gripped the wheel in front of me for the second time. The ship was shaking me so hard in my seat, I could feel the vibration in my sternum. My teeth chattered before I set my jaw.
Adrenaline hit me like a wave.
“Pull, pull, pull,” Wesley roared as he hit a few dials on the dashboard in front of him and followed his own instructions.
Trying to pull on something while shaking so hard was an act of determination. We were close enough to the ground now where I could pick out individual dunes. My mind tried to guess how many we would hit before we came to a stop.
We couldn’t be more than forty to fifty meters from the ground when we started to level off.
“Come on!” I shouted to the ship as if she could hear me. “Come on, work with us!”
Out of my peripheral vision, I could see flames shooting out of both the right and left engines. Dark smoke wafted into the already black night.
Then, painfully slowly, the wheel began to inch up.
“It’s coming!” Wesley shouted over another explosion from the left engine. “Keep pulling!”
I heard him, but I didn’t really need the reminder. The ground racing toward us was enough for me to pull with every fiber of my being. My muscles ached and my grip on the wheel was beginning to slip, but I held on.
I held on for myself, for an answer about what the Order did with Amber and to pay back the GG for their little stunt.
Despite the wheel finally beginning to obey our commands, the dropship was coming in too hard to call it a smooth landing. The nose of the craft obliterated the first sand dune we came in contact with.
Whoever thinks sand is soft hasn’t hit it doing a hundred miles an hour plus in a dropship with no way to stop.
I didn’t remember much about the landing besides being jostled so violently in my seat that my skull felt like a bobblehead.
The dropship skidded for what felt like an eternity until one big son of a gun of a sand dune stopped our progress like we hit a brick wall.
I was jerked forward in my seat then slammed backward. The back of my head bounced off the headrest of the copilot’s seat so hard, I saw stars.
I sat groggy in my seat once we came to our final stop. The pilot’s cabin was dark. The window in front of us covered in a mountain of sand.
I looked at Wesley who still gripped the steering wheel in both hands. I would have thought it was funny, but the smell of fuel hit my nose like a wake-up call.
“We got to get out of here,” I said, unbuckling myself. “Fuel leak, and those engines were on fire.”
“Right,” Wesley said, the sound of my voice breaking him out of his momentary trance. “We need to get word to Immortal Corp. If they want to silence us, then we can bet the corporation is next.”
My mind went to Jax, Angel, and Preacher. The first two I was confident could handle themselves, but Preacher was weak and his healing factor had been nullified by the Voy. If the Galactic Government went after him, he’d be an easy target.
“This is Wesley Cage, do you read?” Wesley shouted into his earpiece.
Remembering that the exits to the ship were locked, I looked for an alternate means of escape. The window in front of us was covered in sand. How much sand I wasn’t sure, but the glass was already cracking from the intensity of the impact.
I drew my MK II, taking aim at the corner of the window. I turned my face to avoid being impaled by any glass shards.
“Immortal Corp, this is Wesley Cage,” Wesley shouted into his earpiece again as he moved into the dropship’s seating area. “Does anyone read me?”
Three short bursts and the glass shattered spilling gallons of sand into the pilot’s cabin. A fist-sized glimpse of the night sky rewarded my efforts. Our exit appeared in the upper left hand corner of the window over where Wesley had sat.
I climbed up on the seat, digging a hole large enough for us to escape.
With a grunt, I pulled myself up and out of the downed craft. The cold night air hit me like a slap in the face. I didn’t realize how much I was sweating until the chill of the night combated the heat on my face.
One look around told me how easily we had gotten off. The damage to the dropship was unbelievable. A deep trench in the sand as far as I could see showed where we had taxied in.
The engines were still on fire as black plumes of smoke ascended to the heavens. I could barely make out Athena a few kilometers to the south as the metropolis slept, oblivious and probably uncaring of how close we had come to dying.
I reached down to help Wesley out. If I thought his expression looked glum before, I was wrong. Wesley Cage’s face was etched with concern. It was like he had somehow aged ten years right before me. The wrinkles he earned looked deeper, his movements a bit slower.
“There’s no response from Immortal Corp,” Wesley said as we moved down the sand dune together. “I’ll try the back channel next, but we have to get out of here. The Galactic Government won’t deal in half measures like this. They’ll send a cleanup crew Probably a squad of Shadow Praetorians.”
I didn’t need any convincing.
“Use my jacket to cover our tracks,” Wesley said, shrugging off his coat. “I’m going to make sure the GG thinks we’re dead.”
I accepted the offered coat, dusting the tracks we left in the sand. I was about to ask Wesley how he planned on faking our deaths when the answer became immediately apparent.
Wesley produced his lighter from his inside jacket pocket, lit the flame, and tossed it toward the dropship. The flame landed in a puddle of fuel and went up in a roar.
I felt the explosion in my chest as heat licked my face and hands. A ball of fire shot upwards.
“If the GG didn’t know where you landed, they know now,” X said out loud. “You’ve got to move. They’ll be here in minutes.”
“She’s right, let’s move,” Wesley said, taking a route that would lead us deeper into the desert. “X, I’m going to transmit the channel that’s an emergency back line for Immortal Corp for you to pick up. This is where we’ll communicate from now on. We can’t risk using the public channel anymore.”
We took off at a jog with Wesley on the comm line to Immortal Corp’s secure back channel.
“Does anyone read?” Wesley asked every few minutes. “This is Wesley Cage. We’re alive. If you can hear me, the Galactic Government is trying to bottle the Voy Invasion. We were wrong in going to them. I repeat, find somewhere to hole up.”
Anyone who has ever run on sand for any kind of long distance feels my pain. Each time I pulled my heavy boot out of the sand, I felt like I had taken a shovel full of the stuff with me. Every time I placed my foot down, I swore it sank a good half-meter into the ground.
How Wesley Cage kept the pace I have no idea. The older man was made of high octane caff and the need for revenge. We must have crossed a full kilometer of sand before X gave us the warning.
“I have GG dropships inbound from the city,” X said. “You should grab some cover as soon as possible, preferably behind one of these dunes, and then cover yourself with sand. They’ll do flybys to ensure there were no survivors.”
“Over here,” Wesley said, leading us to a sloping dune that came to an end at a sharp cliff a few meters off the ground.
I dragged Wesley’s coat behind me, still covering our tracks.
Wesley made his way to the top of the dune and began to dig a crude trench for us to lie in. I fell to my knees, scooping the soft sand like a dog.
The sun was till a few hours from rising and the cold of the night made my hands numb. Numb or not, I dug like a man possessed. The last thing I needed was a fight with a GG dropship and their Shadow Praetorians.
“You think she knew?” I asked Wesley, referring to Captain Valentine. “You think all that talk at the back of the dropship was for show?”
“I’m almost positive she didn’t,” Wesley said, throwing another handful of sand behind him. “As much as she loves the GG, she loves that daughter of hers more. I don’t think she was lying to us. She had no idea. It must have come from General Armstrong himself.”
I hoped Wesley was right. It made me feel sick to my stomach to think that Zoe had betrayed us.
Once our pits were deep enough, we lay down on our bellies and poured the sand over our bodies. Wesley went full camo, even putting the stuff into his hair.
I wasn’t a big fan of sand in all my crevices, but when in Rome. I covered my boots, pants, and shirt, and finally, my head. I hoped it would be enough. My gut instinct told me they would think we died in the crash. The flyovers were a moot point. They wouldn’t be searching intensely for survivors.
We heard the dropships before we saw them. Twin mustard-colored ships with the Galactic Government sigil of the aggressive feline with the open mouth came into view against the sky that was beginning to show shades of red from the approaching sunrise.
The dropships came down a few meters away from our burning ship. With X’s help, I was able to zoom in my vision, allowing me to see a group of dark armored Shadow Praetorians leave the dropships and approach the wrecked Immortal Corp craft with drawn weapons.
“Can anyone hear me?” Angel’s voice sounded through the Immortal Corp back channel. “Is anyone out there?”
“Angelica?” Wesley said in a voice heavy with relief. “Are you okay? Where are you?”
“We got out in time,” Angel said in a hard tone. “Jax carried Preacher, and I cleared the way. What’s happening? The GG stormed the place and started killing people, no questions asked. It was a small war inside the Immortal Corp building. We went into full lockdown.”
“The GG wants the Voy invasion covered up. Get somewhere safe and keep your head down,” Wesley ordered.
“You know me well enough that that’s not going to happen,” Angel answered. “Where are you? Daniel?”
“I’m here,” I chimed in.
“We’re in the desert north of Athens,” Wesley told her. “The GG are out on patrol, but once they leave, we can move again.”
“I’ll come get you,” Angel said with a determined edge in her voice. “I’ll swing around wide and come pick you up.”
“I’ll send you our location once the local GG has made their rounds and heads back to the city,” Wesley answered.
“Cage?” Angel asked. “Are we at war with the GG?”
“Not at war, but wanted criminals at least,” I relayed. Angel didn’t sound worried; she genuinely wanted to know if we had to fight a battle on two fronts. “We’ll be all right. We’ll figure this out.”
“Did you get your answers?” Angel asked. “I mean, about Amber?”
“Just more questions,” I said, feeling the wadded up Order mask’s lump in my pocket. “No body.”
“She’s out there, then,” Angel added, hopeful. “Amber was a survivor like all of us. If there’s no body, then she’s still out there.”
“I hope you’re right,” I answered. “I hope you’re right.”
I’ll send you those coordinates when we’re clear,” Wesley said. “Out.”
The line went silent.
Cage and I watched the Shadow Praetorian’s for the next hour as they went over the crash site and the immediate surrounding area. They were professionals in every sense of the word. Their movements were precise, their weapons always ready.
I made notes in my head of what I would do if and when it came time to have to fight the elite warriors of the Galactic Government.
Once they were satisfied that no one had made it out of the crash alive, they took to the air once more. Just like X predicted, they did a series of flyovers. When a dropship got anywhere near our location, I buried my face in the sand like some kind of animal.
Between our camouflage job and the rising sun in their eyes, we did enough to keep ourselves hidden. When the flyovers finally came to an end, Wesley radioed Angel to come pick us up.
“We should get out of this city,” Wesley said. “We have a safe house in Elysium we can head to. We’ll regroup, see who made it out alive.”
“How many of those safe houses do you think the GG are aware of?” I wondered. “They tricked you once.”
Wesley shook sand out of his hair and eyed me. “You got a better option? Some mansion you have tucked away somewhere?”
X opened a small window in my lower right hand line of sight. In that window were the assets Rose left me before she died. The woman had been a prisoner of the Voy. As a well-to-do traveler, she not only owned property but assets and holdings in large corporations that put her net worth in the billions.
“Actually, I do.” I grinned. It was the first piece of good news in a series of bad events. “There’s a place here in Athens where we can hide. The last place the GG would expect us is right under their nose. If they were looking for us at all. I mean, as far as they’re concerned, we died in the crash.”
Wesley nodded slowly.
The rest of the time I waited for our ride was spent brushing sand out of my clothes and hair and telling my stomach to quit complaining.
Angel appeared in a civilian van an hour later. It hovered just above the sand. We jogged over to our transportation. Angel sat in the driver side seat with Jax in the passenger side. Preacher was laid up in the third row seat of the vehicle. He looked horrible.
The Voy had taken away his ability to heal with some kind of serum extrapolated from our very DNA. It was the alien’s way of telling us they weren’t afraid of us, not even the augmented members of the Pack Protocol.
“You look horrible,” Preacher said to me with a weak smile. “Heard the GG tried to put you down.”
“They tried,” I sneered, climbing over into the middle seat to make room for Wesley. I opened my mouth to say more, then shut it again.
I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Preacher after he admitted to being the one that knocked me unconscious and left me on the moon.
I understood why he had done it. He was trying to protect me. After learning about what happened to Amber, he knew I would go in guns blazing trying to kill everyone in Immortal Corp. He wasn’t wrong.
In his mind, he was protecting me.
“It’s good to see you two alive,” Jax said. “Where to now? A safe house?”
“I have a better idea,” I said, giving Angel the coordinates to the residence inside the city.
“You have a place in the Platinum District?” Angel lifted an eyebrow at me. “You rob a bank or something?”
“Or something,” I said.
Angel shrugged and headed back the way she came, giving the crashed dropship a wide berth. The ship was no longer on fire but it smoked in the morning sun.
“Anyone else make it out?” Wesley asked. “Doctor Bishop? Any of the Founders get in contact via the back channel with anyone?”
“It was a mess,” Jax said from his front seat. “We were asleep and they hit hard. They were coming in from the roof and the ground floor by the time I had my clothes on.”
“They sent the Shadow Praetorians,” Angel reported. “By the time we secured Preacher, they were going floor by floor. I’m not sure who got out and who didn’t, but I wouldn’t expect a whole lot escaped. No word from the Founders.”
I could care less about the Founders. The leaders of Immortal Corp were two men and a woman I had never seen. I had no idea if the GG knew of their real identities, and if they did, part of me hoped they had killed them.
The Founders were the reason the woman I loved had been a target in the first place. They ordered her killed, and by some twist of fate, she had been rescued. How? I still didn’t know.
More than anything, I wanted to chase down the single lead I had. Of how Amber had been saved by the sworn enemy of Immortal Corp, the Order. But right now, surviving seemed to take precedence.
Angel maneuvered through the desert and back into the city.
“Vehicle is clean and wiped,” Angel said as we passed a Galactic Government heavy assault vehicle rolling down the wide street. “They have no reason to stop us. Just act cool.”
I tensed, ready for everything, but Angel was right. The heavy vehicle rolled right on by as we made our way through the early morning traffic on Athens. Traffic here was almost a joke. A handful of vehicles on the ground and in the air meandered about their day.
Mars was a haven for the ultra-rich. Only the top ten percent lived here now. No one really had pressing matters or a job to get to. They woke when they chose and most chose to sleep in.
Sleep was a sick joke at the moment. I rubbed my tired eyes, remembering that I had been awake through the entire night. First the events at the cemetery then with the GG had seen to the fact that I got none to very little sleep.
We passed two more praetorian vehicles before we made it to what Angel referred to as the Platinum District. The neighborhood was on a hill overlooking the city. Each house was the size of the Hall of Power.
Extravagant gates opened up to long driveways where mansions sat like fortresses.
Jax let out a low whistle. “Tell me how you’re able to afford a place like this again? Not on our salary.”
“The woman who escaped from the Voy prison,” I explained. “Rose, before she died defending the Way settlement, she passed on her assets. I had no idea she lived like this.”
Each house on the street got larger and larger until we were practically looking at castles. The largest one and the one highest on the hill was where we stopped. I think we all needed a moment to realize how massive the compound really was.
Stone walls two stories tall surrounded the perimeter of the building. A steel gate with an intercom on the left of the driveway would allow us to talk to someone inside to gain entry.
Past the gates was another long driveway with a bridge that went over a body of water. The main building was four stories tall complete with towers, ramparts, and a giant wooden door that looked like it was hundreds of years old.
“And this is your house now?” Jax asked, letting out another low whistle.
“It’s our house,” I corrected.
“X,” I asked. “Who was this woman?”
I knew she claimed she was wealthy, but nothing I could have imagined in my wildest dreams would have prepared me for what I saw now. The cost for something like this to be built, the water alone that the bridge spanned over had to be in the millions.
“Born Rosemary Cripps, she was the last living member of the Cripps family. Her family built their fortune on real estate on Mars when the planet was first being settled,” X informed us.
A small screen in the lower right hand view of my vision appeared. X cycled through pictures of Rose as she spoke. I saw images of Rose and her parents, buildings being built on Mars, and more images as Rose bloomed into a beautiful woman.
“Rose inherited the family business and built on what had been given to her, amassing a sum of wealth only a handful on Mars have before. She was the second richest woman on Mars,” X said, pausing for a moment. “Never married or had children. All her relatives have passed away.”
The vehicle sat quiet as we all soaked in the information X related.
“Well, I guess we have a new base of operations for now,” Wesley said from his seat beside me. “Thanks to Rose.”
“Let’s get inside and see who’s here,” I said. “I gave Enoch and the Way settlers this address to come and stay once they left their settlement. Let’s find out if they took me up on the offer.”
Angel allowed the vehicle to coast forward. She lowered her window and spoke into the metal box outside the gates. “Anyone home?”
Angel leaned out of the window again, but before she could get a word out, a familiar voice answered.
“We don’t want any, not interested,” Cryx’s voice answered. “Unless you’re selling cub troop cookies. Then we can talk.”
“Cryx, Cryx, it’s me, Daniel,” I called, leaning toward the window. “Let us in.”
“There’s an alien invasion on our doorstep and this chick is talking about cookies,” Angel muttered under her breath.
“I could use a cookie right now.” Jax shrugged.
“Daniel?” Cryx asked incredulously. “I didn’t know you’d be back so soon.”
“Yeah, you and me both,” I said. “The gates?”
“Oh, right,” Cryx answered. “Opening them now. Wait until you see this place.”
The steel gates rolled back on a track and we were allowed access to the grounds. If it was possible, the yard and building looked even larger the closer we got. The grounds were mostly sand with the large body of water, which the bridge spanned over. The water was clear and clean.
Once we crossed the metal bridge, the sandy ground was decorated with statues of ancient warriors slaying mythical beasts. I saw a hero carved out of stone lifting a great sword to slay some troll in front of him to my left. On my right, a heroine with a lance speared a serpent creature with a series of heads.
“What was this lady into?” Jax asked for all of us.
“Not card games and knitting.” Preacher coughed from the back. “That’s for sure.”
“She was an explorer at heart,” I said, remembering the little I actually knew about the woman. “That’s how she was captured by the Voy in the first place. She was out exploring the far side of Mars.”
Angel rolled the vehicle forward to a set of wooden double doors that had to be two stories tall on their own.
As we approached, the doors swung inward. Cryx and Enoch walked out, both of them with smiles. Cryx actually looked pleased to see us. She wasn’t as strung out from the stim as the first time we met. She even looked like she had gotten some sleep and food in her.
We piled out of the vehicle as Enoch came to each of us and shook our hands ferociously.
“So glad to see each and every one of you,” Enoch said with a broad smile. “Daniel, thank you for providing us this place to stay. It is far more than we need. And there is room here to house so many.”
“Don’t thank me,” I said. “We owe Rose for this one.”
“Yes, of course,” Enoch replied. “But if it wasn’t for the Lord of the Way, you would never have met Rose, and you still had to find it in your heart to offer us this place.”
“Yeah, okay, you’re welcome,” I said, feeling uncomfortable under the gratitude. “Listen, we have an injured man in the back. Do you mind seeing to him?”
“Of course. The mansion is equipped with a state-of-the-art medical wing. We’ll have everything we need,” Enoch revealed, jumping into action.
“Great,” I said as Angel and Jax helped Preacher out of the vehicle.
He looked so much different from the mercenary I had seen in action. Pain lined Preacher’s face. With each step, I knew he bit back every grunt or wince.
“So how about some of that money?” Cryx said, coming up to me with a raised eyebrow. “Rose gave it to both of us.”
“Yeah, you clean?” I asked.
Cryx looked offended. “Listen, I know you met me when I was going through withdrawals, but I’m not some strung-out stim head all the time. I was in a phase of my life. Seriously, you can trust me with the money now.”
“Anyone who says ‘you can trust me with the money now’ probably shouldn’t be trusted with the money,” I answered. “But you do look better.”
Cryx was tall and slender with a series of tattoos over her body and a nose ring. Her hair was tied behind her head with a bandana. She still looked like trouble, but the redness was gone from her eyes and she looked like she had eaten.
“You sound like Brother Enoch,” Cryx mumbled under her breath. “These Way people are so nice, it’s scary.”
While Cryx was talking, my eyes caught motion just inside the building. A man— no, a machine—stood there staring at us. It looked like a human with legs, a torso, arms, and a head, but instead of skin, a shimmering silver glass ran over its body.
The machine, man, or whatever it was wore a black suit. He smiled at me and I grinned back despite myself.
“We have robots now?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s Bapz. He oversees the grounds,” Cryx explained. “You think that’s weird, you haven’t seen anything yet. Rose was my kind of woman. Wait until you see what she did for a hobby. Hey, can you teach me how to fight?”
Cryx was everywhere in her conversation. I had to wonder if the stim had one hundred percent left her system.
“One thing at a time,” I answered. “Let’s get Preacher inside. We have a larger bag of problems to handle than servant robots.”
Enoch led Angel and Jax, who supported Preacher inside the building.
Bapz nodded to them and smiled.
I could see questions on their lips, but right now, Preacher needed help and that kept them moving.
I stepped forward with Wesley and Cryx.
“Well met, Lord of Dragon Hold,” Bapz intoned with a deep bow. “My name is Bapz. I was created by your predecessor to oversee the care of the compound. I answer to you now. Anything you need, you have but to ask, my Lord.”
“We can cut out the ‘lord stuff,’” I told him. “Just Daniel. What are you Bapz? A robot?”
“Indeed, sir,” Bapz said with a comical salute. “I was made by Miss Cripps and her team. My name is an acronym for Battle Augmented Protector of Zen. I take care of the grounds here and anything else you might need.”
I rubbed my temples, trying to figure out where to even start.
The GG’s after Immortal Corp to hide the alien Invasion. The Voy will be here in 5 days’ time. Amber is still out there taken by the Order, I thought to myself. I actually felt my eye twinge. How long has it been since you slept? Since you ate?
“Daniel?” Cryx asked. By the sound in her voice, I could tell this wasn’t the first time she called my name. “Daniel, are you all right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” I said, taking a deep breath. “We need to make sure we’re safe here and no one knows that we’re at, at—what did you call this place again, Bapz?”
“Dragon Hold, sir,” Bapz responded. “Miss Cripps came up with the name.”
“Of course she did,” I said. “We need to make sure we’re safe here and that no one knows that we’ve taken up residence at Dragon Hold.”
“I assure you, you and your team are very well protected here,” Bapz answered. “Miss Cripps didn’t want to intimidate her neighbors, but the grounds have a fully functional security system around the perimeter. The turrets, rocket launchers, and force field shield are all hidden but easily accessible. There are other more experimental items of note included in the security of the compound if you’re interested.”
“We are but not right now,” Wesley answered. He looked at me. “You need some sleep; we both do. We should have someone like Angel or Jax monitor Immortal Corp’s back channel. Anyone who’s still alive should meet here.”
I was too tired to argue otherwise. I nodded once again, thinking about Amber and the Order.
“If we call a meeting of the companies here,” I inquired, “do you think they’ll all come?”
“I think by now their own assets have already been bringing them news,” Wesley determined. “They’ll have their own people inside the GG feeding them information. They’ll have hints at aliens and actual proof of the GG going after Immortal Corp. They’ll come.”
“If Jax can monitor the back channel, maybe Angel can set a meeting for tomorrow night with all the corporations,” I said. “If we can get them to stand with us, then we won’t need the GG at all.”
“Agreed,” Wesley said, moving deeper into the compound then realizing he had no idea where he was going.
“Oh, sir, please allow me to show you,” Bapz said, moving into action. He walked just like any other human I had seen. “We wouldn’t want you taking a wrong turn and ending up in the alchemy room or with the gnomes.”
If I wasn’t so tired, I might have been able to discern if Bapz was joking right now. As it stood, I had no real idea.
“Come on, Sleeping Beauty,” Cryx teased, entering the compound. “I’ll show you to your room.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my day, but Sleeping Beauty has never been one of them,” I said, following Cryx.
Soft dark red carpet greeted my tired feet as I traveled into the compound. The ceilings were high and made of stone with dark brown furniture all around and paintings of ancient battles taking place all over what I assumed was Earth.
Our voices echoed inside. The interior of Dragon Hold was so quiet.
“This place is so massive, you’ll need a map for the first few days, maybe even longer. I still get lost,” Cryx admitted.
She wasn’t kidding.
I followed her up a flight of stairs and then another after a few right turns and a left down a hall that was wide enough to allow four people to walk side by side. Massive windows let in the midday sun.
While we walked, we didn’t come across or even hear a single person, another testament to how truly gigantic this place really was.
“X, can you track this?” I wondered out loud. “This place has to be just as big as Immortal Corp.”
“Larger, in fact,” X said in awe. “I’m getting an underground level, maybe more and plenty of secret passages as well.”
“Oh yeah,” Cryx said, looking back at me. “I was leaning against a bookshelf the other day, and the whole thing turned sideways. I fell into a room full of weird armor. I thought it was going to be some kind of personal collection at first, but there was some serious weaponry in there too. They looked taken care of and ready for use.”
We finally made a hard right somewhere on the third floor and ended in a room.
“I already took the one with the best view, but you can have this one,” Cryx said. “It belonged to Rose. At least, that’s what Bapz told me.”
I studied the room. It wasn’t as massive as I would have thought for someone with so much money. A simple bed and dresser pushed up against the left side of the room with a closet on the right.
More windows showed a view of Athens below us on the hill. A washroom was set in the corner with a door for privacy.
“Well, get some sleep,” Cryx suggested, moving out of the room. “No offense, but you look like you’re coming down off your own stim high.”
“You can’t just say ‘no offense,’ and then say anything you want.” I looked at her with blinking tired eyes.
She grinned then closed the door behind me.
I fell onto the bed fully clothed.
“X, I muttered into the soft comforter.
“Yes, Daniel?” X answered.
“Do you think the GG killed the Founders?” I asked with a yawn. “That might be some silver lining in all of this.”
“I think there is a strong possibility, if they knew where they were in the first place,” X speculated. “Daniel, we have to be more careful. Now not only do the Voy want us dead, but our own government.”
“I know, I know,” I answered. I was going to say more, but sleep came for me, and with it, a visit from a new friend.
In this dream, I stood barefoot on the cold desert floor of Mars. All around me, the landscape stayed the same. Nothing but flat desert. The sun was overhead, but it was still cold.
“You’re kind of a magnet for violence, aren’t you?” a woman’s voice asked.
I turned around to see the same tall woman who had visited me in my dreams before. She wore a white dress. Her silver hair was pulled behind her head. Her gaze wasn’t unkind but neither was it warm.
“Story of my life,” I said to her. “Where are we?”
“Mars, in front of the Voy shield,” she said. “I want to show you something.”
The woman extended a hand.
“I’m trying to help you, Daniel,” she said. “Let me help you.”
I took her hand, somehow already knowing I was going to regret the action.
Her palm was ice cold.
I would have dwelt on that point longer, but something was happening to us. We were sinking into the sand. The soft Martian ground that supported my weight a moment ago was suddenly giving up to it. My boots were fully immersed. The sand was crawling up my thighs.
I panicked, trying to break free of the woman’s grip while pulling my legs up.
“Gently.” The woman held on to my hand like a vise. “This is part of the plan. You must see it with your own eyes.”
Telling me to be calm as the sand crossed my waist and started to climb up my chest was an act in futility. I don’t know who in God’s red Mars would be calm while they were sucked into the ground itself.
I felt someone grab my opposite hand. This person’s palm was warm to the touch.
I looked over to see X beside me.
“It’s okay, I think I know what she’s doing,” X told me. She too began to sink.
I had gotten used to seeing X now in my dreams as well as in unconscious states, or like in Echo’s case, even when we were exploring someone else’s dreams.
In her human form, X was short with shoulder-length black hair. She wore a skintight blue bodysuit.
Holding her hand did give me comfort. The sand touched my neck.
I took a deep breath. My pulse pounded in my head.
You can’t really die in a dream, I told myself. At least, I hope you can’t die in a dream.
The sand filled my nose. I pressed my mouth tightly shut along with my eyes. The sand was cold; not as frigid as the woman holding my left hand, but cold nonetheless.
One moment I was being sucked under by the sand, the next I was falling.
I opened my eyes just in time to land on my butt in a gigantic cavern. We had traveled through the sand to an underground cave system. The cave system built by the Voy had bright white lights built into the walls. Giant stalactites and stalagmites both hung from the ceiling and rose from the floor like giant spikes of death.
I had not been to this section of the Voy encampment before.
The woman on my left, who I was positive was an alien, looked down at me with a faint smile. “On your feet. There is much to see.”
While I found my feet once more, I realized we weren’t alone. I couldn’t see anything in the underground cavern, but I did hear a strange noise. It sounded like something breathing.
Not a person or even a Voy; something large.
I did a three hundred and sixty degree turn, trying to figure out where the sound was emanating from. The light inside the cave walls gave off a bright glow, but that same glow was eventually lost to the darkness.
“That sounds like breathing, but it’s not any kind of breathing pattern I’ve ever tracked before,” X said. “It’s coming from the back of the cavern.”
“Perceptive as you are beautiful, AI,” the woman remarked. “He would be lost without you.”
“Come on, I’m not that much of a mess,” I said as I turned to look at what I thought was the rear of the cave.
X gently grabbed me by my shoulders and turned me in the opposite direction. “The rear of the cavern is this way.”
“I knew that,” I said.
I moved forward before either woman could make a comment. A giant stalagmite rose from the ground, blocking the area where the heavy breathing was coming from. Coincidentally, this was also where the Voy lights lost their battle to the darkness.
“What kind of crazy alien monster are they cooking down here?” I asked myself out loud.
I walked around the giant rock in front of me. I steeled my nerves, prepared for anything. I wasn’t disappointed. I knew the Voy grew their soldiers from egg-like incubators. I had no doubt they could grow other creatures.
What I was surprised with was the size of the creatures.
Giant pulsating sacks that fluctuated with a blue light inside were the size of large vehicles. Each egg was nearly translucent, showing us a figure inside when the light pulsed brightly within.
The monsters were curled into balls, making it difficult to see what they would be in their true forms once free of the sacks.
Breathing came through the sacks as the creatures’ mouths were attached to tubes that opened outside their wombs.
“This is the true power of the Voy,” the alien woman said. “You had to see it for yourself to know it is the reality you now face. These creatures are ready to hatch at any moment. They will be ready for the invasion. They will grow quickly once out of their sacks.”
“The Galactic Government has no idea what they’re dealing with,” I uttered, running a hand through my hair. Frustration built inside me as an already bad situation went to hell in a handbasket.
I couldn’t even sleep without my day getting ruined.
“Who are you?” I asked, turning to the woman beside me. I wasn’t sure she deserved it, but she was the one bringing all the bad news, so I felt at least a little justified when I yelled at her. “You come with these warnings of doom, placing all of this on us, on me. Who are you?”
I clenched both fists at my side, trying to calm myself.
If I intimidated the woman at all, she didn’t show it.
“My name is Alerna,” Alerna said to me. “I understand you are under a great amount of stress. You were chosen because, at this point, you are the key. You are the one who holds the relationships with the powers that be to give humanity a chance.”
“Can these creatures be destroyed?” X asked as I gathered myself.
“Yes, but they are formidable beasts,” Alerna imparted. “Their hide is thick, and they will be capable of flying once they are born.”
“How many?” I asked, peering into the darkness, trying to get a count. There were too many to get anything but a rough estimate. There were dozens.
“More than the Galactic Government or any of the Corporations on your planet would be able to handle alone,” Alerna said. “You must lead them as one.”
“I don’t know how much you know about me, but I’m more of a soldier, a mercenary, a warrior,” I told her. “I’m not a leader or someone that’s going to be able to unite various factions.”
“You must be,” Alerna told me. “Or else you and your kind are already dead.”
I was going to open my mouth to argue more when the pulsating sack closest to us shivered. The heavy breathing from the tube came faster and deeper. The light pulsating from the sack strobed quicker and stronger.
Shouts from the cavern in the Voy tongue bounced off the walls.
“They are born,” Alerna said softly. “We must go.”
I wasn’t going to argue with her. The creatures from the nightmare were wiggling in their sacks. A slime-encased limb ripped free from the sack directly in front of me. A scream more monstrous than anything I had heard before ripped from the alien womb.
I woke with a start. It took me more than a few seconds to reorient myself and remember where I was. I had slept the day away. It was already dark outside.
“Are you okay?” X asked. “Probably a dumb question. How are you holding up?”
I sat up, running a dry tongue around my mouth. My stomach growled.
“How am I going to unite anyone, X?” I asked. “I fight. I’m good at fighting not at talking. Preacher or Wesley should be the ones leading.”
“Preacher doesn’t seem to be in a condition to help anyone,” X answered. “I’m sure Wesley will do what he can, but he’s not like you. He can’t fight or heal the way you can.”
I nodded, kicking myself mentally for sleeping so long. There was so much to do in so little time. The Voy would come in five days whether we were united or not. And they would bring those creatures of nightmare with them.
“X, are you able to communicate with Bapz?” I asked, heading for the restroom to shower. I still had a layer of Martian sand on me from my impromptu camouflage excursion, courtesy of the GG.
“I am,” X answered.
“Can you get him to gather everyone in a meeting room?” I asked. “I need to tell them what I saw.”
“Certainly,” X said. “I’ll request some food for you as well.”
“You’re the best,” I told her.
“I know,” X teased.
The next few minutes in the hot shower were heavenly. Sand was washed away from every crack, and I mean every crack. I found a soap in there that smelled like lavender. Not my first choice, but who was I to be picky? I had practically been given a castle.
Did Rose know we would need a place like this? I wondered. She couldn’t have. Enoch would say it all happened for a reason and just like it should.
I rinsed the soap out of my hair and off my body before toweling dry. The cloth the towel was made from felt like a cloud.
There was a knock on the room door.
I secured the towel around my waist and went to answer it.
Sister Monroe stood outside with a tray loaded with food. Under her right arm were clean clothes.
When I answered the door wearing nothing but a towel, her mouth dropped. Her eyes ran over my bare chest and the many tattoos that covered my body. She went redder than the Martian sand.
“Oh—I—I,” she stammered.
“It’s good to see you too,” I said, motioning her inside and hungrily eyeing the tray of food she held. “I’m just getting dressed. Come in.”
“Oh—okay.” Sister Monroe followed me inside. She placed the tray of food on the dresser. “It’s great to see you again, Daniel. When we left the settlement, I wasn’t sure if the Lord of the Way would have us meet again. I also brought you some clothes.”
“Thanks,” I said, tearing into a sandwich. “It’s good to see you too.”
Sister Monroe blushed deeper then turned her back to me as I began to dress. The clothing was far from the combat fatigues I was used to wearing, but it did the job. Comfortable white pants and a loose-fitting white shirt that billowed when I moved and rested on my shoulders. Sister Monroe and her people were simple and that came through in their dress as well.
I took the entire tray in my hands, ready to leave the room, when I noticed Sister Monroe still had her back to me.
“You can turn around now, Sister,” I told her. “Coast is clear.”
“Oh right,” she answered.
“Bapz is having everyone gather in a meeting room on this level,” X informed both of us. “I’ll plot a course for us. Daniel, I got a hold of a map of the grounds Bapz provided. This place is gigantic and weird.”
“Weird?” I repeated. A path marked by a broken line appeared in my vision showing the way X wanted me to go. I motioned for Sister Monroe to follow. “Have you been able to check this place out?”
“Not all of it, the grounds are massive,” Sister Monroe said, walking beside me. “The attic is extensive and the underground section of the Hold is like a maze.”
“Rich people and their money,” I said, thinking of Rose. “It’s almost like she knew we would need this place.”
“Bapz has given me a list of assets the grounds possess as well,” X said out loud. “Weaponry, technology, and transportation are all very impressive. I don’t even know what some of the items on the list are: Dragon, Cerberus, Leviathan.”
“Code names for something?” I asked around yet another mouthful of food.
Sister Monroe had come with a plate loaded with sandwiches, pickled vegetables, and some kind of sugary juice in a closed container. I loved it all.
“Perhaps,” X allowed, answering my question. “You should eat slower or you’re going to give yourself gas.”
“Seriously,” Sister Monroe agreed by my side as we walked down the wide halls. “There’s more where that came from. You don’t have to worry. The food stocks here were full.”
“I’m not going to get gas by eating fast,” I argued, shaking my head and stuffing my mouth with another sandwich. “That’s a myth—”
No sooner had the words left my lips then a deep rumble of a burp came from the pit of my stomach.
“See,” X said.
Sister Monroe just gave me a knowing tilt of her head.
We made a few more turns down massive corridors and long halls before X’s directions stopped us at a pair of open doors.
“Huh,” Sister Monroe grunted. “I thought I explored this level at least, and I don’t remember there being a meeting room here.”
I didn’t have an answer for her. Voices I recognized led me inside.
The room was longer than it was wide. Some kind of hybrid library and meeting room. A long table with chairs ended at a mantel with a fireplace. Behind it, the floor rose a few steps and windows offered a view of the night sky.
Wesley was there with Angel and Jax. The three of them spoke with Enoch and Cryx. Bapz stood just inside the door, motioning us forward.
“Please, come in,” the silver robot man beckoned. “Sir, may I say you look well rested this night.”
“Thanks,” I said, handing him the nearly empty tray of food. “I feel like a million credits.”
“Certainly, sir.” Bapz accepted the tray readily and went to place it on a side table in the room.
Those in the meeting room quieted when they saw me. I wasn’t really sure how to start the meeting. I half expected Wesley to take the reins. He just looked at me.
“Alerna said you would have to lead,” X reminded me in my head. “They’re looking to you.”
“So did you call us here for a reason or what?” Angel asked with an arched eyebrow. She tilted a silver flask to her lips. “It’s late. I need my beauty sleep.”
“Right,” I said, diving into the main reason why I had asked them here in the first place. I told them all I could about my dream. I hesitated only for the slightest bit when I had to tell them the part that Alerna had come to me once before. But they needed to know it all now.
If we were going to go to war together, they required all the facts. Even if by telling them I was contacted by an alien made them think I was crazy.
I finished by informing them of the monster-like creatures the Voy were growing. I had no idea what time it was, but when the clock struck midnight, we’d have four days left to prepare for the invasion. They needed to know everything.
When I finished, it actually felt good to get everything off my chest. Those in the room sat quiet.
“Alien, insect, flying, monster things,” Jax said from his seat. He rubbed at tired eyes. “Why not, right? I mean, why am I surprised?”
“This woman, Alerna,” Enoch asked, scratching the underside of his chin. “Do you trust her?”
“Yeah—yeah I do,” I said after thinking about it a moment. “She hasn’t asked me for anything in return. She’s just trying to help as far as I can tell.”
“And she looks human?” Angel questioned. “I mean, I know she can’t be since she’s an alien, but she chooses to look human when she talks to you?”
“That’s right,” I answered.
“There’s just so much going on, we need to focus on controlling what we can control,” Wesley said. “I’ve sent the call out to all the Corporations from the Order all the way down to the smallest corporation with a standing militia. We even called Phoenix.”
“What did they say?” I asked.
“Responses are still coming in,” Wesley said. “You can imagine trust isn’t something that comes easily in our line of work. Most of the Corporations steer clear of one another. We have a few allies but far too few. Whoever is coming will be here tomorrow morning for a meeting.”
“The Immortal Corp back channel?” I asked, looking at Jax. “Has anyone contacted us?”
“There’ve been a few.” Jax reclined in his high backed chair. “Not nearly enough but they’re on their way, Doctor Bishop among them.”
“The Founders?” I asked.
“No sign.” Jax shrugged. “There’s no telling as of yet if the Galactic Government knew where they were and got to them in the attack.”
The room fell quiet, each of us lost in his or her own thoughts.
Hunted by the Galactic Government with an alien invasion on the way and you still don’t have your answer about Amber and the Order, I thought to myself. Come on, Daniel, think, think.
“Tomorrow will take care of itself,” Enoch declared, rising from his seat. “Worrying will not help us.”
“I agree,” Wesley concurred. “We should focus on what we can do now.”
“Daniel,” X said in my head. “I’m getting an incoming transmission from the channel the woman from the Order gave you. Should I put her through?”
My heart skipped a beat. I had been trying to get through to the mysterious woman for days now.
“Excuse me, I’ll be right back,” I said to everyone.
I left the room, jogging down the hall to create some separation and privacy from the others.
“Yeah, X, put her through,” I answered.
“Daniel Hunt?” the woman’s hard voice asked over the line. “Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” I said, trying not to sound as pissed off as I felt. “I’ve got a few questions for you that involve not returning my calls and grave robbing.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to grave robbing,” the woman informed me. “As far as not returning your calls, I’ve been busy.”
That one really got to me. I had to rein in my temper.
“Oh, you’ve been busy?” I snorted calming myself. “I’ve been tortured by aliens, defended a settlement, had the GG try to take me out, and now I’m being hunted by them. I’ve been a little busy too.”
“We received a transmission from Immortal Corp about a meeting concerning this alien threat.” The woman ignored my outburst. “Is this legitimate?”
More than anything, I wanted to push the conversation in the direction of Amber’s empty grave and the Order mask I found within. Something told me that I needed to handle the call with a bit more tact than I had so far.
“Yes,” I told her. “The meeting is legitimate. “You didn’t hesitate at all when I mentioned aliens, did you?”
“We’ve been made aware of their existence by our assets in the field,” the woman disclosed. “We also know of the GG’s attack on Immortal Corp. Everything you’ve said has checked out. But answer me this. With Immortal Corp in such a weak state, why would we not simply take the opportunity to wipe you out? You’re giving us the coordinates where to meet you after all.”
“That’s an easy one,” I said without hesitation. “You need us just as much as we need you.”
“Explain,” the woman demanded.
“We’re the only ones who have fought the aliens. We know what they’re capable of,” I said, thinking back to my dream. “You’ll need us to defeat them just as much as we need you. Besides, the Immortal Corp you knew is already dead along with the Founders either taken out by the GG or so deep into hiding, they’ll never resurface.”
“And who leads Immortal Corp now?” the woman scoffed. “You?”
“Yeah—yeah, I guess for the time being, at least for the next four days until the invasion happens, it is me,” I confirmed, coming to that realization for the first time. “So are you coming tomorrow morning or what?”
The channel was quiet for a few moments.
I was about to ask if she was still there when the woman answered.
“We’ll be there,” she added in a warning for good measure. “If everything is not exactly as you say, understand we will kill you all.”
I fell asleep that night surprisingly well, despite the Order’s threat. At least they were coming. I was a step closer to figuring out what had really happened to Amber.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to pass out as hard that night as I did with the nap earlier, but it seemed my body was still more tired than I realized. When sleep came this night, it was dream free.
X woke me in the morning.
“Daniel,” I heard X’s voice through the glorious blackness of deep sleep. “Daniel, it’s time to get up. The corporations that answered the call will be arriving soon.”
I sighed deeply, opening my eyes. I was in the same room where I had slept the day before. My room, I guessed I could call it. It was strange thinking of the room as my own. The last place I had to lay my head that I even remotely considered as mine was the tiny apartment I lived in on the Moon.
Even that place I really didn’t consider my home.
But this place, the place Rose had given us to stay felt like something more than walls and a roof. This place felt like a home.
“I’ve taken the liberty in having Bapz deliver a breakfast meal outside of your door along with a new change of clothes,” X informed me. “You should probably brush your teeth as well. I requested toiletries. We need you looking like a leader of a corporation when you meet the others.”
“Thanks.” I swung my legs out of bed and walked like a zombie over to the door. Just like X said, there were an assortment of hygiene products, food, and a garment bag waiting for me.
“I agree I need to brush my teeth, but I’m not sure I’m going to take on the mantle of the new leader of Immortal Corp.” I grimaced at the thought as I brought the items into my room.
I took the hygiene products to the bathroom and began brushing my teeth first. The paste tasted like peppermint.
“Immortal Corp can die,” I said around a mouthful of paste. “It needs to die.”
“Maybe,” X said. “But if it does, you’ll need to come up with a new name, a new sigil, a new everything.”
I spat out the paste, rinsing my mouth and going to work on my dark hair.
I couldn’t remember the last time I fixed my hair, much less put product in it. But I understood the need for acting a part. I had to get these corporations to trust me. Eventually, I needed them to follow me into battle.
After a few minutes of trying to wrestle my dark hair into place, I gave up. Next on the to do list was eat breakfast while I dressed. A strong cup of caf was just what the doctor ordered along with a bowl of some kind of porridge that tasted healthy and sweet.
The clothes brought for me were a suit with a tie. I grimaced as I dressed.
“Are you sure all of this is necessary?” I asked X. “I mean, to this extent? A tie?”
“It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed,” X answered like some kind of mother giving her child advice before a dance. “I doubt the owners of the other corporations will be coming in their shorts and sandals.”
“Good point,” I conceded, securing the tie and shrugging on my coat.
The suit was all black, including the shoes and tie. The only thing to break up the plain color scheme was the white dress shirt I wore underneath.
I left my room following the path X laid out for me to get me to the ground level.
“They’re already starting to arrive now,” X informed me. “Bapz constructed a meeting area on the left side of the main building. The idea being that maybe if they are outside in the open instead of a confined space, they will be more at ease. We also are not requiring them to leave their weapons behind.”
“Sounds like a party,” I said.
“If we allow them to keep their weapons, again, they will feel more at ease,” X told me.
“Oh, I get it,” I answered.
I walked outside into the bright morning sun. Like most mornings on Mars, the cold of night was still burning off.
I caught Angel’s eye as I walked to the left of the building. She did a double take.
“Wow, you clean up nice, Danny, I forgot. Under all that caf and dirt, is a real person,” Angel said with a smile.
“Thanks, I think,” I answered. “You look good too.”
Angel wore a gray pant-suit with a white blouse. I could tell by the way she moved she carried a weapon at her lower back. It made me rethink my decision to not bring my MK II or at least my knife and axe.
“Ahhh, this old thing?” Angel said looking down at herself. “I needed something I could move in if things go bad. I can ditch the jacket and the shirt is sleeveless. There’s room in the legs to run.”
“How’s Preacher?” I asked as we walked together to the side of the main building.
“He’s fine, stabilized and chomping at the bit to get into the action again,” Angel informed me. “He keeps saying healing or no healing ability that he’s going to be ready for the fight.”
“Sounds like him,” I acknowledged.
“You should really go see him.” Angel gave me a hard stare. “He keeps asking for you. Whatever he did, he did it out of our best interests.”
“I know he thinks that,” I answered, still confused on how I felt about the whole situation.
We turned the corner around the building to see Way settlers under Bapz’s instruction putting the final touches on the meeting place. It was simple with tents overhead to block the sun and chairs circling an empty square spot in the middle of the sand.
There were more chairs than I would have expected.
“There were fifty-nine corporations we contacted for the meeting,” Wesley advised. “Less than half of them responded. Less than half of those agreed to the meeting.”
“How many?” I asked.
Wesley hesitated. It was the first time I had seen the man perform the act. He bought himself some time by reaching into his inner coat pocket and removing a thick cigar.
He bit off the end, spitting it out before lighting the stick of tobacco.
Wesley eyed me, taking a long, drawn-out puff.
“How many?” I asked again.
“Twelve,” Wesley grumbled, taking another puff of his cigar. “That includes us.”
I wasn’t sure what Angel choked on. She wasn’t drinking or eating anything at the moment, so I had to guess it was a wad of her own spit that went down the wrong tube.
While she hacked away and pounded on her chest, I said what we were both thinking.
“Twelve?” I repeated.
“And that’s if all twelve actually show up and agree to unite as one,” Wesley said. “Sorry to drop all the heavy news on you like this, Daniel, but you need to be the one to lead. That Alerna woman, whoever or whatever she is isn’t wrong about that.”
“But what about you?” I asked, looking Wesley up and down. “You have way more experience than I do leading an organization like this. You should be the one to lift Immortal Corp or whatever’s left of Immortal Corp from the ashes.”
“Not me,” Wesley objected, shaking his head emphatically. “For a long time, Immortal Corp has had leaders that directed from the shadows. It needs someone now to lead from the front as an example. You can be that person, Daniel.”
“I feel like there’s a compliment in there somewhere,” I said.
“I’ll be with you in an advisory role, but whatever Immortal Corp does or doesn’t become now should be on you,” Wesley said. “Immortal Corp employees using the back channel are reaching out. Jax is directing them here. We’ll build our assets again. We’ll build our army and do what the Founders lost sight of. What Immortal Corporation was first founded to do.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, genuinely interested.
“Fight the battles humankind can’t,” Wesley said as if it were as simple as stating the job description of an accountant or dentist.
I chewed on my lower lip, wondering what I was agreeing to.
“Did you do your hair today, sir?” Bapz asked, approaching us with a warm smile. The silver-skinned robot wore a black suit like my own but with a bow tie instead of a traditional tie. “It looks handsome on you.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, running a hand through my hair. It came back sticky with the product I had placed in it.
“Our guests are arriving now through the main gate,” Bapz informed us. “I have the internal defenses ready to be deployed should the need arise.”
“Let’s hope for all our sakes and that of the human race that no weapons will be required here today,” Wesley said, looking over at Angel. “No violence under any circumstances. We all need this to work whether we want to admit it or not.”
“Why are you looking at me when you say that?” Angel demanded, glaring at Wesley.
“Because I am.” Wesley lifted an eyebrow. “But that goes for all of us.”
Black unmarked vehicles began pulling up the mansion’s massive driveway. They came in all shapes and sizes. There were regular sedans with blacked out windows. Large trucks with thick wheels. One group even came in a fleet of hover bikes.
All the vehicles were unmarked and looked somewhat similar. When the drivers and passengers of the vehicles exited their crafts, they were anything but similar to one another.
A wide range of clothing was deemed acceptable by our guests. All of them dressed in fine clothing, but some wore different pieces of armor like traditional steel vambraces or shoulder harnesses. Others wore Kevlar padded gloves. Almost everyone I saw carried a weapon. Those who did not I was sure were concealing one of some make or model on their person.
No one came alone. They arrived in groups of threes, fours, and fives. Every creed, race, and nationality I could think of were present.
“Bapz,” Wesley said, dropping his cigar on the ground and putting it out with his boot. “Let’s go politic and make nice with the guests. We need them at ease.”
Bapz frowned at the cigar on the ground but complied.
“Angel, inform Daniel of who’s who as much as you can,” Wesley called over his shoulder.
Wesley and Bapz moved forward with smiles and handshakes being exchanged between the Corporation founders. Wesley approached a large man with face tattoos. He was dressed in black and of Asian descent.
Bapz made his way to the crew who came on the hover bikes. They were all women carrying swords that poked over their shoulders.
“The big man Wesley is talking to is named Enzo, he’s the leader of an ancient gang turned corporation called the Yakuza.” Angel motioned with her head to the women Bapz was speaking with. “Valkyrie Industries is a corporation of all women. They’re mercenaries like us, but unlike us, they’re available to the highest bidder. They’re as tough as they come. I’m glad they’re here.”
Angel went down the list as more and more vehicles arrived. I did my best tracking names and companies with her, but it was nearly impossible for me. My mind was already on the Order.
The woman I still didn’t have a name for on the channel said they would come. But they weren’t here yet. As members of the corporations funneled into the outside meeting place, I felt my heart drop in the pit of my stomach.
What if the Order wasn’t coming at all? What if something had happened and with them went any answer to Amber’s disappearance?
“Are you even listening to me?” Angel asked, snapping her fingers in front of my face. “Mars to Daniel.”
“Yeah, sorry, I’m with you,” I answered, turning back to the small groups still arriving.
Every one of them had their own symbol they wore with pride. There were wings with a sword in the middle, an ancient helmet on a white background, a red dragon’s face, crossed swords behind a skull and more.
I found myself surprised as I actually recognized a familiar face in the crowd. Commander Shaw strode forward wearing a white suit. He looked healthy with a twinkle in his eye.
I was about to go over and say hello when motion to my left gave me pause.
A black vehicle rolled up, parking apart from the rest. The doors opened and three tall figures stepped out. They all wore black with long coats. On their heads was the black mask and red cross of the Order.
They still wore their masks, so it was impossible to tell for sure, but by the shape of their bodies, two of them were men and one was a woman. It had to be her. It had to be the same Cyber Hunter I had met and spoken with on the channel.
For better or worse, I strode right toward them.
“You think this is a good idea?” X asked in my head. “Don’t forget the Order and Immortal Corp haven’t exactly been the best of friends in the past.”
“I don’t care,” I whispered out of the side of my mouth. “I have to find out.”
All three members of the Order looked at me as I approached. At least I thought they were all looking at me. I couldn’t really tell with the masks still on their faces.
“I’m Daniel Hunt,” I greeted, extending a hand. “Thank you for coming.”
Not one of the three moved to shake my hand.
“We’re here to hear what you have to say, not form an alliance,” one of the males said. His voice made him sound younger, maybe in his thirties. “Let’s skip the smiles and handshakes and get on with it.”
“Easy,” the other man said to his counterpart. He took a step forward. “Atilla isn’t wrong, but I don’t see why we can’t be civil to one another for the time being. So you’re him.”
I looked around like he might be talking to someone else then nodded. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“The mercenary from the Pack Protocol without a memory,” he clarified.
“I’ve been working on that,” I said. “I dug up the grave of the only Pack Protocol member who was put into the ground. I didn’t find a body. But I did find one of those masks of yours.”
“Are you accusing us of something?” Atilla spat. “Just come out and say it.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything,” I answered. “I really don’t know what to think. I’m just looking for answers.”
“You Immortal Corp dogs are all the same.” Atilla stepped up to me like he was about to start a fight. “You don’t look like much to me. If I had a chance, I—”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Wesley shouted from the center of the area that had been set up for our meeting. “If I might ask you to please come and take a seat. I understand your time is precious and we can get right down to the reason for this meeting.”
Everyone in the vicinity began to make their way over to the seating area.
“Atilla,” the man’s counterpart said in a warning tone. “We didn’t come here to fight the Immortal Corporation, did we?”
“No, no, we didn’t, Julian,” Atilla said through gritted teeth. “Not worth my time.”
Atilla turned to go with Julian, who I now guessed was their leader.
I clenched my fists. Answers were so close, but I couldn’t make them tell me. Or could I? Beating it out of them was always an option.
“Real smooth,” the woman said, coming to stand beside me. It was the first time she spoke. It was the same woman who I had fought in the Vault, the same one I had seen in the Badlands. “You should go into politics.”
“Don’t think I’d make it very far,” I said, finding myself relieved that it was in fact the woman I had met before and spoken with over the channel. “Do you know what happened to her? Her name was Amber. She was presumed dead after an attack on a bridge in Elysium. Thing is, there’s no body in her grave; just an Order mask.”
“I don’t,” the woman answered, already moving to follow Atilla and Julian.
“Please!” I half shouted in anger, half in desperation.
She stopped and turned her head to the right. “Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you. That would have to come from Julian.”
“Thank you,” I said, far from happy but at least there was still a chance for answers.
With the sun overhead, the tents that had been brought out were a godsend. Chairs had been placed under the tents that made a square with a bright sunny patch of sand in the center.
I took a seat next to Angel, catching Commander Shaw’s eye and exchanging a nod with him. I was sure he had a bag full of questions himself. The last time I had seen the man was after a hit on an Immortal Corp safe house.
Any kind of dialogue would have to wait as Wesley walked to the center square area and began.
He told them everything. With the help of Bapz, he even projected holographic 3D images for them to see. He told them about the Voy, their impending invasion, the GG trying to make nice and then covering up everything.
Wesley even went above and beyond, wheeling out a Voy corpse for everyone to see on a shuttle bot.
While he laid out the facts, I tried as best as I could to read the crowd. Among the twelve corporations present, there had to be somewhere around thirty people present, most looking on with wide eyes.
A few nodded along with Wesley’s explanation as though they had been aware of as much or at least expected something like this.
“The GG doesn’t understand what they’re getting themselves into,” Wesley explained. “By the time they do, the Voy will be attacking Mars. Maybe the GG mobilizes in time to stop them, maybe not. But make no mistake, the Voy demand our total surrender and enslavement or they’ll kill most of us and enslave the rest anyway.”
A quiet fell on the group so intense, I wondered if anyone would find the will to break the silence.
“So you want us to put all of our resources and our lives on the frontline?” a tall blond woman with braided hair asked. She had a scar down the left side of her face from the corner of her eye to her chin. She was one of the ones Angel had pointed out, a member of the Valkyrie Corporation.
“I’m asking that all of us stand together and turn this Voy’s initial attack, defeat them, or at least buy time for everyone else to mobilize,” Wesley explained. “It’s not about who has the strongest Corporation, who has more money, who has more guns; none of that. All that matters now is the survival of the human race.”
“I’ve seen it and I’m still having a hard time believing it,” Commander Shaw spoke from his seat to my left. He rubbed his scalp as if he were feeling his true age. Commander Shaw had let me in on the secret that he was much older than he seemed. The company he belonged to, Phoenix, hibernated their leaders, bringing them out of sleep at intervals to lead the company. Lucky for him, this was his time to lead.
“We’ll send you all the data, pictures, and video we have; heck, we’ll even send you a body,” Wesley promised. “I wish this were a joke, but it’s not.”
“I understand,” Commander Shaw said, looking at me. “You send us everything you’ve got, and if everything checks out, you have our support. I’ve fought alongside one of your own. He’s a good man. If I’m going up against a horde of aliens bent on killing, I’d like to nominate Daniel Hunt to lead us.”
My mouth dropped. Stepping in as interim leader of Immortal Corp was one thing but leading the initiative against the Voy was something else altogether.
A wave of whispers, a few scoffs, and eye rolls tossed in for good measure rippled across the crowd.
“Close your mouth,” X told me inside my head.
I obeyed, not trusting myself to speak.
“What does Phoenix know about war?” Atilla jumped from his seat. “You’re more rebels than a real corporation anyway. You’ve only been concerned with trying to grow grass on Earth for the last century.”
“Not trying anymore or haven’t you heard?” Commander Shaw stood from his seat staring daggers at Atilla. “Sorry for trying to bring a little life back into the galaxy.”
“I’m not saying your man shouldn’t lead,” the thick leader of the Yakuza said, rising from his seat. His voice boomed across the tents, silencing everyone. “But this does bring up a fair point. We do need a leader. How should one be chosen?”
“I don’t really think voting is our style,” the female leader of the Valkyries answered. “I say we fight for it.”
Murmurs of agreement rolled across the tents.
“Before we get to that,” Wesley said, lifting his hands for silence. “Before that is even decided, does that mean everyone present agrees with the state of things? Everyone here will stand against the Voy?”
“If everything checks out and is as you say, then I don’t see how we even have a choice,” a woman said softly. She was from a Corporation that wore a red dragon head sigil on her left shoulder. It was the first time she had spoken. As far as I could tell, she was alone.
Whoever this woman was, everyone respected her. Despite her voice being so calm and quiet, it was easily heard given the silence from the others.
“Fight and die or be enslaved seem to be our only two options here,” the woman continued. “I think we can all agree on that.”
“Thank you, Madam Eternal,” Wesley said, bowing his head slightly. “I agree, and if everyone else does, then we are all in this together now. And I don’t see why we all shouldn’t pick a leader together. If you want to be considered as a leader of this initiative, I propose you step forward, and as has been suggested, we fight for it.”
I was still trying to figure out how I felt about the whole situation. I had come ready to get answers about Amber and gain allies. Instead, I still had zero answers and I was about to get into a fight.
I still remembered the last time I fought a Cyber Hunter from the Order. The experience had not been enjoyable.
“You up to this?” Wesley said, coming back to where Angel and I sat under our tent.
“I mean, I’m not scared to fight, but am I really the best choice?” I asked. “I barely remember who I am.”
“Maybe that’s why you should be the only choice,” Angel said out loud.
Wesley and I looked at her.
“Hey, I’m not trying to pay you a compliment or anything, but you’ve met us,” Angel said, taking in the members of each corporation who sat debating if they would nominate anyone, and if so, who it would be. “We’re killers, money lovers, power hungry, and more, the worst of the worst. Maybe whatever head injury Preacher inflicted gave you a hard reset, a second chance. Maybe we need someone like that leading us.”
“Well put,” Wesley told her. “ I didn’t think you were that deep.”
“I try,” Angel answered.
“You won’t come up with the strategy for the battle on your own,” Wesley encouraged me. “You’ll have a counsel. You just need to be the one to lead us.”
“I should be the one to lead us,” Atilla shouted as he removed his long black coat and mask. He was slender but still muscular. His dark hair was cut close to his scalp in a buzz. True to his Cyber Hunter heritage, the right side of his face was metal, including his right eye, which was nothing more than a red circle. “Anyone who challenges me can do so by combat.”
Voices from all four sides of the tents answered his call. It seemed we weren’t the only ones having a pep talk. Eight corporations all together threw in a warrior’s name. The only four that remained out of the fight were; Phoenix, Madam Eternal, and two smaller corporations that had been content to follow a leader into the fight against the Voy.
Madam Eternal, whoever she was, seemed to demand the most respect from those present. As such, she was trusted with the task of writing each corporation’s name down who presented a champion for leadership. She did so on a series of smooth stones provided for her by Bapz.
The group waited in silence as the older woman penned each corporation name meticulously on the stones.
“And who exactly is this?” I asked, pointing my chin to the back of the woman. “Madam Eternal?”
“The greatest healer this or any other time has ever known,” Angel explained. “Her corporation’s medicines have even brought back people from the dead, or at least that’s what the rumors say.”
“So that’s why no one wants to piss her off,” I thought out loud. “I mean, they might need her help sometime.”
“Sometime soon, once the fight with the Voy begins,” X chipped in.
“Right,” I said.
“What gets me is why rocks?” Angel folded her arms across her chest. “I mean, why write down their names on rocks instead of using data chips or anything else?”
“She’s a strange woman, but I’m sure she has her reasons.” I shrugged.
“No weapons will be used,” Madam Eternal proclaimed as she dropped the eight smooth stones in a cloth bag once again provided by Bapz. “Winner will be decided by knockout or if their opponent surrenders.”
“With all due respect, Madam Eternal,” Julian asked from his seat. “May we see the stones?”
Everyone silenced, all eyes directed toward the still masked Julian.
It was so quiet, I could hear my own heart pounding in my head.
“Julian Fairmount.” Madam Eternal tilted her head to the side. She wore a deep purple cloak of her own. Her graying hair fell behind her head as if a single hair had never and would never go out of place. “You don’t trust me? Have I not saved your own life when the Cyber Hunters were attacked by the Death Dealers?”
“You did save me and many of our own in that territory dispute,” Julian said through his mask. “My inquiry has nothing to do with trust but in the validity and finality of choosing a leader. More than one pair of eyes should confirm the accuracy of the stones so it can never be called into question once a leader is named.”
A man of fists and not so much of words, I found myself admiring how Julian had chosen his wording. Not only was he making himself out to be the good guy, but he was also getting his way in seeing the stones.
“Always looking out for the betterment of our corporations,” Madam Eternal said with a sly twist of her lips. “Come then, come all of you and see.”
I joined the rest of those gathered as we gravitated toward the center of the square.
Madam Eternal held all eight small stones facing up in her palms. The stones were white and smooth. True to her word, they held the names of each of the eight corporations that were presenting a possible leader.
I caught sight of my own, Immortal Corp, as well as that of the Orders of the Yakuza and Valkyries.
Bapz stood next to Madam Eternal with a plain silver bag. He let anyone who wanted to look inside to ensure there was no way the choosing could be tampered with.
I saw the jerk Atilla go over and poke around the bag, even putting a hand inside to make sure there was nothing cloaked he couldn’t see.
“Turn the bag upside down, robot,” Atilla told Bapz as if he were speaking to a servant. “I want to be sure there’s nothing but pure chance at play here.”
If Bapz was offended, he didn’t show it. He turned the bag upside down as requested and looked at Atilla.
Atilla ignored the look and moved back to his seat.
“As if we needed any more reason to hate the Order,” Angel said by my side as we too moved back to our seats. “Can you promise me one thing?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That you kick his as—”
“Once the competitors are chosen, we will begin immediately,” Madam Eternal said, depositing the stones inside the bag with tiny clunks. She pushed the sleeves of her robe up to her elbow and smiled at Julian. “Just to be sure no one will question the fairness of the event.”
“The first two contestants will be,” Madam Eternal said, reaching into the bag and pulling out a pair of stones. “Immortal Corp and Yakuza.”
I looked across the square sandy ground to where the men sat that Wesley had been speaking with. There were a handful of them, and as luck would have it, the largest stepped forward, removing his black jacket and weapons on his belt.
“They’ll be brutal and quick,” Wesley advised as I stood up and removed my own jacket and tie.
“The one you’re going to fight is nicknamed ‘the Hammer,’” Angel added.
“Wonderful,” I responded, rolling up my sleeves.
“Look for a wicked right hand,” Angel continued, ignoring me. “He’ll come in fast and hard. Weather the storm; you can do it.”
I rolled my shoulders and stretched out my arms as I turned. Atilla had a wicked grin on his face. I didn’t want to focus in on him, but he was kind of hard to miss. He sat on my right along with Julian and the masked woman whose name I still didn’t know.
You really got to get better at this people thing, I told myself. You should at least know her name.
Madam Eternal and Bapz moved from the center of the square.
“Knockout or making the other surrender are the only ways to win,” Madam Eternal reminded us. “Try not to damage one another too badly because the real enemy still waits.”
The Hammer was a few inches taller than I was and much thicker. He grinned at me past a face tattoo. His expression changed from pleasant to one of hate in the blink of an eye.
The large man yelled some kind of war cry and came out me at a run. Angel was right; he tried a right hand that would have connected if I hadn’t been anticipating the move.
I stepped to the side, planting my own right fist deep into his gut. I swore my fist sank a full inch into his bulk. Past the layer of padding, I hit hard muscle. The Hammer was a bit chunky, but there was a fair amount of muscle to the man as well.
The Hammer brushed off my blow as if it were nothing. Instead of doubling over or retreating, he laid into me with his left fist. The strike to the side of my head made my ears ring.
Stars exploded in front of my eyes for a moment as I staggered back. It wasn’t hard to see where he’d gotten his nickname. Being hit by him was like a brick colliding to the side of my face.
He grabbed the back of my head in both hands, forcing my head to the ground while he drove his right knee up to my face.
I blocked the incoming knee strikes with both arms finally catching his knee with the last strike. I lifted it as I came up out of the hold.
The Hammer was more nimble on his feet than I anticipated. Instead of falling back, he did a short hop on his foot still on the ground then jumped into the air.
I was still in awe how a man this large could move like he did. I held on to one leg as he spun and kicked me with his free leg.
I thought his fists were like hammers, but his kick felt worse.
Blood exploded into my mouth as my vision blurred. I hit the sandy ground hard.
I heard shouts and cheers from who I guessed were the other Yakuza.
It had been a long time since I’d fought someone who matched my skill. Actually, probably not that long. The female Cyber Hunter gave me a run for my money.
“You good?” X asked in my head.
I saved my breath but responded to X’s question by rising to my feet.
The Hammer was grinning to his comrades lifting his arms into the air in triumph.
“Knockout or tap out, big boy,” I said, spitting blood onto the sand beside me. “I don’t think either one of those happened.”
The Hammer turned to look at me as if he had expected me to get up.
Just like before, he came at me again. His heavy right missed. I dodged the follow-up, now anticipating his speed and willingness to kick out with his thick legs.
I ignored going for his gut this time and instead concentrated on his head. I landed a right and a left to his face, opening up a few cuts of my own. His right eye was starting to swell and his nose gushed blood.
I blocked his left and dodged his right altogether before I slammed a fist into his throat.
He coughed but still didn’t go down. Instead, he came in closer, wrapping both arms around my own in some bear hug of death. He lifted me off the ground. He squeezed so hard so that not only couldn’t I breathe, but I was losing feeling to my limbs.
His hug was crushing. Lungs that demanded to be fed with oxygen were protesting. I looked down on the Hammer.
He was back to grinning at me now as his face turned red. He squeezed harder. I felt like I was going to pass out. I think I might have, had he not been smiling at me. That really pissed me off.
Unable to breathe, I brought my head back and then bashed the crown of my forehead into his face over and over again. I lost count; it had to be three, maybe four times. My forehead was soaked with his blood, as was his face by the time he let go and finally stumbled back.
He tripped over his own feet and fell to the ground.
I didn’t even have the energy to trip. I crumpled to the ground, gasping for breath where he dropped me.
Fiery hot lungsful of air finally came in. I gulped them down like a thirsty man tasting water for the first time in days.
I looked over at my opponent. It seemed he was having his own issues trying to stand.
People were shouting, but I drowned all that out for the time being. I got back to my feet, an act that seemed to be my lot in life, and went over to the Hammer, who managed to fight to his hands and knees.
I slid my arm around his neck. I didn’t squeeze yet.
“Stop,” I told him loud enough for everyone to hear. “It’s over. We’ll need you when the real fighting starts. Don’t make me choke you out.”
I’m not sure he was totally coherent. I couldn’t see his eyes from my place on his back. I did notice him tilt his head up to look at the place where the rest of the Yakuza stood under the tent.
The head Yakuza, Enzo, a hard-eyed man with a goatee nodded once.
The hammer slumped in my arms. His body had felt like a coiled spring before, prepared to battle it out. Upon the approval of his company leader, he gave up.
There wasn’t really cheering from anyone when the fight was over, more like another cacophony of hushed whispers.
I leaned down and helped the Hammer to his feet.
“You hit like a son of a gun,” I told him. “Remind me never to piss you off.”
“You too.” The Hammer extended his hand. “Norman Li.”
“Daniel Hunt,” I told him, accepting the hand.
“Thank you for ending it like that,” Norman said. “I know you could have just tried to choke me and we would have fought on.”
I nodded about to say more, when Madam Eternal’s voice cut through our conversation.
“Immortal Corp will advance,” Madam Eternal called in a voice just under a shout. “We will choose the next pair of contestants.”
As everyone waited with bated breath. I headed over to the tent where Angel and Wesley waited.
“Man, what are the odds the one day you actually dress up, you’re entered into a street fight contest,” X said loud enough for all of us to hear. “I mean, I know you don’t like to hear the odds and all, but seriously, that’s crazy.”
I looked down at myself. My shirt was stained from my own blood and my opponent’s. It was smeared with sand and sweat. As if that weren’t enough, a button had been torn off for good measure.
“See, this is why you can’t have nice things,” Angel said with a grin. “I’ll be back with some water and towels.”
Angel took off at a light jog.
“You’re doing great,” Wesley praised, motioning for me to sit down and rest. “The Yakuza are a proud Corporation. Their leader, Enzo, wouldn’t have allowed his man to quit if he thought you were unfit to lead.”
“Are you tight with the Yakuza?” I asked.
Wesley gave me a sideways look as the next two contestants prepared to fight.
“As tight as any two corporations can be,” Wesley answered. “We’ve run a few missions together for reasons that benefited both of us.”
It didn’t sound like Wesley wanted to say more on the subject, and to be honest, I didn’t really care. I was positive that man held a wealth of secrets within and I had no desire to open Pandora’s box.
We sat and watched the next three fights unfold. My wounds healed and Angel returned with the water and towel.
First up was a warrior from Valkyrie against a man twice her size. She was quick and ferocious, taking out her opponent in half the time it had taken me to get Norman to submit.
The next was a fight between two men, one with the symbol of an ancient warrior helmet, the other with a pair of swords crossed behind a skull.They seemed evenly matched in skill and strength.
The fight went on for what seemed like an eternity. The hot sun beat down on them as they fought in the sand square. Sweat mixed with blood over their faces and bodies.
I’d seen a fair amount of fights in my day, but what impressed me the most was their unwillingness to give in to one another.
“Hyperion and the Overlords have never particularly cared for one another,” Angel murmured, leaning in to give me some inside information. “They have a rivalry going on, kind of like us and the Order.”
The fight still went on for another five minutes after each man had lost enough blood to soak the sandy ground beneath them. The battle ended in a knockout as the warrior from the Hyperion Corporation landed a right hook that finally toppled his opponent.
The last fight was between Atilla and a woman from a group with a bull’s head as their Corporation symbol.
Atilla looked calm, almost cocky, while the woman was focused and ready. They circled each other and began trading blows in the center of the sand square.
She was smart, staying out of reach of his attempt to grab her and take her to the ground. She sent kicks to his legs and chest to make him keep his distance.
“Who is she?” I asked no one in particular.
“Apex is a smaller corporation that deals in private security,” Wesley answered, intent on the fight. “They’ve always been one of the better ones. We’ve never had any problems with them.”
It was clear Atilla was getting frustrated. They traded blows, but the Cyber Hunter wanted to get in close to take her down and grapple. The woman wasn’t having any of it.
Then she stepped in a particular soft spot of sand soaked through with blood from the previous fight. She faltered only for a second while she found her footing.
That was enough for Atilla. He tackled her to the ground, laying into her head and face with a series of elbows and forearms. The woman was unconscious on the second or third blow.
“Enough, the Order wins,” Madam Eternal called.
Atilla reached up as if he were going to slam his fist into the woman again.
The three other members of the Apex Corporation rose to their feet, reaching for their weapons.
“Atilla, stop!” Julian shouted as he and the woman from the Order also prepared to fight if the Apex Corporation descended on Atilla.
Everyone was on their feet, even Wesley and I.
Atilla’s fist remained poised over the woman. He looked at Julian with his one good eye. The red eye on the right side of his face zoomed in and out as if it were trying to focus.
I wondered how much Atilla actually wanted to hit the unconscious woman. How much of his inability to move was brought on by his inability to focus, too lost to the blood rage battle brought.
“Atilla,” the woman from the Order said in a calm, soothing voice. She removed her mask. Dark hair, full lips, and fair skin reminded me of what she looked like under that mask. “Atilla, it’s over.”
Her voice brought the man back. Atilla rose from his place on the ground and rejoined the other members of his faction.
The unconscious woman was cared for by her own, who lifted her gently and took her back under their tent.
“That was close,” X said. “I thought we were going to have a bloodbath on our hands.”
“You and me both,” I answered.
“In the light of our present circumstances,” Madam Eternal began, “I would move that we continue on with the four contestants who still remain in the contest post haste. If it is agreeable with you all?”
She looked over at me first.
Her gaze moved to Atilla, the woman from the Valkyrie faction, and finally, the Hyperion Corporation. Out of all of us, he was the one that was injured the worst. Not to be outdone and seem weak, he nodded his consent to continue.
“Madam Eternal, if I may,” the woman from the Valkyrie Corporation interrupted.
“Yes, Jinja,” Madam Eternal asked.
“I request bladed weapons be allowed in the next phase of choosing a leader,” Jinja proposed. “If all are in agreement.”
Madam Eternal frowned but looked at the remaining contestants again for a consensus.
Atilla nodded with a wicked smirk.
Not to be outdone, I also gave my consent.
Already out-voted three to one, the wounded Hyperion warrior’s vote really didn’t matter. Still Madam Eternal looked at him for his permission.
I had a feeling he would have voted against weapons if he had any kind of chance, already wounded to this degree whoever fought him in the next round wasn’t going to have much to do.
“It has been decided, then,” Madam Eternal informed us. “Weapons will be brought for use in the next round of battle. While that is being done, we will choose the next pairs of stones.”
All eyes were glued to the Madam as she removed the rocks of those contestants eliminated from the fight and placed the four remaining stones inside.
She looked at Julian, the only member of the Order still wearing his mask. “Would you like to take a look to ensure the validity of the choosing?”
“If no one else raises an objection, neither will I,” Julian said with a short bow. “I believe we all understand this has been carried out as it should.”
“Very well,” Madam Eternal said, reaching inside the bag Bapz held out for her.
She came back with a pair of stones.
“The Order will face off against Hyperion, and as such, Immortal Corp will be fighting Valkyrie in the second fight,” Madam Eternal stated. “We will begin immediately. Contestants will be reminded that this is not a fight to the death, only until one is knocked unconscious or yields.”
“Your weapons are on the way,” X said. “I sent a message for them inside and Bapz is on it.”
“Thanks,” I answered.
“This is going to be such a joke,” Angel spat. “The Hyperion warrior can barely stand.”
Angel wasn’t wrong. The warrior from Hyperion Industries was patched up as best as possible, but he was in no condition to fight. He limped his way out into the square sand area now sprinkled with his own blood.
He came out with a curved knife in his right hand.
Atilla carried a kind of rod in his hand the likes of which I had never seen. It was short, no longer than his forearm. It shone against the light of the sun’s hot rays.
Both men squared off. Atilla wore a grin on his face as he examined his wounded foe like a predator would its prey.
“Begin!” Madam Eternal called.
I watched in disgust as Atilla circled his wounded foe. The rod in his hands apparently extended in both directions. With a touch of a button, Atilla no longer held a rod, but a six-foot-long metal staff.
The Hyperion Industries soldier had no chance. Wounded and attacked with a weapon with that kind of reach, the fight was over before it began. Atilla battered him with blows from each side of his weapon.
It was hard to watch. A part of me felt sick inside. The Hyperion warrior was little more than a punching bag. Wet thuds met our ears as Atilla’s longer weapon ignored the knife, trying to block it and struck over and over again.
It wasn’t even like the Hyperion warrior could get away if he wanted to. A heavy limp from his left leg saw to that.
It looked like Atilla was playing with him, mocking him by striking at his legs and chest but never his head. He wanted to keep him conscious.
Atilla finally came to a stop near my tent.
I was seething with righteous indignation. I owed the Hyperion soldier nothing, but to see someone brutalized like that was almost more than I could bear.
Angel put a hand on my arm. I didn’t realize it, but both my hands were clenched into fists. I was shaking.
Atilla looked over at me, extending his staff out toward my chest. Our eyes met. I wasn’t going to back down.
“Save it,” X warned me in my head. “Everything you’re feeling right now, save it for the fight. You’ll get your chance.”
Atilla sneered at me then spun so fast, he was a blur of motion. The back side of his staff cracked the Hyperion warrior across the temple. The man fell in a heap.
I kept Atilla’s gaze as he did the same, walking over the unconscious man in a show of disrespect.
“He’s just trying to get into your head,” Wesley warned. “Forget him. Concentrate on getting past the Valkyrie leader first. Jinja’s not going to be a walk in the park.”
Jinja stepped into our impromptu arena, even as the Hyperion soldier was being carried back by the other members of his corporation. Each Hyperion soldier stared daggers at Atilla, who spat into the sand next to him.
What a jerk, I thought to myself, looking over at the woman from the Order. I remembered her kindness in the Badlands sparing Sam’s family. How could someone like that be involved in the same company as scum like Atilla?
There was no answer to the question, at least not yet.
Jinja was already in the middle of the sand square. She withdrew a long blade from a sheath on her back. Unlike the samurai sword Preacher used, this one was heavy, a two-handed claymore that was nearly as tall as the woman herself.
It looked ancient. Jinja held it with respect, her scarred face gleaming off the shining metal.
“Good luck on this one,” Angel said, handing me my axe and knife. “You’re going to need it.”
“Hey,” I said with a scowl.
“Oh sorry.” Angel’s face broke from worried into a reassuring grin. She gave me two thumbs-up. “You’re going to do great.”
“I don’t believe you,” I deadpanned, rolling my eyes.
“She’s fast and a master with that blade,” Wesley told me as Madam Eternal announced the next fight. “You’ll have to do something to take her by surprise.”
“Right,” I said out loud. Internally, I was thinking that his words were no help at all.
My wounds from the fight with the Hammer were already healing. I was a bit tired and hungry, but other than that, I was good to go. I gripped the short axe in my left hand and the knife in my right. Both weapons were light and maneuverable.
What I liked about them was that if I needed, I could also throw each of them. My time with the axe and knife in my previous life had been extensive. They felt like tools in my hands more than weapons.
Tools that I had spent years learning and honing my skill with.
“The winner from this fight between Immortal Corp and Valkyrie will fight the Order for the right to act as lead for the coming coalition,” Madam Eternal stated. “You may begin.”
Valkyrie dropped to her knees, holding the weapon’s blade in her open palms. Her head bowed as if she were saying a prayer.
I wasn’t sure if this was some kind of tactic or trick, but I wasn’t about to fall for it if it was or try and decapitate her with her head down.
Instead, I twirled the weapons in my hands. I stretched my arms and studied my opponent.
“She’s praying,” X confirmed in my head. “Wouldn’t hurt if you sent up a prayer yourself.”
I was thinking of a witty reply to X when Jinja looked up at me. She rose to her feet, taking her weapon in both hands.
“You’re an honorable warrior,” Jinja said, bringing her weapon up beside her. “You could have tried to attack me during my prayer. Many have in the past.”
“Just didn’t seem right,” I said, stopping just outside the range of her sword.
“I’ll try and make this as painless as possible,” Jinja said as matter-of-factly as if she were telling me we were standing on Mars. There was no sense of aggression or ego in her tone. “Unless you’d like to surrender now.”
“Can’t do that,” I told her. “But when I’m giving you orders when we attack the Voy, I’ll be sure to remember you offered me mercy.”
Jinja’s lips twitched ever so slightly.
When she jumped into action, she used the claymore like an extension of her body. Her movements were as swift as they were brutal. I wasn’t prepared to weather the storm of the steel she brought on me over and over again.
The claymore never stopped moving as she turned one attack into the next and came at me over and over again. It took everything I had in me to track the weapon in time with my axe and knife blocking the deadly blade as it arced down and sideways into my body.
The sound of metal on metal punctured the air with deep ringing as she pushed the attack.
I was so busy tracking her weapon, making sure I wasn’t turned into a pin cushion, that I missed how close she had gotten. Jinja placed a boot in my sternum, slamming me to the ground.
I felt something pop in my chest, breathing turned from hard to downright painful.
I rolled out of the way as she brought her weapon down on me. It stuck hard into the ground. I rose to my feet as she ripped her weapon free from the sand. I managed to get in close, landing a punch with my right hand to her jaw.
I held the knife in that hand with the blade pointed down. When I struck, I made sure not to impale her face with my blade.
Jinja took the blow like a champ, shrugging it off in a spray of blood from her lip before she lifted her weapon again. I was so close, I was able to bring the back side of my axe that ended in a hammer head onto her grip.
She yelped in pain, dropping her sword under the pressure of the hammer. I couldn’t be sure if I had broken a finger or two, but right now, it was the best I could do.
Jinja dropped her weapon, smashing a fist into my throat. Breathing was suddenly nonexistent as she swept my legs out from underneath me.
As soon as I fell, I knew I needed to act. Jinja was already ripping the axe out of my hand. I let her have it and instead focused on getting to my feet. She rose with me, tearing the axe from my grip. She landed a spinning kick to my side.
If I could breathe at all, the wind would have been knocked out of me. I brought the knife in my hand down on her shoulder. She caught my wrist in both her hands.
I grabbed her throat, thinking I could get her to surrender if she couldn’t breathe. At least make her release the vise-like grip on my knife hand.
Jinja jerked my hand with the knife in it. Twisted so hard to the left, it popped. Pain lanced through my wrist and up my arm as it hung useless.
The knife fell from my numb hand into her own waiting palm. I dropped to my knees, grabbing the hilt of my axe buried in the sand. Before I could lift it, I felt the edge of my own knife pressed into my chest.
Jinja had dropped to her knees. One hand on the handle of my knife, the other poised to press it through my heart. Already the blade pierced my shirt and skin. A thin trickle of blood fell down my chest.
She had me dead to rights.
“You fought well,” Jinja said. “There’s no dishonor in stopping now. Like you said to the Yakuza, we’ll need all of us for the fight to come. Surrender.”
Everyone around us was still. Even X had allowed me to do my thing without breaking my focus on what needed to be done.
My body ached in a dozen different places, mostly my chest, throat, and wrist. My left had still gripped the shaft of my axe. I could bring up the blunt end and slam it across her temple, but not before she drove the blade into my chest.
I was pretty sure I could survive that, somewhere like ninety percent. I had never been stabbed in the heart before, at least not to my recollection.
As one, the group held their breath waiting to see what I would do.
Jinja saw it in my eyes before I even said a word.
“No, you fool!” Jinja shouted as I brought the axe up from the sand.
Time seemed to slow in that instance. Jinja’s eyes doubled as I took Wesley’s advice and caught her off guard.
Jinja plunged the knife into my chest as I struck her forehead right across her hairline. I heard the crowd gasp as one as both Jinja and I fell to the sandy ground.
Pain wasn’t really the right word for what I felt in my chest at the moment. It was more like a deep burning sensation that demanded I just lie there and do nothing.
I could hear shouts, but at the moment, I was unable to respond.
“They’re both down!” someone shouted.
“What does that mean?” It sounded like Commander Shaw.
“Get up! Jinja, get up!” Jinja’s Valkyries shouted to her.
“You still with me?” X asked. “Good news is that you’ll heal. You just have to stay conscious and get up to your feet right now.”
I tried to say “easy for you to say” but ended up grunting something as I pushed myself to my hands and knees.
“He’s getting up!” Wesley shouted. “He’s getting up.”
More shouting I ignored, pushing myself to sit on my heels. I looked down at my torso. My own knife still protruded from my chest. I grabbed the handle and ripped it out like I was pulling off a band aid. It hurt a lot more than pulling off a band aid, for the record.
“Daniel Hunt from Immortal Corp is on his feet,” Madam Eternal called as I wobbled to stand on two legs. “The final fight will be Immortal Corp versus the Order.”
“And why should we wait!?” Atilla shouted from somewhere behind me.
I was still getting my bearings. My wrist was starting to work. I felt lightheaded from the loss of blood in my chest.
“Daniel, duck!” Angel shouted.
I caught her voice in the crowd just in time to lower my head. I felt a harsh blow of wind sail past my skull. Atilla’s staff whistled along with it.
As classy as always, Atilla saw me in my weakened state and decided to start the final fight early. The last thing I felt like doing right now was fighting a Cyber Hunter. I still remembered the battle with the woman. With her, I was fully rested and healed; against Atilla, I was neither.
“Get out of range; he’ll go for a headshot to take you out as soon as possible,” X warned me.
I stumbled forward, trying to create distance. It was no use; Atilla was on me like he smelled blood in the water.
I covered my head with my hands and forearms, but that left my ribs open. Atilla maneuvered the staff like a blur of silver light. He cracked me across what felt like every inch of my exposed body.
Get up, just get up, I yelled inside my own head.
I stumbled to my feet, bleeding and bruised from so many different wounds, I couldn’t even count them all. My entire body felt like one big welt.
Atilla must have struck me dozens of times. With each blow, I staggered a bit but refused to go down to my knees again.
If you go down now, it’s over, I told myself. Stay up. You’ve got to stay on your feet.
Atilla’s frustration was beginning to show, as was his own fatigue. Exhausted from holding his weapon and sending so many strikes at me, he hesitated for a moment before landing his next blow.
Instead, he circled me, twirling his staff.
“You Pack Protocol members don’t go down easily, do you?” he asked with a smirk. “I know that firsthand. That’s why Amber didn’t die and the Order fished her out of that lake.”
The mention of her name, the fact that Atilla held all the answers I wanted, but instead of giving them to me, decided to toy with me instead. It set me off in a way I’d never felt before.
Heat gathered in my chest.
My vision went red.
I let out some kind of roar that sounded more animal to my own ears than anything else. I lunged at him. Stupid. That was what he wanted me to do.
Somewhere in the background of the moment, I could hear X trying to calm me. Her words landed on deaf ears. I was lost in my rage.
When I lunged, Atilla sidestepped, sending a new wave of strikes with his staff to my head and legs.
I hurled both weapons at him as he jumped back. The axe spiraled through the air, followed by the knife.
How he was able to track both weapons and deflect them with his staff, I’d never know.
I rushed him, hot with anger.
Atilla did a full three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn. His staff spun so brutally, I couldn’t follow the movement. All I knew was it felt like I got shot in the head. I slumped to the ground, sand in my eyes, mouth, and nose.
“Don’t go!” X shouted, trying to keep me conscious. “Don’t go, stay with us! Stay awake. They’re cheering for you. Daniel, can you hear them? They want you to win!”
The metallic tang of blood filled my mouth anew as I struggled to stay conscious.
X was right, I could hear my name chanted over and over again. It was so loud, everyone had to be joining in, save the other members of the Order.
“Daniel! Daniel! Daniel!” The chants rose to the Martian sky.
“Him!?” Atilla screamed past those chanting. “Is this the leader you want to unite the heads of the Corporations and meet the alien threat?”
I was still face down in the sand, but I could hear Atilla’s boot crunch as he moved closer. A rough hand grabbed the back of my hair and jerked my head up.
I knew my healing ability had already closed the knife wound in my chest and was working on the multiple cuts and bruises Atilla had opened up. Still, this did nothing for the level of fatigue I felt.
Even my abilities had to have limits. With no food or water to draw energy from, I felt as though I was a well running dry. Healing was happening slower. I had abused my body and demanded too much from it.
“Him!? This bloody excuse for a soldier?” Atilla mocked the crowd. He jerked my head back and forth so violently by the back of my hair, I thought for sure I was going to be bald in a moment.
My left eye was swollen shut. Blood poured into my right to the extent I could barely make anything out. I was facing Julian and the woman from the Order. My eye found hers.
Despite the member from her own faction winning, she looked anything but pleased. She gave me a quick jerk of her head as if she were giving me permission to keep going.
I understood she couldn’t root against her own faction, but that look in her eyes, that tilt of her chin was enough for me to tell even she wanted to see Atilla taken down a peg or two.
“You’ll all thank me for this!” Atilla screamed, finally letting go of my head. “You’ll be glad I led you when—”
Now I don’t normally condone fighting dirty. But there are times in a man’s life when you do what you need to do to survive. This was one of those times.
I balled my right hand into a fist and channeled everything I could into my blow. I hit Atilla in the balls so hard, Cyber Hunter or not, he wasn’t going to be able to have kids anytime soon.
The air escaped his lips in a rush. A squeal came from him as he fell to the ground grabbing at his crotch.
Everyone watching gasped and “ooooooooooh’d” at the action.
“Get up!” Angel shouted from the tent. “Get back up, Daniel!”
More shouts reached my ears as everyone witnessed the impossible. I limped to my feet, stumbling over to where Atilla was also struggling to stand.
I fell on him more than tackled him, letting my weight take him to the ground.
We grappled there for a moment trading blows. I was so far gone, I didn’t even really have a plan. Years of training kicked in and I reacted. We both landed a few shots, rolling in the sand.
With his augmented strength from being a Cyber Hunter, Atilla was able to push me off.
I rolled across the sand, coming to rest where his staff lay abandoned.
I picked up the weapon, rising to my feet. The staff was lightweight, perfectly balanced.
Atilla sneered at me, kicking sand into my face with his left boot as he charged.
I turned my head just in time to avoid sand in my eyes, bringing the staff upward to connect with the bottom of his chin. The crack was so loud, it nearly echoed.
Atilla stumbled back, dazed but still on his feet.
I don’t really know what possessed me to try this move. As far as I could remember, I had never attempted it in the past.
I channeled what strength I had left in my legs, springing at him. I leapt into the air, sending my right knee into his chest with all of my weight behind it. I heard something pop in his chest.
He went down hard.
I dragged my body over to where he lay more than actually walked. I still held his staff in my hands.
To his credit, he was gasping for breath, trying to get up. Maybe I should have given him the option to surrender there, but I was no saint.
With his own staff, I cracked him across the jaw so hard, his head snapped to the side. Finally, he lay still.
A cheer went up from those gathered.
I dropped the staff to my side, trying to think straight.
“You did it, Daniel,” X said in my head with a voice so full of pride, it almost made me smile. “You did it!”
“Daniel Hunt from Immortal Corp will be leading us against the Voy invasion.” Madam Eternal moved beside me and placed a hand on my right wrist.
She lifted my hand into the air.
Another round of shouts and applause came my way.
I wish I had something more eloquent to say. I started to open my mouth, maybe even got a word or two in; I don’t remember. I fell into the dark embrace of unconsciousness that I had put off for so long.
“Idiot,” Alerna admonished me in my unconscious state. “An alien invasion takes place in three days and you’re fighting your own allies in some kind of barbaric human blood sport.”
“It’s nice to see you too,” I replied, catching something she said. “Three days? We still have four left before they invade.”
“Not once you wake up,” Alerna chided with a harsh stare. She raised her eyebrow and pursed her lips in thought. “You also need to learn to get that temper of yours in control. You played right into Atilla’s hands when he hinted at knowing what happened to Amber.”
“Yeah, well, nobody’s perfect,” I said with a shrug. I examined my surroundings for the first time. We stood inside a strange building—more of a cave—whose walls, ceiling, and floor were chiseled out of the ground itself. “Where are we anyway?”
“A memory of my own,” Alerna said dismissively. “Well, now that you have officially claimed the title as ruler, you need to turn your attention to the Voy.”
“Yeah, I don’t think my title is going to be ruler, but I know what you mean,” I said, looking down at my hands and shirt. It seemed in this state of Alerna’s memory, my body had been healed. “Three days will be enough to plan and prepare. It has to be.”
“You saw the creatures that you’re up against now,” Alerna reminded me. “This may be the last time I’m able to talk to you before the invasion.”
Something in her voice tipped me off that this bothered her.
“Why’s that?” I asked. “You said yourself that we still have three days. You can bother me in my sleep or odds are I’m going to get knocked unconscious again between now and then.”
She actually smiled; maybe not a true smile, but the edges of her lips turned up. It was strange and wonderful to see the stoic alien grin.
“Yes, you probably will be unconscious between now and then,” Alerna agreed. “However, that’s not the issue. The problem lies with my own deeming my intervening with the Voy enough at this point.”
“What do you mean?” I pushed.
“I mean that those in my circle believe everything is to be kept in balance,” Alerna explained. “I have done what I can to keep that balance by giving you information on your enemy. Now it is up to you to execute on that knowledge and prove yourself worthy.”
“We will,” I asserted with more conviction than I felt. “We’ll be ready when the Voy come.”
“Be wary of those you call friends,” Alerna cautioned with a gaze so serious, I almost looked away. “Not all is as it seems.”
“Who?” I asked. “Atilla?”
“He is not of whom I speak.”
“Well, who is it of whom you speak?” I questioned, not really knowing if that was proper English but not caring at the moment.
“The woman named Madam Eternal,” Alerna answered. “She is more than what she seems.”
“Well, yeah, I figured with a name like that, there had to be something up,” I agreed. “Hey, I don’t know if I ever thanked you.”
Alerna looked surprised at my comment.
“I mean it,” I said. “You’ve given us a fighting chance. Thank you.”
“Yes, yes.” Alerna shrugged off the praise. It was clear she was uncomfortable with gratitude. “Well, you needed it. It’s time for you to wake up now and prepare. Remember my warning of the woman, Madam Eternal.”
I woke with large dark eyes peering down at me.
“Holy crip!” I yelled, startled by the face so close to mine.
“Son of a—” Cryx jumped back, holding a hand to her chest. “You’re going to give me a heart attack. You always wake up like that?”
“No, only when someone’s staring at me a few inches from my face,” I said, sitting up in bed. I looked under the sheets. I was completely naked. “Hey what kind of weird stuff are you doing to me?”
“What no—not me.” Cryx shook her head from side to side violently. “You were muttering something in your sleep, so I leaned in. Angel and Jax were the ones that removed your clothes and cleaned you up.”
“Still doesn’t make me feel any better,” I said, looking around the room I had been given at the estate. “Clothes?”
My stomach rumbled, my mouth was dry.
“Food?” I added.
“Bapz thought you’d need both.” Cryx motioned to the dresser where fresh clothes and a warm meal waited. She then stood up from the bed and turned her back to give me some privacy.
I moved off the bed in my birthday suit, headed for the clothes and food. My mouth was already watering as the aroma of fresh bread and meat assailed my nostrils.
Rosemary Cripps really knew how to live. I was used to protein pouches and meal bars. To cook this kind of food not only took a large amount of money, but a state-of-the-art kitchen facility.
“So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and I think I need to learn how to fight,” Cryx said with her back still toward me. “I mean, if I’m going to be living in a house with mercenaries in it and all, I think I should at least be able to defend myself.”
I pulled on the pants and shoved my head through the soft short-sleeved shirt.
“Let me look at your eyes,” I requested, grabbing a piece of the bread and biting into it. It was glorious. Flavors exploded in my mouth. There was some kind of spiced meat and cheese in the bread. I felt like I could eat twenty of them.
“My eyes?” Cryx asked, turning around with a raised eyebrow. “I told you I was off the stim.”
“Right,” I said, studying her pupils. She looked like she was telling the truth. Her pupils were the normal dilation and her weight looked healthy. “You stay off the stim and I’ll see about setting up some classes with Angel or Jax. I mean, it might have to take a back seat to the alien invasion and all, but we’ll make it happen.”
“Really?” Cryx blurted, brightening up like the moon on a clear night. “You don’t think it’s too dangerous for me? Sister Monroe thought for sure you’d turn me down.”
“Too dangerous?” I repeated, working through another of the meat pockets. “You’re talking to the wrong guy if you wanted to hear some kind of voice of reason right now.”
“Thanks!” Cryx cried with a huge smile on her face. “Thank you!”
“Yeah,” I answered, coming up with a question I had yet to ask. Cryx had to be in her late teens but still not yet old enough to have been out of the house for long. “Hey, you have parents or something who are going to be worried about you?”
“Yeah, not so much.” Cryx shrugged, going over and helping herself to one of the sandwiches. “They divorced when I was young. Mom doesn’t really check in anymore. I think she’s on the moon somewhere. Dad has custody, but he travels for work nonstop. Won’t even notice I’m gone.”
Cryx shrugged off the explanation as if it were the simplest thing to understand. She had come to grips with the hard facts about her life. Despite her best attempt at downplaying the events I could see the pain in her eyes. A brief flash of hurt and anger, but as soon as it was there, it was gone again.
I didn’t have the words to comfort her, if she needed comforting at all. I wasn’t really the best at being anyone’s role model.
“Bapz is requesting a link,” X intervened, saving Cryx and me both from having to come up with something to say. I didn’t get the feeling Cryx wanted to continue the conversation anyway.
“Put him through,” I answered, going over and pouring myself a glass of water from a pitcher that sat on the desk.
“Good to hear that you are awake and well, sir,” Bapz said over the open channel. “Angel and Wesley assured me you’d be fine, but I was still worried about you.”
“I’m good to go,” I replied. “Thanks for the food.”
“Of course,” Bapz answered. “Wesley asked that I get in touch with you as soon as you are able. He wanted me to direct you to the armory, where preparations are now underway.”
“Right,” I said, looking out the windows to the rising sun. I had slept the rest of yesterday and through the night healing from my wounds. “I’m on my way.”
I pulled the shoes that had been provided for me on my feet, grabbing another of the meat pockets to go.
“I can always start training on my own,” Cryx said. “I mean, I know you’re busy, but if you had like twenty minutes to show me a few moves, I could start today.”
Teaching Cryx anything at the moment paled compared to the mountain of work that needed to be done. There was an alien invasion on the horizon for crying out loud and she was asking for a few pointers on how to hit someone.
Everything inside me told me to go. That one look in her eyes when she talked about her parents made me stay.
You’re getting soft, I told myself in my head. What would the gladiators on the moon tell you if they saw you giving lessons to a kid? But you’re not that guy anymore, are you?
“Preacher and Jax have also requested you get in contact with them once you were awake,” Bapz imparted via X’s implant.
Cryx’s face fell at the words.
“Tell them I’ll be right there,” I answered, putting down the extra meat pocket. “Cryx, feet wider, hands up, and palms open.”
Cryx’s face changed from sullen to ecstatic as she mirrored my own stance. “Like this?”
“Yep, keep your knees slightly bent, elbows in,” I instructed her. “Have you ever been in a fight before?”
“I mean, with the Hessian Guild here, we were more thieves trying not to get into fights, but I threw hands with a few of the other members when there was an argument,” Cryx answered.
“Threw hands, huh?” I asked.
I sent a strike to her face.
She was much too slow to react.
I stopped my fist an inch from her nose.
“Wow,” Cryx gasped. Her eyes went crossed as she stared at my closed hand.
“Hours, days, weeks, years of training will teach you the muscle memory you’ll need,” I explained, dropping my fist. “You have to get it so ingrained into you that when things happen, you just react. That only happens through practice, practice, and more practice.”
Cryx nodded. I could tell I had her full attention.
“Close your fists, pivot your hips when you throw a punch. Your power doesn’t come from the fist; it comes from your entire body channeled into your hand,” I instructed her. I lifted my right hand, palm open to provide a target. “Think of something that pisses you off. Channel those feelings into every punch. Breathe out through your mouth when you strike.”
Cryx nodded again. She was focused. She threw a right punch that actually stung my open palm a little.
“Good,” I coached her. “Twist those hips more violently. Don’t just hit my hand; drive through my hand. Again.”
Cryx slammed her fist into my palms.
“Again!” I shouted. “Harder!”
She did. Twisting her waist, she really let my palm have it. The slapping sound her strike made echoed around the room.
“Very good,” I admired, shaking out my hand from the numbness. “You practice that punch and you’re off to a great foundation.”
Cryx beamed at me so wide, I had to imagine no one had ever given her that kind of praise.
“I will,” she vowed, striking at the air in front of her. “I’ll practice.”
“I have no doubt you will,” I answered, turning to go. I opened the door to my room and stepped out.
“Daniel?” Cryx called.
“Yep?” I said, turning around.
“Thank you.” She smiled.
“You bet,” I answered before heading down the hall.
“X, can you plot a course for me to the armory?” I asked. “I still don’t know my way around this place.”
“Of course,” X answered, overlaying a shining gold broken line of augmented reality for me to follow. “What you just did for Cryx—it means a lot to her. You’re doing something really good there. Maybe not just for her. Maybe for both of you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s just not talk about it,” I urged.
“Does providing emotional support for others make you feel uncomfortable?” X asked. “Or maybe your own healing through helping others is the cause for your sweaty hands.”
“I don’t have sweaty hands,” I argued.
“The slight up-beat in your heart rate says otherwise,” X said, unwilling to let the subject go. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Daniel. You’re doing some real good, not just on a leadership level, but on a personal level.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, feeling as uncomfortable as being in a group hug with a bunch of Voy. “I just don’t want to talk about it. We have a to do list a meter long. Let’s get to work. Wesley talked about some kind of war council being set up for strategy. I want Julian and the woman from the Order to be on it.”
“Understood,” X responded as we made our way down to the bottom story of the manor. “With the invasion only three days away, some of the corporations accepted an invite from Wesley to stay here while we prepare. Those that did not promised to come when they were called.”
“The Order?” I asked. “Are they staying here?”
“Unfortunately, they aren’t,” X replied. “They did, however, promise to return as soon as they were needed.”
“I guess that’ll have to do,” I remarked. “If we can set up that meeting tonight, I’ll find out what I need to know if I have to beat it from them.”
X led me deep into the first floor of the manor and to a room with a steel door. The door was closed at the moment with a large metal wheel in place. Beside the wheel was a digital display.
A bright blue light scanned me.
“Please state your name,” a robotic voice said.
“Daniel Hunt,” I answered.
“Master Hunt.” The robotic voice sounded pleased. “Identity confirmed, access granted.”
There were a series of thick clicks and metal tumblers rolling. The massive door slowly swung outward, revealing a state-of-the-art armory. I felt like a kid in a candy shop.
The room was way larger than I initially expected. On the left were a series of steel work tables and tools. On the right, row after row of body armor, crates of weapons, shelves of rifles, bladed weapons, and heavy guns.
Everything in the room was metal with bright white lights overhead. Deeper into the room, Wesley stood with Bapz discussing the state of the armory.
“We’ll need all the firepower we can get,” Wesley said, taking a puff from the cigar in his mouth. He looked down at a datapad, scrolling through the inventory. “There’s enough smaller weapons here, but we’ll need some heavier stuff as well. I’ll coordinate with the Immortal Corp members that are still coming in after the GG attack and see what assets they have. We’ll need dropships, land vehicles, and cannons large enough to take down their ships if need be.”
“Compiling a list of our assets and sending them to you now,” Bapz responded.
Bapz wore a smart-looking suit with a bowtie. His silver skin shimmered in the light of the armory. His hair was slicked back, molding into his skin. He turned when he heard me approach.
“Master Hunt,” he said with a genuine smile. “I’m glad to see you up and around. I have a present for you.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Bapz moved across the room to a table to gather a thick briefcase.
“You did good,” Wesley said, looking at me from his datapad. “I knew you’d pull through. I knew you’d find a way.”
“The war council,” I pointed out. “We should meet tonight to go over assets and the plan of attack.”
“Agreed.” Wesley looked down at his datapad. “I’ll make the call and get them here. Preacher’s been asking for you.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said.
Wesley looked like he was about to say more, when Bapz returned with the suitcase in hand.
“X and I made it for you while you were recovering from your injuries,” Bapz explained. “Open it.”
Bapz supported the case in both hands to allow me to open the metal case.
I clicked both locks on either side and lifted the top.
I wasn’t prepared to find what was inside.
I couldn’t help but grin as I saw my MK II refurbished and cleaned. Beside it sitting in the hollowed-out foam case was a small drum. I’d missed having the ability to cycle through various projectile rounds.
But that wasn’t all. A flat black-handled hatchet with a silver blade as well as a knife sat in grooves in the case. A pair of silver wristbands rested alongside them.
I was speechless. The weapons were a thing of beauty.
“So do you like them?” X asked.
“Like them?” I uttered. “I think I’m in love.”
“Bapz has access to a weapons printer the likes even I had never seen,” X explained. “We cleaned up your MK II but then created that drum you like. You’ll be able to cycle through; normal, explosive, gas, and neutralizing rounds again.”
I lifted the heavy MK II out of the case along with the drum. I could tell by the weight of the drum it was already loaded. I slapped it into the butt of the weapon and aimed down the sight.
I cycled through the different rounds inside the drum by pressing my thumb in four different positions on the handle. I could feel the drum rotate on command as it obeyed my requests.
“We can get you a hip holster for it as well,” Bapz told me, eyeing the weapons still in the case. “X and I also cooked you up something that will help you when you battle with the axe and knife.”
I reluctantly placed the MK II back into the case. I wanted to go out and test it now.
“What are these?” I asked, lifting the silver wristbands up. All silver, there was a faint blue light that shone in the center of each piece. “I’m not really one for jewelry.”
“Oh, I think you’ll make an exception for these,” X said. “And they’re not jewelry. Try them on and then throw your axe and knife.”
“Throw them?” I asked, placing the silver wristbands over each hand. They bonded to my skin and automatically fit snugly. “Where? At what?”
“Oh please, allow me,” Bapz said. He handed the case to Wesley then moved backward to the wall where the worktables sat. He pressed a small red button on the wall I had yet to notice.
The wall itself opened from the middle. Another room, this one a range for testing weaponry, was revealed past the sliding wall.
The range was long and narrow with enough space for five, maybe six people to work side by side.
“Oh, this place is so crazy,” I mumbled under my breath.
“You haven’t seen anything yet.” Wesley grunted, giving me a look that said he wasn’t kidding. “There’s a zoo in here too. Well, not a zoo; more of a haven for rare animals. She even had a—”
A loud beep cut off Wesley as Bapz ordered the range to produce a pair of targets. The targets were more like mannequins with a head, torso, and arms. He placed them ten meters down range.
“I noticed an opportunity when you’re fighting,” X explained. “Once you throw the axe and knife, those weapons are useless unless you were to go and pick them up again. What if we created a way for you to use them over and over again? Unlike the MK II, you would never have to worry about reloading or running out of ammunition.”
“That would be great, but I don’t think I’d be able to carry an infinite supply of axes and knives,” I answered. “I still have to practice with them. Right now, muscle memory is the only way I’ve been able to fight with them.”
“Old habits die hard,” Wesley agreed.
“Throw the axe and knife down range then beckon them back to your palm by jerking your fingers toward you like you would tell someone to get closer,” X coached me. “When you do, get ready to catch them.”
I lifted the axe and knife out of the case Wesley held for me.
The weapons felt as though they belonged in my hands. Cold steel in my palms was even soothing in a way.
I approached the range. Focusing on the target, I sent the knife spinning in the air first and then the axe. They arched through the empty space between me and the dummy. The knife impaled my target in the face while the axe buried itself deep in the chest.
“A specialized magnatic pull will draw the weapons back to you when you beckon for them,” Bapz explained. “They’ll come back to you quickly, so get ready to catch them.”
I couldn’t help but notice Wesley take a few steps back.
I placed both hands in front of me. I motioned with my fingers to come back to me like I would tell someone to keep backing up if they were parking in a spot.
My heart raced with eager anticipation.
I jerked my finger even harder toward me.
The axe and knife wiggled then pulled free.
“Wow, wow, wow,” I marveled, bracing myself as both weapons hurtled through the air toward me. It was a strange act to willingly stand in front of weapons heading for me. Everything in my body told me to turn and run, at least hit the floor.
My only saving grace in that moment was that the axe and knife shot toward me handles first. With a grunt, I settled myself, forcing my feet to stay planted. Both weapons landed in my palms with a dull slap.
I was breathing heavily. I half expected to get my palm impaled by one of the weapons.
“Hey, it works!” X said ecstatically.
“It works?” I repeated. “You mean you two didn’t test these?”
“I mean Bapz did, but we weren’t sure if your reflexes would be as fast as his,” X commented as if it were no big deal at all. “You’re technically the first human to try it out.”
“Did you know about this?” I asked Wesley.
“Why do you think I took a few steps back?” Wesley asked, returning the case to Bapz and taking the cigar out of his mouth. “You were already a force to be reckoned with, but with that upgraded MK II of yours and now these recallers, you’ll be the Voy’s worst nightmare.”
“Recallers, huh?” I said. “I like that.”
“Excuse the interruption, but we have a call coming in from a cloaked channel,” X answered.
“Would they be able to track us if we open up the line?” I asked. “It could be the GG. Captain Valentine has my channel.”
“No. They wouldn’t be able to track you here,” Bapz reassured us. “When Rose set this place up, she made sure we were in a dark spot completely cloaked from tracking.”
I looked over at Wesley for conformation. He had been in this game a lot longer than I had.
“Go for it,” he said, taking a hard puff from his cigar.
The heavy odor filled the room. It smelled good, rich even.
“Put them through, X,” I directed. “You can put them on speaker.”
“Hello?” Zoe Valentine’s voice came over the line, stressed and low. “Daniel, this is Zoe. If you can hear me, I had nothing to do with the ambush. You have to believe me. Please pick up. I repeat, this is Captain Zoe Valentine. If this channel is still active, please put me through to Daniel Hunt.”
“Zoe, I’m here,” I said. Despite being attacked by the Galactic Government, I still trusted the woman. I didn’t think she had anything to do with the attempt on our lives or the attack on Immortal Corp, but I wasn’t going to tell her that just yet.
“Daniel, oh, thank the creator,” Zoe uttered, relieved. “I thought we might have lost you in the attack. You have to believe me. I had nothing to do with that. I had no idea General Armstrong was going to send the Shadow Praetorians after you and Immortal Corp. This was the first time I could get a transmission out. They’re watching me.”
“Tone levels, inflection in her voice and the pace of her speaking all check out that she’s telling the truth,” X relayed in my head. “Be careful, but I think you can trust her.”
“I want to believe you,” I said out loud. “I do, but besides your word, what else do you have?”
I know I sounded cold, but there were dead Immortal Corp bodies in the wake of all of this. Wesley and I could have even been killed. I needed to be cautious here.
“I’d do anything for my daughter,” Zoe answered. “Right now, I’m having her taken to a military facility on the moon. The GG doesn’t understand what they’re up against. They won’t until it’s too late. They’ve made contact with the aliens. They’re going to try and talk with them. I agree with you, these aliens didn’t come this far and prepare to the extent they have to sit down and have a cup of caf.”
“They’ll slaughter them,” Wesley murmured under his breath. “It’s a trap.”
“When’s the meeting?” I asked. “Where?”
“General Armstrong plans to meet with the Voy tomorrow night, at a location on the far side of Mars,” Zoe said. “I’ve been all but completely taken out of the loop. They still trust me since I didn’t warn you or try to make contact with you as far as they know. I think the only reason I’m still given access to information is because I was the first to bring this to their attention. They want me around in case I can help or provide any other pieces of info I might have forgotten.”
My mind was working overtime. The meeting between the Voy and the Galactic Government was to take place tomorrow night. That would be only two days until the Voy planned to invade.
There was no way the Voy were going to come to an agreement now. It was an ambush so clear to see, it was frustrating why the GG couldn’t pick up on it.
“We have to save them from themselves,” I blurted. “They’re walking into a trap. Maybe if we get them out of it, they’ll see that this only ends in one way: war.”
“I can try and get you coordinates and time.” Zoe’s voice lowered. “I have to go. There’s someone coming.”
The line went dead.
I stood looking at Wesley and Bapz.
“You trust her?” Wesley asked around his cigar perched in the right corner of his mouth.
“I do,” I said.
“Me too,” he confirmed. “We’ll gear up to get the GG out of this mess if we can. We should send out a drone in advance to confirm everything Zoe is telling us. As far as I can see, she has no reason to lie. I’m pretty good at reading people. When we met her, I didn’t think she was the type to lie and lead people to their deaths.”
I nodded my agreement.
“I’ll make the calls and get the war council here to go over our plans tonight,” Wesley said. “Any one besides the Order you want on the council?”
I remembered my dream and the warning Alerna gave of Madam Eternal.
“I think we should have Commander Shaw from Phoenix on board,” I said. “What do you know of Madam Eternal?”
“That’s a loaded question,” Wesley said with a sideways stare. “I know that there’s things she does that can’t be explained. Immortal Corp and most of the other corporations are founded on science and technology. Madam Eternal has chosen to follow a different path of knowledge.”
Wesley didn’t use the word “magic” but he didn’t have to. I could read between the lines. After witnessing aliens, I was ready to believe anything that came my way next.
“She’s never done anything but help the corporations as our unofficial healer,” Wesley went on to confirm. “We don’t have to have her on the war council, but everyone trusts her. That’s why she was the one who chose the stones when the fighting started.
“I was going to include her in the war council unless you have reservations,” Wesley said.
“No,” I answered. I decided to take the approach that having the mysterious woman close and under my eye was better than pushing her to the outskirts of the conflict. Besides, she had done nothing wrong yet. “Let’s have her on the council. It might be smart if all the other corporations trust her.”
“I agree,” Wesley replied, heading for the door. “I’ll set the meeting for tonight. After dinner.”
With that, he was gone.
I knew I had only scratched the surface on what needed to be done, but the knife and axe in my hands along with the recallers practically begged me to be used.
“I’m sure if you took a few minutes for yourself, things will manage to hold together,” Bapz offered, reading my thoughts. “I’ve given X access to the range and training room. Should you need anything else, you have only to ask.”
“Thanks,” I said, looking down at the weapons in my hand. “Thanks for everything.”
“You are welcome, sir,” Bapz said, also moving to leave the room. He hesitated, opened then closed his mouth again.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I can’t help but feel like my former owner would have been glad she chose you as a successor,” Bapz opined. “If you find time today before your meeting, there is a gated area to the rear of the grounds. There’s wildlife there and a near extinct species of animal I think you might enjoy.”
“Thanks,” I said, somewhat confused. “I’m not sure if animal watching is in the cards for me right now.”
“If you have time, it would be worth your while,” Bapz said with a mysterious shrug then moved out the door.
“Any idea what he’s talking about?” I asked X.
“Sifting through the data in his memory banks is daunting even for me,” X admitted. “There is a mountain of information here. Rosemary Cripps came from wealth and a line of adventurers and some eclectic ancestors. There are reports in the information files about animals nearly extinct to those that were extinct and experiments to bring back the species.”
“Weird,” I said, stepping into the training room while twirling the knife and axe in each of my hands. The feeling was natural, just like walking. Although I couldn’t remember the years spent training with the weapons, the muscle memory from working with them so much came back as easy as breathing.
The range was set up with lights in the walls and ceiling. A single target shaped like a person sat in front of me now.
“Can you switch up the targets so there are a few moving?” I asked X.
“Oh, I can do better than that,” X said, lowering the single dummy target into the floor. “Everything in the range seems to be maneuverable.”
I watched in awe as X brought up ten dummies from the floor that moved around like real people. The legs of the dummies didn’t move, but each of them stood on a steel plate that rolled over the floor even smoother than someone could run.
A grin split my face. This was going to be fun.
I spent the next half hour maneuvering through the dummies. Sending my knife and axe at them then calling them back to use again and again. Every time I scored a hit, X would pull the dummy into the floor then bring up another one somewhere in the room.
She didn’t take it easy on me either. She sent them toward me at a sprint then jerked them to the side, trying to avoid my blows. She attacked me from behind with the dummies and all around. One time, she even succeeded in slamming one of the dummies into me.
“Sorry, are you okay?” X asked in a worried tone.
“I think I’ll heal,” I said, lifting myself off the ground. I wiped the sweat from my eyes. “Come on, don’t take it easy on me; you won’t be doing me any favors. Again, more, faster.”
“You got it,” X said.
By the time we were done, I felt comfortable calling each weapon back to my hand. I found that I could catch the axe and knife in either hand. Beckoning them both brought the pair at the same time. If I only recalled one of them; the knife came first, followed by the axe.
“Thanks again,” I said to X. “With these, I’ll really be able to take it to the Voy.”
My mind wandered back to the Voy interrogator named Dall. He had been the one to sic that alien bug around my throat before he cut me open to take a sample of my blood and tissue.
As much as I didn’t want to admit it, it was probably that sample that led the Voy to discovering a way to inhibit our healing factor. Preacher was proof that the Voy could take away our healing ability; whether or not we could ever get it back was yet to be seen.
Payback was on my mind. How I would find him in the war that was about to break was beyond me at this point. All I knew was that he didn’t strike me as the kind who I’d meet on the front line.
He’d let his army do his dirty work for him. He was the kind of leader that led from the back.
“You think we have time to check out the rear of the compound that Bapz was talking about before the meeting?” X asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” I answered, exiting the training room. I scanned the armory looking for a belt to hold my MK II along with its drum.
Not only did I find a holster that fit the weapon like a glove, but a black utility belt that had sheaths for the axe and knife at my waist.
Carrying the full complement of weapons with me gave me a sense of peace I couldn’t explain.
X overlaid my sight with an augmented reality line to the rear of the mansion. Our path led us out a set of wide double doors.
The Martian sun was high in the sky before it began its descent. The cold that came with each night was just beginning to descend on the planet.
Dragon Hold was positioned on top of a high hill, overlooking the city of Athens. The piece of land it sat on ran down the back of the slowly descending hill as far as my eye could see. The land Rose’s family chose to claim as their own was truly massive in scale.
A kind of pen was set up to the right rear side of the mansion. Pen really wasn’t the right word since there were no gates or fences lining the area. Still the fact that this place was set apart couldn’t be argued.
Instead of sand, actual brown dirt covered the area. Nothing green would grow, but boulders had been brought in as well as what looked like fake trees. Not just a few of them either. Someone had taken the time to painstakingly set up hundreds of structures designed to look like real life living trees.
“You know what those are, right?” X asked.
“I’ve never seen a tree in real life,” I answered in awe. “They all died along with the Earth, way before my time. Still, I’ve seen pictures.”
My imagination ran wild with wonder.
Is this what a forest looked like? I asked myself. There were millions of these trees all across Earth?
I reached out, touching the false tree closest to me. It was cold and felt like some kind of plastic. The branches were decorated with deep greens of every hue I could imagine.
A scent rich and musty filled my nose.
“What’s that I’m smelling?” I asked X. “It smells like it belongs here somehow.”
“It seems as though the Cripps family spared no expense when constructing, well when constructing anything,” X answered. “The fake trees were designed to give off the actual aroma of what a real forest would smell like.”
“Man, rich people,” I mused out loud.
Something moved in the depths of the forest to my right.
I looked over just in time to see something large pull back deeper into the shadows.
“X?” I asked, using my enhanced vision to try and pick out whatever had been there a moment before. “What kind of animals live in here exactly?”
“It seems the Cripps family had a fascination with species of animals long extinct on Earth,” X said as though she were reading the information to me from some kind of sheet she had pulled up. “They were involved in everything from trying to resurrect dinosaurs to bringing back—”
The way X’s voice just stopped, in a very unlike X way, put me on high alert.
I placed my right hand on the handle of my MK II.
“Like what?” I tried not to sound rushed. “X, are there freaking dinosaurs in here with us?”
“No,” X said. “Well, at least I don’t think so. They were working on bringing back a species of predators called Canis lupus alces. I think that’s what they have in here.”
“X, that’s not helping,” I muttered. “I can’t even pronounce those words, much less understand what they mean.”
X brought up images that popped up in a small square in the right hand corner of my visions. What I saw looked like a normal wolf to me, but was much, much larger.
The animal pictured seemed as though it could take my face in its jaws in a single bite.
“Wonderful,” I said, not pulling my weapon out but gripping it tighter. “Should I be worried about being turned into dinner?”
“Yes and no,” X answered. “Files say they’ve been domesticated, but only by the Cripps bloodline.”
“That’s not going to help us here,” I said. More motion came from the woods deeper in front of me. There was more than one wolf. Flashes of various grey, white, and black fur streaked by my right and left.
They were surrounding us like any good pack would.
“I’m starting to regret coming out here,” I told X. “Was there a point to this?”
“Bapz gave me a file to read should we head here,” X said in a calm voice. “The Cripps family trained the animals to be friendly to their friends and allies. They taught them a phrase. More than taught; embedded the words in their DNA.”
Howls lifted to the sky above us. It was either my imagination or it was getting darker. The limbs from the trees overhead seemed to shut out the sun itself as the predators yipped and barked to one another.
“We’re going to need that phrase sooner rather than later,” I prodded. “Or there’s going to be a lot of blood spilled here for no reason.”
I lifted the MK II out of the hostler by my hip. My right thumb pressed the area of the handle that would tell the drum to load the knockout rounds. There was no point in killing what Rose’s family had worked so hard to resurrect from the grasp of death.
The howls were coming louder and faster now. So loud, I thought for sure I should be able to get a clear look of at least one of them by now.
That old saying be careful what you wish for came to mind as the first wolf exited the tree line in front of me. To say it was large was an understatement.
The lupine predator was so tall, its ears came up to the bottom of my chest. Yellow eyes looked at me hungrily. So many teeth showed from its mouth, I wondered if Rose’s family hadn’t altered the DNA to add extra.
The wolf was dark grey with white spots on its chest and ears.
I pointed my MK II at its chest. I stood straight and tall and growled back at the wolf.
I wasn’t really sure if that was going to help, but with all the yipping and barking around me, I wasn’t going to just sit there and let them intimidate me.
“What are you doing?” X asked me, somewhat amused. “Trying to communicate with them?”
“No, I heard somewhere posturing and yelling is how creatures show their dominance,” I answered, catching more movement from my left and right as the wolf in front of me was joined by the rest of its pack.
There had to be a dozen of them, all just slightly smaller than the one in front of me I took to be the alpha of the pack.
“The phrase, X,” I said, unable to keep the frustration out of my voice. “You have that phrase yet?”
“Yes, here it is,” X said in a rush of words. “Bow to the moon.”
The alpha wolf in front of me growled then crouched close to the ground, ready to spring. I could see thick coils of muscle ripple under its coat of fur.
“Bow to the moon!” I shouted to the wolf in front of me. I turned to do a complete three-hundred-and-sixty-degree circle. “Bow to the moon!”
The result was instantaneous.
The wolves around me silenced. They looked at me as if they were seeing me for the first time. The alpha wolf actually cocked its head to the side as if it were judging me. It looked me up and down.
“That’s it?” I asked. “Bow to the moon?”
“That’s all that I have here,” X informed me. “It was the phrase used only for family and a very select few trusted friends.”
“I’ve heard that phrase before,” I muttered. “Where have I heard that phrase before?”
The lead alpha wolf sauntered over to me sniffing my boots and pants heavily. I wasn’t the squeamish type, but neither was I stupid. Having a creature made of muscle and teeth like the wolf so close to me made me a little jumpy.
I kept my MK II in my hand just in case the catch phrase wore off or the wolf decided I wasn’t up to its standards.
Soon the whole pack was around me sniffing and jumping this way and that like I was one of their own.
“Okay,” I said, finally holstering my weapon. “I like dogs. Wolves are like dogs, right?”
I reached out a tentative hand to the alpha, who sniffed it. The wolf shoved its head under my palm, giving itself a rough pat on the head.
“There we go,” I said, scratching its scalp and ears. “Niiiice killing machine.”
It wasn’t as if the wolves wore collars or tags of any kind, so their names or gender were a mystery to me for the time being.
The name Butch jumped to mind, as if I had once owned a dog with the same name.
“Easy, Butch,” I said, stroking the wolf’s ears. “Easy, good boy.”
I took my chances, assuming a kneeling position. The wolves came up to me, sniffing me from head to toe. They cleaned my face and hands with their long pink tongues.
The beasts from the forest that had seemed so intimidating minutes before were reduced to a pile of puppies all vying for their turn to sniff the stranger.
Butch growled when one of the other wolves got to close to his spot at my right.
It had been so long since I had interacted with an animal, I almost forgot the joy it brought. I actually heard myself laugh out loud when Butch nuzzled under my arm to stick his head in the crook of my elbow.
“Easy, there’s plenty of pets to go around for everyone,” I said with a grin. “I only have two hands.”
“Have you ever had a pet before?” X asked. “You seem like a natural with them.”
“Not that I remember, but that doesn’t mean much these days,” I answered. “I think someone said we had a pet in the early days of the Pack Protocol while we were going through training, but I can’t remember.”
As the minutes passed and I handed out pets and scratched with abandon, the weight that had temporarily been lifted from my shoulders descended again.
“All right, guys,” I said, rising to my feet. “Time to get back to work.”
The wolves’ ears perked up. A few of them looked at me as if they wanted to go.
“No, no, can’t have all of you following. Stay.” I motioned with my hands with both palms facing toward them. “Do you guys understand stay?”
I don’t know why I was asking. It wasn’t like they were going to give me an answer.
The grey and white alpha barked at them and yipped. The wolf then moved over to my side as if he was telling the rest of the pack to stay put and he would go with me.
“No, no, you all have to stay,” I said, turning to go. “I’ll visit when I can.”
I made it a few yards from the man-made forest before looking down to my right to see the alpha wolf by my side.
He looked back at me with those large yellow eyes of his. He split his mouth in what I swore was a grin.
“Looks like you have a new friend,” X teased.
“No, nope, no.” I shook my head. “This isn’t going to work. X. Is there anything in all that information about how to make them stay?”
“Not that I can tell and I’ve been over it all,” X answered. “Perhaps when you used the phrase, it triggered something inside the alpha. Like it had been waiting to find its master and now you’ve come.”
I weighed my options. It wasn’t like I was able to restrain the animal. I mean, what was I going to do, go try to find a chain or something a tie it up?
Might not be a bad thing to have an extra pair of eyes watching your back, I thought to myself. Maybe I can sic Butch on Atilla and make him pee his pants a little.
I smirked at the idea.
“Well, I guess we’re three now,” I accepted, heading out of the forest. The large wolf fell in step, jogging beside me.
“We make quite the trio, don’t we?” X asked. I could practically hear the smile in her voice.
“Yeah, yeah, I guess we are,” I said as we made our way back to the mansion.
The sun was going down, signaling not only dinner, but the approaching meeting with the heads of the war council.
If all went well tonight, we would not only have a solid plan on how to combat the Voy, but I might also get my answers on what hand the Order had played in Amber’s rescue.
X laid out my path using the augmented reality she overlapped on top of my vision. We passed a few Way settlers, who looked on at me and Butch with dropped jaws.
I just smiled and nodded. For his part, Butch didn’t look like he could care less. He had seen people before.
I made my way up the wide stairs to the second floor, where a massive meeting room was set up for us, complete with a spread of food that smelled so good, I couldn’t help from salivating.
“What in the name of all that is unholy is that?” Angel asked, looking at Butch as we walked in.
“One of Rose Cripps’ little gifts,” I responded, heading straight for the food. “I named him Butch.”
“Ahh, I like dogs,” Jax said, rising from his seat and coming over to Butch with an open hand. “Hey, puppy, hey.”
“That’s not a puppy,” Angel corrected. “That is a freaking werewolf.”
“Canis lupus alces or the Kenai Peninsula Wolf actually,” Bapz amended, entering the room with Wesley. “Brought back from extinction, bred to be loyal and fierce.”
Butch sniffed Jax’s hand then let him pet his head.
“Cute,” Wesley said, heading over to the long wooden table on the far side of the room. “We have larger issues here to discuss than wolves brought back from extinction. The rest of the war council will be here soon and we have a lot to go through.”
“Correct.” Bapz also moved to the table and lifted a right hand. A light projected from his open palm and a blue list appeared over the table. “Here are the items I’ve been able to come up with along with Wesley’s help. We should touch on each of the topics before the council begins.”
The next hour was a lesson in patience. The best thing was the food. I casually slipped a piece of meat to Butch, who sat next to my chair at the head of the table.
Wesley went down the list of assets, Immortal Corp soldiers still willing to fight with us, equipment we both had and would need.
Bapz chimed in with assets owned by the Cripps that would prove useful in the coming fight.
“There are close to fifty members of Immortal Corp still loyal and that contacted us through the back channel,” Jax added. “They’re arriving slowly, making sure they haven’t been followed by the GG.”
“Good, we’ll need them all.” Wesley nodded along with Jax’s words. “Still no word from the Founders. At this point, we can assume they’re dead or so far into hiding, we’ll never hear from them again. With the GG on their scent, they’ll be ghosts for the rest of their lives.”
“So will we,” I said. “The GG think we’re dead.”
“That’ll change when we save their lives from the mess they’re getting themselves into with the Voy,” Angel answered. “I—”
Whatever else Angel was about to say was cut off by a low growl from Butch. We all followed the wolf’s eyes to the closed doors to the meeting room.
The door creaked as if someone either moved to lean against it or moved their weight off it.
The hackles on Butch’s back stood on end. Lips spread back from teeth the size of my thumb.
My hand moved to the handle of my MK II. I saw the others do the same. Everyone besides Bapz, who I wasn’t sure carried a weapon at all, reached for their own.
The door slowly opened. Madam Eternal walked inside with a friendly smile on her lips.
“Easy, friends,” Madam Eternal said, looking at each of us, including Butch. “I’m here as requested to do whatever I can to help.”
I relaxed the hold on my weapon, remembering the warning Alerna gave me in the last dream I had of her.
Butch stopped growling, but he didn’t seem to trust the woman. He followed her with his large yellow eyes through the room.
“How did you—I mean, I should have sensed you approaching,” Bapz said, as confused as the rest of us. “I know you’re staying here, but I’m one with the house. I should have sensed you coming.”
“No one’s perfect,” Madam Eternal said with an easy smile. She came up to me and extended a hand. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. My name is Madam Eternal and you are Daniel Hunt. A very courageous performance you put on to claim the title of leadership. I have no doubt you’ll be just as fierce when it’s time to face our real enemy.”
Despite Alerna’s warning, it was hard not to like the woman. She had a strong grip, looked me in the eyes, and spoke like a true friend.
She was older, but that did nothing to diminish her beauty. Her long red robe fell down her, hiding her athletic body.
“I’ll do my best,” I answered. “Thank you for coming.”
“Of course,” Madam Eternal said with a slight head bow. “If I’m not mistaken, the other members of the war council are arriving as we speak.”
“How would you—how did you know that?” Bapz asked. “The Order as well as Commander Shaw from Phoenix are just arriving at the main gate now.”
“Only a feeling,” Madam Eternal replied with a knowing wink to Bapz. “A lucky guess.”
Madam Eternal struck up a conversation with Wesley and Angel as Bapz excused himself to go greet the rest of our guests.
“Alerna was right not to trust her,” X said in my head. “There’s just something off about her. Something I can’t put my finger on.”
“Well, better she’s here with us where we can see her instead of who knows where, doing who knows what,” I muttered under my breath. “Besides, I have bigger problems to worry about right now. Tonight I get my answers from the Order one way or another.”
“Hey, got bad news for you, buddy,” Jax began, joining me at the table by the food. “I don’t think Butch is a he.”
“What?” I said, looking down at the wolf, whose tongue lolled out the side of its mouth.
“Butch is a she,” Jax said, looking at me as if he were spelling something out to a kid. “She’s missing the necessary parts to be a he, if you get what I’m saying.”
“Oh,” I said, looking down at the animal. “I didn’t even notice. I didn’t look. I just assumed since she was the alpha of the pack. Guess I was wrong.”
“In rare cases, a strong female will emerge from a pack to take control,” X explained. “It seems Rose’s pack was led by one of these ferocious females.”
“So, what are you going to name her now?” Jax asked, taking a sip from a steaming mug of caf. “Butchet or Buchess?”
“Buchess has a certain ring to it.” I reached down to ruffle the wolf’s soft ears. “I think I’ll still call her Butch for short.”
A few minutes passed of Jax informing me of members of Immortal Corp who had contacted him through the back channel. I only half listened. Not that I wasn’t trying, but my mind kept turning back to the Order arriving and getting the answers to Amber I so desperately needed.
Soon Commander Shaw entered the room wearing a white suit followed by Julian, the leader of the Order, and the Cyber Hunter woman whose name I still didn’t know.
Both Julian and the woman nodded to me when they entered. Commander Shaw came up to me with a ready grin. He pumped my hand with pride.
“I wouldn’t have anyone else leading, Daniel,” Commander Shaw reassured me. “I’m glad it’s you. You have the full support of Phoenix and our resources behind you. If we don’t win this fight, there’s no world left to bring back from the ashes. We’re so close now. So close to cultivating the Earth and replenishing the life there we lost.”
“I’m with you,” I said, thinking back to Immortal Corp and the assets it held, along with Rose’s fortune. “Once the Voy have been taken care of, maybe I’ll be in a position to help make that happen.”
“Thank you,” Commander Shaw said, looking around the room. “I know you have other people to talk to, but you should know that Monica keeps asking for you. She told me to send her best.”
“Tell her I said hi,” I said, thinking back to the woman and her father who had created the super seed that would bring life back to a dead Earth.
“She wanted to come herself, but I wasn’t sure how the meeting between the Corporations was going to play out,” Commander Shaw confided. “If you have any time, reconnecting with her would be good for you both. In stressful circumstances such as these, surrounding yourself with people who have your best interest in mind is important, trust me. I’ve been around for a while.”
“I do,” I told the commander as we moved away. “Thanks.”
I moved toward the two members of the Order. Julian stepped forward to shake my hand. Under his gloves, it was easy to tell the Cyber Hunter had a mechanical hand.
He applied just enough pressure not to be crushing.
Julian’s dark eyes searched my own as he said, “Well done, fighting for the role of leader. It’s no secret our two factions have been enemies. Perhaps it’s time to leave that in the past. We’re with you.”
“Thank you,” I said, removing my hand and trying not to wince. “In the spirit of our new friendship, I was wondering if you might be able to spread some light on a woman’s grave that isn’t a grave at all, just an empty box.”
“I know who you mean,” Julian said, motioning to the dark-haired woman next to him. “Cassie should be the one to tell you. She saw the actions executed herself.”
My heart drummed in my chest as Cassie stepped forward and Julian backed out of the conversation. I was so wound up, ready to hear the news, I didn’t even notice everyone at the table looking at us until Cassie turned her head to look at them.
“Daniel, Daniel,” Wesley called. “Everyone’s ready to begin the meeting.”
I wanted to yell. I wanted to scream at him for pity’s sake to give me a few moments to get the information I had been chasing ever since I remembered the woman I loved.
Is that what a leader would do, Daniel? I asked myself. Son of a gun. Answers are literally staring you in the face and you’re not going to grab them.
“Right,” I said, turning to everyone at the table. The words came out through gritted teeth. “So where are we?”
I was there more as a figurehead than anything else. Wesley took the reins of the meeting, which was fine by me. I had never planned a full-on assault, nor did I know the resources available to us.
Commander Shaw informed us of the mechanized units Phoenix had been constructing. Julian promised air support while Madam Eternal took it upon herself to tally the soldiers each corporation owned.
The number ended up being nine thousand, give or take a few mercenary bands that we would be able to hire if we could get a hold of them.
“Nine thousand against, how many did you say?” Commander Shaw questioned from his seat at the table.
“We don’t know.” Wesley shrugged. “Thousands for sure, maybe more.”
“Not very smart to go into battle not knowing the size or strength of your enemy.” Julian crossed his arms over his chest. His brow scrunched in thought. “What do we know?”
“We know they have air support and creatures the size of vehicles that they grow,” I said. “If I had to guess, I’d say they have us outnumbered three, maybe four to one right now.”
“We’ll meet them outside of the Martian cities when they come,” Madam Eternal chimed in. “I can’t imagine an enemy like this deals in strategy. Not if they’re as arrogant as the reports I’ve read.”
I remember how they attacked the Way settlement. “No, they’ll come for us straight up the gut. They’re not great shots either. They’ll use fire support only as long as it takes for them to get up close and personal.”
“They’ll probably attack Elysium first, then. That’s the city closest to where they’ve set up shop,” Jax reasoned, still standing beside the table of food. “They’ll come hard and fast.”
“The Phoenix mech units should be our front line,” Wesley said, nodding to Commander Shaw then Julian in turn. “The Order ships will have their hands full with the enemy crafts and creatures. We’ll use our soldiers along the flanks.”
“What about the GG meeting with the Voy tomorrow night?” Angel asked. “Shouldn’t we be talking about that as well?”
Wesley caught everyone up on the GG and their unfounded hopes of a civilized meeting with the Voy.
“So we’re going to go in tomorrow night to save the Galactic Government, who’s meeting with the enemy, the same Galactic Government who wants you dead?” Cassie asked, looking over at me. “Is that about right?”
“Well, when you put it like that,” I said, not hiding my smirk. “Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
“Okay, just checking,” Cassie said, leaning back from the table.
“A small team to lead them to safety would be best,” Madam Eternal suggested. “We don’t want a full-on fight with the Voy right now. We still need time to gather our assets.”
“I agree,” Wesley said, taking a long puff of his cigar. “A four-person team should do the job. We’ll jump in, secure the GG, and get out. Hopefully, they’ll realize what we do by that time, that there is no negotiating with the Voy. This only ends one way.”
“Time and location for this meeting?” Julian asked. “I’m assuming you have an inside person in the GG feeding us this information?”
“We do,” I divulged, thinking of Captain Valentine. “Our asset will pull through. I’ll go secure the GG officers tomorrow night.”
“Not alone,” Angel said.
“I’m in,” Jax added. “Although with Preacher out, we’ll be short one.”
I saw Cassie trade a look with Julian. The latter nodded.
“You have four,” Cassie answered. “I’ll go as well.”
With the larger matters decided, what remained of the conversation was more tactics and plans to get everyone and all the armor to Mars on time.
The meeting was soon adjourned. I found myself waiting for Cassie as she stood from the table. I motioned her over. She nodded.
She took long strides to meet me at the door. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to have this conversation, but I knew it wasn’t here.
X hadn’t said much during the meeting and she still didn’t. Instead of words, X overlaid my vision with a path in augmented reality.
I followed with Cassie next to me.
I had waited long enough. I didn’t want to wait any longer to get to the area X was directing us toward.
“Is she still alive?” I asked as we traversed the wide halls of the mansion.
My stomach twisted inside me as Cassie gave me all the answers I thought I wanted.
“She’s alive,” Cassie answered in a matter-of-fact tone. “I was there that day on the bridge when Echo tried his best to kill Amber. I moved in, but I was too slow to stop him. The best I could do was grab her before the Galactic Government or Immortal Corp fished her from the water.”
I slowed my steps up a steep staircase long enough to look at her. Cassie looked me full in the face without blinking.
“Heart rate, tone, body position all say she’s telling the truth,” X exclaimed inside my head. “Oh, Daniel, Amber’s alive!”
A pressure I didn’t realize I was holding left my chest. I felt like I could breathe again.
“There’s more,” Cassie added. The tone of her voice told me not to get too excited.
“She had extensive brain damage from the attempt on her life,” Cassie revealed as we reached an upper floor and continued down another hall. “She was in a coma for months. We weren’t sure she was going to pull through. It was only because of her healing ability and her will to survive that she did at all.”
We stopped at a corner room that looked like a library. Open windows spilled moonlight into the chamber. Dark brown and black furniture covered the area from cushioned chairs to tables. Crammed bookcases lined the walls. It was any bibliophile’s dream. Right now, I couldn’t focus on any of that.
“But she is alive,” I repeated. “The brain damage?”
“She’s alive and completely healed,” Cassie assured me. “The damage to her brain was corrected by her healing ability. It took months to get her completely healed. Her memories weren’t taken but dampened in a way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
“I mean she remembered you and Immortal Corp along with what was done to her,” Cassie explained. “I had a lot of conversations with her in those months while she got back on her feet. She told me she remembered everything, but she just wanted it to be over now. She told me about you, how she loved you. She mourned your death when you came up missing. We both thought Immortal Corp killed you or maybe you even took your own life. You were a ghost.”
I sensed a bad ending to the story Cassie was telling me.
“Okay, but where is she now?” I asked, losing my patience. “Where did Amber go?”
“She knew if she went after Immortal Corp, the circle of death would just start all over again,” Cassie said. “She wanted out. She wanted it to be over. I think her not being able to remember things so vividly was a blessing in a way. She was able to move on and get out. If she recalled all the details distinctly, I don’t know if she would’ve been able to leave it all behind.”
“She wanted out,” I repeated slowly. “At least that’s what they told me. I saw in Echo’s memory. The Founders told him and Sam she was contacting the Order trying to barter a truce.”
“I was her contact,” Cassie agreed. “That’s why I was there on the bridge that day. We had just come from a meeting. We were going to try to stem some of the bloodletting between the Order and Immortal Corp. Julian was at least willing to hear the idea. It seems the Founders weren’t.”
“Where is she?” I asked, already heading for the door. A manic need to see her possessed me. If she was alive, then I was going to her. She didn’t know I was alive. This would change everything. All thoughts of aliens or being the head of Immortal Corp fled my mind like darkness retreating from the morning sun.
“Daniel.” Cassie’s voice brought me back from my delusions of joining Amber and leaving all this behind me. “She mourned you. We gave her a new identity and she started a new life. She got out. Let her be.”
“What?” I snapped, enraged. “What are you talking about? She thought I was dead. She didn’t know. You said yourself that her memories weren’t as vivid as she would have liked. If she knows I’m alive—”
I cut myself off. I really thought about what I was about to say.
If she’s really alive, then what? I asked myself. You’re going to drag her back into all of this? Are you going to be the one to put her on the front line against the Voy? A price on her head, wanted by the GG?
I felt like I was being ripped straight down the middle.
“Let her go,” Cassie told me in a calm, quiet voice. “Give her the chance we never got, to leave all the killing behind. She’s happy now. Don’t take that from her.”
“I have to see her,” I said, running a tongue over the dry walls of my mouth. “I have to see her. Where is she? The moon, Earth?”
“She’s here in Athens,” Cassie answered.
“What!?” I couldn’t help but keep from shouting. The idea that the woman for whom I was searching for so long was in the very same city I was in was maddening. “Where? I need an address.”
“Give me the address,” I growled. I moved toward Cassie, not really sure what I was going to do.
Cassie took a step back, not in fear but in a stance that I knew well. I’d seen her take up the same guard when I fought her in the Phoenix prison block when she came to kill Echo.
I could feel the adrenaline start to course through my body as that primal rage inside me moved just beneath the surface. I stopped myself halfway to her.
I took a deep breath. The idea that Cassie held the information I needed so desperately and refused to give it to me was beyond anger. Still, I had to control my temper.
The door to the library opened and padded feet entered the room. I’d forgotten all about Butch. The wolf sensed there was something wrong. It moved through the room to stand next to me. Large yellow eyes looked at me for direction as if to ask what was wrong.
Unlike Madam Eternal, Butch didn’t immediately growl at Cassie or Julian, for that matter, a fact I found interesting and filed away for future thought.
“We’re not going to do this,” I said, taking another deep breath. “It’s been a long time since I’ve pleaded with anyone. Is that what you want me to do here? Because I will. If you want me to get down on my knees and beg, that’s what I’ll do.”
Cassie lowered her fists. It was clear I had taken her off guard. She was ready for a physical confrontation. With good reason too; not only were we bred to fight, we were on opposing factions.
A long moment of silence passed between us.
“I’ll give you the address on one condition,” Cassie finally spoke. “At least watch her first. See the life she’s built for herself these last five years before you run in and destroy it all.”
“I will,” I promised.
“Swear it to me,” Cassie said.
“I swear,” I vowed. “If you give me her address, I’ll go tonight just to see her before I let her know I’m still alive.”
“That AI of yours able to receive data?” Cassie said with a heavy sigh.
“I am,” X answered out loud.
“I’m sending the address over now,” Cassie said as she pushed the left sleeve of her black jacket up her arm.
As a Cyber Hunter, different parts of Cassie’s body were augmented. Both forearms were made of metal. On the back of her left forearm was a screen she tapped a few times, sending the promised data.
“Got it,” X said.
“Thank you,” I threw over my shoulder as I headed for the door.
“Remember your promise,” Cassie called to my back. “Remember what you swore.”
With X’s help, I sprinted through the mansion and down flights of stairs for the garage. I needed a vehicle. Hope overflowed in my heart. Amber was alive, she was here in the same city, probably just minutes away.
Everything I wanted for so long was finally within my reach. I would follow through with my promise and watch her first, but there was no doubt in my mind I would go to her.
Amber, my Amber would be happy to see me. I knew she would. If she wanted out of this life, I’d join her. After we fought back the Voy, I’d retire myself. Who knows, maybe we’d even get a house have a kid or two.
I laughed to myself like a mad man as X provided directions to the garage. The few Way settlers and incoming Immortal Corp members I did pass looked at me with worry.
I didn’t have time to explain to them what was going on.
“Bapz has sensed your motion from cameras in the house,” X informed me. “He’s asking if everything is okay.”
“Tell him I’ll be right back,” I said. “I have to borrow one of the cars.”
I burst through a door on the right side of the mansion that led to a massive open garage with rows of not only vehicles but motorcycles as well.
Sleek vehicles ranging from high end sports models to heavier modes of transportation like SUVs met my eyes. Right now, I needed speed.
I went over to one of the hover bikes and hopped on. A black helmet with a dark visor sat waiting on the seat.
I slammed it on my head and fired up the engine. The expensive vehicle hummed underneath me.
“Bapz wants to talk to you,” X said. “He sounds worried.”
“Go ahead, put him through.” I gunned the engine as X opened the garage doors that slid into the ground.
“Sir, may I suggest that going out anywhere right now is not the smartest idea?” Bapz’s worried voice sounded in my ear. “You’re a wanted man. We can’t lose you as head of the new coalition.”
“I won’t be gone long,” I said as Butch came into the garage and started sniffing around. “I’m not going far.”
Butch trotted over to me and looked up.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, leaning down to her and scratching the underside of her jaw. “Stay.”
I wasn’t sure if she understood me or not, but the wolf sat down and panted.
As soon as the garage door was into the ground, I shot forward. I raced over the front of the mansion grounds and toward the main gate.
“Sir,” Bapz said rather forcefully. “I have to strongly disagree with this course of action. If there is anything you might need, I can send someone to get it for you. You must not leave—”
“What’s that?” I yelled over the sound of the purring engine. “Bapz, Bapz, you’re breaking up. I can’t hear you. What did you say about leaving?”
“Master Hunt, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this channel for communication,” Bapz said. “I know you can hear me just fine.”
X opened the front gate, already giving me a line to follow to the Athens address.
X did her part and closed the channel.
“Think he bought it?” I asked into my helmet.
“Not at all,” X answered. “But I do agree with him. We need to be careful and not draw attention to ourselves.”
“Piece of cake,” I replied as I maneuvered around the nearly nonexistent nighttime traffic in Athens. “Discretion is my middle name.”
We made it a few kilometers before the first GG patrol picked us up.
I didn’t see the large praetorian patrol vehicle sitting tucked in between two buildings. I guess that was the point. To be fair, I didn’t even know what the speed limit was in the area, but I was going way too fast.
When the sirens blared behind me, I had a split-second decision to make. X had overlaid a map in the right lower section of my visor. I was only a few minutes out from reaching Amber.
I could run or try and talk my way out of it. I was too close to Amber’s house right now to run. I couldn’t just lead the praetorians there.
I pulled off to the side of the road on the hover bike. We were in a quiet business district of the city. Only a few vehicles passed us. It was getting late and most of the businesses were closed for the day.
“Remember you’re wanted,” X warned in my ear. “Keep your helmet on if you can. Turn off your bike and place your hands where they can see them. It’ll put them at ease.”
“Right,” I said, determined not to let the praetorians take me in no matter what the cost. Unlike the time I had been detained outside of the cemetery, this time, I didn’t have Captain Valentine to fall back on.
A pair of praetorians in full armor walked up on either side of me. The one on my left gave off a low whistle.
“Nice hover bike,” he said in a not unfriendly tone.
“Thanks,” I answered.
“You know what speed we clocked you at?” the other praetorian asked in a gruff voice.
“No, sir,” I said, shaking my head. “I know I was going fast. I’ll be happy to pay whatever fine I need to.”
“I’ll just need your data chip,” the praetorian on my left said. “Take off your helmet for me, please.”
“You have a permit to carry a weapon like that in Athens?” the praetorian on my right asked, motioning to my MK II. “What’s that on your belt? An axe and knife?”
I already knew the conversation wasn’t going to end well. I couldn’t remove my helmet or else they’d see who I was. Even if they didn’t recognize my face, they’d get all the data they needed from scanning my face. I didn’t have the fake ID chip with me anymore.
One thing I wasn’t, though, was a praetorian killer. I’d have to take them out quickly and quietly.
I scanned the street in both directions. In front of me, the road was empty. Behind me, the red taillights of a vehicle that had just passed.
“Sir, did you hear me?” the praetorian on the right asked. “Take your helmet off and ID chip.”
I rose from my seat on the hover bike in one fluid motion, bringing up the axe on my belt in my left hand. With the blunt side, I struck the praetorian on my left across his helmet.
Turning to my right, I drew my MK II. The praetorian on my right was also in the act of drawing his sidearm. Thanks to my augmented physique from being a Pack Protocol member, I was a little faster.
Thank the creator the rounds on my MK II were already set to the tranquilizers from my altercation with the wolves earlier that day. I stroked the trigger, sending a round into the side of his neck.
The praetorian managed to lift his weapon and aim before he fell to the ground unconscious. I turned to my left, squeezing the trigger again at the stunned praetorian.
He collapsed as well.
“Clock’s ticking now,” X told me. “They called you in when they pulled you over. If they don’t check in in a few minutes, dispatch will check in on them then send a back-up vehicle for support.”
“Then we have a few minutes,” I said, holstering my weapons. I flipped on the engine and we were off again. “I’ll switch out the hover bike for a vehicle on the way back.”
“You say switch, but I think you mean steal,” X informed me.
“Same, same,” I responded.
I maneuvered through the dark streets following X’s directions to where Amber lived. I soon found myself on a pretty road lined with small houses for Athens.
When you lived with the top ten percent like those on Mars, most houses were huge mansions. The ones on this street were small but nice. I smiled at the idea of Amber getting a house for herself and settling in.
I remembered conversations we’d have about getting a house of our own one day. We never talked about leaving Immortal Corp or the Pack Protocol program, but who didn’t want a little place of their own?
I stopped across the street from a house with a long driveway. The house was white with a grey roof and trim. Bright lights shone inside a large front room window. A table set with the aftermath of a late dinner was clearly visible.
Parking the hover bike, I turned off the ignition and removed my helmet. I was content to be a man of my word and just watch for a few moments to honor Cassie’s request.
I never said how long I’d wait. My plan was to sit there just long enough to get a glimpse of Amber through the window and then go up to the door. I felt the jitters roll through my body in anticipation of our reunion. I imagined this was what kids felt like on their birthdays or maybe even Christmas morning.
Removing my helmet in the quiet street, I sat in eager anticipation.
Then I saw her. She looked just like I remembered. Strong, a twinkle in her eye, and beautiful. I just sat there for a minute thinking of how happy she would be to see me. Joy exploded in my heart like a firework at a celebration.
I felt like an idiot. A creepy, happy idiot just sitting there staring at her from across the street. I couldn’t imagine what I looked like to any neighbor who peered from their window.
It was late, though. Any light came from the sprinkling of stars overhead, the moons, and the street lights spread out every few meters.
“What do I say to her?” I asked myself out loud, admiring the love of my life as she cleared the dinner table. “‘Hi’ just doesn’t seem right.”
“Daniel?” X asked. There was something in her voice that was cautious and worried.
“I mean, she thinks I’m dead.” I ignored X. “I can’t just knock on the door. I’m going to give her a heart attack.”
“Daniel,” X said more forcefully now.
“Yes?” I answered, ripped from my plans of grandeur. I stood up from the bike and swung a leg over to dismount.
X didn’t have to answer me. My eyes caught what she already had. Amber wasn’t alone in the house. A good-looking man joined her at the kitchen table as they both cleared the remnants of the night’s dinner. He said something and she smiled and laughed. Amber walked over to him and placed a kiss on his lips.
My eye twitched.
I stood there, trying to figure out what it meant, if it changed anything.
It’s been five years, I reminded myself. She thinks you’ve been dead for five years. Of course she’s tried to move on. That’s healthy, isn’t it? Even if she mourned you for a few years, there’s time in there for her to recover and move on with her life.
My heart tried to justify what my eyes took in. Love blinded me when I first arrived. All I saw was her. Now I took in all the details X had seen from the start.
There was a wedding ring on Amber’s finger as well as the man’s. The two disappeared deeper in the house then came back after depositing the dishes. They were joking again, smiling and laughing.
The man wrapped his arms around Amber’s waist. My gut instinct was to rip the arms from his body and shove them down his throat. Amber was wearing a loose-fitting white shirt. When he hugged her, the blouse was pulled tighter, revealing a bulge around her belly.
I wasn’t around pregnant mothers much these days, but it didn’t take a doctor to tell Amber was pregnant.
My legs felt unstable like the Yakuza Hammer had just laid into me with a kidney punch. I felt nauseous. I leaned against the hover bike for support.
“I’m sorry, Daniel,” X whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
My heart tore at the same time as my mind. The selfish desire in me to be happy tried to justify itself with what I knew had to be done.
She’d pick you. She’d pick you if she knew you were alive, the devil on my shoulder tried to convince me. Just go inside. Make her choose. You can still be with her.
Another look inside at Amber and her family and I knew I wasn’t going to do that to her. I couldn’t. Like Sam in the Badlands, Amber had started her family. Unlike Sam, it seemed as though Amber had gotten out. I mean, really left the violent world we lived in behind.
“Who is he?” I managed to croak. Tears of anger and frustration fought their way to my eyes.
“Daniel,” X said softly as if she too were hurting. “Do you really want to know? Will that help?”
“Who is he?” I repeated.
A small square screen popped to life in the lower right hand corner of my vision. It was an up-close profile of Amber’s husband.
“Richard Westmoreland is a lawyer here on Athens,” X informed me. “Thirty-five, he has no previous marriages or children. No criminal record. He’s clean, an upstanding citizen, even up for a promotion at his firm.”
I closed my eyes. I rubbed my temples with the palms of my hands. My jaw clenched so hard, I thought I would shatter my teeth.
To my knowledge, I had never had a mental breakdown before, but I felt as though I was on the verge of one now.
I took a long, deep breath and one last look at Amber.
“Is she happy?” I asked X.
“Daniel,” X said in a low quiet voice.
“X, jus—please answer me,” I pushed.
“Yes, baby’s due in five months.”
“Are they okay? They have money, do they need anything?” I asked, mounting the hover bike again. Tears fell down my cheeks freely now. I didn’t care.
“His salary isn’t as substantial as many here on Mars, but it’s enough to pay the mortgage and provide for Amber and the child,” X answered.
“Can you make a deposit in their account, one that’s untraceable, and send a message along with it?” I asked, placing my helmet on my head and taking one last look at Amber and Richard.
They walked out of the kitchen smiling and out of my life forever.
“Yes, I can do that,” X informed me. “How much would you like me to send? What do you want the message to say?”
“Give them whatever they need to be comfortable. I’ve heard babies aren’t cheap,” I instructed as I started the hover bike. “In the message to Richard, tell him not to let Amber know about the money. Tell him that if he’s ever not good to her, I’ll rip his throat out with my teeth.”
With that, I took off down the street back to what I was created to do, back toward my life of violence.
We switched out the hover bike on the way back with a civilian vehicle parked on the street. X told me the local praetorian scanners were going crazy. The pair of praetorians I had neutralized had been discovered.
I lay in my bed that night for hours second-guessing myself but really knowing that I had made the right choice. Anything else would have been selfish and for me, not her.
I didn’t fall asleep until the sun was beginning to rise.
TWO DAYS UNTIL THE VOY INVASION
When I did awaken, it was because of X in my head. She was asking me something.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m awake,” I said, rubbing my eyes. Bright sun shone in through the windows. The morning hours had passed. It was already sometime during midday. My sleep schedule these days was horrific.
“We have an incoming call from Captain Zoe Valentine’s line,” X said. “I wouldn’t have woken you unless it was important.’
“It’s okay,” I said, fighting back the fog of sleep and gathering myself for the call. “I’m awake. Put her through. Zoe,” I said. “Do you have that time and place for us?”
“I do, and more than that,” Zoe said in a hushed tone on the other end of the line. “The meeting’s at eight o’clock tonight. They’ll meet at an abandoned Way settlement. The Galactic Government is bringing a contingent of Shadow Praetorians led by General Armstrong in case anything goes wrong.”
“Oh it’s going to go wrong all right,” I answered. “We’ll be there to help when it does.”
“I don’t have more information than this, but I heard General Armstrong talk about a weapon called Project Nemesis. He said they’d bring the weapon with them in case things went bad. I’m not sure what it is, but it sounds serious. When it goes off, you can’t be anywhere close.”
“Right,” I answered. “Thanks, I know this information doesn’t come easy. You’re doing the right thing here.”
“I hope so,” Zoe said with a heavy sigh. “I know what I’m doing is treason, but I also can’t shake the feeling in my gut that it’s the right thing to do. You save the GG when the Voy double-cross them. Then we’ll be united, and the GG will help when the Voy invade in two days.”
“You best believe we’re going to give them a fight to remember,” I reassured Zoe. “We’ve been busy here on my end.”
“Good, I have to go,” Zoe said. “The longer this line is open, the higher chance that someone can catch on to us.”
“Understood,” I agreed with her. “Out.”
The channel closed with a definitive click.
“Well, there we have it.” I swung myself out of bed and headed for the shower. “Time and place. What are the odds the Way settlement coordinates Zoe sent you is to the same settlement that we defended against the Voy?”
“I can take the guesswork out of that,” X answered as I jumped into the shower. “It’s the same one. Terrain they know. They understand how to assault it now after the first run.”
“They won’t make the same mistake again,” I said, thinking out loud. “They’ll come in force. Probably get in close under the guise of actually having a meeting before they spring their trap.”
“If that’s the case, will a small team halo jumping be enough to stop them?” X wondered.
“Good question,” I agreed with her. “We’ll have to bring this to Wesley and the others. A few of those Phoenix mechs jumping with us would come in useful.”
After the shower and clean clothes, I headed from my chamber to the meeting room again. X informed Bapz to call the war council to order.
As soon as I opened the door to my room, Butch greeted me with a wag of her tail. I had totally forgotten about the wolf, but she hadn’t.
Butch grinned when she saw me. I knelt and stroked the thick fur all over her head and back.
“There she is,” I cooed, smiling at the massive animal. “We’ll have to get you a bed or food bowl or something in my room.”
Butch’s tongue lolled out the side of her mouth. She closed her eyes and leaned into my hand.
As much as I’d rather stay right there and enjoy the company of my four-legged friend, there was work to be done.
I actually surprised myself by finding my own way to the war room. Wesley was already there as if he had never left, along with Julian. Both men were in deep conversation but nodded to me when I walked in.
Bapz had a spread laid out for us as usual. I needed to give that guy a raise. The ability to anticipate when I needed food was something I found worthy of high praise.
“Did you keep your promise?” Cassie asked from behind as she entered the room.
“I did,” I said, looking back at her.
The Order member wasn’t in her dark robes or long jacket for the first time since I knew her. She wore dark green camo pants with black boots and a shirt. Her dark hair was in a ponytail.
In her short sleeves, I could see her augmented forearms. They looked as though she wore a pair of vambraces, but I knew better. I had seen her in action. From one of her augmented appendages, a shield would flare out like a fan. From the other, a pair of razor sharp blades.
“I hope you made the right decision.” Cassie stopped herself as I held her gaze. “No, I know you did. You did because you honestly loved her.”
“Right, thanks for the heads-up, by the way,” I said, popping a piece of cheese into my mouth.
“Would you have believed me if I told you?” Cassie served herself some of the delicious food on the banquet table. “You don’t strike me as the trusting type.”
“What kind do I strike you as?”
“You’re more of the action type; shoot first and ask questions later,” Cassie said with a raised eyebrow. “Or am I wrong?”
“Not going to argue with you there,” I said. Butch sauntered over to Cassie and looked up at her with those big yellow eyes. Unlike the previous day, Butch actually looked like she wanted a pet from Cassie.
“Look at this big puppy,” Cassie said, stroking Butch’s head. “Now that your master and I aren’t at odds, can we be friends?”
Butch wasn’t going to say no.
“What’s her name?” Cassie asked.
“Butch,” I said.
“Oh, come on, you can’t be serious.” Cassie laughed.
It was the first time I had seen her laugh, and to be honest, it made me smile as well.
“If it makes a difference, it’s short for Butchess,” I answered.
“No, that doesn’t make a difference at all,” Cassie said with an eye roll. “That’s a horrible name. Stick with Butch or Lady Butch.”
Commander Shaw and Madam Eternal stepped into the room together. The former wore a sharp white uniform with the Phoenix sigil of a red bird on the left shoulder. The latter wore a black dress with a large medallion hanging from her neck. The medallion carried the head of a dragon on it, the emblem of her own corporation.
Jax and Angel walked in a few minutes later, followed by Bapz.
“So what’s the good word, Daniel?” Wesley asked as he and Julian finished their conversation. “You look like you didn’t sleep so well.”
Everyone turned to me. Most were in various stages of eating their noonday meal.
There was no doubt in my mind that Wesley knew I had been out. He probably even knew what I was up to.
That was fine with me. I wasn’t trying to hide anything. Instead of pulling on that string, I dived right into my conversation with Captain Zoe Valentine.
“I received a call from Captain Zoe Valentine not even an hour ago,” I informed them all. “She gave us the time, location, and a heads up that the GG isn’t going to play into the Voy hands. They’re coming with their Shadow Praetorians as well as a secret weapon code named Nemesis.”
“Nemesis?” Madam Eternal repeated the word as if it meant something to her.
“Yes,” I answered. “Do you know what that is?”
“Know is a strong word.” Madam Eternal stared at the middle of the wood table as she sifted through her memory banks. “Rumors and whispers are closer to the truth. Immortal Corp has their Pack Protocol, the Order their Cyber Hunters. The Galactic Government has their Shadow Praetorians, of course, but they have not stopped there.”
The room went quiet. Everyone stared at the Madam, willing her to continue. It was so quiet, I could hear Butch licking herself by my feet.
“The Galactic Government has a division tasked to enhance humans with—with forces outside of science,” Madam Eternal explained, choosing her words carefully. “At least that is what my resources tell me The Project is code-named Nemesis.”
“Forces outside of science?” Commander Shaw asked. “Are we talking about magic here?”
“Please, let’s stay on topic.” Julian rolled his eyes.
“There are things that cannot be answered by science.” Madam Eternal looked at Julian with the same expression a teacher would give a problem child in her class. “To assume something cannot exist means you assume you know all there is to know of this universe.”
“Okay, so the Galactic Government is experimenting with dark magic,” Angel said with a shrug. “That’s a hard pill to swallow, but I can handle that. What does that mean for us? They’re going to show up with these individuals pumped full of the stuff? What can we expect? What would they be able to do?”
“I cannot say, and anything I do should be taken as only speculation.” Madam Eternal pursed her lips. “All I know is what I’ve said.”
“So on top of the Voy fighting the Galactic Government, we’ll have a third party to try and deal with,” I recapped, running various scenarios through my mind. “I don’t see how that changes anything. We still have to go. Hopefully, the GG can keep their new dogs on a leash.”
I looked down at Butch. She stared me straight in the eye.
“No offense, Butch,” I said.
She panted back at me.
“I agree with, Daniel,” Cassie said from her seat beside Julian. “This changes nothing. When we go in to fight alongside the GG, they’ll realize we’re there to help them get out of this mess. They should be fighting alongside us not against us.”
“In a perfect scenario, that would be true.” Wesley ran a hand through his hair. “But you know nothing ever goes exactly to plan.”
“All we can do is the best we can do,” I said, rising from the table. “But I do think we should reassess the firepower we bring to the fight. A four-man team might be enough to extract the GG on the ground, but what if we need to buy some time against the Voy? They’re not going to make the same mistake as last time. They’ll hit that Way settlement hard.”
“We can take in some extra armor,” Commander Shaw volunteered. “The first wave of mech units should arrive within the hour. A few of those can give you cover while you extract the GG team.”
“The Order can provide air support as well as make the initial incursion drops,” Julian volunteered.
“The trick will be going in right when they need us,” Jax mused. “Too soon and they’ll see us as an enemy. Too late and they’ll be dead.”
“We’ll have to hover right outside of their scanners until the time is right and then sprint in,” I agreed with Jax. “It’s the only way this is going to work.”
“For all of our sakes, I hope you’re right,” Angel said. “Because if you’re wrong, the GG along with the rest of us are all dead.”
It was deemed too much of a risk to fly in Order dropships and Phoenix mech units inside of Athens. We were already wanted by the GG; trying to smuggle large ships and mechanized units into the city wasn’t going to go unnoticed.
Instead, a staging area was set up a few hundred kilometers outside the city of Athens.
We snuck out in an unmarked vehicle. Julian and Commander Shaw went in front of us to make sure their teams knew what was going on.
The ride gave my consciousness more time to haunt the decision I had made regarding Amber. I had to push her and the events of the previous night out of my mind over and over again. The most helpful tool I found was throwing myself into whatever had to be done next. I had to be present in the here and now.
The sun was nearly nonexistent past the horizon when we arrived at the location, with less than an hour until we had to be in the air.
We pulled up to the staging area in a clod of red sand. What I saw took my breath away. Sure I’d seen the mech units inside the Phoenix base, but they were at a distance and my life didn’t depend on them then.
Right now up close and personal, I felt a sense of gratitude at the walking tanks. Both units towered a good ten feet. Crimson-red armor covered the power unit with white highlights and of course the white bird representing the Phoenix sigil.
Two mechs looked impressive enough. I couldn’t imagine what daunting feelings of dread an entire company would do to the enemy.
“Son of a warhammer,” Jax breathed beside me. “How do I get hold of one of those?”
“You are one of those when you go beast mode on us.” Angel wiggled her brows.
Jax gave her a hard stare.
“What?” She feigned indignation. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not judging you, just saying I bet you could give one of those things a run for their money if you went all Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on it.”
“Not going to happen this time around,” Jax promised. “I’m going to hold it together. We’re in, we’re out, no fuss no muss.”
“I sure hope so,” Angel said as the pair wandered over to a structure of tents where Julian and Wesley stood.
“Things of beauty, aren’t they?” Commander Shaw came over to me and looked at my feet. “No Butch?”
“Didn’t think this was a situation for a wolf,” I answered. “I don’t know how she’d do with the whole halo jump and all.”
“Fair enough.” Commander Shaw motioned with an open hand at the mech units. “So what do you think?”
“I think the Voy are in trouble.” I grinned. “They’re going to get more of a fight than they anticipated.”
“That’s for sure,” Commander Shaw motioned to a man and woman I didn’t recognize. Both wore blood-red skintight suits, a white bird with flames coming off its wings boldly emblazoned on their chests. “I want you to meet our two best pilots, Jeff Windtalker and Mandy Evans.”
The pilots walked over to me and we took turns shaking hands.
“Mandy, Jeff, this is Daniel Hunt; he’s responsible for bringing both Doctor Wardens back to us as well as the super seed,” Commander Shaw continued. “Phoenix owes this man a great debt.”
“Which you’re more than repaying as we speak,” I replied. “I feel like I’m indebted to you now.”
“This is the man who went toe to toe with that Pack Protocol member we have in the brig?” Jeff asked. “And the Cyber Hunter who broke in?”
“I heard he took on an entire army in the badlands.” Mandy looked me up and down. “Is that true?”
“Don’t believe everything you hear, Mandy,” I told her with a wink. I looked back at the mech units. A crew of Phoenix mechanics were going over last-minute checks. “I’m glad to have both of you with us.”
“Glad to be here,” Jeff said, looking between me and the commander. “So aliens, huh?”
“Aliens,” Commander Shaw and I both agreed.
Mandy held an open hand towards Jeff.
“What?” Jeff asked. “I don’t have your money now. Where would I keep a wallet in this thing anyway?”
“Hey, where you store your goods isn’t my business.” Mandy smirked. “All I know is that I have one hundred sweet credits coming from you for winning our bet. Aliens do exist.”
I left the two Phoenix pilots to hash out details on the bet with Commander Shaw. Cassie, Jax, and Angel were already gearing up for the jump.
“That high up, it’s going to be beyond cold,” Madam Eternal said, falling in step with me from who knows where.
I was usually pretty good about being aware of my surroundings. To my knowledge, she wasn’t part of the convoy who just arrived at the site. She had to have come sooner. That was the only explanation that made sense.
“Uh, right,” I answered. To be honest, the woman set me on edge. Maybe it was uncalled for, but Alerna warned me about her for good reason.
“You’ll need a helmet feeding you oxygen,” Madam Eternal continued. “When you come face to face with who or whatever has become of Project Nemesis, the best thing you can do is try not to engage them. Do you understand?”
“I’m not going to try to fight anyone with the GG,” I remarked. “That’s the plan at least, get them out alive.”
“Of course, but even the best laid plans go amiss,” Madam Eternal pushed. “Just remember all magic comes with a cost. Usually, there is more to a situation like this than meets the eye.”
“Got it,” I said, more to try and end the uncomfortable conversation than me really believing in something like magic.
That seemed enough for Madam Eternal. She walked over to where a group of Order pilots stood in a small circle.
I joined Cassie, Jax, and Angel in a black tent as they changed for the mission. We wore all black gear from our boots to the long-sleeve jackets. On top of this went our armor and harnesses for the chute.
The three members of the Pack Protocol wore the same emblem of the snarling wolf on our left shoulder. Likewise, Cassie wore the red cross on her own shoulder.
“You guys really wear all of this stuff for a halo jump?” I asked, strapping on the heavy oxygen tank to my lower back before clipping the helmet to my waist along with my weapons. “How do you move?”
“You’ll be grateful for all of it when we jump, trust me,” Jax said with a grin over to Angel. “Hey, remember that little village on Earth? What was the name of the city? It used to be Chicago, right?”
“Don’t remind me,” Angel hissed, shooting a look at Jax so intense, I thought he might turn into stone. “We never speak of the Chicago jump.”
Jax went back to work, choosing a large rifle from the weapons in the tent.
“I feel like I want to know, but I also don’t want Angel to kill me if I ask more questions,” I admitted, looking between the two.
“Let’s just say it was one of our first jumps and Angel slammed into the side of a cliff face then slid all the way down.” Jax ignored the glare from Angel. “It looked like a cartoon.”
“It took me days to heal from that one.” Angel cracked the smallest of smiles as she tried to feign anger. “Man, that sucked.”
“Dropship’s up in ten,” Wesley said, poking his head into the tent. “We good here?”
“Ready,” Cassie answered. Despite the offered weaponry in the room, she had decided to take nothing with her as far as I could tell. I guess she trusted those robotic forearms of hers to do the job when it came to fighting.
The four of us moved outside of the tent. Everywhere, the impromptu staging area was alive with mechanics, support teams, and logistical team members making last-minute checks and corrections.
On the far side of the tent structures, three dropships sat in a neat row. Their engines hummed to life.
I didn’t see Jeff and Mandy enter their mechs, but I knew they must be in them as the colossal units walked over to the waiting dropships. Seeing the giant armored tanks move was a thing of beauty.
I imagined the suits would maneuver with jerks, slowly, even robotically. Instead, they walked like humans, one foot in front of the other with their arms swinging by their sides.
“I’m glad we have them on our side,” Cassie shouted as we jogged over to our waiting dropship. “I’ve heard they pack enough artillery to take down a dozen dropships.”
I wanted to know more about the mechanized units, but there was no time. Jeff’s and Mandy’s units were locked into place by heavy steel cables coming down from the other two dropships. We entered the third dropship.
The dropship was like all the others I had been in with one notable exception. The Order sigil was painted on the side of the ships. Flat black, the red symbol popped out at you like a sore thumb.
Wesley appeared at the cargo bay entrance as we took our seats.
“You’re coming with us?” I asked, finding myself somewhat relieved. I wasn’t going to show worry, but this was my first halo jump I could remember. I was going to do it and ignore my fear, but it felt good to have someone else I trusted behind the wheel.
“Someone’s gotta fly this thing,” Wesley said with a hard nod. “Julian has one of his pilots at the wheel, but I’ll copilot and coordinate our moves.”
Wesley made his way through the dropship interior to the front of the craft.
I sat with Jax on my left and Angel on my right. Cassie took a seat across from us. She looked calm, relaxed even, in a way that I envied.
The dropship’s doors closed and the craft lifted off the ground.
I didn’t need an earpiece, I had X. The other three members of our group wore tiny communication devices nearly hidden inside their ear.
“We have confirmation from Captain Valentine that the mission is a go,” Julian said from his tent somewhere on the ground. “I’ll relay news as we get it from her. God speed. I coordinated an escort for you. Three bulky dropships, two of them carrying mechs, aren’t going to put up much of a fight if you’re caught out in the open.”
As the comm units went quiet, I noticed Cassie smile and point out the windows behind us.
I craned my neck to the side to get a look through the line of square windows behind me. In the last rays of the dying sun, my eyes zeroed in on eight fighter jets, the likes of which I had never seen.
The crafts were black with the Order sigil on them. They were sleek, and although I didn’t know anything about fighter jets, I knew by the weaponry on each wing they carried some serious firepower.
“They’ll watch our back,” Cassie reassured us. “Kill Team is the best pilots we have. If anything comes for our ship—Alien or the GG, we’re in good hands.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, inhaling a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
“They can take our bodies,” Angel started.
“But they can’t kill our spirit,” Jax and I finished in unison.
“That’s cute,” Cassie yelled over the thrum of the engines. “But let’s just kill them all.”
We continued to gain altitude to the extent that Mars looked less like the ground and more like a planet below us.
Julian kept us updated over the comm unit.
“I have word that the Voy are approaching the Way settlement where the GG are waiting,” Julian relayed. “The GG also have dropships and their own fighters just out of range from the meeting. When you jump, you should be clear, but for how long I’m not sure.”
“We’ve reached our drop altitude,” Wesley transmitted. “The ground team will go in first. Once they’ve made contact and the GG know not to fire on us, we’ll bring the mechs in low and slow.”
“Understood,” Julian confirmed. “No reports that the GG know you’re there. You’re too high up and out of their range. Stand by, the Voy are making contact with the GG now.”
My right foot tapped on the floor beside me. I couldn’t help it. I was nervous, excited, and determined all at once. I had so much adrenaline running through my body, I felt as if I had just drank a gallon of high octane caf.
I wasn’t the only one. Jax nodded his head beside me as if he were running a song through his mind.
Angel’s left knee jumped up and down.
Cassie was the only one that remained completely calm. Her eyes were closed as if she were sleeping. Meditating was more like it. I didn’t think anyone could sleep at a time like this.
A tiny voice in my head asked what would happen if we were wrong? What if by some miracle the Voy did strike an agreement with the Galactic Government? What if our plan fell apart even before it started? In that case, we would remain wanted criminals.
“Your heart rate is through the roof,” X warned me. “Easy, breathe, calm your mind.”
“Right,” I answered her. “Thanks.”
“You’ll be fine,” X said. “We’ll be fine.”
“I know,” I murmured low enough for only X to hear under the sound of the dropship engines. “We can do this.”
“Let’s get ready,” Wesley said over our comms. “Check each other’s chutes and secure helmets. Double check the oxygen levels. Weapons check after that.”
I followed Jax and Angel’s lead. The four of us rose to our feet and made our way to the rear of the ship. A row of packed jump chutes waited for us along the wall. On top of the gear we carried, we maneuvered our arms through the chutes that looked like tight-fitting backpacks. We checked the straps and buckled in tight.
Our helmets were next; they were black with a clear visors. The oxygen tubes that ran to the small tanks at our back connected to the rear of the helmets.
I put mine on, taking a deep breath of clean oxygen.
“Woohoo!” Jax yelled next to me, slapping me on the shoulder so hard, I nearly stumbled. “Now things are getting real! Any more adrenaline and I might explode!”
We went through the acts of checking each other’s gear, helmets, oxygen and weapons. We were ready. All there was left was to jump.
“Get as low as you can before you deploy your chute,” Angel coached. “Four hundred feet at the absolute most or you’ll be a smear on the ground.”
I saw Cassie slam her right hand into her helmet and jump up and down on her feet, psyching herself up.
The anticipation of the jump was starting to get to me more than the jump itself.
“Contact!” Julian shouted. “The Voy have attacked the GG, go, go, go!”
Red lights flashed off and on inside the dropship. The rear cargo bay doors opened to ice cold air and the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
Space, darkness with so many little twinkling lights it seemed as though I could never count them all. Below us was a red orb of a planet so far away, I had to wonder if we had flown too high by accident. There was no way we could fall that far.
“Look out for each other,” Wesley instructed over the comms as the cargo bays came to a full open. “Remember your training. Go!”
Green lights coated the inside of the dropship. I was the first out and grateful for it. I just wanted something to do. I hated sitting in my fear and nerves to let my mind try and convince me this was a bad idea. I just needed to get it done.
As soon as Wesley gave us the go-ahead and the green light flashed, I was off. I got a running start and jumped out of the dropship, arms out in front and legs spread behind me.
The feeling of weightlessness took me as I plummeted to the ground below. I knew I was falling like a shooting star, however, it was hard to get my mind wrapped around the idea of how fast I was falling. There was nothing but open air on either side of me. No buildings or structures of any kind to help gauge how fast I was traveling.
“Ease off on your breathing,” X coached. “You’re okay.”
How I was supposed to be calm and take nice even breaths while plummeting to the ground was beyond me, but I tried anyway. I steeled my nerves.
You’ve done this before, I told myself as the cold air whipped past me. You can do this again.
Out of the corner of my eye to the right, I saw Cassie hurtling toward the ground. She had both arms by her sides, her legs straight and together. She reminded me of a missile.
I knew Jax and Angel were somewhere behind me. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear Jax howling like a wild man.
A HUD popped to life on our visors. It showed me the trajectory I needed to follow to land in the middle of the GG. I was only slightly off course. I maneuvered my body to follow the designated route.
“I’m going to patch you into the line with the GG so they know you’re coming,” Julian said over our comms. “Tighten up and stay on your heading.”
“Roger,” I acknowledged.
My heart was still pounding so hard, I thought I’d crack a rib, but I was getting my breathing under control.
I maneuvered in the air slightly to my right to put my course that showed up in a dotted red line on path with the dotted blue line showing the correct heading.
“General Armstrong, this is Julian Fairmount of the Order. We see you’re in trouble and are deploying assets to assist. I repeat, this is Julian Fairmount of the Order. I have a four-man strike team chuting in your area to assist. Do not fire on them,” Julian ordered in a strong tone. “Do you copy?”
There was nothing but static on the open line.
Below me, I was starting to see more of a desert landscape and less of a globe of red. Things came into view clearer and clearer by the second. I still couldn’t make out exact details, but I saw plumes of dark smoke and explosions going off accompanied by red and black laser fire.
I focused my vision, blinking twice. Thanks to X, I could see in the dark and zoom in my field of view to get a better look at what was going on.
Ships fought in the sky, zooming in and out below us. Galactic Government fighters zipped through the sky around a myriad of smaller single-manned Voy crafts.
At least I assumed they were single-manned since they were so small. I couldn’t imagine more than one of the aliens fighting inside the crafts that looked more like flying balls than any ship I had ever seen.
“This is Julian Fairmount of the Order for—”
“This is a military engagement—” a harsh voice I recognized as General Armstrong barked over the channel. An explosion cut him off for a moment. “Do not attempt to intervene or you will be treated as a hostile.”
“General Armstrong.” Julian didn’t back down or pause in the slightest. “We are friendlies here to provide support and assist in extraction. I have a four-man team chuting into your location now. They’re friendlies. I’m sending you their tracking codes now. Do not fire on them. I repeat, we are here to assist you in extraction.”
“Nobody’s extracting anywhere,” General Armstrong yelled over the channel. “These alien SOBs think they can ambush us, well, they got another think coming. We don’t need your help.”
Despite the general’s warning, the closer and closer we got, the more the general’s words seemed further and further from the truth. Past the ships dog-fighting in the sky, I could make out a massive swell of Voy forces assaulting the Way settlement.
The alien number wasn’t like the smaller force they had brought against the settlement when I was defending it from them. This time, the Voy learned from their mistakes. They were not taking any chances. Thousands of Voy soldiers raced across the sand to the walls.
“Daniel, we’re going to enter the space where the ships are dog-fighting soon. Once we get through that, we’ll need to deploy your chute,” X coached me. “But not before. If you pull it now, you’ll be caught out in the open, drifting to the ground with the ships around you.”
“Got it,” I answered through gritted teeth.
“Stay on course,” Cassie yelled to us.
“Right behind you,” Angel answered.
“Hold on to your butts,” Jax said. “This is going to get tricky!”
I wish I could take credit for being able to maneuver my fall through a full out dogfight. The truth was I was a missile plummeting so fast, there was no chance I could do more than maneuver the slightest bit when I saw ships zipping in and out of my field of vision.
The night sky was alive with weapons fire from both the GG crafts and the Voy fighters. Red and black energy beams cascaded across my field of vision. One of the Voy spaceship balls nicked me in the left arm. It was the tiniest of brushes, but it was enough to break my limb and send me off course.
At this speed, anything touching me was going to do serious harm. Pain exploded first in my arm then in my head as I fought to get myself back on route.
“Daniel’s hit!’ Jax shouted.
“Hold on!” Angel screamed.
I felt a hand on my uninjured right side guide me back on course while I fought not to yell in pain.
I turned just enough to see Cassie beside me. She wasn’t looking at me but instead toward our path getting us back on course.
Everything around me was a blur now. The next thing I knew, I heard my team yelling at me.
“Chute, chute, chute!”
I tried reaching my uninjured arm to pull my chute. Cassie reached it first.
“I got Daniel’s,” Cassie answered ripping the cord free.
I was jerked so hard, I swore I broke something else inside my chest. The black chute yanked me backward, saving me from the hard sand-packed ground below.
The four of us were coasting into the rear of the settlement. The pain in my arm was far from gone, but adrenaline and my own healing factor kicked in. I studied the hell we were getting ourselves into.
The Way settlement was a smoking mass of rubble and craters. Shadow Praetorians in their dark armor took cover inside buildings and around the outer wall. Rockets, mortars, and heavy weapons fire filled the air.
It was like someone had opened the heavens themselves and sent down the most vicious thunderstorm I had ever heard.
I hit the ground at a run doing my best to untie the chute from the straps around me with one hand.
Jax, Angel, and Cassie landed around me.
“Our team is on the ground,” Julian communicated to the general. “I’m putting you in contact with them now.”
“General Armstrong,” I managed to say past the pain. “This is Daniel Hunt. We’re here to help get your people out.”
Instead of an answer over the channel, we were greeted by a dozen Shadow Pretorian soldiers who surrounded us. Each one of them had a weapon pointed at either our heads or chest. Tiny red dots told me as much.
“I don’t have time for this.” General Armstrong appeared from within the ranks of his Shadow Praetorians. “Stay out of the way or get put down!”
General Armstrong was a hard man used to hard situations. Even now, being overrun by an alien horde, he wasn’t about to break. His dark mustard-colored uniform was stained with dirt. An intimidating pistol strapped to his right thigh. A smear of sweat and dirt covered his brow.
Before I could say anything, General Armstrong reached a finger up to his right ear. “Is he ready? Then let him loose, for god’s sakes. We didn’t invest billions in Project Nemesis to see him rot in a box. We need him now!”
“Sir.” Another man with salt and pepper hair ran up to the general. “We’re losing the fight in the sky. There’s too many of them. GG headquarters is instructing us to pull out of the fight. The walls are being overrun. This was an ambush from the beginning. We have to go now.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” General Armstrong sneered. “This fight’s not over yet.”
“You think you came to help us?” General Armstrong roared at me over the sounds of war. “Let me show you how much we need your help.”
The general stalked past us and toward the front of the Way Settlement. The Shadow Praetorians lowered their weapons and fell in step with him.
The officer who had run to tell General Armstrong to pull back looked at me with defeat in his eyes. He didn’t have to say anything; his expression was worth a thousand words.
They were supposed to be pulling back. Their tyrannical leader was letting his pride get in the way. There would be no retreat with General Armstrong in charge.
“Plan?” Jax asked. The big man came up to me with his rifle in his hands.
“The GG are refusing to pull back,” I reported into the comm channel. “They’re going to unleash Project Nemesis.”
“Stay and see if you can help,” Wesley said over the comm. “Unless Project Nemesis is some kind of code word for a miracle, I don’t see how they won’t be forced to retreat.”
“Understood,” I answered. I turned to my team. “We’ll help where we can until they have to pull back. Our plan only works if we can aid the GG. They have to see what we do and be willing to fight with us when the time comes for the full-on Voy invasion.”
Cassie nodded along with Jax.
“I’m going to do my invisible thing, see what I can see, and position myself to help,” Angel suggested.
“Okay, keep your channel open, nothing stupid,” I cautioned.
Angel flashed me the peace sign and disappeared.
Cassie was the only one who hadn’t seen her perform the act. The Order member took a step back in surprise.
“You’ll get used to it,” I said, gripping my MK II in my right hand and jerking my head forward. “Come on.”
“You Pack Protocol people are something else,” Cassie said, running beside me with Jax bringing up the rear.
To my knowledge, Cassie still didn’t carry a weapon. I wasn’t about to ask her why. Everything I knew of the woman said she was smart and capable. Plus I had seen firsthand two razor sharp knives come out of one of her forearms and a shield from the other. She had tricks up her sleeve, literally.
We rounded the corner of one of the rear buildings in the settlement to see the true deviation the Voy army had brought with it. More than half the buildings in the settlement were rubble. The outer wall was destroyed in multiple places, leaving smoking charred sections completely in rubble.
I could see Voy soldiers with their four arms carrying blades and blasters maneuvering over the wall and through the rubble. There were too many to count.
A strange lull suddenly covered the battlefield. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. My left arm was nearly back to normal after the break. I’d be ready in a few minutes to enter the fight at one hundred percent if it called for it.
The lull in the fight also came with the lack of weapons being discharged in the settlement. Sure there was still fighting going on overhead, but no rounds were rocketing into the building around us or being fired from the front lines of the Voy inside the walls.
Something caught my eye. A bald man without a shirt walked toward the center of the battlefield. He was slender and toned with tattoos running over his upper body. I couldn’t see his face, but what I did see made no sense.
He was barefoot with dark orange pants. Black energy crackled around him and through his hands. The Shadow Praetorian around him took a step back to give the stranger plenty of space.
I knew this had to be what they referred to as Project Nemesis, which was the only thing that made sense at the moment. The man lifted a few feet into the air. A ball of black matter swirled around him.
A wind picked up from nowhere as if on his command.
Apparently, the Voy had witnessed enough. Their temporary confusion at seeing the stranger dissipated. They opened fire on him. Hundreds of laser rounds pounded into the ball of energy around the man.
Project Nemesis was short-lived, I thought to myself. There go billions of taxpayer dollars.
It seemed I was wrong. Rounds cracked into the ball of energy around the shirtless man but didn’t penetrate the shield.
“Kill them now!” General Armstrong shouted in a voice free of fear.
I looked to my right where the general had taken up a defensive location along with his squad of Shadow Praetorians.
I took up a position with Jax and Cassie in the building just to the left and rear of them.
“That prideful SOB is going to get us all killed,” the colonel who informed General Armstrong to fall back said under his breath as he joined us.
At the moment, he didn’t look at me. His eyes were directed at the man named Nemesis.
Rockets, lasers, and so many rounds it looked like a hose or beam was being directed at the floating man in his black orb of energy. Not a single round penetrated his shield.
With a roar that sounded more pained than angry, Nemesis motioned forward with his hands. A shockwave of force like a tidal wave surged forward from him.
I stood stunned as the black matter rolled forward, battering into the Voy lines and sending them flying through the air as if a grenade had gone off at their feet.
“No retreat today!?” General Armstrong bellowed.
“Sir, we’re losing air support,” the colonel next to me shouted into his comm. “We should use Nemesis to cover our retreat. We are ordered to fall back.”
“Nemesis is more than enough for the enemy ships,” General Armstrong shouted back. “Nemesis, take out the Voy air support.”
I had no idea how the floating shirtless man was going to combat space crafts, but at the moment, I felt rooted to my spot. There was something familiar about the man, something I couldn’t place my finger on.
Did I know him from my past life? How could I remember? Jax or Angel would have said something if they’d recognized the man. Right?
Nemesis lifted farther into the sky until he floated a good ten feet in the air. He directed his attention skyward, shooting bolts of black energy from his hands. Voy ships began to take impossible hits, crashing down to the surface.
How anyone could track a ship moving so quickly in the night and hit it from the ground was a true miracle. Ships fell from the sky like meteors crashing into the hard sand ground with deafening explosions.
Soon the Voy air support turned their full attention on Nemesis. Strafing runs were made on his position and still he stood like a mountain in a swirling storm of chaos.
I was just beginning to think that General Armstrong was right, maybe they didn’t need our help after all. Maybe they didn’t need to fall back or retreat.
No sooner had the bud of hope blossomed in my heart than the ground trembled. The terrain beneath us shuddered and quaked.
“What the heck is that?” Jax asked from my left. “Earthquake?”
“This isn’t Earth,” Cassie answered. A hint of worry laced her words. “This is something far worse.”
My mind raced to find an answer. Images of the giant bug-like creatures grown by the Voy militia entered my mind.
“Get back!” I yelled, pushing the colonel along with the rest of my team to the rear of the settlement. I didn’t know how I was so sure, but I understood what was about to happen. The Voy weren’t going to hold back. Not after what happened during the first fight at the settlement. They wouldn’t be defeated again.
The ground exploded upward from the spot we had just been at a moment before. The four of us were thrown to the side like pieces of refuse.
A creature so giant in scope I had to blink to make sure I wasn’t imagining it stood in front of us. Burrowing from the ground itself, it shook the sand from its armored body like a dog would shake itself after a bath.
The creature was so much larger than when Alerna had shown it to me in my dream. It had to be the size of a small house. A thick black body was supported by six legs. A head with giant black eyes and a set of pincers the length of lances sprouted from its face.
It turned its attention to Nemesis while the rest of us were still figuring out what to do next. With a giant cry that burned my ears, it slammed its head into the man called Nemesis so hard, it actually broke through his barrier. A sick thud could be heard as the alien’s head met the man’s body.
Nemesis was hurled through the air like a rock from a sling. He came to a crash, landing near to where I sat with the rest of the team. Meters from me, the shirtless man with the tattoos struggled to his feet.
Their hero collapsed and the addition of the giant Voy insect set a fire under the Shadow Praetorians. The fight started anew as the GG poured everything they had at the bug and the heartened Voy soldiers.
“Please, please, it hurts so much,” Nemesis said beside me.
I looked at the man who was on his knees, clawing at his throat.
I had a better look at him now. His eyes were plain white orbs with no pupils. His face still eerily familiar, as if I knew him. He scratched and clawed at his neck, drawing blood.
A thin silver necklace I had not seen before sat secured around his throat.
“Please take it off,” Nemesis begged. “I can’t—I can’t breathe.”
Thoughts of who I was and who I had been flashed through my mind. Was I the type of guy to stand over someone begging me for help and do nothing? Maybe I had been that type of person, but not anymore.
“Hold still,” I said, dropping to my knees. I holstered my MK II and pulled the knife from the sheath at my belt.
“No, don’t,” the colonel called, reaching for my arm. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Jax caught him in time.
I gently slipped the blade of my knife sideways between the tight-fitting collar and his neck. A quick twist separated the piece of metal from his throat.
Immediately, Nemesis’ eyes reverted from white orbs back to normal. He looked up at me, massaging his throat.
“Thank you, Daniel,” he said, not just looking at me but through me. “I knew I’d see you again one day.”
“Nemesis has gone rogue,” the colonel yelled into his comm. “I repeat, Nemesis has gone rogue. Fall back!”
“Daniel, Daniel, what’s going on down there?” Wesley said in my comm. “Daniel, do you read me?”
Right now, I ignored the yells for my attention. I had to know how the man knew me.
“How do you know me?” I asked, tearing off my helmet. The cold night air washed against my sweat-dampened brow. “Who are you?”
Nemesis was about to answer, when a splatter of weapons fire painted the ground around us.
“Enemy, twelve o’clock,” Cassie shouted, taking a knee. Her bionic forearms opened fire, sending red laser beams at a group of Voy warriors that broke through the front lines.
With the introduction of the massive bug creature to the fight, utter chaos erupted through the settlement. The Shadow Praetorians were being pushed back by the bug and the newly formed ranks of Voy soldiers.
As much as I wanted answers from Nemesis, I wanted to live more.
I twisted around, dropping my knife back in my belt and pulling my MK II in one smooth motion.
I switched to explosive rounds and followed Cassie’s line of sight. Sure enough, the four-armed Voy warriors charged our location. In their top two hands, they held swords; in their bottom two, they fired heavy blasters.
Lucky for me, the Voy sucked at aiming, and along with that, they were running, further sending their bolts off course.
I sighted and squeezed the trigger of my weapon as I locked in on targets. The rounds exploded from my MK II detonating with explosive force on the approaching enemy.
Along with Cassie and Jax, we made short work of the Voy screaming toward us.
“Daniel, Daniel,” Wesley yelled again. “I need you to answer. We have the mechs ready to be deployed.”
“Get ready to drop them on my location!” I shouted. “There’s one of those crazy alien bugs here and we could use the support.”
“Understood,” Wesley confirmed.
“Listen, Nemesis or whatever your name is, I’m not sure how much more juice you have left bu—” I turned to address the shirtless man.
He was gone.
A screech from the alien insect plowing through a squad of Shadow Praetorians retreating toward us ended my thought.
General Armstrong led the group in our direction. He bled from a deep wound on his forehead. His blaster exchanged for a heavy rifle he used to lay fire into the giant insect.
The small arms fire of the weapon didn’t pack enough punch to do more than nick and scrape the bug’s armor. We’d need something a lot bigger.
I half expected the colonel who stood with us to go play tattletale and tell the general what I had done. Instead, he surprised me.
“Sir, please issue the retreat order,” the colonel shouted to his commander. “With Nemesis gone, this is over. You have to see that.”
The Shadow Praetorians joining us didn’t voice their opinions, but they looked at General Armstrong for consensus. I could imagine behind their black helmets visors their eyes looked expectantly to their commanding officer.
“No!” General Armstrong roared, spittle flying from his mouth. “Nothing’s over. We’re the Galactic Government. No alien comes to our galaxy and tells us—”
His face erupted in a spray of blood as a rogue Voy round slammed into his face. The general fell to the ground, dead.
The colonel in front of me didn’t miss a beat.
“We’re pulling out of here now!” the colonel shouted to both the soldiers around him and to the channel in his comm.
“We can help!” I said. “Let us cover you. We have mechs inbound that can deal with the bug as well as dropships and fighter crafts to keep the Voy ships busy.”
“Colonel Jonah Strife.” The man held out a hand. “Thanks for the assists. And you are?”
“Daniel Hunt,” I replied, accepting the offered hand. “We’re with a few corporations who understand we need to fight the Voy threat as one or we don’t stand a chance.”
“I’m obliged to agree with you there, Mr. Hunt,” the colonel stated. “All right, we’re pulling out.”
“We got you, go!” I called.
The colonel began barking orders to the men around him as well as through his comms.
“How are we going to do this?” Jax asked, peering around the corner of the building and letting out a few rounds from his blaster. “There’s a lot of those suckers to try and hold back.”
“Angel, they’re pulling out,” I said in my comm. “We’ll need you back here.”
“On my way,” Angel reported.
“Wesley, we’re ready for you to drop those mechs on our position,” I said. “Tell them to come in hot.”
“Understood,” Wesley acknowledged.
“Here,” I said, motioning to a low one-story building Colonel Strife and his men had taken up a defensive position behind. They shot around the corners.
I ran over to them with Jax and Cassie.
“Jax, you cover the other corner of the building and have Angel back you up when she gets here. Cassie, you hold this corner.”
Both warriors nodded and moved to obey.
The ground quivered once more, but this time, not from any kind of alien bug burrowing its way through. When it shook this time, a smile touched my lips.
“Jeff and Mandy have arrived with their mech units,” X informed me. “I’ll patch them into the comm channel now.”
I peeked around my corner to the cloud of dust and debris each mech had kicked up. One of the Phoenix mechs landed on my side of the corner of the building while the other one landed on the opposite side nearer Jax.
The mech nearest me stood tall and undaunted like some titan of old entering the battlefield. Dual compartments opened on its back, introducing a pair of rotating barrels each long enough to be a cannon on its own. The spinning barrels came out of their back, lifted up, and rested on each shoulder.
The next thing I knew, each weapon was rotating at a blinding speed, firing so quickly into the Voy horde, it was impossible to pick out individual rounds. Instead, a barrage leveled the first wave of Voy soldiers dumb enough to try and charge the armored units.
I could hear the same kind of destruction coming from the opposite side of our building.
“What in the Voy’s unholy name is that?” Colonel Strife shouted to me.
“Retribution,” Cassie called back from her position firing around the corner of the structure.
“We’re pulling out,” Colonel Strife answered with a hard nod. “Dropships to the rear of the settlement. You best be pulling your team out as soon as possible. The Voy have the numbers to surround us. Or maybe bring on more of those bug creatures.”
“We’ll be right behind you. Go!” I shouted.
Colonel Strife slapped me on the shoulder. His eyes said everything the moment didn’t allow time for. Soldier to soldier, he knew he owed us his and his men’s lives.
A second later, he was running for the rear of the settlement wall where a door opened out to the Martian desert.
“Woohoo!” Mandy bellowed over the comms. “If this isn’t a target-rich environment, I don’t know what is. Talk about target practice.”
“Nothing like the simulations,” Jeff hollered from his mech. “The Order fighter squadron can wrap up the Voy in the air for a few minutes while we watch the retreat.”
“Got it,” I answered, still amazed by the sheer volume of fire power each mech produced. “Wesley, we’ll need to pull out in about five minutes.”
“I see the GG retreating in their dropships,” Wesley passed. “We’ll touch down on the other side of the rear wall as soon as they clear out.”
“Got it!” I approved.
“Jeff, watch out!” Angel cried over her comm.
I was on the opposite corner of the building, so I couldn’t see anything but the very top of Jeff’s mech. The way the ground shook told me what was coming for him.
“Giant bug incoming!” Jax yelled.
“I got him!” Jeff called.
A sound the likes of which I had never heard echoed through the battlefield. Hundreds of tons of bugs met armored mech.
The sound was something like a car wreck if the vehicles were as large as houses.
Unlucky for Jeff, while his mech matched the bug for height, it couldn’t compete with the alien for sheer weight. The bug slammed into the red mech, bullying it back past the corner of our building to the rear.
Jeff’s mech fell in a heap of twisted metal.
“Daniel” Mandy asked worry etched in her voice.
“Go,” I told her. “We’ll hold the corner here. You and Jeff are on bug duty.”
“Roger that,” Mandy said, already turning to move behind our lines and the massive bug stalking toward her friend.
“Jeff, you still with us?” I asked.
“I think so,” Jeff coughed. “Man, that bug packs a punch.”
Mandy opened up on the bug with both rotating barrels on her shoulders. Casings fell from the weapons like rain. I was sure they weren’t using traditional rounds. They had to be some kind of high tech impact ammunition developed by Phoenix. An answer to that question would have to wait.
The rounds tore through the bug as bright green blood gushed from the creature onto the sandy ground below us.
As much as I would have loved to watch the battle take place behind us, the Voy army was on the move again. They skirted down the street hugging building walls. Unlike before where they ran at us in the open, they were more cautious now. They still moved forward but looked for cover, making it much harder to defend our position.
Cassie and I took turns dodging out around the corner and choosing targets. I was out of explosive rounds and switched to regular tungsten steel bolts a second later. The smell of sweat and death mixed on the cool night air. A chill in the wind pushed icy droplets of sweat on my brow.
A round struck Cassie’s left forearm as she peeked out to fire on the oncoming Voy once more.
Cassie roared in pain, grabbing at her arm.
“How bad is it?” I asked, giving her a moment of reprieve. I jumped out and fired two shots at a pair of Voy who thought they were being cute and popped their heads around the building directly opposite us. My aim was true, finding headshots for both enemy soldiers
“It’s not pretty, but I’ll live,” Cassie said.
I looked down at her left arm. Her mechanical arm was sparking. Cassie maneuvered around the wounded appendage, batting away the smoke as she did so.
“I’ve still got an arm to use, so I’m not out of the fight yet,” Cassie informed me. “Can’t let you wolves have all the fun.”
“You fit right in,” I said with a grin. The Voy numbers against our four without the help of the mechs was suicide. We all knew that. Still, we were going to hold as long as we could. They’d overrun us in a few minutes and it would come down to hand to hand.
As if my thoughts heralded the future, the Voy realized their superiority in numbers and descended on us.
“Here they come!” Jax yelled from his corner of the building.
“The Galactic Government is lifting off now,” Wesley chimed in over the comm. “Buy us a few minutes. We’ll secure the landing sight. All you’ll have to do is run toward us.”
“You make it sound so easy,” I said through gritted teeth as the Voy rushed our position.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of them charged us, screeching into the cold night air. Cassie was beside me, one arm dangling by her side.
I unloaded my drum on them, pulling the trigger as fast as I could track targets. I clicked dry of regular rounds and went to gas munitions, hoping it would spread out among the first wave of aliens and knock more than a few out.
As fast as they sprinted toward us, I wasn’t able to take out more than a dozen before it came down to the axe and knife. I holstered my MK II and brought up the weapons I was so familiar with in the same move. The First Voy to reach me swung his sword down on me. I batted it to the side and sank the axe head deep into his skull.
The Voy trembled then fell to his knees. There was no time to even see him fall. They were on top of us like a bursting dam long past due.
Somewhere in the background, I heard the sounds of the bug fighting the mechs. I couldn’t afford to even look in that direction. I just reacted. My thoughts came quick and left faster.
Block, stab, parry, swing. I moved amongst the Voy, never daring to stay in the same spot for more than a brief moment. Kick, duck, stab, swing.
Their blood spattered my armor and the ground around me. A Voy got a lucky shot in and hammered me across the face with a closed fist. In the second it took me to recover, another tackled me to the ground from behind.
Cassie kicked the Voy off me so violently, I definitely heard bones snap in the alien. She blasted another at point-blank range, opening up a smoking hole in its chest.
I fought to my feet.
“Your recallers, Daniel,” X reminded me of my new toys. “Make them fight your game.”
Muscles already burning, I faced the Voy again, this time taking X’s advice. I put my back to Cassie and started hurling my axe and knife at the closest targets. As soon as the weapons found their marks, I beckoned back with my fingers. Just like in training, they obeyed, flying back to my hands thanks to the silver bracelets I wore.
Breathing was hard. A lucky shot found my torso and made me double over in pain for only a second. The armor I wore stopped the round from penetrating, but it was enough to bruise ribs and take my breath away.
Seconds felt like minutes. Minutes, hours.
Cassie still wore her helmet. Her visor was cracked. Sparks still poured out from her left forearm.
“Head for the rear wall, go, go, go!” Wesley shouted over the comm.
I stopped only long enough to make sure Cassie was on my left as we retreated toward the wall. The settlement’s rear gate stood open where the GG had also made their retreat.
I saw Angel helping a limping Jax back toward the gate as well. The thought of leaving them behind never crossed my mind. I veered to my right, sprinting toward them as hundreds of Voy cried in frustration.
As I made my way toward Angel and Jax, I was able to take a quick look at the fight taking place between the bug and the two mechs. I wasn’t sure which party was wounded the most.
Fires and smoke along with electric sparks exploded over both mechs. I couldn’t tell which mech was Jeff’s and which was Mandy’s, but one of them was missing a weapon from their shoulder torn off at the mount. Another was limping almost as badly as Jax.
Left palm facing outward, the mech with the limp poured fire on the bug. The other mech held a blade that extended from its right forearm at least eight feet in length.
The alien bug leaked bright green blood all over the ground. The mechs stumbled and fell in the stuff. Despite losing a river of fluid, the bug remained on its feet screaming hate at the pair of mechs.
I grabbed Jax around his free arm and helped Angel carry him to the wall.
Cassie hadn’t left us behind either; she followed close behind, sending a burst of fire into the oncoming enemy.
“Give us some cover!” I yelled at Wesley.
I could see Wesley had personally come out of the dropship with a suit of his own armor and a heavy rifle. He along with a dozen Order soldiers stood at the entrance to the rear wall firing on the enemy, trying to provide as much help as possible.
We retreated with the roars of the enemy and the bone-crushing sounds of the mechs doing battle behind us.
“He’s not going down!” Mandy yelled from her mech. “Just die, you piece of—”
“Pull back, you have to pull back now,” Wesley ordered the pair of mechs, even as we reached the gate exit of the settlement and the waiting dropship.
There were three Order dropships, all with their rear hatches open. Ours was on the left; the two the mechs were dropped from ones on the right. The thick cable tow lines were ready to connect to them and lift them to safety.
“Mandy, let’s go!” Jeff screamed over the comms as his mech started for the exit.
“I’ve taken too much damage. My leg’s not working right. I can’t move. You go, I’ll catch up!” Mandy ordered.
The tone in her voice told me all I needed to know. Mandy had no intention of catching up. She was going to die in her mech.
I’d seen enough death. I’d caused enough of it to last me a lifetime, but I wasn’t the kind of person who was going to run to safety with my tail between my legs while others did my fighting and dying for me.
“Here take him,” I yelled to Cassie as I transitioned Jax’s free arm over her shoulder. “Get him on board.”
“What are you going to do?” Cassie shouted.
“I’m going to take care of our bug problem,” I yelled over the explosions still coming from the mech and bug. “I’ll be right back. I’m invincible, remember? It can’t kill me.”
I knew that wasn’t the truth. I knew I could die, but right now to put the others at ease, it felt like the right thing to say.
We had made it to the rear gates where Wesley and the other Order soldiers inside the dropships provided us cover from the approaching Voy.
I turned and took a knee next to Wesley, who crouched to the left gate firing his pulse carbine into the Voy horde.
Jeff hadn’t taken Mandy’s request to heart. Both wounded mechs kept battling it out with the bug. It was like watching a heavyweight match where both sides were exhausted but refused to give in.
“The bug’s exoskeleton is too thick,” X said, scanning the creature’s anatomy through my eyes. “The mechs are doing damage, but every time they puncture the armor, the wound is shallow and superficial. You need to get something inside the creature. Destroy it from the inside out.”
“Don’t go back in there,” Wesley said with a shake of his head. “They’ll be fine. We’re boarding up and going now. The mechs will follow.”
I crouched there, watching the fight go on, the Voy army barely held back by the weapons fire from the Order soldiers defending the rear gate.
My mind raced for an answer. For some reason, I thought about Atilla. That Order son of a gun who tried to be the one to lead. I thought of him and his weapon. That rod, always fighting from a distance.
That gave me an idea.
“I need whatever explosive you can give me!” I yelled in Wesley’s ear. “Whatever’s the smallest and will give me the biggest boom. Hurry, that’s an order.”
Both my eyes and Wesley’s went large for a moment as we stared at one another. I felt like a child talking back to his parent. Never had I ordered Wesley to do anything.
He opened his mouth to say something, but I cut him off.
“You chose me to lead for a reason, because I lead from the front,” I said before he could argue. “So let me lead.”
Wesley closed his mouth and reach to his belt. He handed me a cylinder no larger than my hand.
“Thermite bomb packs a punch like you wouldn’t believe. I was saving it for our exit,” Wesley said handing me the surprisingly light explosive. “Hurry!”
I accepted the thermite bomb from Wesley with a nod.
“Tape, I need tape!” I yelled to anyone who could hear around me.
“Attacked by aliens and this freaking guy wants tape,” I heard one of the armored Order members say to his companion.
“Here!” Cassie said, grabbing something out of the rear of the dropship where she placed Jax. She hurled a black cylinder through the air to me. In another life, she could have played professional sports. The lady had an arm.
I wasted no time in plucking the tape out of the air. I secured the thermite bomb to my axe and was off at a sprint.
“Cover me!” I yelled back.
“I just want to point out how insane this is,” X said in my ear. “I’m with you to the end but this is not what sane people do.”
I saved my breath for running, but I had to agree with X. This plan was so simple, there was no way it could work. But I had to do something.
Mandy’s mech was completely down now. The giant robot sat on its butt as if it had too much to drink the night before. Her arms were still working, and as such, she discharged her flamethrower at the beast and swiped at it with the blade on her right gauntlet.
Jeff stumbled against the beast, his armor filling the air with black smoke from different sections of his unit.
The Voy to my right saw me sprinting for the creature and took aim. With the arrival of the Order extraction force, the Voy had been more reluctant to full-out charge us again. Now they took up positions in buildings, and behind whatever debris they could find.
Lucky for me, I was their new favorite target.
I put everything I had left into making the run, sprinting across the sand. My superhuman biology helped me to practically fly. No matter how fast I was I wasn’t going to outrun an army of Voy sighting in on me with their weapons. Laser rounds scorched the ground around me.
I felt something take out my right leg.
I slammed into the ground hard. I held on to the axe on my right hand, refusing to lose the grip on the weapon no matter how intense the pain I felt. My leg screamed at me as if it were on fire. I looked down to see a smoking charred section on my leg.
“Don’t look at it,” X said in my head. “You have to keep going.”
I gasped, pulling myself to my feet. Providing the Voy a stationary target even for a moment was a bad idea. They were horrible shots, but with so many rifles on me, one was bound to hit.
I felt something like a baseball bat hit my right shoulder, then torso and hip. I was off at a run, the armor protecting me from the rounds. I accepted the pain of the rounds battering my body.
You can do this, I told myself. One foot at a time.
An explosion went off right behind me that flung me forward. My head cracked against the stone rear wall to my left.
Darkness came for me.
I told the darkness, No. I still had work to do.
Blood poured down my face from a deep laceration on my hairline. The comm channel was going crazy.
Somehow I fought back unconsciousness and pushed myself to my hands and knees.
“Get up!” X said. “I’m coordinating a plan now to get you some cover. Just get up. The axe landed in front of you.”
Blood fell from my forehead in droplets, painting the sand underneath me. I looked up to see the axe buried to the hilt in the sand a few meters in front of me.
I wasn’t sure if the Voy thought they killed me, but no more rounds were being sent in my direction.
Hard metallic pings captured my attention. It was Mandy’s mech. The sounds were the Voy firing on her.
Legs inoperable, Mandy used her mech’s hands to drag herself across the sand to my location. She used the mech’s body as a barrier between me and the Voy. The length of the mech would cover the rest of my run to Jeff and the bug.
“Hurry,” Mandy shouted through her comm. “He can’t hold on much longer.”
I knew she was right. Even as we spoke, the bug bullied Jeff backward, causing him to trip and fall on his back. The bug pressed its advantage, opening its gruesome mouth with long pincers to rip through Jeff’s chest plate as if it knew where the pilot was located.
I gritted my teeth. Maybe one day I’d be too battered and broken to not fight on. But that day wasn’t today.
I willed my body up and started my run once more. Pain accompanied every stride, but I was past pain now. I was solely focused on grabbing the axe and sending it at the bug.
“Jeff, open the bug’s mouth!” I bellowed, grabbing the hilt of my axe as I ran. “As wide as you can.”
“What!” Jeff asked, panicked. “This thing is trying to rip through my chest and you want me to give him a dental exam?”
“Just do it!” I screamed, pressing the detonator on the thermal grenade. “Trust me.”
X overlaid an augmented reality arc with a broken blue line that showed the curve of how I’d need to throw the weapon.
To my right, Mandy kept me covered, but the safety she provided was running out. Soon I’d reach the feet of the mech, then once again be open for the Voy to play target practice.
“Up!” I yelled, already reaching back to hurl the weapon. “Jeff, I need you to point the bug’s mouth up!”
“Daniel, you have to throw now!” X warned me. “The detonator is only primed for ten seconds!”
Jeff obeyed, tilting the bug’s mouth skyward for the briefest moment.
With a silent prayer, I followed X’s instructions and sent the axe not at the alien bug but instead in an arc toward it.
Time seemed to slow as the weapon spun end over end with the thermite grenade attached to the axe head.
The weapon came down like a raindrop right into the bug’s open mouth.
Jeff shoved the creature back and rolled out of the way.
The alien bug swallowed. He looked pissed. Giant black eyes swung toward me as if somehow he knew what I had done. There was hate in those eyes the likes I had never seen.
“Sorry, it was you or me,” I said with a shrug.
The explosion that ripped the bug’s head into a thousand pieces sounded like a wet thud more than a grenade detonating. Gore and brain matter rained down on me like the heavens had provided a meat shower and I was the only one in attendance.
The bug’s headless body fell to the ground, quivering in its death throes. Bright green blood painted the entire area of the inside of the settlement.
“Hahaha!” Jeff screamed in joy as he maneuvered his smoking mech to provide cover for Mandy, who exited out of her own. “It worked! How crazy is that? It actually worked!”
“Daniel, you’re a madman,” Mandy said as she moved out of her mech to join me on the opposite side of the piece of armor. “That was brilliant.”
We retreated back to the rear gates under the protection of Jeff’s mech. I wasn’t sure we even needed the protection, the Voy seemed stunned. Quiet even. Only a few weapons discharged toward us.
A wail from the Voy’s throats that was the most horrible thing I had ever heard lifted toward the sky. I wasn’t sure how they viewed these bugs. Like gods or something, but they were definitely sad I had just given it a thermite pill to swallow.
We reached the waiting dropships amongst cheers and yells from our own side as we loaded in.
I boarded with Jeff and Mandy, taking one of the other dropships. The rear doors closed and we were off.
“What happened back there?” Angel asked. “I mean, I know what happened, but why did they give up like that?”
“No idea,” I replied, looking down at my armor that dripped with the bright green blood of my enemy. The stuff was everywhere. In my hair, ears, and somehow had gotten into my nose.
“Maybe they respected the creatures,” Cassie mused, looking up from a seat where an Order technician worked on her forearm. “Maybe they couldn’t believe someone actually took one down.”
“We’ll have to take down a lot more,” I said as a sick feeling touched my gut. “The other ones might be larger.”
“What makes you say that?” Angel asked.
“In my vision,” I answered. “I had a feeling they could get a lot bigger. I think they could fly.”
“So, what,” Cassie asked, looking up from her seat. “That was a baby?”
“I think so,” I answered.
The dropship shuddered with turbulence. I steadied myself before walking over to where Jax lay on a few seats near the back corner of the ship. The seat’s arms had been folded up to give him plenty of room to lie.
The big man nearly fell off the impromptu bench from the bulk of his muscle mass. He was attached to a series of wires and tubes that fed him intravenously as well as monitored his vitals.
Jax’s eyes opened, a heavy bandage secure over his midsection. His shirt had been torn open with what looked like a knife.
“You going to make it?” I asked, taking the seat across from him. “You look horrible.”
“Oh you know, just had my belly sliced open by a four-armed alien.” Jax winked at me, trying and failing to mask the discomfort he felt. “I’ll be fine. Wish I healed as fast as you.”
“You’ll be up and ready for the fight when the Voy come,” I reassured him. “We’ll need you.”
“I heard the chatter on the channel and everyone cheering,” Jax said, changing the topic. “What did you do? Give that bug a headache?”
“The worst headache of his life,” I said with a grin.
“My man,” Jax said, moving his right arm forward, fist closed.
I bumped it with my own closed fist.
“Will you two stop flirting? It’s getting awkward,” Angel said, sitting in the seat next to me with a flask to her mouth. She took a long pull then sighed heavily. “So what’s the plan now? Regroup, hoping the GG are on our side?”
“They have to be,” Cassie reasoned, joining us. Her left forearm wasn’t sparking anymore. A new dark metal vambrace was positioned on the limb. “They saw what the Voy are and what they aren’t. They won’t be allies.”
I stayed quiet, thinking of the events that preceded this moment. Amongst the many things to digest was the man named Nemesis. Where he had gone was a mystery.
“Hey that guy the one they called Project Nemesis has to be dead, right?” I asked everyone. “I mean, there’s nothing but desert for kilometers in every direction. If he was going to make it to a city he’d need transportation.”
“I don’t know,” Angel said, taking another swig from her flask. “What I do know is that if I’m going to start dealing with flying guys shooting magic out of their hands, I’m going to need a bigger flask.”
“Did you notice how much he looked like you, Daniel?” Cassie asked with a frown. “I mean, not a spitting image, but a strong resemblance.”
“I mean, a bit, I guess.” I thought back to the bald man. “He was older, not as ruggedly good-looking.”
Jax barked out laughter.
Cassie rolled her eyes.
Angel drained her flask.
We slept in the dropship, arriving back at Dragon Hold the next day. I couldn’t be sure exactly what time it was, but the sun was up and already beginning its downward descent. If I did my math right, the Voy had promised to attack the very next day.
The Hold was alive with activity. Every corporation that agreed to stand with us was present, directing their units and assets to the area just beyond the city where we decided to make a stand.
After a shower and much needed food, I was as good as new. My wounds were already healed.
I was just coming out of my room when I heard galloping down the hall. Butch rounded the corner and didn’t stop. The next second, I was attacked with a series of slobbery licks and heavy pants.
At the same time, Butch nosed me, smelling around my body all the alien insect smells I hadn’t been able to remove in the shower. It seemed along with the bug juice came a pungent odor that took time to set in.
It smelled like something spicy mixed with a dull vomit blend.
I rubbed Butch’s ears and the side of her head and back. I didn’t have to bend over, she was so big. Her furry head came up to my chest.
“I could have used you out there,” I started then thought about the damage she might have taken and her inability to heal like me. “On second thought, maybe it’s better you’re right where you are.”
“The GG has made contact with Wesley,” X reported in. “We have their support. They’re regrouping now. That’s just the tip of the iceberg on what’s going on. You want the long version or the short?”
“I’ll take the short,” I requested.
“Corporations are using the Hold as a command center. They’re directing their troops outside of Athens for the moment until we can get a bead on where the Voy will strike,” X rattled off. “Everyone who’s said they’d come has. Public is still in the dark for the time being. GG has removed the kill order on Immortal Corp.”
“All good news,” I said, giving Butch one last ruffle on the back of her neck. “If there wasn’t an alien invasion about to take place, we’d be in a great spot.”
“If only,” X agreed. “One more thing, Commander Shaw brought Echo from the vault on Earth. Echo’s been pleading to redeem himself. The commander thinks you should have the final word on that.”
I thought back to the man who had tried to kill Amber. He was ordered and he had failed but did that make his crime any less?
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Angel’s talking to him now in the cell block,” X answered.
“This place has a cell block. Why am I not surprised?” I rolled my eyes. “Lead the way.”
X showed me to a stairwell that not only led to the ground floor but one level below it. Every face I passed I didn’t recognize; every corporation was there wearing their sigils from Hyperion Industries to the Overlords and Apex.
The house was teeming with conversation as dozens of tasks were being conducted to prepare for the war. I could feel an electricity in the air I actually liked. As much as I knew I shouldn’t, I was eager for the fight to begin.
I was ready to get this over with, and to be honest, I still wanted to get my hands on the Voy torturer named Dall who had cut me open.
Butch padded behind me, causing more than one look of awe and fear in our direction. One man actually crossed to the opposite side of the hall to give us a wide berth.
I couldn’t blame them, having an extinct wolf animal brought back from the dead that was four feet tall was something to see.
X led us to a section to the rear of Dragon Hold where stone steps descended to the level below.
“There’s more than one level as well,” X remarked as if she were reading schematics. “The cell block is on the first floor.”
I traveled down a well-lit stone path. The damp smell gave me the idea that this section of Dragon Hold was somehow older than the rest. As if the underground levels had been part of some building before that was much older than the one that sat on top of it now.
I crossed the stone floor to a room that lay beyond. There were six cells built with iron bars, stone, and mortar. Angel sat slumped beside one of the cells on the left. Echo sat within. He was completely healed now from when I had seen him last. He sat with his head down, dreadlocks hiding his features.
“Come to join the party?” Angel asked, beckoning me forward. “Come on in, we’re having a reunion.”
Echo looked up. He was gaunt, with bloodshot eyes and a sadness that lived deep within. I might have felt sorry for him if I hadn’t known what he had tried to do to Amber.
Right now, as far as they all knew, Amber was dead and that was the way it had to be. It didn’t matter what would make them feel better or lift a burden off Echo. Amber was out. She was safe. I’d do anything to keep it that way.
“Daniel,” Echo said, standing up from his seat and moving over to the cell bars. “I can help. Let me help. Let me make up for what I’ve done—no, I can never make up for what I’ve done, but let me try and do something good now.”
I just stared at him, not trying to be rude, but I honestly didn’t know what to do in that moment. We could use all the help we could get, but Echo was a wild card at best.
“Angel says Immortal Corp’s been wiped out by the GG,” Echo went on. “She said you’re in charge now and aliens!? I wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t told me. But let me help, Daniel. Let me out of here and I’ll show you I’m ready to put my life on the line for my brothers and sisters again.”
I looked over at Angel, who rose to her feet. She shrugged.
“What do you think?” I asked her.
“I think, we’re all human, mostly anyway.” Angel bit her lower lip. “I think we all make mistakes. I think we’re family no matter what. And maybe forgiveness isn’t in store for any of us for the things we’ve done, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing some good.”
We all heard a slow clap from the door and turned. Jax walked gingerly inside. He was still in a lot of pain, but he looked a heck of a lot better than he did in the dropship.
“I don’t know if any of us deserve another chance, but I’m not going to be the one to vote to keep Echo from his,” Jax said moving into the room.
“We’ve all wronged one another in the past probably more than once,” A familiar voice called from the door. “We’re human, we’re broken people and we mess up on a daily basis. What sets us apart is that we don’t stay down when we mess up. We always get back up.”
Preacher walked into the room with a set of crutches that looked like they hovered just above the ground carrying him with them.
“It’s a freaking reunion,” I said.
“More than you know,” a woman answered, walking into the room with a bow hung over her shoulder and a helmet in the crook of her elbow. Her red hair fell down the side of her face like a waterfall. “You helped me defend my city, my family, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”
Tears fell down Angel’s cheeks as she rushed to Sam’s side and embraced her like a sister.
“Well, aren’t we just a messed up bunch of degenerates,” Jax said, also going to Sam to give her a big bear hug.
“Wait until you see who I brought with me,” Sam said, catching my eye. “When Commander Shaw sent out the call for help, the Reapers said they owed Daniel a debt as well. Some character named Papa marshalled the entire Reaper Corps and is bringing them to Mars to fight.”
I looked at them all from Preacher to Echo. They were right. We were a broken family of killers who had made a lot of mistakes, but looking behind us wasn’t going to move us forward.
X read my mind.
“There’s a handprint scanner on the side of the cell,” She informed me. “The Hold is yours so it’ll open the cell if you place your palm on it.”
“Maybe you don’t deserve another chance for what you did,” I told Echo. Tears welled in the man’s eyes as I spoke. “But I’m not going to be the one to take away your opportunity at redemption.”
I placed my palm on the scanner next to his cell. A light blue light crossed my hand. A second later, the cell door clicked open.
“Thank you,” Echo told me, swallowing hard. His Adam’s apple bobbed then quivered as he fought back another wave of tears. “I won’t let you down.”
The six of us stood there as one big dysfunctional family. Jax injured, Angel drinking, Echo blubbering about how he was going to make things up to us, Preacher’s healing factor nullified and still recovering himself.
I had my own issues. Sam was the only one who somewhat had it together, but I had no doubt she struggled with her own demons.
“Daniel, I’m sorry to interrupt,” X said in my ear. “There’s something going on you need to know about.”
The tone in X’s voice told me everything I didn’t want to know. Something was very seriously wrong.
“Go ahead,” I said in a voice loud enough it made everyone stop talking and look at me to see what was going on.
“The Voy are broadcasting a transmission to Mars, the moon, and Earth,” X said out loud. “I can let you listen now.”
“Do it,” I ordered.
“We gave your leadership seven days to answer,” an alien voice filled the room from X’s external speakers. I recognized the smooth female tone. It belonged to the Voy named Talia I had spoken to once before my torture began. “Instead they attacked us and betrayed our trust. Now they have left us no option but to retaliate. We came in peace and if you will have that peace, stand down and exit your cities when we approach. We will take you in and spare you. You have our word. Those who slaughtered our kind on the far side of Mars must pay.”
The transmission ended.
“That’s playing on a loop along with images of Voy bodies from the fight last night,” X told us. “They’re spinning the whole thing like we attacked them.”
“Sorry to break up the family gathering,” Cassie said, entering the room. She looked at me and Echo. “You guys hang out in cell blocks a lot? Never mind. You hear the news?”
“We did,” I answered.
“Here are the images sent along with it.” Cassie pointed her right vambrace in front of her. A bright holographic light showed images passing over a screen.
The message played again, but this time, we could see what millions of other people were witnessing across our known galaxy.
Talia appeared in a plain white robe. I could imagine how shocking seeing her six eyes and four arms would be to people who had no idea of the Voy’s existence.
The screen in front of us soon transitioned to images showing specific shots of the Shadow Praetorians shooting and killing Voy soldiers. The images were few and cycled through quickly, but it was clear the Voy knew what they were doing.
What followed were images of the aftermath of the battle. Once again, the pictures told a story of how the Voy must have been slaughtered. Any human bodies were taken out of the pictures to reveal only hundreds of dead Voy.
I couldn’t help but notice the Voy had even gone to the extent to remove the weapon and armor from their own dead soldiers to make it look as though they were helpless bystanders when the GG descended on them.
“This makes me sick,” Jax spat to the side. “Nothing about this is true.”
“It’s their narrative. They want people to believe it to divide us before the fighting even starts,” Preacher agreed. “They’ll be humans flocking to their side, others protesting in the street.”
I shook my head, disgusted at the lies being shoved down humanity’s throat.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” X said out loud.
“Good news first,” Sam answered.
“Good news is that the GG is deploying their forces outside the Martian cities to meet the Voy threat,” X reported.
“Bad news?” I asked.
“Bad news is that most of the GG forces on the moon and Earth won’t make it on time for the fight if the Voy attack tomorrow as they said they would,” X rattled off. “We’ll have to make the stand with the forces they already have here on Mars.”
“Wonderful,” I said with a heavy sigh. “Should I even ask about the force they already have here?”
“It’s impossible to tell for sure, since we don’t have accurate numbers on the Voy militia, but we’ll be outnumbered for sure,” X said.
“Story of my freaking life.” Angel drained her flask. She let out a loud burp. “Well, the aliens aren’t going to kill themselves. We should probably get to work.”
The seven of us nodded, looking at Preacher for direction. It just felt right, not because he was the oldest among us, but because he had been the Pack Protocol leader in the field.
He just leaned against his crutches for support, looking at me.
“What do you want us to do first, Daniel?” Preacher asked.
“We’re going to need guns,” I declared. “Lots of guns.”
“I think I might know where you can find those,” Cassie chimed in. “Immortal Corp and Dragon Hold aren’t the only places with a stockpile of weapons. The Order has been testing some new tech. Under the circumstances, I think Julian will allow us to share them with our new friends.”
“Lead the way,” I said, motioning forward. “Time’s running out.”
Daniel Hunt will be back in the next Forsaken Mercenary book, Annihilation. 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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Annihilation (Coming Soon!)