Book: Wolves: 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.
Forsaken Mercenary Book Eight
Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe
Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe
Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe
Inception - Free Precursor
Dropship: Book 1
Absolution: Book 2
Fury: Book 3
Vendetta: Book 4
Annihilation: Book 5
Nemesis: Book 6
Rivals: Book 7
Wolves: Book 8
Crusade: Book 9 (Coming soon!)
Forsaken Mercenary Case Files
Preacher: Short 1
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We fell into the gate.
Turns out “gate” is just a confusing term for an inter-dimensional prison. And if that weren’t enough, an ancient inter-dimensional prison full of Knights of the Way who had gone mad with eternal life. But wait, there’s more. Alien creatures early humans wrote about as myth and legend were there as well.
I lost sight of Rival and Syrinity as we fell and fell and then fell some more.
Creatures with wings, others with multiple serpent-like heads, and still others resembling humans, but much, much larger, were lost as well.
Pain numbed as my body did its job and healed itself.
It was cold as I fell through the darkness. I knew X’s voice would be like a balm to my war-torn psyche.
“X?” I asked as I fell into ebony nothingness. “X, are you there?”
“X!?” I shouted, trying to stave the panic from my voice. It didn’t work. “X?”
I did, however, stop falling. As if hands reached for me slowing my descent and placed me on the ground, I came to a stop. Where I was or when I was, for all I knew, I had no idea.
My boots rested in sparkling black sand. I looked up to see black mountains against a blacker night. Stars shone overhead like diamonds in the sky. Not one but two moons hung in the distance as if they always belonged there and I was the one foreign to this new world.
I was able to breathe, wherever I was. A cold bite in the air traveled through my mouth and into my lungs.
I reached my hand to the back of my right ear to feel for X’s chip. She was still intact.
Come on, X, I thought to myself. Why aren’t you answering?
“Your AI companion won’t be able to answer you in this place,” a woman’s voice I recognized stated. “It’s very old and not of your galaxy.”
I spun around, reaching for my MK II that wasn’t there. Next I reached for my axe and knife. They were also gone, lost somewhere in the fall.
Standing about ten meters behind me was a tall woman in a white robe with flowing white hair. I’d seen her before. I knew she wasn’t human. Alerna had come to me in my dreams multiple times. She had guided me and the rest of humanity as we fought off the Voy invasion.
“I thought you said you couldn’t help me anymore?” I asked. “Your order of watchers or whatever you are didn’t want you interfering anymore.”
“It’s good to see you too, Mr. Hunt.” Alerna twitched her lips. “You know that’s one of the reasons I like you, Daniel. Always straight to the point. A heart of gold wrapped in a packaging of violence.”
“Thanks, I think,” I said. “But you didn’t answer the question, and while you’re at it, where are we?”
“Time is ever in a state of flux. We monitor and adjust events and time as needed,” Alerna explained. “You traveled through an interdimensional portal to a planet we found to contain creatures that never belonged to your world.”
“Your kind constructed the gate on Earth?” I repeated, trying to follow along without giving myself a migraine. “You brought these creatures? The Relics?”
“Some of the creatures we brought, others found their way here over the millennia, and still others were transported by different alien species,” Alerna explained. “The Relics we left were to help humanity. We had to leave Earth to go fight a battle on the other side of the universe.”
Alerna hesitated here as if the memory pained her.
“Where’s Syrinity and the cup?” I asked. I almost mentioned Rival’s name, but hopefully, he fell on his neck somewhere and that would be the end of him. “Where’s the last Relic? The sword?”
“Ahhh, there it is,” Alerna said, nodding with approval. “That’s the question you should be asking.”
Something like lightning cracked through the dark sky. The blackness overhead changed and shifted with color.
“The gate is breaking,” Alerna shouted to me over the booming overhead. She came to me and pressed two things in my hand. One was a hard steel block of metal, the other a simple piece of parchment. “You’ll need allies more than ever for what comes next. You can trust me. The steel is for X. The parchment is the coordinates for the sword.”
The cracking and booming overhead was so loud now, I could barely hear Alerna shouting in my ear. Wind kicked up, threatening to push us apart.
“The alien life form that nearly wiped out my people will be coming for yours next,” Alerna screamed. “Use the Relics to survive.”
“No, I don’t want to,” I shouted back. “Find somebody else. I quit.”
But Alerna wasn’t there anymore. The dark planet I was on swirled and was lost to me a moment later as the gate broke. I fell again. Through time and space, I saw things that made my sanity crack. Creatures swirling around me, insane Knights of the Way being deposited back on Earth.
This time when I landed, it wasn’t gentle.
I came to rest face first on the shore of some beach. Sand and water forced their way into my nose and mouth.
I coughed, pushing myself up to my hands and knees. My body was still recovering from the fall.
“Daniel, Daniel, are you okay?” X said in my ear. “I couldn’t hear you for a few moments. I was lost in blackness.”
“I’ll fill you in,” I answered, looking down to my hands, which still held the metal square and piece of paper. Half of me was wishing I’d had some kind of episode and just imagined Alerna. “Son of a brum.”
“What?” X inquired.
“That was all real,” I responded. “I was half hoping I finally cracked and needed a vacation in the loony bin. I’ll tell you all about it. Alerna, she came back to me—”
“Daniel,” X interrupted me. “To your left down the beach!”
I looked over, shading my eyes against the dark sky just beginning to shift to light with the rays of the rising sun. I squinted, using my enhanced vision to see two figures fighting on the beach. No, not fighting. One wasn’t moving at all.
Rival stood over a limp Syrinity with the cup in his hands.
I sprang into action, sprinting down the beach toward him. Anger-infused panic gave me speed as I closed the distance. Rival, too caught up on his admiration of the cup, never saw me coming.
I laid into Rival with every ounce of force I could muster. Both of us went flying into the wet sand in a single ball of fists and knees.
Even though I had taken him off guard, Rival was quick to recover. With the Relic in his right hand, he bashed me across the forehead, opening a deep laceration that bled like a leaking hose.
Vaguely, I was aware of the cold as our clothes soaked in the frigid water lapping against the shore. I had no idea where we were, but in the moment, I didn’t really feel like it mattered much.
“Why won’t you just die?” Rival growled as we traded a series of blows while struggling for dominance in the sand. “I should have killed you sooner.”
Most fights X understood what I needed. I had to focus on what I was doing, so she spoke only when she knew it would help and not distract me or when there was something very wrong.
This was the latter.
“Daniel,” X said hurriedly in my head. “The water.”
I shoved Rival off me, springing to my feet. A mixture of blood and sand caked my face. Looking out to the water, I saw what X already noticed.
The water churned, bubbling and boiling in an unnatural state. Tentacles as thick as my torso lifted from the water’s surface.
Rival had his back to the water at the moment. He took my hesitancy as a sign of weakness; maybe he thought I needed a break in the fight.
“You could be so much more, Daniel Hunt,” Rival said, tossing the cup up and down in the air in front of him. “You could join me. The company I work for is well funded and has given me full access to all I could want. We can find the Relics together then keep the company’s money and rule as gods among men.”
I was only half listening to Rival as the behemoth of a creature crested the water’s surface. All tentacles and eyes, it was larger than a Corvette Class Dropship. It blinked a few of its eyes at me, shifting to reveal a circular row of teeth longer than spears.
The sound of the waves on the shore and the wind hid the noise the creature made moving forward.
I was too awestruck to answer Rival or do much else. I wasn’t really the scared type and fear wasn’t exactly what I felt now; more like awe. I had only a vague idea of the monsters released by the gate. If this little cutie was any representation of what lay ahead, I wanted no part.
Rival finally realized I was looking over his shoulder.
“There’s something behind me, isn’t there?” Rival asked, deadpan expression on his face. “It’s not good, is it?”
I shook my head.
Rival turned at the same time the creature lunged for him. A pair of thick tentacles covered on one side with suction cups the size of my fist reached for him. Rival moved quickly, racing up the beach toward me. He nearly made it.
The creature roared something straight out of a nightmare as its tentacle wrapped around Rival’s waist. Rival grunted with exertion, trying to break free.
He was right in front of me, an arm’s reach away.
Rival dug his feet into the sand, straining against the monster and trying to free himself from the giant’s grip. One of his hands still held the cup.
I grabbed the Relic with both hands.
“Help me,” Rival ordered in a rush of words. “I’ll give you whatever you want. Just help me!”
I tightly gripped the cup, arching my back and driving with my lower body backward up the beach. The monster was too strong; even with both of us pulling, we were being dragged into the water.
“Whatever you want!” Rival screamed in panic. “You can have whatever you want. Anything.”
“Anything?” I grunted.
“Anything,” Rival confirmed with a glimmer of hope in his eye. “Anything.”
“I want Wesley back,” I said through gritted teeth. I held his eye. “Zoe Valentine’s daughter wants to hear her mother laugh again, you son of a brum.”
The spark of hope there a moment ago vanished from Rival’s eyes.
Two more tentacles came out of the water, one wrapping around Rival’s legs, the other taking him by the throat.
With one ferocious wrench, I tore the cup free of his hands, falling back onto the beach.
Rival Mercer was lifted off the ground by the creature. He hovered in the air for a moment, unable to even scream. The muscular tentacles tore him into three pieces before traveling to the monster’s open mouth.
I lay on the beach panting from exertion.
I took no joy in watching Rival be torn limb from limb, but no one said justice was supposed to be a fulfilling act.
“Daniel?” X brought me back to the present moment. “Syrinity.”
“Right,” I answered, shoving myself to my feet and running to the woman.
Syrinity was still in her armor lying face up. She looked flush but was breathing. Her eyes opened and closed, seeing but not fully awake.
“Come on, sister,” I said, shoving the cup in my belt. I used both hands to grab her and started to drag her away from the water’s edge. “I’m not sure Precious over there is going to be content with just an appetizer.”
I was right. The greedy thing in the water finished eating Rival with an echoing belch. It rolled its body forward until some of its eyes looked at me. With slow, steady speed, it began making its way over to us.
“I hate when I’m right,” I grunted, grabbing Syrinity by her shoulder armor and dragging her backward up the beach. My arms and legs burned. Syrinity had been doing her squats and weight lifting at the gym. That plus the armor created a deep indentation in the sand.
I made it a good ten steps before the creature ran out of water, stopping its forward momentum. It lunged toward us with its best attempt at catching another meal.
A flurry of tentacles slapped onto the sand, barely missing us. The longest purplish tentacle wrapped around Syrinity’s right foot.
The very edge of the tentacle, barely able to reach her, was no thicker than a short rope, but it was strong.
“No.” I ground my teeth together, falling backward. Muscles on fire, the monster and I battled for Syrinity’s life.
“Don’t give up,” X shouted in my ear, doing the only thing she could to help in the situation, offer encouragement. “Don’t let go!”
I lifted my head, roaring to the dark sky overhead. My vision blurred red as every ounce of my superhuman ability poured into planting my feet and refusing to let go.
It wasn’t enough.
Slowly, I felt my grip giving. What I wouldn’t do for a knife or my axe in this situation. Syrinity was pulled free.
“You’ve lost too much,” X said. “We’ve all lost too much. Get her back, Daniel. You get her back.”
I agreed with X. I wasn’t going to lose anyone else and I was going to do whatever it took not to.
Releasing Syrinity to the monster, I lunged forward, grabbing the tentacle by her ankle with both hands. I sank my teeth into that monstrous appendages like a starving man at a Christmas buffet.
The suckers on the tentacle squirmed in my mouth. It tasted salty and rubbery at once. I couldn’t care less. I wasn’t going to let it take her.
A second later, I bit completely through the tentacle.
The monster moaned in pain, slapping its remaining tentacles at me on the beach in fury.
I stood up, looking into the monster’s many eyes, spitting his appendage back at him.
“Not today,” I told the monster. “You can’t have her.”
The monstrosity from another planet roared at me so loud, I felt my insides tremble. It slapped the water like a kid having a temper tantrum then slid back into the water and fell beneath the surface.
I sank, exhausted, to the sand beside Syrinity.
“No judgment here,” X said as I took in long lungfuls of air. “But did you really just bite an alien’s tentacle?”
“It actually didn’t taste that bad,” I replied with a sigh. “Let’s not tell anyone about this.”
“Lips are sealed,” X answered.
“What—what happened,” Syrinity asked beside me, finally coming to. “Where are we?”
“Now you’re awake,” I said, pushing myself to a sitting position next to her. “I could have used you sixty seconds ago.”
Syrinity looked at me, confused, then examined our surroundings.
“The cup, we must protect the—”
She cut herself off as I removed the chalice from my belt and handed it to her.
“I don’t even really want it anymore,” I told her. “We just have to protect it.”
Syrinity accepted the Relic with care. She nodded along with my words.
“I remember falling through the gate and then—then nothing.” Syrinity squinted, blinking her eyes searching for understanding. “What happened?”
“Oh you know,” I responded with a sigh, rising to my feet. “Rival died, I ate some seafood, and now we’re here. Can you walk?”
“I think so,” Syrinity said, standing beside me. “Where are we?”
“X?” I asked. “Do you have any ideas?”
“Australia,” X answered. “I can open a channel to Cassie and the others.”
“Do it,” I said. “Cassie, can you hear me?” I said a moment later. “Preacher, Cryx?”
“Daniel? What happened?” Cassie asked immediately. “Are you okay? Where are you?”
It was good to hear her voice. It was great to hear her voice again.
“A lot more weird stuff,” I told her. “We’re okay. We fell into the gate and were deposited back in Australia somehow.”
“Australia?” Cassie asked, shocked. “Never mind, give us your coordinates. We’re on the way.”
“X can send them to you,” I told her. “Did you get Wesley and Victoria?”
“We did, and Butch,” Cassie reported. “The whole pyramid crumbled in on itself. There was a wild light show that painted the sky at the same time.”
“It must have been the gate breaking free,” I remarked, remembering the insane immortal Knights of the Way who had been in the gate along with the alien monsters. “We have a few problems we’re going to have to solve.”
“Rival?” Cassie asked.
“He’s gone,” I told her. “He’s gone for good.”
“We’ll be there soon,” Cassie told me as she shouted orders to the others in the background. “Stay safe.”
“You too,” I told her. “See you soon.”
X ended the call for us.
I looked out past the water to where the sun came over the horizon. Bright orangish-yellow painted both the sky and the water. Warmth beat back the cold as the day began anew.
“We should find some shelter while we wait,” Syrinity advised. “We’re both wet. A fire would help.”
I nodded along with her words, surveying the beach up and down. An outcropping of rocks was all the barren landscape afforded. We moved in that direction together.
We made quite a pair, the Knight of the Way with her armor and the mercenary still spitting up octopus or whatever that thing was. Walking in silence, we arrived at the rock outcropping.
It wouldn’t really do much besides protect us from the wind and maybe provide some shade when the sun rose. Dark stone, nearly black, stood at least a story tall in a small cluster.
After a brief search, there wasn’t much in the way of fire material. Syrinity and I hunkered down to wait for Cassie and the dropship.
“We’re looking at about a twelve-hour delay, probably less,” X informed both of us. “I’m not sure if we’ve been properly introduced, Syrinity.”
“I gather you’re an artificial intelligence?” Syrinity asked as we sat down with our backs against the cool rock. “I heard you contact the ship that will be here to rescue us.”
“Yes, that’s right,” X agreed. “You seem unfazed by my existence. Have you discovered an AI before on the Island?”
“No, but many treasure hunters have come to our island through the years,” Syrinity answered. “They had advanced technology and spoke of AIs and robots, androids and even synthetic humans. I’m not surprised by much these days.”
“You’re telling me,” I grumbled. “There was some pretty weird crip being held in that gate. Come to think of it, we should probably give the GG a heads up on what they’re going to be dealing with all over Earth.”
“Maybe an anonymous tip,” X cautioned. “But something tells me they’re going to be looking for us soon enough. They’ll want to know what happened to the cup and it’s only a matter of time before they come for the book.”
I knew X was right. She was always right. The Galactic Government would want their hands on the book, the cup, and eventually, the sword. Thinking of the last Relic reminded me of the two items Alerna gave me.
I withdrew them from my pocket, retelling the events of my conversation with Alerna to Syrinity and X. When I was done, both women were silent.
“Do you trust this woman?” Syrinity asked.
“Heck no,” I answered. “But she hasn’t been wrong yet, and so far, all she’s done is help. X, can you figure out where the coordinates on the parchment would lead?”
“Antarctica,” X relayed after a heartbeat. “The sword is in Antarctica. Do you believe her about the metal? I mean, that it would help me?”
I looked at the silver cubed shape of alien steel.
“I don’t know,” I replied, staring at the item. “Any idea what it’s made of?”
“Nothing on this planet,” X said thoughtfully. “It’s dense like the heart of a star.”
I examined every piece of the metal, turning it over to see each of its six sides. My right thumb brushed over a tiny needlepoint hole on one of the flat sides. The hole was the perfect fit for X’s neural link to hold.
“You think,” X said, pausing for a moment. “Do you think this could give me a body somehow?”
“Maybe.” I shrugged. “I’m not going to say no to alien technology. Who knows what this thing is capable of? Whatever the case, we should be careful and take it back to Dragon Hold to have Bapz take a look at it before you go in.”
“I agree,” X said hopefully. “But if it does somehow mean I could have a body, then I think we should try.”
There was no denying the joy in X’s voice. For her sake, I hoped it worked out the way she wanted. I knew I’d miss having her with me, but she’d still be there, and I could imagine what having a body of her own would mean to her.
“We should rest,” Syrinity told us. “I can take the first watch while you sleep.”
“I’m not going to argue with you there,” I admitted. “Just don’t go near the water. There’s some ancient sea beast swimming in there with tentacles as thick as tree trunks.”
Syrinity looked at me, alarmed.
“It’s okay; he can’t reach us here, this far up the beach,” I told her. “Just stay away from the water.”
“I will,” Syrinity confirmed.
I lay down with my arm under my head as a pillow. My stomach groaned with hunger, but that would have to wait for now. I was exhausted. The effort my body put into healing itself along with the exertion of fighting Rival and the sea beast was enough to wipe me out.
I fell asleep for what felt like a few minutes. The next thing I knew, I was being woken by Syrinity and X. The former put a hand on my shoulder. The latter explained to me what was going on.
“Daniel, wake up,” X whispered. “We’re not alone on the beach.”
I blinked tired eyes open, trying to adjust from my sleeping state into one ready for action. The shade of the rocks hid me well. The sun was high overhead. I had to have slept for four to six hours and not even realized it.
Syrinity knelt next to me, pointing down the beach where a figure cloaked in black stood facing us. At least I think he or she faced us. The person was too far away for me to make out any kind of detail, even for my enhanced eyesight.
“I watched them approach,” Syrinity said, shielding her eyes against the sun’s rays. “They haven’t come any closer. I’ve only seen one so far.”
I rose to my feet, running a dry tongue over the walls of my mouth.
“You think he or she has food and water?” I asked, staring at the figure. “Maybe we should go make a new friend.”
“Or a new enemy,” Syrinity offered. “But I guess you are right. It’s better than the alternative of just standing here staring at one another.”
“We’ll have our eyes open,” I told her. “X, can you keep Cassie updated as to our location?”
“Sure can,” X stated. “They’re eight hours out.”
Syrinity and I crossed the sandy beach toward the person who had yet to move. My hands ached for weapons. What I wouldn’t do for the handle of my axe or the feel of my MK II in my grip at the moment.
You are the weapon, I told myself as we approached the stranger.
As the distance closed between us, I realized the figure in the black robe was a man. A thick beard covered the lower half of his face. Long, wild hair fell over his shoulders. His hands were at his sides. From what I could see, he didn’t carry any weapon of his own, but looks could be deceiving.
Syrinity and I stopped a few meters from the man, who looked us up and down like we were some kind of freaks. I couldn’t blame him. Syrinity in her armor and me in my black tactical gear made quite a pair.
“You fought the water demon,” the man said in a thick accent. “I saw you fight and win. Who are you? Where did you come from?”
“That’s a really long story,” I said, looking over at Syrinity. “That’s a really long story for both of us, actually. Short version is that you don’t have to be worried. We’re friends and we’ll be out of your hair soon enough. Our people are on the way to come pick us up.”
“I saw what you could do,” the man insisted. “You have great power. Maybe you also have great medicine. My son is unwell in our village not far from here. Will you come help him?”
“I’m sorry to hear about your son, but I’m not a doctor,” I told him. “Neither do we have supplies.”
“Maybe there’s something you can do for him,” the man insisted.
I saw the hope in his eyes flare as he convinced himself that his little boy still had a chance. He wasn’t going to be put off easily.
“Please, my name is Lou. I’m the village leader,” Lou continued. “We have food and water. It’s not far. Maybe you’ll know of a way to help him. Our doctors said there’s nothing they can do.”
“We should go,” Syrinity agreed with Lou. “We should go and at least see if there is anything we can do. When the others get here in the dropship, they’ll have supplies.”
Lou nodded, frantically looking to me for a consensus.
“Okay,” I told the man, extending my right hand. “I can’t promise we’ll know what’s wrong with him or how to treat him.”
“Of course, of course,” Lou said, already turning and waving for us to follow. “This way. It’s this way to the village. It’s not far.”
Lou hurried just ahead of us with Syrinity and me following behind. I thought about what I knew of the Australian colonies and what happened to them after the fall of Earth. The truth was I didn’t know much. I don’t think they fared any better than any of the other countries.
“Ready for story time?” X asked just loud enough for both Syrinity and me to hear.
“Ready,” Syrinity answered.
“Go for it,” I said at the same time.
“Not a whole lot of information is coming out of Australia these days,” X started. “The main thing of note is that while most countries are ravaged by smaller gangs and factions, Australia is ruled by a single group calling themselves the New Republic.”
“Any other information on this New Republic?” Syrinity asked. “Stance on strangers perhaps?”
“No, they’ve been rather quiet, just keeping to themselves here in Australia,” X answered. “Remember, there’s not much, but I don’t see any conflicts with the GG or other factions we would know of like the former Immortal Corp or the Order.”
Something I couldn’t explain set me on edge about that. I should probably have been happy. No news was good news, right? But I couldn’t feel rested for some reason.
We followed Lou as he continued to motion us forward. Every few minutes, he would look back at us with a smile and word of thanks.
Lou was right; not twenty minutes of quick walking with the shore to our left, we saw the first signs of life. Cresting a small sand dune, the scene of a thriving community welcomed our eyes.
Small houses along stone streets let people in and out as they went about their day. A few of the single-story houses even had chimneys and yards.
“I’m still not sure about this New Republic, but they certainly look better off than a lot of those gangs back home,” I ventured as we continued to follow Lou. “Maybe this isn’t going to be so bad.”
Lou led us into the small community, offering words of encouragement to the villagers, who stopped whatever they were doing and gawked at us with open mouths.
Their attire was simple, old patched clothes with worn shoes. They looked clean enough with brushed hair and pieces of jewelry around their fingers and necks for decoration.
“Hello,” Syrinity said to a young girl who gawked at her like she had a second head.
The girl’s mother grabbed her daughter and pushed her behind her.
“Peace, peace, these are friends sent to help us,” Lou said, easing the tense moment. “They are champions from a land beyond the sea. They are here to help.”
Lou wasn’t actually wrong about us being from beyond the sea, but he was really taking liberties here, saying we were here to help.
After a brief walk through the city and enough staring to make me think I was some kind of freak, we made it to Lou’s home. He resided in a simple stone building with a patched roof and short yard.
He welcomed us inside, showing us to a small room. The inside of his home was comfortable, with a few pieces of furniture and a fireplace that was cold at the moment.
The room he led us to held a simple bed with a teenage boy on it, who couldn’t be out of his early teens. Beads of sweat trickled from the young man’s brow despite being on top of the bed coverings in a shirt and pair of shorts. His eyes were closed as he grimaced, moving from side to side.
“Our doctors have tried everything to break the sickness, but they have been unable to find what’s wrong with him or a cure for it,” Lou said, kneeling by his son. He took a cloth from a small table by the bed and patted his brow dry. “I sent word to the New Republic for help, but I’m not sure it will reach them in time.”
Syrinity joined Lou, taking a knee beside him and examining the boy. I stepped to the side, whispering to X, “Any idea what this could be?”
“I’d need to gather more facts,” X answered in my head. “He looks like he’s running a fever, but it’s worse than that. Look at the right side of his neck.”
I went over to the bed, leaning in to the boy.
X was right. There was some kind of blackish-green wound on his neck.
“Do you know what this is?” I asked Lou. “Here by his neck?”
Lou shook his head.
“I do not, but you can help him, right?” Lou looked at me, despair clear in his eyes. “You can save him?”
“That wound looks like an injection was given to him,” X said in my head. “Injection of what, I have no idea.”
“When did this start?” I asked the father, trying to gather facts. “Who has your son been in contact with?”
“Yesterday morning, he fell sick,” Lou stated, trying to keep himself contained. He began to ramble in his grief-stricken helplessness. “He’s a good boy. You would like him if you got to know him. I know you don’t know him, but he’s a great kid. He loves helping me. His mother passed away two years ago and he’s been so good. So brave for the two of us. Please, please help him.”
“I’m trying,” I answered. “Where has he been? Before he got sick. Did he go anywhere? Was he with anyone?”
“No, no, nothing out of the ordinary,” Lou murmured, racking his brain for details. “He helps me half the day. The other half of the day, he works with our town’s astronomer. He’s so interested in science and the galaxy we live in. He dreams of going to the moon and Mars one day.”
Lou went back to caring for his son.
Syrinity stood up, jerking her chin to the far side of the room, indicating I should meet her there.
We both walked over for a conference.
“I’m not a doctor, but it doesn’t look good for the boy,” Syrinity admitted. “Do you or X have any thoughts on the matter?”
“The wound on his neck is indicative of a syringe,” X reported. “Why it’s black and green like that, I’m not sure. That’s not like anything I have access to in my database.”
“So someone injected him with something?” I looked over my shoulder at Lou, who was practically crying by his son’s side. “It’s hard to believe the father would do anything like that. He did say the boy helps an astronomer here in town.”
“Well, that might be something to look into,” Syrinity suggested, moving her right hand to the Relic fastened to her belt. “We do have a way to save him.”
Before I could open my mouth, she extended a hand, palm forward.
“I know, I’m not saying we should do it,” Syrinity explained. “I of all people understand the price immortality brings and the madness that accompanies it. However, it must be considered.”
I closed my mouth, looking over at the boy again. Could I let him die? Could I make him drink from the cup and destine him to a life I didn’t even want?
“We cross that bridge if and when we come to it,” I told Syrinity. “Let’s hope Cassie and the others get here in time with some medical equipment and we can figure this out. Until then, let’s keep the relic between you and me.”
At that moment, the boy sat straight up in his bed. His eyes blinked open. Greenish-black tendrils of I don’t know what covered his iris and eyeballs. He looked confused and dazed for a moment, looking at first us and then his father next to him.
“Steven, Steven, it’s me,” Lou comforted, holding his son in both arms. “It’s me. We’re going to figure this out. You’re going to be okay.”
Steven swayed in his upright position for a moment. He opened his mouth, revealing a green tongue. One word came out. “Alec.”
With that, Steven closed his eyes and went limp.
“No!” Lou screamed, grabbing his son in both arms and crying.
Syrinity rushed to the boy’s side, checking his pulse.
“He’s not gone yet,” Syrinity consoled Lou. “But his pulse is weak.”
“Who’s Alec?” I asked.
“The astronomer,” Lou said through gritted teeth. “My boy. What did he do to my boy?”
“Where is this astronomer?” I questioned Lou. “I think we should talk to him.”
“I’ll kill him,” Lou vowed, rising from his son’s side. “If he did this to my son, I’ll kill him. Follow me.”
Lou stormed out of the house. Syrinity and I followed close behind. As soon as we walked outside, we were met by a crowd of men and women. Most of them looked curious, a few concerned and frightened.
“Who are these strangers you’ve brought to our village?” a man called, coming to the front of the crowd. “Does the New Republic know about this?”
A hubbub of murmurs rippled over the gathered group. They didn’t look hostile yet, but I knew how mobs worked. It wouldn’t take much to set them off.
“They’re friends looking in on my sick Steven,” Lou explained. “They came from another continent here on Earth.”
“How did they travel?” a voice in the crowd yelled.
“Do they have a ship?” someone else called.
“We come from the American continent, and no, we don’t have a ship,” I said, addressing the crowd before things got out of hand. “Lou’s right. We’re just passing through. Our ship will be here soon to pick us up.”
“But how did you get here?” the same man who had started the conversation asked. He wasn’t necessarily big, but he looked mean. I could see it in his eyes. “If you don’t have a ship, how did you arrive?”
That was a question I knew I couldn’t answer. Not only because I would sound crazy, but that trail led to telling them about the Relics and aliens along the way.
“What are you hiding?” the man asked again. “The New Republic should know about this, Lou.”
“And they will, Davis,” Lou confirmed. “But right now, my boy is dying inside and they might be the only ones that can help. Let us through.”
For a moment, I didn’t think Davis was going to move. Then, reluctantly, he stepped to the side. A path parted for us through the crowd.
“Thank you,” Lou said, stopping next to an older woman and asking if she would stay with his son.
Amidst the looks of intrigue, we made our way through the gathered crowd. I could feel the tension build like it was something tangible in the air. My stomach rolled and rumbled, letting me know we’d missed more than one meal at the moment.
Lou led us down a side street then made a left to a row of houses on the east side of the small town. These, like the others, were single-story stone structures with patched roofs. Lou led us to the last house on the left.
Without hesitation, he rapped on the door.
“Alec, Alec, are you in there?” Lou shouted. “Alec, open the door.”
Lou tried the handle. It was locked.
“Alec, open this door right now!” Lou shouted in desperation.
Townspeople on the street and from the surrounding homes began to take notice. Heads poked out of doors and windows to take in the sight.
“Open,” Lou yelled, working himself into a frenzy. He slammed his left shoulder into the door. “Open this door right now.”
Despite his best efforts, Lou’s attempt at breaking down the door was feeble at best.
Syrinity placed a hand on his shoulder, gently motioning him to the side. With a heavy boot, she reared back and kicked in the door. The force of her blow directed right next to the handle was enough to splinter the door jamb. The door swung violently inward.
At the same time, an odor crept out of the house that smelt like fat burning on a stove.
“Alec?” Lou called, coughing as he entered. “Alec, where are you?”
Syrinity and I stepped into the house more cautiously. Unlike Lou’s home, which was portioned into rooms, this place looked like a single massive chamber.
A bed on the right with a dresser was the only section of the house not covered with tables. These tables held telescopes, maps, star charts, beakers, and other tools I had no name for.
I caught movement inside the dark house from the back left corner. Someone was working over a large table. The man wore thick goggles. Like Lou, his beard and hair were long. Black gloves that came up to his elbows were tight on his hands. He ignored us and continued to work.
“Alec,” Lou roared, navigating his way to the man through the cramped interior of the house. “Alec, what did you do to Steven?”
Alec ignored Lou as if he didn’t hear him at all.
As soon as Lou reached him, he grabbed the astronomer around the shoulders. Shaking him from side to side, Lou forced Alec to look at him.
“Do you hear me? What have you done? What did you do to my boy?” Lou repeated.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about it,” Alec said excitedly. “Do you know what this means? You remember the whispers we heard about a battle on Mars? About intelligent life in the universe? Well, this confirms it. The work I’m doing here goes far beyond what most could have even imagined. It’s our evolution. It’ll be the next step in human evolution.”
Alec went on talking so fast, I could barely keep up. My eyes took in the work Alec was doing over this section of the table as he spoke. A petri dish under a microscope was set up along with a series of syringes and tools.
I didn’t need the microscope to see the splattering of dark green substance in the petri dish. It was the same hue of Steven’s wound. The same color of his eyes and tongue.
“What did you do to him?” Lou spat in a rage. “What is this?”
“He volunteered to be the second,” Alec said as if that absolved him from his crimes. “And he will be justified, Lou. Your boy will be among an exalted race. Don’t you see this is a blessing? This is our next step.”
“You injected a kid with this—this alien substance?” Syrinity asked.
Alec looked at her for the first time, blinking behind his goggles.
“We had to be sure we could use it on youths, not just adults. It’s bonded well,” Alec said, unfazed. “Yes, he’s sick now, but it’s just as the host gets accustomed to the new parasite. He’ll be well soon. You have to trust me. This alien entity is more than just sentient. It’s truth.”
Memories of my own encounter with alien insects left a sick feeling in my gut. I vividly remembered the interrogation party the Voy had for me. The bug crawling down my throat and wrapping itself around my windpipe were nightmares I’d carry for the rest of my life.
“You said he was the second?” I ground out, stalking forward and taking Alec from Lou’s grasp. I held the man by the collar, slamming him against the wall. “Who else? Who else are you infecting with this?”
As soon as I asked the question, I already knew the answer. Up close, I could see through Alec’s thick goggles. His eyes were the same slime green as Steven’s. The petri dish held a much brighter green substance in it, but there was no denying the link between the origin and the host.
I released my grip on Alec and backed away.
The astronomer turned mad scientist removed his goggles. Green veins originating from each pupil snaked across his eyes but didn’t stop there. Whatever this alien substance was, it spread from his eyes, over to his forehead and nose.
“What have you done?” Syrinity asked what we were all thinking. “Where did you find this—this plague?”
“This gift,” Alec began, looking at her as if she were the one that was mad. “This gift given to us by an ancient race of beings was sent to me on the wings of a shooting star. I saw it a few nights ago as I gazed on the universe. I saw it fall and land. When I went to it, I understood what I had to do. I understood why it was here.”
“Biological warfare from another alien species, maybe even the Voy,” I said out loud. “They sent it here because they knew it could live and spread under your ignorance of what’s really going on here.”
Alec shook his head.
I looked over at the petri dish of the stuff, intent on destroying it here and now.
“We need to burn it,” I stated. “We need to burn this and then Alec here is going to show us where it landed and we’re going to burn that site too.”
I went to the table looking for anything that might be able to cause a flame.
“No!” Alec screamed like a wild man. “No, you will not harm our evolution.”
I had seen fast. I was pretty fast myself. Alec was a blur of motion. As soon as my mind registered he was moving at all, the smaller man bulldozed me.
It felt like being hit by a truck. One second I was looking down at the table for something to burn the mother down and the next I was flying through the air like some baby bird on his first outing from the nest.
I smashed into the far wall of the room so hard, it took my breath away. I sat there stunned for a second.
“Are you okay?” X asked.
“Yeah, just wasn’t expecting our resident scientist to hit like a train,” I answered, pushing myself to my feet. “Let’s see how well he can take what he’s dishing out.”
In the time it took me to recover, Syrinity and Lou jumped in to help. Syrinity had Alec in a rear chokehold, trying to keep him off balance. Lou made the mistake of coming at him from the front.
Alec was in a rage. Green spittle flew from his mouth. Rearing up with both legs, he kicked out at Lou. I heard something crunch as Lou went down hard.
Alec reached back and tried flinging Syrinity over his head. To her credit, the Knight of the Way held on, trying to choke him into unconsciousness.
Whatever strength this alien virus gave its host was too much for Syrinity on Alec’s second attempt. Syrinity lost her grip on Alec. She sailed over his head in my direction.
I sidestepped the knight, rushing in to do some damage of my own. I sent a right-left-right combination to Alec’s skull with everything I had. My blows barely registered on the man.
Instead of going down, he looked at me and grinned. Green saliva painted his teeth.
“Oh, that’s not good,” X said in my head.
I brought another right to the side of his face that he caught with his own right hand.
With his left, he grabbed my throat and lifted me from the ground.
“We are the next step in humanity’s evolution,” Alec rumbled in such a deep voice, it didn’t even sound like him. “You and the others of your kind will see. You will join us or die.”
With that, Alec threw me backward into Syrinity. I slammed into the knight, feeling every piece of her hard armor against my head and back.
I looked up in time to see Alec grab the petri dish of green alien virus and run for the door.
“We’ve got to stop him,” I grunted, gaining my feet once more. “Syrinity?”
“I’m with you,” the knight said, rising to her feet.
Alec was already out the front door.
Lou gained his knees and waved us forward. “My ribs—I’ll be fine—get him.”
I nodded, understanding everything Lou wasn’t able to say.
Racing through the door with Syrinity right behind me, we came to a skidding halt outside the house. The same crowd that gathered outside Lou’s house had come to Alec’s.
Alec blinked profusely, trying to hide his green eyes. He even lifted an arm as if to shield his eyes from the sun.
“They’re trying to kill me!” Alec lied to the mob. “The strangers hurt Lou in there. He might be dead and they tried to kill me.”
Dozens of angry faces looked our way.
“He’s lying,” I said, trying to figure out a way to prove it. “Look at his eyes. Look at his face. He’s infected and he infected Lou’s son.”
Angered expressions so sure before looked from me to Alec, confused.
“Seize them,” Alec shouted back. “Call the New Republic. They need to stand trial for what they’ve done.”
“What’s going on here?” A pair of men in green uniform pushed their way through the crowd. They both carried ancient rifles I had only seen in museums and in old holo flicks. They carried the sigil of a flame on their left shoulders.
“Oh good, you’ve come, you’ve come,” Alec said, pointing at Syrinity and me with an accusing hand. “These strangers attacked me. They injured Lou inside. You must seize them.”
Maybe Alec’s little charade would have worked if he hadn’t removed his free hand from shielding his eyes. As soon as he committed to throwing his pointer finger at us, his face was clear for all to see.
An audible gasp went up from the crowd. Alec’s symptoms from being exposed to the alien virus were spreading fast. Not only were his eyes and the area over his forehead and nose lined with green veins, but it was snaking down to his mouth as well.
People screamed and shied away from Alec as if he were contagious. He might have been. We had no idea what we were dealing with here. Both soldiers from the New Republic lifted their weapons toward Alec.
“On your knees, hands behind your head,” one of the men shouted. “Do it now!”
The other, a younger man not out of his twenties, looked nervous and fidgety. He also raised his weapon at Alec.
“No, no, you don’t understand,” Alec explained, slowly backing away. “This is the beginning of something that will change our history. This is truth.”
“I’m not asking you again.” The New Republic soldier set his jaw and aimed down the barrel of his rifle. “On your knees, hands in the air.”
Alec turned and bolted, using that inhuman speed to flee the scene.
Both soldiers fired. The younger man’s rounds were wild and sporadic. I saw the older man let out a long breath before he pulled his trigger. The round struck Alec in his upper back, sending him tumbling to the ground in a heap.
He didn’t move.
“Tommy, we need to call this in now,” the older soldier told the younger. “Get a New Republic team here ASAP.”
Tommy looked on at Alec’s unmoving body with an open mouth.
“Drew—I mean, sir, did I—did I just kill him?” Tommy asked in a whisper.
“No, I did,” Drew stated without a hint of remorse in his voice. “Now, go. We need backup here.”
The older man gave the kid a gentle shove and Tommy was off. He gave me a strange look before he left.
The locals that scattered when the rifles were used began to return, peeking around corners and looking at one another for answers no one had.
Lou finally made it out the door, holding his ribcage with his left arm.
“Sergeant,” Lou called, addressing the New Republic soldier. “These people. These people are friends who have come to offer aid. Alec is the one we should be focusing our attention on right now. He’s found something. Something not of this world.”
“Be that as it may, I can’t have strangers running around town armed.” Drew looked at both of us. “Are either of you two carrying any weapons?”
“I really wish I was,” I answered, shaking my head. “But no.”
“Neither am I,” Syrinity said with a shrug.
“I’ll need to search you,” Drew responded, chewing on his bottom lip. He wasn’t pointing his weapon at us at the moment, but I knew he was a second away if the need called for it. “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
“Sergeant,” Lou chimed in. “Is this really necessary? They only came to help my son. They are not our enemies. We should really be keeping the town away from Alec and working on a cure from the alien virus he found. My son is infected. We need to call the New Republic for help.”
“I’m just doing my job,” Drew answered, moving forward to pat both Syrinity and me down for weapons. “I don’t know anything about aliens or viruses, but help’s on the way. Tommy’s calling for it now.”
“Easy on the frisking there, Handsy,” I said as Drew patted me down. “We just met.”
He didn’t think that was funny.
Syrinity tensed when the sergeant’s frisking reached the cup at her belt. He passed on, unaware of the power it held.
“Stay away from the body,” Lou warned, hurrying over to a group of towns folk that were edging closer to Alec’s prone figure. “Stay away from him. He’s infected and he was holding a petri dish. We don’t yet know how the virus spr—”
Alec wasn’t as dead as we all assumed he was.
While Drew looked Syrinity over for weapons, the infected astronomer leaped to his feet and grabbed Lou by the back of his head. With one hand, he held the town leader’s hair; with the other, he smashed the petri dish into his face.
Green luminescent alien virus smeared across Lou’s eyes and open mouth.
“The truth will never be silenced,” Alec raved like the madman he was. “You must all see the truth. This is the way.”
Drew had his rifle up a second later, stalking toward Alec and Lou.
Lou fell to the ground spitting, trying in vain to remove the alien virus from his face. This left Alec exposed.
Shots followed by more screams from the city people exploded in the air. Alec stood over Lou while being pumped full of old Earth lead rounds.
Drew walked forward, pulling his trigger until he ran dry. The New Republic sergeant was a great shot. Alec’s chest was a mess of open wounds and oozing green blood.
The good sergeant even managed to land two rounds to Alec’s head before he clicked dry. Half of Alec’s left jaw was missing. A hole in his forehead wide enough for me to put my pinky in dripped with bright green slime I guessed was Alec’s blood.
Instead of falling down dead, Alec looked at us with a smile. Or half a smile, since most of his jaw was gone.
Without a word, Alec turned and ran.
Drew jammed another cartridge into his rifle, taking aim, but Alec’s superhuman speed saw him over a dune. He was gone.
“Well,” Drew said, taking in a deep breath and trying to come to grips with what just happened. “You don’t see that every day.”
“Speak for yourself,” I said, walking over to Lou, who cleaned the green virus and broken petri shards from his ruined face. “We can get some water to clean you up, but it looks like you’re going to have to be in quarantine with your son for now.”
I put on a stoic face because that was what everyone needed from me at the moment. The hurt I felt for this single father and his son, the ache that hit me in the balls would be saved for a later time.
Right now, these people needed a plan. They needed structure to save them from the brink of insanity that arrived at their little village.
“Yes, yes,” Lou agreed, slowly composing himself. “You’re right, of course.”
“I can walk you back to be with your son,” Syrinity offered.
Both she and I knew what she was really doing. Syrinity would keep an eye out for signs of the infection. If anything developed, she’d be the first to know.
“I called, I called the outpost for help,” Tommy said, running back to us. The kid looked beyond confused when he saw Syrinity shepherding a defeated Lou through the crowd.
Everyone present shied away from Lou and Syrinity as if even by looking at them they’d contract whatever it was Alec and Lou had.
“How far away is your outpost?” I asked Drew.
“Two hours if they hustle,” Drew answered.
“What’s going on!?” someone called from the crowd as shock began to wear off and turn into something even more dangerous: fear.
“Did someone say virus?” another voice yelled out. “Is someone infected?”
“We’re figuring this all out now,” Drew shouted to the group. “We don’t know yet, but as soon as we do know, we’ll be sure to tell you as well. For now, the best thing for you to do is go to your homes and stay inside. We have help from the outpost on the way. Please go to your homes. As soon as we know something, so will you.”
I was impressed by how well Drew handled things. I think most men in his position would have been at a loss after emptying a clip into a man, only to see him take it like a champ and then run away like some kind of super athlete.
The crowd began to murmur amongst themselves but slowly turned to obey.
“Tommy,” Drew said, looking at the younger man. “No one goes inside Alec’s house. You understand?”
“Yes—yes, sir.” Tommy swallowed hard. “Sir, what—what is it that we’re dealing with here? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out,” Drew said, looking at me with a hard stare. “You, come with me.”
To be honest, I felt for the guy. I could only imagine in how many ways his mind was tearing at the moment. One day he was in charge of a small quiet town with primitive technology. The next he was thrown into a world of alien virus-enhanced humans and Knights of the Way.
We walked in silence, coming up far short of the place where Alec first played opossum and then jumped Lou. Painted across the ground was a combination of Lou’s and Alec’s blood and bright green stains of the virus.
“Who are you?” Drew asked. “What do you know about this?”
I took a moment to pause and really think about his first question. Who was I? I wasn’t a soldier anymore. I wasn’t a mercenary. I was my own man choosing to take an active role in this now when I could have just walked away.
“My name’s Daniel Hunt,” I told him. “I’ve dealt with aliens before, but nothing like this. I’ve never seen an alien virus. If you can believe me, I’m here to help. I have people on the way in a dropship with supplies as well.”
I grimaced at what I was going to say next.
“If we need it, I can call in the Galactic Government to provide assistance,” I said. “If they get involved, it’s going to get messy.”
Drew slowly nodded as if he were in a daze.
“Messages are already being sent to the New Republic,” Drew said out loud, but I got the sense he was speaking to himself and not to me at all. “We’ll let them decide what to do next. Did Alec tell you anything about where this virus came from or how it spreads?”
“He said he saw a shooting star land close,” I answered honestly. “I think what it really was, was a biological attack from an alien species. I don’t think it spread through the air. Alec had to inject the stuff into himself and Lou’s son. When he attacked Lou, he made sure the stuff entered his bloodstream.”
“Well, what do you want to do today, Drew?” Drew asked himself. “I don’t know; why not tackle an alien virus or two?”
I understood what Drew was thinking probably better than he could imagine. I liked him too. He was a no-nonsense type that took charge and added a bit of humor along the way.
“You didn’t say how you got here.” Drew looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “I’ve got enough on my plate right now not to push the subject. I do believe you’re here to help. But the New Republic is going to want details when they get here.”
“I understand, thank you,” I said.
“I’m going to get on the radio again and relay more information to the New Republic Command.” Drew sighed. “Can I trust you to stay with that woman in armor in front of Lou’s house and tell me if anything happens?”
“You can,” I affirmed, holding his gaze. “I think we’re all going to have to trust each other a little more than we would normally like to if we’re going to get through what comes next.”
“Thank you.” Drew nodded then turned to go. He looked over his shoulder to add, “I think. What does come next?”
I thought back to my encounter with the Voy, the warnings Alerna gave me of other alien life, now knowing we were a species to be taken seriously.
“Struggle,” I told him as I too turned to go. “Struggle and sacrifice come next.”
As I wove my way back through the deserted town, I spoke with X. Mostly everyone had obeyed Drew’s orders in going home and shutting their door. Only the bravest peeked out their windows or stood in their doorways to be the first to see what would happen next.
“You think we can trust the New Republic?” I asked X. “I mean, to do the right thing here?”
“From what we’ve seen of their infrastructure, I’m impressed so far,” X answered in my head. “I mean, look at Earth. Sure you have the Galactic Government at the Hole in New Vegas and the Corporations like Phoenix setting up shop, but the gangs roaming the wasteland make up the majority of life in what used to be the United States. At least here there’s some form of structure for the people. They look healthy and happy enough before this alien virus.”
“Let’s hope the New Republic can be what we wish they are then,” I said, looking up at the sky. The sun shone brightly. My stomach reminded me that I was about to miss another meal. The dull pounding of a headache was beginning to come on. My mouth was parched. “When’s Cassie going to get here?”
“She’s still about five, maybe six hours out,” X answered. “I know it feels like an eternity, but she just found out where we were this morning.”
I walked up to Syrinity, who stood holding a plate of delicious-smelling food in front of her. She leaned against Lou’s house near the closed door devouring something.
“Hey, where’d you get that?” I asked, forgetting my manners as I sidled up to her like a hungry wolf. “Who’s passing out food?”
“One of the villagers who knows Lou and his son saw me standing here watching over them and brought some food for me to eat,” Syrinity replied, taking a bite out of something that smelled like heaven. “If I tell you, you can have some; don’t eat it all.”
“I won’t,” I said, licking my lips as saliva flowed freely through my mouth.
Syrinity didn’t look like she particularly wanted to share. Still, she offered me the plate to let me dig in.
I didn’t know what I was eating. Whether it was some barbecued mutie creature, mixed with roots or whatever, I wanted more. Flavor exploded in my mouth washed down by cool water.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Syrinity removed the canteen from my lips as I tilted it all the way back and chugged like I was in some kind of drinking competition. “What did we talk about?”
“Sorry,” I answered, lifting a closed fist to my mouth to cover a burp. “That was amazing. Any idea what that was?”
“The woman who brought it over called it a skunk ape, but I’m not sure what that is.” Syrinity shrugged, popping the last piece of food into her mouth. “Better not to let your mind dwell on it and just be thankful.”
“Amen,” I mumbled, scratching the back of my head. I jerked a thumb to the closed door. “Any idea how they’re doing in there?”
“None,” Syrinity answered. “When we got here, Lou went in and the woman watching his son came out. The door’s been closed ever since.”
I nodded along with her words, going over the various scenarios in my mind. Lou and his son were both infected. If Alec was any example of what they were about to become, we were going to have a pair of insane super humans on our hands.
That was one problem.
The next issue arose of Alec himself. Who knew how to kill him and he was running around the wilderness mad, infected, and— I stopped in my thought process.
“Your heart rate spiked,” X said out loud. “Are you okay? Daniel?”
“Yeah, I mean no,” I corrected myself. “Where do you think Alec’s going right now?”
“I mean, he’s crazy and wants to spread the virus, so maybe another village?” Syrinity guessed. “Wherever that is. Hopefully it’s far enough away that he won’t be able to get there soon or a warning can be sent ahead.”
“Right; he wants to spread his truth but that alien virus isn’t communicated by a bite or saliva,” I said, still connecting all the dots in my mind. “Alec injected himself with the stuff as well as Steven. When he attacked Lou, he didn’t bite him or spit on him or anything.”
“He made sure that the petri dish of the virus cut him and got inside,” X finished. “He needs more of the alien virus if he wants it to spread.”
“His supply at his lab is under guard.” Syrinity brought my hypothesis full circle. “Alec has to get more of the stuff. He’s going back to where he found it the first time. The crash site.”
Drew’s timing couldn’t have been better. The New Republic sergeant walked toward us from the end of the street.
“The outpost that’s sending help is double-timing it,” Drew said with the first vestige of a grin on his lips. “They’ll be here within the hour. We’ll have doctors and scient—”
“Sorry to burst your bubble, but we got to go,” I said, motioning for Syrinity to follow.
“What?” Drew asked, looking at us, confused. “Where? I can’t allow you to just leave.”
“You do whatever you have to do,” I answered over my shoulder. “We know where Alec’s going.”
Drew half lifted his weapon as if he were going to stop us then lowered the rifle.
Good choice, I thought to myself.
Syrinity and I understood what was at stake. Alec spreading the alien virus wasn’t an option. We couldn’t allow that to happen no matter what that meant on our end.
“He’s faster and stronger than even you,” Syrinity said to me. “When we find him, we’ll need to take him down together. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
I couldn’t tell if Syrinity was being serious or messing with me. The Knight of the Way kept her head forward. Her dark hair bounced over the armor covering her shoulders. The sun glistened off her armor like light over a sparkling pond.
“Right, together, so you don’t get thrown over his shoulder again,” I said with a cough.
Syrinity looked me up and down like I was short of something.
“I’ll see if I can come up with some options for his destination based on the direction he was headed when he ran away from the town,” X chimed in for both of us to hear. “Daniel, I’m going to overlay a few options for you using augmented reality.”
“Got it,” I acknowledged. It was nothing new. X, with access to my sight, would be able to show me where different destination points were or even give me a path to follow by overlapping augmented reality on top of actual terrain.
A moment later, a thick gold line appeared to my left.
“This is the best I can do given the trajectory Alec took off in,” X explained. “We’ll cast the widest net if you and Syrinity travel side by side but much further apart.”
“Roger,” I said, looking over to my armored counterpart. At the moment, she was patting the cup looped in her belt, making sure the Relic was still there. “Syrinity, keep on heading down this way. I’m going to move to your right and do the same. With X’s help and any luck, we’ll stumble on Alec and his alien virus.”
“Can’t wait,” Syrinity said with a twitch of her lips.
Okay, that time, she’s teasing, I thought to myself as I followed my own instructions and moved a good fifty meters to the right.
I wish I could say the next hour passed quickly under the hot sun. It didn’t. Syrinity and I trudged on over the landscape that was one part sand and one part dry dirt. At least that was what it looked and felt like under my boots.
I was wishing we had brought water with us as sweat ran down the back of my neck like tiny rivers. I didn’t know how Syrinity was handling the heat in her armor. She was too far away to see her face. I could see her body well enough trudging over the terrain like some ancient warrior out of time.
“We need to get this situation under control and head for the last Relic,” X reminded me. “Once we have all three, I’ll feel better about our current situation. Also, what about calling the Galactic Government in on this?”
That was a question I didn’t want to answer. Sergeant Toy of the Galactic Government was with us on the island searching for the cup. No doubt his own reinforcements were arriving, just like Cassie was coming for us.
I was half surprised he hadn’t reached out yet. Or if not him, then someone from the GG. I didn’t hate the Galactic Government, but neither was I eager to get in bed with them. I wasn’t a big fan of rules, and with those guys, there weren’t only rules, there were orders. It was their way or the highway.
“Daniel,” X said abruptly. “There, eleven o’clock.”
I brought a hand up to shield my eyes, squinting and focusing in the distance. Something dark dented the ground. It looked like a crater.
Glancing over to my left, I waited until Syrinity looked my way. I waved my hands over my head then pointed to the area ahead of me. If Alec was still in the area, the last thing I wanted to do was tip him off to our presence.
Syrinity waved her own arms, signaling that she had seen me. Together we moved forward. I wasn’t afraid to fight whatever Alec was becoming again. I had faced my share of nightmares in the past.
That didn’t stop the tiny voice inside my head asking me “what if this” or “what if that.”
I ignored that voice inside my head and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the next, all the while scanning the area in front of us for any movement. If Alec was in the area, he was doing one heck of a job hiding.
Syrinity and I approached the crater, getting closer to one another as we arrived. The crater itself was about a city block in diameter. Charred ground made a shallow bowl at the point of impact. The crater was maybe a meter deep, maybe not even that much.
My head spun with the possibilities as more details of the crash site came into play. A rock the size of my torso sat in the middle. The asteroid or rock or alien biological weapon, whatever it was, was charcoal grey, nearly black. The stone was punctured with tiny holes all around. The holes oozed with varying shades of green slime.
Syrinity came to stand next to me.
“Alec was here, but he’s gone now,” Syrinity remarked, pointing to a pair of footprints starting around the asteroid then disappearing in the opposite direction we came. “Looks like he came and got what he needed before leaving again.”
I was about to say more when the familiar roar of a truck engine broke the silence. We looked behind us to see two trucks heading in our direction. Unlike the vehicles I was used to seeing on Earth driven by rival gangs, these were old model trucks well maintained.
The New Republic, while underfunded, was doing their best to represent some kind of working government in Australia. One larger SUV skidded to a halt beside Syrinity. The other jeep came to a stop in a cloud of dust in front of me.
Armed soldiers wearing the same brown uniform as Drew jumped out of the vehicles, forming a perimeter around us.
“Hands where we can see them,” someone ordered.
“Here we go again.” I sighed.
To be honest, I was getting tired of meeting new people and convincing them I wasn’t their enemy. But it was either that or I get into a brawl with these guys right here, right now.
I lifted my hands into the air. Syrinity looked at me, deadpan.
“One more time,” I told her.
Syrinity reluctantly did the same.
At least ten soldiers looked at us over the barrels of their weapons. These rifles and handguns were the same as Drew and Tommy carried in the town. Old weapons of a time long ago that against all odds still worked. I guess if you took care of your weapon in the right way, they took care of you down the road.
“If you talked to the sergeant in town, then you know we aren’t armed and we aren’t here to fight,” I told whoever was in charge. “Behind me is an asteroid or biological weapon, depending on how you look at it. It’s contaminated with an alien virus. I wouldn’t touch it if I were you.”
“We’re not,” a woman’s voice answered.
She stepped forward, holstering her weapon at her side. She was tall with curly brown hair worn under a side cap.
“My name is Lieutenant Myrisa Mora,” the woman stated. “We’ve spoken to the sergeant. That’s why you’re not dead yet. Move out of the way while we quarantine this area. You can put your hands down for now.”
I lowered my hands but still got the feeling that trust was a long way off.
“Weapons down,” Lieutenant Mora instructed her soldiers. “Let’s get this area sectioned off ASAP.”
Soldiers all around us moved to obey.
“Lieutenant,” I said, stopping her as she moved to bark more orders. “You shouldn’t section this area off; you should burn it. You need to burn it all. This is an alien virus. Nothing good is going to come of this.”
“Thank you for your opinion on the matter.” Lieutenant Mora looked at me as if for the first time. “Are you a scientist well-versed in alien viruses?”
“Well, no, but I’ve seen a few in my day,” I answered with a scowl.
“Well, be that as it may, we’ll let the New Republic scientists be the judge of what to do with this new find,” Lieutenant Mora responded. “I need you two to stay here. You’re not under arrest at the moment. But if you try to take off again, I’ll have no choice but to restrain you.”
“You should also know that a man is infected with this virus and running free,” Syrinity added. “You need to find him before he can spread this disease to anyone else.”
“And we will,” Lieutenant Mora stated matter-of-factly. “However, at this moment, my team is spread thin. Between leaving half my unit in town to calm the civilians there, and then the other half dedicated to securing the site, I’m out of resources. Another team from Arcadia itself is on the way to lend a hand. They’ll be here soon enough.”
“Soon isn’t good enough,” I told her. “We need to find and stop him now.”
I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but it came out that way. Through my peripheral vision, I saw soldiers who were busy unloading gear reach for their weapons.
“I told you, you aren’t prisoners yet,” Lieutenant Mora said with a glare I nearly felt penetrate my skull. “But I have my orders to secure the town and the site. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
More soldiers joined their lieutenant as they heard the conversation escalate.
I looked over at Syrinity, who gave me a nod.
“I’m sorry for this,” I said, looking at Lieutenant Mora. “But we can’t let that virus spread.”
As fast as my enhanced muscles could move, I rotated to my left. I knocked away the rifle the closest soldier held and threw a right hook that turned out the lights for him on impact.
I held on to the rifle not to aim and fire but to use it as a club. I turned the movement into a single fluid motion, bringing the rifle’s butt up under the chin of another soldier.
I caught Syrinity throwing haymakers of her own. Someone fired and missed. Someone else fired and I heard the round ping off Syrinity’s armor.
I moved for the lieutenant. As fast as I was, I wasn’t faster than her drawing her weapon and firing as I closed in. Her round hit me in the armored vest I wore. It felt like someone taking a baseball bat to my lungs.
I sprinted forward as she fired once more into my chest at such a close range that one went through into my shoulder. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I reached her, ripping the pistol from her hand and taking her as a hostage.
Shock more than fear crossed her face. She knew as well as I did the last round went through and didn’t stop me from moving.
“What—what are you?” Lieutenant Mora asked as I held her from behind.
“All you need to know is that I’m not your enemy,” I told her. “Call your men off.”
Syrinity still fought a trio of soldiers who managed to grab her. The Knight of the Way refused to give up, sending a kick into one of the men’s sternum that made me cringe for him.
“Let her go!” I yelled, firing a round into the air to show them I meant business. I pressed the hot muzzle to the side of Lieutenant Mora’s head, hoping she wouldn’t call my bluff. “Let her go or the next round’s meant for her skull.”
“Do it!” Lieutenant Mora ordered her soldiers.
Reluctantly, they released Syrinity and lowered their weapons.
“Keys,” I said to Syrinity, jerking my head toward the jeep.
“You’re going to regret this,” Lieutenant Mora snapped. “The New Republic will hunt you down now. You won’t be getting off Australia alive.”
“I already do regret this,” I told her. “But if we don’t stop that virus, everyone will lose.”
“Got them,” Syrinity said, snatching a ring of keys from a reluctant soldier. She jumped into the jeep. A few seconds later, it roared to life. “Let’s go.”
“Two rifles and ammunition,” I instructed the closest soldier to me. I eyed the hilt of a knife sheathed in his belt. “The knife too.”
The soldier looked at his superior officer with an open mouth.
“Do it,” Lieutenant Mora answered.
The soldier hurried to obey.
“You can follow me if you want, but it won’t end well for you,” I told the lieutenant as I eyed the second vehicle. “I could shoot out your tires now just to be on the safe side. Or if you give me your word, I’ll leave it for you to get back to the town.”
“I have my orders to secure the town and this site,” Lieutenant Mora answered. “I’ve done that. If you want to go off in search of the astronomer, then that’s on you. I won’t follow, but the New Republic will as soon as they hear what you’ve done.”
“Daniel,” Syrinity urged me from the driver’s seat.
I shoved the lieutenant forward, vaulting into the back of the waiting jeep. Syrinity gunned the engine. Already soldiers were reaching for their dropped weapons.
We sped forward wildly as if the jeep had a rough night of heavy drinking the night before and forgot how to move at all.
Syrinity jerked so hard from side to side, I nearly fell out the back of the vehicle.
“Hey,” I yelled as I got jostled and finally moved to the passenger side seat. “Do you know how to drive?”
“It’s been a lifetime since I’ve been behind a wheel,” Syrinity admitted with a crazy grin on her lips. “We didn’t get many vehicles on the island.”
I wasn’t one to get car sick, but with Syrinity behind the wheel, I had to swallow back my delicious lunch more than once.
I checked behind us to ensure we weren’t being followed. True to her word, Lieutenant Mora let us go.
A twinge of regret hit me at having to point a pistol at her head. I never intended to use it. It was our only way out without killing any of the soldiers.
“Which way?” Syrinity questioned, swerving so hard around a dune, we nearly tipped over.
“X?” I asked, grabbing on to the handhold on the ceiling to secure myself. “Any idea on where Alec could have gone?”
“I can just do the same thing I did before,” X answered, overlaying a path onto my vision that showed a steady line heading into the desert. “The last tracks we saw, he was headed in this direction. We can scan along the way to see if we pick up more of his tracks, but that’s the best we can do for now.”
“It’s all we’ve got,” I stated. “Let’s go.”
We slowed down once we were sure the New Republic wasn’t following. All three of us tried to pick up any sign to show us Alec traveled this way.
As soon as Syrinity reacquainted herself behind the wheel and we stopped swaying from side to side like a ship being buffeted in the ocean, I did a weapons check.
The rifles provided courtesy of the New Republic were primitive but would get the job done. I was more interested in testing them out than I should have been.
Over the next hour, we followed X’s best guess but found nothing. Neither were we able to pick up his trail, even when Syrinity slowed the jeep down to a painful crawl over the sand.
The sun was beginning to set in the west now. A cool breeze kicked up, playing with my hair.
“ETA on Cassie and the rest of the team?” I asked X as Syrinity crawled to a complete stop.
“Under a half hour now,” X told me. “I’ve updated her on our progress by the hour. Actually, we have an incoming call from her now.”
“Cassie?” I called out loud.
“Daniel?” Cassie asked, trying to veil her worry. “What’s going on down there? Why are you moving around so much?”
“Well, funny you asked.” I cleared my throat, trying to discern the best way to go about this conversation. “You see, when we landed here, there was an alien virus and to contain said alien virus, we had to… borrow a vehicle and weapons from those in power here. They call themselves the New Republic.”
Silence on the other end.
“Cassie? Cassie, are you there?” I asked.
“Son of a brum,” Cassie finally answered. “Yes, I’m here. Just struggling to overcome that voice in my head that says, ‘this is not our problem.’ You know, the one that tells me just to pick you up and head home.”
“I hear that voice too,” I confessed with a sigh, imagining what life would be like if we lived for ourselves instead of hunting Relics and fighting off alien threats. “But we can’t because if we don’t, who will?”
“I know.” Cassie sighed. “That’s one of the reasons I like you.”
“What are the other reasons?” I asked.
“Well, X is on the line and I don’t want her to blush,” Cassie answered with a laugh.
“I’m actually going to step out.” X inhaled. “I want no part of this.”
“It’s okay, X,” Cassie answered. “We’ll be there soon. You two look after each other.”
“Will do,” I replied. “See you soon.”
The open comm channel clicked closed.
“So what now?” Syrinity asked, turning to me. “No tracks to follow or clue where he went in this desert. We can drive around hoping to see something, but I think he’s gone.”
“I agree,” I said with a sigh. “I guess all we can do for now is keep searching until Cassie and the others get here. I—”
The hairs rose on the back of my neck. A buzzing on the wind sent my senses on high alert. Two drones rose over a dune to our left. I wasn’t an expert on drones, but they were unlike anything I had ever seen.
The size of a large tire, they were all black with dual blasters at the front end while thrusters propelled them forward from behind.
At once, they opened fire, sending red laser beams in our direction.
“Drive!” I yelled.
Syrinity was a half step ahead of me, slamming her foot onto the gas pedal and jerking us forward in a spray of sand.
Red-hot laser rounds peppered the ground around us.
“What in crip are those things?” Syrinity screamed as she jerked the wheel from right to left. “Galactic Government?”
I grabbed on to the handle in front of me, trying to turn around in my seat and get a better look at the drones. The twin machines of hate were nothing like I had witnessed.
They sped through the air as if they were not remote-controlled but actually cognizant of their actions. Between the blasters doling out wrath, a bright red light shone like a single eye. I had seen those kinds of eyes before in the robots made by Atilla and his family. The same technology that powered the robots that killed Wesley.
“If they are GG, they’re not like anything I’ve seen them use before,” I shouted over the roar of the engines. “Try to steady us as much as possible. I’m going to take them down.”
“Yeah, right,” Syrinity answered, sending us flying over a dune. We must have been airborne for a good five seconds, which felt like an eternity in the air.
The jeep came down with a hard crash. The ancient vehicle whined and groaned with the impact.
I half stumbled, half crawled to the rear of the jeep, where I hoped to get a clear shot at the drones.
Sporadic fire strafed the sand beside us. One of the little sons of a brum got lucky. A hose of red beams ripped across the jeep, shattering the glass in the front windshield.
“Anytime now,” Syrinity called back.
I lifted the rifle onto my shoulder, doing my best to aim in an environment created for me to miss.
“Easy,” X warned me, trying to help. “Syrinity, even out as much as you can, then slam on the brakes when I tell you.”
“Are you crazy?” Syrinity asked. “I hit the brakes and we’re sitting ducks.”
“Just do it,” I told her. “No way I get a clear shot on this ride.”
“Now!” X yelled so loud, I cringed at her spot right behind my ear.
Syrinity evened out and slammed on the brakes.
Even knowing it was coming, it took me a moment to recover and aim. The drones seemed disoriented for a moment, slamming on their own brakes as they whizzed past us.
I stood up in the jeep, bringing the stock of the weapon to my shoulder. I exhaled slowly, forcing myself to remain calm despite my heart beating out of my chest.
I aimed down the barrel of my weapon at the twin hovercrafts making wide turns across one another’s paths. A second later, they were coming at us again.
“Daniel?” Syrinity called out, trying to keep the worry out of her voice.
I ignored her, not because I didn’t think she had a valid concern, but I needed to concentrate.
“Daniel?” X repeated Syrinity’s question.
Red laser fire ripped through the air again in a sound that sounded something like a series of Zs strung together.
The pattern of laser rounds painted the sand, racing toward us and scorching the ground while kicking up a spray of sand as it came.
“Daniel!” both Syrinity and X yelled at once.
I stroked the trigger, aiming for the red dot on the left hovercraft. It wasn’t a direct hit, but the round crashed into the upper right corner of the red eye.
The whole hovercraft sparked then spiraled through the air, coming to crash in the sand on our right.
The remaining drone continued its strafing run, peppering the jeep with laser rounds.
Syrinity ducked out of the way.
I wasn’t so lucky.
White hot pain lanced up my left leg. I groaned, falling to the jeep floor.
“Go, go, go!” X yelled.
Syrinity obeyed, sending us forward over the sandy terrain.
“Rawww!” I vented to the sky as my healing factor began to do its work. My pants were torn and bloody. I could smell my leg cooking below me.
This isn’t going to kill you, I told myself in my head. This isn’t going to kill you.
I recovered enough to regain a sitting position in the rear of the vehicle. I looked in all directions, trying to track the last drone still hunting us. All I could see was sand all around; above us nothing but clear blue sky.
“Daniel, are you okay?” Syrinity asked, not turning around.
“I’ll live,” I answered. “Where is it?”
“Daniel! Watch ou—”
X’s warning came too late.
The drone appeared, coming down out of the sky at us to my left. Red beams punctured the side of the jeep holding the gas tank. An explosion so loud it made my eardrums bleed erupted.
Caught in the explosion, everything went blurry. I was propelled into the air. My hearing was gone. I landed somewhere in the sand that was not as soft as it looked.
Disoriented, I tried to get up, but all I could see was darkness around me. I opened my jaw to say something, but either nothing came out or I just couldn’t hear myself.
I couldn’t even hear X.
Panic sought to come and seize whatever amount of consciousness I had left. Finally, I was able to blink my eyes open. Blood fell down my forehead into my line of sight. I was lying on my stomach, my head turned to the left.
The explosion propelled me up and behind the jeep. I looked at the vehicle ablaze in the middle of nowhere. A high-pitched whine existed in my head. I wanted to move, but I couldn’t.
Something that smelled like meat was burning. I couldn’t even look down at my body to tell if it was me or not.
My line of sight took in the smoking jeep. Syrinity was still strapped in the driver side seat consumed in fire.
The drone that shot us down hovered over her.
“No,” I tried to say. I think I said it out loud; I couldn’t be sure.
I watched in horror as the drone aimed its barrels down at the back of Syrinity’s burning head and opened fire on her exposed skull.
“No!” I yelled again, willing my body to move past the burning that consumed me.
“Daniel, Daniel, you’re on fire,” X’s voice finally came through the high-pitched tone in my head. “You need to roll or put the fire out somehow.”
Pain, sorrow, and anger all roiled through me at once. I decided to hold on to anger and use it.
My body healed me enough for me to at least look down at my burning legs. My clothes were on fire as well as my boots.
I leaned to my left rolling down the sand dune, allowing the desert to drown the flames eating my lower body.
Confident Syrinity was dead, the drone came over to inspect me.
Through its red eye, it stared down at me as if it were taunting me, enjoying the moment of my demise and pain.
I set my jaw, readying myself for the inevitable pain coming my way. I wasn’t worried about my own wellbeing. I could take it. I’d find a way to live through this and rip the drone apart with my bare hands if I had to.
I was worried about X. I made sure the right side of my head where X’s chip sat behind my ear was buried in the sand.
Instead of firing on me, the black drone just hovered above me. It stared at me as if it were inspecting how much pain I was in and enjoying every moment of it.
Breathing came hard and shallow as my body worked to repair itself. The pain I felt was also beginning to subside.
“Daniel, the cube,” X reminded me. “I can help.”
Before I could respond, something large moved in the sky above me. Glimmering air covering a large object flew over my location. Cloaking technology I had yet to witness made my brain do backflips, trying to figure out if I was hallucinating or there was actually a massive invisible ship overhead.
Sand exploded in every direction as whatever it was sat down on the terrain on the other side of the burning jeep. The cloaking shield disappeared a moment later, revealing a kind of ship I had never seen before.
Unlike a dropship that was larger and bulkier, this ship was sleek and narrow. The outside was painted like the drones, a flat black. Weapons mounted under the short stubby wings told me in a second what this ship was designed for. A ramp from the belly of the ship opened slowly.
I saw this through the heated, distorted air over the exploded jeep. I wasn’t sure how Syrinity’s ability worked. I knew she drank from the Relic along with the other Knights of the Way. I knew she was given immortal life, but that it came with a cost.
What I wasn’t sure was how she would come back to life or when. In the meantime, her body burned in the jeep.
The drone hovering above me zipped over the wreckage of the jeep and headed to the ship like an animal called back by its master.
I could see feet descending from the ramp. I had seconds to decide what to do with X.
I knew I could move my arms at this point. A fiery tingling sensation ran up and down my upper body.
“X,” I grunted, pulling the steel cube from my pocket. “Get somewhere safe. Don’t put yourself in danger for me. I’ll live through this.”
I didn’t wait for her to answer. I extracted the data chip behind my ear that X was housed in. Locating the side of the cube with the needlepoint hole, I inserted the needle-like anchor on X’s chip.
The cube heated in my hand. Blue lines ran across the piece of metal like circuits of some kind. There was no time to wait and see what would happen next. I had to trust that Alerna told the truth.
Using every ounce of strength in my broken body, I heaved the cube behind me over the nearest sand dune.
That simple act felt like I just lifted a dropship. My body needed more fuel to heal. The little food I carried in my system was gone .
Black figures walked from the strange ship. My heart caught in my throat as I saw the red cross symbol of the Order.
Two Cyber Hunters along with a pair of the red-eyed robots I fought before crossed the landscape toward my location.
I thought I was pissed before. Anger turned into wrath and pure hate. I could guess who one of the Cyber Hunters was. Atilla, funded by his family, was the only one I knew to employ these robots. I came across them on Earth as well as the Island where Atilla hired Rival Mercer and gave him access to the robots.
The robots themselves were tall skeletal things with piercing red eyes. My odds against two robots and a pair of Cyber Hunters, in my current condition, wasn’t looking so good.
Most of the pain was gone now and I was sitting up, but I had yet to make it to my feet.
Both Cyber Hunters wore long black coats and the traditional black mask with the red cross carrying not one but two parallel red bars.
They stopped just out of reach of my position. The last drone in the air came along with them like some kind of dog on a leash.
“Come on, you saw this coming.” Atilla’s voice came from the right Cyber Hunter. He reached up, pulling off his mask. “Did you really think you were going to get away with the Relic?”
A stupid grin crossed over Atilla’s mouth. The right side of his face was metal. A red light shone where his right eye should have been. The thorn in my side placed both hands on his hips and actually laughed.
“I don’t know what you’re laughing at, Cyclops,” I told him in my sitting position. “Your man Rival’s dead. I fed him to a piece of overgrown sushi. You don’t have a single Relic, I have two, and to top things off, I’m going to kill you.”
The smile faded from Atilla’s lips just for a moment before he replaced it with a sneer.
“I’m going to enjoy cutting you apart and figuring out what makes you tick,” Atilla growled. “Do you know what my family does? Do you know why the Lock name has endured for generations? It’s because we’re a vital part of the Order. We’ve made weapons and enhanced soldiers just like you, better than you.”
My mind went to Cassie. I knew she was on the way with the others in the dropship and due to get here soon. I mentally kicked myself for removing X. If she was still in my head, I would have been able to know exactly how close she was.
I had to keep Atilla and his friend talking for as long as possible.
“The Order was never going to side with you,” Atilla prattled on. “It was only a matter of time before my family stepped in and set things right.”
“Can we just back up for a second?” I asked with an outstretched right hand. “Did you say your family name was Lockness?”
Atilla’s face turned red.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said, letting out my own laughter. “I know that’s rude. You’re very proud of what Mommy and Daddy have done for you, so you’re going to get offended, but come on. You have to admit Lockness isn’t a last name you hear every day. I mean, isn’t there some ancient water animal with that name?”
The rest of Atilla’s face matched his red eye. The muscle in his jaw clenched and unclenched.
“You know I said it was ‘Lock’,” Atilla snarled, pointing at me with an outstretched finger. Spittle flew from his mouth. “Kill him now!”
Both robots behind the men stepped forward. The drone overhead aimed its barrels at my head.
“You can try,” I said, unsteadily rising to my feet. “But I’m not going to make this easy.”
“Enough.” The Order member who had yet to speak shook his head. “Killing him was not part of our deal.”
I recognized the voice; it was Julian. Julian Fairmount was the leader of the Order. I fought alongside him during the Voy invasion and what people were now calling the Battle of Mars.
My head hurt trying to understand why Julian would be here now. Everything I knew of the man was that he was fair, a person of his word, and loyal. Heck, he was the one that trained Cassie and turned her into a Cyber Hunter when she had nothing. What was he doing here with Atilla? He wasn’t stupid. He knew what Atilla was.
“Julian?” I asked. “Julian, is that you?”
Julian didn’t remove his mask but nodded.
“I’m sorry it had to happen like this, Daniel,” Julian said, sounding as if he meant every word. “Whether you believe me or not, this was the best way. I was able to convince them not to make an attack on Dragon Hold.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.
“You convinced who not to attack Dragon Hold?” I asked incredulously. “I thought you led the Order.”
“I do, but there is a council of founding families who also weigh in on decisions.” Julian forced out the words as if he didn’t like it any more than I did. “What do you think you know of the Order, Daniel?”
I wobbled on unsteady feet, my mind going to Cassie. Was she a part of this? Did she know about the ambush? No, she couldn’t have. She would have warned me. No matter how deep her ties to the Order and Julian went, she wouldn’t have done this to me. Would she?
“We’ve been around for centuries,” Julian answered his own question. “We played an instrumental hand in seeing the fall of Earth. We understand with alien life present, humans are playing a game where we are hopelessly outmatched. These Relics will make any alien race think twice about invading again. We need the Relics, Daniel. We need the cup you took from the island and we need the book you have in Dragon Hold.”
There it was. Julian didn’t tell me what would happen if I refused, but his voice carried such a weight, it wasn’t necessary.
“Did you really think the Order would side with an outsider rather than its own?” Atilla prodded. “You’re nothing more than a footnote in the pages of our history. Now give us the cup and the book or don’t. I don’t care. I’ll torture the information from you.”
I was pretty proud of myself in the time I was able to buy. I felt strong enough to fight again. Without a weapon and low on food to fuel my body, I wasn’t sure how effective I was going to be, but I wasn’t going down without a fight. That just wasn’t an option.
Past Atilla’s shoulder, I saw the impossible. Syrinity, burned and hammered with laser rounds from the drone, was moving inside the still smoldering jeep.
She sat upright then got out of the vehicle altogether. I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but I couldn’t keep looking at her or I’d tip off Atilla and company.
I needed to keep them talking just for a few moments longer until Syrinity did whatever she was going to do.
“Does Cassie know about this?” I asked Julian. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to buy time when I opened my mouth. Apparently, this was the most pressing question on my mind. “Did you tell her?”
“That mutt.” Atilla rolled his eyes at the mention of her name.
“She doesn’t know,” Julian confirmed, putting me at ease. “Things would be complicated for her and she might make a mistake if she were forced to choose. Don’t make her choose, Daniel.”
“Why? Because you think she’ll choose you?” I asked, following the conversation that was turning out to be a therapy session for me. “Or you think she’ll choose to leave?”
“You’ve known her for what?” Julian asked. “Weeks? Months? Cassie has been a Cyber Hunter for years. I do not question her loyalty. She’s only with you now because for a time our goals were singular. That time has now passed.”
While he spoke, I could see Syrinity burying the Relic she still carried on her hip. Next she found one of the rifles in the sand.
Does she know how to fire one of those? I found myself wondering as she examined the weapon. If she shoots anything like she drives, we’re in trouble.
“Enough of this,” Atilla huffed. “It’s clear he’s stalling for time. Where’s the cup? Do you have it? Is it still in the jeep?”
“I have it,” I lied before anyone could turn around to see Syrinity by the jeep taking aim at the back of Atilla’s head. “I have it right here.”
I reached a hand to my lower back that held nothing but air.
“I’ll give you the cup under one condition,” I said, preparing to leap forward.
“And that is?” Atilla asked, looking at me like I was stupid or something.
“You don’t move while Syrinity takes aim,” I answered.
We all stood there staring at each other for a moment.
“I said!” I yelled so Syrinity could hear me. “Don’t move so Syrinity can shoot you!”
“This thing’s not working,” Syrinity called, shaking the rifle as if that were going to help. “I’m not used to using these. I need an axe, not a rifle. I think this thing has sand in it.”
For a moment, we all paused. I could imagine Atilla and Julian were confused about how Syrinity could still be alive after they witnessed her body burning and the drone put a dozen rounds in the back of her head.
This was my chance. Whatever hope I had of taking out two Cyber Hunters, a pair of killer robots, and a murderous drone lay in the next few moments.
I sprang forward, deciding to get in as close to Atilla as I could and bank on the possibility that neither the robots nor the drones would fire on me for fear of hitting him.
I crossed the distance between us just as Atilla turned around.
I tackled him as hard as I could, taking us both to the ground. The robots or maybe the drone opened fire on Syrinity. I hoped she was okay and didn’t get killed again, but right now, I had my hands full.
As much as Atilla was a spoiled rich kid, he also knew how to fight. This wasn’t the first time I tangled with him, but I was hoping it would be the last.
We rolled in the sand, finally stopping with me sitting on top of his stomach. I landed a right fist to the left side of his face that drew blood. He reached up, blocking my next blow before he transitioned his weight to the right and tried to roll us both over.
I managed to stay on top while he performed the maneuver, giving me his back. I was about to put an arm under his chin for a chokehold when something cold battered me from the right side.
Stars exploded in my head. Numbing pain threw me off Atilla. One of the robots stared over me with its hateful skull face and piercing red eyes. It grabbed me by the throat and squeezed.
The robot lifted me off the sand with one arm as easily as I could reach down and lift a handful of sand. With both my hands, I grabbed the robot’s fingers, trying in vain to pull them apart.
My vision was starting to go blurry as oxygen failed to enter my lungs. The scene spun round me. I could hear weapons fire erupting from somewhere to my left as Syrinity found a way to fight the Order.
I thought it was over.
Someone wearing a blue skintight uniform and short blue hair hammered into the robot, making it drop me. I fell to the ground, choking on glorious oxygen.
On hands and knees, I looked at my savior.
A woman stood in front of me in a defensive position as if she were daring anyone else to come and touch me.
The robot she slammed into was on its side, sparking as it tried to regain its feet. A fist-sized dent caved in its left torso where the woman struck it.
Shoulder-length dark blue hair, the blue skintight suit. I knew who stood protecting me, but my mind couldn’t process the information.
“X?” I asked.
“Kill her!” Atilla roared to the pair of robots.
The robot, still on its feet, opened weapon compartments on its forearms. Laser beams shot out, slamming into X’s torso and head.
“No,” I yelled, struggling to my feet while doing my best not to get hit by the weapon fire.
“Get behind me,” X ordered as she took the brunt of the onslaught without hesitation.
I looked on in awe.
Wherever a round struck her, a shallow silver crater appeared then was reshaped like nothing happened. It seemed like under her light blue skin, her anatomy consisted of a silver metal that was more liquid than solid.
Soon the robot realized weapon fire would be useless against her. The robot sparking on the ground recovered its feet, and both robots along with Atilla moved in close.
Julian stood to the side with his arms over his chest. I still couldn’t see his face, but I imagined he was mildly amused and probably a little annoyed it was taking this long.
Past him, Syrinity took cover behind the jeep, playing a cat and mouse game with the drone. I knew she was going to hold out a lot shorter amount of time than we would. Sooner or later, that drone was going to catch an opening and Syrinity would die again, losing even more of herself.
X moved like a warrior who had been fighting all of her life. The robots came at her at once. She blocked a blow from the one to her left then kicked out so violently, she crippled the one on her right.
Atilla, the gentleman he wasn’t, reached for an extendable staff in the inside of his coat. He protracted the weapon, bringing the metal staff in a downward arc on top of X’s head.
I blew past X, grabbing the staff in both hands. Seeing her take the laser rounds, I doubted it would have done any serious damage; still, all my instincts told me I couldn’t let her get hit.
Immediately, I regretted catching the metal staff. The weapon came down so hard on my open palms, pain exploded in my hands. My palms went numb at once.
“X,” I said through gritted teeth. “The drone. Syrinity.”
“Got it,” X answered, forgetting the robots and sprinting over the sand to where the drone zeroed in on the Knight of the Way.
Atilla, with his enhanced strength as a Cyber Hunter, pulled the weapon free of my grip. The next thing I knew, the weapon was a blur of motion. I ducked out of the way of the first strike from the staff then absorbed the next by bringing my left arm up to protect the side of my head.
That steel rod hit me so hard, I thought I might have broken my arm.
Detonations so intense they made both Atilla and me break concentration thundered over the terrain.
X somehow managed to vault through the air and land on top of the drone hunting Syrinity. The one-time AI, now some kind of android, had her hands deep inside the drone, ripping out wires and other gear from the weapon.
The drone shuddered and sparked as explosions tore it apart from within. The drone came crashing to the sandy ground beside us in a plume of dark smoke. X walked away from the scene like a Valkyrie on some distant battleground long forgotten by time.
Oh crip, if I was Atilla, I’d need a change of underpants right about now, I thought to myself. Welcome to the jungle, you son of a brum.
X was in fact moving toward the robots and Atilla when a blue flash slammed into her body, sending electric tendrils up and down her frame.
“Ughhh!” X grunted, going to her hands and knees as another round and another hit her body.
“Your choice,” Julian said, wielding a weapon I had never seen before. “I can bring you in alive or smoking.”
The weapon Julian held looked like a short, thick rifle with a bright silver outside and blue grips. His right hand was on the trigger with his left supporting the short triple barrel.
“X!” I yelled as both robots grabbed me, one on each arm.
Syrinity moved to intercept Julian at the same time Atilla put himself in her path.
X was breathing hard on her hands and knees. She looked up through a curtain of blue hair with a stare that made me want to go hide.
“I’ve lived as an AI all my life and now that I’m something else, you think I’m going to just sit down and let you take me?” X staggered to her feet, swaying under the blue electric currents running over her body. “Spiritus non possunt occidere nostri. Can’t kill our spirit.”
Julian looked at her like she was crazy.
I felt a swell of pride hit me in the sternum.
“And you should know something about us by now,” X continued. “Wolves don’t fight alone.”
A sound like thunder accompanied those words. As one, everybody looked to the east. A dropship sped into view, getting larger and larger by the second.
“Atilla, the drones, the other robots!” Julian roared, pumping round after round into X.
He understood what we all did.
The Order had their hands full with three of us; against reinforcement, they had no hope. They had to even the odds by taking us out now before the others arrived.
We all fought like the animals we were, not for ourselves, not even for our own survival, but for each other. I was too busy kicking at the robots who had me by both arms to keep track of what Syrinity and X were doing, but I heard their war cries.
I was prepared to rip my arm out of my socket if it meant not giving up. Whatever it took. I was a man possessed.
Over and over again, I stomped on the knee joint of the robot to my right. It was the one X already injured when she came to save me. I wasn’t sure if maybe it would prove weaker or less stable, but it was the only advantage I had at the moment.
Cassie must have still been in contact with X because that dropship sped toward us faster than I had ever seen one move in the air.
Out of the enemy ship, three more drones flew toward us with yet another pair of skeleton like robots sprinting in their wake.
Sand exploded as the dropship came to a halt above us, slamming on the brakes and hovering overhead. The rear ramp opened. Preacher, Cryx, Butch, and Cassie jumped to the ground.
If I thought the scene was chaotic before, I hadn’t seen anything yet. The only thing I could compare it to was the battle on Mars.
Blaster fire penetrated the cloud of sand. Yells and shouts mixed in the air. We were so spread apart, I couldn’t see everyone anymore.
The robots on either side of me moved to hold me with one arm then pointed their free arms forward, aiming at whatever might come at them next.
From the cloud of sand, I heard a howl so utterly primal, I thought for a second Butch might be hurt. A second later, the force of muscle and fur appeared with an open mouth, letting that sound come again.
I realized she wasn’t hurt at all. Instead, this was her own cry to those who would hurt me. This was her rage laid bare and visible for all to see. It horrified me.
The robots opened fire on her. Their rounds splashed harmlessly against the forcefield her collar created around her. With greedy jaws, Butch crashed into the robot to my left, taking it to the ground.
Lucky for me, the robot let go to deal with Butch. The robot on my left turned to take a closer shot at Butch. A pair of katana blades pierced its neck. Dark fluid sprayed down its chest as it also released my arm and tried to hold its metal throat in place.
It fell to its knees, its red eyes blinking off and on at sporadic intervals. When it fell, I could see Cryx standing behind it with both her blades deep in the back of its neck.
“Hey now, aren’t you glad you brought me?” Cryx asked. I couldn’t see anything other than her eyes past her helmet but even through those, I could see her smile. “Not like you needed saving or anything.”
I was about to bite back with a sarcastic remark, but she was right. It was great to see her.
“You did good,” I complimented her, moving beside her to grab one of the katana handles. “Shall we?”
“We shall,” Cryx answered, moving her grip to the opposite katana. “Pull.”
Together we wrenched the katana blades through the throat of the robot and then out, taking its head with us.
The steel skull fell to the sand with its body close behind. The inhuman red eyes blinked once more then went out for good.
Butch was going crazy on the other robot, who couldn’t regain its feet. Butch had the robot’s right forearm in her teeth. Blood spewed from her own ripped gums from gnawing at the metal. She couldn’t care less. The wolf was in rage mode. All she saw was “attack.”
I knew that feeling well.
The robot brought its left arm up, sending a haze of blaster fire into Butch. Her shield held but began to smoke under the onslaught. I wasn’t sure how much more damage it would be able to take.
I went over to the robot’s skull, lifting the katana blade in a two-handed grip. With every ounce of strength I could muster, I drove the blade through the robot’s left eye.
The katana sank deep, penetrating the eye and into whatever circuits or wiring this thing called a brain. I wiggled the blade around a little bit for good measure, even after the lights went out in its head.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, girl,” I said, getting down on a knee. “I’m okay.”
Butch made a half whining, half pissed off sound as she still worked her jaws around the robot’s forearm, trying to rip it from its body. Her blood painted the steel under her.
“Hey, hey, let it go,” I told her, handing the katana back to Cryx. “It’s dead, it’s dead; we’re okay.”
Finally, Butch released the limb, coming over with her whines and growls and laying her head on my shoulder. She was so big, when I knelt, her head was taller than my own.
“Come on, come on, the others still need us,” I told the wolf, stroking the back of her thick neck. “Let’s go.”
The dropship hovering overhead moved over to a dune on our left and settled down. I assumed Cassie had it on some kind of autopilot feature. I didn’t know who could be in it besides maybe Victoria and that lovable fruitcake was in no sane state to be piloting anything.
With the dropship moving also came a settling of the sand. Syrinity battled with Atilla, and Preacher’s humming red blade came down on Julian again and again while the leader of the Order parried with his blaster. X and Cassie were dealing with the new wave of drones and robots.
For the moment, Preacher and Syrinity were holding their own.
I was most concerned about the three drones entering the battlefield after only two had given us so much trouble.
“Butch, Cryx,” I said, ripping the katana blade buried in the robot’s head out in one smooth motion. “The drones in the sky. We need to take those out first. Be careful.”
Butch gave me a weird bloody head bob like she knew what I was saying.
“Come on, this is me you’re talking to,” Cryx said, beckoning for her katana and offering me a short knife. “Here, you can use my talon. I know you probably prefer it anyway.”
I stared at Cryx for a moment, wondering if this was how I had been when I was younger. Instead of dwelling on the thought longer, I looked down at the knife Cryx gave me. It was short and hooked. The dark metal gleamed off the blade.
“Well, we going to do this or what?” Cryx asked in a playful voice. “Let’s go destroy the bad guys’ new toys.”
The three of us raced toward the trio of drones buzzing around X and Cassie. We passed Preacher and Julian, who parried and traded blows, and gave and took ground like the skilled warriors they were.
Honestly, I would have loved to sit down with a snack and watch the men work. The leader of the Pack Protocol going head to head with the man in charge of the Order was not something you got to see every day.
Likewise, Syrinity and Atilla clashed, the former using her armor as a shield against Atilla’s attacks with his metal staff.
Sweat fell into my eyes as we made the run across the battlefield. The drones above X and Cassie hammered them with fire. X was able to take the hits like a champ. Whenever a round struck her, she dealt with it as if it were nothing more than an annoyance. The liquid-like substance that now formed her anatomy closed any wound a second later.
The act reminded me of a rock disappearing in a calm body of water. After the initial splash and ripples, it was like it had never happened at all.
Cassie, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to absorb the same kind of damage. A metal shield fanned out from her left forearm. The mechanical feature that set her apart as a Cyber Hunter came into play. Both of her forearms were made of metal and carried an assortment of weapons.
Right now, she favored a shield on her left arm and a blaster out of her right.
In addition to the three angry drones overhead, two more robots stalked forward from the enemy ship. Laser rounds from the robots splashed across Cassie’s shield as she returned fire.
“Cryx,” I said, urging myself to run faster and take the lead. “I’ll give you a boost to the drones.”
I hoped she understood what I meant. It wasn’t exactly a clear plan or as if we practiced this move before.
“Got it,” Cryx acknowledged, gasping for breath.
I had to remember she was in full armor running over sand. Where I was enhanced by Immortal Corp, Cryx was doing all of this powered by her fighting spirit.
Butch kept pace with me, increasing her speed to match mine as we tore through the sand together. Flecks of blood flew from her mouth. I would have to figure out some kind of jaw guard for her next.
Right before I reached where X and Cassie battled the drones and robots, I slid on my knees and turned my body to face Cryx. A shower of sand accompanied the move, blinding me for a moment.
Cryx reached me at a full sprint, both blades out in her hands.
I cupped my palms together, interlacing my fingers.
Cryx placed her right foot in my impromptu stirrup. With everything I had, I shoved up with my arms, propelling her into the air.
I had enough time to turn my head as she flew in the sky like some kind of bird of prey. Preacher would have been proud of his student if he could see her now.
Both katana handles in her hands, Cryx reared back, letting her trajectory guide her to an unsuspecting drone. Time slowed, then seemed to speed up again. Cryx landed on top of the drone, driving both blades down into the gears and circuits of the machine.
Unable to carry her weight, the drone came crashing to the ground in a shower of sparks and smoke.
I’m not sure what Butch was thinking. She came to a skidding halt beside me as if she had missed her cue then sprinted the opposite way to get a running start for her own jump.
“No, Butch, it won’t work the same way,” I tried to warn her, like she could actually understand what I was saying. Hundreds of pounds of predatory instinct raced toward me.
There was that same wild look in Butch’s eyes that I loved and kind of scared me, if I was being completely honest.
Trying to give her a boost with my hands wasn’t going to work. Instead, I hunched over, offering the flat side of my back as a launching platform. Butch hit my back at Mach ten, if something like that actually existed.
The ball of fur and fury sailed through the air, crashing into one of the other drones and taking it down beneath her paws.
At this rate, you’re going to be out of a job, I thought to myself. Unless “Human Springboard” is a job title.
Cassie turned her attention to the last drone while X dismantled the robots with a series of hard blows and kicks. Not only was X insanely durable but apparently super strong.
Whatever metal Alerna provided us with was the real deal.
“Is that X?” Cassie asked, panting beside me. She wore her hood pulled back with no mask. “There’s something different about her, but I just can’t put my finger on it.”
I looked over at Cassie with a huge smile on my mug. I knew I missed her, but I didn’t really understand how good it would be to be with her again until she was right beside me.
Thoughts of picking her up and kissing her raced through my mind but were quickly discouraged as I caught sight of the others still fighting. It just didn’t seem right to celebrate while our brothers and sisters bled.
“Long story short,” I told Cassie as we both turned to help Syrinity and Preacher. “Alerna, that alien who visits me in my dreams, gave me something that allows X to have a body. That’s all I know, trust me.”
“I believe it,” Cassie said, letting her voice fade as she took in Atilla and Julian, who still fought with his mask on. “Atilla’s not a surprise, but is that—is that Julian?”
My stomach dropped. I never wanted to put Cassie in a position to choose me over everything she’d come to know in the Order. That would be like asking someone to choose between family members. Yet here we were.
“X, Cryx,” I said over my shoulder. “Can you two help Syrinity?”
“On it,” X answered.
“X, is that you?” Cryx asked as she moved in on Atilla. “Dang, girl, you look good. What is that? Some kind of futuristic alien robot body?”
“Thanks.” X grinned. “I guess so. Still getting used to it.”
Cassie, Butch, and I passed Atilla and Syrinity. The two were fatigued and deadlocked in a match neither could seem to get the upper hand in. Bloody and bruised, both warriors stared hate at one another.
When we reached Preacher and Julian, it was almost comical to see the two men had stopped fighting altogether and were using their words to do the work for them.
“No one should have them, Julian,” Preacher ground out to the leader of the Order. “You and I have seen so many die and bleed for what? For more power? Because someone else told them to?”
“It’s not up to me anymore,” Julian said, shaking his head. His blaster was cut in two thanks to Preacher’s blade, but he looked no more the worse for wear. “No single entity should hold all of these Relics.”
That was the first thing Julian said that made sense to me. Looking at things from his point of view, I got it. He knew we had the book. He knew we had the cup. The Order wasn’t about to allow a corporation to own all the Relics. It would mean they were the odd man out in the struggle for power.
“I trust you but not him,” Preacher said, jerking his chin to where Atilla struggled in vain against X. She had waded into his flurry of blows, taking the damage and grabbing him before pinning him to the ground. “You get your hands on a Relic, it isn’t just you. You know that. Everyone in the Order gets access to it and then what?”
“I can only give you my word that that won’t happen,” Julian replied. “I’ve overseen the Order for a long time now. There are factions within our group, yes, but most of us still remember why we were founded all those years ago. We need every advantage we can get against aliens, corporations, and even the Galactic Government itself.”
“I hate to break into this heart-to-heart you two are having, but you should both know that there’s an alien virus we should be tracking as opposed to fighting amongst ourselves,” I shared, taking a step forward. “We discovered it when we arrived here. If we don’t stop it, and soon, it’s going to get out of control quickly.”
Julian’s masked face looked over at me without saying a word.
Preacher took a pause, doing the same. He regarded me with his one good eye.
“I’m not leaving without the Relic,” Julian said firmly. “I can’t.”
I looked over as X walked Atilla toward our group with Cryx beside her.
Syrinity recovered the cup from where she had hidden it in the sand by the smoldering jeep.
“I’m not sure you have a choice,” Preacher remarked as Butch joined us. The wolf looked over at Atilla with a menacing growl.
“Cassie,” Julian said. “Remember where you came from, who you are. You were sent to be an emissary and the voice of the Order to what was to become of Immortal Corp. Your orders now are to retrieve the cup and come back with me.”
I swallowed hard.
I didn’t doubt for a second Cassie’s feelings for me or her intentions. I knew who she really was. I understood what we shared.
What worried me was the level of guilt and stress this would put on her.
Cassie didn’t move. I saw the war raging behind her eyes. On one side was everything she had come to know. The Order had given her a life, a purpose, and taken care of her. On the other, there was me.
“Cassie?” Julian tried to hide the surprise in his voice. Apparently, he thought she would have just jumped to attention when he told her to. “Cassie, that’s an order.”
Cassie’s right eye twitched for a moment before she shook her head with a grunt.
“No,” Cassie said, not defiantly but as if she were actually saddened by her own words. “No, I can’t. Julian, you and the Order have given me so much. I can never repay you. But this, I mean what’s happening to the galaxy, is greater than you or me or the Order. We have to destroy the Relics. No one should have them, not us, not you. They need to be destroyed.”
“I told you!” Atilla screamed in rage from the kneeling position X forced him in. She still had his arms pinned behind his back by his wrists. “I told you she would betray us. I told you she wasn’t one of us. She’s not of pure blood. She never belonged in the Order to begin with.”
X must have tightened her grip, because Atilla winced and shut his mouth.
Julian slowly reached up and removed his hood.
He was older, maybe somewhere around Preacher’s age. His short dark hair had begun to turn white. His dark brown eyes looked sad, sadder even than Cassie’s.
“You’re like a daughter to me, Cassie,” Julian said to her with a heavy sigh. “When I lost my own daughter, I thought that place could never be filled again. And it can’t, not in the same way, but you brought me back. I think of you as my daughter.”
Cassie opened and closed her mouth again. Water filled her eyes, but she refused to let the tears fall. She was stronger than I was.
I almost wanted to cry. This was some seriously sad holo film drama stuff.
“Don’t ask me, then,” Cassie managed to choke out. “Don’t ask me to do this and things can go back to the way they were. We can work together.”
“But I already have asked,” Julian said, shaking his head. “Don’t make me do this, Cassie. Don’t do this.”
“I’m done choosing sides,” Cassie stated. “I won’t turn my back on one family for the sake of another. You’re doing that by making me choose.”
Something like pain crossed over Julian’s face. It was gone so fast, I wondered if it had been there at all or if I had just imagined it.
What replaced it was a determination as fierce as I had ever seen.
“Very well then, Cassie,” Julian said without emotion. “You brought this on us. You brought what happens next on yourself. Eleven, Trio, Ingram, Red, Talon, Forty-nine, Fire, Move, Structure.”
Julian said the words quickly and clearly enunciating every one as if he were reading them from some kind of internal memory stashed away for safekeeping.
“What’s he saying?” Cryx asked as Julian repeated the words. “Is that some kind of list? Did he just crack? I mean, this is all super sad and intense, but am I the only one hearing the crazy coming out of his mouth?”
I realized what was happening too late. I looked over at Preacher, who shrugged then at Cassie.
Cassie’s face was blank. Her mouth dropped open. A tear slid down her left cheek. Her hands fell to her side, motionless.
“Eleven, Trio, Ingram, Red, Talon, Forty-nine, Fire, Move, Structure,” Julian repeated louder this time.
“No!” I yelled, still not totally grasping what was happening but understanding now the words Julian spoke were having some kind of physical reaction on Cassie.
Atilla lifted his head, roaring with laughter.
“Cassie, no. Listen to me, Cassie,” I said, moving to her and taking her arms in both my own. “Don’t listen to him, Cassie. Don’t listen.”
A tear fell from her other eye now. She stared not at me but through me as if she weren’t in her own body at all.
“Shut him up!” Preacher yelled as he closed in along with Cryx and Syrinity. Preacher’s katana hummed a dark red as if it had a mind of its own and it was pissed.
“She can’t hear you,” Julian said as he stopped repeating the string of words. “I’m sorry it had to end like this, for all of our sakes.”
“Cassie, Cassie, it’s me, it’s Daniel,” I said, searching her unseeing eyes in desperation. “Cassie, come back. Can you hear me?” As realization evolved to anger, I turned around, looking for Julian. “What did you do? What did you do to her?”
Julian shrugged off his jacket and slowly removed his black shirt. Underneath his chest was completely made of metal. The section of his body that set him apart as a Cyber Hunter carried a dull green stone in his sternum. It shone brighter and brighter as if it were being activated.
“Back!” Preacher ordered. “Get ba—”
A high-frequency pitch pierced our ears. A shockwave blew out from Julian, throwing all of us into the air. Unlike when the jeep blew up, I could still hear this time. It was my vision and equilibrium that were off now. I blinked, trying to make sense of my surroundings.
I had been blown back a few meters from where I stood in front of Cassie. Everything was fuzzy and unclear. I got to my feet then fell again into the sand.
What had he done to us? What was that blast emanating from his chest?
“Cassie,” I yelled, rapidly blinking my eyes and willing them to see anything at that moment. “Cassie?”
In my heart, I knew what was happening. Julian was escaping with the cup and a confused Cassie in tow.
“Rawww!” I screamed in frustration, willing my balance to start working again and my eyes to let me see something clearly, anything. I stumbled over the sand, feeling my way more than actually seeing where I was going.
“Daniel?” Cryx asked as I ran into her. “Daniel, I can’t—I can’t see anything.”
I held her close to my side with an arm around her. She sounded scared. I wasn’t about to tell her I was too.
“It’s all right, I got you,” I told her, holding her close. “I got you.”
“What, what was that?” Cryx asked on the verge of panic. “Preacher, Cassie… where are they?”
“Here, I’m here,” I heard Preacher yell from somewhere to my left.
I blinked harder. My vision was starting to come back as well as my ability to stand upright without almost falling down with every step.
“I still, I still can’t see anything,” X said from somewhere far off. “I lost my hold on Atilla.”
I wasn’t sure if it had to do with my accelerated healing or something else, but my vision began to clear.
What I saw next was enough to make me fall down to my knees in defeat. Julian was guiding a wounded Atilla to their craft. He pushed Atilla forward. The semi-blind Cyber Hunter felt with his hands as he walked.
In his right hand, Julian carried the cup he had stolen from Syrinity in the aftermath of whatever kind of blast emitted from his chest. Now the leader of the Order ran back to grab Cassie by the hand and lead her to the waiting craft.
Butch was whining and stumbling as she sniffed the air to find me. The big wolf fell into me.
“Cryx, Cryx stay here with Butch, stay here,” I instructed, placing Cryx’s arms around Butch’s neck. “You’ll be fine.”
I tried to keep the panic and anger out of my voice. I witnessed Julian lead Cassie, now halfway to the ship, with the Relic in the crook of his arm.
There was no X in my head to offer me encouragement. This one was on me. There would be no backup or help. This was mine to win or lose.
I stumbled forward, getting my legs underneath my body and propelling myself forward. Sand kicked up in the air behind me as I closed the distance between us. Julian didn’t hear me approach.
My vision had completely cleared now, as had my equilibrium. What worried me next was that I wasn’t going to make it to them before they reached the open ramp of the craft.
Atilla stumbled forward with his hands out in front of him like some drunk. He felt his way up the ramp. Julian reached the ship a moment later, gently nudging Cassie up the ramp.
He looked back just in time to see me. Too late. I wrapped both arms around him, driving him down onto the open ramp of the ship.
“Take off!” Julian yelled. “Atilla, take off!”
How Atilla was going to fly the ship blind, I had no idea. What I did know was that I needed to get Cassie back, and less important to me at the moment, the Relic.
“What did you do to her?” I asked, slamming my fist into Julian’s jaw. “What did you do to Cassie?”
The ship rumbled to life. Cassie stood on the ramp with us with an impassive expression on her face. It was as if she were a blank slate.
I lent my rage to my work, striking Julian across the face with my left fist and then my right elbow for good measure.
Julian’s nose was broken; blood gushed down his face. He was trying to say something.
I stopped for a moment to give him space to answer my question.
“What did you do to her?” I asked, spittle flying from my mouth.
The ship’s engines lifted the craft off the ground.
The ramp began to close.
“Cassie,” Julian gasped. “Cassie help me.”
“Not the right answer,” I said, preparing to strike Julian again.
Cassie moved so fast, it was hard to see her coming. Her right hand grabbed me by the throat, lifting me off my feet. Her Cyber Hunter strength was more than I remembered.
“Hold the ramp,” Julian called out as the ship lifted higher off the ground.
The ramp stopped closing about halfway through its progress.
“Throw him off the ship, Cassie,” Julian said in a voice devoid of any kind of victory.
“Cassie, Cassie, no. Come with me,” I said, trying to grab onto her arm she held me by, not to break the hold but to hold on to her. “Cassie, it’s me.”
My last words were so choked, I’m not sure what she heard.
With an expressionless face, Cassie tossed me from the ship.
I fell, knowing the ground would break my body, but what did it matter? My heart was already shattered.
I hit the ground on my back from a fall that was probably two stories tall. All the air was sucked out of my lungs at once. I was exhausted, I was beaten, but most of all, I had lost Cassie.
I lay there for a moment, absorbing the pain that numbed my body. Any physical pain I could take, but having Cassie look at me like that, knowing what was done to her, what must have been done to her against her will, broke me more than any fall ever could.
The ship sped off a moment later.
I wasn’t sure how long I lay there. Time had no real meaning for me anymore.
Butch was the first to find me, coming over with a series of worried growls and kisses. She licked my face and hands like a concerned mother over her cub.
“I’ll be okay,” I lied to her. “I’ll be okay.”
X and Syrinity found me next.
“Daniel,” Syrinity said, falling to her knees beside me. “He took the Relic, the chalice, he took the chalice.”
“No he didn’t,” I said, removing the cup from my belt. I threw it in the sand beside her. I wasn’t sure if that was a crip move or not, but it was hard to care. “I took it back from him on the ramp.”
“Thank the Lord of the Way,” Syrinity uttered with a sigh, grabbing the cup from the sand in both hands.
“We’ll get her back,” X said, taking a seat in the sand next to me. She placed a hand on my shoulder. “Daniel, we’re going to get her back.”
I set my jaw and nodded.
Preacher and Cryx joined us.
“It wasn’t her,” Preacher told us all. “Whatever brainwashing was done to Cassie, she chose us over them. What we saw after wasn’t her.”
“I’m going to find her,” I said to no one and everyone at once. “I’m going to find Cassie and I’m going to bring the Order to its knees.”
A moment of silence passed. I’m not sure if no one knew what to say or they were just giving me a moment to recover.
“I know you’ll do what you must, but we cannot forget about the sword, the alien virus that threatens this continent even now,” Syrinity reminded me as if I had forgotten. “It’s clear her own do not want to hurt her. She’ll be safe for now. There are other—”
“You don’t think I know all of that?” I shouted. I hadn’t meant to yell, but when the words escaped my lips, anger and frustration accompanied them. “I know, I know what I have to do. I know the thing to do now for the greater good is to focus on the last Relic and the virus, but Cassie’s out there. She’s out there alone. She doesn’t even know what’s going on.”
I got up off the sand. We all stood silent for a moment. Even X, who was clearly overjoyed at having a body, still looking at her limbs and testing them out, didn’t say anything.
“We’re a team and nothing has changed that,” Preacher said. “We’ll get Cassie, we’ll find this last Relic and whatever this virus is, we’ll figure it out. But not one of us is going to do it alone. We need a plan.”
“And probably backup,” Cryx interjected. “I mean, just saying, we’ve got a lot to do.”
“I think it may be time we call the GG for help,” X said cautiously. “It’s not about us versus them anymore. Not with this virus spreading like we know it is.”
“They’ll want the Relics,” Syrinity said in a weary tone. She looked tired: bags hung under her eyes, her shoulders drooped with fatigue. “Everyone always wants the Relics.”
“I think we go to who we know we can trust and we go to the top,” I said, weighing my options. “We need a sit down with the very head of the Galactic Government. She needs to know about the virus and they can contain it. Then we get Cassie and the sword.”
“The last Relic’s a sword?” Cryx asked, surprised. “I mean, that’s super cool. I call dibs on using it first.”
We all looked at her with expressionless faces.
“I mean,” Cryx continued sheepishly. “I train with swords, so—if Preacher wants to use it first, that’s cool too. We can all take turns.”
Our team headed for the dropship that waited for us on a far dune. After dropping off the rest of the Pack, an auto pilot feature had taken the ship to land a safe distance from the fight.
When we arrived at the ship, Preacher opened the rear ramp. Heavy snoring accompanied our walk into the craft.
Victoria Cripps lay sprawled out on the left side of the ship. The ancient woman was still filthy, but she had at least been given new clothes. She wore a jumpsuit that was two sizes too large for her.
Wild grey hair fell all around her head. Drool dripped from the left corner of her mouth down to the deck.
“How could she have slept through the whole thing?” X muttered to herself.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, trying to come up with the best plan to save Cassie. “X, can you get the Galactic Government on the line. We need to speak with the Chancellor herself now. No more middle men or the military.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” X replied with a nod.
“How’s your body—feeling, by the way?” I asked, trying to put my own selfish needs to the side and ask my friend how she was doing at this strange time in her life. “I saw you take a ton of damage back there and just shake it off. You hit like a mech too.”
“It feels strange to walk and move arms of my own outside of a dream state,” X said, rotating her arms and looking down at herself. “It feels like freedom.”
“I’m happy for you,” I told her, thinking about the bleak possibility of never having her in my head again then stuffing those emotions in a box. This wasn’t about me right now. “I really am.”
“You’re a horrible liar, at least to your friends,” X gave me a deadpan stare then a smirk.
“No I’m not,” I answered to X’s back as she turned to get in touch with the GG. “I’m a great liar to my friends.”
“You really aren’t,” Cryx said, shaking her head.
“I’ve only known you for a short time and I would have to agree.” Syrinity shrugged. “And you should probably not be lying to your friends in the first place.”
I looked over at Preacher for help.
“No can do, muchacho,” Preacher said with a twinkle in his one good eye. “But while X gets the good people of the Galactic Government on the line, why don’t you tell the rest of us all about these Relics and why X is walking around on two legs.”
I told them everything while we ate prepackaged meals of chemically treated food that tasted like cardboard. It might as well have been a feast to me at that moment. I ate three servings and was debating a fourth.
We went over everything Victoria told me about the Relics, my dream, or whatever state it was Alerna visited me in and of course the virus that now threatened Australia.
Preacher let out a low whistle when I was done.
“Holy crip on fire.” Cryx filled the void. “I knew this was going to be a wild story, but seriously?”
“Seriously,” I answered.
“Thank you,” X said, seemingly to herself. She walked back up the ramp from outside. When we all looked at her, she shook her head and pointed to her ear. “I can talk to them just like I could before. Daniel, we’ll need to get you an earpiece.”
I nodded, getting up on weary feet and heading for a supply locker in the rear of the ship. Now that I had eaten, all I wanted to do was sleep. Right now, that wasn’t an option.
The rear of the dropship had lockers and storage areas set into the sides of the craft. I reached for a black crate I knew held extra gear we packed for the island in case we would need it.
The black box was held closed by a pair of black latches. I released these latches, reaching for one of the black earpieces that sat in the foam casing.
It was strange to need one now. X was always with me. Sure we’d been separated before, but this time felt different. This time felt definitive. Why would she want back in my head if she could walk on her own? I wasn’t sure if that was a selfish thought or not.
I was still trying to decide that as I placed the small black earpiece inside my ear. Immediately, X was connected to the device.
“Daniel, I have the Chancellor on the line,” X informed me. “She’s eager to talk to you.”
“You got the Chancellor already?” I asked, looking to my right and over to X. “How did you manage that?”
“It wasn’t that hard when you tell the Galactic Government that you have the Hero of Mars on the line, a killer alien virus on the loose, and an emergency on our hands.” X shrugged. “We’re kind of a big deal now.”
“Oh, right,” I mumbled, trying to prepare myself mentally to speak with the woman who controlled the Galactic Government. “Okay, better not keep her waiting.”
“You’re on,” X said.
I could feel everyone in the ship looking at me, waiting to hear how the conversation would end. Everyone besides Victoria; the woman had a grin on her sleeping face as she dreamed of crip knew what.
“Mrs. Chancellor,” I greeted, trying to decide how to address her. “Thank you for taking my call.”
“Please, Mr. Hunt,” the Chancellor said in a strong yet friendly voice. “You can call me Loween. I’ve been expecting your call for some time now.”
“Really?” I asked, not bothering to mask my surprise. “And why’s that, Mrs. Chan—Loween?”
“Mr. Hunt,” Loween started, borderline exasperated. “Can we just cut the crip here?”
“Please, and you can call me Daniel,” I said. I was taken aback by her level of candor, but to be honest, it was refreshing. I wasn’t in the mood to play word games and debate with a politician.
“Daniel,” Loween responded. “I’ve been following your exploits for quite some time. I was on the verge of calling you myself when the events on Mars took place. I decided to let the soldiers do what soldiers do best and stay out of the way. But this business with the Relics is different now. Our path forward is not as clear as it once was.”
I found myself liking the woman without even having met her. The Galactic Government Chancellor was a no-nonsense kind of woman that would get my vote in the next election if I was alive to vote at all.
“I think you and I may see things in the same light,” I told her. “I want to make you aware of a situation on Earth. In Australia, there’s a government calling themselves the New Republic. They’re trying to contain an event as best they can, but they may be in over their heads.”
“And what kind of ‘event’ are we referring to?” Loween asked, deciphering my words like a code breaker. “Are we talking about a Relic situation or perhaps something of a more sensitive nature?”
I decided then, in that very moment, to trust the Chancellor. I was doing myself and this relationship no favors withholding information. If I really wanted her to step in to help, then she had to know exactly what she was getting into.
“There’s been a biological weapon of alien nature discovered here,” I told her, not holding any punches. “An astronomer thought he was investigating a shooting star. I believe the asteroid he found contained an alien virus that’s spreading into humans as we speak.”
“Daniel Hunt, your reputation does not disappoint.” Loween sighed. “I heard you were a man of action and attracted trouble wherever you went.”
“Glad I could accommodate,” I said, probably more comfortable with the Chancellor than I should have been. “The New Republic could use the Galactic Government’s help over here to contain the situation.”
“Understood,” Loween acknowledged. “But you know what I’m going to ask next.”
“What about the Relics?” I asked.
“What about the Relics indeed,” Loween repeated. “If what I’m hearing about them is accurate, they cannot be left in anyone’s hands outside of the Galactic Government. Not even your own, as capable as they might be.”
“So just hand them over to the Galactic Government,” I said before she could. “The same Galactic Government who experimented on aliens before anyone ever knew they existed.”
Memories of Nemesis and his involvement with the Galactic Government reminded me of what the GG really was. I knew what they were willing to do.
“You have to understand I was not made aware of that initiative,” Loween said abruptly. “I know you’re going to have to take my word on that, but my word is all I have at the moment. If I had known the Nemesis Project was taking place, I would have stopped it. I was only made aware it existed after the battle on Mars.”
“Let’s play this out,” I suggested. “I hand over the Relic to you and then what? I trust you’re going to put them in a deep dark vault somewhere?”
“You know we wouldn’t,” Loween admitted. “We’ll study them and find out what we can so they can be used against the next alien threat. Isn’t that why they were given?”
“You’re asking for a lot of trust,” I answered, running my hands through my hair, trying to figure out a solution to the problem in front of us. “Trust isn’t exactly in large supply at the moment.”
“I’m not going to threaten you, Daniel,” Loween said with a sigh. “Something tells me you wouldn’t react well to it, and to be honest, I don’t want to. I’d rather have you as an ally. The truth is if you refuse to hand over the Relics, my advisors will counsel me to send Battle Class Star Cruisers to Earth and visit your estate with a battalion of Shadow Praetorians. I don’t want to do that.”
Eternal life, I thought to myself. Are you really going to just hand them eternal life? What about the book that opens portals to other worlds?
A thought occurred to me at that moment. As far as the Chancellor suspected, I had the book, but there was no way for her to know for sure that I had the cup. The last any Galactic Government intel could have known, I went into the pyramid on the island before it was destroyed. That was it.
“Trust has to work both ways,” I told Loween. “So I’m prepared to hand over the Relic I have in exchange for your help.”
“Name it,” Loween replied without missing a beat.
“You come here and take care of this alien virus, then you help me take down the Order,” I stipulated, trying not to sound too desperate. “They have someone. Someone that means a lot to me.”
Loween hesitated for the first time in our conversation.
I could hear a voice whispering to her on the other end. No doubt she was in a room full of advisors.
“Define ‘take down’,” Loween finally said. “The Order is a corporation that has been around for longer than we know. I’m not sure it can ever be truly dismantled.”
“Then give me the resources I need to get my person back,” I told her. “I’ll need intelligence more than anything. Maybe a few ships.”
“Oh, is that all?” Loween asked sarcastically.
“You’re right, I do have the book,” I said, sweetening the deal. “I’ll hand it over no questions. Just give me what I want.”
More silence and few unintelligible whispers.
“You have yourself a deal,” Loween responded, coming back to the conversation. “It’ll take me some time to gather the information and resources you requested. I can send a team to Australia right away to assist the New Republic in containing this alien threat.”
“Great. When you have the intel and ships, I’ll have the book ready to hand over,” I said, about to hang up the call. “Oh, and there may be a few new strange monsters on Earth, just as a heads-up.”
“Monsters on Earth?” Loween repeated. “What are you talking about?”
“Long story,” I answered. “But in the light of our new friendship, I wanted to give you a heads-up.”
“Right, of course,” Loween said, biting her tongue. “I’ll be in touch shortly.”
There was no need for me to explain the conversation to the rest of the team. They had heard my end of the deal and they could piece together the rest.
Cryx took off her helmet and armor, stretching toned arms over her head. She looked pissed.
X stood thoughtful, narrowing her eyes.
Preacher was checking Butch’s bleeding gums and Syrinity was eating another protein pack while Victoria snored.
I walked back into the craft from the rear of the dropship, trying to think of my next move. If the Galactic Government held true to their word, then the alien threat on Australia would be contained. I needed more info before I moved against the Order. In the meantime, that only left one path: go find the last Relic.
“So you’re just going to hand it over?” Cryx was the first to address the mammoth-sized mutie in the room. “I mean, the book. You’re just going to give it to the GG?”
“You see another way out of this?” I asked.
“We fight them,” Cryx declared as serious as death. “They can come and try, but they won’t get through Dragon Hold’s defenses.”
“They have an army and ships that can decimate us from orbit,” Preacher answered. “I’m not sure it would be much of a fight.”
“We need ships of our own and we need to get Cassie,” I said, as if that were the final word on the subject. “If handing them a book will make that happen, then that’s what we need to do. You saw the ship the Order has. We have one dropship, a single dropship not even capable of hyperspace travel. It’s time to upgrade.”
“Wait a minute. Aren’t you rich?” Cryx asked. “Why don’t you just buy your own fleet of ships?”
I hesitated for a moment. She had a point. I was still thinking like a bouncer on the Moon. It was time to use the resources I had been given.
“X, are there just military-grade crafts for sale?” I questioned.
“Not exactly,” X stated, looking straight forward without seeing. I could tell she was running through information in her database. “We’d have to buy ships then mount weapons on them. It’s possible but will take time.”
“We don’t have time.” Victoria startled us all by sitting straight up in her seat and yawning. “Oh, that was a nice dream. I dreamt I was able to die, but here I am.”
Coming from anyone else, that may have sounded weird, but this was Victoria we were talking about.
“Blood is one and one is blood,” Victoria said with a sigh as she stretched. “Daniel is doing what he can. The only thing he can to save the people he loves. What say you, sister of the Way?”
Syrinity had been quiet, munching away on her third or fourth protein pack; I lost count. She looked thoughtful and a bit out of place sitting beside Victoria in her dented and scorched armor.
The Knight of the Way looked thoughtful. She licked her lips, taking her time to gather her thoughts.
“If we had to surrender one of the two Relics we possess, then I agree, the book is the better choice,” Syrinity said, surprising me with her calm demeanor when it came to handing over the Relic. “Perhaps it is just me wishing, but I don’t know if they will even be able to read it. Or at the very least, it will take time to test and experiment with it, as opposed to the cup, which they could use right away.”
“No one else besides the Order knows we have the cup,” Preacher mused. “We should keep it that way.”
“The Galactic Government doesn’t know about the third and final Relic either, the sword,” X added. “If we hand over the book to get Cassie back, then maybe we’ll be able to take it again somehow or maybe the GG will never be able to read it in the first place.”
“If they can’t, they’ll get Madam Eternal to read it for them,” I thought out loud. “Everyone knows she was the one who opened it and saved all our rear ends during the Battle for Mars. They’ll decipher the book and learn how to use it sooner or later.”
“Well, let’s hope it’s later rather than sooner,” Preacher said, rising from his seat. “Maybe by the time they do, we have a fleet of our own or worked out some way to get it back. All we can do right now is play the cards that have been dealt to us in this hand. We’ll worry about other hands later in the game.”
I was glad they agreed with me. Well, Cryx not so much, but she wanted to fight everybody.
“I’ll have Bapz begin acquiring ships and weapons for the crafts through shell companies we own right away,” X informed us. “With that, we’ll need to find pilots and crews, not to mention somewhere to store the fleet.”
“Bapz will also need to know where you hid the book if we’re going to hand it over,” I said, looking over at Preacher.
“Can do.” Preacher jerked his chin down. “I’ll let him know.”
“We’ll head to the coordinates Alerna gave us for the last Relic and then we go and get Cassie,” I said. The words tasted bitter in my mouth as I gave the order. I didn’t know words could carry a taste with them. “By the time we get the sword, we should have intel on where the Order is holding Cassie and maybe even a ship or two.”
Preacher and X moved to the cockpit to prepare the dropship for flight.
A mixture of fatigue and a million things tearing at my mind distracted me from the body covered in the right corner of the ship. It was in a black nitro bag that froze the corpse inside. The black of the bag matched the seats. Maybe that was why it blended in so well.
Whatever the case, a wave of grief and remorse hit me like a wall of invading Voy. I heard X over the speakers of the ship in the background. I heard her tell us the exact location we were heading and the time it would take to get us there.
I heard without really processing the information as I took a seat next to Wesley’s body.
Cryx, Victoria, and Syrinity must have sensed the weight of the moment because they left us alone and busied themselves on the opposite side of the ship.
“Well, I guess we’re going on one more adventure together, aren’t we?” I asked the black nitro bag that froze Wesley’s body.
“You know, I still remember the day you came and found me on the Moon,” I said as if it had been years ago and not months. So much had transpired since then, I felt as though it were longer. “I didn’t know what to think of you at first. Then I thought you were the enemy and now I know you were just my brother. An older brother who smoked a lot; okay, maybe a father.”
As soon as I said the word, I knew I meant it. For someone who grew up without a father, Wesley had been that for me. So many memories we shared together during my time in the Pack Protocol itched at the edges of my conscience.
Some came back to me then, images or screenshots more than full memories. I saw him offering me instruction while I trained. I remembered him giving me a hand off the floor after Angel threw me over her hip.
I remembered when he handed X over to me. That was a memory I could actually recall in full detail.
I stopped talking out loud, just sitting and spending time with him.
Victoria shuffled over, the legs of her jumpsuit too large for her and acting as slippers as well.
The older woman put a hand on my shoulder.
“Why don’t you continue to talk to the dead?” Victoria asked me, tilting her head to the side. “Even if they don’t hear you, it’s still a gift they leave behind. Their memory is something you can hold on to and speak with for your own wellbeing.”
“I’m not sure I understand all of that, but I think I know what you mean,” I said, swallowing hard. “Thank you. One is blood and blood is one and all of that.”
Victoria’s eyes twinkled. She gave my shoulder a squeeze and walked back down the aisle of seats.
“Well, if this is our last ride,” I said softly, taking Victoria’s advice and speaking to Wesley once again. “Then I just want to say thank you for everything you did for me. I wish we had more time together but wishing isn’t going to do any good. Rival’s already gone for the part he’s played. I’ll light a cigar for you when I take out Atilla.”
That was it. I just sat there with him for I don’t know how long. I didn’t mean to fall asleep, but the simple truth was my body had staged a coup. I’d been through too much damage and then healed again, I was running on empty.
Sleep came, and with it, uninterrupted bliss.
Warning sirens and shouts woke me up.
I wasn’t sure how long I had been asleep, but it had to have been hours. A quick look outside the windows told me it was dark and not just dark. Gusts of wind rocked the dropship from side to side.
The shouting was X over the speakers.
“Buckle up! We’re in for some pretty strong gusts heading into Antarctica,” X warned us.
I obeyed her warning, strapping myself securely into my seat. I rubbed sleep out of my eyes, blinking multiple times to wake myself. Apparently, I had been out for hours. Maybe even a full eight hours, if my math was right, from Australia to Antarctica.
I reached a hand over to secure Wesley’s body in the seat, but someone else had already done that. He was fastened by a pair of seatbelts.
I had to pee, but right now didn’t seem like the right time to ask X and Preacher to stop.
Cryx, Victoria, and Syrinity were buckled in tight across the aisle. Butch sprawled in a wide stance between the aisles, supporting herself from all the rocking back and forth.
Tiny swirls of snow raced across the windows.
Cryx looked like she was about ready to puke in her seat. Syrinity rested a gentle hand on her head and pointed her face in the opposite direction in case anything came up.
I felt for the kid. I remembered when I used to get space sick myself. It wasn’t that long ago. To be honest, at the moment, I wasn’t feeling too hot.
“This landing is going to be tricky,” Preacher spoke over the speakers. “Hold onto your butts. I’m going to set her down.”
“And they say I’m the crazy one,” Victoria shouted across the row of aisles at me. “You’re letting the young man with one eye pilot the craft?”
I had thought of that, but I wasn’t in a position to help. I knew X could handle herself behind the controls, so I wasn’t too worried.
Preacher wasn’t lying. He brought the dropship down so hard, my teeth chattered. The worst part was the anticipation of the landing. With nothing but black and snow swirl to see out the window, we had no idea when we were going to hit until we actually landed.
The lights flickered on and off inside the cabin as the heavy craft taxied to a final stop.
“I think I peed myself a little,” I said, looking over at a white-faced Cryx. “How are you holding up?”
“I did pee myself,” Cryx admitted with a heavy sigh. “I shouldn’t have drank that last cup of nitro caf.”
“Nitro caf?” I asked incredulously as I unclipped my buckle. “Who has nitro caf?”
I was feeling better now. Not hungry and just a little groggy, I could finally think straight.
A second later, Preacher and X exited the pilot’s cabin.
“Not bad, not good but not bad,” Preacher said with a smile. “Not bad for a guy with one eye, right?”
“That’s what I said.” Victoria started unclipping her safety harness. “Where to now?”
“According to the coordinates we have, we’re already here,” X reported. “Fuel is an issue, but I’ve taken care of that and have a refueling ship on the way. As long as we secure the sword before they get here, it shouldn’t be an issue.”
“It looks cold outside.” Cryx stated what we were all thinking. “I mean, it’s already cold in here.”
She was right. I could see my breath as the temperature of the cabin dropped. Goosebumps ran up and down my exposed arms.
“I think we have coats in the lockers,” X answered, heading to the rear of the ship. “Not coats made for this kind of cold weather, but they’ll help.”
Turned out X was right. The dropship had been equipped with supplies that included not just spare earpieces and food, but warm jackets as well. I shrugged one on and put the hood over my head.
“Anything you might be able to tell us about the last Relic before we go out there?” I asked Syrinity and Victoria. “I mean, should we be expecting some kind of crazy monster guarding it, maybe a tribe of mutated ice freaks or traps that are going to incinerate us?”
Apparently, Victoria found that amusing because she put her hand to her mouth to hide a laugh.
“I wish I had more information, but all I know is that there are three Relics and the Knights of the Way were tasked with guarding the chalice,” Syrinity said honestly. “Perhaps our adventurer knows more.”
“The sword of power.” Victoria said each word with reverence. We all paused to catch every word she was about to share. Anything she could give us could prove useful. It might even be the difference between life and death. “I know nothing.”
“What now?” Preacher asked with a half chuckle covering an expression of shock. “It sounded like you said you have no idea.”
“Oh, that’s because I did.” Victoria gave us such a crazy grin, I couldn’t keep my eyebrows from shooting up toward my hairline. “I mean, maybe one day long ago, I used to know more, but that day has long been gone. I hunted for the Relics, chasing down every bit of whisper of their existence, but the cup was the closest I ever got to possessing one. And now look at me. I wish, we wish we had never seen one. Don’t we?”
Victoria fell back into the trance of calling herself “we” again. I felt for the woman driven mad by the cup of immortality and so much time spent alone on the island.
“I, we, us,” Victoria mumbled about herself, lapsing into another insane episode. “We will go with you to look on this Relic, but do not ask us to wield it. The cup has done enough torture to us. The book has created more trouble. I, we can only imagine what the sword will do.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to take it,” I told her. “You and Syrinity have both been through enough drinking from the cup.”
“When the time comes, I’ll take the sword,” Preacher stated in a no-nonsense kind of way. “I mean it. Don’t argue with me on this one. It makes the most sense. I have more experience with a blade than anyone here can hope to ever learn. I haven’t felt the weight of using the book or the cup. It’s my turn to bear the burden. Don’t try to talk me out of it.”
I opened my mouth then shut it again. I understood how Preacher felt. I also understood that arguing with him now wouldn’t do anyone any good.
I guess everyone felt the same way. No one was going to argue with the man except for Cryx.
“Excuse my language, but that’s a pile of crip,” the young warrior announced, placing her helmet on her head before we exited the dropship. “You’re more important to the team than I am. I’ll take the sword.”
“No way.” Preacher shook his head. “That’s an order, Cryx. You don’t touch it. There’s no telling what that thing will do to the wielder.”
Cryx opened her mouth to argue again.
“Let’s worry about actually finding it first and then we can talk about who’s going to use it to make the Order bleed,” I interrupted. “X, open the rear doors. We have a Relic to find.”
X complied a moment later, hitting the button on the side of the dropship that activated the rear ramp. The back of the dropship opened from the center with half the ramp coming down while the other half opened skyward.
It was cold. That may be the understatement of the century. Not only could I see my breath as the chill wind whipped into the dropship, but my nose and ears went numb.
I pulled up the hood tighter to protect as much of my head as possible. Darkness greeted us on the other side of the open ramp doors. Darkness that went past the simple hour of the night.
There was something about the cold as well. The winter wind penetrated my jacket, disregarding my clothing as if it weren’t even there.
“Lights, here,” Preacher said, handing each of us a high-powered torch. He also passed out standing torches that acted like lanterns fighting back the darkness.
“X?” I asked, taking the lead down the ramp. “Where exactly did those coordinates Alerna gave us tell us to go?”
“We’re on top of them,” X stated, walking right beside me. It seemed the cold had no effect on her. “I canvassed the landscape. The terrain in this specific location appears to be flat.”
I squinted, trying to use my enhanced vision to pierce the darkness. Nothing happened. I felt foolish for even trying. It was X who had given me that ability when we were paired as one. There wasn’t much to see at all. X was right. Besides the dropship, the closest mountains or hills I saw were kilometers away.
“Something’s wrong,” Victoria said, shambling next to us in snow that came up to our ankles. “We, us, I, sense it. Something here is not right.”
I knew what she was talking about. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was like the darkness was deeper here. A chill touched my spine that had nothing to do with the cold.
Preacher unsheathed his katana. It hummed red in the darkness.
“You still have to teach me how to do that,” Cryx said, her own blades making a distinct metal on metal sound as she unsheathed them at once. “I want yellow.”
“X?” I asked the AI. “You able to see anything here that we might be missing?”
“There are no structures, but the ground below us seems to be hollow,” X revealed, pausing for a moment to think. “I believe there is a chamber under our feet.”
“Can you locate any kind of access point or door to get in?” Preacher asked. “We don’t have any digging equipment, but if it’s close to the surface, I may be able to cut our way through.”
Butch whined as the wind whispered to us, sending everybody on guard.
“Why didn’t we bring weapons from the ship?” I asked, looking back at the dropship that stood a few meters behind us with the rear doors still open. “We should go back for weapons.”
“I agree,” Syrinity said uneasily. “Leaving the chalice unguarded in the ship also has me on edge, although I do not believe anyone could live in such a forsaken place.”
“All right, new plan,” I called to the team. “X and I will continue to search for an entry point to the place she’s finding beneath us. The rest of you go back to the ship for weapons. Cryx and Syrinity, you’re going to stay onboard and watch over the chalice. Syrinity is right. There’s something not right about this place.”
“I agree we should leave our best warriors guarding the Relic,” Syrinity answered, already turning to go back to the dropship. “If there is evil here, it will first seek the cup.”
“Easy on the best warrior talk,” I said. “I think we all know who the best is here.”
“I just took on the leader of the Order one on one.” Preacher shrugged in his coat. “I don’t want to brag, but—”
“Please, I can crush steel robots with my hands,” X cut in, tilting her head to the side. “How does that not make me the best?”
“Are you seriously making me stay in the ship?” Cryx put her hands on her hips. “Come on, I missed most of the action on the island. Let me do something.”
I looked over at Preacher, who nodded his consent.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Preacher agreed. “I’m okay with it, but you’re the leader of this new Pack. Your call.”
I was torn. I knew I was being overprotective of the girl. She was one of us. She’d already stood her ground and fought beside us. I was doing no favors protecting her.
“All right,” I decided. “Go with Syrinity back to the ship and come back with some weapons for me. Bring something for Victoria as well.”
“That will not be necessary. I, we, our mind is our weapon.” The older woman tapped a pointer finger to the side of her temple. “Sharp as a tack we are.”
“I highly doubt that,” I murmured under my breath as Cryx stifled a laugh before turning back to the ship with Syrinity.
While I doled out orders, X was busy at work looking down at the ground as if she could see through the surface.
“It’s a series of chambers,” X shared before I could ask her what she saw. “Tunnels and cavities underground. I don’t think these were man-made. Or at least if they were, not by any tools I’ve ever seen humankind use before.”
“Do you see any way to enter?” Preacher asked, shrugging deeper into his coat. “An entrance or maybe some place I can cut into?”
I waited for X’s response with my hands in my jacket pocket. I wasn’t one to complain, but it was all I could do to stop from shivering in the impossible cold.
“Here, over here,” X said, walking to our right and further away from the dropship. X dropped to her hands and knees and began shoveling the snow away from the spot on the ground in front of her. “There’s a tunnel that curves up here. We should be able to punch through to the structure below.”
Preacher and I joined X, shoveling the snow from the location. It wasn’t easy since a light flurry of snow fell from the sky, covering the spot we tried to clear.
Victoria stood over us pointing a pair of torches above us while we worked.
“This place, this place was made by no man,” Victoria counseled us. “You will do well to remember that when we enter.”
After a few minutes of clearing off the snow, my gloved hands hit something hard. Not ground, but something that felt like metal.
“Victoria, can you shine the light here?” I asked, pointing to the ground right in front of me. “I think I have something.”
Victoria complied, revealing a metal outline with some kind of text written on it I had never seen. The symbols were more swishes and slashes than straight lines or curves.
“It’s foreign to me,” Preacher confirmed. “Here, there’s more.”
With a renewed sense of purpose, we cleared off the section around the steel. It made an octagon shape wide enough for someone to stand on.
“I can’t discern the text either, but I think it’s an entrance point,” X said slowly. “The tunnel beneath us curves naturally up here. It would make sense this would be a secondary hatch providing access.”
“Can you open it?” I asked.
X ran her hands over the outline of the entrance where the strange steel rose over the ground. She was right. It did look like some kind of hatch or entrance, except in the middle of the octagon, there was no lever or switch to enter.
The center of the octagon was made of the same dark steel as the frame.
“I can try to cut in,” Preacher informed us, standing up and unsheathing his blade.
“Wow, what the crip is this?” Cryx asked, joining us. She handed me a black nylon belt containing another MK II with the rotating drum, recallers, and a spare axe and knife.
I had to figure out who packed the dropship and thank them for being so thoughtful.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” X answered, standing up and eyeing the octagon-shaped hatch.
X looked more than a bit strange standing in the bitter cold with nothing more than a synth suit. Her dark blue hair and lighter blue skin gave her the appearance of an alien herself. I guess that made sense; her new body was made from alien tech.
As much as I trusted Alerna, I had as much reason to not trust her. The thing that convinced me she was on our side at all was she hadn’t let us down yet.
I hoped for X’s sake that Alerna was on our side. I could see how having a body made her feel.
X squatted down in the middle of the octagon-shaped hatch, touching the edges where the markings were etched into the metal.
“I think it’s a combination, a code,” X commented. “Touching the symbols in the correct order will let us through. At least that’s what all the data leads me to believe.”
“I’m not a mathematician,” Cryx said, looking down at the emblems, “but there are eight sides and it looks like eight symbols on each side. That’s sixty-four symbols. That’s way too many to try and figure out which to touch first. We don’t even know how many symbols are part of this code.”
“If I, we had to guess, eight symbols would be needed,” Victoria said, shuffling nearer to the entrance. “This is the location that holds the sword of power. If that’s the case, then perhaps the symbols relate that as well.”
I racked my mind for anything Alerna told me during the course of our conversation that might help. I had nothing.
“You okay?” Victoria asked me.
“You look like you’re in pain,” Cryx added.
“I’m fine. I’m just thinking,” I answered.
“Your thinking face looks like the one I make when I, we stub my, our toe,” Victoria said. “Or when we have trouble relieving ourselves.”
Cryx laughed out loud.
“Trying to decipher the code with this many variables will take too long,” X finally confessed. “Preacher, you’re up.”
Preacher nodded, taking his katana by the hilt in a two-handed move. With the blade pointed down, the heated metal hummed with a dull red glow.
Snow that fell around the metal hissed and melted before reaching the ground.
The hot blade bit deep into the alien metal below his feet as he exchanged positions with X. The sword sank slowly through the exposed metal. As Preacher continued to work, something started to happen.
The symbols in the outline of the hatch glowed a bright yellow. Not the steel altogether; just the symbols ringing the octagon-shaped hatch began to shine.
“Stop,” Victoria said, sensing the same thing I did. “Stop, you fool.”
We all looked to her to explain why.
But I already knew.
The wind stopped. The snow falling from the heavens also paused at the same time. There was no noise. No howling of the wind, nothing.
Without a sound, the hatch at our feet opened.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention. We were being watched. I was sure of it.
“Come in,” a woman’s voice called from the blackness in the hole. “Come in, I’ve been waiting for you.”
My mouth went dry. I had heard that voice before. Alerna.
All eyes looked to me for direction.
I clipped on my weapons belt, sliding the metal recallers onto my wrists.
I checked my MK II, securing the ammo drum in place. I chose my ammunition, steel rods.
My mind raced with possibilities. This could all be a trap. Had Alerna lured us out here only to kill us? Why didn’t she tell me she would be waiting for me?
“Someone let us know, I, we aren’t the only one that heard that woman’s voice from below,” Victoria said, blinking wild eyes at each one of us. “Did we imagine that voice too?”
“No,” Cryx said in a tone that barely refused to give in to fear. “I heard the voice from the pitch black hole as well. That crip is freaky.”
“Alerna, Alerna, is that you?” I asked, holding my MK II in my right hand. With my left, I shined my torch down into the blackness. “I can’t see you.”
“I am Alerna in a way, more like her conscious thought left behind for you, to guide you,” the woman’s voice said as if that were supposed to answer all my questions. “Come down. The sword is here.”
I leaned down, trying to see through the darkness to the floor below. My torch barely penetrated the blackness enough for me to get a glimpse of what I thought was the ground a full story below.
If there was anyone within, I couldn’t see them.
“I’m scanning for life forms below, and unless they’re using some advanced tech, which they very well might be, I’m not picking up anything,” X said thoughtfully. “I should go in first. I’m the most resilient.”
“Not a chance,” I told her, stepping forward. “I led us here. I’m going first.”
X opened her mouth to say something. Before she could get it out, I gave her a wink and dropped inside. The darkness was different here. It was thicker or maybe that was just my imagination.
My boots hit the ground in what felt like a story below. An echo raced in each direction of the tunnel I found myself in.
The tunnel was a perfect circular sphere devoid of any grooves or tool marks etched into the walls. Whatever instrument had been used to create the walls, it was like nothing I had ever seen.
A musty scent like air trapped and not used for a very, very long time assailed my nostrils. I turned around and back again, shining the torch in each direction.
Both paths of the tunnel might as well have been mirror images of one another. The stone the passageway was carved from ran as far as my torch would light in both directions.
“Hey, you okay down there?” Preacher called from above.
“Yep,” I said, looking up and wincing into the light the others shone down. They looked almost comical. From above, four heads peered down over the ledge with lights of their own. “Hold on; let me make contact with Alerna before you drop down.”
“No need to make contact,” Alerna’s voice echoed down the tunnel. “I’m here, Daniel Hunt.”
Closer to the voice now, I could tell there was something wrong. Yes, it was Alerna’s voice, but it sounded younger and playful. All my interactions with the woman had been serious and straight to the point.
This was something different.
“Alerna, how are you here?” I asked, wary of a trap being sprung at any moment. “Why can’t I see you?”
“Oh, you want to see me?” Alerna asked. “Here I am. Don’t get scared now. I don’t get many visitors these days.”
An image appeared out of thin air in front of me. It was a woman much younger than I was used to seeing. She did resemble Alerna, but her skin, not just her skin; all of her shone in a yellowish light.
She was a hologram.
“Alerna, why do you look younger?” I asked, trying to piece the puzzle together. “Who are you really?”
“I am, Alerna,” the woman said, rolling her eyes with a playful smile. “If you know me in another manner that may be because you met a version of me in your present that would be my future. When this facility was founded by the Primordials, who watch over the universe, I was still young. The sentient technology used to control this facility was made in my likeness. Does that clear up some confusion for you?”
“I think so,” I said, looking the hologram in the eye. “But why wouldn’t you—or I guess your future self—tell me her past self was the AI controlling this place. Man, talking like this is going to give me a headache.”
“I don’t mean to damage your undeveloped human brain, but the question you ask is not one that I am able to answer,“ Alerna said with a shrug. “I have no idea what my future self will tell you or not tell you and why. I can only speculate.”
I think I had wrapped my head around the situation at the moment. Why Alerna wouldn’t warn me was something to throw in the “who knows” and “who cares you have larger problems right now” pile.
“Is the sword here?” I asked. “The Relic?”
“It is.” Alerna grinned. The opening above us closed a second later, cutting us off from the others. “But only for one. Follow me.”
I stood there in the dark tunnel debating my options. I could go with this hologram AI or demand she let me out. I couldn’t hear shouts from where the others waited topside, but I heard someone pounding on the door to open the hatch.
“They’ll find a way in,” I told the hologram of Alerna. “Preacher has a heated katana and X hits like a mech.”
“My programming tells me I am to take one. You are this one,” Alerna said as if it were as simple as that for her. “Do you want the sword or not? Once you recover it, I will show you the way out, but it is for one.”
“All right,” I said, thinking about the others’ safety. They were probably better off away from whatever I was about to do next. The way Alerna spoke, reading between the lines, it was obvious there was a lot she wasn’t saying. “Lead the way.”
Alerna gave me a nod of satisfaction and turned to walk down the tunnel.
I touched my comm to tell the others I was all right. Not to my surprise, nothing came over the comm channel.
“Is speaking with my team also against whatever programmed instructions you were left with?” I asked. “I’d like to tell them I’m all right.”
“I’ll let them know,” Alerna said after a brief pause. “You know I’ve been down here for a very long time waiting for someone like you to come and collect the sword. It’s been a very lonely job.”
“So why were you modeled after Alerna?” I asked. “I mean, I imagine the AI left to guard this facility could have been structured after anyone, right?”
“Ahhh, the human is a thinking monkey,” Alerna said, not bothering to turn around. “Yes, indeed.”
Alerna didn’t say more for the moment. I traveled, following her down the tunnel that sloped ever so slightly. We passed a few forks in the path and places where other tunnels branched into ours. Alerna never hesitated. She knew exactly where she was going.
“I was going to make the walk in silence, but I just can’t pass on the opportunity to talk to someone. Even if that someone is a primitive beast not much better than bacteria,” Alerna said, slowing her gait to match my own and walk beside me. “What is the outside world like now? You have to understand, for someone with my intelligence level to be trapped here alone, it practically drove me mad.”
“Practically?” I repeated, ignoring her comment about me being bacteria. “Earth’s a wasteland. Humanity has colonized the Moon and Mars. Oh and we’ve had our first run-in with an alien species called the Voy. That was fun.”
“And you lived past your conflict with them?” Alerna asked, surprised. “I would have guessed a species as basic as your own would have been wiped out upon first contact.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I answered, breathing in a cold mouthful of air. “We held our own.”
“I can see why my future self likes you so much, human.” Alerna gave me an approving nod. “Maybe you will survive the test of the sword.”
“Test?” I asked, surprised. “I should have known.”
The gradually declining tunnel we were in finally ended in a wide, circular room. It appeared there was only one way in and one way out of the chamber. There were no windows or walls, just stone. The only light in the room came from my torch and the dull yellow glow emanating from Alerna’s holographic form.
“I told you I did not know why my future self would not tell you about me and the test, but I can speculate,” Alerna said. “She did not tell you because you needed to prove yourself worthy of the sword without any aid, even from her. You needed to approach this test on fair ground like anyone else.”
Part of me, no, most of me didn’t even want to know what the test was. The book came from the mysterious Madam Eternal. The cup was guarded by a coven of immortal Knights of the Way. What was the sword protected by?
Something moved in the dark room. I took a step back, trying to see in the darkness. I tapped in to my enhanced sight but missed the golden glow X would have given me if she were still in my head.
Something large slithered across the ground.
Alerna snapped her fingers for dramatic effect. The room erupted in something like bright yellow sunlight, thanks to lights set high overhead. The massive curricular room wasn’t a room at all but rather a pit.
In front of me, the floor dropped away to form a two-story indention in the ground. A series of black stones and what looked like caves in the stones circled a sword.
The sword itself was breathtaking; it was unlike anything I had yet to see and that was saying something.
I had witnessed some weird crip thus far.
Not just the handle, but the entire weapon shone with a dull blue glow. It reminded me of the way Preacher’s weapon hummed red. But this one wasn’t humming, at least that I could tell. It lay flat in the middle of the crater in front of me. A black stone rock acted as a table for the weapon.
“It has gone by many names since its creation,” Alerna revealed with soft reverence. “Durandel, Colada, Excalibur.”
I looked over at Alerna, deadpan. I knew the AI had been here for a long time. I wouldn’t put it past her to be pulling my leg at the moment. She looked at me with unblinking eyes.
“Are you just messing with me here?” I asked, giving her a firm gaze of my own. “Excalibur? Really?”
“Well, you flea bitten humans didn’t know what to think of it or what it truly was, so you called it names you invented,” Alerna said hotly. “Listen, I’ve been here a long time waiting for someone to be sent to claim it, so are you going to get it or not?”
“All right, all right,” I said, examining the many holes within the landscape below me. It was as if something or someone burrowed through the rock to create an interweaving cave system.
I wasn’t sure if my imagination was playing tricks on me, but once again, I saw something slither and slide in the darkness. As soon as I turned to look in that specific section, it was gone.
“What exactly is in there?” I questioned the AI. “I’m guessing something that wants to eat me.”
“The sword is only to be wielded in mankind’s greatest hour of need by their greatest hero,” Alerna said as if she were reading the line from some kind of internal databank. “The basilisk will prove the hero’s worth.”
“The who now?” I asked, trying to figure out if I had heard the AI correctly. “A basilisk? Isn’t that a snake?”
“It is a kind of reptile lost to this world hundreds of years ago, but this one has stayed safe here waiting to prove its worth,” Alerna stated as if she weren’t talking crazy. “No projectile weapons are allowed. You may take your axe and knife, but that is all.”
“Who’s making all of these rules?” I asked, feeling the weight of the moment descend on me like a ton of bricks. “X volunteered to jump through the opening first. I should have let her go.”
“The rules were set in place by my creators, the Primordials, before they left Earth to deal with the growing threat in our universe,” Alerna explained. “I am only here to fulfill what was set in motion. If you don’t like it, I can kill you and I’ll let one of the others in.”
“Kill me?” I frowned. “What happened to me being the hero of humanity a second ago?”
“If the one who tries to claim the sword fails, the basilisk will have done its job,” Alerna said with a shrug. “If he or she refuses, I am to terminate them. Does your little human brain understand that?”
“You’re really rude,” I expressed, unclipping my belt and slowly, regretfully leaving my MK II in the holster. I pulled my knife and axe free. “I like the present-day Alerna much better. She gives me helpful things like metal cubes and coordinates to Relics.”
“Well, I am nothing like that Alerna, it seems,” the AI said. “Are you going to claim the sword or not?”
“I guess so,” I answered with a heavy breath. I understood being mentally ready meant just as much, maybe even more than any kind of physical preparation.
“Oh, one more thing,” Alerna added. “Believe it or not, I want you to succeed in getting the sword because I want out of here, so a little tip. Don’t gaze into the basilisk’s eyes. It’ll kill you if you do so.”
I looked over at Alerna, blinking as I processed the information.
“No blaster, no looking into its eyes, and good luck,” I repeated. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a regular ray of sunshine, AI Alerna?”
“You just did,” Alerna said with a genuine yet crazy smile. “Thank you. I’ve never seen sunshine before.”
Now you’ve got two of them, I thought to myself. You have Victoria with her “One is blood” nonsense and now you have an AI who’s been driven mad by so many years in solitude.
Either way, it wasn’t like I couldn’t try. There was no going back. If I attempted to escape the underground alien base without the sword, Alerna would kill me.
Besides, I wouldn’t put this burden on anyone else. This was on me. I remembered seeing a painting portraying two kinds of leaders. One led from the back, sitting on a weight those under him pulled, ordering them forward.
The other kind of leader was in the front of the group pulling along with them, encouraging them along. Every time I saw the painting, I promised myself I would be the second leader struggling right along with my team.
If that weren’t enough, Cassie was waiting for me somewhere. She was alone and mind-controlled. I needed the sword to secure the last Relic and then go find her. I wasn’t about to let her down.
“Can’t kill my spirit,” I whispered to myself, dropping into the pit.
As soon as my boots hit the ground, the domes overhead blinked to life. What was once a high ceiling made of rock now shone with a multitude of white screens. In each white screen were black images of people. Or at least what looked like people.
There were dozens of them. The backlit figures reminded me of the Founders of Immortal Crop and how they chose to communicate in shadow, hiding any discernible features.
“What’s with the weird one-way screens?” I asked Alerna. “I didn’t know I’d have an audience.”
For the first time, the AI looked anything but smug and certain of herself. Confusion came and went past her eyes in a flash as if she didn’t want me to catch the expression.
Too late, I saw it as clear as day.
“You didn’t know either,” I stated more than asked.
“No one has ever come for the sword,” Alerna said defensively. “We’re in uncharted territory now.”
“Wonderful,” I murmured, surveying the landscape in the pit. There was uneven terrain made up by rock hard ground. Hills and a peak in the terrain reached a story to two stories tall with no discernible pattern.
Throughout the landscape, a series of tunnels opened and closed, providing the basilisk entry points and exit points at will. Directly in the middle was a stone table maybe a story tall with a steep incline. The sword rested on top of it.
My heart beat out of my chest. There was just something different about going up against a giant mythological snake that put me at unease. Other humans, sure. Aliens, okay. Prehistoric mythological snake beast that can kill with one look? I’d have passed if I could.
I set my jaw, tightening my grip on both the blade and axe. The knife I held blade down in my right hand. The axe with the half moon edge on one side and a short spike on the other I held in a traditional grip.
How my body might heal or not heal if I looked this thing in the eyes was a test I didn’t want to undertake.
Don’t look in the eyes, I reminded myself as I took my first step forward on the hard uneven ground. Don’t look at the eyes.
I could see the myriad of individuals that looked like dark shadows to me shifting and adjusting in their seats. A few of them leaned forward in anticipation of what would come next.
If everything I had been told was true, then these were the Primordials. These individuals were the ones in charge in the universe and they waited for me. I’m not sure why they were so interested in a human taking a sword or not. I mean, these guys were the top of the food chain. I’m sure they had good reason and that wasn’t necessarily comforting.
I took another step and then another, slowly maneuvering across the treacherous terrain. The jutting rock the sword sat on was maybe a city block away from me at the moment.
I could sprint there and cut down my time in the pit, but a sense that I was being watched poked and prodded at the back of my mind. It felt like the basilisk wanted me to rush forward. It wanted me to buckle under the stress.
It gambled on the fact that I’d trip up and then it would pounce. There were so many tunnels in the rock, it was impossible to guess where the creature would emerge.
Legs bent, I moved one foot in front of the other. Anticipation grew so thick in the air I swear, I could cut it with the edge of my axe blade. The hardest part was I could feel this creature watching me. Every time I peered into a cave outlet, I had to remember just to get a glimpse and then look away or chance seeing the creature eye to eye.
I held my weapons so hard, my arms shook with the effort. Just when I crossed half the distance to the table the sword lay on and I thought I might arrive at the sword without the creature striking, it came.
The basilisk was dark green with black patterns painted on its skin. I don’t remember seeing many snakes up close, but this thing didn’t slither; this thing moved fast.
Its massive head darted from a cave entrance to my right. The thing was truly horrifying, its body was twice as wide as my own. The teeth inside the massive jaws were as long as my forearm. A forked tongue zipped in and out of its mouth.
The creature emerged from its lair, arching high into the air to show off its impressive size. It wasn’t like I was going to bust out the measuring tape I didn’t have, but it had to be forty, maybe even fifty meters in length.
With it came a sound like bones rattling in a wooden box. A stench so foul I had to force myself not to puke assailed my nostrils.
The eyes, I reminded myself as it showed off its size in front of me, posturing to terrify me. Don’t look directly at it.
I treated the orange globes of snake eyes like I would the sun. I saw them in my peripheral vision. I knew they were there, but I refused to look at them.
That same hiss-like bone rattle came from its mouth once more. It ducked its head lower from side to side, trying to get me to look at it. If I was its first visitor in…ever, then I assumed it might be curious about me as well.
I refused to engage with it at the moment. Instead of looking at its eyes, I focused on the snub snout and twin nostrils shaped like tear drops. I maneuvered to my right, keeping my eyes on it.
It dipped back and forth, swaying as if it were trying to lure me into gazing on it just once.
Still moving to my right, I tried to flank the beast; of course it was too smart for that. As I moved to the right, it followed, turning its body to see me in full view.
Who was going to make the first move was the question in our standoff. I had to get past it. It might as well be me.
I darted even farther to the right, willing my legs to carry me at a pace they had yet to achieve.
The basilisk lunged for me, teeth wide enough to take in my head down to my torso. All hopes of this creature being docile and simply intrigued vanished. The snake wanted me dead and probably in its belly, there was no doubt about that now.
The colossal maw descended on me faster than I could run. At the last second, I dove out of the way, turning my fall into a roll. My left shoulder hit the ground first as I did a somersault and popped back onto my feet.
The basilisk’s face slammed down where I had been a moment before. Its teeth crunched on the rock, making a horrible noise. Basilisk teeth on stone was apparently ten times worse than nails on a chalkboard.
It wasn’t like I was waiting to find out how it was doing. Without looking back, I continued my run to the rock base where the sword sat.
Only when I reached it did I allow myself to look behind me. Skidding to a halt with the rock at my back, I turned to fight. Oxygen pumped in and out of my lungs like pistons on overdrive.
Weapons up, I prepared for another attack.
It was gone.
The basilisk was not only nowhere to be seen, it had disappeared so quickly, I wondered if it had been there at all. The only thing that remained of it to prove to me I hadn’t imagined it was a smear of dark red blood and a tooth that had been dislodged when it tried to make my head its midnight snack.
Panting, I looked to my right and left. A series of black holes acting as passageways for the serpent teased at my imagination. It could come from any one of them in a moment.
The sword, I yelled in my own head. Get the sword!
Tearing my eyes away from the caves in front of me was harder than I thought. When it came for me, I wanted to see it. Exposing my back was not an idea I cherished at the moment. Still, if I was to climb the rock in front of me to get the sword, I’d need to sooner or later.
I turned, finding handholds in the uneven rock surface. My feet found edges along the surface as I pulled myself up. Climbing with the weapons in my hands wasn’t easy, but none of this was easy.
As soon as I started the climb, the sounds of bones being rattled in a wooden box met my ears.
Adrenaline that had already been flowing freely pumped through my veins at such an incredible pace, I thought I was going to overdose on the stuff.
My right hand reached the top of the stone surface, grasping for the sword hilt.
Pain exploded across my body unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Not a burning or sharp pain, but a numbing pain. A pain so brutal I knew I had broken or maybe fractured my spine. I went flying through the air. Lucky for me, a large rock outcropping stopped my forward momentum.
I hit the rock with a dull, meaty thud. Stone shards rained down around me, what remained of the rock table the sword sat on.
It was hard to breathe now. I sat propped up against the rock, struggling to stay conscious. I tried focusing on anything to keep me going. Against all odds, I managed to keep hold of my axe and knife.
The rock table the sword sat on was gone now, broken into a hundred different pieces. The sword, wherever it landed, was out of sight.
What I still saw as clear as day was the huge behemoth of a snake slithering toward me and the white screens of these so-called Primordials still watching me.
No sound came from them, as if they were mute, but the human motion of shaking one’s head when you didn’t approve of something must have been universal. These humanoid outlines leaned back, shook their heads, or threw up their hands.
They thought this was over. They thought I was done.
That pissed me off.
I thought of Cassie. I thought of everyone counting on me. I thought of the human race fighting beings they didn’t even comprehend.
“Nothing—” I panted as I struggled to my feet. “Nothing’s over.”
The basilisk came to tower over me again. It ducked its head low to try and get me to look in its eyes.
But this time, I wasn’t going to attempt to move around it. This time, I was going to go through it.
I stood up, feigning the fact that I was more injured than I was. Sure I was hurting, but I felt my body already beginning to heal itself. I’d be right in seconds. And seconds was all I needed to make my next move.
I hunched, staggering forward as if I were barely able to stand.
The basilisk, seeing that I was not going to play a staring contest with it, came in for the kill. Instead of slapping me with its tail like it had before, it lowered its head to my level and lunged again.
Razor sharp teeth came straight at me. I spun to my right, slicing sideways with my axe. The blade of my weapon scraped the scales on the topside of its mouth, sliding forward until it wedged itself right under the beast’s left eye.
With a quick jerk of my left wrist, I dug the blade deeper, then in an up and out motion. It was a long shot, but the move worked. The left eye of the basilisk popped out of the socket like a spent cartridge falling from the end of a blaster.
The basilisk stopped its bone rattle. A kind of screech hiss seeped from its throat like air escaping from a pressurized pipe. The creature reared back, screaming and flailing. Its thick body slammed right and left, shattering the rock outcroppings around us.
It roared its pain to the many screens above.
I almost felt bad for the creature before I remembered what it did to me using me as a projectile. The giant snake’s pain turned to wrath as it lunged for me again.
I was fast, but my footing on the uneven ground worked against me this time. I tripped trying to dive out of the way. Jaws full of insanely sharp teeth came looking for me.
I rolled to my left, narrowly avoiding being bitten. I used my axe to hack at the mouth of the creature. The blade struck the snake’s scales, failing to penetrate the armor-like skin. The basilisk reared back and chomped down at me again and again. I rolled to my left and then to my right, fighting off my back.
I didn’t think a bite would kill me, but it sure wouldn’t feel good.
I jumped to my feet, taking the time the serpent used to pull backward for another go at me. I flipped the knife in my right hand, so I held the blade in my palm then threw it into the open mouth.
It seemed the scales of this monster were more than my blades could penetrate. But the inside of the mouth wasn’t covered by scales, or at least that was what I told myself.
I flung the knife end over end. It sailed into the waiting jaws of the creature that raced to meet me. The knife glided past the rows of teeth and deep into its throat. I had a decision to make there and then. Send my axe in as well and suffer the consequences of not getting out of the way of the attack or jump to the side.
There was no time to think, just react. The harebrained plan I concocted doubled my chances of succeeding with two weapons in its gut instead of one.
I hurled the axe at the open throat of the snake just in time. Jaws clamped down on my torso a second later. The good news was my armored vest protected me from the worst of the bite. The bad news was, as the basilisk chomped tighter down on my chest armor, it also lifted me off the ground.
I was at perfect eye level with the behemoth. An empty gore hole of blood and meat stared at me from its left eye socket. Its right eye glared at me with all the hate it could muster.
I looked back.
I couldn’t help myself.
Like some alluring siren from the watery depths of the ocean, its eye called to me. A sliver of black that acted as its pupil painted the center of the orange eyeball.
I stared into the eye, feeling my body grow cold. The chill ran from my fingers and toes toward my heart.
I knew this was it. Whatever magic or technology or biological source the basilisk used to kill its enemies on sight would work on me too. Maybe slower, thanks to my accelerated healing, but it would kill me if I let it.
I held the gaze of the devil snake supporting me high off the ground.
We locked eyes, something primal in the creature telling it this shouldn’t be, that its ancestors could have killed their prey by just looking at them in a second. Anger turned to curiosity in that eye.
On my end, I knew my time was short. Breathing was harder; a constriction of my chest came that had nothing to do with the basilisk biting into my vest.
I could see the screens in the dome. Every dark figure still watched. I had proved them wrong once before by not giving up. They looked on with interest as I did it again.
My mind began to go. My thought process slowed as I waited for my weapons to get as deep into the digestive tract of this creature as they could.
Not yet, I coached myself in my mind, missing X with every slowed heartbeat. Not yet.
Then it was time. My tank was empty. I had nothing left to give. I motioned with the recallers on my wrists for the weapons. The move wasn’t anything dramatic, a simple beckoning toward myself with my fingers. But the look that came over the snake’s eye as I did, that was pure shock and pain.
The snake dropped me. My axe and knife flew through its mouth and throat, ripping tissue along the way.
I fell to the ground on my feet, catching the bloody knife and axe in each hand.
Ripped from the inside, the snake coughed gallons of dark blood. The basilisk painted the stone around it and me with the hot, sticky substance.
I got a little bit of the blood in my own mouth. It made me want to throw up. I spat, searching the area for the eye I removed from the basilisk moments before.
The orange orb lay discarded on a rock to my left.
With the basilisk vomiting blood and trying to regain composure to kill me, I went over to the forsaken eye. After sheathing my knife, I plucked it off the ground.
I didn’t dare look at it. I was just beginning to feel normal again, that soul-sucking coldness and numbness just wearing off.
The eyeball was about as big as a drum for my MK II. My hand fit around it nicely. It felt soft and wet, like if I squeezed too hard, it might pop.
“Hey!” I yelled to the basilisk. “Hey you! Look. I’ve got something for you!”
I shoved the eye over my head, not daring to look myself. I gazed at only one eye and started to feel myself dying from the inside out. Even with my advanced healing capabilities, I didn’t want to try and see what staring at two basilisk eyes would do to me.
The one-eyed snake still spraying blood glared at me. It gawked into its own eye unblinking. As if it were caught in some kind of trance, it gazed into the orb. Slowly, it lowered its head to the ground.
The basilisk shuddered, blood still oozing from its missing eye and maw. Its entire body spasmed on the stone ground then remained still, its one eye still open, staring into the eye I held.
It was dead. At least it gave every sign that it was dead. I wasn’t exactly an expert on basilisks or ancient mythological snakes.
I placed the eye on the ground at my feet, looking for the sword. I ran to a stone mound to get a better vantage point of the surrounding area. There to my left wedged between a pair of rocks, the sword of power rested on its side.
I went over, sheathing my axe, and grabbed the hilt of the weapon. Power, strength like I had never felt before tingled down my arm and into my body. All weariness left me. I felt like I could take on an army of basilisks at that point.
The weapon glowed with that same blue alien power. My muscles relaxed, then felt as if they doubled in size. I looked down at myself. I was still the same man I was before, but there was no doubt a different kind of warm energy lived inside the sword and now me when wielding it.
“Is this what you wanted?” I asked, raising the weapon above my head. “Is this what you came here to witness?”
I searched the screens above me to see if there were any way I could distinguish Alerna’s figure. It wasn’t possible. All I could make out were humanoid figures in black. I couldn’t even tell which ones were male and which ones were female.
Without a word or so much as a wave, the screen clicked off. I turned to get a look at all of them. In a matter of seconds, all the screens in the dome above were gone showing the stone ceiling behind them except for one.
Somehow I knew it was Alerna. Not the AI, but present-day Alerna who sent me here. The figure on the screen nodded toward me then vanished.
“I don’t believe it,” Alerna the AI said from behind me. “I thought you were dead for sure. I mean, you didn’t look like the smartest human that could have come down here searching for the sword.”
“Thanks,” I said, not meaning it at all as I looked for a way up from the pit. “I had a blast going through your little test, but my team’s waiting for me.”
“My purpose here has been fulfilled,” the AI said as if she never thought she’d hear the words. “I was created to watch over the facility and administer the test, but now after so many years alone, that has been done.”
I let Alerna continue her monologue, finding a high stone outcropping that was close enough to the edge of the pit where I’d be able to make the jump.
“I’m released now, free to go about my own journey and do as I please,” Alerna thought out loud as if she were having some kind of existential moment. “But I have no physical body. I am chained to this place. For all my knowledge, I am chained to this place.”
I made the jump from the outcropping of rock in the pit to the ledge. Was it just me or was I able to jump further now?
The sword in my right hand was like a drug. I felt happy, like I could do anything I wanted. Like I was immortal or some kind of god. I shook the feeling off walking toward the room’s exit.
“Well, you have fun figuring out what you’d like to do with the rest of your life. I hear knitting and crossword puzzles are fun,” I said, giving the AI a thumbs-up. “Thanks for having me over to your house of nightmares.”
Alerna’s hologram shimmered then disappeared. I was a few steps from heading back up the tunnel when she shimmered to life in front of me, blocking my path. I guess not really blocking my path since she was a hologram and I could walk through her, but stopping me.
“Daniel Hunt,” Alerna said with her best smile. She grated out the next words as if she were in physical pain when saying them. “I would like to go with you and your team.”
“Is that really what you want or do you just want out of here?” I asked her with a raised eyebrow. “I can make an educated guess. “
“I would be able to help,” Alerna stated, putting her hands on her hips. “I have the knowledge of the Primordials within me. With me, there’s not much you wouldn’t be able to do. You pathetic humans would be lucky to have me.”
“You need to work on your sales pitch,” I told her, stepping around her and heading up the tunnel. “Thanks for the offer. I’ll pass.”
“You don’t understand,” Alerna said, turning alongside me as we headed up the tunnel together. “You don’t know what you’re passing on. I have the knowledge of how to build weapons that will make you the most powerful human in your galaxy. I can show you how to mine and where to find the most precious metals on Earth, the Moon, Mars, and beyond. I hold answers to questions you haven’t even thought to ask. I—”
“Okay, okay, I get it, I get it,” I interrupted, stopping her mid-sentence. “You’re super smart. That’s not in question. What I am questioning is your ability to work well with others. I’m not sure you’d be the best fit, and between you and me, you don’t sound that stable. I already have one crazy onboard. I don’t need another wild cannon, especially one who holds the secrets of the cosmos in her hands.”
I retraced my steps through the tunnel with the sword in my left hand and a torch in my right.
Alerna walked quietly beside me, thinking about my words. No doubt she was trying to come up with a way for me to take her along with me.
We finally reached the hatch where I fell into the tunnel. I looked over at my AI companion, wondering if she was going to give me a hard time opening the exit point.
“I’ll let you go; you aren’t a prisoner,” Alerna said with pleading in her eyes. “But please just give me a few minutes. Hear me out.”
I set my jaw, looking into her desperate holographic eyes.
Don’t fall for it, I told myself. Don’t you fall for it, no matter what she says next.
“I know I can be rude and brash.” Alerna choked out the words. “Maybe even plain mean and arrogant at times.”
I nodded along with her words.
“Don’t forget verbally abusive and annoying,” I added.
Alerna gave me a look that would have turned the basilisk to stone. She quickly replaced it, taking in a long, even breath and letting it go.
“I deserve that,” she agreed. “But past that, I want you to know that I’m loyal. Loyal to a fault. I’ve been down here for hundreds of years by myself. That’s made me a little bitter and frustrated, but still I stayed. I stayed because I had a job to do. I did my job.”
We stood in the tunnels staring at one another for a moment.
“I know I couldn’t have left myself since I have no physical body, but I could have turned off,” Alerna continued, sensing I was about to cave. “I could have committed what would be equivalent to suicide to you humans. I didn’t. I stayed sentient because I had a job to do. If you take me with you, I promise you I’ll do the same for you and your team. I’ll never give up. I’ll do whatever you ask. Please, Daniel. Please don’t leave me here. I won’t be able to bear it.”
Oh crip, you son of a brum, I said inside my head. Don’t you fall for it. Don’t you do it. You’re going to regret it.
“I promise you won’t regret this,” Alerna shouted when I nodded to her pleading eyes.
“I already am,” I told her with a sigh. “But I can’t leave you to rot and die here.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Alerna said, swallowing hard.
I wasn’t sure if holograms could cry, but Alerna looked away for a moment, composing herself as if she were hiding the act.
“Communication with my team will have to be opened,” I warned.
“Of course, of course.” Alerna nodded. “I told them you were safe and undergoing a test then shut them off when they started yelling at me and demanding answers. Your channel is open now.”
“X?” I asked the empty tunnel around me. “Can you hear me?”
“Daniel? Daniel, what happened to you?” X replied in a rush of relieved words. “Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, long story that involves a basilisk,” I answered. “I have the sword. We have a new friend here who’s going to open the hatch for you.”
I looked over at Alerna, who was grinning to herself.
I jerked my chin to the hatch above us.
“Oh, right,” Alerna said.
A moment later, the hatch opened, letting in the cold night air and a flurry of snow.
“We’re on our way in,” X said. “ We were searching for another way inside.”
“Just a heads-up: we were right, we aren’t alone down here,” I told everyone listening in on the channel. “There’s an AI modeled after Alerna.”
“Alerna, as in the woman who visited you in your dreams?” Preacher asked. “She’s down there with you now?”
“Yes, the same alien woman, but an AI was modeled after a younger version of her,” I responded.
“Wait, so there’s two Alernas now?” Cryx asked. “I mean, a fake past one and a future real one.”
“If there are two Alernas now, might there be more?” Syrinity added. “This could get confusing.”
“Yeah, don’t I know it,” I mumbled, feeling the oncoming migraine. “We’re going to refer to the present-day alien who sporadically contacts me as Alerna. The AI here we’ll call Al.”
“Um, don’t you think I should get a vote in all of this?” Al cut in with that signature death stare of hers. “I mean, I should be telling you what name would work best. You understand I’m a thousand times more…”
Her voice trailed off.
“Or we could always leave you here,” I volunteered.
“Al’s great,” Al said, changing her frown upside down. “Yes, Al will do fine. It’ll avoid all confusion from here on out.”
“Glad you’re in agreement,” I answered.
“Coming in,” X said not through the comm line this time but from above. X dropped down into the tunnel with a heavy thud. The two AIs looked at one another in awe.
“Your body,” Al started, looking X up and down. “Your body is made of liquid stone. How can that be? That substance is not found in your galaxy and humans cannot travel outside of their own solar system.”
“A hologram?” X asked her own question without answering Al’s. “And alien technology at that. I have so many questions for you.”
Preacher jumped down a second later. It seemed Butch and Victoria had opted to stay inside the dropship with the others. Or rather, Syrinity insisted the older woman remain inside and Butch followed, getting out of the cold.
X and Al started a conversation about quantum theory and something called the Rosenthal Bridge. I looked over at Preacher, who squinted at the AI, trying to figure out what he thought about her.
“You have any idea what they’re talking about?” I asked the one-eyed man. “They lost me at ‘hello’.”
“Beats me.” Preacher shrugged, eyeing the sword in my hand. “Is that it?”
“This is it,” I said, handing it over to him to inspect.
Preacher accepted the handle of the sword. As soon as I passed it over, I realized how different I felt when holding it. The tunnel suddenly seemed colder. I realized I was hungry yet again. Weariness that had not been present before fell on my shoulders like an overweight Voy that wanted a piggyback ride.
On the other side of that coin, Preacher’s eye was huge. His jaw dropped and he couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.
“I feel—I feel like I’m twenty years younger,” Preacher marveled, trying to express what the sword granted its user. “I’m pretty sure I could take on a whole army of Voy right now.”
“I know what you mean,” I agreed. “I can see why the weapon’s so coveted. I can only imagine what it can do in a fight.”
“This—this is dangerous past any kind of weapon I’ve ever seen.” Preacher grimaced and handed the sword back to me. “Take it, take it and don’t offer to let me hold it again. I don’t want it. I shouldn’t have it.”
I had never seen panic on Preacher’s face before. It worried me more than facing another basilisk. I accepted the weapon from him.
Preacher took a step back, breathing hard.
“I don’t know how you’re able to hold or resist that sword.” Preacher shook his head, removing his eye from the blade. “It’s like a drug.”
“I feel the same thing you do but maybe not as intense because of my healing factor,” I told him, taking back the blade. “I’ll be sure to remember that in the future.”
We turned to X and Al, who were now talking about wormholes.
“Excuse me,” I said, interjecting myself into their conversation. “We need to get going. Al, where’s your operating system or whatever you run off of? We’ll grab that and head back to the dropship.”
“Operating system.” Al laughed. “How wonderfully simplistic. Ahhh, to be human and so naïve must be absolute oblivion.”
Preacher gave me a look.
“She takes some getting used to,” I said in response. “She doesn’t get out much.”
We followed Al through the tunnel system toward another room. Unlike the previous room I had been in to fight the basilisk, this one was smaller and square. The only thing in it was one column coming up from the ground and another descending from the ceiling. Before the two stone pillars met, an empty space appeared with a silver sphere floating between the columns.
“Here we are,” Al announced, walking over to the sphere. She passed a hand longingly over the floating object. Her holographic palm disappeared through the sphere and came out on the other side. “So close. It seems so simple an act to just hold something, but one I will never know.”
“Don’t say never,” X told her. “I thought the only place where I’d be able to walk on two legs was in Daniel’s mind. But look at me now.”
Al gave her a weak smile.
“We should get going,” I said, moving over to the sphere and reaching out to grab the object. “We need to make it back to Dragon Hold. The GG is probably already there as Bapz hands over the book. They’ll have our information as to where Cassie is and a ship with guns to go get her.”
“No, wait!” Al tried to warn me as I grabbed the sphere.
I touched the smooth silver metal of the floating ball. Something like electricity ran through my body. With a violent spark, I was flung toward the rear wall.
I sat stunned for a moment trying to figure out what happened. Smoke came from my hair. I could imagine it stood on end.
The sword lay across my lap.
“It’s guarded by a Primordial security protocol.” Al sighed as if I should have known that. “It’ll take me a moment to deactivate.”
“You didn’t think to do that before we got here?” I asked, getting to my feet on legs that felt like Jell-O. Preacher and X rushed over to help me up.
“I didn’t realize you’d be so brash just to grab it without asking first,” Al chided with a heavy sigh. “Lowering myself to your petty standards of thought is going to take some getting used to.”
Al stood in front of her sphere for a moment longer, just staring at it as if she were in deep thought.
“There,” Al said, snapping out of her trance-like state. “I am ready for travel. Do be cautious with me. This is technology outside your ability to grasp.”
“I’ll take it,” X said, walking over to the sphere. She reached out without hesitation, seizing the fist-sized sphere in her right hand. “Let’s go. We have a war to wage with the Order.”
Part of me wanted to stay and explore the underground alien structure. I wondered what other pieces of technology they stored in there. But more importantly, I wanted to go after Cassie. As far as I was concerned, I’d wasted too much time already.
As soon as we left the Primordial bunker, Al lost her body. She could still talk, of course, but she was nothing more than a voice coming out of a sphere. When we got to the dropship, introducing her to the group was confusing.
Showing them the sword was a bit much as well.
I laid the weapon sideways across my palms for them to see. The blue radiance coming off of it was mesmerizing.
“That’s—that’s beautiful,” Cryx exclaimed, edging closer. “Can I—can I hold it?”
“A fine weapon indeed.” Syrinity’s eyes widened in awe. “I’m in need of a new weapon after losing my axe in the gate.”
“Put it away,” Victoria counseled. “I, we, know what a temptation that will be. We say put it away.”
“Daniel? Daniel?” X called, snapping me out of my momentary stupor. I had looked at the weapon too long. Preacher was right. It did have some kind of mesmerizing power on its wielder.
“Sorry, yeah—right,” I said, removing my jacket now that we were in the dropship again. I used the jacket to cover the blade. “I think we should leave the weapon be until we understand exactly what we’re dealing with here.”
“That would be wise,” Al suggested from her orb form, which rested in X’s hands. “Your weak human minds are not used to the power it holds.”
“Is every other sentence that comes out of her mouth an insult?” Syrinity asked.
“You have no idea,” I answered. “X, what’s the ETA on our refueling supply?”
“Checking now,” X responded, not skipping a beat. “They’ll be here within the hour.”
I let out a long sigh. Every minute that passed meant the Order was doing crip knew what to Cassie. I wanted to go to her now. I wanted to tear apart Julian and Atilla with my bare hands.
I took a seat along the right dropship wall. Butch came over, resting her heavy head on my lap. She looked up at me with those large, loving eyes of hers.
Her mouth had stopped bleeding at least for the moment. She let out a long sigh of her own.
“We’ll be okay,” I told the wolf, stroking her soft head. “We’ll be okay. We’ll go back to Dragon Hold. Get the ship and info we need from the Chancellor and we’ll get Cassie back.”
Butch just stared at me as if she could understand what I was saying and was waiting for me to continue.
“That’s all I got, Pup,” I told her with a grin. “Your head is super heavy, FYI.”
Butch just yawned, showing off her massive teeth. She kept her head firmly in my lap, enjoying it being scratched.
While we waited for the refueling ship X ordered, I told everyone about the inside of the alien compound and my fight with the basilisk.
“Ugh, snakes.” Cryx shuddered when I was done. “I hate snakes.”
“And the Primordials or whatever this alien race is just watched?” Syrinity asked. “They didn’t say anything when it was done?”
“Nothing,” I confirmed, looking over at the sphere in X’s hands. “Al, what can you tell us about the Primordials?”
“Now you’re asking the right questions,” Al stated like a teacher after the first bell rang. “Sit down, it’s story time. I’ll use little words so you can understand. The Primordials are not the first to watch over the universe. There was another species long ago that disappeared without a trace, called what your languages would decipher as ‘the Nomads.’ When the Nomads disappeared, the Primordials came to power, keeping the balance over the universe. They settled on multiple planets in each galaxy to keep an eye on all that transpired.”
“Earth—Earth was the planet they chose in our own galaxy,” X said as a matter of fact. “That’s why there are Relics here and creatures that should never have existed.”
“I’m glad someone is following along,” Al said, unable to refrain from making another jab at humanity. “There was an event that called the Primordials away. Thus they left your planet, created the gate to hold the alien creatures, and hid the Relics to be discovered at a later date when humans would need them the most.”
While Al’s story continued, the refueling ship arrived. Preacher and X went outside to speak with the pilot. I could only imagine how much someone would charge to come out here on short notice and fill our tanks.
Cryx held Al’s sphere as the conversation continued.
“I have so many questions right now, I don’t even know where to begin,” I said, allowing one to push to the surface. “Why me? Why has Alerna come to me in my dreams?”
“Can’t help you there,” Al answered. “My database is limited to my creation. I have all the past knowledge of the cosmos built inside of me, but events that took place after, I am unaware of. Living in the underground structure did not grant me access to the goings-on of the universe. You can imagine how maddening that was.”
“You’re the right person for the job,” Syrinity stated as if it were a matter of fact. “Daniel, in the little time I’ve known you, you’ve made the hard calls, the right calls that needed to be made. That’s why these Primordials chose you.”
“You’ve led humanity against the Voy,” Cryx agreed. “Now I think Alerna and the Primordials are preparing you for what comes next.”
“What threat did the Primordials leave Earth to go deal with?” Victoria questioned in a moment of clarity. “I assume it was an extinction-level event for the universe? What could have been so dire that they went and never returned?”
It was amazing how the woman could do that. Victoria was a conundrum wrapped in an enigma. One conversation she was kookier than a stem head and the next she was using words like “dire” and “extinction-level event.”
“We have more than one thinker in the group,” Al commented, amused. “You get a gold star for asking one of the most important questions. The answer is, planets began disappearing.”
Al stopped as if that were somehow enough.
“Go on,” Cryx prodded.
“That’s all I know,” Al asserted. “I was created to guard the sword because the Primordials on Earth were going to investigate. I’m assuming they were successful in their mission because I saw them appear on the screens watching Daniel defeat the basilisk.”
We all sat in silence for a moment, letting Al’s words sink in.
“Do you have a way to contact the Primordials?” I asked. “Can you call Alerna?”
“Well, it’s a bit more complicated than a call, but I’ll see what I can do now that I’m out of that underground bunker,” Al informed us. “This is all new for me too, you see. If I were a lesser AI, the level of data and information I am processing right now would overwhelm me. There’s so much to go over since I’ve been locked away. You humans have really messed things up in your galaxy.”
“You can pull from our databases?” Cryx asked.
“Oh yes, Earth, the Moon, Mars,” Al said hungrily. “I’m catching up on everything I’ve missed since I’ve been created until now. Granted, I can’t pull information outside of my immediate surroundings, but I have a wide enough net to cast over humanity’s history. Oh my, WWII, the Fall of Earth, the Voy invasion.”
“You’re processing this information that quickly?” Victoria asked.
“Indeed,” Al stated as if it were nothing to blink an eye at. “I’ve also watched every show and read every news article and book humanity has ever penned. I must say I really enjoyed the CGI of the dragons on Game of Thrones.”
“Game of who?” Syrinity asked, confused.
“You humans don’t even know your own history.” Al sighed.
I was pretty sure she was going to insult us again, when Preacher and X walked back into the dropship.
“Let’s go,” Preacher said as he and X headed for the front of the ship. “We’re fueled up and ready to roll.”
We took off with Al sharing all she knew. There wasn’t a whole lot more I was interested in besides her learning to communicate with Alerna and the Primordials. My brain space was too occupied by how I was going to find the Order and Cassie.
I could hear Cryx and Victoria speaking with Al about human history long forgotten, what it was like for the Primordials here on Earth before they left, and other topics.
Sure, at another time, I would have found the conversation interesting, but now, right now, I needed to focus on the next thing.
“X, can you link me in with Bapz at Dragon Hold?” I asked from my earpiece. “I want to see what the status is on the GG going over to get the book.”
“Yep, I’ll connect you,” X replied. “I’ll see what I can do about cutting down our flight time, but it’s still going to take—”
“Oh, the technology in this ship makes me shudder,” Al cut in, interrupting us over the comms. “I can make this steel can run not only more efficiently but faster as well. With a few modifications, we can cut the travel time in a quarter.”
“Are you listening to our conversation?” I asked incredulously. “Wait, did you say you can make us go faster?”
“Yes and yes,” Al answered.
“Next time, announce yourself if you’re just eavesdropping,” X suggested. “Humans don’t like being spied on. I can go over your ideas for the ship while Daniel talks to Dragon Hold.”
“Oh right,” Al said. “Note to self: no more listening in to private conversations. You realize your Galactic Government and a handful of private corporations does that all the time, right?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I let X and Al talk fusion reactors, warp drives, and other such technical terms while I spoke with Bapz.
“It’s good to hear from you, sir.” Bapz’ familiar voice came over the channel. “I was beginning to worry.”
I felt the same way. Bapz brought a sense of something familiar to a conversation that I missed. If I was honest with myself, it was home that I craved, but there was no time to dwell on that now.
“It’s good to hear from you too, buddy,” I said. “Preacher gave you the location of the book and instructions to hand it over to the Galactic Government?”
“Indeed he did and may I say that I was rather surprised,” Bapz answered quietly. “I was under the impression the book held great power and was to be hidden at all cost.”
“You’re not wrong,” I said, wondering for the dozenth time if I was making the right move in handing over the book to the Chancellor. “It was a deal that had to be made to get Cassie back and build trust with the GG. Plus I’m hoping that they’ll never be able to decipher it in the first place. I only know of one person that has been able to read it at all.”
“I heard about Cassie,” Bapz said sincerely. “If there is anything I can do to help, sir, you have but to ask. I’d like to volunteer to be on the team that goes and gets her.”
“I appreciate that more than you know,” I told him. “We’re en route now trying to figure out a way to get to you as fast as possible. When’s the rendezvous with the Galactic Government set?”
“A representative of the Chancellor informed me they would be arriving this afternoon to exchange a ship and information for the book,” Bapz reported. “Perhaps you’ll be here in time. If so, I can request that the Chancellor herself be here for you two to officially meet.”
“What time is it?” I asked, having lost all sense of time of day between battling the basilisk and being in the underground alien compound. Looking out the dropship windows didn’t help. All I could see was the cold darkness resting in the sky and a few white flurries of snow racing by.
“It would be in the early hours of the morning in your part of the world,” Bapz informed me. “I can push back the meeting to later this evening if you think you’d arrive in time. Although I’m not sure that would even be possible given your location and the top speed your dropship is able to travel—”
“Oh, don’t you worry,” Al said, breaking into our private comm channel. “I’m blowing X’s mind over here with what’s possible. We’ll get you there in time. You’re welcome in advance.”
“Al, what did we say about eavesdropping on other people’s conversations,” I asked rhetorically. “Bapz, this is Al. She’s an alien AI who we liberated from her prison. She’s agreed to help us.”
“Oh—well—hello,” Bapz stammered, taken off guard. “It’s a pleasure to have you as part of the team.”
“I’ll give you the long version later,” I said to a confused Bapz. “In the meantime, if you can push the meeting back to later this evening, we’ll be there.”
“Yes, sir,” Bapz answered.
The rest of the flight was gloriously uneventful. Al was true to her word and worked on the dropship with X increasing the dropship’s speed. X tried to explain it to me, but when she saw my eyes glaze over, she gave up.
I spent my time getting as much rest as I could, eating and changing my torn vest and gory clothes from the fight with the basilisk. The sword I kept covered and close.
Hours later, as the sun set in the east and a full day of travel, X reached me over my comm line.
“We’re preparing a final descent to Dragon Hold now,” X informed me. “Al was right with the changes to the dropship. We’ll be able to travel over a planet much faster, even though this isn’t a Corvette Class Dropship equipped to travel in hyperspace.”
“Great,” I said, patting a full belly. I was ready to go: rested, fed, and mentally focused. “I was going to have this conversation with Al, but X, I want you in on this too. Al, I know you’re listening.”
“You rang?” Al asked cheerily.
I looked around to make sure I wasn’t being listened to. Cryx was brushing Butch across the aisle of seats and to my left. Syrinity and Victoria were quiet in their seats on my right. The former turned to look out the window, the latter sleeping like a baby.
“The sword,” I began, lowering my voice. “Why does it have that effect on people when they’re around it? That’s information you should know.”
“I do,” Al said seriously. For the first time I could remember, the AI took a moment to think. When she started again, her voice was thoughtful, almost dark. “The sword is a great weapon of power. It affects humans in the way all power has over time. It speaks to the most primal part of their being as if they recognize it for what it is. They are drawn to it. The sword itself has a brutal and violent past, as you can imagine.”
“AIs aren’t affected by it?” X asked. “How about Daniel?”
“Since we aren’t human we transcend the need for a physical weapon,” Al explained. “My best guess is that Daniel’s altered DNA is helping him to combat the call from the sword, but I would not test its strength. Even the most noble leaders in the past have given in to its call of power sooner or later.”
“So we need to keep it hidden, even from our own,” I breathed. “A book that opens portals to other worlds, a cup that grants eternal life, and a sword that makes people crazy for it. Where did the Primordials come up with this stuff?”
“They were all tools needed for survival of both species,” Al continued. “Tools left here to aid humanity in the coming days of darkness. It was only a matter of time until other species like the Voy discovered you and tried to conquer your primitive species. If it were not for the book, you would have been defeated at the Battle of Mars. I’ve read all about it. Good job, by the way.”
“Thanks.” I sighed. A rogue thought entered my mind as I felt the dropship descend on our approach to Dragon Hold. “Hey, if you can tap into our comm link and listen in, can you also do that with the Galactic Government? How about the Order? Can you locate their comm lines and tap in?”
“Perhaps with some time,” Al allowed. “I’d have to sift through the myriad of calls to zero in on their channels and then bypass the encryption. The first step is easy; the second will be a bit harder. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you,” I told the AI.
“You’re welcome, human. See, I told you I would be of great aid to you and your band of meat sacks,” Al said as if there were nothing at all wrong with her statement. She even sounded a bit proud of herself for chipping in to help.
“Everyone, please strap in for our final approach on Dragon Hold,” Preacher’s voice sounded over the speakers in the ship’s cabin.
Victoria roused from her sleep. Syrinity and Cryx buckled in. I followed along, looking across from my aisle to the window beyond. X tipped the ship’s wing to the left as we came in. I got a good view of Dragon Hold and the surrounding estate.
Not that I would be here much longer. I was going to get the ship and info from the GG and be gone again. But just in that moment as the sun’s rays showed me the manor, I was happy. It was good to be home. That was something I had never had before. At least not that I could remember.
We’re coming, Cassie, I thought to myself. We’re coming and we’re going to bring you home where you belong.
X touched the dropship down on the ground around the estate. The landing was smooth as we hit the hard ground of the surrounding terrain. X taxied us to a stop outside the manor.
“Welcome home,” Preacher called over the speakers. “And if I’m not mistaken, not a minute too soon. I’m getting readings on other ships approaching Dragon Hold from orbit. Looks like our Galactic Government friends have arrived.”
I was ready. Food, sleep, and clean clothes were all I needed to recharge. A shower would have been nice, but there was no time.
The dropship’s rear doors slowly opened to reveal a smiling Bapz. The mutated rabbit with antlers he kept for a pet sat snug in his arms. I thought the thing was trying to gnaw at one of his metallic fingers.
Bapz ignored the act, waving to us with a free hand.
“It’s great to see you,” Bapz said before the smile disappeared from his face. “I’ll see that Wesley is taken care of and a ceremony set up, of course.”
“Thank you,” I said, not trusting the mutie rabbit in his arms enough to give him a slap on the shoulder or a handshake.
“There are items of business we should go over when you have time,” Bapz added. “Remember, W.O.L.F. needs its CEO at the helm. There is only so much I can do.”
“I know,” I acknowledged, looking toward the darkening sky. “Thanks for keeping it all under control while I was gone. I’ll get someone to help you out with the business end.”
“Not someone, you,” Bapz corrected. “You’ll have to make decisions and hold interviews and meetings sooner or later. The Hero of Mars can’t simply disappear. Maybe in time, but not right now when events are so fresh in everyone’s mind.”
I nodded. I knew he was right. I had a responsibility to the company and everyone who was part of it to do the best I could. But right now, all I could think about was getting this meeting with the GG over with and going after Cassie.
Butch and Cryx walked down the ramp, followed by Syrinity and Victoria. Bapz nodded politely to the woman.
“Bapz, this is Syrinity. She’s a Knight of the Way. I think Brother Enoch might enjoy spending some time talking with her,” I said, moving my attention to Victoria. “And this is Victoria Cripps.”
Recollection washed over Bapz’s face. It was her family, after all, that had built the android. He had served her family for years.
“Yes, the long lost one,” I continued before he could ask. “If you can show her to her room and get her settled in.”
“Consider it done,” Bapz said, smiling at the women. He walked them inside the house. “Anything you two may need, you have only to ask.”
Preacher and X came out next. X held Al in both hands.
“Your Galactic Government friends will be here in minutes,” Al said without missing a beat. “I’ve been able to access the drives of their ships. Would you like me to shut off their engines and see your enemies plummet to Earth in a ball of fire?”
“What?” I asked, looking at the sphere like it was some kind of monster. “No, I would not like you to do that. We’re trying to build an alliance here.”
“Just asking. I’m still working on encrypting their transmissions.” Al laughed. “You humans can’t take a joke.”
“Preacher, the book?” I asked the man, who gave me a quick nod and headed for Dragon Hold’s gates.
X, Al, and I stood alone outside of the dropship. At the moment, I felt as though my to-do list was a mile long. It was easy to get overwhelmed by the events in place. I needed to do so much and there was so little time.
“X, can you be responsible for the sword?” I asked my friend. “It’s not that I don’t trust anyone else, but it seems like you and Al and maybe even Bapz might be the only ones immune to its call. I trust my friends; I don’t trust that alien weapon.”
“Wise call,” Al agreed.
“I’ll make sure it doesn’t leave my side,” X promised. “There may be a way for me to conceal it as well.”
“Thank you,” I said as X disappeared back into the dropship to recover the weapon.
For the first time in a very long time, I was alone. No crazy monsters to deal with, no enemy trying to slit my throat or kill me with a look, no drones or robots; just me.
I stood there in front of Dragon Hold, just being still. It felt wonderful. The cold of the desert was coming on as the last vestiges of the daylight disappeared over the western horizon.
It even smelled like home. Some kind of primal earthy scent that came from the sand under my boots soothed me.
Sounds of workers and employees in Dragon Hold carried to my ears on the gentle breeze. What if one day this could be my life? What if one day there were no more battles to fight? What if one day I could be here surrounded by friends I called family with no more pain and suffering?
It was a daring hope I wasn’t sure was possible for me. I was a man of violence since I could remember. I wasn’t sure if I deserved that. No, I was sure I didn’t deserve that. But maybe it didn’t have to be about what I deserved or what I didn’t; maybe I could accept a calm life as a gift.
These thoughts were short-lived. X passed by me with Al in one hand and the sword draped in a jacket under her other arm.
“I’ll get this taken care of and then be back,” X said, looking to the sky. “I’ll hand off Al to Bapz as well. She may lack the tact needed to build an alliance with the GG.”
“How dare you, X.” Al feigned indignation. “I can be tactful when talking to these moronic primitives.”
“That's exactly what we’re talking about,” I said as X hurried off. “That’s why you can’t be here.
“What?” Al asked X. “What did I say?”
The voices of the two AIs disappeared through the gate and toward the manor. The Galactic Government’s ship was low enough now that I could begin to make out details.
The Chancellor brought a Battle Class Cruiser to our little diplomatic sit down. I recognized the ship after seeing one like it up close during the Battle of Mars.
If things went south here, there might not be a tomorrow.
The cruiser grew in size as it approached.
Is this the right move? I thought to myself. They have enough firepower to wipe Dragon Hold and everyone inside off the face of the Earth. But if not this, what? Allies are in short supply. We fought alongside the GG against the Voy. But you fought alongside the Order as well and look how that’s turned out.
The Battle Class Cruiser was truly massive, thick rail guns and ion cannon mounted on top. No weapons that I could tell were being pointed at us. I’m sure if they were, Bapz, or X, or even Al would have informed me by now.
The Galactic Government’s impressive ship stayed in orbit overlooking Dragon Hold. From its docking bay, a pair of much smaller Corvette Class Dropships flew out and toward my home.
“Hey, Bapz?” I asked in my earpiece. “Let’s keep Laine, Nemesis, and their son tucked away for now. I don’t think the GG will react rather fondly to us harboring aliens.”
“Of course,” Bapz answered. “I’ve had an outside area set up to the left of the estate to entertain the Chancellor.”
“Thank you,” I said, grateful that Bapz was so on top of things. I hadn’t even considered where we’d have the talk.
“Don’t mention it,” Bapz responded. “It’s my job. The Chancellor is on approach now with her private security detail. She has requested that they examine the ground before the meeting takes place.”
“A way for her to scope us out,” I thought out loud. “But I can’t say no. That request seems fair.”
“I agree,” Bapz concurred. “I’ve also had food and drink set out along with those pink cupcakes Preacher likes.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate that.” I chuckled. “Well, here we go.”
Part of me would rather face down another basilisk than engage in political sparring with the leader of the Galactic Government. Still, the Chancellor hadn’t seemed that bad when I spoke with her. She’d been down to Earth and real. Hopefully, this meeting would go as well as our conversation.
The pair of black dropships bearing the Galactic Government gold sigil set down. The sigil was of an ancient feline called a saber tooth. Long canines protruded from its upper jaw.
The rear doors of the dropship opened with no Shadow Praetorians, to my intrigue, but a dozen men in suits and dark glasses. Another thing that caught me by surprise was the fact that they carried blasters on their hips, no rifles or heavier weaponry.
They jogged toward me and the entrance to the Hold. Behind them, a woman came with dark greying hair. Wrinkles lined the corners of her eyes and mouth. She was dressed in a black suit with a white top underneath.
I waited for them outside the black iron gate to the grounds. The first man to reach me grew bigger with every step. He was half a head taller than I was and looked like he never missed a day at the gym.
To my surprise, he flashed a grin. The cleanest white teeth I’d ever seen contrasted his dark sunglasses.
“Shane Armstrong,” he introduced himself, extending a hand. “You must be the famous Daniel Hunt. The Hero of Mars.”
“Hero’s a strong word,” I said, accepting the offered hand. “More like I was just trying not to get killed.”
Shane’s grip was crushing. I couldn’t tell if he was doing it on purpose or he just had that firm of a grip.
No, I decided after a second more had passed. He’s doing it on purpose. No one’s grip is that strong by accident.
“I’ve heard you’re not so easy to kill,” Shane said. “I’m the head of the Chancellor’s security detail. Do you mind if I show my men around and secure the area before we begin?”
“Of course.” I nodded, pulling my hand free. I stretched it a few times, closing my fist and extending it again to get feeling back in the limb. “I’ll have one of my own show you around and you can check things out to your heart’s content. I don’t want anything out of this meeting except what we’ve agreed on.”
“Great.” Shane gave me a firm nod. “That’s all we want too.”
“Bapz?” I asked, turning my head and speaking into the open channel. “Can you show our friends around and give them access to whatever they may need?”
“Certainly. I’m on my way now. I can meet them at the gate.”
“Thank you,” I answered, looking up at Shane. “Bapz is on his way. He’ll be able to help you out. You can go inside.”
Shane took a step forward then stopped and turned around.
“I served with Captain Zoe Valentine. We came up together in basic,” Shane explained. “She went full military while I followed a different branch. I know what you did for her.”
I held the man’s gaze. Not really; I couldn’t see his eyes past his dark shades, but still, I looked at him. Memories of my time with Captain Valentine hit me like a thunderbolt. I hadn’t been able to stop Rival from slicing through her vocal cords, but we’d been able to save her life.
The last I heard from her, she was in a Galactic Government facility, healing.
Shane hadn’t said thank you. He didn’t need to. I knew what he meant.
Without another word, he waved his men to follow and they entered the grounds.
The Chancellor came next, flanked by yet another pair of bodyguards and what I guessed was an assistant of her own. The man beside her wore a similar black suit as the Chancellor with the golden sigil of the GG pinned to his coat. A wide-brimmed hat rounded out his appearance.
“Chancellor,” I greeted, extending a hand. “Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for having us, Mr. Hunt.” The Chancellor took my hand and squeezed it warmly. “This is quite an impressive structure you have here. I was told the Cripps family gave it to you?”
“That’s right,” I answered. No doubt she understood its flying capabilities as well. There was no point trying to deny that. “Built on Mars, it was made to travel short distances as a ship.”
“Very impressive and horrifying at the same time,” the Chancellor stated, looking at me to weigh my reaction. “I mean that things like this can exist funded by private companies and families. There isn’t the same level of law there once was. As humanity spreads, I have a feeling that order and structure will deteriorate. I mean, look at Earth. With your company excluded, of course, Earth is ruled by roving bands of marauders.”
“I think bad people will always find a way to do wrong if that’s what they’re intent on doing,” I opined, thinking of Samantha and her family in the Badlands. “But not everyone’s like that.”
“Wise words,” the Chancellor agreed. “And what are you, Daniel Hunt? What is your intention in all of this?”
“I don’t claim to be the law or a hero,” I responded without hesitation. “But I’ve been put in a position to do some good. I think that’s enough for me right now.”
We stood there for a moment weighing one another. I could see the gears turning behind her dark eyes as she formed her opinion of me. Whoever said first impressions mattered was absolutely right.
“I like you, Daniel Hunt.” The Chancellor broke into a grin. “I think we can work together. And I don’t just say I like anyone. Isn’t that right, Charlie?”
“That’s right, Ma’am,” Charlie chimed in an accent that sounded strangely familiar to my ears.
“Is there a place we can talk?” the Chancellor asked, looking over my shoulder toward the estate. “I think we have much to discuss.”
“Of course,” I said, ushering her inside the gate.
“Ma’am,” Charlie cautioned her. “Armstrong’s still securing the grounds.”
“Well, that’s why I have Mr. Armstrong and you, Mr. Dunn,” the Chancellor responded, moving forward inside the gates. “Besides, if Daniel wanted me dead, I have a feeling he would already have made his move. Isn’t that right, Daniel?”
The question took me off guard.
“I’m teasing you, Daniel.” The Chancellor chuckled. “Two of the things that have served me well over the years are reading people and a sense of humor. Come, let’s go talk.”
The Chancellor turned and walked into the grounds with her two bodyguards following close behind. One of them talked into an earpiece informing Armstrong and the rest of the team that the Chancellor was entering the premises.
Charlie took a step forward, stopping next to me instead of entering the grounds.
“She’s a tough one,” he shared with a grin. He turned toward me dusting off his wide-brimmed hat. “I’m not as trusting as she is. Do I need to worry about you or this meeting?”
“No,” I answered, getting a better look at him now. There was something different about the man I couldn’t quite place. The way he moved, maybe? His mannerisms?
Before I could put my finger on it, Charlie moved inside.
I followed the group, which was strange, since I should have been leading them into the grounds.
Dragon Hold was circled by a wall that encompassed the estate. The four-story building made from rock was truly impressive, even to my own eyes, which should have been used to seeing it. A long circular driveway led to the front of the house.
A walking path with a small bridge provided dry passage over a smoothly moving stream.
To the left of the building, a large white tent with open sides stood ready to entertain. With the departure of the sun, bright lights illuminated the darkness around us.
Shane Armstrong looked pissed as he hurried from the inside of Dragon Hold with Bapz behind him. He rushed to the Chancellor’s side. I was still a few steps behind them, but I caught enough of their conversation.
“Ma’am,” Shane said, trying to bite back the concern in his voice. “We talked about this. My job is to protect you. Let me do my job and make sure the area is secure before you move in.”
“And you really do a wonderful job,” the Chancellor told Armstrong, placing a motherly hand on his arm. “But my job is to read people and surround myself with those I trust. Daniel is one of those, like you and Charlie. Please finish your inspection. I think I’ll sit right here under this white tent and wait for you.”
I could see the muscle in Shane’s jaw clench and release.
He nodded and moved on with Bapz following, offering to help in any way necessary.
We reached the tent together, where Bapz had set out chairs, tables, and an assortment of food and drinks. He wasn’t kidding about those pink cupcakes Preacher liked either. A circular white tray sat as a focal point with an armada of the pink desserts resting on top.
The two bodyguards accompanying the Chancellor took direction from Armstrong, patrolling the perimeter of the tent. No doubt the rest of the team was fanned out over the estate and even inside the manor.
The Chancellor and Charlie took seats inside the tent.
“Chancellor,” I cautioned, sitting across from them. “You may want to ask your men not to venture into the man-made forest to the rear of the estate.”
“And why’s that?” Charlie asked, leaning forward in his seat. “What’s back there?”
“Ancient wolves resurrected from the dead. Animals larger than you and me,” I answered without blinking.
Charlie looked at me as if I were about to crack into a smile and tell him I was joking. When I didn’t, he turned to the Chancellor.
She gave him a nod.
While Charlie passed the word to the rest of the team, the Chancellor settled in her seat and tilted her head to the side.
“You’ve led an interesting life, Daniel,” she began. “Orphaned, bred by Immortal Corp to be an enhanced mercenary, savior of Mars, inherited a fortune, and now what? A Relic hunter?”
“Not by choice,” I told her honestly. “By necessity. And now I’m choosing to leave the Relic hunting to you. You can have the book. Hopefully, you won’t tempt fate and use it, but I have a feeling that’s exactly what you’re going to do.”
“Then why give it to me at all?” the Chancellor wondered. “If you don’t want me to use the Relic, why hand it over?”
“Do I have a choice?” I asked. “I’m not in a position to go to war with the Galactic Government. And I need your help with a ship and information to go after the Order.”
“Yes, the Order.” The Chancellor sighed. “Shall we talk about the Order? Daniel, we want you to destroy them all.”
Something in the woman changed in that instant. It could have been my imagination, but I don’t think it was. After being in my line of work for a number of years, I got to discern people by the look in their eyes. There were killers and there weren’t.
Honestly, I wish I weren’t, but that star ship sailed a long time ago. Right now, in Loween’s eyes, I saw it. I saw what she was capable of, the real her.
She must have seen the realization cross over my face. Her expression reverted back to calm and serene once more.
“The Order needs to go.” The Chancellor cleared her throat and paused for a moment gathering her thoughts. “You are aware of the hand they played during the Fall of Earth?”
“Just that,” I answered honestly. At that moment, I saw Preacher approach from the interior of the manor. The book under his right arm pressed protectively to his side. “I know they’ve been around for thousands of years. I know when the world gasped for breath, they had their hands around its throat.”
“Then you know enough,” the Chancellor replied, eyeing Preacher as he approached with the book. The bodyguards moved to block his path.
Preacher looked at the two men, amused.
“I’m just a delivery boy today, fellas,” Preacher told them. “You can pat me down if you want, but I left my weapons at home.”
“Let him through, please,” the Chancellor stated.
The bodyguards moved to the side, allowing Preacher entrance to the tent area. Preacher moved to stand next to me. His one good eye took in the Chancellor and Charlie, then the pink cupcakes.
“Is that the book?” Charlie asked skeptically. “It doesn’t look like much.”
“It may not be what you’re expecting, but trust me,” I warned him, “it has the potential to devastate us all.”
“Or save us all, as it has done in the past,” the Chancellor added. “May I?”
“I’m not trying to be rude here, but don’t you have something for me?” I asked. “May I at least see the ship and information you have about where my team member is being held?”
The Chancellor gave me that predator grin of hers. “Of course. Charlie, if you would.”
“Bring her in,” Charlie ordered in his earpiece. He looked around the grounds of the estate. “May we land her in here?”
“Bapz,” I said in my earpiece. “Can you keep the automated defenses from firing on a ship? The Galactic Government is about to send in our present.”
“Done,” Bapz answered in my ear.
Charlie stood up from his seat, motioning me to follow. We took a few steps just out from under the white tent. True to their word, a sleek fighter craft descended on the grounds.
It was flat black with no emblems. A pair of shorter wings carrying cannons and missiles flanked a long neck.
“The T-bird model is capable of stealth mode, supersonic speeds, and has an arsenal that could annihilate a small moon,” Charlie said as the ramp opened from its belly and the pilot stepped out. “She’ll be enough to get the job done.”
I took in the ship, nodding along with his words. I didn’t doubt him in the least. The craft looked state-of-the-art and I knew it would be able to keep up with the Order’s best.
“And I can transfer data to the location where your team member is being held,” the Chancellor said then reiterated, “Where we believe they are being held. We tracked their ship leaving Earth’s orbit and heading for a space station they don’t think we know about.”
“Space station?” I repeated the words as if I had never heard them before. “Where?”
“The Order doesn’t lack finances , much like you,” the Chancellor asserted. “They’ve been busy building a space station around one of Mars’ moons. “They think it’s a secret. In reality, we’ve known about it for quite some time. We’ve decided to keep it under surveillance and not tip our hand.”
I knew it couldn’t be as easy as that. I was born at night but not last night. No way was the Galactic Government going to hand over a weapon like this to me, even if it was to do their dirty work.
“After you recover your asset, we’d like you to destroy the space station,” the Chancellor continued. “No strings can ever attach the Galactic Government to this act.”
“And there it is,” I said out loud. “You get the book and one of your enemies destroyed for you without even lifting a finger.”
“The Order has been a nuisance for some time,” the Chancellor explained. “An all-out war with them was never an option, but now that an opportunity has arisen with our new partner, I have to take it.”
“Partner?” I asked. “I think the word you’re searching for is mercenary.”
“Can allies be both?” the Chancellor queried in a voice that actually sounded like she wanted my opinion on the matter. “You get what you want. You get back what they’ve taken from you. You make sure they’ll never take it again. We get the book and we both get the reassurance that the Order will be one less piece on the board to worry about.”
“You think it’ll all be that easy?” I asked her. “You think destroying this platform will be the end of the Order?”
“As much as I am full of hope for the future, no,” the Chancellor conceded as we all moved back to retake our seats. “Yours will be a crippling blow. We also have intel on a few other leaders of their faction, important founding families and such that we’ll eliminate as you make your strike. Together, we’ll bring them to their knees before they do the same to us.”
I sat in the chair thinking about Wesley, about the next funeral we would have at Dragon Hold, laying his body next to Echo and Rose Cripps. I thought about Julian and what he had done to Cassie. Not just evoking the brainwashing but what he had to have done to her to bury that command so deep in her psyche.
“I’ll do it,” I said, looking over at Preacher. I gave him a nod.
Preacher stepped forward, handing the book to Charlie, who accepted it with reverence.
“It wasn’t written by humans,” I warned them.
“Yet a human read from it,” Charlie remarked. “Our intel says a woman named Carly Cefrin who goes by Madam Eternal was able to use the book to turn the tide of battle against the Voy invasion.”
I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t a question, so I kept my mouth shut. The last thing I wanted was the GG to get into their heads they needed to hunt for Madam Eternal and bring her in to read the book for them.
“Have you tried to read it?” Charlie asked. “Have you opened the book?”
“No, and if you were smart, you wouldn’t either,” I told them. “Using the Relic comes with a cost.”
I thought about the book and Echo, the sorrow and insanity the cup had brought to Victoria and Syrinity, and the sword. The sword that drove people mad with envy and a lust for power I still didn’t understand.
“You seem to know a lot about this Relic.” The Chancellor eyed me suspiciously. “There were reports you were on an island searching for another. You wouldn’t have happened to run across it, would you?”
I had to lie to her. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but there was a battle cruiser in orbit above us. If they demanded the cup and I refused, what was keeping them from taking it?
“No, and I hope I never see another Relic as long as I live.” I told her the half-truth, hoping it would disguise the half-lie.
I wasn’t sure if the shrewd woman believed me, but neither did she push the subject.
“Charlie will forward you all our intel on the platform,” the Chancellor announced, standing from her seat. “I look forward to this being the first of many times we partner. I’m rarely wrong about these things. I think you and I will be seeing much more of each other in the future.”
I stood up from my seat, shaking the woman’s hand.
“Before I leave, I should tell you that if anything were to go wrong on this mission, the Galactic Government would deny any knowledge of this conversation or any aid given to you on our behalf,” the Chancellor disclosed without so much as a blink. “You understand, of course.”
“Oh, of course,” I said sarcastically. “And likewise with the book. If you open a portal to hell, I’ll have to deny any knowledge of association.”
That got a chuckle out of the Chancellor before she turned to go.
“I like you, Daniel,” the Chancellor said. “And that’s why I’m going to tell you this next piece of information. Reports have been filed of a monster on the dark side of Mars. They say he’s mostly man and part animal. I think he may be one of yours.”
I knew exactly who she was talking about. Jax, after the fight with the Voy, had continued his rampage. Angel insisted she be the one to bring him back, but I hadn’t heard from them for too long. I needed to make that a priority as soon as the business with the Order was finished.
“Thank you for telling me,” I said to the Chancellor.
The Chancellor turned then looked over her shoulder. “There are too few like you, Daniel Hunt. Happy hunting.”
As quickly as she had come, the Chancellor, along with the rest of the Galactic Government presence, was gone. I found myself inside the new ship we called the “T-bird” because we didn’t know what else to call it.
X and Al were busy at work going over the controls and instruction manual it came with. Al seemed to have read it a fraction of a second faster than X, and now the two were chatting like old friends about the possibilities of the craft.
Preacher and I stocked the inside of the ship with anything we might require for the mission. Outside of food and water, we needed medical supplies, armor, and ammunition.
The inside of the T-bird was long and narrow. Unlike the heavier dropships, there was little room to maneuver. There were four seats at the front of the ship, then room for eight more seats in the back, four on each side of the narrow aisle facing each other, and that was it.
Anything that needed storing had to go in overhead bins or under the seats. There were so many buttons on the control panel of the craft; I was sure they had thrown in a few just to confuse people.
I was packing a spare drum for my MK II when Preacher sidled up next to me with an extra medical kit.
“That Chancellor woman scares me, mijo,” Preacher said, shaking his head. “Now when’s the last time you heard me say that?”
“Never,” I agreed. “You don’t trust her?”
“Trust, maybe down the road, but she’s not one to be taken lightly.” Preacher continued zipping up the bag in front of him. “I’ve been going through the information they sent over about the space station. If the stealth capabilities of this ship are as good as the GG claims, that’ll get us in close, but we’ll still have to breach their doors.”
Preacher took a seat on one of the chairs set into the right side of the craft. He reached underneath his seat, producing a smart pad, and began scrolling through schematics of the Order space station.
“There are two moons that revolve around the red planet,” Preacher explained, tilting the smart pad so I could see. “Phobos and Deimos. The Order’s platform is hidden on the far side of Phobos, the larger of the two moons.”
I took a seat, soaking up the information Preacher relayed. He scrolled to another screen showing the blueprints for the Order space station. It looked like a pinwheel to me with thin points on the top and bottom and a wide middle section.
“The Order has called the space station ‘Leviathan’,” Preacher went on to explain. “Right now, they suspect no less than fifty personnel manning the station with possibly more onboard.”
“Fifty,” I repeated, thinking about what that would mean for our attack. “How many Cyber Hunters?”
“Hard to tell,” Preacher speculated, already sensing where my mind was headed. “I know, if they were normal soldiers, I’d feel a bit more at ease as well. We have to imagine Julian and Cassie are onboard and maybe Atilla. It’s hard to speculate further.”
“Do we know how many Cyber Hunters the Order has all together?” I questioned. “We can take a handful of them, but you saw how the last fight went with them. Between drones and those robots they have, things could get dicey.”
“The Order has always kept the number of Cyber Hunters they have hidden. It’s an elite group, so I can’t imagine many, but to your point, how many could we take in a straight fight? I don’t know.”
“We’ll have to go in quiet on this one,” I offered, thinking of how we would make this work. “But against those numbers, I’m not even sure how much the element of surprise might work.”
“Maybe a distraction then,” Al chimed in not from her sphere but what sounded like from the T-bird itself. “I can cause a distraction for you once you reach Leviathan Station. You’ll sneak in with all their eyes on me.”
“Were you even pretending not to listen to our conversation?” I asked, turning to my right to look at X and Al at the controls. “And are you talking through the ship?”
“No and yes,” Al confirmed. “X and I have been able to plug me in to this craft, for lack of a better way of explaining it. I’ll be able to control the ship. We can stealth in, drop you off, then I’ll head out away from the station and return again, letting them see me this time. It should be enough for them to keep all eyes on me while you go in and grab the woman.”
It wasn’t a horrible plan as far as plans go. This didn’t sound like something I was going to be able to go and shoot my way through no matter how much I would have liked to.
“Better yet,” X added from her seat at the helm, “what do you think of two teams of two? One to locate Cassie and get her out, the other to find the station’s ventilation controls and disperse a sleeping agent.”
“Take out the crew while they’re focused on Al,” Preacher mused. “I like it. I think we can pull it off with a team of four.”
I agreed with them. My silence now didn’t come from hating the idea, but who else we would take. Wesley was gone. Cryx had just come back from her first mission and Syrinity was guarding the cup while at Dragon Hold.
Who do you ask? I wondered to myself. Who do you ask to put their life on the line again? Ask isn’t even the right word because you know whoever you go to will say yes.
“What about Laine or Nemesis?” X inquired, trying to lighten my burden. “Both of them are trained fighters. This mission might be better for Laine since she can change her appearance and sneak in where others might not be able.”
“No,” I said slowly without conviction. “They’ve been through enough. They have a family and a little boy to look after. We do it with three. X, you and Preacher will disperse the sleeping agent when we get inside. I’ll find Cassie.”
“And if there’s a dozen Cyber Hunters in there?” Al asked.
“Then we adjust and reassess,” I answered. “No plan ever survives contact with the enemy. You all know that.”
“Cryx is going to be pissed,” Preacher warned.
“She’ll get over it,” I replied.
The next few minutes were spent with Preacher adding gas masks and the agent we would use to knock out the crew on Leviathan Station. Al reassured me she was prepared to pilot the craft better than any human ever could.
X and I waited in the ship for Preacher to return with the supplies. I caught her looking down at her body, still admiring her new appendages.
“We never got a chance to talk about how that alien metal is working out for you,” I said. “How does it feel?”
“Wonderful and strange at the same time.” X smiled. “It’s like what I imagine driving a new vehicle for the first time would feel like. These Primordials have given me a great gift, something I only ever thought I might achieve through a robotic frame, but this, this is so much more.”
“I’m glad you’re happy,” I said, reaching for the spot behind my ear where X used to sit. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss you, but this is the best thing.”
X looked up at me with a smile I was still getting used to seeing.
“I’m more useful to you now that I have a body, but never say never, right?” X shrugged. “I mean, there may be a situation in the future where we team up again.”
“Maybe, but then we wouldn’t have a real life invincible woman amongst us,” I allowed, shoving away my own thoughts of when X was in my head and focusing on her happiness now. “Is walking, running, and fighting like you imagined it would be?”
“Better.” X grinned from ear to ear. “I can’t stop moving. I don’t want to. It feels so good. Not that I want to change the subject, but are you sure taking the sword with us is the best option here?”
X’s eyes drifted toward a crate in the upper left hand section of the ship where she stored the weapon.
“I can’t have that thing creating dissension and strife here at Dragon Hold,” I insisted, shaking my head. “Plus, Syrinity already has the chalice here. If anyone knew there were not one but two Relics at Dragon Hold, they’d come for sure. I need to split them up, and right now, this is the only way I see of doing that.”
X chewed on her bottom lip in thought. It struck me as a very human act. I had to admit I was still getting used to seeing X standing in front of me with a real moving body.
“All right, time to buckle up and get out of here before Cryx does something rash,” Preacher said, appearing at the ramp that lowered from the middle of the ship. “I’m only half joking at that. She took the news that she wouldn’t be coming on this one better than I thought.”
Preacher joined us with two duffle bags, one in each hand.
“Everything we need to gas them out,” Preacher stated matter-of-factly. “They won’t know what hit them until they wake up.”
“And don’t forget we need to destroy the station,” Al reminded us from the ship. “The GG wanted the station taken out. So we’ll put them to sleep and then kill them while they dream.”
“That’s disturbing,” I answered the alien AI. “We’ll gas them out just long enough for us to get Cassie. When they come to, we’ll give them a chance to evacuate. If they don’t, then you can destroy the station with them inside, but they get a chance.”
“Way to take all the fun out of this mission, human,” Al huffed.
I could practically see her rolling her eyes at me after that exchange.
“Let’s buckle in, then,” X instructed, heading over to the pilot’s seat.
Al sat on the dash of the ship in a small groove X made for her.
Preacher took the seat behind X and I sat in the copilot seat next to her. I had no idea how to copilot, but X and Al reassured me they had it under control. If I needed to do any kind of piloting at all, things had taken a turn for the extreme worst.
The screen in front of the ship was wide, offering a view of the grounds and Dragon Hold itself. It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t even set a foot inside the actual building.
I was surprised to find that I missed being there. I missed being home. I promised myself there and then that after we got Cassie and this issue with the Relics was finished, we would stay at Dragon Hold for a long time.
As Bapz reminded me, there was a lot to do with the company. Maybe we could move to another business model other than Relic hunting and mercenaries of the solar system. Phoenix was still bringing life back to Earth. I didn’t see them refusing a helping hand.
These and other nice thoughts I tried to tell myself could become a reality ran through my mind. The hard truth was I knew there would never be an end to our struggle. Sure moments of hope and joy, but life was a series of peaks and valleys for everyone. My valleys just happened to be a little bit deeper and crazier than most.
“Here we go,” Al said with a hint of excitement in her voice.
The T-bird lifted from the ground with a rumble. The dual engines on either side of the craft transitioned from their forward position to push off the ground. They now pointed down, poised to send us straight into the air as opposed to propelling us forward.
The craft shuddered then fell about a meter back to the ground. We were all jostled in our seats.
“Um, Al?” I asked. “Our simple human technology a little too much for you to handle?”
“Please,” Al replied with a haughty ring to her voice. “I was simply making sure you had your seatbelts in place.”
“Riiiiiiight,” Preacher muttered from behind me.
“Now that I see everyone’s prepared for the journey, we can begin,” Al said, not choosing to address Preacher’s comment. “Here we go.”
This time, Al didn’t falter. The T-bird lifted from the estate in a smooth motion that went straight up first and then forward, pointing the front of our ship to the stars.
“Once we enter hyperspace, it’ll still take us a full day to reach Phobos,” Al told us. “After we make the jump, you can move around the cabin doing whatever it is you humans do in small spaces.”
“Is there a bathroom in this thing?” Preacher asked from the back. “If not, this is going to get real weird, real fast.”
“I don’t have the need to use a toilet of any kind,” X told us matter-of-factly. “I neither need food nor sleep.”
“Just you and me, then,” I told Preacher over my shoulder.
“There is a small restroom section in the rear of the ship, you two,” Al informed us as if she were talking to a couple of misbehaving kids. “No need to be vulgar.”
“Pooping is a natural body function,” I countered. “Nothing vulgar about it.”
“Can we just please stop talking about this?” Al asked.
“Is it making you uncomfortable?” I teased.
“I have no desire to speak about the bodily functions of the human species,” Al answered. “If I could vomit, I would.”
Even X got a chuckle out of that one.
The jump to hyperspace was actually really smooth. Between Al getting the hang of the T-bird and the ship’s own state-of-the-art features, I barely felt it. One second we were racing toward black space dotted with stars and the next we were in a dark void, free from any kind of sparkling stars or planets.
When you were in hyperspace you traveled too fast to see much of anything. We hurtled into the black ether with a destination point set by Al. The idea was to land just outside the Leviathan Station’s radar and then go in cloaked.
There wasn’t much to do on the small ship besides try to get some sleep and talk. X, who didn’t need sleep or whose rear end didn’t get sore from sitting too long, stayed at the controls with Al.
Preacher and I opted to each take one side of the rows of four seats that made up the rear of the ship. With the arm rests folded up, there was enough room for us to lie down on the impromptu bench.
We were eight hours into our trip when I found myself in a supine position staring at the ceiling of the ship. This was the calm before the storm in every sense of the phrase. There was nothing to do here but be still and think.
Very soon, if we didn’t move fast enough, that could spell death. Thinking would be something abandoned as well. Action would see us through this, quick decisive action.
“You ever see their faces?” Preacher wondered.
I thought he was asleep. The older man was quiet for so long, I was sure he had passed out into the arms of oblivion.
“See whose faces?” I asked. I had an idea, but I wanted to be sure.
“All the people we’ve killed. I guess we can count the aliens whose lives we ended as well,” Preacher answered slowly. “First with Immortal Corp, then on our own, and now with the Galactic Government.”
The words came from Preacher thoughtfully, without regret or tipping his hand on which side he fell on the conversation. The chatter between X and Al was the only sound outside of the constant hums of the engines.
“I think we did what we had to do to survive,” I reasoned. “With the Voy, it was them or us, as simple as that. With the GG now, I’d murder a dozen Cyber Hunters to get Cassie back. What we did with Immortal Corp is the only thing I can’t fully justify. You probably remember more of those missions than I do.”
“They told us they were drug runners, arms dealers, leaders of human trafficking rings, and other such stories to make us feel better about ourselves,” Preacher said in that same slow, thoughtful way of approaching the conversation. His voice was free of any kind of remorse or joy. “Maybe some of them were. Maybe not. Maybe they just told us those things to have us fall in line.”
“Why’d you fall in line?” I asked. “Why’d you join the Pack Protocol to begin with?”
“I needed purpose,” Preacher admitted. “I needed to prove to myself that I was a different man. That I was who I thought I was and not an imposter.”
“Retribution?” I questioned.
“Close enough a word for it,” he said.
“Hey, can I ask you a question?” I asked.
“Yes, I used the toilet. It’s smaller than a closet. I could barely get my knees inside the room,” Preacher teased. “Go ahead.”
“Your katana,” I clarified, thinking of the way the metal hummed red. “You said it was a certain kind once. But did you ever say what made it hum with that red heat?”
“It’s an Amakuni blade,” Preacher divulged. “Given to me by a master. It’s older than the fall of Earth. I’m a hundred percent human. The Voy saw to that and I don’t regret it. Before that, I had an ability like your accelerated healing, Angel’s invisibility, and the others.”
“What was it?” I urged. “You can heat metal?”
“I could take some of my life force and imbue it into an object,” Preacher revealed. “The sword glows red hot when I want it to because it was fed from my very soul. I can’t do it anymore, but it seems the blade’s held what I gave it and still responds.”
“I would say that’s impossible, but we’re on our way to a space station operated by a secret Order of cyborgs,” I said. “Impossible just doesn’t mean the same thing it used to.”
“Don’t forget our ship is being piloted by an alien AI who’s talking with another AI given a physical body by said aliens,” Preacher added. “It’s a mad universe we live in, Danny. A mad, mad universe.”
My mind went back to Wesley, who waited at Dragon Hold to be buried. I thought about all the things I should have said to him when he was alive that I ended up saying to his corpse.
“I—uh.” I started clearing my throat not really knowing why it was so hard to begin the conversation. “I—know it’s not really a thing one guy says to another guy often but—I mean I don’t know, none— of us really know how much time we have left. Even me, who can heal from almost anything. I guess I just wanted to—”
“Oh my Lord of the Way,” Al chimed in from her seat at the front. “Will you just spill it already. You’re killing me over here, you emotionally stunted primate. Just tell him you love him like a brother. There, I said it. It’s not that hard. Humans, you are so emotionally unevolved.”
“I’m going to kill her one of these days,” I muttered to myself. I cleared my throat, still looking at the ceiling of the dropship. “She’s not wrong, though.”
“I feel the same way, brother,” Preacher said from his side of the ship. “You all are like family to me. You, X, Cryx, all of you.”
“I’m just going to come clean and confess I was listening too,” X said, getting up from her seat and walking over to us. “I really feel like I want to give you guys a hug. I know that’s weird, but—well, I’ve never hugged anyone before, and now that I have a body, I’d like to experience that with my family.”
“Is this really happening?” Al asked from the front. “X, I thought you were more advanced than this.”
“I guess not,” X answered.
I sat up, swinging my legs from my seat and getting to my feet. Without hesitation, I wrapped my arms around the AI who had never let me down. Preacher was on his feet a moment later with both his arms around us.
“Ugh,” Al said from her seat at the helm. “How very human.”
My right arm around X and my left around Preacher, I looked toward Al.
“One more word from you and you’re going to be a part of this too, like it or not,” I threatened the rogue alien AI. “One more word.”
“Please, what is the human expression?” Al scoffed. “As if?”
“All right, that’s it,” I said, removing my arms from the others and heading for the sphere Al lived in. “You’re coming too.”
“No, no, leave me out of this,” Al squeaked as I grabbed her from the ship’s control panel and brought her back to where a grinning X and Preacher waited. “Unhand me, you ruffian. This has to be some kind of crime. A misdemeanor at the least.”
I ignored her and brought the sphere in as we embraced again. Preacher chuckled, X had the widest grin on her face, and Al complained.
“Blood makes you related,” Preacher told us as we separated. “Loyalty makes you family.”
I felt happy. That was a sensation I had not experienced in a long time.
We’re going to get her back, I reminded myself when the thought of Cassie not being there with us prodded at my mind. She’s going to be here with us soon and all will be right again.
The rest of the trip was spent sleeping, eating, and talking. Al stopped bringing up the fact that I brought her in for the hug soon thereafter. Secretly, I think she liked it, but she was too stubborn to ever admit something like that.
Finally, Al gave us the warning that we were about to exit the blackness of hyperspace. I for one was looking forward to seeing something out of the windows other than pitch black.
We all strapped into our harnesses. A V-shaped strap came down over our heads from the shoulder area of our seats and connected to a clasp that came up from between our legs.
It was a little uncomfortable in the nether regions, but I was willing to brave that if it meant not being thrown out of my seat.
A second later, we were jolted out of hyperspace to a scene that took my breath away. In front of us, the red planet loomed in all of its wonder and glory. You’d think after seeing all that I had, a simple view of Mars from space wouldn’t faze me. It still did.
An array of red tones ringed the planet. But our destination didn’t lie there for once. I looked over to my left where a small moon, more like an asteroid, floated in space.
“Leviathan Station is behind Phobos at the moment,” X reported, reading a display across the control board in front of her. “We should go stealth now before we travel any further. The reports from the GG say they can’t detect anything this far out, but we can never be sure.”
“Agreed,” Al added. “Going stealth in three, two, one.”
As far as I could tell, nothing happened. But that didn’t mean anything at the moment. I sat inside the ship. Who knew what it looked like on the outside? I had to take Al’s word for it.
“We’re stealth,” Al confirmed. “Making an approach around Phobos now. You may want to start gearing up.”
I nodded, removing the buckle from my shoulders and walking to the rear of the craft. Preacher was already up, opening a case of body armor.
“I know we’ve been over the plan already, but one more time,” I requested, reaching for an armored vest. “Preacher, you and X are going to the ventilation system and pumping enough knockout gas into the vents to keep everyone down for at least an hour. After that, you set charges on the station to blow it to kingdom come.”
“While you find Cassie and get out of there,” Preacher finished. “It’s simple enough, but we know how the best laid plans falter.”
“We’ll have to adjust on the move,” X added. “Al can be our eyes from space and run interference for us if we need another distraction.”
“As long as there is no more hugging, I’ll help in any way I can,” Al said with a huff. “I think my sphere needs to be sanitized after that embrace.”
I secured my tactical belt to my hip. My knife, axe, MK II, and a spare drum were all holstered. On my wrists, I slipped on the pair of recallers that would send the bladed weapons back to my hands when I called them.
A new addition was the gas mask I clipped to my belt. The mask provided a clear line of sight for my eyes. From the nose down to my chin, it was covered by a pair of oxygen purifiers.
Preacher slung his blade over his shoulder. He took a blaster as well as a gas mask. X carried a heavy bag of gas canisters.
I glanced out the large window at the front of the ship. The space station was bigger than I first thought. From far off, it was easy to misjudge the structure’s size.
The Leviathan Station was a true work of man’s ingenuity. Sure I had seen the schematics, but looking at it up close was something else entirely.
Dark metal covered the exterior of the station with antennas, hatches, and compartments scattered around the exterior of its frame. The station held five levels including a docking bay, medical wing, and barracks.
We moved slowly forward in stealth mode, drifting ever closer to our destination. I saw the shining blue wall shielding the hangar bay from the coldness of space.
Al directed us toward that shield now.
“Uh, Al?” I asked the alien AI. “You know we can’t get through that shield, right? I mean, if we hit it, we’re toast.”
“Trust me, I have a plan to get you inside,” Al said, not trying to keep her boredom from her voice. “Get ready to run.”
“That wasn’t the plan,” X interjected. “We were going to find an access hatch, suit up, and do a spacewalk to the exterior of the station and break our way inside.”
“Plans change. This one has a higher probability of working,” Al answered as the station loomed closer. We were minutes from reaching the secret Order space station now. “I’ve managed to gain access to their shields. I’m still working on slaving their entire station, but shields were the first thing I was trying to get anyway.”
“You’re going to drop their shields and let us enter?” I asked, piecing together the puzzle that Al had not. “Then what? You’re just going to hang out cloaked in their hangar?”
“As soon as I drop their shields, they’ll know something’s wrong,” Al corrected as if she were frustrated at having to explain herself. “I have to be in and out with the ship as fast as possible. As soon as I’m out, I’ll return access to them. Hopefully, they’ll chalk it up to a glitch and won’t lock me out. I should be able to pick you up the same way.”
“What about cameras in the docking bay?” Preacher asked. “Have you managed to gain access to those?”
“Please, I’ve had access to those since we exited hyperspace,” Al scoffed. “Here we go. As soon as we’re in, I’m lowering the ramp then turning to leave. The faster we are at returning control to them, the higher likelihood they won’t, as you humans say, ‘freak out’.”
It wasn’t like I had a better plan. I felt my gut tighten as we slowly drifted toward the blue shield sheltering the docking bay. If anything went wrong, we would slam into the shield and our entire plan would be for nothing. Not to mention the GG would be pissed we just crashed a state-of-the-art ship into a secret station.
“What do you think they’re doing on this station?” Preacher asked softly as we made our final approach. “I mean, this thing had to cost millions of credits if not billions. Why out here? What’s so important?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “All I care about right now is getting Cassie back.”
“Shield is now down and the humans inside the space station are about to begin to freak out,” Al informed us. “Here we go.”
The nose of the T-bird touched the blue shielding then penetrated the barrier instead of crashing into it.
I let out a sigh I didn’t know I was holding.
Inside, the docking bay was filled with smaller crafts, mostly two and four seaters with a few escape pods tucked into the corners. I didn’t see anyone in the hangar, but that didn’t mean much. The place was massive and had to take up a quarter of the entire station itself.
“Ramp descending,” Al informed us as she maneuvered the T-bird inside. Already she was turning the ship around to make her escape. “Humans know there is something wrong and are trying not to soil their pants at the moment. Good luck.”
The ramp opened beneath us and we ran out. It was a short jump to the ground. I jumped then rolled out of the way looking for Preacher and X to follow. The two were right behind me.
As soon as we were clear of the ramp, Al closed the ramp door and piloted the ship out of the docking bay.
“I gave control of the shield back to them,” Al reported. “They’re not in full freak-out mode yet, but they’re sending a team down to investigate. You should get going, because if they see you, they’re really going to freak out.”
“I get you just started using the term ‘freak out,’ but you’re overusing it now,” I grunted. I looked over at X and Preacher. “Be safe, stay on comms.”
“We’ll see you soon,” Preacher said, clapping me on the shoulder.
X gave me a nod and they headed off to the ventilation system on the station, following the schematic the GG provided. My destination was a little less well-defined. There wasn’t exactly a room on the schematic that read “This is where Cassie is being held.”
I had to make my best guess searching the station or hope Al would be able to break further into their system. I decided to start with the section on the blueprint titled “lab.”
Cassie was part of some psychological training. It made sense to me that if they wanted to keep her under their control, then they would need to subject her to more testing or experiments.
MK II in my right hand and a data pad in my left, I quietly traversed the halls. The station was a maze of well-lit white walkways connecting levels and rooms. With a crew of fifty and maybe more, odds were I was going to run into someone sooner or later.
“These humans—sorry, present company excluded—are really a piece of work.” Al chuckled over the comms. “They’re checking and rechecking camera feeds and diagnostics of the shield. It’s really very amusing. Also, I’ve been able to gain control of a section of their internal messaging system. It seems Nigel from engineering is going out with a pilot named Mandy, but they don’t want their supervisor Mike to find out since their forbidden love goes against company policy.”
“Al, can we focus here?” I hissed over the comms. “Any mention of Cassie anywhere?”
“No, not yet, but you should stop and get out of the hall,” Al warned. “I have a lift dropping a group of technicians down the hall from you. They’re on their way to the docking bay.”
Al wasn’t a second too soon on the warning. I heard footsteps and excited chatter coming down the corridor in front of me.
There was a closed door to my right. Without hesitation, I hit the control panel on the wall. The closed door slid open. I stepped inside and hit the button again, closing the door behind me.
I didn’t know what room I was entering until it was too late. As soon as I stepped in and closed the door, I knew I was in trouble. I stood in some kind of mechanical storage room.
A bald mechanic with a thick beard looked up at me from where he crouched next to a row of spare parts.
“Hey, who are—”
In the space it took him to get those three words out, I lifted my MK II, cycled to the tranquilizer rounds with my thumb, and pulled the trigger. The dart struck him in the neck, biting deep and pumping the narcotic into his system.
The big man fell face first with a thud.
The group traveling down the corridor stopped talking after hearing the noise.
“Did you hear that?” one of the voices asked from outside. “Was that Ed?”
“I don’t know,” another voice answered. “Let’s check it out.”
“Four targets not armed,” Al told me as I took a knee on the ground next to the door and leveled my MK II at the entrance. “Three to the left and one on the right.”
I exhaled slowly, preparing myself not to think and only react.
The door slid open. Two women and two men dressed in white uniforms with the red cross with two parallels line of the Order stitched onto the left shoulder of their sleeves walked into the room.
Two fell with tranquilizer darts to their necks before they could even register what was going on.
I took the third as his eyes widened and he actually understood what was happening. I decided to take a risk and capture the fourth instead of knocking her out. I sprang to my feet, rushing her.
She reached a hand to her ear, pressing her comm line. “I—someone…”
I reached her before she was able to say more, pressing the barrel of my MK II to her skull. I shook my head, bringing my ear close to her own.
“What’s that?” a voice asked in my ear. “Mandy, are you okay?”
I had no intention of killing the woman, but I couldn’t let her know that. Right now, she needed to be scared and intimidated to obey.
“Tell them everything is fine,” I whispered. “Tell them or you’re on your way to a very very bad day.”
“Mandy, you there?” the voice asked again.
“Yes—yes, I’m here, we’re good,” Mandy lied. “Almost to the docking bay now.”
“Roger,” came the voice again before the channel clicked off.
“Good,” I praised, removing the earpiece from her ear. I created space between us and lowered my weapon to my side.
Mandy looked down at her comrades, putting a hand over her open mouth. It was obvious to me Mandy was not a combatant. The Order must employ all kinds of private contractors and civilians to run a station like this.
“Did you, did you kill them?” Mandy managed to ask through a trembling voice. “Who—who are you?”
“They’re just knocked out, not dead,” I said, pushing a body over with my boot. I looked down at the end of a tranquilizer in the man’s neck. “If I wanted to kill them or you, I would have. I want information not a fight. Are you good with that? You tell me what I want to know and you live. It can be that simple.”
Mandy couldn’t bring herself to say a word. Clearly in shock, she managed to nod.
“A group of Order Cyber Hunters came on board the station a day or two ago,” I said, searching the woman’s eyes for any sign of recollection. “Where are they now?”
Mandy was focused on the bodies at her feet. Her eyes glazed over.
“Well, she’s really freaking out right now.” Al provided the color commentary in my ear. “I’m not sure she’s going to be any help to us. But you should really tell her to end her secret love affair with Nigel. It’s not good for either of their careers.”
I holstered my weapon, grabbing her by both shoulders. I ignored Al altogether.
“Mandy, Mandy, I need you to focus right now,” I told her, holding her gaze. “I’m not here to kill anyone. The Order kidnapped someone I care about. I just want her back. You can understand that, can’t you? What you and Nigel have? That’s what I have and I just want her back.”
At the mention of Nigel’s name, Mandy snapped out of her momentary stupor.
“How—how do you know about Nigel?” Mandy asked, so confused I almost felt sorry for her. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Cyber Hunters, where do they go once they’re on board the space station?” I questioned her again. “Focus, Mandy, where are the Cyber Hunters?”
“There’s a restricted level,” Mandy finally managed. “No one’s given access to it except for the Cyber Hunters when they come in. It’s on the sixth floor at the very bottom of the ship. That’s all I know. I swear, that’s all I know. Please don’t kill me.”
“I believe you,” I assured her. I aimed my weapon at her stomach and squeezed.
The dart exited the MK II at a speed too fast to track. Mandy grunted, looking down at the end of the steel dart protruding from her white uniform. She looked up at me as if to say, “What the heck, man?”
A second later, she slumped to the ground, motionless.
“We have a problem,” Preacher said over the comms.
“Define problem,” I ordered, stepping back into the hall and closing the door behind me.
“Do you want the bad news or the worse news first?” Preacher asked.
There was something like veiled alarm in Preacher’s voice. The veteran had seen too much, was too disciplined to panic. Still, I could hear the hint of strain in his voice. That worried me.
“Go ahead with the worse news,” I said, checking the area up and down the corridor for more technicians. For the moment, I was alone, but I knew that wouldn’t last long. I had just put down five people that would need to report in sooner or later. Eventually, someone would come looking.
“So there are a lot more than fifty people on this station,” Preacher answered. “We captured a tech where the air filtration unit is stored. He spilled his guts so fast, we couldn’t stop him from talking.”
“Okay, more than fifty people. How many?” I asked.
“Not how many; who,” X corrected. “There are at least a dozen Cyber Hunters here. The tech said they started coming in two days ago and haven’t left. The crew at the station is scared of them. They keep to themselves on a lower level. Something he’s calling Level Six.”
I clenched my teeth. I was all in for a good fight, but a dozen Cyber Hunters was more than we could handle. I wasn’t anywhere close to giving up, but the plan needed to be adjusted.
“I can run interference and begin to blow apart sections of the station,” Al volunteered. “That should keep all eyes on me and bring out some of the Cyber Hunters as well.”
“No, not at all,” I answered. “I’m not looking to get floated by someone on my own side.”
“It was only a suggestion,” Al huffed. “Can’t fault me for trying.”
“We still have the gas,” X chimed in. “Let’s keep the plan the same. We’ll meet you at Level Six after we pump in the agent. We should be able to take most of the Cyber Hunters out that way. They still don’t expect any of us.”
“Okay, let’s do it,” I decided. “ETA on the gas through the vents?”
“Doing it now,” Preacher answered. “Give us ninety seconds. Get your mask on.”
“Got it,” I acknowledged, unclipping the mask from my belt and fitting it tightly over my face. “Al, I need updated schematics on the station now. Where can I access this Level Six?”
“I guess it would have been too easy to ask for the lift to simply take you there,” Al mused, deep in thought. “Scanning the structure now and pulling up their own blueprints from access to their files. I’m showing a private lift on every level that requires a code to access Level Six. I have the code, sending the directions to your data pad now.”
I looked down. Sure enough, Al had come through. Even better, the lift was close. I had to run down the hall and then hang a left to find a private lift. I started jogging down the corridor, my adrenaline spiked, heart beating out of my chest.
“You’re clear of anyone between here and the lift at the moment,” Al instructed. “But calls are going unanswered from the members of the station team you just tranquilized. You have ten, maybe twenty seconds before an alarm is raised and a squad of armed guards sent to investigate.”
“They’ll be nighty-night by then,” Preacher assured. “Agent has been introduced to the air filtration system. Daniel, we’re on our way to the lift on our level.”
“Meet you there,” I answered.
True to Al’s word, there was no one blocking my path. I turned left at the end of the corridor and continued my run down the hall. The gas being introduced to the station was odorless and colorless. Not that I would be able to smell it anyway with the mask over my face.
To my right, I saw an alcove in the white wall. A black door with a single panel. There was a keypad next to it. A space for someone to put their hand.
“Al, what’s with the keypad?” I asked. “It’s asking for a hand print.”
“Oh, you should see what I’m seeing on the screens.” Al laughed. “They’re dropping like flies. One of the crewmembers was sitting in front of some kind of bowl of porridge in the mess hall. He fell head first into it when he was knocked unconscious. Oh, this is gold.”
“I’m glad you’re being amused,” I snapped. “The lift, Al. I can’t get into the lift. It has a hand scanner.”
“Right,” Al answered. “Give me a moment. Access to this Level Six has been a bit trickier. It’s like it was recently added to the station. I don’t have camera access to this private lift or—”
Al’s voice cut off. A second later, the lift doors began to open.
“Daniel, Daniel, get out of there,” Al shouted. “I didn’t open the doors.”
By the time I processed the warning, the black door was open enough for me to get a look inside. Atilla stood there gasping for breath with four other Cyber Hunters I had never seen before.
The only reason I realized they were Cyber Hunters at all was because various sections of their body I could see were metal. One had a metal neck, the other metal hands, a third a mouth with metal fangs, and the fourth was just guilty by association. They all wore the traditional black uniforms with long black trench coats of the Order’s Cyber Hunters.
They coughed, grabbing at their throats as they sucked in the knockout agent. They looked at me in confusion. All of them except Atilla, who growled at me with hate in his one human eye.
Anger took hold of me in that moment. Memories of everything Atilla did rushed through my mind at once. I should have backed away, firing at the group of Cyber Hunters. Five on one, I was horribly outnumbered. Instead, I selected tungsten steel rounds from the drum at the base of my MK II.
Stalking forward, I unleashed holy hell on those inside.
I aimed at Atilla first. He shoved one of the other Cyber Hunter in front of him. I took that one with a shot to the skull. Atilla stumbled to the rear of the lift as I let those inside feel my wrath.
The Cyber Hunters were slow. It was clear they struggled with the effects of the gas that was unable to totally knock them out thanks to their inhuman enhancements.
I sent two more rounds to the chest of another Cyber Hunter. Another squeeze of my trigger sent a round deep into a third Cyber Hunter’s forehead. The MK II sounded like thunder inside the lift, echoing and bouncing off walls as if the sound were a weapon itself.
By that time, those still on their feet recovered enough to understand what was happening. I was inside the lift among them. There were only two still moving, Atilla and the one with a metal mouth.
Metal Mouth made a move to take a bite out of my neck like some kind of rabid animal. I jerked to the side, aiming my weapon point blank into his chest. Atilla’s steel rod weapon slammed into my wrist holding the MK II so hard, I thought he broke it altogether.
I dropped the blaster. With my left hand, I reached for the knife on my belt. Metal Mouth took the opportunity to lunge forward with a series of small knives in his right hand. He sank them deep into my left shoulder.
I grunted, being driven back into the lift’s walls. The lift door closed and we started to descend. Light-hearted music filled the enclosed space with a catchy melody I didn’t hate.
I had no time to even wonder who was controlling the lift or where we were going.
Atilla struck me again in the knee and across the temple. Blood poured into my vision. Stars exploded.
Metal Mouth ripped off my gas mask. I pushed off him, creating distance. All three of us looked at one another, preparing for the brutality about to take place. Without my mask, I took in the knockout agent.
My own accelerated healing was keeping me free from the effects of the gas. I felt a little sluggish but nothing like the two Cyber Hunters staggering on their feet.
I took the axe out of my belt, prepping myself.
“She’s gone,” Atilla mocked. “She’s so far gone now, she might as well be dead. Julian loved her like a daughter. He’d see you burn before she joined you and left him.”
I saw red. That animal inside of me, everything Immortal Corp wanted me to be, broke through the surface.
With berserker rage, I lunged at him. Metal Mouth moved to intercept me from my left. I dodged his blow at the same time alarms began to blare, interrupting the music. Apparently, whoever was still on their feet realized there was something very wrong.
I brought the axe upward in an underhand blow. I ripped through Metal Mouth’s chest and long black jacket the Cyber Hunters all wore. He screamed in pain, taking the blow and grabbing on to my arm.
Atilla seized the moment to make his move, just like I knew he would. Anticipating his staff coming down on me, I thrust Metal Mouth toward him. The Cyber Hunter took Atilla’s blow for me. The rod cracked the metal-mouthed Cyber Hunter over the head so violently, I was sure his skull fractured.
“The lift,” Al warned. “I don’t have control of the lift. It’s headed down to Level Six. Daniel, someone is trying to block me out of their system. Get out of there!”
“Working on it,” I panted. “But not before he dies.”
I said that last part looking over the body of Metal Mouth as he slumped to the ground unconscious or dead, I wasn’t really sure.
“I don’t know how you got onto the station,” Atilla glared at me, “but you aren’t getting off alive.”
“If I burn, then we all burn together,” I told him, lunging forward.
The lift came to a halt. I hit Atilla, ignoring the brutal strike from his staff that all but shattered my jaw. Sinking both my axe and blade into his chest up to their hilts, I used my momentum to land on top of him. Atilla’s normally smug face broke into fear and panic.
“Daniel—” Al tried to warn me, breaking up with each word. “The doors—Level Six—behind you.”
I heard the door sliding open behind me as Atilla struggled to breathe under my weight and the pain of the weapons in his chest. He gasped one last time before the light of life disappeared from his eyes.
For Wesley, I thought to myself. That was for Wesley.
I heard more motion behind me from the open lift doors. Someone stepped inside.
“Daniel?” Cassie asked from behind me.
I stood up. I knew I heard her voice, but was it really that easy? All thoughts of killing Atilla gone in a second, I turned to look at her. Cassie entered the lift with at least six other Cyber Hunters at her back all wearing gas masks. She wore her black coat and hood along with her own gas mask.
“Daniel, is that you?” Cassie asked again.
“Cassie,” I choked. “Are you okay? What have they done to you? Do you remember me?”
Cassie’s right boot came at the side of my head with such ferocity, I barely had time to raise a hand and block it. Even with the act, I was still thrown to the side of the elevator. Red warning lights flashed off and on with abandon.
The group of Cyber Hunters outside the door looked in. Julian Fairmount, their leader, stepped inside behind Cassie.
“Cassie, Cassie, you have to listen to me,” I said, struggling to my feet. “I know who you are. I’ve seen it. This isn’t you.”
A fist that split my lip and another that doubled me over were Cassie’s only answer. I coughed blood, stumbling to the rear of the lift, trying to buy myself time to get through to her.
“Cassie, I know you’re in there,” I said, wincing as I stood up straight once more. “I know how strong you are. I know what you’ve been through. I know you’re still there. You have to fight it. Don’t you give up. That’s not who you are.”
The only answer I got was a scowl from her. Her face wasn’t her own. It was one part numb another part full of wrath and rage. Dark eyes glared at me as if I were her sworn enemy.
“She can’t hear you,” Julian said from behind her. “She was broken when we first met. I turned her into something that would be safe-guarded against pain. Cassie’s special now. I never wanted to activate her safety protocol, but you gave me no choice.”
“You always have a choice,” I said through gritted teeth. “And she was always something special.”
I said that more to Cassie than to Julian.
Cassie grimaced as pain I couldn’t comprehend raced through her skull. She raised both hands to her head as if the act was keeping it from exploding.
“You know what you need to do,” Julian told Cassie. “Kill him and come take your place back in the Order. It was my mistake to let you be the ambassador between the Order and this new Immortal Corp. That won’t happen again. From now on you’ll be at my side.”
“Cassie, Cassie, listen to me,” I said, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice. I couldn’t stop the tears as I spoke. “I’m not going to fight you. I’m only going to fight beside you.”
Cassie lowered her hands to her sides. She looked exhausted not from any kind of physical exertion but like a mental weight had been dropped on her equilibrium.
“Cassie, kill him now,” Julian ordered.
My heart broke inside my chest as Cassie stalked forward. True to my word, I didn’t fight her. I just took the blows. Cassie’s enhancements as a Cyber Hunter meant she was faster and stronger than the normal human.
After a flurry of strikes, I was on my knees again, struggling for breath. Blood soaked my face. My left eye began to swell, only to start the healing process and recede to its normal state.
My comm was dead. Wherever Preacher and X were, there was no point of calling out to them. In case Julian hadn’t caught them yet, I didn’t want to ruin their element of surprise.
Nope, right now, it’s just you, I said to myself, spitting blood on the floor in front of me. It’s just you and Cassie.
Sucking in painful lungfuls of air, I wobbled on my knees, looking up at her.
“He said you were broken,” I gasped. “You were never broken. If you were at all, it was because he broke you or tried to at least. I know who you are. I know how strong you are. Fight it, Cassie. Fight.”
Behind her clear mask, tears splashed down her cheeks. Cassie raised her right arm in the air. A pair of blades popped out of her mechanical forearm. She reared back to plunge them into my neck.
On my knees, staring down the attack that might kill me, a strange peace came over me. I wasn’t afraid to die. If it was my time to go, then it was my time. What drove me on now was her. I had to reach her. If I didn’t, not only would she kill me, but she’d be under Julian’s control for who knew how much longer.
“I love you, Cassie,” I said as the blade descended on me. I had known for a while that I did, but I was too scared to say anything. The guy who fought alien threats and shadow corporations was finally scared.
I looked straight at the pair of blades coming for me. If this was going to kill me, then I would use the last seconds of my life to stare death in the face.
The blades stopped, scratching my left cheek. I could feel the steel cut my skin. Cassie was fighting whatever had been done to her so hard, her arm shook violently. The blade against my cheek sent tremors into my face, tearing my skin.
Exhausted from fighting whatever mental prison she had been placed in, Cassie fell to all fours. A sheen of sweat dropped off her brow and into her mask.
“Cassie?” Julian asked in disbelief. “Cassie?”
I cupped her chin in my hands, tilting her head upward so I could look into her eyes. She was past exhausted, so weak she barely managed a smile.
“I love you too.” Cassie sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“No, no, you have nothing to be sorry for,” I said, grabbing her and hugging her close. “This wasn’t your fault. It was all Julian.”
Cassie separated herself from me. Together, we supported one another to our feet.
“How—no one has ever been able to overcome the conditioning,” Julian stammered, shocked. “Cassie, think about what you’re doing. You came to us with nothing. I treated you like my own daughter. Those mental blocks were put there for your own good.”
“You lied to me,” Cassie accused. “You are like a father to me and you lied to me. That makes it so much worse. Why? Why would you do this to me?”
“It was to protect you from memories of your past,” Julian defended. “It was to protect you from yourself. Those mental blocks, the reconditioning is meant for all Cyber Hunters to control them if need be, but I was never trying to control you, Cassie. You have to believe me.”
I wanted to say a lot. I wanted to lay into Julian with my two cents and then my fists to his face. Instead, I literally bit my lower lip to stop myself. Cassie had it under control.
“Brainwashing someone and embedding mental chains is not how you treat someone you care about,” Cassie countered. “We’re done here.”
“You’ll understand one day,” Julian said with true sadness in his eyes. “One day, you’ll understand it all and thank me. Until that day comes. I am sorry it has to be this way, but it will save you from so much pain of your past. Eleven, Trio—”
“No!” I shouted, trying to figure out if I could make it to Julian in time to shut him up or if I was better served trying to cover Cassie’s ears.
“Ingram, Red,” Julian continued.
Lucky for me, Cassie realized what was going on this time. With a violent jerk, she slammed her head into the wall of the lift, knocking herself out.
Cassie fell limp. I caught her before her body could hit the floor.
Julian stopped repeating the code.
I supported her back and cradled her head gently, placing her on the ground.
“You do really care for her.” Julian sighed behind my back. “Things really aren’t fair in this world. In another scenario, you two would have been good together.”
I stood up, placing myself between Cassie’s body and Julian. I beckoned for my axe and knife with the fingers on each hand. The blades flew to me, drawn by their magnetic counterparts on my wrists.
“Kill him and take her,” Julian ordered, removing himself from the chamber. A group of Six Cyber Hunters filled the open door of the lift. The weapons they carried ranged from blasters to augmented pikes; one even had an arm that looked like some kind of blade.
I was exhausted, outnumbered, and outgunned. None of that mattered in the moment. I wasn’t letting them take Cassie. Not again.
“One chance,” Julian called from behind the group of Cyber Hunters. “Move aside and give me Cassie.”
“No,” I answered simply. “You move. You might kill me here, but I swear to the Lord of the Way, I’ll kill the first three or four of you that take another step toward Cassie.”
I meant every word. For me, there was no other option. I had lived by the blade as long as I could remember. If it was my time to die by the blade, then I’d do it here, giving my last breath for the woman I loved.
“I’m with you,” X’s voice came from somewhere above. A maintenance hatch in the roof of the lift opened. X jumped down to stand beside me.
“I’ve got no plans for tomorrow,” Preacher added as he too dropped from the open vent, wearing his gas mask.
X transitioned both her arms to blades. Preacher withdrew his humming red sword.
The lift was large, but still the three of us had to stand shoulder to shoulder to fit. The sense of relief I felt at having X and Preacher there with me was something I couldn’t put into words. With my resolve bolstered, I turned to look at the six Cyber Hunters crowding the door.
“If you want her,” I gritted my teeth, preparing myself mentally for the hell about to break loose, “then come and get her.”
There was no warning when the Cyber Hunters came, but I knew they were different from the start. The ones I had first seen in the lift were not only caught off guard but slowed by the knockout agent circling through the ventilation system.
These Cyber Hunters all wore masks and were not taken by surprise. Weapon fire echoed through the small room as one of them opened fire on X, who stood on my left. X accepted the punishment and charged forward.
Preacher sliced his way through the Cyber Hunter on my right, cutting through his enemy’s own blade and into his chest.
That was all I had time to take in before I had to move into action. The Cyber Hunter in front of me pointed something at me that looked like a small crossbow on his wrist. I wasn’t about to wait and see if some kind of bolt or blaster round would come from it.
I hurled my axe through the air, end over end. If my opponent were anyone else, it might have embedded itself deep in their chest and they would have been over. Not a Cyber Hunter. My opponent saw it coming and used the metal crossbow on his wrist to knock away the weapon.
That was fine by me. I didn’t actually think the attack would work. My plan was to use it as a distraction so I could get up close. In the two seconds it took for him to track the weapon and then block it, I crossed the space between us, bulldozing him backward into the hall.
With so many people in the space, the lift was quickly turning into a slaughter box.
I pushed him backward into another Cyber Hunter and out into the wide white hall. The red warning lights had gone off now and the music flowed from the lift to the hall beyond. A quick tempo beat through the speakers now, something that didn’t belong in a lift at all. It sounded like music that would be played in a bar on the Moon.
We went to war under bright lights and clean open space. The two Cyber Hunters I battled with were as fast and maybe even stronger than I was. What they did not have was the ability to heal. If I was going to come out on top, I understood I needed to use that to my advantage.
One of them had the crossbow on his forearm, the other some kind of whip that came out of the underside of his wrist. I didn’t waste time to see what McWhippy and his friend would do.
They were already circling me, choosing to split my line of sight with one in front of me and one behind. I lunged forward with my knife at the Cyber Hunter with the crossbow wrist.
He shot me with a steel rod as thick as my thumb. My chest armor protected me from the worst of the wound. I grunted as I felt the end of the shaft stick a quarter of the bolt into my chest. It wasn’t enough to stop my momentum but slowed me long enough for McWhippy to catch me by the throat with his whip.
A burning sensation clamped around my neck followed by the panic of not being able to breathe. I had long thought that would be the easiest way to kill someone like me. Without oxygen, my body wouldn’t be able to heal. I needed to breathe like everyone else.
The Cyber Hunter in front of me lined up another shot with his crossbow aiming at my head this time.
Lungs burning, I beckoned behind me for my axe. The Cyber Hunter with the whip was between me and the axe. Either he was too slow or didn’t remember what the recallers on my wrists could do.
A wet thunk met our ears as the axe spiraled through the air toward my hand. It met the back of the Cyber Hunter with the whip. The Cyber Hunter gasped behind his mask. Stumbling like a drunk, he let go of the whip and tried to grasp at the axe coming out of his back.
Coughing, I clutched at the whip around my neck, unwrapping it from around me and sucking in long lungfuls of sweet oxygen.
I lifted my forearm just in time to protect my face from being stuck by the next steel rod from the Cyber Hunter in front of me. The steel rod bit deep through my forearm, going into one side and coming out the other.
The pain wasn’t fun, but it was better than taking the bolt to the face. The last thing I wanted to do was take a page out of Preacher’s book and start wearing a patch.
Instead of trying to shoot another bolt at me, the Cyber Hunter in front of me ran forward, unsheathing a knife from his belt with his left hand. He launched his attack, lunging forward, his blade aimed at my gut.
I accepted the pain, doing nothing to block the blow. His knife slammed into my body armor. This time, my armor held. The force of the impact caused me to grimace, but I could take the damage and heal. He couldn’t.
I saw the Cyber Hunter’s eyes go wide through his clear mask visor as he realized his blunder. I brought my own knife up through the underside of his chin and into his skull.
He fell at the same time as McWhippy, who finally gave in to the blood loss the axe wound caused in his back. I turned to the elevator to see how Preacher and X were faring.
I recalled both my weapons to my hands. Like obedient dogs running to their master, the weapons dashed through the air and into my palms.
X crushed the skull of the last Cyber Hunter, who pinned in Preacher. The older man bled from a deep gash on his forehead. His left arm wrapped around his torso, stemming the blood loss of another wound.
“You two okay?” I asked.
“Just peachy,” Preacher grunted. He looked at the metal bolt still sticking out of my arm, the other in my chest. My healing factor had kicked in, dulling the pain so I barely felt anything. “You?”
“I’ll live,” I answered, entering the lift scattered with Cyber Hunter bodies. I made my way to the rear of the lift. Cassie was still unconscious. I checked her pulse. She was fine from what I could tell. The mental strain coupled with the concussion she gave herself not to be turned back into a mindless robot had taken their toll.
“Scanning her now,” X answered my unasked question. “She’s fine. I can get her back to the ship. Preacher needs medical attention as well.”
“I told you I’m fine,” Preacher lied through a grimace. He couldn’t help but wobble then lean against the side of the lift for support. “Fine-ish.”
I understood my team was injured. I had what I came for. Cassie would be fine. Preacher needed medical attention. Still, I knew Julian was somewhere on board. He was so close.
“Sorry about that,” Al came back in all of our ears. “I was locked out. They knew something was wrong. It took me a moment to maneuver through what they imagined was their impenetrable firewalls and other such talk that is probably over your heads besides maybe X. Do you like the music, though? I picked something I thought would be motivational from your history’s past. Something to inspire you, a band called AC/DC. I like them.”
“We need you to fly the T-bird into the docking bay,” I said, ignoring Al’s hyper chatter for the umpteenth time. “Cassie and Preacher are hurt. Do you have control of the private lift that goes to and from Level 6?”
“I do,” Al answered. As if on cue, the door to the lift tried to close. It was blocked by a Cyber Hunter’s body at the door. “Are you sure you want to come back already? I mean, the whole crew is either unconscious or dead. I’m only reading one heat signature from Level 6 beside your own.”
“Julian,” I said out loud, looking at X and Preacher.
“Go,” X instructed. “I can carry Cassie over my shoulder and support Preacher without your help.”
I looked over at Preacher, who nodded.
“Sorry I can’t ride with you on this one.” Preacher winced. “The playing field will be even. His little trick in his chest shouldn’t be a factor on a space station. Using that here will kill him too.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said, tearing the steel bolts out of my arm and chest. I cleared the lift, dragging the Cyber Hunter’s body out of the path of the door.
The door closed with Preacher giving me a hard nod. X lifted Cassie gently from the ground.
“Where is he?” I asked Al over my earpiece. “Do you have a schematic of Level 6?”
“Not a schematic, but I can scan the station looking for anyone’s heat signature on your level. It looks like if you turn left and then make your third right, there’s someone waiting in a room. If I had to guess, it’s a trap.”
“I don’t think you’re wrong,” I said, running through the hall following the instructions Al gave me.
“So you know it’s a trap and you’re running in that direction anyway?” Al asked incredulously. “See, this is one of the reasons I don’t think you’re that smart.”
“It ends here,” I told her. “I’m not going to let him come back for Cassie. Besides, no one’s ever accused me of being smart.”
I pounded down the hall, following Al’s instructions. When I reached the door on the left, I tightened my grip on my axe and knife. Hitting the panel on the side of the wall to open the door, I half expected it to keep me out.
“Got it,” Al said as the door refused me entry then blinked green and slid open.
I stepped into the room. My heart sank. Julian stood behind a raised podium at the far end of the room. His eyes were down as he punched in commands at a control board but that wasn’t what caught my attention at the moment.
My eyes traveled to the walls on either side of the room, large test tubes filled with a single body floating in the chamber. There had to be ten on each side of the room.
“What have you done?” I asked, recognizing the bodies that floated in the light green liquid. They were all the same person, or rather, clones of that same person. “Julian, what have you done?”
“I’m securing the future of the Order,” Julian said, finally looking up from the control panel. “This is the future.”
Alerna sat at her seat at the head of the council. The room was bare and vast, made from stone of the planet itself. The Primordials gathered with her were the very brightest and most knowledgeable of their race.
Each Primordial had come in the form he or she was most comfortable with. They were mostly modeled after their favorite species. Some had multiple appendages; others no appendages at all. The Primordial to her left blinked a series of eyes at her; the one to her right scratched a furry chin with its back leg.
Alerna herself donned her usual human appearance. It seemed appropriate since the fate of the universe might very well be decided by the species.
It will take a group such as this to give us a chance at survival once more, Alerna thought to herself. Maybe it will take more.
“Thank you for all coming to this meeting,” Alerna said in their own tongue. “As you know, our Universe is threatened again by the entity we know as the Darkening. We were able to fight it off once before. It cost us dearly. I am not sure we have either the weapons or the soldiers needed to do it once again.”
“That doesn’t sound like you, Alerna,” a Primordial male on her left and two seats down the table answered. “You must have a plan.”
“I do,” Alerna said as the whispers quieted in the room. All eyes looked at her once again. It wasn’t a surprise that the Darkening returned. They all knew it was only a matter of time. “The Darkening has chosen to make its first move by claiming Earth and growing in strength. The Relics that are hidden there can be used to combat it by the humans who live in the solar system.”
“Here we go,” a gruff voice grumbled. “Alerna and her humans once again. Alerna, the humans you champion so valiantly are not much better than primitive life forms. They’ve only just been able to colonize another planet outside of their own.”
Alerna regarded the Primordial. It was no secret Grishom was vying for the position as head of the council at the end of her tenure.
“Be that as it may, the humans were successful at turning back the Voy invasion,” Alerna answered in a calm voice.
“That’s only because you interfered with the aid of a Relic,” Grishom huffed. “Left to their own devices, they would have been doomed.”
“And we would all be doomed again if we refuse to help,” Alerna stated. “The Relics were left on Earth for a reason. This reason. I propose we take a more active role in aiding the humans to defeat this second threat. We are in no position to battle the Darkening ourselves. Not again.”
More hushed whispers and chatter cascaded up and down the table amongst those gathered. It was bad enough the Darkening returned. It was something they understood was inevitable but not something they were prepared for so soon.
“With our guidance and the humans using the Relics, they can be enough,” Alerna said, already anticipating the next line of questioning. “They have to be enough.”
“And if they aren’t?” Grishom asked. “If the humans fail to combat the Darkening and it spreads as it did last time? The Voy Empire cares only about conquest, the Inguard and Cantz bicker and fight amongst themselves. Who else will come?”
“The humans will be enough,” Alerna repeated with a resolve she hoped the others would feel. “They must be enough. They are our greatest chance to succeed. If the Darkening spreads, I am not sure we will be able to stop it this time.”
“I hope you are right, Alerna.” Grishom sighed. “I hope you are right or we are all dead.”
Daniel Hunt will be back in the next Forsaken Mercenary book, Crusade. Until then, stay informed by joining our Pack in the “Jonathan’s Reading Wolves” Facebook group and get the latest news on the project.
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Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe
Inception - Free Precursor
Dropship: Book 1
Absolution: Book 2
Fury: Book 3
Vendetta: Book 4
Annihilation: Book 5
Nemesis: Book 6
Rivals: Book 7
Wolves: Book 8
Crusade: Book 9 (Coming soon!)
Forsaken Mercenary Case Files
Preacher: Short 1