Book: Rivals: A Near Future Thriller



Rivals: A Near Future Thriller



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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons— living or dead—is entirely coincidental.





Rivals


Forsaken Mercenary Book Seven


Jonathan Yanez



Contents


Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe

Stay Informed

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Epilogue

Stay Informed

Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe


Rivals: A Near Future Thriller


Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe

Inception

Dropship

Absolution

Fury

Vendetta

Annihilation

Nemesis

Rivals

Wolves (Coming soon!)


Stay Informed

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One

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

I lifted my head, my voice dripping with hot rage and frustration. I yelled because, in that moment, I was helpless and there was nothing I hated more.

Major Valentine’s warm, sticky blood soaked my hands. Her face was pale, and she was breathing shallow and slow.

“They’re coming,” X said in my head. “They’re on their way.”

Past the ruined house we sat in, the sounds of the Grimm Reapers being torn apart reached our ears. The winged beast in the Swamp Lands that could only be described as a dragon ripped into them.

Left arm and lower body trapped under the crushing debris of the building, Major Valentine struggled to breathe.

“Hang in there, Zoe,” I told her, unsure if she could hear me at all. “Don’t you give up on me.”

An open locket hung from her neck. It was one the major had shown me before. Inside was a picture of her daughter. I understood what her daughter meant to her as a single mother: everything.

The girl’s smiling face splattered with her mother’s blood stared up at me as if she were blaming me for what happened to her mother. Right now, Zoe’s daughter was somewhere on Mars, safe and away from the horrors we faced. She had no idea her mother’s life hung in the balance.

“Please let her live,” I spoke to no one, trying to hold the wound across the major’s neck closed while not crushing her air supply. “Please don’t do this. Let her live.”

I wasn’t really sure who I was talking to. All I could focus on at the moment was the fact that I had gotten her into this. I had arrived at the Hole to ask Major Valentine to let a prisoner take us to find Aleron. I convinced her to make it happen. This was on me. This was my fault.

“We’re here,” Cassie said, skidding to a stop beside me. “What happened?”

“Medic,” I said, snapping out of my grief-induced trance. “We need the medic, what was his name? The medic from the Titan unit?”

“Doc!” Sergeant Toy roared over the echoes of the dragon’s growls only blocks away. “Doc, over here!”

Sergeant Toy continued to shout orders, setting his Titans up in a tight perimeter around the broken structure.

“Rival?” Cassie asked. She searched the piles of rubble around us. “Where is he?”

“Gone,” I said as Doc ran to us and dropped to his knees beside the major. “Rival slit her throat and escaped into the mist. He knows where the Relic is.”

Cassie didn’t have time to respond before Doc started in.

“You’re doing good, you’re doing good,” Doc told me. He removed his helmet in a hurry and reached inside his medical supply kit. “Keep pressure on the wound. I’m going to disinfect it and put a layer of skin spray on it now.”

I watched numbly as Doc worked, first using a Quick Heal that sent a line of antibacterial foam into her wound. Next he reached for a can of skin spray that would close her wound long enough to stop the bleeding and let her own body begin to recover naturally.

I finally removed my hands from her neck, sitting back on my heels. I knew I had to ask the question. Not a whole lot of things scared me these days, but the answer to this question was one of them.

“Is she going to make it?” I asked barely above a whisper.

“She’s going to make it,” Doc affirmed, slapping me hard on the shoulder. “She’s going to make it because of you.”

“Help me get the debris off her,” Doc said, motioning to Cassie and me.

The three of us made short work of the debris covering the major. Soon we had her free. We rolled her onto her back as gently as we could. Doc hooked up a plasma patch to her left arm.

I stood there in what was left of the building looking down at my bloodstained hands. I was used to blood on my hands, that of my own or my enemies, but not my friends.

Echo dying in my arms after the Voy invasion hit me like a dropship. All of a sudden, I was back. I was on Mars, Echo breathing his last. My brother in every sense of the word except for blood, dying all over again.

“Daniel, we need you here,” Laine said, coming up to me with a serious expression in her eyes. “She’s going to be okay, but we need you back here right now.”

I looked at the shape-shifting alien with a nod. I wondered if she’d been in my head to know that I needed to be drawn away from my memories. It didn’t really matter. I knew she was right.

“Rival?” Sergeant Toy asked, coming back after securing our perimeter. He didn’t wait for an answer to his question. “I’m going to kill him when we get our hands on him.”

“You’ll have to wait your turn,” I informed the sergeant. “He took off in the mist. No more than a few minutes ago.”

“We can track—”

A bellow from the dragon engaging with what was left of the Grimm Reapers exploded into the night air. Fewer and fewer weapons were answering the dragon’s challenge as Grimm Reapers either ran or died.

“We could try and track him in the mist, but the dragon will be done soon and the Crocs will come out to feed,” Cassie reminded us both. “I want to kill him as much as either of you, but right now, we need to get the major somewhere safe. We’ll only lose more if we stay here.”

“Minus losing Mercer, we’ve accomplished our goal,” Sergeant Toy said, looking over at me. “Did you kill Aleron?”

I looked down at my body, which recovered from the flames thrown at us by the dragon. Aleron and I were on the back of a truck when the dragon lit us up and the vehicle exploded. There was no way he could have survived that.

“The dragon hit us both with flames,” I answered. “The vehicle we were on top of blew up underneath us. It’s hard to imagine anyone could have lived through that.”

“You did,” Sergeant Toy responded.

“I did,” I repeated with a nod. I knew he wanted more, but I wasn’t in the mood to go into my own origin story at the moment. “We have what we came for. There’s no reason to stay and try and hunt down Rival or see Aleron’s body. We’ve all lost enough. No one else dies.”

“I can live with that,” Sergeant Toy answered, already turning to his comm line to tell the dropship waiting for us that we were en route.

“Can she travel?” I asked, going over to Doc, who scanned the unconscious major with a blue light that came out from a glass data pad. “I can carry her.”

“We can lift her. We’ll just have to be careful we don’t tear the skin spray,” Doc instructed. Weapons fire permeated the air close by.

“Grimm Reapers running from the dragon.” Sergeant Toy answered the question we were all thinking. “We’ll take care of them. We’re heading out. Let’s move.”

Three of the other Titans lifted their fallen brethren, victims of our own close encounter with the mutated Crocs that roamed the Swamp Land. Each Titan lifted the body of the fallen with an unmistakably sober reverence.

I took it upon myself to lift the major. Even with my enhanced strength, the woman was heavy in her armor. Zoe wasn’t a small woman either; years of hard hours at the gym and in combat left her corded with thick muscle.

“We can trade off,” Cassie said, falling into step beside me. “When she gets too heavy, don’t be a hero. I can help.”

“Thanks,” I said to Cassie. I was grateful for the offer to help, but I also knew I’d carry Major Zoe Valentine until my arms fell off if need be.

“Stay close,” Sergeant Toy reminded us as we moved into the fog and away from the noise of the dying Grimm Reapers. “Mercer could be waiting for us somewhere along the route or something worse.”

We stayed close as we moved back toward the dropship. The sounds of weapon fire were gone now. The dragon had done its grizzly work. If there were any Grimm Reapers alive now, they were either running or hiding.

Either way, Aleron’s little grab at power was over. Even if he did somehow survive the blast and burning flames of the dragon, he’d be in no condition to do much of anything now.

“Daniel, Daniel, what’s going on? What’s happening?” X asked in my head. “When Aleron took me, he put me in that box and I was shut off from the world in complete and utter darkness.”

“I know,” I whispered to her, thinking back to the moment when I sacrificed X to save Nemesis and Laine’s son. “I’m sorry, X.”

“For what?” she asked.

“For choosing the boy over you. He was just so furry and cute,” I said, attempting to lighten the mood. “I should have—”

“Stop,” X chided me like a mother would her child. “You did everything you should have. If you’d saved me instead of the child, I would have been pissed. You made the right call for everyone and now it’s worked out. We’re back together.”

“Right, thank you,” I told her.

“But why are we in the Swamp Lands?” X asked, confused. “And more importantly, what happened when I blacked out? There was someone saying a phrase. I lost consciousness and came to a few seconds later.”

“His name’s Rival Mercer,” I said, feeling a chill in the damp air. “There’s another Relic out there somewhere, a chalice that’s supposed to grant eternal life. Immortal Corp had the coordinates and hid them in your coding. A phrase unlocks them.”

X went quiet.

My muscles were beginning to burn from Zoe’s weight. I readjusted my arms under her and pressed on. Her eyes were still closed and she was breathing slowly but consistently.

We’re almost there. Hang in there, Zoe. I’m not going to tell your daughter she’s lost her mother too.

As we ran through the mist, I could sense someone or something watching us. A chill ran up my spine like an ice-cold finger. There was nothing to be done at the moment but be aware and press on.

We arrived at the waiting dropship without further incident. The pilots fired the thrusters just as soon as we were inside.

I watched as Doc checked Major Valentine and gave me a slow sad nod.

“She’s going to make it, but her vocal chords took the worst of it.” Doc chewed on his lower lip. “She’ll live, but I’m not sure if she’ll ever talk again.”

We all took our seats in the dropship. Left to my own thoughts, my mind kept wandering back to Rival Mercer.

I’m going to find you, I promised myself. Rival, I’m going to find you, and when I do, I’m going to rip your heart out.


Two

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

The ride back to New Vegas and the Hole was uneventful. Everyone was too amped up to sleep, too overwhelmed to even make sense of what we’d seen. Mutated Croc men and dragons were the last thing any of us ever thought we’d run into.

It wasn’t until we were landing at the Hole that Sergeant Toy caught my eye. He jerked his chin over to the rear of the dropship, signaling me to join him.

I walked over, already knowing this was going to be a conversation neither one of us wanted to have.

“I’ve got to report this in,” Sergeant Toy said with a heavy sigh. “I’ve got to report it in, everything. No telling what they’ll believe. I mean, mutated Crocs and dragons? I wouldn’t believe it if I wasn’t there. The GG is going to want to talk to you.”

“I understand,” I told the hardened veteran. “I really do, but right now, I need to get back to my own people. Rival Mercer is on the loose and now he’s headed for the Relic, something so powerful no one should have it.”

“Be that as it may, the GG will want it,” Sergeant Toy insisted. “I’m not saying they should have it, but they’ll want it. Soldiers will follow orders to go and get it if that’s what the GG decides.”

We stood there in the rear of the dropship understanding everything that wasn’t being said. Sergeant Toy was one of the good ones, of that I was sure. He didn’t want to insist that I stay for questioning any more than I wanted to stay myself.

The decision would have to be made soon. We were seconds away from the dropship touching down on the New Vegas landing pad. If the sergeant wanted to detain us, he had the numbers.

I wasn’t interested in killing any Shadow Praetorians, nor did I want to put Cassie and Laine in harm’s way. If there was a fight, the brief pain of a blaster round to me could prove lethal to them.

Sergeant Toy held my gaze, shrugging in his armor. Despite his helmet being removed and his rifle on his seat, his fingers drummed against the hilt of a secondary blaster at his hip.

“Tell them we slipped away when we landed,” I said, moving my hand to the hilt of the blade on my belt. “We’ve lost enough. Tell them Major Valentine needed medical support ASAP, one second we were all exiting the dropship and the next we were gone, that you thought we had the all clear once we landed.”

“So I seem incompetent instead of a traitor?” Sergeant Toy asked.

The ship jolted as we touched down. There was no more time to talk. A decision had to be made.

Everyone else in the dropship, if they could hear us or not, sensed the tense moment. Shadow Praetorians reached for their weapons. Laine carried the Artemis 3000 in the crook of her elbow. Cassie brought her forearms up in front of her. As a Cyber Hunter, each arm was already equipped with a built-in blaster.

“No,” I answered. “You seem like you were following orders. As far as you knew, Major Valentine cleared us to go. If the GG wants to talk to me, they know where to find me.”

The rear doors to the dropship opened.

Sergeant Toy’s Titans looked to him for direction.

“Let them go,” Sergeant Toy instructed, removing his hand from his weapon. “As far as we know, that was the plan the whole time once we landed. Let’s get the major inside ASAP. Come on; move!”

Titans jumped to obey, leaving Cassie, Laine, and me to exit the dropship and head for our own vehicle.

“Daniel,” Sergeant Toy called as I walked away.

I turned back, squinting against the rays of the morning sun.

“The GG isn’t going to let this go. If there’s something of value out there, they’ll want it,” Sergeant Toy warned. “Be careful.”

“You too,” I said with a nod, sensing the mutual respect the Shadow Praetorian and I carried for one another.

That was it. We hustled across the busy landing pad to our vehicle, which sat amongst a row of other transportation. Sounds of dropships landing and taking off filled the air as ground teams refueled and resupplied crafts.

Everywhere you looked in the secure Galactic Government base, there were praetorian sentries standing guard or patrols roaming the area.

I said a silent prayer of thanks that Sergeant Toy allowed us to go. If he insisted on keeping us for questioning, things would have gotten messy very quickly.

I’m not sure we would have been able to fight our way off the New Vegas base.

Cassie took the wheel with Laine beside her. I jumped into the rear seat behind the women. The trip back to Dragon Hold was long and seemed to drag on forever until Laine asked the question we all wanted to ignore.

“We’re going after it, right?” she asked. “I mean, we have to. We can’t let Rival Mercer take the Relic for himself.”

“The coordinates you recited, X,” I said out loud. “You don’t remember them?”

“I don’t remember anything past the phrase that was repeated,” X admitted. “I seemed to have blacked out for a moment, then come to once I was done repeating the coded message. If you said the phrase again, perhaps someone could remember the numbers and see where the coordinates lead?”

“I can write them down,” Laine volunteered, reaching for a data pad on the passenger side of the vehicle.

“Okay, here we go,” I said. “The Knights of the Way will herald in a new world. The gate must hold fast.”

“Coordinates, 3.4653 degrees south by 62.2159 degrees west,” X repeated in a robotic voice not her own. “Beware the Knights of the Way and even more so the gate.”

The vehicle silenced in the wake of the strange robotic voice taking over control of X’s operating system for those brief seconds.

“X, you back?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m here.” X sounded disturbed. “I didn’t—I never suspected there could be portions of my code that would be hidden from me. It’s like I don’t even know myself anymore. What if there’s more?”

“We’ll find it if there is,” Cassie reassured her from the driver’s seat. “Don’t worry, X. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Ummm, guys?” Laine chimed in, looking up from her data pad. “The coordinates X gave us lead us right into what used to be the Amazon Rainforest.”

My mind sped in a dozen different directions. I remembered the name of that place, but I knew nothing about it now. The Earth was a dead planet; as such, not too much lived or went on anywhere.

“I don’t know what happened to that part of the world during the fall,” Cassie thought out loud. “Flooding, maybe, something about an earthquake and flooding, large sections of land falling into the ocean.”

“X?” I asked. “You feeling up to a history lesson?”

“Of course,” X answered. “It looks like much of what was the South American continent was in fact ravaged by earthquakes brought on by man-made events. Much of what’s left of the Amazon Rainforest was broken into pieces and now lies at the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean.”

“Hold on,” I interrupted. “Did you say ‘man-made earthquakes’?”

“I did,” X confirmed. “When Earth fell, wars and riots broke out over the globe. Large explosions were set off in South America. Not a lot is documented there, but I’m sure we could get answers as to the details.”

“What matters most is that we left Rival in the Swamp Lands of what used to be the state of Louisiana.” I narrowed my brow in thought. “He’s on foot, and even if he could get a boat or dropship, that takes time. What do you think, Cassie? Do we have a few days’ lead on him?”

“I can’t think of anywhere he’d get a boat or dropship, much less something to communicate with, in the swamp lands,” Cassie surmised. “But we shouldn’t underestimate him. Let’s say he does have connections and a plan. We need to head to those coordinates as soon as possible.”

“I agree,” I answered.

The rest of the trip to Dragon Hold was spent in silence. I wasn’t even worried about running into any rival gangs in the area, now that the Grimm Reapers were no more. This had been their territory, and now that they were gone, it was mine. I’d have to talk to Phoenix Corp about the best way to partner with them and keep it safe.

We made great time getting back to the mansion, which was now level with the ground. While we were gone, it looked like Wesley and Bapz were hard at work anchoring the grounds into Earth.

The flat black steel gates opened for us on our approach. I found myself with a smile on my lips, despite the dire hour and the hunt for the next Relic. I hadn’t realized it, but this was home now. I was actually looking forward to being here on the ground, safely around people I knew and cared about.

Cassie parked the SUV in the large garage set on the right side of Dragon Hold Manor. We exited the car to the greetings of Butch and Bapz. The large wolf lifted her head and gave off a long howl before coming over and sniffing me down for good measure.

“What happened?” Bapz asked excitedly. “I sense the mission was a success. I scanned your body and it seems X is present. Hello, X. It is so good to have you home again.”

“Quit scanning my body,” I said.

“Hello, Bapz,” X answered. “It’s good to be back.”

Laine took her leave to go see her husband and son. Cassie and I followed Bapz into the hall as we related our story. Butch followed along looking mildly amused as if she too could understand the tale we wove.

“Knights of the Way?” Bapz asked as I related the piece of code to him.

“Yes,” I answered. “Does that mean anything to you?”

“No, but I’m sure it would to the Way followers we have here,” Bapz said. “Eli would have heard of it, I’m sure.”

“You need food and a shower first,” Cassie declared, lifting an eyebrow in my direction. “Trust me, you could use a bath and we all know how you get when you haven’t eaten.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, half smiling, half pretending I was insulted.

“You know what I mean.” Cassie threw Bapz a nod.

“Oh, I know.” Bapz nodded along vigorously. “Why do you think I’m always having food sent to his room?”

“I don’t get that bad when I’m hungry,” I said, patting my stomach. “I have a high metabolism, where my body is always working to heal itself from so-called shenanigans.”

“Whatever you have to tell yourself.” Cassie gave me a wink. “I’m going to get some food and a shower myself before preparing for the trip. We should leave tomorrow. Even if we think Rival is a few days, behind us we can’t take that chance.”

“I agree,” I said.

“Wait.” Bapz looked shocked. “You two just got back. You’re leaving tomorrow?”

“Trust me, not by choice,” I told Bapz. “Necessity moves us forward now.”

“There’s just so much that needs to be handled from a corporation standpoint.” Bapz tapped a metallic finger on his silver chin. “I guess I can have Wesley meet with you tonight to go over the details.”

“Good luck,” Cassie called, walking off down the hall. “I know how much you like meetings.”

“Yeah, I’m not really a details kind of guy,” I said, wincing at Bapz. “What if you and Wesley take care of that end of things?”

“We can handle many matters of the business, but there are some where you need to weigh in. It’s your duty as the leader of the Cripps family estate. You owe them that much,” Bapz said quietly.

I didn’t usually feel regret or bad for much at all, but in that moment, a twinge of guilt hit me. I could see the sadness in Bapz’s eyes as he remembered the family he served for so long with fond memories.

“You’re right,” I agreed, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Food, shower, and then let’s talk to Eli and Wesley.”

“Oh good.” Bapz gave me a genuine smile. “Because there is just so much to go over, I didn’t want to do it all myself. I was afraid you were going to get off easy, making me lead the hours and hours of meetings we have lined up. You really should have just taken the way out when I gave it to you. Oh well, see you in your office in an hour.”

“Oh, joy,” I said as Bapz walked away. “Wait a minute. Where’s my office?”




Three

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

Turns out I did have an office. Located on the third floor, it was a spacious room, one section held a pair of comfortable couches and a glass table and the other section with a holographic display desk set inside a wooden frame. The chairs were something from the old world, leather and thick. I liked them.

Sparsely decorated, the office was simple and open. A pair of bookshelves lined with ancient tomes I was almost afraid to look at. I knew it was silly, but I wondered if Preacher had hidden the Relic book capable of opening portals in plain sight right here in my office.

A wide window overlooked the front grounds of the estate. After getting a full belly and taking a shower, I still needed sleep, but I’d be able to manage. Rest would come soon enough. I wanted more answers right now.

The double doors to my office opened with Bapz showing in Wesley and Eli. Wesley wasn’t smoking his usual cigar, but he did wear his signature long trench coat despite there being no chill in the air.

Eli wore a simple white tunic and pants combination indicative of being a Way follower. He and his people had found a home here. Eli himself had taken a role as a healer, and the Lord of the Way knew we needed plenty of those in our line of work.

Bapz closed the door behind us.

“It’s good to see you back and safe,” Wesley said. “I read a report of what went down in the Swamp Lands.”

“A report?” I asked.

“Cassie worked with Bapz and he wrote one up and sent it over ahead of this meeting,” Wesley explained. “Just the bullet points. I’d love to hear the details at some point when we have more time.”

“More time is something we could all use at the moment,” I said, gesturing to the pair of couches. “Shall we sit?”

Eli and Wesley took seats on the couch opposite my own.

“I am more than willing to help with anything I can,” Eli said with a weak smile, already preparing himself for the worst. “But am I qualified to be in this meeting? I’m not sure what’s going on here.”

“What do you know of the Knights of the Way?” I asked him, cutting through any kind of small talk. “I need to know everything about them.”

If Eli had been a high stakes gambler, he’d have been a lousy one. The older man’s face drained of blood. He looked sick, as if he’d aged a full decade right in front of me.

“No—I—where did you hear that term?” Eli asked in a whisper.

“Another Relic has been found,” I answered honestly while exchanging looks with Wesley. “We know where it is, but there was a warning with the location. It spoke about the Knights of the Way and a gate that must remain closed.”

If I thought Eli was going to pass out hearing about the Knights of the Way. I wasn’t sure how to describe what he looked like now that I mentioned the gate.

Eli licked dry lips, clearing his throat and trying to buy time.

“Eli,” Wesley warned. “If you know anything that might be useful, and I’m guessing you do, this would be the time to share. We’re all on the same side here. We have been since you and Daniel spilled Voy blood at the Way settlement on the far side of Mars.”

“I will—I will.” Eli cleared his throat. “If you sense my hesitancy to speak on the matter, it is not due to my refusing to help. I’m trying to piece together what you have told me and see how it makes sense with what I know of the Knights of the Way.”

“Why don’t you just tell us what you know and we can all make sense of it together?” I coaxed the man. “Just be honest and tell us everything.”

“Of course,” Eli answered. “Like any corporation or organization that has been around for centuries, the Way has a long history of leadership, factions, and rogue politics in our order. The Knights of the Way were a fabled class of guardian warriors. They were tasked with protecting valuable assets of the Way, but this was centuries ago. I’m talking way back when kings and queens ruled and armies fought with swords and shields.”

“And the gate?” I pressed. “What do you know about the gate or these Relics?”

“Relics are as new to me as they are to you.” Eli shook his head. “The first time I heard of one was of the tome used during the Battle for Mars. But of the gate, only more rumors and stories. The gate was a place or a thing that the Knights of the Way protected.”

“Protected how?” Wesley asked. “As in they were hiding it from others or they were trying to keep it closed?”

“I don’t know.” Eli shook his head again. “I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. I don’t know what or where the gate is. Only that it is mentioned often in conjunction with the Knights of the Way.”

“Would anyone else in the Way know?” I asked. “Do you know of anyone who would have a better handle on the Knights of the Way and this gate?”

“I can certainly reach out to friends.” Eli nodded, eager to be of assistance. “I can try.”

“Thank you.” I rose to my feet, signaling an end to Eli’s portion of the meeting. “Anything you’d be able to find would be helpful.”

“Of course,” Eli said, accepting my hand with his own. “You’ve given us a new home after you saved us from the Voy. The Lord of the Way had our paths cross for a reason. I truly believe that. I’ll do all I can to help.”

“I know you will,” I said, releasing his hand.

Eli nodded his leave to Wesley and stepped out of the room. The door closed silently behind him.

“You think he knows more than he’s saying?” Wesley asked.

“I think most of us know more than we say,” I admitted, rubbing my temples with an exhausted grimace on my face. “Maybe we should just let the GG take this one. Why is it on us to go hunt down these Relics?”

Even as I spoke the words, I knew the answer. I knew the GG would be more than happy to go track down a Relic that granted eternal life. That was the reason we had to be the ones to do it.

“Anyone else gets their hands on the Relic, it’ll be used for personal gain,” Wesley stated. “We need to make sure that doesn’t happen. We’ve gone from mercenaries to patriots fighting the Voy and now treasure hunters seeking the Relics. It’s not a path any of us set out on but the one we need to walk.”

The grating sound of claws on the doors interrupted our talk.

Bapz opened the door with Butch right beside him.

“All right, all right,” Bapz chided the wolf. “I’ll let you in too. Calm down.”

Butch whined and trotted over to me to take a seat at my side.

“I hate to be the one to push along this meeting, but we have a list of items that need your attention,” Bapz said, smoothing down his finely tailored black suit. He extended his right hand, palm up. A blue holographic screen popped up from his open hand with a list a mile long. “The media is asking who we are and what we do now. We’ll need a name for our new corporation. We’re not Immortal Corp or Genius Industries anymore.”

“What did you say?” I asked, jolting so hard in my seat it scared Butch.

“What?” Bapz looked around, confused. “We have a list of items that need—”

“No, after that, about Genius Industries,” I urged him. “What do you know about them?”

“Umm, pretty much everything,” Bapz looked at me as if I’d grown an extra head in the last few seconds. “Daniel, Genius Industries was owned by the Cripps family. That was the name of their largest corporation.”

I fell back into my seat, trying to make sense of this connection. My sleep-deprived mind made every thought feel as though I were dragging it through quicksand to try and make it resemble any kind of sense.

“The technician we found in the Swamp Lands, Ramil, he said he was working for Genius Industries,” I told the men.

Butch sensed my stress level and put her head in my lap.

I ruffled the wolf’s ears. It made sense now in a weird kind of mad scientist way. The Cripps family was able to genetically resurrect Butch and her pack of extinct wolves; why not resurrect or modify other animals, like dragons?

“Bapz, what was the Cripps family doing in the Swamp Lands with Genius Industries?” Wesley enquired, beginning to put the puzzle pieces together in the same way I had. “What was their goal there?”

“Well, you have to understand the Cripps family owned an empire of corporations, but Genius Industries was one of their largest.” Bapz looked off into the distance, blinking a few times as if he were reading data from some kind of internal memory bank. “Genius Industries worked on the cutting edge of DNA construction and manipulation. They have contracts with the Galactic Government and many of the other corporations, including the Order and Madam Eternal.”

“What the heck,” I murmured, hearing but not believing.

“I’m getting too old for this,” Wesley breathed, sinking deeper into the cushioned seats across from me.

“Is Genius Industries still operating?” I asked. “Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?”

“You have to understand the Cripps family holdings are massive,” Bapz said with a shrug. “They employ thousands of people across the moon and Mars. When the torch was passed to you, those companies went on working as usual.”

“I need to clone myself,” I said, shaking my head. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

“I can take a deeper look into Genius Industries and what exactly they’re doing,” Wesley offered. “You have enough on your plate going after this Relic.”

“And let’s not forget we still need a name for our new company.” Bapz reeled the conversation back in. “Daniel?”

“I don’t know—I’m not really good with names. I—”

Butch lifted her head and gave off a low howl, cutting me off. She looked at me like I was stupid then barked again.

“I think she wants us to name it after her,” Wesley said from his seat.

Butch rolled her eyes like we were all morons. She placed her big head in my lap and stared at me with those big wolf eyes.

“What about W.O.L.F.?” I asked, finally understanding what the big predator was trying to say. “What about W.O.L.F. for the corporation’s name?”

“W.O.L.F. Industries, W.O.L.F. Corporation, W.O.L.F. Advancements?” Bapz asked.

“Nope, just W.O.L.F. like an acronym,” I said. “Keep it simple.”

Butch licked my hand as if she approved.

“But what does the acronym stand for?” Wesley asked.

“Listen, I’m only human,” I said, rethinking the statement as soon as it left my lips. “Or mostly human. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.”

“Writers Of Love and Fairies,” Bapz suggested.

We both looked at him with deadpan stares. Butch even turned to show her disproval.

“That was my attempt at a joke.” Bapz smiled. “Okay, tough crowd. We’ll just go with W.O.L.F. for now and work out the details later.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Maybe we can get—”

Screaming the likes of which I had never heard before echoed down the hall. It sounded like Cryx.


Four

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

I didn’t even think; I just reacted, leaping over the couch and pounding for the doors. I slammed into them more than opened them, sprinting down the hall toward the noise.

It was Cryx; now I was sure of it. I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that the sun set and night took its reign over the sky, but her screams were haunted, dark in a way I couldn’t explain.

“The sounds are coming from down the hall to the right,” X reported, overlaying an augmented reality path for me to follow. “It’s Cryx, although I haven’t sensed any kind of alarm tripped by the sentries around the estate.”

I saved my breath for running. I followed the line X set for me, coming to a stop at a closed door. I tried the handle. It was locked.

Butch had kept pace with me while Wesley and Bapz turned the corner down the hall on their way.

I wasn’t going to wait for backup. Butch and I would be more than enough for whatever waited on the other side of this door. I reared back with my right foot, slamming it into the section of the door where the handle met the frame.

Wood splinters flew inward as the doorjamb cracked. The door swung open. Cryx’s room was a mess. There were clothes everywhere along with sparring equipment and books scattered around.

Cryx sat up in her bed against the far wall. A window let in silver moonlight. A glimmer of sweat dampened her brow. As far as I could tell, she was alone.

“Cryx—what’s going on? What—”

I stopped short, answering all of my own questions. Whoever said a picture was worth a thousand words was dead right. Cryx’s pupils were tiny dots. The cool room contrasted with her clammy skin. A pair of used needles lay by her bedside.

When I had first found Cryx, she was stem-addicted, using the drug to dull the pain she felt. I thought we had turned a corner when she started training with Preacher. I thought she was over the addiction. I was wrong.

Cryx stared at me, trying to construct a coherent thought.

Bapz and Wesley charged into the room.

“I—uh—sorry,” Cryx stuttered. “I must have fallen asleep. I had a bad dream or something.”

“Yeah, I’d have a bad dream too if I shot up with a double dose of stem,” I retorted, nodding over at the narcotic. “Cryx, where did you get this? What were you thinking?”

Cryx pushed her shoulder-length hair behind her ear, ignoring me.

“Hey,” I said, taking a step closer to her. “I’m talking to you.”

I got a good look at her now. She wore a tank top. Weeks of hard training with Preacher were beginning to pay off. Muscle tone had begun to form on her arms and back.

“Yeah, I heard you,” Cryx said, looking up at me with disgust. “I’m fine. Just leave me alone.”

“In no way do you embody the definition of fine,” I told her. “Answer the question. Where did you get the stem?”

Cryx looked up at me defiantly. Fire lived inside of those eyes, and in the flames, pain.

“What do you care?” she roared. “You’re never around anyway. You’re just like them. You don’t want me here. You feel sorry for me, so you let me stay. You’re always going off and leaving me behind. I thought it could be different here. I was wrong. I’ll get my stuff and go.”

Just like that, my own anger subsided. I knew now what she was talking about. Cryx came from a family that cared about her, just as much as they did a useless piece of furniture.

Cryx had been involved with a gang when I found her being cleaned up at the Way settlement on the far side of Mars. I thought we had given her a new home. I thought we'd put her on the right track.

Cryx threw off the covers and started stalking around her room, grabbing clothes and tossing them in an open bag.

I exchanged looks with Wesley and Bapz. The pair nodded and left the room, closing the broken door behind them.

No, stay, I screamed at them inside my head. I was about as good with teenagers as I was with knitting.

“Listen to her,” X advised inside my head. “Right now, just listen.”

Cryx stormed around her room, grabbing belongings around me as if I were in the middle of a cyclone. I could practically feel the pain and hurt emanating off her.

“What? Are you just going to stand there?” Cryx demanded, fighting back tears. “You’re not going to get me to try to stay, or yell at me for the stem?”

“What happened?” I asked her. “What set you off? Your parents?”

“If you can even call them parents,” Cryx sneered, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. “You know what they said when I told them that I was going to make a difference here on Earth, interning with a company that was going to bring life back to this planet?”

“I don’t,” I answered honestly.

“Nothing.” Cryx shook her head. “Just like the rest of my life. They said nothing. I don’t think they care if I overdose or jump off the top of this building. Do you know what that feels like? I just wanted something, a ‘good for you’ or ‘we’re proud of you.’ How can parents not even care about their own kid? My whole life, I’ve just been a thing to them. Sometimes I wonder if they even remember I exist. I thought it could be different here, but it’s the same. You leave and all I hear from Preacher is that I’m not ready yet. Why doesn’t anyone want me? What’s wrong with me?”

My heart sank so deep in my chest, I swore it hit the bottom of my stomach. I knew Cryx had issues with her parents, but I didn’t know how deep they ran. I could see things from her point of view. I was always leaving, and in her mind, leaving her behind. Preacher was right; she wasn’t ready, but that had to do with her level of skill, not her value as a person.

“What am I saying?” Cryx wiped the tears from her eyes. She swallowed hard. “You don’t know what it’s like. You’re a badass mercenary super soldier who doesn’t have to deal with all the regular drama of living a pathetic life.”

“I know more than you think,” I answered. “I know that for my whole life, I thought my parents gave me up. I just found out they were murdered when I was a baby. I know what being alone feels like. Trust me, you and I are not alone anymore.”

“Then what’s wrong with me?” Cryx asked, new tears streaming down her cheeks. “If it’s not my fault, then why do I feel like it is? Why do I keep second-guessing myself that there was more I could have done to get my parents to love me?”

“Because broken people hurt broken people,” I said, going over and placing a hand on her left shoulder. “It’s not your fault. You are enough. It’s not your fault.”

Cryx clenched her jaw, fighting back the new wave of emotion that came with my words.

“You’re getting through to her, Daniel,” X said inside my head. “Keep going. You’re almost there.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said, bringing her in for a hug. “I’m sorry I have to leave all the time, but that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with me. It’s not your fault.”

Cryx finally let the floodgates of tears she had been holding back for so many years open. She shook in my arms, trembling with so many memories of hurt and loneliness.

I didn’t say much more. I didn’t think I had to.

“It’s not your fault,” I said every so often to drive that point home. “It’s not your fault.”

I wasn’t sure how much time passed. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two, until Cryx got herself under control.

She pulled away with deep breaths, looking ashamed for showing weakness. She wiped her bloodshot eyes, clearing her throat. Not because she had to, but because she was embarrassed for breaking down in front of me.

“Sorry—sorry, I’m usually not that emotional,” Cryx sniffed. “It’s just that—never mind.”

“Just what?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s dumb,” Cryx insisted.

“You should tell him,” X spoke out loud. “He’s not going to let it go. I know him well enough to know that.”

“Oh, hey, X,” Cryx said. “I guess you heard all of that too. I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” X told her. “We all carry our own burdens in this life. I just found out I have hidden information in my coding, to locations of Relics that could be used for evil purposes.”

“Oh,” Cryx said, half confused, half surprised. “Oh—sorry to hear that. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds like it sucks.”

“Yes,” X answered. “That is the perfect term for how I feel about the situation. It sucks.”

“So what were you going to say?” I asked Cryx. “You can tell me.”

“It’s childish.” Cryx shook her head. “Today’s my birthday and—well, my parents always forgot it when I was growing up. The few times they did remember, it was rushed and last minute. They’d arrange something for me and not show up themselves. Not that it really mattered; no one else showed up anyway.”

Just when I thought my heart couldn’t sink any further, I felt like a Croc tore open my sternum and ripped it from my chest. For a second, my imagination even gave me the image of a little Cryx sitting at a party table alone, like she had been her entire life. Just because someone had parents that provided for them financially, it didn’t mean that translated over emotionally.

“I’m sorry, kid,” I told her. “I’ll try to be around more. I’ll try and include you more often on our missions. I just can’t risk your wellbeing. I’d never forgive myself if anything happened to you.”

“No, no, I get it,” Cryx said, taking another deep cleansing breath. “Trust me, I get it.”

“It’s also only ten thirty,” X said to both of us.

“What does that have to do—”

“It’s still your birthday,” I interrupted, cutting off Cryx before she could finish her question. “X, get in touch with Bapz. Do you know how to bake a cake?”


Five

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

I’m not sure how X and Bapz coordinated with everyone to make it happen when half the estate was already asleep, but for those still awake in the next hour, they turned the outside of the manor into a freaking fairy tale.

A large white tent popped up in minutes, with lights strung inside. Everyone pitched in, from Preacher, who handled the construction of the tent, to Wesley, who helped roll in the food.

I don’t know how Laine and Cassie did it, but there were even presents for Cryx, placed out on a table inside the tent.

I found myself helping set up tables and chairs for the party beside Preacher, who was rearranging cupcakes just so. He caught me eyeing him.

“Let’s just keep this between you and me, but I kind of have a thing for cupcakes,” Preacher confided. “I have a reputation to keep, so I can’t have that getting out.”

“Hey,” I said, raising both hands in sign of surrender. “I don’t even want to know. What I do want to know is how Cryx got that stem.”

“Way ahead of you.” Preacher stopped arranging the cupcakes for a moment to lick a piece of pink frosting off his finger. “I’ve located a small group dealing stem a few kilometers out. With the word out that Aleron and his Grimm Reapers are gone, smaller gangs have already started setting up shop.”

“Shhhh, shhhh, she’s coming,” Bapz said, running into the tent. “Places, everyone.”

I’m not sure where I was supposed to stand or what “places, everyone” meant. I don’t think anyone did; we all just stood there, tired as the clock neared midnight.

Cassie walked into the tent with Cryx beside her.

“Surprise!” everyone yelled.

“Happy birthday!” others shouted.

Cryx stood wide-eyed at the decorations and people present. From ex-Immortal Corp employees to Way settlers now turned W.O.L.F. operatives, whatever that meant, everyone had pitched in to make the impromptu celebration take place.

Cryx lifted both hands to her mouth. I could still see the smile on her face despite her trying to hide her emotions. For the second time that night, I saw tears well in her eyes.

“I don’t know what—thank you,” Cryx said, half laughing, half crying as she took in the white tent, the lights and decorations, cupcakes, and presents. “Thank you so much.”

Cryx found my eye and I gave her a wink. She mouthed the words “thank you.”

I wasn’t much of a party planner. Lucky for me, between Bapz and X, they knew what they were doing. There was food, music, and drinks as the night progressed.

I was beyond tired. So tired, I felt numb. But I rallied and put on my best face for Cryx. A few cups of high-octane caf and I could last another hour for her.

I found myself sitting at a table between Nemesis and Preacher as the night wore on. Apparently, Nemesis, Laine, and their son were granted permission to stay on the estate for the time being. Right now, the small boy lay asleep nestled in his father’s lap.

It wasn’t like the aliens had anywhere else to go. Although I didn’t like getting lied to, or shot at, I understood why they had to do what they did. Their son’s life was in the balance. X and Cryx were just my friends, but I would have done the same for them. I would have done more.

“I didn’t know you were like this,” Nemesis said to me, draining his own cup of caf. “I mean, I want to apologize. I had you all wrong.”

“No, you probably didn’t,” I answered the alien. “Some people just bring out better parts of us than who we are most days. Like I’m sure your son does for you. Cryx does that to me.”

“Yes, family does that for us all.” Nemesis leaned forward and kissed the top of his son’s head. “I wanted to talk with you. Events have transpired so quickly, I haven't had adequate time to apologize and although we've been permitted to stay, that decision came while you were gone.”

“You already did apologize,” I said, staving off that conversation. “You can stay. Just no more lies or crazy shows of your power.”

“Of course not.” Nemesis looked to the side, ashamed. “Laine and I owe you a debt that we can never repay for what you did for our son. For what you’re still doing now for our family. Anything you need done, if it is within my power, you have but to ask.”

“Thank you,” I said, looking over at the one-eyed mercenary beside me. Preacher leaned back in his chair with a silly smile on his lips.

“I don’t mean to ruin the moment for you, old man, but as soon as the party’s over, I’m going to need some shut-eye, then it’s time to go pay our stem dealers a visit,” I said to Preacher. “You and I should be enough.”

“More than enough.” Preacher nodded along with my words. “I’ll make sure we have a current location on the gang when we’re ready to go.”

“Is it bandits you seek?” Nemesis asked, perking up at the topic of conversation. “I would like to go with you.”

I thought about Nemesis’ power, the way he could fly and that dark energy he could manipulate. There was no doubt he could handle himself.

“I don’t know, Sparky,” I told him. “You think you can follow orders in the field?”

“Of course.” Nemesis frowned at his nickname. “I do not use sparkles; it’s black energy that—”

“Yeah, Sparky, that’s the point of a nickname,” Preacher interrupted. “You’re not supposed to like it.”

Nemesis frowned. “Well, I’ll answer to this Spark name you insist on if you allow me to come. Please, let me pay you back in this small way and keep gangs out of your—our home.”

“All right.” I nodded slowly. “You can come. We’ll head out at first light.”

“Roger that,” Preacher acknowledged, nodding over to Cassie, who walked over with a sly grin. “I think we should save business talk for later.”

Cassie eyed me and extended a hand. There was a slow, rhythmic beat going on as tables were cleared to create an impromptu dance floor.

“You promised me a second date,” Cassie said, looking around her and the tent we were inside of. “A dance isn’t a date, but it’ll have to do for now.”

She was beautiful. She could be cursing my name at the moment and I would have still nodded and taken her hand.

Cassie wore a black sleeveless dress with a high slit for the event. The lack of sleeves showed off the gunmetal-grey forearms that set her apart as a Cyber Hunter. Her hair was gathered behind her head, the smell of some kind of sweet perfume in the air.

“You look amazing,” I told her.

“Thank you,” Cassie said with a grin. She looked me up and down, still leading me to the dance floor. “I’m sorry, you look exhausted.”

“Don’t be sorry. I feel like a zombie,” I admitted.

A slower song came on, just as we reached the area where a few couples swayed to the rhythmic music.

“Here, I’ll help hold you up.” Cassie pressed her body against mine. As one, we moved to the sounds of soft music coming from a speaker set up on a table.

I wasn’t going to complain. Cassie could hold me up whenever she wanted to, as far as I was concerned.

“She looks so happy,” Cassie said in my ear, her breath tickling my skin. “Cryx, she’s a good kid.”

I followed Cassie’s line of sight. Cryx was also on the dance floor, smiling and laughing, as some younger Way settler I didn’t know danced with her.

Half of me wanted to rip off his stupid face for even attempting to dance with Cryx. Heck, who was I kidding? All of me wanted to rip out his throat with my bare hands.

Cassie must have felt me tense.

“Easy.” Cassie held me closer. “She’s a young woman. She’s allowed to dance on her birthday. Plus, we can do this.”

Cassie placed her head on my chest and spoke into the area behind my right ear. “X, can you run a background check on that young man Cryx is dancing with?”

“Already done,” X informed us both. “No criminal record; he came with the rest of the Way settlers when they left their home on Mars. He works as a chef now in the kitchens.”

“See,” Cassie said, swaying with me. “He’s all right. Besides, with Preacher’s training, Cryx can handle herself. The best thing we can do for her is equip her to stand on her own two feet and when she gets knocked down, we’ll be there to pick her back up.”

“And murder whoever it was that knocked her down,” I added.

“And murder whoever it was that knocked her down.” Cassie laughed. “I can get behind that.”

There were only a few moments in my life I wished I could have pressed the pause button on. This was one of them. I knew neither Cassie nor I were perfect people, but we were broken in a way where our shattered pieces fit together to create something good.

The night wore on. Despite my best efforts, I was going to be falling asleep on the dance floor in the next twenty minutes.

“All right,” Cassie finally said, stifling her own yawn. “I think that’s enough excitement for one night. We have a Relic to go hunt down tomorrow and a madman to catch. Sleep well.”



Cassie placed her lips on mine. They were soft and sweet and made me wonder what I had done in my life to deserve someone like her.

I stumbled my way to my bed, falling face first into the covers and passed out into sweet oblivion.


Six

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

It felt like I had just closed my eyes when Preacher and Nemesis showed up at my door. I dragged my body out of bed. The only thing giving me the courage to put one foot in front of the other was the fact that we were going to go after the gang who sold Cryx the stem in her time of weakness.

Preacher handed me a cup of caf as we headed toward the garage attached to the manor.

The building was peacefully quiet at this time of the morning. The halls were deserted with the very first rays of sun making the horizon change from black to grey.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Nemesis said with a grin as he walked beside me. “How a place so pure might be taken with violence at a moment’s notice. It is disturbing.”

“What? I wasn’t thinking that at all,” I said to the man beside me. “I’m still trying to wake up and form coherent thoughts.”

“Oh.” Nemesis shrugged. “I was just trying to make conversation.”

We made it to the garage, where Preacher had prepared a pair of hoverbikes. A few racks of equipment stood ready for us along with a grinning Bapz and a furry creature he held in his hands.

I recognized the mutated jackrabbit. It was a creature Bapz found on the grounds and now insisted was a pet. The thing had horns sprouting out the top of his head and was large enough to be a small dog, but that didn’t seem to faze Bapz in the slightest.

Beady black eyes behind a twitching nose stared at me as if it were judging me for my many sins.

“I feel as though that little creature is looking into my soul,” Nemesis whispered. “Never has something so small disturbed me so deeply.”

I wasn’t sure if Nemesis was joking or not, so I didn’t say anything. Heck, I half agreed with him.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Bapz said with a grin. “Preacher, everything you’ve requested is here. X has the coordinates to the roaming gang, that’s set up shop a few kilometers out.”

“Thank you, Bapz,” Preacher said, going over to the rows of equipment and strapping an armor vest to his torso.

“How did Cryx find this gang anyway?” I asked.

“She’s free to come and go from the grounds like anyone else.” Preacher shrugged. “As to how she knew where they’d be, I don’t know. Maybe she stumbled on them when she was out for a ride?”

I busied myself holstering my MK II to my hip and taking my axe and knife off the supply rack. As much as I hated the idea of Cryx out on her own in the middle of this wasteland, she was an adult now. I had to learn to let go sooner or later.

“Any idea how many there are?” Nemesis asked, choosing a few pieces of armor. His abilities would make the need for weapons unnecessary.

“No, unfortunately not,” Bapz said, pursing his lips. “A satellite of our own would be helpful, though. Perhaps we can look into having one built for W.O.L.F.”

“Why would a wolf need a satellite?” Nemesis asked.

“No, W.O.L.F. is the name of our new company,” I corrected. “That’s us now.”

“Does it stand for something?” Preacher asked, fitting his right ear with an earpiece almost too small to see.

“I’m still working on that part,” I answered.

“How about the logo?” Bapz chimed in. “Should I have a new one made up? Color scheme?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged, sitting on my hoverbike and placing the dark helmet on my head. “Let’s just use the same wolf we had at Immortal Corp, the one for the Pack Protocol members.”

“Look at you,” Preacher teased, adjusting the katana over his right shoulder as he too placed the helmet with the dark visor on his head. “Making corporate decisions about names and color schemes. I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Easy, Pink Cupcake,” I said, revving the engine on my hoverbike. “There’s more to all of us than meets the eye.”

“Does ‘pink cupcake’ have another meaning besides the delicious treat I had last night?” Nemesis asked Bapz out of the side of his mouth. “I had five of them.”

“No, I don’t think so.” Bapz looked at Nemesis with wide eyes. “You ate five?”

“All right, let’s get going,” Preacher said, changing the subject. He hit a button on his hoverbike that opened the large garage door in front of us. “Stay on the comm line. Nemesis, if you can get high enough to do a flyover without them seeing you, that would be great. Find out how many there are and what they’re carrying as far as fire power.”

“Understood,” Nemesis answered.

I felt the hoverbike humming underneath my weight. It traveled inches above the ground, supported by a magnetic field that allowed it to maneuver over nearly any terrain.

The doors of the garage in front of us finished opening, spilling in the early morning light. A brief chill flowed into the garage.

“Happy hunting, be safe,” Bapz told us as we sped off.

The feeling of being propelled forward was enough to completely wake me up. Fatigue melted as adrenaline hit me in only the way hurtling forward at dangerous speeds could.

Nemesis took to the air. He looked like some kind of futuristic super soldier wearing his helmet and armor. Preacher and I headed across the estate grounds, mostly mounds of red Martian sand. We headed over the bridge and toward the black iron gates.

Preacher hit another button, causing the gates to swing outward. We sped through the gates onto the wasteland Earth had become. Nemesis was too high overhead to see now.

“Daniel, I’m overlaying the path to the gang Preacher found,” X said in my head. “You can follow the augmented route provided.”

Sure enough, a broken gold line appeared in my visor for me to travel beside.

“Have I told you how much I missed you?” I asked her.

“Yes, I missed you too,” X said. I could hear the hint of a smile in her voice. “I’ll feel better when the second Relic is in our hands, but it is good to be home and amongst friends again.”

“I know what you mean,” I answered. “We’ll get it back and we’ll take down Rival Mercer in the process.”

“I do feel as though I should have some kind of test run to make sure there is no other hidden coding in my system,” X proposed hesitantly. “If you remember, Wesley had suggested that. We were running the tests when Laine stole me from the lab.”

“I do remember,” I said, hating the idea of letting X go again. “If you think it’s what you need, of course we will.”

“I do think it’s what has to be done, and although I don’t relish the idea of being under scrutiny, it has to happen,” X said with a sigh. “If I hold any other information Immortal Corp hid inside me, we have to know.”

“Okay,” I told her. “When we get back, we’ll get you tuned up.”

A few minutes passed in silence as Preacher and I rode side-by-side, kicking up a trail of sand behind us.

Nemesis’ voice sounded over our open channel. “I’m over the gang encampment now. There can’t be more than ten, maybe twelve. They have a few vehicles and tents. A single sentry is awake. Weapons look like nothing more than a few blasters and handheld weapons. Whoever they are, they're no Aleron Jacobs.”

“Got it,” I answered. “Nemesis, stay high and out of sight. You’ll be our backup if we need it.”

“Understood,” Nemesis agreed.

“Preacher,” I said into my helmet. “I’ll take point. Follow my lead. As much as I want to ride in there and kill them all, we’ll give them a single chance to pack up and leave, after we see them burn their stem supply.”

“They’re not going to willingly burn their stem supply.” Preacher told me what I already knew.

“I’m counting on it,” I told him.

The sounds of our engines were enough to rouse the camp and Preacher and I pulled right in. The sentry on duty wasn’t sure what to make of us. In the early hours of the morning, I didn’t know if he was totally convinced we were real. He might have been high on stem himself.

As we got closer, I could see the kind of gang we were dealing with here, unorganized and filthy. Nemesis was correct in his assessment. As much as I hated Aleron, the man knew how to mobilize and lead a group.

The patched tents in front of us looked like they had been thrown up as an afterthought. The few vehicles there looked as though they’d never move again.

The sentry on duty stared open-mouthed. I could see every one of his rotting teeth. He held a long rifle in his arms. As he witnessed us dismounting, I think he forgot he carried a weapon at all.

A sick smell came from the camp, the odor of piss and sweat.

As soon as I saw the place, I decided to play it a different way. Sure I could go in and muscle my way through this, but I’d seen places like this on the moon. Not quite this bad, but stem houses where junkies went to shoot up. I had no doubt that kids high on stem were in these tents. Kids that could have been Cryx if events had played out differently in her life.

If I went in with my hand cannon blazing now, I could take one of them out by accident.

“Hey—hey, you, uh,” the sentry said, finally finding his voice and lifting his rifle to bear on my chest.

“Is there a question in there somewhere?” I asked, taking off my helmet and placing it on my hoverbike.

The noise of our arrival woke a few stem-heads. Faces caked with dirt looked out from a few tents. They peered at me bleary-eyed and confused.

“Who are you?” the sentry finally recovered enough to ask. “What do you want?”

“Just looking for a fix,” I said, lifting my hands into the air. “Does it really matter who I am if I have enough credits?”

The sentry licked his cracked lips, looking from me to Preacher.

“I just want to talk to whoever’s in charge,” I said. “I’d like to buy in bulk and I brought the credits to back that up.”

The sentry’s eyes lit up.

“All right, all right,” he said, lowering his weapon. “You two stay here.”

“Take your time,” I said with a shrug.

The man turned and hurried into the largest tent on the right. Outwardly, it wasn’t much better kept than the others.

“Shall we have a bit of a look-see while our friend rouses the boss?” Preacher asked.

“I thought you’d never ask,” I answered.

I made my way into the circle of tents. The tent on the left had at one time been a deep purple, or at least that was my best guess. Now it was so dirty and stained, it was hard to tell.

I lifted the flap back, immediately holding my nose with my other hand. The tent was packed with bodies. There were four people crammed into the space, all hooked up with IVs that ran from sickly thin arms to bags of blue liquid, hung up on the support beam in the tent.

Two men and two women were dead to the world for all intents and purposes. They wore urine-soaked pants. I lifted my head out of the tent and spat on the ground beside me.

I’d seen a lot of messed-up stuff, but this had to be in the top ten.

“How lost must they feel to turn to this?” Preacher wondered, shaking his head. “Yes, they did it to themselves, but how alone must they feel to look at this as their only option?”

“Hey, hey, you two!” the voice of the sentry we had met before rang out through the small encampment. “What are you doing!? Out of the tent. If you want a taste, you got to pay.”

I turned to see the scrawny man running over to us with his rifle pointed in our direction.

Movement from the other tents was apparent now, as his panicked shouts woke others.

“There’s no problem here,” I said, opening my arms wide. “Just looking.”

More men and women with weapons exited tents. Nemesis was close in his assumption, by numbering the fighting force at a dozen, as I counted nine actual fighters that belonged to the gang. There had to be twice that number in customers high on stem.

“What was so important that you had to drag me from my—” A woman exited her tent. She was tall with wild brown hair and a nose that looked like it had been broken and never re-set properly. “Well, well, well, what do we have here?”

She eyed me up and down with a greedy smile. Her teeth were stained yellow and black.

“They said they wanted to buy stem, but when I came back from waking you, they were poking around in a tent,” the sentry said. He squinted at us so angrily, I couldn’t even see his eyes anymore. “They said they had enough credits to buy in bulk.”

“Well, do you now?” The woman came up to me with another one of her hungry smiles. Unlike everyone else in the camp, at least she smelled halfway decent. She placed a finger on my chest and with a long nail traced a heart design on my torso. “Maybe I’ll have to work in some alone time with all of those credits you’re offering. You know, to sweeten the deal a bit? Where is it that you’re coming from? Those hoverbikes, your gear; those ain’t cheap.”

I caught the woman’s hand in mine before she could get any lower on my torso. I held it firm but not crushing.

“You’re the one in charge, then?” I asked, staring her straight in the eye. “You’ve done all of this?”

“Ohh, he likes to play tough.” The woman jerked her hand free. “I like that. Yes, I own this establishment. Now I told you something, you tell me. Who are you?”

“I’m the man who’s going to give you one chance to burn the stem you have and move on,” I told her. “One chance to walk away. I won’t ask again.”

The woman lifted her head and barked with laughter. The men and women in her gang looked at one another uncomfortably.

The woman suddenly stopped laughing altogether and eyed me with a look that would have made a lesser man stumble. “Kill them both!”


Seven

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

As far as I was concerned, I had given them a way out. If nothing else, I was a man of my word. I wasn’t going to ask twice. Reflex took over as I lunged forward, grabbing the large woman in my left arm while drawing my MK II with my right.

I used her bulk as a shield, as her gang stroked their triggers aiming at me first and then Preacher behind me.

Three pulls of my own trigger and I sent just as many bodies to the ground beneath our feet. The steel rods in the MK II were more than enough to penetrate bone and in some cases blow the target back a few feet.

The woman in my arms screamed and clawed for a split second before incoming fire from her own gang silenced her. Pain tore through my right shoulder as the gang members wised up and spread out to get a shot at my flanks.

The chest plate I wore was just enough to shield my torso and side, but not my shoulders or arms. I dropped the woman, who was nothing more than dead weight at this point. My right shoulder, which had taken the round, refused to work. I couldn’t lift my MK II to line up a shot.

Using my left hand, I drew the knife from my belt. In the same motion, I flung it at my target, taking him in the left eye.

He screamed, clawing at his face as he fell.

I beckoned with my left hand. Thanks to my recallers, the weapon flew through the air back to my waiting palm before the body had even hit the ground.

I took another round to my chest. The armor I wore ate up most of the damage, but the force of the blow still hurt like a brum..

Lucky for me, Preacher took the opportunity to flank the enemy. Sprinting to my left and around the tents, he now appeared among them. His katana, which hummed with a fierce red power, cut through them like a wire through cheese. In a pair of quick strikes, one man lay in two pieces, severed at the waist. Another body sank to its knees, his head falling to the sand beside him.

Out of nowhere, Nemesis came crashing down on the encampment faster than my eye could track. He didn’t just land on top of one of the gang members; Nemesis crushed him.

Black energy formed around Nemesis in an orb. What was left of the broken man lay crumpled beneath the blow. Two gang members were still standing as if petrified.

“Drop your weapons, now!” Preacher shouted.

Snapping out of his temporary state of shock, one of the thugs lifted his rifle at Nemesis. Nemesis shot out a hand, sending a black ball of energy at him. The projectile hit the gang member in the chest and flung him backward.

“Do not test me,” Nemesis cautioned to the last remaining thug, who happened to be the initial sentry we met upon our arrival to the camp. “I will end your time here on this planet.”

“Hey, hey.” The man dropped his rifle, raising both hands in the air. “Nothing but friends here. There are only friends here.”

Feeling was just coming back to my shoulder. I holstered my weapon, and rotated my shoulder checking to see if the wound was already healing, the pain was already only a phantom memory from seconds before.

My accelerated healing factor made most damage a nuisance more than anything else.

I looked around the battlefield where nine bodies lay dead. Within the space of a minute, the three of us had taken out triple our number. It was a true testament to what we were and the power we could wield on what was left of Earth if we so chose.

“What do you want me to do with this one?” Nemesis asked, allowing the black energy around him to subside. “Should I kill him anyway?”

“No, we’ll need someone to give us answers,” I said, glancing over at the man, who looked as if he were going to pass out. “You are going to give us answers, aren’t you?”

“As the good Lord of the Way is my witness.” The man nodded so hard, I thought his head was going to come right off. “I’m your man. Whatever you want to know. I didn’t even like hanging with this bunch, truth be told. Every day I told myself, Gary, what you be doing here is wrong. You need to get out. I hate stem after what I’ve seen it do to people. I just needed a job. You can imagine how hard it is to find honest work here on Earth now. Why I—”

“Gary,” I interrupted the sputtering man. “I need you to focus. Where are you getting all this stem from? How are people finding you?”

“Oh, yes, sir.” Gary nodded along with my questions. “We get most of the stem from our base of operation, as it were. There are numerous gangs like this roving around what’s left of the west coast, from New Vegas to the Badlands. We heard this area was free of Aleron Jacobs and the head woman decided it was time to move in.”

“Where’s this base?” Preacher asked. “Who’s in charge? This head woman?”

“Yep, yep.” Gary nodded. “I’ve never met her before and that’s the truth, but I know she has a dozen or more distributors like us who travel around dispersing the stem.”

Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy, I thought to myself. It’s never that easy. As soon as you cut off one head, two more take its place. With Aleron gone, it was just a matter of time before someone tried to fill the vacuum.

I traded looks with Preacher. It didn’t take a mind reader like Laine to realize he and I were thinking the same thing.

The old mercenary scratched the beard on his chin with a grin. “Cut the head off a hydra and it grows back with two more. We need to kill the beast.”

“The base.” I repeated Preacher’s question to Gary. “Where is it?”

“Well, you know, fellas,” Gary said, laughing uncomfortably. “I already gave you a lot of information. If I tell you where the distribution center is, she’ll kill me.”

“Nemesis,” I said, looking over at the alien. “Tell our friend here what we’ll do to him, if he doesn’t give us the location of the stem facility. Be creative.”

Gary cowered as Nemesis walked over to the man with a grin. The alien leaned in, talking low to Gary. I caught the words “manhood” and “pain.” The rest was lost in the low breeze that ruffled tent flaps.

Whatever Nemesis told him, it was effective. The blood drained from Gary’s face. He smiled and nervously chuckled again.

“On second thought, since we’re such good friends now, maybe I’ll just tell you where the main stem distribution center is.” Gary licked his dry lips. “It’s a few hours south of here. We set up shop just far enough away from Phoenix not to be detected.”

“We’ll radio Dragon Hold to send a team to burn what’s here and get these stem addicts on their way, then we’ll head out to shut down the main distribution center,” I decided. I knew that was going to put me right up against the time to leave to track down Rival, but what other option did I have? Letting drug dealers deal in my backyard was not an option at all.

“Roger that,” Preacher said, sheathing his katana. “What about our new friend here?”

“Gary can show us the way.” I smirked, jerking my chin at a rusted two-person dune buggy that sat on the far side of the encampment. “What are friends for, right, Gary?”

“Oh, who me?” Gary wrung his hands nervously. “Actually, I was just thinking that maybe I’d stay here. You know, burn the rest of the stem in the camp for you and get these no good drug addicts out of here.”

“Naw, we all go together,” I insisted. “We have to make sure your intel’s right. Because if it isn’t, then Nemesis has to make good on his promises.”

Gary looked at Nemesis with wide eyes. The alien made a snipping motion with his fingers.

Preacher radioed Wesley to send out a team to clean up the camp. He was sure to include the fact that they might need to bring some medics, to help with the addicts and their recovery.

Nemesis took the wheel of the dune buggy, with an apprehensive Gary sitting beside him. Preacher and I rode the hoverbikes on either side, in case Gary tried anything.

He didn’t.

Gary’s demeanor was one of loathing and defeat. I almost felt sorry for the man -- almost.

We made good time traveling due south. No other gangs or travelers crossed our path, unless you included a flock of mutie vultures circling overhead. It felt great to be out in the open crossing the wasteland on the hoverbike.

For a few moments on the ride, I let myself just enjoy the experience. Wind pushed against me with the sun beating down, which was warm but not scorching.

“How do you want to play this when we get there?” Preacher asked after a few hours of riding. “Same plan? Nemesis on recon above? You and I mosey on in?”

“Let’s see what Nemesis says,” I agreed. “This camp will be a lot larger if this is where they’re making the stem. No need to take risks going in hot if we don’t need to.”

“No need to go in hot?” Preacher repeated my words. “You feeling okay? The Daniel I know wants to go in guns blazing all the time. Back me up here, X.”

“He’s right,” X answered. “Daniel, your chosen method is not wrong, just unusual for your character.”

“Well, people change,” I said, thinking about Preacher and Nemesis’ wellbeing. Where I could take a major amount of damage and keep moving, they couldn’t. One lucky round and I’d be taking Preacher or Nemesis home to bury. “Let’s check it out first and then we’ll go from there.”

A few minutes later, Gary called a stop in the lead dune buggy. Preacher and I pulled up on either side of him.

“Just over the ridge.” Gary pointed to a rise in front of us. “They’ll have sentries out and a base ten times the size of the small tent encampment you fellas took out back there.”

“Nemesis?” I asked.

“I’ll radio in as soon as I’m overhead,” Nemesis said, taking to the air.

It was still a weird sight to see the alien that looked so much like a man and even resembled me to a certain extent, take flight. One moment he was there and the next he was a speck in the sky.

“We’re going to keep you here, Gary,” Preacher told the man, securing him to the frame of the dune buggy with a pair of magnetic cuffs. “For your own sake, in case you decide to do something stupid.”

“Is this really necessary?” Gary looked at Preacher, not trying to stop the act. “I’m not going anywhere. I don’t have anywhere to go. Not after selling out my own side.”

“Good point,” Preacher said. “But I’m a cautious creature.”

With Gary secured, Preacher and I traveled up the ridge to get a look at our next target. On our bellies we inched toward the ledge. What we saw took our breaths away.


Eight

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

Dry dirt crunched underneath my weight. I took off the hoverbike helmet I still wore as if that was going to help clear my vision in some way. My brain was having one heck of a time making sense of what my eyes were telling it was real.

The ridge sloped and opened up to a base camp the likes of which I had never seen before. A stone fortress with a wall two stories tall greeted my eyes. Guard towers were strategically placed around the square stronghold.

The figures of guards equipped with high-tech blaster rifles patrolled the walls. This army, unlike those in the tent encampment, were shiny and new. I scanned the battlements for any sign of sigil that would give away whoever was bankrolling the endeavor. If there was one, I couldn’t find it.

Preacher let out a low whistle.

“Someone has deep pockets,” Preacher whispered. “That stone work doesn’t come cheap.”

“Neither does the gear or weapons those guards are carrying,” I added.

“The fortification is impressive,” Nemesis said over the open comm channel. “There’s a heavy military presence as well. These aren’t like the gang of thugs we just took out at the encampment.”

“So some corporation saw a chance to be the main dealer of stem on Earth and decided to come in and plant their flag,” I mused out loud. “And by planting their flag I mean not tip their hand on funding the project, but instead keep their identity a secret.”

“Most corporations plaster their sigil on everything from armor to flags and banners,” Preacher agreed. “I don’t see a single image anywhere.”

“Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out,” I said. “Nemesis, how many guards can you see from where you’re at?”

“At least two dozen patrolling the walls and perimeter,” Nemesis answered. “I suspect more inside the various buildings. There is one structure that’s white with a long dome. It’s unlike the rest. I suspect that’s where they’re making the stem. I’ve seen white-clad scientists going in and out.”

“Roger,” I acknowledged.

“No, Nemesis,” Nemesis answered. “I believe the other man’s name is Gary.”

“No, Roger is just a way of saying I got it,” I explained.

“Why not just say that?” Nemesis asked. “It would be less confusing.”

“Okay, let’s just stay on point here.” I reined in my frustration like some kind of massive dog pulling at the leash. “Nemesis, can you gain their attention to the rear of the fortress? Give us two, maybe three minutes to cross the open ground and scale the wall?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Nemesis nearly shouted in joy. “Watch this.”

A ball of crackling black energy descended from the sky. I could just make out Nemesis’ form inside his protective barrier.

An alarm went off in the compound that sounded like an ancient air horn I had heard somewhere before. Guards started running to the rear of the compound where Nemesis descended.

“Twenty credits says he tells them he’s from the future and brings some kind of warning.” Preacher chuckled.

“I’m not taking that bet,” I answered. “Come on; let’s go.”

We rose to our feet, running down the ridge toward the fortress. My feet barely touched the ground before I pushed off again, propelling my body forward at a speed uncommon to normal humans.

The changes made to my body as a member of the Pack Protocol under Immortal Corp, had not only enhanced my healing ability, but given me boosted speed and strength levels as well.

I put my speed to good use now, crossing the distance in seconds.

My plan was flawed, however. Preacher, who had undergone the same experimentation as myself, but had his abilities neutralized by the Voy invaders. He ran quickly, despite the shadow of a hitch in his gait, but couldn’t match me for speed.

I reached the walls of the fortress, hunkering down, covering Preacher as he came. If anyone were to look in our direction, they’d no doubt see the man running for the wall.

“It would be wise to remember his limits,” X said out loud. “He’s not as fast or as strong as you anymore.”

“I know,” I answered. “That’s my bad.”

Preacher reached us a few seconds later, heaving with exertion. The one-eyed man did his best to hide it, but I could see the level of exhaustion that touched his face. Sweat was already coming down his brow, and a red hue covered his skin where his salt and pepper beard didn’t.

“Must be—be getting out of shape.” Preacher tried to make light of the situation. “Well, come on. Let’s go. We don’t know how long Nemesis can hold their attention.”

“Right,” I said, pulling the axe and knife free from my belt. “Follow me.”

The rock face of the wall was all hard edges, with mortar securing each block. I struck the wall with my axe, hoping to create some kind of hold in the rock for it to bite into.

The act sent a tremor through my arm. Chips of rock came off the wall, but the axe failed to secure any kind of hold.

“Here, give me your knife and axe and a boost,” Preacher said after watching me try in vain with a few strikes. “I have an idea.”

I obeyed the older man, relinquishing my weapons to him.

Preacher put the knife in his teeth then unsheathed his humming red katana in one hand. In the other, he held my axe. I boosted him until he could place his feet on my shoulders and then lifted my hands over my head for him to stand on my palms. The act wasn’t easy, but I knew for anyone without my strength, it would have been nearly impossible.

With Preacher standing on my hands, he was nearly to the top of the two-story wall. I looked up in time to see him force the blade of his katana into the mortar between the stones.

The humming red blade seemed to glow brighter when presented with a challenge. Slowly, the blade sank into the mortar as if it were melting its way through the very substance.

Preacher pulled the weapon free, wedging it up and down as he did so, creating a larger hole. As soon as he did this, he slammed the blade of my axe into the hole the katana made. Next, the one-eyed mercenary lifted his right leg, using the head of the wedged axe as a foothold.

Preacher repeated the process with my knife and created a second foothold for his left foot. He was high enough now, that he could grasp the top of the wall and pull himself over.

A second later, his head popped over the edge of the wall.

“I’ll go and see if I can open the front gate from the inside,” Preacher whispered. “I’ll—”

Whatever he was going to say next was interrupted by my next action. I backed off, giving myself enough room to get a running start.

“Calculations predict you’ll be able to reach the first axe handle with enough speed, but the swing to the knife will be difficult,” X warned.

“I got this,” I grunted back.

I sprinted forward, planting my foot on the wall and pushing off upward. My hands clamped onto the handle of the axe wedged ten feet up on the wall. I jerked violently down with my arms, propelling my body upward and toward the knife handle above.

The knife’s blade threatened to snap and shifted its hold.

Preacher leaned down as far as he could, extending an open hand. One more time, I jerked up violently from my handhold. I released my hold on the knife handle and reached for Preacher.

Although the man didn’t have enhanced strength, years of training and hard labor made him more than able to bear the burden of my weight. Preacher heaved me up onto the top of the wall.

For the first time, I got a sense of how pristine the fortress really was. A tower rose on either side of the entrance. Below us, in the compound, a dozen buildings rose up made of the same stone.

Immediately, I saw the building Nemesis had picked out. It was unlike the others, that were square and plain with the sandstone color of the rocks. This was a white, longer, domed building with smooth edges.

The next thing I saw were dozens of soldiers on the far side of the compound, pointing their weapons at Nemesis. I was just able to hear his booming voice.

“I come from the future with a message for your leader,” Nemesis shouted. “Your timeline is in great peril!”

Looking at him now, I felt stupid for ever thinking he was from the future at all. Still, he had duped me and now he was doing the same to the rest of the soldiers inside the fortress.

“Good thing we didn’t bet,” Preacher whispered. “You would have lost.”

I moved my eyes around the compound. Nemesis was putting on the performance of a lifetime, but sooner or later, guards would be ordered back to their posts.

The building that interested me most was in the middle of the compound. There were buildings along the way to take cover behind, but who knew how many more soldiers or guards would be in those structures as well.

“We’ve got to move,” X said out loud, echoing my own thoughts.

“Let’s go,” I answered, vaulting over the wall onto the ground two stories below.

Preacher followed, hanging off the side before he let go. He rolled when he hit the ground to absorb the impact. Together, we silently made our way to the building in the center of the compound. For once, our luck was holding.

While Nemesis waxed poetic about a fictional future in dire need of assistance, we made our way forward. It was while passing the last building on our right that our luck finally ran out.

The square stone building to our right was equipped with double doors. At once, they both opened. A pair of guards walked out, wearing shiny black armor equipped with helmets and weapons.

The two guards looked at us for a moment in shock.


Nine

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

While they stood shocked, Preacher and I sprung into action.

Preacher slammed his right fist in an uppercut to the chin of the guard closest to him.

I sent my own right fist into the gut of the guard near me, immediately regretting the decision as my fist made contact with his armor.

“Hey, what the crip!” The guard in front of me gasped, leveling his weapon at my chest.

I ripped the weapon free from him, striking out with the sole of my boot to his right knee. He went down, giving me time to jump on his back and apply a chokehold. He said something unintelligible, trying in vain to release my elbow from the underside of his neck.

A few seconds later, he slumped forward.

Preacher dragged his unconscious victim into the building the two had exited moments before. I followed, lifting mine after checking the perimeter. It was a small miracle that no one else came out of any other buildings.

Preacher and I maneuvered the unconscious men inside, shutting the doors behind us. The building we found ourselves in now must have served as some kind of barracks for the soldiers.

Rows of stacked sleeping pods lined either wall with a long hall down the middle and what I guessed were the bathrooms at the end.

Once again, there were no discerning emblems or sigils to tell us where these soldiers came from. The room was spartan with everything in its place. Whoever these soldiers were and whatever company funded the stem distribution was well-trained and professional on every level.

“Let’s get into their gear and put these guys in their sleeping pods,” I said, already moving to take my own advice. “Nemesis should be about out of material right now.”

Preacher and I worked quickly, placing the new black armor over our own as well as donning the black helmets with matching dark visors. I wished there had been some kind of heads-up display in the helmets, telling us who they belonged to, or where they had come from, but there was none.

The rifles they carried were ones I had never seen before. A plasma charge pack rested in front of the trigger. The weapon was shorter than I was used to with a strap so I could wear it over my shoulder.

Like the plain gear, the unconscious men we took it from didn’t have any kind of tattoos or marks that might give us a hint as to who they worked for.

Weapons fire erupted outside. It seemed as though Nemesis was out of lies.

Preacher and I hit the door to see exactly what happened. A barrage of weapon fire hit the black crackling shield around Nemesis as the guards lit into him. The alien countered, throwing handfuls of black energy at those below.

“Even my ability has its limits,” Nemesis told us over the comm line we still shared. “I’m not sure how long I can keep this up.”

Nemesis wove through the air, avoiding whatever fire he could and absorbing what he had to. Black bolts of energy peppered the enemy, blowing guards backward or sending an explosion into the ground or rock walls.

“We’re in,” I reassured him. “Pull back and maintain a safe distance. We’re going into the main building.”

“Understood,” Nemesis shouted over the sounds of battle that echoed through the compound. “I mean, Roger.”

Preacher and I half walked, half ran to the white building in the middle of the compound. Three steps led up to a pair of closed doors. A data pad on the right side of the doors showed a place to hold your hand.

“Great,” I said. “X, any ideas?”

“I might be able to—”

X cut her sentence short as the doors opened from the inside. A pair of guards exited, ushering us forward as if they were pissed we were late.

“Come on; hurry up,” one of them said in a gruff voice. “We want to see what all the shouting is about too. You guys were supposed to be here ten minutes ago.”

My heart drummed in my chest so hard, I could feel my heartbeat in my head. If I spoke now and they didn’t recognize my voice, we were done.

Lucky for me, the sounds of fighting outside had died to nothing.

“Ahhh, come on; we missed whatever it was,” the other guard said to his counterpart. “Maybe we can still see it in the air. The reports were about a flying man.”

Without another word, the two guards trotted off in search of Nemesis.

“Close one,” X said in my head.

“Too close,” I answered.

Finally, we made it in the building. The doors clicked close behind us. Inside the room was a wide open assembly line of technicians, working in quick fashion to make the lethal blue drug.

There was an army of men and women in the room all assigned to their specific task that would move the supply train along. One group cooked the substance while the next broke it down and packaged it into needles.

A dozen more steps had to happen in between, but that was what my eyes took in. A handful of guards roamed the assembly line, but it seemed everyone who was present wanted to be there.

The operation was a thing of wonder. Massive stainless steel containers held the unpurified stem; beakers and glass tubes lined the tables. No expense had been spared in creating the work space, much like the fortress itself.

The doors banged open behind us. Preacher and I reacted on instinct, each stepping back on either side of the door as if we were sentries positioned there.

An attractive woman with dark green hair walked inside. She wore a white lab coat. Behind her followed a pair of men, one hunched and gangly, the other a specimen of physical prowess.

“This is exactly why we need those drones patrolling the air space above us,” the woman said to both men. “This is a new era we live in, full of aliens from other planets, corporate factions and even gangs patrolling Earth. We need to up our security.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The weasel-like man pushed thick glasses up his nose and made notes on a data pad he gripped in long fingers. “I’ll put in the request immediately.”

The trio stopped a few feet from where Preacher and I stood at the doors. The woman didn’t even seem to notice us as she looked out onto the army of workers on the floor.

“Everything is on track and moving so efficiently now. We can’t afford to be derailed.” The woman sighed heavily, turning to look at the two men. “We’ve only just begun. The Earth is poised for a second age of abundance with Phoenix bringing back life. We have the opportunity to establish ourselves as the premier stem provider. There is a fortune to be won here.”

I was still putting the pieces of the puzzle together when the doors clicked open and a man recognize walked through. Just the sight of him made my blood boil. Atilla was a Cyber Hunter just like Cassie. Last I heard, he had betrayed the Order, taking matters into his own hands before the Battle for Mars.

Images of Atilla being taken away filled my mind. What transpired between then and now to have brought Atilla not only to Earth but leading a compound bent on creating and distributing stem?

“Nothing changes,” Atilla told the green-haired woman and the two men with her. “We move forward as planned. I’ll get better security for the compound. You three stay on task.”

“Of course.” The woman bobbed her head. “With the money you and your family are investing in the project, we’re ahead of schedule.”

“Easy,” Preacher breathed into the comm line.

It was as if the man knew my very thoughts. More than anything, I wanted to rush forward and plant my boot on Atilla’s neck. Since day one, the man had been a pain in my side.

“You’ll get your chance,” X added in my head.

“Earth is about to be a gold mine as the population from the moon and even Mars comes back.” Atilla planted both fists on his hips as he spoke. “My family is paying you good money to ensure we are the leading name in stem once they arrive. Now get to work.”

The trio of workers Atilla addressed nodded and moved to obey. They turned and walked deeper into the structure, talking amongst themselves.

Atilla turned on a heel and made to leave the building. He paused by me, looking directly into my dark visor.

On instinct, I tightened the grip on my weapon. He squinted at me, as if he could see through the face plate.

Atilla was tall with one red eye, the right side of his face had been in some kind of accident. Most of the section from his forehead down to his chin was silvery metal grey.

The long black coat, gloves and the rest of his attire hid any other sections of his body that might be enhanced.

“I know you want to hit him right now,” X said in my head. “For the Lord of the Way’s sake, don’t. Not yet.”

Atilla opened his mouth, revealing a row of perfect white teeth. He used my visor as a mirror, digging out a piece of meat on the lower right side of his teeth.

His breath smelled horrible, like some kind of rotten trash. X was right. I did want to hit him.

“Thanks, pal.” Atilla dug out the rogue piece of food then slapped me on the shoulder. He turned and left without another word.

The doors opened then clicked closed behind him.

“I thought for sure our cover was blown.” Preacher sighed across from me. “My heart can’t take this tension. Hey, what does W.O.L.F.’s retirement plan look like?”

“You’re not retiring any more than I am,” I said, jerking my head into the building. “You think you can create some havoc here to slow down this installation? It doesn’t have to be total destruction. Just enough to pause them, until we can call Phoenix or the GG in.”

“Without a doubt,” Preacher answered. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to have a chat with our old friend,” I remarked. “Do what damage you can and then get out. Have Nemesis provide overwatch for you.”

“You sure?” Preacher asked as I turned to leave.

“Positive,” I uttered, heading for the doors in Atilla’s wake.

I sensed Preacher wasn’t exactly sold on the plan. To be honest, I was making it up as I went. However, it was what we had to work with at the time. If Preacher could sabotage the stem production even for a day or two, it would be enough to call in reinforcements. I couldn’t imagine either Phoenix or the Galactic Government taking nicely to stem dealers on their turf.

The doors to the building slid open, allowing me to walk back outside. Unlike when we arrived, there were patrols and guards everywhere. With the excitement of Nemesis’ distraction gone, it was business as usual.

I caught sight of Atilla’s back as he walked across the open space between the buildings. A short one-story structure to his right was his target.

“How much longer do you think we have until those two guards we knocked out wake up?” I asked X.

“Secured in their sleeping pods with no one missing them, I’d say you’re good unless they wake up,” X answered. “Daniel, are you sure this is the best idea? I mean, what do you think you’re going to accomplish by confronting Atilla in his own base? He’s formidable enough on his own without an army at his back.”

“I just don’t buy that Atilla and his family are investing in the stem business,” I confessed, remembering that Cassie told me Atilla’s family was not only well-to-do but had been in the Order for generations. “It just feels off. Like this is all a cover for something bigger.”

“Just be careful,” X warned.

“Careful is my middle name,” I answered.

X snorted. “Yeah, okay, right.”

I kept my pace, moving forward but not too eagerly. Atilla disappeared into the building on the right. Luckily for me, it didn’t appear to have any kind of lock or handprint scanner on the door.

Other patrols or soldiers just walking to and from their daily tasks passed me. Most wore their helmets; a few didn’t. As far as I could tell, they were all soldiers from a private company.

I didn’t expect to recognize any of them.

I made my way to the door Atilla had disappeared into and walked inside. The room I found myself in was small like some kind of waiting room for a doctor or lawyer. A desk sat in front of me with a door to the left that went deeper into the building.

A few chairs and a low table rounded out the furniture. At the moment, I wasn’t concerned with the décor. The thing sitting in the chair on the other side of the desk captured my full attention.

It looked human enough, but instead of skin, metal sections created its body. I didn’t have much experience with robots other than Bapz, but this one was nothing like the AI that watched over Dragon Hold.

Bapz was as human as I was. His liquid silver skin was flawless. The robot sitting in front of me now was all hard edges with bolts securing one section to the next. A pair of red eyes stared at me, unmoving.

Although the robot was motionless now, I got the sense that I was being watched.

“Please come in,” Atilla called from the doorway. “The receptionist is offline at the moment.”


Ten

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

If Atilla suspected anything was wrong or who I really was, his voice didn’t betray the fact.

“I have a bad feeling about this,” X said in my head. “Something’s not right.”

I agreed with her, but my stubborn nature wouldn’t allow me to back out of the room now. Not when answers were so close.

I gripped the plasma blaster tighter in my hands, checking to make sure the safety was off. I allowed myself to ignore trigger discipline for the time being and instead placed my finger on its curved trigger.

I walked into the adjoining room, weapon ready to bear on my target at second’s notice. The next room, unlike the first, was finely furnished with a soft rug underfoot. Windows on either wall allowed natural light to stream from outside.

Atilla sat at his desk. A monitor that took up the entire wall behind him showed a map of the Earth.

He looked up from a holo screen on his desk as I walked in and gave me a wolfish grin.

“Daniel, I was hoping I’d get to see you again,” Atilla said as if we were old friends. “I owe you one for fouling up my plans back on Mars.”

A sour feeling clenched my gut. My adrenaline spiked so hard when I heard my name, I thought I might get sick. I lifted the weapon, drawing a bead on the fleshy side of Atilla’s face.

If this was a trap, I promised myself neither one of us was going to walk out of here alive.

“How long did you know?” I asked.

“I suspected it was you when that flying man made a run at the base.” Atilla shrugged. He placed both hands on the table in front of him as if he were showing me he didn’t have a weapon. “When I used your visor as a mirror, I knew for sure it was you. My enhanced eye can see through things like fogged and treated glass.”

“Then why let me in here?” I asked as I fought back panic. “Why allow me to make it this far?”

“It’s not like you’re getting out.” Atilla shrugged again with another smile I wanted to wipe off his face with my fist. “Besides, I thought we might be able to help each other.”

“Yeah, probably not,” I answered, keeping the barrel of my weapon aimed at Atilla. “What are you really doing here? Not working for the Order anymore, I’m guessing.”

Atilla rolled both his normal then red eye so hard, I thought they might fall out of his head.

“Please,” Atilla huffed. “The Order is a joke. The only reason I was involved with them in the first place is because my family is a founding member. That kind of loyalty goes back generations. I didn’t even have an option in joining. When I was finally thrown out of the Order, it was the best day of my life.”

“I bet Mama and Papa Atilla weren’t too happy about that,” I said.

“My mother and father,” Atilla growled, “understand what happened and approve of this new course of action.”

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you’re an only child.” I pressed him, now that I saw I was getting underneath his skin. It wasn’t my goal to piss him off, but people make mistakes when they're angry. Plus, maybe I did enjoy pissing him off just a little. “And you still call them Mommy and Daddy?”

“You little, insignificant—” Atilla started, his face turning beet red. “No, I know that’s what you want and you’re not getting it from me. Not this time. This time, I have you right where I want you.”

“At the end of my barrel?” I asked, using my right pointer finger to tap the trigger. “Not too smart.”

“I thought I might be able to talk with you, but I see now that was an impossible hope.” Atilla slowly rose from his seat. “You will die after you tell me where the Relic is that you possess. What did you do with the book after the Battle for Mars?”

“The book,” X said in my head. “He’s here for the book and possibly other Relics if he has information about them.”

“Stem distribution is just a cover,” I said more than asked. “You’re here hunting for Relics.”

Atilla lifted his hands slowly and gave me a few claps.

“There you go, and the Neanderthal finally puts it together,” Atilla mocked. “But was that really you, or just the AI in your head?”

“So you’re here on your own, with the backing of your family, hunting Relics,” I said, ignoring his question. “What do you know about them? Do you know how many there are? What they do?”

“Maybe,” Atilla allowed. “But why would I tell you what I know, when you have nothing to share in return? I thought maybe you would, but I can see I was wrong. You won’t willingly give me anything. I’ll have to take it from you.”

My sixth sense kicked in and told me all hell was about to break loose. Whatever Atilla was planning for me, he was ready to carry out. I felt the presence of something approach from the rear. A cold hand, so heavy it felt like a steel bar, clamped on my left shoulder. I turned into time to see two red orbs looking down at me from a steel skull.

The so-called receptionist from the front room had somehow silently approached. How it had come so quietly was a mystery. Now that the robot stood up, it was a hulking thing nearly seven feet tall.

Pain lanced through my shoulder as the robot crushed down with an impossibly strong grip. Despite the agony, I wasn’t about to let Atilla get away that easy.

I let out a howl, giving an outlet to the pain, even as I pressed the trigger to the pulse rifle, sending a shower of blue beams at Atilla.

That stupid grin on Atilla’s face vanished as he hit the deck, taking cover behind his desk. Plasma beams soaked the holo desk and the screen on the far wall. Smoke and sparks cascaded around the room.

The robot picked me up and flung me against the right wall as if I weighed nothing. I crashed into the wall, absorbing the pain and bringing the weapon to bear on the robot.

I stroked the trigger, sending a flurry of rounds at the robot’s torso and head. I wasn’t the best shot with the new weapon, but it wasn’t like I had to do much aiming in the small room. The rounds found their mark but didn't do a hint of damage. Whatever the robot was made from was unlike any material I had ever seen.

The robot stalked toward me as Atilla laughed out loud from his hiding spot.

“Save your ammunition, Daniel,” Atilla barked. “You’re not getting out of this one alive. Not this time.”

Out of frustration more than anything, I aimed my rifle at the desk Atilla hunkered behind and let loose another barrage of fire. It had the desired effect. He shut his mouth.

The robot was on top of me, reaching for the weapon and tearing it from my grasp.

Alarms inside the compound were going off once again, triggered by the sounds of the weapon fire. Shouts from outside permeated the air.

I’d lost my axe and knife as stepping stones scaling the wall. My MK II was tucked behind my back, the drum from the weapon pressed against my spine.

“The head,” X said out loud, not caring if the robot or Atilla heard her. “Aim for the head!”

I drew the weapon, aiming directly at the robot’s skull. At point-blank range, I sent a tungsten steel rod into his forehead.

The robot teetered for a moment as if it might fall. Its eyes flashed black and then back to red. It recovered much too quickly and grabbed my MK II, with one hand. The barrel of the weapon was bent ever so slightly, rendering the weapon useless.

I looked at the barrel of the MK II with a frown and then back to the robot. “Any chance we can start over?” I asked with a wink.

The robot grabbed me by my armored vest and lifted me off the ground. Before I could think to go on the offensive, I was hurtling through the open air, smashing against a panel of window pane and tumbling outside.

The air was forced out of my lungs as I struck the hard ground outside. I looked around for a means of escape. A group of heavily armed soldiers surrounded me with rifles pointed at my face.

They were about to shoot at me or at least order me to my feet. Atilla, however, jumped out the window along with the robot.

The guards surrounding me created room for their leader and the diabolical robot. Some of them even shied away from the piece of walking metal as if they too were scared of the menacing creation.

“I’ve contacted Preacher and Nemesis,” X said, this time in my head. “They’re on the way.”

“Come on, come on.” Atilla laughed. “Get up, you’ll heal. Isn’t that your thing? You heal, right? Besides, we still have questions to ask you about that Relic you disappeared with after the Battle for Mars.”

I struggled to my feet as the robot reached for me. I dodged its initial grab, slamming my fist into one of its red eyes. That was a mistake. My entire right hand went numb. I couldn’t even move my fingers. The last thing I needed at the moment was a broken hand.

The robot took the opportunity to grab me and pin my arms to my sides. Its hold was vise-like. I felt as though it might snap my arms just from squeezing so hard.

“You’re used to pain, so me giving you some kind of beat down is pointless,” Atilla said, arms crossed as he drummed the finger on his left hand on his chin. “I know. What if I took a limb? Not from you. From him.”

I looked up to where Atilla pointed. My heart sank in my chest. Preacher was brought forward, supported by a pair of guards. His feet dragged behind him. His head was down. I couldn’t see the state of his face, but I could see the trail of blood that fell from his hanging head.

“You didn’t think I would ever consider you coming alone, did you?” Atilla went over to Preacher. He violently grabbed a chunk of the man’s hair and jerked his head back. Preacher’s face was swollen and bruised.

I knew X just contacted Preacher over the comms. She must have just gotten to him before Atilla’s men made their move inflicting damage to Preacher suddenly and brutally.

“And we’ll be waiting for your flying friend to make his appearance,” Atilla continued, looking from me to Preacher. “There’s no hope for you now. Tell me what I want to know or I’ll cut One Eye over here into a hundred different pieces and make you watch.”


Eleven

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

Anger flooded my mind to the extent that it was hard to even make a coherent thought. I saw red as the animal inside of me raged to be let loose.

The robot squeezed me so hard, I couldn’t help but let a roar of pain escape my lips.

“We still have Nemesis,” X warned me in my head. “I have a plan. Buy me some time. Stay with me, Daniel. Stay with me.”

“I asked you a question,” Atilla said, taking a long blade from one of the guards to his left. He lifted Preacher’s head again. Holding Preacher’s blood-matted hair with his left hand, he made a sawing motion just in front of Preacher’s throat with his right. “Tell me where the Relic is, the book that opens portals to other worlds, or watch your friend die. It’s your choice. I’ll take his ears first and his nose. He’ll vanish in front of you bit by bit if that’s what it takes.”

Through the haze of anger, I saw Preacher—smile. The kooky old man actually looked at me with a grin. Split lips widened to show crimson-stained teeth underneath.

Preacher mumbled something.

“What’s that, old man?” Atilla asked, getting closer. “Are you begging for your life yet?”

“They—they didn’t get me—before I—before I rigged the building to explode,” Preacher managed, laughing like a maniac. “Watch this.”

“Nemesis approaching!” X shouted in my head. “Brace yourself. He’s coming in hot!”

I wish I had time to look over to see the expression on Atilla’s face before all hell broke loose, but it was too late. A massive explosion ripped through the white building holding the stem production. My ears rang, probably bled too. A shockwave made of heat and force slammed against our group.

Atilla was wise enough to understand this was the moment Nemesis would use to make his attack. Unfortunately for him, none of his men were. Still reeling from the explosion, looking toward what was left of the stem building and the licking flames, the guards were taken by surprise.

Nemesis came down on the robot that was holding me like I had seen him slam into the unsuspecting gang member in the camp earlier that day.

A concussive force of black matter ripped me free from the robot’s arms and sent me flying into a group of guards.

My hearing was shot from the explosion of the building. Whatever Preacher used to set off that blast was lethal. Luckily for me, I recover faster than most. Nemesis sent out black electric blasts of energy at various targets of opportunity. Methodically, he made his way toward Preacher, who struggled to his feet.

“We’ve got to go,” X said in my head past the dull ringing I heard in my ears. “You’ve got to get up before the enemy recovers. We need to get out of here.”

I knew she was right. It took everything in me to force my limbs to move one right after the other. I found a blaster on the ground and took Nemesis’ lead.

Aim, fire, move, I repeated in my head like a mantra. Aim, fire, move.

Nemesis made it to Preacher’s side, protecting him in the black ball of energy. Atilla screamed something to the soldiers who ran in all directions instead of standing and trying to fight us.

I thought we were going to make it as I stumbled toward Nemesis and the safety of the black orb of energy around him. Then two things happened. The crushed robot started to twitch then move. What I had assumed was once a broken pile of expensive steel started to climb to its feet, red eyes as unfeeling and relentless as ever.

Next, my hearing started to come back. I heard Atilla screaming in rage. I looked over to see the man leveling a blaster at the orb protecting Nemesis and Preacher. A volley of fire spattered against the orb to no avail.

This made Atilla even angrier as he roared his frustration to the heavens. He caught sight of me as I limped my way over to Nemesis. We lifted blasters in each other’s direction at the same time and pumped round after round into one another.

Pain erupted in my chest and left thigh. But I gave him as good as I got. I saw at least one of my rounds take him in the sternum.

He fell backward.

The robot, now back on its feet, moved to act as a shield to its master. As much as I wanted to stay and finish Atilla, I knew we had gotten lucky. Most of the soldiers were recovering enough now to rein in their fear and turn on us to attack.

I made it to the inside of Nemesis’ protective orb.

How I was able to pass through the orb unharmed while blaster beams were stopped was a question I’d have to ask the alien at a later time.

“Glad you could make it,” Preacher croaked. “You look like crip.”

“You don’t look so hot yourself,” I answered.

Preacher wrapped his arm around Nemesis’ shoulders in order to support himself.

“We need to go, now!” X instructed us all.

“Hold on to my hand,” Nemesis said, offering me his palm.

In any other situation, I would have passed on holding hands with an intergalactic alien who looked disturbingly like me. But desperate times called for desperate measures.

I grabbed Nemesis’ hand as if my very life depended on it, because it probably did.

We were airborne a moment later. For the second time, I was given a ride by the alien known as Nemesis, albeit this time willingly. My arm felt like it was going to be ripped out of its socket. I used my free hand to hold on to his arm as tightly as I could.

Seconds later, we were high above the compound, heading north toward our waiting vehicles. Nemesis faltered as we approached the hoverbikes and dune buggy with our buddy Gary still handcuffed.

Nemesis did his best to keep us in the air moving forward, but I could see the strain of carrying two grown men in armor took a toll on him. Not just that, but he had doled out his share of energy while using his shield to absorb the incoming blasts. He was fatigued but too much of a warrior to admit it.

We half dropped, half landed on hard packed ground next to the hoverbikes and dune buggy. Gary looked at us wide-eyed. I didn’t think it possible, but his eyes got even wider when he took in Preacher’s wounded state.

“I heard the ruckus over the ridge,” Gary said, swallowing hard. “Thought you boys might have been dead more so than not.”

“We’re harder to kill than most,” Preacher said, stumbling to the dune buggy. He unclicked Gary’s cuffs and pushed him off. “You’re free to go.”

Nemesis took the steering wheel, already gunning the engine to life. “We should get going now. They’ll come looking for us quickly.”

“I can link Preacher’s hoverbike to yours and it will follow,” X said out loud. “Nemesis is right. We need to go, now.”

I didn’t need to be told again. I jumped on the back of the hoverbike I had ridden to the compound. I revved the engine, ready to be off.

“Please, please, take me with you,” Gary implored. “I can’t let them find me out here by myself. I can’t be the only survivor from my camp. They’ll know. They’ll kill me. The woman with the green hair is more brutal than you can imagine. She’ll cut me to pieces.”

“Not our problem,” Preacher said with a shrug. “You dug your grave, now you sleep in it.”

“Perhaps Dragon Hold is a place for second chances,” Nemesis said so quietly, I almost didn’t catch it.

“Please, please—I’ll scrub toilets, I’m handy in a kitchen. I’ll do whatever job that needs to be done. Just please don’t leave me like this.” Gary fell to his knees, looking at me. Both gnarled hands clenched together as he shook from the fear of being left behind. “Anything, please, I’ll do anything.”

I looked behind me, where another explosion erupted from the compound. A plume of blue smoke lifted to the heavens, testament that Preacher had in fact ruined the stem supply. My hearing was almost completely back now. I could hear the cries and shouts from soldiers preparing to give chase.

I found myself thinking back about Echo. He had been given a second chance and had made good on his word. It was because of him that I was alive right now.

“Hop into the buggy,” I told him. “Let’s go.”

I could tell Preacher didn’t approve, but he held his tongue.

Nemesis gave me a hard nod.

“Thank you—thank you!” Gary shouted, jumping into the rear of the vehicle. He kept spouting praise like some kind of broken water line. “I’ll show you. I’ll prove to you that you made the right choice. You won’t regret it. I promise you that. You won’t regret a thing.”

“I’m already starting to regret it right now,” I said, revving the hoverbike and taking off beside the dune buggy Nemesis urged forward.

We raced across the barren landscape heading toward Dragon Hold. The hot midday sun beat down on us as we traveled. I chanced a look behind us every so often. If Atilla, his robot, or the woman with green hair had ordered a chase, I couldn’t see one.

For the moment, it seemed like we were home free.

True to her word, X was able to have Preacher’s rider-less hoverbike follow my own, like some kind of lost puppy in tow. My mind raced to what Atilla had said in the compound. If he was here hunting for Relics, more than likely he wasn’t the only one. Everyone who had seen the power the ancient book wielded on Mars, would want it or something like it.

Maybe we shouldn’t have used the book at all. Maybe it was better off burned or buried.

“X,” I said to the AI. “Can you open a line to Dragon Hold? We should tell Wesley what’s happened here.”

“On it,” X answered.

A moment later, there was a dull beeping in my head before Wesley’s familiar voice sounded on the other end of the comm line.

“Daniel?” Wesley asked. “Where are you? I thought it was going to be a quick hit-and-run mission this morning? It’s already noon.”

“We ran into a bit of a—of a hiccup,” I answered.

“Define said ‘hiccup’,” Wesley urged. “On second thought, do I even want to know?”

I told him everything: the initial stem distributors, the actual compound, and who was behind it and why. When I was done, Wesley sucked in a long breath through his teeth.

“Well, I shouldn’t have asked,” Wesley said contemplatively. “I can raise Phoenix and have them send a few mechs to deal with Atilla. I don’t think they’d take too kindly to having stem dealers in their backyard. We should probably keep the GG out of this for now. After what went down with Rival, the less we bring light to us the better.”

“Zoe.” I asked the question I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer too. “Is she okay? Do you even know?”

“No word, but I can send a line to Colonel Stryfe and ask if you’d like,” Wesley said. “We still have alliances there.”

“That would be great, thank you,” I said. “Do you know how Cassie’s doing with preparing for the journey to the new Relic? Last I checked, we didn’t have a dropship amongst our assets.”

“Yeah, about that,” Wesley answered slowly. “Actually, I’m going to let her tell you. You have some visitors here that came in right after you left. I’ll let you deal with that when you get back.”

Oh joy, I thought to myself. I wonder what’s in store for us now?


Twelve

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

The visitors Wesley spoke of didn’t actually turn out to be that bad after all. It didn’t take me long to find out who they were once we arrived back at Dragon Hold. There were two massive dropships with the original Reaper sigil of a scythe on green background painted on the sides of the ships.

Both rear hatches were open. A shorter man walked out of one of the rear ramps. He wore a black leather vest opened at the midsection to let a protruding belly hang free and loose.

His warm grin matched the manic waves he gave as I approached.

“Perhaps it’s best to get Preacher inside and taken care of,” X suggested. “He needs medical attention.”

“I should go with him,” I answered.

“No, no,” Preacher stated via the comm. “I’ll be fine. Go do your politicking. You’re the face of W.O.L.F. now. I’ll manage.”

I was about to protest, when I noticed a second figure join Papa at the open ramp. It was Cassie. She wore her normal black attire with body armor and a red and black scarf around her neck.

Just seeing the woman lifted my spirits. I felt myself grinning as if I had no real control over the act at all.

“Okay, Nemesis, take Preacher in and see he gets help,” I said, maneuvering my hoverbike toward Cassie and Papa. “Don’t let Gary out of your sight either. He should be watched for a while to make sure he’s committed to changing like he said he was.”

“Under—Roger,” Nemesis said, catching himself. “It will be done.”

I accelerated forward, the hoverbike humming beneath my frame. There was a dull greasy oil smell as I pulled up next to the rear of the dropship. As I got closer, I could tell why. These weren’t just any dropships; they were new. Not just new; they had been upgraded with more powerful thrusters and a pair of laser cannons under the main wings.

I knew Papa was doing all right for himself, but I had no idea he made enough to afford brand new augmented dropships.

I pulled up close, turning off my hoverbike, which gently came to a rest on the ground. I swung a leg over before being wrapped in a sweaty bear hug by Papa. Papa was stronger than he looked and smellier. He nearly crushed me with the same strength Atilla’s robot had a few hours ago.

“Danny, Danny!” Papa shouted with a laugh. “Good to see you, my boy. How’s it hanging?”

“Good—to see you—too,” I said, gasping for breath.

Papa put me down, beaming with pride.

“I have to say you’ve done well for yourself.” Papa waved to take in Cassie and Dragon Hold behind her. “Not only a beautiful woman at your side, but a manor and wealth to call your own. Truly fate has smiled upon you.”

“Who says I’m at his side and he’s not at mine?” Cassie walked up to me with a wink. Her face went from cheerful to serious in a moment. “I’m glad you’re safe. I saw Preacher. He looks pretty banged up. Wesley told me it was Atilla.”

“Atilla's working with his family, not the Order,” I reassured her. “At least that’s what it looked like to me.”

“I’ve confirmed with Julian,” Cassie said, referencing the leader of the Order. “Atilla is working on his own. Julian is going to look into it, but I’m sure his family will deny it all.”

I chewed on my lower lip, soaking in the information, before turning back to Papa.

“Hey, how come you didn’t come back until now?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “After we defeated the Voy, I thought for sure you’d return to Earth to reclaim your territory.”

“You weren’t afraid of Aleron, were you?” Cassie asked, tilting her head to the side.

“Pshhhhhh, pshhhhhh,” Papa made a sound out of his lips like air escaping a tire. “As if. To think, me afraid of Aleron. I took leadership of his gang when he was incarcerated. Phhhhhh, pshhhhhh.”

I saw Papa sneak a peek over his shoulder to where some of his Reapers sat inside the dropship.

“So what were you doing on Mars?” I asked. “Where’d you get the new dropships?”

“Those, my friend, are the questions you should be asking.” Papa slapped his rotund belly with a gleam in his eye. “When the battle with the Voy was over, there were—certain materials to be had by those who know how to scavenge. Certain materials of high value.”

“You stole from the Voy?” I asked, half in shock, half in awe. “How did you do that? There were GG everywhere.”

“Steal?” Papa looked at me in mock indignation. “Far be it for me to steal anything. Besides, how could it be stealing when the previous owners were dead? I simply took some things that weren’t being used anymore.”

“So you stole from the dead,” Cassie chimed in. “That’s not much better.”

“You’re a grave robber,” I said, pushing harder to make my friend admit the truth.

“You may call it that.” Papa shrugged. “I call it a smart business decision. When the Voy were defeated, certain Reapers may have walked away from the field of battle with payment for our services. Maybe we got into the Voy base while the Galactic Government was still setting up the perimeter. Maybe we took a few items and sold them to the rich who wanted an alien souvenir or two.”

“You’re incredible,” I said, shaking my head. I couldn’t help but laugh. “Only you, Papa, only you.”

“You would not believe the amount of credits these rich ones on Mars are willing to spend on anything alien.” Papa scratched the back of his neck. “It was crazy. Media really helped hyping up the alien invasion and all. Anything Voy is selling for insane credits at the moment. I sold this one rich couple the hand of a Voy in exchange for enough to buy a new dropship.”

“You took a hand?” Cassie asked incredulously.

“Why do people keep asking me that?” Papa threw his hands up in the air. “They had four. Don’t judge me, Cyber Hunter.”

Cassie took a playful step back, raising both palms toward Papa. “Hey, you do your thing.”

“The black market is huge for anything alien at the moment.” Papa sighed as if that were the end of the conversation. “But, hey, if I didn’t make those deals, I wouldn’t be able to come and bring Danny boy this dropship.”

I squinted, thinking I couldn’t have heard him correctly. “You brought me these dropships?”

“I brought you ONE of these dropships. Let’s not get greedy now.” Papa threw a thumb behind him toward the pair of large ships. “You get to pick which one you’d like, although they’re basically identical. You helped me get started, and if it weren’t for you calling for my help on Mars, I wouldn’t be in the Voy trade now and making a killing. I owe you again and I always take care of my friends.”

I traded glances with Cassie. She lifted both eyebrows this time, jutting her lower lip out and lifted her shoulders.

“I was going to see if I could buy one or use one from the Order, but this is even better.” Cassie nodded along as a plan formed in her head. “Yeah, we’re set to leave tonight anyway. This is perfect timing.”

“Leave?” Papa’s shoulders slumped forward. “But I just got here. I thought we could celebrate. What’s the big hurry? Where are you off to now?”

I traded looks with Cassie.

“Daniel’s going to take me away for a few days,” Cassie said, taking my hand in her own and planting a surprise kiss on my lips. “He’s been promising to take me on a second date for far too long now.”

“Oh, oh, I see,” Papa said with a smile so large, he showed all of his teeth. He slapped his belly again then came and gave me a slap on the back with the same hand. “You son of a brum, you. Danny my boy all grown up and starting a family of his own.”

“Whoa, we’re just going on another date,” I warned him, dodging another hug.

“Sure, sure, lover boy.” Papa corralled me by throwing a beefy arm over my shoulder and redirecting me toward the dropships. “So which one will it be? I have them fitted with more powerful thrusters and added a few weapons so they’ll be able to handle themselves in the air.”

“Thanks again, Papa,” I said, still reeling from the surprise gift. “This really comes at the perfect time. I guess if they’re both identical, it doesn’t matter much.”

“Well, they are, but one of our Reapers who goes by SDPadreBob threw up in this one, so it smells a little funny,” Papa said, motioning to the left dropship. “But it adds to the character of the ship like it’s been christened officially. The Reaper code says a lucky ship is one that has been vomited in at least once.”

“Riiiiiight,” I said, looking at the other, vomit-free ship. “Well, I wouldn’t want to take the lucky ship from you, so I’ll take the one that hasn’t been puked in.”

“Are you sure?” Papa asked, surprised.

“We’re sure,” Cassie added.

“Well, if you insist, but seriously, it’s a good omen. It still smells somewhat sour inside,” Papa said, wafting the air from the direction of the open dropship to his nostrils, as if he could smell it from where he stood. “Seriously.”

“Stop or we’re going to christen the other dropship.” Cassie lifted a hand to her mouth.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like,” I said, changing the subject from human bile to something else. “My house is your house, my friend.”

“Danny, you bless me,” Papa said, motioning for the Reapers in the ship I had chosen to clear out. “But it’s time I regain my own turf here. I’ll be sure to set up far enough away north from you to give you space of your own.”

“Thank you,” I said, thinking about the strange course of events that had transpired to bring Papa and me into one another’s lives. “I mean it. I’m glad to call you a friend.”

Papa’s eyes glistened.

“What are you trying to do?” Papa looked away quickly. “Make a grown man cry? Go, go and take your bride on a date and have fun.”

“She’s not my—”

“Come on.” Cassie pulled me along as if she were enjoying how uncomfortable I was in the moment. “Let’s listen to the man.”

I followed Cassie back toward Dragon Hold, leaving Papa and his crew behind.

“It wasn’t a total lie, was it?” Cassie asked as we entered the grounds via the iron gate. “I mean, we have been talking about a second date and who wouldn’t love a romantic romp, hunting down a Relic and the madman who’s also after it?”

“Right?” I played along. “I love it when you talk romantic to me.”

Cassie barked out a laugh.

That sound alone was enough to bring a smile to my lips. I’d say or do whatever I had to at whatever cost to see her laugh and smile again.

“We should gear up and head out,” Cassie said, motioning to the garage to the left of the manor. “Bapz is setting us up with supplies. I think we should bring Cryx with us on this one. She has to learn sooner or later. It’s good to give her direction.”

As much as I hated it I knew Cassie was right. If Cryx was going to be a part of this, I’d rather her be with me where I could watch her instead of traveling the wasteland of Earth looking for stem.

“All right,” I agreed. “But no more surprises this time. I think we should—”

Cryx burst out of the garage, her eyes huge. “I have the greatest surprise for you to see. Come look!”


Thirteen

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

“You were saying?” Cassie said, catching my eye. “Come on.”

Inside the garage, a table of gear had been set up in between the rows of vehicles. The gear was everything you’d expect on a mission like this. There were weapons, armor, tactical gear, and rations.

My stomach rumbled, having missed breakfast and lunch at this point. Missing that many meals practically went against my religion.

Cryx was standing beside Butch, who looked like some kind of futuristic attack beast. Along with the force field color she wore was a tactical vest that covered her torso. It was flat black with a white emblem of a snarling wolf.

Butch sat straight with her eyes forward as if she were at attention.

“And that’s not all,” Cryx said excitedly. “Check these out!”

The youth lifted an X-shaped sheath from the table. Two swords stuck out of the back. The twin blades were of expert craftsmanship.

“Preacher had them made for me,” Cryx said, holding the weapons reverently. “They don’t hum like his, but that’s something he said we can work on.”

Cryx was so pleased with herself in the moment, I couldn’t bring her down, even though she held weapons in her hands used to end the lives of others. I was so calloused to that in my own dealings, I didn’t think twice about it. But seeing her hold the weapons struck something deep inside of me.

“You sure this is the life you want?” I asked her.

“Positive,” Cryx confirmed. “I want to help. I want to make a difference and this is how I’m choosing to do it.”

“Okay,” I acquiesced. “Well then, gear up.”

“Yes!” Cryx exclaimed, already going over to the table of armor and choosing her pieces of gear. “You won’t regret it. You’ll see how hard I’ve been training and what I can do.”

“You need a breather before we head out again?” Cassie asked, fingering a section of my shirt that had been torn in the fight earlier that day.

“Naw, I’ll be good. Some food and sleep on the way is all I need,” I answered. “I’m not sure Preacher is going to make it with us on this one. It’ll just be us.”

“Nemesis or Laine?” Cassie suggested.

I thought about the husband and wife team I knew would come in a second if we asked. I also thought about what they had already risked; Laine going on the mission to the Swamp Lands and Nemesis accompanying us on the run against the stem dealers.

“I don’t think so,” I decided. “They need a break.”

“Is three enough?” Cassie asked.

Butch barked.

“Four,” Cassie corrected herself. “Sorry, is four enough? We could always ask Papa. He’d come.”

“Five will be enough,” Wesley called from the doorway from the manor into the garage. “I’ve been cooped up handling the business side of W.O.L.F. long enough. I need another run in the field.”

“Oh crip,” Cryx said, nodding her approval. “The real OG is coming with us on my first mission.”

We busied ourselves over the next hour checking weapons and supplies. I shoved food into my mouth as I checked the drums on a new MK II as well as the blades on a backup axe and knife that went into their sheaths at my waist.

Protein packs, hydrated field food, and bars went into my mouth one after the other, washed down with high octane caf.

I caught Wesley out of the corner of my eyes lighting another cigar. Cassie helped Cryx adjust her armor. I made sure the youngest member of our team was fully geared from shin to helmet.

“How am I supposed to move in this thing?” Cryx complained, lifting an arm behind her head to grab one of the hilts of the twin swords that poked over her shoulders. “It feels like I weigh an extra fifty pounds.”

“Full armor,” I insisted. “If you need more practice with the gear, we can always hold off and have you come next time.”

“No, no, I’m fine.” Cryx backpadled. “Just have to get used to the weight.”

Cryx jumped a few times in the gear, stretching each limb.

I had to admit she looked every bit the warrior in her black and metal-grey armor. Cassie wore her usually protective chest armor with her deep hood and cloak. The red and black scarf around her throat could also be used as a mask if she so chose. The Order sigil of the red cross with two parallel marks rested on the piece of cloth.

I had to remind myself that, right now, Cassie was still a member of the Order. She was technically an emissary between what was now W.O.L.F. and the Order she belonged to.

I found myself bothered about the idea. I knew I cared for Cassie and a part of me wanted her to be a full-fledged member of what we had essentially built together. That was going to be a hard conversation to have in the future. I knew how loyal Cassie was.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, I thought to myself. Maybe she can live with a foot in each world. It would only become an issue if the Order insisted she do something that would go against what our mission here was. Then she would have to make a decision.

Butch came over to save me from my thoughts. The giant wolf nuzzled me with a wet nose. She looked at me with those large intelligent eyes as if she knew exactly what I was doing and was telling me to knock it off.

“All right,” I said, scratching the sides of her face with both hands. “All right, all right, Butch. I haven’t forgotten about you.”

The alpha female let her pink tongue loll out the side of her jaws. She closed her eyes with a goofy grin on her lips that said, “Yes, my human. That’s the spot.”

“Let’s go hunting for a Relic,” Wesley said. He carried a long blaster with a scope in one hand and a black bag in the other. Under his dark brown trench coat, he also wore a chest plate for protection.

We walked outside together; Cryx, Cassie, Wesley, Butch, and I. We made quite a group. Flashbacks crashed through my mind of the original Pack Protocol team.

There had been seven of us recruited and experimented on by Immortal Corp. Echo was dead, Preacher lost his abilities, Angel was off chasing down Jax, Amber’s memory was erased, and Samantha lived in the Badlands to the north with her family.

We were scattered to the wind and maybe that was how it should be. I knew if I needed any of them, I just had to make a call. Battle did something to you that made you closer than family in a way. I knew if they called me, I’d be there in a second.

We reached the dropship Papa brought for us. Bapz stood there with one can of black paint and another of white. He’d removed the Reaper sigil on the side of the ship and painted a white wolf next to it.

I’m not sure if all robots were gifted painters, but he sure was. The wolf was a perfect match to the one we used now as our own company logo: a snarling, menacing creature ready to jump off the ship and tear your throat out.

Butch gave a low growl as if she approved of the image.

“Thought this might be more suitable for our company,” Bapz said, taking a step back from his handiwork. “What do you think?”

“Oh man, this is so cool!” Cryx complimented. “Very professional, Bapz.”

“Thank you.” Bapz grinned, pleased with the praise. “It’s all about the details.”

While the rest of the team loaded up, I caught sight of a figure approaching from the manor. It was Preacher. The stubborn man barely had time to get his wounds patched. He walked slightly hunched over with a limp, dried crusted blood still in his beard.

“I didn’t get a call,” Preacher said, looking at me with a single eye full of blame. “Give me a few minutes to get my gear together.”

The old man masked his pain well. I could see where whoever patched him up applied the new skin spray. The manmade patch of skin was a different shade than Preacher’s own, meant to be a temporary bandage until his own skin grew back.

The hitch in his gait that was usually barely recognizable was deeper now. The way Preacher set his jaw to bottle the pain inside was another telltale sign.

“I didn’t come and get you because you need a breather,” I told him. “We’ve got Cassie and Wesley on this one. I need you to take care of yourself so you’re one hundred percent when your number’s called again. Plus I need someone here in case anyone tries to assault Dragon Hold. With Atilla and gangs still in the area, who knows what might happen while I’m gone.”

“You think I’m going to fall for that line?” Preacher challenged, folding his arms over his chest. “Trying to give me some responsibility so I won’t come with you.”

“No,” I admitted. “But I had to try and it is the truth. I know how badly you want to come, but there’s no one else I trust more. You know that. There’s a lot going on here with the addition of Nemesis and his family as well as that stem dealer we just picked up. I need someone here capable of throwing down when things happen.”

Preacher let out a heavy sigh.

I could see the warrior within struggling to come to grips with the reasonable side of him.

“I’ll stay, but not for any of those reasons,” Preacher finally relented. “If I’m not fully capable of going into the field to have the team’s back, then I’ll sit out. But you promise me you’ll watch Cryx’s back. I know you will, but I need to hear it from you. She’s a good kid and she’s ready, but this is her first mission. Something always goes wrong.”

“I’m not going to let anything happen to her,” I promised. “Get rest. You’re coming with us on the next one.”

“All right.” Preacher sighed, knowing he was defeated. He extended a closed fist in my direction. “They can take our bodies…”

“…but they can’t kill our spirit,” I finished the mantra, striking his fist with my own.

Preacher headed back to Dragon Hold.

I turned to enter the open rear hatch of the dropship. The dropship, like most of the others, was designed with an open space at the rear followed by four rows of seats that ran parallel down the ship. Back to back seats went down the middle, facing a row on either side of the walls of the craft. Small circular windows along the walls afforded views outside.

Cassie and Wesley made their way to the pilot and co-pilot seats. Cryx and Butch made themselves at home in seats near the middle of the rows.

“Opening a comm channel,” X said out loud. “We’re connected.”

“I’ll get the engines roaring and the rear door closed. Stand by,” Wesley said into the open line. “We’ll chart a course and give you an ETA in a moment.”

I found a seat opposite Cryx and Butch. Cryx looked as happy as Butch to be along for this one.

Fear and doubt clouded my judgment as I looked at the pair.

You can’t hide them away, I chided myself. Cryx has to learn. This is her choice. She’d be off doing dangerous things if you didn’t take her. She proved that with the stem.

The rear doors to the hatch began to close. The ramp came up and the top portion of the rear doors came down to seal us in place. In any other circumstance, I might be wary about being stuck in a steel container, hurtling through the air. Right now, all I could think about was sleep.

I was just settling into my seat when Cryx sat bolt upright across from me. From her vantage point, she could see over my shoulder and out the window beyond.

“Wait!” Cryx yelled. “Don’t take off. Stop the ship!”


Fourteen

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

On instinct, my right hand went to the handle of my MK II. I turned in my seat to look out the window. I wasn’t sure what I expected. A horde of mutie animals, Atilla and his robot come for retribution, maybe even the Galactic Government paying us a visit.

My adrenaline subsided as I saw Enoch running from the front gates of Dragon Hold, waving us down.

“I think the medic has something to tell us,” Cassie said, powering down the ship. “Opening rear doors now.”

Cryx and I met the out of breath Way follower at the rear of the dropship just as the doors opened.

Enoch was panting hard, trying to form a sentence.

“Easy,” I calmed the man. “Take it easy, catch your breath. You’ve got time. You caught us.”

Enoch nodded gratefully, smoothing down his white medic uniform. “Sorry—I—I was afraid I’d miss you.”

“What’s going on?” Cassie asked.

The rest of the strike team joined me at the rear of the ship.

“I spoke with—a Way historian I know from the moon,” Enoch managed to say in between long gulps of air. “I have more information on the Knights of the Way and the gate.”

Immediately, my attention piqued. Anything Enoch could tell us about what we were getting into would be of tremendous help.

“In one of our ancient texts, it said the Knights of the Way guard a gate not of this world. If the gate were to be opened, an apocalyptic event would begin,” Enoch rattled off. “The gate must be kept closed no matter what.”

“Wonderful,” Wesley mumbled under his breath.

“I think the apocalyptic event may have already happened.” Cassie poked her head from the rear of the dropship hatch, looking to her right then left. “Have you seen Earth recently?”

“Not this one,” Enoch said somberly. “There are things like the Relics long forgotten. Things left better forgotten from prehistoric texts found by ageless civilizations. There are stories of monsters, gods, and titans that roamed Earth at one time.”

“And you’re saying this gate is keeping them at bay?” I asked.

Cryx whistled under her breath.

“I’m saying that the gate is better not tested,” Enoch continued. “Do what you need to find the Relic and the escaped convict but do not test the Knights of the Way. As much as it may seem otherwise, you are on the same side. I’m sorry. I wish I had more, but we’re talking about pre-fall of Earth information here that has all but been lost.”

“You found out what you could,” Cassie encouraged the man. “Thank you.”

“I hope that helps,” Enoch said with a sigh. “Keep the gate closed. However combative the Knights of the Way may seem, you are on the same side.”

“It might be helpful to bring him,” Wesley said in my ear. “He can relate to them as a follower of the Way in a way we can’t.”

“Enoch,” I told the man. “Grab your gear. You’re coming with us.”

Enoch nodded, opening the satchel that hung over a single shoulder. “I thought you might say that. I came ready.”

In minutes, we were back in the air, this time with an extra body on board. Cryx and Enoch were too wound up to sleep, but I was dead tired. I chose a row of seats closer to the pilot and copilot cabin where Cassie and Wesley manned the ship.

“You’ll have some time to rest before we arrive,” X informed me. “The flight to the designated coordinates will take close to eight hours.”

“Sweet oblivion,” I said, raising the armrests on the seats so I could lie down. The afternoon light streamed through the windows on either side of the dropship. The rhythmic movement of the new ship was almost like getting rocked to sleep.

I was about to pass out completely when the familiar sound of an incoming call reached my ears. The beeping pulled me from the warm promise of sleep and brought me back to the present.

“Incoming call from Major Valentine,” X told me. “However, this call is a video request.”

“Put her through,” I said, immediately sitting up in my seat.

A screen popped up in the right lower corner of my vision. One of the many perks X brought was being able to send me information through my own eyes to let me sift through images, info, video, etc.

The video I looked at now was of Major Zoe Valentine propped up in what looked like some kind of medical bed. She wore a mustard-colored gown. Her blonde hair pulled back to reveal a thick bandage across her neck.

Sunken eyes told me she was tired. Despite this, she was smiling.

“Zoe,” I said, ignoring her title now that we were free of any other Galactic Government ears and speaking to her like the friend she was. “Zoe, I’m so glad you’re okay. I’m sorry, I’m sorry Rival got away, but he’s going to pay.”

Zoe shook her head. A keyboard I failed to see sat in her lap. She typed away furiously.

He will pay and I know you’ll find him, Zoe’s text said, scrolling just below her image on the video call.

But that’s not why I’m calling. I’m calling to thank you, Doc, as well. The staff here at the Hole told me without you I would have been dead.

I sat shocked for a moment. I expected her to be angry at Rival, seeking vengeance. I’m sure she was, but right now, all I saw was gratefulness in her tired eyes.

If it wasn’t for you, I’d be gone. I wouldn’t be able to see my little girl again.I can never repay you enough. Even if I could talk, there aren’t words.

“Your throat?” I asked, shaking off the gratitude I felt I didn’t deserve. I had been too late to save her from Rival. All I had done was what anyone would have in the moment.

The team here says my vocal cords are completely severed. They were too badly damaged for even the state-of-the-art tech the GG has at their disposal. I’m at peace with that. I’m going to be transferred to Mars tomorrow to recover and be with my daughter because of you. I’ll come back stronger than ever because of you.

The strength this woman possessed, her spirit was something I had never seen before. In the midst of a situation where most would be depressed or angry, she was only grateful.

“You’re welcome,” I told her, focusing back on the task at hand. “You recover. We’re on our way to find Rival now. Give that little girl of yours an extra squeeze and enjoy your time together. I know you’ll be back. In the meantime, we’ll hold it down.”

A single tear slid down Zoe’s left cheek. If she was ashamed to cry in front of me, she didn’t show it by trying to wipe it away.

Be safe out there. I smoothed things out with the Galactic Government on my end. They’re pleased Aleron is dead and more interested in the Dragon and Croc men, than hunting down Rival Mercer. As far as they see it, Rival Mercer died out there as well. They gave him a point seven percent chance of making it out of the Swamp Land alive. You and I know better.

“I do,” I reassured her. “We’ll get him. I swear to you we’ll get him, Zoe.”

I know you will.

Zoe gave me a tired smile. She sank a little deeper into the pillows behind her.

“Get some rest,” I told her. “When this is over and you’re feeling up to it, you and your daughter should come visit Dragon Hold. We have all kinds of kid-friendly things like hoverbikes and giant wolves.”

Zoe gave me a smile before typing.

She’d love that. Be safe, Daniel.

“Rest well,” I told her before the channel went dead.

I knew I should focus on the positives more than I was, but anger swelled in my heart against Rival Mercer. He had tried to rob Zoe of her life and instead took her voice. When I got my hands on him, I was going to make him suffer.

“I’m glad she’s in good spirits and on her way to recovery,” X told me. “You saved her.”

“I might have saved her life, but I was too slow to save her voice,” I said, lying down on the seats once more. “I was a few seconds too slow. I was almost there.”

“Dwelling on things we cannot change is an act in futility,” X warned me. “I could dwell on the idea that there may be more hidden coding in my system, but where would that get me?”

“You’re making too much sense,” I told her. “When this blows over, we’ll get a full check of your system. And I’ll be right there with you. No more alien shape-shifters coming to abduct you.”

“That would be nice,” X said.

I yawned.

“Is conversation with me really that boring?” X teased.

“No, it’s not you; it’s me,” I answered.

“Oldest line in the book,” X said. “Get some sleep. I’ll wake you if there’s a need.”

“Thanks, X. You’re the best,” I mumbled as sleep wrapped me in its inky blackness. I was thrown into a dream I would not remember when I woke.


Fifteen

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

I was back in the Swamp Lands that had previously been known as Louisiana. Mist rolled at my feet so thick, I couldn’t see my boots. Dull sounds of animals and insects cloaked in the blanket of fog reached my ears.

As far as I could tell, I was alone, but that didn’t mean much, since I could only see a meter or two in any given direction.

A figure walked through the mist in front of me. If I should have been scared, I wasn’t for some reason. Whoever it was posed no threat to me. How I knew that I wasn’t sure.

X stepped out of the mist in her blue body suit a moment later. Curvy with short dark hair and full lips, she was anything but what someone would picture as an AI in the real world.

“It’s all right,” X said to me. “You’re dreaming. You’re asleep in the real world.”

“I guess there really is no rest for the weary,” I quoted an old line I heard somewhere before. “Even in my dreams, I can’t get free of swamps and mist.”

I was going to say more, when screams ripped through the mist, as clearly as if I was doing the act myself.

X and I traded looks. The noise was close. The screams sounded like Zoe's.

I charged to my left with X right beside me. The idea that this was some kind of dream and not at all real, meant nothing to me in that moment. The screams sounded real enough.

I broke through the curtain of mists. A man stood over Zoe with a bloody knife in his hand. His back was to me, but I knew it was Rival Mercer.

At his feet Zoe lay still. Her throat was slit to the bone. Her chest failed to rise and fall.

“No!” I shouted, running forward. “No!”

X was yelling something at me, but I was too lost in rage to make out her words.

Rival turned to look over his shoulder at me. Except it wasn’t Rival at all. It was me. I stopped short, trying to make sense of the impossible situation.

The doppelganger turned to look me full in the face. It was like looking in the mirror. My mouth went dry.

“You’ve killed and maimed them all,” the doppelganger accused, dropping the bloody knife from his hand. “Echo, Zoe, Jax; the list goes on and on. You’re a human wrecking ball, destroying lives as you go.”

“No, no, Zoe’s not dead. Jax isn’t either,” X said, finally catching up to me and looking the sins of my past in the face. “Zoe’s alive because of Daniel. Angel will find Jax.”

“Tell me,” the man who looked exactly like me asked. “Have you ever considered the possibility that you’re not the hero of your own story?”

Out of the mist around us walked forth ethereal images of Mary Cripps, Echo with eyes sunken in, Jax in his rage-like state and Zoe with her throat cut wide open. I recognised more and more of the figures, as Voy I had killed and dead humans, like the woman in the first stem camp, whom I had used as a human shield.

There were too many to count. They stood silently, staring at me with accusing eyes. I was their executioner. I brought them all pain and most of them death.

“Have you stopped to look in the mirror lately and accept the gallons of blood on your hands?” the doppelganger asked. He lifted his own palms face up. Crimson stained them both, dripping to the ground below. “Have you?”

“Every day,” I told him without hesitation. “Every day. But these are my decisions to bear; ones that I’ll stand by when it’s my time to be judged.”

“Heavy lies the crown,” the doppelganger chided me. “Sooner or later, you will be crushed by the iniquities of your past.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to the nightmare looking me in my face. I knew he was right. Whether it was my burdened conscious, some kind of psychic entering my dreams, or something else, it didn’t matter. I knew he was right.

These were things I pushed out of my mind on the good days and allowed to torture my thoughts on the bad.

“You’ve been called to carry more than most in your lifetime,” X said, standing beside me. She wrapped her fingers in mine and squeezed tight. “But I can’t think of a better man to follow.”

Tears ran down my cheeks as I forced myself to look at all of the spectral ghosts around us. Yes, Zoe was still alive, but she would never be the same. Jax was on the run in his animalistic state, but if Angel couldn’t bring him back, then I had essentially killed him as well.

“How many more have to follow you and die as refuse in your wake?” my doppelganger asked. The worst part was he sounded like he actually wanted to know. He wasn’t trying to piss me off or get any kind of reaction out of me. “For a man who heals as quickly as he wounds, what happens to those taking the collateral damage around him?”

The ghosts of those wounded and dead evaporated. New figures took their place. These were of friends I now would count as family. Cassie, Wesley, Cryx, even Butch. More faces popped out of the mist and took shape. Nemesis, Laine, and their son, Way settlers, and workers at Dragon Hold.

They all looked at me, hopeful and expectant.

“Things happen to good people and that’s life,” X said, releasing my hand. She took a step forward to place herself between me and the clone of me that spoke to us. “They’ve made their own decisions. What would you do? Be alone and shut off from the world? What a waste that would be when you could help so many people. Daniel has saved humanity from the Voy. Now he’s on his way to protect this next Relic from falling into the wrong hands, saving hundreds if not thousands of others.”

“Maybe.” The doppelganger shrugged. “At what cost, though? How do lives saved weigh against lives spent? Who are you to judge and make that decision? You think the good you’re doing outweighs the bad you’ve caused? You think you’re making a difference?”

I studied the faces around me. My eyes landed on the small boy who stood with Nemesis and Laine. I remembered the round I took for him at the hands of Aleron Jacobs.

“I made a difference in his life,” I answered, looking at the boy. “Maybe I’m already doomed. Maybe my fate is sealed, but while I can, I will try and save them. If it’s thousands or one life at a time, then so be it. I’ll carry the guilt of those I put in their graves along the way, if that’s what it takes.”

There was a long pause as the doppelganger looked at me through impassive eyes. Once again, the ethereal ghosts disappeared around me.

I wasn’t sure how my throat could be so dry and my eyes so watery at the same time. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach.

“It’s time for you to wake up,” the doppelganger told me. “Wake up, Daniel. Wake up.”

The next thing I knew, my eyes opened and I was inside the dropship, heading toward what was left of the Amazon rainforest. Cryx and Enoch were at the opposite end of the seats, still talking in low whispers.

The dream I experienced seemed so vivid at first. As every waking second passed, it became less clear.

“I woke you,” X told me. “I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but we’ll be arriving shortly.”

“Were you in the dream I had?” I asked, already not able to remember details of the nightmare but holding close the feeling of dread it left with me. I felt sad, depressed, maybe even scared.

“I was,” X answered. “You’re under a lot of stress right now. The dream was nothing more than your subconscious wanting to be heard.”

“Right,” I said, getting the sense that X didn’t want to talk about my dream. To be honest, I didn’t either, not with the feeling I had after being woken.

Instead of words, I turned to the row of windows. It was dark, somewhere in the early hours of the day. Up high in the cloudless sky, the blackness of space seemed to extend forever. Stars dotted the scene in a way that reminded me of a shower of sparks.

Each star was so bright and unique, I found myself wondering why we hadn’t met aliens sooner. The universe was larger than I could comprehend and still we had just met the Voy and species like Nemesis and Laine that were still a secret from public knowledge.

If the Galactic Government ever got their hands on Laine or her son, there’s no doubt they’d use them as weapons just like they did with Nemesis, I thought to myself. I can’t let that happen. I won’t let that happen.

“We’re coming to what’s left of the Amazon after the earthquakes, during the Fall of Earth,” Cassie informed us through our comms. “We’ll start searching for a place to set down.”

My interest piqued. I moved my gaze from the amazing display of stars above to the ground below. All I saw was ocean. Deep dark waters so still, they looked like glass.

Cryx joined me. She sat in the seat next to mine, her knees on the bottom of the seat looking out through the window next to my own.

“Enoch was telling me there used to be land here, something called South America,” Cryx breathed in awe. “I can’t—I can’t imagine an entire land mass as large as he described sinking into the ocean. People did that? I mean, they set off explosions that did that?”

“My memory isn’t what it used to be,” I said, thinking back to what I knew of the Fall of Earth. “X, you can jump in any time now.”

“Yes,” X started. “During the Fall, there were so many governments and factions at war, it’s hard to say who set them off, but there were explosions that rippled across South America. As a result, much of the continent was lost to the depths of the ocean.”

“I can’t even...” Cryx breathed then stopped as if she wasn’t going to finish her sentence.

“You can’t even what?” I prompted.

“No, that’s it.” Cryx looked at me, amused, with a twitch of her lips. “That’s the saying. Just, ‘I can’t even’.”

“That’s confusing,” I answered.

“Only to old people,” Cryx teased.

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.” I lifted an eyebrow. “You know, most people find me intimidating.”

“You? Please,” Cryx said with a laugh. “The guy who takes in strays left and right? The guy who goes out of his way to save and protect people? Yeah, not so scary.”

“I’ll have you know people call me the Hero of Mars,” I stated, finding myself mildly offended. “I’m kind of a big deal.”

“First, no one calls you that,” Cryx insisted. “Second, if anyone does find you intimidating, it’s probably because you have a wolf the size of a hoverbike as a bodyguard. Now she’s intimidating.”

I glanced past Cryx to where Butch lay near the rear of the dropship. The giant wolf looked as if she regretted getting into the flying craft at all. She was miserable, with her head between her feet blowing out air from her lips as if she were practicing taking long, deep breaths.

“I think she might puke,” I said, feeling sorry for the wolf. I knew how that felt. I had gotten space sick a few times myself. Even though I was used to it now, it still wasn’t enjoyable. “Butch, you okay? You going to make it?”

Butch gave me a look that said, “I blame you for this.” Then she went back to taking long, deep breaths.

“Land—land sighted,” Cassie said with a sharp inhale. “No sign of any kind of buildings or life, but there’s—there’s actual jungle brush. I mean—somehow these islands haven’t been affected like the rest of the Earth. They’re not dead. Setting down is going to be tricky. I recommend you buckle in. There’s some kind of storm over the island.”

We all took another look out the window. In front of us and slightly to the right was what looked like a series of islands. Cassie was right. It was too dark to tell much besides the fact that each island was covered in a canopy of thick trees. Above them, angry dark clouds rolled through the night air.

How these islands still held life was a mystery. Even more concerning was how no one had discovered this. As far as the human population knew, the Earth was completely dead.

Enoch came over and sat in the seats across from us. He busied himself buckling in as he spoke to Cryx and me as well as into the comms. “The Lord of the Way has protected this place. When we land and exit the dropship, it is imperative that we appear as travelers and as non-threatening as possible. The Knights of the Way guarding the Relic and the gate will be on high alert. I’m sure they already know we’re here.”

“Roger that,” I answered. “You can do the introduction as far as I’m concerned. We don’t even want the Relic or the gate, whatever that is. We just need to make sure it stays safe and out of Rival’s hands.”

“I am positive they will recognize that,” Enoch said. “We share the same faith.”

I craned my neck around to see out the window as we hovered over a particularly large island searching for a landing spot.

The ship shuddered as winds from the storm overhead buffeted us from side to side.

There’s no way Rival could be here already, I thought to myself. No way he got out of the Swamp Land and access to a ship this fast.

I told myself that to make me feel better, but I knew what we were dealing with. Rival was as cunning and resourceful as they came. To underestimate him would be a mistake I wouldn’t make.

“Where are you?” I asked myself quietly. “Where are you, Rival?”


Sixteen

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

Cassie and Wesley finally settled on a patch of ground to land on, toward the south of the island where X’s coordinates led us. The landing was rough and bumpy thanks to the buffeting winds at this altitude.

Butch gave off a heavy sigh of relief as we landed. I unlatched my seatbelt and stood up, checking my weapons before we headed out. My black-bladed axe and knife were tucked in my belt. The recallers on each of my wrists were secure and my MK II loaded with a drum of rounds.

I packed an extra drum into the harness around my waist just to be on the safe side.

“Remember, we have no enemies here,” Enoch said, taking nothing with him except his medical supply satchel and a white coat with a hood to fend off the early morning chill and the dark clouds above us. “Only allies.”

“I have zero plans to shoot first,” I answered the older man. “I hope you’re right. I’ve seen enough fighting to last me two lifetimes.”

Cassie and Wesley joined us at the rear of the ship, checking their own weapons and equipment. Cryx did the same, placing her helmet on her head and heading toward the rear hatch.

“The coordinates we received from X are close,” Cassie said, bringing up a holo map in the air above her left forearm, courtesy of one of her cybernetic enhancements.

I watched as a blue screen popped up with a blinking red light that showed our location. What looked like a small distance on her map led to a solid red dot that marked our destination.

“It shouldn’t take more than an hour or two to make the trek,” Cassie informed us as Wesley opened the rear doors of the dropship. “This will all be over soon.”

“Eyes open,” I reminded the group. “Stay tight. I’ll take the lead with Wesley bringing up the rear.”

As soon as I walked down the ramp of the dropship, I could tell this place was different. There was life, actual green trees and plants, with grass underfoot. I was led to believe that the entire world was dead. How this one section of the Amazon could have escaped was beyond me.

I wasn’t the only one to stand amazed. Cassie ran a gloved hand down the bark of a real tree. Cryx crouched to run rich, moist soil through her hands. Even Butch was enjoying herself, sniffing the air like some kind of stem head.

My boots crunched over the blades of grass. I maneuvered through the jungle underbrush as best as I could, but the honest truth was, I had no experience dealing with a landscape like this.

Animal calls echoed in the early morning darkness. Shadows morphed and changed. I kept my head on a swivel, always prepared, always ready. My senses were on overdrive. My breath made tiny puffs of white steam as it exited my mouth.

Past the greenery and foreign landscape came a sense of unease. I understood enough to know when I was being watched. Right now, I had that same feeling, a heaviness or pressure on me, when there should be none.

Whether it was Rival, the Knights of the Way, or something else, I couldn’t be sure. What I did know was that there was no other option than to move forward.

Overhead, the dark clouds rolled and tumbled along, concealing the island from any prying satellite that might pass over it.

Enoch caught up to me as I pushed through a thicket using my knife and axe to clear the way.

“The Lord of the Way has protected this place,” Enoch said to me in awe once more. “He has brought life to the barren when life has no right to still exist.”

“There’s something going on here that’s not natural,” I said, trying to agree with the man but falling short. “You get that feeling? Like we’re being watched?”

“I do and I’m sure they are watching us now,” Enoch responded as if the idea didn’t bother him in the slightest. “This is their home. This is their mission in life, to protect the Relic and even more so the gate. It’s only a matter of time before they meet us with a challenge. Remember, let me—”

“I know, I know,” I interrupted. “Let you do the talking.”

“That is correct.” Enoch rehashed his point again. “There is no need for violence between us and the Knights of the Way.”

We moved on in silence, forging ever deeper into the jungle. Whatever wildlife was present left us alone for the time being. The largest things I saw were some kind of monkey-like creature on a tree limb to our right. It looked at us with large inquiring eyes then scratched its rear end and sniffed its hand.

Butch trotted next to me, her nose on the ground as if every new step brought a smorgasbord of new smells with it.

Chirps and squawks along with the rustling of padded paws in the brush captured Butch’s attention, but she never gave chase. It was as though she too realized the safety in numbers.

Enoch was called back to answer a question Cryx asked. Cassie joined me in the lead. She looked worried. Deep lines creased her forehead as she studied the map on her holo display.

Cassie wore her hood over her head and her mask halfway up her face to fend off the cold. The Order mask covered her nose and the rest of the lower section of her face, leaving her eyes free.

“You look worried,” I told her. “Me too.”

“As worried as I should be, when exploring an island that shouldn’t exist, hidden away from the rest of the world and protected by a clan of ancient Knights, with who knows what kind of magic or tech,” Cassie said with one of her signature eyebrow raises. “I think that about covers it.”

“Well, it’ll make for a good story when we get out of here,” I said, cutting through a cluster of vines between two thick trees. “Do you think this is what Earth was like before in the Amazon? A jungle like this?”

“I’d like to think so,” Cassie responded. “I mean, can you smell that? I’ve never smelled anything so brutally earthy. It’s heavy and musty with an odor like life. There’s just no other way to put it.”

We traveled deeper into the jungle, keeping an eye on Cassie’s map as we moved closer and closer to our destination. We skirted ravines and even a mountain range that rose to our left.

The sun began to rise, but with the ever present storm overhead, it only peeked through, making the darkness turn grey. Every so often, a golden ray of sunlight would completely penetrate the clouds, landing on the jungle canopy overhead.

“We should be getting close, but I still don’t see any buildings,” Cassie said by my side. “Something’s wrong.”

I fought off the sense of claustrophobia as I maneuvered through the jungle depths. We arrived at a section of the jungle so thick, I could barely see the sky through the lush overhead branches of the trees.

Punching through another cluster of vines, I found myself in the first real clearing since we landed the dropship. I felt relieved to finally be free of the ever present crush of the jungle. What I did not find relieving was the massive armored figure standing in the middle of the clearing.

A golden ray of sunlight fell on him, making me squint.

He was as large as Jax with old steel armor and a white tunic that matched Enoch’s. The Way sigil, a yellow rising or setting sun, depending on how you looked at it, sat proudly on the tunic over the man’s chest.

A war hammer with a spike on the top rested in his right hand and he had a heavy blaster strapped over his shoulder. The visor in his ancient helmet was made of some kind of clear material.

The melding of ancient weaponry and armor with new tech was something I wanted to take a closer look at, but it was clear that right now was not the time.

“Usurpers!” the man roared in challenge. “Go now! Leave this place! I will not warn you again. The next sound you hear will be my hammer breaking your bones.”

I wasn’t really the type to be intimidated. Still, I had to admit the colossal man in heavy armor holding the war hammer gave me pause.

“Peace, peace be with you brother!” Enoch rushed forward with open hands. “We seek not to take the Relic or open the gate but come to warn you of others who do.”

A moment of silence passed between our group and the guardian. Wesley, Cryx, and Cassie joined me. Cryx fidgeted, ready for a fight. Wesley’s blaster was held down at the moment, but I knew the man could have it up and firing in a split second.

“Who are you that wears the colors and sigil of the Lord of the Way?” the knight asked. “Explain yourself. My patience grows thin.”

“I kneel to the Lord of the Way as you do, brother,” Enoch explained. “I come from a continent to the north. My name is Enoch. We want nothing of yours, or to interfere with the oath you have sworn to protect the Relic. Only to tell you that another comes to take it for himself. I do not believe he knows what the gate is.”

“Do any of us really?” Cassie muttered under her breath.

The Knight of the Way looked over at her as if he picked up on her slight. He seemed to rest a bit, his shoulders relaxing.

“If what you say is true, then consider your warning given and begone with you,” the knight answered. “The Relic is well protected and the gate is closed.”

“That’s all well and good,” I said, entering the conversation. “If you want to protect the Relic and this gate, then more power to you. We’re just here to make sure it stays that way. There’s a man coming who’s unlike anyone I have ever met. He’ll use whatever tactic necessary to claim the Relic for his own. I can’t have that.”

“You dare challenge the ability of the Knights of the Way to uphold our oath?” The knight clenched his war hammer tightly in his hands once more. “Come and say that to my face.”

“I think I just did,” I said.

“Peace, peace.” Enoch lifted his voice. He looked at me, shaking his head before turning back to the knight. “We are all on the same side. Perhaps if we were allowed to remain here to aid in the defense of the Relic that we believe will be challenged shortly…?”

I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could tell the knight was staring me down by the direction of his helmet. He appraised me silently.

“Your warriors are puny like jungle fairies, with mouths the size of leviathans,” the knight answered. “We do not require your aid; however, if you insist, you may be allowed to remain outside of our borders. It does not bother me if you wish to remain in vain.”

“I’m not sure, but I think he just insulted us,” Cryx whispered to Wesley.

I was about to respond, when the sounds of thrusters interrupted our conversation. I looked up, taking in a low-flying Galactic Government dropship zeroing in on our location.

How the GG had found not only the island, but us specifically, boggled my mind. Had Zoe sold us out? Sergeant Toy? Someone else? Had they simply tailed us from afar? A satellite? There were no answers for the questions I had and even less time.

A transmission echoed in our comm line.

“This is the Galactic Government. You are ordered to stand down. I repeat, lay down your weapons and stand down.”

“Traitor!” the Knight of the Way bellowed in raw fury. “You come speaking of friendship and peace only to spring your trap!?”

“No, no, brother,” Enoch shouted over the sounds of the dropship’s thrusters. “This isn’t us. We are not with them.”

The massive knight charged forward, swinging his war hammer at Enoch’s skull.


Seventeen

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

The knight moved faster than I would have given him credit for. In a single bound, he reached Enoch, bringing down his hammer on the unsuspecting man.

“No!” I shouted, rushing forward too late.

The hammer came down on air.

Butch, moving faster than either me or the knight, barreled into Enoch’s back. Both Butch and Enoch were sent sprawling forward out of harm’s way.

In the background of the moment, I could hear Wesley speaking with the GG, trying to get them to stand down. I had no time to stop and listen to the conversation.

Cassie brought both her blasters up on her forearms and opened fire on the large knight. Blue rounds splattered against his armor with little to no effect. The barrage was so intense, steam began to come off the knight’s armor.

If any of the rounds did get through, he didn’t show it. Instead of worrying about Enoch and Butch, he charged toward Cassie, bringing his hammer across in a wide swing.

Cassie used her left forearm to transition between blaster to a shield. The metal shield opened like some kind of fan, forming a circular shield the size of her upper body.

The knight’s hammer struck Cassie’s shield, sending the Cyber Hunter flying backward through the air and crashing against a tree.

Cryx and I were on the knight next. Preacher’s protégée drew her twin katanas and slashed out at the knight’s right hand where he held his weapon. Her attack sparked off his armor, doing no real damage.

I ran at the knight, throwing my feet into the air and striking him with both soles squarely in his chest. My force was barely enough to send him back a few steps before he recovered and came at us again.

“The Lord of the Way, give me strength!” the knight roared, as he brought his weapon down hammer first into the ground in front of him.

The strike was so powerful, the ground itself shook, tossing me into the air. I landed on my back, the air knocked out of me. The next thing I saw was the hammer coming down toward my head.

I rolled just in time to avoid the blow.

Butch was back in the fight. She came snarling like some kind of demonic animal from the afterlife, latching on to the knight’s weapon hand with her powerful jaws sinking in deep.

“Rawww!” the knight bellowed, lifting his free arm to punch Butch in the face with a massive gauntleted hand.

I was on my feet, throwing myself at the arm intended for Butch. I grabbed it with both hands, securing the appendage in my grip.

Cryx ran and jumped on the knight's back, grasping at his helmet. She ripped it free.

A wild mane of long brown hair and a thick beard fell down the man’s face. His dark eyes were alive with the fire of battle.

Cassie, having recovered from the blow the knight gave her, charged him, with her double razor claws coming out of her right forearm.

She was going to kill him, of that much I was sure.

“Enough! Enough!” Enoch yelled, placing himself between Cassie and the struggling knight. “Stop! If you wish the Light to win at all, you all must stop.”

Cassie came to a halt right in front of the knight. Her blades hovered over the large man’s Adam’s apple. She pressed in a tiny bit harder, drawing a line of blood across his neck.

“Drop your weapons or you will be fired upon,” whoever was in charge of the Galactic Government dropships ordered. I was sure I didn’t know the voice, whoever it might be.

Thick braided ropes fell down from the sky as wind and heat from the thrusters buffeted us and the trees around us.

Shadow Praetorians rappelled down the ropes, fanning out in a circle around us. Bright lights from the dropship illuminated the field of battle.

At least a dozen Shadow Praetorians, wearing the familiar sigil of Sergeant Toy’s Titans, formed a perimeter around us. The Titans were the same unit I had gone on the previous mission with into the Swamp Lands.

“Toy?” I asked, looking around at the soldiers trying to distinguish which one he might be. “Sergeant Toy, is that you?”

“Drop your weapons and let the—let the knight go.” Sergeant Toy’s familiar hard voice reached my ears. “Do it.”

“Sergeant, I’ll be giving the commands,” the first voice that reached us over the comms interrupted him. “My name is Major Marquez and I’m in charge here. You have exactly three seconds to comply before I give the kill order. One.”

Our chances of getting out unscathed were nonexistent. One or more of us was sure to get wounded, if not killed. Cassie could handle herself, and even Wesley could, but Cryx was brand new to this and Enoch was a noncombatant.

“Two,” Major Marquez said.

“Okay, okay,” I shouted above the roar of the thrusters. “Everyone put down your weapons.”

“You sure about this?” Wesley asked. The man turned to point the rifle in his right hand at one Shadow Praetorian. He also drew a blaster in his left and pointed at another. The two targets he chose returned the favor by pointing thei weapons at him.

“Not at all, but I am sure no one here is the real threat,” I said, letting my grip on the knight go. “Butch.”

Butch begrudgingly released her hold on the knight. She growled at him, stance low to the ground, her ears pinned back to her head.

Cryx jumped off the knight's back.

I wasn’t sure what he was going to do. There was no telling if the crazed Knight of the Way would pull a kamikaze attack and try to take all of us, including the GG.

Without a word, the knight lowered his war hammer.

“You with the forearms,” Major Marquez said from the open channel. “Take off your weapons.”

“I can’t,” Cassie said with a growl so intimidating, even Butch looked at her sideways and shied away.

“Sir, it’s true,” Sergeant Toy answered. “I’ve seen her in action before. She’s a Cyber Hunter. It’s part of her body.”

“I want you to keep your eye on her,” Major Marquez ordered. “One false move and I want her in the dirt, Sergeant. Understand?”

“Yes… sir,” Sergeant Toy said slowly as if he were having to force the words out of his mouth.

Wesley looked over at me.

I gave him a nod.

Slowly, he lowered his weapons.

The moment was so tense, I felt like I could feel its pressure on my shoulders.

“Well, do you want to explain what you’re doing here or are we just going to stand around this lost island staring at each other for the rest of the morning?” I asked, looking from one Shadow Praetorian to another. They wore identical armor. “Which one of you is Sergeant Toy? You all look alike to me.”

“You will be speaking with me,” Major Marquez stated in his nasally voice. “I am aboard the dropship.”

“Of course you are,” Cassie huffed.

“What was that!?” Major Marquez challenged. “What did you say?”

“I think we’re just curious as to why we’re being attacked by the Galactic Government,” I stated before Cassie could piss off the major any further. “We haven’t broken any laws. We’re a private company on a trip. As far as I know, we can travel from point A to point B without it being a crime.”

“Let’s drop the charade here, Mr. Hunt,” Major Marquez sneered. “We both know what’s at stake. Rival Mercer on the loose and this so-called Relic on the island. Major Valentine really stepped in it during the last mission, but I’m here to clean up her mess. We’ll be apprehending Rival if he’s here and taking the Relic with us into custody of the Galactic Government.”

“The Relic stays,” the Knight of the Way said, speaking to Major Marquez for the first time. “The Relic stays.”

“You see, you don’t make the decisions here anymore,” Major Marquez told the knight. His voice was so full of sarcasm, I imagined it had to be a learned skill. “You with your primitive weapons and ancient—”

“The Relic stays!” the knight boomed, lifting his war hammer to the sky.

Two things happened at once, all while I threw myself down to the dirt.

Some kind of whitish-blue energy crackled across the surface of the war hammer in the knight’s hand. A beam shot from the top of the weapon, striking the Galactic Government dropship right in the middle of its belly as it hovered over our location. The beam of crackling energy tore a hole right through the dropship and shot out the top of the craft.

A split second later, the Shadow Praetorians opened fire on the Knight of the Way. Dozens of rounds tore at his armor and cloak. I couldn’t see if any rounds had got through to him and at the moment didn’t much care. My focus was on my group and getting them out of harm’s way.

The dropship spun in the air like some kind of wounded bird. Black smoke and flames covered the area where the knight struck the craft.

Shouts peppered the comms. The sound of weapons being fired nearly drowned those out altogether.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t alone in caring for our group. Wesley and Cassie were trained professionals educated to handle these kinds of things. Well, not necessarily crazy Knights of the Way shooting beam energy out of their war hammers and taking down Galactic Government dropships, but close enough.

Wesley shepherded Cryx out of the clearing, back into the tree line. Cassie did the same for Enoch. Butch didn’t have to be told to get the heck out of Dodge. The large wolf sprinted to my side and gave me a look that said, “Get up, man; we got to get out of here.”

One glance skyward told me all I needed to know. The wounded Galactic Government dropship was spinning like a top and was going to come down hard.

I pushed myself off the ground and ran along with the others to the relative safety of the tree line.

The dropship hit the ground with so much force, it caused a concussive blast. I was fast but not fast enough. The force of the dropship striking the ground set off an explosion in the fuel tank.

I felt searing hot pain scorch my back before I was lifted up through the air and thrown like some kind of spent casing into the jungle depth. I saw it too late. My head cracked against a low-hanging tree limb. I was out cold.


Eighteen

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

“Joyyyyyyyyy is in my heart. Is it in yours? Joyyyyyyyyy is in my heart. Is it in yours?”

I traveled in and out of consciousness. When I was out, I could hear X trying to get my attention. When I drifted into consciousness, I heard a familiar voice singing a familiar song.

“Joyyyyyyyyy is in my heart. Is it in yours? Joyyyyyyyyy is in my heart. Is it in yours?”

I was being dragged through the jungle depths by the shoulder harness of my chest armor. My hands and feet were bound so tightly, I lost feeling in them altogether.

When I finally did recover enough to stay conscious, I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t see him, but I recognized the voice singing the line over and over again like some kind of mantra.

Rival Mercer dragged me through the jungle depths.

“Daniel,” X said in my head. “Your body’s recovering. Rival grabbed you as soon as you were unconscious, secured you, and took you into the jungle. He has some kind of wave damper, that’s not allowing me to communicate with anyone else over the comm channels.”

“Are the others—are the others okay?” I asked, trying to think straight despite my head injury.

“Well now, that’s enough out of you two,” Rival said. He let go of my shoulder harnesses and walked around so I could see him.

Rival grinned down at me through a set of pearly white teeth. His shoulder-length hair was tied behind his head, and his clothes were cleanish despite the landscape around us.

The madman reached for something at his lower back. He produced a data pad. He hit a few buttons on the screen with a smile.

“There we go,” Rival said, putting the data pad back. “No more talking to that little AI of yours, at least for the time being. With good behavior, I might allow you a few more little chats in the future.”

I gritted my teeth, tearing at the restraints on my wrists and ankles. They were made of some kind of steel wire that cut into my skin, causing dark red droplets of blood to push through.

I might have felt the pain in my hands and legs that my struggling was causing if I could feel them at all. Rival tied them so tight, my circulation was completely gone.

“Now, now,” Rival warned, reaching for my own knife, which he’d tucked into his boot. He pressed the dark blade against my right cheek and gave it a tiny jerk up. “Let’s keep the struggling and yelling to a minimum or I’m going to take your eyes. I’d rather talk with you. It gets lonely on this island, but if you insist, I’ll take your eyes and your tongue. It’s up to you.”

I weighed my options. At the moment, it didn’t seem like I had many. My weapons were gone, including my recallers I wore on my wrists. My only play right now was to stay alive, until either someone found me, or I was able to escape. The fallout from the exploding dropship would take time to sift through, but soon the others would realize I was missing. Butch would pick up my trail.

“What did you do to X?” I asked as calmly as I could. “I don’t hear her anymore.”

“Oh goody,” Rival said, taking the knife away from my face. “You decided to be a good boy. And good boys get rewarded.”

With a practiced move of his blade, Rival used the weapon to snap one of the thin steel cords at my ankles.

“You can walk on your own from here on out,” Rival said, taking a step back from me. “Same heading we were on. If you try anything or get out of distance, this is going to happen.”

Rival removed the data pad from his lower back once more and tapped a button.

Blinding pain like the worst migraine I ever experienced times ten split straight down the center of my skull. The agony took my breath away. I couldn’t even form a coherent thought, much less try and act.

Even if I could fight to my feet and make a lunge at Rival, my hands were tied.

The pain subsided just as quickly as it came on.

“I’ve slaved your AI to my data pad,” Rival explained. “She’s alive and well but silent. I’ve also turned her into a weapon. I can send you the worst headache whenever I’d like or if you get out of a specific range. Pretty neat, right? And my teachers in school said I’d never amount to anything. Well, I guess I showed you Mr. Raymond and Mrs. Hinckelsworth.”

“Your—your teacher’s last name was Hinckelsworth?” I asked, recovering from the pain. “No wonder she was pissed.”

“Ha!” Rival said with a genuine smile that sent a shiver down my spine. “See? That’s why I like you. That’s why no matter how much you’ll deny it, we are the same. Now on your feet and let’s move. That wolf monstrosity of yours will have a hard time finding your scent, with the fuel from the dropship sprayed all over the scene, but she’ll find it sooner or later.”

I took a deep breath and rose to my feet. I didn’t want to make this easy for Rival, so I moved along slowly through the jungle underbrush, tripping where I could. Truth be told, it didn’t even take that much acting on my part. Feeling was only just coming back to my feet.

We moved through the jungle underbrush. Where? I had no idea, but Rival seemed to know. I hadn’t the foggiest where we were, but we were far enough from the crash site already where I couldn’t hear any other sound except for the natural wildlife of the island.

I decided to take the opportunity to gather as much information as I could. With Rival as a traveling partner, it didn’t seem like a difficult challenge.

“How’d you get here?” I asked him.

“Well, Daniel, you see, when a man and woman love each other, they engage in relations,” Rival stated like he was a teacher giving me inside info on the baby-making process. “Then nine months later the mommy—”

“You know what I meant,” I interrupted him. “How did you get here so quickly? Last time I saw you, you were running scared out of the Swamp Land.”

“You say running scared.” Rival chuckled. “I say slitting your friend’s throat and leaving her to die in your hands. How is she, by the way? Six feet under? Did you have to tell her daughter you held her mother while she died?”

Anger, more primal than any I had ever known welled inside my chest. I felt sick as adrenaline hit me with all the force of a sledgehammer. I turned, ready to rip Rival Mercer apart, whether my hands were tied or not. I’d tear into him with my teeth if I had to.

“No, no, no.” Rival held the data pad in his left hand with the pointer finger on his right hovering over the screen. “I’ll split that head of yours in two. Maybe even be able to do some damage to that AI of yours. I’m not sure how it’ll affect her.”

I was so angry, I shook.

This is what he wants, I reminded himself. What would X tell you? She’d tell you not to give in to him. She’d tell you to play his head games right back. Don’t let him get to you. He’s a monster, but never forget, so are you.

I forced myself to relax. I felt the anger flow out of me. Closing my eyes, I calmed myself. When I opened my eyes, I was ready to go insane with the best of them.

“Are you having some kind of moment there?” Rival asked with a raised eyebrow. “Do you need a second?”

“No, I’m good,” I lied with a smile of my own. “Let’s go. The woman you’re talking about is alive, by the way. You failed at something again. I held that wound closed on her throat until help came. Now come on; I don’t have all day. Let’s go to whatever base of operation you've set up on this island.”

Rival looked at me, confused for a moment. He narrowed his eyes before shrugging, then lowering the data pad. “Lead the way.”

“So how did you get here?” I asked, genuinely interested. “You have a dropship stashed away somewhere for safekeeping I don’t know about?”

“Less a dropship and more connections,” Rival said to my back as we pressed on through the jungle interior. “You’d be surprised how valuable information is and how quickly it travels, on the night market. The term ‘Relic’ is more widely used than I at first thought. Drop credible information on the whereabouts of one and a bidding war starts to fund your trip.”

“I should have guessed,” I spat. “You went straight to the corporations with the information of a new Relic and its location. So who bit? The Order? Madam Eternal?”

“Please, they are but children in a game they do not understand.” Rival laughed. “No, my funder is another. I am, of course, not at liberty to talk about who they are. I signed all kinds of documents I didn’t read, about not disclosing their identity, terms of service and blah, blah, blah.”

“And since when do you follow the rules?” I asked him, looking over my shoulder. “You don’t really strike me as the obedient type.”

“You know,” Rival brightened with a wide Cheshire smile, “you’re right, Daniel. You are right. I’m not. You and me, my friend. We are two creatures fighting for that same bright piece of fruit I see so often in my dreams. I dreamt about us again last night. Two of the same creatures out on a limb, struggling to take hold of an orb of light shaped like a piece of fruit, or maybe a woman. I can’t be sure.”

“Well, that’s weird and disturbing,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m flattered, I guess. But back to the organization that hired you. What did you tell them? You’d take their money to give them the Relic in return? Did they buy it?”

“Hook, line, and sinker,” Rival crooned. “The rich can be so naive at times, especially when the prize they seek is so tempting. A few million credits to them is nothing in exchange for an item of raw power. Of course, I’m just going to take their money and keep the Relic for myself, but they’re willing to listen to my lies. It’s sad, really. Maybe people so gullible don’t deserve that kind of money to begin with.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” I said, coming through a clump of tall trees in front of us. On the opposite side of the trees, a sheer rock cliff fell away to lapping water against the rocky shoreline a good ten stories below.

If I wasn’t tied and the prisoner of someone I considered insane, the scene might have even seemed beautiful. The lush green of the jungle gave way to the slate grey of the rock face. The nearly calm deep blue water pressed against the shoreline in a way that seemed like something straight out of a picture.

Rival joined me on my right, staying just far enough away so I wouldn’t be able to get the jump on him if I tried anything. He was smart, took no chances.

“Now what?” I asked, looking down at the water below. “We go for a dip?”

“I need to get you down the rock face and into the water, to be sure that wolf of yours loses your scent. It should be hard enough for her to track you with all the smells in the jungle, but I leave nothing to chance.” Rival motioned down the rock face to the water below. A crisscrossing narrow path I failed to see at first led down to the water’s edge. “Well, come on. Let’s get going.”

“Hey, why do you want me alive?” I asked him for the first time. “You could have killed me instead of dragging me out here. What do you want with me?”

“I told you,” Rival said as if it were the simplest thing in the galaxy to understand and I still wasn’t getting it. “We are the same. Plus, I’m imagining what a certain private organization will pay for one of the original members of the Pack Protocol. The way you heal and all of that. That kind of DNA manipulation no one has been able to perfect. You original members are in short supply. There’s what—four of you left now?”

I didn’t respond.

“My intel says two still on Mars and one with her family on Earth, in the Badlands?” Rival stroked his chin. “Maybe I can capture you all and sell you off. I bet the one in the Badlands would be easy to get. She might even come willingly if I get to her child first.”

Images of Sam, her husband, and daughter flashed through my mind. This madman had already nearly taken Zoe’s life and now he was threatening someone else I cared for. Someone else I’d consider just as close as family as if we had shared the same blood.

Anger rose within me for the second time. This time, it demanded an outlet. I saw red.

“Ah, ah, ah,” Rival pulled out the data pad again. “One touch and it’s migraine city. I’m not—”

I didn’t let him finish the sentence. I’d played his game long enough. My own wellbeing came second to those I cared about. Even if I didn’t have the ability to heal, if it came down to someone I considered family or me getting hurt, then it was me every time.

With my hands still tied in front of me, I lunged for him, reaching for the data pad he held. I was fast, but not fast enough to cross the distance and also stop him from touching the glass screen.

Pain unlike any I had ever experienced before, ripped through my skull like a lightning bolt from a Way Knight’s war hammer. I slammed into Rival, grabbing for the data pad blindly through my agony.

My hand clenched the glass for a moment as I stumbled. I winced past the discomfort to see Rival bringing my own knife down on me sideways.

The blade sank deep into my left rib cage. The pain from the knife wound was still nothing compared to the agony in my skull. It did, however, succeed in taking me to my knees.

I gasped for breath, trying to find a way to see past the anguish, that rolled through my head and side like some kind of torrential deluge.

“So sad,” Rival groaned. “I wanted to take you in alive. I thought they might pay more that way. I guess dead will have to do.”

Rival knelt at my level, ripping the knife out of my side with a twist. He pressed the blade to my chest just over my heart. “I just want you to know that after I kill you, I am going after the other Pack Protocol members. Each and every one of them.”

“Rawww!” I roared, summoning everything I had left. I was exhausted, in so much pain, I could barely move, and about to be stabbed in the heart. But if I was going down, then he was coming with me.

I lunged forward, the act sending the blade deep into my chest. I brought my hands up, clamping onto Rival’s throat, and pushed us both over the cliff.


Nineteen

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

“One is blood and blood is one.”

I was sure I was dead. Unconscious without a dream state or even X to guide me, I thought I had finally pushed my body past the point of recovering. The events of what led me to my death hit me.

The fight with Rival, the knife in my chest, the ten-story fall to the waiting rocks on the shore.

“One is blood and blood is one,” the strange voice came again.

I blinked open my eyes. At least I think I opened my eyes. I couldn’t tell, it was so dark in wherever I was, so cold.

Of what I imagined about the afterlife, this was neither one of the two. One place people were supposed to go was depicted as scorching hot and painful, the other bright and peaceful. This place was cold and dark.

A shiver went up my spine as I trembled on hard stone ground. Wherever I was, the pain in my head was gone. A dull soreness touched my side and chest where the knife had pierced me. I was soaking wet.

“Power is as power does to a man,” the strange voice said. “Yes, yes, blood is one and one is blood. I, we, shall see.”

Finally, my eyes were getting adjusted to the place. I was in a cave of some kind, with illumination coming from somewhere farther down the stone walls. Trembling ravaged my body again as I realized how bitterly cold I was. Goosebumps rippled across my skin, the freezing temperature hitting me down to my bones.

“Who—who are you?” I managed to ask.

“Who are we, he asks?” the voice mocked me. “Who is he, we ask.”

I moved to a sitting position, bringing my knees up to my chest. I tried rubbing my hands across my chest to promote circulation. I searched the cave as I did so but still saw nothing. No sign of Rival or whatever voice was speaking to me.

“Am I—am I dead?” I asked.

“Paw,” the voice huffed. “How is he dead if we talk to him now? A bit of an idiot this one is. Perhaps best to throw him back and see what else there is to be had.”

“X?” I asked. “X, are you there?”

“I’m here,” X answered. Her voice was like a warm hand on my back. “I’m here, Daniel. Take it easy.”

“Where—where are we?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” X responded. “I only just came back online when you called my name. I had to reboot once Rival interfered with our connection. Daniel, you’re going into hypothermia. We need to get you warm as soon as possible. Your body has taken so much damage, it’s having a hard time keeping up with your injuries.”

“Is it a woman or a man?” the voice in the darkness asked itself. “I thought it was a man, but now a woman’s voice speaks to us. Paw, is it both?”

“Who is that?” X asked.

“You’re—you’re asking the wrong—wrong person,” I chattered, still trying to work some warmth into my chest.

“Whoever you are, we need fire now,” X said out loud. “Fire, blankets; heat however you have it, please. My friend needs your help. Please help us.”

“But how does it talk so different?” the voice asked out of the depths. “Two voices, one body? Blood is one, one is blood?”

I was shaking too hard to be of much help at the moment. My teeth chattered so violently, I thought they might break against one another. I clenched my jaw, trying in vain to force my body to cease shivering. It was impossible, as spasms of trembling ravaged my frame.

“Come out, just please come out and help us,” X called, deciding that the path to warmth led to first seeing who it was we were speaking with. “We’re not dangerous. I’m an AI implanted into the base of his skull. My name is X. This is Daniel.”

I might have yelled in surprise if I could force any sounds out of my quaking throat. A creature melded out from the shadows of the cave, so close I could reach out and touch it.

The reason I hadn’t been able to see it before, was because it had hidden behind a waist-high rock in front of me. The creature’s skin also looked as though it blended in with the hue of the slate-grey rock walls.

I think it was a woman; at least it had been, at one time. Filthy thin hair fell down over impossibly large eyes. Gangly limbs stretched out from some kind of deteriorating tunic she wore around her body.

She was barefoot, but the cold didn’t seem to bother her. Bone-like fingers reached for my face. I thought about pulling away, but I didn’t have the energy or sense to do so at the time.

The woman turned my head to the right, then to the left, to get a look at the circular housing unit X sat in.

“One is blood, blood is one,” the woman muttered to herself as if the phrase had a different meaning every time she said it. “Power is power.”

“Please,” I managed to say past the shaking. “Please—help me.”

“Help you I will, but there must be a price, the woman nodded. She placed the pointer finger of her right hand on my nose. “I will ask a price of you at a later time. For my help now. Agreed?”

“Yes—yes, I agree,” I said in a rush of words.

The woman gave me a sharp nod, then hurried off into the depths of the cave once more. When she moved, she traveled on her hands and legs like some kind of animal.

“Your night vision,” X reminded me. “Hang in there, Daniel. Keep rubbing your chest with your hands. I know it’s hard, but it’s helping.”

I obeyed, mentally kicking myself for not thinking of my ability to see in the dark before. In all fairness, I thought I was dead and I was shaking like some kind of never-ending earthquake.

I blinked hard twice, enacting my night vision. Everything turned from black to a hue of gold, as I examined my surroundings in the dark. To be honest, there wasn’t much to see. We were in a wide cave like I suspected. My back was near one wall; while to my right, a faint shine of light flowed through the entrance. To my left, the cave went deeper and turned a sharp corner.

Past my teeth chattering, I could hear the sounds of what I assumed was water lapping against the shore.

On the cave walls were markings, something like a cross between hieroglyphics and some kind of crazy math equation. I soon realized these markings didn’t stop at a section of the cave, but were etched into the entire cave itself. Walls, floor, and even the ceiling carried the same kind of markings.

“Here we go, here we go.” The woman returned with some kind of blanket. At least it had been a blanket, a long time ago. The thing was filthy and worn with holes in different section of the fabric. “Remove your wet clothes and dry yourself. I will start the fire.”

The smell of the blanket made me want to puke. It smelled like vomit already. Like old vomit after a few days on the ground, when it was mouldering from the touch of time.

The woman caught the grimace on my face.

“Oh, wish to freeze to death, then?” She stood upright and placed closed fists on bony hips. “Judge my blanky? Is it not good enough for you?”

“No, no,” X answered for me. “It’s great, thank you. He’s just moving slowly. You can see how bad he’s shaking.”

“Paw, get out of those clothes, then,” the woman huffed. “I will start the fire.”

The woman disappeared again into the depths of her cave.

“Come on, Daniel,” X coaxed me. “She’s right. You need to get the wet clothes off and dry. “Use the blanket.”

“You can’t—can’t smell this thing,” I grunted, already moving to obey. I stripped off everything from my shirt to my boxer briefs underneath. The blanket was at least dry and did feel better. I dry-heaved a few times, trying in vain to ignore the aroma. “It smells like what comes out of Butch after she eats something of quesitonable origin.”

“Here we are, here we are.” The woman returned this time with a flaming log in one hand and bundle of dry leaves and twigs in the other. “Blood is one, one is blood.”

She arranged the fuel for the fire quickly with dry leaves on the bottom and the twigs surrounding them in a kind of cone shape. She touched the fire to her meager resources. The dry tinder immediately grew into a fire.

The warmth of the fire was like a soothing balm to my freezing body. I moved as close as I could without risking the blanket wrapped around me catching flame.

The woman in front of me nodded approval, peeking through the holes in the blanket to get a look at my body.

When I caught her, she giggled and looked away.

“Get more wood, will we,” she said, disappearing once more into the depths of her cave. Her voice echoed back toward me. “One is blood, blood is one.”

“Better?” X asked. “You’re not shaking as badly. Your body needs fuel to completely recover, but I think we’re out of the danger zone for the time being.”

“Yeah, I feel sore, like one giant bruise, but the worst of the shaking is gone,” I answered. “Can you contact anyone? Cassie? Wesley?”

“No, something is interfering with the comm channels on the island now,” X explained. “I’m not sure if it’s Rival or the Galactic Government, maybe even the island itself. And you’re not going to like this much either.”

“What?” I forced myself to ask, afraid of the answer. “There’re dragons here too?”

“If it were only that simple,” X said in a whisper. “Look at the far wall, bottom left side.”

I obeyed squinting at the many glyphs and images carved into the cave walls to try and make out what X already found. It wasn’t difficult. Three images were etched into the stone wall. Two I recognized; the third I did not. The image of a book, shooting out some kind of arched gateway behind it, a cup with an orb of light above it, and a sword dripping with blood.


Twenty

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

“Can we just go home now?” I asked X. “I’m done Relic hunting. This isn’t fun anymore.”

“Three Relics,” X said. “Didn’t someone say there were more?”

“I’m not sure we ever got a final tally on the number of Relics, but three is enough,” I said with a heavy sigh. “My questions—two of the many questions I have, are how does this kooky old woman know about the Relics and also, what’s the rest of this writing on the cave?”

“You can ask her yourself,” X said. “I’m going to copy the writing on the cave I can see and run it against any data banks I have access to, but they’re unlike anything I’m familiar with.”

“Here we are, we are here,” the woman said, galloping back to the fire. In one hand, she carried more wood; in the other, some kind of carved bowl with soup inside. “More fuel for the flame, more fuel for your frame.”

“Thank you,” I said, accepting the offered bowl of soup. The water in the bowl was murky with items I could only guess at bobbing on the surface.

She looked at me expectantly, as if she were waiting for me to try the soup.

I lifted the bowl to my lips and took a draw of the liquid. It tasted like the blanket around me smelt.

Large, inquisitive eyes stared at me for a response.

“Mmmm,” I said, trying to will my body to swallow the liquid. “Salty.”

The woman giggled and then went back to work feeding the flames. It was obvious she knew what she was doing. The fire she built was smokeless, perfect for the interior of the cave.

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

She looked up at me as if I had grown an extra head. “What’s in a name?”

“Well, I need to call you something.”

“Must you?”

“Yeah—I think so. You know my name, Daniel, and you’ve met X,” I insisted. “What’s your name?”

“A name, a name, a being must have a name,” the old woman mused out loud. “We don’t have a name. But he insists we should. We did have a name so many years before. What was the name? What was the name we were called back then?”

I wasn’t sure if I should be creeped out by how the woman carried on a conversation with herself like she was two people, or feel sorry for her. It was obvious she had been here a very long time. My guess was that she was nuttier than Rival himself.

“Oh yes, that was her name,” the woman continued to talk as she busied herself with the fire. “That was the name we were called so pretty. A pretty name for a pretty girl so many years before. Now look at us. So skinny and bony like something out of a nightmare. Shame, shame, we were so pretty before, weren’t we? Yes, we were.”

“I don’t mean to interrupt whoever or how many of you there are,” I said, trying to choose my words carefully. “If you don’t have a name or don’t remember, that’s fine.”

“Oh, but we do, yes we do,” the woman crooned. “You have given us that gift, Daniel. The gift of remembering who we were. Who we once were. Blood is one, one is blood. For that, we are grateful. Our name was once Cripps. Cripps was our name so many years ago. So, so many.”

“Hoooooly crip,” X said in my head. “You don’t think—she can’t be…”

“Is that your last name?” I asked her. “I mean, do you have a first name?”

“Maybe, maybe, maybe.” The woman looked at my soup bowl that was still nearly full. “You must eat more. The land provides roots, berries, and more for you. Eat it all up, you must.”

I steeled myself and took another swallow. This time, I got a chunk of something that tasted tough and earthy.

“Victoria was my name a long time ago,” the woman stated when she was satisfied I had eaten enough to warrant an answer. “I fished you out of the stone water, I did. You were bleeding and bruised, but you seem to heal faster than most. I thought you were dead for a while.”

“Thank you,” I told her. “Was there another? Did you see another man in the water?”

“No, only you, only you, you impossible man,” Victoria answered. “There was no other. If there was, he must be dead. The rocks are enough to kill anyone from a fall. A miracle you are not dead.”

“Victoria,” X said out loud. “May I ask you about how you got here?”

“We sought adventure so many years ago, too many to count now,” Victoria said, looking off into the distance. “There were rumors of the items of such great power. We were young once and full of grand plans and dreams. Look where it has taken me now. Look at what I have become.”

“How old are you, Victoria?” I asked, trying to figure out where in the Cripps family line the woman might end up. She had to be ancient. She wasn’t Rose’s mother. I had seen her mother’s grave back at the estate. Could this woman be her grandmother? Great-grandmother, even?

“Older than time itself it seems, we are.” Victoria shrugged as if the question was an act of insanity. “Too old. Too many years to count. We first arrived before the Earth shook. Before the islands were formed.”

“Are you saying you got here before the Earth fell?” I asked, taking another gulp of soup. The stuff was starting to grow on me and wasn’t as bad if I imagined it was hot caf. “You’ve been here for hundreds of years? That’s impossible.”

“Impossible, he says. We say the way he heals is impossible, Paw, if you would have seen half the things I have on this island, you wouldn’t be telling us what is possible and what is impossible.” Victoria dismissed me with a shake of her hand. “Who is to say what is possible and impossible? Not you, not we.”

The way Victoria talked was about to give me a headache all over again. Still, I pressed on. “The writings on the walls of the cave, did you draw those?”

“Well, who else would it have been?” Victoria looked at me like I was the crazy one. “X, he’s not the brightest log in the fire, is he?”

“He tries,” X answered.

“Hey, I’m right here,” I blurted.

“I noticed images of a book, a cup, and a sword on the wall.” X picked up the conversation once more. “Are those the Relics? Are there only three?”

Victoria’s eyes lit up like someone just promised her the world on a silver platter.

“Yes, yes.” Victoria shuffled over to the wall, running a gnarled hand over the images. “Finally someone to talk to, someone who can see the truth of things. A book to open other worlds. A cup to gift eternal life and the sword of power itself. Power is power. Blood is one, one is blood.”

“Did you find the cup?” I asked her. “Did you drink from it?”

My words brought on a physical reaction to the old woman. She shuddered like I had been doing minutes before. A snake-like tongue ran over her thin lips.

“Young were we and foolish to try and test the cup,” Victoria muttered. Her head moved around on a swivel as if she were looking for someone or something. “We should never have trusted the cup. Never have taken the chalice in our hands.”

“But how?” I asked, remembering the giant of a man guarding the Relic. “How did you get past the Knights of the Way?”

Victoria lifted her head and let out a wild cackle-like scream that bounced around the cave, the sound devoid of any true mirth whatsoever.

“Knights of the Way, the naked one asks,” Victoria said to herself. “The naked one asks of the Knights of the Way. Why is he so dense? So handsome but so dense.”

“Well, you aren’t exactly a ray of insight yourself,” I grumbled, tugging the blanket tighter around me as Victoria eyed me like a piece of meat. “And you didn’t answer the question.”

“She didn’t have to get past the Knights of the Way at all,” X said softly. “She was one.”

“There it is and there it be forever more.” Victoria danced around the fire in a little jig. “We can see now who is the brains and who is the brawn in this relationship.”

“You found the Relic here before the fall of Earth and you either were or became a Knight of the Way,” I breathed, placing the puzzle pieces in the order they were intended. “You drank from the cup?”

“All Knights of the Way drink from the cup to protect the Relic itself,” Victoria chided me. “This is known.”

“But then what?” X asked. “You somehow fell out of grace with the Knights of the Way and have been living here ever since?”

“The Knights of the Way abandoned me and cast me out,” Victoria screeched. “Me, when I was a me and not yet an us. They are fools, fools in their armor and weapons. They think they are so menacing and tough. But as the time has passed, they have seen my way has come to pass. They have not destroyed the Relic and very soon they will be gone and the Relic lost, to the hands of others who should not possess such power. Power is power. Blood is one, one is blood.”

“You wanted to destroy the Relic?” I clarified. “Is that why they forced you out?”

“A Relic cannot be destroyed.” Victoria looked at me like I was stupid. “Relics are not from our world and thus cannot be destroyed by items of our world. I told them to cast the Relic through the gate. Only then could it be lost to us. They refused. When I insisted, they sent me out. Now that only two knights remain, they must see the error of their ways.”

“Did you say two knights?” X interrupted. “There are only two Knights of the Way left?”

“Yes, yes.” Victoria nodded manically. “Only two knights left who have withstood the test of time. They have never replenished their numbers. As more and more mercenaries and soldiers come to claim the Relic for their own, more and more knights die defending the Relic. Only two remain now. Only two. Blood is one, one is blood.”

“Only two,” I repeated the woman’s words. “What are the odds that two knights are going to be able to hold off Sergeant Toy and his Titans?”

“We could tip the battle in either direction,” X added.

“Victoria,” I said, eyeing the woman with a penetrating stare. “Tell me about where these Relics came from and the gate. You were a Knight of the Way; you must have answers to it all. Or maybe at least all the answers there are to have at the moment.”

“The Relics, the gate,” Victoria said slowly. “We do have knowledge of it all. I wish I had never set foot on this cursed continent. Nothing but pain and misery follows those who wish to see the Relics and the gate. I will tell you a story you will not believe. A tale of madness, lust, and a world so young.”


Twenty-One

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

“First the Relics,” Victoria began. “The Relics are three, no more no less. They are not of this world and belong to others.”

“Not of this world, like aliens?” X asked for clarification. “The book, the chalice, the sword; they’re alien-made?”

“Correct you are, sister,” Victoria explained. “Aliens lived on our Earth long ago and with them brought these items of power. Each culture had their name for these beings’ stories in our own history. The Greeks called them Zeus, Hades, Poseidon. The Norsemen referred to them as Thor, Loki, Odin. Egyptians knew them as Ra, Osiris, Anubis. The list goes on and on, but the story is the same. Gods who walked among men.”

“And they were just freaking aliens? What the crip?” I asked under my breath.

Victoria shot me a hateful stare.

“Sorry, I’ll let you finish,” I said. “Please go on. Blood is one and one is blood and all that.”

This seemed to please the woman.

“These Relics are their own and when they left our world, they left them behind. We do not know why they left, or why they left the Relics behind. Some believe they left the Relics to help humanity; others so that we would destroy each other, an act we have become so proficient at as time has progressed.” Victoria walked over to the wall of the cave where the clear carvings of the Relics stood. She ran a hand over the cold stone. “But the gate. The gate is something entirely different. The gate is a prison.”

I had so many questions, I had to bite my tongue to keep myself in check. The way Victoria told the story, it was as if she herself were having second thoughts about telling me any of it. The last thing I wanted to do was distract her from her tale.

“These false gods tamed the Earth while it was still young. Other alien species found the Earth as well. These alien rulers wielding the Relics, trapped all other species within the gate, so they could rule the world as they saw fit,” Victoria said as she walked on all fours to another section of the cave wall farther to the left.

I followed her gaze as she pointed to a new image, of what looked like a pyramid set over a tornado.

“This is where the Knights of the Way protect the Relic,” Victoria stated, motioning to the pyramid. Next she ran a finger over the tornado-looking image. “And this is the gate, where all those creatures trapped by the false gods remain. They are all manner of creatures there; some innocent, some as evil as they come, but all trapped for eternity.”

“These creatures trapped past the gate?” X asked after a moment of silence. “What are their names? I mean, the names humans gave them?”

“We made names for all the alien creatures, since we had no idea what they really were,” Victoria replied with a shrug. “Cerberus, gryphons, valkyries, zombies, vampires, unicorns; the list goes on and on. Alien creatures they are, one and all.”

“Son of a brum,” X said.

To my recollection, I had never heard X curse before.

“You okay?” I asked her. “Usually, I’m the one saying things like that.”

“Who would have thought using the book on Mars to defeat the Voy, would send us down this black hole?” X asked incredulously. “Which reminds me, Victoria. We’ve been told that using the Relics comes with a price. We had to use the book. What will happen now?”

“Hasn’t it already happened, young one?” Victoria asked, amused. “What would you call all of this, if not payment for using the book itself? Has it not caused you heartache and suffering thus far? Everything must maintain in a state of balance. All who use the Relics must pay a price. Look at me. Sorry, look at us. I traded my future for eternal life when I was still an I and not yet a we. Look at me now. Old and gnarled, living in a cave like an animal, drawing images as if I were insane.”

I had to bite my tongue again on that one.

If you were insane? I said in my own head. Lady, you are one sandwich short of a picnic.

Despite my thoughts about her, my heart bled along with hers. I could imagine a young Victoria Cripps setting off on what she thought would be a grand adventure. Hundreds of years later, she was reduced to a raving mad woman, living like some kind of creature.

“I have told you all I can,” Victoria said. “Now what is the plan for we?”

“We?” I asked. “I’m not sure I have much of a plan besides getting back into the fight. I have friends out there stuck in the middle of a war between the Knights of the Way and the Galactic Government. To top it off, I’m pretty sure there’s a murderer running around somewhere with his own agenda.”

“The way is clear; we must go together.” Victoria nodded as if that were the only logical way forward. “I will take you to where the Knights of the Way call home and the gate underneath.”

I’d stopped shaking by now. The fire in front of me had done its job. I mulled over Victoria’s suggestion. To be honest, I didn’t have a better plan. Right now, I needed to catch up with the rest of my team and let them know what was going on.

“Dry clothes first, maybe some more food in your stomach, and then we should head out,” X reminded me. “You’re not going to do anyone any good, running around the jungle shaking and unable to heal yourself. Victoria, do you have any more food?”

My stomach rolled. “Please, no more,” I whispered to X.

“Yes, yes, of course, more of the tasty Earth soup.” Victoria disappeared into the back of the cave again on all fours. “Wait here, you must.”

Two hours later, my stomach was rumbling with a mixture of berries and roots. My clothes were dry and we headed out of the cave.

The soreness ravaging my body when I woke was gone. I was tired, but there was nothing to be done about that at the moment. Darkness was already falling across the horizon when we exited the cave.

It turned out Victoria didn’t drag me that far into the cave depths at all. A quick walk showed me that her cave met the water’s edge. The cold body of water gently lapped against the mouth of what she called home.

Victoria transitioned to walking upright with a filthy robe around her. She carried a stick from her cave, with a knotted end that nearly looked like a club.

“Follow me and try to remain quiet,” Victoria cautioned me. “There are monsters on this island better left to themselves.”

“Monsters?” I whispered to X. “Earth is getting stranger and stranger the more we explore.”

“Tell me about it.” X sighed. “Still no way to break through whatever’s blocking our communication channel. If I had to put my money on it, I’d go with it being Rival’s doing. The GG want to communicate with each other and they even did so with us before their dropship went down.”

I followed my nimble guide over a rough patch of rocks that led around the cliff face on our right. Despite her age, Victoria leaped from rock to rock with all the energy of some kid on an adventure.

Rock wall to our right and water to the left, we made our way across the stony shoreline to the jungle.

The voice of doubt tickled at the back of my mind, telling me all was not well. How did I know the rest of my team was safe? How did I know they weren’t captured or worse?

Dwelling on those things for the time being wasn’t going to do anyone any good. All I could control was what I could control at this very moment, that meant putting one foot in front of the other and getting to the Knights of the Way base. Or did it?

“Victoria,” I asked the woman as she jumped to another rock. “There was a dropship that crashed on the island. I’d like to stop there first to see if my friends are still in the area, before moving on to the gate and the Knights of the Way.”

Victoria paused, then scratched her head in thought. “If that’s what the heart wants, then that’s what the heart wants. I heard the sound of the crash, not difficult to see.”

I followed Victoria’s eyes as she lifted a finger into the jungle depths. A dark cloud of smoke wafted into the air from the crash site. It didn’t look too far away.

The rock cliff on our right gradually slopped down until it disappeared into the ground altogether. The lush green jungle welcomed us in like some kind of deadly tomb. At least that was what it felt like. So far, the jungle and I didn’t have the best track record. I’d been nearly pulverized with a war hammer, crushed by a dropship, and caught by a madman all in the jungle depths.

Victoria caught my hesitancy before she moved forward.

“Time to see how this story progresses, the Relic, the gate, and more.” She waved me forward. “Come, come.”

The sun sent orange and red light into the jungle depths. The clouds overhead did their best to shield us from any light at all.

Together, we entered the jungle.

Victoria took the lead, maneuvering around trees and shrubbery as if she had done so her entire life. Through the dense canopy of foliage, I could barely make out the dark smoke from the dropship crash.

We moved quietly together, the impossibly old woman and the Immortal Corp experiment.

“Galactic Government procedure would have had them securing the crash site,” X warned me. “Odds are, Sergeant Toy and his Titan Shadow Praetorians are still here.”

“I’m counting on it,” I whispered back. “Sergeant Toy is one of the good ones. I’d bet my life on it. If he’s running the show now, then I think he’ll be willing to work with us. When I fought alongside him in the Swamp Lands, I got to see the real him. He’ll do the right thing.”

“And what is the right thing?” X asked.

“He’ll help me find Cassie and the rest of our team and hunt down Rival,” I answered. “I know he will.”

“But what about the Relic and the Knights of the Way?” X pressed. “They shot down their dropship. I don’t think Sergeant Toy is going to look too kindly on that.”

“I don’t disagree with you, but one crisis at a time,” I told X. “Let’s find our team and get Rival, then we can worry about the Relic and the Knights.”

Victoria stopped so suddenly in her tracks, I nearly bumped into her.

She hunched, patting the ground hurriedly to show me I should do the same. I crouched next to her, holding back the question on the tip of my tongue.

The wild woman looked at me, pressing one gnarled finger to her lips in the universal sign to keep my mouth shut.

I obeyed.

The light in the jungle was getting tricky. Still, I saw a shadow lumber across our path in the outcropping of trees down the way.

It wasn’t human, that much I was sure of. It was large with thick legs and some kind of horn on the front of its head.

“What the crip is that?” X asked in my head.


Twenty-Two

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

I didn’t dare answer her. The last thing we needed right now was some kind of mutated beast making a run at us.

The creature, whatever it was, passed, disappearing into the jungle undergrowth.

I looked at Victoria for an explanation.

“Many monsters on the island, mutated and changed over time. This is a special place kept hidden by the Knights of the Way.” Victoria shrugged as if that was the only explanation she had. “Come, we must hurry. We’re almost there now.”

We moved in silence.

It wasn’t long before Victoria called another halt. This time, she took cover behind a tree. It was dark now with the jungle interior bleak and shadowed in what light was able to get through the night sky.

I blinked twice, allowing my night vision to take over. At once, everything was alive in a golden hue. I strained my eyes to see what Victoria’s picked up in no time at all.

There, about ten trees ahead of us, the back of a Shadow Praetorian stood sentry.

We were close enough to the crash now that I could make out a section of the smoking dropship through the trees.

I thought about popping out and declaring my intentions, but I was almost sure to get shot that way. I wouldn’t blame the Shadow Praetorian either. They had to be on high alert at the moment and for good reason. Their ship had just been shot down by some ancient warrior with a war hammer.

Slowly and quietly, I made my way from tree to tree, sneaking up on the Shadow Praetorian. Every so often, the soldier would shift or look behind him. I did my best to stay low and in the darkest part of the shadows the trees had to offer.

As soon as I was within striking distance, I made my move.

The Galactic Government soldier carried a rifle in his hands. A blaster was secured to his hip. In one move, I pulled the blaster free and pressed it to the exposed back of his neck where his helmet and armor came together.

The Shadow Pretorian tensed immediately.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I told him. “I served with your unit in the Swamp Lands. Were you there?”

The Shadow Praetorian slowly nodded.

I could tell by how tense he was, he was thinking about his chance of turning and batting the blaster away with his own rifle.

“I just want to talk,” I said in a rush of words before he could do anything rash. “I just want to talk to Sergeant Toy and not get shot in the process. Drop your rifle and we can walk into the middle of your camp together.”

I knew he wasn’t going to as soon as the words left my lips. He was a Shadow Praetorian, a soldier through and through. He was probably pissed off about getting ambushed and now he was going to do something stupid.

The Praetorian whipped around, pointing the barrel of his rifle at me. I shoved it away as he stroked the trigger. A cacophony of blaster fire ripped through the relative quiet of the jungle interior.

Night animals screeched at the barrage. Shouts from somewhere close by sounded around us.

I dropped my own blaster, which was semi useless now, since I had no plans of shooting the soldier. I grabbed the weapon from his hands, sending a kick to his left knee, which buckled underneath him.

The soldier went down with a grunt, the pain in his leg temporarily loosening his grip on the rifle. I tore it free and flipped it around, pointing the end of the barrel at his head.

“I know your armor’s tough, but a shot at this range, even if you live through it, isn’t going to leave you happy,” I told the soldier through his helmet. “This is twice I could have killed you now. I’m still not going to. All I want to do is talk.”

“Stand down!” a voice called through the jungle.

“Drop your weapon!” another voice ordered.

I lifted the rifle into the air and let it drop to my feet.

“I’m just trying to talk to Sergeant Toy,” I answered. “I could have killed this soldier twice, but I’m not here to fight. We have larger problems here. I just want to talk.”

“Larger problems is one way to put it.” Sergeant Toy’s familiar voice took some of the tension out of the moment. At least for me. “We’re stranded on an island with no communication and our ride’s been destroyed by some kind of knight lost in time.”

I turned to see a Shadow Pretorian walking toward me. His armor, like the others, was all black. The helmet on his head obscured his facial features, but his voice remained unmistakable.

“I have answers to both of those problems,” I said, looking at the sergeant. “Can I lower my arms now?”

“Lower your weapons,” Sergeant Toy ordered his soldiers. “He’s a friend. Trouble follows him wherever he goes, but he’s still a friend.”

It was only now that I realized a dozen red lights played around my torso, laser sights from the many rifles ready to make practice targets out of my lungs.

One by one, the lights clicked off.

“You should probably tell them about Victoria,” X reminded me. “Who knows what she’s liable to do.”

“Right.” I looked at Sergeant Toy. “Sergeant, there’s a local I found on the island. She’s not a knight, or at least not anymore. She’s a bit—a bit eccentric. Can I call her out? Your men won’t shoot her?”

“Hunt.” Sergeant Toy shook his head at me like I was some kind of thorn in his side. “You are by far the unluckiest son of a brum I have ever met. Okay, call her out.”

“Victoria,” I shouted back the way I came. “Victoria, you can come out. They’re friends.”

I heard a grouping of shocked inhalations and mutterings amongst the Titans.

Victoria shambled over to my side, half walking on all fours, sometimes using her staff to support her upper half.

“What in the name of—” Sergeant Toy didn’t finish his thought.

“Blood is one, one is blood,” Victoria told him as if that were supposed to mean something to him. “You need to create a fire. Flames will keep you safe from the creatures in the night.”

Sergeant Toy just looked at her if he were deciding in real time how insane she actually was.

“I’d listen to her,” I told him. “We saw something large moving through the jungle on our way here. I’m not saying she’s the sharpest tool in the shed, but she’s been right so far.”

“All right, all right.” Sergeant Toy waved us over. “Let’s take some shelter near what’s left of the dropship. We’ll set a tighter perimeter.”

When Sergeant Toy said the last words, he looked at the Shadow Pretorian I had snuck up on. The soldier in question shifted his weight uncomfortably from foot to foot.

Victoria and I followed the sergeant to the ruined Galactic Government dropship. Credit to the pilot, he landed it as best he could with a hole the size of a dune buggy through the center of the craft.

It set down hard with the rear of the ship blown to bits. The fuel tank had ruptured on impact.

What I assumed were the pilot and copilot sat propped against the nose of the ship that was the only section still intact. They didn’t look happy, but they were alive.

“Major Marquez?” I asked, already guessing the answer.

“He was smack dab in the middle of that beam the knight shot up from his war hammer,” Sergeant Toy relayed. “Nothing of him survived.”

“Fire, fire, hurry with the fire.” Victoria looked around nervously. “You’re sitting out in the open against the night. There are creatures, creatures that come in the night in this place. Creatures of nightmare, of blood and bone.”

“Cheery little thing, isn’t she?” Sergeant Toy asked.

“You have no idea,” I agreed. “Wait until you hear what she has to say about the Knights of the Way.”

Sergeant Toy barked orders at his men to create a series of bonfires around the side of the dropship, where we took shelter.

As soon as Victoria was content that we were secure in the light, Sergeant Toy jerked his head over to the right side of our encampment. There a fire blazed with an intensity strong enough to fan out and illuminate a good ten meters in any direction.

The sergeant removed his helmet for the first time. His short greying hair gave way to a series of deep wrinkles and a scar over his right eye.

“Uh, uh, put it back on.” Victoria grimaced as she saw his face then cracked a smile. “You’re making my eyes ache.”

Sergeant Toy seemed to be taken aback by the old woman teasing him then quickly recovered.

“You’re not exactly the portrait of a woman yourself, sweetheart.” Sergeant Toy grinned good naturedly then looked around to make sure we were far enough away from any of his Titans so as to not be overheard. He looked at both of us. “I need to know what you know. With Major Marquez out of the picture, I’m in command. I need to make sure my men get home safe.”

I told him everything I knew. Even when Victoria looked hesitant to spill the beans about aliens, Relics, and the gate, I had to make a decision. Either I trusted the sergeant to do the right thing or not at all. He had shown me nothing but his strength of character and courage under fire. I owed him the truth.

When I was done, the sergeant spat in the dirt.

“You sure you didn’t hit your head too hard there, Hunt?” Sergeant Toy asked. “That’s a big pill to swallow.”

“Believe me,” I told him. “I wish I were lying, but this is where we are now. I need to find my people before Rival Mercer does. Do you have any idea where they might have gone after the crash?”

“When the dropship came down, everybody ran in whatever direction they could so as not to be hit,” Sergeant Toy explained. “I gave the order to fire on the knight as soon as the explosion detonated and I realized the major was out of the picture. I also gave the order to take your people alive. But it was too late; they were already gone. I’ve held here trying to get in contact with the GG, but there’s something blocking the signal.”

“Rival,” I told him. “Rival Mercer is jamming us and making it impossible to send any signal between our own here or off the island. We find him, we kill the jammer.”

“You said you have a ship here?” Sergeant Toy asked, weighing his options. “Half of me wants to go to the ship and get the heck off this island ASAP.”

“What does the other half say?” I asked.

“That I owe Rival Mercer one for what he did to Major Valentine and this Knight of the Way for taking down our ship,” Sergeant Toy answered. “What do you say?”

“I say we take down Rival Mercer together.” I extended a hand.

Sergeant Toy took my hand in his own. “Let’s make him pay.”


Twenty-Three

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

Sergeant Toy wasn’t one to waste time. We moved at first light. He left the larger part of his unit with the wounded and took a three-man team. I recognized all of them from our time in the Swamp Lands.

Creeves and Dion were hard-nosed Shadow Praetorians who acted as scouts for the unit. Doc was the one who saved Zoe Valentine’s life when Rival Mercer slit her throat.

I wasn’t exactly sure they were happy to see me, but Creeves and Dion nodded at me and Doc gave me a wink.

Victoria agreed to take us to where the Knights of the Way called home. My best guess was that was where Cassie and the others would head when the dropship came down. They’d look for shelter after not finding me. At least that was what I hoped would be the case.

I took the lead with Victoria while Sergeant Toy and his Titans formed the middle and rear guard of our party.

The jungle morning was brutally cold. Precipitation ran off the leaves overhead and fell on my head, even down my neck and back, making the chill that much worse.

Waking creatures called to one another in strange and unique voices I’d never heard before.

Victoria seemed to enjoy the journey. The woman walked on four limbs for the time being, sniffing the air like some kind of animal. Once, she bent and stopped to scoop up a fat grub. Next, she shoved it into her mouth greedily. Green juices from her meal squirted from her lips as she chomped on the little fella.

“I can’t puke, but if I could, I’m pretty sure that’s what I’d be doing right now,” X informed me in my head. “Daniel, are you sure we can trust her?”

“Nope,” I admitted out loud, falling a few steps behind Victoria so she wouldn’t overhear. “Not at all. Even if she believes she’s telling the truth, she might be delusional. Still, that’s the only truth we have to go on at the moment. She’s about to go up against her first test of sanity right now. If she can actually lead us to the place where the Knight of the Way have set up base, then maybe she’s telling the truth about the rest.”

“Maybe,” X answered slowly. “I hate to be the one bringing up the hard questions here, but what about Sergeant Toy and his men? If they do want to take out the Knight and claim the Relic for the Galactic Government, what then? That’s the giant Voy insect in the room no one is addressing.”

“If the Knights of the Way won’t stand down, then that’s on them,” I countered. “I can’t control them or make decisions for them.”

“And the Relic?” X pushed. “I know you too well. You’re not going to let the GG have something that can potentially give eternal life to whoever drinks out of the cup.”

“You’re not wrong,” I told her. “Honestly, I don’t have an answer for that one. I’m not going to kill the sergeant or any of his men. We’ll have to figure out a way to get it from them without causing harm. I’ll steal it if I have to, if it means sparing their lives.”

We left it at that. Neither one of us wanted to think what would happen if events played out differently and we were forced to fight the Titans or lose the Relic.

We traveled the rest of the way in silence, Victoria always in the lead. She stopped every so often to smell the air and lick the trees.

Before noon, she came to a halt and waved us forward. She parted a clump of bushes in front of us, revealing a deep slope ending at the foot of a square pyramid.

The pyramid itself looked like it had been made of individual square sections stacked one on top of each other, each smaller than the last. The stone it was made from was old and grey. Lichen, vines, and bushes grew on it at every angle.

“Slap me silly and call me Delila,” Doc said through his helmet. “The old bat was right.”

The pyramid had to rise twenty stories in the air. The only reason we hadn’t seen it towering above us in the jungle was due to the deep indentation it sat in. The ground beneath us fell away in a steep grade as if someone hollowed out the earth and dug twenty stories into it just to place the pyramid.

“How do you want to play this?” I asked Sergeant Toy. From what I could see, there was no one either on or around the structure. If what Victoria said was true, then there were only two Knights of the Way left inside to defend the pyramid.

“We’ll scout around and look for the entrance,” Sergeant Toy determined. “Once we find a suitable entry point, we’ll blow it down and infiltrate.”

“There will be no need for that, no need for that at all,” Victoria chided him like a small child. “I told you, I, we were once a Knight of the Way. I will challenge the door. Remember me they still do.”

Sergeant Toy looked at the woman, then me, and back again. Due to his dark visor, I couldn’t see his expression, but I could guess.

“You’re just going to walk right in there?” Sergeant Toy asked incredulously. “Right into the arms of that walking battle tank with the impenetrable armor and the war hammer of death?”

“Blood is one, one is blood,” Victoria answered. “Know me they do, although they may not want to remember. Admit they were wrong they must now. The Relic belongs in the gate.”

“Right, this gate where ancient monsters are trapped,” Sergeant Toy said with a sigh. “I’d like not to believe that, but after what I’ve seen in the Swamp Land and now here, I’m not so sure.”

“The entrance will be on the opposite side of the structure.” Victoria jerked her chin toward the pyramid. “Come, come, we will speak with them.”

Motion to my right sent a rush of adrenaline through my veins. My hands clenched on instinct, ready for a fight.

A creature burst through the shrubbery at Mach one speed. Sergeant Toy and his Titans lifted their weapons to zero in on the animal.

Butch tackled me, taking me down to the ground amidst a flurry of whines and licks.

“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” I called with one outstretched hand, the other ruffling the big wolf’s fur. “She’s a friendly.”

Butch licked my nose then went around smelling me as if she were checking to make sure I was free of injury.

“I’m okay. I’m okay,” I reassured her, moving to a sitting position. “I’m fine.”

More crashing through the jungle brought Wesley into view. The older man still wore his brown trench coat, a smokeless cigar set into the left corner of his jaw. He gripped his rifle tight.

“He’s one of mine,” I reassured Sergeant Toy and the rest of the Titans.

Wesley’s eyes twinkled as he took me in. He reached down with an open hand, pulling me to my feet, and actually hugged me.

I don’t think I had ever hugged Wesley before, at least not that I could remember. The embrace was brief and fierce.

“We thought we lost you in the explosion,” Wesley said, looking at me at arm’s length. “Comms are down; we couldn’t raise you. We’ve been searching this god forsaken island ever since. Butch and I just found the pyramid, when she sniffed the air then took off like a hot meal was waiting for her.”

Butch heard her name. Her ears perked up. When she saw me looking at her, she nuzzled her head into my hand.

“Where is everyone else?” I asked. “Are they okay?”

“Cassie took Cryx and Enoch back toward our dropship to do a loop, thinking you might have headed back there. We’re supposed to meet up back at the dropship four hours from now to come up with a new plan if we still couldn’t find you,” Wesley explained. “No comms complicates things.”

Sergeant Toy cleared his throat. “I’m glad your people are whole, but we need to stay on mission here. My objective hasn’t changed. I’m getting into that pyramid and taking it to the son of a brum that took down my dropship.”

I noticed the sergeant used the dropship as a reason to get the Knight of the Way and not the fact that he killed Major Marquez. I suspected the major had not been a favorite among the group.

“I understand,” I replied, looking at the Titans and Victoria. “This is Wesley and Butch. Wesley, Butch, this is Sergeant—Sergeant, I don’t think I know your first name.”

Doc snickered.

Sergeant Toy shot him a stare that could remove rust.

Doc cleared his throat, looking away.

“It’s Troy,” Sergeant Toy answered.

“Troy Toy?” I blurted.

“That’s right,” the sergeant stated. “Save your breath. I’ve heard them all.”

“Uh, Sergeant Troy Toy and his Titans and Victoria,” I said, finishing the introductions. “She’s lived here on this island for a long time.”

The group dipped heads and exchanged hellos. Wesley eyed me, then the strange woman, but remained polite.

I took the brief lapse in conversation to make a decision. The easy answer would be to head back to our dropship with Wesley and Butch and meet up with Cassie and the others.

The downside to that plan was that would leave Sergeant Toy and his Titans here at the pyramid. If they managed to get in and capture the Relic, then I failed my own mission.

I stared off into the distance, chewing on my lower lip. I couldn’t go back for reinforcements. I could send Wesley and Butch, but my selfishness raged against that idea. I liked the fact that I now had backup. It was good to see both of them.

Scratching the back of my head, I knew my time was up. I needed to make a decision. A glimmer in the distance caught my eye. Along the same ridge we were on but on the opposite side of the pyramid, something metal poked just out of the tree canopy.

“We’ve got to move,” Sergeant Toy told me. “I’ll take p—”

“What’s that right there?” I asked, shielding my eyes. “Opposite us on the ridge, just poking out of the trees.”

Everyone turned his or her attention to the point on the ridge I pointed out.

“Where?” Wesley asked. “I don’t see anything.”

“Just there above that clump of dark trees,” I instructed. “It looks like a—a—”

“It looks like an antenna of some kind,” Doc finished for me. “You think that’s what’s jamming our comms?”

“I’d bet on it,” X said out loud. “It’s the right altitude to canopy the island. Most likely Rival placed it here when he found the pyramid himself. We can be sure it’s riddled with traps.”

“Well then, let’s take that bad mamma jamma down for the count and call in the cavalry,” Creeves stated with enthusiasm. “Let’s get a couple more GG dropships here and clean house on Rival and the Knights of the Way.”

I looked over at Sergeant Toy. “X is right. If Rival did put it up, I’d bet my entire estate there’s some kind of trap waiting for us.”

“We’ve still got to take it down,” Sergeant Toy stated. “I’ll take point with Creeves and Dion. We’ll go slow.”

I nodded my consent.

This entire time, Victoria remained uncharacteristically quiet. The old woman wrung her hands, looking this way and that.

“Not right, something not natural calls on the wind,” Victoria stated. “Something not of this island, not human but lives still.”

“We’ll figure it out,” I told her, waving her to come with us.

Sergeant Toy and the Titans were already heading along the ridge to the opposite side.

“We’ve got to stick together. Come on,” I coaxed Victoria.

“I, we, must be careful,” Victoria stated again, sniffing the wind along with Butch. “The wind whispers of danger, the trees quake with fear.”


Twenty-Four

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

The ridgeline ran in a large circle. To our right, the terrain sloped in a steep decline to form the base the pyramid sat on.

The entire time, I felt like we were being watched. Whether it was Rival doing the watching or the Knights of the Way, I had no idea. It didn’t really matter. My senses were in overdrive at the moment. Every step I took was measured. My head turned this way and that, ready for anything.

The Titans took point with me, Victoria, Wesley, and Butch bringing up the rear.

“You armed?” Wesley asked, keeping pace beside me on the right. “What happened to your weapons?”

“Lost them to Rival Mercer,” I explained. “The blast of the dropship knocked me out. Next thing I know, I’m being dragged through the jungle by that psychopath.”

“Heck of a way to come to,” Wesley expressed, biting hard on the stubby cigar clenched in his teeth. “Here.”

Wesley handed me his sidearm. It was a Sitcom S10, not as strong as my MKII but reliable in a fight. It usually fired laser rounds, but I noticed Wesley had made an adjustment to the ammunition.

“Incendiary rounds,” Wesley explained. “Cooked up special by Bapz. I thought I’d use them on the trip; haven’t had a chance yet.”

“Nice,” I praised. It felt great to hold a weapon in my hands. There was something about the stoutness of the metal, the promise that if a fight came my way the enemy had just as much to fear from me as I did from them. Maybe even more.

A halt was called up ahead. Doc put up a hand, signaling us to stop.

Sergeant Toy was on a single knee, looking down at the ground.

“What have we got?” I asked, joining him. He didn’t even have to tell me; he just pointed.

A thread-thin wire stretched across our path between two trees. I followed the nearly invisible wire to the right tree to see a booby trap set in place. The wire connected to a pin on a thermal grenade.

“Same on the other side.” Sergeant Toy looked up at Creeves with a nod.

Creeves produced a pair of hard wire clippers from her pack and cut the wire.

“How did you even see that?” I asked.

“Creeves and Dion are the best pair of scouts I’ve ever served with.” Sergeant Toy nodded toward the pair who were within earshot. “Just don’t tell them that. They’ll let it go to their heads.”

“Who? Moi?” Dion placed a hand on his armed chest. “Never, sir, never. It’s my life’s honor to serve in the Galactic Government.”

“Right.” Sergeant Toy chuckled. “Let’s move on. Eyes open. If there’s one, the odds are there’s more.”

The sergeant was right in his assessment.

We were stopped two more times as we made our way around the ridge. One was a laser trap set to explode if anything disrupted the light. The next was a bit more primitive, a mine in the ground with a pressure plate. Creeves found that one stepping beside it, her boot barely touching the side of the circular weapon.

We were almost to the opposite side of the ridge now. The trees still hid the antenna, but we could see some kind of makeshift steel structure through the jungle interior.

Dion came down on a knee, raising his right hand into the air with the fist closed. As one, we obeyed his call and took cover.

Sergeant Toy and I scooted to the front to see what the scout picked up on.

Much like the booby trap, Dion didn’t need to say much. Our path led through an outcropping of rocks. Past those rocks stood a thin stand with a tripod for a base. The antennae ran up the side of a tree secured with steel bands.

My eyes took in those details in a second. What I was really interested in were the pair of steel robots at the base of the structure. I had seen them before. Two hulking figures made of connected steel limbs with skull faces and red eyes.

These were the same kind of robots I came across when dealing with Atilla. I should have guessed his family would be the ones funding Rival’s ventures.

It all made sense that as word of the Relics spread, more and more companies and wealthy families would be looking into the Relic-hunting business.

“I’ve seen them before,” I whispered to Sergeant Toy. “They’re tough and impenetrable to small caliber weapons. Actually, I’m not sure even large rounds will be able to get through their steel.”

Sergeant Toy nodded silently.

“Do you have anything bigger we can use?” I questioned. “Explosives? Grenades?”

“I do. I was hoping to save those to breach the door of that pyramid, but we’ll have to use them now,” Sergeant Toy replied. “We’ll see if we can’t fashion a trap of our own.”

Sergeant Toy motioned the team back.

“What did you see?” Wesley asked.

“Two robots, the kind Atilla used at his stem facility,” I shared. “They’re tough sons of brums.”

When we had retraced our steps, Sergeant Toy laid out the plan. “Creeves, Dion, I want you to use half of our explosives in our own trap along this path. I’ll get their attention and have them chase me. When they’re in range, light them up with your heaviest weapons and the explosives. Understood?”

“All right.” Creeves slapped her hands together and rubbed them vigorously. “I love a little destruction in the morning.”

“Yes, sir,” Dion answered just as enthusiastically.

While the two members of Team Titan went to work on setting the trap, I pulled Sergeant Toy aside.

“I respect the idea you want to put yourself in harm’s way more so than any of the others, but the simple fact is I’m faster,” I told him. “I should be the one to get their attention and run them into the trap.”

“You think very highly of your speed,” Sergeant Toy responded.

“That’s not a no,” I deduced. “I’m sure you’ve done your homework on me.”

“I have.”

“Then you know what I am. You know my very DNA has been upgraded to be faster and stronger. I should be the one to go,” I insisted. “It makes the most sense.”

“All right,” Sergeant Toy decided after a moment of silence. “You go.”

“Thank you,” I said, already starting to stretch for my run. “I’ll lead them right into it.”

Sergeant Toy nodded then moved on to supervise the trap being set.

“You sure about this?” Wesley asked, not even pretending he hadn’t eavesdropped on the conversation. “We don’t know how fast those things are.”

“They’re fast,” I reassured him. “I’ll be faster.”

“Daniel.” Wesley paused for a moment. The lapse in words from the man who seemed to always have them caught me off guard. I stopped stretching and looked at him with my full attention. “There’s a lot of people who depend on you now. You’ve become a leader and a symbol for everyone to rally around. Dragon Hold itself is a place for misfits and outcasts. Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

“When have I ever taken any unnecessary risks?” I asked, resuming my stretching. “Name one time.”

“Well, there was the time you threw yourself at the Voy to stop their advance. The time you took on Aleron when you were still on the moon and he tried to escape Galactic Government custody. The time Cassie told me you shoved your hand into the mouths of crocodile-like mutated creatures. Then there was the time you—”

“Okay, okay, I get it,” I told Wesley. “I’ll be careful.”

“Good. There are some of us on your team that are proud of what you’re doing,” Wesley said, looking uncomfortable at giving praise. “Run fast.”

“Hey, they can take our bodies…” I told him, extending a fist.

“…but they can never kill our spirits,” Wesley finished the mantra, rapping his knuckles against mine.

“We’re ready up here,” Sergeant Toy called. “Come take a look.”

I jogged over to where Creeves and Dion had removed their helmets to work. They looked as giddy as little kids during the holidays.

“Direction explosives like old-school claymores with double the boom,” Dion told me, pointing to their trap. “You run and keep running through this choke point. As soon as you’re clear and those robots are in the kill box, we hit the trigger.”

The section of the path they chose stood between two trees. Black metal boxes on the ground were nearly invisible with the brush Creeves laid over them. The path was wide here, wide enough for the robots to get through shoulder to shoulder.

“We’ll set up on the path to your right and left behind cover and add our own firepower to the mix,” Sergeant Toy added. “Even if it does minimal damage, it might help to confuse them.”

“No offense, sir, but we might be doing that in vain,” Creeves said. “There’s enough explosives here to tear through the side of a dropship. I’m sure it’ll be more than enough to handle two robots.”

“I hope you’re right,” Sergeant Toy answered. “We’ll still find cover down the path and lay into them as soon as Daniel’s clear.”

“Yes, sir,” Creeves acknowledged.

I lifted each leg behind me one at a time, grabbing each foot with my hands and giving a tug to stretch my quads. I did a few squats. I knew the robots were going to be fast. I’d need all my speed if I was going to put enough distance between them and me for this to work.

“Death is on the wind.” Victoria shambled over to me with a whining Butch at her side. “The she-wolf knows this as well. Be quick; do not tarry.”

“That’s the plan,” I told her, jumping up and down on my toes to mentally prepare myself as much as physically loosen up.

“Death is present. I feel his touch,” Victoria continued.

“Yes, yes, thanks for the pep talk. All your words of encouragement are greatly appreciated,” I told her. “I’ll be okay. I’ll come back.”

Butch pressed her head against my side.

“You stay here,” I told the wolf. “Stay, I’ll be right back.”

“Let’s get some cover on either side of the path,” Sergeant Toy instructed the group. “He’ll be coming in hot.”

I gave the team a thumbs-up and trotted down the path toward the antenna. I kept my jog even and balanced like a practice warm-up before the big event. I wasn’t one of those people who enjoyed running for exercise. More of the type who did it because they know it’s good for them.

Heck, who was I kidding? I was usually running toward or from something.

“Let’s assume they have ranged weapons,” X told me. “That means you’ll only need to get within their eyesight before you take off. No chances.”

“Oh, come on. You too?” I complained. “I’m not that easy to kill, remember?”

“I remember,” X said. “But I also remember how quick and strong those robots are. We’re taking no chances here. You heard what Victoria said.”

“What? That death walks among us?” I asked incredulously. “Don’t tell me you think the woman has a direct line to death himself.”

“No, but I do think she knows things we don’t,” X countered.

“I’ll run fast,” I reassured as the antenna and robots came into view again. I had a good twenty-meter head start on them when I trotted into the clearing.

Both robots, who stood stock still before, moved their heads to look in my direction. Two pairs of red eyes zeroed in on me.

“Hey, guys.” I waved. “Anyone feel up for a run?”


Twenty-Five

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

Both robots lifted their forearms as blasters opened from compartments.

“Oh well. That’s new,” I said, turning to run.

The robots sent red blaster fire in my direction that sounded like something hard pinging off a steel wall. The rounds echoed through the relative quiet of the jungle.

PING! PING! PING! PING! PING!

I sprinted, weaving my way as I ran back down the path.

Normally I wouldn’t have looked back when running at an all-out sprint, but I needed to make sure Humpty and Dumpty were following me into the trap. I looked back over my shoulder to see both robots keeping pace with one another. It even looked like they gained a few meters on me, closing the gap.

I focused all my attention ahead, arms pumping at my sides. As soon as one of my feet hit the dirt, I propelled myself forward over and over again. To the naked eye, I had to look like a blur, rich soil and dirt flying behind every step.

Lucky for me, the robots were lousy shots while sprinting. I couldn’t blame them. More rounds spattered against the ground to my right and left.

“Go, go, go,” X cheered me on. “Don’t stop; they’re closing the gap, but just barely. You’ll be fine if you maintain this speed.”

I charged along the path, passing the kill box where the explosives were placed. Then it hit me. One of the wild shots from the robots tore into my right calf. I was moving so fast, I couldn’t even think in time to stop or fall. My right leg came down ready to support my weight but couldn’t.

I fell in a heap right outside the kill box. I was still too close. I needed at least a few more meters between myself and the explosives to be free from injury.

“Get up! Get up!” X encouraged me. “A few more meters, just a few more meters.”

Ahead to the right and left of the path, I could see the Titans hunkered down looking to Sergeant Toy for Orders. Wesley held Butch by the collar, reassuring her to stay put. Victoria looked at me with pure exasperation in her eyes.

I waved them all back. My right calf was a mess of blood and muscle, but I’d heal. Right now, I just needed to make it a few more yards. I pushed myself up on my left foot, half limping, half hopping the rest of the way.

I must have gotten clear enough because a second after, Sergeant Toy gave the order. “Now!”

The bombs created an ear-piercing roar as both explosives on either side of the path detonated. The blast wasn’t strong enough to pick me up, but I definitely felt the heat and the concussive force of the explosion.

I fell to the ground as the rest of the team, including Wesley, opened fire on whatever was left of the robots.

Butch and Victoria ran over to my side, helping me to my feet and dragging me back to the right side of the road.

“Hold fire!” Sergeant Toy barked.

Immediately, everyone obeyed. An eerie quiet fell on the scene. Smoke and fire obscured our vision of the two robots. I gritted my teeth against the pain in my leg, but it was already subsiding.

Victoria looked concerned, tending my wound like some kind of mother wolf looking over her cub.

“I’m fine,” I reassured her. “I’ll heal.”

Butch growling was the first sign that all was not well.

I looked over to where the flames lapped at the path and the smoke floated to the sky above. Two figures walked from the explosion area. Both robots were on fire. Flames licked their steel bodies, but still they walked toward us.

The robot on the left was missing its left eye, the one on the right its right arm. They raised their weapons toward us again.

“Take cover!” Doc yelled as he unloaded with his pulse rifle.

Wesley was in the middle of the path, caught off guard by the robots. He brought the rifle to his shoulder, spraying them with rounds as he headed off the path. Both robots keyed in on him. With much better aim now that they weren’t in an all-out sprint, they fired on him.

I saw Wesley hit in the stomach, chest, leg, and finally, head in the space of a second. He struck the dirt hard, unmoving.

I’d seen death enough times in my life to know Wesley was gone; still, it didn’t compute. My brain couldn’t process what my eyes were telling me had happened.

All around me, noise took a back seat. It was like I had tunnel vision and the only thing I could see at the end of the tunnel was Wesley’s dead body.

X was even yelling at me, but she too sounded muffled and distant.

Titans took out grenades and Sergeant Toy yelled orders, but still, nothing really got through to me. I felt sick like I was going to vomit. All I wanted to do was tell myself this wasn’t happening, that Wesley was going to get up.

I crawled over to the body on hands and knees, shaking the man who had found me, recruited me, and trained me. The friend who turned his back on Immortal Corp choosing our family was now gone.

“Wesley,” I said, tears filling my eyes and racing down my cheeks. “Wesley, come on, get up!”

I felt like an idiot, but that was all I could say as I looked down on the older man. His eyes were still open, looking at the canopy of trees overhead.

Blood gushed from his wounds, the upper half of his forehead gone from one of the rounds.

“Daniel, you have to get off the road!” Victoria slapped me so hard, I thought I might black out. For an older woman, she had one heck of a backhand. “Daniel, he’s gone. He’s gone!”

The other Titans provided cover fire as Victoria and Butch bullied me backward. I was numb, angry and confused all at once. He was there one moment chewing his cigar, and then he was gone.

At least with Echo, I had a chance to say goodbye. I had the opportunity to send him off with the things previously left unsaid. With Wesley, it was the exact opposite.

“Move, move, move!” I heard Sergeant Toy roar around the sounds of blaster fire. “Grenades!”

I allowed Victoria and Butch to push me toward the left side of the path. We took cover behind a thick tree trunk with gnarled roots covering the ground like folds of a long robe.

“Daniel, Daniel, I’m so sorry, but Wesley’s gone,” X said in my head. I wasn’t sure if I was making it up or she was actually crying. “But there are people who need you right now. There’ll be a time to mourn soon.”

I knew she was right. Heat rose to my chest and face. I felt embarrassed that it had taken me this long to recover. But past the feeling of embarrassment was anger. White-hot rage.

“Creeves is hit!” Dion yelled as the Titans fought a losing battle.

The sounds of grenades going off punctured the air, but I knew if the explosives already set hadn’t destroyed the robots, then a few grenades wouldn’t either.

The Titans fell back past our location with Doc supporting a wounded Creeves. Butch barked violently as the pair of robots approached our position.

All thought to strategy or tactics went out the door. I just knew I needed to take out the robots before they wounded anyone else I cared about.

Victoria hunkered behind the tree. Wood chips cascaded through the air as the robots directed their fire at us.

I saw an opportunity. I took it.

I grabbed Butch’s collar, the one Bapz made for her that acted as a force field against any laser rounds. The wolf looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was.

Collar clenched in my right hand, I charged the robots. My targets increased their fire on my position as soon as I cleared the jungle tree line. Laser rounds splashed around me. A yellow force field popped in and out of life when the laser rounds splashed against it.

I knew I needed to pick up as much velocity as possible for this to work. With everything I had, I pumped my legs injured or not underneath me, heading straight for the pair of robots. If I could just move them even a meter off the path, the way the landscape was formed, I’d send them off the ledge, tumbling down to the pyramid below.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them then. At least the rest of the team would be safe for the time being. If nothing else, it would give Doc some time to patch up Creeves. Sergeant Toy would be able to regroup and come up with a plan.

Adrenaline and wrath propelling me forward, I slammed into the robot closest to me at bone-crunching speed. Something popped in my right shoulder as I tackled the hard metal being. My right arm went numb.

The robot was heavier than I expected. It stumbled a few feet back, even knocking into its counterpart. The pair of machines recovered their footing before they could topple over the edge of the path and down the steep slope toward the pyramid.

Past the pain in my arm, I refused to be defeated. With my left arm, I grabbed one of the arms of the robots, forcing the blaster away from me. The robots turned on me once more.

Time seemed to stand still in that tense moment as man struggled against machine. I dug my boots into the dirt path and pressed forward with everything I had left. A ball of fur slammed into my back and the robots beyond with enough force to break or bruise a few of my ribs.

Butch sounded like something out of a child’s nightmare. All teeth and massive paws, she clamped down on one of the robot’s forearms, taking control of the limb.

The robots gave more ground. They half tried not to fall, half struggled to turn on us to fire their blasters.

“You’ve almost got them, you crazy son of a brum,” X coached in my head. “Don’t stop pushing. Send them over. Don’t stop!”

That animal that lived inside me, that white-hot force that pushed me to be more than I ever could be on my own ignited.

Out of the corner of my red vision, I saw Sergeant Toy and Dion leave their cover. They sprinted forward, understanding what I was trying to do and ready to add their weight to the cause. Victoria even shambled forward. The woman couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds soaking wet, but still she came.

Sergeant Toy and Dion in full armor had to be somewhere in the wheelhouse of two hundred and fifty pounds apiece. They slammed into the robots, sending them off the path into the narrow jungle strip beyond and the ledge.

We all teetered there for a moment. I was pressed between the robots on one side and Butch and the Titans on the other, so I didn’t see her when she came, but I sure as crip heard her.

“Valhalla!” was Victoria’s scream that sounded like a banshee high on stem. I felt the slightest tremor hit our group. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.

We toppled over the ledge to the pyramid below.


Twenty-Six

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

I didn’t remember too much about the fall or if there was even anything to really remember. I felt a lot of pain as I tumbled down the slope. Pain I could deal with if it meant I succeeded. I smashed into trees, ate dirt, and burst through bushes on my way down the slope.

When I finally did come to a stop, my body quivered with pain. I was getting used to that feeling. My right arm was still numb and useless from the shoulder down. It ached with a soreness so deep, I almost wanted to laugh so I didn’t cry. It was like someone hit me on the funny bone with a boulder.

I knew my body would heal, but I wasn’t sure how it would react to a dislocated limb. Could it put it back in the socket by itself? I guessed we were about to find out.

Only you, I thought to myself in my head. Only you could get trapped on an island with robots, ancient knights, and a crazy old woman whose war cry is “Valhalla.”

I slowly sat up from my supine position on the jungle floor. My tumble took me down the long slope to the foot of the pyramid. The structure was truly amazing. I had heard of ancient wonders of the world. I knew a pyramid was among them and not this pyramid, but I couldn’t help but think it deserved to be.

Every level of the pyramid was large enough to walk through like various stories in a building. As each story was stacked on one another, the squares got smaller and smaller, creating that pyramid look.

Two giant stone doors greeted me. The doors were large enough for at least four people to walk through shoulder to shoulder. Intricate carvings on the doors were obscured by green moss and vines.

Shouting brought me back to the present. The yells were Sergeant Toy and Victoria trying to figure out where they were in relation to everyone else. It seemed I was the only lucky one to have made it all the way down the slope.

“Is everyone okay?” Sergeant Toy called.

“Oh yeah, just peachy,” Dion answered.

“What’s your definition of okay?” Victoria asked from where I couldn’t see on the slope.

Butch barked.

“The robots,” X warned out loud. “Where are the robots?”

Two pieces of tangled metal skeletons worked their way free of one another and a large clump of bushes to my left.

Despite all odds, they were still in working condition. Sparks came from both metal skeletons. One limped while the other’s legs had been crushed completely. That one crawled its way toward me hand over hand.

The one limping was also the same robot that was missing an arm from the explosions before. It had a single blaster on its forearm it lifted in my direction.

“Why won’t you just die!?” I yelled, working my way to my feet. Somehow I had managed to hold on to Butch’s collar in my left hand.

When the robot sent a spray of rounds toward me, they splashed against the yellow force field like pellets of rain against a windshield.

Hungry red eyes that did not understand pain or fatigue bored into me. The robot on the ground grabbing handfuls of dirt was particularly disturbing as it clawed its way forward.

The blaster Wesley gave me was lost in the roll. Even if it hadn’t been, I wasn’t sure it would do any good. These machines were nearly invincible to small arms.

Once again, I faced staring down an opponent I couldn’t beat.

My spirit wasn’t going to let me go down without a fight. That’s not who I was. I was the one that got back up and kept getting back up no matter what life threw my way.

“Well, come on, then,” I growled, spitting blood from my mouth. “We’re not done yet! If you have any ideas, now would be a good time,” I told X. “We’re kinda in a pickle here.”

“That’s the understatement of the century,” X answered. “We could try and—”

The sounds of deep stone grating like one boulder being dragged across another caused both robots and me to look over at the pyramid. The stone door slowly lifted from the ground.

On the other side, the same Knight of the Way I had seen before stalked out carrying his war hammer.

“Abominations!” he roared with all the righteous fury of some ancient king staring down his sworn enemy. “I will be your undoing!”

The one robot who still had the working blaster turned it on the knight. Without fear of injury, the knight stalked toward the robot amidst its flurry of rounds. With a giant swing, he brought down his war hammer on the skull of the robot, crushing it so completely, it looked like it actually folded in on itself.

The last robot crawled toward him and latched on to his right foot.

“Be gone to the depths of hell whence you came!” the knight ordered, lifting his war hammer above the creature's head in a two-handed grip with the hammer head facing down. He slammed the weapon into what was left of the robot’s body, crushing the metal.

The red lights in the face of the robot flickered then went out completely.

The knight turned his head in my direction.

“Peace be with you, good knight,” I told him, trying to remember how they spoke and copy the phrasing. “We must converse with another and sup or something like that.”

“Why are you talking like that?” X asked.

“That’s the way he talks,” I answered. “Maybe we can find some common ground.”

“I’m not sure it works like that,” X said.

“You seek the chalice for yourself!” The knight regripped his war hammer and stalked forward. “You must meet the same fate as the others.”

I was in no condition to fight anyone, weaponless and with a useless arm, but still, I held my ground. Wesley died for that chalice and I wasn’t going to back down now that we were so close.

“Eric, no!” Victoria’s voice cut right through the tense moment. “Peace, fellow knight. Peace at this moment.”

The knight wheeled around as if caught off guard by the voice.

“Victoria?” Eric asked, searching the jungle depths of the slope for the voice. “Is that you?”

“It is.” Victoria shambled out of the jungle undergrowth. It was almost comical to see the small woman next to the moving mountain that was the knight. “Eric, this man is a friend. It’s time. It’s time, Eric, for the knight to finally rest. It’s time to unburden yourself of the chalice once and for all.”

The way Victoria spoke, it was as if she were another person altogether. It was clear now the woman had moments of clarity, showing us who she used to be.

Eric looked back and forth between me and Victoria. Butch burst through the jungle shrubbery on the slope. She came over to place herself between me and the knight.

Head down, ears pinned back to her head, Butch let out a low, menacing growl. It didn’t matter to her that the knight was much larger than she was, that he was armored, or the weapon he held. I knew Butch would die for me, but to actually see her willing to place herself in harm’s way on my behalf meant something totally different.

“There are more coming down the jungle slope,” Victoria told Eric as the sounds of someone crashing through plants and tree branches reached our ears. “Again, they are not your enemy, you walking mountain. But they will be if you so choose.”

Sergeant Toy and Dion came forward, taking a step just outside the cover of the dense jungle slope. As one, they lifted their rifles at the knight.

“She’s right,” Sergeant Toy confirmed. “We’re only here for the Relic. And even then only here to make sure it doesn’t get into the wrong hands.”

“The Relic is safe with the Knights of the Way,” Eric proclaimed. “It has been for centuries and will continue to be so.”

“Not anymore,” Sergeant Toy answered. “Think about it. More and more people are going to be coming back to Earth. The Galactic Government wants to keep it safe like you have for all these years. They’ll send more soldiers, more dropships. Dozens, hundreds, whatever it takes.”

Eric remained still. I couldn’t see his face due to his helmet interfering, but I imagined he looked thoughtful, maybe even disturbed the sergeant was right.

“I get that this is all a very tense moment and we might all be trying to kill each other in a second, but I really have to pop my shoulder back into its socket,” I said with a grunt. “Does anyone know how to do that?”

Victoria shambled over to me. “Which one is it?”

“This one,” I answered, looking down at my right arm. “I must have dislocated it when—”

Without any kind of warning or countdown, Victoria grabbed my wrist with her left hand, jerking down. With her right palm, she struck my shoulder, forcing it back in place.

“Rawww!” I yelled as a painful electric tingling numbed my shoulder. “What’s wrong with you? No warning? I need a countdown or something to mentally prepare for something like that.”

“Blood is one, one is blood,” Victoria said to me with a smile on her lips. Apparently, whatever moment of mental clarity she had before was gone now. “Feel better, does it?”

I gently moved my arm around. It was still painful, but at least I could use it now.

“We swore oaths to protect the Relic until the end of time.” Eric took up the conversation again. “I will not break my word. My word is my bond.”

“Listen to me,” Sergeant Toy said, still aiming his weapon at the knight. “I get you. Really, I do. We’re both soldiers. But you’ll die here. If it’s not me, then it’ll be the Galactic Government raining thermo bombs down on you. It’ll be an entire legion coming to lay siege to you. It’s over. But you don’t have to die here.”

“Death is nothing I fear,” Eric told him. “No one can be trusted with the Relic that grants eternal life. The power corrupts even the best among us. Tell them, Victoria, tell them what it’s done. If you haven’t already.”

“The chalice that is the Relic turns brother against brother.” Victoria licked her dry lips. Her expression fell to one of sadness and doubt. “The knights, I, we were many before. Now, over time, we are nearly extinct.”

“How can you be extinct if the knights drank from the chalice?” I asked her. “If that gave you eternal life, then none of the knights guarding the Relic should have been able to die. Or am I missing something here?”

“Death is not the only way to be rendered dead,” Eric said quietly.

I looked over at the two Shadow Praetorians for help.

Dion shrugged.

“Explain,” Sergeant Toy said.

“Eternal life is a burden none were meant to shoulder,” Eric answered, looking over at Victoria as if she were living proof of this. “Dying and then coming back time and time again is too much for the human psyche to handle. Knights went insane.”

“It was as if every time they died and then came back, they came back with less and less of themselves,” Victoria said so quietly, I almost didn’t hear her at all. “Some walked off never to be seen again. Others—others threw themselves into the gate.”

“The gate?” Sergeant Toy repeated.

“A prison not of this world,” Eric clarified as if that were all the explanation needed.

I could feel our time running out. As soldiers and mercenaries, we were all built to fight for what we wanted, not talk. Sooner or later, the dam of chaos was going to boil over and we were going to see who wanted the Relic the most.

“As much as I know you want to fight,” X told me in my head, “right now, we still need to disable Rival’s dampening tech. With that down, we can call Cassie and the others.”

X was rarely wrong. I’d seen what Eric could do firsthand. As highly as I regarded my own skills, I doubted I was going to be able to take him, even with the help of Butch and the Titans.

“The Knights will hold,” Eric said, swinging his weapon over his shoulder. “We have for centuries.”

Without another word, the large man turned his back on us and walked toward the pyramid entrance.

The stone door made that same grating noise it did before as it lifted into the ceiling. This time, I got a better view inside the pyramid. It looked like a giant corridor with torches lining either wall.

“Sir, orders?” Dion asked. “Do we engage?”

“Stand down,” Sergeant Toy told him. “Creeves is wounded. We have to get that signal jamming our comms down. We need backup.”


Twenty-Seven

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

It hurt my soul a little bit to see the rock door close behind Eric, but I knew I was making the right choice. Wesley was lying up the slope by himself. Cassie and the others still had no idea what was going on.

Victoria remained uncharacteristically quiet as we climbed the slope back to where Doc and Creeves waited with Wesley.

The slope was steep and the going slow. I found myself between Sergeant Toy on my left and Victoria on my right.

“We going to talk about the thousand-pound knight in the room or just pretend it’s not happening?” Sergeant Toy asked me.

“Are you talking about the Relic?” I questioned.

“I am,” he answered.

“I like you, Toy,” I told him. “I trust you. I don’t trust the GG. What do you think they’re going to do with the Relic? You think they just want it to keep it safe? They’re just going to put something like that in a warehouse somewhere and forget about it?”

“No, no, I don’t suppose they would,” Sergeant Toy mused. “And I’m guessing you and yours are going to want it to keep safe somewhere in that manor of yours. I’ll be honest with you, Daniel. I like you too. And I trust you. What I don’t trust is all those people you have living at your estate.”

Sweat ran into my eyes as I took another step forward. It was so steep here, I had to get down on all fours like Victoria. I wasn’t sure how the Titans were making the trek in their armor.

“How can you be sure it’s not going to be stolen?” Sergeant Toy asked. “Or that someone won’t try to use it and then just put it back. If this thing is for real, then eternal life is going to be one heck of a temptation for most.”

“Most but not you?” I asked.

“I don’t want to live forever,” Sergeant Toy said without hesitation. “Our galaxy is turning into a dark place. I’m just here to do my job and I’m at peace with the moment when it comes my turn to go.”

“You would have made a good member of the Pack,” I told him. “We’ll figure this out. Maybe there’s a way we can destroy the Relic so no one has it.”

I heard Victoria clicking her tongue beside me.

“Relics are not of this world remind you I, we must,” Victoria chided me like a kid who forgot the answer to an obvious question. “The gate. The gate is the answer. You must throw the Relic into the gate.”

The hard truth was no one had a perfect answer to this problem, me included.

If it came down to it, I would throw the Relic into the gate. However, I saw how the book we used against the Voy turned the tide of war. If it weren’t for that Relic, we would have lost. Humanity would be in chains or at the very best engaged in a losing battle.

I had the book. I wanted to keep the chalice as well. Who knew what other enemies waited for us out there in the depths of space. I wanted to be prepared. When the fight came, I wanted to be the one holding all the cards.

We made it up the rest of the slope in silence. It was growing dark now. Doc waited with Wesley’s body and a wounded Creeves grateful to still be drawing breath. The woman was as tough as they came. The blaster round from the robot struck her in the left shoulder between her chestplate and shoulder guard. Her left arm was in a makeshift sling.

Doc had placed a blanket over Wesley’s body.

I looked over to thank him.

“No need,” Doc said before I could offer my gratitude. “He’s a brother, even if he’s not a Titan. I saw him stand strong in the middle of that fire fight. Didn’t even flinch. It’s the least I can do.”

I just nodded along with his words, not trusting myself to say something without choking on the sadness.

I’d seen a lot of death, caused much of it myself. But this was different. With the holes in my memory still so prevalent, I didn’t remember losing anyone I deeply cared for besides Echo and, in a way, Amber.

Now that Wesley was gone, I felt another face of sorrow I had yet to experience. Wesley was like a father figure. The man who brought me into the Pack Protocol and the one who found me on the moon. He took care of me the best he could until the very end.

“We should get him back to the dropship and home for a proper burial,” X suggested.

“We will,” I told her as I looked down on Wesley’s still form under the blanket. “We will, but first, I’m going to finish what we started together. I’m going to take out that signal, we’re going to call in the rest of the team, and we’re going to get into that pyramid.”

“It’s going to be dark soon,” X reminded me. “If you want to get the signal off, and the rest of the team here, you’ll need to hurry.”

“I’m on it,” I said, grateful to have something to do. I thought if I were to dwell on Wesley and what happened to him any longer, I’d get lost in my own head.

I looked over at Victoria, who stood with her back to me. She stared out down the slope and back to the pyramid. I had no idea what the woman was thinking, but I figured it best to leave her be.

“I’m going to go take care of that signal,” I told Sergeant Toy and the rest of the Titans. “When I do, we should call in the rest of our people to make an assault on the pyramid.”

“I can call in some GG support as well,” Sergeant Toy answered. “They’ll arrive in the space of twenty-four hours with an army.”

That’s exactly what I can’t have happen; I thought to myself. My chances turn from slim to none if the island’s crawling with praetorians. I need to get that chalice now.

I just nodded to the sergeant. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew as well as I did what he was doing.

“Victoria, I could use your help,” I interrupted the woman’s thoughts.

“Me, I, we, our help?” Victoria looked over at me, confused. “We know nothing of the signal.”

I gave her a deadpan stare then a jerk of my chin to come with me.

She finally caught my drift and decided to play ball. The two of us along with Butch padded down the path to the satellite in the jungle. The sun was nearly gone. The ever present storm clouds overhead cast the jungle into a series of macabre shadows that teased my imagination.

“There has to be another way,” I told Victoria as we walked toward Rival’s jamming antenna. “There has to be a way to challenge Eric for the Relic or an argument he’ll understand. He can even come with us. He can travel with the Relic back home.”

“There is none.” Victoria shook her head, sending her long, stringy hair into the wind around her. “Eric is only one of two knights that remain. Neither he nor the other will see reason where the vows stand in place.”

We traveled the rest of the way in silence. I racked my mind trying to come up with a way to get the Relic from inside the fortress-like pyramid without having to fight the Galactic Government in the process.

“The wolf,” Victoria said to me as we reached the small clearing with the tree that held the antenna.

I looked over at Butch, who huffed at the air. Hackles rose from her tail to the nap of hair on the back of her neck. She let out a growl.

“I can get you into the pyramid.” Rival’s voice drifted to me from the depths of the shadows to my left. “I can get us in tonight.”


Twenty-Eight

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

I cursed myself for not bringing a blaster with me.

“Tell that wolf horse of yours not to take off my head and I’ll explain,” Rival said.

I couldn’t see him yet. Even blinking twice and using my night vision didn’t help. He was hiding behind a tree or maybe a pile of rocks.

As much as I wanted to kill him myself, if he did have a way into the pyramid, it was exactly what I needed.

“You can’t trust him,” X reminded me. “You can’t believe anything he says.”

“I know,” I whispered. “But if he’s right, then Wesley’s death isn’t for nothing and I don’t have to worry about the GG element arriving tomorrow.”

“Be careful,” X warned.

“Easy, Butch,” I said, placing my left hand on the wolf’s back. “Easy, let’s wait to rip out his throat for just a second longer.”

“That’s the spirit,” Rival said, showing himself. He stepped out from behind a giant tree, ten meters in front of us. “Well, isn’t this nice? Here we all are. Daniel, the wolf horse, and who might you be, my dear?”

“I am, we are,” Victoria answered him.

“You are who?” Rival asked, confused. “Do you live on this island?”

“Perhaps. Time is a strange thing,” Victoria said in response. “You are like the rest of them who have come to the island seeking the Relic for their own purposes. I can smell it on you, taste it on the wind.”

“Is she crazy?” Rival asked me. “She’s not making any sense at all.”

“Now you know what it’s like talking to you,” I remarked, taking the opportunity to study him. A gash split the right side of his head. His left hand was wrapped in bandages, but other than that, he seemed to have survived our fall into the ocean just fine.

There were no weapons I could see, which didn’t mean much. I wouldn’t put it past Rival to have a shank hidden in a boot or a small blaster tucked into the back of his belt.

“Oh please, I’m not that crazy when I talk.” Rival rolled his eyes. “My dialogue is playful and mysterious. This old bat is just plain cray, cray.”

“It’s taking everything I have to not let Butch tear into you,” I told him. “The only reason I haven’t is because you said you can get into the pyramid. Explain, now.”

“Wow, touchy, touchy,” Rival answered. “You know, I had that dream again. Two figures struggling for the golden orb on the tree. Except that orb is changing into the image of a woman and I’m not sure it’s a tree at all anymore; maybe more of a ledge. But I am sure it was you and me.”

“Butch,” I said to the wolf. “Get ready to tear off manhood.”

Butch crouched lower, ready to spring.

“Okay, okay.” Rival lifted his hands into the air. “It’s come to my attention that taking on that giant knight on my own will pose a problem. Even more so now that you’ve destroyed the robots on loan to me. I’m going to bill you for those, FYI. Anyway, I need your help to take out the knights.”

“You think I’m going to help you kill the knights and just hand over the Relic?” I snorted. “You’re crazier than Victoria, if that’s what you’re getting after right now. No offense, Victoria.”

“I, we are not offended.” Victoria giggled.

“No, but when the antenna jamming this island comes down and those GG boys are able to call in for backup, this place is going to be crawling with trigger happy praetorians all dressed up for battle.” Rival sighed. “Then either of us getting our hands on that Relic is going to be impossible. Right now, all I’m offering you is a chance to get inside and a fair fight. You, the knight, and me.”

“Why not sneak in yourself?” I asked him. “I don’t think you’d be able to take the knight in a fair fight, but you don’t exactly strike me as someone who’s worried about fair.”

“No, you’re right.” Rival shrugged. “I am what I am. I don’t mind doing a little throat-slitting when the time comes.”

My anger flared at the mention of Zoe Valentine. Rival really knew how to get under my skin.

“Sorry too soon, too soon,” Rival chided himself. “That was uncalled for. My bad. Anyway, the path I’ve found into the pyramid requires another’s help. I can’t get in by myself.”

“And when we are in, what’s stopping you from stabbing me in the back?” I asked.

“Nothing, as there’s nothing stopping you from trying to kill me once we’re in.” Rival shrugged. “I’m not sure what you want from me here, Danny boy. I have a way in. I can’t get in without you. You need a way in. You can’t get in without me. So there we are, at an impasse, if you would. What’s your answer?”

We both knew I was going to say yes. This entire conversation was just a charade. If there was a chance I could get in tonight without risking the safety of anyone else or having to get into a fight with the GG, I was going to take it.

“I’ll go with you on one condition,” I told him.

“What’s that?” Rival asked with a raised brow.

“You shut down the antenna and let me make a call,” I told him. “I won’t take long. Give me five minutes.”

“You and me, Danny, you and me.” Rival shook a finger in my direction. “Something tells me we have a long, unhealthy relationship that’s only beginning. Okay, you have a deal.”

Rival reached behind his back for something. I tensed. Butch growled.

“Easy, easy, friends,” Rival said, producing a small remote with his right hand. He pointed it at the antenna. It stopped blinking red.

“Crush it,” I told him.

“What?”

“The remote,” I told him. “Put it on the ground and crush it with your boot. I don’t want the antenna to magically start working again when I need comms the most.”

“What?” Rival looked offended. “No trust? You and I are going to have to work on that if we’re to have any kind of working relationship moving forward.”

I stared at him deadpan.

“Okay, okay, so don’t trust me. We’ll work on it,” Rival said, dropping the remote. He stamped his right boot onto it, breaking the small device into a dozen different pieces.

“X?” I asked.

“Yes, I can open a comm line now. The island is free from whatever was hindering communication before,” X said out loud for all to hear. “Do you want me to open up a comm line to the rest of the group?”

“As much as I hate to admit anything he says makes sense, this is the right play,” I told Victoria in a hushed voice. I even turned my back on Rival. “Wait here for Sergeant Toy. I’m sure he’ll be along shortly to find out why we haven’t come back.”

“But then what do I, we tell him?” Victoria asked.

“By that time, it won’t matter,” I told her. “I’ll be long gone with Rival. I’ll contact Cassie on my way out and tell her about you and where you are. If anything happens to me, she’ll be here for you and Wesley.”

I half thought Victoria would argue against the plan. Maybe that was just hopeful wishing.

“Watch him,” Victoria said, peeking around me at Rival. “It’s not a matter of if the Dark One will double cross you, only when.”

“That’s why I plan on getting to him first,” I whispered to the old woman. “Take care of yourself, Victoria.”

“You as well.” Victoria dipped her head as if she were showing a sign of respect. “Blood is one, one is blood.”

Butch whined then huffed at my side.

“You too, girl, you’re staying,” I told her, dropping to a knee.

The big alpha wolf came over and licked my nose.

I grabbed the sides of her head and squished her face playfully until it was hard to see her eyes. She panted happily.

“I’ll be okay,” I told her. “You stay here with Victoria and watch over Wesley until Cassie and the others come.”

Butch panted but stayed put when I got back to my feet.

“This is all very touching, but those Shadow Praetorians are going to come looking for you soon and we need to have gone by then,” Rival called to my back. “We should be getting while the getting is good, if you know what I mean.”

“Lead the way,” I ordered. “Far ahead in front of me where I can see you if you decide to do anything shady. I need to make a call to the rest of my team.”

“I told you I’m not going to backstab you, at least not on this one.” Rival grinned so large, I swear I could see his molars. “At least not until we get into the pyramid and take out the knight, then it’s game on.”

Rival turned and moved into the jungle. I followed at a safe distance.

“Shall I call Cassie now?” X asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Daniel—Daniel, is that you?” Cassie’s worried voice filled the comm channel.

I didn’t realize how much I missed her, not because we had been apart for so long—it had only been two days—but because what she meant to me. In the short time we had been apart, I had been captured, fished out of the ocean by Victoria, told some pretty crazy things about Relics, and we had lost Wesley.

“Yes, yes, it’s me,” I answered. “Are you all right? Cryx? Enoch?”

“We’re fine, Daniel.” Cassie’s voice filled with emotion. “We’re at the dropship. Wesley and Butch went to find you.”

“I know,” I told her, clearing my throat. My mouth was dry. I didn’t know how to tell her what had happened to Wesley.

I followed Rival while I spoke. As promised, he stayed where I could see him a good five to ten meters in front of me. We worked our way around the path toward the side of the pyramid.

“How are we able to talk all of a sudden?” Cassie asked. “Daniel, where are you? We should meet up. If communication on the island is available now, the GG will be calling in for reinforcements.”

“I know, I know,” I said, frustrated at myself for not being able to push out the words I so desperately needed to at the moment. “Rival’s here. He interfered with communication on and off the island, but we took care of that.”

“Rival? What? How? Daniel, where are you? What aren’t you telling me?” Cassie demanded. “What happened?”

I was amazed at how well she knew me already. How did she have any idea there was something wrong?

“It’s Wesley,” I answered, clenching my jaw to stop the wave of emotion seeking to seize my heart once more. “He didn’t make it.”

Cassie was quiet on the other end of the channel. A long silence spread over us like black ink in a cup of water, slowly but total.

“Daniel, I’m so sorry,” Cassie said with a heaviness in her voice I had yet to hear from her. “He was my friend too, but I know what he meant to you. I’m so sorry.”

“Me too,” I said, swallowing hard to force back the lump growing in my throat. “But I’m doing something now to make sure he didn’t die in vain. I’m going to get the Relic. We know where it is.”

A deep sense of trepidation grabbed the back of my neck and sent a shiver down my spine. I was usually pretty optimistic about things. I was sure about my abilities and I would find a way to get things done.

Maybe it was because I just lost Wesley, but the sense of being nearly invulnerable to death was fading. I felt my own mortality. It rested heavy on my heart.

“Cassie, if anything happens to me, there’s a woman here named Victoria,” I informed her. “She’s crazier than sin, but she means well. She’s with Butch. X can send you our coordinates. If you need to bring the dropship, there’s nowhere to land, but you’ll be able to make the trip fast. We can expect GG reinforcements to be here within the next twenty-four hours.”

“Why are you talking like this?” Cassie asked. “Daniel, what are you about to do?”

“I’m going to get that Relic.”

“Wait for me,” Cassie pleaded. “I’m on my way. If we bring the dropship, I can be there in minutes.”

“I don’t think my guide is going to go with that,” I told her.

“Definitely not,” Rival scolded, turning around shaking his right pointer finger from side to side. “I’m not trying to take love birds on a romantic excursion here. By the way, tell Cassie I said hello. I’m a big fan of those weaponized forearms of hers.”

I ignored Rival.

“Don’t tell me you’re doing what I think you’re doing.” Cassie inhaled sharply. “Daniel, he’s a liar, a murderer, and worse. You can’t trust him. He’s going to betray you the first chance he gets.”

“I know,” I answered. “But not if I do it first. This is the only way. You have the coordinates. If I’m not out by the time the GG gets here, you have to go.”

The channel went quiet.

I understood what war waged in Cassie’s heart. It was the same battle fought in mine. Cassie was a Cyber Hunter, the very elite of the Order soldiers. She understood duty and sacrifice better than most.

“I’m coming and I’ll get this woman, Wesley, and Butch,” Cassie said with a hard edge in her voice. “You just get back with or without the Relic. I don’t care. You just get back, do you understand? Do you promise? We still need to go on another date. Promise me, Daniel Hunt. You promise me, right now.”

“I promise,” I told her, knowing I had no idea if I could make good on that promise, but it was what she needed to hear at the time. “I’ll do everything I can to get back.”

The channel went quiet again.

I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell her that I thought I was falling in love with her, but it didn’t seem fair to put that on her now. Besides, we had known each other for such a short time. Could I even love her already? Was that possible? But I did. I knew I did.

Telling her that now, though, would that be for me? What if I didn’t come back? How much harder would it be for her if I told her I loved her then was gone forever?

“I think I’m falling in like with you,” I blurted out. It was a cheesy line, but it was the best I had at the moment.

“Ha, nice one,” Rival snickered, not turning around. “Smooth.”

I ignored him again.

“I think I’m falling in like with you too, Daniel.” Cassie half laughed at the statement. “Go, focus on what you have to do and come back to me. Goodbye, Daniel Hunt. I’ll see you soon.”

“See you soon,” I echoed.

The line went dead.


Twenty-Nine

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

“For what it’s worth, I think you two make a cute couple,” Rival told me, looking over his shoulder. “You were talking to the Cyber Hunter who visited me in the Hole and went with us to the Swamp Land, right? The one with the forearms? I wasn’t wrong before at my guess?”

I didn’t answer him. I wasn’t about to participate in his mind games.

“We’ll get you back safe to her in no time at all,” Rival said. “We get in, take care of the knight, grab the Relic, and we get out.”

Rival led me a quarter way around the pyramid so we were looking at its right side in the darkness. The night set in, taking its reign over the sky now. Nocturnal creatures scurried through the bushes, ticking and grunting as they went.

Slowly we made our way down the steep slope in a zigzag pattern so as not to fall. Moving down the treacherous terrain in the dark was slower than I would have liked.

“Not much of a conversationalist, are you?” Rival asked as we picked our steps down the path. “Maybe we can play a word association game or something. Or I’ll just talk for both of us.”

I still didn’t give in. I’d seen firsthand how Rival operated. He lured you into a sense of friendship, whispering tales that he wasn’t that bad of a guy, just misunderstood. That was before he slit your throat.

“I think this is destiny, you know?” Rival continued. “I mean, I believe things happen for a reason. The universe isn’t chance or happenstance. It’s order. I think there’s freedom in that. I was always meant to be who I am, as were you, my friend. And our meeting has always been the plan.”

“You operate in chaos, the bombings, the lack of allegiance to any group or corporation,” I said, knowingly taking the bait. “Even now under the guise of working for a powerful family, you’re just out for yourself. How’s that order?”

“Order in chaos, my friend, order in chaos.” Rival chuckled to himself. “I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it makes sense if you think about it. I’m like a hurricane. At first glance, a hurricane is nothing more than destructive and violent, but even the hurricane abides by rules and laws. The way the wind moves, the duration, what elements are needed to cause a hurricane in the first place; all of it, order.”

“Don’t do it,” X reminded me. “Don’t engage with him. You know what he is.”

I agreed with her. Although I didn’t pursue the conversation, Rival went on and on as if I had. By the time we reached the bottom of the slope, I was convinced he was actually lonely. Crazy for sure, but lonely as well with no friends and no one to talk to.

“And that’s the second time I had to lance a parasite off my rear end,” Rival was saying when I checked back into the conversation. “Nasty little buggers. Still have a scar on my bum if you don’t believe me. Well, it looks like we’re here.”

We made it to the bottom of the steep slope. The giant pyramid reared up in front of us. It looked so much larger now standing at its base rather than looking down at it from the ridge.

This was the second time I had gotten an up close look at it. The first time, I was fighting with robots and a ballistic knight was in front of me, so I couldn’t really take my time appreciating the structure.

The stones fit perfectly into one another. The carvings had to take a team of expert craftsmen hours to perform. The art was masterful, withstanding the test of time for who knows how long.

I walked over to the pyramid, running a hand on the cold stone. My fingers traced the carving of a shield and sword.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?” Rival asked. “That’s another thing. Why do ships and vehicles and such always have to be ‘she’s’? Why can’t they be ‘he’s’?”

“Where’s this entrance you told me about?” I asked. “Let’s get this done.”

“I had our robots friends scour the pyramid looking for weaknesses in the rock,” Rival explained. “I took a 3D model of the pyramid and examined it over and over again on a holo display. There had to be more than one way in and out, right? I mean, what if the entrance caved in or they were under siege?”

“What did you find?” I questioned.

“Halfway up the pyramid, there’s a hatch, but it takes two people from the outside to be able to open it,” Rival disclosed. He pointed to the middle of the pyramid about five stories up. “We’ll need to start climbing.”

“Lead the way,” I said with an outstretched arm. “You know the drill. Stay ahead of me so I can see what you’re doing.”

“Still no trust,” Rival huffed to himself. “You’ll see. When I say something, I’m a man of my word. I need you to get inside. We need each other. I’m not trying to off you at the moment.”

“The ‘at the moment’ part is what bothers me,” I told him. “Let’s go.”

There were no stairs leading up the pyramid sides. That would have been too easy. Instead, a series of ten-foot walls greeted us. One by one, we pulled ourselves up the walls, walked toward the next level, then did it again.

I made use of the carvings wherever there was a deep enough indentation for a toe or handhold. At the top of every wall, Rival reached down to offer me a hand up.

I refused them all.

I did get a better look at the carvings as we climbed. Each level seemed to have a different theme. One of them showed men and women with wings caught in a ferocious battle with one another.

Another level bore images of warriors using vambraces to fight creatures not of this world. It was obvious time had worn some of the details away, but the main images remained.

I was climbing the final level when I lost my footing underneath me. I reached up trying to grab the ledge of the level before falling. Instead of my fingers clamping onto stone, Rival grabbed my hand.

“Got you,” he said, pulling me up.

It was a strange feeling to think that we were still enemies when he was so willing to help. He hauled me up the rest of the way and nodded to the sixth wall in front of us.

“Here we are, then,” Rival said, looking at an image carved into the stone that looked like some kind of ancient water dragon. The beast nearly ran the length of the wall. On one side, its tail whipped around the water as if it were swimming.

The long body stretched out, leading to its head on the opposite side. The dragon’s snout almost touched the end of the other side of the wall.

“The information I gathered from the robots and the 3D imaging says this section of the wall is unlike the others as far as it’s hollow in the center,” Rival explained. “There’s two locking mechanisms one either side of this level, which leads me to believe the sections need to be pressed in at the same time. That should open a door.”

“Should?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve never done it before and you destroyed the robots that I was going to use to test it out.” Rival shrugged. “Let’s just hope the knights haven’t booby trapped it somehow.”

“Come on,” Rival said, heading to the section of the wall with the tail. “I’ll search this side; you get the other. We’re looking for any kind of trigger, switch, or button.”

I kept my eye on him as he walked away on my left side. Once we opened the door, that was when I would make my move. He felt like he needed me to take out the knight. I didn’t trust him that far. I’d put him down once we were in.

It almost felt wrong backstabbing him, but I had to remind myself who he was. Zoe was without a voice because of him. Wesley was dead not directly by his hand, but by the robots Rival had brought with him.

These thoughts cascaded through my mind as I kept one eye on Rival. As far as I could tell, he was sticking with the plan thus far. He was at his end of the wall running both hands across the surface, kneeling and examining the stone.

I ran both hands over the carving on my side. The left side of the dragon’s face was menacing. The head reminded me of the creature we saw in the Swamp Lands.

The dragon etched into the stone was a bit thinner but basically the same: scales, massive teeth in an open maw, and powerful limbs. I pressed my fingers into crevices and pushed at each scale on its face and teeth, nothing.

I even used my night vision to get a better look, but still I couldn’t find what I searched for. A rogue thought entered my mind that this had all been some kind of extravagant trick by Rival.

“Found it,” Rival said in a hushed voice from his side of the wall. “The edge of his tail pressed inward. Have you got yours?”

“Almost,” I said, not knowing for sure if that was the truth. I started pressing harder on sections now that I knew that was how the mechanism was triggered. Sure enough, when I pressed harder on the pupil of the dragon’s eye, it moved inward. “Got it.”

“Good. On three, then,” Rival instructed. “One, two, three.”

I pressed the middle of the dragon’s eye again. Rival did the same with the tip of the tail. Something large moved within the pyramid. A deep grinding sound of stone on stone reached our ears.

The middle section of the wall near the dragon’s stomach moved inward. A piece of stone just wider than my own shoulder gave way.

I got ready to make my move on Rival. He remained oblivious to my plan. Instead, he was the first to the dark entrance, looking down.

“I think there are stairs here,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s too dark to tell, but we’ll be able to move by touch if we go slowly. I know the drill. I’ll go first and you’ll follow a safe distance behind and blah, blah, blah.”

He was right there, so close. I didn’t have a weapon in my hands, but I didn’t need one. I could grab his neck and snap it in two in the space of a single heartbeat.

He deserved it, I know he did, for what he did to Zoe for his part in Wesley’s death. I’d killed dozens already and I would do so to more before I was done. Then why was his death so hard to justify to myself?

“It’s now or not at all,” X told me in my head. “I’m not trying to convince you one way or another, but this is our opportunity.”

I followed Rival into the dark passage that wasn’t so dark at all for me; my ability to see in the dark paid dividends here. Everything was bathed in a bright golden hue thanks to X and her ability to tap into my retinal cortex.

I saw the steep steps end about a story below and the passage widen.

You have to take him out, I told myself in my head. If not for what he’s already done then for what he will do in the future. He’s going to turn on you again. It’s in his nature.

I made up my mind.

I reached for the back of Rival’s head in the darkness.

I never got the chance to grab him.


Thirty

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

The same grating noise that accompanied the opening of the door signaled it closing behind us. We both swung around in time to see the pale silver light of the moon disappear completely.

Rival was blind in the pitch blackness. I could still see. What still came for us in the moment did not bode well for either of us.

“Duck!” I yelled on instinct.

A red laser light in the corridor zipped toward us. It was about neck level. On one side of the wall, a short, stubby cylinder shot the beam toward the other side that burned the stone wall as it passed.

It raced toward us, ready to take our heads off.

Both Rival and I raced down the last few steps and rolled under the light.

“More behind us!” Rival warned me. “This is a death trap. Run!”

I glanced over my shoulder just long enough to confirm his words. Sure enough, a series of red lights appeared.

We both raced forward toward the end of the corridor. I could see where the hall ended and let out into a larger room. What was in that larger room had yet to be seen.

Stone steps underneath my feet shifted slightly, just enough to tell me that we were triggering yet other traps by the weight of our passing.

Darts whizzed overhead, one taking me in the left shoulder and another in the left side of the neck.

I ripped the darts out of me, but not before whatever poison they held entered my system.

I felt sluggish as I ran. My body fought to burn off whatever was injected into me just as fast as the poison spread through my bloodstream.

We must have tripped another alarm because the stone door in front of us began to close from the ceiling down.

“Hurry,” Rival shouted to me above the sounds of the burning lasers and whistling darts.

How he had been able to dodge the darts was a mystery. It wasn’t like he was faster or could see in the dark. Was it dumb luck? Something more sinister at play? I had no time to figure it out now.

Rival reached the closing door ahead of my sluggish run. He ducked under to the other side. Instead of continuing his run he actually stopped and tried to hold the closing door open for me.

The stone door had to outweigh him by hundreds of pounds, but still he wrapped his fingers around the bottom and did his best to slow it.

“Hurry—I—I can’t hold it,” Rival grunted.

He didn’t have to hold it for long. I turned my run into a slide and slipped right underneath the door. I felt the edge of the cold stone scrape against my scalp.

A resounding boom echoed through the interior of the pyramid as the door closed behind us.

“Traitors!” Eric boomed as the massive knight ran into the room we found ourselves in now. “You will not take the Relic for your own! Instead, you will be cast into the gate for eternity.”

The room was circular with various doorways off shooting to other parts of the pyramid. This room was actually lit with the help of torches lined against the wall. I wished I had time to take in more.

“The Lord of the Way be with me!” Eric boomed as he lifted his war hammer skyward.

I’d seen Eric in action before. He was powerful enough to bring a dropship to its knees. No way was I waiting around to see what he was going to do to us now. I dove to my left as the knight brought the war hammer down to the ground in front of him.

He struck the floor so hard, a fissure of bluish white electricity ran from the impact zone across the floor, right to where Rival and I had been standing. Luckily for him, Rival telegraphed the same thing I did and dove to his right.

I had no idea where I was going, but I knew I couldn’t stay in that room with the madman and the knight. I was sure Eric wanted me dead and I was pretty sure Rival was just biding his time.

Either way, I was out of there. I sprinted through one of the doorways with Eric’s tyrannical voice nipping at my heels.

I took one left then a right and another left. I wasn’t sure where I was going, except that I was heading down. I passed giant corridors, halls, and rooms drenched in blackness.

The inside of the pyramid was massive. It was only after I descended another flight of steps and Eric’s voice died in the distance that I allowed myself a moment of reprieve.

“X,” I panted, feeling whatever drug had been in my system completely dissipate. “X, any thoughts on where to go next? Any idea where they’d keep the Relic?”

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” X asked me.

“Oh no.” I grimaced. “Bad news first. Always the bad news first and then maybe the good news will cheer me up.”

“I have no idea where the Relic’s kept,” X answered. “We should have asked Victoria where it was hidden when she was a knight.”

“That was years ago. Who’s to say they didn’t move it?” I replied, my mind racing as fast as my heart. “Wait. What’s the good news?”

“I’ve been mapping the pyramid as you’ve run through it, as well as searching for any unknown sources of power. I’m getting strange readings from a level three more stories down. I can’t explain what I’m seeing, but it’s off the chart.”

“Good work, X,” I said. “I knew I could count on you. Let’s go. That’s the best lead we’ve got.”

I made my way back to the stairwell that I guessed was somewhere near one of the corners of the pyramid. To be honest, I had no real idea. I was so turned around inside the structure, it was difficult to tell exactly where I was.

The stairs I did find eventually evened out into a smooth path with a deep slope downward. All sound vanished now. Whatever happened between Rival and Eric had to be left to my imagination.

I found myself wishing I was a Cyber Hunter at the moment. At least Cassie had built-in weapons. I would have to rely on my hands, feet, and whatever I could find.

I plucked one of the torches providing the hall light off the walls. It was a clumsy, barbaric weapon, but I wasn’t going to complain. It was what I had at the moment and I’d make do.

A thick musty smell stole into my nostrils with a weight of its own, reminding me of some room no one entered in a very long time.

Soon the sloping hall ended in a large circular room bathed with flickering light of various colors. The colors washed over the walls and ceiling, painting them in the most breathtaking vibrant hues of greens, yellows, blues, reds, and more.

The colors reminded me of traveling through space and the light show I would see out of a dropship’s window.

I walked slowly into the room, ready for anything.

“This is it,” X warned me. “This is where the energy signal is coming from.”

The room was at least two stories tall and massive. In the middle of the room, a circular pool with some sort of strange liquid shot out the various lights.

All around the room, pressed up against the walls, stood statues of men and women. It was easy to tell these were Knights of the Way. They stood straight-backed and regal in their armor.

Some of them carried weapons: war hammers, axes, large double-bladed swords, and war maces. Some stood with their hands behind their backs or with their helmets in the crook of their arms.

One thing did strike me as similar between them. Their facial expressions all looked haunted, a deep sadness forever etched in time within the stone. I found myself wondering what happened to them. Who they were and how they had gone.

I remembered what Victoria had told me about Knights of the Way drinking from the Relic and being granted eternal life. Something that seemed like a gift was nothing but a curse as they came back from death as less and less of who they really were every time.

Weapons were mounted on the walls between the statues. Axes, swords, spears, and shields acted as a kind of medieval decoration.

“My brothers and sisters,” a voice to my right called out. “I hope they’ve found some peace.”

I whirled around to my right to see a Knight of the Way standing in an empty alcove where a statue should have been. I’d missed her altogether, thinking she was a statue herself.

The woman was broad-shouldered and armored, just like Eric. A white cape fell behind her. The sigil of a rising or setting sun was emblazoned on the chest of her armor. She carried a weapon of her own, a great two-sided war axe she leaned on now.

Victoria told me there were two knights left; this must be the other one.

“I’m not here to cause trouble,” I started. “I—”

“Oh, I know.” The woman stepped forward from the shadows, resting her axe over her shoulder. “Eric told me about your meeting, then I listened to your exchange right outside the pyramid when Eric destroyed the robots. I know who and what you are.”

“Then you know you have nothing to worry about with me,” I told her. “I don’t want to use the Relic. I don’t want to open the gate. I just want to make sure the chalice stays far away from anyone who does actually want to use it. There’s a man in here right now seeking it named Rival Mercer. I can’t let him get it.”

“And neither shall he,” the woman answered. “We will stop him like we’ve stopped so many others from seeking the chalice before over the many years we have stood watch. I, unlike Eric, do believe the time of the Knights of the Way are over. He’s too stubborn to see that. But the way is clear to me now. I’ve lost so much. It’s time for things to change.”

I wasn’t expecting the second knight to be so different from the first. This woman seemed to actually be reasonable and willing to talk. Where Eric was more of the swing first and ask questions later type, this woman was level-headed and aware.

“My name is Syrinity,” the woman told me, looking down at the calm liquid like water in the circular pool in front of us. “And that beautiful light show is the gate.”

I looked down at it again. It was nothing like I expected. I don’t know what I expected, to tell the truth.

I kept a wary eye on Syrinity but lifted the torch in my right hand to get a better look at the light show coming from the gate in front of me.

“Not what you expected, I imagine.” Syrinity read my thoughts. “I know. The word ‘gate’ evokes images of a large wooden or steel door, not a pool of water. It’s a one-way portal. Nothing that goes in has ever come out again, monster or knight.”

“The Knights of the Way who couldn’t handle immortality?” I asked, already suspecting the answer. “They’re in there?”

“They’re not themselves after so many years on this island.” Syrinity sighed. “Only Eric and I have managed to keep hold of our sanity, but I fear even Eric is slipping now. Every time we die, we lose a part of ourselves. To be honest, I’m not sure how I’ve managed to hold out this long.”

I saw loneliness in her dark eyes. I had just met her, but something inside of me knew exactly what she was talking about. In the few minutes I had known her, I understood we were the same.

Here was a woman who hadn’t given up when so many others had. Even now, one of the last two of her kind, she held strong and refused to give in.

An explosion from somewhere down the hall tore the brief moment of silence in half. The ground quaked beneath my feet, sending me stumbling forward into the gate.


Thirty-One

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

A ledge waist-high surrounded the gate. I crashed into it nearly toppling over. I felt a firm hand grip my shoulder, steadying me.

“If you are what you say you are, then your time has not yet come,” Syrinity told me, pulling me back from the brink.

“We’ve got incoming!” X said out loud, surprising Syrinity.

I didn’t have time to explain my AI counterpart in that moment as Rival Mercer sprinted into the room with Eric hot on his heels. He held a knife in his right hand and a golden chalice in his left.

Much like the Relic I had already come across, the chalice looked ancient and used. No ethereal glow came off it, nothing to show that this cup was a Relic. If anything, it looked old and dented.

“Time to go, I’ve got the—” Rival skidded to a stop, looking at me, Syrinity, and the gate itself. “What the crip is that?”

No one answered.

Syrinity lifted her axe and shifted her stance toward Rival.

Eric rushed into the room a moment later. His eyes went wide when he saw me standing with Syrinity.

“Syrinity, be on your guard. These men seek to take the Relic for themselves. Remember your oaths, woman!” Eric boomed, lifting his war hammer in my direction.

Syrinity moved to stand in his way, blocking me from harm.

“Eric,” Syrinity said with such a commanding voice it echoed in the room. “Stand down. The Knights of the Way are over. It’s time to usher in a new guardian of the Relics. We have stood our watch well, my friend, but it’s over. It’s finally time to rest now.”

While Syrinity talked the giant away from the idea of pulverizing my head with his hammer, I kept an eye on Rival. Rival’s mouth was open as he stared into the gate. I saw him shake his head with a shrug then look to me.

“Super weird, am I right?” Rival asked me. “This place is like some kind of ancient museum. I’m not sure what this pool is all about, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to swim in it.”

Rival moved away from the gate to a space between two statues. On the wall, a pair of crossed swords shimmered with the glow from the gate. He plucked one of the ancient weapons from its display, giving it a few practice swings to test its weight.

“Yes, yes, this will do nicely,” he said to himself. “Look at me, a Relic and a new sword to play with.”

I examined the wall closest to me. A pair of spears sat crossed behind a large round shield. I dropped my torch, pulling the weapons off the wall. They were each heavier than I expected and came away from the steel rods holding them in a puff of rust.

I decided to go with the spear. One end carried a sharp blade as long as my forearm, the other a smaller one the size of my hand.

“As your commander,” Syrinity was still speaking to Eric, “I am telling you to stand down.”

There was a wild look in the man’s eyes. A look I had seen before many times. It was the same agitated expression that came on an animal’s face when they were penned into a corner about to do something drastic.

“Uh oh,” Rival whistled under his breath. “I think the big one’s about to do something crazy. What do you say, Daniel? We neutralize them, then fight it out between you and me for the Relic? Winner take all?”

“There is no we,” I said, rolling my shoulders and cracking my neck from either side, mentally preparing myself for what was to come. “That Relic doesn’t belong to you.”

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law or something like that.” Rival grinned with a smile so large, it nearly split his face. “So what now?”

I looked over to where Eric and Syrinity still brandished their weapons. They separated themselves, also preparing for conflict. Around the gate we all stood at an equal distance; two ancient warriors, a madman, and me.

“He’ll take the Relic,” I warned Syrinity. “Don’t let him.”

“He won’t be going anywhere,” Syrinity reassured me. “Eric, last chance. Stand down.”

“You have truly forgotten the teachings of those who came before us,” Eric said through clenched teeth. A vein the size of a rope pulsated in his neck. “I will do what I must to preserve our way.”

Without warning, all hell broke loose. Rival made a run at the entrance. Syrinity cut him off. Seeing that Rival was taken care of for the moment, Eric rushed me with that war hammer that was nearly the size of my torso.

I wasn’t sure I could match his muscle or whatever magical tech he used to call down the energy blasts, but I could be faster and smarter.

I ducked out of the way from the first swing sailing toward my skull. The next blow came down on top of my head. I rolled to the side, keeping my spear in hand. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to kill Eric. Don’t get me wrong, if it was him or me, then it was going to be him. However, if I could put him down in a way that wouldn’t send him to the afterlife and back again, then I would.

Despite his size, Eric was faster than I suspected. Again and again, he came at me using his war hammer like the trained warrior he was. Multiple times, it nearly crushed me, but I managed to sidestep, duck, and dive out of the way.

Maybe the spear wasn’t the best idea to maneuver with. I parried where I could, but his overwhelming power pushed me back time and time again.

When I could, I took a look at the battle taking place on the opposite side of the gate. Rival and Syrinity were also evenly matched.

Rival took the same approach I had. Instead of trying to match his opponent for strength, he played the cerebral game, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake.

Soon I found myself drenched with sweat and pressed with the back of my legs against the edge of the gate.

“You will not take the Relic!” Eric boomed, charging forward.

I bent backward, avoiding a blow to my head. I fell backward on the ledge of the gate. A stone ledge a meter wide formed the outer walls of the gate pool. With my back now on the ledge and the gate to my right, I was in a bad spot.

“Die!” Eric brought the war hammer down in a two-handed blow, aiming at my head.

I couldn’t roll to my right. That would put me through the gate. On my left was the battle-crazed knight. I had one option.

I did the hardest sit-up of my life.

The war hammer scraped the top of my scalp, drawing a sheet of blood that fell down my face in a warm rush.

The war hammer shattered the section of stone that held the gate.

“Eric, no!” Syrinity screamed, seeing a portion of the stone that held in the gate destroyed.

Two things happened at once.

First, a series of ancient runes I had yet to see shone bright on the stone edge spaced equally apart. There were twelve in all. Each one glimmered in the stone with a bright color all their own.

Eric, in his lust to take off my head, had brought his war hammer down on one of these runes, destroying it completely. The water-like substance in the gate shone brighter now, cycling through colors at a feverish pace like some kind of terrifying light show.

“The runes.” X said what I was thinking. “The runes on the stone give the gate the power to remain in one piece.”

All of this happened at the same time that Rival made his move. Being the chivalrous gentleman he was, as soon as he saw Syrinity’s focus broken, he made his move.

Thrusting with his long sword, he caught the female knight in the side where her breastplate came together. A spray of blood and yell of pain accompanied his work as he ripped the blade free with a violent twist.

“No!” Eric boomed, seeing his counterpart fall.

Rival made a dash for the door.

“The Lord of the Way, give me strength!” Eric screamed again, slamming his war hammer into the ground once more. He sent a rippling force of concussive energy toward the only exit to the room.

Rival tripped and fell. The concussive force struck the exit, caving in the walls in a cloud of dust.

I took the time afforded to me to get my rear end off the ledge. Whatever kind of shimmering liquid the gate was made of seeped out onto the floor at our feet.

Eric turned back to me with his war hammer once more. This time, I was ready. As much as I didn’t want to kill Eric, I wanted to keep Rival from having the Relic even more. Not to mention going to help Syrinity and find a way to keep the gate from opening.

Eric came at me like he had before in a rush of strength. With an overhead blow, he brought the war hammer down on my head yet again.

He expected me to dodge or parry as I had done before. Unlike the other times, I stood my ground and shoved up with the heavy blade of my spear. A look of pure shock crossed his face. He drove his hands downward, impaling them on the head of my spear.

The armor protecting his hands saved them from going completely through the spearhead. With the force he used to strike me, the spearhead’s blade pierced one side of his gauntlets and stuck fast.

The roar of pain escaping Eric’s lips was one I did not relish, but that was necessary. It was my turn to bully the man back, pressing hard on the shaft of the spear. I nearly ran with him, slamming his back into the stone wall.

Without hesitating, I ripped the spearhead free from his armor and took a page out of Rival’s book. I aimed for the spot between the knight’s shoulder armor and breastplate.

Summoning all my strength, I drove the weapon home, skewering the knight into the wall behind him.

A rage-filled scream of agony erupted from Eric as he reached for my throat. Even past all the pain, Eric was still trying to fight.

I evaded his grasp long enough to take a heavy step back. A river of dark red blood oozed from the knight’s hands, impaled to the wall.

“Just die already!” Rival screamed at someone behind me.

I turned in time to see Rival coming at Syrinity with her own axe. The wounded knight was as tough as she looked. Despite her wound, she fought on.

Rival brought the woman’s axe down on her head.

Syrinity caught it, grimacing with the torture she felt as the wound on her side opened. I raced forward, trying to get to the two in time to lend a hand.

I was too late.

A wicked gleam came into Rival’s eye. Instead of forcing the blade down on the knight, he tilted their combined strength to the left, bringing the war axe down on yet another rune around the gate.

The rune shattered on the stone as the gate powered open.

Syrinity gave off a war cry of her own, bullying Rival forward. They both fell into the gate.


Rivals: A Near Future Thriller



Epilogue

I saw it happen in slow motion.

Colorful liquid spilled out of the gate from two points now. The runes that were lit so bright a moment before dimmed with the dying light of their magical technology.

I saw Syrinity make the move to sacrifice herself to stop Rival and protect the Relic. Even before they fell, I was in motion.

I sprinted across the space between us, heart beating so intensely, I could feel it in my head.

Rival wore a look of surprise on his face for one of the few times I could remember. The man was usually so cool, so calculated, he had not anticipated the sacrifice the female knight was willing to commit.

He fell backward, over the broken ledge and into the gate. Syrinity, wounded and weakened, went with him. I reached her just in time, grabbing on to the armor around her shoulders.

She was so heavy in the protective gear, I nearly went over myself. My feet lifted off the ground for a moment as I was forced to bend over with my stomach pressed hard against the ledge.

My arms were in the gate, holding on to Syrinity. Rival clung to her feet below, the Relic securely tucked into his belt.

I wasn’t a pushover when it came to strength. But even for me, a grown woman in full armor along with another man’s weight to bear tested my limits.

My hands cramped, arms quaking with fatigue.

Syrinity fought to kick off Rival with grunts.

“Oh, what a wonderful island this is!” Rival yelled in glee. Apparently, he recovered from his moment of surprise. Now he worked to strengthen his hold on Syrinity and even climb up her legs. “Shall we all go down this hole together or are you going to pull us up, Danny? Two creatures struggling with the form of a woman between them. Didn’t I tell you!? Didn’t I tell you!?”

I couldn’t answer. All I could manage at the moment was struggle to lift them. All my oxygen was used to breathe as I lifted them.

Syrinity did her best, trying to help me. She reached her arms up to grab my shoulders and alleviate some of the pressure from my hands.

As I worked to bring them both up, my eyes caught movement in the gate. Up until this point, it had only been bright colors emanating from the liquid’s surface. Now I saw figures, impossible beasts of old. Creatures I knew the names of, but only in myths and legends.

Something with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion flew by under the surface, ready to be free. A massive water serpent, the length of two dropships, slithered by. A hulking giant of a man with a single eye reached up toward the surface searching for freedom.

“The gate,” Syrinity yelled. “The gate must be repaired or the prison we’ve protected for so many years will be open. Pull!”

“Raww!” It was my turn to vocally vent my effort to the interior of the pyramid and the insane position I found myself in. “Hold, hold on!”

With a herculean effort, I pulled Syrinity’s upper body up to the point where my elbows were on the ledge of the gate instead of my stomach. Fire danced up my hands and forearms. My back felt like it was going to break.

I had no desire to do the math at the moment, but I had to be pulling up three to four hundred pounds with the combined weight of Syrinity, her armor, and Rival.

My moment of pause must have made Syrinity think I was gassed out.

“Drop us,” Syrinity yelled at me. “Let us go and repair the circle of the gate. The stones must be replaced, the runes drawn again.”

“What are you, crazy!” Rival said, looking down at the mythical creatures below his dangling feet. “Don’t drop us, Daniel. I repeat, she does not speak for both of us. Do not drop us.”

“I’ve made my peace.” Syrnity let go of her hold on my shoulders. “Let us go or you’ll get dragged in as well.”

I cut her some slack. She didn’t know me. She didn’t realize defeat was never an option.

Lifting my head to the ceiling of the pyramid, I let out a roar that would have made Butch proud. Past the burning in my shoulder sockets, forearms, and back, I focused on what I needed to do.

Pain was secondary to the focus I trained on one simple word, lift. In that moment, I was pretty sure I could have lifted another body out of the gate along with the two I held on to.

Syrinity came up, nearly able to sit on the edge of the gate.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

It was Eric.

The knight managed to free himself from being impaled in the wall. He looked at me with a pale face drained of blood. I thought he was going to lend a hand. I was wrong.

“Daniel, look out!” X yelled.

I saw it just in time and had to make a split-second decision.

Eric carried the broken shaft of the spear in his hand. He stabbed at my side. I could let go and dodge the blow or hold on to Syrinity.

I held.

The spear eefelt like an icicle through the left side of my rib cage and deep into my torso. I couldn’t breathe. I ordered my hands to hold and they did, but all strength was taken out of the rest of my body.

“This has to be done,” Eric sputtered past the blood on his lips. He yanked the shaft free and shoved me over the ledge into the gate.

Rival, Syrinity, and I plunged deep into the gate and the monstrosities waiting within.

Rivals: A Near Future Thriller

Daniel Hunt will be back in the next Forsaken Mercenary book, Wolves. 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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Rivals: A Near Future Thriller


Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe

Inception

Dropship

Absolution

Fury

Vendetta

Annihilation

Nemesis

Rivals

Wolves (Coming soon!)


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