Book: Crusade: A Near Future Thriller



Crusade: A Near Future Thriller



Copyright © 2020 by Archimedes Books. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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.





Crusade






Forsaken Mercenary Book Nine


Jonathan Yanez



Contents


Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe

Stay Informed

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Epilogue

Stay Informed

Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe


Crusade: A Near Future Thriller


Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe

Forsaken Mercenary

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

Traitor: Book 10 (Coming soon!)

Forsaken Mercenary Case Files

Preacher: Short 1


Stay Informed

Get A Free Book by visiting Jonathan Yanez’ website. You can email me at [email protected] or find me on Amazon, and Instagram. I also created a special Facebook group called “Jonathan’s Reading Wolves” specifically for readers, where I show new cover art, do giveaways, and run contests. Please check it out and join whenever you get the chance!

For updates about new releases, as well as exclusive promotions, visit my website and sign up for the VIP mailing list. Head there now to receive a free copy of Inception.


CLICK HERE

Enjoying the series? Help others discover the Forsaken Mercenary Series by sharing with a friend.


One

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I stood in the level of Leviathan Station that shouldn’t exist staring at tubes of creatures not born of our world. I knew what I saw; still, my mind raged against accepting this new reality.

The lab room was longer than it was wide. Julian Fairmount, the leader of the Order and the Cyber Hunters, worked like a madman behind the control panel. He pressed buttons, flipped switches, and turned dials like some kind of crazed conductor.

I knew I should be racing toward him. I wasn’t positive what he was doing. I was sure it wasn’t going to be good for me.

I moved in slow motion, taking in the horrific scene of the bodies each tube held. The tubes were massive things reaching from the floor to the ceiling. Floating in light green liquid, the form of some kind of amalgamation appeared as if they were asleep.

Each “thing,” for lack of a better word, was different. They were part human, part machine, and part Voy. The aliens who descended on Mars not so long ago had been taken and experimented on.

I passed a tube holding the head of a human on the body of a Voy with green skin and four arms and a mechanical tail. Another tube on my left carried a mechanical skull with red eyes, the upper body of a human and strong Voy legs with three green toes on either foot.

I had to tear my eyes from the scene in the room and remind myself to concentrate on Julian.

“What—what have you done?” I asked him, clenching my axe and knife tightly. “Julian, what have you done?”

The man was pale. Even behind his clear gas mask, I could see that. Finally, he looked up from the podium-like control panel he worked over.

“You must think I’m some kind of monster for not just this but what I did to Cassie,” Julian said, removing his mask. His brow was bathed in a sheen of sweat. “Whatever gas agent you introduced to the ventilation system has run its course.”

“I don’t think you’re a monster,” I answered “I know you are. Why? The man who I fought beside against the Voy would never stoop to this level of madness. Splitting human DNA with Voy DNA? What happened to you, Julian?”

“Some things are out of my control,” Julian responded, moving away from me toward the rear right side of the room. “The Order recognized an opportunity for a new wave of super soldiers. If we didn’t, someone else would have, and you know that’s the truth. Others probably already have. The Galactic Government, Phoenix Corp, Madam Eternal. The world isn’t as black and white as it appears.”

Slowly, I closed the distance between us.

“It should be,” I told him, realizing he was right. “You’re right. Any government or private corporation would jump at the chance to experiment on alien DNA. But there are some things that should be black and white. Brainwashing people is one of them.”

Julian stopped in the corner of the room, his left hand on the wall. To my surprise, he slowly nodded.

“Believe whatever you want,” Julian said, swallowing hard. “Harming Cassie was never my intention. I wanted her home.”

I did believe him actually. As crazy as it sounded, I didn’t think he wanted to hurt her. In his compromised brain, it made sense for him to get her back any way possible.

“I’m not proud of what I’m going to do next either,” Julian said.

The testing tubes around me began to bubble and drain. The transparent green liquid each body floated in disappeared via holes in the floor. The creatures floating in the liquid began to move. Eyes opened, searching their new surroundings intently.

In the moment it took me to take in what was happening, Julian opened a secret panel in the wall. He was through in a blink of an eye.

I recovered from my nightmare long enough to dash to the panel. It closed just as I arrived.

“Well, you’re not alone anymore,” Al said in my ear. “I’m reading other heat signatures coming from the room you’re in. Still working on gaining camera access to the sixth floor. Oh—oh, wait a minute. There it is, got it.”

I watched with a dry mouth as the doors of the tubes hissed open. There were twenty of them. Ten tubes on each side of the room. The monstrosities began moving limbs as if they were trying them for the first time.

“What kind of freak show did I just walk into?” Al said in my earpiece. “This is some messed up stuff.”

“We need to get everyone off the station now,” I answered, thinking of the unconscious crew members who were private contractors and civilians, not Order members or Cyber Hunters. “Al, you’ve got to wake them up.”

“First you want to put them to sleep, now you want to wake them up,” Al huffed. “What do I look like to you? I don’t even have any hands.”

“Al!” I shouted too loud. The amalgamations exiting their tubes looked over at me. “We’ve got no time here.”

“I’m on it,” X answered. “I’ll get them up with a serum that will neutralize the effects of the gas. I only need to get half the crew on their feet. They can take care of the other half. How much time can you buy me?”

I stood in the room with my axe and knife, wishing I had a blaster. The confused science experiments in front of me looked at me with what I hoped was curiosity and not hunger.

“Hurry,” I told X. I looked back at the mutated forms of humans, Voy, and machines in front of me. “Hi, guys. So, funny story. I’m not actually supposed to be here right now.”

I don’t know if sound pissed them off in general or they just realized they didn’t like my face. The group of science experiments gone wrong raced toward me with menace in their eyes.

I chose the left side of the room, hugging the wall, and charged forward. I needed to reach the exit on the opposite side of the room as fast as possible.

The first creature to lunge at me was something with four metal arms on a Voy body. I slid under the attack, allowing my momentum to carry me forward. I felt the air from the creature’s maddened arms swing at me, buffeting my face.

On the other side of the creature, I popped to my feet and continued my sprint for the exit.

If I didn’t have to fight them, I wouldn’t. I was tired, sore, and in desperate need of food. My body was an amazing healing machine, but that healing came at a cost, sapping energy and resources from my body.

I spun around the next creature and slammed into a third. That one was the scariest by far. A human face looked at me with desperate eyes. It moved its jaw up and down as if it wanted to take a bite out of me.

Four mechanical arms grasped at my clothes. I planted a stiff arm in the thing, pushing forward toward the exit. It didn’t have a firm grasp on me, but it was enough to slow me down.

More arms—human, Voy, and mechanical—grasped at my head and torso, trying to pull me back into their macabre embrace.

I had a feeling if they still weren’t waking from their drugged state, I wouldn’t stand a chance. As it was, their movements were clumsy. Fully alert, they would have been able to stop me right there.

Gritting my teeth, I managed to shove off them, continuing my sprint for the door.

“Al?” I asked.

“Got it,” Al said, opening the door that would lead me back to the hall. “I’ll close and lock it right behind you. Don’t let them catch you. It would be sad if I had to watch you get ripped apart limb by limb.”

Heart racing out of my chest, I skidded to a halt outside the door. Not a second too soon, as the monsters behind me lumbered in my direction. Al closed the door on them.

Prior to this, the amalgamations were silent. Not anymore. Horrible screams and wails from inhuman throats echoed through the closed door. The beasts on the other side began to slam on the barrier, realizing their true strength.

The door in front of me dimpled then dented with a strike I assumed was from a fist.

“Wow, that was a truly horrifying experience.” Al breathed. “I bet you have night terrors from what you saw in that room for the rest of your life.”

“Not helping.” I grunted. “How long is that door going to hold?”

“If I had to guess.” Al paused for a moment. “A hundred and twenty-seven point nine-three seconds.”

“That’s rather exact,” I said, making my way back down the hall toward the lift on the level. “We need to be out of here by the time these things break through the door. “X, how’re we looking?”

“Just rousing the first crew members now,” X answered. “It’s not a quick process convincing them I’m a friend and they need to abandon the station.”

“Right,” I said, turning the corner back to the lift on my level. Cyber Hunter bodies lay strewn in my path. “Al, the lift on floor six. I need to get back up there. Can you give me access to the station’s speakers and put a live feed of those creatures on every screen?”

“Child’s play,” Al said as the lift doors opened in front of me. “Go ahead; you’re on.”

“Workers of the Leviathan Station,” I started, staring into the camera in the corner of the lift as I stepped inside. “Right now, you’re seeing images of experiments set loose on this station by the Order. They’re confined to Level Six for the moment, but that moment will soon pass. In seconds, they’ll begin to spread through the station. The Cyber Hunters are all dead or have abandoned you. Trust me. You need to get to your ships and escape pods now.”

Low, ominous music began to play from the lift’s speakers. The melody added to the panicked hour of our situation.

I ignored it.

“There’s a woman named X that’s rousing you now. Trust her,” I continued. “Help get the others to escape crafts. Hurry, there’s no time. If you want to live, trust us.”

The lift doors opened for me on the level I initially entered the docking bay on. I stepped out, running for the ship.

“So, what did you think?” Al asked.

“What did I think about what?” I questioned.

“The music,” Al replied in a huff. “The music I added with your warning. What did you think?”

“I should have known that was you,” I gasped, sprinting around the corner and down the hall for the ship. “Can you cut off access to the sixth floor? Lifts, stairwells, whatever goes down there?”

“Already done,” Al shared. “That should buy us around five minutes before those creatures get through and start killing the rest of the crew. Nice speech, by the way. We’re getting movement from those X is waking up now. I think they’re taking things seriously. Oh wait, here, I can give them another little kick in the pants.”

Red alarm lights began flashing off and on. A siren wailed through the station.

“Devil’s in the details,” Al said. She actually sounded proud of herself. “Oh, should I create a mix for this scenario as well? I’ve been diving deep into ancient human music. I can play a little something tougher for the moment. Maybe some Rob Zombie or Two Steps From Hell will fit the scenario well.”

“No, no music,” I said, finally reaching the docking bay. A few confused station workers were just arriving, helping unconscious or groggy coworkers to their escape ships. They looked at me, part confused part frightened. “Hurry go, go hurry. You have to get off this station.”

“Oh, I know what will really help motivate them to get off this station,” Al said, maneuvering the hovering T-bird in the docking station. The crazy alien AI opened fire.


Two

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

A pair of rounds hammered into the far wall, exploding on impact. I was thrown off my feet by the concussive force. Smoke filled the docking bay along with screams of those nearby.

No one was injured, from what I could see.

“Al, you crazy brum, cease fire. Cease fire,” I yelled into my comm. I rose to my feet, running for the T-bird hovering just off the ground. The bottom ramp was still open.

“Fine, fine.” Al sighed. “But it worked. Do you see how fast they’re running for the ships now? A little panic never killed anyone.”

I reached the bottom ramp of the ship, jumping on board and heading into the ship. Preacher was there applying skin spray to his shirtless torso. A wicked deep line of slices clear to his ribcage showed through.

Cassie was still unconscious, lying on a row of seats.

“I’ll be fine,” Preacher said, finishing with the skin spray and handing me what looked like a thick silver pen. “It’ll wake up anyone who’s still out using high-pressured air to penetrate their skin. The neutralizing agent will work immediately. Go, get as many of them up as you can.”

I nodded, looking from Preacher’s wound to Cassie, who looked like a sleeping angel, if angels wore all black and had metal forearms capable of producing multiple deadly weapons.

“She’ll be fine,” Preacher assured me again. “We both will. Go, save as many of them as you can and let’s hightail it out of here.”

I grabbed the inoculation instrument and raced for the ramp. Jumping down onto the floor of the docking bay, I headed for the team of engineers I had taken out when I first arrived on the station.

“X?” I asked into my comm. “How’re you doing?”

“As well as can be expected,” X answered. “That explosion and the alarms really helped. Now as they’re waking up, there are less questions. They’re just getting up and getting out of here.”

“See, I told you,” Al said. “Explosions always work.”

I raced back the way I came, stopping at the first door off the hall. I hit the panel on my right that opened up into some kind of spare parts room. On the floor, five engineers in white overalls carrying the Order sigil lay unconscious. I had hit them with knockout rounds from my MK II when I first infiltrated the station. I felt personally responsible if they ended up being a snack for our friends on Level Six.

“Just a friendly heads-up; those nightmare creatures have broken through the lab door and are running wild on Level Six. A few of the brighter ones are working on the lift doors.” Al snorted with laughter. “Sorry, one of the techs who just woke up slammed into an open door as he ran for the cargo bay and knocked himself out again. Ah, this species is good for entertainment if nothing else.”

“Al?” I asked, trying to get her back on track as I went to work in the room. The end of my thick silver pen was equipped with a small tube. I jammed the end with the tube into the neck of each unconscious worker. A tiny click and gust of air answered each action. Slowly, they began to stir.

“Right, right,” Al answered. “So the terrifying monstrosities are forcing the lift doors open now. It’ll take them a few more minutes to get to the ceiling hatch and then climb to various levels. I’d say you have a good minute or so.”

“You guys have to get up,” I shouted over the blaring alarms. “This station is going down. Come on now, get up.”

The technicians stirred, looking at me, confused and disoriented.

“Who are you?” one of them asked, eyeing me as if he were in a daze. “Were you sent by the Gingerbread Man?”

“Sure, the Gingerbread Man sent me,” I said, turning him around and shoving him out the door into the hall. “The station’s going down. Everyone, if you want to live, you need to get to a ship in the docking bay now, right now!”

They looked at me with glazed-over eyes, nodding to me and stumbling for the hall and the landing bay beyond.

“Hey, don’t I—don’t I know you?” the female technician named Sarah asked. I’d had a brief conversation with her when I first landed on the station. “You look familiar.”

“I just have one of those faces,” I lied, shepherding her and the others through the hall and to the docking bay. The area was a mass of confusion and bodies. Coherent station crew helped those still totally out or less lucid into ships and escape pods. “Go, hurry, go!”

The group I woke stumbled forward into ships.

“X?” I asked through the comm. “Where are you? We can’t have you stuck in here when we pull out and blow this joint.”

“Whoops,” Al said through the comms over the roar of escape pods and smaller crafts taking off through the shield. “Well, I was wrong there. Huh, my bad.”

“Your bad?” I asked. “What’s going on? Where’s X?”

“I’m here,” X said, skidding to a halt beside me. “I’m here; everyone is either awake or helping someone who isn’t yet.”

“Uh oh, as in, they’re here,” Al said. “Best to get going now, unless you want to sit down for a meal with alien-machine-human hybrids.”

I turned my attention back to the hall I had just come from. Al wasn’t kidding. The first abomination rounded the corner, spotting us with a smile that would make any maniac jealous.

This one was a woman’s head on a Voy body. The four arms had been replaced with human arms. The lower half of its body was machine. She screamed at me as if I personally did something to piss her off, and charged.

“Go, go, go,” I said, running with X to the T-bird.

The sheer number of various sounds in the landing bay was enough to make my eardrums want to give up completely. On top of the alarms, the screams of the fleeing workers and roar of engines came the inhuman screeches of the abominations.

The Order-made monstrosities flooded the docking bay. X and I jumped aboard the lowered ramp on the T-bird. Preacher knelt, cradling a rifle. He pumped round after round into the charging monsters.

“Get inside,” Al ordered. “Hold on to your butts; we’ve got to go.”

“No!” I yelled, even surprising myself. “We need to cover their retreat.”

“Say whhhhhhat?” Al asked incredulously. “These people were going to kill you if they found you.”

“They aren’t part of the Order,” I shouted back over the screams of the monsters and the answer Preacher’s rifle returned. “They’re in this position because of us. We stay here and cover their retreat.”

“Oh, for pity sake,” Al responded in a huff. “Fine, but it’s your funeral.”

Over the roar of Preacher’s Hyperion Mark Seven rifle, I unsheathed the axe and knife at my belt. X disappeared into the ship.

There were too many of them for Preacher to take out, even if he could put them down for good. Every round to the creatures’ skulls, torsos, or appendages did nothing but momentarily hinder their progress. Dark blood poured from scorched wounds, but no real change in their movement took place.

I saw Preacher put at least a dozen rounds into the head of one creature who wore a Voy face. Its six eyes splattered around its skull. Gore dripped from its ruined face; still it stalked forward. Free of any eyes, it wasn’t sure where to go, but it kept moving.

Well, you were wrong, I thought to myself. Right when you thought these things couldn’t be any more terrifying.

The flood of brutes was closer now. Those that fell were trampled by the ones behind. The good news was Preacher firing on them had directed their attention solely on us. The bad news was that Preacher firing on them had directed their sole attention on us.

They were ten meters and closing.

All around us, the last scientists and technicians on the station were boarding their crafts and seeking safety off the station.

As soon as the monstrosities were in striking distance, I hurled my axe at the closest target. The black axe blade sank deep into the torso of a human body with a Voy face. The creature looked stunned at first then looked down at the weapon protruding from its chest.

Before it could reach for the weapon and pry it out from its chest cavity, I called the axe back to me. The axe spiraled through the air back to my hand. The creature looked at me with malice in its eyes as it pressed on.

In no time, the monsters reached the rear ramp of our ship. Al kept the T-bird hovering a good three meters above the ground. The jump was nothing to the monsters. The first one to reach us gripped the edge of the ramp with three-fingered Voy hands. It looked to pull itself up.

I stamped a boot smack dab in the middle of the thing’s forehead with all my strength. It lost balance and fell back into the mob of leaping monsters.

Another creature to my left managed to not only grab the end of the ramp, but in the same move, propel itself upward with its impressive upper-body strength.

The sounds of weapon fire opening up added to the insanity of the situation. X walked out from inside the ship with not one but two Hyperion Mark Sevens, one in each hand.

The laser rounds ate up the amalgamation’s chest like knives being stabbed repeatedly through a sponge. The monster trembled, falling backward off the ramp.

The three of us held our ground against impossible odds as more and more of the creatures gripped the edge of the ramp.

“Are the others clear?” I asked, stabbing my knife into the skull of another Voy head popping up in front of me. “Al, did the others get to safety?”

“Yes, and before you say no, I have the perfect song for this moment,” Al said in a rush of words as if she were concerned I was going to cut her off again. “The band is called Skillet.”

“Just get us out of here.” I grunted, throwing my knife into another body then recalling the weapon before slamming it into a different target.

The ship immediately started forward at the same time a song I never heard filled the interior of the ship.

Sometime soon, Al and I were going to have a serious talk about her music selection. I didn’t hate the song, to be honest. I kind of liked it. Her timing was just off.

The T-bird’s ramp closed as Preacher, X, and I backed into the interior of the craft. A monster on the right side of the ramp insisted on catching a ride. It got stuck between the closing ramp and the frame of the door. Under a spray of black blood, a Voy body with a mechanical head was ripped from the lower half of its body.

Even cut in half, the thing wiggled and squirmed toward us. I was about to do the honors when X stepped forward, planting a heavy boot on the robot skull and crushing it under her foot. The thing spasmed once, twice, then failed to move again.

I didn’t realize it in the heat of the fight, but I was covered in the black blood of my enemies. I licked my lips. Some had even gotten into my mouth.

“You, uh, you have a little something right—right there,” X said, pointing to my entire face and then moving her finger all around my body.

“I’ll deal with it later,” I said, spitting on the floor of the ship. I looked over at Cassie’s rising chest to make sure she was still breathing then to the window in front of the pilot’s seat.

Al moved us quickly out of the docking bay shields and away from the station. Mars hung to the left while a spattering of twinkling lights greeted us in all other directions.

“I’m just going to get us far enough to avoid any damage from the blast, then turn around and blow this nest of evil to kingdom come,” Al reported. “I have zero compassion for that space station. It needs to go.”

I heard Al, but all my attention was back on Cassie. She opened her eyes, wincing against the pain. She tried to sit up in her seat.

“Easy, hey, easy now,” X said, going to her. She got down on one knee in front of her. “You have indications of a mild concussion, but otherwise, I think you’ll be fine. Stay awake.”

“Do you know what day it is?” I asked, so happy to see her moving, I thought I might burst. “Who’s the Chancellor in office?”

Cassie looked over at me with a deadpan stare she was unable to maintain. She broke into a smile of her own, then a heavy sigh escaped her lips.

“It’s good to be back,” Cassie answered. “I missed you.”

I leaned in, wrapping my arms around her. I had to remind myself not to squeeze too hard. Cassie was not a small woman. Years of training and physical exertion saw to that. But right then, she fit perfectly in my arms. I wanted to hold on to her forever.

“I missed you more,” I told her, pressing the side of my face gently next to her own. I didn’t realize until now how much I had missed her. Even the familiar scent of her hair was a welcome balm to my scarred soul.

Preacher coughed into his hand awkwardly.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Preacher said as we drew apart. “I’m going to go sit in the copilot’s seat so you two can have a moment.”

X stood there beaming at us. She just nodded in agreement and went to take her seat at the front of the ship.

“Was that—is that, X?” Cassie asked, confused. “When did she get a body? Was that her in the desert before Julian—before he did what to me? It’s all still so confusing. He brainwashed me, didn’t he? He controlled me.”

“He did,” I told her, setting my jaw. “And yes, that’s X. I’ll tell you all about it—”

“Story time’s going to have to wait,” Al called as warning lights went off inside the ship. “I’m reading another craft exiting hyperspace in our proximity. You should strap in. Things might get a little exciting for me now.”




Three

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

Cassie and I moved to the pair of seats behind X and Preacher. Cassie looked at the sphere on the dash that housed Al’s consciousness, and then back to me.

“Exactly how long was I out?” Cassie asked. “Who’s that?”

“Long story short,” I answered, clipping into my harness. “Alerna, the alien who visits me in my dreams, had an AI modeled after her. The AI guarded one of the Relics. The AI went crazy from being alone for so long. This is her. This is Al.”

“Hey, I can hear all of that,” Al huffed. “I’m sitting right here.”

“She’s kind of a wise-ass, but she grows on you,” Preacher said over his shoulder. “Give her some time.”

“Uh, still—right here,” Al stated from the dash. “As much as I would like to engage in this conversation, we have incoming in three—two—one.”

A Battle Class Star Cruiser exited hyperspace in the blink of an eye. One second the space around us was clear with only the red planet to our left and twinkling stars beyond. The next we got to see a Galactic Government Cruiser up close and personal.

The ship was massive, easily a hundred times larger than our own. Rail cannons sprouted all over the impressive deck with a command station in the middle of the craft that towered like some kind of ancient metal building.

“It’s the GG.” Preacher breathed what we were all thinking.

“I was going to blast Leviathans Station,” Al announced, “but I’m getting a request to open a comm line with the Galactic Government. Soooo…”

“Open the channel,” I ordered.

No sooner had I said the words than the view in front of us changed from looking at the ship and space beyond to Charlie Dunn in his wide-brimmed hat. It took me no time to recognize the Chancellor’s right-hand man.

“I see you’ve managed to find and neutralize the station,” Charlie said with a head tilt of respect. “Well done. I’m reading all the escape crafts have launched. There’s chatter all over the place from the survivors about experiments or monsters the Order was testing in this facility.”

My mouth went dry. I understood it all. I knew how this was about to go down.

“You followed us to make sure the job would get done and now you changed your mind,” I accused. “Now you want to keep the station and the monsters the Order created.”

“What can I say? Working for the Galactic Government is a fickle business.” Charlie shrugged. “I was right about you, though. There are others in this organization who would rather see you in a cell than running loose, but I know what you really are. You’re a man of your word and an asset as an ally. Let’s not do anything here to mar that reputation of yours.”

“So we just fly off now and leave you to it?” I queried, already knowing that was what he wanted. “Just like that.”

“Just like that,” Charlie confirmed. “No fuss no muss. You got what you came for. You go on your way with your brand new shiny T-bird the Chancellor may or may not let you keep. Everybody wins.”

“Actually, we’re experiencing a little bit of disruption in the feed here,” I said, wincing at his image on the screen. “Yep, yep, I think we have a bad connection. We’re going to have to call you back.”

“Daniel, there’s nothing wrong with the connection,” Charlie chided, not looking amused in the slightest. “I know what you’re doing.”

“Nope, nope, definitely something wrong. Right, Al?” I asked, lowering my voice into a growl. “We’ll have to call him back.”

“Oh, right,” Al said, catching on. The screen in front of me actually went fuzzy and blurred in and out of focus. “Yes, we’re having issues at the moment. We’ll have to try and reconnect.”

“Daniel, I don’t have time for—”

Al cut the line.

“Did everyone escape the station?” I asked Al. “I mean, all the crew members?”

“Affirmative. I’m only reading life signs from those amalgamations on board,” Al assured. “I’m not sure about Julian Fairmount, however.”

I looked over at Cassie to read her face. She didn’t say anything, but her eyes were as hard as diamonds.

“You can’t tell if he’s still on there or if he escaped or not?” Preacher prodded.

“No, in all the commotion, I stopped tracking him. I’m not reading a human life sign on board now, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t find a way to shield his signal,” Al admitted. “He could have escaped in a craft in the mayhem or he could still be on board, hidden away somewhere.”

“If we let the GG take the station, it all happens all over again,” X warned. “They’ll start testing on those monsters themselves.”

“I’m getting another request for an open line,” Al said. “Should I ignore him? I heard the term ‘ghosting’ was a thing humans did to each other in the past. Should I ‘ghost’ him?”

My mind raced with the possibilities this decision carried. Either we could try to turn the ship and fire on the station quickly, sending all the unholy experiments the Order tested on to deep space or we could turn it all over. If we did, we’d be trusting a very untrustworthy entity to do the right thing.

“I know, I’m going to give him some waiting music to listen to,” Al declared as if she were proud of herself. “I can blare a little White Snake or Pearl Jam at him.”

“No, you can put him through,” I decided. I knew every second Charlie waited, he’d get less and less cordial with me, and right now, we needed to be friends. “I’m ready.”

Charlie popped up on the main screen again. He had pushed his wide-brimmed hat further on the back of his head. He looked pissed.

“Well, that was weird,” I said with large eyes and a shrug. “All systems seem normal now and I can see you again.”

“I’m not in the mood, Mr. Hunt,” Charlie cautioned. “You’re stressing a very new, very delicate relationship right now.”

“I realize that and I am ashamed of my actions,” I offered. “I’m going to have a very serious talking to myself in the mirror later. You can rest assured of that.”

I looked over at Cassie.

She gave me a nod.

“The station’s yours,” I told Charlie, still not sure if I was making the correct decision or not. “Whoever you send to board that thing better be ready. There’s at least twenty super monsters on there that don’t die easy. And maybe a Cyber Hunter still on his feet.”

“You’re making the right call here,” Charlie said with another hard nod. “For half a second, I thought you were about to do something crazy, like turn and fire on that station.”

“I can’t do this alone,” I told him in all honesty. “None of us can. Sooner or later, we have to start putting our trust in each other’s hands.”

“I’ll let the Chancellor know what you said,” Charlie said with approval. “I know she’ll be pleased.”

There was no goodbye; the screen just shut down, offering us a view of space and the Battle Class Cruiser in front of us.

“You know I could always fire on this ship right now,” Al mused. “Take their main weapons off line in a few seconds. By the time they turn to engage, I can have their tracking system wrecked. I think I’d be able to maneuver around their smaller weapons.”

“I hope she’s joking,” Cassie said from her seat.

“She’s not,” X answered.

“No, I do not want you to open fire on the Galactic Government Battle Class Cruiser in front of us,” I stated as clearly as I could. “Al, I repeat, do not open fire on anything.”

“Geez, way to take all the fun out of this meeting,” Al grumbled.

“So where to next?” Preacher asked, turning in his seat as far as his buckle would allow. “Mars? We’re already here.”

I nodded, knowing he and I were still thinking of the same thing. The Chancellor told us there were reports of a beast on the far side of Mars. That had to be Jax. Angel was supposed to bring him back and we hadn’t heard from her since Echo’s funeral.

It was time to bring the other two members of the original Pack Protocol home.

“We head for Mars,” I confirmed. “It’s time to find out what happened to Jax and Angel.”


Four

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

While X and Al sifted through as much data as they could to find any clue on what might have happened to the missing pair of Pack Protocol members, Preacher took the time to rest from his wounds, and I filled Cassie in on what happened since she was gone.

Her mouth dropped when I told her about the third Relic and my fight with the basilisk. It dropped even further when I told her about the amalgamations she had missed fighting when she knocked herself unconscious.

“Yeah, I really bashed my head in, didn’t I?” Cassie asked, gingerly touching the tips of her fingers to the bruise across her right temple. “I—I just couldn’t let him take me back there. Not again.”

“What—what was it like?” I questioned in a quiet tone in case she didn’t want to talk about it. We had moved to the rear of the T-bird where the eight back seats sat across from each other in rows of four. “If you don’t want to talk about it, we don’t have to.”

“No, no, I think I need to,” Cassie said, leaning forward in her seat. Sitting across from her, I did the same. “It was like being plunged into a bath full of ice water. I felt numb all over. My body moved like I wasn’t even in control of it. The part of me that was still conscious was trapped in something—something I can only explain as fog. Does any of that even make sense?”

“I think so,” I told her, leaning even farther forward and taking her hands in mine. “I could see the fight in your eyes when I tried to talk to you.”

“I heard your voice like an echo in the fog.” Cassie winced, trying to recall what it was like for her as if she were grasping at smoke tendrils of a dream long past. “I saw myself, a version of myself in control. She stood in a light of some kind, I think. I had to fight her to get control of that light.”

Cassie bared her teeth and gritted her jaw.

“It’s so hard to remember.” Cassie sighed. “I get what was done to me now in flashes or moments of clarity. How they brainwashed me and put me through the conditioning.”

“You’ll never have to go through that again,” I vowed. “We’ll figure out a way to keep you safe. We’ll find a way to undo what the Order did to you.”

“I can’t believe Julian would do something like that to me,” Cassie fumed, holding my hand so tight, I thought she was going to cut off my circulation. “I know how protective he can be, but to go that far? I feel like I never even really knew him at all.”

“I’m not saying anything he did was right,” I said with a shake of my head. “But in a twisted, messed-up kind of way, I understand what he thought he was doing. He thought he was keeping you safe by controlling you.”

“And now the father figure I had may be dead or on the run with the other Order members.” Cassie sighed. “I don’t even know how I’m supposed to feel about that. The family I’ve known my whole life is either dead or scattered through the solar system. And the most messed-up part about it is I think I’m glad. Does that make me a bad person?”

I looked into her troubled eyes. More than anything, I wished I could take that burden from her. She was confused not just about what happened to her, but how she felt about it.

Memories of my own past of forgotten moments and a family who had stayed loyal at the end paralleled hers. I could not only sympathize with her, I could empathize.

“No, that doesn’t make you a bad person,” I told her. “That makes you human. You’re supposed to struggle with this. I get it, trust me. Life is a messy place where people get hurt and lied to. You know I’m here for you to talk about anything.”

“Anything?” Cassie lifted a brow.

“Anything,” I repeated.

“Did you say you loved me earlier?” Cassie’s lips twitched. “I mean, when I was under the mind control of the Order, did you tell me you loved me or did I imagine that?”

Immediately, everything inside me seized up like I was frozen from my very core. It was like my tongue swelled and I was rendered momentarily mute.

I tried to pull my hands from her, but she held on tighter.

“Nope, you’re not getting out of it that easily, Daniel Hunt.” Cassie leaned in farther. “Did—you—say—you—loved—me?”

“Well, I mean,” I started, already knowing this wasn’t going to be as smooth as I intended. “I may have—”

“Hey, we got a hit!” X called, jumping from her seat at the pilot’s chair. Oblivious to our moment, X headed to the back of the ship with a data pad in her blue hand. “The Galactic Government’s intelligence was right. They have a facility set up around where the Voy made their base camp. There are reports of some kind of creature that looks like a man coming in the night. No one there has been able to catch him, but it has to be Jax, right?”

X looked up from her data pad for the first time. Realization that she just interrupted something important finally crossed her face.

“Oh—sorry, is this a bad time?” X asked. “I can—uh, I can come back.”

“Awwwwwwkward,” Al sing-songed from the front of the T-bird. “I’m pretty sure I’m using that human term correctly for the moment.”

“No, no—we’re fine,” Cassie said, giving my hands a final squeeze and rueful grin. “Daniel just needs a little more time.”

Why is that conversation so cripping hard for you to have? I asked myself in my head. Just say the words. Just say the words. You know you feel it. Why can’t you just tell her?”

“Daniel, are you okay?” X asked, leaning forward to inspect me. “You feeling all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I answered.

“Are you sure?” X prodded. “Space sick or something? You’re looking like you might throw up.”

“I’m fine,” I said, looking at Cassie out of my peripheral vision. She was actually smiling as if this whole situation amused her. “I’m okay. Let’s head there. Let’s head to the site where Jax’s been spotted and ask around.”

“The Galactic Government still maintain security there and a strong presence, but it’s mostly just to guard the area and let the scientists work,” Al imparted. “We may have an issue landing nearby and gaining access. Hmmmm, maybe I can hack in to their network and file us under independent contractors hired to come in and take care of the stranger they keep reporting.”

“Wait, she can do that?” Cassie asked from her seat. “I mean, Al, you can do that?”

“Oh, you haven’t seen the half of it, sister,” Al explained. “I can do way more than that. A few things give me trouble because I was locked away for so long and don’t understand the primitive operating system. Seriously, some of this is like trying to decipher hieroglyphics written by monkeys. Actually, that’s a perfect example. I’m rediscovering an ancient civilization and trying to understand their primitive language.”

“Oh, I like her,” Cassie said to me with a nod. “I approve.”

“Seriously, I don’t know how you put up with him,” Al said to Cassie. “He’s brash, acts first, thinks later, and jumps to put himself in the way of danger.”

“He grows on you,” Cassie responded, giving me a wink. “Plus all the things you just listed off are most of the reasons I like him.”

I busied myself looking out the front window at the Martian landscape around us instead of trying to get into a debate with Al. It was just like I remembered. There were sand dunes that looked like waves rolling across the vast landscape.

In the distance, red mountains caught my eye, set against a rising sun. We were back. I slowly made my way to the front pilot seat to sit next to a silent Preacher.

Al spoke with X and Cassie using a rear speaker to converse with them and set plans for our arrival at the Galactic Government installation.

“You feel it too?” Preacher asked without turning to look at me. “It brings back memories, doesn’t it? And not good ones either.”

I knew everything he meant without having to say it. The last time we were on Mars, we were sweating and bleeding in the sand. Echo died in my arms. The place did not evoke happy memories nor did the fact that we were headed for the exact place I had been held prisoner and tortured.

“We have to go back,” I said to the window more than Preacher. “We have to find out what happened to Jax and Angel. They’ve been gone far too long.”

“And the report from the Chancellor didn’t sound too promising either,” Preacher added. “There’s no question we’re doing the right thing, but there’s also no denying it’s a hard thing to be doing.”

I just nodded in my seat. What else was there to say?

My mind went rampant with scenes of the battle. I remembered Sam showing us the horrifying ability she had been given by the Pack Protocol experiments at the hands of Immortal Corp.

Scene after scene flashed through my mind of ripping Voy down with blaster fire. I could see them looking at me with their six eyes all equally full of hate and wrath. I could feel Echo’s lifeless body in my arms. In more detail than I wanted to remember, I relived it all in my mind’s eye.

“Talk about it,” Preacher implored. “Talk about even if you don’t want to or don’t think you’re ready. It helps. Trust me.”

“Okay, what are we talking about now?” Al joined us at the front. “X and Cassie are setting up our backstory so when we arrive at the installation, we’ll be welcomed. It helps we’ll be showing up in a Galactic Government ship. But go ahead, what are we sharing? PTSD stories?”

Neither Preacher nor I responded. Honestly, I wasn’t trying to be rude to the AI. I was still stuck in my own head.

“I guess most days, I try not to think about it,” Al volunteered. “I bury it down deep and just try to focus on the next thing in front of me. It’s hard being alone at all, to be honest. I just want constant work or stimulation, so I don’t have to relive the centuries I was secluded in the underground installation by myself.”

As strange as it sounded, what Al said actually made a lot of sense and applied to me as well. I was doing the same thing. Very few times, like at Echo’s funeral or sitting with Wesley, had I stopped to think about what the past was doing to me.

Most days, I just focused on the next right thing to do, hoping the phantoms of my past would fade. That was a foolish hope. I understood that now.

“Well, don’t make me be the only one.” Al huffed. “I’m opening up to you two here and being very vulnerable, say something.”

“I don’t talk about it as much as I should,” Preacher volunteered. “And it’s not easy to do it, but I think a part of me is addicted to the life. I know it’s left scars on me, both visible and invisible, but I was built for this. I know this is what I was meant to do. I think I can find some freedom in that.”

I sat there thinking about both of their thoughts. I knew it was only a matter of time before Al egged me on to say something as well.

“Humph, hugh, ruff,” Al said, doing her best imitations of coughing. “Daniel, I think you have the proverbial microphone.”

“I guess the events of the past have made us prisoners in our own minds. We can choose to stay in our cages or break free from the past,” I answered slowly. “I’ve given myself permission to move on. I look at the past briefly now, but I think if I look over my shoulder too long, I’ll die there. I just try to live my life now doing the good I can do. I hope that will be enough.”

We sat there, a human with one eye, an alien AI, and some experimental super soldier.

“Wow, this is some really heavy stuff,” Al said with a sigh. “For as naïve as you humans are, you really know how to lay it all out there. Who would have thought?”

I sat in that moment of vulnerability just staring out the front window. I wasn’t really seeing what was out across the Martian landscape at the moment. I was too deep in my own thoughts.

Look how far you’ve come, I thought to myself. And you still have so much further to go.


Five

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“We should be arriving at the compound in the next few minutes,” X said from the rear of the ship. “We need to get our story straight.”

“With Al’s help, we sent a message that looks like it came from the Galactic Government,” Cassie explained. “We’re private contractors who specialize in the unexplained. We were hired to come and look into the reports of the wild man in the area.”

“And you think that’s going to work?” Preacher asked skeptically. “I mean, I’m not trying to poke holes in the plan but wouldn’t the Galactic Government just deal with it on their own if there was someone causing one of their bases trouble?”

“I think they may if this was a normal base and they had the manpower there to spare,” Al chimed in. “The base is mostly scientists and researchers going over what the Voy left behind. The actual military section of the Galactic Government there is only a handful of soldiers set to guard the perimeter. They don’t have the resources to go deep into the Martian desert and track something that may or may not be there.”

“Understood,” Preacher acknowledged. “So let’s hope this thing they’re seeing at night is Jax. Maybe he can lead us to Angel and we can figure out why she never brought him back.”

“Okay, so I’ve worked up aliases for all of us,” X said, pointing to me first. “Daniel, you’re Dan Carthew, our expert tracker. Cassie is Carry Comas, the leader of our team. Preacher is Mike Keevil, our own security for the mission, and I’m the trusty tech robot Anne Mitchem. Our tracking and consulting business is called Organization Z.”

I lifted my hand into the air as if I were in some kind of school waiting to be called upon by my teacher.

“Any questions?” X asked, ignoring my hand intentionally just to mess with me. “Anyone? Anyone at all besides Daniel? Okay, Daniel?”

“My alias is Dan Carthew and my name is basically Dan already. Do you think I should have a different name?” I asked, only half kidding. “I mean, seriously? Come on.”

“Listen, it’s already confusing enough with all four of you changing names,” Al chimed in from her sphere at the front of the ship controls. “At least that one’s easy to remember.”

“Okay, just thought I’d ask,” I grumped.

“We’ve also created a backstory and information for our business in case anyone wants to take a closer look,” Cassie explained. “We should be fine. With any luck, we’ll be in and out in a day or two. Actually, I don’t even know how much time we’ll need to spend at this installation at all. We go check in and gather any information they have and then we’re out.”

“The less time we can spend there, the better,” Preacher agreed. “We can adjust the plan as necessary.”

“And it looks like we’re coming up on it now,” X said, looking out the main window. “We should leave any weapons here when we go in to meet them. Let me do most of the talking, or Cassie.”

Preacher and I both looked at her as she and Cassie took seats behind us.

“No offense, but we have a better chance of not inserting our foot in our mouths.” X shrugged. “Ask Al. I’m not making this up.”

“She’s not wrong,” Al concurred. “Hold on, we’re getting hailed from the installation site.”

“I repeat, this is Galactic Government restricted air space,” A woman’s voice filled the interior of the ship. “You are ordered to turn your ship around immediately or you will be fired on.”

“Galactic Government Installation, this is Carry Comas with my team,” Cassie stated calmly. “We were hired by the Galactic Government to come and take a look at the issue you’re having at night. The stranger that’s been reported roaming the perimeter of the grounds?”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“Carry, I’m not seeing—oh, there it is. I didn’t see this before,” the woman said, sounding confused on the other end.

I kind of felt sorry for her. Here she was just trying to do her job, only to have Al hacking her system and X uploading new information for her.

“Actually, I do have you coming in today.” The woman’s voice took a slightly relieved tone. “This isn’t bad news; we could use someone looking into this for us. It’s really set some of the staff on edge. You’re clear to land.”

“Thank you,” Cassie answered.

The line clicked closed.

As we coasted closer to the installation, I began to see buildings take shape. The GG wasted no time in securing the home base of the Voy. The Voy used a hollowed-out mountain to stage their invasion of Mars. A shield had cloaked them while they were here and the interior of the mountain further masked their presence.

The shield was gone now. Around the original Voy buildings were a series of new Galactic Government structures that had been flown in. The buildings looked like large shipping containers but with windows and doors.

I had seen them used before. Dropships were used to fly in the field buildings. The buildings would be hooked up to water lines and electrical power to form ready-to-use barracks, offices, or mess halls.

At least a dozen of these structures were set up in a U shape around the Voy buildings at the base of the mountain. Outside of that were heavy steel gates and cement barricades that Galactic Government Praetorians patrolled.

“This is either going to go really well or really bad, really fast,” Al announced, not trying to ease our nerves at all. “I mean, I know I’m using the word ‘really’ a lot right now, but I think I like it. It fits.”

Al maneuvered the T-bird to the ground outside the gates. To my relief, it seemed someone called ahead and warned the praetorians there. At least they weren’t aiming their weapons at us yet.

I did see a few air-to-ground turrets capable of firing high density laser beams that could rip the T-bird in half stationed strategically around the exterior of the base. The Galactic Government was leaving no chance that the base would be overrun by a corporation or anyone else, for that matter. Although the number of soldiers left to guard the installation might be few, they were well-equipped.

“No weapons,” Cassie reminded us as she unclipped her harness. “Preacher, that means you.”

Preacher gave off a heavy sigh before removing the harness from around his back. The sheath carried the katana he took everywhere.

I knew how he felt. I moved to the rear of the T-bird, placing my axe and knife along with my recallers in an overhead bin. I felt naked without them.

“You still have a little, a little amalgamation gore behind your right ear,” X said as the ramp to the ship descended. “I know you cleaned up before, but that pesky monstrosity stuff really takes some time to get off completely.”

“Good looking out,” I told her, rubbing the space she pointed out behind my right ear. “You ready for this?”

“We’ll be fine,” Cassie volunteered as she headed down the ramp. “Remember, Dan, act professional and try not to say anything.”

I gave Cassie a deadpan stare before we both broke into a grin. I missed her more than I even knew.

Cassie disappeared down the ramp, followed by X.

“You meat sacks do be careful now,” Al said with a hint of reluctance in her voice. “I’m starting to create some kind of strange bond with you. I’m not sure I like it yet, but until I figure it out, you should stay alive.”

“Thanks, Al,” Preacher answered. “We’ll miss you too.”

Preacher looked at me and then to the bin over the rear seats of the ship where the Relic was stored. I had chosen to take the sword of power with us instead of leaving it at Dragon Hold. It was a decision I was still second guessing.

I justified the act by telling myself it was better not to have two Relics at the same place. And that wasn’t the only reason. I had to be sure no one else was coerced by the power of the blade. The sword had a way of speaking to people without saying a word. It promised them strength and a sense of immortality if they just picked it up.

Preacher shook himself free of whatever thought crossed his mind as he looked at the bin and went down the ramp.

“Al,” I said, looking at the sphere. “I don’t have to tell you what that sword means. You know what it is and what it can do.”

“Oh, you mean don’t invite the Galactic Government Praetorians in for a little show and tell?” Al asked sarcastically. “No, Dan Carthew, I promise I will keep it safe.”

“Thank you, I think,” I told the AI. “Next time, I could do without the sarcasm.”

“That’s kind of my thing now,” Al replied. “I guess you would call it my personality or brand. I like sarcasm.”

I followed the others down the ramp to the setting sun and the Martian landscape. Dry sand and rocks crunched under my boots. Like it or not, I was back. But this didn’t have anything to do with me. This was about friends who were like family that were in need. I’d travel to a different dimension for Jax and Angel if I had to.

Buffeted by the dry wind caressing my shirt and pants, I made my way to where Cassie, X, and Preacher spoke with the praetorians.

They were stopped at a black steel gate at the moment. A Galactic Government flag flapped in the sporadic wind. I was familiar with the sigil, an ancient feline known as a saber tooth. It was gold on a black background. A pair of fangs sprouted from its upper jaw.

There were four praetorians in full armor. Their armor color was a dark mustard yellow. Each one of them held the standard issued Hyperion Mark Seven. At the moment, the weapons were pointed down, fingers removed from the triggers of the weapons.



I knew how quickly that could change from experience. I said a silent prayer that Al and X had done a thorough job in covering our tracks.

“We’re as surprised as you are,” Cassie said, speaking with a praetorian sergeant. “We received the call just yesterday that it was time to gear up and head out. But when the GG gives you a call and offers you a paycheck, you just do your job. I’ve got mouths to feed back home.”

“I hear that,” the praetorian said. “All right. I have orders to bring you and your team in to meet with Doc Herbie. I’ll need to search you for weapons first and ask that you move your ship away from our installation for the time being. You can land over to the left of the buildings.”

“Completely understand,” Cassie acknowledged, looking over at X.

X nodded and began relaying instructions to Al to move the ship away from the base.

“I have to admit I’m glad to see you here,” the sergeant disclosed, stepping to the side as the other three praetorians came up to search us. “There’s not a whole lot that freaks me out after facing down the Voy during the battle of Mars. What’s happening here at night, it isn’t natural.”


Six

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I stepped up to take my turn getting accosted by the gloved hands of the praetorians. The words from the hard-nosed sergeant weren’t lost on me.

“You and me both, though, Sarg,” the praetorian patting me down said in an excited voice. “I heard some screaming the other night coming from the perimeter. Me and the boys call it ‘the phantom,’ whatever it is.”

“It’s no phantom,” the sergeant responded. “I’ve seen it. It looks human enough. It runs on two legs at the very least.”

“Hey, don’t I know you?” The praetorian patting me down finished and looked into my face. I couldn’t see his eyes since he was wearing his helmet. “You look really familiar. Are you a celebrity or something?”

My gut seized. My fame as the Hero of Mars had gotten my face out more than I ever wanted. This was something I hadn’t anticipated.

“I think I just have one of those faces.” I shrugged. “I get that a lot.”

“Mmm hmm,” the private answered, clearly not believing me.

“All right, let’s let them do their job if they’re all clear,” the sergeant stated. “You can follow Private Dale. He’ll take you in.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Cassie said, offering a hand. “We’ll take care of your phantom issue, you can rest assured. It’s what we do.”

The sergeant shook her hand. The gates were opened for us as a talkative Private Dale walked us inside.

I intentionally followed last, allowing the private and Cassie to converse about the installation without him insisting he knew me from somewhere.

“We didn’t anticipate your fame reaching the far side of Mars, but I guess it does make sense,” X whispered. “You’re the Hero of Mars after all.”

“I don’t feel like much of a hero,” I murmured, walking into what remained of the Voy camp. “I’m not sure there were any real winners in the fight. Maybe just a side that lost less.”

We traveled through the perimeter of the Galactic Government buildings they called shells and then into the Voy camp. There were buildings here not that different from our own. It seemed scientists had been busy at work for some time.

There were teams of men and women walking around with data pads in hands taking notes. No one was wearing masks or breathing apparatuses of any kind. Apparently, the Voy decided not to leave behind any nasty surprises and the area had been cleared for humans.

“Are you sure you all haven’t been on the holo news or something?” Private Dale asked, looking over his shoulder at me. “I swear I’ve seen you all or at least him.”

“We’ve been filmed before as trackers hunting down the unexplained.” Cassie shrugged off the question. “That’s probably where you’ve seen us before. You know everyone loves those shows of people hunting down ghosts and demons.”

That led the private off on a series of questions about the unknown that Cassie did her best to answer.

“Looks like we might have to get you a mask, Mijo,” Preacher said over his shoulder. “We’ll say you have asthma or a weak immune system sensitive with the weather here.”

“Wonderful,” I intoned. “You know me, the sensitive type.”

Preacher chuckled as we finally reached a one-story Voy structure. The building was a large circle with a flat roof. A series of windows showed out at sporadic intervals.

“Here you are,” Private Dale said, pointing to the door. “Doctor David Herbie will be inside. He’s a little—a little—well, you’ll see.”

“Thank you,” Cassie called to the private, who eyed me again as he walked back to join his detail.

Cassie opened the door and we all walked inside. The place was like what I imagined the inside of Al’s brain to be. The circular building was one giant room transitioned into one part library, one part study, and covered with notes and papers.

The walls were coated with some kind of thick paint, allowing someone to use markers on it. There were diagrams all over the place, as well as notes that proclaimed everything from “Sandwiches for lunch” to “Voy reason for life.”

Bookcases crammed with texts filled any sections of the wall that were free of all the writing. A massive table sat in the room with more papers and data pads on it than I cared to count.

A man wearing a white coat sat hunched over the table, busy at work. He was toying like a madman on a data pad that sat in front of him. His hair was a mess and if he did notice us walk in, he didn’t show it.

“Kiki, is that you?” Doctor Herbie asked as we walked inside. Without looking up or waiting for a reply, he continued. “I’ll take my nitro caf cold this time with as much sweetener as you can add before it turns muddy. On second thought, I’ll take as much sweetener in it as you can add.”

“Sorry,” Cassie said. “We’re not here to take your caf order. We’ve been sent to deal with your phantom problem.”

At the sound of her voice, Doctor Herbie looked up, blinking at us in surprise. He squinted then opened his eyes wide as recollection hit like a lightning bolt.

“Oh, yes, yes,” he said, rising from his seat and coming over to shake all of our hands warmly. “I was told a team was en route. You got here so quickly. I feel like I was just told a few days ago you were on your way. Or was that a few minutes ago? I’m not sure; it all bleeds together these days.”

“Riiiiiiiight,” Cassie said with a raised eyebrow. “So this phantom that’s been running wild outside the installation here. Any idea what it might be? Have you been able to capture any video of it? We’d like to get started right away.”

“Oh, I already know what it is,” Doctor Herbie said as if the phantom were yesterday’s news. “It’s never made an aggressive move toward us or anyone in the compound, so my attention has been moved elsewhere.”

“But do you know what it is?” X queried.

Doctor Herbie looked at her as if it were the first time he had seen her. His eyes doubled in size. He went over, looking her up and down, not like he was checking her out in an inappropriate way, but rather as if he were admiring the craftsmanship of her build.

“Oh my,” Doctor Herbie said, blinking rapidly. “And may I ask where you were created? The work done on your frame is unique in a way I’ve never seen. I don’t mean to be rude, but you are an AI, correct? With a—a synthetic frame?”

“I am,” X confirmed uncomfortably. “I’d rather stay on topic if we may.”

“The phantom,” Cassie emphasized in a harder tone, bringing the doctor back to the conversation. “What do you think it is? Do you have any recordings of it?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Doctor Herbie said, moving his attention from X. “The phantom is human or at least mostly human. The roars made from its throat mirror a human’s. My guess is, whoever, this creature is, was tested on somehow. Who tested on it is another question. There are so many private corporations these days. Who knows? It could even be the Galactic Government.”

Doctor Herbie moved over to his chaotic desk and picked up one of the data pads. It was a large circular piece of glass about the size of a dinner plate. He maneuvered around the glass screen a few times, swiping up and through various files until he found the one he wanted.

“Here we are. See for yourself.” Doctor Herbie handed the data pad over to Cassie and the rest of us to take a look. “This is the clearest video recording, but of course I’ll send everything we have on file over to you. I have to admit I am a bit surprised the Galactic Government spent the resources in hiring you. They didn’t seem concerned about the threat when we first contacted them about it.”

Cassie accepted the data pad from the doctor with a nod. We huddled around her as the video played. The glass screen blurred then showed some kind of night vision mode.

Everything on the screen was painted in blacks and dark greens. I could see the night sky with stars overhead, mounds of red sand sloped and dropped like waves in the ocean.

For the moment, it was silent. I had to look down in the right hand corner of the screen to be sure it was even playing at all. A timer stamping the day and time ran forward. Without that, I might have thought the video was paused.

A moment later, it was obvious the video was playing. A roar more than a scream or howl, so primal in nature it called to me in my DNA, told me it was Jax.

As if I needed any more proof, a giant figure too tall to be naturally human and too muscular to be anyone but Jax crossed the screen at a run.

I couldn’t tell if he was running toward someone or away from something. Either way, he appeared on one side of the screen one second and was gone the next.

The total time he spent on camera had to be two, maybe three seconds at most. I was too intent on looking at the screen to look down and note the timestamp, when he disappeared.

“That’s him.” Preacher breathed barely enough for us to hear. Not that it would have made much difference. Doctor Herbie moved to the other side of the circular room. He reached inside his coat and plucked a marker in his right hand and began writing notes on the wall.

“When does he come around the installation?” I asked. “How often?”

“Oh, I would say two to three times a week,” Doctor Herbie answered over his shoulder. “It’s not exactly on a set schedule, but often enough.”

“And there’s never anyone with him?” Preacher questioned. “Are you sure about that?”

I knew where Preacher’s mind was going. Angel was supposed to talk Jax back down to his normal human state. It was obvious she wasn’t able to. Here he was, as animal and primal as ever. Where had Angel gone?

“I’m sure.” Doctor Herbie added more symbols to what looked like a mathematical equation he was working out on the wall. “It’s only ever that altered man. Some of the praetorians have requested to go out and hunt or kill him, but that’s not their job here. He or it, whatever it is, never threatens our installation. He just runs on the perimeter.”

“I think we have all we need,” Cassie said for all of us. “Thank you, Doctor. We’ll get to work right away and start the process of tracking him down.”

“Of course, of course,” Doctor Herbie said, taking a step back from the wall while he studied his equation. “You’re more than welcome to stay here with us. I’ll have someone show you to a building where you can set up your equipment. Just one last thing.”

“What’s that?’ Cassie asked.

“Who exactly are you?” Doctor Herbie turned to us, tilting his head to the side.

“We’re a private company contracted by the Galactic Government,” Cassie said, lying so well, I nearly forgot she wasn’t telling the truth. “You can look at our—”

“I’m going to give you one more chance to be honest,” Doctor Herbie lifted another small data pad from his right lab coat pocket. His right thumb pressed against the glass. “If you’re not, I’ll release the emergency button on this data pad and I’ll have the GG swarming this place in seconds.”


Seven

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I took a step forward then stopped. I knew this battle wasn’t going to be won with any kind of physical prowess. I was faster than most. Still, there was no way for me to cross the space between us and ensure he didn’t release his thumb from the glass.

Cassie opened her mouth to say something.

“The truth,” Doctor Herbie reminded her. “Only the truth.”

I had no desire to get into a fight with the Galactic Government inside an abandoned Voy base they now controlled. All I wanted to do was find Jax and Angel and go home.

“I’m the Hero of Mars,” I said, taking a step forward so he could see me clearly. “My name is Daniel Hunt. You’re right. X is an AI, but her synthetic body is made from an alien material. This is Cassie and Preacher. Cassie’s a Cyber Hunter on the outs with the Order. Preacher and I are former Immortal Corp, now W.O.L.F. We’re just here to get our friends. We think your phantom may be one.”

And there it was. All our careful identities, all the backstories laid out on the table for Doctor Herbie to judge.

“Ugh, you idiot,” Al said over the comm. “I’m going to fire up the T-bird and get you out of there before the Galactic Government makes you look like an old Earth cheese that used to be made, called Swiss.”

“Oh, well, why didn’t you just say so?” Doctor Herbie asked with a shrug. He pressed another button on his data pad and then put it into his pocket. “You see now that I can believe. I just don’t like being lied to.”

“Stand down,” X whispered into her comms. “Al, stand down.”

“I heard him.” Al huffed like someone who had been told they were going to have the time of their life and then told it wasn’t going to happen. “I don’t have any physical fingers at the moment, but I have an itchy trigger finger nonetheless. I really want to blow something up soon.”

“I’m sorry we had to lie to you,” Cassie told the doctor. “You can understand why we thought it would be better.”

“Oh yes, I understand completely,” Doctor Herbie said, looking me up and down then at my face as if to be sure. He squinted one eye and then nodded at me. “I was sure I had seen you before. You know, you’re kind of a celebrity. You should be wearing a mask or hood or something.”

“I know,” I told him. “Thank you for not giving us up.”

“Why would I do that?” Doctor Herbie wondered. “Oh, you mean the data pad? No, that was an app I have to remember to take my meds. I have no way of calling the GG like that. It was all a bluff to get you to tell me the truth. And tell me the truth you did, so now I believe we can move forward in this relationship.”

“Son of a brum.” Preacher sighed. “He was bluffing the entire time.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you are all heroes,” Doctor Herbie stated, going over to his desk and shuffling through a stack of papers and small boxes. “I’ve read extensively about the Battle of Mars and exactly what happened here. If all you want is your friend, then you’re not going to get any ill will from me.”

He finally found a stack of boxes. It consisted of a container of crackers, playing cards, and then a long, thin box of masks. He handed one to me.

“Here you go. With all the dust around here, it’s not uncommon for members of the science team or visitors to walk around with a mask covering the lower half of their face,” Doctor Herbie shared, handing me the box. “We can keep the arrangements the same. I’ll actually show you to your quarters and then you’re free to do as you wish to locate your friend.”

“Thank you,” I said, accepting the box of masks. I took one out and unfolded the dense material. It went over my head like a headband before I pulled it to the lower half of my face. It was snug and hot but would do the job.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll want to get started right away,” Doctor Herbie stated. “I imagine the sooner you’re in and out, the better off you’ll be. Follow me.”

Doctor Herbie took the lead with X and Preacher following in his wake. Cassie looked over at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.

“What?” I asked. The word came out muffled through my mask. “Do I have something on my face?”

“No, no, I was just thinking we should mess up your hair a little. It’ll add to throw people off your true identity as the savior of our race.”

“Hero of Mars,” I corrected, although I knew she was doing it on purpose. “It’s bad enough they started calling me that.”

Cassie ran her fingers through my hair using the same kind of motions I would when scratching Butch’s head. I probably could have fallen asleep right there. Having someone else play with your hair like that was like heaven.

“Don’t fall asleep on me.” Cassie laughed, removing her hands. “There, that’s better. You look like an unkempt asthmatic now.”

“Wonderful,” I said as we hurried to follow the others.

The building Doctor Herbie led us to was another Voy structure about a block away from the one where we met him. It was night now. A few scientists walked in groups talking quietly. I saw a GG patrol of two praetorians down the street, but other than that, the area was pretty empty.

The stars and moons overhead gave off some light. Placed along the streets were massive generators and light poles providing all the illumination we could desire.

“There’s just over a hundred personnel working in the base, but we’re pretty spread out both in the mountain and the installation here,” Doctor Herbie explained as we walked. “X, I imagine you or whoever you’re talking to in your ear can pull my contact information from my data pad should you need anything?”

“Um—” X started sheepishly then coughed. “Yes, I believe we can.”

“Wonderful,” Doctor Herbie exclaimed with no hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Well, this is your building.”

He stopped, directing with his arm to a one-story building on our left. It was rectangular and more long than wide. Made of plain stone, it didn’t look like anything special from the outside.

“The base knows you’re here, under your disguises, of course,” Doctor Herbie went on to explain. “They’ve been directed to help in any way they can. There are beds and restrooms for you in the building, but I’ll have food brought. Is there anything else you may need?”

“I don’t think so,” Cassie said, shaking Doctor Herbie’s hand. “You’ve been extremely helpful. Thank you for that. You made a possibly dangerous situation smooth for everyone.”

“Like I said,” Doctor Herbie answered. “I’ve read all the files on what happened here. I know who you are. I understand what you’re doing for a friend. Good friends are hard to find these days. The phantom that runs the perimeter of our building at night, whoever it may be, is a lucky person to have you all.”

“He’d do it for us,” Preacher said more to himself than to the doctor. “I know he would.”

Doctor Herbie tilted his head in acknowledgement. He went back the way we came.

The chill accompanying the Martian night began to descend on the installation. A shiver ran down my spine. I looked up and down the well-lit street. As far as I could tell, we were the only ones there.

Still, along with the cold came a sense I couldn’t shake. I’d felt the sensation before and I wasn’t wrong then. I knew we were being watched. Whether it was someone in the shadows with a scope or pair of binoculars, they were out there.

“We should get inside, come up with a plan, then prepare to go out again,” Cassie said as she reached for the handle of the door. “Doctor Herbie was right: the sooner we’re out of here, the better. Besides, this place gives me the creeps.”

Cassie opened the door and walked into the building with the rest of us filing in behind. I was the last to go in. On a whim, I halted my forward progress and spun around.

I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure, but my eyesight was better than most. A figure down the street to my right stepped back into the shadows.

That was enough for me. I followed the others into the building, closing the door behind me.

The room was simple and bare. Four beds, a few dressers, and a door at the far end that I guessed led to the washroom. No decoration, no posters or plants, nothing.

“I think someone’s watching us,” I told the others, making sure the door was closed and locked behind me.

“Motion down the street to the right,” Preacher agreed. “I saw her too.”

“Her?” I asked incredulously.

“It could have been a smaller man, but if I had to guess based on size and stature, I’d also guess a woman,” Cassie added. “She’s keeping her distance for a reason.”

“She didn’t allow the GG patrol or the scientists here to see her either, so she’s hiding from them all,” X agreed. “There’s a high likelihood it’s Angel.”

There I was thinking I was the smartest cookie in the cupboard, when really I was the last to the party.

I pulled the hot mask down to hang around my neck.

If it’s Angel, why isn’t she trying to reach out to us on the comms? I thought to myself. What happened to her and Jax?

“If it’s Angel, it’s clear she doesn’t want to talk here,” Preacher guessed. “I say we head back out to the T-bird. If it’s her and she wants to talk, she’ll feel more comfortable doing it out there.”

“I think that’s a good plan,” X concurred. “While we make the trip, I can go over all the video and data Doctor Herbie provided us on Jax. I’ll see if I can pick anything out that may prove useful. You all should wait for the food they offered, though. Your bodies will need it. I imagine we have a long night ahead of us.”

X was right. I was glad she brought it up because, these days, I always felt hungry. I had to weigh the desire to eat against my desire to see Angel and Jax again and figure out what exactly was going on here.

“If the food’s not here in ten minutes, we should get going.” Cassie spoke what I was thinking. “We can’t waste time. They could need us.”

I was about to agree, when X straightened. She had the hundred-kilometer stare in her eye she always carried when she was working on something in her internal data banks.

“X?” I asked, trying to mask the concern I felt in the pit of my stomach. “X, we good?”

“Well, I guess that will depend on how this call goes,” X looked at me with a weak smile. “The Chancellor’s on the line. She would like to speak with you.”


Eight

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

That pit in my stomach evolved into a black hole. Did the Chancellor know we were here? Was it something to do with the Relic they possessed? Was there news on the goings-on in Australia?

The simple truth was that I had no idea and would have no idea until I answered the call. Everyone didn’t even pretend to be looking anywhere else except at me.

“Hello, Chancellor,” I said after giving the nod to X to put her through. “No doubt you’ve heard we kept up our end of the bargain?”

“Indeed,” Chancellor Loween Marie answered. “I have reports from Mr. Dunn that you not only handed over Leviathan Station, but you were willing to adjust to our change of plan as directed. I wanted to thank you for that. This is how we build trust with one another. This is why I’m calling you now, to build more of that trust.”

I had no idea if the Chancellor was privy to our little plan of infiltrating the GG installation on Mars or not. I sure as crip wasn’t going to offer up the information on my own.

“I’d like very much to continue our working relationship,” I responded. “With the Order crippled, my allies are in short supply.”

“As all great allies should be,” the Chancellor answered. “Trustworthy friends are few and too far between. Well, enough of the niceties. I wanted to inform you what was going on in Australia as well as Earth as a whole to see if we might be able to continue to work together.”

I let out a silent prayer of thanks. If the Chancellor had any idea of where we were or what we were doing, she hadn’t let on.

“I’d like that very much,” I said, trying not to sound too relieved. “I think we want the same thing.”

“And what would that be?” the Chancellor asked. “I believe we do as well, but I’d like to hear it in your own words.”

“Rest,” I told her. “I don’t know why, but we’ve been put in positions to help. I think that’s what we need to do, so ultimately, we can find some peace in this life.”

The line was quiet for so long, I thought I might have dropped the call.

“I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Hunt,” Chancellor Marie replied just as I was about to ask X if she were still on the line. “I couldn’t agree more. There are reports the virus in Australia is spreading even faster than we could have anticipated. We’re working with the new Republic to contain the situation. However, as we find ourselves racing to put out that fire, there seem to be—well, I’m just going to come out and say it. There seems to be creatures of unknown origin wreaking havoc on Earth. It’s like all of a sudden the dead Earth has become a hotbed of the strange and dangerous.”

I felt a stab of guilt on that one. The creatures she was speaking of came from the gate. The gate that I didn’t necessarily open but the one I failed to keep closed.

“As we work with the New Republic in Australia, I was hoping you would agree to aid our assets on Earth as they deal with these—these new threats,” the Chancellor continued. “You seem to have knowledge and a gift for dealing with these kinds of things.”

“We’ll help,” I assured her. “We’ll do what we can to lend a hand.”

“Very good,” the Chancellor answered. “I’ll send you information of who is working the initiative on Earth containing these creatures.”

“Thank you,” I responded. “Not just for giving us a chance but for continuing to reach out.”

“I think you and I are going to have a long, mutually beneficial relationship,” the Chancellor said before ending the call. “Be safe.”

That was it; the line clicked shut.

“Oh, my Lord of the Way,” Al said into all of our earpieces. “I thought I was going to lose it at any moment. Talk about a stressful call. I thought for sure she figured out you were on Mars. And now we’re monster hunters? I mean, I’m glad I’m not stuck in that underground alien bunker anymore, but I had no idea when I signed up to join your circus that I’d be fighting hybrid creatures in space or monsters on Earth.”

“You think we have a day or two before us not linking up with GG forces on Earth seems suspicious?” Preacher asked what we were all thinking. “Maybe less?”

“I think a day is reasonable,” Cassie thought out loud. “Two days missing will start to raise questions on where we are, and then we’ll need to come up with an excuse.”

“Then we better find Jax fast and figure out what’s happened to Angel,” X chimed in. “But first you need sustenance to maintain your energy levels. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s going to be a long night.”

Just then, there was a knock on the door.

Years of training led my hand to reach for a weapon that wasn’t there.

“Hi,” a younger male voice said through the door. “Doctor Herbie asked if I would drop off a late dinner to you?”

“Easy, boys,” Cassie said, heading for the door with a roguish grin to Preacher and me. “Not everyone is out to kill you.”

Cassie opened the door to a beaming man not out of his twenties. He carried a large steel crate filled with covered trays.

“Thank you,” Cassie said, accepting the crate from the young man. “It smells wonderful.”

“Are you sure you can carry it? It’s heav—”

The next words died in the man’s throat as he saw Cassie pluck the crate from his arms as if he were dropping off a pillow.

“Oh, oh my,” he said, looking Cassie up and down. “What a woman.”

“You’re telling me,” I said as Cassie moved into the room to place the crate on one of the beds. “Thank you.”

I closed the door as the young man nodded vigorously, still staring at Cassie with an open mouth.

The food was hot and smelled great. There were four square metal plates with metal lids on top. I guess no one understood X had no need for food. That was fine with me.

Along with the trays were bottles of water, utensils, and napkins.

We opened the trays to reveal some kind of meat dish with noodles and sauce, bread, and salad. The stuff tasted great. With the silence in the room, I could tell the others thought the same thing.

X busied herself with that far-off stare, sitting on one of the beds.

“Man, I haven’t had cooking this good since—since I can’t remember,” Preacher declared around a mouthful of bread. “Probably the last time we had an actual meal at Dragon Hold. When was that again?”

“All the days are bleeding into each other,” I answered with a sigh, savoring my last bite of the mystery meat noodle dish. “Maybe Cryx’s birthday?”

“That was mostly desserts, but I guess that counts,” Cassie said, washing down the meal with her water. “Have you two come to think of Dragon Hold as home?”

“I guess I have,” I admitted reluctantly. “We’ll get back there soon enough. We’ll have meals like this all the time and hot showers.”

“A hot shower,” Preacher said with a groan. “I love it when you talk like that.”

We all broke up into laughter. Part of it was because what Preacher said was unexpected and out of character, part of it was because it was true, and part of it was because we were all getting tired.

The laughter died down a moment later. Preacher wiped away a tear of mirth falling from his one eye. Cassie took a deep breath to steady herself.

“It’s always an adventure,” I said, thinking of what we were about to do next. Phantom hunting in the Martian desert wasn’t something I ever thought I’d be doing. “You three ready?”

“Ready,” Preacher confirmed.

“Let’s do it,” Cassie responded.

We all looked at X. She was still silent, sitting on the edge of the bed with that far-off stare of hers.

“X, you okay?” I asked, concerned.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” X said thoughtfully. “I’ve been reviewing the footage of Jax over and over again from different angles forward and backward to see if I can tell if he’s running toward or away from anything. His pattern is always different, his actions sporadic.”

“Just tell them,” Al scolded in all of our ears. “They need to know the truth.”

“It’s not truth,” X corrected her AI counterpart. “It’s still speculation until proven.”

“Whatever you want to say to lie to yourself,” Al chided. “If you won’t tell them, I will.”

“What is it, X?” I asked not sure I wanted an answer. “What’s wrong?”

“The way he moves, the roars, the intermittent nature of his appearance all indicate an animal more than any kind of human behavior,” X said slowly. “Even when he changed before, he was able to come back. His body movements still mimicked that of a human. These—these movements do not.”

“You think he’s lost himself to that animal within,” Preacher said for her. “No, no, Jax is like us. He’d never give up. He’d never wholly give in to that side of his nature.”

“I hope you’re right,” X answered, getting up from the bed. “We should go to the T-bird first and get our gear, then head out. I have a good idea of where we should start looking for him.”

We exited the building in the Galactic Government installation overseeing the abandoned Voy base. I tried not to make it obvious that I was searching for Angel. I checked my corners, the roofs of the buildings, and behind me without trying to make it obvious.

I did not want Angel to sense that I knew she was somewhere close if she desired to remain hidden. Neither did I want to tip off any passing praetorian patrols that there might be a possible threat close by.

We walked in quiet for the most part. The streets were wide, and at this hour, there weren’t many scientists around. We passed a pair of praetorians who nodded in our direction and moved on.

It seemed the base was well informed of our presence and instructed not to interfere. We headed to the front of the installation where the Galactic Government shell buildings formed the perimeter around the base.

Four praetorians waved us forward, removing the heavy cement barrier from the entrance to the installation and then sliding the steel black bars down a railing.

We walked out into the cold night air. A chilly wind ruffled the mask that covered my face from the bridge of my nose down to my chin. I pulled the thing lower, letting it hang around my throat like a scarf once we were clear.

Night time in the Martian desert was nothing like the day. Besides the bright spotlights ringing the outside of the installation behind us everything lay covered in shadow.

My imagination played tricks on me as I pictured Voy charging over the sand, explosions detonating, and me fighting for my life.


Nine

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“Daniel, are you okay?” X asked.

I snapped out of my flashbacks, being jerked back to the present moment by her voice.

Cassie, Preacher, and X all moved on a good dozen meters to our left. Al and the T-bird were waiting for us. Jax needed help.

Still, in the darkest parts of the shadows, I could imagine the Voy there; six eyes and four arms reaching for me.

“I’m good,” I lied, shaking my head from the PTSD haunting my every step. “Let’s go.”

We jogged the rest of the way to our ship. Al lowered the ramp for us as soon as we arrived. We walked inside the warm cabin to Al’s energetic personality.

“You know, I know this is silly, but it does seem different talking to you when you’re here in close physical proximity versus over the comms,” Al mused. “I don’t know why that is. It seems strange. I don’t like that feeling of not knowing.”

“Are you saying you missed us?” I asked as I reached over the rear seats of the T-bird toward the overhead storage space. I flipped open the crate holding spare weapons. My backup MK II was there, resting in a foam indention. “I missed you too, if that makes you feel better.”

“No, I didn’t say I missed anyone,” Al denied as if I offended her. “Loneliness is something that I’m used to. I mean, we’ve only known each other for a few days. Me missing you would be silly.”

“It’s normal to miss people you care about.” Cassie poked at the AI. She looked over at me and winked. “You can be honest with us, Al. You’re in a safe space. We’re all adults here. We missed you too.”

“No—I—” Al stuttered. “I’m fine. It is strange, though, how close I feel to you.”

“Experiences shared bond people together,” Preacher said, readjusting his katana over his shoulder and slamming a cartridge of neutralizing rounds into his Hyperion Mark Seven. “The more intense the experience, the stronger the bond.”

“Interesting hypothesis,” Al allowed without even sounding like she was being sarcastic this time. “I’ll file that under the consideration section of my data banks. Now I—”

The way Al cut off her own sentence stopped all of us. My head swung over to the T-bird’s control panel and the sphere Al called a body.

“Movement outside the ship,” Al reported as if she were particularly bothered by the information. “I’m not reading anything on the exterior video feeds or the Galactic Government installation network.”

“Angel.” X breathed.

Knife and axe in my belt, I was the first to move. I slipped on the silver bands over my wrists that would call the bladed weapons back to me whenever I desired. I was already down the ramp, searching the night, when Angel blinked into existence beside me.

I nearly jumped. There was nothing but blackness to my left and the faint lights of the GG installation to my right, when all of a sudden, Angel stood in front of me.

Angel was muscular, thanks to the many years of training and our hard profession. Her short shoulder-length hair was almost like X’s, except hers was pulled back into a tight ponytail.

She wore a black shirt and pants with a shoulder harness, carrying a blaster at her side. She looked tired and worn as if she wanted to be happier to see us, but she just didn’t have the energy at the moment.

On top of this, she was filthy. Dirt and dust coated her from boot to forehead. If I had to guess, it had been weeks since she had seen the inside of a shower. Maybe longer since she sat down to a decent meal.

Guilt racked the back of my mind.

What has she gone through since you’ve seen her? I asked myself. Why weren’t you here to help?

I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. Lucky for me, Preacher knew the words.

“Angel?” Preacher asked, going to her and taking her in his arms like a father would his daughter. “Angel, what happened to you? Are you okay?”

Cassie and X joined me, giving the former leader of the Pack Protocol and Angel a moment.

Angel nodded as if she were in a daze. I saw her close her eyes as if she’d never open them again and then slump into Preacher’s arms.

“I tried to get through to him,” Angel said so quietly, I barely heard her. “I tried to get through to him so many times, but he’s gone. He’s too far gone this time. Why can’t I get through to him?”

Angel was rambling now. Preacher held her tight lest she hit the ground in her exhausted state.

“She’s injured,” X said, going forward and helping Preacher support Angel. “Fresh wound on her left side and right leg.”

X was right. I had failed to notice rips in her shirt were crusted over with dried blood. The wounds weren’t fresh but still healing.

“Let’s get her inside,” I said, snapping out of my dazed-like state. “Come on.”

I entered the T-bird, making room for Preacher and X to lay Angel across the left row of seats in the rear of the ship. The four seats with their armrests in the up position provided just enough room for someone to lie down.

“She’s lost a lot of blood, but her healing factor’s kept her going,” Cassie informed me, reaching for a med kit. “Let’s get those clothes off so I can see what we’re dealing with.”

I knew exactly what she meant. The seven original Pack Protocol members had all been experimented on and enhanced by Immortal Corp. We were all given an accelerated healing ability along with another main enhancement. Angel’s main talent was being able to cloak herself. Preacher’s, before he lost it at the hands of the Voy, was being able to channel his will into his blades.

My ability wasn’t some cool flying skill or being quicker than the blink of an eye. No, I was able to heal faster than any of my counterparts. What would take a normal human weeks to recover from would take one of our Pack Protocol members days and myself minutes.

Preacher and X gently laid a rambling Angel on the seat. As gently as they could, X and Cassie removed her shirt and pants to take a look at her wounds.

Preacher and I took a step back to let them work. The confines of the T-bird made it difficult for all of us to be in there caring for her. We stepped out onto the rear ramp.

“I couldn’t—I couldn’t get through to him,” Angel kept saying. “I’ve tried so many times.”

“Shhh,” Cassie soothed her. “Hey, hey, it’s going to be okay. We’re going to figure this out.”

Preacher and I watched helplessly. When they undressed Angel, I clenched my jaws in anger. On her left rib cage was a long rake of talons, slicing her down to her bones. The wound stopped bleeding, but it looked fresh enough to still pain her, maybe a day or two old.

The injury on her right thigh was similar. A deep rake like some large animal had scraped its nails down her leg. This wound looked older.

“Your body is already healing the wounds on its own,” X told her. “We’re just going to get them clean and see if we can’t aid the process.”

I wasn’t sure what to feel. Anger was growing in my chest, but at whom? At Jax? If he’d lost control, then he didn’t even know what he was doing. Maybe I was angry at myself.

Where were you? I asked myself. Where were you when she was on Mars bleeding alone? You should have been here. The Relics can burn. You should have been here.

“You’re going to be fine and we’re going to get Jax,” Cassie said to her patient. “I’m going to give you something to help you rest. You’re safe. You’re amongst your friends.”

“No, no,” Angel said, sitting bolt upright. Her rambling went from confused and fatigued to angry. “I need to find him. He needs me.”

Instead of waiting for a response, Angel jumped to her feet, slamming into Cassie and heading for the ramp door.

Cassie stumbled backward. X reached for her, but Angel blinked out of sight.

If Preacher and I hadn’t been on the ramp, she would have disappeared in the night.

Preacher and I both reached out blindly, trying to restrain the invisible woman who was clearly not thinking straight. I received a blow to my stomach and my chin for my trouble.

Being hit always hurt, but not knowing where you were going to be hit made the pain even worse. I stumbled back, reaching out not with a strike but trying to find a hold on Angel.

Preacher saw where the impacts landed and managed to wrap her in a bear hug. I wasn’t sure where she hit him next, but I could make an educated guess it was in the privates because Preacher doubled over with a gasp.

I grabbed blindly at the area Preacher had just been holding on to. My left hand caught Angel’s wrist.

X and Cassie were there now. X ripped open a container of high octane caf, spewing the liquid all over me and, by default, Angel.

Angel sputtered for a moment. The rough silhouette of her hair and upper body splattered with the liquid took form in front of me. I had enough time to taste the caf that landed around my mouth before Angel hit me with an open palm to the throat.

Anyone who’s ever been hit in the throat with abandon will tell you it ain’t pretty. Air gone, my brain told my body to panic. I released Angel, grabbing at my throat and trying to cough. Nothing was coming out. Past the pain, the fear of not being able to breathe ripped at my consciousness.

Cassie appeared behind Angel, sticking a thick steel pin into the right side of the invisible woman’s neck. There was a tiny click and hiss as the pen shot the tranquilizing agent into Angel’s system using super high-pressured air.

Angel twisted around, ready to throw Cassie to the ground. Instead of trying to fight, Cassie hit her again with the pen.

Angel staggered.

X grabbed her so she wouldn’t fall as Cassie hit her again and a fourth time with the pen.

Angel blinked to a form we could see again, asleep in X’s strong arms.

“Be careful with her,” Preacher begged X and Cassie. “Be careful with her. This isn’t her. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

“We’ve got her, we’ve got her,” Cassie told him as X carried Angel back inside the T-bird. “She’s just asleep. She’ll be fine.”

“And she throws one heck of a throat chop,” I wheezed in between coughs. “I think my Adam’s apple hit the back of my spine on that one.”

Preacher and I recovered enough to walk back up the ramp and see Angel lying peacefully on the row of seats. X and Cassie continued to clean her wounds.

“She’ll be out for a few hours.” Cassie answered our question before we could even ask. “Al can monitor her and tell us if we need to head back.”

“Indeed,” Al said with a chipper tone that didn’t seem to fit the mood. “I like her. When I saw her knee Preacher in the cojones, I felt that one and I neither have testicles nor a body.”

“Too soon,” Preacher deadpanned.

“Then let’s go hunting and figure all of this out,” I said, looking over at the others for consensus. “Angel’s safe for the moment. Let’s go bring Jax home as well.”

“You heard her,” Preacher said, lifting his rifle from the ground. “He’s not going to come quietly.”

“Then he’ll come unconsciously until we can get him some help,” Cassie answered, already heading down the ramp. “Come on. It’s time we found ourselves a phantom.”


Ten

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“His actions and the paths he travels are sporadic at best,” X told us as we crossed the bleak Martian landscape. “I will be able to see his heat signature, however, so we just need to get close. I’ve constructed a map showing the trails he’s taken based off all the videos provided by Doctor Herbie. Here.”

X lifted a data pad out in front of her body we could all see. The screen showed a white background with the installation marked by black squares and a thick line designating the fenced-off perimeter. A series of thin red lines criss-crossing and zigzagging around the perimeter showed the trails Jax used previously.

The interesting thing about all of this was that most of his comings and goings took place on the opposite side of the GG installation from where we landed the T-bird.

“It looks like wherever he’s coming from, he enters the area on the left side of the GG installation first,” I stated. “Is there any value in us splitting up to cover more ground?”

“No way we’re getting split up again,” Cassie declared with a tone in her voice I knew would not be swayed. “Do I have to remind you what happened last time we split up? You fell through a gate, I was brainwashed, and X got a physical body. Although I guess that last one is a positive. I’m happy for you, X.”

“Thank you,” X said with a side smile. “I have to agree with Cassie on this one. Splitting up now seems a bit premature.”

“Not to mention nothing good comes of splitting up on all those old holo flicks,” Preacher added. “You know, the ones where they decide it’s a good idea to search individually or in pairs. It always ends bad.”

“All right,” I responded, taking another look at the data pad X held in front of her. “So we head to the right side of the installation and hope X can get a bearing on his heat signature.”

“We should find a high vantage point that will allow me access to as much of the surrounding terrain as possible,” X advised, picking up my plan from there. “With my enhanced vision, I should be able to acquire quite a range.”

“Let’s do it,” I answered. “Stay sharp. Eyes open. Sorry, Preacher, you too. Eye open.”

“Always with the jokes.” Preacher chuckled good naturedly.

It felt good to have that moment. Angel was sleeping in the T-bird recovering from her wounds and Jax was still on the loose, but the laughter just fit. It was one of those cases where the worry and stress of the moment weighed so heavy on us, it felt crushing. We could either give in or crack a joke and move on.

X kept us on track with the GG installation on our right side. Wherever we crested a dune, we would be able to see its bright lights off in the distance. It looked so far away now.

Sounds in the desert were practically non-existent besides the crunching of our boots on the red sand. Every so often, a cold flurry of wind would whip around us as if reminding us it hadn’t left completely.

X in the lead, Preacher behind us. Cassie and I traveled in the middle of the pack.

“Daniel?” Cassie asked quietly.

“Yes?” I said, turning my eyes from the landscape to look at her. Even wrapped in shadow, she was beautiful.

“I think, I think when we get back to Dragon Hold, I might have to sit one out on the GG monster hunting,” Cassie forced the words out of her lips as if she regretted each and every one of them. “It’s not that I want to, not at all. But if there are Order members still out there that have the code to turn me into—into that mindless puppet again, I can’t have that. I need to make sure that never happens again.”

“I understand,” I told her. I knew what I was saying. I was agreeing to more time apart and that killed me inside as much as it did her, but I agreed with her. “Maybe Laine will be able to help you. The way she gets inside people’s heads and can see things. Or if she can’t, we’ll get someone who can. No matter what it costs. I’m told I’m kind of a big deal now. I have a few credits to rub together as well.”

I could practically feel Cassie rolling her eyes at me in the darkness. The act was followed by a chuckle.

“You always know the right things to say to me to make me feel better, Daniel.” Cassie sighed. “Thank you for understanding. I just can’t shake the feeling that Julian and the Order are still out there just waiting to make their move. When they come again, I’ll be ready. Do you want to hear something weird?”

“Always want to hear something weird,” I answered.

“I don’t even know if I totally hate Julian.” Cassie sighed. “I mean, I’ll never have the same relationship with him. He used me. Even if he thought he was protecting me for my own good. He lied to me and manipulated me. Still, is it strange that I don’t want him to be dead?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said, thinking back to my own complicated relationship with Echo. “I think relationships, especially those that feel like family, can be messy. We all make mistakes; that’s human. Every relationship is work.”

“I don’t want him to be dead,” Cassie said as if she were surprised by her own words. “I hope he escaped and the GG didn’t capture him. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think deep down, he’s a good man. I hope he is, at least.”

We walked in silence.

I thought of saying something, but it didn’t seem right. Cassie wasn’t the type of woman who needed me to tell her everything was going to be okay. She didn’t need me to coddle her or hold her by the hand, at least not right now. She just needed to know that I was there for her no matter what.

We followed X as she made a hard right after giving the GG installation a wide berth. We traveled around its left side now as we headed for the portion of the map where the red lines showing Jax’s traveling patterns looked like a bunch of squiggly lines.

X headed for a particularly large dune, her thick legs sunk into the sand with heavy silent footfalls. The exertion needed to gain the peak of the dune didn’t seem to faze her in the least.

I took the dune a little slower with Cassie and then Preacher following last. The one-eyed mercenary was huffing like an ancient tanker out of gas on its final leg up a steep incline.

“Next—next time, I think I’ll wait for you at the bottom,” Preacher wheezed. “Not all of us are enhanced or as young as we used to be.”

I was about to offer a word of encouragement when a primal roar more animal than man shook the very sky itself. It sounded like a challenge more than a scream of pain or fear.

X pointed with an outstretched hand to a location southeast of our position. I couldn’t see anything through the darkness, but with her enhanced vision, I knew she had him.

“He’s there just staring at us.” X breathed. “Angel was right. There’s nothing human of him left. His stance. The aggressive nature even indicates an animal protecting its territory.”

“We have to try,” I said, already heading down the dune. “We can’t leave him out here.”

“Be cautious,” X warned, following a half step behind along with the others. “He’s not going to remember you.”

I raced across the open stretch of sand, putting one foot in front of the next. The sound came again and this time I saw him. Jaxon Aze, or the beast Jaxon Aze had become, was easily twice the size of a normal man. I couldn’t make out his features yet, but I knew what I would find.

When Jax transformed, his eyes turned blood red, and not just the iris, the entire eyeball. His teeth transitioned to fangs.

I sprinted forward, only coming to a halt when I was within a dozen meters of the hulking man.

A deep growl echoed from within Jax’s cavernous chest. He reared up to show his full size then roared at me again. The sound was so impressive, I thought it might burst an eardrum. This was what animals did when they felt threatened. They postured, making themselves as large as they could, bellowing to create fear in their enemies.

X was already with me.

Cassie, followed by Preacher, was still a few steps behind.

“Hey, Jax, hey, it’s me,” I said, opening my arms wide, as if that was going to convince him I was a friend. I had my MK II as well as both my axe and knife holstered. “Easy, buddy, we’re not here to hurt you. Do you remember me? It’s Daniel, do you remember me?”

Oxygen came in and out of Jax’s nostrils in heavy bursts of hot air. His chest heaved up and down as he studied me. It was too dark to see if any sign of recollection crossed his face.

In the light of the moons and stars, he looked like a giant with a mouth full of animalistic teeth. If it were anyone else, I might have been petrified.

“Spartan,” Preacher said, huffing next to me as he caught up to the group. “That was your call sign, Jax. Spartan. If you don’t remember who you are, then at least remember that. Remember the name your family gave you.”

Jax sat down hard on the ground. Instead of looking at us, he looked up to the stars and moons overhead as if the name triggered something deep inside him.

“You do remember, don’t you?” Preacher asked, taking a step closer.

“Preacher,” X warned.

Preacher waved off her concern.

“Spartan,” Preacher walked closer. Both of his palms were out as if he were approaching a wild animal and intended to allow the beast to sniff his hands. “Spartan, it’s me.”

Jax looked down from the stars at me and then at Preacher. He grunted. For a moment, I thought he looked confused, even sad.

I was close enough to see the deep lines in his face, quivering lips shielding massive teeth.

“You—you left,” Jax growled.

“Preacher!” I shouted too late.

Jax swung a massive arm into the side of Preacher’s head, knocking the man sideways and unconscious.

Jax roared once more, preparing to land on Preacher and finish the job.

“No!” I said, reaching for the MK II at my hip. The drum was already set to shoot tranquilizers. I pressed the trigger over and over again, sending darts into Jax’s thick skin. Only one out of every three managed to find a hold.

Jax leaped over Preacher’s body, lifting a fist the size of my head to bring down on his limp form.

While I had taken time to draw my weapon and aim, X and Cassie rushed forward with abandon.

X reached Jax first, crashing into him with enough force to take down a small building. Jax stumbled to his left, losing his balance, and went down.

Cassie was right behind her, releasing a shield from her right metal forearm. As a Cyber Hunter, Cassie’s mechanical forearms acted like a kind of arsenal of weapons for her.

I skidded to a halt beside Preacher as X and Cassie went to war with Jax.

Two lines of blood, one from Preacher’s ear and the other from a cut on his scalp, ran down the side of his face.

I pressed a hand to the side of his neck to check his pulse. He was still breathing, just unconscious.

I said a silent prayer of thanks. I couldn’t lose anyone else. I wouldn’t lose anyone else, including Jax. I had seen enough of my friends die. I wouldn’t add another name to the list, not tonight.

Sand flew in every direction as X stood toe to toe with the beast Jax had become. The two laid into one another with blows like two juggernauts taking turns to see who could hit the hardest.

It was like nothing I had ever seen and that was saying a lot.


Eleven

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

In one corner, weighing as much as alien tech weighs, hitting like a dropship, the invincible X! I heard a ring announcer’s voice in my head shout. In the other corner, the behemoth previously known as Jaxon Aze, faster than a T-bird and capable of superhuman healing, the beast!

I shook these thoughts from my mind, rising to my feet.

X hammered her fist across Jax’s jaw a second too late. Jax leaned back from the blow. With lightning quick speed, he returned the blow, planting a giant fist in the pit of X’s stomach.

X didn’t double over from the pain, but rather, the force folded her in half, throwing her to the side.

A terrible cracking sound accompanied the strike.

Jax lifted his head to the sky and roared in pain. He brought his broken fist close to his chest. Saliva dropped from his mouth as pain boiled to anger.

Cassie and I moved into action. Cassie carried a steel shield in her right hand that fanned out from her right forearm. She leapt up, taking her opening, and slammed the shield’s edge across Jax’s face.

The beast stumbled back, dazed.

I emptied my tranquilizing rounds into him at pointblank range. My efforts were met with the same result. Maybe one out of five darts penetrated his hide. That wasn’t going to be enough to bring him down, not with his size and his own healing factor working overtime to recover any damage done to his body.

Jax shook his head, ripping away the darts from the right side of his body.

X, Cassie, and I had a moment to regroup.

“This isn’t going to be easy,” Cassie said out of the side of her mouth. “That’s one big boy.”

“Any ideas?” I asked the two women. “I think we need to end this as soon as possible or we’re going to risk some serious injury to him or us.”

“We have to knock him unconscious or choke him out,” X said out loud. “Tranquilizers aren’t going to do it this time. You’re out, right?”

“I am, but Preacher loaded his rifle with the same rounds,” I thought out loud. “That doesn’t do us much good if they can’t penetrate his skin.”

Jax turned his attention back on us. It seemed he wasn’t interested in just standing around and allowing us time to come up with a new plan.

With grunts that sounded like a shovel raking over rocks, he charged us again.

I dove to the right. Cassie dove to the left.

X had other plans.

The AI in an alien synthetic body actually ran at Jax. The only one that could match him for strength, she decided to push her luck. X had enough room to take two long strides before leaping up with a flying knee. She cracked Jax on the underside of his jaw with her right knee.

Jax’s head snapped back so far, I thought she might have broken his spine.

X landed on the sand in a kneeling position with one hand on the sand. A cloud of dirt exploded around Jax’s still form as he slumped motionless in the Martian sand.

“What was that?” Cassie asked, shocked. “Did you just do a flying knee followed by a superhero landing?”

“I did,” X said, looking over and concerned at Jax’s still form. “Although now I’m worried I hit him too hard.”

I was about to go to Jax myself and see if he was okay when the beast moved slowly at first and then faster, shaking his head free of the stars I’m sure he saw in his vision. He turned to look at us again.

When we first started this fight, I would have said he looked pissed.

If that were the case, I didn’t know how to describe him now.

Jax looked terrifying. He opened his mouth wide, sending a roar I felt in my sternum. Again he charged.

Again Cassie and I dove out of the way.

I ate a mouthful of sand as I made my roll and popped back onto my feet.

X tried a different approach, waiting for him this time. She jumped forward at the last minute with her right fist cocked back.

Moving faster than he had any right to, Jax halted his forward progress and stepped to his right, avoiding her attack. He grabbed X’s upper body in hands that were nearly large enough to circle her torso. He lifted her up, swinging her around in wide circles and picking up momentum.

Cassie and I moved in. The Cyber Hunter had a pair of thick cords coming out of her forearms she used like whips. She lashed out, grabbing on to Jax’s feet.

Too late.

Jax released his grip on X at the same time, hurling her with all of his might. X sailed into the darkness and out of sight.

With Cassie’s whips around his ankles and his own momentum tangling him, Jax fell to the ground in a rage of fury.

I was on him the next moment. Unsheathing my axe, I gripped the lowest part of the weapon’s handle along with the flat side of the axe head. I placed the hardened wood on the underside of Jax’s neck as I jumped onto his back.

Getting a piggyback ride from Jax was like hugging a rock. His skin was not only thick and rough, but the muscle underneath it didn’t seem like muscle at all.

Jax thrashed on the ground, trying to reach his massive arms behind his head to grab me. I ducked my head, trying to dodge the paw-like hands that sought to rip me off.

That was one of the downsides of being so large. Jax’s limbs lost some of their mobility. Rippling with muscles, his arms lacked the range of motion to reach me.

With all my own strength, I pulled back on the ends of my axe, restricting the oxygen flow to the monster I rode.

Jax gurgled and clawed at his throat.

I wasn’t sure what Cassie was doing or if X had already recovered and was on her way back to help.

Right now, all I could do was hold on and hope Jax passed out before I did.

The muscles in my hands, arms, and shoulders burned as I fought not just to stay on his back but pull with every ounce of my being.

It was working. Jax gasped for air, making guttural choking sounds as he made his way to unsteady feet. It wasn’t like he was going anywhere either. Out of my peripheral vision, I could see Cassie straining with her whips.

Both of the steel cables that came out of her forearms were still wrapped around Jax’s legs. She strained with them, pulling as hard as she could to make sure the cords stayed tight around his ankles.

Jax clawed at his own throat, opening up long cuts that flowed freely with his blood. His talon-like nails slashed deep into my own closed fists, sending searing hot stabbing pain through my palms.

I couldn’t help but lift my head to the night sky and send out a grunt of my own.

I wasn’t sure if I would have done that if it weren’t for hearing Jax’s guttural growls. I could feel my own hot blood drip off my knuckles.

Jax could cut my fists to ribbons, but one thing was for sure: I wasn’t going to let go.

After what seemed like an eternity of our struggle under the stars, Jax made one final attempt to get me off his back before passing out completely. Feet tied and unable to reach me with his hands, he had one play left.

With all the weight of a hover bike, Jax threw himself backward. The bulk of his weight crushing me between his back and the sand felt like I was being body-slammed through a roof, only to fall to the ground below and then have a basilisk jump on me for good measure.

I didn’t mean to release my hold, but somewhere between unconsciousness and the blackness that came from being underneath Jax, I lost my grip.

It was my turn not to be able to breathe under his massive weight. I looked up; at least I thought I had my eyes open. All I could see was black. All I could feel was the crushing weight on my chest.

Then, salvation.

Jax’s unmoving weight was rolled off by X and Cassie.

I just lay there sucking in the cold night air. I thought for sure I had a few cracked ribs and even a splintered sternum.

Cassie fell to her knees beside me, cradling my head.

“Why are you always the one to get hurt so badly?” she asked, wiping the sweat from my brow. “Can you breathe?”

“I—I don’t always get hurt,” I said, focusing past the painful inhales of air.

“You didn’t look that great after fighting the basilisk,” X reminded me over Cassie’s shoulder. “Then there was the fight at the gate. Didn’t you get stabbed while you were holding on to Syrinity?”

“When I first met you, I beat you up pretty badly,” Cassie said thoughtfully. “There was also the contest with the corporations to see who would be our leader and the war with the Voy that left you injured. Oh, how about when the Voy tortured you with that bug.”

“Okay, okay,” I admitted, understanding now Cassie was just egging me on until she got a smile out of me. “Maybe I do get hurt a lot. But maybe that’s how it should be. I’m the one that can take it.”

Breathing was coming easier now. I winced as I sat up looking down at my ruined hands. Jax had shredded them to ribbons. Even with my accelerated healing factor, they were just now beginning to heal and close over with new pink skin.

“I’m going to check on Preacher,” X said after seeing that I was going to be fine. “I’ll be right back.”

I looked over at the slumbering Jax to make sure he was still breathing. It was easy to see. His wide back rose and fell with each inhale and exhale.

“I’m not sure how we’re going to be able to transport him,” Cassie said, chewing on her bottom lip. “It’s not like he’s going to fit inside the T-bird like that. And even if we could squeeze him in, he’d need to stay sedated the whole trip until we could figure something out.”

She wasn’t wrong.

My mind was already racing with the possibilities on how to transport Jax and then to take it a step further, how to get him to return to his human form.

“Can you get up?” Cassie asked. “I can see X and Preacher heading down the dune.”

“Yeah, I think so,” I answered.

Cassie helped me rise to unsteady feet. I took a big breath in and out.

“One concussion and I miss all the fun,” Preacher complained, approaching Jax’s sleeping form with X by his side. X placed a hand on his shoulder just in case.

“Oh, Jax,” Preacher murmured, sinking down to a knee when he saw the sleeping beast. “What happened to you?”

“We have to get him back to Dragon Hold,” I said. “Him and Angel both. We can unravel the story from there. Was there ever any kind of trigger for him to turn back to human? I mean, in the original Pack Protocol?”

“You mean like a manual off switch?” Preacher asked, rising to his feet. “No, he was able to control it himself, turning it on and off at will. Maybe he used it too much. Maybe we forced him to do that.”

“If it was anyone who had him do that, it was me,” I said. “I should’ve stopped him.”

“We can play the blame game later,” Cassie interrupted. “Right now, we need to figure out a way to get him on board the T-bird and get him home.”

“I think I have an idea,” X said, filling the sudden void of silence. “But you’re not going to like it.”


Twelve

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

X was right.

I didn’t like it. But it worked and it was the best plan we had at the moment.

With both rows of four seats facing each other in the rear of the T-bird, we filled the space between them with crates. We laid Jax’s massive body across the impromptu bed. And when I say “we,” it was mostly X. She was the only one who could lift his colossal girth.

X hooked up an IV that fed his system a sleeping agent to ensure he stayed out until we got home.

I could only imagine what damage he could cause in a tight space aboard the T-bird if he woke.

That left four seats in the front of the craft for Cassie, Angel, X, myself, and Preacher. X volunteered to stand. She insisted standing or sitting made no difference since her alien structure did not fatigue.

I would have argued with her, but I saw firsthand how she dragged Jax across the desert back to the T-bird after our fight. She made carrying him seem as easy as picking up a wolf pup and taking them along for a walk.

One thing that was lost on me as we fought Jax in the wide-open air was the level of stench wafting off him. Being in the wild for weeks made him as pleasant to be around as some mutie skunk ape back on Earth.

That didn’t seem to bother Angel. Over and over again, she left her seat in the front to go back and check on him.

Preacher and I exchanged more than a few knowing glances. Angel was holding on by a thread. If anything happened to Jax or if we weren’t able to bring him back, she’d be just as much a liability as he was.

“He’ll be all right,” I reassured Angel as she came back to take her seat after the umpteenth time of going to check on our sleeping beauty in the back. “We’ll get him to Laine, who’ll be able to get inside his head, and then if that’s not enough, I’ll pay whatever it takes to get him the best kind of care. Either way, we’ll get him back.”

Angel looked out into the blackness of hyperspace travel then to me with a firm nod.

“Thank you for coming back,” she said with a hard swallow. “I mean it. I wasn’t sure what else to do. I was going to call you, but I didn’t see the point. If I couldn’t get through to him, I didn’t know who could. I just kept trying over and over again.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Preacher reassured her. “I’m sure if more time passed and you were unable to reach him, you would have contacted us. The most important thing is what we do now. We get him back and we get you some rest, a proper shower, and some hot food.”

Angel closed her weary eyes with a sigh.

“That does sound wonderful,” Angel admitted. “It’s good to see all of you. Life hasn’t been easy lately. I know I have myself to blame for most of that.”

“What’s done is done,” I said. “We’re here now and that’s what matters. You haven’t met Laine yet. She’s able to read and even go inside people’s minds. She’ll get Jax set straight. If anyone can, it’ll be her.”

“Okay, okay, yes.” Angel nodded along with my words as if she were convincing herself what I said was good enough for her. “We’ll figure this out just like we always have. Is Wesley back at this Dragon Hold of yours now?”

I exchanged glances with X. I didn’t know how to tell her any other way. Angel had been through a lot recently and letting her know one of her friends, a father figure to us all, was dead seemed cruel.

Still, what else was I supposed to do? I wasn’t going to lie.

Just tell her, I told myself in my head. Tell her.

“Wesley didn’t m—Wesley’s dead,” I said bluntly. I knew that, looking back, Angel would appreciate me being up front and honest.

“I’m sorry he didn’t make it,” Preacher added, trying to bear some of my burden. “He went out fighting.”

Angel slumped in her seat.

For a moment, I thought I was wrong. Maybe this was too much for her. Maybe I should have tried to dodge the question now and answer it later.

Cassie stood and went over to Angel, placing a hand on her shoulder.

Angel didn’t cry; she just looked numb. To me, that was worse. She was bottling up everything inside and I knew firsthand what that could do to someone.

“How did it happen?” Angel asked.

I told her everything. I told her about the other Relics, the way Wesley covered us going toe to toe with Atilla’s robots, everything.

“Are they dead?” Angel finally inquired when my story was done. “I mean Atilla and this Rival Mercer. Did you make them pay?”

“Both of them,” I told her with no real sense of accomplishment in my words. Their deaths were something that needed to be done, but I took no joy or looked back with a sense of happiness in my heart for what I had done. “Rival was ripped apart by a sea monster from the gate and I buried my axe and knife in Atilla.”

“Good,” Angel ground out, holding on to her anger to give her strength. She was a good mercenary. That was what we were taught to do in our line of work. “They got what they deserved.”

This was no time to argue with her. I knew what she was feeling. No matter how much we lied to ourselves, telling our spirit that we were happy about another’s death, it still didn’t bring back our loved ones.

“Hey, you remember that briefing when we all showed up with cigars in our mouths?” Preacher asked Angel with a chuckle. “We thought it was hilarious, but Wesley looked all pissed off like we were making fun of him.”

“Do I?” Angel cracked a grin despite herself. “Echo hated the taste of cigars, but he did it anyway to go along with the joke.”

“I don’t remember any of this,” I told them, laughing at the thought of a pissed off Wesley in front of the members of the Pack Protocol. “Well then, what happened?”

“We thought it would be fun to actually smoke them with him.” Preacher started outright laughing now. “Half of you had never had one before and were hacking like your lungs were on fire.”

“I never saw Wesley laugh so much,” Angel said, also breaking into real stomach-trembling laughter. “His face turned all red like he couldn’t breathe. Echo was hacking and Sam outright threw hers in the trash, which then caught on fire.”

I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t even remember being there, but the thought of half the team coughing up a lung, Wesley doubling over with laughter, and Sam starting a fire was enough for me.

For those few moments, the T-bird was filled with laughter despite ourselves. There was nothing funny about our current predicament but memories. Good memories about people who we cared for were keeping us smiling now.

Cassie and X even joined in with a few chuckles.

“I don’t get human humor at all,” Al said from her place in the control panel. “So people filled their lungs with smoke and then became pyromaniacs? You all have a very twisted sense of what is appropriate to laugh at.”

The sounds of mirth died out in the cabin of the T-bird. Angel wiped her eyes dry. Preacher let out a sigh.

“He was one of the good ones,” Preacher added at the end as the space went silent. “There aren’t a lot of people in this world made to handle a bunch of forsaken mercenaries like us.”

We all sensed a respectful pause in the conversation.

I took the time to think about the man we lost. Not for the first time, I replayed the events of his death in my head, asking myself what I could have done differently. If there was something I could have done to save him. Was his death my fault?

I knew the answer, of course. When it was someone’s time to go, then it was their time to go. Sooner or later, one way or another, it would be my time to journey into the afterlife. When it came for me, I only hoped I could face it like Wesley had. Eyes open, shoulder-to-shoulder with those I cared about, and blaster blazing.

The bulk of our trip back to Earth happened amongst sleep and scattered conversation. X volunteered to make sure Jax remained sedated. With Al piloting the ship, that meant the humans and altered humans on board were free for the time being.

I gave myself permission not just to sleep but let my mind rest. These days, we were nonstop on the go. If it wasn’t one thing, then it was another. Soon we would be back on Earth, trying to figure out what to do with Jax and monster hunting with the Galactic Government.

Our brief respite came too soon as Al warned us that we were about to exit hyperspace.

“All right, you lucky band of mercenaries,” Al said to all of us. “We’re about to exit hyperspace and then it’s back to work. I do think it would be useful if I were to go with you in whatever mission you have next. However, we need to come up with a better way for me to travel. As much as I like being held in your sweaty human palms, another form may be beneficial.”

“We can talk about it, but I don’t have any more of that alien steel X’s body was made from,” I warned her. “Your future self only gave me one cube.”

“Oh, no, I wasn’t talking about a body, well at least not a physical body per se. I was thinking more of a hologram body like I had in the Primordial installation you found me in,” Al corrected me. “I can give you instructions on how you would create that kind of technology.”

“I would be eager to learn,” X chimed in from her spot behind us. “I think we could create something like that for you with Bapz’s help. Maybe set up something in Dragon Hold as well as the ships.”

“Perfect,” Al said, sounding happy. “I don’t know why I even asked the humans. I should have just talked to you. It’s clear who’s running the show here.”

“I’m running the show,” I said indignantly. I looked over at X. “Right?”

“Of course you are.” X gave me a wink.

“Well, you said I am, but now you’re winking at me, which makes me think I’m not and you’re just saying that to pacify me,” I said, trying to make sense of the situation. “So?”

“Well, we all know who’s in charge here,” Cassie said, reaching over and patting me on the hand. “There, there, you’re just lucky you’re cute.”

Before I could try and untangle the conversation Al cut in. “And here we are in three—two—one.”

The blackness of hyperspace was gone in the blink of an eye. One second we were covered on all sides by the swirling blackness of nothingness. The next we were headed down to Earth and Dragon Hold.

Sitting behind the pilot’s seat where Preacher set up shop, I could see how beautiful the Earth looked from space. It was amazing to know that even though Earth was nothing more than a wasteland occupied by roving gangs and now monsters, it could still look this breathtaking.

Al took us straight down to the surface.

“Hold on to your butts; this is going to get bumpy,” Al said with a clear ring of joy in her voice. “I’m reading something large and organic near Dragon Hold. Oh, this is going to be fun.”


Thirteen

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“Large and organic?” Preacher said through gritted teeth as the T-bird jostled and we entered Earth’s atmosphere. “Care to elaborate?”

I was going to ask the same thing, but my previous bouts with space sickness were coming back in full force. The way Al was piloting the craft, I could have sworn she was trying to make us sick.

Al kicked the thrusters on full as we descended. One second flames licked at the exterior of our ship and the next we were clear of the fire, plummeting to the Earth below.

“Just saying, I did a scan of Earth and there are quite a few anomalies there now,” Al said rather calmly as we fell like a meteor to Earth. “One of them is near Dragon Hold now. Hold on; we should be able to see it soon.”

I fought the feeling of getting sick as we nosedived to Earth.

Don’t throw up, I repeated over and over again in my head. Don’t throw up. If you do, it’s all coming back in your face anyway. Don’t throw up.

Finally, Al eased off the thrusters and we leveled out to a less “I swear we’re all going to die” speed. As our ship broke through the cloud line, we could see what she saw.

“What in the name of the Lord of the Way is that?” Cassie asked, craning forward in her seat to try and get a better look. “Is that—was that in the gate?”

“I’m just making an educated guess here,” I said with bated breath. “But yes.”

The giant was easily four stories tall with a single eye on his forehead. His shoulders were as wide as our ship’s wings. His skin looked human enough, although he wore some kind of ancient tattered clothing.

He stood at the gates of Dragon Hold for a moment with his head tilted to the side as if he were trying to figure out what to do with it.

Apparently, he made his decision, because he shrugged boulder-sized shoulders and headed off to the east.

“Should we pursue?” Al asked excitedly. “I can probably eviscerate that thing with a few ion missiles. I’ve been itching to use them ever since we were told to stand down from firing on Leviathan Station.”

“No, no,” I said, shaking my head. “Let him go. Radio the GG and tell them they have a large guest heading toward New Vegas.”

“Oh, very well.” Al sighed. “These missiles are really, what’s the human phrase? Burning a hole in my pocket? If we don’t use them on something soon, I think I may go crazy.”

“Another human term,” I answered. “That ship has already sailed. You are crazy.”

“Can’t argue with you there,” Al acknowledged, bringing the T-bird to land within our grounds.

Bapz appeared on screen as we touched down. His silver hair and body were easy to recognize under his full suit complete with a black bowtie.

“Did you see what we just saw?” Bapz asked, eyes huge. “I may have to run a diagnostic check on my systems. Perhaps I was having some kind of malfunction or glitch.”

“No glitch,” Cassie replied. “We saw it too.”

“Cassie!” Bapz beamed, showing two perfect rows of silver teeth. “It’s so good to see you. I’m overjoyed you’re back home and safe.”

“Thank you,” Cassie answered as the T-bird touched down and sent a slight tremor through the ship. “We have wounded. Can you send out a team to assist?”

“Of course,” Bapz responded. “We’ll be right there.”

Bapz, Brother Enoch, Nemesis, Laine, Syrinity, Cryx, and others all came out of the mansion to lend a hand once the word was out we arrived. I think an extra sense of urgency was added when Bapz informed them we had wounded.

Hugs were traded between those who knew Angel and introductions to those who did not.

A proper gurney was brought for Jax, although he was so large in his current state, it looked almost comical to see him lying on it. X took one side of the gurney. Bapz took the other. I was grateful for their help. Without them, it probably would have taken the rest of us to support the weight.

It did bring a smile to my face as more hugs and smiles were traded between Cassie and the others. I think Cryx almost cried when she saw her. Introductions were made by those who weren’t yet familiar with one another.

When the group began to move inside, I hung back, jerking my chin toward Laine. She fell in step beside me and we walked at the rear of the group.

“How’s the mind-reading skill of yours working?” I asked the alien woman. Laine’s species had a gift for not only being able to change outward appearance but also to get inside someone’s head and read their thoughts.

“Well, it’s not an exact science, but I’m guessing you want me to get inside the big guy’s head and see what I can see?” Laine surmised, already catching on to where this conversation was headed. “I can do that.”

“Not just you,” I told her. “I’ll go too. I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I’m not willing to do myself.”

“It could be dangerous,” Laine cautioned. “The mind is a fragile thing. What I do isn’t an exact science. And I’ve never gone into someone’s head like Jax’s before. Who knows what could happen.”

“Still, if you’re willing to try,” I said, accepting the risks, “we have to get him back.”

“You gave my family a home,” Laine expressed without looking at me. “Of course I’m going to try. I just want you to be prepared. You should know how dangerous it is.”

“I appreciate that,” I answered with a nod. “If you don’t mind getting ready now, I think we should go in sooner rather than later. The GG is going to wonder where I am soon. We’re supposed to be lending a hand monster-hunting.”

“Yes, I saw the alien who came to our doorstep,” Laine said with a heavy sigh. “Just when you thought you’d seen it all.”

They’re aliens not monsters, I had to remind myself. Laine was right. They’re just aliens that either found their way here or were transported here and spent time in the gate. Remember that.

Walking inside Dragon Hold felt wonderful. It was a sense of ease and peace I rarely experienced in this life. Laine hurried off to prepare Jax, leaving me alone in the entryway.

Wide halls of the mansion opened up to the right and left. In front of me, an impressive stairway led to the floors above. I could hear the excited chatter of workers permeating the halls on either side.

It seemed everyone was wound up from seeing the Cyclops outside and now even more so that news was spreading of Jax’s arrival.

Something smelling like a mix of bread and laundry floated in from the kitchen to the right. I forgot how hungry I was.

A howl cascaded through the open front door behind me. I had just enough time to turn before Butch bulldozed her way into a hug. Her tail wagged as if it had a mind of its own. She was a flurry of licks and sniffs.

“I’m glad to see you too,” I said, ruffling the animal’s fur with both hands. “It’s good to be home.”

As much as I would have liked to sit down and just be alone with my thoughts and my ancient wolf resurrected from extinction, there was work to be done.

I trudged up the stairs, heading for my room on the 4th floor of the manor. A very small window of opportunity was open at the moment for a hot shower and food before I’d need to be with Jax and Laine.

Butch padded next to me like some momma bear guiding her cub. Sometimes I got the feeling she was more worried about me than I was about her, like I was the pet to be protected and cared for.

I stripped off my dust-stained clothes as soon as I entered my room and headed straight for the shower.

I could have stayed in the deluge for an eternity. The hot water cascaded over me, forming tiny waterfalls down my back and chest.

A knock came at my door. My moment of bliss was shattered but for a good cause. I knew I was needed. Jax and Cassie both needed me at the moment. Not to mention the GG, who were monster hunting around Earth.

I turned off the water and towel-dried as the knock came again.

This time, Butch got up from her place on the ground beside my bed and sauntered over to the door, sniffing at it curiously.

“Come on in,” I called out, wrapping the towel around my waist.

Bapz opened the door, offering Butch a series of pats and scratches. To the dismay of my grumbling stomach, he did not come bearing food.

He must have seen the disappointment on my face.

“Not to worry,” Bapz said, walking over to a wardrobe that sat in the far corner of my room. “I added something while you were gone that I thought you may enjoy.”

Bapz opened the double doors on the wardrobe to reveal a neat stack of clothing on the left that started on the bottom with shoes and eventually transitioned to things like pants and shirts. Each item of clothing was perfectly folded and placed.

As symmetric as that looked, I wasn’t worried about what was on the left side of the wardrobe. My eyes went to the right, where a metal square took up half the space from the floor to about stomach height. The upper right section of the wardrobe was a cabinet, closed at the moment.

“Awww, Bapz,” I said, reaching for the handle of the cabinet first. “Is this what I think it is?”

I opened the cabinet, only to be welcome with rows of food that were not protein packs or ready-to-go dehydrated field meals. These were actual food items. Nuts, fruit bars, and dried meat.

I understood exactly how expensive this kind of food was. With Earth dead, for all intents and purposes, a small amount of fresh produce could be manufactured on the moon. A little more was made on Mars, where the elite survived, but to get it here on Earth was a chore.

I grabbed one of the fruit bars and took a deep bite. Flavors exploded in my mouth. Involuntarily, I closed my eyes and savored the taste.

“Wait until you open up the cold section,” Bapz said, beaming as he rocked back and forth heel to toe. “I have a feeling you may actually pass out from happiness.”

Still shoving pieces of the bar into my mouth, I reached for the handle on the silver square. The door swung open, revealing row after row of water pouches, nitro caf, and various energy juices.

“I feel like I could cry right now,” I said, reaching for an ice cold bottle of the nitro caf. I looked over at Bapz. “Can I hug you?”

“Well, you know, if you feel comfortable with the a—”

Bar in one hand and nitro caf in the other, I embraced the robot. He was hard and cold to the touch, but I could care less. He could have been made out of needles and wires and I still would have given him a hug.

“Oh—well you know, just doing my job,” Bapz said with a sideways cough as he patted my back awkwardly. “I knew you would appreciate it, but I didn’t realize you’d appreciate it this much.”

I let him go, opening my caf and guzzling it down like I was in some kind of galactic drinking competition.

“X is contacting me now,” Bapz informed me. “I’m sorry to say, sir that your presence is being requested in the medical wing. Laine and Jax are ready for you.”


Fourteen

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

After speed-chewing through the rest of my food, I quickly dressed while Bapz’ back was turned and we headed down to the medical wing on the first level of the building.

Butch padded alongside me. We shared a pack of dried meat as we walked and Bapz talked.

“I understand how stressed for time you are, but there are important business matters to attend to,” Bapz informed me. “W.O.L.F. is running smoothly enough, but the press is still hounding me for a meeting with the Hero of Mars. I fear if we don’t give them something soon, they will show up at our doorstep again en masse. Not to mention, X informed me you requested a large portion of our assets be delegated for the building of our own naval fleet?”

I knew how it sounded. It sounded even more preposterous when Bapz actually said it out loud. The cold truth was, as chummy as we were with the Galactic Government at the moment, if there did come a time we found ourselves at odds, all they had to do was nuke us from orbit.

Sure, we could always hide, but if that wasn’t an option, I needed a backup plan. Right now, assembling my own armada of ships seemed like a safety net I couldn’t afford not to land on.

“That’s right,” I told Bapz. “X said we would be able to buy ships independent from weapons and then mount the weapons on the crafts. I think we’ll need pilots as well and a staging hangar.”

“Correct,” Bapz concurred as we walked down the steps toward the bottom floor. “One thing that does concern me, however, is who is leading this initiative for us.”

“And who’s that?” I asked.

We reached the bottom floor, making a right toward the medical wing of the building.

“Papa,” Bapz said with a sigh. “You must understand I know you have a history with the man who leads the Grimm Reapers, but he’s a wild card. He’s just as likely to build you a fleet as he is to steal said fleet from the Galactic Government themselves.”

“You’re not wrong.” I smirked. Memories of the pot-bellied man slapping his mid-section brought fond thoughts. “He’ll pull through. He always has.”

Any more conversation would have to wait. We reached a large set of white double doors at the end of the hall. We stepped inside to find a clean tile floor beneath our feet and a receptionist desk with Al’s sphere sitting on top.

To our right and left, more halls opened up with smaller rooms.

“Hello, so nice to see you today,” Al said in a sarcastic tone. “I’m a genius-level alien AI set here like some kind of decorative piece. How may I help you?”

“Right,” I said with a sigh. “You were going to talk to Bapz about holographic tech being set up throughout the manor so you could at least walk around in your holo form.”

“Oh, the great Daniel Hunt, Hero of Mars, leader of W.O.L.F. and ally to the Galactic Government remembers?” Al feigned indignation. “I feel like the luckiest AI in the universe. If I could blush, I would.”

I ignored the sarcasm, looking over at Bapz, who nodded.

“We can begin to get things set up right away,” Bapz answered my unspoken question. “Perhaps even find an easier way for Al to travel outside the manor.”

“Well now you’re talking,” Al said, losing the sarcasm. “I have a few ideas myself for a form that would allow me to travel easily with the group.”

I bit my tongue. I didn’t even want to ask if Al was thinking what I was thinking. If she wanted to get into my head like X had with an implant, I wasn’t sure I would be able to handle that.

X and Al were worlds apart. X was helpful and kind. Al was rude and condescending.

Lucky for me, I didn’t have to offer my thoughts.

Bapz picked up Al and then nodded with his chin toward the hall to my right.

“You can proceed to the third door on your right,” Bapz explained. “Laine, Jax, X, and Angel should all be in there waiting for you.”

“Thank you,” I replied before heading down the hall.

I followed Bapz’s instructions down the quiet hall. I guess that was good news. It didn’t seem like there were many sick or injured at Dragon Hold at the moment. I opened the third door on my right to find a wide room with Jax in his changed form lying on a bed.

He dwarfed the bed, making it look like an adult sleeping in a bed meant for a child. His eyes were closed. A series of tubes still worked a sleep agent into his system. The tubes were attached to a machine that monitored his vital signs.

Laine sat next to him in a chair, appearing calm and collected. X and Angel stood in the corner of the room at a holo projector. X maneuvered around the display screen tapping controls.

“Are you ready for this?” Laine was the first to ask as I stepped into the room. “Angel has expressed interest to go in if you’re not feeling up to it.”

“I’ll do it.” Angel nodded in agreement. “I’ll go in Jax’s head with Laine and try to bring him back.”

“I think it may be more complicated than that,” I confessed, trying to soften the blow. “You’ve already tried multiple times to get through to him.”

Angel nodded, understanding everything I wasn’t saying. She was smart. She didn’t need me to spell it out for her. Words weren’t getting through to Jax. It was time to take a more physical approach to what was going on with our friend.

“We should be able to see everything that’s going on in the cerebral plane, using this holo viewer,” X said, pointing to the holographic screen in front of her. It was blank at the moment. “With Laine’s and Al’s help, I’ve constructed a kind of mental viewer that will allow us to see what is going on in Jax’s head.”

X paused here to reach down on the desk and pick up what looked like a crown with blinking lights.

“You made that in the time it took me to take a shower and eat?” I asked, not even trying to mask my amazement. “How is that even possible? I must have been gone fifteen, twenty minutes?”

“Twenty-one minutes, actually,” X remarked in a non-condescending, simple matter-of-fact way. “You’d be surprised what we’ll be able to do and create with the knowledge that Al brings. She can be a bit difficult at times, but she’s a genius, no doubt, with alien technology. Coupled with the 3D printing technology here at Dragon Hold, we can fabricate nearly anything in minutes.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, approaching an empty chair on Laine’s right side. “So how does all of this work? Do I need to be drugged or wear one of those fancy tiaras too?”

“I’m not sure I’m more surprised that you know what a tiara is or that you think it’s fancy,” Angel chimed in. “No offense.”

“Hey, I read,” I said, feigning indignation. “Not as much as I would like now that our life is all secret organizations and aliens, but I used to read a lot.”

“You can sit in the seat beside me,” Laine instructed. “I’ll place my right hand on top of yours and my left on Jax’s brow. That should be enough to solidify the link. The way X explained the cerebral viewer to me, it will not only project what is going on so they can see, but it will also enhance my telepathy ability.”

“We’re in uncharted territory here,” X said as I took a seat in the straight-backed chair next to Laine. “Even Al was only mostly sure that everything would work as planned. When dealing in the cerebral plane, not all is as exact as it may seem.”

“It doesn’t seem exact at all,” I answered. “I’m just going to be honest with you here. I’ve only understood about half of what you’ve said to me since I entered the room.”

“Well, we don’t love you because you’re smart,” Angel said, taking the blinking crown from X and gently placing it on Laine’s head.

“Thanks, I think,” I said, looking over to my left and getting an up close view of the tool.

The metal wove around the back of Laine’s skull and came up to fit around her forehead. It was white with an open space in the center of her forehead. Red and blue lights blinked off and on in seemingly sporadic intervals.

Laine looked ready. Her breath was even and steady.

I leaned forward to look around her. Jax was still out. His cavernous chest rose and fell in an even, almost peaceful rhythm. A sheet covered his lower half.

Without warning, Laine placed her warm right hand on my left. She gave me a gentle squeeze.

“Are you ready?” Laine asked. “Remember, everything you experience in Jax’s mind will seem very real. Do not fall into that trap. Your mind makes it real. If your mind thinks your body is dead, then the mind will die along with it.”

“Uh, excuse me?” I questioned, looking at her. “Are you saying if we die in Jax’s mind, we die here in real life?”

“If your mind accepts your death as real, then it will die,” Laine explained as if this were nothing to worry about in the least. “Keep your mind strong. Remember none of this is real and you’ll be fine.”

I exchanged looks with Angel and X to make sure I was the sane one here. Laine was talking about possibly dying in Jax’s mind as if it were nothing more than a Sunday stroll.

“If you’re scared, I’ll go,” X told me. “I will be able to keep a grasp on reality.”

“No, no, I’m fine,” I lied. “I just want to make sure I’m hearing her correctly. Plus, you’ll be monitoring us on the screen, right?”

“Yes,” Angel assured me. “If things get crazy in there, we should be able to pull you out.”

Should? I thought to myself.

“Okay, okay,” I said out loud, taking a deep breath in and out. “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Laine said again, taking a firm grasp on my hand. With her left hand, she placed her palm on Jax’s forehead. “Because this may hurt, a lot.”

“Wait a minute. What exac—”

My mind felt like it was being ripped apart. No, it felt like a tomahawk dipped in nitrogen was being shoved into the base of my skull. I tried not to scream out at first, then thought, what the heck.

“Rawwww!” I allowed the pain I felt to have a vent. The ice tomahawk dug deeper and deeper into my brain until I wondered how much further it possibly could be shoved in.

I saw nothing but blackness, nothing but blinding pain in my plane of existence.

Suddenly, I felt the sensation of falling. I looked down below in my black world to see a tiny pinprick of light below. The light grew larger and larger by the moment as the pain increased.

I was panting now, trying to draw in breath as the pain grew in my head until it was all I knew.


Fifteen

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“Daniel,” X’s voice came out of nowhere. “Daniel, we can see you on the screen. Do you need to be pulled out? You’re almost there, but if it’s too much, we can stop now.”

“No,” I gasped. “No, keep going. I can take it.”

The falling sensation grew as did the scene below me. I knew it was impossible. What I was seeing could not exist and yet here it was. I was falling onto a planet. A planet made up of dark soil and angry skies overhead.

Hold it together. I fought to hear my voice in my own head. Hold on.

Just when I thought I was going to pass out from the pain, the world below me came rushing up. I landed on the ground in the most ungraceful way one could imagine. Face first.

The good news was the pain in my skull was gone. The bad news was the fall sent a new tremor of agony through my body. I just lay there on the ground for a moment reminding myself that none of this was real.

It’s all in your head, I told myself. Well, I guess in Jax’s head.

I pushed myself up onto my knees as I surveyed the landscape in all directions. Dark almost ashy ground underneath me smelt like a mixture of rich soil and charcoal. The same ashy scent lived in the air and all round me.

Laine was nowhere to be found. No one was, for that matter.

I rose to my feet, shading my eyes from the sporadic sunlight that managed to pierce the dark rolling clouds.

To my right was a mountain range in the far-off distance. To my left was what looked like a plume of smoke coming from I didn’t know what. In front of me and behind me, there was nothing.

I remembered then hearing X’s voice. Both she and Angel could hear me in this world as they viewed what was going on in Jax’s mind through Laine and me.

“Any idea on which way to go?” I asked the air in front of me. “What happened to Laine?”

Silence.

“X? Angel?” I asked again, not sure where to look to call them, so I directed my eyes to the sky. “Anyone?”

Nothing.

“Okay, then,” I said out loud, going through my options. “If you were Jax, where would you be in this godforsaken place? Evil-looking mountain to your right or sinister smoke to your left?”

The answer was made for me.

Yelling came from my left, where the black plumes of smoke rose over the horizon.

I squinted, trying to focus on the noise.

Finally, I was able to spot Laine. Laine was running across the uneven terrain. She was shouting something as she came. It was clear there was something wrong, but I was only able to hear her voice, not make out individual words.

“Be—hind you!” Laine screamed again.

A chill touched me from the crown of my head to the soles of my shoes. I reached for weapons that weren’t there. Of course; that would have been too easy.

I slowly turned to look at what Laine had already seen.

A wave of black moving liquid came from the mountains. No, not black moving liquid. Black creatures as ebony as oil in such great numbers, they looked like flowing water.

I didn’t wait to see if I could get a better look. I kicked my tail in gear and started sprinting toward Laine. My arms pumped from side to side as I focused on reaching Laine in front of whatever it was spewing from the mountain.

I wasn’t sure if it was just my imagination or if I was slower here. Usually, I flew across the ground as I ran. This time, I felt sluggish, slow even.

Laine stopped her forward progress and waved me forward in a panic.

“Hurry, hurry,” she yelled. “They’re gaining on you.”

I refused to look back, but more than anything, I wanted to ask her what “they” were. My lungs burned and breaths came painful and burdened.

I reached her, sweating like a fiend.

“What—what is—it?” I panted, placing my hands on my knees and doubling over as I gasped for breath. “What’s happening—to me?”

“You don’t have any of your abilities here,” Laine said, grabbing me from a shoulder. “Come on, come on, we’ve got to go. I saw a few buildings in this direction.”

I chanced a look back the way I came as I let Laine urge me forward. I wish I hadn’t. She was right. This horde of creatures was gaining on me. They were so close, I could see them now. They looked like monkeys. Pitch-black little monkeys coming across the landscape on all fours, some running in a gallop and others nearly sideways as they came.

Each animal had to be three, maybe four feet tall with short black hair, black eyes and hands. The only thing not black on the animals had to be their teeth. Gigantic white canines punctured their gums.

I realized then what the most disconcerting thing about this entire scenario happened to be. There was no noise. They didn’t make a sound as they charged forward. There had to be hundreds of them and not one of them made so much as a peep.

“Come on.” Laine jerked my shoulder so hard, I nearly fell off my feet.

I took her advice, heading along with her and trying to keep up. It seemed Laine was the one here with the incredible speed and stamina.

I looked at her, confused, trying to figure it out.

She was too busy looking forward and dragging my slow butt along, she didn’t notice.

We crested a hill overlooking an abandoned city. At least it looked abandoned. Old mortar fell off cracked brick walls. Caved-in roofs added an extra derelict touch to one- and two-story buildings.

The fire lifting the dark plume of smoke into the air came from somewhere deeper into the city.

Ash fell across my eyelashes, nose and mouth, forcing its way into my throat. I coughed against my will.

My chest felt like it was going to explode or actually burst into flame itself. I chanced another look behind us. Like the inevitable march of time, the horde of inky black creatures closed in.

“Hurry, over here,” I gasped, looking toward the city. A building with a broken door and wooden boards for windows promised at least some kind of protection.

Laine and I made for the building on our left. Everything from my legs to the dull pounding in my head implored me to stop and rest. No way was I going to sit down and offer a peace pipe to those things descending from the mountains.

Laine reached the door first, trying to stabilize the tired old piece of wood on its broken hinges. I stumbled in a moment later, dropping to my hands and knees. I wheezed like some fish out of water. Each breath was a new definition of pain as I gasped then coughed and repeated the process.

Trying to get the ash out of my mouth while accepting the oxygen was a feat in and of itself.

Laine mounted the broken door back on the door jamb as best she could. She braced the door with her left shoulder.

I gritted my teeth, shoving myself back onto my feet. If those creatures rammed the other side of the door, Laine would need all the help she could get. I stood beside her, leveling my left shoulder into our defensive barrier.

“What in the name of the Lord of the Way is going on here?” I asked, finally able to speak. “This isn’t what I expected.”

“We’re inside Jax’s mind,” Laine said as if that explained the scenario. “I guess he was further gone than we first thought.”

I looked through the small circular peephole in the door. The creatures were now passing into the city. I braced again, but there was no need.

In fact, I could have probably sat there with the door open, offering the creatures a sit down, and they would have passed on the offer. Like a stream of oily blackness, the little creatures passed right by our house and filtered into the city.

Not only did they not look our way, they didn’t even hesitate. It’s like we meant nothing to them.

I looked over at Laine, who gave me a shrug.

“It’s not like I voluntarily go into people’s heads on a daily basis,” she answered. “I told you this isn’t an exact science.”

I moved my gaze from her, back out the peephole. There had to be hundreds of the little animals. I got a better look at them. They were close enough to monkeys that I felt comfortable calling them that. Demon monkeys may have been a closer word for what they were.

In the space of the next few seconds, they were gone, past our building and somewhere deeper into the burning town.

“Well, that was an interesting welcome,” I said finally, breathing a sigh of relief. “Now what?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.” Laine shrugged. “We’ll have to explore until we find Jax and get him to face the beast that he can’t overcome in the real world. It’s a mental block keeping him from being able to return to the man you knew.”

We both stepped back from the door. I reached a hand to open it. There was no need. Without us supporting the door, it fell in on itself. It crashed down on the ground with a resounding thud.

Laine and I moved out of the way just in time to avoid the door hitting the ground like it just got knocked out. I stepped out into the dry, ashy air once more. I looked into the miserable city, wondering if I was actually willing to go in there.

It seemed I wasn’t the only one assessing our decisions.

“Well, they were headed toward something,” Laine said, shielding her eyes against the sun that peeked through the canvas of clouds for a moment. “I bet you they were going to whatever’s causing that fire.”

I spat on the ground, wishing I could get the ashy taste in the air out of my mouth. I looked into the dilapidated city and then back the way we came. All I could see that way were the mountains where the demon monkeys exited.

Then I caught movement.

I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me at first. Someone, maybe a man, was walking from the same direction the creatures had come. Unlike the creatures, he didn’t seem like he was in a hurry. Contrarily, he looked like every step was only due to the power of his will.

“I guess we have to go,” Laine continued, still looking into the city, yet to see the man. She was laying out our options like some kind of military strategist. “I mean, they definitely saw us and chose not to attack. Clearly they’re more interested in what’s in the city than anything else. We have to at least search this place. If Jax isn’t here, then we’ll have to move on maybe to the mount—”

I placed my hand gently on Laine’s head, still watching the man walking toward us. I turned her head to look in the same direction I was.

“What are you doing? I—” Laine’s words died in her mouth a second time as she took in the stranger.

I removed my hand from her head with a nod.

We both stood there just staring at him. Whoever he was, it was clear he was a man now. He was naked from the chest up, gaunt and filthy. The same black inky substance covering the creatures also covered him.

I squinted, trying to make out any other discernible feature. He was close enough now for me to see a beard and a—a Mohawk. Jax.


Sixteen

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I took off at a run with Laine beside me. She had never met Jax outside of his beast-like state in the real world. However, it seemed my running toward the man was enough to tip her off that I recognized him as an ally.

I moved to him, my heart breaking with each step. As I crossed the distance, more and more of his appearance took shape. This wasn’t the easily-smiling, muscular man I was used to seeing.

At the moment, he was more skin and bones than muscle. Sunken eyes spoke a story all their own. I could only imagine what he’d been through here, trapped in his own mind.

Cracked lips, body covered with the black liquid, he saw me without seeing me at all.

“Jax, Jax,” I called, breathing hard. I finally reached him. “Jax, can you hear me? It’s me. It’s Daniel.”

If he did see me, he didn’t show any kind of recognition. His eyes were focused straight ahead on the city. He walked as if he were in a daze. For the first time, I noticed he was mumbling something under his breath. The words were so faint, I could barely make them out.

“I have to—try,” Jax told himself. “One more time. I have to try.”

He repeated this over and over again, taking one dogged step in front of the other.

“You have to snap out of this,” Laine said directly into Jax’s face. She stood in front of him to hinder his forward progress. “You have to wake up. Do you hear me?”

It was obvious at this point that he didn’t. When he couldn’t move forward anymore without walking into Laine, he simply moved to the side and went around her.

“Spartan,” I said, trying Jax’s call sign instead of his real name to see if that would get through to him. It worked. Jax stopped in his tracks, ending his muttering.

He looked over his left shoulder at me as if seeing me for the first time.

“What—did you say?” Jax asked.

“That was your call sign in the Pack Protocol,” I reminded him. “I was Savage. Preacher, Angel—they were all part of it too. This isn’t you. You’re trapped here. We’re here to get you out.”

The good news was Jax finally snapped out of whatever trance-like state he was in. The bad news was I could see the anger spill over his face like the tide eating the shore.

“You!” Jax screamed, spittle flying from his mouth. He lunged for my throat. The act was clumsy and so sluggish, it looked like he was moving in slow motion. Jax actually tripped over his own feet, sending him sprawling face first into the dark soil.

Raving like a madman, he tried to regain his feet.

I went over to help him up.

Jax balled his fists, slamming them into my chest with less force than a child might have.

“You, you left me, you told me to change,” Jax said, falling to his knees again. It seemed a few blows had tired him out already. “You told me to become him again when we fought the Voy. But he’s too strong now. I can’t go back. I can never go back.”

Jax rocked back and forth on his knees in front of me. His broken voice scratched out the venom-laced words.

I had to stop and think about what he said. His words cut me to the core. Did I do this? Did I force him to change into the beast that lived inside of him during the Battle of Mars? I didn’t think I gave him that order, but did I try and stop him?

“We’re here now to bring you back.” Laine put a comforting arm around him. “We’re with you. We’re going to get you out of here.”

“We can’t—we can’t.” Jax shook his head. He looked down at the ground in front of him. “He won’t let us.”

“Who?” Laine asked. “Who won’t let us?”

“The beast, him,” Jax said, waving weakly to the burning city. “You don’t think I’ve tried? Every day over and over and over again. I’ve tried to get back, but I can’t. I can never get back. He’s too strong. He won’t let me.”

“Well, we’re here now and we’re going to get you out of here together,” I said, dropping to my knees to look Jax in the eyes. “If this is my fault in any way, I want you to know I never meant to do this. If I had even an inkling that you wouldn’t be able to change back, I would have stopped you from changing in the first place. I’ll never ask you to change again.”

Jax looked too exhausted to try and mount another attack. But neither did he give me any kind of sense things between us were okay. Instead of a reply, he just knelt there in the sand.

“Jax, my name is Laine. I know how tired and crushed you must feel right now, but I need you to focus. The city?” Laine pushed, trying to gather more information. “The city is where the beast is? Is that the way out?”

Jax nodded dumbly.

“The beast keeps you from escaping?” I asked, trying to piece out how this all worked. “What are all these smaller animals that look like monkeys?”

“I—I don’t know.” Jax swallowed hard. “Every day they run into the middle of the city, to the beast. Every day I follow and try to defeat him, but I can’t. I never can. He’s too strong. The apes, they just watch. They don’t make a sound. They just watch.”

I exchanged looks with Laine.

She only shrugged. I couldn’t blame her. I didn’t have answers myself.

“Come on.” I leaned down to take Jax by the arm. “We need to get you home.”

“What? Are you crazy?” Jax asked, feebly attempting to pull away but unable to. “Didn’t you hear what I said? He’s too strong. Our healing abilities have no power here. You must have felt it by now. You’re slower, not as strong, your endurance is gone. This place was built by him to keep people like you and me trapped inside.”

“Well, you didn’t have us to help you before,” Laine insisted. “The cavalry’s arrived. We have to try.”

“It’ll just start from the beginning, like it always does when he kills us,” Jax said, now allowing himself to be prodded along back toward the city by me and Laine. “He kills me, then I wake up in the oil pit, only to relive the day all over again. If I don’t fight him, I eventually fall asleep at some point, and the day repeats all over again and again in some kind of macabre loop. I’m telling you, there is no way out of this place.”

“We’ll figure out a way,” I said with my left arm around Jax’s shoulder to help steady him. “Laine’s right. You didn’t have us here to help before. We’ll defeat him together.”

Jax shook his head, muttering to himself again.

We traveled at his speed, slowly, making our way back to the city. That was fine by me. Even without running, my lungs screamed at me to be free of the hot air and swirling ash that fell like some kind of dark confetti through the sky.

Laine caught my eye and jerked her head to the side for me to join her. I removed my arm around Jax and slowed my pace a half step to fall in line with her.

“You have any idea how to get out of his head?” I asked. “I thought you said if we die in here, we die in the real world. Jax says when he dies, he just wakes up here in a kind of loop.”

“Have you not been listening to anything I’ve said?” Laine asked with an eye roll. “I can only go off my past experiences. I’ve never taken anyone with me inside someone’s head before. In the real world, I’m sitting down in a chair with a piece of alien technology on my head looking like some kind of Mrs. Universe wannabe. I don’t even really understand that tech. Some talking sphere told us how to put it together.”

“So we may not die in the real world if we die in here. We could just be stuck in a loop like Jax said?” I pieced together. “Is that right?”

“That’s right,” Laine said with a sigh. “Or maybe he’s just able to relive the day since it’s part of his consciousness. Maybe we do actually die if we die in here.”

“Well that’s not helpful.” I grunted.

“Bottom line, this is all new to all of us. Try not to die,” Laine advised. “Now what’s the plan once we get into the city?”

“The plan is I find the biggest brick or rock or whatever passes for a weapon in there and hit the beast over and over again until he doesn’t get back up,” I proposed. I had to admit it didn’t exactly exude confidence. It sounded better in my head.

“I’ve tried that,” Jax said from in front of us. He didn’t even bother to look over his shoulder. “Won’t work. He’ll just kill us anyway. I’ve died a thousand different ways. I’m telling you. Nothing works.”

We traveled the rest of the way in silence. Reaching the edge of the city, I looked up into the darkening sky. The sun was gone now, hidden completely by dark clouds.

The interior of the town was silent as a tomb. How so many creatures could be in there at the moment without making a peep worried me.

What the crip was I saying? All of this worried me.

Hold it together, I told myself. You’ll find a way. You have to get Jax and Laine back. You’ll figure it out.

We stepped into the city, still allowing Jax to take the lead. He walked like a man heading for the gallows. Head down, he forced one step and then the other. I wondered what would make a man so devoid of hope still go on.

Jax had been on his way into the city when we first found him. For a man who didn’t think he could win, he was still moving. I meant to ask him about that, when he came to an abrupt stop.

There wasn’t much around us. We walked on the same dirt ground with decaying buildings wherever we looked. Finally, sounds of something crackling. The ever-billowing smoke cloud filled the air. We had to be closer to it now. Over the roofs, I could see tongues of flames licking toward the heavens. Ash fell thicker and heavier here.

“He’s there, just down the next street to the right,” Jax told us with a quivering voice. “They’re all there.”

“Let’s not keep them waiting,” I told Jax, hoping that would remind him who he was, bolster his resolve. It didn’t seem to work.

I took the lead with Laine and Jax following behind. I traveled down the next street and then made the right.

We were emptied into what looked like had once been a roundabout. A large, clear section in the middle of the city housed the inky black apes. They all sat in a perfect circle, staring at a blazing fire, and the beast stood in front of it.

The beast looked exactly like Jax in real life when he was in his mutated form. Massive arms, legs attached to a solid torso. His face was the same with red eyes and jutting teeth.

For the moment, the beast stood with his left side facing me, just staring into the flame.

“This place is built against us,” Jax warned me in a whisper. “He knows you’re here. He knows we’re here right now. He holds all the cards.”

“We’re going to get you home,” I vowed, looking to my right and left for anything I might be able to use as a weapon. “Whatever it takes.”


Seventeen

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I settled on a loose brick jutting out from the walls of one of the buildings to my left. Laine lifted a rock she found on the ground as large as her fist. Jax didn’t pick up anything. He wore that same expression of doom across his face.

I walked over to the circle of inky black apes, the fire, and beast that stood in their center.

All eyes from the apes and the beast were focused on the flame. The fire in and of itself was nothing I hadn’t seen before. You see one fire, you’ve seen them all, right?

Wrong.

It wasn’t the flames that caught my eye, but rather what fed said flames. Instead of wood or oil or any kind of fuel, there were skeletons. The bones were jumbled and broken to the extent it was difficult to tell exactly how many bones made up the fire.

It was clear there were at least a dozen, maybe two dozen bodies.

“Hey, hey, you,” I called to the beast. I ignored the feeling of dread that came with the scene in front of me. “Big guy, I’m talking to you.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if my words were going to have an effect on the beast. Slowly, it turned its head in my direction. Upper lips snarled, showing off painfully long teeth.

The apes circling the fire ignored me as if they were held in some kind of spell. They stared into the fire without pausing from their vigil.

“We’re going home,” I told the beast. “And we’re taking Jax with us.”

I wasn’t sure if it was a straight roar or if I heard the word “no” in there as he charged. Maybe it was a combination of both. Dirt kicked up in all directions behind the beast as he sprang forward.

He was fast in a world where I was meant to be slow. Still, I stood my ground. With my right hand gripping the brick, I held it behind me, ready to swing up into his snarling face at the right moment.

“Daniel!” Laine shouted from behind me.

“Here we go again,” Jax muttered at the same time.

The beast was easily as large in Jax’s mind as he was in real life, maybe even larger here. He stood an easy seven feet tall with dark hair pouring from his chest, arms, armpits, and legs.

Like some kind of dropship heading for a crash-landing, he descended on me.

“Daniel?” Laine asked again.

Not yet, not yet, I said in my head. No!

I swung my right hand up with every ounce of strength I could muster. I put my entire body into the act, going so far as to swing my hips and torque my body to make the blow count.

The brick crashed into the left side of the beast’s face with so much force, the brick cracked into multiple pieces. My right hand went numb. Spittle from the beast’s open mouth flew through the air.

The blow was enough to change his trajectory and send him stumbling to his right, my left. His massive weight slammed into one of the buildings, destabilizing the stone wall and sending it crashing down around him in a heap.

Dust exploded into the air as more rocks fell on him.

I still couldn’t feel my right hand, but that seemed a pretty small price to pay for taking down the monster. I turned, looking at Laine and Jax.

“There, that wasn’t so bad,” I said with a smile. “I thought you said this guy was tough.”

Their eyes said it, but I didn’t even need them to verbalize what was happening now. I heard it from behind me, shuffling in the pile of bricks. I turned slowly, my heart sinking with every second passed. The cloud of dust settled enough for me to see the beast emerging from the pile of rubble.

He looked even angrier than before. A thick line of blood fell down his broken lip.

This time, he roared his anger into the heavens like some kind of ancient beast resurrected from the dead to fulfill his vengeance on the world. The sound was so loud, I could feel its tremors reverberate in my chest.

One thing was for sure. He was pissed.

The beast attacked again, faster this time. With no time to think, I tried diving out of the way. Too slow; Jax was right. This world the beast created in Jax’s mind was meant to hinder people like us.

The beast grabbed me around my head and neck.

I heard Laine shout and then nothing.

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I wasn’t sure how long I was out. It was like one of those naps where you can’t remember when you fell asleep exactly. The time I was out felt like it lasted a split second.

I opened my eyes to inky liquid blackness stinging my eyeballs. The substance filled my lungs. I couldn’t breathe. The oily stuff forced itself into my ears and up my nose. I tried to yell, only to have it fill my mouth.

I fought my way up through the darkness that pushed against me like some kind of thick soup. Kicking and swimming what I guessed was upward like a madman, I finally broke the surface.

A coughing fit racked my lungs as I spat out the oily substance that smelled as bad as it tasted. I looked around, half panicking, half heaving up the stuff. I was in some kind of oily pit filled with the warm liquid that boiled to the top.

I was in one of many of these pits. Apes filled the others, coming to the surface like I had. Unlike me, they seemed used to it. Their round heads popped through the surface. They blinked passive eyes at the world once more then ran gnarled fingers over their faces to clean off the oil.

“I told you,” Jax said from my right.

I looked over to see him resting against the edge of the circular oil pit as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“I told you it would end like this,” Jax said, leaning back against the edge and looking at the rolling clouds overhead. “I told you. This is how it goes now. Day after day. Some days I just sit here until I fall asleep and the entire thing repeats again. We’re all stuck here, forever.”

Coughing and sputtering in front of me erupted from the oil pit as Laine broke the surface. Like me, she was disoriented, looking around and trying to make sense of what just happened to her.

“Did we—did we die?” Laine asked as I went over to guide her to the edge of the oil pit. “We died, didn’t we?”

“As much as we can die before being brought back,” I answered, taking her by the arm and swimming with her over to the edge of the pit. “Like you, I’m not going to pretend to understand all of this. What I do know is that we have to kill that beast who’s keeping us here.”

“Ha,” Jax shouted with no mirth in the expression. “Riiiiiiiiiight, because you did so well at that the first time. I must have fought that thing dozens of times. He can’t die.”

“It bleeds,” I told Jax over my shoulder. “I saw it when I hit him with that brick. If it bleeds, it can die.”

Laine chewed on her lower lip in deep thought. She was onto something; I could see it in her eyes.

“What is it?” I asked. “You have an idea?”

“Not yet,” Laine said, furrowing her brows. “Maybe the beginning of one. If we’re in Jax’s head, then this other part of him, this beast has taken control of the steering wheel, for lack of a better word. He’s constructed this place as a kind of prison. He’s made this reality for Jax. I think some of the beast’s power may stem from Jax’s own lack of belief that he can actually win.”

“So we just need Jax to fight,” I asked. “Is it as simple as that?”

“Fight and win,” Laine answered in a hushed tone. “His mind is working against him at the moment and locking him in this cage. Think of an addict who can’t break free from a cycle. Jax doesn’t think he can get out, so he’s doomed to repeat this process over and over again. You know him better than I do. What’s going to motivate him to change?”

I paused for a long while, really thinking about Laine’s words. Part of me knew she was right. I didn’t see the same fire in Jax’s eyes I had seen when I knew him before. He was broken and defeated at the moment.

Something had to be changed about that. I needed to fire him up. People as a whole are most dangerous when they have everything to lose, as opposed to when they have nothing to lose. I’d seen it firsthand. Right now, Jax didn’t think he had anything.

You have to give him purpose, I reminded myself. Wars are won in the will. Give him back his will to win.


Eighteen

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I moved along the circular edge of the oily pit toward Jax. He hadn’t done much except lean back and rest his head on the lip of the oil pit.

“You know, I should have seen this coming,” Jax said with a weary sigh. “Every time I changed, it was harder and harder to keep this side of me under control. It took more effort to find myself. Maybe you’re not to blame, at least not totally. I should have stopped. I should have stopped and now it’s too late. Now here I am, in hell.”

“I’m pretty sure this isn’t hell,” I countered, coming to a stop beside the defeated man. Instead of looking at him, I took a spot next to him. I missed X more than ever at the moment.

I knew right now, if X were still with me, she’d tell me just to listen and she’d be right.

“I’ve been here so long, I don’t even know how many days have passed,” Jax said, going on. “The days just repeat. You don’t need food to live. Man, I miss food. What’s the point of going on? I can’t even kill myself here. I’ll just pop up in this oil pit to start the next day all over again.”

“You’ll never get out of here if you don’t believe you can,” I told Jax. I lifted an oily hand to stop him from saying anything before I could continue. “Have you ever thought this other side of you is more scared of you than you are of it?”

“Immortal Corp woke this beast inside of me,” Jax retorted without pause. “I’ve been turning the switch off and on, back and forth ever since. It’s not afraid of me; it’s just decided to take control.”

“You need to defeat this thing to get out of here, yes,” I said, turning around and dragging myself out of the pit. “But ultimately, you’d be best off coming to peace with this thing. Now come on. Angel, Preacher, and everyone else is waiting for you back home. We have a home now, Jax.”

“Angel’s there too?” Jax questioned, turning his head the slightest bit to look back at me. “Is she okay?”

“She is,” I answered, taking a risk. “Long story, but we have some alien tech that’s allowing us to do all of this inside your head. Angel and X our monitoring us. They can see and hear our every move.”

That last part might have been a bit of a stretch. Since my entrance into Jax’s mind, I hadn’t heard either X or Angel. I wasn’t sure if they were still able to see or hear us. They weren’t able to talk to us, so I wasn’t sure what was working and what wasn’t at the moment.

But it was what Jax needed to hear.

He looked around and then up at the sky as if he were going to be able to see the two women looking in on us.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” Jax told me. “Hope can kill a man.”

“No, that’s where you have it wrong,” I corrected, offering him a hand out of the oil pit. “Hope is what’s going to bring you back. I know you haven’t lost it. When we first found you, you were heading back into the city by yourself to try again.”

Jax locked eyes on me, swallowing hard. He moved his gaze down to my outstretched hand.

He was on the verge. I could see it. He needed one more thing to push him over the edge.

“Come on, trust me one more time,” I told him, extending further down to take him by the arm. “Spiritus non possunt occidere nostri.”

I didn’t know what I was going to say when I opened my mouth. I was trying to think of something inspiring or motivating. Our old Pack Protocol mantra was the first thing that popped into mind: “Can’t kill our spirit.”

At first, I thought I pressed the wrong button. Jax’s jaws clenched. Then he reached out, grasping my hand.

A sense of relief washed over me as I pulled him out of the oily substance. At the same time Jax exited the pit, so too did the demon apes. They sprang from their oil pools, rushing past us as if we were rocks jutting out of some kind of black flowing river.

Once again, they showed absolutely zero interest in us. I don’t think even one of the creatures looked my way. Just like that, the hundreds of apes were gone on their daily routine to enter the city and stare at the fire.

“It’s normal,” Jax answered as I lent a hand to Laine to get out of the pit. “As soon as I stand up, that’s when they make their run for the city. It happens every day like that or every day I get out of the pit. If I were to stay in there, they would too.”

“Interesting,” Laine thought out loud. “I’m sure that means something, I just can’t figure out what.”

For the next few days, we tried everything imaginable to kill the beast in the center of the city. We ambushed it, toppling a wall on it, Laine managed to stab it through the neck with a sharp stone. Once, I was even able to get to the fire and grab a bone from the pile to use as a weapon while Jax and Laine distracted it. None of it worked.

Every time, the beast found a way to get his hands on us and tear us apart. I died from being crushed, ripped apart, and decapitated.

Each time the beast defeated us, we woke swimming to the surface of the oil pit.

“That’s ten,” Laine said after our last round with the beast where I ended up having my right arm ripped off and being beaten with it to death. “That’s ten times we’ve tried this now.”

Defeat wasn’t in her voice as she wiped the oil out of her eyes and sat on the edge of the pit. I knew Laine well enough now to know she wasn’t going to give up. That wasn’t in her any more than it was in me. Right now, she was just thinking out loud.

I took a deep breath, resting in my oil bath before the next round of planning happened. I looked across from me to where the other dozen oil pools sat in the ground with the apes inside. They made no noise, nor did they look over at us. They just sat and waited for Jax to make his move.

The apes, I thought to myself. What are we missing about these freaking apes? Why are they only getting up when Jax moves? Why do they run to the fire and just stare at it?

Then it hit me like a lightning bolt to the skull.

“What if we put the fire out?” I asked, not really expecting anyone to have an answer.

“What?” Jax asked.

“Yeah—hear me out,” I said, getting excited about the idea. I looked back and forth between Jax and Laine. “What if we put the fire out? The apes are tied to Jax somehow, that much is clear. They only move when he does. But they run straight to the city and stare at the fire. What if Jax is controlling them like his own personal army, but when they get to the city, they’re mesmerized by the fire, so they stop and get sucked in?”

“You mean like the beast created the fire to take them out of the equation?” Laine asked excitedly. She looked over at Jax. “Have you ever tried that? Have you ever tried to put out the fire?”

“I mean, I’ve thought about it, but without any kind of water in this place, it’s going to be kind of hard,” Jax admitted. “Anything’s worth a shot. But I’m not sure I can control the apes in any way. You’ve seen them. They have a mind of their own. They don’t even look at me.”

“Water’s not the only way to put out a flame, but you’re right,” Laine reasoned. “It’ll be difficult to figure a way to get it out fast. The fire’s huge. We could try to dump dirt on it, but how long would that take without tools?”

“How much time would you need?” I asked, feeling my hope renewed. For me, hope would never fade. But I had to admit after the eighth or ninth time dying, it was in short supply. “A minute? Two?”

“At least a minute,” Laine thought, squinting her eyes. “We could use pieces of broken doors to shovel the dirt on the fire.”

“Think bigger,” Jax said, entering the conversation. There was something in his voice that hadn’t been there before. It sounded like “fight,” if the word could be translated to a tone. “We can start by loading a ton of dirt on a broken door. We’ll throw it on the fire then resort to using broken pieces of wood as shovels. I think this could work.”

“It all hinges on the apes being somehow connected to you, but I think it’s worth giving it a shot,” I stated, now trying to walk the line between hope and damage control if this plan didn’t work. “We have to try.”

“Yes—yes, I think this could be it,” Jax said, chewing on his lower lip. “I’ve never put out the fire before, not even a little. Since it’s just been me, he’s guarded it. Yeah, come to think of it, he hasn’t let me get close. He went right after you when you got the fire too.”

“He’s right,” Laine chimed in, buying further into our plan. “Let’s go put out a fire.”

Once again, as soon as Jax exited the pit, the oil apes took off at a sprint for the city. I couldn’t be sure if I was looking at the situation through my own glasses, just seeing what I wanted to see, but the apes did look eager, almost determined to head for the fire.

And was it the fire all along or was it the beast? Perhaps the fire was always placed there to distract them.

“This is going to work,” Jax said to himself as we made the trek to the ruined city. “This is going to work. This has to work.”

I traded looks with Laine. I could tell she was thinking the same thing.

It had taken a miracle to get Jax to buy in to the idea that we could get out of here. I still knew we could. We would find a way, no matter what. What I was most concerned about now was if he would be able to take another failure.

If for whatever reason extinguishing the fire didn’t do anything, we needed Jax in the right mind to fight another day. I knew Laine and I would be able to pull ourselves off the ground and try again, but would he?

He’d already been through so much.

I opened my mouth to express some of my concerns. Laine grabbed my arm and shook her head.

I shut my trap. That was all the confirmation I needed. She was right. If Jax was gung-ho about this, then that was enough for today. We walked through the desolate landscape to the skeleton city.

The same plume of dark smoke rose from the town like it always did. The sun overhead gave off the same rays of sun or lack thereof as the clouds sought to cover it at every turn.

The apes were well into the city, probably gathered around the fire when we arrived. If we hadn’t been killed every day for the past ten days, it would have seemed funny to walk through the city gathering my favorite weapons.

I chose a rock that was the size of my fist then a piece of broken wood that worked as a knife. One end of the short wooden shaft was pointed, the other thick and square like a handle.

“Over here; there’s a full door,” Jax instructed as we took an early right turn before the street with the fire. Sure enough, an ancient piece of wood flaking with old paint lay on its side like some long-forgotten relic.

We worked in silence, piling as much soil on the flat piece of wood as possible. When the pile rose to my waist, we stopped for Laine and Jax to test its weight.

Both managed to lift the flat door carrying the soil. I noticed Jax’s arms tremble a bit with the weight, but he didn’t complain.

Sweat dripped down my brow as I examined our work. A thick pile of rich soil would be a good start in quelling the fire, but we all knew it wouldn’t be enough to put it out completely. A large portion of our plan rested on how much time I was able to buy the two to shovel even more dirt on the flames.

“Maybe I should be the one to lure the beast away from the fire,” Laine proposed as she and Jax hunted for two other pieces of broken wood that would work as shovels. “You’re not as fast as I am in this place. Like Jax said, this world was constructed to work against people like you and Jax.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Or at least not yet. Let me try first. Your speed is the reason we need you putting out the fire. I can buy you the time you need.”

“All right,” Laine acquiesced, finding a narrow piece of wood as long as her forearm and throwing it onto the board carrying their dirt. “I think we’re ready.”

“I’ll come in from the right like we usually do.” I repeated the plan heading out. “You two give me a couple seconds and as soon as he turns his back, you’re up.”

“This is going to work,” Jax said as I walked down the street. “This has to work.”

I just nodded.

For his sake, I hoped he was right.


Nineteen

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I turned down the street, taking in the familiar scene in front of me for the eleventh time. Lucky number eleven. At least, for my sake, I hoped the number eleven was lucky.

As wild as it sounded, the scene playing out in front of me was one I was used to. I mean, who sees a horde of demon apes staring into a fire along with a giant beast? Me; that was what my life had become. This was normal for me now.

The circle of apes stared mesmerized into the fire. I sure hoped our bet would pay off.

The beast stood in a ring of the creatures, also gazing at the flames.

“Hey you, Beautiful,” I shouted, rolling my shoulders and taking in a deep even breath to prepare myself for what was about to happen. “Precious, I’m talking to you.”

The beast looked over his left shoulder with a snarl.

“Yeah, that’s right, you,” I called, stopping my forward progress a good half block away. This would give me a head start when he came charging toward me. “Don’t look over at the other demon monkey ape things like I’m referring to them. It’s you I want, Twinkle Toes. It’s always been you. I bet you never thought someone would tell you that you’re lovely, did you? Well, here I am. Just a boy telling a beast that I want you.”

The beast turned toward me now with a rumbling growl that could be heard over the crackling of the fire. He stalked toward me, his eyes full of malice. Over his left shoulder, I could see Jax and Laine turning the corner, running forward with their load of dirt and impromptu shovels.

For the moment, I knew I needed to do whatever it took to get the beast to focus on me and only me. Right now, it seemed running my mouth was doing just that.

“Hey, can you talk?” I taunted, tossing the rock up and down in my hand like a ball. “I swear I heard a ‘no’ in there when you roared at me the first time. And what’s with all the roaring anyway? I mean, can’t we all just get along?”

He had had enough.

The beast bellowed and charged.

I had no time to look and see what was happening at the fire.

I hurled that rock at the charging mass of muscle and teeth as hard as I could. It cracked him in the forehead, stunning him for a moment, but not even doing enough to take him off his feet.

The beast slowed and teetered, shaking off the blow. A line of blood trickled down his forehead. A second later, he was refocused.

“Come on, come on, you’re fine, you’re fine, it’s not going to do anything to mess with your money maker,” I told him back-pedaling to create even more distance from myself and the beast. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or not, but the acrid plumes of smoke wafting to the sky seemed less now. “Come on, Wonderful, you know how this ends.”

The beast bared his teeth and rushed me again. He was so fast, I barely had enough time to lift my hand holding the wooden stake and mount a counter attack. I brought my weapon in toward his chest.

The beast caught my right wrist in his massive left hand. His hand was so large, it not only grabbed my wrist but the better part of my forearm. He lifted me off the ground with ease.

He smelled horrible. So far, I thought my sense of smell had been killed by the constant ash and smoke in the air. I was wrong.

The beast lifted me to eye level with him and screamed into my face. The smell of his breath was nearly enough to cause me to pass out. Flecks of his spit slapped my own face. His warm drool dripped off my cheeks.

“Well, come on, then!” I yelled at him, bolstering my own courage. If I yelled myself, it helped to fight away my own fear. As if I could scream my anxiety away. “You going to spit on me to death or what? Your breath smells rancid, by the way. I’m not sure what you’ve been eating but you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

The beast reared back with a closed right fist the size of my head.

This was going to hurt. Or, on the other hand, maybe it wasn’t going to hurt at all. Maybe I was just going to die and wake up in a pool of oil.

The blow never came.

The beast’s face went from one of rage and anger to confusion, pain even. He looked down to his left leg.

I followed his gaze in wonder. One of the oily black apes was there with both hands wrapped around the beast’s right leg. It was chewing on the beast’s calf as if it was on vacation at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The beast looked back up at me in shock as if I was going to have some kind of insight as to what was going on.

I just dangled there like an idiot. It was working. I gave the beast a shrug.

That apparently was not the answer he wanted. Like he was swatting a fly, the beast tossed me to the left so hard, I flew through the air. Lucky for me, a stone-walled building waited to cushion my fall. I went head first into the stone, sliding to the ground.

Pain exploded behind my eyes. The familiar wet sensation of warm blood fell down my face. The agony was so intense, it was difficult to even open my eyes and focus on what was happening in front of me.

The beast looked down at the much smaller ape chewing like a maniac on his leg. It lifted the creature into the air with both hands. The little guy took a full mouth-sized chunk of the beast with him.

The beast tore his attacker in two halves. Blood, guts, and intestines rained down on top of his head. The beast raised his head into the sky with a blood-curdling bellow.

Wincing past the pain, I looked to my right, where I saw the strangest thing. Down the street, Laine and Jax were piling sand on the fire like people possessed. The fire itself was almost halfway out. The collection of bones used to fuel the flames were scattered on the ground now. Some pieces were already completely out, smoking on the ground.

But that wasn’t the strangest part. What brought a grin to my broken face was that these tiny oily demon apes were beginning to snap out of whatever trance the fire put them in.

They blinked large round eyes, looking at one another as if to say, “Hey, what the heck is going on?”

They clacked their teeth and began hooting and screeching.

It was working.

I knew we were onto something when the beast turned his attention from me and looked at the group of oily apes waking from their trance.

For the first time, I saw something like worry cross over the beast’s face.

My head drummed with sheer agony. My body hurt in a dozen different places, but I knew this was it. This was our chance.

“Hey!” I yelled as loud as I could. “I’m not done with you yet. You thought this was over? Nothing’s over!”

I staggered to my feet, still clutching the piece of wood in my right hand that I’d use as a knife.

The beast ignored my calls and began heading back toward the fire.

Panic took me in that moment. We were so close. Jax and Laine needed a few more seconds to completely put out the fire. I tried to run after the beast; thoughts of tackling him from behind were unrealistic, but what else was I going to do?

The beast moved much faster down the street than I did. I wasn’t going to catch him before he got to Jax and Laine. Our chance of getting out of here was disappearing in front of my eyes.

Then our salvation came in the form of hundreds of these demon oil apes. Some of the apes were still entranced by the flames, but more than half of them were looking around confused, hooting and hollering now.

One of the little monsters saw the beast charging down the street. He shouted something at his cohort, extending a pointer finger in the direction of the beast.

I had no idea what he shouted, but it must have been some kind of war cry. As one large group the apes that had been freed from the fire spell turned and charged toward the beast. What the apes lacked in size, they made up for in sheer number.

When the two factions collided, the beast bulldozed through dozens of the creatures, swinging wildly with his arms to clear his path. But for every one of the apes that was tossed to the side, two more latched on with hungry teeth to the beast’s legs, arms, and torso.

The little guys were buzz saws, ripping into the beast without any kind of plan. Screams from the apes and roars from the beast filled the air around me, echoing through the dead city.

The beast’s forward momentum was finally stopped. He was two buildings down from where Jax and Laine worked tirelessly to put out the flames and it was working.

The last licks of red and orange fire were in their death throes, trying in vain to survive. The dirt snuffing out their life line was too much. A moment later, the flames were extinguished. The last of the apes shook themselves free of the trance. They looked at Jax and Laine and then to each other. As soon as they saw the beast, they screeched and threw themselves into the fight.

I would have thought the volume of the apes would be enough to overwhelm the beast and send him to his knees.

I underestimated the beast. Yes, he had his hands full, already bleeding from hundreds of cuts, but he was giving as good as he got. His massive arms crushed apes every time he swung. When his arms were covered by the little guys, he’d reach down with his mouth and tear them free one by one.

This whole time, I was making my way to the beast. Finally reaching his back, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Me and my little wooden knife didn’t seem like enough to join the frenzy of claws and teeth in front of me.

I decided to take the low ground. If the beast couldn’t walk, he wasn’t going to be able to stop us, right?

I sank to my knees, using my right fist like a jackhammer. I stabbed the sharp piece of wood in and out of the right Achilles tendon of the beast. It was gruesome work, but if this was what it took to get Jax free and all of us back to the real world, I was willing to play unqualified doctor.

I tore through his tendon, ripping at it a good four to five times before he screamed in anger and pain, realizing there was something seriously wrong.

One of the apes looked at what I was doing and then to the beast’s left Achilles as if wondering if he should do the same.

“Yes,” I shouted to him. “Bite it!”

The little oil demon monkey looked at me with a wide Cheshire grin, roughly patted me on the head as if I was his pet, and then went to work. The little guy opened a maw of razor-sharp teeth and clamped down on the Achilles tendon in front of him.

The beast fell to the ground on both knees.

He tried to turn and reach behind him, but the apes already covering his body were weighing him down.

Jax and Laine arrived covered in sweat. They both carried their makeshift wooden shovels.

I forced my way up to my feet covered in a mixture of dirt, my blood, and the blood of the beast. I went over to the beast’s head. He thrashed and clawed at the apes, but it was over. Whether he knew it or not, he had finally lost.

“No,” Laine said as I knelt to finish my gruesome work. “Jax has to do it.”


Twenty

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I understood. Without a word, I nodded and stepped back.

Laine and I looked over at Jax.

He stood there trembling. Pools of water swam in his eyes. I could only imagine what this moment meant for him. I had only died ten times, been here a total of I’m not sure how long, but it felt like an eternity.

Jax had been living in this hell for weeks? Months? He had died over and over again hundreds of times, not even able to take his own life.

Now that all changed.

Jax swallowed hard, trembling as he did so.

“The second best case is that you defeat your demons,” Laine warned Jax. “The first best case is that you make peace with them.”

Jax walked over to the beast. The creature lay on his back breathing shallowly from the wounds covering his body. As if the apes and Jax shared some kind of mental link, they dispersed when he approached.

One of the oily demon creatures came over to me and wrapped his right arm around my leg as if we’d been friends for the last lifetime. I had a feeling that it was the one that patted me on the head.

I felt his little body’s warmth against mine. He looked up at me in what I figured he meant to be a genuine friendly smile. It might have worked if his teeth weren’t stained crimson with the beast’s blood.

I reached down and patted his head as he did mine.

He closed his eyes in bliss.

“I—I don’t know if we’ll ever be at peace,” Jax said with a quivering voice. “I’m not sure that’s meant for you and me. But until then, you have to be kept at bay. You’re too dangerous. I’m—I’m sorry.”

I didn’t really understand what was going on at the moment, but I could tell for Jax’s psyche, it was something important.

The beast gasped, looking up at Jax, who stood over him. It sounded like the beast was trying to croak out something. What it was, was too quiet for me to hear.

“When you’re ready,” Jax told the beast at his feet. Taking the makeshift wooden shovel in both hands, Jax lifted it over his head. The piece of wood came down in a single motion.

The board lacked the sharpness needed to decapitate the beast. The wooden board broke the beast’s Adam’s apple. Jax lifted the board over and over again, coming down with his full weight on the beast’s neck.

I had to look away and I wasn’t the squeamish type. I saw Laine do the same.

The sky cracked overhead with fingers of whitish-blue lightning covering the sky in sporadic intervals.

I could hear Jax roaring with his own feats of exertion as he brought the weapon down on his alter ego. His roars sounded strangely like the ones the beast bellowed before.

Rain began to fall all around us. The apes scampered to the inside of the houses, taking their dead and wounded with them.

Thunder ruled the sky above so loud, I wondered if I was going to have any hearing left after this. Cold rain water fell down my forehead and the back of my neck.

Jax finally stood up from his grizzly work. The wooden shovel turned weapon dropped from his hands. He stared at the body of the beast as if he couldn’t believe we had done it.

I wasn’t going to spoil his moment of victory, but I barely believed our cockamamie plan had worked.

The light show in the sky and sheer volume of the noise was beginning to pick up. I directed my eyes upward just in time to be struck by lightning.

At least I thought I was struck. I looked up to see a white bolt lancing through the sky headed straight for me.

One second I was in the ghost city filled with dead apes and the body of the beast and the next I was sitting in the medical wing of Dragon Hold.

I jolted from my seat, breathing hard.

I blinked, looking around me for anyone able to confirm that we had done it. That we were back in the real world.

I looked over to my left. X was hovering over Laine, who slumped unconscious in her seat. Past them, Angel was hugging Jax, who was still asleep thanks to the drugs pumping through his veins but was back in his human form.

“Bapz, Al, I need help over here,” X said to no one I could see as she removed the cerebral device from Laine’s head. “She’s not breathing.”

I stood up from my seat. Worry and a wave of sickness hit me like a wrecking ball. I fell to my knees, retching all over the white tile floor in front of me.

“Help’s on the way,” X said, taking charge of the situation. She looked over at Angel. “Stay with Daniel and Jax. I need to get Laine help right now.”

“Got it,” Angel answered.

X lifted Laine in her arms like she weighed nothing and left the room at a run.

“What’s—what’s happening?” I asked, spitting out the last of my vomit. I felt weak and my head swam with fatigue. “Laine? Is she going to be okay?”

“I don’t know,” Angel said honestly as she helped me back to my seat. “None of this is anything we’ve worked with before. X has Bapz and Al on the comm channel. If anyone can figure out what’s going on, it’s them.”

I nodded, taking a few cleansing breaths. As much as I felt like throwing up again, there was no time to focus on what I felt. Others needed help.

“An earpiece, I need an earpiece,” I said, motioning to my ear. “We should get Cassie and Brother Enoch down here as well. They’ll be able to help.”

“On it,” Angel said, handing me her own earpiece before running out the door to grab another.

“Cassie?” I asked in the earpiece.

There was no need. Cassie came bursting through the doors a second later. She looked at a motionless Jax on the table and then at me.

“I came as soon as I heard the news you were out,” Cassie said, sidestepping my vomit. Her eyes lingered on Jax before coming back to me. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll be all right,” I replied. “My guts are just adjusting to the change in reality, I guess. How long was I in there?”

“A few hours, maybe less,” Cassie reported, sitting next to me. She looked me in the eyes, checking to see how wide my pupils were.

“I’ll be okay,” I reassured her. “Laine, Jax, check on them.”

“Laine’s getting the care she needs,” Cassie said. Satisfied by the size of my pupils, she stood up from her seat and went over to Jax to read his vital signs.

I listened in on the channel where X, Bapz, and Al were all talking so fast, it was difficult to comprehend. The three AIs used words I had never heard before, but in the lunacy of their intellectual talk, I grasped the phrases “breathing” and “she’ll make it.”

I sighed in relief, getting to my feet at the same time Angel and Brother Enoch walked in.

“Laine is in the room opposite you and she’s been resuscitated,” Brother Enoch said with a weary smile. “I thought I’d remove myself from that room for the time being. She’s in excellent hands. X and Bapz are with her.”

“Thanks, Doc,” I answered. Brother Enoch was a follower of the Way. Our paths first crossed on Mars when his colony was attacked by the Voy. Since then, we’d traveled together and he was now our resident doctor here at Dragon Hold.

“Vital signs are stable here,” Cassie said, looking at the monitor reading out things like Jax’s heart rate, breathing pattern, and pulse. “We can probably take him off the sleeping agent.”

“I agree,” Brother Enoch concurred, taking a look at the monitor for himself. “It seems he’s in good health. Weak, but nothing a few weeks of rest and proper nutrition won’t take care of.”

Angel held Jax’s hand as Brother Enoch took him off the medication. Cassie and I stepped to the side to give them room.

“How do you feel?” Cassie asked, looking deep into my eyes. “And before you tell me you’re fine again, I mean it. How do you really feel? I’m not just going to take a shrug and an ‘I’m fine’.”

“You know me too well.” I sighed.

“I’d like to know you better if we weren’t always getting pulled off to fight aliens or find Relics,” Cassie said with a wink. “But I digress. Seriously, how are you?”

“Just tired,” I answered honestly. “My stomach is under control. I feel like I could sleep a week.”

“You should,” Cassie remarked. “Sleep isn’t something that’s been in large supply for any of us lately. You should probably clean off too. You’ve got a little vomit on your chin.”

“Where?” I asked, reaching for my chin.

“Nope, nope, it’s moved to your cheek now, here. I’ll get it.” Cassie reached for first my chin, my cheek, and then my entire face with her hand. “Stop moving; it’s just all over.”

I stood there chuckling as she ruffled my face and hair with both hands. Her hands were mostly soft with worn calluses on her palms where each finger began. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside as she ruffled my hair.

“Okay, there you go, got it,” Cassie said, looking at me and tilting her head to the side. “Nope, there’s more.”

“Okay, okay, I surrender,” I said, taking a step away toward a cabinet with cleaning supplies. “Let me clean up my mess and then let’s go see Laine. After that, I could use a nap.”

Cassie helped me clean the tile floor against my requests. I mean, who wanted the person they care for cleaning up their vomit? Cassie didn’t even flinch. She sprayed disinfectant on the ground while I used a handful of cloths to remove the vomit.

Jax was in good hands with Angel and Brother Enoch. Jax wasn’t awake yet, but he would be soon. There would be plenty of time to see him. Right now, I was more worried about Laine.

Cassie and I exited the room into the wide white hall. The room across from us had an open window where I could see Laine propped up on a pillow. She looked weak with a faint smile as her husband held her hand. X was doing a series of checks on the monitors connected to her, but there was no panic or worry etched on anyone’s face.

Bapz stood by Nemesis with a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder. When Bapz caught my eye, he said something and exited the room. To my surprise, he still held Al in the palm of his hand.

“Well that was a bit touch and go there. I thought she was dead for sure,” Al commented as soon as Bapz stepped out of the room but before he closed the door.

X, Laine, and Nemesis all glared at her from inside the room.

“Let me at least close the door first.” Bapz hissed.

He closed the door behind them with a long sigh.

“Honestly, everyone here’s so sensitive,” Al said in a tone that carried an eye roll all its own. “I mean, honestly, I’d rather have the truth out right away instead of being lied to or having things sugar-coated for me. Wouldn’t you, Cassie?”

“Um, yeah, I guess I would,” Cassie said, looking at the sphere, confused at being singled out. “Why would you direct that question at me?”

“Because I imagine the thought crossed your mind to have Laine go in your head and undo whatever cerebral conditioning was placed there by the Order,” Al explained. “Sorry to say, it’s not going to happen. She can’t use the cerebral amplifier again. It’s too dangerous. This time, it nearly killed her; next time, it will.”


Twenty-One

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“Al, that’s enough,” Bapz said, jiggling the sphere in his hand as if that were a way of rebuking her.

“She needs to be aware,” Al continued ignoring the motion. “She needs to know. We aren’t doing her any favors by giving her false hope. She needs to figure out a way to do it on her own.”

“Okay, we get it,” I said, looking at Cassie.

Cassie was pale. She stood there staring at the invisible problem in front of her.

“No, Al’s right,” Cassie said with a weak nod. “I would rather know. Laine can’t go in. Look at what it did to her. I’ll figure this out on my own.”

Cassie was very clearly not okay. She strode off toward the exit to the medical wing without so much as a good-bye.

“Good job, Al,” I said through gritted teeth. “You’re a real saint.”

“What?” Al asked incredulously. “This is my fault somehow? She said she would have rather known. What good would it be to give her false hope?”

“Did you ever think we could break this news to her when we had another option available?” I asked, reining in my voice from a yell. “There’s a time and place for everything. This was neither.”

“Well, excuuuuuuuuuse me,” Al said in a huff. “Bapz, back to work on the holographic imagers being installed in the rest of Dragon Hold. I’m tired of you carrying me around and having idiotic sparring matches with Neanderthals.”

It was my turn to storm off.

Bapz gave me an apologetic look.

I had to find Cassie. I jogged out of the medical wing, catching her back as she exited the main entrance to the manor.

“Ca—” I said, breaking off my yell as she disappeared around the corner.

I ran down the wide corridor, following her outside. I caught her as she walked on the left side of the building around the garage to the rear of the manor.

“Hey, hey, wait up,” I said, running to catch her. I stopped when I reached her side, matching my gait to hers. “Listen, Al is still getting used to the whole human interaction thing. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. We’ll figure something out. Even if Laine can’t go into your head again, we’ll find another way.”

Cassie didn’t say anything. She didn’t even look at me. If anything, she increased the speed she walked, passing the house and the rear of the building and heading toward the man-made forest to the rear of the grounds.

“Will you just stop for a second and talk to me?” I requested, gently pulling at her right elbow. “Cassie, just talk to me.”

“And what?” Cassie asked in a cold, hard tone I wasn’t used to hearing. “What do you want me to say, Daniel? What do you want to talk about? You want to talk about how we both know that that tiny alien sphere’s right? You know she’s right. We both do. You saw Laine. She can’t go in again. I’d never ask her too.”

“But we’ll figure out another way,” I said. “We’ll find a way to undo what’s been done.”

“It’s so easy for you to say.” Cassie swallowed hard, looking away. “I tried to kill you, Daniel. You—the person I’ve cared for—the only person I’ve cared for like this. I could have killed you or someone else. What if I killed Cryx or Preacher? I couldn’t live with myself.”

“But you didn’t,” I said, gently taking the sides of her face in my hands. “You didn’t and you fought it. You could have killed me, you’re right. You didn’t kill me. You stopped it. You were strong enough.”

Hot tears raced down Cassie’s face, splashing against my hands.

“I didn’t this time,” Cassie agreed with a nod. She rested both her hands on mine. “What about next time? As long as this trigger’s planted inside my head, I can never be sure. How can I say I care for you the way I do when I could turn and kill you or someone else we love in an instant? I won’t be safe until I’ve beaten this.”

“We’ll beat this together,” I vowed, drawing her closer. “We’ll figure this out together. I can’t lose you. I won’t lose you. Because I love you. I love you, Cassie. I didn’t think I’d tell anyone that ever again.”

Cassie’s hands trembled on top of my own. I pressed in closer, placing my forehead against hers as gently as I could. She was warm. I could feel her hot breath on my face.

“I thought after Amber, that was it for me,” I told her. “I thought I was done. Damaged goods. But you’ve given me something I never knew I could have again. I’ll do whatever it takes. Because I love you.”

We stood there for a minute longer before she tilted her head up and kissed me. Her lips were soft, the feeling one of euphoria and lightheadedness. I wasn’t sure how long her lips were pressed to mine, but it wasn’t long enough.

When she pulled away, I had to make sure I still had both feet planted on the ground. I felt dizzy like the beast just landed a right hook to my chin. Instead of pain, there was joy.

We just stood there before she wrapped her arms around me in an embrace. I returned the act. A contented sigh escaped my lungs. This, this felt like home.

“You have to say it back or it’s awkward,” I whispered, half because I meant it and half because I wanted to hear her laugh.

I felt her chuckle in my arms. She pulled away.

“Daniel Hunt, I love you too, but you know what I’m going to say next and you know it won’t be easy for either of us,” Cassie answered. “I’d never forgive myself if I did anything to you or anyone else.”

“You’re leaving,” I said, confronting the growing pit in my stomach.

“I don’t want to,” Cassie confided, biting her lower lip. “You believe me, right? Tell me you understand.”

“I understand,” I answered. “I understand why you’re doing it. Let me go with you.”

“No, they need you here,” Cassie insisted. “Don’t think I don’t know that Bapz has a to-do list a dropship long for you when it comes to W.O.L.F. Plus, the Galactic Government thinks you’re its new monster hunter. Aren’t you supposed to be starting a crusade against all the creatures let loose here on Earth?”

She was making too much sense. She was right on all accounts. My house was in disorder. I knew I had to stay. Still, everything that burned within me told me to go with her. I wanted to turn my back on it all. I would have if she asked me to. I think she knew that. That was why she would never ask me.

“You look like your brain’s doing back flips,” Cassie said, taking my hand and giving it a squeeze. From a Cyber Hunter, the act felt crushing. I didn’t mind. “Don’t over think it. I’ll be back soon. I’ll figure this out and come back to you.”

I nodded, slowly coming to the harsh realization that she was actually leaving.

“When will you go?” I asked. “Where will you go?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Cassie answered. “I have a contact on the moon who I know might be able to help. There’s an operator there named Manfred Genther. He’ll know what to do.”

“An operator, huh?” I asked as warning flags popped up in my head. I’d heard of operators during my own time on the moon. They were wild cards dealing with cerebral mechanics. I’d be lying if I said I understood precisely what they did, but I knew it wasn’t exactly copacetic.

“Stop,” Cassie said, shaking her head. “You have enough to deal with. I’ll be fine.”

“I’m sure you will,” I answered. “I’m also sure Cryx and Preacher would love to go with you to watch your back. Maybe I can even get X and Syrinity to go too.”

“You’re going to try and send everyone with me, aren’t you?” Cassie asked with an assumed smile. She placed her hands on her hips, feigning displeasure. “I’ll be okay. It’s not like I’m the one going monster hunting.”

“You know, the more I think about it, I bet I can strap Al on Butch’s back somehow and she can go with you too, like some kind of ancient warrior riding her steed into battle.” I chuckled. I couldn’t keep a straight face with that one. Imagining Al in some kind of harness yelling orders on Butch’s back was too much.

Both Cassie and I broke out into laughter. It felt good; it felt great to laugh with the person you loved knowing that love was returned.

I doubled over, tears coming to my eyes. I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it actually wasn’t that funny, but I was tired. I couldn’t help it.

We stood there like two idiots high on stem.

If I had known the darkness the coming days would bring, I would have stayed here with Cassie until the end of time.


Twenty-Two

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I spent the rest of the day with her just talking like we didn’t have a care in the world. She was so much more than I could have ever imagined. She knew a lot about books too. She was throwing out titles I had never even heard of, like The Count of Monte Cristo and someone named Sherlock Holmes.

We received word that both Jax and Laine were recovering and would be fine.

After dinner, we were both barely standing. Fatigue set in with a heavy hand. Cassie followed me up to my room and we both fell into bed beside each other.

I was a wreck, not just because I had just come out of Jax’s nightmare, but because I knew Cassie was leaving the next morning. I didn’t want to see her go, but I knew why she had to. In her place, I’d be doing the same.

We both lay on our backs, looking up at the ceiling. Her right arm pressed against my left. I could hear the soothing rhythmic breathing coming from her lips.

The silence was comfortable and I could have just lay there with her, but I knew I needed to tell her what she meant to me. She was going to be gone for what I hoped was a short period of time. If I was honest with myself, it might not be as short as I would like.

“Cassie, I want you to know that whatever tomorrow and the next day brings, and the next day after that, that I’ll always have your back no matter what,” I said, staring up at the ceiling. “I’m not sure if we’re supposed to put a title on this or if that’s something people still do, but—I mean this sounds so silly—are you—will you be my girlfriend?”

Cassie remained silent.

“I mean—we don’t have to put a title on it if you don’t want to,” I stuttered, quickly backtracking. “We can just go on like this without an official name for what this is, but—if you want to, then—”

Light snoring cut my bumbling sentence off.

I sighed with relief, looking over at a slumbering Cassie.

She murmured something I couldn’t understand then turned her body, placing her head on my chest.

I put my arm around her, holding her close. I let out a big sigh as I committed this moment to my memory for eternity. I wanted to remember what it felt like to hold her, the scent her hair brought that was all her own, the weight of her body against mine.

The future was uncertain, but I understood struggle lay in store for us all. When things were the darkest, I wanted to be able to recall this moment. Good memories can save you.

I fell asleep content and happy. My dream refused to allow me to remain that way.

I knew immediately where I was and that I was in another dream-like meeting as soon as she came.

Alerna, the actual biological woman she was today, not Al, stood in front of me. We were back on the dark planet on which she had spoken to me while I was in the gate. Black sand shifted under my feet. Dark mountain ranges in the distance jutted from the ground like the backbone of some ancient behemoth.

The night sky shone with a series of brilliant moons. More stars than I could ever count radiated their light down on me as if it were a gift.

I stood there staring at her, remembering where I really was. My body was back at Dragon Hold where it should be holding the woman I loved for the last time before she left.

At once, my heart grew cold. I couldn’t even have that. I wasn’t even allowed one night undisturbed from the events taking place around me. Frustration turned to anger before Alerna even opened her mouth.

She must have seen the look on my face and interpreted it correctly.

“Daniel, there is much that needs to be done,” Alerna said, moving toward me. She stopped a few meters from where I stood. “If there were another way, trust me. I would take it.”

“I appreciate your help with the Voy and what you’ve done for me and the human race,” I said through gritted teeth. Even as I said the words, I wasn’t sure I meant them. These events had seen the death of so many I was close to. “But I’m done. I don’t want to carry this mantle anymore. The Voy are gone. I’ve found your Relics, now I’m hunting the alien creatures set loose by the gate. I’m done after that. No more.”

Alerna paused for so long, I thought there might be something wrong.

She stood there silent in her white robe, the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes creasing as if she were in deep thought.

“There must be more,” Alerna asserted. “A threat greater than the Voy on Mars lives on Earth now. You know of what I speak.”

My mind raced to the events in Australia. The alien substance infecting people there.

The Galactic Government is handling it, I reasoned with myself. You did what you could. It’s not your problem.

“I fear an ancient presence known as the Darkening has once more made itself known,” Alerna explained quietly. “You must face this threat. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think you could bear it. Your very anatomy makes you the perfect person for the job. More than that, your unrelenting spirit will be needed.”

“It’s too much,” I confessed, swallowing my anger. I let a long sigh escape my lungs. “There has to be someone else for this one. I can’t be the only option you have.”

“There is another,” Alerna admitted after a moment of hesitation. “There is another; however, you have the chance of defeating the Darkening with the Relics at your disposal.”

“I’m tired, Alerna,” I replied honestly. My anger was beginning to wane as if I were too fatigued to even marshal the emotion. “I’m tired of it having to be one catastrophe right after another. I never asked for this.”

“That’s why you make the perfect leader,” Alerna contended. “The best heroes are the ones that rise to the occasion not because they desire the title but because they refuse to stand by and do nothing.”

“You said there was another.” I looked up at the alien woman again. “Send them. I honestly don’t know what I could do that the Galactic Government and the New Republic couldn’t. The alien creatures roaming the Earth are enough for me to handle now.”

Alerna slowly nodded.

“I will,” Alerna said, scrunching her brow in deep thought. “I will send someone else, but you must be ready to face this threat if the other cannot overcome. The Darkening has only a foothold on Earth, but it spreads like a wave crashing on the beach. It’s what nearly destroyed us before. It’s what eradicated those that came before us.”

“I have faith that whoever you find will figure it out,” I proclaimed, freeing myself of the burden.

“Let us hope so for both of our sakes,” Alerna answered. “Still, you must be ready to step up if the other fails. You hold the Relics; they are the tools that may be needed to overcome this threat.”

I wasn’t sure if Alerna knew at this point that I had given the book to Chancellor Marie or not. I didn’t think this was the right time to break the news to her if she didn’t.

“When does this all end?” I questioned instead. “The Voy, the Relics, the alien creatures let loose by the gate, and now the Darkening? When does it all come to a stop?”

“Would you like the truth or would you like me to lie to you?” Alerna asked. “Although I feel like you already know the answer to the question.”

“I want you to lie to me,” I said in response. “It never ends, does it?”

“Life of all kinds is struggle, joy, defeat, sorry, happiness in cycles,” Alerna answered. “It’s like this for the smallest animal and the wisest species. Complete rest does not reside on this plane of existence. As long as we draw breath, there will always be struggle. The trick is to find balance in that struggle. Time to be with your loved ones makes the period away from them bearable. Find balance in your life, Daniel Hunt. The galaxy—nay, the universe needs you.”

She was gone.

I woke in my bed staring at the ceiling. Cassie still rested on my chest.

I thought about the dream second guessing my answer.

Should you have gone? I asked myself. Should you have just said yes and returned to Australia? Who is Alerna sending in your place?

I spent the rest of the night awake, trying not to dwell on these things and failing. The only thing that gave me comfort at all was the woman beside me.

When we woke, it was back to business as usual. Cassie gave me a kiss before heading off to shower and preparing to leave.

I dressed, spending all of three seconds on my hair before I just went with whatever it looked like at the moment.

Dragon Hold was alive with the morning bustle. In my absence, Bapz had the estate running like a well-oiled hover bike. Everyone had a job and everyone knew exactly what had to be done.

I moved through the house torn in two. Half of me was grateful for the time at my home, the other half dreading Cassie leaving and even more laying Wesley to rest.

“Don’t do it,” Preacher said, ripping me from my thoughts.

I was so lost in my own head when I reached the bottom floor of Dragon Hold, I didn’t see the one-eyed mercenary leaning against a windowsill with a cup of steaming caf in his hand.

“Don’t do what?” I asked.

“Don’t think about the life too much,” Preacher answered, taking a sip of the dark liquid. “I see that look in your eye. Cassie told me she’s leaving today. I asked if she’d stay for the funeral. She said she would. I’ve made all the arrangements with Bapz.”

“Thank you, thanks for that,” I said, joining him at the window.

I looked out onto the front ground of the estate. The newly risen sun cast bright rays on the sandy ground. I saw Cryx already outside sparring with Syrinity. To the right, Bapz spoke with a trio of workers, directing them no doubt on some important task that needed to be done.

“You think we should call Sam?” I asked, remembering the original member of the Pack Protocol who lived with her family in the Badlands. “She should know.”

“Already did when we arrived yesterday,” Preacher answered. “I know you have a lot on your plate, so I’m taking care of things on that end. Sam will be here.”

“I wish we got to see her under different circumstances,” I said. “If she offers to stay, we can’t let her. She has a family. She’s the only one of us that got out.”

“I’d never ask her,” Preacher agreed. “But you know if we were ever in a bind, she’d come running.”

“I know.” I agreed with him. “And that’s why I’d never ask her.”


Twenty-Three

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

The funeral was nice, small like Wesley would have wanted. We stood outside near the back left of the estate where a small graveyard had been set up by the Cripps family.

Stone headstones with holo viewers showed faces of the deceased. It showed them how we remembered them. Echo lay next to Wesley now, both their hologram displays hovering above their headstones.

Echo was alive and well in that image. No sign of the tortured soul near the end of his days. Wesley held a cigar in his mouth. The orange-gold color of the hologram was so specific, I could even see smoke tendrils wafting from the end of his cigar. He looked good, happy.

Everyone who knew him was in attendance. Even a few who didn’t but wanted to show their respect for the man, like Syrinity, and to my surprise, even Al.

Bapz held the alien AI’s sphere for the moment.

Jax insisted on coming, even in his weakened state. He sat in a hover chair, thin and shrunken, but back to his normal form. Angel stood beside him and a healthy albeit sad-looking Sam.

Cassie, Cryx, Preacher; we were all there. To my relief, Preacher took it upon himself to facilitate the ceremony. Not that I didn’t want to, but I just didn’t have the words at the moment.

It made more sense for Preacher to do it. He had known Wesley the longest.

“What do you say about that man who gave us all a second chance?” Preacher asked, adjusting the collar of his black suit. “He brought me into Immortal Corp and then the original members of the Pack Protocol soon after. When things went sideways with the Founders, he still had our backs. He was a loyal friend till the end and a tough son of a brum to boot.”

We all stood quietly around the gravesite in suits and dresses of mostly black. The morning sun was long gone and the noonday light shone on us, warm and welcoming.

The last thing on my mind was the warm weather and the heat I felt in my monkey suit. I knew I needed to say something. I was with Wesley when he passed. If not for him, then I needed to say it for those who gathered.

“If anyone would like to say a few words, this would be the time,” Preacher said, slowly reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He pulled out an unlit cigar, placing it on the headstone. “I’ll see you soon, brother. You save a cigar for me now.”

Preacher removed a trembling hand from the cigar balanced on the headstone. He took a step back to signal that he was done, offering the proverbial microphone to anyone else who felt compelled to say a few words.

“I was with him at the end,” I started, taking a step forward and searching the eyes of those gathered. “He went down like we all plan on going down, shoulder to shoulder with our family, eyes open, spitting fury. I don’t know how many truly great people there are in this solar system or galaxy, but we just lost one of them. He never let us down, even when that meant turning his back on everything he knew. We were first, Immortal Corp came second.”

I didn’t trust myself to say more. Already I was having to choke out the words. Instead, I took a step back.

Angel, Jax, and Sam all said something for Wesley. Angel shared a story about his strict curfews that made us all laugh. Jax did the same, recounting the tale of when we all came into one of our meetings with cigars dangling from our lips.

Sam’s was a bit more serious. The red-headed beauty stepped up, running her hand across Wesley’s holographic features like a daughter would a loving father.

“Wesley Cage was like a parent to us all,” Sam said, nodding slowly. “He was harsh but fair. There was never anytime I felt unsafe with him. He was the human rock to a family of inhuman mercenaries. I think that in and of itself says something about him. You’ll be missed, Wesley Cage, but not forgotten, never forgotten.”

When they were done, Preacher stepped up one last time.

“This is the part where I would say we’re going to make those that did this to him pay, but that’s already been handled,” Preacher said, looking over at me with a nod. “So I’m going to end with this. Spiritus non possunt occidere nostri. They can take our body.”

“But they can’t kill our spirit,” I and the three other members of the Pack Protocol repeated in unison.

After the funeral was over, I felt emotionally drained. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take, but I knew I had to be strong now. Cassie was preparing to leave.

I stood there with a numb expression on my face as I watched Cassie say her goodbyes and then disappear into the manor to change and prepare for her trip.

“If you went with her, no one would fault you,” Sam said, walking up to me. Sam was tall with her fiery red hair cascading down strong shoulders. Her black dress and high heels veiled the killing machine I knew her to be. “Have you told her yet? How you feel about her?”

“I haven’t seen you in how long and here you are cutting straight to the point.” I grinned, remembering how much I missed Sam. “I’ve told her. She feels the same way. This is just something that she has to do.”

“You’re a good man,” Sam said to me, punching my shoulder so hard it hurt. “But that’s nothing new. You’ve always been a good man.”

I rubbed my shoulder, not trying to hide the grimace.

“Thanks, I think, and ouch, by the way,” I only half teased. “You been working out?”

I thought back to how powerful we found Sam to be during the battle for Mars. She was easily the strongest member of the Pack Protocol. Sure, Jax might have her on physical strength, but how was he going to fight something he couldn’t touch if Sam used her mental powers to flick him away like some kind of mutie fly?

“How’s the family?” I asked her, thinking that was the polite thing to do to someone who was married with a child. “Your little one staying out of trouble?”

“Please, she’s trying to do the exact opposite on a daily basis.” Sam laughed. “She’s great. She asks for you, you know. You only met her once, but apparently, you left quite an impression.”

“Well, you tell her I’ll be there to visit soon,” I replied. “I’m sure you’ve already heard there are creatures let loose on Earth. If you and your family wanted to stay here until things settle, you know you’re always welcome.”

“I do know and thank you,” Sam answered. “The Badlands are my home, though. Things have changed for us since you last visited. We have better defensive structures and a standing sheriff’s unit with men and women trained and prepared to defend their homes. We learned a lot of our weaknesses as a city since your last visit. We won’t let that happen again.”

A gleam in her eyes flashed with intensity for a moment. Just as soon as it was there, it was gone again.

Man, I would hate to be on her bad side, I thought to myself. Imagine when she gets in a fight with her husband? Okay, honey, I’m just going to crush your skull with a thought now. No, thank you.

X came up to us wearing a dress of her own. A black sleeveless number showed off toned blue arms and a plunging neckline.

She looked worried.

Sam read the same thing I did in her eyes.

“What’s wrong, X?” Sam asked a little too eagerly. As if the ex-mercenary wanted a fight. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” X said, clearing her throat. “It’s about Cassie. I don’t think she should go alone. Neither does Cryx.”

It felt like someone cracked open my sternum and hollowed out my insides with an obsidian blade. I didn’t know how much more of this I could take. As much as X seemed like my right hand, I wanted her to go. I didn’t want Cassie to be alone.

X caught my line of sight before it drifted to the ground.

“If you don’t want me to—”

“Of course I don’t want you to go, you or Cryx, but you’re doing the right thing,” I said, cutting her off. “You should go. She needs you right now. You and Cryx. Just watch out for them. Both of them.”

“We’ll find a way to heal or undo what’s been done and we’ll come back,” X said with a reassuring nod. “I wouldn’t think about leaving your side, but I know you’re in good hands. Preacher’s still here and Al as well.”

“Oh yes, Al,” I said with a rueful grin. “If she thinks she’s getting in my head, no thank you. I’m drawing the line there. I don’t hate myself that much.”

“I need to meet this Al everyone’s been talking about,” Sam said, trying to lighten the mood. “She sounds like a fun night out at the Two Moon Club.”

“Something like that,” I murmured as Bapz walked toward me carrying the silver sphere. “And look, it’s your lucky day.”

“I want to offer my condolences,” Al began as she entered the group along with Bapz. “I didn’t know the human you called Wesley Cage, but I looked up any record I could find of him. I understand how much he meant to you and yours.”

I raised my eyebrows. I was half expecting Al to make some kind of snide remark she might or might not have known was inappropriate.

Bapz went on to introduce them, but the conversation was lost on me. Cassie exited the manor not in the dress she had worn to the funeral but the black cloak of her order.

X excused herself, running inside to change her own clothes before she left.

I walked over to Cassie ready to meet this next impossible obstacle head on.

“You look good in a suit, Mr. Hunt,” Cassie said, trying to ignore the sadness that clung in the air like some kind of morning fog carried in from the dead sea. “I didn’t want to have to go right after the funeral, but the sooner I go, the sooner I’ll be able to get back to you. Did X and Cryx tell you what they had planned?”

“X told me,” I confirmed. “I think Cryx is playing it close to the chest, so I didn’t tell her not to go. You can take the T-bird.”

“No.” Cassie shook her head. “You’ll need it. I’ve secured passage to the moon for the three of us from New Vegas. With any luck, I’ll make contact with the operator in two days and be back here in a week. If you don’t want X and Cryx to come, I understand.”

“No, it’s good that you don’t go alone,” I told her. “I’d go with you myself—”

“But you’re not because Earth needs you right now,” Cassie cut in. “You be safe until I come back.”

“You too,” I told her.

I kissed her, savoring the moment before pulling her into my arms. She hugged me so fiercely, I couldn’t breathe for a moment. I didn’t care.

We separated too soon.

“Go,” Cassie whispered in my ear. “Go hunt down some monsters.”


Twenty-Four

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

The Galactic Government T-bird hummed underneath my cushioned seat. I sat in the copilot seat of the craft, Preacher to my left and Butch panting behind me like some asthmatic after a marathon.

Al rested in an indention made for her sphere in the dashboard of the ship. Both she and Preacher were having a serious debate on who the best Savage Ball team was in the UML, United Moon League.

My mind replayed the events that saw me on the way to the east coast where the Galactic Government was tasked with searching for monsters on Earth.

As soon as Cassie, X, and Cryx left, I saw no reason to sit and think about how much I’d miss her, all of them really. It was time to throw myself into what was next. Monster hunting was next. Yes, I knew they weren’t really monsters, just alien creatures here on our world, but monsters was an easier term to use. “Ancient alien animals” didn’t have the same ring to it as “monster.”

I said my own goodbyes to the others quickly. Preacher, Butch, and Al insisted on making the trip with me. To be honest, I didn’t fight them that hard.

Bapz offered me a cobalt steel briefcase with what he said were gifts inside. He told me Al carried further instructions on how to use them.

“No way, I know you’re new to our world, so I’ll cut you some slack, but Estevan Salas is the best Savage Ball player hands down,” Preacher told Al emphatically. “Are you kidding me? He single-handedly took the Marauders to the Apex Bowl not once but twice and won. His back was hurting not because of the hits he took but from carrying the whole team.”

“False,” Al replied so emphatically I nearly caught myself agreeing with her based on that one word. “George ‘Bring the Pain’ Perry is statistically the best Savage Ball player. The impact he had on the Glorafins was unprecedented. Because of him, they went to four Apex Bowls and won three of them.”

“You’re new here, so like I said, I’m going to let it slide,” Preacher growled. “You’ve been out of that underground bunker for what? Days? Suddenly you’re a Savage Ball expert?”

“I’m an expert in everything compared to what your primitive brain can comprehend.” Al huffed. “Please, based on the data I have from the players in the league and coming up from the minor leagues, I can predict who will win the Apex Bowl for the next four years to come with a ninety percent accuracy rate.”

“As long as you don’t say the Glorafins will be winn—”

“The Glorafins will be taking the title next year,” Al said, cutting Preacher off.

I looked over to see a red-faced Preacher seething in his seat. I never knew he was so adamant about Savage Ball. During my time on the moon, I’d watched a few games on the holo tube but never took the time to go to one in person.

“Al,” I interjected, breaking into the conversation before Preacher decided to throw Al out of the moving T-bird. “How much longer until we arrive?”

“We’ll be there in a few minutes,” Al confirmed. “This baby can really move. Say, what do you think the odds are of me being able to use the ion cannons this mission? Maybe even a trident missile or two?”

“Do, not,” I answered slowly so she would really let it sink in. “I repeat, do not fire on anything unless I give you the order.”

Al sighed heavily, like I imagined Cryx would do if I told her something was too dangerous for her.

“Fine, fine,” Al acquiesced. “I’m in contact with the Galactic Government contingent on the ground now. They’ve already cleared me to land. Before we set down, you should look in that gift basket Bapz gave you to take on the trip.”

“Right,” I answered, rising from my seat.

I sidestepped Butch, who lay on her belly. The big wolf known as Canis lupus alces yawned as I passed. She eyed me to see if I would be willing to hand out any free pets.

I ruffled her soft ears and gave her a quick scratch on the back of her head.

The T-bird wasn’t very large. In a few steps, I was in the rear of the ship reaching for an overhead storage area and pulling out the cobalt steel briefcase Bapz sent us with.

“Oh, also, Bapz wanted me to remind you that the press still wants an interview,” Al chimed in from the front of the ship. “They’re going to be knocking on the gates of Dragon Hold soon. I fail to see why they’re so interested in you. I mean, you turned the Voy back with the help of an army. It’s not like you did it by yourself.”

I ignored Al, making my way back to my seat and clicking open the metal clasps holding the briefcase closed.

Two items sat in black foam formed to fit them exactly.

One was the length of my forearm. Some kind of vambrace to wear with a pair of steel balls resting one on top of the other. The next item was what looked like a pair of small square data chips.

I looked at Preacher, who stared over my shoulder with curiosity.

“Any idea what this is?” I asked the older man.

“No clue.” Preacher shrugged. “Why don’t you ask the Savage Ball expert over here.”

“I’m going to ignore that comment. You’re ignorant. You’re just ignorant on the subject and that’s what I’m going to tell myself so we can remain cordial to one another.” Al huffed before addressing me. “The two chips you see will attach to Butch’s canines and form an ultra-thin barrier for her to protect the inside of her mouth when she chomps down. Bapz and I created it. The mutt nearly ripped her gums in half when she was chomping on those robots and drones, or so I’ve heard.”

Butch let out a low growl.

“Oh, please don’t take that tone with me, young lady,” Al said sharply. “It’s the truth. This tech is only going to help you.”

Butch huffed then placed her head between her paws.

“And the vambrace?” I asked, picking up the other piece of new technology. “What’s this do?”

“Now this is where things get really exciting,” X started rattling off facts as fast as I could keep up with her. “The sphere I’m housed in will mount to the rear section of the vambrace. The smaller two spheres on top can then detach and hover, projecting a holographic image of myself. This way, I can not only travel with you now, but I’ll have a form you’ll be able to see.”

Preacher and I both looked at one another, weighing the odds of what this meant. I liked Al. At least I think I liked Al most days. Having the AI travel with us on a mission involving the Galactic Government might be a bit tricky. Our new allies were just that: new allies. Things would still need to be handled delicately with them. Al was anything but delicate. She was a wrecking ball through a furniture shop when it came to tact and relationship building.

“Or I could just manufacture a neural implant and get connected directly into your mind like X was,” Al suggested. “Trust me, I have no desire to be in such a small place, but if that’s what you prefer.”

“Nope, definitely don’t prefer that,” I commented without a moment’s hesitation. “All right, so it goes on my forearm like this?”

I slipped the piece of high-carbon steel over my left forearm. Two thick clasps hissed and shortened, fitting the item to my forearm perfectly.

“That’s it,” Al reassured me. “When we exit the ship, you’ll place my sphere in the base of the vambrace, and from there, I’ll control the two holo projectors that will hover in the air. Speaking of exiting the ship—oh my—what fun.”

I was so enraptured by the new pieces of tech, I wasn’t paying attention to the scene in front of our windshield.

Thus far, the landscape was like most of Earth, barren and desert-like. Now I looked out to see sand kicked up in all directions with red blaster fire from one side being shot into what? More sand?

I squinted, trying to make out what was happening below. The figures were still too far away and too small for me to get an accurate look at what was going on down there.

“Al, can you enhance the zoom?” Preacher asked.

“Done,” Al answered.

The view in front of us narrowed in on the action. I could see Galactic Government Praetorians in their dark mustard armor shooting at what? A wall of sand?

What looked like a dust storm was kicking up in front of them. Why they were firing at it was beyond me.

“Set down behind their lines and patch me in to whoever’s in charge,” I ordered, already rising from my seat. I took the two small chips with me from the cobalt steel briefcase and knelt down next to Butch. “Here we go, pup, time for an upgrade.”

Butch gave me a look that said, “I have no idea what you’re doing, but I trust you enough to let it happen.”

I took the underside of her jaw in one hand and lifted her upper lip with the other. I pressed each of the chips into her fangs. They hummed for a moment on contact, anchoring themselves in place.

I stepped back, looking at Butch, who licked her lips like she could taste the steel.

“That’s it?” I asked over my shoulder. “They just work now?”

“That’s it,” Al answered. “The technology we used sense when steel or other man-made substances are close, activating the thin shields. It’ll coat the inside of her teeth while still giving her full access to her jaws.”

The ship hovered, making use of the impressive twin turbines on either side of the ship before setting down.

“We should probably make sure it works,” Preacher said, and in a quick move, grabbed Al’s sphere.

“Don’t you dare,” Al threatened in such a high-pitched voice, it didn’t even sound like her.

Without a pause, Preacher tossed the sphere to Butch.

Butch reached up and caught the metal piece in her mouth.

“I think it works,” I said as Preacher and I knelt down to take a look at the inside of Butch’s mouth. Her teeth, gums, and tongue were coated with a charcoal black hue.

“I have never been so humiliated,” Al seethed. “You apes will pay for this.”

“W.O.L.F., this is Major Airrion Scott,” a hard voice said through the internal speakers of the T-bird. “We’ve been expecting you for a few days now. I’ll send a unit of praetorians to bring you in. If you can’t tell, we’re a bit preoccupied at the moment.”

“We’re ready to help in any way we can,” I answered, taking a seething Al from Butch’s mouth and placing her in the holder on my new vambrace. “Just point us in the right direction.”

“Understood. The unit’s en route to you now,” Major Scott responded.

It was difficult to tell in that brief interaction how our arrival was perceived. The major sounded neither angry nor particularly grateful to hear from us.

Preacher lowered the ramp door to the T-bird.

The sounds of blaster fire in the near distance died to an unnerving calm. Whatever the praetorians were shooting at was dead or gone now, maybe both.

I took the opportunity to look down at my vambrace. The sphere Al was housed in clipped perfectly into the bottom indentation of the new piece of tech. The top two spheres hummed to life then detached from the vambrace on their own. They hovered next to me for a moment before letting off a golden yellow glow.

A holographic form of Al appeared next to me. She looked pissed.

Before she could say something or I could react to her presence, we heard boots thumping against the hard sandy ground outside the open ramp.

Seconds later, three praetorians appeared, leveling Hyperion Mark Seven blasters in our direction.


Twenty-Five

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I looked from a pissed-off holographic Al to my left to a trio of Galactic Government blasters pointed at my head in front of me.

“I’m not sure what I did to deserve all of this, but we were expected,” I said, controlling the urge to go for my own MK II on the side of my hip. “I just spoke with Major Airrion Scott and he knows we’re coming.”

Butch growled.

It was impossible to read the expression on the three praetorians in front of us. Their hardened shell helmets allowed zero indication of how they felt.

“We’re instructed to bring you in,” a woman’s voice stated. She was tall and apparently the one in charge out of the three. “Major Scott wants to see you.”

Her voice was jumpy, her movements on edge as if at any moment she was going to pull the trigger, putting holes in us as fast as a mutie vulture could pounce on a dead corpse.

“Okay, and we’re going to come with you,” Preacher answered. “Are the weapons pointed at our heads really necessary? We’re here to help. Sent directly by Chancellor Marie herself.”

The name seemed to jar the praetorians from whatever amped-up high they were on.

The female praetorian in the lead lowered her weapon. She looked to her left and right, nodding for the two soldiers behind her to do the same.

I breathed a sigh of relief as the trio of hard-nosed praetorians resigned themselves to lowering their weapons.

I wasn’t sure what had them so on edge, but I could guess the blaster fire and the wall of sand we saw when we landed played a part.

“We’re going to come with you,” I said, gauging the group of soldiers. “We’re going to bring our weapons with us. Is that going to get us shot or are we all decided that we’re on the same team?”

“Go ahead,” the female soldier answered.

“I’m Daniel, this is Preacher, the wolf is Butch, and our AI friend here is Al,” I continued, trying to ease the tension I could cut in the air with my obsidian knife. “We’re coming with you.”

“Sergeant Carla Jo Miggs,” the woman responded from inside her helmet. “Now that we’re all on a first-name basis, hurry up. Let’s go.”

I caught Preacher’s eye. He looked from me, up to the storage container resting in the T-bird.

That particular container carried a Relic inside. I chose to take the sword with us on our trip. Syrinity was at Dragon Hold with the chalice. I thought it was safer if no two Relics were kept with each other in case anything happened.

I shook my head ever so slightly toward Preacher. He nodded, shouldering the black katana sheath over his head.

We walked off the T-bird into the hot afternoon air.

The praetorians gave Butch a wide berth. I didn’t blame them. The way the massive animal trotted beside me like some kind of mythical creature from legend was enough to give anyone pause.

The wolf’s head came up to my chest. Wearing her hard-webbed combat vest and force field color and now enhanced teeth, she was rather impressive.

Al walked beside me, still glaring at Preacher and me.

“Don’t think I forgot you using me as Butch’s chew toy,” Al whispered. “I owe you one for that. Next time you need your lives saved, we’ll see if I’m available at the time. I could be busy meditating or unable to be reached all of a sudden.”

I didn’t respond. This wasn’t the place or time.

Neither did I have the required opportunity to take in Al’s new form. The two holo projectors from my vambrace hovered in the air over Al, creating her form. That was rather impressive, as was the fact Al controlled the pair of bots from her sphere in my vambrace.

Instead of dwelling on that, however, we were focused on the events taking place in front of us. My mind raced to figure out what we were seeing. It wasn’t so much an encampment as it was a series of heavy Galactic Government hover tanks set up in a defensive position.

There had to be an entire praetorian company with at least ninety to a hundred soldiers present. Praetorians were hunched down behind their heavy assault vehicles. Two weapons mounted on each hover tank were manned and ready to begin firing at a moment’s notice.

The lower of the two weapons was a single plasma cannon capable of discharging super-heated rounds at the enemy. The second weapon positioned higher and over the head of the plasma cannon was a multi-barreled Vulcan ready to spit seven thousand laser rounds per minute.

Praetorians either ran behind their lines or stayed on the line, training their weapons at the wall of sand.

The sand itself was strange, as if some kind of unnatural presence kept the sand wall there calm and unwavering.

The wall of sand was something I’d seen in a dust storm, except this one didn’t move. It just remained ominously still, towering ten stories tall and wide enough to the right and left where I couldn’t see an end to it.

My party and I received more than a few awkward glances as we strode behind the Galactic Government lines. An older man with short buzzed hair and hard eyes looked up at me from a knee. He carried his helmet in the crook of his right arm. Two other men knelt with him, studying a map on the ground in front of them.

“Major Scott,” Sergeant Miggs called with a tight salute when we arrived. “W.O.L.F., as ordered.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Major Scott replied, rising from his kneeling position. “You must be Daniel Hunt.”

“I am,” I answered with an extended hand.

The major shook it, taking in me and the rest of my team. His eyes wavered longer on Butch and Al, but that was to be expected. Robots and AIs weren’t exactly uncommon on our brave new world, but wolves the size of hover bikes were.

He opened his mouth and then closed it again. Instead of speaking to me, he turned to the sergeant, her two men, and to the two other praetorians studying the map with him.

The two officers with the major who also had their helmets removed eyed me with something like a mix of malice and disgust. I wasn’t sure who pissed in their caf, but it looked like they were blaming me.

“Dismissed,” Major Scott said to the group of praetorians around him. “I need a word with Mr. Hunt and his crew alone.”

“Sir.” Sergeant Miggs and the other two praetorians with him saluted and moved on.

I noticed they didn’t go far. In an instant, we could have anywhere from ten to fifty Hyperion Mark sevens on us again. The gunners on the hover tanks were on high alert, maneuvering their weapons back and forth facing the eerie sand wall.

“I understand why your team is here, Mr. Hunt,” Major Scott said to me. “I don’t hold it against you. The Chancellor wanted the Hero of Mars to be a part of this. I was there during the battle with the Voy. I know you played a hand in our victory, but no offense, you’re not a soldier and you’re not a praetorian. It’s best you hang in the rear and let us deal with this threat.”

I understood what Major Scott was saying at once. It also explained all the sideways glances coming our way. We weren’t wanted here. No doubt the major was told we were coming, not asked by Chancellor Marie.

Instead of arguing with the major, I decided to adopt a different tactic.

“What are we dealing with here?” I asked the hard man. “I’m not trying to get in your way or hinder your plan. I’m here to help. If I can’t, then I’ll stand aside.”

Major Scott eyed me with piercing blue eyes as if he were weighing how much he bought into my words. He finally gave me a tight nod.

“Best to stay out of the way with this one unless you have any experience fighting soldiers made of sand,” Major Scott stated without blinking an eye.

I was going to ask if he was kidding, but that stone cold glare of his told me he wasn’t.

“Major, we have movement,” a voice called from the front lines.

“Don’t get in our way,” Major Scott told me, not in an unfriendly way; more like a matter-of-fact way when a coach tells you that his team will win the day. “We’ll all be fine; just let us do our job.”

I wasn’t really sure what I expected when I arrived, but this wasn’t it. My interactions with actual Galactic Government praetorians had been mostly with Zoe Valentine and Troy Toy. I found myself missing both of them right now.

Major Scott slammed his helmet on his head and returned to the front line about ten meters from our location.

Preacher and I exchanged shrugs.

“Well, our careers as monster hunters are going to be shorter than I thought,” Preacher said with a raised eyebrow. “If they don’t want us here, then maybe we should call it a day. I could catch up on some Savage Ball and teach Al a thing or two.”

“Daniel?” Al said in a tone that sent chills down my spine. I had yet to hear Al speak to me in that way. It sounded like fear. I had never known the AI to be anything but sure and definitely sarcastic.

I looked over at Al. Her bright golden yellow form stared straight ahead, past the line of praetorians to the sand wall that remained steady not a hundred meters in front of us.

“We should tell Major Scott and his company to turn back,” Al advised without looking at me. “We should tell them to turn back right now. We shouldn’t be here. None of us should be here.”

“What?” I asked, studying the wall of sand. “It’s unnatural for sure, but what exactly are we dealing with here? Some alien from the gate that causes sandstorms?”

“They call her Ammit, the devourer of the dead,” Al whispered so low, I nearly lost track of her words. “She controls the desert itself. She can create an army of warriors constructed from the sand. We should go now, you human fools. There’s no chance of victory here.”

My head spun with the new information. Shouts peppered the line of praetorians in front of us. Something shifted behind the sand wall in the far distance. No, not something; a lot of somethings.

“This Ammit,” Preacher asked what I was thinking. “She’s an alien, then, that manipulates matter?”

“She would look like a chimera to your eyes, something with a crocodile’s head, a lion’s upper body, and the lower half of a hippopotamus,” Al said as if she were exasperated we weren’t taking her advice. “Her race is able to manipulate particles of sand. She came to Earth fleeing from her own kind. She killed thousands of humans in ancient Egypt before the Primordials imprisoned her in the gate.”

The movement behind the sand wall was revealed at once. As if someone had dropped a curtain, the massive rolling sandstorm dropped, showing us a horde of soldiers that looked as if they were made up of the sand itself.

They were too far away for me to see clearly, but they looked human enough. Two arms, two legs, and a torso. They carried something in their hands, spears maybe. There had to be thousands of them.

Praetorians shouted orders up and down the line.

“They’re back,” one praetorian yelled. “We had to have killed hundreds of them and thousands are back.”

“We shouldn’t be here,” another shouted.

“Al, I need to get into the praetorians’ secure comm channel,” I told the AI. “Can you do that?”

“I can, but you’re fighting a losing battle,” Al said, shaking her head. “If you stay and fight, you’re dead already.”


Twenty-Six

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“Tell your men to hold their positions and no one fires until I give the order,” Major Scott punctuated each word with strength. “We pushed back the last wave, we’ll do the same here.”

“This Ammit, what kind of alien is she?” I asked Al. “Anything could help. Give me all the details.”

“She’s from the planet Tarm, an alien race called the Brune,” Al explained, looking over at me with a raised eyebrow. “Do you have a death wish? Because I’m telling you, you’re waging a losing war. Kill these mindless sand husks and she’ll just send more and then more after that.”

“And what if we kill her?” Preacher asked. “This Brune called Ammit. What if we put her down?”

“What if you grew back your eye or reverse-aged to a teenager,” Al mocked him. “If we’re talking about the impossible, then why stop there? Ammit will be guarded by the desert itself. Aren’t you listening, old man? She’s secure behind her lines in that sandstorm. You aren’t getting through.”

“We’ll figure out a way,” I said, scanning the battlefield.

“You’re impossible.” Al huffed. “Fine, go ahead and get yourselves killed. I’m going to set up a fake dating profile on Holo Hookup while I wait. The world of social media is so strange.”

I jerked my head over to Preacher and motioned him to follow. I crossed the distance to the front line where I had seen Major Scott take up position. With no time to build rapport, it was a long shot that the major would be willing to listen to me, much less believe me that there was some alien creature known as a Brune from the planet Tarm controlling the elements on the other side of the sandstorm, but I had to try.

Intrepid, this is Major Scott of Spear Company,” Major Scott barked over the secure comm line I wasn’t supposed to have access to. “Orbital bombardment on coordinates 05.92, 10.43, over.”

“Spear Company, this is Intrepid,” a woman’s voice answered. “Confirming coordinates 05.92, 10.43 as requested for orbital bombardment.”

“Coordinates confirmed,” Major Scott responded.

“Request granted,” the woman’s voice replied. “Tell your boys to hug the sand; we’re coming in close.”

I reached the front lines in time to see everyone craning their eyes skyward. A Battle Class Cruiser I took to be the Intrepid descended in the air.

Whoops and hollers from the praetorians on the ground accompanied the Intrepid’s descent.

“Gonna cook those weird sand people good!” I heard one of the praetorians shout.

“Not going to know what hit um,” someone else yelled. “Thank the Lord of the Way for a little artillery.”

“Major Scott,” I asked, capturing the attention of a few praetorians around him. They moved toward us with their weapons ready to restrain us if the major called for it. “You’re not fighting these sand creature people-things. They’re just empty tools being controlled by an alien called a Brune. She’ll just create more when they’re destroyed.”

I could imagine the look on the major’s face at the moment. I’d have to let my imagination run with the idea since his praetorian helmet sat securely on his head.

“Mr. Hunt, let me do my job.” Major Scott turned away from me to survey the battleground again. “I take it you’ve never seen an orbital bombardment up close. Nothing’s going to be standing after this.”

“Here she comes, baby!” a praetorian yelled. “Low and slow, baby, low and slow!”

I shielded my eyes against the fading sun. I had to admit the sight of the Intrepid descending in the sky was impressive. Still too far to make out details, I could imagine the ship’s rail guns lowering and taking aim at the battlefield in front of us.

VOOM! VOOM! VOOM!

The steel rod projectiles impacted the ground with such violence, a shockwave exploded from the enemy lines.

“Cover!” Sergeant Carla Miggs ordered over the comm channel.

Ears still ringing from the sounds of the orbital bombardment touching down, I threw myself behind the closest hover tank.

The shockwave sent the heavy hover crafts rocking amidst a flurry of sand and dirt.

Whoops and hollering echoed up and down the line as the praetorians cheered.

“I don’t think anything’s surviving that, Mr. Hunt,” Major Scott said, looking over at me. “You can go back now, letting Chancellor Marie know that you were successful in our joint operation. I’m sure the media will love to hear how the Hero of Mars saved the day and how Spear Company acted as helpless backup.”

“Ha, good one,” Al said, appearing beside me. “I recognize the sarcasm in your speech, Major Scott. I too enjoy verbal sparring.”

Her sudden appearance shocked me to the extent I flinched. I was still getting used to her having a holographic body again and being able to suddenly appear anywhere thanks to her two holo projectors hovering overhead.

“It’s not going to go down like that,” I reassured the major, although I doubted he believed me. It sounded as if he’d experienced this before. “I’m not worried about who’s getting credit for this. I’m worried about surviving the battle.”

“Doesn’t look like there’s much of a battle left.” Major Scott smirked, looking over the rear of the hover tank we crowded behind. “Take a look for yourself.”

I took his offer, shielding my eyes. The sand kicked up from the explosion was just beginning to settle. A thick mist of the stuff fell back to the ground, offering me a view of what was taking place beyond.

Nothing.

As the sand settled, we were able to get a clearer view of what remained of the enemy. They were gone, their sand bodies eviscerated on contact.

I looked over at Al to confirm her story. For all intents and purposes, it looked as though the orbital bombardment proved successful.

Al misinterpreted my gaze.

“Do people actually believe these holo profiles?” Al asked, shaking her head. “There’s a young man on the moon who has his holo film of him shirtless making a kissing face. He says he’s only looking for friendship. I’m just going to call him a liar right now.”

“Al, I need you to focus. Put your dating profile on hold,” I responded. “Is there any chance the orbital bombardment would have worked? Could it have also hit the Brune?”

“Zero chance.” Al shrugged. “She’s smart enough not to place herself on the front lines. Look, there you go. See, I’m right again. Shocker.”

I followed Al’s gaze.

Sure enough, past the settling sand and the deep indentations the Intrepid’s rounds left after her run, something was happening. As if it had a mind of its own, the sand rose from the ground, creating not a hundred or thousands, but tens of thousands of the sand creatures that looked so close to being human.

Still too far away to make out details, I saw arms and legs hanging from torsos.

“You humans really messed up now,” Al chided like some kind of school teacher. “She’s going to be piiiiiiiiiiiiiiissed.”

There was no time to trade notes with the major. The sand husks roared in some kind of deep yell, too deep to be thought of as human, more like some kind of ancient horn being blown.

The army of sand creatures leaped forward, sprinting over the sand at an inhuman rate. They would reach our lines in minutes.

“Open fire!” Major Scott, to his credit, didn’t freeze up. In a second’s time, he reassessed the situation, decided, and doled out his orders.

“Get some!” praetorians yelled up and down the line.

What happened next was sure and utter mayhem.

I’d been in plenty of battles and one full-out war with the Voy. This altercation was like that.

Praetorians equipped with their standard-issue Hyperion Mark Sevens, marksmen carrying long-range Artemis 3000’s, and heavy specialists with the Juggernaut 270 rocket launcher all opened fire.

Gunners on the hover tanks didn’t need to be told twice. Both the Vulcans and the plasma cannons went to work spitting death at the enemies, who came at us like the desert itself.

Butch whined at my side, eager to get into the fight.

I drew my MK II, switching the drum of rounds to explosives and picking my targets as they charged. At this range, my MK II was anything but accurate. Lucky for me, accuracy wasn’t an issue. Ranks upon ranks of the sand abominations waded into the maelstrom of fire.

The heavy Vulcan hosed the enemy with a steady spray of rounds that made a long Z sound.

BOOM! BOOM!

The plasma cannon added their distinct sound over the normal rifles being discharged.

Our counter was working but not fast enough. The sand people were so close now, I could see what effect our rounds had on them. When a round landed, an explosion of sand appeared over their body like a crater. The sand people refused to stop at that.

The only way to take one down was if a round hit its head or multiple rounds took out its torso or legs. It would burst into a cloud of sand and settle to the ground as if it had never existed to begin with.

“Sir,” a deep voice shouted over the comm line. “We’re going to run out of charge packs if we keep hosing them at this pace.”

“I don’t see as we have another option at this point Lieutenant Gracia,” Major Scott answered. “We have to hold them off long enough for the Intrepid to reload and make another run. Hold Spear Company, hold!”

“Copy that, sir,” Lieutenant Gracia yelled back. “Raw!”

Intrepid, this is—”

“Incoming!” A voice interrupted what the major was going to say next.

I saw it at the same time as I heard the warning. Up until this point, I didn’t know if the Brune-made sand people carried any kind of weapons outside of their spears. I knew now they did.

They were close enough for me to begin to make out details like sand-made tunics around their waists and sand-made intricate neck pieces. They also carried short sand-made spears in their hands and swords on their sides.

The warning came from as the first wave of spears sailed through the sky. It seemed the nearest line of sand people were close enough now to throw their weapons.

“Down, down, down!” someone else shouted.

Al, with her holo form, would weather the attack just fine. Butch, coiled like a spring, ready to pounce, would do the same between her flak jacket and force field collar. It was Preacher I was worried about the most.

As the first wave of sand spears punctured our lines, I moved to shield Preacher with my body.

No need; the warrior had been through enough to know when to take cover. At my right, he hunched down low behind the hover tank, offering none of his body to be taken by the spears.

With heavy thunks, the hail of sand spears sank into the sand around us. The ones that found their marks thunked off armor and vehicles. A few screams permeated the air as spears found spaces between armor plating.

Each praetorian wore armor with a durable but not impervious body-tight synth suit underneath.

Yells for medics went up and down the line.

I sat hunched behind the hover tank as the first volley ended. A spear sank not a meter behind me, its head buried deep into the sand. The weapon was as long as my torso, its shaft no thicker than two of my fingers.

A moment after it buried itself into the sand, the solid weapon burst into individual sand particles and fell to the ground.

Al ignored the need for cover, standing tall as a spear sailed right through the middle of her face.

“How rude,” Al muttered, unfazed. “She looked down at me with worry in her yellow eyes. “Ammit must be found and killed. She’ll just send wave after wave of her sand servants until you’re out of ammunition and too tired to continue.”


Twenty-Seven

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

You have to take the fight to her, I thought in my head. You have to get to her or this goes on and on again.

“Sir, they’re gaining on us, they’re on top of us!” Lieutenant Gracia warned us over the comms.

I rose from my sheltered position to see what he said was true. In the brief seconds we took to shelter from the hail of spears, Ammit’s sand servants had redoubled their efforts, sprinting forward. They were now meters from reaching our lines.

Everywhere I aimed, the enemy was a quick trigger pull away. Preacher leaned against the hover tank beside me, stroking the trigger of his Hyperion Mark Seven with practiced ease.

Major Scott, on my left, dropped a spent charge pack and slammed another in before going back to work.

I found myself admiring the man. In the middle of a nightmare sand hurricane, he stood his ground and called on the Intrepid once more.

Intrepid, this is Major Scott. How much longer until we can get another strafing run?” Major Scott asked. “We could use an assist. It’s getting pretty hairy down here.”

“Major Scott, we’re making our turn now, however, the enemy lines are mixing with your own,” the woman relayed in a stressed voice over the comm line. “We’re coming in low. We have a squadron of fighters that we’re preparing to—”

Static so ear splittingly intense I could practically feel it in my skull tore through the comm channel.

Intrepid, repeat,” Major Scott ordered. “Intrepid, say again.”

I tore my eyes from the fight taking place in front of me and to the sky above. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The Battle Class Cruiser was low as promised but perhaps too low. A thick tunnel of sand rocketed out of the ground directly under the ship. It slammed into the craft like some kind of ancient shark leaping from the water to snatch a bird.

Unable to do anything to help, I watched with wide eyes as the Intrepid spasmed. I wasn’t a sailor or an engineer, but I understood what tons of sand could do to turbines, air filtration systems, and engines.

More and more sand pumped from the ground to make the trip skyward. The Intrepid spasmed again, rocked, and then its nose tipped down as it failed to remain airborne.

“Oh crip,” I heard Preacher say to my right. “Daniel?”

The ship rocked and groaned, leaning to its right in our exact direction.

“We got to go. Major Scott, we got to go!” I screamed into the channel. If we were all about to get crushed by a Battle Class Cruiser, I didn’t think it was a big deal they knew I was a part of their comm line now.

“Get back!” Major Scott ordered his praetorians. “Pull back!”

Praetorians scattered in every direction. In the space of a few minutes, we were attacked, overrun, and our air support was about to crash land in the desert with us.

I took off at a sprint, making sure not to go too fast that Preacher couldn’t keep up.

Preacher dropped his rifle and put everything he had into his sprint. My heart beat on the inside of my sternum like someone trying to break down a door in a manic panic.

Butch kept up with us and even Al’s holo projectors zipped through the air beside us.

I didn’t bother looking behind to see how fast the Intrepid was descending. It wouldn’t matter if we didn’t get out of its path.

Preacher, Butch, and I fell down a step dune as the ship groaned and then slammed into the sand. I went end over end, eating more sand than I would have thought possible.

Explosions ripped through the air as sections of the Intrepid groaned and rent the sky like some kind of steel monster from a time long past.

The nose of the Intrepid crested the dune we had just fallen down, threatening to fall on us as it slid to a halt.

I looked up at the steel monstrosity peeking its bow over the dune we dropped from. I half expected it to come crashing down on us. With a shudder and another explosion, the ship came to its final resting spot on its right side.

“Well, that’s not good,” Al said, shaking her head. “I mean, who’s going to clean up this mess?”

Weapons were still being discharged from the praetorian element that survived the ship’s crash.

Dark clouds of smoke wafted toward the now night sky as the Intrepid burned.

“Come on, we’ve got to help them get out,” Preacher said, first to his feet. “There’ll be survivors.”

I jumped to my own feet, smelling the first wave of burning oil. It was acrid and strong, so different from the soft-moving malleable landscape round us.

My MK II lost somewhere in the fall, I pulled my obsidian-bladed axe and knife from their sheaths. Past the crackling of the fire, I could hear screams and yells over the comm line.

“Major Scott, do you read?” I asked. “Major Scott, do you copy?”

“I’m not going to ask how you got this channel, Hunt.” The major sounded pained, as if he were gasping for air past some kind of injury. “Stay off—”

“Where are you?” I interrupted. “I’m coming for you. We need a hover tank. We have to take the fight to the alien who’s doing all of this.”

Major Scott’s line went dead.

“Al, can you track him?” I asked.

“Follow me,” Al answered, taking the lead up the dune and to the left of the ship.

I climbed the steep embankment, already mentally preparing myself for what I was about to see. I wasn’t ready.

The spit in my mouth dried as I surveyed the scene in front of me. With the sun gone, the moon and stars took up reign of the night’s sky.

The Intrepid lay on her right side, burning with multiple fires and tears ravaging her metal body.

Sailors exited the fire and smoke of the ship; wounded, bloody, and dying.

Ammit’s sand servants had not let up on their attack. Already the sand monsters that so closely resembled humans covered the body of the Intrepid like a swarm of insects killing a much larger rodent through their sheer numbers.

Weapons fired into the night from those trying to escape the ship and whatever praetorians from Spear Company that had survived the crash.

I caught sight of a handful of praetorians firing into the oncoming enemy from behind the T-bird. To my great dismay, the shockwave of air and sand that accompanied the crash of the Intrepid had also overturned the T-bird. The ship lay on its right side with the right wing and thruster buried in the sand.

“There, he’s rallying the praetorians to make another stand.” Al pointed. “And I am inclined to agree with your harebrained idea of taking the fight to Ammit. I mean, my first choice would be to run, but if that’s off the table, then killing her would be the next logical move.”

“Friendlies coming in,” Preacher yelled as we joined the group of praetorians hunkered down behind the T-bird.

Those taking shelter with the major were actually Sergeant Carla Miggs, Lieutenant Gracia, and two other privates I didn’t know. I recognized Miggs’ and Gracia’s voices despite the helmets concealing their faces.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” one of the privates said to no one in particular. Clearly in shock, he continued, “We’ve got to get out of here; did you see how that thing just took down the Intrepid. Did you see that sand tunnel? It was like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. Son of a brum, we’ve got to get the crip out of here.”

“Get a hold of yourself,” Sergeant Miggs demanded, grabbing the praetorian by both shoulders. “Do your job, praetorian. Do your job. Do you get me? We’re the tip of the spear. We don’t buckle, we don’t hesitate.”

She shook the shorter but wider man so violently, I thought his helmet might topple off.

The private just nodded and went back to working his weapon. Screams of pain and dread permeated the new night air.

At once, I realized why Major Scott had stopped speaking with me. He lay in the sand between the other private and lieutenant, who did their best to stem the dark blood seeping through his chest piece.

A section of metal, I guessed that came from one of the Intrepid’s explosions, must have struck him.

“We need a medic,” the private yelled over his comm channel. “We need a medic for Major Scott ASAP!”

The lieutenant by the major’s side removed the major’s helmet to reveal a thin lines of blood spurting from the corner of his mouth. It was clear the major was in a tremendous amount of agonizing pain. It was also clear he was on death’s doorstep. I’d seen death come plenty of times and he was here again to shepherd another soul to the other side.

“We need help, medic!” the private yelled again. He moved closer to the major, fumbling to stop the flow of blood with his hands.

“Get back on the line,” Major Scott growled, blood flying through the air with every word. “It’s too late for me. Get back on the line.”

“Sir?” the private said, unwilling to obey a direct order.

“Go! Lieutenant Gracia, get this man on the line!” Major Scott barked. Even from his prone position, Major Scott was a beast. With one hand, he shoved the sputtering private toward the overturned T-bird we used as cover. “That’s an order!”

“Raw, sir,” Lieutenant Gracia answered, taking the private and moving him back toward the line.

I looked over at Al and then Preacher. They confirmed what I knew to be the truth. The major was already gone.

“Incoming!” Sergeant Miggs barked from the cover of the T-bird.

Preacher and Al moved to see what she was talking about. I turned as well.

“Hunt.” Major Scott’s voice drew me back. “Hunt—a word.”

I tore my eyes away from the front lines. Another half dozen mix of praetorians and sailors from the Intrepid moved to our defensive position.

I went over and took a knee by the dying major.

“If you are what they say you are, then you make them pay, do you understand me?” Major Scott coughed around a mouthful of blood. “It’s too late for me, but if you are the Hero of Mars they say you are, you take care of my boys and girls. You kill this alien whatever it is and you get my company home. Do you understand me?”

It was strange how not knowing the man at all in the space of an hour, I felt like his actions told me everything I needed to know. He would have made a great member of the Pack under different circumstances.

I saw the rage in his eyes, that never-give-up attitude, even now on death’s doorstep.

I grabbed his hand. His grip was like a steel vise.

“I’ll get them home,” I promised, looking him in the eye. “I swear to you, I’ll kill this alien and I’ll get your company home.”

Major Scott nodded, clenching his teeth. I thought he might say more to me. Instead, he rested his head on Earth’s cold sand, taking one last look at the stars overhead.

“Who would have thought, a galaxy in front of us and the aliens would come back to Earth.” The major sighed.

He was gone.

That firm grip of his lessened. His head fell to the side.

“Your death is going to mean something,” I whispered to him as I used the tips of my fingers to close his eyes. “Rest well, brother.”

“Daniel!” Preacher shouted from his spot on the line.

I jumped to my feet, rejoining the mix of praetorians and sailors. What I saw next took my breath away.

“Oh crip,” I heard Al say under her breath. “You all are so dead.”


Twenty-Eight

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

I didn’t disagree with her. Ammit’s sand servants covered the downed ship, killing and murdering their way through every open crease or exposed hatch.

The screams of the dead and dying permeated the air along with the sporadic staccato of weapons being discharged.

It didn’t help that the nightmarish scene took place in the recently darkened surrounding.

“Give them some cover!” Lieutenant Gracia ordered, picking targets and pulling his trigger just as fast as he could aim.

Men and women, praetorians and sailors came running, limping, even crawling to our lines. Ammit’s sand servants rumbled in protest with that low, almost gravelly voice of theirs.

With the help of the fires across the Intrepid, I got my first real good look at what made up the physiology of the creatures. They were sand, yes, and human, but a strange interpretation of humans, as if their bodies and faces weren’t wholly formed. As if Ammit got ninety percent done with creating her sand servants and then stopped and called it good enough.

One’s jaw hung open like a broken hinge. Another walked with a limp due to a turned ankle. A third’s neck looped to the left as if he had no vertebrae to support it.

“Ammit,” Al reminded me. “This will not end until you kill Ammit.”

I didn’t need to look at the AI to know she was right. Past the swarming sand servants, past the wreckage of the ship, I could see that same sand wall in the distance.

Ammit was in there somewhere and I was going to find her.

“You look like you’re about to do something real dumb, Mijo,” Preacher observed, crouching beside me. He yanked a dry charge pack from the butt of a new Hyperion Mark Seven he had found and slapped a fresh one in place. “Count me in for whatever comes next.”

I nodded, taking courage in the man’s trust in me.

I searched the line for Lieutenant Gracia. I caught sight of the man on the far side of the T-bird setting up a triage location at the rear of the ship for the wounded.

“Lieutenant,” I shouted at him, running to his side. “Lieutenant, this isn’t going to stop. You’ve seen these things come and come again. They’re going to continue to keep coming unless we kill them at the source.”

I couldn’t see the lieutenant’s face, but I imagined what it would look like. Like his voice, he would cover his fatigue with resolve and duty.

“Go on,” Lieutenant Gracia encouraged. “We’re dying here with no orbital support and the closest GG camp days away. If you have a plan, then go on. I want to hear it.”

This was the awkward part. I didn’t really have a full plan yet, just the beginnings of one. I had to get to Ammit. How I was going to do that with the T-bird down was something I was still piecing together.

“You do have a plan, don’t you?” Lieutenant Gracia asked.

“Of course I do,” I lied through my teeth. Right now, he needed me to take initiative. “We—re going to—”

“Take a hover tank into the sand wall,” Al interjected, appearing at my side out of nowhere and nearly making me pee my pants.

“Take a hover tank into the sand wall,” I repeated the words a half second after Al. “The alien controlling the sand servants is in there. An alien named Ammit. We kill her, we stop this.”

“Hurry,” Lieutenant Gracia instructed. “We don’t have much time left. I can’t offer you more than a driver and maybe some cover on the way out. You’ll have to find one of the hover tanks still intact. I think the Intrepid crushed half of them and turned the other half over when it took its nose dive.”

“We’ll find one,” I returned, nodding in approval. “We’ll find one. You hold on here.”

“Sergeant Miggs!” Lieutenant Gracia shouted into his comm channel.

The tall sergeant extracted herself from the firing line and ran toward us.

“Sir?” Sergeant Miggs asked, looking from me to her new CO.

“You still drive a hover tank like you just stole it for a joy ride out of a GG impound?” Lieutenant Gracia asked.

“That was all alleged, sir. The charges were dropped, but yes,” Sergeant Miggs answered. “We doing what I think we’re doing?”

“You up for a ride into that sand wall?” I asked. “My team needs a driver.”

“Crip, yeah,” Sergeant Carla Miggs expressed. “We taking the fight to them?”

“Raw, Sergeant,” Lieutenant Gracia answered. “Let’s make them bleed for the major. You with me?”

“Tip of the spear,” Sergeant Gracia responded. “Raw, LT.”

“We’ll give you as much cover as we can,” Lieutenant Gracia told me. “Ready?”

“Almost. I need to grab something,” I replied.

“Crip, I’d like to grab some moon cakes or Mars crumble right now too, but we’re about to get overrun here,” Sergeant Miggs answered. “We got to go.”

“I know, just one second,” I said, already running to the left side of the overturned T-bird. “Al, the ramp, will it still open?”

“Partially,” Al cautioned, already knowing what I was going in for. “Daniel, I should warn you that long exposure with the sword to your human body may prove strenuous.”

“Careful, Al, you’re sounding like you care,” I said, reaching the T-bird. “Open the ramp.”

On its right side, the T-bird’s ramp was partially buried in the sand. It slowly groaned open under Al’s command. The opening was barely large enough for me to slide into.

Butch whined at me as I squeezed in. It was a tight fit and dark in the ruined ship.

“I’ll be right back, girl,” I said before disappearing into the darkness. The only light that came into the ship was moonlight through the front windows. I maneuvered in the upset craft, rummaging through the crates that now lay in a pile on the deck.

My hands worked manically, throwing crates to the left and right until I found the one I wanted. I hit both clasps on either end of the long black container. Opening the lid revealed the weapon lying inside.

The ancient sword glowed with a dull blue radiance I didn’t understand. That was fine with me. I didn’t really understand all the inner workings and pieces that made a dropship fly or a hover bike maneuver over the terrain, but I knew how to use it and I knew it worked.

More unearthly screams puncturing the night sky woke me from my momentary lapse in thought. I grabbed the hilt of the weapon in my right hand. Power, energy, and strength radiated through my frame.

Any inkling of weakness I felt was gone. Like I received a nitro caf injection straight into my heart, I was ready.

I squeezed my way out of the rear of the T-bird to a waiting Butch, Preacher, Al, and Sergeant Miggs.

“What the crip?” Sergeant Miggs blurted in astonishment. “Why do you have a sword and why do I want to hold it so bad?”

“Let’s go,” I said, remembering the effect the weapon had in the hearts of men and women. “The less I use it in front of everyone, the better.”

To my great relief and horror, the sand servants were still busy crawling into the downed Intrepid. Survivors from Spear Company and the ship still made their way to our lines, bolstering the force on the ground.

Sand servants here and there rushed our lines, but the bulk of the creatures remained content to harvest the rest of the thousands of soldiers still trapped inside the Battle Class Cruiser.

“Follow me,” I ordered, taking point.

“Let’s give them some cover fire!” Lieutenant Gracia roared over the cacophony of sound. “Get some, boys and girls. Pour it on them!”

I took off at a run with a loping Butch beside me. Preacher ran on my right with Sergeant Miggs on my left and Al right behind me.

We crossed the open ground between us and the Intrepid, making our way around the front of the downed ship.

True to his word, weapon fire from Lieutenant Gracia’s line kept the sand servants off us. But soon we’d be too far for cover fire to be effective and it would be on us.

With each step I took across the sand, I felt the hum of energy inside me grow. Like a coiled spring tightening and tightening with each passing moment, the pent-up force living inside the sword and now me screamed for an outlet.

Said outlet came in the form of a pair of sand servants who noticed our run around the right side of the burning Intrepid. They used their gravel voices to growl to one another before rushing to intercept my group.

I ran so fast, I felt like I was flying over the sand. Aided now by not only my own genetic engineering but by the alien sword, I outpaced even Butch. That was good. That was what I wanted. If I could go first and cut a path through this nightmare, I would.

I reached the first sand servant, so amped up on aggression and speed, I didn’t even stop to take a swing at him. The creature in front of me had the top third of his head missing like someone was drawing one of these things from the feet up but stopped when they were almost done to go grab a moon cake.

The sand servant held a wickedly curved sword in the grip of his right hand. He had enough time to lift it into the air but no time to lower it. Misjudging my speed, his eyes widened as I slammed into him head first.

Like a defensive back in the United Moon League, I hit that sand servant son of a brum with everything I had in me. I didn’t stop at just hitting him. I tried to drive through him just like I would a punch.

The sand servant burst into a shower of sand particles as I hit him. Sand cascaded into my hair, eyes, and even mouth.

I spit out the stuff, coming to a halt.

“Oh crip, man,” Sergeant Miggs shouted from somewhere behind me. “Did you guys just see that? He vaporized that son of a brum. Straight vaped him.”

I spit out more of the sand, not wanting to consider what part of the creature I was spitting out at the moment. His counterpart hesitated to attack me, then thought better of his move and lunged forward, taking a swipe at me with his sand sword.

I blocked the blow with my weapon. The blades of the two swords clashed for a split second before my blade bit entirely through his. The sand servant retracted his blade, which was no more than the hilt in his hand now.

He looked up at me from gazing at his broken weapon and gave me a wince of a smile that said, “Whoops.”

In a double-handed over-the-head swing, I brought my weapon down on him. It cut clean through from the top of his skull to his groin. The sand man fell in two parts and went back to the dust from where he came.

Seconds had passed between dispatching the pair of would-be attackers. I stood there beholding the power of the sword in my hand. It hummed brighter, as if it liked the conflict and desired more.

Butch reached me first, then the others.

So enamored by the blade, I was only pulled back to reality by Al’s voice. Preacher and Sergeant Miggs panted heavily.

“Hey, if you’re done admiring yourself now, it looks like you have an audience,” Al said, pointing a thumb toward the Intrepid.

I looked over to my left at the ship swarming with sand servants. Every single one of their heads turned in my direction. For a moment, the killing and screaming stopped.

In one voice, the sand servants roared, then charged in my direction.


Twenty-Nine

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

Thousands, no, tens of thousands, both on the Intrepid and waiting their turn to climb over the ship, moved toward us.

“We got to go!” Preacher tugged at my shoulder, ripping me from the impossible scene in front of us. “We’ve got no time.”

“Run!” Sergeant Miggs added just to make sure I got the point.

A little voice inside my head told me I could take them. That I could stand against the entire horde and with the power of the sword I could kill each and every one of them.

No, that’s the sword talking crazy to you, I thought in my head. You need to go and you need to go now. But you could take them if you needed to—no!

“Get out of my head,” I yelled out loud as I ran with the others.

Preacher gave me a confused look.

“And they call me the crazy one.” Al sighed. “Hurry now, pump those fragile human legs of yours. There’s a hover tank just past the next dune.”

THUNK!

A sand spear embedded its sharp head in the ground next to me then disappeared a moment later.

THUNK! THUNK!

More spears hit the sand around us. One went right through the center of Al’s chest.

“How rude. Offensive really.” Al huffed. “Makes me think of Hotgirl_295 on Holo Hookup, no class whatsoever.”

I don’t think Preacher or Sergeant Miggs had spare air to form a response.

“Where’s this hover tank?” I asked what we were all thinking. “We’re not going to make it much farther.”

“There.” Sergeant Miggs pointed as we crested the next dune. At the bottom of the dune sat one of the few hover tanks to escape the crash of the Intrepid.

Pain exploded in my back as one of the sand spears found its mark. My armor was enough to stop the blade from penetrating, but it still felt like taking a blow from a basilisk’s tail. And trust me, I knew what that felt like now.

“Go, go, go!” I urged them.

We spilled down the steep embankment of the dune, reaching the hover tank as more sand spears were blindly flung over the dune in our general direction.

Butch took one to the dome that her force field shield absorbed. The weapon turned into sand granules before it could do her any harm.

“Get those blasters up.” Sergeant Miggs breathed as we reached the hover tank. “I’ll get her running.”

The sergeant waved her hand over a side panel at the rear of the hover tank before running over to the driver’s side door to do the same.

The hover tank was a heavy piece of vehicular violence. Thick plates of carbon steel protected the outside with dual hover treads lifting it a full meter off the ground.

The rear doors opened much like a dropship, forming open jaws that welcomed us inside. The interior of the hover craft was larger than I expected, capable of carrying two gunners as well as ten praetorians in full kit.

I entered the tank, heading straight for one of the gunner nests. Two holes in the ceiling opened up one right after another to offer the gunners a view of the outside.

The first opening was taller than the next and handled the Vulcan while the other sat below the Vulcan and offered its user access to the plasma cannon.

I popped up through the first circular hole and Preacher went for the next. Butch and Al entered the hover craft as well. The jaw-like doors closed behind them.

Next to the Vulcan controls sat a helmet with a strange cross-shaped visor. Preacher was already behind the controls of his plasma cannon. He slammed on his own helmet before familiarizing himself with the controls.

Taking his lead, I sheathed the sword in my belt and did the same. As soon as I placed the gunner’s helmet on my head, the HUD popped up, reading out data like the ammunition in my weapon, available comm channels, and even the weather outside.

“I just need to point and shoot,” I muttered, grabbing the handles on the Vulcan and swinging the weapon’s muzzle back the way we came.

The weapon swiveled to the rear of the hover craft. Each handle on the weapon was set with a pair of thumb triggers. There was no sight on the Vulcan itself but rather an aiming system popped up in my HUD with a pair of digitally enhanced crosshairs.

Spears were still flying all around the hover tank. A few struck the carbon steel and fell to the ground useless. I zeroed in on the crest of the dune behind us just in time to see the first wave of sand servants make their assault.

They looked pissed and there were a lot of them.

ZZzzzzzzzzzzz! ZZzzzzzzzzzz! ZZzzzzzzzzzz!

The Vulcan sprang to life in my hands as I pressed the trigger buttons on both of my grips. Red laser fire painted the sand servants from head to toe. The weapons sent tremors up and down my arms in violent succession.

I moved the weapon back and forth, cutting down my line of attackers.

BOOM!

The hover tank rocked slightly as Preacher added his plasma cannon to the mix. A blue superheated glob of energy cratered in a section of the dune where the sand servants descended on us.

Adrenaline was in such heavy supply in my system, I had to pull myself back from the chaos of the moment and remind myself that we still weren’t moving.

“Al, we set up on comms?” I asked over the roar of the sand servants.

“Yes, and you know, I was thinking you should really train Butch,” Al told me. “She’s down here cursing like a Bramnevian Sledhoof on how she wants to get into the fight but lacks the opposable thumbs to do so.”

“Miggs, can we get this thing—Al, you can understand Butch?” I asked incredulously, looking down into the interior of the hover tank for a moment.

“Daniel!?” Preacher exclaimed, firing the plasma cannon again and causing the carbon steel tank to shudder once more.

A sand spear slammed into the tank’s hide right next to my left shoulder.

“Working on it!” Sergeant Carla Miggs grunted from her seat in the driver’s side of the hover tank. “Come on, come on, come on, you son of a—”

The throaty roar of the hover tank followed by the vehicle elevating off the sand cut off whatever curse was coming out of her mouth next.

“Woohoo!” Sergeant Miggs shouted from the front as the hover craft lurched forward. “Now we’re cooking!”

It wasn’t a second too soon. The wave of Ammit’s sand servants were down the dune and grasping for handholds on the hover tank’s outer shell.

“Raaaaaaaaaaw!” I let out a roar of my own as I cut them down with animosity in my heart.

Two of the creatures made it close enough to the hover tank to grab on to the rear of the craft while Sergeant Miggs picked up speed.

I lowered the Vulcan’s smoking barrel to the rear of the hover tank. The sand creatures peeked their heads over. I popped one then the other, their skulls bursting into a puff of sand followed by their bodies.

BOOM!

Preacher let out another round from his plasma cannon for good measure at the figures chasing us in the night. Not one of the sand servants had stayed back to pursue the remaining Galactic Government element.

As if Ammit knew we were coming for her and her alone, she directed her entire force to restrain us. Seeing that her tactic had failed, she decided to use another.

As we stared back at the thousands of figures chasing us and unable to catch up to the hover tank, they evaporated at once. Not one or a thousand, but all the figures exploded to granulars and fell on the ground.

“What in crip just happened?” Preacher asked.

I swiveled in my gunner’s nest to look down at him. He had his own gunner’s nest pointed as far in my direction as it could go before it was hindered by mine.

“I don’t—I don’t know,” I answered. “They all just poofed out of existence.”

“Ummm, hate to break up the bromance back there, boys, but we’ve got issues,” Sergeant Miggs stated over the comms. “Real big issues, like life-threatening issues.”

I scanned the dark for what had caught the sergeant’s eye. I didn’t have to search long. The helmet I wore was equipped with infrared, painting the otherwise dark landscape as bright as day. There in front of us where the wall of sand stood like some kind of foggy mist, a funnel shaped like a fist rose from the ground.

Like the sandy tornado-shaped appendage that took out the Intrepid, this one reared up from the ground and pointed at us.

“How good of a driver are you, Sergeant Miggs?” I asked through my comm. “Lieutenant Gracia seemed to think you were one hell of a wheel. We could use that right now.”

“Strap in and hold on to your lunch boys; this isn’t going to be pretty,” Sergeant Miggs warned us. “Here we go!”

My hands fumbled with the straps around my shoulders, securing me in place with the hardened fabrics the GG used as buckles.

The swirling tornado of sand swelled upward, reaching twenty maybe thirty stories high before coming down on us with all the force of a tidal wave.

I thought for sure we were done. Well, maybe not me because of my healing factor, but I was in for one heck of a sand bath. Racing toward us, the funnel of sand nearly pummeled us with a force I couldn’t comprehend.

At the last moment, Sergeant Miggs jerked the wheel to the right and gunned the motor. The blow from Ammit’s sand harpoon missed us, crashing into the ground and exploding in a shower of the tiny granules.

Cold wind pressed against my body. I had no idea the hover tanks were capable of speeds like this. We were traveling so fast, it was difficult to move my hands in front of me without the wind velocity forcing them back.

Again and again, the spiraling appendage of sand like some behemoth of a kraken slapping at us with a single tentacle came. Again and again, Sergeant Miggs dodged the attack, sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down, sometimes going right or left, but always managing somehow to dodge the incoming strike.

We were almost there. The wall of sand towering above us was within reach.

Suddenly, the thick tendril of sand vanished altogether. A second later, we were in the sand wall.

I found myself grateful for the helmet in place as we entered the sandstorm. I could barely see Preacher a few meters in front of and below me. My field of vision didn’t even make it to the front of the hover tank.

Sergeant Miggs slowed down, having the same issue.

The sandstorm we found ourselves in was one we had no idea of size or intensity. We were in Ammit’s world now and it was her rules.

“Al, any idea of where she could be or where we’re headed?” I asked via the comms. “No dating profile updates this is serious now.”

“Dating profiles?” Sergeant Miggs asked.

“We’ll explain later,” Preacher added.

I felt a sense of dread touch the back of my neck then trace a cold finger down my spine. I’d felt that many times before; it was the feeling of being watched. Usually, I was the predator, but not in this scenario.

“This is her domain,” Al confirmed. “She’s already found us.”


Thirty

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

As if Al’s words were some kind of cue, the swirling sand in front of us parted, forming a wide circle. I was less concerned with why this suddenly happened and more concerned with the monster standing in the center of said circle.

I knew in the back of my mind that I wasn’t seeing a true monster, but rather an alien. Still, all my childhood memories of creatures lurking in the dark crashed into my subconscious.

Sergeant Miggs slowed then stopped the hover tank’s forward progress altogether. The magnetic brakes on the vehicle groaned with the pressure.

The open area we sat in now was a perfect circle about a city block long in every direction. Silver moon and starlight beamed down from above, giving us a clear view of Ammit in all her glory.

The alien Brune from the planet Tarm stood in our path, staring down the hover tank with piercing yellow eyes.

She looked just like Al explained. A strange chimera with a reptilian face, a main and upper body of short fur, and from the waist down, thick and sturdy grayish legs.

Preacher and I both swung our weapons in her direction on impulse. The sword on my hip called to me. It whispered of power, promised strength if I would only just draw it once again.

Al’s holo projectors escaped the interior of the hover tank. They drifted through the opening my gunner nest made and projected her on the top of the vehicle next to me.

All was still, a quiet before the storm I was positive was about to be unleashed.

We eyed the alien. The entire time, I had the feeling she was looking at me, not the tank, not Preacher behind his cannon below, or Al beside me—just me.

“You will not imprison me in the gate once more,” Ammit said in surprisingly good English. Her words were harsh and gravelly like someone scraping a shovel across stones, but clear and understandable. “I will not go back.”

“Al, when Ammit was first on Earth, what role did she play?” I asked out of the side of my mouth. “Was she forced to come to Earth or did so of her own free will?”

“Her very name is translated ‘devourer of the dead’,” Al reminded me. “She convinced humans she was a demon goddess of retribution after coming to this planet of her own free will.”

“Oh right,” I said, turning back to Ammit. “Sorry, it sounds like you really can’t stay here. You’re coming with us as our prisoner.”

It struck me then that I had no idea what to do with her if she did surrender. It wasn’t like I could put her back in her prison. The gate was broken. I didn’t want to take her back to Dragon Hold with me to the lower dungeon area—that wouldn’t be able to hold her—but at the moment, there weren't a lot of options.

“Human fools,” Ammit ground out. “I am your goddess. You will worship me as you were always meant to. As the lower life form less evolved in every way, this is your place. Kneel now at my feet and I will make your end swift.”

“Let me run this brum over,” Sergeant Miggs said over her comm. She revved the hover tank’s turbine engine. “It’s time we get some payback for Major Scott and Spear Company.”

“Easy,” I reminded Sergeant Miggs. “She can manipulate the environment around us.”

Ammit stared me down like some kind of ancient western holo film. It was clear she wasn’t going down easy. She was a smart crocodile, lion, hippo, alien thing. She knew I wasn’t going to kneel to her.

Right now, I was buying time. How was I going to reach her before she could pull the sand right out from under the hover tank?

“Cover me. I have an idea,” I whispered to Preacher.

“Oh no,” Preacher mumbled. “What are you going to do now?”

“Trust me,” I murmured.

I rose from my gunner seat, stretching before jumping off the hover tank and drawing the sword. As soon as I touched the handle, a sense of power and even happiness rang through my body.

“You see, I would kneel to you, but I’ve been dealing with this pinched nerve in my lower back that makes any kind of stooping really painful,” I said as I worked to split her attention and moved farther to the left of the hover tank. “Plus, I just used this sword for the first time on two of your sand servant things and I really like it. I was thinking I can use it again.”

“You know not of the power you yield,” Ammit ground out. “Tonight I will feast on your bones and use that very blade to cut through your flesh.”

“That’s horribly graphic,” I said, continuing to maneuver to my left. “Why don’t we just take a minute here and think things out. I—”

Apparently, Ammit had enough time to think things out. She clenched both her fists, which were really more like paws. She lifted her head toward the night sky and let out a clicking sound.

The sand walls around us failed. The granules that had been kept in place like some kind of barrier plummeted to the ground. At once, I could see the deserted landscape around us again.

Ammit continued that deep clicking sound from her throat. Her concentration was total and entirely focused on me at the moment.

“If you were going to do something clever in that tiny human brain of yours, this would be the time,” Al said, appearing next to me and nearly giving me a heart attack. “She’s gathering her strength.”

“We should just kill her,” Sergeant Miggs called over the comm channel. “Preacher?”

“I’m of the same mind,” Preacher answered. “Daniel?”

The sand behind Ammit began to swirl, forming a massive shape. Not a single human-sized sand servant appeared from the ground, but a giant. The sand-constructed figure looked like Ammit but towered into the air at least five stories tall.

Rivers of sand cascaded from the creature as it too bellowed its anger to the night sky.

“Do it!” I shouted at the same time I saw Ammit charge toward me.

BOOM!

Preacher led his target perfectly. The super-heated blue plasma round struck Ammit on her left side so violently, it lifted the large creature off the ground and sent her tumbling head over tail into the sand.

The giant Ammit made out of sand roared in defiance. It turned its attention on the hover tank, directing one massive fist down toward the vehicle. Sergeant Miggs was quicker; she gunned the turbine engines and accelerated forward, kicking up sand as she went.

I was still processing the events around us, figuring out how I was going to help Preacher and Sergeant Miggs, when I heard a croaking laughter to my left.

A steaming impossible sight met my eyes. Ammit rose from the crater her body made on impact. She was not only unharmed but thought the blast from the tank was humorous.

“Over the centuries, human weapons have changed, but my immortality has remained the same.” Ammit chuckled, turning her attention on me. “Will you bow now to your goddess?”

“You failed to mention that she’s immortal, Al,” I said without turning to the AI. The last thing I wanted to do was remove my eyes from Ammit. “Next time, details like that would be important.”

“She’s not immortal,” Al countered. “You’ll be able to wear down her constitution as she fatigues. She’s working with a finite amount of energy like your own healing process. The more damage she takes, the harder it will be for her to withstand said damage. Good luck. I’m going to stand over here and root for you from the sidelines.”

I wanted to say something sarcastic to the AI in that moment, but nothing came to mind. I knew I’d come up with something later when I had time to think about it. I hated when that happened.

“That sword you wield was meant for a goddess,” Ammit roared as she charged my position. “Not a mongrel like you.”

Each of Ammit’s paws were tipped with claws the size of my obsidian throwing knife. Her razor-sharp lion-like nails descended on me in a fury so intense, I barely had enough time to stop them.

In a two-handed grip, I parried the blows coming from both sides. I gave ground slowly under her furious onslaught. Sparks from our weapons’ contact flew through the air with abandon.

She was so fast. Much faster than her thick appearance gave her any right to be. I ducked under a right paw with those five heavy talons meant to take off my head.

I wasn’t so lucky with the left. Ammit caught me with an uppercut that threw off my helmet and sent me crashing to the sandy ground below.

Stars exploded across my vision as numbing pain descended on me. The familiar taste of metal filled my mouth as warm blood seeped through. I lay on my back a second too long.

“I’d get up if I were you,” Al coached me.

I could hear the hover tank’s cannon going off and the yells of the giant sand Ammit in the distance.

I looked around for the sword. It had been knocked out of my hand on impact. I pushed myself off the ground, only to have a thick leg planted in the center of my chest.

The impact forced me down and pushed the air out of my lungs. I gasped, trying to pull in breath while my sternum was being crushed. I grabbed on to the foot pressing me down. The rough skin and black nails felt as heavy as a ton of cement directly on my chest.

Gritting my teeth, I did the most important bench press of my life, throwing everything I had into pushing off Ammit’s leg so I could breathe.

It was no use; she was too heavy.

“Your kind was always meant to be ruled,” Ammit said, lowering her alligator-like head in my direction. “This is as it should be. I will rule this world as its rightful goddess.”

Her thick green scaled skin caught the silver moonlight just right to glimmer. Her yellow eyes blinked in rapid succession as a thought entered her mind and bloomed to fruition.

Ammit leaned lower now, one foot on my chest, the other knee on the ground beside me to bring her face closer to mine. I could feel her hot breath on my mouth.

The rancid smell of death further added to my lightheadedness.

Then the pressure was lightened. I was able to suck in a long breath of much needed oxygen.

I refocused my attention on Ammit.

She looked at my face from either side then lowered a long snout to sniff my hair.

“Perhaps there is a place for you at my feet,” Ammit said tentatively. “I require a seed to further my bloodline. With no other Brune available, perhaps you will be sufficient.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“Yes, she’s talking about what you think she’s talking about,” Al said, joining us. “In your current predicament, it seems like your best course of action.”

“What? No way.” I managed under the heavy weight of Ammit’s foot. “I’m not doing any kinky stuff with Elephantitus over here.”

“What does that mean?” Ammit growled, pressing down harder on my chest and once again removing my oxygen supply. It felt like my ribs were about to break under the pressure. “What does the term ‘elephantitus’ refer to?”

“If I may,” Al said, clearing her throat. “These humans and this one in particular are rather, how do I say, stupid. I feel comfortable in brokering a deal with you on his behalf since he clearly has no idea what’s best for him.”

Ammit looked warily from me to Al.

The sounds of the fight between the hover tank and the sand monster still raged in the distance.

“You are able to barter a deal of marriage for me?” Ammit asked, narrowing her eyes at Al. “How is this done? I am a ravenous lover, who also enjoys cuddling.”

“Just—kill me now,” I managed to push out from between my lips.

Ammit looked at me with murder in her eyes.

“You refuse my proposal?” Ammit roared in only the way a lover scorned can. “Then your death can be arranged!”


Thirty-One

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“No, no, not enough oxygen is getting to his small brain,” Al coaxed Ammit. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying. In time, he’ll realize this was the best way.”

“Al, what the f—” I started, unable to finish as Ammit increased the weight of her foot on my chest.

“Oh finally,” Al said, looking over Ammit’s shoulder at something I couldn’t see. “This was starting to get weird.”

Butch collided with Ammit much like the Intrepid striking the ground. At least, that was what it looked like to my oxygen-deprived mind.

As large as Butch was, Ammit still outweighed her, but nothing in the galaxy could convince me that the rage living inside Butch could be matched. Butch channeled all that raw predatory aggression into her teeth.

Butch’s impressive jaws wrapped around the back of Ammit’s neck. The force of Butch’s tackle, as powerful as it was, wasn’t enough to send Ammit to the ground, but it was enough to cause Ammit to stumble and remove her foot from my chest.

As soon as I was free, I gasped, rolling to my left. My chest burned and ached. I was convinced if something wasn’t broken, there had to be at least hairline fractures across my sternum and ribcage.

Butch sounded like a creature possessed as she tore into my would-be bride. I fought to my hands and knees, searching for the sword I lost.

“When I was stuck in the underground Primordial installation, I imagined doing a lot of things once I was free, but bartering a wedding proposal between a human and a Brune was not one of them.” Al blew out a long breath of hair through tight lips. “I mean, could you imagine what your offspring would have looked like?”

Al visibly shuddered.

“On second thought, I just ran a simulation on that and you don’t want to imagine what your offspring would have looked like.” Al pretended to vomit. “Not even a mother could love a face like that.”

“Sword?” I wheezed, still searching the landscape around me.

Before Al could answer, my eyes caught sight of the blue handle sticking up through the sand a few meters in front of me.

With every second that passed, my body healed itself from the inside out. Already I could breathe normally again. I fought to my feet and made a dash for the blade.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ammit staggering around in frustration, trying to reach behind her neck to the death grip Butch still had on her.

I grabbed the hilt of the weapon, yanking it from the ground, and turned to face my foe.

With a violent twist of her body, Ammit finally managed to free herself from Butch. The big wolf tumbled in the sand unharmed. She came back on her feet with a menacing growl at the alien.

Although Butch’s attack had failed to do any real harm to Ammit or break through her skin, it was more than enough to save me from a forced marriage.

She’s faster than you think, I reminded myself as I squared off with Ammit once more. Watch that left of hers; getting caught by it again could mean the end or walking away from this with a new wife.

Heavy, thick clicks erupted from Ammit’s throat. From behind her, the sand shifted and shuddered again. Three sand servants came to fruition, immediately heading for Butch.

“Kill Ammit and this all ends,” Al reminded me. “Once she’s gone, all her sand creations die with her.”

That was enough for me. I stalked forward, sword low and ready.

Apparently, Ammit had resigned herself to living the single life because she didn’t try to woo me back. Instead, she too rushed forward and we met again.

This time, I opened myself up to the consuming power of my sword. Instead of being cautious to its power or trying to limit what I felt, I went all in. I asked for it all. Drawing from its seemingly never ending pool of power, I swung for the fences.

Once more, sparks showered the landscape around us as sword met claws. It wasn’t long before I managed to score a hit across Ammit’s belly. For the first time, a thin wound appeared, bubbling with dark blood.

Ammit took a step back in wonder. She looked at her wound if she were trying to accept reality.

Not even the plasma round delivered by Preacher had managed to do her any harm. Whether it was the sword itself or her power was beginning to wane, I wasn’t sure.

Neither was I going to stand around and ask.

I leapt forward, pushing the attack. Ammit was on the defensive for the first time since we started the battle. She backpedaled again and again, barely dodging my blows until another caught her across the right arm, opening a large wound across her forearm.

Ammit growled in pain, clamping her free arm over the wound before she lunged at me with wide-open jaws. It was a desperate act from an enemy that knew she’d already lost.

I stepped into the attack, shoving the blade through her mouth and back out of her skull. Ammit’s body shuddered then slumped. The weight of her bulk took her to the ground. I pulled the sword free.

My body rippled with power. Like some kind of stem addict on a high, I looked around for someone or something else to fight.

With Ammit’s demise came the end of her sand creations. The sand servants still trying to take down Butch exploded into tiny sand granules. For the first time since the battle with Ammit began, I could focus all of my attention over to Sergeant Miggs and Preacher.

It looked as though they had fared worse off than I did. The hover tank smoked on its left side. Upturned, its engines still worked but failed to propel the beast of a weapon forward.

There was no sign of the praetorian or mercenary. The massive sand version of Ammit lifted a powerful fist to bring down on the overturned weapon of war.

Without warning, the sand giant deteriorated before my eyes, as if it never existed in the first place, but rather was a figment of my imagination. The giant alien Brune was gone.

Butch barked a few times as if to say “Good riddance.”

I wasn’t sure what I felt in my chest at the moment. She was an alien threat that needed to be put down. I felt no swell of sympathy for her, but neither did I sense an overwhelming urge of satisfaction.

She had to be taken out. That was all there was to it.

Butch barked a few more times before springing for the overturned hover tank.

“My goodness, the mouth on Butch is truly something special.” Al chuckled to herself as she went to follow Butch. “She says what the heck are you doing? The others are stuck in the hecking tank. But she didn’t say heck either of those times.”

“Preacher, Carla, do you copy?” I asked, shoving the fact that Al could understand Butch to the side for the second time that day. It was a topic I very much wanted to touch on but not one more important than my friends’ safety.

“I’m getting too old for this crip.” Preacher sighed on the other end. “We’re here. Banged up and bruised, but we’re here trapped in the hover tank. We’re not dead, so I take it you killed that Ammit being?”

“More liked married her, but yes,” I said, sprinting to the overturned tank. “Sergeant Miggs, you good too?”

“Define ‘good’?” Sergeant Miggs asked. “I’ve just battled sand people, drove head first into a fight with an alien, and then was upended by a sand giant. I think I’m pretty cripping far from ‘good’.”

“At least you’re drawing breath,” I reasoned, arriving at the overturned hover tank. My mind was already doing backflips on how to get through the tank’s tough outer shell. The rear doors of the vehicle were completely buried in sand.

Lucky for me, Preacher was already on the job. A humming red blade poked through the side of the tank. Slowly, it began cutting a man-sized hole in the carbon steel. The work was slow.

“There’s a connecting hatch to be used in emergencies that link the driver’s section to the rear,” Sergeant Miggs stated. “I’m climbing over to you, Preacher.”

“I’ll have us out of here in a moment,” Preacher answered. “The carbon steel of the tank is something that’s truly impressive.”

Slowly, Preacher worked his blade into a full circle. The edges of the metal the sword sliced through turned red hot and melted. Liquid carbon metal dripped from the edges of the exit.

With a heavy thud, Preacher’s circle was complete and the outer side of the tank fell to the sand.

I sheathed the sword in my belt and helped Preacher and Sergeant Miggs from the inside of the hover tank.

We stood outside the overturned tank together, surveying the battlefield. Sergeant Miggs’ eyes came to rest on the corpse of Ammit.

“Am I the only one freaking out inside?” Sergeant Miggs asked, slowly walking over to get a better look at the body. “Is this pretty par for the course for you guys? You seem to be taking all of this like a normal Monday.”

“Is today Monday?” I wondered with a genuine interest. “I could have sworn it was Thursday.”

“I thought it was Saturday,” Preacher added.

“To answer your question, yes,” I told the sergeant. “This is what our new normal has become lately.”

“And I do hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s just starting,” Al chimed in. “However, this is just the beginning, with both the gate broken and your victory over the Voy. There are numerous species already here or en route to Earth and the surrounding planets.”

“How many aliens are here now?” I asked, not sure I wanted an answer to the question.

“Maybe you should get some rest before we tackle that next topic,” Al suggested. “You’re tired right now, your eyes are all red, your hair has sand in it, and you’re a mess. We all—”

“How many, Al?” I insisted.

“I’ve taken the liberty of ranking the twenty-seven alien species already in your solar system on a scale of one to five. One being shy or open to an alliance and five being they want to eat your soul and use your spine as a stir stick for their favorite cocktail.”

“Twenty-seven,” Sergeant Miggs breathed in disbelief.

“How many are ranked as a one?” I asked.

“Four,” Al said, as if that were good news. “Now ask me what Ammit was ranked.”

“What was Ammit ranked?” Preacher indulged her.

“Why, Robert Cole,” Al said, using Preacher’s real name. “I’m so glad you asked. Ammit was a three.”

“A three!” I shouted, looking at the alien corpse beside me that would have been my wife unless Butch had come to save the day. “Are you kidding me? Ammit brought down a Star Class Destroyer and she’s a three!?”

“Hey, I didn’t make up the ranking structure—oh wait, I did, but it still stands these are the facts.” Al shrugged. “I suggest if you want to go up against the fours and fives on the scale, you bring some real fire power and maybe learn how to use the Relics more efficiently.”

“As nice as all those thoughts are,” Preacher cut in, “we have a long walk back to the GG lines. We should get going.”


Thirty-Two

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

When we arrived back at the fallen Intrepid where sailors of the ship as well as Spear Company cared for the wounded, reinforcements were already well on their way.

A company was being sent over from New Vegas. The Hole was a Galactic Government installation tasked with imprisoning the very worst our solar system had to offer.

I did my best at hiding the sword when we arrived until I could put it safely back in its box aboard the overturned T-bird.

I didn’t trust it. I didn’t trust what it did to people or what it could do given the opportunity. So far, Sergeant Miggs had been the only one outside of my own circle who had seen it in action, and even then, I wasn’t sure how much she had been able to see while being tossed around in a hover tank by a giant sand Ammit.

Preacher and I, and even Al helped where we could. There were hundreds of dead and even more wounded. The wounds ranged from twisted ankles to severed appendages.

“Nope, no, you’re doing it wrong.” I caught Al giving unwanted advice to a medic aboard the Intrepid. The medic worked a can of skin spray over a sailor’s torso. The patient’s shirt had been removed, revealing a nasty cut along his right rib cage.

“Would you like to do it?” the corpsman asked through gritted teeth.

“Well, that’s a stupid question.” Al huffed. “My present physical form is a hologram unable to interact with the physical world. But I can tell you how to perform your job correctly. The skin spray should be administered using long, even paces over the wound, not sprayed all willy-nilly like you’re some misled youth performing graffiti of your community gang.”

The corpsman looked like he was about to pop. I could see a thick vein in his skull keeping tempo with the passing seconds.

“Hey, Al?” I called from my spot, carrying over a container of supplies from the Intrepid to where the triage tents had been erected a good fifty meters away. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

“Yes, of course.” Al wagged a finger at the corpsman. “Remember what I said. I’ll be back to check on your work.”

Al walked away before the man could say anything else.

She looked me up and down. A thin line of sweat dripped down my brow as I hefted the supplies toward the medical tents.

“Don’t think I’m a fool,” Al said, walking beside me. “I know you were just pulling me away so the spray happy corpsman didn’t get mad. What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” I asked. “I’m taking these supplies to where they’re needed for the wounded.”

“No, I mean, what are we still doing here?” Al questioned, taking in the scene around us.

It was late night in the desert. Fires on the Intrepid still burned behind us. Everywhere we looked, people were lending a hand either helping the wounded, carrying corpses to be counted and remembered, or setting up tents and supplies until backup arrived.

“I’m helping,” I answered.

“Daniel, you’re a multi-billionaire with enough credits to buy a small moon,” Al chided. “You don’t have to carry crates of supplies in the middle of the night.”

“I know,” I said, trudging through the sand. “I don’t have to do any of this. I want to.”

“You want to exhaust yourself for people you don’t even know?” Al asked as if that did not compute with her in the slightest. “Explain.”

I took my time thinking about her question. We reached the first white tent in a line of tents set up to care for the wounded. I entered, placing the crate next to a pile of its counterparts. Most of the crate lids were open and empty. I still saw a few med kits and skin spray canisters ready for use.

Moans from the wounded filled the line of tents as they were cared for and bandaged.

Everyone looked exhausted.

“We’re all each other’s got,” I said with a heavy sigh. I was more tired than I admitted. “I know carrying in supplies isn’t like administering medicine or setting bones, but it’s what I can do to help. Keeping the supply chain running will support the others. We all do what we can and it works.”

“Interesting,” Al said, bringing a holographic hand to stroke her yellow chin. “But you know you can’t help them all, right? I mean, how much of what you’re doing do you think really matters? I’m not trying to be mean for once. I actually want to know.”

I believed her. Her tone and body posture didn’t drip with sarcasm as usual. For once, the alien AI was actually trying to understand my way of thinking.

“Maybe I can’t help them all,” I explained, looking across the tent filled with tables where sailors and praetorians lay in various stages of care. I watched as a doctor rushed over to the container beside us, gave us a nod, grabbed a skin spray, and headed back.

The doctor stood over a young female sailor with lacerations on her forearms. He administered the spray, disinfecting the wounds, and formed a protective layer over the open cuts.

“But I was in a small way able to support the doctor who helped that woman,” I told Al. “If I can just do what I can. If we all just do what we can, I think we’ll be all right.”

“Interesting.” Al shrugged as if she understood what I was saying now but still didn’t think it was that big of a deal. “Well, while you sweat under the moon, I’m going to go assess the damage to the T-bird. I’m sure we can right the ship, but what kind of condition the wing is in will be something else entirely. I may need to direct you and Preacher how to fix the damage.”

Without waiting for a response, Al turned to go.

“Hey,” I called to her back. “Not so fast.”

“What?” Al asked, turning.

“Did we just have a moment?” I lifted an eyebrow. “Did I just get through to you?”

I didn’t know holograms could roll their eyes so hard.

“If by ‘moment,’ you mean a primitive life form spoke with an all-knowing alien AI for once on a somewhat coherent level, then, yes, Daniel, we had a moment,” Al said, unwilling to continue the conversation further. “Can I go now?”

“Please, be my guest,” I said, waving my hand forward as if I were ushering her through a crowd.

Al lifted her brow in my direction, then left the tent.

Butch turned the corner, not bothering to walk around Al and instead barreled right through her. The big wolf came over to me with a wagging tail.

“Oh, hey, Al, wait a minute, did you say you can understand Butch?” I asked as the Al turned for a second time. I could see the aggravation in her eyes from not having been stopped once but twice now.

“Technology exists that allows you to read animals’ behaviors,” Al explained. “The tone of a bark or growl, the height of a tail wag, the way her very hair stands at any given time, along with her eyes all relate information that can be then interpreted into given phrases or words.”

Butch looked from me to Al.

“What’s she saying now?” I asked, looking down at the big wolf.

“She says you’re an idiot,” Al answered.

“Okay, but how about now?” I ignored Al’s rude comment and ruffled the soft fur on Butch’s left cheek.

“Still an idiot,” Al sing-songed.

“Come on, seriously, though,” I said, not deterred by Al’s words. I got down to a knee so Butch stood slightly taller than me and rubbed both sides of her face.

The Kenai Peninsula Wolf resurrected from the dead by the Cripps family closed her eyes and growled happily.

“She can’t be calling me an idiot now; look at her,” I said with a smile. “She loves it.”

“I should have married you off to Ammit when I had the chance,” Al mumbled then lowered her head and massaged her holographic temples. “She’s making moaning noises, if you want to know, that sound rather inappropriate!”

Al shouted this last part on purpose.

Every eye in the tent looked over at the three of us. I saw a patient on the table who was being worked on even lift his head to get a better view.

“Well, that’s enough of that,” I said, getting to my feet and giving Butch one last pat. “Let’s go get some more crates.”

We left the tent under the amused eyes of the doctors and patients. When we exited the tent, Al stopped in her tracks. It was obvious there was something wrong.

“We have incoming from the west,” Al answered before I could ask the question. “At least two smaller crafts. Galactic Government dropships.”

“It’s okay, reinforcements from the Hole in New Vegas,” I told the AI. “They’re allies.”

“If you say so,” Al said, turning to the west. “We should be able to hear them soon. They had to have left as soon as the Intrepid went down. I’m getting an incoming request to your comm channel. You’re being hailed from one of the incoming dropships.”

No sooner had Al relayed the news than the earpiece in my right ear chirped.

“Daniel, can you hear me?”

My jaw dropped. I understood who the voice belonged to but wasn’t sure how I was hearing it. Major Zoe Valentine had her vocal cords cut at the hands of Rival Mercer. The last I heard, she was recovering with no chance of being able to speak again.

“Zoe, is that you?” I asked incredulously. I couldn’t help but smile. “How is this you?”

“Tech from the Galactic Government,” Zoe stated. “I’ll explain more when we get on the ground. It’s good to hear your voice, Daniel.”

“It’s great to hear yours,” I answered. “We’re by the triage tents.”

The line clicked dead as the thruster hum of dropships sounded in the area.

A palpable sense of calm descended on the camp of survivors when the Galactic Government reinforcements arrived. We were all exhausted from the battle and the events of the night as everyone worked through hours we were used to sleeping.

A pair of flat black dropships landed just outside our perimeter sporting the dark yellow sigil of the Galactic Government.

The rear ramps lowered and Major Zoe Valentine stepped out with her helmet magnetically clipped to her belt. A company of praetorians filed out of the dropships behind her, carrying supplies and hover stretchers for the wounded.

Zoe looked just like I remembered her with one distinct exception. She was still proud, tall, strong, blonde hair on one side of her hair in braids, the other side of her head shaved.

On the shaved side of her head, a metal piece attached to her skull. It connected to an earpiece in her ear. A nasty scar along her neck was visible just above her armor.

Can I give her a hug? I found myself wondering. Is that something that we can do now as friends? Or am I allowed to hug majors in the GG? Screw it.

I threw caution to the wind and met the major with a bear hug. She chuckled and gave me a hug back.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re back on your feet so soon,” I said, finally stepping back. “How are you talking to me?”

“It’s less actually talking and more communicating with you directly from my brain,” Zoe said, tapping the metal piece on the right side of her head. “Vocal cords are shot to hell.”

“Zoe, I’m so so—”

“No need to rehash that,” Zoe interrupted via our comm channel. “I’ve healed quickly and got to spend some time with my daughter. I’m ready to get back into it now. As much as I miss my little girl, I wouldn’t be the mother she loves if I gave up now. We have work to do.”

I just nodded along with her words, wondering what kind of stuff this woman was made from. Here she was with every opportunity to stay out of the fight, and not only was she right back in it, she was raring to go. I could see it in her eyes.

“Chancellor Marie requested a meeting with us as soon as I arrived,” Zoe informed me. “She said it was urgent.”


Thirty-Three

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

It was a fine line I had to walk while talking with the Chancellor. On one hand, she had delivered on everything she said she would. We were allies in my mind and I believed in her mind as well.

The other side of that was the fact that she had the book. The Relic that opened portals between worlds. If I told her everything I knew about Ammit and the other alien monsters around Earth, she would ask how I knew. Then I’d have to tell her about Al’s origins and run the risk the Galactic Government would request Al as they had the book.

These thoughts crashed through my mind for the second time that morning. Before the sit down, I shared my concern with Preacher, who took it upon himself to locate Sergeant Miggs and make sure she believed Al was nothing more than an intelligent and somewhat crazy human-made AI speculating on things.

At the moment, I sat in a small tent with a holo viewer on a table in front of us. Zoe, who I trusted with my life, sat opening the link between us and the Chancellor. A moment later, the blue holo light blinked to life in front of us with the Chancellor smiling through.

She looked as tired as I felt. I had to imagine she was up most of the night as well monitoring the situation. Hair pulled back and bags under her eyes, she was ready to talk about I didn’t know what.

“Major Valentine, Mr. Hunt,” Chancellor Loween Marie started. “Thank you for meeting with me. I understand how exhausted you both must be. Especially you, Daniel. I was debriefed by a Lieutenant Gracia as well as Captain Elijah Hawthorn from the Intrepid, the most senior surviving member of the ship. They both informed me of how you took control of the situation. Thank you.”

“I wasn’t alone,” I answered. “In the future, when dealing with these alien creatures, we should be wary of bringing in air support at least until we know for sure what they are or are not capable of.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Chancellor Marie concurred. “That’s one of the reasons for this call, in fact. Your actions saved lives, dealt with the threat, and succeeded with no additional casualties as soon as you took over. We’d like to contract you and your team to hunt down any alien threats that may appear in the future. Not just on Earth but in our known solar system.”

I sat there silent for so long, even Zoe looked over at me to make sure I was still awake.

I could feel the cold metal chair pressing into my butt and back. My mind raced with the implications of what that would mean, what that would even look like on a day-to-day basis.

If I didn’t do it, others would be sent in my place. Others not prepared for what they were about to go up against. Others like Major Airrion Scott who stood toe to toe with the unknown and sacrificed everything. People like Lieutenant Gracia and Sergeant Miggs.

“If you need more time to consider, I understand,” Chancellor Marie said, misinterpreting my silence for disinterest. “If you do decide to accept, you’d of course have the full backing of the Galactic Government, including whatever support elements you may require.”

“I’ll do it,” I answered. “I’d like to request Major Valentine and Sergeant Troy Toy be my GG support team. I’ve worked with both of them in the past. They know me and I know them. I know I can trust them.”

I saw the Chancellor’s shoulder drop in relief after the words left my lips.

“Thank you, Daniel,” the Chancellor said with a nod toward the major. “Major Valentine, do you have any reservations with how things will be structured?”

“I’ve known Daniel for a while now, even before the Voy invasion,” Zoe said without moving her lips. Her words came out via our comm channel perfectly. “He’s someone you want in your corner. We’ll get the job done.”

“Perfect, and I am here for both of you,” Chancellor Marie said, ending the conversation. “If there is anything either of you may need, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Actually, there is one thing,” I stated before the Chancellor could close the channel. “How are things progressing with the book?”

The Chancellor’s eyes flashed then settled. It was clear she was surprised by the question. Her years of political training kicked in, veiling her surprise so quickly, I almost missed it, almost.

“The Relic is safe and we have a team working on it now,” Chancellor Marie answered. “Anything we can glean from the item will be used for the greater good of humanity, Daniel. I will promise you that.”

“Of course,” I said, taking the information she gave me with a smile and a nod. It was a canned answer, but what did I expect?

“Be well,” Chancellor Marie said with a nod.

The comm screen clicked off.

“The Galactic Government has the book now?” Zoe asked. “The one used on Mars during the fight with the Voy?”

“That’s the one,” I told her. “We have a lot to catch you up on. Let’s get some nitro caf in us and I’ll tell you all about it.”

That was exactly what we did. Zoe gave directions to her company in between my story as the severely wounded were evacuated on the dropships and another Battle Class Cruiser routed to our position with heavy mech crews to see if they could get the Intrepid back in space or salvage her for parts.

Over steaming cups of nitro caf, I told her everything that transpired since we last saw one another. I told her of the demise of Rival Mercer, the cup and the sword, and of course about Cassie.

Zoe remained quiet while I spoke, giving me all the time I needed to get it out.

When I was finished, the sky was beginning to turn a light goldish-pink as the sun crested the horizon.

“Sounds like you’ve been through the meat grinder,” Zoe said via her means of communication. “Hopefully, the worst is behind us now, both of us. If life can be as straightforward as hunting these things and we can leave it at that, I’ll be happy.”

“You and me both,” I agreed. “We might need some help getting our T-bird pointed the right side up and any damages repaired.”

“We can lend a hand,” Zoe confirmed. “I’ll get a mech team sent there as soon as the new ship arrives. The Dauntless is approaching now. ETA six hours. I’d get some sleep if I were you. You look—well, I’m just going to be honest with you. You look horrible, Daniel.”

“Thanks, I feel horrible.” I chuckled. “I might crash in the T-bird until the team’s here to get her right side up.”

“I’ll make sure they wake you before you start wondering why you’re being tossed around in your dream,” Zoe said with a grin.

I gave the major a nod and headed out.

I walked like a dead man. I was so tired, I felt like I could collapse on my feet. When I reached the T-bird, I maneuvered through the opening to find Preacher passed out awkwardly near the front of the ship. Butch lay at his feet, twitching in her wolf dreams.

I stood there for a moment by the rear ramp, looking for a place to lie.

Al popped into existence on the other side of the cracked-open ramp door.

I stopped myself from jolting mid-flinch.

“We need to work out a way for you to warn me when you’re going to do that,” I told her, settling for a spot on the floor. “I didn’t bring an extra pair of underwear. Maybe we can attach some bells to your holo projectors so we can always hear where you are.”

“I can send you a vibration on your vambrace if you’d like,” Al said, looking down on my arm. “My holo projectors need to recharge now anyway.”

Al disappeared from view as the two hovering spheres that projected her form flew to my left arm and connected to the vambrace.

“There, that’s better,” Al said from her actual sphere, which sat in a groove at the base of my vambrace. “Now go to sleep. You need it.”

“Don’t I know it,” I mumbled, moving a few crates from the ground. I found a blanket in one and used it as a pillow. I fell asleep wondering what Cassie was doing, hoping that her journey was less dangerous than my own.

Sleep came and went too quickly. One second I swore I had just closed my eyes, the next a thick pink tongue gave me a wet willy of a lifetime.

“No, just a few more minutes,” I said, rolling over on the hard deck. “Just need a few more minutes.”

“You may need a few more minutes, but your body needs food and the Dauntless has arrived,” Al said, urging my eyes to open.

Preacher was still snoring in his seat. I wasn’t sure how he was even able to sleep like that. He had belted himself in, his body half hanging off the copilot’s seat.

Motion from the entrance to the T-bird caught my eye. Sergeant Miggs stepped in. She looked surprised to see me.

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t—I didn’t know anyone was in here,” the sergeant stammered, looking uneasily from me to Butch. “I—uh, do you think I could just get another look at that sword? I didn’t really get to see it much during the battle. My hands were kind of full at the moment.”

Danger alarms went off in my mind. I knew what the sword did to people. I knew how it called to them, promising power. I felt it when I carried it, and to be honest, I even wanted to wield it again.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I told her, slowly rising to my feet.

Butch crouched close to the ground and growled.

“Wow, easy,” Sergeant Miggs said, lowering her hand toward the butt of the blaster at her hip. “I’m not here for any kind of trouble. I just wanted to ask if I could see it again. That’s all.”

“Sorry, it’s not time for show and tell,” I said, catching the woman’s eye. “I know you’re a good person. I can see it in you. This need to see or hold the sword, I get it. But you have to trust me on this one. It’s not what you think it is. Do you hear me? Let it go.”

Sergeant Miggs looked as if she were in a trance. Instead of holding my eye, she looked around at the many black cases scattered around the inside of the overturned ship.

I knew I could reach her before she had time to draw and fire her blaster. I just didn’t want to have to.


Thirty-Four

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

Don’t do this, I pleaded in my head. Carla, don’t do this.

The sounds of heavy thrusters outside snapped Sergeant Carla Miggs out of her stupor. She blinked rapidly a few times, looking around the inside of the T-bird as if she hadn’t realized where she was standing at all.

Her palm reached the handle of her blaster. She retracted her hand as if the thing was on fire.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” Carla said, shaking her head. “I don’t—I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s okay,” I told her, not wanting to go into any further detail about the sword. “Why don’t we step outside. It sounds like reinforcements have come. The Dauntless is here to lend a hand.”

Carla nodded and moved outside.

“That was close,” Preacher said from behind me. The mercenary had silently slipped free from his chair and stood ready to provide backup should the need arise. “We’re going to have to do something about that sword if you need to take it out again. Cover it somehow.”

“Better yet, only use it when we absolutely have to,” I added. “These Relics are more of a curse than a blessing. Victoria Cripps warned me about that. She’s proof enough that it’s true.”

“I thought for sure we were about to get into a fight with the GG and have to explain why we killed one of their own.” Al sighed. “What is it with you people and getting into trouble? You’re like a magnet for violence.”

“Hey, what do you mean by ‘you people’?” I asked.

“You know, you, W.O.L.F. in general, the mercenaries,” Al explained. “You know what I mean.”

“It’s not easy being us, but someone’s got to do it,” Preacher answered for me. “Come on; let’s get outside and see what we can see.”

“And maybe find some food,” I added. “I feel like I could eat a whole Brune right now.”

“Too soon.” Preacher grimaced as if he could taste Ammit in his mouth. “Too soon.”

We ducked outside the T-bird’s partial rear ramp door to see the Dauntless touch down on the far side of the Intrepid. The ship unloaded with a series of support vehicles and mechs ready to lend a hand in whatever way they could.

Sergeant Miggs still stood outside in the light of the afternoon sun getting a hold of herself.

“It wasn’t you,” I told her. “It’s not your fault. It’s happened to the best of us and that’s exactly why we have to keep word about the sword as limited as possible.”

Carla nodded, chewing on her lower lip.

“I tried stem back in the day,” Sergeant Miggs said. “It was way too addicting. I knew I had to stop before I got started. That’s what the sword feels like but amped up to a level ten.”

“Trust me, we get it,” I said, flexing my right hand as I thought about holding the alien weapon again. “That’s why it has to stay between us. Not for selfish reasons but to protect others.”

Carla nodded along with my words before heading off to attend her own duties.

I caught sight of Major Valentine heading in my direction in front of a mech. This Galactic Government robotic suit was meant for construction and repair not for battle. As such, it didn’t carry weapons of any kind.

The mech unit stood at least two stories tall, its outer hull painted a deep yellow. The pilot’s seat was shielded from view in the chest cavity of the large robot.

Zoe nodded to Preacher. She touched her ear, signaling she was about to open a channel.

“We’re going to get your ship right and repaired as fast as we can,” Zoe explained. “We just received word of something going on in what used to be the African continent. And you’re going to love this next part. They want us to try and capture it alive.”

“Of course they do,” Preacher spat. “More tests no doubt.”

“Don’t shoot the messenger,” Zoe said with a shrug. “We’ll take your T-bird if you’re good with that. Sergeant Toy and his Titan unit are gearing up right now to meet us there.”

My stomach grumbled. I didn’t want to seem selfish at the moment, but I was looking forward to a hot meal, not tracking down another one of these alien monsters so soon.

Our party moved to the side as the mech unit went to work, gently righting the T-bird and working on the wing that had been previously buried in the sand.

“Do we have any information on the creature that’s been located?” Al asked from her sphere, still in my vambrace. “My name is Alerna, by the way. I am an all-knowing and all-seeing AI paired with this human meat sack you call Daniel Hunt.”

Zoe didn’t say anything at first but let out a grin.

“You can speak to me, as I’ve taken the liberty of hacking your channel,” Al said with bite in her words. “Now this alien creature. What is it?”

“Sounds like a real peach,” Zoe said, looking over at me. “Intel has something large moving beneath the surface. We were tipped off when a small earthquake was triggered in the area.”

“Earthquake?” Preacher looked between the two of us. “How big is this thing?”

“Al?” I asked. “You’re the leading expert on all things alien. Any idea of what this could be?”

“Not just an idea; I know exactly what it is, and if you want to catch it, you have zero chance,” Al warned us. “Trust me, I ran the calculation a hundred times over and you do not want to try and bring this creature in.”

“What is it?” Zoe asked.

“It’s a Vanduriam sand worm,” Al informed us as if we were supposed to know exactly what that was.

“Oh right, the Vanduriam sand worm from the planet no-one-knows-what-you’re-talking-about in the system you-have-to-explain-more-to-us,” I added. “Al, we’re in the dark here. Give us all the detail you can.”

“Well, someone’s a bit hangry.” Al huffed. “We need to get you something to eat. You’re a different person when you’re not fed like a big man-child.”

Butch said something in a low growl.

“I know, I know,” Al answered the wolf. “But what does the itch in your nether regions have to do with sand worms right now?”

“Excuse me, can we stay on topic?” Major Valentine asked. “Al, do you have more information we can use?”

Over Zoe’s shoulder, I could see a squad of Galactic Government mechanics joining the mech and begin working with welders and torches to make sure the ship was in flying order.

I knew Preacher was keeping his eye on the same things. We couldn’t risk the crew going inside and making contact with the sword. Thus far, we were in the clear. The crew was working mostly on the outside of the craft.

Our view afforded us a direct line of sight into the rear of the ship. Only two mechanics had made their way in. They ignored the scattered containers in the ship and went straight to the pilot’s seat to check on the controls.

“Yes, I do have more information on the sand worm. Get ready, kids. Class is about to be in session,” Al said with a hint of levity in her voice. I could make an educated guess that she liked being in charge. “You should all probably take notes. Your primitive brains may not be able to keep all the details in order.”

The two smaller spheres on my vambrace disconnected from their resting places and hovered in the air by my side. Together they projected Al’s golden holographic figure.

She looked like a young woman in her thirties with a curvy figure covered in a billowing cloak. She extended her right hand palm up. From it appeared the image of what looked to me like some kind of giant slug with a ton of teeth at one end and a stubby tail on the other.

“This, my ignorant human friends, is the Vanduriam sand worm from the Surloc galaxy. The creature is capable of growing up to three hundred meters long and weighing up to ninety-six tons,” Al said with a nod. “Capturing the beast may not be an option here. You’re going to be lucky to see him long enough to kill. They usually remain content to stay underground. Until they’re hungry, that is.”

“What happens when they’re hungry?” I asked.

“Ah, not as dull as you look. Good question, Daniel,” Al said with a thin smile. “The sand worm rises to the surface to consume any living thing it can digest in its stomach. The sand worm’s intestinal tract secretes a compound able to break down and digest everything from bone to teeth and nails.”

“Wonderful,” Preacher grumbled under his breath.

“Tell me we’re still not going to try and catch this thing,” I said, looking at Zoe. “I mean, really? You heard what I did.”

Zoe remained silent. I understood she was weighing the odds of her orders against the lives of all of us, including those under her command.

“We’ll see if maybe we can stun or neutralize the creature,” Zoe decided, lifting a hand before either I or Preacher could argue. “We’ll try, and if it’s not an option, then we’ll put it down. The more we can find out about what we’re going to be dealing with, the better. It could give us a greater chance of surviving the next alien conflict.”

I knew what she meant. I had thought about the same thing. I had no burning desire to capture these aliens and then hand them over to the GG. The logic I did agree with was that the more we could learn about these aliens, the better off we would be.

Zoe wasn’t wrong. Whatever we learned from them could put us in a better position once we went exploring alien worlds or, like the Voy, they came to us.

“You still hungry?” Zoe asked, looking over at me.

“I’m always hungry,” I answered.

“Follow me. We have a mess tent set up with some hot chow,” Zoe replied. “I just received word from the team that the T-bird’s damages were mostly superficial. They’ll have her up and running in forty minutes.”

I looked over her shoulder again to appreciate how quickly and efficiently the team of mechanics worked on the ship. There was no wasted movement or leaning against the hull of the ship swapping stories. These were men and women trained well.

“I’m good,” I lied through my teeth. “Preacher, why don’t you go with the major and grab some grub. Bring me back some when you’re done.”

No matter how hungry I was, I knew now more than ever I couldn’t leave the sword unsecured. Sure, it was in a crate inside the ship, but what if one of those mechanics got curious and started popping cases open? I couldn’t have that. I couldn’t risk it.

Zoe looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

“I’ll stay here with the ship,” Al said, rolling her eyes. “If anything goes amiss, I’ll let you know. You go feed your little human belly.”

“They wouldn’t steal anything,” Zoe said, slightly offended. “They’re good sailors.”

“I know and I don’t mean any disrespect. We’ve just been through a lot,” I told her. “I trust people I know and I trust you, but I can’t afford to roll the dice on strangers right now.”

Zoe slowly nodded, buying in to my explanation.

I knew sooner or later I had to tell her about the sword. Heck, she might even see it if we couldn’t take down this sand worm thing, but not now. Not unless she had to.

“Go, go, before I change my mind,” Al said, waving us off. “You’re not getting any younger here.”

We set off with Preacher and Zoe by my side, Butch following behind. It would be the last time I got a hot meal in a very long time.


Thirty-Five

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

The continent previously known as Africa was a shadow of what it had once been. I had seen the old maps of the world before the Fall. After the earthquakes that sent so much of the area into the ocean, only half of the land mass remained.

The trip from the east coast of the United States to our destination was much faster than I would have thought. Al piloted the T-bird like Sergeant Miggs had driven the hover tank during our conflict with the giant sand Ammit.

I had a touch of space sickness in the process but managed to keep it together. I had a sneaking suspicion Al knew all of this and was doing it to me on purpose.

We touched down on the wasteland of a continent just a few hours after we left the Galactic Government on the east coast. The T-bird’s top speed compared to that of the dropship was like comparing Butch sprinting across the terrain to some strung-out stem head stumbling along.

“Intel says Sergeant Troy and his Shadow Praetorians are en route. They’ll be here tomorrow,” Zoe said, leaning forward in her copilot’s seat to get a better look at the terrain. “We should be careful with the locals. They’re not exactly used to seeing much outside of their own communities these days.”

“Seismic activity suggests the sand worm is operating in a heavily populated area right in the middle of a few villages. It’s set up its hunting territory to be able to grab people from multiple communities,” Al informed us. “Careful where you step. This thing will suck you right under. You’ll be dead within moments as its multi-headed tongue wraps you from the waist down and teeth rip through your skull and sternum next.”

We all looked at where Al’s sphere sat piloting the ship in the center of the dashboard.

“What?” Al asked as if she were offended. “Do you want the truth or do you want me to lie to you here? I told you this is a level-five threat. On the A.M.C.S.”

“What’s the A.M.C.S.?” Zoe asked.

“Alerna Monster Calculation Scale,” Al answered. “On a scale of cuddling you so hard it makes you want to relieve yourself to ripping off your head and using your skull as a drinking device, this one’s the latter.”

“Comforting thoughts,” Preacher said in his pilot seat. “Maybe next time use different verbiage.”

“Dear travelers, be cautious where thou steppist, the creature of yorn seeks to pull thyself under the surface with a rather lengthy appendage of a tongue and will then seek to puncture thy skin with teeth of epic proportion,” Al explained slowly. “How’s that?”

“You have a way with words,” I said with a shrug in my seat. “I don’t think there’s any denying that.”

“Heads up,” Zoe said, straightening in her seat. “Here we go.”

I looked through the front window to see our descent through the clouds and to the ground below. The landscape wasn’t that different from what I was used to seeing. Dry ground where nothing wanted to grow. A hot sun that was already beginning to set and a lot of brown and cream colored landscape.

“Remember, we have no issue with the people here,” Zoe reminded us as Al set down the T-bird on the outskirts of where a few mud huts sat. “We’re here for the sand worm and the sand worm only.”

“I got no issue with that,” I answered.

The ship shuddered ever so slightly as Al set us down. I unclipped myself from my harness and moved to the rear of the ship to grab my gear.

Along with my recallers and the axe and knife on my hips, I took my spare MK II. My eyes strayed to a crate in the upper left rear side of the ship. The sword rested there right now. I couldn’t tell if my desire to take the sword with me stemmed from a selfish wish to hold it or an actual founded belief it would save lives and I would need it against the sand worm.

The ramp door at the bottom of the T-bird descended, breaking me from my thoughts. Butch was the first out, sniffing the air. Preacher followed her with his katana sticking out over his shoulder and a Hyperion Mark Seven in his hands.

“We don’t know a whole lot about the local population, but I’d be surprised if they have anything else besides pre-Fall weapons,” Zoe said, placing her helmet over her head and checking her rifle’s charge pack. “Still, eyes open.”

“Will do,” I answered, going to the control panel of the T-bird and taking Al’s sphere in my right hand. I placed it in my vambrace. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”

“Oh, a learned man.” Al feigned surprise. “I had no idea you could read, much less knew the work of one William Shakespeare.”

“Still working on the reading part,” I teased the AI. “I just like to look at the pictures. You know, color in the lines and all of that.”

“If you could color in the lines, I’d be surprised.” Al laughed. “You are a conundrum, Mr. Hunt. One part killing machine, one part Shakespeare-reading jokester. When do you have time to read anyway?”

“Not as much as I’d like these days, but while I was a centurion on the moon dealing with all the riff-raff in and out of bars and nightclubs, I had time to read,” I answered, reflecting on those times. “I miss that.”

“Who would have thought you were such a nerd.” Al huffed. “Better get your nose out of the books now or you’re going to end up deader than Ammit. We have incoming from the nearest village to the west.”

I followed the others down the ramp, shading my eyes against the rays of the setting sun. Sure enough, Al was right.

It was easy to see in the distance with so much flat ground. This area was unlike the grounds surrounding Dragon Hold or even Mars. This place was long and flat. Not so much as a mountain peak or dune rose in the distance.

In front of us, I could see a series of primitive huts rising up from the ground. In front of these huts, a dozen or more men walked toward us. They were wide-shouldered with scowls on their faces and weapons in hand.

Zoe was right. Their gear consisted of a few rusted pre-Fall weapons ranging from assault rifles that may or may not even fire and pistols. A few wore bandoliers around their shoulders half-filled with ammunition. Old school rounds made of copper and gunpowder.

“Weapons down but ready,” Zoe instructed us. “Our hands are already full with the sand worm. We don’t need to fight the locals as well.”

The men came closer, looking at us as if we were aliens ourselves. I didn’t blame them. This was probably the first time they had seen a ship, at least up close. Things like armor and weapons of this caliber would be foreign to them.

They moved toward us tentatively, not lifting their weapons in our direction, but not doing much to put us at ease either.

Without a word, Zoe, Preacher, and I moved away from one another. A healthy distance would mean they couldn’t take us out in a concentrated hose of fire.

Zoe lifted her left hand into the air, palm facing toward them in a sign of peace. Her own Hyperion Mark Seven rested in her right hand with the barrel aimed at the ground.

“We’re here only as friends and we’ll be gone soon,” Zoe explained, her helmet’s exterior speakers doing the talking her throat couldn’t. “We mean you no harm.”

The men looked at one another and then back toward us. They spoke in a guttural tone with lots of clicks and sounds I had never heard before. The leader, a big guy with a vest and rifle in his arms looked over at us and spoke in his tongue.

To my ears, it didn’t sound like a whole lot other than grunts. He gestured with his arms a few times and his head.

“Any idea what our host is saying?” Preacher asked out of the side of his mouth.

“Hold on, hold on; I’m a super intelligent AI, not a miracle worker,” Al answered. “Let me work out the dialect and I’ll set up a relay into your comms that translates the language for you.”

“You can do that?” Zoe asked incredulously. “The GG has that tech but not with this language. I’m not reading it at all.”

“The GG’s tech is like chicken scratches compared to what I can do,” Al sneered.

The leader in charge looked at his men. He tried again, speaking to us slower this time like that would help. It sounded like, “Tay nay, lomboc whoah no.”

He looked like he was starting to get a little aggravated as well. He motioned harder with his hands to us and then to the ship.

“Got it,” Al said a moment later.

“Where you come from?” Our comm channels picked up his words and translated them for us in our ear. “Who are you? Do you not even understand how to communicate?”

“Well, we can hear them now, but how do we answer in turn?” I asked.

“It’s never enough for you, is it?” Al huffed. “Al, can you work a miracle with our simplistic tech and translate a primitive language for us? Oh, Al, can you then work a second miracle and let us communicate with them in their own language. No, not with what I have. I’ll need more time and probably some pieces from the T-bird.”

“Can you translate for us, then?” Zoe requested. “Please, it would help a lot.”

“Why, I’d love to,” Al said as her two holo projector drones released from my vambrace and hovered in the air next to me.

The local men gasped in astonishment and wonder as her golden holographic form took shape in front of them. Al opened her arms in greeting and began speaking in their tongue she had just learned. Hard clicks and deep tones came out at first and then were translated via our comm units.

“Greetings, most honorable friends and family,” Al began with a short bow. “We are here because your villages are in great danger from a sand beast lurking beneath the surface of the very ground we stand on. We are here to help you be rid of this beast. These primitives behind me are my entourage and human servants.”


Thirty-Six

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

The men in front of us looked at one another in astonishment.

“They’re here to help?” one of the men asked the leader.

“Are they telling the truth?” another one of the members queried.

“What should we do? Should we tell the big boss what’s happening?”

The man in charge looked at us, weighing our intention. He studied Al with his head tilted to the side.

“You are some kind of ghost?” he asked Al, narrowing his eyes. Screwing up his courage, he walked close enough to touch Al, extending an open hand toward her.

“Careful, friend,” Al said, taking a step back. Her action and her words made the man jump. “My power is so great that if you were to even touch my manifested body, you would drop dead in an instant.”

I looked over at Preacher, rolling my eyes.

Preacher hid a smile.

“If we might be able to stay on track here?” Zoe asked. “Can you ask them about sand worm sightings?”

“What did the one in the mask say?” the man in front of Al asked. “Why does she not speak our language as you do?”

“It’s a shame, really. Their brains are too small to comprehend your language,” Al said with a shrug. “However, we are getting off course as to why we are here. Do you know of the sand worm of which we speak?”

“I do,” the man said, placing a hand on his chest. “My name is Tyco. Conversations such as this would be better kept in the safety of a village and with the Warlord. The beast has only attacked outside the village’s perimeter.”

“Understood,” Al said with a nod. “We will go with you.”

That seemed good enough for Tyco and his men. They turned, motioning us to follow.

“You look like you’re enjoying this a little too much,” I whispered to Al. “Your entourage? Really?”

“It’s a story they’ll believe,” Al answered indignantly. “What am I going to tell them? That I’m an all-powerful AI who chooses to surround herself with beings below me? As if; who’s going to believe that?”

We followed along with Tyco and his men. The village was larger than we first thought. Dozens of huts with hard mud walls and roofs opened up to a circular area I guessed was used for a kind of town square.

The village itself was empty, save for a few inhabitants staring at us from the safety of their windows and doorways. Sunken eyes tracked our every move. Dry hacks and moans came from a few buildings.

“Al,” I said. “Ask him where everyone is?”

“Tyco,” Al clicked away in their native tongue as our comm units interpreted her speech for us. “Where are all the villagers?”

“Only the sick remained behind,” Tyco answered as if it were nothing to be ashamed of. “The rest of the village works the mines.”

“Mines?” Al asked for us.

“Yes, Warlord uses people to work the mines. Mines give ore, ore is traded for food,” Tyco explained. “Come, you see, they are on their way back into the city now.”

Tyco pointed to our left where a long line of filthy, dog-tired men, women, and children walked down a path back to the city. They were burdened with carrying a mix of baskets and digging tools.

On either side of the convoy of workers, armed men and women walked beside them, yelling at them to hurry.

Everything about the situation unfolding in front of me felt wrong. These people weren’t working; these people were slaves.

I looked over to make sure Preacher and Zoe were seeing the same thing.

Preacher’s jaw clenched. His one eye narrowed.

It was impossible to read Zoe’s facial expression, thanks to her helmet.

“Come, come,” Tyco encouraged us forward. “Warlord will want to talk to you. He’s up ahead in the big house.”

I followed Tyco’s finger that directed us to a larger mud hut with a thick roof of ancient wood and a canvas.

We made our way to the building where Tyco spoke quickly to a pair of guards at the door. While we waited, I couldn’t help but notice Tyco’s men surrounded us.

Most just examined us with intrigue, but I knew firsthand that intrigue could turn to violence with a single command from their leader.

We had more time to see the slaves being herded into the village. They didn’t wear any kind of chains, but I knew a prisoner when I saw one, having been one myself.

Worse, I could see in the fatigued movement of their bodies, their downcast eyes, that their spirits had been broken a very long time ago.

Entering the city, they still didn’t see us. So tired and broken, their eyes were on the ground in front of them, just trying to put one foot in front of the other.

Finally, a small child, a little boy no more than four or five years old, looked up from where he walked next to who I guessed was his mother. The boy was filthy from the top of his curly head to his shoeless feet. Sweat stains broke up the layer of dirt on his brow.

He looked at me and then at Al, dropping his jaw.

“Mama, Mama, look!” the boy shouted. “An angel. You said an angel would come. An angel has come to free us.”

Everyone, both slave and guard, looked up to where we stood in front of the big house. Most mouths dropped, every eye turned wide with wonder. I got it. We were enough to look at just being strangers, let alone Zoe in full armor and Al glowing like some heavenly creature.

I could see how the kid thought she would be an angel. Glowing gold and yellow, I may have thought the same thing at his age. Once Al opened her mouth, all pretenses of her being an angelic being would be out the window.

Murmurs amongst the group coming back from working the mines rippled through the crowd.

“Give me just a moment,” Tyco said to us before he disappeared inside the hut. “I will come and usher you in shortly.”

“It is an angel, Mama!” the boy yelled. “It is!”

The boy broke from his place in line with the largest smile I’ve ever seen on anyone. His small legs pumped underneath him, a look of not just happiness but pure joy in his eyes.

The guard closest to him broke out of his own astonishment at seeing us and struck out with the butt of his weapon at the boy.

“Get back in line!” the man said, hitting the boy in the side of his head so violently, it took the child off his feet.

Every muscle in my body tensed. My hand went to the MK II on my hip.

“I get it, I get it,” Zoe said with a firm hand on my shoulder. Her voice shook with the anger I felt. “But not like this. Not like this, Daniel.”

I stood with rigid eyes, unable to look away as the mother screamed, rushing for her son. She threw herself over his unmoving body wailing for mercy. I would never forget the way the woman sounded.

“We will help them, but let’s do it without killing half the village,” Zoe said with so much anger in her voice, I knew she was thinking of her own daughter. She was trying to talk herself down. “We’re here representing the Galactic Government. Let’s do this the right way.”

Butch growled, smelling the odor of blood in the air from the where the butt of the rifle opened a cut across the boy’s head.

The mother cried—shrieked was more like it—as the boy’s limp body rested in her hands.

The group of armed guards around us sensed violence in the air. They shifted uncomfortably, moving their weapons from one hand to another or adjusting their grip on their guns.

“Get them back in line,” the man who had struck the child in the head yelled to the other guards and the column of slaves. “Get back in line.”

I watched in slow motion as the guard who hit the child grabbed the screaming mother by her hair and dragged her back into line as she clutched her limp child.

“Oh, crip this,” Preacher said. He took off at a sprint down the road toward the screaming mother.

I tore free from Zoe’s grip on my shoulder and followed half a step behind.

There was more shouting as people realized what was about to happen. I overtook Preacher, running in front of him toward the man dragging the woman back in line.

The other guards lining the caravan of slaves lifted their weapons in my direction. That did nothing to make me stop. Already anger for waiting this long ate at me like some kind of cancerous regret.

“Stop!” someone was shouting.

“Shoot him,” someone else ordered.

“No!” other voices chimed in.

While people were still trying to figure out what was going on, I reached the man who still held a handful of the woman’s hair. My enhanced speed let me cross the distance in seconds. Preacher was a good ten meters behind me with Butch right at my heels.

I clotheslined the man holding the woman’s hair, right across his chest. A sickening snap filled the air along with the shouts. The man went down gasping. He released his hold on the woman, grabbing at his broken chest.

Another guard came at me, pointing his ancient weapon at my head. He pulled the trigger, only answered by an empty click.

Butch tore him down where he stood. Two more of the guards at the convoy, one holding a club, the other a machete pushed their way toward me.

Preacher’s katana hummed through the air so quickly, it looked like a red blur. One man’s hand still holding the club flopped to the ground beside him. The other lifted his machete just in time to have it cleaved in two by Preacher’s weapon.

Preacher followed up the move with a heavy boot in the man’s chest.

The last guard in the slave convoy raised his rifle to his shoulder, preparing to open fire on all of us.

“Don’t,” Zoe said, pressing her own rifle to the side of his head. “Al, tell him in whatever language he speaks that if he so much as breathes wrong, I’m going to make his skull look like a crater on the moon.”

“Oh, good one,” Al said, moving down the trail to join us. “Very bad ass, and by the rise of his heartbeat, he already believes you.”

“Everyone stop!” a deep voice boomed from the big house. “Put down your weapons.”

I looked up to see an older man standing next to Tyco. He had a bare chest and a thick necklace across his shoulders.

Whoever this man was, he demanded respect. Everyone immediately obeyed, lowering the rifles. Preacher sheathed his weapon and went to the grieving mother.

“Let me see him,” Preacher said, going to his knees and motioning to the boy. “Let me see him, Al?”

Al went over to translate.

“He’s breathing,” Preacher confirmed once Al explained to the mother they were here to help. “There he is.”

The boy’s eyes blinked open. He sat up in Preacher’s arms, looking at Al in wonder, the wound on his head totally forgotten in the presence of the boy’s “angel.”

The man I had clotheslined sat in the ground next to me gasping for air. He withered in pain.

I ignored him, instead going over to Butch, who growled at the man she had taken a bite from.

“Easy, easy now,” I said, ruffling her ears. “Easy, it’s over—for now.”


Thirty-Seven

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

After the tense moment outside with the slaves, we were ushered into the big house. Warlord sat across from us in the large one-roomed building that reminded me more of a meeting hall than somewhere someone actually lived.

He sat in a throne type of chair with Tyco at his right. A pair of armed guards stood behind us at the door. I could practically feel them boring holes through me. Already they hated us for what we did to their counterparts.

I’m sure there was a healthy mix of fear in there as well. They had seen me move. They’d witnessed firsthand Preacher dispatch two of their number without breaking a sweat.

“You have to understand, the way life for us here may be very different than your own life,” Warlord explained to Al and Zoe, who took the lead in the conversation. “These people must work to trade ore for supplies we need for food. The Earth is dead here. We cannot live on mutated animals and dry roots alone. Tyco told me you came to assist with the sand monster, not interfere with our way of life.”

“We have come to help,” Zoe answered before Al could form her own response and get us into any more trouble. “We are here to remove the sand creature, and while we’re here, perhaps we can help introduce a new way of life. A way where your people can work the land themselves. There is a group that calls themselves Phoenix Corp that is bringing life back to the Earth.”

“Actual crops growing in this ground?” Warlord huffed. “Impossible. If you are truly here as allies to help with the sand beast, then you are welcome. If you are here to cause death and overturn our society, then we will have issues.”

As Warlord let those last few words fall from his mouth, I heard the guards behind us flip off safeties and cock weapons. Not that that would do them any good. I was sure I could take all four of them on my own.

Preacher hadn’t said much since he handed the boy back to his mother, but I knew that look in his one good eye well enough. He was a coiled spring. More than just a coiled spring, he was a spring who desperately wanted to be let loose.

“Yes, we are here for the sand monster,” Zoe explained. “Perhaps once we catch the creature and prove to you we are here to help, you’ll be willing to sit down and talk about another more profitable way to provide for the village you have here. What if you didn’t have to be reliant on anyone for trade? What if you could produce your own food and sustain your own village?”

Warlord shifted in his seat. It was clear he liked the sound of that. The chair groaned and creaked under his bulk.

Thus far, Al had stuck to the script Zoe set out for her. I wasn’t surprised when she decided to throw in a few of her own words. Actually, I expected it.

“Imagine a world where you could not just survive but thrive,” Al said, motioning to the armor Zoe wore. “You could begin to build a better place for you and your village. Think about the armor and weapons you could afford if you weren’t trading the ore you mined for food. What could you do? The possibilities are endless. One day, you could even have a ship of your own.”

Greed was a powerful motivator.

I didn’t think Al was doing the right thing by seducing the greed that lived inside the man, but we could all see it was working.

Warlord smiled with massive white teeth. He began to nod as Al painted a more and more extravagant picture.

“Yes, yes,” Warlord said with a nod. “You do what you say. You remove this monster from our village and you bring this new Earth that will grow and we will give it a chance.”

The rest of the conversation was details about where the monster was last seen. Warlord, all smiles and jokes, now offered to have Tyco show us to a hut we could stay in. The hut wasn’t much, a small hard mud circular thing with a few blankets on the hard ground, open windows and doors.

Tyco didn’t stay at the door guarding us, but it was clear we were being watched. A pair of guards stood down the street pretending to be talking and relaxing, but I understood they were there to keep an eye on us.

The surrounding huts were homes to the slaves Warlord referred to as “willing workers.” They peeked out of their windows at us, stealing glances here and there as day turned to night.

“Sergeant Troy Toy will be here tomorrow with the Shadow Praetorians and supplies,” Zoe said as she joined me looking out our window. “Warlord said the last place the sand worm was seen was about a kilometer due east of the village.”

“I’m less worried about the sand worm right now and more worried about these people,” I answered. “We can’t leave them like this. Who are we if we could?”

“I counted seventeen with weapons,” Preacher added from his seat inside the hut. He sat on the ground, resting against the cool mud wall and cleaning his rifle. “I say we do a little purging of our own tonight. I opted to use my blade last time, but the rifle’s missing being worked.”

“This is just one of four surrounding villages,” Al thought out loud. “If you remove the chain of command here, one of the other villages will just come and take over and the process repeats again. You’re better off killing all the Warlords in the surrounding villages. Decapitation would be my preferred method.”

Violence wasn’t exactly out of the norm for Al to speak about so bluntly, but something in her voice made me look over at the AI.

I wasn’t the only one; Preacher, Zoe, and even Butch looked at the AI, all sensing the change in her tone.

“What?” Al asked, furrowing her brow. “That boy called me an angel. Did you see how cute he was? I’m not growing soft here—most of humanity can kick the bucket for all I care—but not that kid.”

“Evening meal!” a shout came from down the street. I turned my gaze back outside. A group of Warlord’s soldiers walked down the street. Two of them carried a stained pot between them while a third ladled the stuff onto clay plates. There were a few runners carrying the plates who dropped the plates of food off at each hut’s doorway.

I wasn’t sure what the gruel was made from, but it looked like some kind of lumpy stew. Butch smelled the air and sneezed. I had to agree. It smelled like something after sitting in the garbage for a few days.

“Come and eat!” one of the guards shouted, dropping another plate of food off at the entrance to a hut across the street. Each plate was served with a single scoop of the stuff.

I watched as elderly men and women went to collect their nighttime meal.

The lights from the moon and stars were aided by torches being lit at the doorway of every hut, casting ghostly shadows in every direction.

When the group of soldiers came to our hut, they gave me a wicked sneer.

“You’re lucky the Warlord likes you or you’d be eating Gruppa tonight for dinner too,” one of them spat. “You’re to go to the big house.”

Before I could answer, an argument broke out on the other side of the street.

“Please, this isn’t enough for my family,” a man said, looking down at his meager plate of food. “There are four of us in here. Even if I don’t eat, this isn’t enough.”

“You know the rules!” One of the soldiers chuckled. “One hut, one scoop. Maybe you shouldn’t have had so many children.”

I saw the malnourished faces of a little boy and girl peek out their window. The way the moonlight caught their gaunt expressions made them look like skeletons.

“Nope, not doing this again,” I said, striding out of my hut. To be honest, I was still ashamed of myself for standing still so long before. I wasn’t going to live with that twice.

“Daniel,” Zoe warned.

I ignored her, passing wary guards as I went over to the hut in question. Every guard had his or her finger on their trigger. Their weapons pointed in my direction. They had seen firsthand how fast I was before. They were taking no chances now.

“Al, I need you to translate,” I called out to the AI.

I started talking to the father before Al even got there.

“We have food in the ship we came in. Not much, mostly protein packs, bars, and ready-to-eat meals, but they’re better than nothing,” I told him. “I’ll go get them now. I’ll be right back.”

Al interpreted for me a second later.

The father’s eyes were so full of gratitude, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how he teared up in front of me. Tears streaked his dirty face, making tiny rivers as they cut through the filth on his cheeks.

“No one’s getting any food until you clear it with the Warlord,” one of the soldiers said behind me. I turned around to see why he had become so sure of himself.

Out of the shadows between huts, not just a few, but all of the guards in the village stepped out. Each one had a weapon in their hands. Not clubs or machetes this time, but rifles, old-school pre-Fall shotguns and handguns.

I had to assume they emptied out the armory. I also had to think each one of these weapons was checked, loaded, and ready to fire.

“Not so brave when you have sixteen guns pointed at your head, are you?” The soldier laughed. “You’re to go to the big house now. No trips to your ship. No food for these people.”

“If I had a real physical foot, I would kick this man straight in the balls,” Al snarled, staring at the man with the most anger I had ever seen her muster. “Right in the goodies.”

I looked past the man toward Preacher and Zoe. I already knew I had the former’s consent. I wanted the latter’s, although I didn’t need it.

“Here we go,” Zoe said in our private comm channel. “You know I have your back no matter what.”

In that moment, a phrase came to mind, something I had heard somewhere before, “The only thing that evil needs to win is that good people stand by and do nothing.”

“Are you deaf or something?” The soldier poked me in the chest with the barrel of his rifle. “I said you’re to go to the big—”

“Everyone get inside your huts and stay down!” I shouted with Al repeating the words in their native tongue a moment later. “Down!”

There was only so much I could take before I snapped. The children, the abuse, the elderly just trying to live and being refused even that. I saw red.


Thirty-Eight

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

With my right hand, I batted away the end of the rifle. With my left, I gripped the man’s throat so hard, I heard something pop. Bullying him backward into the group holding the pot of Gruppa, I drew my MK II and began firing into him and through him at the others.

The act of striking his weapon, grabbing him by the throat, and drawing my own blaster took right around the two-second mark. Just enough time for everyone else to realize it was going down right here, right now.

The air erupted with not only my tungsten steel rounds firing from my weapon but the discharge of more than a dozen weapons around me.

At point-blank range with the barrel of my MK II pressed against the man’s torso, the rounds bit right through him and went into the soldiers behind him.

I felt fire race up my right leg and then my left shoulder. The pain was something I could compartmentalize, but the force with which the rounds struck me took me off balance.

The soldiers had us surrounded. I was the easiest target for them to hit right out in the open.

Blood spattered out of the holes in the soldier in front of me as he slumped dead along with the two soldiers behind him.

Zoe and Preacher came out of their hut firing with malice. Zoe was the most level-headed out of the three of us, but I knew she too was giving her guilt a voice at having been silent for this long.

A round struck me in the side of the head and I went down. The soldiers sure as crip were ready for us this time. The cacophony of sound cascaded through the air to such an extent, it was hard to think straight. I was on my back, willing my body to rise, but my arms and legs felt like gelatinous goop.

The pain in my head pounded again and again with each trigger pull from the pre-Fall of Earth weapons. I forgot how loud some of them could be.

“Oh, come on,” Al said, standing over me with her hands on her hips as if she were disappointed it was taking me so long to get up after being shot in the head. “Shrug it off and let’s get going. We have a village to liberate.”

I heard someone scream that was neither Zoe or Preacher. The level of weapon fire diminished for a moment. I heard Butch growling and ripping at something, another scream puncturing the cool night air.

“Come on, come on, get up already,” Al said, appearing in the night sky above me. She rolled her eyes. “Is that all you’ve got? Seriously? I thought you were some undying mercenary super-soldier humanoid thing.”

“You know,” I said, rolling over to my stomach and then getting my hands and knees beneath me. “X was way more encouraging and supportive in these situations.”

“Yes, well, there are two ways of coaching.” Al took her time explaining as all hell broke loose around us. A blaster bolt travelled right through her torso and she didn’t blink an eye. “One is offering encouragement and the other offering insult. I prefer the latter. It’s fun for me. Now get up.”

I gritted my teeth against the pain that was finally beginning to subside. I managed to get my feet underneath me, heading for the safety of a mud hut while I took stock of where the fight stood at the moment.

I drew my axe and knife, which were more readily available to me. My MK II had dropped when I took the round to the head.

Sporadic shots told me the soldiers’ number had to have been cut in half.

“You good?” Preacher asked in my comm. “I saw you go down pretty hard.”

“I’ll live,” I reported. “Zoe, Butch?”

“I’m hit, but it’s nothing serious,” Zoe responded with absolutely zero pain in her tone. “I think they’re trying to head back up to the big house. We started this and we should finish it now and quickly before any civilians are injured.”

“I’m with you,” I answered. “Let’s go.”

“Daniel, up the gut. Preacher will take his left flank and I’ll take right,” Zoe instructed. “We’ll do a sweep up toward the big house and kill anything between us and the Warlord.”

“Roger,” I acknowledged at the same time Preacher gave the exact response.

I shrugged my shoulder, feeling the last bit of discomfort flee. My leg was also working as it should. The pain in my skull was still there, but that was something to be expected. I had just been shot in the head, after all.

I left the partial safety of the hut, going to the center of the road. The three soldiers I had ended lay there in a pile of blood and that Gruppa stew they were ladling out to the people.

I saw Preacher head across the street to my left flank and begin his sweep. Zoe hopped out of a window and went right.

Butch galloped next to me, her mouth covered in wet blood, signaling her grizzly work. She looked up at me as if to ask, “Hey, where have you been? I’ve been out here working my tail off.”

Butch let out a low whine and sniffed at me.

“She’s asking where you’ve been?” Al translated for her. “She says she’s been working her tail off.”

“Huh, no kidding,” I asked, surprised. “I was just thinking she looked like that.”

“I wouldn’t kid in a situation like this.” Al hesitated. “Wait, yes, I would. But seriously, that’s what she’s saying.”

Erratic weapon fire went off to the right and left of the huts.

“Got one,” Preacher said over the comms.

“Make it two,” Zoe added.

I began my walk up the street. My eyes swung from side to side, searching both open doors and windows of huts. Torches helped me see inside where frightened families huddled, holding on to one another.

In one house, an elderly couple looked like they were in prayer.

I gripped the handle of my obsidian-bladed axe and knife tighter, waiting for one of the soldiers in hiding to make a move.

Then it happened.

Out of a house to the right, a soldier came, using an older man as a human shield.

“Get back, get back, or I’ll kill him!” the soldier shouted, holding a handgun to the left side of the man’s skull.

The elderly man looked so feeble, I had to wonder if he witnessed the Fall of Earth himself. The soldier behind him supported the man with his left arm over his narrow chest. The soldier’s right hand held the weapon to the man’s skull.

“I swear, I swear you move, and I will end him,” the soldier yelled, his voice full of fright-induced bravado. “I’ll kill him right here and it will be your fault. Drop your weapons.”

“Tell the older man not to move,” I told Al.

Al relayed the instructions as I asked, without a sarcastic comment or question.

The older man jerked his head down once.

I saw the throw in my mind’s eye before I took action to actually hurl the weapon. I envisioned the axe sailing end over end in perfect arcs and coming to land dead center in the soldier’s forehead.

The throw was a good ten meters out, impossible for most under stressed conditions. But I wasn’t most and this was just another day in the office.

“What?” the soldier screamed, holding the man tighter. He peeked over the elderly man’s left shoulder. “Are you crazy? I told you—”

His words were cut off as the blade of my axe penetrated skin, flesh, and sank deep into bone. The soldier slumped more than fell to the ground as if he had suddenly forgotten how to use his legs.

The elderly man came to me with tears in his sunken eyes. He pressed the palms of both wrinkled hands to each other in some kind of prayer.

“Thank you, thank you not just what you did for me, but what you’re doing for this village,” he choked out. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I answered, trying not to get lost in the emotion of the moment. “Get somewhere safe. Hurry.”

More shots rang out as Preacher and Zoe made their way to the big house.

The elderly man looked like he wanted to give me a hug but just nodded and shambled over to an open hut to the left.

With a flick of my fingers, I beckoned the axe back to my hand. The magnetic call sent the axe twirling end over end to my waiting palm.

“I’m clear on the left,” Preacher called over the comm.

“So am I,” Zoe answered. “Daniel?”

I looked up the street that inclined briefly to where the big house stood. Preacher and Zoe were already outside, their weapons ready.

Butch and I moved forward. The insanely large wolf sniffed the air, growling at a darkened door to the left. I caught movement inside thanks to the torch standing beside the doorway.

“Don’t shoot,” a voice called out. “Don’t shoot!”

Butch lowered closer to the ground, ready to pounce. Her dark hair around the vest she wore stood on end.

“Hands up, come out,” I ordered, ready to hurl my axe at the target if anything proved suspicious.

A figure came from the open door with his hands by his side. In his right hand, he held a rifle he immediately dropped. I recognized the soldier at once. It was the same man who had struck the child in the side of the head earlier that day. The same one that dragged the mother back by her hair.

My clothesline to his chest showed black and blue marks across his sternum. A poorly maneuvered bandage wrapped across his torso would do little to relieve his pain.

“I don’t want to fight,” the man said, coming closer. “I give up. I give up.”

“You should kill him,” Al said over Butch’s growls. “Even Butch agrees with me on this one. He’s not worth saving. You should put that axe of yours into his brain right now.”

The Lord of the Way knew I would like nothing more. I was sure he deserved it, but that wasn’t my call. As I stood there debating what to do with the pleading man who fell to his knees now, the villagers began to peek out of their huts.

A few at first, just the heads of the bravest appeared, but more and then all of them. Mothers and fathers, children and grandparents found the courage to come from their huts to see the aftermath of the battle.

“What are you waiting for?” Al asked, motioning with her arms. “Kill this one and let’s move on. He’s not worth a second thought. Whatever pull of moral justice you feel, just ignore that voice in your head. Kill him.”

“Please, please.” The man clamped both hands together and shook them in my direction. “Please, I was just doing what I was told. What the Warlord told me to do. Please let me live.”

“Oh, well, this is just embarrassing for him now,” Al said with a shake of her head. “He has no dignity left anyway. Might as well put him out of his misery. Don’t get soft on me now, Hunt.”

I saw the old man I had just saved, the mother from earlier that day, and the father asking for more food for his family.

“Al,” I said, gathering her attention as I spoke to the group. “This is your village. This man has wronged you. You decide what he deserves.”

“Oh, nice touch,” Al said, translating my words.

I moved on, not waiting for their answer. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see they’d already begun picking over the dead bodies of the soldiers and gathering their weapons.

I moved on toward the big house, the screams and pleas of the soldier echoing behind me as the slaves, turned free mob, fell on him.


Thirty-Nine

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

“What are you thinking?” I asked Zoe and Preacher as we stood in front of the closed door of the big house. “Tyco and the Warlord in there alone?”

“Maybe one or two others with them, but nothing we can’t handle,” Zoe said, pulling a hand-sized explosive from her belt. “I have a con grenade that’ll put them out in a second. Kick in the door for me?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” I answered, rearing back my right foot to slam against the door.

Before I could force my heel down, thunder ripped through the big house in the form of some kind of heavy repeating weapon.

Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat

Pre-Fall rounds ripped through the mud hut walls and the closed double doors like hail through clouds. Two rounds hit my chest armor; a third got me in the left shoulder.

“Down!” Preacher yelled.

The three of us dropped to the ground, including Butch, who retreated away a few feet then got down low. Al was the only one that seemed unfazed as the rounds went right through her holographic frame.

I ignored the fiery agony ripping through my shoulder. Instead of focusing on the discomfort, I slammed both palms over my ears in a vain attempt to keep my eardrums from bleeding.

I thought the continuous sound of rounds exploding from the big house would never stop. Just as soon as they began, the sound ended.

I looked back to my right from my prone position. Zoe looked up at me through her helmet. She gave me a nod and pulled the cylinder-shaped con grenade’s pin.

There was no real need to kick in the door anymore. Whatever weapon was being used on us saw to the destruction of the door. The ancient wood splintered in every direction; one of the doors was cut in half, the other hung off a single hinge like the last remnants of hair from a balding head.

I heard shouting and what sounded like a magazine or clip of some kind being changed.

Zoe didn’t wait.

I hit the left side of the building right next to the door. Zoe hit the right after, tossing her con grenade.

BOOM!

Al was inside before either of us, calling out locations of enemies in the hut. There were four of them left: Warlord, Tyco, and two other lackeys.

“Close right, far left,” Al told us as Zoe and I entered the room.

Zoe took down her first target on the right with two trigger pulls to center mass and one to the head.

The dazed man on my side got an axe to the chest before I called it back to me.

“Last two center,” Al called out.

Tyco and Warlord were still trying to right themselves from the concussive blast of one con grenade. Both men stood behind some kind of massive steel weapon with rotating barrels. It had to be decades old, maybe even older than that.

The barrel on the weapons smoked and an empty belt-fed chain lay on the ground next to it. A new belt full of ammunition sat on the other side where I guessed it was being prepared to be reloaded.

Tyco clumsily grabbed his rifle and pointed it in our direction. Before I could send my axe his way, a red blur crossed my vision burying itself deep in the man’s chest.

“Normally, I wouldn’t discard my weapon like that,” Preacher began, joining us in the room, “but I think this is over now.”

“Almost,” Zoe answered, going over to Warlord, who sat on the ground still trying to get his bearings.

Zoe placed a boot in his neck and shoved him back to the ground.

“You think you’ve won?” Warlord sneered at the three of us. “You think this is over? My village is the smallest out of the four in the area. The other Warlords will come and tear you apart. Your weapons, your technology will not save you. You will be outnumbered a hundred to one. You will die here. You think you helped these people? They will all be killed as well. You will all die.”

I sheathed my axe and knife, going over to where Tyco’s dead body lay. I lifted the rifle he had been reaching for, bringing it to bear on Warlord.

“You first,” I told him, pulling the trigger once. The old weapon jumped in my hands, sending Warlord out of this world and to the next.

The four of us stood silent in the room, until, not to anyone’s surprise, Al broke the stillness.

“Nice last line there,” Al said with an approving nod. “It gave me chills and I don’t even have a body to feel chills with. So what’s the plan now? Hightail it out of this city before the other Warlords get wind of this? You heard him: outnumbered a hundred to one? I don’t like those odds at all.”

“We can’t leave these people,” Preacher answered for all of us. “I won’t leave these people.”

“Plus, we haven’t even started our mission,” Zoe added. “There’s still a sand worm out there that needs to be dealt with.”

“Secure the village first and then we’ll get this alien monster,” I agreed. “But we can’t protect these people forever. What happens to them when we leave?”

“The other Warlords come in and annihilate them for their perceived disobedience,” Al said. “Actually, you just signed the death warrant on these villagers.”

“Kill for a man, you protect him for a day,” Preacher muttered. “Teach a man to kill and he protects himself for a lifetime.”

“You two aren’t making things easy on me.” Zoe sighed through her helmet. “I’m going to have to report this to the Galactic Government. I very much doubt they’re interested in getting Sergeant Toy and his unit into a fire fight with the locals when they arrive. Especially since that has nothing to do with our mission to begin with.”

I understood it all. For Preacher and me, the world was very black and white. We were mercenaries free to make our own decisions. Zoe answered to a ruling government body. On top of that, she had a unit of Shadow Praetorians coming she was responsible for.

She couldn’t put them in harm’s way for a cause, a goal they were not ordered to achieve. I wouldn’t ask her to.

It was late and we were all tired as we filed out of the big house. Weariness rested on my shoulders. Not just weariness. A mental burden tugged at the corner of my mind. I wasn’t going to leave these people to die. I knew that much, but how that was going to play out was still a mystery.

All the villagers had exited their huts. They gathered in the center of the street, looking to us for direction.

“What happened in there?” a man stepped forward and asked. I had seen him before. He was young; hard muscle and bone showed under stretched skin. “You killed Warlord? Why did you kill them all? The others will come. You’ve killed us all.”

“Shut your mouth, Ensif,” the father who I had offered food to also stepped forward. “Are you so full of fear you can’t see our salvation? These strangers have just freed us.”

“They have ruined us,” Ensif spat. “At least we were alive under Warlord’s rule. We are dead now. You know as well as I do that the other Warlords will come and make examples of us now. We are all dead. You, your wife, your children, all of us are dead.”

“The stranger helped us once, they will stay and help us again, perhaps,” the older man I saved that night asked more than said, looking at us.

“Will you stay?” The little boy who had a dirty bandage around his head ran forward, looking to Al for answers. “Angel, will you stay and help us?”

Al opened her mouth then shut it again. It was the first time I had seen her do that.

She looked down at the little boy as if she were confused at her own feelings. Her jaw worked up and down before words finally came out.

“I want to say no. I want to say something slightly mean and sarcastic to the child, but I just can’t.” Al grimaced. “I don’t like this feeling. What is it? What’s wrong with me?”

“Sounds like you have more of a heart than you’d like to admit.” Preacher chuckled.

“We’re not going to leave you,” I said to the gathered group. “We’ll figure something out. I promise, but we will not leave you.”

Al translated for me.

The people nodded to one another. Relieved smiles and sighs escaped their lips.

I saw Preacher nodding along with my statement.

Zoe didn’t offer a yes or a no.

With everyone so tired from the night’s events, the group dispersed, some going to gather items like food and comfort taken from them, others moving the dead outside the city.

“If someone with physical hands can assist me, I can get started on working on being able to tune the comm units to translate for you when you speak,” Al said, already heading to the T-bird. “I’m getting tired of being your mouthpieces. I was meant for more than that.”

“I’ll give her a hand with what she needs,” Preacher volunteered.

“I’m past due on a report to the GG,” Zoe said with a long sigh. “This should be interesting.”

“I’m sorry,” I told her as Preacher and Al made their way to the T-bird. “I’m sorry for putting you in this position.”

Zoe removed her helmet, taking in the cool night air. A glimmer of sweat gathered at her brow. She wiped that away with her right hand, then almost as if she didn’t know it, her finger went down to her throat and the long scar given to her by Rival Mercer.

“You don’t have to be sorry,” Zoe transmitted the words to me via her comm link not her mouth. “You never have to be sorry for wanting to help people. That’s the way it should be. We were in a position to do some good here and we did it. What comes next is what worries me.”


Crusade: A Near Future Thriller



Epilogue

Chancellor Loween Marie sat at her glass desk drumming the fingers of her right hand on the table in a steady, even beat. The noise reminded her of the old holo flicks her father would watch with her of horses racing across the screen.

Tired wasn’t the right word for what she felt at the moment. She was exhausted. When was the last time she had slept? When was the last time she had slept well?

Are you doing the right thing? the Chancellor asked herself for the hundredth time. Are you doing the right thing?

A knock came at her door. Three quick distinct raps, letting her know who stood on the other side.

“Come on in, Charlie,” the Chancellor called from her seat.

The automatic doors slid open from the middle. Charlie Dunn walked through the door in his wide-brimmed hat and a smart-fitting suit. A wary look that sat on the usually good-natured man’s face set the chancellor on edge.

“Give me the good news first,” Loween said before he could open his mouth. “I could use some right about now.”

“You’re assuming there is good news,” Charlie said, pushing the front of his hat back on his head.

Loween sighed, rising from her seat in the spartan office set up for her in the new state-of-the-art testing facility on Mars. She walked to her left and the wall of windows looking out onto the red Martian landscape.

How had things gotten so complicated? How had things spun out of control so quickly?

For a moment, Chancellor Marie just stood there, allowing herself to forget the weight on her shoulders. She basked in the warm rising sun for just a bit longer.

“Ma’am?” Charlie asked.

“Go ahead,” Loween said with a wave of her hand. “Tell me.”

“Shane Armstrong has confirmed full control of Leviathan station. It took a full platoon of Shadow Praetorians, but they got the job done,” Charlie said, beginning his briefing. “Julian Fairmount was not on the station. He must have escaped when the others fled.”

“The Order is weakened enough they shouldn’t form a problem for us now,” Loween thought out loud. “They’ll lick their wounds and rebuild like they always do. What about the book?”

“Anyone who tries to read from the book goes insane.” Charlie hesitated here, gathering his thoughts. “We’ve tried time after time with the same result. The latest scientist to give it a try, well, at least he’s able to form a sentence, unlike the others.”

“He can still talk?” the Chancellor asked, turning from the window in front of her. “That’s progress, then. The others were put into a comatose state or driven mad with incoherent phrases.”

“I don’t want to get your hopes up here.” Charlie raised two palms in the air in front of him as if he were telling her to slow down. “He’s talking, but it’s all gibberish. He’s making absolutely zero sense.”

“I want to speak with him,” Loween said resolutely. “If he can talk at all, then maybe he can give us some kind of clue, a hint at least on what we’re dealing with here. If we don’t understand that book by the time the next alien threat arrives on our doorstep, then we’re as good as dead already.”

Charlie chewed on his lower lip.

“Is the scientist being held here, in this facility?” Loween asked, pushing the subject.

“He is,” Charlie answered reluctantly.

“Then I’ll talk to him now,” Loween said, exiting her office and heading for the infirmary.

The Galactic Government research installation on Mars was located in the city of Elysium. Everything in the building was state-of-the-art. Only the top scientists had been brought in for this project.

Loween skipped the elevators, preferring to take the stairs three stories down to the infirmary. Most of her job meant she was sitting behind a desk in meetings or taking calls. Whenever she could, she opted for exercise. The Lord of the Way himself knew how old she felt and how much this job aged her past her years.

She refused to give in to the aches and pains. Growing up, her father had taught her that pain is temporary. She missed his advice now more than ever.

“You should be prepared for what you see,” Charlie said, keeping pace behind her as they descended the stairs. “I mean, the scientist isn’t exactly in peak condition after he glimpsed whatever there was to read in that book.”

“And the search for the woman known as Madam Eternal?” Loween asked over her shoulder. “As far as we know, she’s the only one able to read from the book safely. Have we found her yet?”

“No, ma’am,” Charlie replied. “We have all our assets searching for her right now, but there’s been no word. It’s as if after the Battle for Mars, Carly Coughran just vanished.”

“Keep searching,” Loween ordered. “No one just vanishes completely. There’s always a trace, some kind of clue, someone who’s seen them.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Charlie answered.

Loween reached the infirmary level. She waved her hand over the motion detector that allowed her access to the floor. This level, much like the others, was brightly lit with white floors, walls, and ceilings. No extra decoration marred the plain décor.

Loween traveled down the hall past a wide-eyed receptionist and to a door where a pair of armed praetorians stood guard.

It was easy to guess what room the mad scientist was being held.

As she approached, the pair of praetorians stood at attention and saluted.

“That’s not necessary,” Loween told the soldiers. “Thank you for doing your jobs. I’m sure it’s not the most exciting thing to stand guard over a closed door the whole day.”

“Just—doing our part, ma’am,” the praetorian on the right stuttered awkwardly.

The praetorian on the left didn’t say anything, but Loween could tell from the angle of his helmet she had his full attention.

Both praetorians stepped to the side to allow Loween and Charlie access to the room once they sensed the polite exchange was over.

Loween nodded to them then waved her hand over the door. The square motion reader clicked green. The steel door barring entrance to the room slid into the wall.

Walking into the room, Loween was surprised to see the scientist sitting upright in bed. Expectant eyes took her in as if he were anticipating her at any moment.

His wrists and ankles were bound with magnetic cuffs that kept him secured to the metal frame of his bed. He stared at Loween as if he could look through her into the very inner workings of her mind.

“You shouldn’t get too close,” Charlie advised. “This is Specialist Kevin Hassett. He’s the leading mind in wormhole theory and ancient alien artifacts.”

“Hello, Mr. Hassett,” Loween said, sure to keep her distance from the bed if he should try to lunge at her with his teeth. “My name is Loween Marie. I’ve been told you were able to read the Relic? The book?”

For his part, Kevin just looked at her, his eyes seeing something but not focusing on her specifically.

“Kevin, Kevin, can you hear me?” Loween asked, taking a step closer to the man.

“Chancellor?” Charlie warned.

Loween waved him away. A sense of guilt consumed her now. Had she done this to him? Had she done this to others by ordering them to study the Relic and figure out how it worked?

This was a question she already knew the answer to. Of course this was her fault. If not hers, then who? She could try and deny it, but the truth remained. This was all happening under her orders.

“Kevin, can you hear me?” Loween asked, tilting her head to the side to try and gain the man’s attention. “Kevin?”

Kevin’s lips moved. A whisper so faint she wasn’t sure if he had said anything at all escaped him.

“What was that?” Loween asked, so close now that she put both hands on the cold steel frame of the bed. “Kevin, are you trying to tell me something?”

“Ma’am,” Charlie said, clearly uncomfortable at how close she was to the scientist.

“So much information,” Kevin breathed as if he were talking to himself. “So much knowledge. Too much knowledge. How can any one person fathom the depths of the universe?”

Kevin snapped out of his trance-like state looking wide-eyed at Loween as if he were seeing her for the first time.

“Kevin,” Loween said in a calm, even tone. “What exactly did you see? Can you explain any of it? Is there anything that would help us in reading the tome and opening a gateway to another part of our universe?”

“Another galaxy or another dimension?” Kevin questioned, licking at dry lips. “That’s the question you should be asking yourself.”

“What is?” Loween asked. “What’s the question?”

“Should one open a door to another part of our universe?” Kevin repeated. “Or should one open a door to another dimension? Both are possible with the book but should you do it if you can? There are things that lurk there. Impossible things that our solar system would be open to. Should you do that?”

Loween hesitated.

She knew what she wanted to say, but clearly, this conversation was agitating Kevin. Although he was still, Loween could sense the gathered energy running through his body like a piece of wood bent so far, it was on the verge of splintering.

“What would you have us do?” Loween asked a question of her own instead of answering his. “Should we, Kevin? Should we learn to read the book?”

“Destroy it,” Kevin whispered. “Burn it before it’s too late and things are done that cannot be undone. We are insects trying to discern the knowledge of ancient beings. There is power in the Relic we should not have if we can’t understand it.”

“But perhaps in time, we can understand it,” Loween pushed a bit further. “Perhaps in time, we can learn to use the book for good. To protect our species from everything else that’s out there in the universe, in other dimensions.”

“No!” Kevin shouted, pulling against his bonds.

Loween took a step back even as she felt Charlie grab her arm and pull her backward.

“You don’t know what you’re doing!” Kevin raged. His face turned red. Cuts opened along his wrists and ankles as he struggled against his bonds. “Destroy it! Burn the book! We were never meant to have it. We were never meant to read from it.”

The door burst open. Both praetorians standing guard rushed in, weapons at the ready.

Loween lifted her hands to calm them.

“If you read from the book, you will kill us all,” Kevin continued. His chest rose and fell from underneath his gown like a piston. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Then help me,” Loween said, trying one last attempt to get Kevin to work with her. “Help me understand the book. Help me use it wisely.”

With a deep sigh, Kevin shook his head. He stopped his violent struggling, resigning himself to the reality of his situation.

“There is no one who can read the book,” Kevin said.

There is at least one, Loween thought to herself. Madam Eternal.

“Rest now,” Loween said out loud. “I’m sorry for having upset you.”

With that, Loween exited the room back out into the hall.

Charlie reached into his suit pocket, following her, and read something off the glass data pad that fit into the palm of his hand.

“Well, it’s your lucky day,” Charlie announced as the two made their way back down the hall. “That’s one of our undercover assets in the field. We have a lead on Carly Coughran. We’ve found Madam Eternal.”

“That’s wonderful,” Loween said, looking over to her right where Charlie walked beside her. “How did we fi—”

Motion from the corner of the Chancellor’s vision caught her attention. She turned around in time to see the two praetorians at the door following close behind.

Charlie caught the look of concern in her eye. He stopped walking down the hall and turned.

Loween saw his body tense, his hand lowered to the small of his back where she knew he carried a blaster under his coat.

“You can remain at your posts,” Loween said, trying to keep the concern out of her voice. “We don’t—”

The pair of praetorians lifted their blasters, firing on the Chancellor a split second slower than Charlie could draw. The man was a blur, whipping out his blaster and stroking the trigger faster than Loween could process.

Pain exploded in her stomach as a bolt found her. It took her off her feet, sending her crashing backward. Pain laced with adrenaline seeped through her body.

Screams, alarms, and more blaster fire echoed through the hall. Loween pressed shaking hands to her abdomen. Hot wet stickiness seeped through her fingers. She looked down to see her stomach a mess of charred smoking flesh and blood.

Before she could think to crawl to safety or call for help, someone was on top of her. It was the female praetorian who had been standing guard at the door. Her helmet had been ripped off or removed.

The woman’s eyes were laced with inky green tendrils that started at her irises and spread outward past her eyeballs and even to her forehead, nose, and cheeks.

With one hand, the woman grabbed Loween’s hair. With the other, she pressed the end of her blaster under her chin.

The woman panted as if she were some kind of animal. She gripped Loween’s hair so firmly, she thought it would be ripped free from her scalp at any moment.

“Who—what are you?” Loween managed to ask.

“We have come to take back the universe that is ours,” the woman who was something other than human answered. “Humanity defeated the Voy. Humanity will be our vessels to conquer the universe.”

Crusade: A Near Future Thriller

Daniel Hunt will be back in the next Forsaken Mercenary book, Traitor. Until then, stay informed by joining our Pack in the “Jonathan’s Reading Wolves” Facebook group and get the latest news on the project.


Stay Informed

Get A Free Book by visiting Jonathan Yanez’ website. You can email me at [email protected] or find me on Amazon, and Instagram. I also created a special Facebook group called “Jonathan’s Reading Wolves” specifically for readers, where I show new cover art, do giveaways, and run contests. Please check it out and join whenever you get the chance!

For updates about new releases, as well as exclusive promotions, visit my website and sign up for the VIP mailing list. Head there now to receive a free copy of Inception.


CLICK HERE

Enjoying the series? Help others discover the Forsaken Mercenary Series by sharing with a friend.


Crusade: A Near Future Thriller


Books in the Forsaken Mercenary Universe

Forsaken Mercenary

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

Traitor: Book 10 (Coming soon!)

Forsaken Mercenary Case Files

Preacher: Short 1


home | my bookshelf | | Crusade: A Near Future Thriller |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу